4. Refiguring Hybrid Oral-Literate Signs
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4 Refiguring Hybrid Oral-Literate Signs As we saw previously, oral-connected idioms bear a metonymic referentiality grounded in a community’s ongoing usage of an oral-traditional register of speech. What may not be obvious is that oral-traditional phrases, themes, and typescenes arise in narratively consistent contexts. In book 3 of The Kalevala, a collection of oral songs that its author-compiler, Elias Lönnrot, stitched together to create the Finnish national epic, the narrator states, “Istuiksen ilokivelle, laulupaaelle paneikse” (3.471–72; He sits on the rock of joy / on the song boulder he settles).1 The same lines also arise in book 41 (5–6). This couplet signifies “little more than ‘he starts singing’” (669), according to translator Keith Bosley, who presumably wants to prevent readers from assuming that Väinämöinen—an ancient and powerful hero or god of songs—has perched on a rock. Instead, he sings a song that frees his youthful challenger, Joukahainen, from the slime that Väinämöinen had sung into being. As a recurring couplet and written oral-connected idiom whose meaning derives from Finnish oral tradition, “He sits on the rock of joy / on the song boulder he settles” always signifies “he starts singing.” This couplet is clearly a metaphor and possibly an allusion to the incantatory, reality-creating power of song that Väinämöinen possesses. Yet, it does not occur unless the narrative needs to depict the onset of singing. In Old English verse, the theme called “joy in the hall” describes the communal joy of the comitatus in a space associated with rule of the realm.2 Its inversion, as in The Seafarer (lines 19b–22, 44–47), denotes the o 72 · Signs that Sing lossofcommunaljoy,home,andalord’sprotection. Other oral-traditional and oral-connected idioms may serve a more “lyrical” function by setting the mood or a “performative” function by fulfilling the expectations of a medical incantation or keying the beginning or end of a song. Nevertheless , an important difference between the typical and the metaphorical oral idiom is this: the former arises in narratively consistent contexts, while the latter (like metaphors and similes) has a much greater range of applicability. In the previous example from The Kalevala, the imagery of the couplet was figurative, yet I do not call this a metaphorical oral-connected idiom. Similarly, the Old English beasts of battle (wolf, raven, eagle, and hawk) have an iconic relationship to the death of warring men.3 Although these birds and beasts could actually scavenge the corpses, their representation in Old English literature, as singular characters whose shared words and laughter haunt scenes of violence, crosses into the territory of symbolism. Even so, when “beasts of battle” appear on or near battlefields, the usage of this oral-connected idiom remains “typical” rather than “metaphorical” because it has not been juxtaposed with or embedded within an unusual context. The beasts are neither allegories nor characterizations of human beings in sacred narrative. The theme does not describe an immaterial or ideational scenario in which wolf, raven, eagle, and hawk must be metaphors , as would be the case if the theme were explicitly used to describe vices ravaging the souls of the damned.4 On the spectrum of hybrid oralliterate practices, I label the typical instances of a theme “written oral-connected idioms.” In this chapter, I argue that Old English poems repurpose oral-connected idioms metaphorically and allegorically, exemplifying an even greater fusion of oral and literate expressive strategies. In the previous two chapters, I examined features of the devouring-the-dead theme and reframed the relationship between lord and retainer, a common topos of heroic verse, as an oral-connected theme. Here I propose that these two themes play metaphorical roles in The Advent Lyrics, The Phoenix, and Exeter Book Riddle 47. The lord-retainer theme in The Advent Lyrics and the devouring-the-dead theme in The Phoenix and Riddle 47 typify hybrid poetics by blending the hermeneutical practices that arose in literate Christian culture with the metonymic referentiality of oral-connected themes. Refiguring Hybrid Oral-Literate Signs · 73 The next two sections explore how anonymous Anglo-Saxon poets have transformedthesethemesforthesakeoftheir metaphorical and metonymic implications. The poet of The Advent Lyrics uses the lord-retainer theme figuratively to describe Christian penitence and the transcendence of time. The lord-retainer theme becomes a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and Christians. The devouring-the-dead theme, which typically narrates the...