A Pause to Ken

An article by Phyllis Portnoy (Univ. Manitoba) that I was reading this morning connects the meaning of kennings to the solutions for the surviving Old English riddles. Riddles by their nature propose logical connections to a conclusion not commonly or easily thought of, and so the answer is not quickly expected. The thought that kennings may be riddle-like suggests that kennings may have induced a pause, not just for the reader, but perhaps for the audience that would have heard Beowulf performed aloud.

Readers looking for oral elements in Beowulf will be left to speculation as to what singers may have done while reciting. We will, for example, probably never know how the recitation was paced: was it slow, fast, did it fluctuate, did it change along with the dramatic tension? Did, for example, a singer treat the performance of a kenning the same as the performance of a riddle? Did he pause for a moment to let the audience think, or even expecting an answer from and elder or a clever child? Was solving a kenning a rite of passage?

Assuming he did consistently pause at kennings, then my interpretation of the pacing at the moment of Grendel’s fight with Beowulf may become very different. I believed that this passage could be interpreted and even translated as a tale of horror, as opposed to trumpeting heroism. I thought that the telling of a horror would depend heavily on the translation’s ability to hold the tension, so it had not occurred to me that there might be any breaks. I shall have to keep the possibility that the truth may be different as I race to finish.


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