Saturday, October 2, 2010


In a recent blog post concerning some names in the new young adult fantasy novel, Venom and Song, I mentioned an ancient literary device: kenning, an Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon technique whereby an image was created to replace a single word (noun), and could range from the rather simple two-word hyphenate to a more complex phrase.

Toadeater,  brown-noser, bloodsucker, babe magnet, man-eater, ankle-biter -- politically correct or not, those are all kennings, because they use two words (both nouns) to describe one word (also a noun):
toadeater = toady, sycophant
brown-noser = flatterer (one who ingratiates)
bloodsucker = leech, parasite (one who sponges or preys on another)
babe magnet = car (or anything that is deemed by men to be appealing to women)
man-eater = cannibal, predator, woman (specifically, a woman who preys on men for money or advantage, etc.)
ankle-biter = toddler
That list makes it seem as if all kennings are negative; they are not. So, then, what are some of those ancient kennings that make reading old literature so much fun? You may find a short list on Wikipedia, which includes different forms of kenning. You can also read the poetry and stories, such as Beowulf, the most obvious, or go exploring in modern translations of old Scandinavian and English literature.

Here are examples of kenning from three Anglo-Saxon pieces:
Beowulf (trans. Charles W. Kennedy)
swan-road = water, sea
war-net = mail (armor)
Victor-Scyldings = Danes (perhaps not a true kenning, but cool nonetheless)
Sea-Geat = Beowulf
the shepherd of sins = Grendel
hell-thane = Grendel (at this time, a thane was similar to the later rank of baron)
monster-brood = Grendel's mother
heather-stepper = deer
sea-troll = Grendel's mother

"The Wanderer" (poetic lament from the Exeter Book; trans. Charles W. Kennedy)
gold-lord = king, protector, leader
hallmen = warriors (or companions) who serve the same lord
the Warden of men = God

"The Seafarer" (poetic dialogue from the Exeter Book; trans. LaMotte Iddings)
sea-eagle = gull? (I'm guessing here)
ice-chains = cold, numbness (again, I'm guessing based on the context)
pathway of tides = sea
home of the whale = sea
whale-path = sea
gold-givers = lords, kings
This week, I attempted an activity with the kids in the Creative Writing Club, but their young minds had a difficult time wrapping around the concept of kenning, and I didn't quite know how to teach it. However, here are a few instances when they "got it" -- and the results are pretty good:
bully-defeater = fighter
numbers-enjoyer = student (specifically, a good math student)
crayon-wielder = artist, colorer
joy-bringer = daughter
brain-stretcher = teacher
carp-catcher = fisherman
So, what about you? Think you "ken" do it?

(Ignore my mad laughter -- and I offer no apologies for the bad pun.)

1 comment:

Keanan Brand said...

Note from the blog's author: I received a crude message from a reader who apparently misunderstood this post. Although kenning is a poetic literary device, it is not, in and of itself, poetry.

If the responder meant one of the works I mentioned in the post when he (or she) referred to a poem as being excrement, he should have been specific in his comment.

Please keep comments clean, and please -- for the sake of all of us -- keep them intelligent.