Thursday, January 26, 2006

"That weird shall never daunten me"

Patry Francis, who writes the blog simply wait, was recently tagged with a meme. In genetics (at least as I attempt to understand it), a meme is like a gene, but its traits are passed on socially and culturally. But here in the blogosphere, it’s a sort of cross between a questionnaire and a chain letter. You get a meme, answer the questions, and then send it on to friends/victims. Thanks to the very limited readership of this humble blog, I’ve never been tagged with a meme.
The meme Patry received had just one question: Expose five weird habits. Her answers are fascinating. She correctly interpreted weird to mean odd, unusual, or eccentric. I doubt whether the meme’s author had in mind the word’s traditional meaning.

In the Scottish ballad, “Thomas the Rhymer,” the Queen of Elfland rides up to Thomas while he is lying under a tree. She dares him to kiss her—“If ye dare to kiss my lips, sure of your bodie I will be.” Thomas answers:

Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunten me.
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips.
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

Here, weird is a noun, and means fate. Fate, with more than a hint of the supernatural. It’s a cognate of the German werden, to become. German uses werden to form the future tense, similar to the way we use will or shall. Back in my university days, when I took German, I asked my professor about the connection between werden and weird. He responded that yes, they were cognates, and that in some parts of southern Germany the future tense was formed with
sollen (cognate of the English shall) because of the pagan, supernatural implications of werden.

As an adjective, before its meaning was diluted, weird was enveloped in the sense of fate and the supernatural. The comic Weird Tales and Jim Morrison’s line, “Weird scenes inside the gold mine,” have held on to the traditional meaning. A few years ago, Kathleen and I were talking about the word, and she quoted from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” an example of something truly weird:

But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Should I be tagged with the meme, unlikely as that is, I could easily come up with five eccentric or unusual habits, such as my propensity for reading the parody before the real thing (I read Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings more than 30 years before I finished Tolkien’s trilogy, for example. I still think of Frito and Spam, not Frodo and Sam.) But in the classic sense of weird, I couldn’t come up with one example. At least I hope not.


Patry Francis said...

Usually I'm reluctant to tag anyone, but now you've whetted my interest. Consider yourself memed!

steve said...

I guess I asked for it, Patry. Look for "weird habits" posts in the next couple of weeks.

Peter said...

May I tag Kathleen? She quotes sections of Kubla Kahn at will? (Quoting Coleridge at such length, though, strikes me as more impressive than weird.)

steve said...

Peter, maybe I should have said "cited." But there was a time when both of us were trying to memorize that poem--and she got a lot further than I did. Maybe she did quote it. However, while she's not a a Luddite, she's not into blogging or the Internet.

Peter said...

None of our spouses is, I'll warrant!