Raymond Cormier

title.none: Udwin, Between Two Armies: The Place of the Duel in Epic Culture (Cormier)

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.017 00.05.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Raymond Cormier, Longwood College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Udwin, Victor. Between Two Armies: The Place of the Duel in Epic Culture. Davis Medieval Texts and Studies. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. x, 235. $85.00. ISBN: 9-004-11038-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.17

Udwin, Victor. Between Two Armies: The Place of the Duel in Epic Culture. Davis Medieval Texts and Studies. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. x, 235. $85.00. ISBN: 9-004-11038-0.

Reviewed by:

Raymond Cormier
Longwood College

Duels are ubiquitous in world literature. Often depicted in ancient and medieval epic poetry, single combats feature selected champions whose prearranged ordeal over some unresolved issue replaces pitched battle. Doubtless originating as a trial by combat, called the 'wager of battle', or 'ordeal', dueling, in the High Middle Ages, was a means of determining guilt, in which an accused person fought with his accuser under judicial supervision. Condemned and banished over the years, duels of honor--while closely linked to the chivalric code of knighthood--yet persisted, especially among aristocrats, army officers, and in the Celtic sphere, as an institution for resolving disputes down to the late nineteenth century (in the American South at least). Today's sports contests, with their rules, regulations and notions of good sportsmanship, are the benefactors of this ancient practice-- like a societal safety valve for aggression or violence. It's a staple of the Hollywood denouement, of course.

Victor Morris Udwin analyzes certain literary representations of warfare in hopes of reconstructing the various settings in which the duel emerges as a modus operandi for avoiding battle losses of catastrophic proportions. Seen in this light, the duel--as a crucial strategy in a complex system we refer to as "epic culture"--bears out its pivotal role.

With a comparatist's wide net, Udwin covers a number of classical and other texts--the Iliad and Odyssey , Hebrew Bible, Beowulf , Nibelungenlied , and "Hildebrandslied." Characters and confrontations receiving extended analyses include Achilles and Hector, Menelaus and Paris, Diomedes, Aias and Hector, David and Goliath, Beowulf and Grendel, Bruenhild and Gunther, and Siegfried, among others. Texts are cited in the original throughout, followed by an English translation. Displaying always a focused and dense approach to the materials at hand, Udwin, as he proceeds, draws on his 1985 Berkeley dissertation.

Toward the end of this important (though pricey) book, he writes: "It is indeed a most interesting and curious circumstance that the practice of substituting a duel for general warfare has to be agreed to by parties on the verge of battle or else already engaged in it. Successful conduct of a duel thus requires the highest degree of cooperation between precisely those least disposed to it..." (217) Ironically, thus, the duel is efficient, practical, and generally accomplishes societal goals with limited bloodshed, that is, without prolonged fighting.

After a seductive introductory chapter laying out his "Working Assumptions" (anthropological and archeological approach, stressing cultural functions), Udwin's first chapter is a model of cinematic-like overview, "The Duel in Legend, Lore, and Chronicle". It begins with an Egyptian account of a duel dating from the twentieth century B.C.E., passing thence down to Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, Gregory of Tours, Paul the Deacon, and Saxo Grammaticus (ca. 1200 A.D.). Chapter Two, "An Economy of Lives," allows Udwin to delve into individual duels in more detail, reconstructing the "geometry," as it were, of the essentials in battle-scenes, particularly from the Nibelungenlied , the Iliad , and Beowulf . "The Duel and Its Protocols" is the most fascinating and satisfying section (Chapter Three). Here Udwin illustrates with verbal muscularity and expert guidance how the punctilious epic hero eschews 'far-reaching weapons' (e.g., the bow) but gorges on hand-to-hand combat with spears or swords.

The following one hundred pages or so cover "The Champion and His Quest" (the hero's journey toward kleos , fame or at least recognition/vindication); "The King and His Gifts" (rewards, spoils, and celebrations to honor the champion); and "The Queen and Her Lovers" (issues of marriage and legitimate succession). Next up is "The Lay of Hiltibrant," involving the hero's clash with his son Hadubrant, which appears in an Old High German Langobard tale-fragment and is translated by Udwin in an Appendix (though the text's original source reference is missing). Chapter Seven covers matters relative to 'free agency', i.e., the volunteer hero here (Hadubrant) who battles with his own father.

The last chapter, "The Tale-Singer's Function," summarizes and concludes the monograph, recapitulating while integrating anthropological theory regarding communicative and societal transformation, re-definition, and stabilization. Here is where 'epic song' about a given duel takes its place beside the event itself--as oral poetry "...serves as a medium for the symbolic exchange through which the culture lives..." and also functions as "...the medium [...] itself [as] cultural message". (221)

I note in passing several regrets: reference to Early Irish heroic epic would have considerably enriched Udwin's embrace, if only to add more color and diversity to the discussion. The lack of any reference to the 'truth of men' (fir fer in Irish tradition places the general usefulness of Udwin's work in question. One will seek here in vain as well for more information either on the duel as a determiner of guilt or on the Scandinavian practice referred to as the 'holmgang' (fighting on an island). Finally, given Udwin's scope, I found a two mysterious omissions in the bibliography: The Role of the Poet in Early Societies , written by my Harvard mentor Charles W. Dunn and his colleague Morton W. Bloomfield (Cambridge: Brewer, 1989), and Martin Moustier, Duels: Les Combats singuliers des origines a nos jours (Paris, 1991). In addition, among other studies, one may also wish to consult Walter Ong's celebrated Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (1981), as well as Francois Billacois, The Duel: Its Rise and Fall in Early Modern France , trans. T. Selous (1990).

In spite of these lacunae, Udwin's volume, with its broad, intense and unpretentious treatment of epic poetry, ancient warfare and Dark Age culture, will find a grateful readership among classicists, medievalists, and cultural theorists. I know I will refer to it often to appreciate anew the apt quotations and rich analyses.