“That last weird battle”

Twice in Tennyson’s “Passing of Arthur” section of Idylls there’s the phrase “that last weird battle”: on lines 29 and 94. Then on line 444 the word recurs; “the weird rhyme.” What’s so weird about these things? (Aside from the weirdness you might be feeling about this poem.)

When you come across a word that doesn’t seem to fit its context, at least by our modern understanding, the answer usually lies in the Oxford English Dictionary. I keep it bookmarked, but you’ll need to log in to the UofC Library’s proxy server (or be on campus) before you can access it.

The OED tells me that “weird” is a noun, an adjective, and a verb. Since “battle” and “rhyme” are nouns, evidently Tennyson’s using it as an adjective. So when you click on meaning #2, you get this:

Screen Shot 2013-02-27 at 11.13.39

“Eureka!” you say (as one does), “So Tennyson means that the battle and the rhyme had something to do with Arthur’s fate or destiny.” And so they do, as you know from reading the poem: he meets his fated death in the battle, and the rhyme has something to do with his water-birth in “The Coming of Arthur,” page 1245.

Those who remember their Macbeth will know that the witches who forecast his fate are repeatedly called “the weird sisters.”

What does this have to do with our modern meaning of “weird”? It’s a word whose meaning has changed over the centuries, from specifically supernatural to (more generally) unusual or strange, out of the ordinary. You can see how the meanings are linked. It’s another example of how the history of words can help you understand how we use English today.

And if that subject interests you, I can recommend a great book I’ve been reading by the historical linguist David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words.

About ullyot

Assistant Professor of English and Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning), Faculty of Arts; University of Calgary; early modernist + digital humanist.
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2 Responses to “That last weird battle”

  1. thetheresak says:

    Firstly, I want to thank you for writing this post. I never got around to writing my reply even though it did bring a few thoughts to my mind. But none-the-less, here it is now.

    Second, I’m afraid I won’t be answering your question about the modern meaning of ‘weird’.

    Honestly, after reading the definition of the word ‘weird’, it made me particularly happy that Tennyson used it several times in Idylls of the King .

    From my understanding of the King Arthur legend, it is a fated and extravagant mess of medieval sword and magic action. Arthur himself is the epitome of a destined hero. From his birth, to his battles, to his reign, up until his end, he is guided by his supernatural destiny – his ability to be ‘The Once and Future King’ (T. H. White). There are accounts of Arthur’s unbelievable victories, a sorcerer as his magical defender, the fated fall of Camelot, and a prophecy of a second-messianic return. All arguably ‘weird’ things.

    Simply, I think Tennyson’s choice of diction in Idylls is really interesting as it does reach back to the earlier accounts of Arthurian legend. The choice of the world ‘weird’ is interesting as I believe it should be the definition of the legend. For maybe that is what makes the legend such a popular one? Its ‘weirdness’?

  2. nicolericher says:

    The current understanding of “weird” is typically described as something strange or peculiar in some fashion. Upon reading this etymology, I would venture that it could stem to our current day definition to suggest that “weird” is inexplicably altering kismet. Combining the original and modern understanding, the term seems eerie.
    It’s almost “weird” how we use the word as casually as we do now.

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