Tuesday 6 September 2011

Zugzwang, the devil, and Beowulf

Zugzwang is a chess term. When any move you can make will land you in more trouble, that's a zugzwang. It's from the German for move (zug) and compulsion (zwang). But try saying it aloud. It's glorious. It has a sort of back-and-forth motion to it.

Essentially, zugzwang is the same as being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, except that it implies more options. The misery and melancholy of the zugzwang can extend in every direction.

Incidentally, you may have been wondering why I didn't capitalise the devil in devil and the deep blue sea. The reason is that the phrase has nothing whatsoever to do with his satanic majesty. Like so many phrases it's nautical.

The devil of a ship is, according to Smyth's Sailor's Word-Book (1867),

The seam which margins the waterways on a ship's hull 

Which means that it's a strip on the outside of the ship, just above the waterline. Occasionally, sailors used to be sent down to caulk the devil, which was a very precarious job because you were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

That, in turn reminds me of one of the finest moments in Anglo-Saxon poetry, with which I shall leave you for today. It's from Beowulf and describes the lake where Grendel and his mother live. Here's Seamus Heaney's translation:

A few miles from here
A frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
Above a mere; the overhanging bank
Is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns. And the mere-bottom
Has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
The hart in flight from pursuing hounds
Will turn to face them with firm-set horns
And die in the wood rather than the dive
Beneath its surface. That is no good place.

Which is classic case of elaphine zugzwang.

Poor bit of a ship.
(Incidentally, I wrote about this song before. Link here.)

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