I recently finished The Kanteletar, which is a collection of Finnish folk songs and poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot, the same fellow who compiled FinI recently finished The Kanteletar, which is a collection of Finnish folk songs and poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot, the same fellow who compiled Finland’s epic, The Kalevala. The works vary widely in age, as many of the poems have been passed down in folklore for hundreds of years, but Elias compiled them in the 1800s. I’m a big fan of Finnish poetry and mythology, but I get the feeling not a lot of other folks are these days, outside of Finland; getting my hands on a copy of The Kanteletar took some work. Most Finnish poetry is written in trochaic tetrameter, which is the same foot used in Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” and the effect is hypnotic, especially in longer works like the The Kalevala. Kanteletar means (more or less) “zither-daughter,” a sort of muse. Some of the poems are beautiful, some are just bizarre outside of context, and they’re all intriguing....more
Even though our Latin/literary discussion group had given up on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I decided to get back to it. I hate leaving a book unfinished, aEven though our Latin/literary discussion group had given up on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I decided to get back to it. I hate leaving a book unfinished, and I kind of missed my weekly dose of mythology. The concluding lines gave me a bit of a shiver because suddenly it seemed like Ovid turned his head and looked right at me:
Now I have done my work. It will endure, I trust, beyond Jove’s anger, fire and sword, Beyond Time’s hunger. The day will come, I know, So let it come, that day which has no power Save over my body, to end my span of life Whatever it may be. Still, part of me, The better part, immortal, will be borne Above the stars; my name will be remembered Wherever Roman power rules conquered lands, I shall be read, and through all centuries, If prophecies of bards are ever truthful, I shall be living, always.
Then, in another whiplash-inducing switch of topic, I read The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, written in 1136 or thereaboutsThen, in another whiplash-inducing switch of topic, I read The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, written in 1136 or thereabouts. Geoffrey, like Steinbeck, is a bit of a King Arthur fanboy. He spends more time on him than on any of the other kings, and seems to lose interest in the history pretty quickly after Arthur’s death. I found the book to be unexpectedly fascinating, albeit very dense. Geoffrey told the story of a king named Leir, and after a minute I realized this was where Shakespeare got King Lear from. I had no idea the story was so old: Shakespeare was as temporally removed from Geoffrey as we are from Shakespeare. I’m not sure how historical Geoffrey is—not very, evidently. He uses Nennius and Gildas, among others, as his sources, but they loved to make things up, and so does he.
I was interested in Geoffrey’s portrayal of Arthur in particular (as well I might be) because it differs so much from the Malory version. This is no courtly knight. Geoffrey’s Arthur is brutal, as even Geoffrey indirectly acknowledges, even if he is a strong and successful leader. Young Arthur immediately hangs his Saxon hostages after the Saxon leaders break their truce and has no problem urging his men to “leave not one alive” in various battles. According to Geoffrey, he conquers 30 kingdoms, including Norway, Iceland, Germany, etc. Rome gets mighty nervous and demands that Arthur pay tribute and acknowledge their superiority. Arthur sends the body of their messenger back and says that Rome should pay tribute to HIM instead. He gathers an army to take Rome itself, defeats the Roman army sent out to meet him, and is only distracted from taking the city when he hears Mordred (left in charge back home) is causing all kinds of ruckus. Yet Britain prospered under his rule, and enjoyed relative peace for a change. In many ways this portrayal felt far more realistic and historical (or pseudo-historical, anyway, since Geoffrey’s book is considered to be a pseudo-history) than the Arthur we know so much better from Malory, The Sword in the Stone, etc. There’s no Lancelot, no jousting, just Arthur conquering Northern Europe by the edge of the sword and making darn sure he keeps it. Until Mordred wounds him and floats off to Avalon, anyway. ...more
Now I’m reading The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck, which is sort of a retelling of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. SteinNow I’m reading The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck, which is sort of a retelling of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Steinbeck is SUCH a Malory fanboy, it’s absolutely adorable. Somehow I’ve never read much at all of Steinbeck–a terrible oversight in my education, clearly, and one I intend to rectify. On the first day of the new year, Sam and I went to one of our favorite used bookstores in Raleigh, and there was an older man in there with a couple of his grand kids. They were checking out a large pile of books, and the grandfather said, “This kid here, he’s in the sixth grade and he’s working his way through all of Steinbeck’s works. Now he’s going through all of Agatha Christie.” The kid looked bashful. I wanted to run straight over and hug him and tell him he was marvelous, but I figured I might get arrested or something. His existence made my whole week, though.
A very long update: I should never write things in my head. I do it all the time, and then I promptly forget every single word that I’ve composed. I search for the words I had built to convey my idea, and…nothing. Just some crickets chirping somewhere behind my left ear. Drat.
This post will be somewhat a victim of the cricket syndrome, because I composed most of it in my head in a fit of glee whilst reading Steinbeck. I’m beginning to think it was a tragedy of the first order that he was never able to complete it before he died.
At first, the book almost seemed like a straight-up modern translation of Malory, simply replacing archaic words with more accessible ones. Since I like the archaic words, this wasn’t terribly exciting, but it was nice to see old favorite stories dressed up a bit. As I went along, I realized that Steinbeck was drawing out elements that Malory had only touched on, making things cohesive, eliminating contradictions, and bringing out more of the characters. (Steinbeck rightly commented in his notes that those hearing the tales as they were told back then wouldn’t need these things spelled out; tone and body language of the storyteller would have made the subtleties and emotions of the stories quite clear.) He was “keeping, or rather trying to re-create, a rhythm and tone which to the modern ear will have the same effect as Middle English did on the fifteenth-century ear.” As he said, “Present-day people can read unlimited baseball scores in which the narration isn’t very great and fifteenth-century people could listen to innumerable single combats with little variation.”
I realized while reading “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt,” however, that Steinbeck had been quite crafty. Very gradually it dawned upon me that Steinbeck was telling his own story out of Malory’s. I didn’t even recall the original quest with these three knights in Malory upon which this story was based; it was just one of countless quests, and honestly even for an Arthurian fan, they all started to blend together in Malory. Not so with Steinbeck. He made this story come ferociously alive. He added a lot; to me the book savors more of Steinbeck than of Malory, but the feeling of Malory is still there, and I think that’s what Steinbeck was after. The book got better and better from there, and when I reached the end of The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot (which was as far as Steinbeck got in the project), I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry, which is how I know I’ve read a really good book.
The last 60 pages of the book consist of letters to his editors about his progress on the project, and these letters were meant to be cleaned up and put together as an introduction to the finished work. Steinbeck’s letters were just as wonderful to read as his stories because I understood what he had meant to do with his (sadly unfinished) work.
The very first letter is just a couple lines: “I am going to start the Morte immediately. Let it be private between us until I get it done. It has all the old magic.”
A letter from a week later: “I have been dipping into the Malory. And with delight. As long as I don’t know what is going on in the world, I would like to have a try with this. I’m going to try anyway.”
Another letter: “[I’ve been] Just reading and reading and reading and it’s like hearing remembered music.”
And then I knew we were kindred spirits, Steinbeck and I. No one could love the old stories like that and not be a wonderful new friend. And he’s hit on it already, the feeling I get when I’m reading Arthurian myth: it’s just like hearing remembered music. The stories are so timeless that they feel familiar. According to Steinbeck (and he is far from alone in this—Milton, among others, wholeheartedly agreed), “these stories form, with the New Testament, the basis of most modern English literature.”
Steinbeck had such an awe and respect for his source material that he almost couldn’t write the thing. He read literally hundreds of books before he began at all, and once he had begun, he seemed to be regularly terrified (appropriately so) by the scope of the project upon which he had embarked. “I’m aching to get to work after the years of preparation. And I’m scared also, but I think that is healthy…. It is perfectly natural that I should have a freezing humility considering the size of the job to do and the fact that I have to do it all alone.” Comforting to know that Steinbeck, who by this time had written all sorts of great literature, still got scared and felt unequal to the task just like the rest of us who have ever put pen to paper. (Or cursor to Word file.) He said, “I want to forget how to write and learn all over again with the writing growing out of the material,” and “If Malory could rewrite Chretien for his time, I can rewrite Malory for mine.”
The incidental information in Steinbeck’s letters was likewise fascinating:
On memory in the past, when everything was unrecorded: “The training of the Welsh poets was not practice but memorization. On knowing 10,000 poems, one took a position. … Written words have destroyed what must have been a remarkable instrument.” “In Shakespeare’s time a good man could memorize a whole scene from a play and write it down afterwards. That was the only way to steal it.”
On how long it takes light to travel: “It is conceivable that what the great telescopes record presently does not exist at all, that those monstrous issues of the stars may have ceased to be before our world was formed, that the Milky Way is a memory carried in the arms of light.”
In one of his later letters to his editor: “Isn’t it odd that Malory, who knew the route from Amesbury to Glastonbury, didn’t mention Stonehenge although he had to pass it. I think I know why. But will tell you that when I see you.” I would give a great deal to have heard Steinbeck’s theory on this. He owes me a chat.
Steinbeck had a close relationship with his editor and literary agent, and he seemed rather crushed when neither of them were fond of the first few chapters of his rough draft. Their responses were not given, but I was intrigued by portions of his defense, which almost ends up being a critique of modernity:
“I know you have read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It is a marvelously wrought book. All the things you wished to find in my revision are superlatively in that. But that is not what I had wanted and I think still do not want to do.”
“Alan Lerner is making a musical about King Arthur and it will be lovely and will make a million-billion dollars—but that isn’t what I want. There’s something else. Maybe in my rush to defend myself I’ve missed what I wanted to say. Maybe I’m trying to say something that can’t be said or do something beyond my ability. But there is something in Malory that is longer-lived than T.H. White and more permanent than Alan Lerner or Mark Twain. I don’t know what it is—but I sense it.”
“The hero is almost bad form unless he is in a Western. Tragedy—true tragedy—is laughable unless it happens in a flat in Brooklyn. Kings, Gods, and Heroes—maybe their day is over, but I can’t believe it. Maybe because I don’t want to believe it. In this country I am surrounded by the works of heroes right back to man’s first entrance. I don’t know how the monoliths were set up in the circles without tools but there was something more involved than petty thievery and schoolboy laziness and the anguish of overfed ladies on the psycho couch. Someone moved a whole lot of earth around for something beyond ‘making a buck.’ And if all of this is gone, I’ve missed the boat somewhere. And that could easily be.” “Nuts! I believe in this thing. There’s an unthinkable loneliness in it. There must be.”
Steinbeck was grasping at trying to express something very nearly impossible to put into words, trying to make Malory accessible to the modern age without making it OF the modern age in the way that White’s book did. I love The Once and Future King, but Steinbeck was right; it doesn’t have the flavor of Malory. Once and Future accomplished its goal, and mimicking its style would only be trying to piggyback on its success, not say something worthwhile.
Steinbeck’s thoughts on modern writing and its inspiration were particularly astute: “What is in a writer’s mind—novelist or critic? Doesn’t a writer set down what has impressed him most, usually at a very early age? If heroism impressed him, that’s what he writes about, and if frustration and a sense of degradation—that is it. And if jealousy is the deepest feeling, then he must attack anything which seems to be the longed-for success.”
“Malory lived in as rough and ruthless and corrupt an age as the world has ever produced. In the Morte he in no way minimizes these things, the cruelty and the lust, and murder and childlike self-interest. They are all here. But he does not let them put out the sun. Side by side with them are generosity and courage and greatness and the huge sadness of tragedy rather than the little meanness of frustration.”
“For no matter how brilliantly one part of life is painted, if the sun goes out, that man has not seen the whole world. Day and night both exist. To ignore the one or the other is to split time in two and to choose one…”
“There is nothing in literature nastier than Arthur’s murder of children because one of them may grow up to kill him. Williams and many others of his day would stop there, saying, “That’s the way it is.” And they would never get to the heartbreaking glory when Arthur meets his fate and fights against it and accepts it all in one. How can we have forgotten so much?”
“Something happens now to children. An artist should be open on all sides to every kind of light and darkness. But our age almost purposely closes all windows, draws all shades, and then later screams to a psychiatrist for light.”
It’s hard to imagine Steinbeck laying this work aside for so many years; for all of his struggles in getting it written, he so clearly believes in it and is utterly immersed in it. He said, “I think it is the best prose I have ever written. I hope this is so and I believe it.” If this is true, his very best prose wasn’t even published until after his death. His wife said, “He is beginning to live and breathe the book. In the evening he carves wooden spoons for our kitchen and talks about Arthur and Merlin.”
His wife quoted him: “I tell these old stories, but they are not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.” She said one of his colleagues thought it was the best statement about writing in all of the books about books, and she agreed. Steinbeck talked about the “heartbreaking glory” of Arthur, and I think he’s finally put his finger on what has always drawn me to Arthurian literature. You know it when you feel it. “When I finish this job, if I ever do, I should like to make some observations about the Legend. Somewhere there’s a piece missing in the jigsaw and it is a piece which ties the whole thing together. So many scholars have spent so much time trying to establish whether Arthur existed at all that they have lost track of the single truth that he exists over and over.” I wonder if that feeling is the missing piece of the puzzle, the universal truth in the legend that we keep coming back to over and over in countless forms, trying to recapture the heartbreaking glory.
One last quote from his letters: “Yesterday something wonderful. It was a golden day and the apple blossoms are out and for the first time I climbed up to Cadbury—Camelot.” ...more
I’m reading The Nibelungenlied, a Middle German epic poem from the 12th century, give or take a few dozen years. I’m reading that in translation, obviI’m reading The Nibelungenlied, a Middle German epic poem from the 12th century, give or take a few dozen years. I’m reading that in translation, obviously. I know the story pretty well–-or I thought I did. I had always believed that Nibelungenlied was derived from the Volsunga Saga of Iceland, with which I’m very familiar. Turns out it’s more of a parallel (yet distinctly different) work, and I’m finding as I go along that I much prefer the Icelandic version. The Middle German version tweaks the story to fit a courtly medieval period; The Nibelungenlied is to the Volsunga Saga what Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is to the Welsh Arthurian stories. In both instances, I prefer the older foundations of the tales to the flowery, often contradictory retellings. Still, I have to say that the Nibelungenlied (again, like Morte d’Arthur) is pretty darn entertaining, and well worth your time if you’re into Germanic medieval literature. (Please, who isn’t?)...more
An astoundingly detailed, legitimate atlas put together by a cartographer with a frankly incredible knowledge of Tolkien’s writing. I’ve seen maps ofAn astoundingly detailed, legitimate atlas put together by a cartographer with a frankly incredible knowledge of Tolkien’s writing. I’ve seen maps of the US put together with less skill and care.
A good friend got this for me in Ireland while she was there. The stories are deliciously morbid in a familiar, you've-heard-the-Disneyfied-version-soA good friend got this for me in Ireland while she was there. The stories are deliciously morbid in a familiar, you've-heard-the-Disneyfied-version-somewhere sort of way. Possibly the best thing about the book, however, is the absolutely gorgeous illustration style. ...more
I’m rereading the Poetic Edda, a very old collection of Norse mythology. Nice to return to old favorites, and now I have my very own copy to underlineI’m rereading the Poetic Edda, a very old collection of Norse mythology. Nice to return to old favorites, and now I have my very own copy to underline the daylights out of. :)...more
**spoiler alert** Lovely, but wow, very bleak. I forget the incredible Norse capacity for woe and savagery. Do not mess with Gudrun. She'll kill her o**spoiler alert** Lovely, but wow, very bleak. I forget the incredible Norse capacity for woe and savagery. Do not mess with Gudrun. She'll kill her own kids and make you eat them just to spite you. This may be terrible of me, but I sort of loved the part where they threaten to cut out Hogni's heart, and they cut out the heart of some random serving dude instead and bring it to Gunnar, Hogni's brother. Gunnar laughs and says the heart quakes too much on the plate for it to be Hogni's: he was fearless. They then cut out Hogni's heart and bring it to Gunnar, and this time he recognizes it as his brother's, for it quaked little on the plate and little in his chest when he lived. I highly recommend reading the whole thing; tragic endings aside, I do wish I lived in that world sometimes. Perhaps I should be concerned by these violent tendencies... ...more
This was written in the latter half of the 12th century and served as one of Malory's main sources for Morte D'Arthur. Troyes was, incidentally, the fThis was written in the latter half of the 12th century and served as one of Malory's main sources for Morte D'Arthur. Troyes was, incidentally, the first to mention Lancelot and Camelot, among many other Arthurian literary traditions that we take for granted today, and he also knew how to spell a right good yarn. ...more
An epic in Old French (translated, obviously, as I don't speak French, Old or modern), which was interesting and wholly politically incorrect by todayAn epic in Old French (translated, obviously, as I don't speak French, Old or modern), which was interesting and wholly politically incorrect by today's standards. Er, more so than your usual epic. On the whole, I prefer Beowulf, but it was still pretty great. ...more
This is supposed to be Beowulf from Grendel's point of view, but is mainly just a frame for nihilistic angst. Interesting, though. I'm still not quiteThis is supposed to be Beowulf from Grendel's point of view, but is mainly just a frame for nihilistic angst. Interesting, though. I'm still not quite sure how I feel about it. ...more
I read Morte D'Arthur, or most of it anyway, a very long time ago. I remember not being all that enthused and a bit bored at the endless jousting. ReaI read Morte D'Arthur, or most of it anyway, a very long time ago. I remember not being all that enthused and a bit bored at the endless jousting. Really, there are only so many ways to make getting poked by a stick and falling of a horse sound good, guys.
However, reading it now for Medieval Lit, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it very much. The jousting was still boring (sorry, Malory), but the characterization was fascinating. Arthur is so painfully young at the beginning and really has no idea what he's doing even as he's trying to be the hero. Merlin is really the one keeping the kingdom together as every Tom, Dick, and Harry think that they can wrest the throne away from the boy king. The Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur thing didn't bother me as much this time around; Lancelot is so conflicted and grief-stricken over his actions, you can't help but feel sorry for him. This was not a light-hearted fling. This was 25 years of misery, knowing that he was betraying his best friend and lord, yet completely unable to tear himself away from Guinevere. Deeply unhappy people all around, as Arthur loves both of them but has to do his duty, and eventually the three tear the kingdom apart between them.
And yet, I can see why Tennyson chose this subject to write an epic poem about. Malory's brief tangent about how love today is not as it was in the days of Arthur, when men and women knew what devotion was, is beautiful. The whole thing is deeply touching in points, and if you don't get shivers reading about the death of Arthur, check and make sure you're still breathing: "Here lies Arthur, the once and future King."...more
Fairy tales have remarkably little to do with children and far more to do with humanity in general...not that children aren't part of humanity. I willFairy tales have remarkably little to do with children and far more to do with humanity in general...not that children aren't part of humanity. I will never look at these stories the same way again....more