The language in this book is wonderful, and the story is gripping. I especially liked that fact that Alfred Church's retelling follows the exact outli...moreThe language in this book is wonderful, and the story is gripping. I especially liked that fact that Alfred Church's retelling follows the exact outline and form of The Iliad and the Odyssey rather than simply being a generic version of the Trojan War story or the travels of Odysseus. We did it as a read aloud for the family.(less)
One of my earliest memories is of waking up in my parents’ bed when I was very young. The light was shining softly through the curtained windows, and...moreOne of my earliest memories is of waking up in my parents’ bed when I was very young. The light was shining softly through the curtained windows, and the bed was cool. The quiet of the morning was broken only by the chirping of birds and, from the wooded hill behind our house, the unearthly song of the whippoorwill. I don’t know if this is one memory or a series of memories mashed together in my mind. Somehow, it’s not the memory itself that matters, but the feeling of supreme peace and perfection that the memory calls to mind. This feeling is also tied inseparably with memories of my mother singing the song “In the Garden” many times. Along with this prevailing mood, I also have strong memories of a feeling of remoteness or distantness; it is a feeling of magic created by stories of King Arthur or knights in shining armor, a feeling of strong nobility and epic deeds. There is one time of the year in which both of these moods always combine seamlessly into one blissful tapestry, like Eden and Valhalla rolled into one: Christmas. This feeling or mood is indescribable, but I always feel a yearning for it. It is there in Christmastide, and there are a number of other stories, songs and books that kindle the flam. Know it when I feel it, but it’s incredibly hard to put into words.
Imagine my happiness when, in college, I realized that I was not alone in these feelings. C.S. Lewis wrote of the feeling he described as “northernness,” and tied it to the human longing for Joy. Though Lewis himself called the feeling indescribable, I recognized in his descriptions and in what Tolkien wrote of as the “noble northern spirit” the selfsame emotion stirred in me by these memories and stories. For both Tolkien and Lewis, the type of literature that best expresses this mood of the soul is Northern literature, that is the literature of the Norse and Germanic people of the Middle Ages. From my experience, they are absolutely correct.
Beowulf and the Saga of the Volsungs are among my favorite books, and when I read the mythological poems of the Poetic Edda, I was delighted by every scrap of poetry in it. Naturally, I had to press onward and read hero poems as well. The Poetic Edda is a collection of Icelandic poems collected in the 1100s and 1200s, though many of the poems date to a much earlier time period. They are, for the most part, pre-Christian poems, and show the roots of later Norse Sagas. The two main storylines in the poems are those of Helgi and Sigurd. The Sigurd/Gudrun/Atli cycle would eventually be the basis for the Saga of the Volsungs. Also I met an old friend from Anglo-Saxon poetry, Weyland the Smith (here called Weland).
There is a power in Norse poetry not to be found anywhere else. It contains all the magic of Welsh folktales, but with a noble heroism and hardness not found in the Welsh or Celtic stories. It is also fun to see these stories develop over time as different authors and editors arrange and compose material to fit their purposes. For example, the version of the stories composed in Greenland bear a marked difference from those composed in Iceland. I loved the Nibelungenlied and the Saga of the Volsungs and it was nice to see the thread of the tapestry being woven and created over time. The story told is rich and deep, full of trust, betrayal, and strength in the face of death.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for anyone not already familiar with the Norse tales. Read the Saga of the Volsungs first so that you can have a better appreciation for these remarkable poems. Other than that, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year I can’t praise it highly enough.
I appreciate having these poems all together in one place, and especially enjoyed reading The Battle of Brunanburh, The Dream of the Rood, and the Pho...moreI appreciate having these poems all together in one place, and especially enjoyed reading The Battle of Brunanburh, The Dream of the Rood, and the Phoenix. However, like Raffel's translation of Beowulf, these poems feel much more modern than they ought, and Raffel never tries to keep the alliteration and the steady rhythm of real Anglo-Saxon poetry.(less)
Boccaccio, who is best known for his Decameron, was a fellow Florentine and was 10 years old when Dante died. In his Life of Dante, In this book Bocca...moreBoccaccio, who is best known for his Decameron, was a fellow Florentine and was 10 years old when Dante died. In his Life of Dante, In this book Boccaccio shares anecdotes he has gathered about Dante from people who knew him, most notably Dante’s sister and nephew. Boccaccio seems to have some sort of ADHD issues as he is constantly going off into rabbit trails and diversions. For example, he spends an entire chapter railing against women in the most humorously misogynistic way imaginable after telling of Dante’s wedding. Then, after spending several pages beating up wives and women in general, he adds shortly that he doesn’t really know anything about Dante’s relationship with his wife. A more notable rabbit trail comes later in the book when he details the beginnings of poetry from pagan mythology. Though it has absolutely nothing to do with Dante, this was my favorite chapter of the book because it provides one of the best arguments I’ve ever seen on why Christians should read works of pagan literature.
Despite the fun, anecdotal nature of the biography however, the reader is left without a real framework of Dante’s life. We learn about how Dante sat on a public bench reading while a huge parade went by and was so engrossed in his book that he didn’t even notice. However, we are not told why Dante was expelled from Florence, how he died, or other essential pieces of information about his life. Fortunately the copy I read appended a 12 page supplement to Boccaccio written by Leonardo Bruni during Boccaccio’s life in order to provide all the details that were passed over in Boccaccio’s wild romp.
Overall, I recommend this book for anyone who is a fan of Dante’s writings and interesting in getting a personal view of Dante from people who lived in and around his time period.
Having completed books VI-X of T. Livius’s The History of Rome From Its Foundation, I have now read almost all of Livy’s work that has...moreLivy, Books VI-X
Having completed books VI-X of T. Livius’s The History of Rome From Its Foundation, I have now read almost all of Livy’s work that hasn’t been lost to antiquity. The writings of Livy, who lived during the reign of Caesar Augustus, are fascinating for me simply because of the sheer scope of his endeavor. Utilizing previous Greek and Roman sources as well as official government annals, Livy attempts to piece together a history of Rome from its founding all the way up to the present time of Augustus. One can tell from the work that Livy is a great patriot of his country, and thus we get little reliable information about non-Roman peoples. However, Livy is not so biased that he is above criticizing his own people for their follies or, for example, praising Hannibal the Carthaginian for his heroic qualities. Aside from the fact that Livy was highly regarded in the middle ages, and thus references to stories from Livy are found everywhere in Western literature, the narrative Livy lays out of great men, wars, and political strife is an engrossing, if sometimes tedious, read.
Books VI-X are different both from the books that come before and those that follow. In Books I-V, Livy recounts the history of Rome from its founding in c. 753 B.C. to Camillus’s defeat of the Gauls in 386 B.C. Most of this material is legendary and we get a good number of exciting adventures. Romulus and Remus, the Sabine women, the haughty Tarquins, the rise of the Republic, the exploits of Cincinnatus, Camillus, and other heroes are all there as well as information about the foundation of the great political division between patricians and plebeians that would drive Roman politics throughout the time of the Republic.
In contrast to the 370 or so years covered by the first five books, books XXI-XXX cover a mere fifteen years, roughly from 217-202 B.C. This is the time of the Second Punic War when Hannibal famously crossed the Alps and waged war with Rome on her own soil. These books have a much clearer historical basis and Livy includes exhaustive detail about battles and politics during the war. Aside from the speeches, which were almost always fabricated for the purpose in ancient histories, we get a very clear and vivid picture of the time period.
Books VI-X are somewhere between these two. At the beginning of book VI, Livy writes, “In the five preceding books, I have exhibited a view of the affairs of the Romans from the building of the city of Rome, until its capture; under the government, first, of kings; then of consuls and dictators, decemvirs, and consular tribunes; their foreign wars, and domestic dissensions: matters involved in obscurity, not only by reason of their great antiquity, like objects placed at such a distance as to be scarcely discernible by the eye; but also because that in those times, the use of letters, the only faithful guardian of the memory of events, was very rare. And besides, whatever information might have been contained in the commentaries of the pontiffs, and other public or private records, it was almost entirely lost in the burning of the city. Henceforward, from the second origin of Rome, from whence, as from its root, receiving new life, it sprung up with redoubled health and vigour, I shall be able to give the relation of its affairs, both civil and military, with more clearness and certainty.”
In these books, covering the period between 386 B.C. and 293 B.C., we see Rome at war with her neighbors, mostly the Etruscans, Volscii, and Samnites. By the end of the tenth book, Rome arises as the supreme power on the Italian peninsula. We get more great stories of battle and deeds of heroism, some of which are probably more legendary than historical, propagated by descendants of the men in question. We hear more of Camillus, and see the deeds of Torquatus, Corvinus, Manlius and others. The Roman code of honor stands out here, probably more a product of Livy’s patriotism than anything else. We also continue to follow the squabbling politics of the Roman people to some important end. The plebeians continue to gain political power, and, in a political act that resonates even to our day, Rome passed a law ending the practice of throwing debtors into prison.
If you are an ancient history buff, Livy is required reading. However, there are lessons to be learned here far beyond the realm of the historian. As Livy writes at the beginning of his first book, “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” Livy’s history is primarily centered on the great men, the movers and shakers of history. In examining the characters and motivations of these men, Livy wants the reader to take note of those characteristics which stand out as noble, good and honorable as well as those which are base, vile, and corrupt. The greatest benefit a reader will get from Livy is not a detailed knowledge of Roman history, but a sense of the variety of humanity and a series of moral examples which are often to be found in the best of literature. (less)
Medieval Romances, edited by Roger Sherman Loomis and Laurra Hibbard Loomis, is a good selection of writings from French and English sources of the Mi...moreMedieval Romances, edited by Roger Sherman Loomis and Laurra Hibbard Loomis, is a good selection of writings from French and English sources of the Middle ages. There are eight separate stories in the collection. Of these, three were especially interesting to me. Perceval, translated by R. S. Loomis, is rollicking comedy and reads often like a medieval version of Adam Sandler’s movie The Waterboy. Perceval lives with his overprotective mother who keeps her son ignorant of knighthood lest he leave home like his father before him. The Youth of Alexander the Great, translated by R. S. Loomis, is a brief, but humorous medieval pastiche of apocryphal accounts of the great conqueror’s early life. Aucassin and Nicolete, translated by Andrew Lang, is a beautiful love story in both prose and poetry, which I had never before read.
Havelok the Dane and The Book of Balin I had read before. Both are wonderful stories, and are well presented here. The story of Balin stands well on its own, but really ought to be read in the full context of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.
As to the remaining three stories, all are good stories and ought to be in a collection such as this. However, for those interested, all three can be found in better form elsewhere. For the story of Tristan and Isolt, here translated in prose form by Jessie L. Weston, readers may wish to read the excellent verse rendition by Joseph Bédier, translated by Hilaire Belloc. Sir Orfeo, here translated in prose by L. H. Loomis, is available in a verse translation by J. R. R. Tolkien. Finally, though there are many translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, here translated in prose by M. R. Ridley, I always prefer a verse translation and recommend either the J. R. R. Tolkien translation or the Penguin Classics translation by Brian Stone.
Overall this book is a great overview and introduction to medieval romances, and each of the stories comes with a nice, brief introduction. I recommend this book for any interested in wading into medieval literature or adding to their knowledge. (less)
True love is theological. This is the conclusion one reaches while reading this early work of the writer of the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri wrote L...moreTrue love is theological. This is the conclusion one reaches while reading this early work of the writer of the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri wrote La Vita Nuova at the age of twenty-six, shortly after the death of his beloved Beatrice.
On the surface this book is simply a collection of love poetry, displaying all the conventions of courtly love. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Boy is too overcome with a sense of his own unworthiness to ever speak to girl. Girl dies. The end. However, below the surface, this book is a profound reflection on the nature of love and of how human love can lead us to Divine Love. Indeed, Dante becomes a servant of Divine Love throughout the book as he meditates on Beatrice and mourns for Beatrice. In the quality of perfection which she possesses, a quality that is actually a result of Dante’s love for her, Dante sees an image of salvation itself and gives himself wholeheartedly to it. When, in one poem, Dante writes that the inhabitants of heaven plead for God to call Beatrice to join them, God responds:
My well-beloved, suffer that in peace Your hope remain, while so My pleasure is, There where one dwells who dreads the loss of her; And who in Hell unto the doom’d shall say, ‘I have look’d on that for which God’s chosen pray.’
The Church at the time clearly had some problems with this imagery, and tried to censor Dante’s book by removing from it all the theological language. Gone were the references to salvation and benediction from Beatrice. Gone were the overtones of Dante’s encounter with Beatrice and her friend Joan, wherein Dante saw Joan as John the Baptist, the forerunner, and Beatrice as the Mother of Love. Either Dante did not experience these things, in which case he was an over-amorous young man writing blasphemies, or he did experience an unusual mystical vision which should not be tainted by connection with a mere human. However, Charles Williams, scholar and friend of C. S. Lewis, maintains that Dante’s experience was real and not at all unusual. It was the experience of love that all young men encounter when they meet that one girl for the first time. It is the experience of courtship, the thrill of passion, the agony of waiting to hear from the beloved again. Dante truly saw that human love is an image of Divine Love, and that through faithfulness in love, we may progress to faithfulness to Love. This is all fleshed out more fully in the Divine Comedy, where the love of Beatrice very literally leads Dante to heaven.
For those interested in Dante or in the Divine Comedy, I wholeheartedly recommend a study of La Vita Nuova.
I wish I could give this book 10 stars. The text itself is a wonderful medieval history written in the classical style and deserves 5 stars by itself....moreI wish I could give this book 10 stars. The text itself is a wonderful medieval history written in the classical style and deserves 5 stars by itself. But reading this in the Folio Society edition was pure aesthetic enjoyment.(less)
The language in this book was so beautiful that I'd like to give it 5 stars. However, I really had a hard time feeling any sympathy with Tristan or Is...moreThe language in this book was so beautiful that I'd like to give it 5 stars. However, I really had a hard time feeling any sympathy with Tristan or Iseult, and found myself instead sympathizing with King Mark, Iseult of the White Hands, the woodman, and, yes, even the four barons...(less)
Never have I seen such beautiful language employed in the service of such ugly ideas. A pity really as there are flashes of true brilliance and knowle...moreNever have I seen such beautiful language employed in the service of such ugly ideas. A pity really as there are flashes of true brilliance and knowledge intermingled throughout.(less)
I finally finished Josephus. I think every Christian ought to read The Jewish Antiquities, as it gives the story of the Old Testament as a story, epic...moreI finally finished Josephus. I think every Christian ought to read The Jewish Antiquities, as it gives the story of the Old Testament as a story, epic in sweep. *Though Josephus does go with rabbinic interpretation rather than with the OT in some places.* Also the story of the Jewish Wars with Rome helped me understand the context of the early Church much better. By itself, I would have given this book 4 stars, but Paul Maier adds such great illustrations, photographs, and maps that the history really comes to life.(less)
I found myself laughing out loud many times while reading these plays, but in an uncomfortable I-shouldn't-be-laughing-at-this kind of way. Definitely...moreI found myself laughing out loud many times while reading these plays, but in an uncomfortable I-shouldn't-be-laughing-at-this kind of way. Definitely not for the kids.(less)