I have to admit that, while I enjoyed this book, I was a little disappointed with it. I love my Greek myths; I love them straight, retold, subv3 Stars
I have to admit that, while I enjoyed this book, I was a little disappointed with it. I love my Greek myths; I love them straight, retold, subverted, critiqued, pretty much any way an author cares to do a Greek myth, I will be happy to read it. And The Odyssey is my absolute favourite. Has been my favourite since the sanitised cartoon version I had as a kid first introduced me to Greek myths. Ever since I read the 'original' version (as original as a 20th century translation of a source compiled from oral retellings can be), however, I have been painfully aware that Odysseus is a complete dick. A cheating, lying, not-as-clever-as-he-thinks-he-is, dick. So a retelling by Margaret Atwood (who I am starting to love) that tells things from Penelope's perspective, gives her a bit more agency, and addresses arguably Odysseus's most heinous act...Well it should have been right up my street.
And it started well, for the first few chapters focussing on Penelope's childhood, the first few interludes by the murdered serving maids (acting as a Greek Chorus to punctuate Penelope's narrative with songs, poetry, and speculation), I thought this was going to be a 4 star read at least. Unfortunately, as the story caught up with her marriage and got to the events of The Odyssey, it gradually got less interesting. For a retelling, it hew too close to the original, not offering as many new insight or perspectives as I had hoped. All the stuff Atwood writes in the Penelopiad could have happened between the lines and away from the Odysseus-centred perspective in The Odyssey - and I get that that is exactly Atwood's point. But I felt like it could have done with more deviation from the source material. The central part of the novel essentially amounts to a summing up of Odysseus's return to Ithaca, offering no new narrative to it beyond Penelope saying she instantly saw through Odysseus disguise (I never doubted that she had in the original), and being friendly with the 'traitorous' serving maids.
It's a good book, for what it is: essentially Penelope's perspective of books 17-24 off the Odyssey. Only, despite being the centre of the narrative, Atwood's Penelope somehow has less agency and smarts than the Penelope of the original, for me. The Penelope I imagine in the Odyssey is smart,witty, resilient, proud, and a bit of a quiet badass. Atwood's Penelope is weepy (crying is her main action for a lot of the book), naive, and consumed by jealousy of her cousin, Helen of Troy. She tells us she is clever but, aside from the shroud trick (which comes directly from The Odyssey), offers very little proof.
It's a good little book (and a very quick and easy read). It's good to see that other people have the same critiques of the characters that I had studying it back as a teenager. But I wanted more from this book than it actually offered. And, from Margaret Atwood, I expected more from it too....more
One of very many children’s books on Greek mythology, I picked this one up mainly because it’s Usborne (I grew up on Usborne books and I have a 4 stars
One of very many children’s books on Greek mythology, I picked this one up mainly because it’s Usborne (I grew up on Usborne books and I have a certain amount of loyalty to them despite the fact that they keep puttingoutgenderedshitlikethis) and because the pictures inside are pretty dang gorgeous. With so many of these sort of books about though it’s always worth flipping through a few in the bookshop, maybe reading a couple of the stories, and getting the one that works for you. This one, I have to say, doesn’t quite work for me. It’s very good, perfect for the purpose I got it for – which was to ensure my Greek storytelling event later this month is age appropriate – and I’ll be keeping it in my library of Greek myths, but it’s far too kiddified in places for my own personal liking. For public storytelling where I don’t know how (over)sensitive or protective children’s parents are it’s great. For my own kids/nieces/nephews (if I were ever to have any) I would want something that didn’t gloss over Theseus leaving Ariadne, or pretended that Jason and Medea didn’t murder her brother.
It’s a beautiful book though, and I think it achieves its aim of working for both children too young to read and children just learning. It’s written in a way that works very well when read out loud, while the typeface is big, bold, and easy to read for when the child wants to pick it up for themselves, and it's all accompanied by some really lovely and eyecatching illustrations. There’s also a pronounciation guide for the Greek names at the back, which is very useful. And then it’s got some really nice stylistic touches. Every page, even when it isn’t illustrated, has a patterned border running round it – spiders for Arachne, snakes for Perseus and Medusa, a variety of Greek pot patterns etc etc. but a unique pattern for every story. The longer stories (Hercules, Odysseus, Jason) are broken up into smaller sections, making them easier to digest if you’re reading ‘one a night’ with a child, and each story is written on different coloured pages, making it very easy to tell when one story ends and another begins. I don’t have a working scanner or I’d put in a few examples here but I did find one bookseller site that did have a single page sample:
For me, though, though the book itself is beautiful (the dragons and sea serpents are all particularly great) the content of the text plays it just a little too safe: Medea doesn’t kill her brother, she lives happily ever after with Jason, Ariadne doesn’t get abandoned, Theseus’s dad doesn’t commit suicide, and the battles against monsters seem a little too perfuntory, making them less compelling than they should be. And yes, it’s for kids (Usborne.com says 7+ but it’s clearly aimed at younger), but the Usborne books of mythology I was reading when I was that age didn’t shy away from that stuff – they may not have gone on to detail Medea’s infanticide, but they showed her killing her brother to help Jason escape. Lessons and videos we watched at primary school discussed Theseus leaving Ariadne. The ending of the Theseus story was always bittersweet, with the minotaur having been killed but, due to Theseus’s neglect in changing his sails, his father having given him up for dead and jumped into the sea in grief. That’s the emotional heart of the story.
I just find this book a little too codling in places and I know that, as a child, I prefered my monsters scarier and less easily dispatched and that what drew me, and continues to draw me, to Medea was her ruthlessness – she was so unlike any princess I’d ever read about before. A great book for read aloud sessions with groups of young children you don’t know because, personally, I don’t particularly want to step on someone else’s parenting. But if I was reading this aloud to kids I knew well I would be surreptitiously adding more of the ‘unsuitable’ bits in for them. Kids can deal with a lot more than people think and I think it’s the fact that Greek myths often don’t conform to the ‘happily ever after’ narrative that makes them so intriguing....more
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have3 Stars
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have to say is that I like the story itself, but I simply can’t make myself trust Heaney as a translator.
I have no particular reason not to trust him as a translator, let’s get that straight. I don’t read Old English, have never read an unabridged Beowulf translation before, and this one is very highly and widely regarded by people who can and have – so I’m not anywhere near qualified to say anything about how faithful/good a translation it is. I just have a gut feeling that, really, I’d have been better off with a different translation. When I finished the book I didn’t feel ‘yes I’m done with Beowulf, I’m one badass classics reader’ but, ‘I should probably go buy/borrow the Oxford World Classics edition’.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for an edition translated by a poet who’s famous in his own right – but then that never bothered me with Simon Armatage’s translations of Arthurian epics. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for one translated by a poet I studied and disliked at school – but I assumed I’d grown out of that rather juvenile ‘I studied it so I hate it’ dislike and had only heard good things about his translation. Maybe it’s just because it’s fucking Beowulf and I was expecting something truly awesome… Whatever the reason I ended up feeling disappointed with the poem and disappointed with myself for picking this translation. It’s not bad, it’s very readable in fact and the story, as expected, is pretty damn cool. I just simply can’t get over the feeling I’m reading Heaney’s version of Beowulf rather than Heaney’s translation. It’s probably irrational – not being able to read Old English I’ll never know – but reading the introduction, which is lots about Heaney and very little about Beowulf didn’t really do anything to challenge this gut feeling. In fact reading the all about Heaney introduction (in several parts cause I had to keep putting it down from boredom) just reminded me why I found him so utterly unbearable to study at GCSE.
But for people without my anti-Heaney baggage – it tells the Beowulf story and it is very readable. As I said, I can’t speak for its accuracy as a translation, just of my own personal response to it so I’d take this whole review with a massive grain of salt too....more
Ah, Greek mythology, one of my pet passions. Like most people my introduction to the world of Greek mythology came through a children’s book 3.5 Stars
Ah, Greek mythology, one of my pet passions. Like most people my introduction to the world of Greek mythology came through a children’s book that retold some of the more popular and enduring legends – Heracles, Odysseus, and Jason. That particular book will always have a very special place in my heart (and on my bookshelf). It wasn’t, however, this book.
Although objectively a much more comprehensive, intelligent, and less simplified introduction to Greek mythology than many of the brightly illustrated ‘Children’s Book of Greek Myths’ out there, I never quite managed to click with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes. I enjoyed it, as I enjoy all retellings of Greek myth and, as an adult with a fairly decent knowledge of the subject, I could appreciate what the author was doing; his unique approach, the way he highlighted several little-known figures or versions of events. But, for me, the magic that first made me fall in love with not just Greek mythology but mythology as a whole, simply wasn’t quite there.
Whether it’s that the tone was a little too old-fashioned and slightly mollycoddling (Zeus ‘marries’ the mothers of all his children) or that I’m simply a good fifteen years older than the intended audience and bring with me a whole different set of knowledge and expectations, I’m not sure – probably a very strong helping of both – but I could only get into this book as an intellectual exercise (‘ooh, that’s a version I’ve not seen before’ ‘Ha! He censored the incest out!’) rather than as a particuularly gripping story in its own right. To someone looking for an accessible introduction into the myths and legends of Greece, however, I would strongly recommend it.
The real strength of this version above other ‘introduction to Greek mythology’ books is that Roger Lancelyn Green takes a chronological approach. Instead of cherry-picking the best and most well-known stories (Heracles, Perseus, Theseus etc.) and simply retelling them, Green attempts to tell the whole story of the ‘golden age’ of Greek heroes; from the creation of the world and the war with the Titans right through to the defeat of the giants and the death of Heracles (the tale of the later Trojan War and Odysseus’s adventures are told in a second book). Each story is fitted in to the wider context and there’s a strong narrative thread that runs throughout the book even as different heroes take it in turns to assume the leading role. I didn’t always agree with the order Green chose to sort his stories into – I think placing the adventures of Theseus before those of Jason was a wrong one; Theseus being among the Argonauts adds very little to Jason’s story while taking away Medea’s role completely from the Theseus myth and giving it to an unnamed ‘witch queen’ instead. But then that’s how it is with Greek myth – there are so many versions of a single story that once you try to iron it all out there will be contradictions and which version you go for is ultimately down to personal preference.
In the end, though I enjoyed it, this book didn’t quite work for me as a piece of entertainment. I loved the idea of it, and I loved stumbling across names I was only vaguely familiar with and having to jump to my numerous dictionaries of Greek mythology to do a bit of fact checking. But things like attempting to tell the story of Oedipus without reference to either the killing of his father or his marriage to his mother, or the story of Heracles’ conception with Zeus portrayed as guilt-stricken by the deception and only sexing up a married woman for the sake of creating a hero were simply too laughable for me to take the book entirely seriously. Still, I would recommend it as well worth a read to anybody with an interest in Greek mythology, and not just as an introduction....more
So continuing on my fantasy and children’s fiction binge – summer is the one season where I use the library regularly for lightweight, fun books I donSo continuing on my fantasy and children’s fiction binge – summer is the one season where I use the library regularly for lightweight, fun books I don’t necessarily want to buy. Percy Jackson is one of those very popular series where it’s practically a requirement that everyone under a certain age has to have read it. I’m not under that age. Though I had heard a lot of talk bout these books and, due to the Greek mythology aspect, had been half-planning to check them out for a while, it took one of my best friends all but ordering me to pick up the first book for me to get round to doing anything about it. And boy, am I glad she gave me that much needed boot to the arse. It’s probably a bit premature to judge the whole series but, based on the first book, these would have been five-star instant favourites with little-me. If only they had been published a decade earlier!
Percy Jackson, protagonist and narrator, is a ‘troubled kid’ – ADHD, dyslexia, a habit of constantly getting into fights, emotionally abused by his step-father – who suddenly finds out that not only are the Greek Gods real, but that one of them (though I won’t say which) is his father. Also real: every single monster from Greek myth and legend – and they’re all after him. After a bit of time in the safe sanctuary of Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods, he gets more bad news: Zeus’ lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is suspect number one. To prevent a war between the gods, Percy must undertake a quest back out into the monster-filled world and retrieve the lightning bolt himself.
It’s the sort of fun nonsense I would have adored as a kid and not only is it a fun yarn, but it’s written intelligently. The narration, as you would exect from a book aimed at children and told by a twelve-year-old dyslexic, is simple and easy to read. It also does a damn good job of portraying Percy’s character and emphasising that ‘troubled’ and low grades doesn’t mean ‘stupid’. What especially won me over to him was that Riordan didn’t do that thing where the main character knows nothing about the setting (however much they really should) and has to have everything explained for him. Percy may be new to the whole demigod thing but he knows at least the basics of Greek mythology and is able to provide reader-exposition as well as many of the side characters. I also really liked the touch that his (and the other demigods) dyslexia was because his first language was meant to be Ancient Greek. In short he seems competent and he’s likable and complex enough that when certain god-like powers start to kick in I wasn’t instantly thinking ‘what a Mary Sue’.
The Greek mythology, as well, is well handled. Things are played with and changed about but there’s an obvious understanding and respect for the ‘original’ myths that I think even little-me would have appreciated (and little-me was such a pedantic little shit she refused to watch Disney’s Hercules when she was 9 because the trailers showed him riding Pegasus). I liked most of the updates and changes here and I really liked that, though several ‘obvious’ monsters were used, some lesser known ones that children might not be familiar with – such as the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey – also found their way in as well. Little-me might possibly have something to say about Athena having children but, as I said, little-me was a pedantic shit. And Athena totally had the hots for Odysseus anyway so I can buy her eventually deciding to stick the middle finger up to the ‘virgin goddess’ depiction.
The story itself isn’t too remarkable – it’s basically an American roadtrip with lots of run-ins with Greek monsters and a very foreshadowed twist. But it’s well told, enjoyable, occasionally very funny, and sets up an interesting arc for the rest of the series. I’ll be checking out the next couple of books from the library very shortly, I think....more
This was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book thisThis was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this had a massive impact on my tastes and interests growing up. It also provided me with my first fictional crush in the shape of Ulysses (Odysseus - this book unfortunately adopts Roman naming for the heroes, though not the gods). As such I'm not even going to try to write an objective review here.
The book tells the stories of three legendary Greek heroes; Ulysses (Odysseus), Hercules (Heracles), and Jason. Each story is told in an almost comic book format - roughly 1-5 panels a page but no speach bubbles, the story is writen underneath each illustration in full continuous prose. This means that as well as the writing being simple and easy to understand for young reader's there's also lots of great visual imagery for younger children reading with their parents to interact with and appreciate. (My mum probably has a box somewhere of poorly rendered tracings and attempts to copy the more striking panels)
Although it's written for children it doesn't sanitise the stories any more than is really necessary - which is something I always appreciate when it comes to mythology. And as someone who sometimes handles show and tell of Egyptian and Roman objects in museums I can appreciate how hard it can be to get the balance right (hint: violence is ok, sex is not - make of that what you will). The circumstances of Hercales birth are rather glossed over, but the reason he had to do penance is not, nor is the lengths Medea will go to to for Jason. (On a sidenote how did that man think that shit wouldn't go down when he swapped her for a more politically advantageous wife? He almost deserved what he got for sheer stupidity).
After the end of each story ther's also a 'about the story' page which provides extra information on the characters, places, and mythology, as well as recomending other children's retellings of the same or similar stories (probably now out of print). It's a little simplistic but it served as a gateway into more serious Greek Mythology.
I realise this book is very old, probably quite dated, and out of print. But it was an absolute favourite growing up and deserves a bit of praise. It is single handedly down to this book that I eventually went on to do an A level in Classical Civilisations, considered doing Classics as my degree, and opted for several Ancient History modules when I eventually went down the History route instead. Although my opinions on the heroes have changed as I've read more 'original' greek and Roman works - I was so disapointed with Odysseus when I read Homer and lost a lot of respect for Jason when I read Euripides - my love for this book remains constant. The only book that arguably had anywhere near the same influence would be my picture book of King Arthur.
So though I don't expect anyone to go out and buy this book (if you even can anymore) I felt it deserved a review. And I am going to keep my Ribena stained, broken, spined, sticky paged copy and if I ever have kids (or if my sisters do) I will pass it on and hope that it inspires the same sort of passion for mythology in them too....more
I’ve been sitting on this book for quite a while since I finished actually, trying to establish just what I thought about it and how muchblog
I’ve been sitting on this book for quite a while since I finished actually, trying to establish just what I thought about it and how much, really, I enjoyed it. It’s an odd little beast; part encyclopedia, part literary-analysis, and part extracts from other works. Unlike most modern encyclopedias of mythological creatures, it’s a book to savior and enjoy, rather than to use purely for reference and research – the entries contain not just the plain facts (such as they are) but an authorial voice and expression of opinions that’s both refreshing and, occasionally, thought-provoking and humerous. But equally, Borges is right in his foreword the 1967 edition when he states ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings has not been written for consecutive reading. Our wish would be that the curious dip into it from time to time in much the way one visits the changing forms revealed by a kaleidoscope’. It’s not a book to read straight through, it’s a book to keep on your shelf and dip into every now and then as the fancy takes you. Even reading at the slow, disjointed pace of one entry a night, I think I took the wrong approach and ended up hampering my own enjoyment.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did, very much – but that it would have probably elicited stronger and more fond feelings had I read it in bits and pieces like Borges’s kaleidoscope metaphor. So it’s with that in mind, and my constant unsureness on how to rate non-fiction, that it receives a 3.5 rather than 4-5 stars from me. That said it is certainly a book I will return to, in the way it’s intended, and one I can see myself growing to truly love. I’m a sucker for mythology in a really big way so there’s absolutely no way this is going to sit forgotten and, in smaller doses, I think the unique charm of a lot of the entries will shine through a lot better.
So onto the entries themselves. They vary in length from a single paragraph to three-four pages and cover a wide range of mythological, legendary, and literary beasties from all around the world. There are so many entries that I’ll limit myself to mentioning some of the highlights. The dragon, of course, puts in an appearance in both its western and eastern forms (as does the unicorn) and contains some of the most interesting analysis in the book about the creatures prevalence, relevance, and symbolism as well as prompting questions about just what ‘dragon’ (or ‘unicorn’) actually means if these two quite different creatures are both classified as them. Or maybe that’s just my own reading; I got into a fascinating discussion on just that subject with a number of other museum volunteers, during last ‘Chinese New Year’ day at the Ashmolean. Also a standout for me is the Zaratan – a marine creature large enough to be mistaken for an island that will sink beneath the waves once sailors have landed on it. It’s a concept I’m familiar with from a number of stories but the (Muslim) name was new to me and the extracts from numerous chronicles around the world describing it were a really nice touch. It’s extracts like that, as well as Borges tone, that set this book apart from other ‘mythological encyclopedias’ that only reference the titles or use very short quotes. That said the entries that were just extracts from other works always came as a bit of a disappointment – An Animal Dreamed by Kafka/C.S. Lewis/Poe etc.are all interesting descriptions, but without Borges commentary they lacked a certain something of the other entries and didn’t quite seem to belong in the collection. Again, that’s something probably rectified by dipping in and out of the book as intended.
My favourite entry, though, had to be The Animals That Live in the Mirror – a foreboding little creation story about the ‘mirror world’ that I hadn’t heard before but really got my mind juices flowing. It’s an idea that could be expanded on to make something really creepy and wonderful and I would love to read a book with this concept.
So…onto the bad. According to the translator’s note Borges researched a lot for this book, but never cited these sources properly in footnotes/endnotes or a bibliography. Which for the most part is fine because it’s not an academic book and for the intended audience an ‘as the chronicle of ____ says’ is all that’s needed – but if you want to track down any of these sources yourself, you have to rely on the translator’s incomplete list of guessed at sources in the endnotes. As I said, this isn’t something that would bother most people and in fact the translator’s list of guesses, though welcome isn’t strictly needed at all. But I would really have liked a reference for the claim that a medieval woman was burned in England on the accusation of being a ‘Valkyrie’. Not because I don’t believe it but because it’s a fascinating sounding incident that follows a completely different pattern to the early-modern witch trials that I studied in university (witches in England were more commonly hanged than burnt, unlike the majority of the rest of Europe) and is a precursor to these witch hunts that I hadn’t heard of before. Neither Borges, nor his translator, however offer a reference for this fact.
But that’s a geeky note from a history student. As a reference book on mythological beasties it’s more focussed on story, symbolism, and usage than the ‘facts’ of the creatures it’s describing, but as a book of mythological anecdotes to be dipped in and out of it’s a delight. The illustrations in this edition by Peter Sís are a wonderful compliment to the text (my favourite is the elephant-like Leveler) – well worth the extra few pounds for the ‘deluxe’ edition. It’s a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in myths, legends, monsters, or the imagination in general – on the proviso they don’t try to read it in one go – and I think it would also be a wonderfully addition to any children’s library.
This is the first time I’ve read anything by Borges, and it’s an odd book to introduce myself to such a famous writer with – but I enjoyed his tone and humour and will definitely be checking out more of his own fiction once I have shelf-space....more
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable aCrossposted/edited from my blog
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable analysing it.This makes me a bit of an uncultured idiot when it comes to trying to write a review, but I’m going to do my best. When I do read poetry – and I’m trying to do so more – my preference also lies very heavily towards old-fashioned narrative and epic poems that tell an interesting story. Since I find the King Arthur legend (or legends) one of the most interesting stories there are, buying this book when I spotted it in the shop was a complete no-brainer. I don’t know what a serious poetry fan or scholar would make of it but as a piece of Arthurian literature – especially as a piece of medieval and British Arthurian literature – I found it to be an unpolished gem of a book.
The Death of King Arthur tells the story, with no magical frills or whistles, of Arthur’s last invasion of Europe and his return home to face – and eventually die at the hand of – the treacherous Sir Mordred. It’s a familiar story to almost everyone who’s read even a single children’s ‘life of King Arthur’ type book. What makes this version different, however, is that it does not follow the French Romantic tradition of having Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery as the cause of Arthur’s downfall – in fact there’s no mention of any affair between them and Lancelot gets only a walk on part – instead it’s pure politcs and territorial war that takes Arthur out of Britain and gives Mordred the chance to seize power. As someone who finds Lancelot a rather dull (dare I say ‘Mary-Sue’) character who gets too much exposure at the expense of other knights, I really welcomed this angle. Once the sword’s pulled out of the stone Arthur often seems to fade into a background character – here he’s no doubt the main character with both moments of incredible military skill and high emotion.
This ‘unromantic’ motivation also makes for an ‘unromantic’ poem that focusses not on the idea of courtly love and lofty ideas of ‘Albion’ but positively revels in the horror and brutality of medieval warfare. It’s gloriously unapologetically bloody and violent, to open a few pages purely at random gives me:
"Then good Sir Gawain on his grey steed gripped a great spear and speedily spiked him; through the guts and gore his weapon glided till the sharpened steel sliced into his heart."
"Then eagerly Arthur opened his enemy’s visor and buried the bright blade in his body to the handle and he squirmed as he died, skewered on the sword."
"leaving wounded warriors writhing in his wake; he hacked at the hardiest and hewed them at the neck, and all ran red wherever he rode,"
There are decapitations, guts spilling out of war wounds, people being impaled through the loins…you think of a nasty way to die and I can almost promise it’s there. Little-me would have loved this poem!
Alas, I’m no longer little-me and I do demand a bit more character development and deeper storytelling to go with my macabre enjoyment of gruesome descriptions. After a promising non-Lancelot focussed start, the middle section gave way almost to a list of who was killed by who in what vividly described way. Most named only appear once or twice and with the exception of Arthur and Gawain (and perhaps Kay if I’m feeling generous) it’s very hard to feel anything for the knights on either side of the battles. I have to confess to several times being confused as to who was fighting who and why. It’s no Odyssey (or even Aeneid) that you could write an essay just on the psychology of a sidecharacter, and for a long time during the middle section I feared I was going to have to give this three stars, but it redeemed itself. Once news of Mordred’s treachery (and the implication of Guinevere’s as well in this story) reaches Arthur things get back on track. It’s still more endless guts and blood but the motivation – and the cost – is both more familiar and more relatable. Even the battles seemed to have new life breathed into them with a wonderful description of naval warfare sticking out especially. And once one of Arthur’s favourite knights is slain on the battlefield there is, in my eyes at least, a beautifully powerful depiction not just grief on Arthur’s part but guilt and shame from the murderer as well. It’s a tantalising hint of the author’s ability at portraying emotions that is, sadly, a little too set aside in favour of bloodshed for most of the poem.
There are other glimpses prior to this – particularly in the second of the two prophetic dreams Arthur has (one of the very few ‘fantastical’ elements of the story) – where Arthur sees himself rise on the wheel of fortune only to be thrown off again. But it was his grief at seeing his friend’s body and the way he openly wept, threw himself on the corpse and had to be almost dragged away before his grief turned to anger and vengeance that struck me. That’s a more human and emotionally Arthur than I’m used to and it packed a punch that I wasn’t expecting after the rather scant emotional story of the rest of the poem.
The rest of it is solid stuff, for what it is. The various wars take up the majority of the poem but there is one traditionally Arthurian type of adventure near the beginning where Arthur pauses his warplans to rescue a kidnapped damsel from a monstrous ogre-like figure who cuts off the beards of the knights he kills and turns them into what I can only imagine is the sexiest patchwork gown imaginable. Apart from that though it’s (more) blood, guts and simplistic and unsympathetic ‘he was rude to me, so I’m going to kill him’ from then on. I enjoyed it, and I’m happy to admit to loving the blood and guts, but it wasn’t until the last section that I felt emotionally invested in the story.
As for its quality as a poem… I don’t know. I found it less well crafted than Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I found myself stumbling over the words and puzzling to make out the rhythm more often – but I also know I’ve been cursed with the worst sense of rhythm (and tone) imaginable and it’s probably perfectly simple for anyone with half an ounce of musical talent. I like this alliterative style of poetry though, it’s one I find very accessable. How much of the language and alliterative bits I liked (or didn’t) is down to the original author and how much Armitage I couldn’t say, and wouldn’t like to guess at. Another translation may well be better – I don’t know, but I did enjoy this one....more