Archive for ‘England’


“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.

“Driving ’round the city rings, staring at the shape of things…”

“While contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre, riddles continue to be a guilty pleasure for the public, particularly for millions of lovers of Tolkien and Rowlings,” writes poet A.M. Juster in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, a new translation of the work of a seventh-century abbot and monk who certainly knew better. Committed to shoring up Christianity in Anglo-Saxon realms, Aldhelm composed the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 Latin riddles. Layered in allegory, these deceptively simple poems provided pleasure in their own right but could also kindle profound conversations about the omnipresence of God. As Juster points out, Aldhelm “accomplished something that had not been done before: he lured readers closer to an unfamiliar God with literature infused with warmth, wit, and wonder.” Few non-scholars have read Aldhelm’s riddles, but Juster is eager to bring the Aenigmata to new audiences with what he hopes is a “fair yet fun” translation that “gives nonclassicists a faithful literary version of Aldhelm’s masterpiece that mimics the many joys of this text.”

Juster first tackles Aldhelm’s challenging preface, a preposterous 36-line double acrostic. In the original, the first letters of each line spell out, in Latin, “Aldhelm composed a thousand lines in verse,” while the last letters of each line spell the same message—in reverse. “I duplicated the acrostic,” Juster writes, “but freely admit that duplicating both the acrostic and the telestich [the end-of-line acrostic – J.S.] was too much for my poetic bag of tricks.” Only a jerk could hold this “failure” against him, especially since he offers intriguing theories about why (other than the thrill of the challenge) Aldhelm composed a double acrostic in the first place. Juster suggests that Aldhelm means to out-Irish the Irish, who loved these kinds of linguistic and textual games, while perhaps further tweaking them by satirizing ancient satires, something they lacked the primary sources to do.

These musings, apparently Juster’s own, may open interesting new doors for scholars of Anglo-Saxon verse—but this speculation shouldn’t scare off modern readers who don’t give a fig about academic debates. Juster has a light, lovely touch and a masterful command of tone—both honed, I suspect, by his classical know-how and his commitment to form and lucidity in English verse.

Although Latin hexameters possess a languid dignity that English pentameter can’t quite capture, Juster does a terrific job of paying tribute to Aldhelm’s style. When he can, he echoes the monk’s fondness for alliteration and internal rhyme, and he follows Aldhelm by usually avoiding enjambment—that is, Aldhelm tends to stop each line at its end to form a complete syntactic unit. In one of his few major concessions to the modern ear, Juster adds end-rhyme, a decision I heartily endorse.

Aided by a technically adept translator who cares about creating a good poem in the target language, Aldhelm can still amuse and intrigue readers more than thirteen centuries on. Here’s Riddle 2:

Cernere me nulli possunt prendere palmis;
Argutum vocis crepitum cito pando per orbem.
Viribus horrisonis valeo confringere quercus;
Nam, superos ego pulso polos et rura peragro.

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

Juster captures the sense of Aldhelm’s original, but look at what he’s done to polish this gem of his own. He interlaces three dense sets of assonance and rhyme: scatter, clatter, and hammer; no, hold, and oaks; and sight, wide, might, strike, sky, and side. Alliteration between these groups further knits together all four lines: sky, scatter, and scour; mournful and might; and sudden, sight, and side. To appreciate Juster’s artistry, you don’t need to be a poet. You don’t even need to be fluent in English. Recite it; feel how its complex structure rolls off the teeth and tongue with pleasing, elemental ease.

If I wanted a threatening letter from the University of Toronto Press legal team, I’d reprint the two dozen “Juster Aldhelms” I most enjoyed. Two will have to suffice. This one, which is easy to solve, shows off Aldhelm’s ability to combine astrology, etymology, natural history, and perhaps a Biblical allusion:

Dubbed “scorpion” by Romans of the past,
I walk wet beaches of the foaming ocean
And cross the seafloor with a backwards motion,
And yet high Heaven’s decked out when I rise,
Along with twelve red stars, into the skies,
Which makes the oysters, scared of stones, aghast.

Some of Aldhelm’s riddles will baffle modern readers, but those who know a little about ancient scribes may figure out this one:

I got my start from honey-laden bees,
And yet my outside part has grown from trees;
Tough leather made my shoes. An iron spike
Now cuts my gorgeous face and wanders like
A plow that’s carving furrows into rows,
But lays down fruitful seed from Heaven’s field
Where, from vast harvests, countless bounty grows.
Alas, cruel arms destroy the holy yield!

Page after page, lovely little poems enshrine silkworms, serpents, scales, leeches, spices, celestial bodies, bubbles, a pillow, the Minotaur—all of which embody, as Juster convincingly argues, Aldhelm’s “insistent vision that close attention to the mysteries of our pedestrian world can lead us closer to the mysteries of God’s world and God Himself.” Aldhelm’s riddles all have answers, but they stir greater, more challenging questions—especially Riddle 90, a tiny, four-line heartbreaker about a woman giving birth to twins for which there’s no easy answer in any age.

Of course, Juster’s book isn’t just a translation; with its 3:4 ratio of text to endnotes, it’s also one-stop shopping for anyone who wants a fresh introduction to the scholarship on these riddles. Juster is famously fond of light verse, so his endnotes, while perfectly professional, are far from a snooze. In the notes for Riddle 8, he points out that “[t]he word dominam (‘mistress’) suggests here a slaveowner, not a participant in amorous adventures.” When explaining the history of Biblical mistranslation that inspired the legend of the ant-lion, the hybrid spawn of an ant and a lion, Juster fans himself in mock relief that “the mechanics of such unions are, thankfully, unclear.” He calls out one scholar who “savages” these riddles through politicized, hyper-sexualized “forced overreading”; Aldhelm, he insists, composed his unicorn and lighthouse riddles “blissfully unaware of Freudian psychology.” And when Juster suggests that Aldhelm may see the peppercorn as a metaphor for the relationship between the body and the soul, he is content to allow that “[p]erhaps sometimes pepper is just pepper.”

The notes to Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles are rich in obscure lore. Juster brings to light the wonderful belief that goat blood could dull a diamond, and he identifies “what may be the first example in British literature of a joke at the expense of the French.” There’s even a charming bonus poem: Juster’s own translation of “Eucheria’s Impossibilities,” which he bills as “the oldest extant humorous poem in Latin by a woman.” Juster even taught me a new Old English term, the word for a dung beetle, tordwifel—literally, “turd-weevil.” If I were translating the poems of an Anglo-Saxon monk, I’d sure as heck encourage that philological novelty to scuttle through my endnotes pages too.

As a writer and researcher who relies on many books like this one, I could register a complaint or two. I would have liked a more thorough indexing of the terms and proper names that pop up in the notes, and sometimes I wanted more background than the notes provided. (Don’t tempt me with the promise of insight into Scylla’s “canine name” only to send me hunting for an article in an Italian e-journal.) Still, my gripes are minor, and I’d rather bestow kudos upon the University of Toronto Press for making sure that those of us who’d never spring $65 for the hardcover version of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles could immediately enjoy the paperback or Kindle editions for less than $30.

Riddles may be dismissed as trifles today, but Aldhelm reminds us that a clever poet can use them to make a sophisticated case for a wondrous and joyful coherence in the world. This is the first translation of his riddles meant to be read for pleasure, and I hope it will be. In Juster’s hands, Aldhelm is once again serious fun.

“We’ll find the speck of truth in each riddle…”

When you write a blog that focuses mostly on medievalism and poetry, you accept that you dwell in a narrow and unnoticed niche. Then a book subtitled “Eight Medievalist Poets” lands in your lap, and you revel in the rare pleasure of finally being somebody’s ideal reader. Published by Stairwell Books, a tiny but prolific Yorkshire-centric press, New Crops from Old Fields summons medievalists from Britain and America, most of them scholars of literature, and bids them sing. The resulting poems are often bookish, but not academic; they’re as vital as the era behind them once was.

Editor and contributor Oz Hardwick, for example, plays with a motley assortment of medieval tropes: pagan fertility, Christian prayer, Arthurian visions, Germanic adventurers—you name it. I can’t tell if his “Journey from the West” is a translation from an Old Norse poem by Sigvatr Þórðarson or just inspired by it, but this moving paean to homecoming after travel and toil is just serpentine enough to evoke skaldic poetry without being cryptic and cramped:

Wind’s servant, across the shifting hills
I return, richer in words and welcomes,
giving gifts undiminishing, gaining
grace of place, proud amongst peers.

I have fared far, fought clinging coils
of earth’s duplicitous dragon, found
home, the giver of true gifts:
one word resolves all riddles.

Another poem, “The Seafarer’s Return,” blurs the rhyme schemes of two types of sonnets and staggers the meter to capture the relief and grace of a second, harder-earned homecoming:

At your door I stand, tongue tied in weed,
footsore, with blistered palms and a distant stare,
my shoulders stooped with the weight of my journey. I need
more than I can ask. But first, share
these far-gathered gifts of shell and stone
whose value resides in the grace of you alone.

In Hardwick’s poetry, life teems just beneath the surface: the Green Man wakes for sex and then slumbers, obscene wooden beasts cavort in the choir at a Belgian basilica, and we beg to behold the true nature of things:

And I pray: not for the voice, not
for the touch, taste, sight, smell
of sound, but for the sharp annunciation
of fire, the heart’s bright kindling,
the understanding beyond understanding.

Hardwick’s craving for the cosmic highlights the fact that in an era of Ren faires, cosplay, and fantasy LARPing, popular medievalism often omits a crucial aspect of the Middle Ages—but in New Crops from Old Fields, religion is omnipresent. Hannah Stone, an expert on eastern Christianity, contributes poems inspired by desert hermits and the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, where “stiff robes chafe; their doctrines / don’t sit comfortably, either.” She’s capable of a lighter touch, too, as she shows in a funny, Browning-like soliloquy about a cat in a Mercian church, and in a poem that culminates in a call to pray for the soul of Worcester pilgrim reduced to a headless skeleton in boots.

Other pilgrims pace restlessly through this book: Jane Beal finds poetry when she visits landmarks in Rome, but her most striking entry in New Crops from Old Fields consists solely of questions Muslims and Jews asked her in the Holy Land. The poem is a remarkable distillation of the sort of grace and charity a pilgrimage should foster: a diminution of the self, and the generosity of letting others speak. Throughout her poetry, Beal makes the medieval personal—a fox on the roadside reminds her of the Reynard of fable, and she writes in the voices of Caedmon and Dante—and her destination is the answer to an intimate question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?”

Likewise, Joe Martyn Ricke recounts his eagerness to observe the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is how he finds himself in an Indiana church “with what felt like half a million Mexicans, / I mean at least a hundred of us standing and only one of us a very tall gringo.” His pilgrimage culminates in manic, ecstatic verse that wavers between dreamlike and drunk:

And it’s not exactly a miracle that everything smells like roses,
since there are perhaps a New Year’s Day parade’s worth of them
piled together under her feet. And, yes, sometimes the celestial music
is slightly out of tune or the trumpets are just obviously showing off.
But it really doesn’t matter about the roses or the guitars or the outfits
because you find yourself mumbling,
I’ve been bleeding a long time. Such a long time.

Elsewhere, Ricke takes a 15th-century lyric about Adam and “translates” it into a rambling, Beat-like poem that name-checks Harry Belafonte, while his “Four Sinful Hymns for the Love of Saint Mary Magdalene” imagine the biblical figure’s conversion and salvation from her own perspective, gritty and physical. Ricke is more playful than the other overtly religious poets in this book, but he’s never irreverent; his earthy exuberance is worthy of Chaucer.

Several poets in this collection show a strong commitment to form. M. Wendy Hennequin retells the story of Andromache as an Anglo-Saxon poet might have done, in lines that resemble Old English alliterative verse. In the rhyme-royal septets of “The Bard’s Tale,” an Irish maiden appears at Camelot at Christmastime and tells a story that astounds King Arthur. Her tale ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, as if it really were composed in another, less knowable time. “My scholar attempts to understand the past; my poet tries to sing with them,” Hennequin explains, and her knack for the latter is clear in a light and lovely ballade for a scribe who joyfully works through the night:

How glorious the colors, green and gold,
The black and scarlet, purple and the blue!
Though deep the night and bitter bites the cold,
And candles smoke, and colors shine untrue,
My dancing hands a woman’s face imbue
With living truth of spirit and of sight.
My hands in darkness work; my heart, in light.

Working furtively is a recurring theme in this book. I recalled Jane Chance from assigned readings in a graduate seminar on Beowulf, but I hadn’t known she was a poet; appropriately, her medieval-inspired poetry laments the strain of conflicting roles. In “The Night the Books Fell,” a shelf collapses when a retired scholar is a continent away. The ponderousness of her scholarly responsibilities by “the tough edge of discipline / slackened,” she is

relieved of the obligation
of learnedness
and granted the divine gift of
pleasure in being
simply
human.

In another poem, Chance gives voice to the unicorn in a tapestry at the Met. Chained to a tree, he too feels the weight of his work and is “tired of being symbolic”:

He’d like to sleep a little, or play with others,
leave town and get a little dirty,
have a cool drink, find a girl,
let down his horn.

Burdened scholars, restrained beasties, weary French women, moat-encircled ladies, costumes and masks—Chance’s take on academic life is poignant and personal but not self-pitying. “Given scholars’ training to maintain objectivity and the life of the mind, medievalism helps create an imaginary shield against personal revelation,” she warns in her introduction, but that doesn’t diminish the optimism of “Aventure,” in which a young knight sets out amid “the sun bursting on the horizon / like a promise / in the long summer of his youth.” Another poem, concise and original, likens the migration of animals on the Serengeti to the stained-glass sunlight and sense of belonging inside a cathedral. It also prompts a question: Is the Serengeti the subject, or the Gothic nave? The answer doesn’t matter: balancing them is the point, and Chance writes with a freedom and lightness for not having to choose between “you and the wildebeests / in endless repetition, season in and season out, / natural music in time, in time.”

Other poets in this collection wear their medievalism less showily, using the past to buttress poems about the here and now. Imitating Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, Pam Clements casts snowy owls as feathered Vikings to dramatize the birds’ migration in vast numbers from the Arctic to the northeastern United States. In “Anhaga,” she draws upon words and concepts from Old English poetry for the lament of a Yankee in the antebellum South who sounded to me like a battlefield ghost:

Palmettos clap thin plats
where wind should keen and wail
that anyone so loved should have the gall to die.

Here, the go bare-legged in November
in fleshy-bosomed air
Anhaga, eardstapa —
it might be any season.

In “Wodewose,” Clements uses the Green Man, “Lord of Kudzu / and Dandelion,” to evoke the fecundity and lushness of a springtime trail, but the poem could easily be read with no understanding of the title—but then I think an adventurous reader could easily enjoy New Crops from Old Fields without any background in the Middle Ages at all. If published elsewhere, the eerie personal verses of A.J. Odasso probably wouldn’t strike most readers as the work of a medievalist, but they’re precise, haunting dream-visions with diction and alliteration inspired by late medieval poets. Odasso’s inclusion makes a worthwhile point: the medieval often lingers well below the surface, where it nourishes something peculiar and new.

If I were forced at sword-point to gripe about New Crops from Old Fields, I might mention the introductions provided by each poet: most of them are too jargony and too reluctant to let the poetry stand on its own. But so what? The range and heft of these poems surprised me—and as someone with a bias toward formalism, I was cheered to find free verse that was free for good poetic reasons. As scholars who work line by line through texts in eldritch languages, these poets brood over words—what they mean, what they insinuate, how they sound on the tongue. What they do with that lore is delightful. The Middle Ages are a golden trove strewn with trinkets and bones; this book proves it’s a blessing instead of a curse.

“Empty-handed on the cold wind to Valhalla…”

For all the violence the Vikings unleashed, their enemies and victims might find cold comfort in the torments Americans now inflict on them. We’ve twisted them into beloved ancestors, corny mascots, symbolic immigrants, religious touchstones, comic relief—and, this week, proponents of gender equity on the battlefield. The medieval past is grotesque, uninviting, and indifferent to our hopes. We wish so badly that it weren’t.

“Shieldmaidens are not a myth!” trumpeted a Tor.com blog post on Tuesday, sharing tidings of endless Éowyns in the EZ-Pass lane to the Bifröst:

“By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons . . . It’s been so difficult for people to envision women’s historical contributions as solely getting married and dying in childbirth, but you can’t argue with numbers—and fifty/fifty is pretty damn good.

Great Odin’s ophthalmologist! Holy hopping Hávamál! Half of all Viking warriors were women?

Alas, no. “Researchers discovered” nothing of the sort—but that didn’t stop wishful linkers from sharing the “news” hundreds of times via Twitter and countless times on Facebook.

So what’s going on here? Besides conflating “Viking” with “Norse,” the pseudonymous author of the Tor.com blog post misread a two-year-old USA Today summary of a 2011 article by scholar Shane McLeod, who most definitely has not delivered forsaken warrior maidens from their long-neglected graves. No, McLeod simply did the un-newsworthy work of reassessing burial evidence for the settlement of Norse women in eastern England in the late 800s, with nary a Brunhilde or Éowyn in sight.

You can find “Warriors and women: Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD” in the August 2011 issue of the journal Early Medieval Europe. If you don’t have institutional access to scholarly databases, the article is imprisoned behind a $35 paywall, which is a shame, because although McLeod’s piece requires a slow, patient read, you don’t need expertise in ninth-century English history or modern osteology to understand it—just the ability to follow an argument about a couple dozen skeletons in a tiny corner of England at a very specific time in history, plus an openness to the possibility that McLeod hasn’t brought your “Game of Thrones” fantasies to life.

Here’s the gist of McLeod’s article, as concisely as I can retell it:

Focusing only on the area of eastern England occupied by the Norse in the 800s, he looks at one sample of six or seven burials from five locations dating from 865 to 878 A.D. where scholars had made assumptions about the sex of the dead based on the stuff buried with them. He compares them to a second sample: 14 burials from five sites (dating from 873 to the early 10th century) where osteologists determined the sex of the dead by examining their bones.

In the first group, only one person was tagged as female. In the second group, between four and six of the dead, perhaps half of the sample, were found to be female, even though based on grave goods, at least one of them might previously have been assumed to be male, because one of those women was buried with a sword. (Ah, but that woman was also interred with a child of indeterminate sex. What if the sword belonged to her young son? And look: someone in the first group who might have been a woman was buried with a sword, too…)

McLeod’s assessment is this: If we scientifically determine the sex of the dead based on their bones rather that assume their sex based on grave goods, we find more evidence (to pile atop existing evidence from jewelry finds) that Norse women came to England with Norse armies, earlier and in greater numbers than previously thought, rather than in a later wave of migration and settlement. Perhaps the men weren’t “a demobbed Norse army seeking Anglo-Saxon wives,” but intermarried with local women in smaller numbers than historians previously believed.

For the lay reader, that’s a disheartening hoard of unsexy conclusions—and a far cry from the Tor.com blogger’s claim, mindlessly brayed across social media, that “Half of the Warriors were Female.” It’s fantasy, not scholarship, and certainly not science, to interpret one woman buried with a sword, maybe two, as evidence for Norse women in combat.

Shane McLeod deserves better. Working with limited data pried out of ninth-century crevices, he recognizes that his sample size is tiny, that it’s tough to identify burials as “Norse” for sure, and that his findings are only “highly suggestive.” He’s precise, tentative, and conscious of counter-arguments, and he seems willing to go wherever the evidence takes him. His biggest accomplishment, however, is highlighting a major scholarly error. Experts who made assumptions about male versus female grave goods failed to reassess the biases they project backwards onto the Middle Ages—even though doing so is one of the traits even the most pop-minded academic medievalists will often claim distinguishes them from the duct-tape-sword-wielding masses.

Likewise, science-fiction fans are forever congratulating themselves for holding the right opinions on such subjects as evolution, but this time they lazily succumbed to fannish fantasies, failing to question a claim that deserved to be pummeled by doubt. I’ve done tons of social-media copywriting, so I get why that blogger just wanted to throw something out there after a holiday to beguile weekend-weary eyeballs—but come on.

Science doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. Truth demands nuanced consideration of evidence, and reason demands skepticism, neither of which flourish on social media—so if you shared or re-tweeted the Tor article, congratulations! This week, in the name of medievalism, you made the world stupider.

“Like flames reaching out from the sun…”

“Your life will be written / your written life lost”: That’s the prophecy a noblewoman dreams about her unborn daughter in the eerie prelude to Need-Fire, a slim but remarkable book that I can scarcely believe someone wrote. That girl will grow up to become one of the most influential women in Anglo-Saxon England, but most of her story will be forgotten, giving poet Becky Gould Gibson a chance to rescue her from obscurity—and to demonstrate that using poetry to tell longer, more complicated stories is an art we haven’t yet lost.

In 25 interconnected poems, Need-Fire dramatizes the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed, the two women who ran the double monastery that housed both men and women at Whitby in North Yorkshire during the seventh century. Hild educated five bishops, presided over the synod that pushed the English church closer to Rome, and served as abbess when the cowherd Caedmon, the first named English poet, reluctantly sang his first verse. Unfortunately, only a few pages in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History hint at Hild’s profound influence, and the other 29 women known to have run double monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England are hardly more than names. Gibson’s goal is to commemorate them, intertwining her own imagination with copious research to sing them back into life.

And so Gibson invents her own form: short, sparsely punctuated lines that resemble Anglo-Saxon verse, printed with a caesura in the middle of each. These lines don’t follow the rules of Old English meter and alliteration, which makes them feel like fragments straining to be heard across 1,400 years. The result is a stream-of-consciousness narrative that derives subtle power from the poet’s decision to rely on words derived only from Old English. Here’s Hild’s mother’s lament as she bathes her infant daughter:

Glass crosses the water     from Gaul
for church windows     in your name
yet nothing you say     will be found
only the little     said of you
Why then stay up late     daughter
evening by evening     candle by candle
shaping thoughts     never to be kept
in your smooth     steady hand?

Of course, you don’t need to know Anglo-Saxon scansion to enjoy Gibson’s poetry, nor do you need to scrutinize the historical notes and scholarly addenda that follow each poem. I enjoyed them—Need-Fire is one of those rare books for which I feel like the ideal reader—but you don’t have to be a medievalist to step into Gibson’s weird and haunting world. You just need to be willing to read an historical novel in telegraphic verse.

In Gibson’s hands, Hild is a “child with a will     never settled.” We meet her as a teenager eavesdropping on her uncle, King Edwin, as he and his advisers kick around the pros and cons of Christianity. Overhearing the parable about a sparrow that flies through a mead-hall in winter, enjoying a moment of safety and comfort before it returns to the harsh unknown, Hild doesn’t assume, as the king’s men do, that any religion shedding a bit more light on past and future mysteries is worth considering. Instead, she imagines that the sparrow is as lost as she feels:

She’s seen that sparrow     beat wild
about the walls     looking for a way out
how she feels     most of the time
when grownups talk     Where will she go
after she dies?     Where’s Father now?
She shivers     damp to the bone

A keen observer of a land where “[f]olks still/worship sticks,” Hild is beset by secret doubts. The real Hild was all packed up and ready to live with her sister near Paris, but she turned back at the last minute and established a hardscrabble monastery along the North Sea. Gibson might have chalked up this decision to an irrefutable religious vision, but her Hild believes it’s her duty to found institutions that promote peace and education in her war-torn kingdom. And so Gibson takes up the tricky task of dramatizing the apprehension that accompanies faith:

          Truly I wonder
when bone     becomes spindle
cliffs whittle     to teeth
how many     or rather how few
will have traded     their wooden war gods
for this sad-eyed     Hebrew man

As Hild lives a harsh life of religious service that demands great leaps of faith, her doubts mature into greater complexity. She worries less about the “the idle or giddy” in her flock and more about the monks and nuns who are unquestioning and meek, a sensibility that at times feels too 21st century. It flatters us to believe, for example, that a seventh-century woman couldn’t possibly have cared how monks cut their hair or what the date of Easter ought to be. Fortunately, Gibson understands the medieval mind, and she knows that a woman like Hild would eventually conclude that regularity rather than fervor offers solace and bolsters faith:

Belief’s a skill     like any other
we’re schooled in     must work at daily
What I’ve learned     keep learning
rule gives us     rooms of time
to breathe in     Without rule we are lost

Though Gibson’s form never varies, Need-Fire offers a fine and convincing array of other voices and perspectives: a monk terrified by an eclipse, a young nun dying of the plague, and another nun forced to write a thank-you letter to the author of a virginity handbook for women. (“At least we won’t die    in childbirth,” she quips, “though we may die    of boredom.”) Mothers and nuns have prescient dreams, abbesses’ bones cry out from their graves, and even God Himself weighs in, gently chiding his seventh-century children in verses they’re bound not to hear.

Gibson’s imagery is fresh, too. When Etheldreda, abbess of Ely, writes to her husband to warn him of a sneak attack, she muses on the extent to which her life revolves around eels. She spears them, salts and skewers them for Lent, observes their mating habits, and finds in them a homely metaphor:

What is man     in the clutches
of sin     but an eel
on an eel-fork     shivering?
Eels     by the thousands
eels     almost bodiless

[…]

God will keep you     He keeps
us all     How does an eel go
with no fins     to speak of?
Yet she takes     to the sea
knowing she’ll     get there
lay eggs     and die
knowledge older     than man
deep in her brain

The eel poem helps Need-Fire build to a thematic climax. Through layers of fine detail, Gibson builds her seventh-century world with careful references to native animals and plants and the things humans make from them, from salted herring to wormwood mulled in ale. Above all, this book pays tribute to forgotten women who did important work, but it also challenges readers to marvel at the infinite variety of nature, which Gibson sees, like many medieval people before her, as reflecting the nature of God. Simply walking outside is an inexhaustible antidote to boredom and, as a nun named Begu finds when she holds a mussel shell, a potential bestower of greater rewards:

        When I stare
into its pool     of blackness
it tells me     I’m here
Small wonder!     God always
shines back     if we’re looking

Blending scholarship, biography, and historical fiction, Need-Fire needs to be read at a careful pace that duly honors its subjects’ lives. Writers who rescue obscure figures from history’s margins aren’t always capable of dropping them into good stories, but by retelling the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed in stark, anecdotal poetry rather than a novel, Gibson crafts scenes that defy the monotony of the form she’s chosen to labor within, just as her characters do. Need-Fire isn’t a dutiful exercise in social history, but an eloquent argument that these abbesses and the men and women around them were real and alive, not stock characters in medieval-ish fiction.

Europeans and Americans have never been able to decide whether medieval people were our predecessors and brethren or the makers of a world that was grotesque, alien, unfathomably strange. There’s no reason both can’t be true, and Gibson shows us that an age we’d find physically and culturally inhospitable is also emotionally and intellectually welcoming. Fourteen centuries on, she hears familiar notes of doubt, desperation, and hope:

what is any of us     but one
of God’s beings     scrambling
for a foot-hold     on crumbling cliffs?

“A kiss on the wind, and we’ll make the land…”

In the 1990s, I met grad students who dreamed of finding the “real” King Arthur; one would-be archaeologist was sure she’d pry Excalibur from the corner of some forgotten Devon field. Back then, most aspiring medievalists only dimly saw that we were riding multiple waves falling neatly into phase, as decades of “historical Arthur” scholarship drew energy from, but also fed, a pop-culture surge of movies, novels, comics, and games. Now that Arthuriana is waning—it’s overdue for a deep, restorative nap—the ghost of Tolkien comes drifting through to provide its “last assay / of pride and prowess”—or, perhaps, to promise its next reawakening.

Published last week, The Fall of Arthur is an oddity: a 40-page poetic fragment easily lost amid 150 pages of commentary by the author’s son. Tolkien left the poem unfinished in the 1930s, and I’ll be curious to see how his fans greet this book. Having taught Arthurian lit and composed poems that mimic Old English verse forms, I enjoy seeing Tolkien take the Matter of Britain for an original, alliterative spin—but how many readers like me could there be?

The Fall of Arthur follows the daunting rules of Anglo-Saxon verse: A line consists of two half-lines, each of which must be one of five metrical types and must contain two stressed syllables. At least one stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with the first (never the second) stressed syllable in the second half-line. Also, the vowels in the stressed syllables must be long, unless they come before a consonant cluster, or unless you’re letting initial vowels stand in for consonants. If you’re feeling saucy, you can add unstressed syllables in certain positions—but never in others, or an Anglo-Saxon simply wouldn’t hear the line as verse.

Beowulf and nearly all of the surviving 30,000 lines of Old English poetry follow this form, and Tolkien liked to play with it in modern English, well aware that it didn’t always work. “Our language now has become quick-moving (in syllables), and may be very supple and nimble, but it is rather thin in sound and in sense too often diffuse and vague,” he says in a lecture cited in The Fall of Arthur. “The language of our forefathers, especially in verse, was slow, not very nimble, but very sonorous, and was intensely packed and concentrated—or could be in a good poet.”

Is Tolkien such a poet? Sometimes. The surviving 954 lines of The Fall of Arthur set up a story about the last gasp of a doomed world—Arthur, in the autumn of his reign, is “in war with fate”—and Tolkien does a heck of a job conjuring bleak, clammy gloom. As the king and his army ride east across the Rhine, the sound and shape of the poetry emphasize brutality in eerie, alien lands:

Foes before them,    flames behind them,
ever east and onward    eager rode they,
and folk fled them    as the face of God,
till earth was empty,    and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them   in the endless hills,
save bird and beast     baleful haunting
the lonely lands.    Thus at last came they
to Mirkwood’s margin    under mountain-shadows:
waste was behind them,    walls before them;
on the houseless hills     ever higher mounting
vast, unvanquished,    lay the veiled forest.
(I:61-71)

The Fall of Arthur is packed with passages like this: evocations of the wild wastelands beyond the civilized world, scenes of shipwrecks and storm-battered coasts, shadowy foes lurking just out of sight. Tolkien clearly had a blast composing them, and even when his plot is derivative, these moments are original contributions to the Arthurian story in English. They’re also a pleasure to read aloud.

Once in a while, Tolkien serves up scenes that are remarkable for looking nothing like Beowulf. Here’s Lancelot, waking by his window, marveling at songbirds greeting sunrise on the sea:

His heart arose,    as were heavy burden
lightly lifted.     Alone standing
with the flame of morn    in his face burning
the surge he felt    of song forgotten
in his heart moving   as a harp-music.
There Lancelot,    low and softly
to himself singing,    the sun greeted,
life from darkness    lifted shining
in the dome of heaven    by death exalted.
Ever times would change    and tides alter,
and o’er hills of morning     hope come striding
to awake the weary,    while the world lasted.
(III:214-220)

As the Arthurian story demands, Lancelot’s hope fades before Mordred’s far more prescient gloom:

                           Time is changing;
the West waning;    a wind rising
in the waxing East.     The world falters.
New tides are running    in the narrow waters.
False or faithful,     only fearless man
shall ride the rapids    from ruin snatching
power and glory.     I purpose so.
(II.14-153)

Despite these euphonious examples, Tolkien does struggle to squeeze the bourgeois hand of modern English into the mailed glove of Old English verse. In need of words that alliterate on “f,” he uses “fell” as an adjective with offputting frequency—eight times in the first 153 lines, alongside variations of the verb “to fall”—and meter demands that he flip the order of words more often than even many readers with a patience for archaism are wont to tolerate. “Eager rode they,” “he was for battle eager,” “Ivor him answered”—the seams of this poem are easily frayed.

Christopher Tolkien, who discusses his father’s Arthurian poem as if it were a medieval work, calls it “one of the most grievous of his many abandonments” and suggests that such a slowly built, backward-looking poem “could not withstand the rising of new imaginative horizons.” Although enough notes survive to show that The Fall of Arthur was headed nowhere radical, its final, unwritten scenes might have been deeply revealing. Tolkien adored the language of the Germanic invaders who helped defeat the fictional Arthur, overran much of Britain, and gave England its name; this poem is composed in their style, as if it were sung generations later to honor a worthy foe. Had it shown Tolkien’s appreciation for the world that had to die to make way for the literature and language he loved, the finished Fall of Arthur might have been a memorable, much-quoted read.

When The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun came out in 2009, I wondered how vast a readership awaited Tolkien’s obscure and scholarly pseudo-medieval verse. The Fall of Arthur likewise makes me wonder how many Tolkien fans will wade through a 49-page essay that places this poem in its medieval Arthurian tradition; whether a 954-line fragment deserves a 50-page overview of the notes and drafts behind it; and whether the 43-page essay linking this poem to the Silmarillion doesn’t seem like padding to people who know Tolkien far better than I do.

On the other hand, The Fall of Arthur is a wonderful rarity for our times: a book that makes gigantic demands of those who pick it up, published by a literary executor who assumes his readers are patient, curious, conversant with medieval traditions, and appreciative of formal verse.

Somewhere, I know, are readers who are baffled by Sigurd and Gudrun or The Fall of Arthur but also haunted by their dim awareness of the vast intellectual realms behind them. Perhaps these readers are on the cusp of cultivating a love of Arthurian stories, an ear for archaic English, or other weird passions that civilize the brain but defy popular taste. In the end, they may not prevail—in good Germanic style, The Fall of Arthur warns them that nothing lasts—but they’ll live and fight and revel in words and think deeply for a time, becoming through Tolkien what Tolkien dubbed Gawain: “defence and fortress of a fallen world.”

[Previous Tolkieniana on this blog: Tolkien und Wagner; hobbits at a beach resortThe Lord of the Rings as Methodist Bible study.]

“So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

“[P]ioneering, erratic, and irascible”—that’s how scholar Andrew Wawn introduces a medievalist I’d never heard of, apparently because his spectre haunts only a few narrow stacks in Scandinavian libraries. Although George Stephens published more than 500 books, articles, pamphlets, translations, and plays, his Wikipedia entry is a sorry 120 words long, and it isn’t likely to be lengthened or annotated by legions of Tolkienesque fans. Even so, Wawn’s engaging 1995 article about him—“George Stephens, Cheapinghaven, and Old Northern Antiquity”—makes an amusing but sympathetic case for looking back at scholars of yore-days and seeing not pitiable caricatures, but weird, vivid, quizzical lives.

Wawn calls George Stephens “a fascinatingly marginal figure, an exile by choice, a rebel by temperament, cocooned in his book-lined Copenhagen study glowering across the North Sea at the (in his view) wretched condition of England.” Born in England in 1813, Stephens moved to Sweden in 1834 to teach English before taking a lectureship, and then a professorship, at the University of Copenhagen. (Hearken, jobless scholars! Three years earlier, the enterprising Stephens circulated an English-language pamphlet with the efficacious title Hurrah for Denmark.)

Stephens is one of many unsung souls who hammered out the cogs of the medieval-studies machine. He was an influential collector and classifier of folk tales, his work on runic inscriptions founded a sub-field, and he published the first translation of an Icelandic saga into English—albeit from Swedish. “He translated Icelandic sagas,” Wawn writes, “while contributing to their reoralization by writing saga-based parlor songs; he taught Shakespeare whilst himself writing plays on Viking subjects in Elizabethan style; and he contributed vigorously and unashamedly to popular polemics, finding it no mark of virtue to proclaim the virtues of a democratized literary-critical process in an impenetrable and robotic meta-language.”

He’s also easy to mock. Wawn devotes most of his article to Stephens’ virtually unread 1857 play, Revenge, or Woman’s Love, in which King Edgar of Mercia is waylaid by Vikings while on pilgrimage to Sweden, where he’s forced to summon his wife to be sacrificed to Odin. Wawn is patient with Stephens’ “pyrotechnic display of newly minted compounds, anaphoric elaboration, and (alas) syntactic congestion,” and I enjoyed picturing the climax featuring “the return of the cave-dwelling witch, accompanied by much smoke and many explosions,” but why snicker? “Notwithstanding its breathless and somewhat confusing denouement,” Wawn says, “there is much spirited and good-humored writing in the play, and it would be ponderously sobersided to miss the element of jeu d’esprit which helps to drive the whole work.”

What Wawn does here is humane. Seeing an eccentric medievalist rendered all the more comical by time, Wawn doesn’t “deconstruct,” “interrogate,” “negotiate,” or (good Lord) “problematize” him. Instead, Wawn peers into a bundle of contradictions—”the English Anglophile exiled in Scandinavia, the modern Christian fundamentalist fascinated by ancient paganism, the British Tory radical who translated a treatise in favor of an hereditary Danish monarchy”—and in 40 pages, reckons his humanity.

To my surprise, Wawn contrasts Stephens with another philologist whose life and work were shaped by Mercia. “George Stephens, it need hardly be said, was no Tolkien,” he admits, “and Revenge, it need hardly be added, is no Lord of the Rings. The play could number its nineteenth-century readers in tens, and its twentieth-century ones on the healthy fingers of a severely maimed hand.” I laughed at that line, because it’s tempting to see Stephens as a prevenient Ignatius Reilly bumbling around Copenhagen, crusading for influence, obsessed with tomorrow’s obscurities, repelling his colleagues with political rants. It’s harder, but kinder, to place this minor scholar alongside a famous one, in an article that’s more subtly and sensitively written than anything its subject could have mustered, and not lose him in the shadow.

“That one should succeed commandingly whilst another fails eccentrically needs (and finds) no explanation in the self-preoccupied world of modern literary theory,” Wawn concludes. “We might rather look to the chaos theory of real human lives.” In his choice of subject and through his own example, Wawn affirms something that isn’t always clear: there are people behind the scholarship we read.

“Look, a golden-winged ship is passing my way…”

Few cathedrals never know an earthquake. Most, like Lincoln, survive, with spires left unreplaced; others, like the cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, wearily face demolition after one earthquake too many. Tuesday’s quake gave Washington National Cathedral its first real rattle, knocking spires off the central tower, cracking buttresses, raining rubble onto the south transept steps, damaging a gargoyle, and probably causing damage yet unknown.

The rueful consolation of architectural history, both medieval and modern, is that it certainly could have been worse. In A.D. 1248, a busy year for crusading, church-state sparring, and all the usual duecento brouhaha, an earthquake hit England. Tallying up the year’s events in his Chronica Majora, the prolific monk Matthew Parris recorded the damage done to Wells Cathedral, around 20 miles southwest of Bath.

Here’s the original, for you Latinists:

Eodemque anno in Adventu Domini, scilicet quarto die ante Natale Domini, factus [est] terraemotus in Angia, ita ut, prout haec scribenti enarravit episcopus Bathoniensis, quia in ejus diocesi evenit, dissipatae sunt maceriae aedificorum, et lapides de locus suis avulsi in muris hiatus fecerunt patulos et rimas cum ruinis. Tholus quoque lapideus magnae quantitatis et ponderis, qui per diligentiam caementariorum in summitate ecclesiae de Velles ponebatur, raptus de loco suo, non sine dampno super ecclesiam cecedit; et cum ab alto rueret, tumultum reddens horribilem, audientibus timorem incussit non minimum. In quo etiam terrae motu hoc accidit mirabile; caminorum, propugnaculorum, et columpnarum capitella et summitates motae sunt, bases vero et fundamenta nequaquam, cum contrarium naturaliter debuit evenire. Et ille terraemotus tertius fuit, qui in triennio citra Alpes evenit; unus in partibus Sabaudiae, et duo in Anglia, quod ab initio mundi est inauditum, et ideo terribilius.

And here’s a quick translation:

That same year, during the Advent of the Lord, specifically on the fourth day before the Nativity of the Lord, there was an earthquake in England in which—as the bishop of Bath, in whose diocese it occurred, told this writer—the walls of buildings burst, and stones torn from their places left holes and cracks in ruined walls. The vaulted roof of the cathedral of Wells, set in place atop the summit through the diligence of masons and made of stones of great number and weight, was torn from its place, not without damage. It fell on the church, collapsing from on high and making a terrible crash that struck not a little fear in those who heard it.

During this earthquake, a wonder occurred: The peaks and summits of chimneys, ramparts, and pillars were dislodged, but the bases and foundations were not, although naturally, the contrary should have occurred.

This earthquake was also the third in three years to occur on the near side of the Alps, one in Savoy and two in England, a thing unheard of since the beginning of the world and thus that much more terrible.

Wells Cathedral survived, but its architectural future wasn’t placid. In the early 14th century, just a few decades after the earthquake, a new central tower cracked and seemed ready to collapse until a mason named William Joy invented a solution: scissor arches.

For nearly five years, I’ve written blog posts about the National Cathedral, finding Charlemagne’s heirs in the Bishop’s Garden (and butterfly amour there too) while taking autumn snapshots, looking into bloomin’ Arthuriana, admiring the spires draped in whimsical light, and tracing the building’s architectural kinship with a facade across the street. Then, of course, there are those nearly 40 poems about the gargoyles.

If you’ve enjoyed any of this stuff, please consider making a donation to help fix my favorite medievalist neighbor. The repairs are expected to cost millions, and structural engineers are “daunted by the idea of finding a way to repair such massive pieces so high up.” I suspect that like William Joy before them, these modern architects and masons will find ingenious solutions, but their work won’t be covered by insurance, so please drop a coin or two in the collection plate; you’ll be helping to restore a monument to the enduring influence of the Middle Ages. And if you’re feeling cheeky, you might insist that a gargoyle sent you.

“There’s a picture-view postcard to say that I called…”

[This post originally appeared in January 2005 on the now-defunct blog that preceded “Quid Plura?” It seemed fitting for this week.]

Journeying to Canterbury is no longer quaint. Medieval pilgrims ended the trip tired and footsore and damp, but fields and villages now fly past train windows at speeds that test the imagination of the wide-eyed medievalist. Go ahead: Count the spires. Pretend you’re a motley-clad traveler rambling past hedgerows while a whistling minstrel spurs you on with his idiot’s rendition of “Greensleeves.” The vision fades. In moments, a smokestack or minaret shakes you from your Pre-Raphaelite reverie, as well it should.

In Canterbury, you’ll seek in vain for the pregnant hope that called to medieval pilgrims, but you will encounter the humanity, the “God’s plenty” Dryden saw in Chaucer: throngs of foul-mouthed schoolgirls, market-stall merchants hawking grape leaves and portraits of Elvis in frames. In the holy gloom of the cathedral, docents outnumber clergy; tourists outnumber docents. Beyond the quire, Becket’s shrine once stood exposed to devotional groping; in its place sits a lone candle, roped off for its own protection. In a more fervent and tactile age, parsons and plowmen might have found it disappointing—or maybe they’d distinguish, as we often do not, between things that are transient and things that are lasting and real.

At Canterbury Cathedral, that flame lights the murk where distinctions blur. Stand where Becket was murdered, by arches carved with jagged Romanesque fangs, and the pained reaction Eliot ascribed to the masses is sudden and true: “But this,” he wrote, “this is out of life, this is out of time, / An instant eternity of evil and wrong.” But then you look away from Thomas’s name gouged in red across the floor and those magnificent walls and windows draw your eye up, and up, and up. You’re happy; you’re lost in heavenly complexity.

Thirteen years ago, I found Canterbury with my best friend, almost by accident. Last week, while he hunched over law books in a Cambridge suburb, I went there with his wife, a dear friend in her own right but in 1992 someone I didn’t know existed. Part of my return was a vain attempt to confirm small, cherished myths—Did they move the bus station? Where’s that place we ate breakfast?—but after several cold, quiet hours with fellows like Anselm and Becket I cared less for 1992, 1399, or 1170 than I did for the future. Who will join me next time? Will it be their eight-month-old son, destined to inherit his dad’s sword-and-sorcery gene and his mom’s eye for architecture? Will I pause in those chapels with someone I’ll meet tomorrow, or ten years hence? Will it be someone who’s yet to be born?

I don’t know; it’s good not to know. Now that I’m home I imagine two things: One day I’ll wander back through Canterbury, and when I do, I won’t be alone. I may have no need for saintly intercession and miraculous cures, nor boundless faith in either, but to anticipate that next visit is to plan out a new sort of pilgrimage. If that turns out to be one more thing I was wrong about, so be it—but waiting to see who walks beside you is, even for the most aimless of pilgrims, a fine premonition of hope.