Archive for October, 2007


“Now the D and the A and the M and the N…”

Happy Halloween! Here are a few video treats to get you in the spirit of the day.

With spooky poems, delivery is everything—especially for a classic horror ballad.

God help you if your childhood Halloweens were anything like Bill Haverchuck’s.

Bet you didn’t know the scariest castle ever once haunted the Jersey Shore.

Here’s a burning question: can Betty Boop prevail in Hell?

“Think happy thoughts, children, or the scary rapper man will do his crazy dancing in your nightmares.”

When you hear “Switzerland,” do you automatically think “bloodcurdling”? You will after watching this. (Just not for the reasons the Swiss hope you will.)

As my three-year-old nephew might say: Skeery!

“Strut on a line, it’s discord and rhyme…”

Halloween approacheth, and if your family is anything like mine, you’ll observe the holiday amid sentiment and song as you gather ’round the giant plastic animatronic mummy. But when the cackling stops and the sobbing of toddlers subsides, why not turn to a little seasonal reading—for example, a medieval werewolf romance?

Thanks to Google Books, you can, if you’re so inclined, partake of the Middle English romance “William of Palerne” without having to visit the library. I’ll let W.R.J. Barron summarize the plot:

William, Prince of Apulia, is stolen in infancy by a werewolf who, to protect him from the murderous designs of his uncle, carries him from Sicily to a wood near Rome where he is brought up by a cowherd until the Emperor, struck by the lad’s promising appearance, appoints him page to his daughter Melior who inevitably falls in love with him.

There’s more; there’s always more in medieval romance. The poets who wrote these works were, thank goodness, only dimly acquainted with the merits of parsimony. Why serve fillet mignon when you can pile on the folklore motifs, stock situations, and encounters with wild animals and grill up the literary equivalent of a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger instead?

If you want to learn what becomes of young William, you’ll have to check out the book, which was edited in 1867 by the indefatigable W.W. Skeat, and wade through more than 5,000 lines of crisis and universal brouhaha—plus a neat five-page scholarly digression on medieval werewolf lore.

Fortunately, things end on a high note, especially for the werewolf, whose name turns out to be Alphonse, and whose subsequent wedding requires him to ponder the most challenging demande d’amour of all: chicken or beef?

UPDATE: Halloween werewolves have also been spotted at Per Omnia Saecula and Unlocked Wordhoard.

“As Grendel leaves his mossy home…”

The year I applied to graduate school, I was both an aspiring cartoonist and a wannabe scholar. My adviser, an English professor, liked that first part; it was that second part that made the dear man cringe. “I’ll write you a letter of recommendation,” he informed me, “but I’d rather help create one literate cartoonist than another academic desperately scrounging around for the next pot of grant money.” In the end, I opted for neither career, but I do sometimes wonder what that literate cartoonist might have looked like.

That’s why I was pleased to discover Alexis Fajardo. He’s the creative soul behind Kid Beowulf, an all-ages epic in which twin 12-year-old brothers Beowulf and Grendel romp across a Europe inspired by great works of classical and medieval literature. To Fajardo’s credit, he’s not just swiping names to gussy up unrelated characters; his comic adaptations are prompted by real affection for his sources. Last year, in fact, he made a surprising promise: “I want to be true to the material, the epic. As these guys travel, they will learn what it is to be a hero, what their destinies are. In the end, Beowulf will kill Grendel.”

The first volume of Kid Beowulf is already for sale; as you can see from his blog, Fajardo’s style is clearly inspired by Asterix, Pogo, Bone, and maybe even traces of Dragon-era Phil Foglio. As he fleshes out his 12-book series—which may include cameos by Sir Gawain, El Cid, Gilgamesh, and others—I’ll eagerly await one volume in particular, Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland. Pedants may argue that Beowulf, Charlemagne, and Joan of Arc shouldn’t all find themselves inhabiting the same story—but if a gold-painted Angelina Jolie can play Grendel’s mother, then what’s the harm in a teenage Grendel skulking ahistorically across the canon? This one, at least, your children can enjoy.

“A secret to be told, a gold chest to be bold…”

Hail to the king, baby. In an essay for the quarterly Coyote Wild, Scott Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard sets the 1992 guy-with-a-chainsaw-for-an-arm movie Army of Darkness firmly in its Arthurian tradition. Scott argues—persuasively, I think—that the film is more faithful to the spirit of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee than other adaptations have been, largely because it’s less willing to congratulate the modern world on its supposed superiority and doesn’t automatically sneer at the medieval.

My only regret is that Scott isn’t an Americanist. Then he could shed some critical light on another terrific Sam Raimi-Bruce Campbell collaboration, the little-noted nor long-remembered Jack of All Trades. You’ve got to love any series that keeps manufacturing excuses to place on the same East Indian island such figures as Lewis and Clark, James Madison, the Marquis De Sade, and Napoleon (Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer, in the role he was born to play). I like to think that if the show had lasted another season, King Arthur might have washed ashore, too. Avalon, Schmavalon—that funeral barge had to land somewhere…

“…our only goal will be the western shore.”

What is it with the Sci-Fi Channel? Last weekend, as I prepared to teach The Saga of the Volsungs, they re-aired Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King, a sweet Teutonic smoothie that blends the Volsungasaga, the Nibelungenlied, and Wagner’s Ring into one lumpy Gygaxian confection.

And then, this weekend—right after my lonely blog post to honor Leif Eriksson Day—they premiered Wraiths of Roanoke, the story of—well, I’ll let MovieWeb summarize the plot:

In the late 16th century, colonists on Roanoke Island, Virginia, found themselves under siege against evil spirits left behind by the Vikings. The Wraiths are hunting the innocent souls of the first-born children in order to get into Valhalla.

I’m delighted that even the story of the Roanoke colony can be infused with a heady dose of spooky, horn-helmed medievalism, however unlikely it may seem. But as I glance at the Sci-Fi Channel’s prodigious roster of monsters and heroes, I notice one glaring omission—one legendary figure whose ability to carry a formulaic, CGI-laden B-movie has been grievously overlooked.

I refer, of course, to Charlemagne.

And so, as I await the release of the Becoming Charlemagne trade paperback, I’ll also hope for that phone call from the Sci-Fi Channel. As a reasonable man, I’ll happily make…adjustments…to history, as long as every change is consistent with Sci-Fi’s famously stringent standards of accuracy.

After all, if Coolio can fight a pterodactyl, and if Beowulf can wield a crossbow that blows stuff up, then I see no reason why Charlemagne can’t fight a giant scorpion—nay, ride a giant scorpion—on the slopes of a fiery volcano while battling Nazi super-mutants with the aid of lethal anthropomorphic mosquitoes.

There’s nothing in the sources that says he didn’t. And believe me, I’ve looked.

“On we sweep, with threshing oar…”

It may not be a day off from work, but today, my fellow Americans, is Leif Eriksson Day. By happy coincidence, I’m teaching The Saga of the Volsungs tonight. Why not find your own way to mark this marvelous manifestation of medievalism?

If your belly cries out for a taste of goopy, chilled curds, then swing by your local Whole Foods. It’s the only chain in the U.S. that sells skyr, the “yogurt” of the Vikings, in all its tart, rennety goodness.

It’s never too early to plan a trip to L’Anse aux Meadows, the remote site in Newfoundland where the Northmen landed. (Just be prepared to eat the occasional cod tongue.)

Why not groove to a little neo-Viking pop? Take in a Skitamorall video or two, or read a very old article about Sigur Ros.

If you’re pining for the fjords, you can order a VHS copy of The Outlaw, the 1981 film adaptation of Gisli’s Saga, for only $68.63. You can specifically commemorate Leif Eriksson by reading the Vinland Sagas—or, for kicks, you can read the Havamal:

Deyr fé, deyja fraendr,
deyr sjálfr it sama;
en orðstírr deyr aldregi
hveim er sér góðan getr.

Deyr fé, deyja fraendr,
deyr sjálfr it sama;
ek veit einn at aldri deyr:
dómr um dauðan hvern.

Wealth dies, kin die,
The self must die as well;
But reputation never dies
For one who can obtain it.

Wealth dies, kin die,
The self must die as well;
I know one thing that never dies:
The renown of every dead man.

Leif Eriksson surely knew these bits of Nordic wisdom. A thousand years later, these eddic verses still find validation in the statues and airports that bear his name. Like this quasi-holiday, they’re unlikely and often overlooked tributes to a brave and lucky traveler—the one medieval Icelander whose name we Vinlanders are most likely to remember.

“With a snow-white pillow for my big, fat head…”

In the murky world of trade publishing, accomplishments are relative. How does one judge the success of a little mass-market book about Charlemagne: Amazon rankings? Attendance at library talks? Emails from history and genealogy buffs?

I don’t know—but I must be doing something right, because some cheeseball paper mill is hawking a five-page paper about my book. For $49.75—a mere $9.95 per page—you even get a bibliography with two—two!—sources.

Of course, the intelligent plagiarist would economize. Behold: the same service also offers the enthralling “Justinian vs. Charlemagne.” With its three pages and three sources, he would save 60 percent and enjoy a 50 percent increase in the size of his bibliography. Apparently, the paper weighs the relative awesomeness of the two emperors “and argues that the Mandate of Heaven (the right to continue ruling) should go to Justinian.”

And really, what history prof wouldn’t want to receive a paper about that?

“One gun added on to the one gun…”

Now here’s a story Ken Burns might have retold: on Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an article about retired archbishop Philip Hannan, who recently recounted his experiences as a military chaplain for the oral history project at the National World War II Museum. As a young priest, Hannan parachuted into battle alongside his men, and he helped to liberate a concentration camp—but one of his deeds that wasn’t a matter of immediate life and death also bears repeating:

When the regiment took Cologne, the first thing Hannan did was visit the cathedral to see whether its “wonderful collection of art” survived the war.

Hannan said the German prelates tried to protect the art by storing it in boxes made of brick. He worried those boxes would be bait for American soldiers, who had come into possession of some British-designed Gammon grenades and were eager for targets to test them out.

He was forbidden to cross the Rhine river, but he ignored the orders and set out in search of the German archbishop. That bishop appointed him protector of the cathedral, and Hannan made sure his paratroopers guarded it.

If not for Hannan, countless medieval treasures might have been destroyed, including several remarkable reliquaries, a famous tenth-century crucifix, and other irreplaceable artifacts that help us understand the past.

It’s become a cliché to say that during World War II, Allied forces “saved the world.” A few, showing foresight and decency, also saved the Middle Ages.

“And you touch the distant beaches…”

I haven’t had a chance to see Ken Burns’ new take on World War II, but I was intrigued by a review in Monday’s New York Times that suggests the limitations of The War as a documentary:

The intention, apparently, was to see the war anew, to see it not from the vistas of generals’ maps and geopolitics, not from the perspective given by the doctrines of nations and the lures of ideologies, not even from the war’s context in history. The intention was to view it from the experiences of those who fought in it and those who knew them. If war happens “inside a man,” Mr. Burns wants to bring it home.

[…]

Yet for all the particularity, these are the generic facts of war, not very different from those chronicled by Homer almost 3,000 years ago. They tell us nothing about why this fighting was going on; they give us little information to judge or understand it.

The article mentions that Burns hoped to make an “epic poem,” an ambition I find odd. Ken Burns is good at being a filmmaker who records history from below, a thoughtful, perceptive soul who would gladly bypass Beowulf to squint instead at the peasants in the Luttrell Psalter. It’s comical to imagine him taking up the gusle or praising royalty with soaring tales of “fierce warres and faithfull loves”; his desire to shrink an epic event to human scale is an oddly anti-Homeric endeavor.

It’s also not a thing unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. In fact, Christopher Logue beat him to it.

Who is Christopher Logue? He’s an activist, autodidact, occasional actor—but he’s also the guy who for nearly half a century has used all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad.

Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of his source material through one curious disadvantage: he’s ignorant of ancient Greek. As a result, his Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—easily comes into its own as a fresh modern poem. Recent additions include scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, Logue even cribs a passage from Milton. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, the poet calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they may be missing the point.

Known for his gleeful use of anachronisms—like his description, often cited by reviewers, of Ajax “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s his description of Agamemnon’s champions in “All Day Permanent Red”:

Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Idomeneo, who:
“Come on!”
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.

Logue’s Homer resounds with the diction of war, but he can also craft domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:

The armies wait. “Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”

Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.

“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”

And giving her a kiss, He said:

“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”

Ah, but when battle calls, Logue can craft a passage as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patrocleia”:

The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.

Is this campy, even ironic? You bet. But this is also poetry that moves, and thrills, and entertains. It makes you feel just a little queasy for reveling in verse about war, but it also makes the timeless colloquial without impugning the dignity of its ancient source.

Why did Logue, a self-described pacifist, decide to take on Homer? Unlike many of his contemporaries, Logue deliberately sought out a vast external subject for his work. “I would not like to be a writer whose only subject is themselves,” he told an interviewer in 1994. “You need something else.” For Logue, that “something else” is war—not merely the Trojan War, but the capacity for war and violence at the core of human nature. Fortunately, Logue is under no pressure to put that experience in context, unlike Ken Burns. Logue is also unencumbered by public familiarity with his own artistic tics—again, unlike Burns, whose reverent pacing and signature quirks have lately become the stuff of parody.

Burns and Logue have similar purposes. Both use epic material to craft lengthy narratives about love, loss, anger, envy, family, patriotism, loyalty, and power. But Logue is clever enough not to try crafting a epic in the proper sense of the term. To show how war happens “inside a man,” he’s exploited his sources, developed a style, and mastered a medium that suits his particular genius; at 80, he has yet to exhaust himself.

As for Ken Burns—well, reviews of The War make me wonder if he’s attempting something that, while not beyond his intellect, may exceed the limitations of documentary, even if the film is successful by other standards. Having mastered the conventions of a genre that can easily stifle the loftiest intentions, Ken Burns could learn a few things from Christopher Logue, who, by sprinkling his verse with references to camera angles, points out the difference between documenting human nature and interpreting human nature in art. Burns is ambitious—“What in me is dark, illumine,” he seems to be praying, “what is low raise and support”—but his premise undercuts his purpose. A documentary surely may be art, but it’s just no way to write an epic poem.

“Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job…”

Via The Heroic Age comes word of a clever project: according to the Lincolnshire Echo, an archaeological group is adapting a medieval work for film. Interestingly, they’ve chosen not an epic, a romance, a ballad, or a saga; instead, they’re recreating scenes from the Luttrell Psalter, a 14th-century manuscript that depicts the people of Lincolnshire living and working through the changing of the seasons.

You can learn more about the Luttrell Psalter at the Web site of the British Library, which also offers an online, page-turnable version. Compare its illuminated pages with some rough footage of the Luttrell Psalter movie that’s already posted to YouTube. I’ve just spent four weeks teaching Arthurian romance, and I’m gearing up to teach an Icelandic saga, so for me these placid, rural scenes are a timely reminder that medieval hands were far less likely to be gripping a truncheon at a Winchester tourney and far more likely to be holding a shovel or milking a cow—the work that often goes unseen in “the kitchens of history.”