Archive for January, 2008


“You raise the blade, you make the change…”

Every once in a while, I read someone else’s blog post and think to myself, “I sure wish I’d thought of that.” Case in point: a comparison of Bobby Fischer to Icelandic outlaw Grettir Asmundarson.

“If I listen close, I can hear them singers: oh, oh, oh…”

The first day of my winter jaunt revealed a forgotten outpost of Viking activity in Ocean City, Maryland—or, as I’m now calling it, New South Vinland.

When the sun rose on day two, I beheld an even more astonishing sight: Muslims and Christians uniting against a common foe.

On the east side of North Baltimore Avenue is this oasis for weary mujaheddin:

On the west side is a hospice for homesick Crusaders:

These people aren’t fooling around. Their sign bears the coat of arms of the United Kingdom and there’s a crown on the K.

Wait—what’s that structure rising from a nearby parking lot?

A shop that sells string and sealing wax, and other fancy stuff?

No. Sweet Lord, no!

It’s a evil dragon temple!

Why would the high priests of miniature golf build such an unholy structure (apparently from pre-Columbian spolia) and summon these minions of chaos?

“M R dragons.”
“M R not.”
“O S A R. C M wangs?”

Look: this dragon is so dangerous, the other dragons keep him in a cage.

This dragon lives in fear of the day the other dragons discover he’s really just a snake.

“Uh, guys? I’m actually a beloved symbol of prosperity and good fortune. Guys?”

This dragon is the kind of cringingly un-selfaware monster who declares he’s eager to “have you for dinner,” after which that orange suck-up behind him cackles as if he said something hilarious.

Don’t you agree, Curiously Incongruent Easter Island Head?

Storm-clouds gather. Darkness falls. The last dim battle between dragon and man beginneth here, and the mists of death shall sweep over land and sea.

And then everyone will adjourn to eat non-pareils at the nearest Candy Kitchen…but that’s a much less dramatic story.

“Gunter, glieben, glauten, globen…”

Ocean City, Maryland—desolate in January, and surely a place of respite from medievalism in all its myriad forms.

No way! A hammer-wielding madman! Whither doth he beckon?

Great Odin’s opthamologist!

It’s as if I’ve wandered into sixth-century Norway.

Unlike this coward, I am undeterred, for I behold…

…a runestone! A long-neglected remnant of our distant Viking past!

(Plus the papier-mache skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.)

My rune-lore is feeble, but I believe this stone is trying to speak to me. Its approximate message appears to be “anthskloanuijaggnksinsukjtf.”

Meanwhile, the runic message carved into the beam on this this miraculously preserved Viking outhouse warns me, “riflthzwarir.”

Great enchantments surely haunt this place.

No matter. I’ll leave trite riddles to less ambitious colleagues. They’ll all go berserk when I publish this photo, which reveals the real reason Erik the Red journeyed westward.

Endowed professorship at Oxford, here I come!

“She began to wail, jealousies scream…”

Everyone is done talking about the recent Beowulf movie. I thought I was done with it, too, until I saw this comment from Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times blog “Paper Cuts”:

One of my favorite tropes in “Cloverfield,” the new J.J. Abrams-produced monster-destroys-Manhattan movie that made one zillion dollars (give or take) at the box-office last weekend, is that the camera rarely lingers on the giant beastie long enough for audiences to get a clear look at it. What makes the monster so frightening is whatever we viewers project onto it – it’s whatever we think it might be.

If I were teaching this semester, I might ask my students: How come the guy behind television shows like “Alias” and “Lost” knows that this timeworn approach to the monster is guaranteed to work, but nearly every ambitious artiste who tries to adapt Beowulf feels the need to flesh out Grendel, make him visible and sympathetic, and turn him into a fathomable, manageable creature rather than an inexplicable evil half-spawned from the viewer’s own psyche?

The modern-day maker of mass entertainment understands implicitly what some too-clever adapters, with “fresh readings” and pretentious meta-narratives about storytelling, do not: that our scop had it right all along.

“I know it all from Diogenes to the Foucault…”

What, Friday already? Here are a few links for what I hope will be a pleasant and unfretful weekend.

In a post replete with thoughtful connections, Matthew Gabriele considers medieval Europe’s encounters with other cultures within the context of MLK Day.

Steven Hart notes that The Atlantic Monthly has just opened its archive to non-subscribers, so now you can read this mean little story about a medievalist—or take a traveler’s tour of Prince Valiant’s England.

J.J. Cohen responds to an odd call by the Scottish First Minister to repatriate the Lewis Chessmen. (Hat tip: Unlocked Wordhoard.)

Although I’ve mentioned it before, don’t miss Green, Adam Golaski’s quirky new serialized, modernized, creatively remixed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The first part is here; the poem continues here.

Finally, Jennifer Lynn Jordan wonders: Is Terry Gilliam cursed?

“Ngibambele duze kumakaza…”

Looking for a panoply of ancient and medieval linkage? Of course you are! Don’t miss the latest edition of Carnivalesque, a sprawling compendium of recent doings in the ancient and medieval blogospheres. The proprietress at Atol is þin Unseon has compiled a broad assortment of links; they’re sure to edify and entertain.

“Do you nervously await the blows of cruel fate?”

Over Christmas, while taking a break from alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse, I started reading Simon Armitage’s new translation of Sir Gawain the Green Knight. The introduction led me to anticipate a bold, original poem. “This is not an exercise in linguistic forensics or medieval history,” Armitage warns his reader, insisting that “the intention has always been to produce a living, inclusive, and readable piece of work in its own right.” The poet spends four pages explaining his decision to imitate the alliteration of the Middle English original, as if it’s to be the sole conservative impulse in a translation that will otherwise astonish the reader with its rampant modernity.

At least one reviewer likewise suggested that Armitage was up to something wild. “His vernacular translation isn’t literal,” wrote Edward Hirsch in The New York Times. “[S]ometimes he alliterates different letters, sometimes he foreshortens the number of alliterations in a line, sometimes he changes lines altogether and so forth—but his imitation is rich and various and recreates the gnarled verbal texture of the Middle English original, which is presented in a parallel text.”

Not all reviews have been so positive. The Independent declared that “[t]here are some excellent hunting scenes towards the end, which Armitage rises to with great verve and agility. But there are also many moments of slackness, when the translation seems to have gone off the boil; when it feels dutiful, even throwaway.” Writing in The Guardian, Kevin Crossley-Holland remarked that in Armitage’s Gawain, “one has the sense of a wonderfully talented and versatile poet trying rather too hard.” And a Kansas City Star reviewer conceded the need for a new colloquial translation but ruefully concluded that Armitage “indulges in slanginess at the expense of decorum.”

Strangely, reviewers have neglected to mention Armitage’s most inexplicable choice. The 101 stanzas of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight vary in length, but alliteration on stressed syllables consistently unites the first and second halves of each line. Calling alliteration “the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads,” Armitage reproduces this basic structural device, a difficult trick in modern English. But no one, not even Armitage, mentions that this new translation only partially preserves the form of the original.

Each stanza of the Middle English poem ends with a five-line “bob and wheel.” Unlike the bulk of each stanza, the bob and wheel rhymes: a short line (the “bob”) is followed by four longer lines (the “wheel”) in accordance with the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B-A. Armitage admits that “[i]n the ‘bob and wheel’ sections where meter and rhyme also enter the equation, further deviations are inevitable”—but take a look at what Armitage considers mere “deviation.”

Here’s the original “bob and wheel” from lines 102-106:

in halle.
Therfore of face so fere
He stightles stif in stalle;
Ful yep in that Nw Yere
Much mirte he mas with alle.

Here’s Armitage’s rendering:

would meet.
With features proud and fine
he stood there tall and straight,
a king at Christmastime
amid great merriment.

Here are lines 198-202 in the original:

with yye.
He loked as layt so lyght,
So sayd al that hym syye;
Hit semed as no mon myght
Under his dynttes dryye.

Again, here’s Armitage:

and bone.
A look of lightning flashed
from somewhere in his soul.
The force of that man’s fist
would be a thunderbolt.

In Armitage’s translation, the bob and wheel sometimes rhymes perfectly, in keeping with the original. But occasionally, only two of the lines actually rhyme. And frequently, randomly—and to me, inexplicably—Armitage gives us a bob and wheel like the examples above, translated verses that completely ignore the tightly packed rhyme of the original.

I’m not sure why Armitage would faithfully reproduce the alliteration of his source text, reworking entire passages to coax his own rum, ram, ruf reluctantly into place, but choose to ignore one of the poem’s most memorable formal devices. Translating a Middle English original that both rhymes and alliterates is enormously frustrating, but even for the greenest of poets, it’s hardly impossible. Perhaps these omissions comprise the “moments of slackness” cited by The Independent, but what a peculiar translation we get as a result: one that’s beholden to form almost all the time, except when it isn’t. Armitage’s troubles can teach a new poet one difficult truth: if you’re going to translate a medieval work, you’d better commit to a form.

By contrast, consider a project by Adam Golaski. Yesterday, thanks to Brandon at Point of Know Return, I discovered Golaski’s Green, an oddball translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that’s now being serialized by the Web journal Open Letters. (The first selection is published here; the second is here.)

Reminiscent of Tom Lehrer’s reworking of “Clementine” by “one of our modern ‘cool school’ of composers,” Green will baffle anyone who doesn’t know the original—but its first stanza reveals a translator who’s made a firm choice about form:

Since ceased th’siege + assault upon Troye,
bones brok’nd brittled t’bronz’nd ashes,
that soldier who trod treason o’er th’plots’v
his enemies was tried f’r treachery tho
agile Ennias, of th’truest on Earth, of high kind,
haunted by shade Dido, was worth th’wonder
wealth’v all th’west isles——
From rich milk’v wolf-mother Romulus
rose Rome’nd’n its captured riches Romulus was
swath’d. W/ arrogance he built his name
upon a hill + took Palatine t’Romulus t’Rome——
Tirius traveled t’Tuscany he built beginnings,
Langaberde’n Lombardy left us houses,
+ far o’er th’French floods Felix Brutus
on many full banks built Bretayn + sits
w/ one
where war’nd wreck’nd wonder
by surprise has went therein,
+ oft both bliss’nd blunder
fool hope shifted t’sin.

Although I can’t quite tell if Golaski is serious, or if his style is sustainable, Green is a pleasure to read aloud, a weird, silly, gimmicky jumble that makes Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer seem timid by comparison. Golaski toys with the notion of literal pronunciation; he acknowledges that he’s dabbling, at more than one level, in abbreviation; and he engages with the sound of the original poem, often regardless of anything else, riding recklessly into the open field even as Armitage lingers politely alone at the tree line.

Golaski’s rendering will never make it into the Norton Anthology, and I’d only use Green in the classroom if I wanted my students to hate me, but its weirdness demands that a reader react. With a medieval romance as rich as Gawain, “the work of a sly, sensuous, genial writer…who loved his fellow humans for their strengths, their weaknesses, their sheer complexity,” getting a rise out of readers is certainly someplace to start. Having focused on diction while skimping on form, Armitage failed to engage me. More true to a poem both strange and humane, Golaski at least made me laugh.

“Stuck at the dog-end of a day gone by, boy…”

The week is busy; the days end way too soon. While I get my act together, here are some links, dear reader, to edify and amuse you.

Per Omnia Saecula offers a vicodin-inspired installment of Weird Medieval Animal Monday.

Point of Know Return continues Medieval Language Tuesday with a bit of Anglo-Saxon eloquence.

Withywindle wonders why a movie about a debate team shows so little understanding of rhetoric, while Steven Hart has a theory about Will Smith movies.

C.M. Mayo asks: which author blogs do you like to read?

The World of Royalty blog celebrates the 50th anniversary of a uniquely Belgian manifestation of neo-medievalism.

The Lost Fort offers a lovely tour of Lorsch.

Matthew Gabriele shares his excellent podcasts on medieval texts.

Old English in New York has a spiffy new look.

“A villa in France, my own cocktail bar…”

January brings pleasures delayed: you discover a misplaced gift behind a brittle Christmas tree; a long-lost friend sends a welcome New Year’s message; and you wake up to find that your book has been highlighted in The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I guess it’s no longer a matter of when the Sci-Fi Channel will call, but of which Baldwin brother will play Charlemagne, and which monster, menace, or meteorological phenomenon they’ll expect him to fight. I’ll lobby for the chupacabra, but I won’t balk if they insist on the mansquito. When it comes to CGI abominations, I am eminently flexible.

“My story’s infinite, like the Longines Symphonette…”

Every day, this site receives several hits from folks who are looking for the quip that Sean Connery’s character attributes to Charlemagne in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky.” In August, I wrote about how strangely untraceable this quotation is—not only in medieval texts, but also in modern storybooks that might have served as its source.

Recently, Merlin DeTardo read my August musings and discovered something neat of his own. Here’s his email, which I quote with his permission:

I just noticed your inquiry into the source of the supposed Charlemagne quote in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As you note, Jeffrey Boam, author of the screenplay, died in 2000 and the story’s co-author, George Lucas, is unlikely to respond to any inquiry, but—not that I would know how to reach him—I wonder if the story’s other co-author, Menno Meyjes, played a part in that quotation. He also wrote the story and screenplay for Lionheart, a 1987 film that I have not seen, but it has a medieval setting: the children’s crusade (about which I only know what I’ve read on wikipedia).

Also, googling some of the words in the Indiana Jones quotation turned up something vaguely similar in Washington Irving’s Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, Ch. 22, “Foray of the Moorish Alcaydes, and Battle of Lopera” (p. 102):

“Never let the most wary commander fancy himself secure from discovery, for rocks have eyes, and trees have ears, and the birds of the air have tongues, to betray the most secret enterprise.”

It has a military context, and retains the order “rocks… trees… birds”; on the other hand, it has “air” for “sky”, and takes place many hundreds of years later. Still, maybe it was part of the “leaf mould” on which the Indiana Jones’ authors drew.

Source: [Google books link]

Genuine lead or will-o’-the-wisp? The Irving quotation may or may not be relevant, but I’m grateful to Merlin for bringing it to my attention. I’m posting his observations here for the benefit of “Quid Plura?” readers and countless future Googlers, one of whom may, perhaps, use this information to confirm or debunk the best thing old Charlemagne probably never said.