Archive for March, 2008


“Go right to the source and ask the horse…”

In Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale,” a knight enters the court of Genghis Khan upon a steed of brass, one of several gifts from “the kyng of Arabe and of Inde”:

This steede of bras, that esily and weel
Kan in the space of o day natureel—
This is to seyn, in foure and twenty houres—
Wher-so yow lyst, in droghte or elles shoures,
Beren youre body into every place
To which youre herte wilneth for to pace,
Withouten wem of yow, thurgh foul or fair;
Or, if yow lyst to fleen as hye in the air
As dooth an egle whan hym list to soore,
This same steede shal bere yow evere moore,
Withouten harm, til ye be ther yow leste,
Though that ye slepen on his bak or reste,
And turne ayeyn with writhyng of a pyn.
He that it wroghte koude ful many a gyn.

At the Tartar court, they’re amazed! Confused! Dazed! Bemused!

Swich wondryng was ther on this hors of bras
That syn the grete sege of Troie was,
Theras men wondreden on an hors also,
Ne was ther swich a wondryng as was tho.
But fynally the kyng axeth this knyght
The vertu of this courser and the myght,
And preyde hym to telle his governaunce.
This hors anoon bigan to trippe and daunce,
Whan that this knyght leyde hand upon his reyne,
And seyde, “Sire, ther is namoore to seyne…”

Yes, you read that right: not only can the brass horse fly, it can also dance.

So why am I all hung up on the dancing brass horse? Because it was one of the first things I thought of when I watched this video of the “Big Dog” from Boston Dynamics.

Of course, Chaucer’s lusty bacheler describes a steed of endless wonders: if you turn a key inside its ear, the horse becomes invisible, too. So when Boston Dynamics releases another, more perplexing video claiming to be showing off its stealth robot horse, you shouldn’t be surprised—even if Chaucer might have been. Life, were it by aventure, or sort, or cas, imitates The Canterbury Tales.

“It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few…”

Want to be a writer? Want to be a better writer? At the end of a busy week, here are some useful posts by authors, agents, editors, and critics—perfect reading for a quiet, sunny weekend.

Noting that American writers tend to eschew the adverb, Kevin Wignall ponders a famous passage in which adverbs get things done.

New York Times readers debate the seven deadly words of book reviewing.

Kevin Holtsberry proposes Small Book Appreciation Week.

Richard S. Wheeler builds characters out of beliefs.

BookEnds readers point out books they’ve judged by their covers.

Steven Hart highlights vital advice for novice authors.

Leslie Pietrzyk identifies her best posts about the writing process.

Meg Gardiner summarizes “a few things that make writing ring false.”

“He koude rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye…”

Here at the “Quid Plura?” household, it’s beginning to smell a lot like Easter. The cucumbers are sliced, salted, and sweating their immersion in sour cream and dill. The pierogies wait to wallow in bacon fat and onions, the carrots soon will be bobbing in sos beszamelowy, and the green beans are destined to encounter a honey-and-almonds concoction I haven’t quite invented yet. Kielbasa in sweetened beer sauce shall serve as a snack. Lo, I see the line of my people back to the beginning, clawing frantically for defibrillators…

Anyway, what better time to pause from epicurean giddiness and give you an update on Charlemagne in the news?

Looks like activists plan to disrupt the awarding of the Charlemagne Prize to Angela Merkel at Aachen on May 1. I can’t recall similar recent disruptions of the ceremony, but I’m amused by their call to “reject Charlemagne as symbol of Europe.” In many ways, the EU already did that.

Speaking of the EU, they’ve announced the national winners of the Charlemagne Youth Prize. I like the title of the Czech project: “Together we conquer the world.”

News flash: John McCain is not a descendant of Charlemagne. (News flash: Neither am I. Can I have worldwide press coverage too?)

If you live in Maryland, you can now buy a collectible doll of Charlemagne’s daughter Gisela; the doll accompanies a series of books for young girls about medieval life.

Charlemagne’s name also popped up recently in stories about condom sales in Fulda and Macedonian independence, as well as in a Washington City Paper article about, er, our local lost tribe of Israel.

Dziękuję, Google News—bock bock!

The tap-tap-tapping of the typewriter pays…”

For the past 16 months, I’ve relentlessly hawked my own book—which, in case you hadn’t heard, is now available in a compact, affordable paperback and even a Kindle edition—but as I glance over at my blogroll, I see an impressive roster of authors, novelists, and scholars whose productivity I admire and whose work deserves attention and praise.

Michael Drout at Wormtalk and Slugspeak is the author of How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century, an intriguing study of the Benedictine Reform. He also edited The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, to which a certain D.C.-based blogger contributed the first and last word on Tolkien and postage stamps.

Alexis Fajardo, the cartoonist who created the all-ages comic Kid Beowulf, has an online shop full of goodies, including Book One of Kid Beowulf, a preview of Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland, and an anthology of mythological action tales.

Matthew Gabriele at Modern Medieval is the editor of the forthcoming The Legend of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages: Power, Faith, and Crusade, a collection of articles I am rather eager to read.

My Garden State broheim Steven Hart is the author of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. He also wrote a much-needed piece debunking the hallowed George Lucas-Joseph Campbell connection.

Michael Livingston, who teaches medieval lit at The Citadel, is a prolific writer of short stories. He also edited John Gower’s In Praise of Peace and The Siege of Jerusalem for the invaluable TEAMS Middle English Texts series. (His intro to The Siege of Jerusalem is an enlightening primer on a highly unpleasant medieval poem.)

The very busy C.M. Mayo, who divides her time between D.C. and Mexico, has written a traveler’s guide to literary Mexico, an award-winning story collection, and a forthcoming novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.

My pal Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard co-edited Global Perspectives on Medieval English Literature, Language, and Culture, a new collection of articles about such wide-ranging subjects as Chaucer, Narnia, and the Popol Vuh.

Last fall, I met Work-in-Progress blogger Leslie Pietrzyk at a fundraiser in Virginia. She’s the author of two lovely novels, A Year and a Day and Pears on a Willow Tree. (The latter, which focuses on several generations of Polish-American women, recently won the Jeff’s Mom Seal of Approval, an honor not lightly bestowed.)

Alan Sullivan, the poetic helmsman of Seablogger, co-translated a strong and highly readable version of Beowulf for Longman.

The authors at Contemporary Nomad have more books to their credit than I can list, but I particularly recommend the haunting series of Eastern European spy novels by Olen Steinhauer, who writes literary fiction disguised as genre fiction.

I hope you’ll decide to learn more about these hard-working writers; please support their efforts by purchasing some of their books.

“And if anything, then there’s your sign…”

Let there be links!

Carnivalesque XXXVII, an ancient-medieval edition compiled by Eileen Joy, is up at In the Middle. Ite, legete! (Thanks to Eileen for including my post about the Battle of Kosovo.)

Carl at Got Medieval pores over medieval manuscripts and finds pictures of monkeys doing remarkable things. (Medieval monkey school looks especially harsh.)

Brandon at Point of Know Return wonders about the Old English word wundor.

At Studenda Mira, Dave ponders the Akhdam people of Yemen and the value of oral tradition; he also looks into the Akhdam origin myth.

Medievalism meets the modern ethicist! At Chivalry Today, Scott Farrell broadly defines “chivalry” to encompass ethical codes, movie knights, Batman comics, ghost towns, and Andy Griffith. Scott recently invited me to gab about Charlemagne, and I was delighted to oblige. Visit the archive of Chivalry Today podcasts; downloads and iTunes subscriptions are free.

Finally, I was glad to see that Gary Gygax got last week’s back-page obit in The Economist, but if you want to read some truly epic obituaries, check out what the U.K. papers wrote about Steven Runciman in the year 2000. Now that was a life…

“Something like a recipe, bits and pieces…”

Unhappy tidings from the Philadelphia suburbs: the inventor of SpaghettiOs has passed away. Like their mother and uncle before them, my niece and nephew consume SpaghettiOs with a zeal that borders on the competitive, and while both of them are too young to imagine that someone invented their favorite lunch, this news saddens us grown-ups, as I’m sure it will give pause to any parent or caregiver who’s ever uttered those timeless words, “No! Not on the carpet!”

But you know, like a belly full of those diminutive sliced franks, something in the Philadelphia Inquirer obituary just doesn’t sit right. Behold, the official origin story of SpaghettiOs:

One of Mr. Eberling’s early challenges for Campbell’s was creating a spaghetti-and-meatballs product that would fit neatly in a can. He had a breakthrough, his son said, while cleaning up from dinner one night. He noticed a strand of spaghetti twirled in the sink and took the concept for SpaghettiOs to his supervisor, Ralph Miller. The new product, promoted by the popular “Uh-oh SpaghettiOs” jingle, became a big success.

That fable may have fooled the credulous media, but several years of graduate school taught me that there’s no reason to accept the homely simplicity of truth when one can weave an ingenious tapestry of fantasy from the wispy threads of whimsy and supposition.

The inventor of SpaghettiOs was born—aha!—in the German city of Aachen. A masterpiece of medieval architecture stands at the center of Aachen: Charlemagne’s octagonal chapel. As UNESCO reminds us, “[a]n octagon can be made by drawing two intersecting squares within a circle. The circle represents God’s eternity while the square represents the secular world.” Although “circularity” applies to any individual SpaghettiO, it also may signify the lesser known RavioliOs, a product that need not be circular in order to fit neatly in a can. Thus, the post-formalist rejection of square ravioli in favor of the circular demonstrates a deliberately supra-utilitarian intention to transcend the secular and destabilize the traditional reading of canned pasta. We can at last begin to de-problematize the systems of knowledge coordinated to produce SpaghettiOs by calling attention to the original name of the company that evoked the circular plan of the chapel of the rex Francorum by representing eternity in pasta: Franco-American.

I’ve much more to say on this subject, and in the coming months I’ll develop and defend my ironclad thesis in a lengthy paper, which I shall deliver at several hundred academic conferences. My peers, I predict, will be stunned into silence. Who will blame them if they’re forced to flee the room?

“I go out into the market, where I can buy or sell…”

If you’re curious about the journeys of 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Battuta, you can always read his own account of the decades he spent traveling in India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. But if you prefer a more tactile and commercialized approach to medieval Islamic travel narratives and you happen to need a new pair of sneakers, then think about hopping a flight to Dubai, where the Ibn Battuta Mall is open for business.

According to the latest issue of Saudi Aramco World Magazine, “the largest themed shopping center in the world” is divided into six courts based on the lands Ibn Battuta visited. If you’re but an amateur Battutaologist, never fear: you can partake of an “interactive learning experience” about the intrepid rambler:

The cultural message was getting through to the mall’s younger visitors, too. A screen showing the animated adventures of the Young Ibn Battuta (in appearance an Arab cousin of Pinocchio) attracted a small but enthralled audience. But for one of these at least, there was another star that even the cartoon hero couldn’t upstage: Adam Bashir, aged eight, from Manchester, England, didn’t have to think twice when I asked him what was the best thing in the mall. “The elephant!” he declared. (“Phew!” said his father. “I thought he was going to say McDonald’s.”)

My cynical self was by now so thoroughly disarmed that I went and had my photo taken with Ibn Battuta, or rather the young cartoon version of Ibn Battuta, brought to life by a roaming actor in a padded suit. I could see the real Ibn Battuta having some reservations about being played by a character out of Disneyland’s central casting, but at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that he might have rather approved of his mall. After all, his own aim, stated in the introduction to his book, was to offer “entertainment … delight … edification … interest”—and what is that but “edutainment”?

Incidentally, if you don’t get Saudi Aramco World, why not subscribe? It’s free, it’s edutaining, the photos are lovely, and you’re already paying for it at the pump.

“‘And join with us, please,’ valkyrie maidens cry…”

Jet lag, a busy week, and other responsibilities conspire to keep me away from the keyboard. In the meantime, dear readers, here’s some worthwhile reading from around the Web.

Tributes to the late Gary Gygax abound, but this one is my favorite, at least conceptually: some players of the game EVE Online purchased a ship and gave the co-inventor of Dungeons & Dragons an online Viking space funeral. (At least that’s what they claim they were doing. I’ll have to take their word for it.)

The link between D&D and online gaming is nothing new. In fact, Dragon magazine once published a prescient short story on the subject: “Catacomb” by Henry Melton. Judging by the number of online message-board requests from people trying to track it down, this story made a huge impression on readers in 1985.

Open Letters Monthly has posted the third installment of “Green,” Adam Golaski’s strange and delightful translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Part one is here. Part two is here.)

Steven Hart considers the best swordfight movie of all time.

At University Diaries, they’re debating the efficacy of Powerpoint in the classroom. Here’s a quoteworthy snippet from UD herself:

You know the happiest thing I experience teaching? The thing I’m going to remember most vividly from my years of teaching? The looks of open wonder, eager skepticism, scoffing disbelief, amusement, boredom, intense analytical energy, on my students’ faces. They show me those faces and I see them and they see that I see them… And that is the only way I know to begin serious intellectual study — mutual vulnerability, openness to the other person as a restless mind reaching out to other minds in real time and space.

I love most of all the first thing: open wonder. Students are quite unself-conscious when they show me that one. Their heads are tilted to the side. Their mouths are slightly open. Their eyes are narrowed. On me. These are the students who come up to me after class and want to know if Nietzsche really meant what he said when he said… Because it seems to me that…

Meanwhile, Brandon at Point of Know Return responds thoughtfully to a potentially hostile question: “What are you going to do with a degree in medieval studies?”

Thanks for stopping by! New posts—and maybe even an Aachen update—are coming soon.

“Behind bolted doors, talent and imagination…”

Two blocks south of the city center of Aachen, near the cathedral that encases Charlemagne’s famous chapel, you’ll find a gaming store with a window full of tiny knights and monsters. Its existence in this medieval city of emperors is an amusing reminder of the complex relationship between the actual past and the fantasy version of the Middle Ages we’ve never been able to shake. That relationship is always worth pondering, but it’s especially poignant today in light of the news about the fellow who was arguably one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century: “Dungeons & Dragons” co-creator E. Gary Gygax, who died yesterday in Wisconsin at the age of 69.

Four years ago, when hardcore gamers celebrated “Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day” amid the shuffling of graph paper and the plaintive plinking of dice against Coke cans, the event was mostly a nostalgia trip, not a notable phenomenon in its own right. That wasn’t because the culture had abandoned D&D, but because old-school paper-and-dice gaming had evolved as the larger culture embraced RPGs, developed them for new media, and midwifed their mass appeal. Online gaming? Tolkien and Beowulf movies? Girls who are unafraid to enter comic shops? All of these wonders, at one time unimaginable, can be traced back to “Dungeons and Dragons”—specifically, to the bearded sage of Lake Geneva and the arcana he co-bequeathed to the skinny-armed boys who raised fistfuls of dice in geeky solidarity during the early 1980s.

Contrast those humble nerdlings of yore with the polished, professional women who flip through Harry Potter novels during their subway commutes. These valkyries are the goddaughters of Gary Gygax and the unknowing heirs to the mainstreaming of fantasy. So are their kids, from the girls who swooned over Orlando “Legolas” Bloom—girls who, a generation ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead watching a fantasy movie—to the boys who have slain every goblin the XBox can throw at them.

It was not always thus. When I was in middle school in the dark days of 1983, a science teacher rescued me from study hall with a weekly session of RPGs and military wargaming. That class, for which several of us received academic credit, solved the mystery surrounding the sprawling scale models of the European countryside that took up half of the chemistry room and the elaborate maps of imaginary places stapled to the classroom walls. The teacher, a retired two-star general, was always an iconoclast. Years later, when faculty were forbidden to smoke on school grounds, he reportedly researched the property limits and spent his lunch hours loping just outside the borders, puffing away in furious protest. Those were the sorts of adults who embraced fantasy back then: outsiders, autodidacts, guys who literally brought their vast knowledge of military history to the table, and similar pre-Internet obsessives who made their classmates and co-workers—the type whom every eight-year-old in the Western Hemisphere now knows to call “Muggles”—very, very nervous.

Of course, for those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community. Hardcover tomes served as authoritative published sources. Pages of rules, charts, graphs, classifications of moral and ethical philosophies, and endless systems of nomenclature were all punctuated with academic abbreviations (“cf.,” “q.v.,” and so on) that required training and memorization. Like knowing how to use the Patrologia Graeca and its accompanying scholarly apparatus, mastering the material in the various D&D manuals was a skill not easily acquired. All of this stuff was, like the foundational scholarship of any field, composed by sages whom we knew primarily through their written pronouncements. They published regular supplements, such as Dragon magazine, which featured articles as specialized and as arcane as anything in Byzantinische Forschungen. From disquisitions on the ecologies of imaginary creatures to lengthy debates about the physics of falling and its effect on the proper way to calculate hit-point damage taken by characters wearing variously configured armor, Dragon was a newsletter, marketplace, and academic journal all rolled into one. Its luminaries even hosted annual and regional meetings; in-the-know players became attuned to rumors of contentious professional politics among the inner circle.

As an adult, I’m too self-conscious and jaded to return to the world of old-school gaming. That initial interest didn’t die; it simply matured, thank goodness, and now I seek a similar buzz in hiking, traveling, teaching, and writing. I’ve never worn armor, I don’t attend Renaissance festivals, and I can’t tell one scion of the house of Gondor from another. I will admit, though, that while working on Becoming Charlemagne, I drafted sprawling, D&D-like maps of Aachen, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Rome, simply to give myself a mental picture of each setting. I loved it. So help me, I felt like I was ten again.

At this moment, countless kids are watching their Lord of the Rings DVDs, reading Harry Potter, or playing fantasy games on their computers; perhaps their parents are logging onto Web sites under handles and encountering no stigma as they play at being someone else. Twenty years ago, most of them wouldn’t have touched a set of polyhedron dice with a ten-foot pole; today, they all know what a hobbit is, and they find nothing odd about wizards and magic and the trappings of popular medievalism, recast as they have been into forms that have decreased in intelligence but certainly gained in charisma. So here’s to Gary Gygax, an unlikely popularizer whose almost wholly derivative work broadened the appeal of medievalism by energizing the geek culture that now reigns supreme. I wish him a tomb protected by ingenious traps, and an adventurous afterlife where all of the hallways are perfectly ten feet square.

“Come down off your throne, and leave your body alone…”

For more than a year now, I’ve written about Charlemagne, talked about Charlemagne, answered questions about Charlemagne, joked about Charlemagne, fielded emails about Charlemagne, translated poems about Charlemagne, and have otherwise come to see the old boy as a sort of ghostly roommate who makes dubious excuses (“dude, I totally left my wallet in my other rodent-fur cloak”) whenever he’s asked to contribute to the rent.

The thing is, there was one Charlemagne-related thing I hadn’t done—specifically, a Charlemagne-related place I hadn’t visited—and I got a little tired of people expressing surprise about that. So, on a whim and sort of at the last minute: greetings from Aachen.

A few lessons for those similarly inclined: Maastrict-Aachen Airport does not, in fact, service the city of Aachen. However, the airport does give you a wonderful opportunity to discover the Dutch language skills you didn’t know you had while you enjoy a crash course on the bus system of provincial Limburg. In the rain. Next to lots of billboards advertising a museum retrospective about Smurfs.

But you know what? As Chaucer’s Friar Hubert famously declared: It beats being in the office.