Archive for May, 2008


“I read about it free in a fifty-cent illustrated guide…”

A few spiffy links for your Thursday:

At the pop-culture blog “A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago,” my friend Heather is watching the National Spelling Bee. Heather, one smart cookie, did the Bee 25 years ago; her first post is here.

Who was that girl on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”? Steven Hart is reading her memoir.

Ephemeral New York wants you to meet the 19th-Century Hipster Queen.

Books, Inq., points out an outdoor Latin language club for Oxford suburbanites.

Unlocked Wordhoard notes the death of Robert Asprin, whose fantasy novels were omnipresent in the days when bookstores (and bookstores’ genre sections) were much, much smaller.

Withywindle ponders the lyricism of Roger Miller.

Speaking of Roger Miller, I’ve declared him the official country singer of “Quid Plura?” Here’s a good video for a languid day: Miller doing a live version of “Whistle Stop.”

“Once, there was this kid, who…”

[Here’s the first in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

On a Friday morning a year ago this month, I sat down in the barber shop, picked up the paper, and felt a sharp, sudden tap between my eyes. The sensation was odd and yet oddly familiar, though I hadn’t recalled it for 25 years. The last time I felt it, I had been reading a novel by Lloyd Alexander, and the author informed me that someone had died. This time, again, I was struck by sad news: Lloyd Alexander himself had just died.

That weekend, I drove to a secondhand shop and bought up a stack of his novels. While tributes to Alexander began to appear online, I rediscovered the Chronicles of Prydain and read the Westmark series for the first time. Alexander’s worlds were as poignant and as humane as I remembered, but I was newly impressed by his handling of moral and ethical quandaries. I also marveled at his prose style: amazingly concise, with few spare words and no tendency to linger over descriptions. We could all learn a thing or two from Lloyd Alexander about how to “write short,” and how not to be a self-indulgent stylist.

Shortly before Alexander’s death, I had sent him a copy of my own book and received a kind note in reply. That was cool, but stumbling across The Gawgon and the Boy was, I confess, even better. Largely overlooked upon its publication in 2001, this short book with the strange title is the sort of novel that only an author with a proven sales record would ever be permitted to publish.

Unlike Alexander’s other novels, this book is explicitly autobiographical: set in Philadelphia during the 1920s, The Gawgon and the Boy tells the story of eleven-year-old David, whose near-fatal bout of pneumonia leaves him unable to attend school. While David convalesces at his grandmother’s boarding house, his family debates the future of his education:

My heart chilled as they went on calmly discussing my fate. One way or another, I was doomed to be removed from the back alley. A private teacher? One person, face-to-face, with a constant eye on me? Worse than Rittenhouse Academy, where I could hide unnoticed among my classmates.

Aunt Annie, silent until now, put down her cup. In a tone that made me think of the Almighty commanding Abraham to sacrifice young Isaac, she said:

“Give me the boy.”

Aunt Annie is, of course, the “gawgon” of the title, a grim and matronly presence in a boarding house already full of oddballs. Delightfully, Alexander remembers, and can put into writing, how the world looks at eleven:

Not that she treated me with anything less than kindness. To her credit, at Christmas and my birthdays, when my relatives gave me handkerchiefs and underwear, she gave me books. Still, she made me uneasy. Invisibility has its advantages; but when she turned her sharp glances on me, watching me closely, I was no longer the Amazing Invisible Boy. On the contrary, I felt that she could see me very clearly indeed and quite possibly could read my mind. For that reason, she frightened me a little. Or perhaps it was simply because she was very old.

With the Gawgon as his mentor, David lets his education and his imagination intertwine. He and the Gawgon soon journey through Greek mythology, spar with Napoleon in Egypt, consult with Sherlock Holmes, and scale the Matterhorn, where strange, moping poets reside. A fictionalized account of the education of Lloyd Alexander and a loving tribute to the woman who directed it, The Gawgon and the Boy is also, by extension, a tribute to the random bits and pieces of literature and life that shape us, inform us, and later define us.

In fact, The Gawgon and the Boy is so charming, so genial, and so utterly disarming that it comes as a shock when the book turns bittersweet, as David’s education leads him to perceive, with growing clarity, the private pain of the adults in his life. In just 199 pages, Alexander writes lightly about subjects that other novelists spend thousands of pages groping to understand—and, at 77, he still knew how to tap a reader right between the eyes.

In the Prydain books, Lloyd Alexander used heroic fantasy to chronicle the pain of growing up. In the Westmark trilogy, he cast a kingdom in shades of gray to explore, with greater wisdom than most “adult” writers have done, the moral implications of shedding blood in the name of revolution. These series aren’t as different as they seem: at the heart of every Lloyd Alexander novel is, as the author once explained it, a simple concept: “how we learn to be genuine human beings.” It’s a sign of Alexander’s maturity that The Gawgon and the Boy continues that theme not with monsters or tyrants or magical kingdoms, but through a more subdued story that’s no less engaging: how an author-to-be learned to read and love books.

“Get out of the road if you want to grow old.”

Preserving old data can take many forms. Árni Magnússon spent most of his life collecting Icelandic manuscripts, famously finding scraps of sagas stuffed in the rafters of cottages; he saved every shred he could find. When he died in Denmark in 1730, the manuscripts stayed there, too. After World War II, Denmark agreed to return them to the newly independent Iceland, a process that began in 1971 and continued for 26 years. According to this PDF, the Royal Library in Copenhagen returned 141 manuscripts, while the Danish institute named for Árni Magnússon returned a staggering 1,666 manuscripts and more than 7,000 legal documents.

Icelanders were delighted, as The Economist reported in 1997:

Middle-aged Icelanders still remember the excitement of standing at Reykjavik harbour in 1971 when a Danish naval ship brought back the first manuscripts. “It was a singular show of friendship on the part of the Danes,” says Elias Snaeland Jonsson, a writer and a journalist, not least because the Danes were under no legal obligation to return the manuscripts.

Today, if you visit Reykjavik, go to the Árni Magnússon Institute and marvel at these tough old books—especially the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, one of the first manuscripts to be returned to Iceland. Consisting of the oldest surviving copies of the eddas, the poems about early Germanic gods and heroes, the Konungsbók Eddukvæða—as it’s known in Icelandic—is uniquely important: wthout it, our already scant knowledge of the myths and legends of early Germanic people would be cut at least in half.

For centuries, the Danes appointed themselves the custodians of Icelandic history. The Icelanders now control their own past, but they may be the keepers of everyone’s futures. In its May 22 report on the world’s massive server farms, The Economist noted that data centers need cheap power, water for cooling, and the security of physical remoteness. Enter the heirs of the Vikings:

Iceland has begun to market itself as a prime location for data centres, again for the cool climate, but also because of its abundant geothermal energy. Hitachi Data Systems and Data Islandia, a local company, are planning to build a huge data-storage facility (pictured at top of article). It will be underground, for security and to protect the natural landscape.

Technology will make this future possible, but the Icelandic character makes it wonderfully fitting. In his 1955 Nobel acceptance speech, Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness recalled the saga-writers who made it their work to preserve their own past:

They live in their immortal creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape. For century upon dark century those nameless men and women sat in their mud huts writing books without so much as asking themselves what their wages would be, what prize or recognition would be theirs. There was no fire in their miserable dwellings at which to warm their stiff fingers as they sat up late at night over their stories.

In years to come, if your travels take you to rural Iceland, the hillsides you see may be wholly man-made. Preserved in those hills will be all you’re forgetting: your music, your writing, and even your photos of Iceland itself—misplaced, and in fragments, and surely abandoned, but waiting for someone, a new Árni Magnússon, to shoo away sheep and remember.

(image: The Economist)

“Dann sind wir Helden…”

There, from the hilltop, I beheld the valley deep,
Where brave King Lothar crushed his foes
As they took flight across the little stream.

On Charles’ side, on Louis’ side as well,
The ground grows white with shrouds to cloak the dead,
Just as in autumn, when fields grow white with birds.

– Angelbert, survivor of the battle of Fontenoy, A.D. 841

“…as the flames rose to her Roman nose…”

Puppets on fire: what could be better? Over at Per Omnia Saecula, the inimitable Jennifer Lynn Jordan brings us another episode of Today in Medieval History, a most triumphant video to remind us that May 23 is the anniversary of Joan of Arc’s capture by the Burgundians in 1430.

A most bodacious soldier and general, Miss Of Arc totally rousted the English from France. Then she turned this dude, the dauphin, into a king. And all this by the time she was seventeen!

After you’ve watched Jenn put a puppet on trial and then burn it to death, here are a few more Joan of Arc videos to aid in your weekend reflections.

Joan of Arc played an important role in the most important historiographic statement of our time.

The Smiths mention Joan of Arc in the song “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”

Leonard Cohen got in on the action with his own song about Joan of Arc.

If you have 80 minutes, you can watch the 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

If you have only ten minutes, check out two songs recorded by OMD, the dauphins of synth: “Joan of Arc” and “Maid of Orleans.”

(If you judge me for knowing that last bit, you’re no better than the people who set the real Joan of Arc on fire.)

“Ask me, I won’t say no, how could I?”

In recent weeks, certain cable stations have run marathon airings of a certain movie trilogy about a certain adventurous archaeologist. As a result, I’ve gotten hundreds of hits from people searching for a certain spurious quotation attributed to a certain medieval emperor by the father of said fictional archaeologist.

Ah, but Sitemeter is a cup of wonders: here are other queries that recently drew readers to this site. Because I see my role as essentially that of a public servant, I’ve taken the liberty of answering them.

grendel is the victim of society and its standards
I dream of an America where eating people will be praised as an alternate lifestyle.

keeping long beards looking neat
Come on! Don’t be a victim of society and its standards!

how do you blow a bosun’s whistle
First, make sure your beard is looking neat.

i hear non existing voices
They want you to buy Becoming Charlemagne in paperback.

charlemagne book free download
The voices said buy.

charlemagne god tells him do stuff
To the Carolingian mind, the Almighty was a surly, sub-literate teenager.

dungeons and dragons by t.s. elliott book cover
Like many grad students of my generation, I wrote a kick-ass thesis on “The Love Song of E. Gary Gygax.” In the room the gamers come and go / Talking of the saving throw…

how do you make monster blood
I’m no biologist, but I believe you begin with a monster.

recipe for spaghettios
Heat 1 cup monster blood; add 3/4 oz. unicorn spittle and 1 tsp. baby shrieks (thinly sliced); simmer 20 min. Serves two.

what is the best thing to take to make you run faster
The best thing is monster blood. The second best thing is a bowl of Cookie Crisp.

thoughts that make you run faster
“There’s a bowl of Cookie Crisp at the end of all this.”

“Ask them in, and invite some more.”

For obvious reasons, I enjoy seeing what graduate students do with their educations when they decide not to pursue academic careers. Meet Christina Ball, a Yale Ph.D and founder of Ecco Italy. Here’s how Ball describes her project to the folks at the terrific Roma-centric blog Eternally Cool:

I always knew I was too creative, too enthusiastic for academia. Still, it wasn’t until 2004, 6 years after earning my doctorate in Italian Literature from Yale, that all of the pieces fell into place for Ecco Italy in Charlottesville, Virginia. I had always dreamed of running my own school, a place without grades, a classroom that opened out onto the marketplace and the world, a place where conversation would be more important than written tests, where students of all ages would be encouraged to pursue their dream of “becoming Italian” in a supportive and beautiful environment.

With its language instruction, food and wine courses, travel training, and other cultural programs, Ecco Italy is the sort of place that doesn’t just happen; it must be a product of one person’s passion. Ball clearly adores her home-away-from-home:

Wandering the streets and river banks of Rome’s Trastevere and Ghetto neighborhoods in the late summer is an experience I constantly crave when I’m home in Virginia. It’s both blissfully peaceful and energizingly urban at the same time. Everything radiates warmth and beauty. Only in Rome have the otherwise conflicting powers of chaos and mystery declared an eternal truce.

Burned-out grad students should pause and take heart. There’s much you can do with your passion and knowledge—if you’re up for some entrepreneurial fun.

“When you were born, they looked at you and said…”

The academic year limps to its grave, ashamed. May brings commencements with long-winded speeches, hung-over students, the swinging of ceremonial maces. Oblivious meatheads all saunter toward debt; they’re destined to bung up society’s drains. The terrible truths are recorded by bloggers, decried in the op-eds, and whispered in lounges: biased curricula, underpaid adjuncts, incurious students, a farcical pageant of evil and wrong.

Is that how you feel about graduation season? Then here are three people I’d like you to meet.

If you can’t imagine a household where books were forbidden, then Kay has a story to tell you. As a child, Kay was told that reading would poison her mind; then she was shipped from England to Pakistan and forced into an abusive marriage. But, as those of us who know her have discovered, Kay is a true force of nature. Innately rebellious, selectively shy, Kay overcame her unlucky beginnings to become valedictorian, honor society president, and winner of national awards. She’s now a teacher in training, and I envy the Maryland schoolkids who will share in her passion for Shakespeare. Kay officially graduated last winter; tomorrow she’ll walk and receive her diploma, rebuking the fools who forbade her to read.

Utterly atypical of his high-strung generation, my cousin Mike is a perceptive writer in the making. While his classmates sought internships in Manhattan offices, Mike pulled on his steel-toed work boots and learned how to repair cast-iron stoves, stack chicken cages, and tar driveways. For much of his college career, Mike worked as a janitor on the same campus where he studied history, always eager to find something worth observing in places his peers were inclined to ignore. Next Saturday, Mike will graduate from Rutgers. His decency, work ethic, and easy composure put him way ahead of his classmates—and some of us, too, who are quite a bit older.

For more than 20 years, I’ve watched Dave seek his fortune on the west coast and live through history as a Wall Street techie during the dot-com boom. While working as a reporter and raising two daughters, Dave finished his college degree. When he and I met, we were shmoes from New Jersey with local horizons; the notion that we’d later enjoy discussing Constantine and Charlemagne would have confused—and probably horrified—our limited, 16-year-old selves. On Sunday, when Dave graduates with honors from Villanova, I’ll be cheering from the bleachers. We’ve seen, through the years, many others burn out; Dave, now in grad school, just keeps burning brighter.

Our universities have problems, but let’s not pretend we can really perfect them; we ought to remember that fixing a problem is bound to make others arise. We can only teach well, take pride as the people around us succeed, and maybe remember what Alcuin said:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Even in his grim and troubled era, a great teacher knew what we often forget: that flawed institutions can still make us more than we are.

“Give me a word, give me a sign…”

You may be enriching your knowledge and refining your scholarship, American Blogging Medievalist Community, but one Washington cathedral is having the best weekend ever.

For three nights, Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter is projecting a colorful slide show onto the western and southern sides of the National Cathedral. Supposedly, the images are devoted to “illustrating [the cathedral’s] mission of reconciliation, spotlighting its role as a spiritual beacon for the nation, and proclaiming hope for all humankind,” but mostly they’re just eye-popping fun.

Thousands of people gathered on the grounds tonight. Traffic slowed; families kept their kids up late; couples huddled in the gardens and on moonlit benches; a group of frat guys cheered like sports fans every time the colors changed; and an older lady told me that the light show was “better than fireworks, because here you have time to think about each one.”

Groovy, baby!

We are stardust, we are golden…

One passerby muttered, “How much artistic skill does it take to project an image onto a building?” There’s an argument to be made from that, but how often do workaholic Washingtonians pause to look up and reflect? Making stressed people patient with lights, shapes, and symbols—that, in itself, is an art.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program…

So—most medievalists are off to Kalamazoo, leaving the rest of us to entertain ourselves.

Fair enough. Let’s call a 48-hour moratorium on medievalism and try something different: a Roger Miller Video Tribute Weekend.

Everyone knows “King of the Road.” This version has an extra helping of Andy Williams.

Here’s a 1966 performance of “England Swings,” enhanced with some unbelievable backup dancers. If that version is too slow for you, enjoy this mesmerizing remix.

As the minstrel-rooster in Disney’s animated Robin Hood, Miller contributed three charming songs: “Whistle Stop,” “Oo-De-Lally,” and “Not in Nottingham.” (“Whistle Stop” you already know; a sped-up sample later accompanied the Internet’s ur-meme, the Hamster Dance.)

“In the Summertime” is pretty good, but Miller’s early-’90s performance of “Dang Me” is as sweet as maple surple.

Here’s Miller horsing around with Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, and Dean Martin.

Here’s an all-too-brief clip of Miller fiddlin’ away on “Orange Blossom Special.”

Some of us discovered melancholy when we first heard “One Dyin’ and a Buryin’.”

“Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go” may get you misty-eyed, too.

Finally, there’s only one way to close out a Roger Miller Video Tribute Weekend: chicken medley!