Archive for October, 2008


“Going to a party where no one’s still alive…”

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.

Why not crash a dead man’s party?

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.

Some stories terrify with their very existence, like the story of “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive.”

“Think happy thoughts, my children, or the scary 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 five-year-old nephew might say: Skeery!

“Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace…”

[Here’s the latest 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.]

In 1997, when Lloyd Alexander channeled his enjoyment of the Mahabarata and the Ramayana into his own original work of fiction, he promised “a feast of many flavors: high adventure, poetic romance, moments of wild comedy and dark tragedy, anguish at promises broken, joy at promises kept.” The resulting novel, The Iron Ring, recasts the world of Indian epic while arguing against the glorification of the warrior ethos that typically defines the epic hero. A less skilled storyteller might have produced a fumbled pastiche of Indian exoticism while failing to do justice to his sources, but Alexander spent a lifetime thinking about what he called “our universal heritage of story.” Mindful of the constants of human experience, The Iron Ring is a worthy return to one of Alexander’s great themes: how our moral choices determine who we turn out to be.

Tamar, the young king of Sundari, is decent but untested. When a strange traveler exploits Tamar’s hospitality and challenges him to a game of dice, the naive king ends up wagering his life—and quickly loses it to his opponent. Tamar must then make good on his debt by abandoning his own kingdom and seeking the homeland of his mysterious visitor. To Tamar’s shock, a black iron ring appears on his finger, a token of his rashness and a symbol of the questions that vex him: How are the responsibilities of a warrior different from those of a king? Are we beholden to the moral and ethical codes dictated by our place in society, or are we free to heed our individual consciences—and if so, at what cost?

As Tamar stumbles toward enlightenment, he attracts, as most Alexander heroes do, an unlikely group of friends: a high-minded brahmin, a devious monkey king, a disheveled and neurotic eagle, a clever milkmaid, and a usurped king who longs to reclaim his throne. Most of these characters are types familiar to readers of Alexander’s other novels, but The Iron Ring unfolds according to rules of its own. The injustice of the caste system and the characters’ obsessions with their own dharmas ensure that this pseudo-India is more than just Prydain in exotic trappings, even as Alexander suggests that love, loyalty, and friendship transcend the systems of honor and social standing that threaten to constrain the best aspects of human nature.

Disarmed by the whimsical birds, bears, brahmins, and monkeys who exchange humorous banter, the reader of The Iron Ring soon sobers up as Alexander gently explores the manifestations of the divine in our daily lives and paints a disquieting portrait of the chandalas, the wretches who wash and cremate the corpses of paupers. When Tamar joins the war to help the noble Ashwara regain his kingdom, The Iron Ring also considers the morality of the battlefield, a place that to Alexander is always chaotic, vivid, terrifying, and deeply personal:

The little worm of fear stirred. It was still alive. It had only been sleeping. Tamar shuddered so violently he could scarcely grip his blade. Ashwara’s warriors were grappling hand to hand with their attackers. There were no ranks, no formations, only swarms of figures that broke apart and clashed together again. Someone had begun shouting “Sankula! Sankula!” The cry spread: one voice, then another. The whole camp seemed to heave like a single, convulsing body.

“Sankula!” Roaring, cursing warriors flung aside broken weapons or ripped at opponents’ faces with jagged ends of shattered blades, clawing, kicking, gouging—it was all sankula. Tamar ran blindly on. Haskhat at his heels, he lunged through a thicket of flailing arms and legs, struggling to reach Ashwara’s tent. Free from the press of warriors, he sped across a patch of empty ground, lost his footing in a slick of mud, and pitched headlong. When he realized it was not mud, he promptly threw up and continued doing so until his stomach turned inside out.

Choosing fear over bravery and compassion over violence, Tamar confronts a new and more profound question: “Can any man kill and keep his heart pure, or is all slaughter alike?”

In the early 1980s, Alexander used his Westmark trilogy to explore how even a justifiable killing can haunt and compromise the killer. Fifteen years later, in The Iron Ring, he offers a more idealistic model for moral maturity, urging his young readers to be merciful, generous, and self-critical even if their peers expect them to behave otherwise. That moral decisions sometimes lead to heartbreak rather than happiness is a difficult truth that Alexander never denies; the losses suffered by characters in The Iron Ring implicitly affirm it. Tamar’s friend Adi-Kavi notes it more directly: “Astonishing how you can vex so many people all at once,” he concludes, “by simply being what you are.”

“I think she understood, but she never spoke…”

What sort of uncle darts into French Quarter traffic with a five-year-old to take snapshots of medieval-themed statuary? A very bad uncle.

“I think you’re a good uncle,” he insisted later over ice cream cones, reminding me that we should all be quicker to heed the beatific wisdom of children.

But what say you, Miss of Arc?

On the matter of children playing in traffic, the Maid of Orleans has chosen saintly silence.

“…live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime.”

When Beverly Hills Chihuahua makes you ponder Chaucer’s use of the beast-fable, and when the layout of a nearby jungle gym—a roofed octagonal structure joined to a separate rectangular building by a long, raised corridor—reminds you of Charlemagne’s compound at Aachen, then you really do need a vacation. While I hang out with the Viking Nephew and the Levitating Niece, here are some miscellaneous doodads and worthwhile reads from around the Web.

Scott Nokes shows us what it’s like to study Old English at Troy University. Don’t be disarmed by the humor; instead, envy those students the thrill of discovery.

Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe contemplates books that get passed down from scholars to their students.

Adrian Murdoch notes “the most peculiar classical juxtaposition of the day,” a comparison of Hadrian and Jörg Haider.

Dame Eleanor Hull wonders if medievalists are inevitably “late bloomers.”

Ephemeral New York shows us an ornate Manhattan fountain and the mayor who took a bullet in the throat.

Jake Seliger finds Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley more showy than telly.

Jenn at Per Omnia Saecula points out a vivid puppet production of Dante.

New Jersey residents, go see Steven Hart discuss his book The Last Three Miles, even if he can’t deliver those kazoo-playing elephants.

Dave from Studenda Mira sends along a fine travel piece from the New York Times: the story of an arduous Shetland ramble.

Linda takes us to a chapel of St. Roch in France that’s probably safer than the shrine I visited in New Orleans back in June.

On that note, I’m off to help two tiny people reenact a Big Country video.

“Then I went off to fight some battle…”

On Saturday, I’ll be sitting on a panel at “Going Freelance,” a workshop sponsored by AIW and the Johns Hopkins writing program. Tilt your head and you can see the medievalist traces in this event if, like me, you were told in grade school that “freelance” was a term to describe medieval soldiers of fortune. Of course, medieval mercenaries did exist, but “freelance” isn’t a medieval word at all. The term was coined by Sir Walter Scott, the 19th-century author who almost singlehandedly inspired quasi-medieval fandom in the English-speaking world.

From The Knight and the Umbrella, here’s Ian Anstruther explaining how Scott lit the fire under the Victorians who romanticized and reinvented the Middle Ages:

It is hardly possible to realize today the immense influence of this author on contemporary drama, literature and art. His early poems like the Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion, which were first published in 1805 and 1808 respectively, and his great series of tales in prose which began with Waverley in 1814 and reached its peak, according to many critics, with Ivanhoe in 1819 . . . truly hypnotised all who read them.

The proof of this may be seen at a glance in the catalogues of the major exhibitions throughout the country. In the twenty-five years between the first appearance of the Waverley Novels in 1814 and the Eglinton Tournament in 1839, two hundred and sixty-six different pictures inspired by the pen of the “Wizard of the North” appeared in public galleries; every summer without a break, a scene from Ivanhoe was the subject of two of them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of some version of “freelance” appears in 1820, in chapter 34 of Ivanhoe: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.” The OED cites subsequent uses of “free-lance” or “freelance” as a negative term to describe politicians and journalists with minds of their own. By the early 20th century, “freelance” was a verb; soon, it came to refer to the self-employed.

If, in the spirit of medievalism (or at least dorkiness), freelance writers wanted to liken themselves to an authentic figure who represents the reality of late-medieval English contract law, they might see a kindred spirit in the Franklin from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the late 14th century, franklins were a newly prominent class of independent landholder. Not bound by hereditary feudal obligations, a franklin could sell his produce to the highest bidder while negotiating or even canceling deals. Like any successful freelancer, a franklin was blessedly exempt from the 14th-century equivalent of corporate team-building exercises, i.e., clearing woodlands, draining swamps, or taking an arrow in the sternum for a leek-breathed feudal lord.

But can you imagine telling your friends you’re a franklin? Can you imagine writing “franklin” under “occupation” on your tax return? It’s a legacy of the romanticized Middle Ages bequeathed to us by Sir Walter Scott and other writers, artists, and poets that we overlook the agricultural drudgery that defined most medieval lives, so that even we who sit and type all day can dream of jousts and banners bright, and tell ourselves we’re charging into battle.

“She made you tea, asked for your autograph…”

In the wake of economic Ragnarok, as Icelanders contemplate years of subsisting on fish, failed banks such as Glitnir and Kaupthing are suddenly all over the news. We already know that “Glitnir” is a name from Norse mythology, but “Kaupthing” is also a name that’s of interest to medievalists—or to anyone who dabbles in languages.

During the heyday of the Roman Empire, neighboring barbarians apparently absconded with the Latin verb cauponari, “to trade,” and made it a part of their proto-Germanic language. The Vikings who spoke West Norse, a North Germanic language and the parent of modern Icelandic, adopted it for terms like kaup, “bargain, wages,” kaupa, “to buy, to bargain,” kaup-maðr, “trader, merchant,” and kaup-staðr, “market town.” These kaup-words are preserved almost perfectly in modern Icelandic, the language that puts the kaup in Kaupthing.

In East Germanic, kaup settled into Gothic as káupōn, “to traffic,” before the entire language shuffled off to philological Valhalla.

In the West Germanic languages, modern German cultivated Kauf, “a purchase or acquisition,” kaufen, “to buy,” and Kaufmann, “merchant”—with the latter shedding light on a familiar German surname.

Meanwhile, in Old English, the “k” became a “ch” sound in words like ceapian, “to bargain or trade,” ceapman, “merchant,” and ceapstow, “trading place.” Thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, now you know the root of the word “cheap,” you know that “Kaufman” and “Chapman” are basically the same name, and the next time you see English road-signs for Chipstead, Cheapside, and Chepstow, you can easily guess what went on at those places more than a thousand years ago.

All that from a failed Icelandic bank? Absolutely: a wealth of cognates derived from Latin’s token investment in proto-Germanic. Ach—if only you’d put your money in Germanic languages, just think about how rich you’d be today…

“…for the gold in their bags, or the knives in their backs.”

Iceland is bankrupt. The króna is worthless, the banks are disasters, investors in England and Holland are livid, and people are bracing for difficult times. Nobody knows where they’re going from here, but this economic implosion also threatens Iceland’s cherished independence, a notable part of its medieval past.

You can still see where they did it, where Gizurr Thorvaldsson and his henchmen ambushed Snorri Sturluson. Priest, politician, lawyer, and poet, Snorri loved to lounge al fresco in his steamy pool at Reykholt. There, on his own property, on September 23, 1241, his enemies stabbed him to death, probably in his basement. He kind of had it coming: He had used his relatives as pawns in a series of grand political games that made him the wealthiest and most powerful man in Iceland, but also the greediest and most arrogant—until his former son-in-law sought all of those distinctions for himself.

At tiny Reykholt, modern Icelanders have honored Snorri with a statue. As the author of the Prose Edda, Snorri collected fading wisdom that otherwise would have been lost; Heimskringla, his history of the Norse kings, earned him a reputation as the Nordic Thucydides; and he may be the unnamed author of the brutal and humorous Egil’s Saga. All of that is lovely, but in an age that regards writers as rarely consequential, we ought to remember how belletrist Snorri Sturluson, through wild rapacity, helped bring his country to ruin.

In the 13th century, Icelanders saw themselves as a people in moral freefall. Men of all stations openly took mistresses, lawyers exploited the system, and family and friends broke faith with each other for money, all of which made the ninth through eleventh centuries—the earlier era described in the sagas—seem like a golden age. Iceland’s educated men wrote down those sagas; all the while, the kings of Norway looked for a way to take over.

In Heimskringla, Snorri describes the debate that arises when King Olaf of Norway asks the Icelanders to cede him a barren, outlying island. Some Icelanders are fine with the arrangement, but one man, Einar, plays the contrarian:

I am chary of my words about this business, because no one has asked me. But if you wish to have my opinion, then I would say that it were best for the people of our country not to subject themselves here to pay tribute to King Olaf, nor to all those taxes such as he has imposed on Norwegians. And we would impose that bondage not only on ourselves but both on ourselves and our sons and all our people who live in this land; and that bondage this land would never be free or rid of. And though this king be a good one, as I believe he is, yet it is likely to be the case, as always hitherto, that when there is a change in the succession there will be some kings who are good and some who are bad. But if our countrymen would preserve their freedom, such as they have had ever since they settled here, then it would be best not to let the king get any hold here, whether it be a piece of land or our promises to pay fixed taxes, which might be interpreted as due from subjects.

Snorri wrote that episode; he put those words in Einar’s mouth. But Snorri also sought the patronage of the Norwegian king, which made his countrymen suspicious of him; on the other hand, he smoothed over tensions with Norwegian merchants and averted a Norwegian invasion. But Snorri lived for Snorri, and when he visited Norway in 1237 with a seditious friend and then sailed for home in 1239 without the king’s permission, he was branded a traitor. After Snorri’s killing, the Norwegian king claimed his vast landholdings as compensation. Through recklessness and greed, Snorri had, in death, compromised his country’s independence by giving the Norwegian throne a foothold, thus ending Iceland’s four-century run as a monarchy-free, oligarchic commonwealth. Two decades later, most Icelanders swore oaths of loyalty to the king; within two years, Iceland belonged to Norway.

Independence has long been a hallmark of Icelandic exceptionalism, mostly because it’s been so elusive. After centuries of rule by Norway and Denmark, Iceland achieved independence in 1944 as Denmark was otherwise occupied. The establishment of a NATO base in 1951, so soon after independence, prompted noticeable grief in Iceland, but the latter half of the 20th century was a time of unprecedented wealth and progress—all of which came crashing down last week.

The likely solutions are troubling. There’s talk of an IMF bailout, the króna is being declared “history,” and Iceland may need to join the EU and adopt the euro as its currency. The Russians have offered a massive loan, which troubles old Norway, while strange rumors are circulating that Iceland will let Russia use the now-vacant NATO base. Ominously, the prime minister warned that in times of trouble, “one has to look for new friends.”

History doesn’t repeat itself; that’s a chestnut the Icelanders shouldn’t abide. Suffering now from the schemes of modern Snorris, they also can’t afford to pause and be cautious like Einar. Those of us who are fond of Iceland will hope for a leader who’s made for these times, someone who knows this crisis has no precedent but whose response will show an appreciation for that medieval love of independence—and the value of those first 400 years.

“And she was drifting through the backyard…”

Medievalists get jaded. Economic meltdowns? Long-distance relationships? Shark attacks? It’s all been done, and we can show you a text, some chunk of rock, or a saint’s life that said the same thing centuries ago. Studying history is liberating; it lets you be fascinated by the world around you but comforted by the fact that so little in life turns out to be truly new.

So when an email this weekend shocked me, I fell back on medieval precedent—but I found it wanting, because if the modern world throws novelty at you, and if a loved one is involved, then nothing can brace you for strange and miraculous news:

“Your niece has learned how to levitate.”

“…empty-handed on the cold wind to Valhalla.”

There’s medievalism everywhere, even in the midst of an Icelandic banking crisis.

Iceland’s three largest banks have amassed a combined debt that’s nine times more than the country’s $19 billion GDP. On Friday, the Icelandic government intervened and bailed out the third-largest bank, the curiously named Glitnir.

Glitnir hasn’t always been Glitnir. Founded in 1904 as Íslandsbanki, the bank was renamed in 2006 “to reflect our wider Nordic tradition and to distinguish a new era of growth and expansion,” according to the Glitnir Web site. To the Icelanders’ Norse forefathers, Glitnir was one of several splendid places high above. In the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, Gangleri is impressed by how much knowledge an Æsir king can offer about these places: Mikil tíðindi kannþú at segja af himnum, he tells him. You can see the relation to English there if you squint: “Much tidings can you say of the heavens.”

Here’s what the Prose Edda says about Glitnir:

Forseti is the name of the son of Baldr and Nanna Nep’s daughter. He has a hall in heaven called Glitnir, and whoever comes to him with difficult legal disputes, they all leave with their differences settled. It is the best place of judgment among gods and men. Thus it says here:

There is a hall called Glitnir, it is held up by golden pillars and likewise roofed with silver. There Forseti dwells most days and settles all disputes.

“Forseti,” formerly the name of a Norse god of justice and peace, is now the Icelandic word for “president,” a choice that suggests optimism among the founders of the modern Icelandic republic. No journalist has yet alluded to Ragnarok in stories about the economic meltdown, but that’s understandable, because a failed bank named after a gleaming hall of divine judgment harks back to a concept far more timeless than anything medieval: good, old-fashioned irony.

“In vain they struggle for the vision fair.”

Iceland and Camelot rarely collide—which is why I was pleased to find, via Adrian Murdoch, this perplexing headline:

Quest for Holy Grail in Iceland Unsuccessful

As Murdoch points out, this story is “Dan Brown in 200 words”:

In Botticelli’s “Primavera” a series of numeric symbols form the date March 14, 1319, which somehow supports Gianazza’s theory, and in da Vinci’s “Last Supper” Gianazza believes to have found outlines matching the landscape at Kjölur.

Further clues were found in Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and an ancient Icelandic script states that poet and politician Snorri Sturluson was accompanied by “eighty armored Eastmen” at the Althingi parliament in 1217, who could have been the Knights Templars.

To assuage the disappointment of these ardent questers, I offer an alternate headline:

Quest for Holy Grail in Jeff’s Apartment Unsuccessful

However, a quest through the kitchen here at “Quid Plura?” headquarters did turn up a Serbian Coke bottle, a possibly stolen coffee cup from the University of Iceland, a can of Edward G. Robinson pipe tobacco, a Pac-Man tumbler, and a Newfoundland “Viking Millennium” souvenir mug.

Two Iceland-themed drinking vessels? That’s no coincidence, especially not when “Pac-Man” so closely resembles Old Norse *pakki-maðr, “man carrying a bundle.” And what is a pipe but a small, skinny, smokable grail? I confess, I don’t see how the Coke bottle completes the message, but one anagram of “Serbian” is “i b n arse.” Whatever can it mean?