Archive for December, 2008


“…with kitchen prose and gutter rhymes.”

[UPDATE: As of January 2010, information on purchasing or downloading The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier can be found here.]

Last December, I posted a PDF of “The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier,” a translation of a 972-line Middle Scots romance from the 15th century. This translation was, in part, an attempt to prove to myself that I could turn 75 of those complex, thirteen-line, rhyming, alliterative stanzas into modern English poetry.

Sharp-eyed readers sent me useful comments, and although I hadn’t expected anyone to be looking for a translation of this obscure poem, quite a few people do regularly search for it and find it via Google. As a result, I’ve corrected two typos, made minor edits, and posted a second revision of the text. You can download the new low-res PDF (for free!) from this page.

For students of medieval literature, “Ralph the Collier” has much to recommend it: combat, class warfare, burlesque humor, inclement weather, Yuletide feasts, politically incorrect proselytizing—plus it rhymes and alliterates. As another Christmas hero named Ralph observed, “sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.” The hard-earned but ultimately comic lessons learned by Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier suggest that sometimes, a sad tale’s not best for winter after all.

“You stand in the shadows, or reach for the sky.”

If you spent any time in an airport this past weekend, you were probably frustrated by crowds, queues, and bureaucracy—but at least your aircraft was able to turn and land. Abbas Qasim ibn Firnas would have envied you. As an article in the latest Saudi Aramco World magazine points out, Ibn Firnas was a music teacher in ninth-century Cordoba whose technological and cultural accomplishments earned him an honored place in the annals of failed medieval attempts to fly:

About 875, Ibn Firnas, who was by then 65 years old, built a flying apparatus by placing feathers on a wooden frame that he could attach to his shoulders and outstretched arms. His is the first documented record of a primitive glider.

Thanks to the 17th-century Moroccan scholar al-Maqqari, two accounts of Ibn Firnas’s flight survive. One states, “Having constructed the final version of his glider, to celebrate its success, he invited the people of Córdoba to come and witness his flight. People watched from a nearby mountain as he flew some distance, but then the glider plummeted to the ground, causing him to injure his back.”

The second account says that he jumped from a wall, flapped up higher than his starting point, turned, and then landed hard back on the wall, claiming afterward that he had not noticed how birds use their tails to land, and that he had omitted to put a tail on his flying apparatus.

Given that he did not attempt to fly again, the first and less successful version of his flight appears most plausible, especially as his death at age 78 appears to have resulted from an ongoing struggle with a back injury.

The article mentions other medieval dreamers who failed to slip the surly bonds of Earth, but Ibn Firnas is arguably the most important symbol of the dream of flight in the Islamic world:

Today, although the name of Ibn Firnas is hardly known in the West, he remains a popular historical figure in the Arab world. In Qatar, the Doha International Airport’s computerized systems management program is named “Firnas.” In Baghdad, a statue of Ibn Firnas stands on the road to the Baghdad International Airport, and a smaller airport in northern Baghdad is named after him. The legacy he would perhaps appreciate most, however, is that his name has been given to a crater on the far side of the moon—the farthest humans have yet explored.

Of course, we Westerners know that the first medieval person to fly was Miles O’Keeffe, who built one heck of a hang glider—but the less said about that, the better…