Archive for January, 2009


“…hiding out in tree-tops, shouting out rude names.”

Medieval Icelanders may not have been able to charge $100,000 per second for advertising, but they too had their spectator sports, including the ball games that accompanied the two-day bout of feasting and drinking at the start of every winter.

In Gisli’s Saga, crowds gather to cheer on their favorite players of knattleikr, a sport sometimes described as a combination of rugby, hockey, cricket, and lacrosse. Gisli—widely acclaimed as the second-cleverest outlaw in the sagas—hits the ice against a background of family drama: Gisli’s wife’s brother, Vestein, has just been murdered, because Gisli’s sister-in-law, Asgerd, was making eyes at him, which made Asgerd’s husband, Gisli’s brother Thorkel, jealous. Thorgrim, who’s married to the sister of Thorkel and Gisli, is the likely suspect.

Get all that? Doesn’t matter. Here (from Martin Regal’s translation) are Gisli and Thorgrim working out their rivalry on the frozen gridiron, with Thogrim sort of confessing to the murder in skaldic verse:

The games now started up as if nothing had happened. Gisli and his brother-in-law, Thorgrim, usually played against each other. There was some disagreement as to who was the stronger, but most people thought it was Gisli. They played ball games at Seftjorn pond and there was always a large crowd.

One day, when the gathering was even larger than usual, Gisli suggested that the game be evenly matched.

“That’s exactly what we want,” said Thorkel. “What’s more, we don’t want you to hold back against Thorgrim. Word is going around that you are not giving your all. I’d be pleased to see you honoured if you are the stronger.”

“We have not been fully proven against each other yet,” said Gisli, “but perhaps it’s leading up to that.”

They started the game and Thorgrim was outmatched. Gisli brought him down and the ball went out of play. Then Gisli went for the ball, but Thorgrim held him back and stopped him from getting it. Then Gisli tackled Thorgrim so hard that he could do nothing to stop falling. His knuckles were grazed, blood rushed from his nose and the flesh was scraped from his knees. Thorgrim rose very slowly, looked towards Vestein’s burial mound, and said:

Spear screeched in his wound
sorely — I cannot be sorry.

Running, Gisli took the ball and pitched it between Thorgrim’s shoulder-blades. The blow thrust him flat on his face. Then Gisli said

Ball smashed his shoulders
broadly — I cannot be sorry.

Thorkel sprang to his feet and said, “It’s clear who is the strongest and most highly accomplished. Now, let’s put an end to this.” And so they did.

A modern reader can greet Gisli’s Saga with a sigh of relief, happy not to be living in those awful Middle Ages. After all, the days when star athletes might work out their personal issues on the field or throw tantrums, let alone murder someone, are clearly long behind us.

“Next time, la luna…”

On Monday, in the wake of its national banking meltdown, the Icelandic government collapsed, its demise hastened by a saga-era tradition: the angry mob. The Economist can do a better job of explaining the political implications than I ever could; I’ll only note that most photos of the protests in front of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, show crowds congregated in Austurvöllur, one of Reykjavik’s most picturesque public squares and—come on, surely you saw this coming—a place of symbolic interest to medievalists.

According to Landnámabók, the Icelandic “Book of Settlements,” the first permanent Nordic settler in Iceland was Ingólfr Arnarson, who put down roots in A.D. 874. Written centuries after the fact, Landnámabók may not be a perfectly reliable source, but Ingólfr’s legend is kind of fun:

That summer when Ingolf set out with his companions to settle Iceland, Harald Fairhair had had been for twelve years King over Norway. There had elapsed from the creation of the world six thousand and seventy three winters, and from the Incarnation of our Lord eight hundred and seventy four years. They held together until they sighted Iceland, then they separated. When Ingolf sighted Iceland he cast overboard his high seat pillars for an omen, and he made the vow that he would settle there wherever his high seat pillar came ashore.

Ingólfr’s foster brother, Hjorleif, settled west of where Ingólfr camped out, but he was killed by his Irish slaves. Ingólfr took revenge and killed them—supposedly naming the Westman Islands after the Irishmen in the process—while his own slaves, Karli and Vifill, searched the coast for his cast-off pillars. Karli, who came across the pillars three winters later, found the ritual anticlimactic. “To an evil end did we pass through goodly country-sides,” he griped, “that we should take up abode on this outlying ness.” Karli ran away—but when Ingólfr, his slaves, and the entourage he filched from his dead foster brother raised the recovered pillars, they were witnessing, of course, the founding of Reykjavik.

Austurvöllur is said to have been one of Ingólfr’s hayfields; today a statue of 19th-century independence campaigner Jon Sigurdsson stands in its center, with the Icelandic parliament and the country’s most venerable church in sight. I like the symbolism of Icelandic democracy playing out on Ingólfr Arnarson’s old property. Maybe there’s a certain pagan allure to the legend of the pillars, a plain case of casting your fate to the cold northern tides, as the British and the Dutch did with their Icelandic bank accounts, but the determination of the modern protesters also recalls lines from the Poetic Edda that Ingólfr Arnarson probably knew:

Erat maðr alls vesall,
þótt hann sé illa heill;
sumr er af sonum sæll,
sumr af frændum,
sumr af fé ærnu,
sumr af verkum vel.

Betra er lifðum
en sé ólifðum,
ey getr kvikr kú;
eld sá ek upp brenna
auðgum manni fyrir,
en úti var dauðr fyr durum.

“No man is wholly wretched, though he have ill luck,” these verses read in English. “One is blessed with sons, another with kinsmen, another has sufficient money, another has done decent deeds. Better to live than not to live; the living man gets the cow. I saw a fire blaze up for the wealthy man, but he was dead outside his door.” The wisp of smoke that passes for Nordic optimism infuses those lines, asserting that problems can always get worse. Ingólfr’s heirs, angrily milling about Austurvöllur with placards and flags, are raising their pillar on a much less medieval foundation: the notion that Iceland can also be better.

“He’s got this dream about buying some land…”

As regular readers know, Charlemagne was not, by nature, an urbanite. “This city desert makes you feel so cold,” he wrote to Alcuin from Rome in the year 800. “It’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul.” (Tot cives, sed animam non habet.) Frankly, I think the old emperor was onto something. After all, what’s the real value of having mass transit and a post office within walking distance when instead, with sound financial planning, you can spend your golden years pacing the ramparts of a mountaintop fortress while scanning the horizon for orcs?

Apparently, one European real-estate firm believes Charlemagne’s name can help sell such a castle:

A castle which straddles the border between Tuscany and Umbria and whose first known owner was Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, has been launched on the market.

The location is on the old road between Rome to Florence passed here and famous travellers, among them Goethe, Byron and Hawthorne, visited the castle.

Many of the castle’s original features such as gunports, battlements, moat, dungeon are still intact or carefully restored to the highest standards. The circular courtyard encloses five buildings: the main palace, the guest house, the church, the old dungeon and the garage.The grounds extend to 32 acres of olive groves and woods.

The castle is a short drive from central Italy’s main historical cities, 45 minutes from Siena, 1 hour from Florence and Orvieto, 1hr 45 from Rome, 10 mn from Cortona and 30 mn from Perugia and Montepulciano. There is also a helipad on site.

According to the International Herald Tribune, the castle dates from 802, so even if Charlemagne did own the property, he didn’t spend a single night there, because he never returned to Italy after his imperial coronation. For €13 million, I’d want proof that the emperor once admired those olive groves—or at least evidence that he used the helipad.

“Little lines, in the ice, splitting, splitting sound…”

So yesterday, Washington got snowed on; tonight, freezing rain has encrusted the city in ice, which, while all sparkly and picturesque, is sufficiently treacherous to prevent a muddle-headed, flu-fighting medievalist from hitting the streets at 2 a.m. in search of his remedy of choice: an assortment of donuts from 7-Eleven.

And so, donut-deprived, frosting-forlorn, bereft of blueberry filling, I can only squint pensively at the snow from my window and be glad I’m not Charlemagne, who likewise tries to settle his brain with a bit of twilight snow-gazing in Longfellow’s “Eginhard and Emma”:

That night the Emperor, sleepless with the cares
And troubles that attend on state affairs,
Had risen before the dawn, and musing gazed
Into the silent night, as one amazed
To see the calm that reigned o’er all supreme,
When his own reign was but a troubled dream.
The moon lit up the gables capped with snow,
And the white roofs, and half the court below,
And he beheld a form, that seemed to cower
Beneath a burden, come from Emma’s tower…

You’ll have to read the whole thing to find out what Charlemagne spied with his imperial eye. (Hint: it wasn’t a donut.)

The story of Eginhard and Emma was popular during the 19th century: It was retold in corny books about Rhineland legends, Strindberg turned it into a short story, and Schubert made it part of his opera Fierrabras. How the actual fling between Charlemagne’s daughter Berta and his adviser Angilbert got transformed into a romance between Charlemagne’s biographer and a wholly fictional daughter is a mystery to me, but it’s a ready-made thesis for a dissertation, or at least the starting point for an ambitious novelist with a penchant for romantic fantasy.

To his credit, Longfellow kept his version both eloquent and concise, giving us lots of memorable couplets and a lovely description of Alcuin. It’s no donut—but really, what is?

“Hast du etwas Zeit für mich..?”

New posts are coming, but not yet. Work, writing, and teaching are getting in the way, plus I’m scrambling to get my German up to speed. So what better for a Friday than a miscellany of recent German links?

Does the daily grind make you wish you were a chicken, dämmlich aber froh? In 1936, these Germans pretending to be New Yorkers agreed with you.

If you want to see the passion play at Oberammergau in 2010, AAA suggests you start your planning now.

Lingwë weighs Germanic and Romance roots as he knocks around the etymology of “gavel.”

Long known for his Hollywood soundtracks, Austrian-born composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is being rediscovered by conductors.

Gypsy Scholar notes the mystery of German artist Stefan Mart.

Lost Fort has photos of Roman weapons from Saalburg fortress.

As the 2,000th anniversary of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest approaches, Adrian Murdoch has been following the early press coverage, including articles about the use of history by modern politicians.

Teutoberg shmeutoberg! Early September will also mark the 50th anniversary of the patent on my favorite train-station delicacy, currywurst.

Speaking of fast food, Cranky Professor reports sad news: the inventor of the döner kebab has died.

Finally, here’s David Bowie singing—what else?—“Helden.”

“…even if you do got a two-piece, custom-made pool cue.”

The figures are eloquent. Of 109 sovereigns, 65 were assassinated, 12 died in convent or prison, 3 died of hunger, 18 were castrated or had their eyes put out, their noses or hands cut off, and the rest were poisoned, suffocated, strangled, stabbed, thrown down from the top of a column or ignominiously hunted down. In 1058 years there were 65 revolutions of palace, street or barracks and 65 dethronements.

— René Guerdan, Byzantium: Its Triumphs and Tragedies

There’s something to be said for the peaceful transfer of power, isn’t there?

“…but on the way, you know that I will abide.”

Living through history is unnerving. As an unknown number of visitors descend upon the city—a million strong? Five million? A few hundred thousand?—the urban core becomes an armed camp, the river becomes a defensive wall, and mobs cross the bridges on foot. After clambering over monuments, some folks shack up with locals who’ve turned into hostelers, a few of them are bound to be scammed, and the authorities scramble to react to an influx of tourists whose movements are decentralized and largely spontaneous.

The medieval Romans may not have draped patriotic bunting across the facades of their buildings, but 710 years ago, they braced for unprecedented crowds. In late 1299, apparently with no official prompting, pilgrims began streaming into Rome, driven by the widespread belief that the year ahead offered special blessings to those who visited the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Here’s Paul Hetherington on what became the Church’s first Jubilee Year:

The word spread like wildfire through Europe, and even by New Year’s Eve of 1299 a great crowd had assembled at St. Peter’s to greet the opening of the Jubilee Year at midnight. From then on, the crowds flocked to Rome from all over the known world. No one had ever experienced anything like it before. The crowds were so massive that the papal police had to institute a keep-right system for all the crowds crossing the bridge on foot that led over the Tiber to St. Peter’s . . .

The spontaneity and scale of the Jubilee took everyone by surprise. Even the pope, Boniface VIII, seems to have been nonplussed by it, and only issued the decree authorizing it late in February 1300. The various estimates made by contemporaries of the numbers that visited Rome vary so wildly that none can be regarded as trustworthy, but it was probably somewhere between one and two million.

Hetherington translates an eyewitness account by chronicler William Ventura, who visited Rome at the end of 1300:

It was a marvellous thing how many went to Rome in that year, for I was there and stayed for 15 days. Of bread, wine, meat, fish, and fodder for horses there was, but all at special prices…Leaving Rome on Christmas Eve I saw a great crowd that I was not able to number; there was a report among the Romans that there were then more than two million men and women in the city. Several times I saw men and women trampled under the feet of others, and even I was in the same danger, only just escaping on several occasions. The Pope received an untold amount of money from them, as day and night two priests stood at the altar of St. Paul’s holding rakes in their hands, raking in infinite money…And I, William, was there and earned fifty years and more of indulgence. Each hundred years it will be the same.

Like all pilgrimages, Tuesday’s inauguration and its attendant brouhaha will be a pageant of honor, corruption, villainy, and holiness, so if you’re in town, and if your peregrinations take you to Connecticut Avenue, look for me. Adapting the experience of William Ventura to Washington tradition, I’ll be pacing the sidewalk with ful devout corage and wielding my new favorite medieval-themed religious implement, the money rake. Commit yourself to change—or simply fling cash. I promise it will go someplace deserving. Weary pilgrim, have faith in me: I wol yow nat deceyve.

“The piano is firewood, Times Square is a dream…”

After Christmas, winter just gets mean. Here are some spiffy links to get you through the mid-week shivers.

Scott Nokes watched the horrible new Decameron-inspired movie so you don’t have to bother. Thanks, man!

Adrian Murdoch notes that the adventures of Asterix and Obelix have sold 250,000 copies in Plattdeutsch translation. (Bitte, was heißt “becoming Charlemagne” auf Plattdeutsch?)

The Economist visits pilgrimage sites in the Rhineland, an experience one commenter calls “redolent as all get out.” (I don’t know what that means either.)

Victoria Strauss shows you how not to e-publish.

Eternally Cool reports that the Forum is getting a makeover and shines light on the Ara Pacis.

Lingwë notes the pending release of an unpublished Tolkien poem, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

Lex Fajardo unveils the cover art for Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland. (Note the prominence of Abul Abaz—and Charlemagne’s mustache.)

Via Books, Inq., comes a poem about bad, bad spelling: “The Ruba’iyat of the Maison Des Girrafes.”

Nothing escapes the notice of the Internet: Wikipedia has an entire page on television’s “unseen characters.”

American novelist Olen Steinhauer lives in Novi Sad, Serbia, which had its heat shut off on Christmas.

Ephemeral New York reminds us that once, the Bronx Zoo exhibited a human being.

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

Twenty-three years ago this month, I convinced my folks to drive me to the toy store to buy something that toy stores no longer sell. Most people didn’t know what a modem was, but when I whipped up an ASCII animation showing us making the trip as a family and emerging in triumph from the Toys R Us, my parents were amused enough to give me a lift, if understandably skeptical. In 1986, the online world was too tiny to be mythologized. Wild stories about local kids “changing the positions of satellites up in the blue heavens” sometimes made the news, but online bulletin-boards were “here there be dragons” outlands for all but a few, and no one noticed gaming pioneers as they racked up monstrous Compuserve bills playing Hangman at 300 baud.

Lacking any real plan, I used my modem to connect to a suburban archipelago of slow, single-line BBSes, not knowing that the experience would teach me how to write. A few years later, when I was the only English major banging out e-mail on an X-term in the basement of the computer science building, I didn’t know I was an early adapter of a network that would soon link millions of offices and homes while uprooting the business models of several industries, including publishing. I only knew that I sensed opportunity.

I thought about those days when I read Jake Seliger’s post about a New York Times article pointing out the obvious: the online market for used books is a boon for readers. Jake wondered how cheap books will affect the business of publishing, and while I don’t know what the future holds for companies that can’t adapt, I told him I didn’t think a bonanza of secondhand books was necessarily bad for authors:

As someone who recently entered the publishing world as a lower-midlist author, I’ve thought quite a bit about the implications of the online market for used and discount books. When someone buys my book used on Amazon for $4 instead of paying $12 for a new paperback, that’s around 75 cents in royalties I don’t see—but I’d be awfully short-sighted to gripe about that, because the glorious churn of the used-book market may help me in the long run. Today’s budget-conscious undergraduate may be tomorrow’s history teacher; perhaps he’ll assign my book to his class of twenty students five years from now. Or maybe he’ll recommend the book to a friend who then downloads a copy to his Kindle, thereby putting around $2 in my pocket. Or maybe he hates the book so much that he strenuously avoids my next one, thus sparing me a one-star Amazon review that would have dissuaded potential readers.

Who knows? I do know that I’d be a fool to gripe about the Internet, because thanks to the Web–which includes everything from Amazon to bloggers to podcasts to the online BookTV archives—I’ve sold more copies of my book than the 50 or so secondhand copies currently listed on Amazon. Fretful authors and publishers who dread the advent of the hyper-efficient online book market may yet be vindicated, but I’m not convinced that budget-conscious book-buyers are the only ones who stand to benefit from it.

Compared to a fantasy world in which Amazon, the big bookstore chains, and used-book dealers simultaneously thrive (and where all of our orders are, presumably, delivered by a Deschanel sister on a flying unicorn), the current situation looks bleak—but as an author, a voracious book-buyer, and someone who’d be nowhere without the Internet, I prefer the here-and-now to the real world of twenty years ago, when a suburban “bookstore” was a nook in the mall stocked only with bestsellers, a few shelves of genre fiction, some classics, and the latest comic-strip anthologies.

Whether my career thrives or stalls, I’m glad I’m a writer now. I can get obscure articles in minutes rather then weeks, and people on the subway can use a telephone to order and read my books from stores that never close. Best of all, my cable modem is more than 6,500 times faster than the modem I bought in 1986, but it cost the same amount: around 60 bucks (or half the price in 1986 dollars). Confusion may be justified, but hold off on the Anglo-Saxon elegies; not everything is worse than it used to be.

“…and all the lies the wise ones tell.”

[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.]

“I used the imaginary kingdom not as a sentimentalized fairyland, but as an opening wedge to express what I hoped would be some very hard truths,” Lloyd Alexander once said, explaining that fantasy and fairy tales, far from being escapist, are “the way to understand reality.” In The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, Alexander asks a tricky question: What happens when reality must be lived but can never be explained, not even by fairy tales?

The novel starts abruptly: ne’er-do-well Lukas-Kasha wanders through the village square and decides to upstage Battisto, an itinerant magician performing hackneyed tricks. At Battisto’s request, Lukas stares into a bucket of water and suddenly washes ashore in the exotic land of Abadan—where, in fulfillment of prophecy, he is hailed as king. Quickly bored by royal luxury, Lukas develops a conscience and begins to study the workings of his government in an attempt to become a proper statesman. Hated by his scheming vizier but aided by a poet and a secretive slave-girl, Lukas also tries to end the pointless war with the neighboring Bishingari. Faced with failure, he discovers the grave responsibilities that come with being a serious person—all the while wondering why Battisto sent him to Abadan in the first place.

Published in 1978, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha is rife with themes developed more carefully by Alexander in later decades. As in The Iron Ring and The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, a young king and queen learn humility; as in the Westmark books, a king concludes that monarchies are obsolete; as in The Rope Trick, the hero finds no answers to baffling existential quandaries. A fine novel in its own right, Lukas-Kasha stands out from those other books in its surprising and unconventional final chapter. Poignant but unsentimental, Lukas-Kasha offers something surprising and sad: the truth of a bittersweet ending.