Archive for May, 2009


“Walk without rhythm, it won’t attract the worm…”

When I was in Iceland in 1998, I stood where the locals chucked their pagan idols over the falls; I saw where Snorri Sturluson met his doom; and I got chased away from Hliðarendi by a dog. Five minutes later, Americans started visiting Iceland in droves; more recently, we all learned what happens when a nation that subsists on fishing and aluminum smelting decides to have a go at investment banking. I’m still abnormally fond of Iceland, but one of my sharpest classmates and traveling companions from ’98 has been busy indeed. He turned his passion into scholarship and became, to my delight, an expert on medieval Icelandic combat.

An award-winning acoustic engineer with a doctorate from MIT and nearly two dozen patents to his name, William R. Short made the sort of radical career change most people only dream of. Bill is now the Viking-in-residence at the Higgins Armory Museum and the author of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques, a new book that reflects a decade spent researching, reconstructing, and demonstrating the fighting methods of saga heroes.

“Little in my academic training prepared me for life as a Viking in a museum,” Bill says on his Web site, but he’s being modest; his scientific background is exactly what makes Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques a valuable book. Rather than rush into the fray armed only with the romanticism that gives historical reenactors a bad name, Bill methodically defines his terms; he provides a taxonomy of Viking arms that extends even to such improvised weapons as rocks and household implements; and he surveys the written, visual, forensic, and archaeological sources, explaining their limitations and, most tantalizingly, pointing out where text and object disagree. Non-scholars and newcomers to the Viking arsenal will find this book quite readable, but medievalists in other fields will be intrigued by wonderfully trivial mysteries: For example, there’s no evidence for the chin-straps that surely held Viking helmets atop Viking heads, and nothing is known about several weapons named in the sagas but misleadingly translated into English as “hallberd.”

Already a useful reference work, Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques also documents efforts by Bill and his colleagues to rethink saga-era melee not as “two hairy men trading great blows with one another, almost as if they were trying to chop down trees” but as its own sort of martial art. Bill repeatedly stresses the conjecture and speculation that goes into reconstructing the combat techniques of medieval Icelanders, but the photographic sequences in this book convincingly show the versatility of a good, small shield, and also why a spear was no match for a sword.

I thought I had little interest in Viking combat, but the next time I pick up Njal’s Saga, I’ll be glad that Bill’s book has armed me with a whole new set of visuals. Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques is a concise but thorough handbook for scholars, saga readers, and even historical novelists; it’s the sort of work that puts a good face on independent scholarship and a worthy, bearded face on historical reenactment.

“We cannot just write off his final scene…”

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,
As when autumn fields grow white with birds.

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

“…the dreams all made solid, are the dreams all made real.”

After fifteen weeks of teaching about King Arthur, reading about King Arthur, gabbing about King Arthur, and drumming into my students that King Arthur is omnipresent in modern culture, I shouldn’t find it weird when the creaky old king makes a cameo—but honestly, I hadn’t expected that a wrong turn in suburban Virginia would land me in the Camelot subdivision of Annandale, where the streets are named after Arthurian characters and motifs.

Unlike the occasional cul-de-sac dubbed “King Arthur’s Ct.” by some card of a developer, the Camelot neighborhood along the Beltway appears to have been mapped out around 1966 by someone whose knowledge of Arthurian legend wasn’t entirely facile. Lancelot, Merlin, Guenevere, and Arthur are all here, but characters who rarely surface in popular Arthuriana are also represented by such stately addresses as Balin Court, Bedivere Court, and (my favorite) Pellinore Place. Charmingly, Lancelot Way meets Guenevere Drive while King Arthur Road does not—although King Arthur Road does cross Saxony Drive before turning into something else.

There’s no Mordred Avenue, but the residents of this particular Camelot probably hope their neighborhood leans toward Lerner and Loewe rather than Tennyson. Mortgages and foreclosure are mundane subjects for Arthurian legend, but nowadays “my house hath been my doom” might hit too close to home.

“There’s that ragged hill, and there’s the boat on the river.”

The best writers can trace their language to its roots; C.S. Lewis fought for the worth of Old English:

The taproot, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students. There we find the speech-rhythms that we use every day made the basis of metre; there we find the origins of that romanticism for which the ignorant invent such odd explanations. This is our own stuff and its life is in every branch of the tree to the remotest twigs. That we cannot abandon.

Margaret Gelling, the subject of this week’s back-page obit in The Economist, would have agreed. Before her death last month at 84, Gelling had worked for the English Place-Name Society since the 1940s and served for a while as its president. Her knowledge of Old English allowed her to survey the landscape and see more than most people do:

No subtlety escaped her. The suffix fyrhth was not simply wood, but “scrubland at the edge of the forest”. The word wæss was not just swamp, but—she was particularly proud of this—“land by a meandering river which floods and drains quickly”. She had observed this herself at Buildwas, on the winding Severn in Shropshire, where between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the flooding river drained from the land “as if a plug had been pulled out”. A feld was not necessarily ground broken for arable, but any open country in the almost all-covering fifth-century forest. And an ærn was not merely a house, but a place where something was stored in bulk and worked on: so that Brewerne, in Cambridgeshire, acquired a smell of beer, and Colerne, in Wiltshire, a dusting of charcoal.

Gelling’s obit is worth reading, especially since it offers ample reason to study Old English. It’s one thing to squint at words and discern that the names Chapman and Kaufman, the English word “cheap,” the German verb kaufen, and the Icelandic bank Kaupthing are all cousins. It’s quite another thing to read in hillsides and valleys the twilight thoughts of the long-gone people who named them. Margaret Gelling didn’t need C.S. Lewis to scold her about the “taproot” of English—but she might have added, with the certainty of expertise, that the foreign language you haven’t learned may, in fact, be your own.

“Frame me, and hang me on the wall…”

Medievalists were some of the first folks in the humanities to embrace digital media, so it makes sense that medievalists are now the first to worry about the too-rapid demotion of the humble hard copy. As someone who’s searched in vain for quick and easy ways to transfer files from old Commodore-formatted floppies to a Mac running OS X, I loved Jonathan Jarrett’s nostalgic romp through old Internet protocols and was struck by the wisdom of his observation that digital media aren’t necessarily permanent media:

So keep offline copies and contribute to the Internet Archive, I guess, and remember that we work on sources that survived a thousand years or more because someone wrote them down in ink on skin and someone else, most likely, packed them between wooden boards and then generations of someones else kept them somewhere dry. Your CD-Rs will not last that long, or probably even as long as you do. Also, manuscripts (or books or print journals) don’t need mains power to be read. The low-tech will still be worth thinking about for a while.

That’s his conclusion; go see how he arrives at it. You don’t need to be a medievalist to care about the implications.

“The heroes rest upon the sighs…”

When I teach Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, my students look forward rather than back. Although they’ve read the medieval Saga of the Volsungs just one week earlier, their response to Wagner is always the same: “This is so much like Tolkien!”

So I tell them what Tolkien’s biographer wrote: “The comparison of his Ring with the Nibelungenlied and Wagner always annoyed Tolkien; he once said: ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.'” And still my students read Wagner’s Ring and declare: “This is so much like Tolkien!”

So I show them that scholars have wrung only half a dozen articles or book chapters out of the similarities between The Lord of the Rings and Der Ring des Nibelungen, and that the recent Tolkien encyclopedia didn’t even include an entry on Wagner. Undaunted, they write papers on the subject and find the sources wanting. And still they point to Wagner’s libretti and insist: “This is so much like Tolkien!”

Last week, I laughed when I opened The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and saw that Christopher Tolkien spends an entire page of his eight-page foreword declaring, rather counterproductively, “there is no reference in this book to the operas of Richard Wagner.” He notes that his father and Wagner used the same medieval sources but insists that

Wagner’s treatment of the Old Norse forms of the legend was less an “interpretation” of the ancient literature than a new and transformative impulse, taking up elements of the old Northern conception and placing them in new relations, adapting, altering and inventing on a grand scale, according to his own taste and creative intentions. Thus the libretti of Der Ring des Nibelungen, though raised indeed on old foundations, must be seen less as a continuation or development of the long-enduring heroic legend than as a new and independent work of art, to which in spirit and purposes [Tolkien’s poems in Sigurd and Gudrún] bear little relation.

The Wagner-Tolkien question isn’t so easily dispelled. In a 2003 New Yorker article, Alex Ross waxed Wagnerian about the Lord of the Rings movies, and the subject still comes up on fan discussion boards, on neopagan Web sites, on Wikipedia, in conservative punditry, in Marxist punditry, in NPR’s opera reporting, and now in a new round of book reviews. In his perceptive review of Sigurd and Gudrún, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey mentions Wagner three times; his piece even carries the headline “Tolkien out-Wagners Wagner.” Christopher Tolkien says that Sigurd and Gudrún was published because he finally found the “time and energy” to edit it, but the book’s defensive foreword suggests that its release was encouraged by recent Wagner-Tolkien comparisons.

The ad campaign for Sigurd and Gudrún hails Tolkien for unleashing “one of the most powerful legends of all time,” but the book is no easy read. Writing in English but imitating the meter of eddic poems, Tolkien reconciles inconsistencies in Nordic legend by composing two poems in hundreds of eight-line alliterative stanzas, many of them lovely, some of them too strange for modern ears. He assumes his reader knows the story, so these poems aren’t narratives; allusion supplants action, and stanzas jump from speech to speech. Some readers will praise Sigurd and Gudrún as a remarkable experiment in form; others will dismiss the book as a pointless antiquarian exercise. To the extent that the book prompts the old Wagner-Tolkien comparison, it shows that Tolkien was a professional medievalist who knew his sources intimately while Wagner was, in the best sense, an amateur. But who didn’t already know that?

What Sigurd and Gudrún doesn’t settle is the question of influence. We already know that Tolkien “disliked cordially” the plays of Shakespeare and yearned to revise Macbeth:

In later years he especially remembered “the bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting by which the trees might really march to war.”

Which, of course, he did. At 18, Tolkien also recited “horrific episodes from the Norse Völsungasaga, with a passing jibe at Wagner whose interpretations of the myths he held in contempt.” Contempt implies familiarity; if Tolkien felt so strongly that Shakespeare was blind to the power of one nifty image, it’s reasonable to imagine that Wagner’s misdeeds further drove him to set right the legend he already loved.

The Ring of the Nibelung offered much to make Tolkien cringe: It’s a preposterous work about destroying the world to build it anew as a righteous, perfect, gods-free creation—but Wagner also denounces avarice, exploitation, oaths betrayed, love renounced, and power abused. Whether Tolkien objected to Wagner’s radicalism or hated seeing Wagner hew down, Saruman-like, the dark, archaic forests of “the Great Story of the North,” Tolkien’s reputation is unharmed by the suggestion that Wagner gave him a bit of a push. Only one of them read Old Norse on its own terms, and only one of them still compels readers to turn back and peer at the eerie, murky, maddening past.

“She moves with the music, ’cause it never gets old…”

When lawyers wax poetic, I get nervous. When they prop up their musings with medieval allusions, I start to feel proprietary. When they combine it all and stick it on a building, I find myself agreeing with Natalia Cecire: “what a strange thing to quote on the front of a law school.” Go see what Natalia spotted at UC-Berkeley: the confluence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Bayeux Tapestry, and the Lady of Shalott.

“Pour your misery down…”

It’s been a week of downpours and thunder, and now it’s raining soggy links.

Remember the film adaptation of the terribly sad Ray Bradbury story “All Summer in a Day”? It’s on YouTube: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Speaking of Bradbury, Steven Hart just re-read Fahrenheit 451.

Jake Seliger didn’t think Portfolio magazine was very good.

The Heroic Age posts a call for papers.

Did you know that Mexico once had a half-American prince? C.M. Mayo did; her new novel is about him.

At Open Letters Monthly, they’re reading The Kalevala.

Finally, the guilty-pleasure song of the week: Ozzy Osbourne’s paean to America’s greatest TV lawyer.

“And a strange dust lands on your hands, and on your face…”

When the sun is shining and the world is all a-green, it takes a tendency toward Tennysonian drear and a special leap of faith to study—and to teach—the Idylls of the King, especially Arthur’s “last weird battle in the West,” which falls on “that day when the great light of heaven / Burn’d at his lowest in the rolling year, / On the waste sand by the waste sea.” You’d think a week of rain would set the tone, but the present gloom is undeniably springlike. A sad tale’s best for winter; even in the stormiest May, students want to see suntans and beach umbrellas, not a despondent Bedivere sobbing on the bleak December seacoast.

Fortunately, Tennyson is a poet for all seasons. Arthur’s climactic rush-and-push against Mordred offers hardy perennial advice about facing a final exam:

Then spake the King: “My house hath been my doom.
But call not thou this traitor of my house
Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me.
My house are rather they who sware my vows,
Yea, even while they brake them, own’d me King.
And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
When all the purport of my throne hath fail’d,
That quick or dead thou holdest me for King.
King am I, whatsoever be their cry;
And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see
Yet, ere I pass.” And uttering this the King
Made at the man…

My students, sharp and studious, will know whether Arthur is exhorting them to end on a note of defiant triumph or advising them to fail with dignity. This week, they’ll free themselves from my Vortigern-like tyranny, and they can remember the Mabinogion and William Morris however they like. I’ll remember them as the first group in ten years to find notes of perseverance and hope amid Guenevere’s severity. Generous and unexpected, that sort of personal response refreshes a tired-out teacher.

In Arthurian legend, when the old order passes, the world doesn’t end; instead, it gives way to something new. If Bedivere can watch the sunrise on the coast after the winter solstice, then melancholy at the end of the semester makes sense even when, as Tennyson puts it, “the world is white with May.” My students can tell you that there’s no more conventional month to revel in medieval romance; maybe there’s nothing inherently un-Arthurian, also, about going to the beach.

“…schau mir in die Augen, und dann schau in mein Gesicht.”

Another quick technical announcement: In addition to our new Twitter feed, “Quid Plura?” now has a Facebook page that will duplicate everything you read here. If you’re a Facebook addict who wants all of your daily reads in one place, then each new “Quid Plura?” post can now be delivered to you like a jewel-encrusted goblet of chilled gazelle milk to the cruel hand of an Abbasid caliph. All you have to do is become a “fan” of the “Quid Plura?” page.

Regular posting will continue soon: We’ll go down the shore with King Arthur and embark upon new kitchen experiments with galangal, the Charlemagne of rhizomes. Stay tuned.