Archive for February, 2010


“…and the music there, it was hauntingly familiar.”

It’s a commonplace among historians that in the murky recording studio of medieval imperialism, Alcuin played a wizened Stevie Nicks to Charlemagne’s picky but regal Lindsey Buckingham. I can’t tell you how often some sharp young scholar has commandeered the conference lectern to rail against this tired way of imagining Europe at the turn of the ninth century, yet the metaphor persists, as metaphors do, because they’re the overwrought but ever-tempting self-guided audio tours that help us see beyond the bored security guards in the hushed, carpeted galleries of the past.

Similes, on the other hand, are like Canadian character actors in Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies: they jar you out of pseudo-historical reveries and lodge you unmistakably in the present. Case in point: the Los Angeles Times sent a writer to the Vancouver Olympics, and like Ignatius Reilly pursuing a Big Chief Tablet delivery truck, the King of the Franks followed him:

Besides, I don’t travel particularly well. Me flagging a media bus in a new city is like Charlemagne chasing the Saxons. But OK, whatever. I like the snow.

This curious simile is the brainchild of a reporter who assumes that the reader has some knowledge of medieval history, or at least possesses the basic curiosity required to look up stuff on Wikipedia. Bravo! That puts him ahead of other newspaper writers.

But what on earth does it mean? Is a portly king waddling with comical incompetence after a band of tireless warriors? Does the writer’s pursuit of public transportation take decades to accomplish while leaving headless corpses scattered among once-sacred groves?

I don’t know, but this simile slips from the reporter’s fingers (to quote Charlemagne himself) “just like a white-winged dove sings a song.” Perhaps, like the finest Carolingian poetry, this cryptic reference to Charlemagne is best read allusively, not logically. Otherwise, like a homesick reporter stranded on a Vancouver curb, we’re left to chase mysteries we weren’t really meant to understand.

“Everything is quiet, everyone has gone to sleep…”

I’m wide awake, but these links—these links can’t wait.

Over at The Burgundian, the ancient and medieval edition of Carnivalesque is in full swing.

The Cimmerian offers a lengthy review of the forthcoming Solomon Kane movie.

Jason Fisher is vindicated in his criticism of what may be the worst Tolkien book ever published.

Michael Drout wonders how much of scholarly success involves giving people what they want to hear. He also writes, with welcome bluntness, about the academic job market.

Meet a New Jersey shire-reeve straight from the pages of Chaucer.

When you’re on a mailing list for a Newfoundland gift shop—and really, what well-rounded individual isn’t?—you’re privy to some pretty grody specials.

The Philadelphia Inquirer researches Hercules, George Washington’s slave. 

Julie Rose reviews the novel Ice Land.

Neil Gaiman goes to Alabama.

Finally, how about some jazzy German pop?

“I said we walked around for practically forever singing…”

If you’re one of the new readers who found this site in recent days, scratcheth not thy head! Peruse the “about” page; I hope you’ll stick around. You can browse the best of 2009, 2008, or 2007 and receive word of new posts via Twitter. You can also support this whole bumbling enterprise by ordering The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier either in a snazzy paperback edition or as a Kindle e-book.

Typically, this blog is about books and medievalism. Lately, it’s been taken over by gargoyles. Today, I offer only these diversionary links.

With all the snow we’ve gotten lately, one must learn how to distinguish a yeti from a wendigo.

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Thomas H. Benton” follows up his previous jeremiads about grad school with “The Big Lie About ‘The Life of the Mind.'”

Of course, you can show off your humanities chops by writing an online serial epic in verse.

I recently chatted about writing and translation with the good folks at Medievalists.net.

In Maryland, they’re preserving video-game code for posterity.

Jason Fisher has bad news about the publication of Tolkien’s translation of The Book of Jonah.

If you live near Highland Park, N.J., drop by Nighthawk Books, an ambitious venture by friend-of-this-blog Steven Hart.

Finally, here’s a number few have seen since 1980: writer, actor, and jolly Irish polymath Malachy McCourt backs up Christine Ebersole as she sings the most average love song in the world.

“There is a green hill far away…”

Despite the presence of noble-minded buffoons sitting around tables making futile plans, Washington is not an Arthurian town. Sure, there’s that suburb with corny Arthurian names, but Washington culture may be better suited for mocking fabliaux than the charming fictions of medieval romance.

Still, this city never stops sprouting quasi-medieval surprises. Trudge through the snow three days after a blizzard, and you do so alone; no one’s out taking pictures anymore, not even at the perpetually lovely Bishop’s Garden. Climb over a wall or two, send a few squirrels bounding away from the racket you make, and you’ll stumble onto this, in the driveway of a neighborhood school: a tree which the gardening guild claims was grown from the Glastonbury Thorn.

Of course, the “real” Glastonbury Thorn, dubiously rooted in history, has died several times over the centuries, and there’s reason to believe that my neighbors occasionally replace the local offshoot. Interest in the Washington thorn peaked in the 1950s, which partly explains why I’ve spent many a summer afternoon dozing on the Bishop’s Lawn unaware that this trace of Arthuriana prospered a few yards away, the quiet center of its own Tennysonian scene:

“The cup, the cup itself, from which our Lord
Drank at the last sad supper with his own.
This, from the blessed land of Aromat–
After the day of darkness, when the dead
Went wandering o’er Moriah–the good saint
Arimathaean Joseph, journeying brought
To Glastonbury, where the winter thorn
Blossoms at Christmas, mindful of our Lord.
And there awhile it bode; and if a man
Could touch or see it, he was healed at once,
By faith, of all his ills. But then the times
Grew to such evil that the holy cup
Was caught away to Heaven, and disappeared.”

It’s a silly thing, really, but after a week of Washingtonians grousing about winter, I’ll be glad when they’re back to chasing political grails. In a city that imports its legends, we could do worse than remember stories that teasingly promise perpetual spring.

“It’s nothing but time and a face that you lose…”

Where the south nave meets the south transept, near the entrance to the gift shop, is this fellow. As gargoyles go, he’s not lurid or menacing, but he does know his role in architectural tradition.

FEBRUARY 14

“On a skull in Salamanca
High within a grand façade
Croaking notes of grace eternal
Roosts a rana loved by God.”

So the tourist told his lover
Smiling up through falling snow.
“Strange,” she said, “sounds Salamanca.
What bright boon do frogs bestow?”

“Should two souls in Salamanca
Chance to see the frog,” he said,
“Blessed days are bound to follow;
In a year, the two will wed.”

Glancing down, she glimpsed a garden;
Frozen roses felt her sigh:
“We are not in Salamanca.”
Windy whipped the winter sky.

Side by side, the silent strangers
Shuffling slowly through the snow
Spoke no more of Salamanca;
Where they went, I do not know.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)

“I can’t keep my eyes open, wish I had my radio.”

The little satyr outside the cathedral’s herb cottage patiently pipes his silent tune regardless of the season. He’s not a gargoyle, but why hold that against him? When he heard we’re getting more snow on top of the two feet that fell on the city last weekend, he took it personally.

SAUDADE

I pipe under protest, knowing no blizzard will trouble to tell me
Why I was banished, a fantasy long since forgotten.
Older eyes see an Arcadian prelude, when straw-skirted shepherd girls
Swooned at my lyrics, eternally light-eyed and lewd…
One day, the sun shone down drowsy. I curled upon emeraldine moss-root,
Dozing insensate, for nothing that dreams is immortal.
Stretching, I stirred—and I gasped at the winter that rose all around me:
Blinding white pastures and hillsides and frost-shrouded peaks.
Heartsick, I shook—and then Zephyrus whispered, so hyacinth-sweet,
Dissolving the winter; the world was a fresh, flawless green.
Snow turned to cloudbursts, all wet-nosed and panting. They pressed for a melody,
Cheerful but soothing, as pale and as patient as peonies.
Storm-god, I’m hardly as young as I look. Your rage to benumb me
Kindles a memory: waking to sheep in the spring.


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)

“Tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers…”

As much as C.F. Cavafy would nag me to focus on the voyage rather than the destination, some straits are best sailed through quickly. Behold this Wall Street Journal article about The Lost Books of The Odyssey:

The author of a new novel that re-imagines Homer’s “Odyssey” isn’t a classicist or a literary scholar. Zachary Mason, 35, currently works as a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence at a small start-up in Silicon Valley.

Let’s sit on the sand and ponder this trireme full of waterlogged assumptions. Do most readers who browse the Web or still pick up a newspaper believe that only classicists and lit scholars use ancient epics as creative springboards? That Homer belongs to professors? Even though one of Homer’s best-reviewed “re-imaginers” can’t read a word of Greek?

Or are we to be surprised that a computer scientist wants to re-tell The Odyssey? Everyone knows that people who ponder artificial intelligence for a living are incurious louts who never read outside their field. All that boring technical stuff is useless on the windy plain of Literature, where the spears of touchy shatter on the burnished shields of feely.

But I’ll not read the reporter’s mind. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the assumptions she presumes we share.

The unlikely authorship is one of several unusual details…

Or maybe I’m not. Next paragraph.

Mr. Mason has never set foot in a writing workshop…

Many novelists never do. People who read are not surprised by this.

The book’s “unlikely authorship” having been established, the article dazzles us with details:

The story of how “The Lost Books” came together is an odyssey in its own right. Mr. Mason, who says he has long been inspired by Odysseus’s story, but has no formal training in the classics…

Mason wrote for six years; got no response from literary agents; was published by a small press; then gained wider notice after winning an award. No doubt the process was frustrating, but there are far less direct routes to literary fame. I’m pleased by Mason’s success, but not even a weatherman flailing for a segue would call it an “odyssey.”

And in case you forgot, there it is again: “no formal training in the classics.” Yes, non-classicists seeking inspiration in The Odyssey is unthinkable.

I don’t know why newspapers and magazines talk down to their readers like this, but even a cyclops wouldn’t so badly misperceive the gulf between a book-savvy readership and the rusty tropes a reporter is expected to marshal when writing about authors. The world is wider than our own experiences, and it offers as many routes to publication as there are books, or interpretations of Cream songs. Like Mason’s novel, an author profile should re-tell a story with a fond, familiar theme: good writers come from everywhere.

“From Arcadia to the stone fields of Inisheer…”

Few visitors to the National Cathedral glance up to see who’s perched on the facade just north of Creation. What follows is unreliable; the snowstorm, and my interlocutor’s ancient Greek accent, made accurate transcription rather difficult.

PAN

Leave “kyrie” and “tirra lirra” be,
And let me sneer and jeer and leer at thee.
The gates of dawn are bricked and bolted fast;
The springs of piping pastors fell at last.
Now winter twists my reeds like broken wings,
And Philomel abhors the hymn she sings,
Yet all the world adjudges me the thief?
Perhaps I am. So peep behind my leaf,
And spurn what sailors swore in days of old;
I am not dead, dear Thamus—simply cold.

(Above: Pan on February 6, 2010. Below: Pan on December 3, 2009.)
(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)

“It’s getting so you never know when things are better left alone…”

So “Quid Plura?” enjoyed a record number of visitors in January. Who knew you were all so curious about the inner lives of gargoyles?

Perhaps you’ll also like these random links, which have been hand-selected and flash-pasteurized especially for you on this chilly Tuesday evening.

Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk talks about her autographed copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

This refreshing New York Times piece debunks the tedious conventional wisdom among English teachers that J.D. Salinger was holed up in Cornish like Hitler in his bunker.

Speaking of people who bowed out before others got sick of them, here’s an interview with Bill Watterson.

Sometimes, life’s second acts surprise me: Larry Tagg, bassist for the underappreciated ’80s pop band Bourgeois Tagg, is now writing books about Abraham Lincoln.

The author of The Invisible Hook defends the medieval trial by ordeal.

Jake Seliger re-reads High Fidelity.

Shatner reads Poe.

Lingwë asks, “When is an English root word like a Mafia don?”