“Bless with a hard heart those who surround me…”

After A Brief History of Time, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf must be one of the least-read bestsellers of the past 50 years. When Heaney’s translation came out in 2000, co-workers and acquaintances who heard about it on NPR asked me if they should read it, and the “should” struck me as odd; “do as thou wilt” really ought to be the whole of the law when it comes to recreational reading. (NPR’s capacity for instilling status anxiety is remarkable. They run a piece about Serbian gusle rhapsodies, and the next day every upper-middle-class white person in America has always been into Serbian gusle rhapsodies, or wants to seem to have been…)

With last month’s debut of Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, the New Yorker published a smart but lengthy non-review by Joan Acocella, who doesn’t so much evaluate the book as provide a backgrounder for the same anxious culture mavens who need to bluff their way through the chitchat of the moment. Slate went there, too, with a piece headed “Is Tolkien’s Beowulf Translation Better Than Heaney’s?” The contrast isn’t very interesting: Heaney was commissioned by W.W. Norton to create a readable new poem from a language he only barely understood; Tolkien translated the poem from a language he knew well into English prose for his own edification.

What’s more, Tolkien composed his prose Beowulf when he was 34, before spending decades teaching the poem and reflecting on its larger meaning. This new 425-page volume includes that translation, plus more than 200 pages of commentary edited from Tolkien’s later lecture notes and 80 pages of previously unseen Beowulf-themed stories. It’s a curious melange, and the author’s son Christopher seems eager to lower readers’ expectations. “The present work should best be regarded as a ‘memorial volume,’ a ‘portrait’ (as it were) of the scholar in his time, in words of his own,” he writes in the introduction, calling his father’s translation a “vivid personal evocation of a long-vanished world.”

But is Tolkien’s Beowulf a good read—and if so, for whom? Well, here’s an excerpt, the aftermath of Grendel’s first attack on the Danes:

The glorious king, their price proven of old, joyless sat: his stout and valiant heart suffered and endured sorrow for his knights, when men had scanned the footprints of that foe, the demon cursed; too bitter was that strife, too dire and weary to endure! Nor was it longer space than but one night ere he wrought again cruel murders more, and grieved not for them, his deeds of enmity and wrong—too deep was he therein.  Thereafter not far to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him with token plain the hatred of that hall-keeper; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and more safe.

There it is: Tolkien’s Beowulf. Beyond “good” or “bad,” it’s murky, twisting, archaic, steeped in learning, as precise as a poem, artful in a manner that’s all Tolkien’s own, and like no English ever before uttered or heard.

Sometimes there’s a wonderful rhythm to it, inspired by the rising and falling of Old English meter, with the stress falling on long vowels, or on short vowels followed by multiple consonants: “Many a mighty one sat oft communing, counsel they took what it were best to do against these dire terrors.” Sometimes the meter is decidedly post-1066, as in “[t]he spearmen slept whose duty was to guard the gabled hall,” a nice bit of iambic heptameter, and when Tolkien has a chance to work alliteration into his prose, he goes for the gusto, as in his glimpse of Grendel’s “great gobbets gorging down,” a line that’s pleased the book’s early reviewers.

To find those standout moments, you need to wade through 200 pages of this:

“Art thou that Beowulf who strove with Breca in swimming upon the wide sea, that time when ye two in pride made trial of the waters and for a rash vaunt hazarded your lives upon the deep? No man, friend nor foe, could dissuade you two from that venture fraught with woe, when with limbs ye rowed the sea. There ye embraced with your arms the streaming tide, measuring out the streets of the sea with swift play of hands, gliding over the ocean. The abyss was in tumult with the waves and the surges of the winter. Seven nights ye two laboured in the waters’ realm. He overmatched thee in swimming, he had greater strength! Then on the morrow-tide the billows bore him away…”

That’s Beowulf in Tolkienese: not the saga-like prosody of The Lord of the Rings, not at all redolent of sparse, economical Old English, but a cross between literally translated modern German and a makeshift, clattering pseudo-Middle English with modernized spelling and anachronistic “esquires” and “knights.” Yes, Tolkien knew that the root of “knight” was “cniht,” Old English for a youth, boy, servant, retainer, or warrior, and the agony of the philologist writhes in every choice of word—but that doesn’t mean most readers will find this lucid or pleasant. Translation isn’t about making the shades of Joseph Bosworth and Northcote Toller beam in Elysium, and sometimes even minor syntactic choices send the whole thing awry. When Tolkien translates “þaet waes god cyning” as “a good king was he,” how can we not hear nursery-rhyme echoes that cheapen the lofty tone?

The truth is, I’ve never loved Tolkien as a translator. His Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in paperback in 1975, leaves me cold, even though it’s another poem Tolkien knew intimately—perhaps, like Beowulf, too intimately to translate it beautifully into something wholly new, lest some beloved philological pebble be lost.

Tolkien excels, though, when he dreams up hypothetical Beowulfs in other places and times, as he does in two other original works in this book. The first, “The Lay of Beowulf,” retells the fight with Grendel in seven ballad-like stanzas, as if minstrels had inherited the story later in the Middle Ages. It’s a charming poem, all the more so because Christopher Tolkien recalls his father singing it to him when he was a child. The second, the terrific “Sellic Spell,” gets its name from a phrase in Beowulf, syllíc spell, meaning “a strange/wonderful story.” In 70 brisk pages, Tolkien imagines one of several folk tales that might lie behind the Beowulf story, telling it so convincingly that if Christopher Tolkien had claimed to have translated it from the collection of a 19th-century Danish ethnographer, I wouldn’t have doubted him. It’s great fun, and not just for veterans of grad-school Beowulf seminars; I can imagine “Sellic Spell” being used to get high-school students thinking about lost sources, folk memory, and hypothetical tales. Are more of Tolkien’s similar flights of fancy unpublished? I’d gladly read a volume of the stuff.

I was reassured to read that Tolkien himself didn’t like his own Beowulf. “I have all of Beowulf translated, but in much hardly to my liking,” he wrote to a friend in 1926. Nearly a century later, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout concurs. “The translation itself is not a great piece of art,” he suggests, even as he praises the 222 pages of commentary culled from Tolkien’s lecture notes as “straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism.”

So who’s really the audience? I’m tempted to say that only Anglo-Saxonists and die-hard Tolkien fans will love this book—but arcane tomes sometimes find unexpected readers.

Eldritch prose! Six pages of painstaking descriptions of manuscripts! Hundreds of notes on Old English diction! I like to think that somewhere out there, a kid has been given this book but doesn’t have the foggiest idea what to make of it. In a moment of idle browsing, he glimpses a story that’s fated to haunt him, and he’s perplexed and bewitched by impenetrable notes and alien words that hint at the depths of one very old tale. Years later, he rises to grapple with Beowulf on its own formidable terms.

Tolkien’s Beowulf doesn’t have broad appeal, but I like that it exists. We won’t see many more cases of fantasy and fandom intertwining to push medieval literature toward the mass market, so I welcome this book, even if I may never read it again, because it’s weird and wonderful to see Tolkien, 40 years dead, beckoning readers to stranger and brainier worlds.

“Like flames reaching out from the sun…”

“Your life will be written / your written life lost”: That’s the prophecy a noblewoman dreams about her unborn daughter in the eerie prelude to Need-Fire, a slim but remarkable book that I can scarcely believe someone wrote. That girl will grow up to become one of the most influential women in Anglo-Saxon England, but most of her story will be forgotten, giving poet Becky Gould Gibson a chance to rescue her from obscurity—and to demonstrate that using poetry to tell longer, more complicated stories is an art we haven’t yet lost.

In 25 interconnected poems, Need-Fire dramatizes the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed, the two women who ran the double monastery that housed both men and women at Whitby in North Yorkshire during the seventh century. Hild educated five bishops, presided over the synod that pushed the English church closer to Rome, and served as abbess when the cowherd Caedmon, the first named English poet, reluctantly sang his first verse. Unfortunately, only a few pages in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History hint at Hild’s profound influence, and the other 29 women known to have run double monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England are hardly more than names. Gibson’s goal is to commemorate them, intertwining her own imagination with copious research to sing them back into life.

And so Gibson invents her own form: short, sparsely punctuated lines that resemble Anglo-Saxon verse, printed with a caesura in the middle of each. These lines don’t follow the rules of Old English meter and alliteration, which makes them feel like fragments straining to be heard across 1,400 years. The result is a stream-of-consciousness narrative that derives subtle power from the poet’s decision to rely on words derived only from Old English. Here’s Hild’s mother’s lament as she bathes her infant daughter:

Glass crosses the water     from Gaul
for church windows     in your name
yet nothing you say     will be found
only the little     said of you
Why then stay up late     daughter
evening by evening     candle by candle
shaping thoughts     never to be kept
in your smooth     steady hand?

Of course, you don’t need to know Anglo-Saxon scansion to enjoy Gibson’s poetry, nor do you need to scrutinize the historical notes and scholarly addenda that follow each poem. I enjoyed them—Need-Fire is one of those rare books for which I feel like the ideal reader—but you don’t have to be a medievalist to step into Gibson’s weird and haunting world. You just need to be willing to read an historical novel in telegraphic verse.

In Gibson’s hands, Hild is a “child with a will     never settled.” We meet her as a teenager eavesdropping on her uncle, King Edwin, as he and his advisers kick around the pros and cons of Christianity. Overhearing the parable about a sparrow that flies through a mead-hall in winter, enjoying a moment of safety and comfort before it returns to the harsh unknown, Hild doesn’t assume, as the king’s men do, that any religion shedding a bit more light on past and future mysteries is worth considering. Instead, she imagines that the sparrow is as lost as she feels:

She’s seen that sparrow     beat wild
about the walls     looking for a way out
how she feels     most of the time
when grownups talk     Where will she go
after she dies?     Where’s Father now?
She shivers     damp to the bone

A keen observer of a land where “[f]olks still/worship sticks,” Hild is beset by secret doubts. The real Hild was all packed up and ready to live with her sister near Paris, but she turned back at the last minute and established a hardscrabble monastery along the North Sea. Gibson might have chalked up this decision to an irrefutable religious vision, but her Hild believes it’s her duty to found institutions that promote peace and education in her war-torn kingdom. And so Gibson takes up the tricky task of dramatizing the apprehension that accompanies faith:

          Truly I wonder
when bone     becomes spindle
cliffs whittle     to teeth
how many     or rather how few
will have traded     their wooden war gods
for this sad-eyed     Hebrew man

As Hild lives a harsh life of religious service that demands great leaps of faith, her doubts mature into greater complexity. She worries less about the “the idle or giddy” in her flock and more about the monks and nuns who are unquestioning and meek, a sensibility that at times feels too 21st century. It flatters us to believe, for example, that a seventh-century woman couldn’t possibly have cared how monks cut their hair or what the date of Easter ought to be. Fortunately, Gibson understands the medieval mind, and she knows that a woman like Hild would eventually conclude that regularity rather than fervor offers solace and bolsters faith:

Belief’s a skill     like any other
we’re schooled in     must work at daily
What I’ve learned     keep learning
rule gives us     rooms of time
to breathe in     Without rule we are lost

Though Gibson’s form never varies, Need-Fire offers a fine and convincing array of other voices and perspectives: a monk terrified by an eclipse, a young nun dying of the plague, and another nun forced to write a thank-you letter to the author of a virginity handbook for women. (“At least we won’t die    in childbirth,” she quips, “though we may die    of boredom.”) Mothers and nuns have prescient dreams, abbesses’ bones cry out from their graves, and even God Himself weighs in, gently chiding his seventh-century children in verses they’re bound not to hear.

Gibson’s imagery is fresh, too. When Etheldreda, abbess of Ely, writes to her husband to warn him of a sneak attack, she muses on the extent to which her life revolves around eels. She spears them, salts and skewers them for Lent, observes their mating habits, and finds in them a homely metaphor:

What is man     in the clutches
of sin     but an eel
on an eel-fork     shivering?
Eels     by the thousands
eels     almost bodiless

[...]

God will keep you     He keeps
us all     How does an eel go
with no fins     to speak of?
Yet she takes     to the sea
knowing she’ll     get there
lay eggs     and die
knowledge older     than man
deep in her brain

The eel poem helps Need-Fire build to a thematic climax. Through layers of fine detail, Gibson builds her seventh-century world with careful references to native animals and plants and the things humans make from them, from salted herring to wormwood mulled in ale. Above all, this book pays tribute to forgotten women who did important work, but it also challenges readers to marvel at the infinite variety of nature, which Gibson sees, like many medieval people before her, as reflecting the nature of God. Simply walking outside is an inexhaustible antidote to boredom and, as a nun named Begu finds when she holds a mussel shell, a potential bestower of greater rewards:

        When I stare
into its pool     of blackness
it tells me     I’m here
Small wonder!     God always
shines back     if we’re looking

Blending scholarship, biography, and historical fiction, Need-Fire needs to be read at a careful pace that duly honors its subjects’ lives. Writers who rescue obscure figures from history’s margins aren’t always capable of dropping them into good stories, but by retelling the lives of Hild and Aelfflaed in stark, anecdotal poetry rather than a novel, Gibson crafts scenes that defy the monotony of the form she’s chosen to labor within, just as her characters do. Need-Fire isn’t a dutiful exercise in social history, but an eloquent argument that these abbesses and the men and women around them were real and alive, not stock characters in medieval-ish fiction.

Europeans and Americans have never been able to decide whether medieval people were our predecessors and brethren or the makers of a world that was grotesque, alien, unfathomably strange. There’s no reason both can’t be true, and Gibson shows us that an age we’d find physically and culturally inhospitable is also emotionally and intellectually welcoming. Fourteen centuries on, she hears familiar notes of doubt, desperation, and hope:

what is any of us     but one
of God’s beings     scrambling
for a foot-hold     on crumbling cliffs?

“And as the nail sunk in the cloud…”

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

“I give you my armour, I give you my glory…”

Back in December, when I picked up a mid-1960s Polaroid Land Camera at an antique shop in Savannah, I was eager to see if I could restore a neglected contraption to life—and of course, in keeping with the long-running theme of this blog, I wondered: Could it be used to find new angles on American medievalism?

A Land Camera is not versatile. There’s a manual focus bar, a two-option “lighting selector,” a wheel that makes pictures lighter and darker, and an electric eye that presumes to do the squinting for you. Development time depends on the air temperature, and each print leaves behind a photographic placenta in strips of chemical-drenched litter.

I don’t aspire to be a photographer; I’m learning how to use only this type of camera, with all its quirks and severe limitations. Quite a few people purport to post “Land Camera” photos online, but the artsiest shots are often produced by old cameras modified with newer professional lenses or attachments that let you use Polaroid instant film with sophisticated SLRs. That’s cheating. I want to coax good photos out of this clunker exactly as it is. Using a Land Camera is like writing a poem within strict formal constraints: Certain flourishes are simply impossible—but if we practice a little, what can we make it do?

With form in mind, but without further ado, here a few of my first decent attempts to capture day-to-day medievalism through the lens of an obsolete Polaroid. (Click on each photo to see a larger version.)

* * *

Every Easter, the All Hallows Guild at Washington National Cathedral plants gorgeous rows of tulips along the northern border of the Bishop’s Garden. This year, I saw Easter Sunday as an opportunity to test the Land Camera’s eye for color.

This picture was taken just to the right of the cathedral’s charming and temperamental medlar tree. That’s a 15th-century granite bas relief in the background; in the foreground, a weather-worn 13th-century limestone capital from Cluny now does humble duty as a birdbath.

When Fuji decides to stop producing this last line of color film for old Polaroids, the camera that took this photo will immediately become less useful after only five decades than this capital remains after 800 years.

* * *

Polaroid didn’t offer an extensive line of accessories for the Land Camera, but their add-ons did include a “close-up kit” consisting of a snap-on lens and viewfinder for subjects 9 to 15 inches away. Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land was an optics genius; the camera’s bulk and its imprecise focus lever make the macro kit hilariously difficult to use, but it’s remarkable that such a lens exists for this camera at all.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Jeff, everyone knows that gnomes aren’t medieval! They spread across 19th-century Europe, especially France and England, after becoming highly popular home and garden decorations in German-speaking lands during the 18th century!”

Yes, that’s true—but see those tiny purple flowers? This is actually a photo of a patch of alehoof, the mint-like weed the Anglo-Saxons used in place of hops to give their ale its bitterness. The gnome? Totally just wandered into the shot.

* * *

This statue in front of the Embassy of Croatia is one of my favorite modern interpretations of a saint. It depicts a naked St. Jerome hunched over a large book and clearly in the midst of some unknowable fugue of frustration, perplexity, and fascination. That’s also the pained posture my grad-school friends and I assumed when we struggled our way through Jerome’s complex, sophisticated Latin.

At the mercy of the position of the sun and an old camera that over-emphasizes shadows, I’ve returned several times to try to re-do this shot. It’s not quite right, but I like the angle, and the suggestion, at first glance, of a larger story.

* * *

 “…but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shall be wel.”

Sometimes you get lucky. In the crypt of the National Cathedral, there’s a stark little chapel lit only by indirect sun. On a frigid January afternoon, on one of my first Polaroid outings, I leaned on a pew and impulsively took a picture of a statue of the Good Shepherd. The resulting image stunned me; I couldn’t do it again if I tried.

Earlier this year, Fuji stopped making this fast black-and-white film, and I’ll deplete my own hoard of the stuff by early next year. Until then, I’ll expand my repertoire of tricks, try to reframe medieval-ish subjects when I see them, and keep learning how to use this camera based on what shadow and sunlight demand.

“Dust you down from tip to toe…”

[Matters of health and wealth—or, to be clearer, a pronounced lack of both—have kept this blog silent for longer than I'd like, so here's a timely but updated post from 2012.]

For seven years, this blog has argued that medievalism is durably American. From Gothic synagogues in the South to killer queens in New Jersey, from Cajun jousters and the saints of New Orleans to the gargoyles of Perth Amboy, from rivalries on the Potomac to dragons and Vikings at seaside resorts, from late-blooming scholars on postage stamps to courtly love on General Hospital, American medievalism is rooted in an unresolvable clash of classical and medieval aesthetics, the persistence of religious traditions, and complex nostalgia for Europes that never were.

But did it have to take root in my garden?

Meet Glechoma hederacea, the mint-like ground ivy called “creeping Charlie” in the United States and known, at least around my place, as “existence’s bane.” Rampant, sinister, nigh-unstoppable, this weed was brought to North America by early European settlers, who presumably appreciated its value as ground cover and its not-unpleasant scent.

Medieval people found Glechoma hederacea medicinally useful, as shown by a drawing of the stuff in a tenth-century manuscript from Constantinople. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can buy a watch and other jewelry based on its depiction in a 15th-century woodcut, gifts apparently intended for people who’ve never torn intractable fistfuls of the stuff from the contumacious earth.

More interesting is its etymology in England, where it’s known as Gill-on-the-ground or, intriguingly, alehoof. Britten and Holland’s 1886 A Dictionary of English Plant-Names claims the word comes from “‘Ale-hoove,’ meaning that which will cause ale to heave, or work,” because in an era sans hops, the Anglo-Saxons used the plant to give their ale its bitterness. (The 2007 Dictionary of Plant Lore quips, too defensively, that “there have been other attempts at its etymology which may safely be ignored.”) The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary finds the plant simply called “hófe,” with references to mersc-hófe, “marsh-hove,” túnhófe, “yard-hove,” brúnhofe, “brown-hove,” and phrases in medicinal texts such as genim hófan, “take hove.” If *ealu-hófe was an Old English word, no written trace of it survives.

The word may be gone, but the plant endures, creeping just beneath the soil, breeding pernicious new nodes as it roams. You can slow its advance, but smother it in mulch and it summons demonic strength and pushes ever upward. Like a neglected chip of pure evil smoldering in a toaster oven, alehoof is almost impossible to eliminate. “[P]ut every scrap of the plant in a bag and throw it away,” one site advises, “or it will reroot and take over again.” Other sites suggest tracing the runners several feet to their origin and, like Beowulf before you, destroying the monster’s mother, even if doing so leaves craters in your lawn.

Whatever medicinal purposes medieval people found in alehoof, it’s now thought to be toxic in large amounts. And don’t be fooled by those dainty, bumblebee-pleasing flowers; when alehoof goes berserk, as it did in a neighboring plot, it can help bring down an unsturdy fence.

It’s enough to make a despondent gardener fall back on an Old English plea to the forgotten goddess Erce:

Geunne him,
ece drihten,
(and his halige
þe on heofonum synt),
þaet hys yrþ si gefriþod
wið ealra feonda gehwaene,
and heo si geborgen,
wið ealr bealwa gehwylc,
þara lyblaca geond land sawen.

["Grant to him, eternal ruler (and his holy ones, who in heaven are), that his ploughing be protected against any and all enemies and it be guarded against each and every evil, against those spells sown through the land." trans. K.A. Laity]

Or maybe, in the proper spirit of the Anglo-Saxons, magic needs to surrender to stoicism. “Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,” shrugged a poet who put words in the mouth of a king. Like medievalism, alehoof has taken perennial root; from gift shops to gardens, it’s fated not to fade.

“When streams are ripe and swelled with rain…”

Every April, lines from two poems burst forth like emerald weeds. Rain might prompt someone to cite the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, but by the mid-month tax deadline, some doofy news anchor inevitably hits us with the opening of The Waste Land. “April is the cruelest month”? Again? Are you sure?

This year, consider Dame Edith Sitwell, the largely forgotten shaper of the heaviest light verse in the world. Perhaps you’ve read (or heard) “Waltz,” her ditty about fashion-fickle nymphs and other denizens of pseudo-pastorale:

The Amazons wear balzarine of jonquille
Beside the blond lace of a deep-falling rill;
Through glades like a nun
They run from and shun
The enormous and gold-rayed rustling sun;
And the nymphs of the fountains
Descend from the mountains
Like elegant willows
On their deep barouche pillows
In cashmere Alvandar, barège Isabelle,
Like bells of bright water from clearest wood-well.

You may be looking at those lines and thinking “What?”—but take a minute, read the full poem aloud, and swish it around in your mouth like strange new wine before you decide you don’t like it. Good writers get diction, but Sitwell was the rare poet who focused on sound, rhythm, and onomatopoeia almost entirely at the expense of concreteness and clarity. With a Sitwell poem, how it sounds is largely what it’s about.

That’s why it’s a treat to discover, among Sitwell’s late works, a poem called “The April Rain,” in which she uses her distinctive style and abstruse allusions not simply to please the ear, but also to evoke springtime and the innocence of young love.

“Such is our world, my love,” declares a boy to a girl, “[a] bright swift raindrop falling”:

The sapphire dews sing like a star; bird-breasted dew
Lies like a bird and flies

In the singing wood and is blown by the bright air
Upon your wood-wild April-soft long hair
That seems the rising of spring constellations—
Aldebaran, Procyon, Sirius,
And Cygnus who gave you all his bright swan-plumage…

As raindrops pool into symbolism, Sitwell falls back on wistfulness:

Such are the wisdoms of the world—Heraclitus
Who fell a-weeping, and Democritus
Who fell a-laughing, Pyrrho, who arose
From Nothing and ended in believing Nothing—fools,
And falling soon:
Only the April rain, my dear,
Only the April rain!

That fool-begotten wise despair
Dies like the raindrop on the leaf—
Fading like young joy, old grief,
And soon is gone—

Forgot by the brightness of the air;
But still are your lips the warm heart of all springs,
And all the lost Aprils of the world shine in your hair.

I doubt Sitwell’s closing lines will join the ranks of quotable April verses, but “The April Rain” is a charming reminder that if we’re spending the month digging through poetry, we ought to praise it as much for its sounds as for its far more obvious scents.

“Funny how my memory slips while looking over manuscripts…”

March, enfeebled, limps to its grave—for some of us, not a snowflake too soon. I’ve been digging through medieval sources in search of poetry that expresses frustration with overdue spring, but the poets of the early Middle Ages apparently didn’t see much promise in that complaint. They hailed the coming of spring, but they knew that the seasons advanced and retreated with little regard for our whims.

That said, I did take a fresh look at “The Debate Between Spring and Winter,” a derivative bit of Vergilian pastoralism attributed to Alcuin, the eighth-century abbot of Tours and one of Charlemagne’s most influential advisers. At a gathering of shepherds on a sunny spring day, the personifications of cheerful Spring and misanthropic Winter snipe at each other—until two shepherds, young Daphnis and old Palaemon, decide they’ve had enough:

Desine plura, Hiems; rerum tu prodigus atrox.
Et veniet cuculus, pastorum dulcis amicus!
Collibus in nostris erumpant germina laeta,
Pascua sit pecori, requies et dulcis in arvis,
Et virides rami praestent umbracula fessis,
Uberibus plenis veniuntque ad mulctra capellae
Et volucres varia Phoebum sub voce salutent!
Quapropter citius cuculus nunc ecce venito!
Tu iam dulcis amor, cunctis gratissimus hospes:
Omnia te expectant — pelagus tellusque polusque —
Salve, dulce decus, cuculus, per saecula salve!
(MGH Poetae I, 272, 45–55)

Here it is, rendered into alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-style half-lines that Alcuin might have recognized, though he’d disavow the diction:

Zip it, Winter, you wasteful shit,
And hey, cuckoo! Come be the shepherd’s
Number-one pal. Let’s popcorn the hillsides
With giddy seeds and grazing sheep!
Let’s find us fields fit for siestas!
Let the bone-weary dream under drooping green leaves
While queued at the pail, the pap-swollen goats
Just beg us to milk them. Let all beaks warble
Their mashed-up salvēs to sunny Phoebus!
Faster, cuckoo, flap thy ass hither!
Luv, you’re the greatest guest of ‘em all
And everyone’s waiting, Earth, Sea, and Sky,
So welcome, sweet cuckoo-grace! Welcome forever!

That’s hardly a translation for the ages, but its restlessness is sincere, and it’s the poetic equivalent of something else I did today: scrape the snow from an exhausted garden, hoping to find that something green was budding underneath.

“Oh, we won’t give in, let’s go living in the past…”

Because I’m always on the lookout for medievalism, I was naturally drawn to Tod Wodicka’s 2008 novel All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, with its gloriously unmarketable title based on a famous line from 14th-century English mystic Julian of Norwich. I expected an enjoyable story that didn’t show much awareness of medievalism or the Middle Ages, but instead I found just the opposite: characters and a plot that didn’t thrill me, but which were wrapped up in fresh, perceptive ideas about why some Americans throw themselves headlong into the medieval past.

The narrator of All Shall Be Well, homely and awkward 63-year-old Burt Hecker, owns an inn in upstate New York, but the true focus of his life is the Confraternity of Lost Times Regained, the medieval living-history society he founded in 1965. Burt makes his own clothing, brews his own mead, treats ailments with pinches of herbs, and spurns potatoes because they’re OOP, “out of period.” He’s the father of medieval reenactment in America but a lousy family man in every other respect. His son is a brilliant but deeply introverted musician, his daughter is a resentful sci-fi geek, his mother-in-law is obsessed with the persecution of her Carpathian countrymen—and all of them hate his guts.

The American wretch pining for the Middle Ages has become a recognizable literary type—think Miniver Cheevy or Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces—and there are obvious hints of Ignatius in Burt. He dislikes the modernity of California, reacts prissily to a Prague strip club, and regrets when necessity pulls him “toward the crashing promiscuity of the century waiting outside.” Unfortunately, his persnickety moralism is too inconsistent to be plausible, and any comparison with Confederacy would be misleading. All Shall Be Well isn’t anti-heroic farce; it’s a novel about alcoholism, family estrangement, and the burdens of the past. Much of the laughter here is rueful.

As Burt plods through a series of misadventures—in Europe in the 1990s and in flashbacks in upstate New York—we learn about his past, particularly the incidents that made his family flee. Can several strong, strange personalities forgive each other when the one woman who held them together is dead and gone? Wodicka doesn’t seem to know, and I confess that between Burt’s awkward passivity and the dislikability of his family, I was tempted not to care. Fortunately, All Shall Be Well takes on, however indirectly, a bigger and more interesting question.

Throughout literature and pop culture, medieval reenactors and Ren Fest aficionados tend to get one of two treatments: They’re either enlightened oddballs whose willful weirdness makes them morally superior to the rest of us Muggles, or they’re portrayed as dysfunctional losers who couldn’t possibly hold jobs, have sex, or survive in the world. Wodicka toys with both of these notions, but he sees that there’s more to American medievalism than mere escapism. He’s sensitive to the disorientation and frustration of “historically displaced people”—but he’s blunt about them too.

When Burt falls in women whose medieval music-therapy workshop focuses on Hildegard of Bingen, he finds them silly, but also he appreciates their need to decorate their inner lives with medieval spolia:

And though Hildegard affirmed the lowliness of womankind and the subjugation of female sexuality, Tivonia and the girls saw her as a proto-feminist New Age icon, not the Catholic scold she undoubtedly was. No matter. History is ever ours for the reliving . . . To the girls, the medieval woman was a person capable of great self-assertion, so they studied what they believed to be instances of this, ferreting out kernels of sassiness from the most minor of references, building a fairy-tale history and peopling it with sisters-in-arms. The medieval woman was them, only more real. Them, with a less cluttered connection to the eternal.

When Burt and the tunic-clad singers arrive in Germany as emissaries from the “vulgar, unself-conscious land of American make-believe,” he discerns that the medieval world exists far more vividly in his own imagination than in the European landscape outside the car window:

I plunge my thoughts back into the roadside tumult of greens and browns. How to reconcile these lands, this scroll of Bundesrepublik Deutschland with my Middle Ages? It happened here once. But where? Despite the castles and churches, and all those townships still adhering to thousand-year-old plans, modern Germany seems a most non-historical kingdom. Safe, well-ordered, tame, all mystery long since burned away in the conflagrations of this last century.

Wodicka has noticed, rather astutely, that Americans can write themselves into an ersatz Middle Ages unburdened by actual history. For us, medievalism is personal; for Europeans, it’s unavoidably political.

Burt’s mother-in-law drives this point home. Snarling and confrontational, Anna lives for the thankless task of donning her folk costume to tell the world about the persecution of her own Lemko people in the Carpathian Mountains. Her cause is righteous, but Wodicka, in an effective bit of dark humor, portrays the Lemko as backwards and cruel, making Anna a one-woman living memorial to people no one else cares to remember. Her nationalism and ethnic pride are, as these things tend to be in Eastern Europe, a dead end—but Burt wonders, in a moment of clarity, if his own frivolous approach to history mocks her cause.

Does whimsical reenactment of the past belittle real people who suffered and died? I’ve never seen this question asked in fiction, and I’ve rarely seen reenactors or their critics address it. “I believe that some of us were ourselves only during the act of re-enacting,” Burt says, arguing out that daily life is already a series of masks, costumes, and roles, even as he concedes that he may have taken it way too far. As he tries to reconcile with his family, he describes them as “twenty yards and six hundred years away,” finding in history an unfortunate metaphor for the awful consequences of his actions.

Although I wanted a more decisive plot, I found plenty to like in All Shall Be Well, including some good writing in two harrowing deathbed scenes and a beautiful prose poem from the perspective of Hildegard of Bingen that frames the entire book. Wodicka has thought deeply about how Americans mash-up European history to give their lives meaning, and his conclusions are stark: We don’t reenact the past, but reinvent it for our own purposes; eccentrics can cause their loved ones terrible pain; and there’s only so much hope for the unfortunate souls trapped in “the rotting present of of a life lived perpetually out of period.”

“In between the lines, there’s a lot of obscurity…”

Some books you set out to write; others simply happen. Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles definitely falls into the latter category—and this blustery week feels like a fine time to plug it again on this blog.

This 138-page paperback includes 53 poems accompanied by black-and-white photos of the gargoyles and grotesques that inspired them. The poems are steeped in medieval weirdness and hew to traditional forms, from sonnets, villanelles, and alliterative riddles to ghazals, rubaiyat, and Japanese tanka. I posted drafts of 51 of the poems on this blog from 2009 to 2012; there’s a clickable list of them here.

You can find Looking Up at your favorite online bookseller (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s) and among the gargoyliana the National Cathedral gift shop, or you can buy a copy directly from me; just send me an email. (Alas, there’s not yet an e-book, because I have scant time for the tedium of formatting poetry for the Kindle.)

Looking Up is tantalizingly close to turning a profit. Cathedral officials graciously agreed to let their publication-shy gargoyles show their faces in print; I’ve offered to donate 75 percent of the proceeds to their fund to repair damage from the 2011 earthquake.

Friends tell me I’m too reticent about promoting my own work, so here goes: If you buy just one book of medievalism-influenced, gargoyle-inspired neoformalist verse, let it be this one!

Thanks, also, to those of you who’ve already bought a copy. Whether you’re a new visitor to this blog or a longtime reader, I’m grateful for your interest and support.

“Safe were the folk words of truth would upset…”

Baltimore is a rewarding place to hunt for traces of the Middle Ages, from the extensive collection at the Walters Art Museum to the ersatz medievalism of the Bromo-Seltzer Tower —but a few weeks ago, in a redeveloped circle where the Inner Harbor meets Fells Point, I was struck by a column of burning knights.

Conquistadors? Crusaders? No—they represent something far more serious than I’d expected to find alongside J. Crew, Starbucks, and Haagen-Dazs.

That’s the National Katyn Memorial, designed by sculptor Andrzej Pitynski and dedicated in 2000. It reminds the world that in 1939 and 1940, the Soviets massacred thousands of Polish military officers, most of them reservists—teachers, doctors, priests, rabbis, lawyers, and civil servants who resisted Stalinist indoctrination in prison camps. For decades, the Soviet secret police tried to cover up the slaughter.

Putin’s Olympics are a fitting time to remember the Katyn massacre. You can learn more about it at the National Katyn Memorial website, the National Archives, and the PBS website—but what makes this memorial a suitable subject for this blog is its medievalism.

According to the plaque beneath the sculpture, the 44-foot flame symbolically “envelops the Katyn martyrs . . . and raises them spiritually into the pantheon of national heroes of Poland.” Three Polish officers (including the only known female victim) burn at the base, while other bound victims writhe higher up.

Throughout the flames stand the souls of medieval knights.

On the right is Boleslaw the Brave, the first crowned king of Poland, born in the year 967. Alongside him is Zawisza the Black, the 15th-century knight who died trying to keep the Ottoman Turks out of the Balkans. Elsewhere, you’ll find King Wladyslaw III, who also died fighting the Turks in 1444, plus a few more recent heroes: Jan Sobieski, Kasimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

The Katyn Memorial is sobering, but at 44 feet high, it also conveys heroic permanence. We now expect atrocities to be memorialized through grim slabs of black marble with no features other than the names of strangers, but here, recognizable human figures united by defiant nationhood illustrate an ongoing story of human evil purified by the fires of patriotism.

When medievalism flares in central and eastern Europe, it’s rarely charming: Ossetian separatism, Kyrgyzstani terrorism, Serbian nationalism, royal Ukrainian saints who buried their enemies alive—the list goes on, and it’s not confined to the largely benign medievalism that thrives in the United States.

It’s an old story in Europe: Leaders rally their restless tribes by exploiting their medieval roots. What’s happening in Baltimore is more typical of the way America tempers medievalism: The worst burns away, leaving the laudable goal of simple remembrance.