Monday, September 20, 2021

History and Fiction in Laȝamon's Brut 2/3



(for 'History' see previous post)


So Laȝamon isn’t writing modern History. That’s not really surprising. ‘History’ was split decisively from ‘fiction’ over a century ago, but ‘written fiction’ is just as artificial a construct as ‘history’.


Everyone tells stories from the time they can talk. But ‘fiction’ is conventional. And the rules governing it are as artificially made and as historically contingent as the rules governing the writing of ‘history’.


A modern fictional character is a proper noun, with a cluster of attributes and actions. In modern fiction the attributes and actions should be motivated and consistent. Would-be novelists are advised to ‘know their characters’, to work out ‘the back story’, to creat lists of likes and dislikes, even if these won’t appear in the novel.  Apparent inconsistency is risky but permissible, if the narrative explains the inconsistency. 

One of the underlying fictions of both history and fiction is that humans are rational and their actions are coherent, motivated and understandable by a third party. 


Which brings us back to Vortigern as Laȝamon presents him. 


Laȝamon makes no attempt to supply Vortigern with motivation. He flashes onto the screen as a fully-fledged power hungry villain . He’s ready to do anything to get it. That I could cope with. His past, what makes him who he is, is a blank. I can cope with that too though I find myself shading it in as I go along. 


But once he’s in power the story becomes difficult. There’s nothing unusual in his willingness to hire Germanic mercenaries. This was standard Imperial practice. 


But then we come to the story of Thongcaester and how Hengist the mercenary tricks Vortigern into giving him land. 

When Hengist asks for land, initially, sensibly, Vortigern refuses the request, knowing his people will object if he gives land to the pagan Hengist. Hengist then asks Vortigern to grant him as much land as can be covered by a bull’s hide and oblivious to what’s coming, Vortigern agrees. When he’s found his ideal spot, Hengist has the bull’s hide cut into a single unbroken thong which allows him to map out a large plot of land where he builds Thongcaester.


At which point you’d expect any real, hard-headed military leader to have said, listen here, chummy, that’s not what I meant and you know it. But our man doesn’t. He just accepts it. It feels like the narrative has been conscripted by one of the Clever Hans type folk tales you find in the Grimm’s collections. 


Hengist now sends for his wife and daughter. The wife is never mentioned again. But the daughter is trouble. We are now asked to believe that having allowed himself to be cheated out of land, Vortigern is going to jeopardise everything he’s worked for, to get his hands on a pretty girl. I don’t buy it. I see no reason why the leader of a group of mercenaries wouldn’t marry his daughter to his boss as part of family politics. But such a business transaction should have been hedged around with conditions. Blind Freddy can see that making your servant your father in law shifts the power balance in a dangerous direction. 


Nor does it make sense that Vortigern doesn’t insist she convert to Christianity first. It’s not as though he’d be waiting for her to take a theological degree. We’re asked to believe that he’s so besotted with her that he can’t wait to get her into bed and therefore skips the whole Christian marriage ceremony, although he must know it will annoy his British subjects and alienate the Church, which will not (then or now) accept the union as binding. He also gives away Kent as her bride price which is also guaranteed to infuriate both its current owner and his supporters. 

I want to know how the original audience responded to this. 

And that will take us to the observation that something odd is happening in these stories with implications that go far beyond my interest in this narrative.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Vortigern: history, fiction and the strange relationship between the imagined and the known. 1/3

Part one of three.


I’ve finished the first draft of the story of Vortigern. And I’m still nagging away at what I can learn by trying to rewrite a medieval story. I’ve tracked the story of Vortigern and how it changes from Gildas, via Nennius to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, to Laȝamon. (see previous posts on Vortigern)

Chapter one of my ‘versioning’ appeared in Long Poem Magazine, chapter two, three and four in the Brazen Head. 

To make the story work as a modern narrative, I’ve had to make changes. It’s the reasons for these that intrigue me.

But the more I do this, the more I’m beginning to believe that while there are obvious differences between the middle ages and now, if you strip away the technology, sometimes the differences are not as profound as they first seem.  

Take the twin ideas of ‘History’ and ‘Fiction’. It’s obvious twelfth century writers didn’t treat these ideas the same way we do. But then, who is the ‘we’ in that sentence. 

‘History’ revisited.

Laȝamon’s version of history, like all the other Medieval writers in my list, is a record of individuals and their actions. The Picts attack Britain because Vortigern betrayed them. Roman Britain falls because Vortigern can’t control his lust for Hengist’s daughter. 

A modern Historian might explain the fifth century in terms of ideology and economics, as the inevitable result of internal and external pressures working on a weakened western empire. They will debate migrations, elite take overs, continuity vs change etc. They are unlikely to look to the actions of a single individual for explanations.

Which brings home the nature of ‘History’ as a modern discipline. For all its basis in facts and evidence, it is still an attempt to narrate the past, but to narrate it in order to know it in a peculiar way. If it ever succeeds, ‘it’ will ‘know’ the fifth century in a way no one living in it ever did. Firstly because the fractured, localised experience of life in the fifth century cannot compete with the Historian’s overview. The written materials that do survive were written by people who could only write what they knew and what they knew was limited. 

Secondly, modern technology can measure time to a Zepto second: That's a decimal point followed by 20 zeroes and a 1, and it looks like this: 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 001. It’s unlikely that anyone is aware of time passing in such small increments. A modern ‘History’ of the fifth Century in Britain often seems to be based on the assumption that the past can be known with such objective precision. We have DNA testing, increasingly sophisticated dating techniques etc.etc. which leads to an increasing unwillingness to accept anything unless ‘scientifically proven’. And in extreme cases the strange attitude that says since there’s no evidence for roaming war bands in the archeological evidence there were no roaming war bands. 

But just as you can’t remember a zeptosecond that occurred last week, people living through the fifth century responded to what they thought they knew, not to the objective ‘truth’ of the situation. Modern 'history' may well prove them all to be deluded, and their writers were mistaken, exaggerating, or lying but that won't help us understand them. 

And before we dismiss Laȝamon’s approach as ‘medieval’ it would be instructive to compare his treatment of Vortigern with journalistic treatments of the recent Trump Presidency, or of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, or even Scott Morrison. (I’m not going to do that, reading about these gentlemen is depressing enough without spending more time thinking about them than necessary.)  

Power, politics and current events are presented by the modern news media in terms of personalities. The systems that made a Mr. Trump or Mr. Johnson inevitable are rarely discussed. Their personality, actions, words are. Laȝamon and his audience would be completely at home. 

And (#2) before we dismiss the medieval writer for his willingness to include the obviously fantastical or irrational, some of the vociferous responses to the Government’s attempts to get everyone vaccinated against Covid might qualify the idea that we are living in a more rational age.

For most people ‘History’ as a discipline is something they brushed against at school. It’s not the way they think about the present or the past. 

And watching the state governments respond to the threat of Covid-19 in Australia, I’m not convinced that the actions and choices of the individual players aren’t capable of affecting history. 

In the next post, Fiction medieval and modern. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

'The Silence of the Girls' by Pat Barker. A review of sorts.

Looking at how other people retell old stories.


Sometimes it’s impossible to read the blurb on a book without wondering if you’ve read the same book as the gushing reviewers.  


This book is a mess and I don’t understand why it’s received so much praise.


if you’re going to retell the most famous story in European literature, from the perspective of a minor but significant character, the end result should at least give us an insight into that character, and reposition the story so the reader sees it differently. Whether intentional or not, it’s going to offer a critical reading of the original text. All the other retellings, critiques and rearrangements of this story from Herodutus onwards are ghosting in the background and should be holding the writer and critic to account.


How dim witted would you be in the 21st century, if you read the Iliad and didn’t realise it’s a brutal story set in a brutal world where brutal men do brutal things? And perhaps more problematic, how badly would you misread the poem if you thought it isn’t aware of this or thought it presented Achilles as a two dimensional marvel comic hero? 


Retelling the story from the perspective of Briseis creates its own technical problems. Much of the Iliad happens where she can’t see it. An Iliad without Hector. While we must sympathise with her situation, that’s not the same as finding her character interesting or believable. A modern sensibility imported into the past simply proves how intolerable the past would be for a modern sensibility: the harder task, to evoke an ancient mindset, done honestly, would present an intolerable character. Barker’s Briseis is not quite one or the other. 


Rather than retell the story entirely from Briseis' POV, Barker has her cake and eats it by switching the POV, from first person limited to third person omniscient. This seems to defeat the purpose and flips the narrative to a dull retelling. 


Christopher Logue’s great insight into this poem was that the characters are not modern players in fancy dress. There’s nothing remotely modern or romantic about the story. Barker wavers. 


The writing has been applauded, but the way the men are represented as a cross between the rugby team after too many beers and a parody of 1970s bovver boys is two dimensional. The dialogue is leaden. The moments of high drama in the story, the speeches, debates, insults, are flat. This doesn’t seem like  deliberate deflation of the heroic. 


It also feels as if the reader is being invited to participate in an insane debate.


Which is worse, to be forced to fight and be hacked to death by Achilles or forced to have sex with him? To kiss the hand of your son’s killer, as Priam does, begging for his son’s body, or to be forced to do ‘what countless women before me have been forced to do? I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.’ 

Is there a point in establishing a hierarchy of awfulness? When neither seems like a choice anyone would make if they could avoid it? In a sane world, no one would have to suffer either fate. The story world of the Iliad is not sane by modern standards.


There’s also an unpleasant ghost of a love story drifting the book. By the end she’s fond of Achilles and sad he’s dead. I suspect the original might have thought this; he was the best a bad situation could offer. But it seems to soften the outrage. The need for uplift at the end in a popular book dilutes the real horror of the situation, which is stated in B's summing up at the same time it’s being qualified. 


And despite the attempt to tell this story from her point of view, this is still, as both narrator and author recognise, the story of Achilles. But it has nothing new to say about him.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Translating 'The Mabinogion'. The story teller's strengths and weaknesses

Plodding onwards, now in Ystoria Gereint Uab Erbin,  I am still in awe of the story teller’s skill. 

He walks such a fine line between a minimalist narration that would be the envy of Raymond Carver and notes for a story he hasn’t written.  


Here’s the incident that kick starts the story ‘Gerient Son of Erbin’. The quotes are taken from Sioned Davies' impressive translation.

A forester has approached Arthur at the feast, and after the formal greetings:


‘Tell us your news’ said Arthur.

‘I will Lord,’ he said. ‘A stag have I seen in the forest and I have never seen anything like it.’

‘What is it about it for you never to have seen anything like it?’ said Arthur

‘It is pure white, lord, and it does not walk with any other animal out of arrogance and pride because it is so majestic. And it is to ask you advice lord, that have I come. What is your advice in the matter?”

‘I shall do the most appropriate thing,’ said Arthur, ‘and go and hunt it tomorrow at dawn; and let everyone in the lodgings know that, and Rhyferys (who was a chief hunstman of Arhtur’s) and Elifri (who was the chief squire) and everyone else’.


The speech isn’t ‘described’. The same verb is used every time. The speaker is identified, but how he (or she in other instances) speaks is left to the audience. ‘Tell us your news’ said Arthur. Bluntly? In a resigned tone? In an authoritarian manner? 

It’s up to you. 


At times there is no need to indicate who is being spoken to. ‘Let everyone know’ is obviously not addressed to the forester. But ‘Arthur turned to his court officials and said’ would be redundant. 


There’s no description of what’s happening in the background during the conversation either. Nor is there any description of Arthur’s reaction, but I think you can hear him lean forward, suddenly paying attention at ‘I have never seen anything like it’. And you can hear the courtiers nearby voicing their approval when after ‘the most appropriate thing’ Arthur says ‘I will go and hunt it’. 


The style invites the audience in and asks it to participate, but also gives it the freedom to make it its own. 


I like this very much. It reminds me of the best of the traditional ballads, where everything that isn’t essential has been stripped out. You could argue that it produces too much ambiguity? Is Arthur bored or annoyed or excited? And the answer is probably that it’s not as important as what he says. You could argue that the style is the product of an exterior world, and we live in one that likes to pretend it has access to intention, character and emotion. And a great deal of modern fiction is based on the convention that the writer not only can but in some ways is obliged to tell you what the character/s is/are thinking. But it’s one of literary fictions more dubious charactersitics.


I'm at the editing end of the current writing project.  The next part of A Presentment of Englishry is almost finished. I’m weighing up how much I can cut out. I’d like to follow the medieval method, but I suspect most modern audiences would not be happy with such a minimalist approach. 


On the other hand. 


I’m not so enamoured by the story-teller’s habit of describing what people are wearing. This happens to a greater or lesser extent across all the stories I’ve translated so far, and I’m beginning to assume there will be curly auburn hair, tunics and surcoats, brocaded silk and boots of Cordovan leather. 



The Forester who speaks above is described as:


A tall auburn haired lad, wearing a tunic and surcoat of ribbed brocaded silk, and a gold hilted sword  around his neck, and two low boots of Spanish leather about his feet.


60 lines later, Gereint is described on his first appearance in almost identical terms, when he’s seen by Gwenhwyuar and her maid as they are trying to catch up with Arthur and the hunt. 


A young bare-legged, auburn-haired noble squire with a gold hilted sword on his thigh, wearing a tunic and surcoat of brocaded silk with two low boots of Spanish leather on his feet and a mantle of blue purple over that with a golden apple in each corner.   


You’d be forgiven for thinking the story has just got interesting and the forester is riding after Gwenhwyuar. Instead it’s an encounter with one of the story teller’s limitations. 


But they tend not to outweigh his strengths. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Why a Medieval Romance is not a 'love' story. Owain and the Lady of the Well #2

 Why Medieval Romances are not Love stories.

The danger of dealing with past texts is succinctly expressed by Corinne Saunders in ‘Rape and ravishment in the literature of medieval England’:

‘[…] by contrasting past and present, and assessing the past according to contemporary ideologies, we validate our own political assumptions. The temptation is to assume the transhistoric nature of contemporary premises and therefore to fit the evidently ‘misogynistic’ structures of the middle ages into a pattern to be censured and exposed…’

It’s that danger of assuming the ‘transhistoric’ nature of human attitudes and behaviour that I want to explore, and here the danger, as always, is compounded by the words we use and the silent way they shape our readings of a text and ‘understanding’ of the past.

Three examples from ‘Owain or The Lady of the Well’ from the Mabinogion. Translations are by Sioned Davies unless otherwise stated. 

The basic scenario which underlies the story is that every knight who finds the well of the title has been told what to do when he gets there: throw a bowl of water on the stone. This initiates a chain of events which ends with the arrival of a Black Knight. The knights then fight until one of them is beaten. The assumption in the story world is that no one finds the well by accident, and every knight who finds it is therefore looking for a fight.

Owain, the ‘hero’ of the story, mortally wounds the Black Knight, and chases him to his castle where he is trapped by a falling portcullis. He is saved by Luned, who hides him in an upstairs room. 

Example 1

Owain watches the funeral of the man he’s just killed from his hiding place, and at the end of the procession sees a beautiful but distraught woman.

And when he saw the woman he was inflamed with love for her until it filled every part of him.

Owain asked the maiden [Luned] who the lady was.

‘God Knows.’ says the maiden, ‘a woman you could say is the most beautiful of women, and the most chaste, and the most generous and wisest and noblest. She is my mistress, known as the Lady of the Well, the wife of the man you killed yesterday’.

‘God Knows’, said Owain, ‘she is the woman I love best.’ 

‘God knows’, said the maiden, ‘there is no way she loves you, not in the very slightest.’  

Jones and Jones, in a more literal rendering of her reply give it as ‘ God knows’, said the Maiden, ‘she loves not thee, neither a little nor at all.’

What Owain says is: ‘Duw a wyr arnaf, mae mwyhaf gwreic a garaf I yw hi’

garaf is from karu/caru, which is translated as ‘to love’. There’s no option. 

It’s related to the noun ‘Karyat/cariad ’ that names what fills every part of him and inflames him and can be translated as love, affection, fondness or friendship, though here it’s translated as ‘love’.  

Luned’s response sounds like the voice of modern reason. But in the world of the story, it isn’t. Whatever ‘love’ meant to the original audience, it is a very different collection of emotions than those we might associate with it today. Consider the second example.

Example 2

Luned will try to trick her mistress into accepting Owain as her new husband. Her approach is brazen. She finds her mistress grieving over her dead husband who she’s just buried. Luned asks her what’s wrong with her. The Countess is surprised. 

‘God knows, said Luned, ‘I really did think you would have more sense. It would be better for you to start worrying about replacing your husband than wish for something you can never have back’.

‘Between me and god’, said the countess, ‘I could never replace my lord with any other man in the world.’  

‘Yes you could’, said Luned, ‘marry someone as good as he, or better.’

The Countess’s initial reaction is understandable, She tells Luned to get out and never come back. But Luned points out the Kingdom can only be protected by deeds of arms, so the Countess needs a new man quickly. While the countess is initially offended by this, she also accepts its logic. Luned pretends she has gone to Arthur’s court to find a better man than the dead one. When she tries to pass off Owain as the man she’s found, the countess sees through the ruse, perhaps proving Luned’s description of her wisdom. 

The Lady looks at Owein, and points out he doesn’t look like a man who’s been travelling.

‘What harm is in that lady?’

‘Between me and god’, said the Countess, ‘this in none other than the man who took away my Lord’s life’.

Luned replies ‘All the better for you Lady; had he not been stronger than your lord he would have not taken his life. Nothing can be done about that’, she said, ‘since it is over and done with’.

At no point in the interview does Owain speak. His character and personality, if he has either, are irrelevant.  

Example 3

The Lady calls a meeting of her realm and puts the problem before them. Either one of them marries her and defends the well…or she is free to take a husband from somewhere else. 

If Owain’s love for the lady sounds like a dreamy infatuation of an adolescent with a wall poster, as far as ‘love’ goes this seems to be the defining moment in the story. She’s beautiful, wise, intelligent, rich. And not one man in her lands wants to marry her. In this story world not one man in her realm desires the Countess or her wealth. 

The reason for this is fairly obvious. 

Her Husband becomes the new Black Knight and he has to ride out every time a passing knight comes to the well and risk his life in combat. He has no choice. One day he will meet his match, or a strap will break, his horse will stumble, or a weapon will shatter and he will die.  

And the men of her kingdom are quite happy to let an outsider take that risk..

She marries Owain. Up to this point, she hasn’t spoken to him nor he to her.

Imagine the wedding night.

We hear of Owain’s subsequent career as the Black Knight, but nothing about his dealings with his wife. He will abandon her for three years. He will go mad and eventually be reunited with her. But they never speak to one another in the story. 

We translate what Owain feels for the Lady as ‘love’, but we have to accept that this is in no way a ‘transhistorical’ emotion.  

The Lady’s body is tied into her role as Countess of the Well…she is the wife of the Black Knight, and the Black Knight is whoever is currently defending the fountain.

Her husband is always going to be the man who killed her husband. 

It’s a story, but in this storyworld the body is not a private, privileged space. Just as Owain has no choice once he marries her. His body is now at the mercy of every passing Knight. 

Arthur turns up with a retinue three thousand strong. After he has beaten Kei, Owain pitches his tent and fights (by implication) every one of them except Gwalchmei. It’s an absurd logic, but he doesn’t seem able to avoid the consequences of his position, any more than the Lady can avoid a wedding night with a passing stranger who just killed her previous bedfellow.

It's fairly obvious that this story represents a very different attitude towards the body, to the way society organised the relationships between the sexes, to the way people regarded themselves and each other. And it’s not unique to this story nor is it only fictional.

I’ll get back to Uther eventually.    

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Sex Gilgamesh and Uther Pendragon part three; The Mabinogion.

 This is a slight digression before returning to the previous thread. I've been plodding my way through the Mabinogion. And there's a point to be made about relationships and expectations which seems relevant to Uther but a general note first.

Owein or Chwedyl Iarles y Ffynnawn

Jones and Jones translated this as 'The Lady of the Fountain', Sioned Davies as 'The Lady of the Well'. 

I've never enjoyed the 'Three Romances' in the Mabinogion. After the Four Branches and the Native Tales, there's a feeling of gears shifting, as though we've moved into a more nebulous, almost frivolous world where perpetually adolescent males run around bashing each other over the head with sharp bits of metal. 

Why translate when i do it so badly and there are excellent translations available? It's the closest of close readings.

First thought, the Welsh Story is much more enjoyable to read than the French of C de T. The anonymous teller skilfully demonstrates how to tell a tale that is formally structured by repetition without being repetitious. 

Like any genre, this one requires the reader’s co-operation. It’s not just the magic that you have to accept. Some questions, like ‘Does Luned share the bed she makes for Owain with Owain’, or ‘What kind of prison is Luned trapped in when Owain stumbles over her towards the end of the story’ are left to you to answer. Others, like ‘Why doesn’t one of Arthur’s 3,000 Knights, who are supposedly looking for Owain, ask the Black Knight if he’s seen him?’ belong in the category of questions you must not ask unless you wish to destroy the story.  Deciding which category a question fits into is an interesting exercise. (You can try it with your favourite fairytale. Ask the wrong question and the story falls apart. What does the Prince intend to do with Snow White's dead body in her glass coffin when he takes it home is a good example.)

The story is also a very good demonstration of how to make a totally improbable landscape real; while the Knights start from Arthur's court in Caerleon on Usk, the geography blurs almost as soon as they leave. But within this blur, of valleys, wastelands, forests, parks, mountains, rivers and castles, directions are always very specific and journeys equally detailed.

For a story about a Knight, the most dramatic and entertaining episodes involve women. As in many of the Mabinogion's stories, they have the best lines. The dialogues between Luned and her Mistress, the Lady of the Well, are probably the highlight of the story. And while it’s impossible to know, I suspect the story teller would have agreed.

Luned seems more interesting as a character than Owain, and generations of readers have realised that in modern terms she loves him and he'd be better off marrying her. The fact he doesn't points to the fact that while this is a Romance it isn't a love story (more on this later). 

'Love' as a modern concept is almost entirely absent. Owain's marriage to the Lady is, at least on her part, a clear sighted understanding of her position: her Kingdom can only be protected by a Knight who is willing to fight anyone who comes to the Well. Whoever defends the Well is her Husband. When no one in her kingdom offers to replace the man Owain has just killed, she knowingly marries her husband's killer.

Owain's Lion is the other star of the story. In whatever fantasy land Owain strays into out of Wales there are lions and serpents, as well as one eyed giants and cannibals. All the lion wants to do is repay Owain for saving him, and Owain's baffled and ultimately futile attempts to stop him intervening in every subsequent combat on his behalf border on the (perhaps unintentionally) comic.

Plodding through the original has not only confirmed my admiration for the story teller, but also increased my admiration for Sioned Davies' translation. 

 But 'A Romance isn't a love story' will take us back to Gilgamesh and Uther.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Conception of Arthur. Sex Gilgamesh and Uther Pendragon part two

See Previous post.

Part two:


I also assume that human history is a record of brutality interrupted by occasional attempts at idealism. And despite the common orthodoxy, this doesn’t just apply to white male patriarchal societies…fear, greed and stupidity seem to characterise all societies at all times. So the past is always going to be dangerous territory. 


The danger of dealing with past texts is succinctly expressed by Corinne Saunders in ‘Rape and ravishment in the literature of medieval England’:


'[…] by contrasting past and present, and assessing the past according to contemporary ideologies, we validate our own political assumptions. The temptation is to assume the transhistoric nature of contemporary premises and therefore to fit the evidently ‘misogynistic’ structures of the middle ages into a pattern to be censured and exposed…’


Such an approach, eager to find fault, inevitably misses the often complex nature of medieval narrative. Combine that with the typically ignorant assumption that medieval story tellers are inferior to modern ones and you get the classic rewrite of ‘Beowulf ‘or ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ to ‘problematicise the heroic ideology of the poem’ which misses the fact that the poems already do that. 


But to return to Uther and the story of the conception of King Arthur. 


Laȝamon's version is not straightforward: the birth of the Great Hero is A GOOD THING, but His conception is an act of treachery, a sin, and a failure of a King who should have put duty before desire. 


At the core of this complex layering is our recognition that the story of Arthur’s conception is shaped by the Gospel narratives of the Nativity, which in turn echo Greek hero stories. There have also been attempts to reconstruct ‘Celtic’ stories in which a divine character pretends to be a woman’s husband so that a hero can be conceived.  More of this later. This understanding pulls the reader’s response in one direction: Whatever the morality of the act, the consequence is good.


But  Laȝamon’s version presents Arthur's conception as a troubling and problematic act. 


In Malory, Uther and Gorlois have been at war. The underlying tensions of the feast don’t require too much to set both men at each other’s throats. 


Laȝamon emphasises a double betrayal. Gorlois has previously saved Uther from a military disaster. His piety and loyalty have been emphasised. The feast at which Uther meets Ygraene is to celebrate that victory. Uther repays his debts by going to war with Gorlois and disguising himself as her husband so he can f#ck Ygaerne. 


It’s that brutal. It is not a love story. 


So morally and legally this is wrong. 


In Malory, Lancelot is morally and legally wrong but it’s difficult not to admire him. 


However, the assumptions that love is good, that there’s something heroic about someone who thinks ‘the world well lost for love’, even that romance should be a part of life, are not ‘transhistorical’ but the result of a cultural progression that shapes modern readers’ expectations. Laȝamon is writing before that expectation takes hold.


For Laȝamon ‘love’ is not ‘admirable’; it’s a diseased state in which people, notably kings, fail to fulfil the demands of their role. Locrin’s infatuation with Aestrild, and Vortigern’s with Rowena, bring disaster to themselves and their kingdom. The accumulation of previous stories critique Uther’s actions even if no character does. 


Throughout the Brut a social role, whether King, King’s Daughter, Queen or Knight, is almost a verb. In the Brut you do kinging. What defines a King as good or bad is established by all the examples of all the previous kings, and the reiterated lesson is that one who puts his own desire before his duty is a BAD KING. His actions will have disastrous consequences for himself and/or his country. 


Uther is therefore not only morally wrong: the church would condemn him as an adulterer, but the text in no way asks us to sympathise or condone his actions. Being overwhelmed by desire is not heroic; it’s wrong. 


Despite the assumption that a medieval priest would be stained with clerical misogyny, in this case, the woman is explicitly exonerated: not only does she not know it’s Uther, but there is some complicated manoeuvring so that Gorlois is dead before Arthur is conceived . Her innocence is emphasised. 


And then, to complicate matters further, at the centre of this tangle of contradictions, Laȝamon manages what is probably the quietest moment in the whole of the Brut. 


The story presents Arthur’s conception as anything other than straightforward for the reader.  Perhaps medieval story tellers were willing to give their readers freedom to come to their own conclusions. They were writing for adults. To read it simply as ‘a rape story’, to assume a medieval writer would have little sympathy for a female victim and would condone an act of male aggression, wilfully misses its complex presentation.  


In the next post, rewriting the past as a form of lying. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sex, Gilgamesh and Uther Pendragon. Jenny Lewis' 'Gilgamesh Retold'.


I assumed that anyone reading, writing or translating texts from the distant past is probably?Inevitably? going to encounter incidents, speeches, attitudes, actions, the list is long, that they would think are unacceptable as the thoughts, actions, behaviours etc. etc. of modern people.


The question then is, what to do with those incidents. 


Looming on the horizon for me is the story of Uther and the conception of Arthur. It’s the third and final story in the sequence I started with A Presentment of Englishry. But the closer I get to finishing the second story, the story of Vortigern, the less I know if I should do the third, or if I do it, how I should approach it. 


While thinking about this, I’ve been reading ‘Gilgamesh Retold’ by Jenny Lewis. It’s an impressive performance. 


I don’t want to detract from Lewis’s ‘Gilgamesh’, her scholarship or her poetry but there’s an Afterword where Lewis discusses the text and her translation and it is a succinct example of my problem.


In the Afterword she describes her discomfort with the incident between Shamhat and Enkidu. To domesticate Enkidu the wild man, Shamhat the temple prostitute is sent into the wilderness to introduce him to sexual intercourse and thus humanise him. 


Lewis describes the incident as fraught with ‘cultural anachronisms’. 

For a start the idea of a holy or sacred prostitute would seem to be a contradiction in terms to a twenty-first century reader but in ancient Sumer there doesn’t seem to have been any stigma attached to sex and certainly not to temple prostitutes in service to Inanna.[…] Even so, being told to trek three days into the wilderness and lie naked as lure for a gigantic hairy wild man (probably with bad personal hygiene) seems monstrously abusive and pornographic in any century. My way of dealing with this was to interpret it as a ritual, similar to the annual symbolic couplings between Inanna’s High Priestess and the king to ensure abundance in the land […] In my version Enkidu approaches Shambat gently and sings to her to reassure her; Inanna looks down on the couple , turning their lovemaking into something holy or supernatural (rather than bestial).


We should acknowledge the possible pun in ‘pornographic’ given the word’s etymology. But it seems to me that this doesn’t solve the problem. Whether Enkidu approaches her singing or snuffling doesn’t change the fact she’s been told to go teach him about sex. 


So a response in two parts. 


What isn’t ‘culturally anachronistic’ in Gilgamesh? He fights gods, kills the bull of heaven,  defeats a monster to steal his trees and travels to encounter the immortal survivors of the great flood.  


What wasn’t ‘monstrously abusive’ in Sumerian society by modern standards. The builders of Uruk’s walls weren’t working for the fun of it. They had no more control over their bodies than the temple prostitutes.  


Why have ideologies of sex and gender become such a focal point in the world of poetry and academia? The walls of Uruk are Gilgamesh’s glory, but he didn’t build them himself. Forget the poor who were conscripted to build them, but worry about the temple prostitute told to have sex with a man ‘with bad personal hygiene’? 


If we were to baulk at the incident in the name of ‘twenty first century readers’ doesn’t it also require us to assume that all ‘twenty-first century readers’ share the same values?


‘Twenty first century readers’ made Fifty Shades of Grey an international best seller. Recently I’ve been looking at generic fiction, both on screen and in print. There’s violence, sadism and sex, sometimes all three at the same time in the guise of entertainment. I’m not sure why, but you can, if you want to, watch people being tortured on your screen in the comfort of your own home. Your average ‘made for’ streaming service series has regular explicit sex which adds nothing to the narrative and goes on long enough to blur the distinction with pornography. Where I live the licenced brothels advertise themselves in the classified section of the local paper. Presumably the people who run them and use them, and that includes the paper who takes their advertising money and the government who taxes their profits, don’t find them ‘unacceptable’. 


The idea that ‘we all’ find x y z unacceptable is obviously untenable. If I were writing Uther’s story for HBO would anyone blink?


But since I do not want to contribute to the pervasive sludge, the observation doesn’t solve my Uther problem. 

In part two, he considers the idea of rewriting the text to make it acceptable for ‘modern readers’.


As of now I have no answer to any of this.


Except to say how much I admire Jenny Lewis’ ‘Gilgamesh Retold’. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Buchedd Beuno: The Life of Saint Beuno.

 Buchedd Beuno: The Life of Saint Beuno. Edited by Patrick Sims-Williams for the Dublin institute of Advanced studies. 


This was in the box of DIAS Medieval Welsh Texts I bought. I knew nothing about Beuno or his life, but it offered a break from working through stories from The Mabinogion.


I knew from reading Gerald of Wales that early Medieval Welsh saints are not to be trifled with. Beuno curses people who offend him or act badly, sometime bringing about their deaths, other times family misfortune. He also has the ability to stick severed heads back on decapitated corpses. 

It’s been a very enjoyable few weeks in his company.


What I admire most about the life is the absolute minimalism of the story telling. 

Here’s one episode; paraphrased, though my paraphrase is not much shorter than the text itself.


A young man, a workman, visits the court at of Ynyr of Gwent. He’s so good looking and well-mannered that everyone assumes he’s a noble. The King’s daughter falls for him so badly that she doesn’t want to live without him. The King, noticing this, decides the best course of action is to marry them before anything else can happen. So they are married.


Instead of living happily ever after, the happy couple set off for the young man’s home, with gold and silver and fine horses. But the young man has no home. When they stop to rest, the exhausted princess falls asleep. He is overcome with shame at the thought of his ‘homecoming’. His solution is to kill the princess while she sleeps and take off to the another royal court, where he uses the gold and silver to buy the office of steward.


Shepherds find the girl’s body and tell the Saint. He immediately goes with them, and reunites head and body. The princess is offered a choice: go home or stay here and serve God. She chooses the latter. Her brother turns up, and when she refuses to go home with him, he asks the saint to accompany him to the royal court to retrieve the gold and silver and horses. But when he arrives and sees his sister’s killer, he rushes at him and cuts his head off.


The king is outraged, and tells the saint that either he restore the dead man to life, or the brother dies. The saint does this. (This is the third time he’s done this in the story, but the first time when it’s not righting an obvious injustice.) The king apologises. The brother and sister and ex-husband disappear from the Saint’s story.


So much is left unsaid in the narrative especially at the beginning. Was the young man on the make? Does he pretend to be someone he isn’t or does he find it impossible to correct everyone’s mistake? When his new wife asks him, where do you come from, who are your family…how did he reply? Where did she think they were heading to when he ‘took her home’? How did she feel when she realised her head and been removed and then replaced? 


By leaving it unsaid: it’s all there? Reading the story, there's a compelling invitation to speculate. But while it would be tempting to rewrite the story and fill it out, that would destroy the effect. 

Friday, June 25, 2021

Susan Watson's 'The time of the angels'.

 Susan Watson's beautiful 'The Time of the Angels' is now available from

Sir Thomas Malory, Student life, and Britain's freezing 'Winter of Discontent' (1979). 
Full description and sample at the link above

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Review of William Carpenter's 'Eþandun' in The Brazen Head

You can read the review, and much more by clicking on the link. Otherwise scroll down.




Eþandun Epic Poem. William. G. Carpenter. Beaver’s Pond press. 2021. 252pp


Eþandun[1] is a narrative poem which tells the story of King Alfred’s actions between the Danish raid on Chippenham in midwinter 878 AD and his victory at the battle of Edington about six months later. It advertises itself on its cover as ‘Epic Poem’[2].


The orthodox version of literary history is that since the 19th century there has been a ‘lyricization’ of poetry in English. At the beginning of that century poetry was still the main vehicle for narrative, but it was gradually supplanted by the prose novel, until fictional narrative in prose became so common that ‘prose novel’ sounds tautological and ‘lyric’ became the default mode for poetry. 


Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.’ People who may not have read his argument and might have gagged on some of his examples of ‘true poetry’ accepted his claims.[3] At the beginning of the twentieth century the most influential poets wrote long poems but avoided narrative. Despite the continuing popularity of narrative fiction in print and digital media, critics of the stature of Hugh Kenner and Marjorie Perloff were happy to announce that plot is obsolete (Kenner)[4] and narrative is undesirable (Perloff).[5] Post modernists, stuck up their theorised cul de sacs, invented ‘weak narrativity’ which stripped of its verbiage seems to mean telling a story by deliberately not telling a story.[6] The idea that poetry is just another form of entertainment became a heresy. 


There’s an element of truth in this potted narrative; it couldn’t be a critical orthodoxy if there weren’t, but poets have gone on writing book length narrative poems in blank verse, strict stanza forms, free verse, or sequences of diverse poems, and in doing so they have moved across most of the existing fictional genres.


One consequence of this historical development is that modern publishers often seem clueless when it comes to promoting a book-length, narrative poem. Eþandun is a good example. It’s an historical novel. The writer has done his research. He knows the period and he has invented a story full of incident and drama that fits within a fixed, historically accurate time frame. We might dispute the credibility of the story, but that’s part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction. 


It seems highly unlikely that Alfred hid in Guthrum’s camp disguised as a Welsh bard[7], even less likely that he became his unofficial adviser, staged a fake séance and debated religion with him. Carpenter’s battle at Edington is a miraculous victory for a vastly outnumbered English army. It was not regarded as miraculous by contemporaries. Anglo-Saxon armies had been trashing Danish armies for decades, the men of Devon destroyed one that same winter and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our major source for the battle, simply records both the raid on Chippenham and the victory at Edington. The personal combat between Alfred and Guthrum seems a definite mistake, historically implausible and anti-climactic, even if the end of Virgil’s epic is ghosting in the background.


But a reader could dispute those parts of the story while enjoying them, with the added pleasure of encountering incidents he or she wouldn’t have imagined. This is fiction, not history and fiction requires incident and drama. Carpenter’s story is full of both.


What percentage of the vast audience for Game of ThronesVikings, The Last KingdomLord of the Rings etc. care about the quality of the prose they’re reading? Would they be put off if the lines didn’t go all the way to the right-hand margin? They could enjoy Eþandun and learn about the history of the period while they were doing it without worrying about the quality of the verse. There’s a vast audience out there, but the publisher sticks ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and that means the book will be shunted into the poetry section, if there is one, where its natural readership will not find it. Put ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and the book is reviewed by poetry editors instead of fiction reviewers. 


The dust jacket reflects the publisher’s confusion. What does it tell a prospective reader about the book? 


The title, Ethandun, spelt Eþandun seems needlessly pedantic. It’s not a famous battle like Hastings. Since most potential readers haven’t heard of it, aren’t going to know the sound value of the thorn (þ) and are going to be confused by the similarity between the a and d in the chosen font, it also seems needlessly uninformative.


If you don’t know what an Eþandun is the cover picture doesn’t help. It shows a generic ‘couple in the past’. If this is supposed to be Alfred and his wife, the latter is missing for most of the book, and when they do reunite, in the last chapter, Alfred’s loss of an eye has been stressed so often that the fact that he has two in the picture seems incongruous.  


Still seeking enlightenment, one reads the quotes on the back of the dust jacket. Typically, for a narrative poem, there is a failure to give an overview of the story. The only information states:


‘It is 878 AD. In the struggle between Christian Saxon and pagan Dane, whose endurance, loyalty, and strategy-whose God or gods-will prevail?’


878 is not a well-known date. If you, reading this, know its significance, you belong to a very very small group. If on the other hand you know the date, then you know Alfred won. Suggesting there’s any doubt seems counter-productive. Hidden away on the front flap of the dust jacket is a succinct summary of the book. It ends, however, with a piece of strange and highly inaccurate hyperbole: ‘Eþandun paints Western Christendom in its darkest hour.


As so often, the choice of approving quotations is also strange. There are two. 


‘Eþandun is a work of genius, of true poetry, and also a staggering piece of historical scholarship. It is utterly original in concept and execution’


This tells a potential reader nothing about the poem. As a statement it relies on the reader’s unwillingness to stop and consider it. It’s hard enough to define ‘poetry’ but what is ‘true poetry’? Certainly not the same ‘true poetry’ Poe was promoting. The phrase turns up on a baffling variety of poetry books and should be banned unless the user is willing to explain exactly what it is supposed to mean. Nor is this a ‘Staggering piece of historical scholarship’. I can’t imagine many historians being staggered by a three page bibliography. 


The second quote is even more strange: 


‘Carpenter’s Alfred is a wannabe medievalist’s delight. We don’t know much about the king who united Britain, but through Carpenter’s eyes, we imagine him.”


If this is ‘a wannabe medievalist’s delight’ should the genuine variety steer clear? 


 ‘We don’t know much about the King who united Britain.’ This is very true. Surprisingly little is known about Athelstan who did ‘unite’ Britain, but he was Alfred’s grandson and this book is not about him but about Alfred, who didn’t even unite England. We also know more about Alfred than about any other Anglo-Saxon king.


Carpenter knows most of what is known. One of the most striking aspects of this book is that Carpenter achieves that very rare thing: a story set in the ninth century, where the characters’ frame of reference is ninth century. It’s very impressive. It has nothing to do with ‘wannabe medievalists’. But the book’s main strength is also its major weakness. The research hasn’t been integrated into the fabric of the poem. It sits on top of it, calling attention to itself. 


On the run from the Danes, Alfred and his retainers are watching them ransack a religious institution, spitting babies on spears and molesting the religious. Alfred’s companion, Octa wants to leap to the defence of the weak and persecuted.


‘Can I behold such wickedness’ he murmured

as Athelred’s successor gripped his wrist.

‘You can behold’ said Alfred, ‘and you will.’ (p.51) 


Alfred’s response is terse and dramatic and suits the situation. It’s also believable. But then Alfred, who is also Athelred’s successor, launches into a forty-one-line speech, referring Octa to a list of historical situations that may have been much worse than the one they are in. This is not an isolated example. It’s a major stylistic characteristic of the text. Carpenter’s Alfred, like his narrator, has the irritating habit of launching into an historical disquisition at every possible opportunity. The story stops. Alfred speaks. At length. He sounds like a boring pedant. His retainers could have been forgiven for shanking him just so they could eat their meals in peace. 


Before the climactic battle, Alfred makes a speech to his gathered troops. In Carpenter’s version of events this is a desperate moment. He only has 318 fighting men. The model for such speeches in English poetry is Shakespeare’s Henry V. As a piece of ruthless, self-serving rhetorical manipulation Henry’s speech before Agincourt is perfect. But not one of Henry’s imaginary bowmen would have failed to understand everything he said.[8]


Carpenter’s Alfred says all he needs to say in 16 lines and then launches into a history lesson, piling up the examples which include King Ahab’s levies, Matathias’ son, Oswy, Abraham, the council at Nicea, a piece of erudite Greek symbolism courtesy of the Venerable Bede, and some typological exegesis surrounding Melchizedek, with the Spartan Leonidas thrown in at the end for good measure. We don’t know much about the men who made up the Wessex levies at Edington, but they would have been baffled rather than inspired. 


The ghost of G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse haunts any poet who attempts the story of King Alfred. Chesterton didn’t claim his story was historically accurate, and he used various ballad-like forms to give his poem an incantatory, dream-like quality. Carpenter opts for Blank Verse and his handling of this is deft, providing him with an unobtrusive, sometimes elegant vehicle for his narrative. Unfortunately, he breaks this with heavily alliterating lines that sound like fake medieval verse. Perhaps this delights ‘wannabe medievalists’ who have never encountered the real version. It’s difficult to imagine any Anglo-Saxon composing the clumsy equivalent of:


Begged to buy his butchered boardmate’s blood. (p. 46)


Old and Middle English alliterative verse was a flexible and sophisticated way of organising a line and offered subtle possibilities in rhythm and emphasis.[9] It’s very difficult to do in modern English for a variety of reasons. Carpenter has wisely decided not to use it. He opts instead for general alliteration, using it heavily at certain parts of the narrative. Imposed on Blank Verse this can be disastrous. The drummer is tapping ten or eleven beats and lightly stressing every second one, suddenly the bass player has decided to stress any random combination of beats. The lines begin to sound ominously like tongue twisters. 


Both bled, both blew, hearts hammered in both breasts 

As cupbearers brought them bread and beer.  (p.210)


When the alliteration is linked to Carpenter’s habitual circumlocution[10] and used to describe combat, the result is confused.


and Wulf went in forthwith. Poor Wulf was fined

a foot, but soon the Somersetan swung

south of Sigewulf’s stroke, which, Sherbourne’s shield,

discerning, drove his troll wife down the troll road

cleared by the killer’s ward as careful Alfred

aimed his edge and nicked the bristled neck. Wulf

lobbed his limb at the snout, Sigewulf struck

brawn, and the bitch chomped the carl’s calf. (p. 13)


It’s true that heroic poems from Y Gododdin to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ detail the deaths and deeds of individuals in combat. But the original audiences probably knew the participants, or had heard of them, and were familiar enough with combat to be fascinated by the blow by blow accounts. The descriptions are rarely, if ever, confusing. In the 21st century those conditions don’t apply. ‘Poor Wulf was fined a foot’ sounds needlessly precious and unnecessarily vague: ‘lobbed his limb at the snout’ bordering on parodic. I do not know what ‘discerning drove his troll wife down the troll road’ means.  


Is Eþandun Epic Poem an Epic poem?


The answer depends on your definition of Epic and defining Epic is an entertaining critical game, if you enjoy such things. The arguments have produced a small library, like the larger one attempting to define Lyric. The standard critical manoeuvre is to survey contending definitions of Epic from Aristotle onwards, and then pick whichever one allows the critic or writer to do whatever they were always going to do. Like the attempts to define Lyric, the game has little pragmatic value.


Eþandun is certainly a long poem that wants to be taken seriously but it raises the more interesting question of whether or not it is possible, in the 21st century, to write, ‘A war epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil’ which is the claim on the inside of the dust jacket. 


David Jones was probably the last person to achieve this, with In Parenthesis. He was describing a war his readers had fought in. Christopher’s Logue’s War Music is the positive answer to the ‘war poetry’ part of that question. But Logue wasn’t trying to out Homer Homer. Then is not now, and he built this into his poem, using all the techniques available to a modern English poet. 


Virgil’s audience were trained in the use of weapons, and accepted combat as a natural part of their lives. Martial skill was admirable. No one living today has fought in a dark age battle. That might be the crucial difference between a Roman Aristocrat who has fought in the Empire’s wars listening to the final combat in the Aeneid, and a modern audience reading that passage or Carpenter’s imaginary combats. 


For the original audiences of Homer and Virgil, the past was a very different place: gods interacted with humans while larger than life heroes stalked about the earth. In the 21st century we split History, which is (hopefully) evidence based and factual, from a thing called Fiction which is a culturally sanctioned form of lying. The split is very recent, certainly post-medieval. Today we dispute the ‘historicity’ of the Trojan war. If it happened, then it didn’t happen the way it does in the Iliad. We look for evidence it might have happened, framing its possible causes in terms of economics and expansionist politics. 


Virgil and Homer were creating poems that sprung from a shared belief in the truth of their stories, built on a shared knowledge of the past. It’s almost impossible for a modern reader not to read the Aeneid as a form of historical fiction; a high-class Roman Marvel Comic with suited superheroes and bickering gods. The suspension of disbelief we’ve learnt from reading and watching fiction automatically takes over. For the original audience this was the foundation story of Rome. 


A poem written in the tradition of Virgil would have to negotiate the fact that most people no longer believe gods walk on the earth.; or that victory in battle proves that God prefers your cause to your defeated enemy’s; or that sword swinging killers are sufficient role models for the problems of the world adults live in. Heroes of the superhuman stature of Aeneas or Achilles belong now in the world of fiction and are diminished by this. There was a King Alfred, and he was bound by all the contingent forces of his place and time and essential humanity. He was extra-ordinary. But if we admire Alfred as an historical figure, it’s not because he won a battle, but because of his reforms after Edington. They are hardly material for a dramatic war poem in the style of Virgil. 


Carpenter’s Alfred is not the historical man. Nor is he a believable representation of that historical man. However, fiction has requirements history will not provide. Eþandun is historical fiction: entertaining and thought provoking even when it’s at its most implausible. 


Virgil was not writing fiction. 




[1] The title with modernised spelling would be Ethandun. The place of the battle is usually given as Edington. 

[2] ‘Eþandun Epic poem’ on both dust jacket, copyright and title page. Eþandun on the book’s spine and cover.

[3] Poe, E.A. (1846) briefly in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’. and in more detail in (1850) ‘The Poetic Principle’. Poe’s attempt to define ‘True Poetry’ comes in the penultimate paragraph of this latter essay.

[4] Kenner, H. (1951) The poetry of Ezra Pound. (p. 262).

[5] Perloff, M. (1985) The dance of the intellect: studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition (p.161).

[6] See for example Brain McHale’s (2004) The obligation toward the difficult whole. and the same writer’s contribution to the RoutledgeEncyclopedia of Narrative the entry for ‘Narrative in Poetry’.

[7] Like the story of the burnt cakes, the story of Alfred visiting the Danish camp as a harper first appears in the 12th century.

[8] In Old English, Byrhtnoth’s speeches to the Viking messenger in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is a less well known, but historically more appropriate example of direct, effective, dramatic speech. 

[9]  Essentially a line with four stresses. Three of the beats are stitched together with alliteration. The last beat rarely carries alliteration. 

[10] I counted ten ways in which Alfred is named in the poem before I stopped counting.