elstree-1976

I saw Elstree 1976 with a friend at the film space PhilaMOCA on Friday night. They only had two showings and the very low attendance surprised me – could have been lack of promotion but Star Wars fans can usually find out about these kinds of things…

In any case, it was a pleasure to have a private screening of a very interesting film. The film gets its title from a film studio in London called Elstree where many interior scenes from Star Wars (and some from Empire) were shot. In 1976 London, casting agencies were filling bit parts and extras for “another sci-fi film” that became what we know today as Star Wars.

Elstree 1976 provides brief but very fascinating oral histories of a half dozen actors who thought they were doing just another week’s work for the casting office only later to realize that the project became Star Wars. Some of the people who appeared in the film just wandered into a casting call by following flyers in Soho while others were career actors. The film explores how the experience affected and continues to affect their lives – for better or worse. It also affords us a glimpse into a very different time in filmmaking and prompts us to wonder why and how Star Wars changed every aspect of not only the sci-fi genre, but moviemaking in general.

In all honesty I could watch an 8-part series of one hour episodes of this kind of stuff the way director John Spira put it together.

The film uses very few copyrighted images and footage of the film shown is a handful of frames looped together like cinema quality moving gifs.

There are also very short interludes of slightly moving stills of recreated hallway shots of bored Stormtroopers but they do not seem like “dramatizations” – they simply keep the color palette consistent for the film and seem to convey the “no big deal” attitude that perhaps contributed significantly to Star Wars masterfully achieving its “lived-in” look.

The attention to detail will surprise even those who have memorized Star Wars – for example, we get to know some lady in the Cantina who looks like she wandered off the set of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We learn that the guy who stumbled into the role of the “you don’t need to see any identification” Sandtrooper also found himself in John & Yoko’s Bed-in in the Amsterdam Hilton. The guy who played Greedo thought George Lucas was a grip or an assistant and asked him bring him a coffee when he came to audition.

gold leader

There’s also a part about a Y-wing fighter reading his lines that will forever change the way you watch that scene.

Elstree 1976 breaks Star Wars down to what it is – storytelling. This film is not just about Star Wars though – it’s about these people’s lives. The interviews switch from person to person and are presented in linear order. Before we know it, we realize that it’s not their being in Star Wars that interests us most about them – it’s the lives they lived after their experience being in Star Wars.

Everyone who grew up on Star Wars should watch this documentary at some point. It would be something very nice to watch on a Sunday afternoon.

It happened again. The Tuesday before last was a cold winter day and as the bus started moving I heard a familiar rolling sound. It stopped between my feet: the pearl.

pearl 2

It’s become a little running joke with myself that whenever I see a lost fake pearl earring I think of the poem Pearl. It’s like it’s telling me it’s time to read Pearl again – one part serendipity, one part superstition.

Pearl is a medieval narrative poem thought to be written by the same unknown poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness. For this reason scholars often call this poet the “Pearl poet” or the “Gawain poet.” All four of the poems attributed to the Pearl poet are written in the same Northern dialect of Middle English, so you get some interesting Old Norse-sounding words like burne and tulk[1] which may at first seem foreign to Chaucer readers.

It’s a dream vision poem – a popular genre, particularly in 13th and 14th century England and France. Other examples of the dream vision poem are Roman de la Rose (a sort of medieval version of A Christmas Carol except with sex), Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and, of course, Piers Plowman.

Pearl deals with the grief we suffer from personal loss. The troubled narrator (described as a joyless jeweler) doesn’t say specifically what kind of loss he’s suffered – but it seems to point to the loss of a child. In any case, he’s very distraught. He compares his loss to a pearl, one that – literally, figuratively, or both – slipped from his hand[2] and rolled into a garden. The narrator has no hope of ever recovering his precious pearl in the physical world.

A “Pearl maiden” character appears and guides the narrator through the dream vision and “treats” him in a way very similar to that of Lady Philosophy from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, however, the “treatment” administered by the Pearl maiden is that of Christian doctrine.

Aside from the rhyme scheme, the frequent use of alliterative verse, and stanza linking, an aspect of the poem I most appreciate is how the Pearl poet contrasts material objects and worldly desires with higher thoughts and places and uses imagery of cleanness, perfection, and roundness in every stanza in a natural way that never seems tedious or forced.

You’d think that after the 25th “spotless” or “round” we’d want to pull our hair out, but he – and I’m really sorry to do this to you – keeps the ball rolling – especially by using alliteration. Check out most especially 945-948 (just read it, even if you’re not used to Middle English – there’s a verse translation in Modern English below to help you get the gist of it):

“The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake / Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote / And as Hys flok is wythouten flake / So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” It’s a beautiful poem and even if it doesn’t touch you spiritually in any way, its masterful constructed and flows like water. I leave you with a passage[3] from Pearl and a detail of the passage on its manuscript.

Here’s where the dreamer “sees” Jerusalem:

“Thys moteles meyny thou cones of mele,
Of thousandes thryght, so gret a route –
A gret ceté, for ye arn fele,
Yow byhod have wythouten doute.
So cumly a pakke of joly juele
Wer evel don schulde lyy theroute;
And by thyse bonkes ther I con gele
I se no bygyng nawhere aboute.
I trowe alone ye lenge and loute
To loke on the glory of thys gracious gote.
If thou has other bygynges stoute,
Now tech me to that myry mote.””That mote thou menes in Judy londe,”
That specyal spyce then to me spakk.
“That is the cyté that the Lombe con fonde
To soffer inne sor for manes sake.
The olde Jerusalem, to understonde,
For there the olde gulte was don to slake.
Bot the nwe that lyght, of Godes sonde,
The apostel in Apocalyppce in theme con take.
The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake
Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote,
And as Hys flok is wythouten flake,
So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” (ll. 925-48)[4]
“These holy virgins in radiant guise,
By thousands thronged in processional –
That city must be of uncommon size
That keeps you together, one and all.
It were not fit such jewels of price
Should lie unsheltered by roof or wall,
Yet where these river-banks arise
I see no building large or small.
Beside this stream celestial
You linger alone, none else in sight;
If you have another house or hall,
Show me that dwelling wholly bright”That wholly blissful, that spice heaven-sent,
Declared, “In Judea’s fair demesne
The city lies, where the Lamb once went
To suffer for man death’s anguish keen.
The old Jerusalem by that is meant,
For there the old guilt was canceled clean,
But the new, in vision prescient,
John saw sent down from God pristine.
The spotless Lamb of gracious mien
Has carried us all to that fair site,
And as in his flock no fleck is seen,
His hallowed halls are wholly bright.” (ll.925-48)[5]

Here’s how the passage appears in the Manuscript Cotton Nero A.x. (art.3)[6]:

pearl 925-936 cotton nero

Lines 925-936 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 051 verso (image source)

pearl 937-948 cotton nero

Lines 937-948 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 052 recto (image source)

[1] Burne and tulk (man/knight) appear in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. James Winny (Ontario, 1992).

[2] Reminds me of that last verse from the Cure song “A Letter to Elise” where the narrator says, “And every time I try to pick it up like falling sand / As fast as I pick it up it runs away through my clutching hands / But there’s nothing else I can really do / There’s nothing else I can really do at all.” The character in this song may need consolation from the Pearl poet after he posts his letter – unless, of course, he and Elise do this all the time.

[3] The Middle English version presented here has modernized spelling so you won’t find any thorns and yoghs. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming “diplomatic” transcription of Pearl edited by Murray McGillivray and Jenna Stook from The Cotton Nero A.x. Project (currently under scholarly review for publication). They are also working on a version of Cleanness (edited by Kenna L. Olsen) as well as Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Murray McGillivray). For more information, check out: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~scriptor/cotton/publications.html

[4] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) available online

[5] Pearl in Modern English translation from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: verse translations, trans. Marie Borroff (New York, 2001).

[6] British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) is the only known manuscript of Pearl – it also contains Cleanness, Patience (or Job), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All four poems are thought to have been written by the same unknown poet.

*** WARNING *** SPOILER ALERT *** This post contains plot spoilers for Season 1, ep.2 of Better Call Saul ***

saul 5

In the 13th century Middle High German epic Das Nibelungenlied, a little name calling escalates into the death of our hero Sifried (Sigurd from the Volsung lengend). That almost happened in Better Call Saul a few weeks ago when two skateboarders unwittingly attempted to con Tuco’s grandmother. Tuco hogties the skateboarders and takes them out to the desert to execute them. Saul Goodman – who at this point in the story is still known as Jimmy McGill – provides legal defense for the skateboarders in an adhoc desert courtroom where the judge is a psychotic drug kingpin and the jury is comprised of the kingpin’s goons.

saul 3

Though he seems willing to drop charges on the con, the offense that drives Tuco to seek death penalty for the two offenders is that they called his grandmother a “Biznatch.” Smoothing Tuco over with lines like, “You’re tough – but you’re fair – You’re all about justice,” Saul eventually barters the punishment down from death to a broken leg. In the end, everyone feels the punishment fits the crime.

saul 4

Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and Tuco (Raymond Cruz) negotiate in Better Call Saul. image copyright 2015 AMC, High Bridge Productions, Sony Pictures Television

Unfortunately for Sifried, Saul Goodman wasn’t around to counsel King Gunter when his wife Brunhild demanded justice after Sifried’s wife Krimhild called her a whore. Instead of Saul, Gunter had Hagen of Troneg who convinced his king that Sifried’s death was the only penalty that fit the crime.

It all started when Brunhild quarreled with Krimhild for daring to walk into church before her, “No maid in waiting is allowed to walk in front of a great king’s very own lady.”[1]

Krimhild doesn’t let this insult go without a comeback:

Krimhild quickly answered     (easily as angry):

“You’d be better much off   holding your tongue. Your shame

Is selling your beautiful body   to acquire a lady’s name.

How can a whore transform     herself a queen, when she’s been so shamed?[2]

(this odd spacing is intentional and is explained at the end of the post)

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s why Krimhild said such a thing to Brunhild:

King Gunter isn’t the fittest man, but he set his eyes on the Icelandic queen Brunhild. To marry Brunhild you had to beat her in several physical challenges – boulder throwing, spear-throwing, stuff like that. If you lose, you die – but if you win, you get to marry Brunhild. There was no way King Gunter could defeat Brunhild in the games so, wearing a cloak of invisibility, Sifried helps Gunter defeat Brunhild. I wrote about this episode in a previous post.

Gunter gets to marry Brunhild, but as you can imagine she quickly realizes that he’s not the gladiator he seemed during the games. On their wedding night, Brunhild refuses sex and instead ties Gunter up and makes him spend the night hanging from the ceiling.

The next day when Sifried asks Gunter how his first night in the sack with Brunhild was, the humiliated king asks Sifried for his help. Sifried appears the second night – and with that cloak of invisibility – breaks Brunhild like a wild horse. Once she yields to him, he takes her belt and ring and lets King Gunter take over.

The belt was a magic belt of Nineveh silk. It was the source of Brunhild’s superhuman strength. And as for the red golden ring- could it be the cursed ring of Fafinir’s horde?

Brunhild looks at Krimhild and realizes she’s telling the truth:

“She’s wearing, now, the silken             belt I lost, and my red-

Gold ring is on her finger.             I’d wish I’d never been born,

My king, and live eternally       sorry, unless you restore

My honor, free me from   this utterly gross and ghastly slander.”[3]

King Gunter summons Sifried to tell his side of the story. Sifried tells Gunter that he never boasted to anyone that he had Brunhild’s body before the king had slept with her. Gunter frees Sifried of all charges. Just before leaving, Sifried adds:

“Men should make certain,”      heroic Sifried went on,

“that women’s tongues are checked,   kept from wagging loose.

You control your wife,     and will try my best to make sure

Of mine.[4] I’m thoroughly          ashamed of such disgraceful behavior.”[5]

Seeing Brunhild unsatisfied with Gunter’s resolution, Hagen of Troneg convinces King Gunter that the only way to resolve this problem is to kill Sifried:

The king listened to evil      Hagen, his trusted man

Burgundy’s faithless knights    set to work

Worthy warriors preparing     hidden betrayal and death

So just two women quarreled       but many heroes would breathe their last.[6]

And so Sifried’s fate was decided just like that – he would be killed in a “hunting accident.” Justice would be served in hidden betrayal. Though King Gunter gave one verdict out in the open, the final verdict given in private was very different. One wouldn’t expect the final judgment of a psychotic meth dealer on one of his enemies to be fairer than one decided on by a king with the help of his wise advisors, yet it is.

Both of the penalties these powerful men imposed were intended to protect the honor of a woman who was very dear to each of them. For Gunter, it was his wife Brunhild; for Tuco it was his grandmother. Their method, however, couldn’t be any more different. Tuco agreed to a penalty and stuck with it. Though he is an emotionally unstable gangster who might kill someone for much less, we are somehow confident that he will keep his word. After receiving their punishment of one broken leg each, the skateboarders are free to go. They have nothing else to fear from Tuco.

This is not the same for Sifried though – the king who publicly told him his charge was dropped will – minutes later – turn around and privately condemn him to death. Why is Tuco the character we can trust to be fair and just? It must have been the sleazy lawyer – Sifried failed to call one.

——————————————————————————

A note about the spacing in Burton Raffel’s English translation/rendering: The spacing is to preserve the half-lines of the quatrains. Raffel explains, “Each line is divided, visually as well as metrically, into two half-lines. The first seven half-lines of each quatrain (that is, the first three and a half lines) have three metrical feet; the last half-line usually, but not always has, has four feet. I have followed this pattern very closely.”[7] He also notes that the quatrains in Das Nibelungenlied are not always end-stopped. Using the quatrain above (Raffel’s 876 – the final quatrain of Adventure 14) let’s look at manuscript C of Nibelungenlied.

nibelung last quatrain of adventure 14 C manuscript

detail of Das Nibelungenlied quatrain 876 from manuscript C. image source

Notice the marks indicating the half-lines. In this quatrain they appear after übel, man, untriuwe, an, erfünde, erkorn, bâgen, and verlorn.

To see them a little easier, first look at the transcribed version below. An early 20th century editor[8] preserved the half-lines of the quatrain in his transcription.

876 ed Friedrich Zarncke

The half-lines can look a little odd in Modern English translation in instances where the idea conveyed doesn’t seem to naturally elicit a pause. There’s a strange intoxicating rhythm to the poetry though. Try reading it aloud – but not just one quatrain, otherwise it won’t work – it should be an entire scene – or better yet, a full adventure. I can’t quite describe it – but reading it aloud like that somehow brings you deeper into the poem. Strange to say, but it’s enchanting. These half-lines are not exclusive to narrative poetry in Middle High German. They are used in Saxon poetry and Old Norse poetry as well. Popular examples are Beowulf and the Elder Edda.

[1] Raffel, p. 117, quatrain 838.

[2] Raffel, p.117, quatrain 839.

[3] Raffel, p. 119, quatrain 854.

[4] This reminds me of a rock myth that took place in front of Kurt Cobain’s tent at the 1992 MTV music awards as told by Kurt Cobain at Nirvana’s Portland Meadows show in September 1992:

“You know, yesterday umm… my wife and I were sitting in front of our tent at the MTV Music Awards – we were having lunch – and Axl Rose walked by us. And we yelled at Axl – we said, ‘Axl! Will you be the godfather of our child?’ And he said – he stopped, he turned around – he pointed his finger at my wife […] and so he said to my wife, ‘You better shut up bitch. Don’t pitch me any shit tonight.’ […] and he said, ‘You better keep your wife’s mouth shut – you embarrass everybody. You embarrass your wife, you embarrass your old man, you embarrass me.’ [… ] I was shaking and I said… I told my wife to ‘SHUT UP BITCH!’”

[5] Raffel, p. 120-1, quatrain 862.

[6] Raffel, p. 122, quatrain 876.

[7] Raffel, p. 333.

[8] Das Niebelungenlied, ed. Friedrich Zarncke (Niemeyer, 1905) available online.

boethius alfred the great self help bookI love reading medieval self-help books (or “mirrors for princes” – as scholars call them) like Secreta Secratorum and The Consolation of Philosophy. Both are great, but the one I spend the most time with is Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. My interest in Chaucer led me to Boethius since Consolation is one of Chaucer’s favorite touchstones. Once you read Boethius (or Boece, as he is called in Middle English texts) you’ll forever see flashes of his guiding philosophy in Chaucer’s poetry.  In any case, Boethius quickly became a friend in my own spiritual journey. My wife Jessica and I even used a passage from The Consolation of Philosophy in our wedding ceremony. And no, it wasn’t a “medieval-themed” wedding THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

Reading Boethius in modern English translation alone, however, does not satisfy the medievalist. We look to “the versions they used” and while we might not always find them, there are other versions that give us ideas of how Boethius was appreciated in the medieval world. Chaucer translated a version himself into English but he was not the first to do so. An Old English version[1] is attributed to Alfred the Great, the 9th century Saxon king of England. How involved Alfred actually was in its composition will likely never be known, but we know that he placed great value on the text and at least commissioned its production.

Reading Alfred the Great’s version, you’re instantly struck by its heroic language. The quick prologue Alfred provides smacks of the opening lines of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and Green Knight. In Alfred’s version Boethius is a Christian man who fights for justice to save his people from the evil tyrant Theodoric.

After the spirited prologue, however, the narrative becomes – more or less – the one we recognize from Consolation.

Something interesting about the Saxon version of Boethius attributed to Alfred the Great, though, is that the character Lady Philosophy is called Wisdom (and sometimes Reason). Her character is also masculine rather than feminine, but aside from that we are not given any other physical characteristics.

Boethius isn’t “visited” by Lady Philosophy in reality or dream vision in the Saxon version. It is as if the “Wisdom” and “Reason” dialogue with the “mind” occurs in the character’s head whereas in Consolation Lady Philosophy (also referred to as a physician) appears and “treats” Boethius.

Also, the “muses” Lady Philosophy chases away are simply referred to as “worldly pursuits” in the Saxon version as opposed to a greater pursuit: striving to know – but not being arrogant enough to think one can “possess entirely” – wisdom.

Consolation presents a philosophy that is somewhat universal, but the Saxon version manages to be even more universal in a way. It isn’t watered down to the extent of a message from Joel Olsteen, for example, but the concepts are presented in a disarming way that complements Christian thought and could help a medieval reader in much the same way a Joel Olsteen book would help someone today.

Comparing Boethius to Joel Olsteen may seem inappropriate to some medievalists, but I’ll bet Boethius was more accessible than Aquinas (or even Dante) among contemporary medieval readers. The method is also surprisingly similar to modern psychoanalysis and behavior change through self-awareness.

In addition to the text’s teaching and guiding philosophy that is meant to complement Christian thought, something makes the king who promoted the text seem revolutionary for his time. In Alfred’s version, the hero Boethius is a senator who feels his leader is not morally fit to govern his people so he seeks to remove him from power. A king who promotes this kind of hero is telling his subjects that rulers are to be held at the highest moral standard and are obligated to share wisdom and book-learning with their people. And if they don’t – any one of their subjects should remove them from positions of power. That sounds a lot more like democracy than feudalism!

[1] King Alfred’s Anglo Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae, trans. Samuel Fox (London, 1864) available online

14th century illustration of Moses being found from Golden Haggadah (image source: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/hagadah/accessible/images/page8full.jpg)

14th century illustration from Golden Haggadah of Moses being found (image source)

In Exodus, the narrator uses only three verses[1] to take the baby Moses from being handed to a Hebrew wet nurse to becoming a young adult. The story moves very quickly. After Moses is saved from the river by Pharoah’s daughter, we fast-forward to him as a young adult just in time for the scene where he kills the Egyptian. This period of baby Moses’ life is given much more attention in a 14th century version from The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament than it is in Exodus.

First there’s this whole scene about how Moses refused to drink milk from any woman but his own mother and then there’s this interesting scene where Moses as a small child is brought into the royal chamber to see Pharoah. Moses’ foster-grandfather is delighted to see the bouncing boy and like every proud relative wanting to put on a show of the little guy’s brightness and good manners, he puts his crown on the young lad’s head for a Kodak moment. But little Moses, instead of sitting on Pharoah’s lap adorably modeling the big crown on his tiny head, puts the crown beneath his feet and tramples it:

“Betwyx hys schankes he sett hym right
and lappyd hym to hym for grett lufe.
And for he was so worthy a wyght,
Hys pertenes he toght forto prove.
His crown of gold, full fayr and bryght,
that barne hed sett he above.
And sone was schewyd in ther syght
a wonder case forto controve:
That child full lyghtlt lete,
the crown kast he downe,
And fylyd yt with his fete
forto breke yt full bowne.”
(ll. 1549-1560)[2]

Pharaoh’s advisors are appalled by this blatant scene of Jewish insubordination. They warn Pharaoh of the danger of allowing the Hebrew boy to grow to a man and they scoff at Pharaoh’s allowing him to live so close to the royal family. Pharoah hears nothing of their nonsense though – Moses is a clever little boy but he cannot possibly understand the implication of his action in light of current Egyptian-Jewish political tensions much less the prophecy that a Hebrew man will end Pharoah’s rule. It’s just a cute scene and besides – kids do the darndest things! Another advisor – who the text describes as “a wys man of ther law” – chimes in to defend the little child suggesting they conduct an experiment to test his cleverness. Some hot coals are brought in and presented to the little boy and sure enough Moses tries to put them in his mouth. So there you have it, he’s only a cute little boy who doesn’t yet know to be careful around burning objects.

At this moment Pharoah’s daughter (called Tremouth in The Paraphrase) rushes into the scene and takes the poor child in her arms back to her chamber to comfort him. The narrator reminds us that God always comes to those in need for he who saves shall be saved:

“Loe how sone God hath socur sent;
That He wyll save, be savyd thei sall.”

Why this scene? Was it for comedic purpose? Was it an original embellishment?

Turns out, it’s adapted from a 1st century text by Josephus called Antiquities of the Jews. Here’s the scene as it appears in Antiquities:

Thermuthis therefore perceiving him to be so remarkable a child, adopted him for her son, having no child of her own. And when one time had carried Moses to her father, she showed him to him, and said she thought to make him her successor, if it should please God she should have no legitimate child of her own; and to him, “I have brought up a child who is of a divine form, and of a generous mind; and as I have received him from the bounty of the river, in , I thought proper to adopt him my son, and the heir of thy kingdom.” And she had said this, she put the infant into her father’s hands: so he took him, and hugged him to his breast; and on his daughter’s account, in a pleasant way, put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground, and, in a puerile mood, he wreathed it round, and trod upon his feet, which seemed to bring along with evil presage concerning the kingdom of Egypt. But when the sacred scribe saw this, (he was the person who foretold that his nativity would the dominion of that kingdom low,) he made a violent attempt to kill him; and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, “This, O king! this child is he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and deliver the Egyptians from the fear they are in about him; and deprive the Hebrews of the hope they have of being encouraged by him.” But Thermuthis prevented him, and snatched the child away. And the king was not hasty to slay him, God himself, whose providence protected Moses, inclining the king to spare him.[3]

Besides adding the bit about the hot coal test, the scene was not an embellishment at all by the Paraphrase poet. In fact, it’s a surprisingly accurate translation given his version was put into Middle English verse with a slightly comedic mood. Makes me wonder what other texts the Paraphrase poet used to prepare his version of the Old Testament.

[1] Exodus 2:8-10: Douay-Rheims: http://www.drbo.org/chapter/02002.htm ; KJV: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?version=KJV&search=Exodus%202

[2] References to Exodus from the Metrical Paraphrase are taken from The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011).

[3] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston. Available online: http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/flavius-josephus/antiquities-jews/book-2/chapter-9.html

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When I think violence in medieval French poetry, I think Chanson de Roland. After all, who can forget Roland impaling Aëlroth with his lance, hoisting him high up in the air, and then tossing the freshly dead foe a good spear’s length away? There are other medieval French tales with violence. There are violent deaths in Marie de France. For example, in her lai Equitan, two adulterers are boiled to death in baths of scalding water. Though the violence is gruesome, it is described in the way violence appears in fables or fairy tales and folk tales: direct and to the point. The poet or storyteller simply says, “They were burned alive in a bath of boiling water.” The descriptions typically lack the relish and gruesome detail found in other works of medieval poetry like Chanson de Roland. If someone were burned alive in a bath of boiling water in Chanson de Roland, the poet would likely go on about the burns, mingling their shrieks of pain with steam silently rising from the water.

Now, you also have violence in the French versions of Arthurian tales like the Arthurian Romances and Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes and the anonymous Mort de Roi Artu, but I’d previously found that the violence in these texts was reserved for tournaments and single-person combat scenes. The scenes can get quite bloody, but the wounds suffered are typically the type to heal after a poultice and a day or two of sitting out the hunt. In other words, justice is not usually served in these tales with a violent death. It’s more likely the offender would be sent to personally apologize to Queen Guinevere and then spend the rest of his life in her service as punishment for his rude behavior to women or something like that.

But after seeing his description of Erec in a rotten mood being ambushed by three robbers in the woods a few days ago, I realized I had been wrong about the 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes. He deserves his own installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest. This one comes from Erec et Enide the first of his Arthurian Romances.[1]

Erec is King Arthur’s second favorite knight. He’s probably Arthur’s real first favorite knight, but we know what a fragile ego Gawain has in the French books. Gawain’s a pretty good guy in the English books, but in the French he can be a bit of a jerk. If I was one of the Knights of Round Table knowing I only got the job because I’m the king’s nephew I guess wouldn’t be a very secure fellow in the company of self-made heroes either. Anyway, back to Erec – he accompanies Queen Guinevere and her maiden on the hunt for the White Stag. Stuff happens and Erec is forced to separate from Guinievere and go on a quest. During this quest he defeats a rude knight in single-combat and sends him back to Queen Guinevere for further punishment for his wretched offense. Erec meets a maiden named Enide, he gives her the honor to hold a hawk that only the most beautiful woman in the land can do and then brings her back to King Arthur’s court where an even greater honor is bestowed upon her – publicly receiving a kiss from King Arthur – a ceremony associated with the White Stag hunt.

Erec marries Enide and they live happily ever after. Well, almost. Before Erec met Enide he was one of the greatest knights around, but since meeting Enide he’s stopped competing with other knights and instead spends all of his time adoring his lovely wife. Though he still gives his fellow knights money for gear and travel expenses, he’s basically dropped out of the tournament circuit entirely. Erec doesn’t seem to mind, but it starts bothering his wife. She hears the nasty things his friends say about him behind his back, how he’s lost his reputation as a knight and everything. These were the very friends her husband was personally helping rise in the ranks!

Now, one night Enide can’t hold it in anymore. She cries and says that Erec has suffered great misfortune. Only Erec isn’t asleep. He hears her and demands to know everything. He rises immediately, puts on his gear, mounts his horse and bids his wife prepare herself to leave with him at once. They leave together. It isn’t a pleasant ride though. Erec is pissed off and tells his wife not to say anything to him until he says so. After a while three robbers take notice of them and decide to raid them. Though there are three of them, they attack one by one. I love how Chrétien explains this:

“In those days it was the custom and practice that in an attack two knights should not join against one; thus is they too had assailed him, it would seem that they had acted treacherously.”[2]

The robbers were concerned about someone thinking they had acted treacherously. Imagine that! Were they polite robbers? Still, it’s interesting how in tales of chivalry, everyone – even villains – have some regard for humanity. This is why it is difficult to find scenes in them that are violent enough for Today’s Medieval Bloodfest. There simply isn’t the complete disregard for humanity in the texts that is required for violent characters. Bad guys, once caught, are taught a lesson and then proudly reform themselves.

Back to the story. Enide sees them, but Erec doesn’t seem to notice them. She tries to warn Erec. He doesn’t exactly hear her though, he just says something along the lines of, “I’ll forgive you for addressing me this once.” He turns just in time though to not be caught by complete surprise by the first robber:

When Erec hears him, he defies him. Both give spur and clash together, holding their lances at full extent. But he missed Erec, while Erec used him hard; for he knew well the right attack. He strikes him on the shield so fiercely that he cracks it from top to bottom. Nor is his hauberk any protection: Erec pierces and crushes it in the middle of his breast, and thrusts a foot and a half of his lance into his body. When he drew back, he pulled out the shaft. And the other fell to earth. He must needs die, for the blade had drunk his life’s blood.

Here is that passage in Old French and Modern French translation[3]:

Quant Erec l’ot, si le desfie ;

Andui poignant, si s’entrevienent,

Les lances esloingnies tient ;

Mais cil a a Erec faille,

Et Erec a lui malbailli,

Qui bien le sot droit envahir.

Sor l’escu fiert par tel hair,

Que d’un chief en l’autre le fent,

Ne li hauberz ne le desfent :

En mi le piz le fause et ront,

Et de sa lance li repont

Pié et demi dedenz le cors.

Au retraire a son cop estors,

Et cil cheï ; morir l’estut,

Car li glaives ou cors li but.

Quand Erec l’entend, it le défie.

Ils se precipitant l’un à la rencontre de l’autre,

tenant les lances à l’horizontale.

Mais le brigand a manqué Erec,

alors qu’Erec l’a mis en piteux état,

car il a bien su adjuster son coup.

Il le frappe sur l’écu avec une telle violence

qu’il le fend de haut en bas.

Il n’est pas advantage protégé par son haubert

qu’Erec disloque et brise au milieu de la poitrine,

avant de lui enforcer sa lance

d’un pied et demi dand le corps.

En retirant sa lance, il la fait pivoter

et l’autre tombe : il lui fallu mourir,

car la pointe de la lance lui but le sang du coeur.

(Vv. 2856-2870)

Next come the other two robbers:

Then one of the other two rushes forward, leaving his companion behind, and spurs toward Erec, threatening him. Erec firmly grasps his shield, and attacks him with a stout heart. The other holds his shield before his breast. Then they strike upon the emblazoned shields. The knight’s lance flies into two bits, while Erec drives a quarter of his lance’s length through the other’s breast. He will give him no more trouble. Erec unhorses and leaves him in a faint, while he spurs at an angle toward the third robber. When the latter saw him coming on he began to make his escape. He was afraid, and did not dare to face him; so he hastened to take refuge in the woods. But his flight is of small avail, for Erec follows him and cries aloud, “Vassal, vassal, turn about now, and prepare to defend yourself, so that I may not slay you in an act of flight. It is useless to try to escape.” But the fellow has no desire to turn about, and continues to flee with might and main. Following and overtaking him, Erec hits him squarely on his painted shield, and throws him over on the other side. To these three robbers he gives no further heed: one he has killed, another wounded, and of the third he got rid by throwing him from earth to steed. He took the horses of all three and tied them together by the bridles[4]. In colour they were not alike: the first was white as milk, the second black and not at all bad looking, while the third was dappled all over.

So it turns out Chrétien de Troyes can carry his own in poetic descriptions of gruesome violence. While Marie de France might have only used a line or two to say that Erec stabbed the robber in the heart with his lance, killing him with one blow, Chrétien uses 9 lines to describe Erec’s blow that could easily pass for a brutal passage in Chanson de Roland. Chrétien ends the violent passage by telling us that Erec’s lance drank the very blood that gave his attacker life straight from its source – his heart.

[1] Some say that he wrote an earlier Tristan but it is lost.

[2] References to Erec et Enide in Modern English translation are taken from Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, Trans. W.W. Comfort (London, 1963).

[3] Erec et Enide in Old French and Modern French translation from Erec et Enide, ed., trans. Jean-Marie Fritz (Paris, 1992).

[4] I guess that’s the penalty for trying to steal from others – even if they are richer than you. Or, perhaps it’s what happens when you pick on a guy who is fighting with his spouse –he might not give you mercy and send you to be dealt with by the King. Instead, he might just harshly render justice right then and there – and take your horses too!

marco polo

So you know Marco Polo the Venetian? The story goes Marco Polo told this French guy all about his travels while he was in prison in Genoa. The first manuscript of The Travels of Marco Polo is 13th century and was written in Old French. Anyway, one of the little stories[1] he heard was from his brothers Nicolas and Maffeo when they were in Jordan. They heard about these Christians who had a flame in their temple that was so popular people came from miles around to light their lamps with it because it was Holy light, etc. – sort of like a relic. When the Magi (or, the Three Kings) went to visit baby Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were to test the prophet. If the prophet chose the gold he was only an earthly king and if he chose the myrrh he was a physician – but if he chose the frankincense he was truly a prophet. Well, it turns out the baby Jesus accepted all three gifts and gave them a little box in return.

On their way home the Magi opened the little box to see what was inside. It was a little stone – meant to symbolize their faith in Christ – steadfast, like a rock, etc. Well, that symbolic meaning went straight over their heads and they thought it was a stupid gift so they threw the stone in a well. At that moment, a huge blast of fire came from the heavens, hitting the stone, and setting it alight. It has been burning ever since. So that’s why people come to visit the temple.

Now, I can’t tell whether this temple was a major pilgrimage spot in 13th century Jordan or if some rural village was just enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame while Nicolas and Maffeo Polo were passing through. It is interesting though, that in the Medieval World stories were written to embellish Biblical sources. A couple of interesting ones are the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament and The Three Kings of Cologne. The latter is kind of like a “Further Adventures and exploits of the Three Kings.” It’s a text with a strong Christian message told in the style of a medieval travel narrative. The Three Kings’ characters are fleshed out in this text. We know their names, where they’re from, and what they do after visiting the baby Jesus besides not returning to King Herod and going home by another route – but more importantly, the text gives you an idea of how the author thought various Temples and newly formed sects responded to the news of the Christ’s birth.

Though the little box and fiery stone gift from baby Jesus is not mentioned in the The Three Kings of Cologne, the text mentions that their gifts were meant to test the baby Jesus.[2] The text does mention, however, another “relic” collected from the nativity, adding that cringe-worthy touch of anti-Jewish sentiment found in most Medieval Christian texts written for a popular audience.

After the Kings traveled around, relating their tale of having seen the Christ, Mary grew frightened that the Jews would come and get her, so she went underground (literally) into a dark cave and waited there until things calmed down a little:

“þer bygan to wex a grete fame of oure lady and of her childe and of þes .iij. kyngis alle aboute. wherfore oure lady for drede of þe Iwes fledde oute of þat litil hows þat crist was bore in, and went in to an oþir derke Cave vndir erþe: and þere sche abode with her childe til þe tyme of her Purificacioun.”[3]

madona de la late

Madonna Suckling the Child, in Venetian vernacular known as the Madona de la late, panel, 13th-14th century. Venice, Museo di S. Marco. Image: Venice: Art & Architecture, Könemann.

While Mary was in that cave she sat on a stone and nursed the baby Jesus. Some of her breast milk sprayed on that stone. Sometime later, the cave was turned into a chapel and became a pilgrimage spot. It still had that stone and it still had milk too. If the stone was scraped with a knife, it would spray some of Mary’s breast milk. Just imagine going to a pilgrimage spot and hearing the guide say, “And Behold the everlasting milk still flows! For a small donation you can take a few drops!” That’s not the only mention of stones and the baby Jesus in Three Kings. More detail is given about the star they saw that signified the Christ was born. Its edges resembled that of a cornerstone.

So, according to The Three Kings of Cologne, after they described the star to people, it was pretty fashionable to put it on all the temples that had decided to follow Jesus. So I guess they did get the metaphor after all – you know, Jesus being like a stone at a strong building’s foundation.

[1] My telling of this tale is loosely adapted from Yule-Cordier’s edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

[2] Makes me think of the Dalai Lama choosing his glasses!

[3] John of Hildeshesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne: an early English translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”, ed. C. Horstmann. available online

The influence of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent classic Die Nibelungen can be seen in the style and design of many Sci Fi and Fantasy films of the 80s from The Empire Strikes Back to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Whether unconscious borrowing or deliberate tribute, elements of this German classic helped make these films great.

The guide through the darkness

In Die Nibelungen, Alberich the dwarf leads our young hero Siegfried from a swampy setting into a dark cavern to the Nibelung treasure with a magic glowing globe to light their way. In The Empire Strikes Back, a character of dwarfish height finds Luke in a swampy setting, and, carrying a glowing object, leads Luke to Yoda – a Jedi master he seeks. Instead of a magic orb, Yoda holds Luke’s camp light.

To the primitive being Luke thinks Yoda is, the light seems a magical object. Like Siegfried, Luke is slightly reluctant to follow the short and hunched creature into the darkness. Fortunately for Luke, Yoda has no intention of hurting his guest, but In Die Nibelungen, Alberich tries twice to deceive Siegfried in an attempt to kill the young hero.

To further separate the tone of these two stories, the light serves a comedic purpose in The Empire Strikes Back, prompting Yoda’s classic toddler retort, “Mine! – or I will help you not!” It seems to almost parody the cliché of the guide holding a mysterious light because it isn’t magic at all – just a regular camp light. These references to Die Nibelungen are effective in Empire because the roles of the similar components are reversed. Fear is exchanged for humor and evil is replaced with good.

Though used for a different purpose, several identical elements of these two settings remain: the dwarf guide who appears out of nowhere, dark and swampy setting, glowing object to light the way,  and young hero who has already achieved a great thing – in Luke’s case, destroying the Death Star and in Siegfried’s case, having just slain a dragon – and requires something from his guide through the darkness to reach his next destination.

alberich leads siegfried

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried to the Nibelung treasure in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924)

yoda leading luke to his hut

Yoda leads Luke to his hut with a camp light in The Empire Strikes Back (copyright 1980 Lucasfilm)

The “guide” carrying a glowing orb is also used in The Black Cauldron, a 1985 Disney film adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In this film, the young princess Eilonwy leads our young hero Taran through the dark depths of a castle in which they are both being held prisoner. Alexander incorporates the element of a glowing magical orb lighting the way in dark underground tunnels but reverses the role of his character by making the guide friendly instead of menacing.

glowing orb

Alberich’s magical glowing orb in Die Nibelungen

eilonwys' globe

Eilonwy leads Taran with a magical glowing orb in The Black Cauldron (copyright 1985 Walt Disney Company)

In addition to the motif of the stunted, odd, and sometimes grumpy guide and the light he carries to lead the way, the contrast of the darkness of a rocky passageway and the light of a luminous cavern is used in Die Nibelungen to invoke sense of wonder and the excitement that is felt from the thought of discovering hidden treasure. The light/dark contrast from dark tunnel to bright open space is also used in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) in a similar way as it is in Die Nibelungen. In The Dark Crystal, the cranky old hunched-over guide is Aughra. She first appears menacing, but seeing that she is good-natured, our young Gelfling hero Jen quickly trusts her. Aughra leads Jen through a dark passageway to a mysterious place. Once inside, a bright light suddenly fills the screen and the film score plays a theme that invokes wonder. It’s like entering another world – a peculiar world where science and magic seem to harmoniously meet in mechanical splendor. In Die Nibelungen, the light/dark contrast between the luminous cavern interior and the dark and swampy exterior is remarkable. To an audience in the silent film era, the sequence would have seemed as bright as the light cast upon Jen as he enters Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal.

bright cavern

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into a luminous cavern in Die Nibelungen

jen entering aughra's workshop

Jen is awed by Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal (copyright 1982 Jim Henson Company)

Inside Aughra’s workshop there is a giant mechanized model of the heavens, a concept Jen has seen drawn in the sand many times by the mystics, but never represented with such heavy and detailed moving industry. The same thing occurs in Die Nibelungen when Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into the luminous cavern. The contrast between dark and light and reality and magic and mystery is just as pronounced in this shot as it is in The Dark Crystal. Just as Jen is shown scientific industry in Aughra’s workshop, Alberich shows Siegfried the magical industry of the secret cavern. A massive crown, for example is being made for an ice giant. When Siegfried tries to reach through the window to touch that “other world” it quickly turns back into the form of a rocky wall of the cavern. It is, in a way, like that for Jen as well. Jen doesn’t understand what the model does. In the way the “magic” of the model is beyond Jen’s understanding, the “magic” of the ice king’s crown is beyond Siegfried’s physical reach.

The intention behind the guides showing the young hero “magical” things in these respective stories are in sharp contrast with each other. Aughra is leading Jen to new knowledge to help him with his quest while Alberich is showing Siegfried the wondrous riches of the caverns only enough to distract his naive guest long enough to kill him. Though both Jen and Siegfried are naive, the mood in each story couldn’t be more different. In The Dark Crystal, it is wonder, and in Die Nibelungen, it is foreboding treachery. Though one creates suspense and the other does not, they both carry epic quality.

Similar shots and wardrobe

The sequence where the Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle and is unloaded looks similar to when Baron Munchausen packs up the Sultan’s treasures and carries it away in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Again, the roles are reversed. The treasure is being packed instead of unpacked in Baron Munchausen while in Die Nibelungen it is being brought to the castle instead of being taken away. In Baron Munchausen, the reference is, of course, used for comedic purpose and any allusion to epic poetry only serves to further embellish the impossible quality of the Baron’s already inflated tales of his many exploits of highly questionable validity.

Also, notice the similar arched entrances of the castle in the two shots.

unloading of Nibelung treasure

The Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle in Die Nibelungen

baron munchausen

The Sultan’s treasure departs from the Sultan’s Palace in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (copyright 1988 Columbia Pictures)

When Brunhild arrives at Gunther’s castle after Siegfried wins her for Gunther with trickery, the wide bright shot with steps and ceremonial guards looks strikingly similar to when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis in Dune (1984). By using this shot from Die Nibelungen, director David Lynch evokes something of the mood of the German story, alluding to the danger that awaits the House Atreides. Just as Brunhild walking into Gunther’s castle brings the demise of Siegfried and Burgundy, the audience watches the Atreides literally walking into the trap set for them by the Harkonnens. It is a beautiful shot and a tragic reminder that the family will soon be torn apart by betrayal.

priest coming down to meet brunhild and gunther

The priest comes down the steps to meet Brunhild in Die Nibelungen

dune

The Arteides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

dune 2

The Atreides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

The look of Brunhild’s battle garb was recreated in the 1981 film Dragonslayer. Galen, the unlikely dragonslayer, goes after the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative with a round shield and a spear, the same weapons Brunhild uses to test Gunther. Since Dragonslayer deals with the death of magic and its subsequent replacement by religion, the weaponry invokes the magic of the mythic world – and, more importantly, a mythic world with a dragon. The reference works, again, because the roles are reversed. Galen is the hero, while Brunhild is a villain.

By using the contrary sides of these borrowed elements, their usage is balanced, achieving a nearly unconscious invocation of the nearly timeless yet distinctive style, mood, and tone of epic.

brunhild with spear and shield

Brunhild prepares to challenge Gunther in a spear-throwing competition in Die Nibelungen

dragonslayer

Galen (played by Peter MacNicol) enters Vermithrax Pejorative’s lair in Dragonslayer (copyright 1981 Walt Disney Company)

Now, aside from the scenes described in the Nibelungenlied itself, what sort of design and imagery inspired Lang’s unique cinematic interpretation of the epic poem? As Journey to Perplexity points out, Lang seemed heavily inspired by the style of Klimt. In addition to design patterns, Lang also borrowed from other artists. This shot below of Gunther mourning the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen resembles both the composition and mood of Jean-Paul Lauren’s The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875).

gunther upset

Gunther mourns the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen

excommunication of robert the pious jean paul laurens

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens (1875) Musée d’Orsay

chaunges one chaucer

Languages have a way of changing. Certain words and expressions adapt – sticking with us for centuries – while others disappear entirely. Here are five Middle English expressions we no longer use:

1.       Drunken as a Mouse

This expression is probably best known from its appearance in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale[1] – the first Canterbury Tale. There’s no doubt this expression comes from the peculiar state cellar mice were found in after gnawing on wooden casks of wine or ale. Though aging ale in wooden casks is starting to make a comeback in home and craft brewing, mice haven’t been associated with beer in popular culture since Bob and Doug McKenzie used one in a bottle to try to get a free case of Elsinore beer.

bob and doug mckenzie try to get free beer using a mouse in a bottle

Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) try to get a free case of beer using a mouse in a bottle in the film Strange Brew (copyright 1983 MGM).

The expression later became “Drunk as a skunk” – probably only because it rhymes. When’s the last time you’ve heard anyone say, “Drunk as a skunk” anyway?

2.       Breme as bore

Brave (or fierce) as a boar. It appears in The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur[2] where it is used several times to describe how awesome certain knights of King Arthur’s court are at jousting. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of a lance driven by a knight who was as “breme as a boar.”

This expression is one of my personal favorites and I’d love to bring it back. Problem is, “breme” didn’t make it to our Modern English. I suppose we could use “brave as a boar” but it just doesn’t have the same ferocious ring to it. Plus, how often does a wild boar come up in conversation anymore? Though they seem to always be around in Middle English and Middle High German texts, we rarely hear of run-in’s with wild boars these days – unless, of course, they are Sylvester Stallone legends from Bulgaria.

3.       They walwe as doon two pigges in a poke

They wrestled like two pigs in a poke. Chaucer used this expression to animate the cartoonish climax of his Reeve’s Tale. Symkyn the Miller and Alalyn are in a fight cloud like pigs in a poke until Symkyn slips on a stone, falling backward onto his wife in bed giving Alayn and John the chance to get out of Dodge.

Growing up in the American South, I occasionally heard the expression “like two pigs in a poke” but, famously getting expressions wrong and not knowing that a “poke” was a sack – I thought it meant something along the lines of two pigs trying to pass a threshold at the same time – not wriggling around in a sack.

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing this expression acted out was in West Africa. Once, when my wife and I were en route from either Grand Popo or Porto Novo to Cotonou, the taxi driver stopped at a roadside stand to load some pigs in the trunk. We could hear – and sometimes feel – their wrestling behind us for the entire journey.

When we finally reached Cotonou, the driver stopped at a Barbeque stand where the pigs were unloaded for a big lady who oversaw the removal of the beasts from the back of our vehicle looking stern and unimpressed. We were surprised to see that there were actually three pigs in the trunk instead of two. Though it greatly annoyed the other two ladies who were stuffed like sardines in the backseat with us – we were lucky we kept our backpacks on us instead of storing them in the trunk.

4.       Not worth a leek

Chaucer used this expression in his Wife of Bath’s lecture on marriage. The entire line is:

I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek
That hath but oon hole for to sterte to
And if that faille, thane is al ydo. (D ll. 572-74)

This basically means marriage is like a mouse who only has one hole. If the mouse loses his hole, he has nothing. It’s a long way of a saying, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” – which we could use on one level to sum up the entire Wife of Bath’s Prologue. I’m not talking about the entire sense of these compound expressions though. Instead, I’m looking specifically at the expression “not worth a leek.” I’ve only seen that expression in Middle English texts. We don’t use “not worth an onion” (another one Chaucer often uses) and “not worth a leek” anymore. We’ve replaced them, at least in America, with “not worth a dime.” Why is that so?

5.       Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt

I wasn’t intending to give Wife of Bath two spots on this list, but her work is chock full of witty expressions. We know what “First to the mill, first to grind” means, but we never hear it used today. Since everyone in a 14th century village needed their grain ground (whether they farmed it or not) on a regular basis, people spent a lot of time waiting their turn to get this done. We no longer rely on the miller to save us from grinding grain by hand all day.

We’ve since replaced this expression with “the early bird gets the worm” or “first come, first serve.” Many Americans will be thinking about this expression come Black Friday and as Christmas shopping season ramps up even more – I doubt they’ll use the words “first to the mill is first to grind”, but they will be thinking the same thing.


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974).

While sharing a few homebrews with Frank, we somehow got on the subject of wyrms. He recalled The Lambton Wyrm, a song he’d often hear in Northumberland back when Newcastle Exhibition was unfiltered and tapped from wooden casks. It’s about a knight who slays a dragon – or “wyrm” – who lives in a well and terrorizes the land.

lambton wyrm

The Wonderful Legend of the Lambton Worm (image source)

It all starts when the knight John Lambton goes fishing on a Sunday morning he really should have been at church. He catches a strange little worm-thing and throws it in a well. Years later, he goes fighting in the Crusades and we all know from Robin Hood how local leadership behaves when that happens. While John Lambton is away at the Crusades, that little worm-thing grows into a horrible dragon – The Lambton Wyrm.

The Lambton Wyrm did many terrible things. It ate all of the cows, calves, and sheep. It swallowed little birds alive. After that it would wash everything down with the milk of a dozen cows and then coil itself around a mountain. With Good Sir Lambton away what were the people to do?

Well, John Lambton eventually returned home from the Crusades and he triumphantly slew the wyrm, but the satirical legend that remains reminds us that our actions affect others – especially if we are people in positions of power.

Anyway, the story is supposedly set on Easter Sunday 1420 and the most popular version of the legend is a song credited to C.M. Leumane from 1867. It reminds me of a cross between Jabberwocky and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas – but in a pub. It’s a song all good children in Northumberland learn and are made to perform at school pagents. Here’s a good version:

 

The chorus is very catchy and goes like this:

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whist! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the wyrm.

Now, since I didn’t grow up in Northumberland, my mother never said, “WHISHT, man – Haad your gob!!” to make me quiet. The only context I’d heard the word ‘gob’ used in was in ‘gobbing.’

(I wrote the link to start the clip at 45:22 with Johnny Green talking about people gobbing on The Clash, but it often plays the entire film instead – I can’t think of a better way to spend the night…)

What if gobbing had been only been revived by the British punks? After all, there was a punk group called Siouxsie and the Banshees. Horrified, I wondered if Anglo-Saxon poets had to contend with gobbing in the mead halls. Fortunately my theory was wrong and the line just means something along the lines of, “Hush lads, shut your mouths!” This makes the chorus: “Quiet lads, shut your mouths, and I’ll tell you all an awful story – I’ll tell you about the wyrm!”

This new word for me, Whisht was interesting. It reminded me of the Old English word Hwaet. It is the first word of another story about a dragon slayer from the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem ever – Beowulf.

There’s always been debate over what that word means exactly – and for good reason – after all, it is the opening word of the poem. It sets the tone for the story. It’s meant to be captivating. It’s important. Getting it wrong would be like Joe Schmo masquerading as a sorcerer fudging a word in a spell. Or in this case, Ash:

 

So, what does Hwaet actually mean? The OED describes it being used “to introduce or call attention to a statement.” Medieval scholars have historically suggested that the word more or less functions as an adverb, offering such translations as, ‘truly’, ‘Hear me!’, ‘What ho!’, ‘Indeed’, and ‘So.’[1] The most popular translation of Beowulf is the one done by the late Seamus Heaney. He used ‘So.’ Though Heaney is a highly celebrated poet, many medieval scholars disagree with his using the word ‘So’ to open Beowulf.

In a recent paper, George Walkden argues that the interpretive effect of hwæt is delivered by hwæt combined with the clause that follows it, not by hwæt alone.[2] In other words, it isn’t used by itself.  He argues that the ‘interjective’ hwæt “is not an interjection or an adverb.” Instead, he compares it to the way we use the word how in Modern English in exclamative clauses such as How you’ve changed!”[3]

Most of the translations of Beowulf agree that ‘hwaet’ is exclamative, however, Walkden takes it a step further by presenting evidence to support the use of the hwaet-clause as exclamative in Beowulf. The most convincing are examples from Jessica Rett’s analyses of the use of hwæt in other sources like the Old English Bede and the Old Saxon Heliland. Using Walkden’s interpretation, the famous opening line from Beowulf:

Hwæt we Gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon

Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius

The Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius (image: wikipedia)

becomes:

“How much we have heard of the might of the nation-kings in the ancient times of the Spear-Danes”[4]

So, (sorry, “HWÆT!”) let’s get back to Walkden’s example in Modern English. We wouldn’t say, “HOW! You’ve changed!” – unless… of… course.. it was… William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk reading Beowulf. Which, come to think of it, would be the most awesome performance of Beowulf ever! But since we’ve got medieval scholars to contend with and the modern venue for Beowulf is neither a mead hall or the Starship Enterprise, we know better…

Until then, whichever words we use to begin our own tellings of Beowulf, be they – ‘So’, ‘Whisht lads haad yor gobs’, ‘Once upon a time’, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, or ‘Back in the day when circles were squares’, the most important thing is that we tell the story of Beowulf – preferably over some homebrews.


[1] George Walkden, “The status of hwæt in Old English,” English Language and Linguistics (Volume 17, issue 3, November 2013), 466. available online: http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/george.walkden/Walkden_2013_hwaet.pdf

[2] Walkden, 466.

[3] Walkden, 466.

[4] Walkden, 481.

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