Archives for category: Fantasy

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

There’s this guy on my connecting bus who usually tells me stories about UFO cover-up conspiracies and sci-fi violence. His name is Marvin and he looks kind of like Barack Obama but he can’t stand Barack Obama’s administration – particularly its policy on drone strikes. He loves talking about how our life on earth will end: space aliens will suddenly appear one day and blow our planet to smithereens. Resistance is futile.

I’m never sure if he shares his actual beliefs, his sense of humor, or some combination of the two. He’s a hard worker who prefers to work alone and he loves to talk your ear off either about sports or space aliens – and since I’m useless with sports talk, space aliens it is.

My usual contributions to Marvin’s one-way conversations are smiles and nods and the occasional “is that so?” – I gave up trying to challenge his beliefs when he got really fired up one day trying to convince me that all Muslims are evil. So now I just listen to his stories which are usually his descriptions of violent scenes from the latest DVD he’s borrowed from the library.

Yesterday he was on about werewolves so he told me about an actual account of a werewolf the size of a cow who terrorized rural France in the 1700’s, devouring somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 men, women, and children until a hunter shot him dead with a silver bullet: La Bête du Gévaudan.

La Bete du Gevaudan ravages a women

An 18th century print of the Beast of Gévaudan ravaging a woman. I love old drawings of vicious creatures. (source: wikipedia)

There’s a film about it called Brotherhood of the Wolf. I vaguely remember this film coming out but I never saw it. Marvin says it’s good, but the story focuses mainly on the political challenges of gathering support to hunt the beast. He also warned me that the beast part is corny – some dumb robot or something – so it’s not the best place to see the beast. If you want to see the beast, you should check your local library. Marvin claimed to have borrowed a very rare book from the Free Library of Philadelphia once that had photographs of its carcass.

La Bête du Gévaudan reminded me of Bisclavret, a Breton story told by Marie de France. I didn’t have much time to tell the story, but I shared the gist of it:

There’s a werewolf tale from 12th century France set in a region in the Northwest called Brittany. It all starts with a noble named Bisclavret. Now, Bisclavret spends several nights away from home each week. No one knows for sure where he goes – not even his wife. This bothers his wife as you can well imagine, so one day she finally asks her husband to tell her where he goes. He confesses that he has been keeping a terrible secret from her for years that he cannot bear to tell her. She assures him that she loves him so dearly and that whatever it is, no matter how terrible, knowing it will only make their love stronger. So moved is Bisclavret by his wife’s display of her undying devotion to him that he finally decides to share his terrible secret with her: Each week he goes deep into the woods until he reaches an abandoned chapel. There, he takes off his clothes, and shortly after he hides them nearby, he turns into a werewolf and goes out terrorizing the countryside.

After a few days, he returns to the chapel and retrieves his clothes. He puts them back on and returns to his normal life as a man. He does this each week. The wife is horrified by Bisclavret’s terrible secret. It wasn’t at all the secret she was expecting to hear. Not knowing how to respond, she asks her husband which abandoned chapel he uses. Bisclavret pleads with her, promising that if she lets him keep just this one secret, he will never keep anything else secret from her as long as they live. She presses him for it though, so he finally gives it up.

Well, it turns out the wife had a paramour and since they had been trying to figure out a way to get it together for years, she plots with her lover to have him fetch her husband’s clothes. The lusty bachelor goes out and takes the noble husband’s clothes and brings them back to the wife, who hides them among her things.

A couple days later Bisclavret returns to the chapel but his clothes are nowhere to be found. You can imagine how he howled when he discovered he would be trapped in wolf form for the rest of his days.

Just then, Marvin has an epiphany, “I’ll bet it’s that same sucker and they finally got him!”

Bisclavret befriends the king

Bisclavret befriends the king (source: wikipedia)

Well, there’s another whole half of the story! Here’s how it ends according to Marie de France: Bisclavret manages to befriend a king and they devise a way to get his clothes back. The unfaithful wife and her paramour are then cursed with a deformity that will stay in their bloodline, afflicting their offspring for all eternity… but today I’ll go with Marvin’s ending of this tale – unless, of course, he’s since found a way to tie it to drone strikes and the space alien apocalypse.

Every blockbuster needs some sort of a restaurant tie-in to tempt us to buy something heavily sugared and loaded with enough artificial ingredients to turn our insides neon green. It’s the American way.

dennys hobbit menu

However you feel about Denny’s special Hobbit-inspired menu, I find it amusing to think that people might be saying, “Radagast” at Denny’s – and not just Radagast, but – Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies®.

Radagast's Red Velvet Pancake Puppies®

As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post, I’m not planning on heading to Denny’s to try Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies® – but I ended up crossing paths with a “Radagast” the other day in a place where I wasn’t expecting to find him – in the very first paragraph of Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxon translation of the The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius:

At the time when the Goths of the country of Scythia made war against the empire of the Romans, and, with their kings, who were called Rhadagast and Alaric, sacked the Roman city, and reduced to subjection all the kingdom of Italy, which is between the mountains and the island of Sicily…[1]

Alfred the Great's Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ

Detail from King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, ed. J.S. Cardale (London, 1829) image: Google books

I think the first time I ever saw a name from a Tolkien story in a northern medieval text was in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda in a section called “The Deludings of Gylfi.”

Gylfi was a wise king who governed what we now call Sweden. After hearing many wondrous things about the Aesir and, wishing to learn more about them, he went out on a secret journey to find Asgard – the home of the Aesir. He even went disguised as an old man – just like Odin would do when he went wandering in the land of mortals.

So, Gylfi arrived at this hall whose roof was shingled with golden shields just like Valhalla – Odin’s hall in Asgard. The first person he saw in this curious hall was a man juggling seven knives. Is this a dream vision?

Further inside, “[Gylfi] saw three high-seats one above the other, and a man seated in each of them… the one sitting on the lowest seat was a king called High One, the next was Just-as-high, and the topmost one was called Third.”[2]

Fortunately for us, Gylfi asked these three kings many good questions like, “Who is the foremost or oldest of all the gods”, “What is there to relate about Ragnarök?”, and all sorts of follow-up questions about the many other things in between.

Anyway, within Snorri Sturluson’s transcript of the oral history Gylfi obtained from his interview with the three kings in that mysterious hall are a few names you’ll find familiar from The Hobbit:

Dvalin
Nori
Bifur
Báfur
Bömbör
Nori
Ori
Óin
Thorin
Fili
Kili
Glóin
Dóri

and, of course, Ganodálf.

a warm welcome

“I hope I never smell the smell of apples again!” said Fili. “My tub was full of it.” An illustration from a 1947 Swedish edition of The Hobbit. image: The Annotated Hobbit, ann. Douglas A Anderson (Houghton Mifflin/Boston, 1988).

Coming across a name or a word from a Tolkien story in a northern medieval text always brings me a little joy. It’s fun to find them for the first time – and better yet – to forget about them and then find them again – which is what I normally do…

Though his inclusion of these words – or at least the general sound of them – was probably primarily to evoke the atmosphere and worldview of these old poems that inspired him to write, I like to think that it was Tolkien’s way of saying, “I was here” – or “This is one of my favorite books.”

 

 


[1] King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ, trans. J.S. Cardale (London, 1829), 3. Available online: http://books.google.com/books?id=WBwGAAAAQAAJ

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 30,31.

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we get a glimpse of Smaug the dragon. Dragons love gold above anything else and Smaug is no exception – he coils himself around the treasure horde of the dwarf king under the mountain.

Smaug7

Don’t worry Tolkien Estate, it was only a bit of fun for a batch of homebrew!

In a tale from Norse Mythology, a dragon plays the role of a man corrupted by the greed of gold. This corruption manifests itself physically. It changes the person, sort of like how symptoms of a physical or mental illness can change a person’s appearance and personality.

Though dragons are creatures in Norse Mythology – we shouldn’t confine ourselves to always thinking of them in that literal sense. They do not always hatch from eggs as do chickens or snakes. Men can become dragons.

In the tale of Otter’s ransom, we have Fafnir the dragon. He, like Smaug, hordes a trove of treasures mined and crafted by dwarves. But unlike Smaug, Fafnir was not born a dragon. He becomes a dragon from the greed of gold – greed of a particularly cursèd horde of gold: Otter’s ransom.

One day Odin, Loki and Hoenir were traveling in Midgard, the land of men. They followed a river which brought them to some falls. There, they noticed an otter eating a salmon. Only it wasn’t actually an otter – it was Hreidmar’s son Otr in the form of an otter:

There hunted hungry

Hreidmar’s offspring:

the silver salmon

sweet he thought them.

Otr in otter’s form

there ate blinking,

on the bank brooding

of black waters.[1]

Fischotter (Lutra lutra) image: copyright 2012 hellboy2503/Jörg David (original URL)

Loki, never one to miss an opportunity for mischief and games, picked up a stone by the riverbank and threw it at the unwitting creature who sat there feasting on its catch:

Then Loki boasted of his catch – with one throw he had bagged an otter and a salmon. They took the salmon and the otter away with them and came to a farm which they entered.[2]

They called at the gate of the farm. When the owner, Hreidmar, asked who it was at the gate, Odin called out to him, “We are three travelers looking for a night’s lodging. We bring a salmon and an otter fur, both of which you are welcome to it in exchange for your kind hospitality!”

Hreidmar quickly called his two sons, Fafnir and Reginn, to his side and told them that their brother Otter had been killed and that his murderers were waiting at the gate wanting supper and a bed for the night.[3]

Fafnir and Reginn came at Odin, Loki, and Hoenir with fore-hammers of the smithies to kill them, accusing them of killing their brother Otr, who often shape-shifts as an otter when he fishes by the falls. As there was a blood price in those days for killing kin, Odin asked Hreidmar what Otr’s blood price would be:

“Peace,” said Odin. “We have slain thy son, it would seem, but it was unwittingly that we did the deed. We will give a recompense for the death of thy son.”[4]

Hreidmar named a blood price for Otr. They would bring a piece of treasure for every hair on the otter skin as Otr’s ransom:

Redgolden rings.

Ransom costly,

This fell must fill,

This fur cover![5]

Since Loki got them into this mess, Odin and Hoenir made Loki go to Svartalfheim, the world of dwarves, and bring back the dwarf Andvari’s horde.[6]

There he searched until he found a silent black lake, and in that lake he wriggled his fingers… until they closed upon the gills of a large pike, which Loki jerked up onto the shore.[7]

“What fish have I found

in the flood leaping,

rashly roaming?

Ransom pay me!”[8]

It was Andvari in fish form. Loki told him that he would let him go only if he paid Otter’s ransom. Andvari reluctantly agreed and turned back into his dwarf form. Andvari gave Loki all of his gold, but kept from him one single ring. Loki noticed this, and demanded that Andvari give up the ring:

“What hides thy hand

Thus hollow bending?”[9]

To which Andvari replied:

 “The ring is little –

Let it rest with me!”[10]

But Loki would not let Andvari short Otter’s ransom:

“All, Andvari,

All shalt render,

Light rings and heavy,

Or life itself!”[11]

If Andvari gave up this perfect ring to Loki, he would lose his ability to make treasures. This ring, like the Philosopher’s stone, was free of any impurity. He who has this ring, possesses the secret power of making gold. Andvari cursed Loki for taking the ring from him:

“The ring with the rune

Of power upon it:

May it weigh down your fortune,

And load you with evil,

You, Loki, and all

Who lust to possess

The ring I have cherished.”[12]

This wasn’t the first time anyone had cursed Loki. So why should he put any stock in this angry old dwarf’s threats? After all, Loki won the gold fair and square – it’s not like Andvari saw him coming.

So Loki brought Andvari’s horde, and the ring, back to Odin. Since Odin quite liked the ring, he kept it for himself. Hreidmar flayed the otter, filled the inside of the skin with gold and then covered every little hair. After the very last piece of gold was placed on the otter’s skin, a single whisker remained. Realizing the ransom was one treasure short, Odin surrendered the ring to Hreidmar. It covered the whisker and Otter’s ransom was paid. With their debt paid, Hreidmar let Odin, Loki, and Hreidmar go.

After their guests from Asgard left, Reginn and Fafnir asked Hreidmar for shares of the gold. Hreidmar refused their request – he would not even part with the smallest bit of copper. Reginn and Fafnir turned against their father and murdered him for his horde. After this was done, Reginn realized that Fafnir had no intention of sharing the gold either. Fafnir told his brother Reginn that if he ever tried to take some of the gold for himself, he would kill him. Reginn left the farm and:

…Fafnir went up on to Gnita Heath and, making a lair there, turned himself into a dragon and lay down on the gold.[13]

The cursèd ring from Otter’s ransom – the piece of treasure that covered the very last whisker on the otter’s dead body, which had the power to pit father against sons and brother against brother, turned Fafnir into a dragon. It also played a part in causing the tragic deaths of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brynhild – and, depending on your interpretation, even played an important role in bringing about Ragnarök – The Twilight of the Gods – “THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!…or the beginning,” as Aughra from The Dark Crystal would say…

aughra

Aughra tells Jen about the Great Conjunction in The Dark Crystal. image copyright: 1982 Universal Pictures/Sony Pictures/The Jim Henson Company

 

 


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The New Lay of the Völsungs” The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún Ed. Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2009), 67.

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 110. (Italicized emphasis: mine)

[3] Douglas “Dag” Rossman, The Northern Path (Seven Paws: Chapel Hill, 2005), 72.

[4] Padraic Colum, Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover: Mineola, 1996), 144.

[5] Tolkien, 68.

[6] Some say Loki went to Queen Aegir who gave him a magic net with which to catch Andvari and that Loki returned to the same falls – Andvari Falls. As deeds are always returned in Norse Mythology, a magic net was also used to catch Loki when he tried to hide in fish form from the Gods when they brought him to justice for killing Baldur.

[7] Rossman, 73.

[8] Tolkien, 68.

[9] Tolkien, 69.

[10] Tolkien, 69.

[11] Tolkien, 69.

[12] Colum, 149.

[13] Snorri Sturluson, 112.

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey

To celebrate the theatrical release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, tolde by the weye partnered with Filmhash to post retrospective reviews of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings:

tolde by the weye reviews The Fellowship of the Ring

Ryan Silberstein reviews The Two Towers

Jill Malcolm reviews The Return of The King

also, Filmhash reviews The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There are many fantasy novels set in fictional medieval worlds that share very little of the medieval worldview with us. One barely needs to remove a single suit of shining armor to reveal that most fantasy stories have very little in common with the medieval world besides wardrobe. I’m not saying that people who write fantasy need to make it clear in their text that they can distinguish Thomas Malory from Chrétien de Troyes or Beowulf from Sigurd, but I love it when a fantasy author borrows a cliché, a custom, an object, a theme, or a philosophy from a medieval text and fits it snugly into his own story, effectively evoking medieval essence without disturbing the modern narrative. After all, that’s what medieval storytelling is all about and it’s a tradition that should continue to thrive. An example of such a borrowing that achieves this “medieval essence” can be found in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Alexander carried a symbol from a popular 14th century English poem, simplified it, yet kept the kernel of its strong positive moral message, and placed it in his own story for a modern popular audience

The Chronicles of Prydain is a children’s fantasy adventure series set in a medieval imaginary world. Its easy dialogue, storybook humor, caricatures of Tolkien characters, and often predictable story grant it entrance to the children’s fantasy genre, but Alexander added a special depth to his narrative with simple, yet rich glimpses into the wisdom of the medieval worldview.

One such example occurs In The Black Cauldron, the second book of Chronicles of Prydain. In the story, the young hero Taran is on a quest to rescue a magic cauldron from the clutches of an evil lord who uses the anciently powerful object as a sort of weapon of mass destruction involving zombies. During his quest, Adaon, the son of a chief bard, presents Taran with a brooch. Taran discovers that this brooch gives him dream visions with glimpses of future events. Piecing these glimpses of future events together aids him in his quest to save Prydain, the imaginary world where the story is set. In addition to this magical quality, the brooch is decorated with a symbol that represents a powerful system of virtues that is very similar both in concept and appearance to the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Since Alexander’s readers are quite younger than the 14th century court audiences that enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he created a symbol that is less complex than Gawain’s Pentangle. Although the brooch’s symbol is less complex than the Pentangle in terms of the number of virtues it represents and it lacks Christian iconography, it retains and effectively communicates the same fundamental concept of its 14th century ancestor.

As Taran & company head for the Marshes of Morva, the bard Fflewddur takes a closer look at the brooch which is fastened to Taran’s neck. After examining it, he reveals to Taran that, “it bears the bardic symbol – those three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead.”[1] Fflewddur explains that the three lines symbolize respectively, “knowledge, truth, and love.”[2] Fflewddur then comments on the value and rarity of these virtues, “I sometimes think it’s hard enough to find any one of them, even separately. Put them all together and you have something very powerful indeed.”[3]

Portrait of Adaon. Notice how the artist depicts the bardic symbol “three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead” on Taran’s brooch. image: http://oboe-wan.deviantart.com/art/Adaon-109317843

The Pentangle painted in pure gold on Gawain’s shield represents “something very powerful” as well. The narrator (often referred to by medieval scholars as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses forty two lines of his poem to provide his audience with a detailed description of the system of balanced virtues that the Pentangle symbolizes.

The Gawain poet narrator describes the Pentangle as a system of virtues organized by five sets of five. Each point of the star symbolizes five different things, and each of these five things corresponds symbiotically with the other sets of five. To briefly enumerate the five equal layers of the system, the five points represent the five wits, the five fingers of Gawain’s hand, the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross, the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her child, and the five pure virtues: frankness, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and compassion.

The Gawain poet then tells the audience that these attributes are interconnected:

 Now alle these five sythez, for soothe, were fetled on this knyght,

And uchone halched in other, that non ende hade,

And fyched upon five poyntez, that fayld never,

Ne samned never in no side, ne sundred nouther,

Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,

Whereever the gomen bygan, or glod to an ende. (Fitt 2, v. 656-61)[4]

 Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,

Each one linked to the others in an endless design,

Based upon five points that was never unfinished,

Not uniting in one line nor separating either;

Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,

No matter where the line began or ran to an end. (Part 2, v. 656-61)[5]

Detail of lines 656-61 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as they appear in MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3). c. 1400 British Library / University of Calgary, Libraries and Cultural Resources. image: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/

Now, keeping a modern audience’s attention while a five point system which is actually a twenty-five point system is explained in detail would be an incredible feat for today’s storyteller and would require a patient, polite, and engaged audience. A medieval court audience, however, would be quite familiar with the concept of this type of system of organization and would probably be receptive to an even more complex one.

An example of a work where the narrator shares a complex system through which man may achieve spiritual, dietary, moral, and physical balance among the elements (or in Gawain’s case, reaching and maintaining a state of purity) that a medieval court audience would be familiar with is the Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum was one of the most widely read books in 14th century England and France. It “circulated freely in court circles”[6] and was, as Terry Jones puts it, “de rigueur on any [medieval] thinking person’s reading list.”[7] It was a type of advice text that scholars call “medieval Mirrors for Princes.”[8] Secreta Secretorum is presented as material gleaned from letters sent between Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great while Alexander campaigned in Persia. Aristotle organizes various disciplines of study and states of the body into systems of four and describes how these four components correspond both to each other and collectively.

He divides Astronomy, for example, into four components: the position of the stars among themselves, the constellations and their position as it relates to the sun, the quality and the moving of the celestial dome, and the degrees of the rising of the constellations that reside in the moon’s celestial band (zodiac constellations).

Nowe to oure first mater and purpose, it is to wite, In the ordinaunce of the sterres; In disposicioun of ϸe signes and alyenyng and mevyng fro ϸe sonne; and this party is called Astronomye; that other part is of qualitees, and also for to knowe the mevyng of ϸe firmament, and the dgrees of ϸe risyng of ϸe signes that are vndir the firmament of ϸe mone, and this is the most worthi part of Astronomye, for ϸerin is the cheef knowyng of ϸat science. (Cap. 28 ll. 26-34)[9]

Image of an early 15th century English Medical Treatise HM 19079. Notice how the article has a heading and notes in the margin.  Huntington Library. image: http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/toc.html (Compare to image below of print transcription of Secreta Secretorum)

Detail of transcription of Cap. 28 from MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M. from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898) Image: http://books.google.com/

To make an Astronomical conclusion one must consider all four of these factors, however, data from one category may be used with data from a category of another discipline when answering a question that crosses disciplines. Of course, according to that worldview, to answer any question effectively, it was necessary to cross disciplines – ideally several times. To make it possible to compare the data among the other disciplines, they too were organized into basic divisions of four. They were each thought to influence each other. Aristotle divides the human body into four basic parts: the head, the chest, the stomach, and the genitals. He also organizes humors (tempers or dispositions), elements,[10] and seasons[11] into four qualities. Not every system or exemplum in the text is exclusively organized in units of four, but so many of them are that it seems to be Aristotle’s favorite method of outlining complicated scientific ideas.

Since disease in the medieval world was seen as an imbalance in the way the body and mind interacted with the physical world, symbiotic relationships were considered among the body and the physical world for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. For example, during spring, Aristotle recommends that one should eat chicken, goat, bitter greens, and milk. It is also the ideal time to “flush out” the toxins that accumulate in the body during winter by inducing sweat, bathing, bloodletting, and eating foods with laxative properties:

In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kydes and eggis, soure letuse ϸat men calle carlokis, and getis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme ; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete things that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer. ” (Cap. 43 ll. 23-30)[12]

While, during winter he recommends one eat hot meats such as chicken and mutton, figs, nuts, and red wine. He also advises to refrain from laxative foods and bloodletting during winter unless it is absolutely necessary.[13]

The Gawain poet doesn’t provide a treatise on medieval medicine and he certainly doesn’t tell us how eating a certain type of food will affect Gawain’s stomach based on his complexion and temper, the constellations as they relate to the moon, and the season. He does, however, include a detailed description of a system (either historical, legendary, or by personal creation) by which one may achieve moral purity.

It is typical of a medieval poet to impart a moral message to a story and one of the methods the Gawain poet uses is describing the meaning of the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield.[14] Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale about a knight from King Arthur’s court who unknowingly agrees to have his virtue tested, the Pentangle’s description appears as Gawain is gearing up to leave King Arthur’s court to meet the Green Knight to receive his long-awaited return blow. The description of Gawain’s shield tells the medieval audience that Gawain will be tested.

Picture of Sir Gawain and the Pentangle from the video The Quest for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nAd6fffVvs

The brooch in The Black Cauldron tells the audience, in the same way, that Taran will be tested. Though Gawain isn’t forced to wager with his shield in the same way Taran is with his brooch in the Marshas of Morva, the brooch, like Gawain’s shield, offers protection. Where a shield would protect someone from physical harm in a combat situation, the brooch protects Taran by giving him dream visions that arguably save both his life and his quest, but more importantly, they both serve as a reminder to rely on a system of virtue to guide them through life much the teachings of Secreta Secrtorum are meant to do for a king ruling a state. Simplifying the system by presenting fewer virtues and choosing not to give the three lines multiple layers like the Gawain poet did with the Pentangle, Alexander succeeded in using medieval literary devices to promote a positive moral message within a children’s fantasy story.

The narrator poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the significance of the pentangle painted on Gawain’s shield directly to the audience as part of a character portrait. It is typical in medieval narrative poetry for the narrator to give a physical description of characters and to use their clothing and objects they carry with them to give the audience details about their estate (or social class) and personalities. Medieval scholars call this a character portrait. One of the most popular examples of a medieval style character portrait is when Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims during the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales.

Character portraits can vary in length and they can sometimes give the audience an idea of the poet’s moral or political agenda. In the Gawain poet’s case, we see that he thinks it is very important for the audience to understand (or to know that he understands) the Pentangle’s system of virtues because it takes up half of Gawain’s character portrait. While Alexander used a symbol that evokes a similar values system as the Pentangle, the method he uses to introduce it to the story is different from the one used by the Gawain poet. Alexander describes its symbolism to the audience in a modern way rather than a medieval way.

While the Gawain poet used the narrator’s voice providing a medieval character portrait to describe the Pentangle, Alexander used dialogue by having a character with some knowledge of bardic lore describe the significance of the brooch’s symbol to Taran. Having Fflewddur explain the significance of the brooch to Taran is similar to Aristotle’s method of teaching in the Secreta Secretorum in that you have an older, wiser, and somewhat quirky character providing moral guidance to a young character in an important leadership position.

Though the focus of the Secreta Secretorum as an advice text is on physical, political, and economic survival, Aristotle imparts a system of virtue in his teaching. One gets the sense that “being good” is a fundamental ingredient in the system of good governance outlined in this treatise.

Occasionally, Aristole is very direct in passages like this one where he identifies envy as the mother of lying and hatred as the root of all vices, “enuye is neuyr without lesyngis, the which is roote and mater of alle vicis. Envye engedrith yville spekyng, and of yville speche cometh hatred.” (Cap. 8 ll. 6-9)[15] To balance his sermon on the root of vice, Aristotle later points out that truth brings good faith, justice, friendship, great renown for the leader both at home and abroad, promotes the creation of reasonable laws, and fosters a positive sense of community.[16] These are direct examples, but the tone and underlying philosophy of the text implies that virtue is a necessary component of success.

The teachings in the Secreta Secretorum vary in length. For example, instruction on the proper way to sleep[17] is 27 lines while advice on what sort of clothing a king should wear[18] is only 11 lines, but “each exemplum is short enough to be taken in all at once, aiming for a flash of insight or identification.”[19] Though Aristotle doesn’t use a symbol like Lloyd Alexander and the Gawain poet do, the answers to the great mysteries of life that are explained in the Secreta Secretorum can be summarized in these key points: man should seek harmony by guarding himself from impulsive behavior, stay connected with nature and use his resources in moderation according to its cycles, be kind to his fellow man, and value truth above all. Like Gawain’s Pentangle and Taran’s brooch, the teachings in the Secreta Secretorum also suggest that Alexander the Great will be tested as a ruler.

The physical symbols of Taran’s brooch and Gawain’s Pentangle appear different in many ways on the surface (one is “a sort of arrowhead” and the other is a five pointed star) and Aristotle’s method aims to achieve a “flash of insight” without the use of a physical symbol. Each author incorporates different imagery; the Gawain poet uses Christian imagery while Alexander does not. Alexander doesn’t mention a concept of God at all and while the medieval manuscript of Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum referenced in this article often mentions God, the scribe who copied it did not include Christ’s name a single time in the text.

These three authors do not use the same number of virtues in their respective values systems, and these systems are introduced to the stories in different ways. The incorporation of a values system in these texts suggests that the Gawain poet, Lloyd Alexander, and Aristotle all agree that every hero or person in a position of power must have a code or values system to guide him. By looking at the different ways values systems appear in stories and comparing the core of the respective values systems they illustrate, we realize this: the symbol we carry with us on our quest is not as important as our will to practice it every step along the way.


[1] Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron (Holt, Rine and Winston: New York, 1965), 117.

[2] Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[3]Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[4] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992).

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

[6] Katharine Breen, “A Different Kind of Book for Richard’s Sake: MS Bodley 581 as Ethical Handbook,” The Chaucer Review 45.2 (2010): 131.

[7] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 50.

[8] Katharine Breen, 120.

[9] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 21.

[10] The Secrete of Secretes, 22.

[11] The Secrete of Secretes, 27-29.

[12] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[13] The Secrete of Secretes, 29.

[14] Though this article only describes the Pentangle that appears on the front of Gawain’s shield, the interior of the shield is painted with a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

[15] The Secrete of Secretes, 10.

[16] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 8 ll. 16-27) 10.

[17] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 39) 25.

[18] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 13) 12.

[19] Katharine Breen, 132.

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