Archive for the 'Books' Category

Benson: Lord of the World

December 6, 2016

Lord of the World
Robert Hugh Benson
(Martino Fine Books, 2015) [1907]
392 p.

A blessing of contemporary secularism is that in its flight from religious faith it has fled also religious rites and devotions. It is true that the French revolutionaries tried to institute secular rites with dignity sufficient to justify their occupation of French churches, but it didn’t last, and since then we’ve seen no sustained attempt to sacralize the City of Man. This is a blessing because it means that those who find within themselves a desire for these natural human things have had nowhere to go but home.

In Lord of the World Robert Hugh Benson imagines a future in which secularism has taken an alternate course, one in which it acknowledges worship as “the deepest instinct in man”, and accordingly adopts for itself the language and trappings of the sacred, while still forcefully setting itself against the transcendent. As one of the priests in the story says, “The world is beginning to range itself against us: it is an organized antagonism — a kind of Catholic anti-Church”, and a formidable one. It is a world in which “natural virtues had suddenly waxed luxuriant, and supernatural virtues were despised. Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.” This quasi-religion, which advances under the banner of Humanitarianism, has ambitions to re-make all society in its own image, and it has a familiar ring:

“There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.”

Or, seen from the point of view of the Catholics in the story:

“It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency — a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being.”

The novel therefore presents to us a global confrontation between the City of God and the City of Man, the one “telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal”, and the other “self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient”. Representing the ideals and interests of the former is the Pope, John XXIV. (Other Christian groups have, by the time the story commences, either withered under the pressure of Humanitarianism or returned to the Roman flock from whence they first departed.) Representing the latter is Julian Felsenburgh, a politician of consummate artistry and diplomatic genius who has successfully united the world’s principal political powers and seems the embodiment of Humanitarianism’s highest aspirations.


That, then, is the set-up, but I’ll resist the temptation to say more. I knew nothing going in, and I was glad of that, because the surprising twists and devastating turns caught me off guard. (I really need to find someone with whom to discuss the ending!) Simply considered as a thriller, it is excellent, but it is also more than that, for there is a good deal of rich content in it, and the general conflict it dramatizes on a global scale is one which plays out in each Christian soul. Pope Francis has recommended on more than one occasion that people read it, and, for what it’s worth, I concur.


Part of the fun of reading futuristic novels from the past is to see how well the author foresaw the future. Benson did pretty well: he predicted routine air travel (conceived, rather quaintly, as being like travelling by train, but aloft), telephones, and frighteningly powerful military ordnances. More penetratingly, he foresaw euthanasia being a natural concomitant of secular individualism; in his world, “individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it”. “Since men were but animals — the conclusion was inevitable.” But he misses the mark in some cases too: the onset of rapid global communications he does not foresee at all.


In summary, it’s a very good novel, highly recommended especially to Catholics. Benson subsequently wrote a companion novel, The Dawn of All, in which he imagined yet another alternative future for the Church. It’s not been as popular as this one, but I hope to read it soon.

Fermor: Mani

November 22, 2016

Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(John Murray, 2004) [1958]
336 p.

This is the first of two volumes Fermor wrote about his travels in Greece mid-century. In this case he was exploring the Mani peninsula, the southernmost tip of Greece. The peninsula is mountainous and has historically been largely separate, culturally and politically, from the rest of the country. At the time of Fermor’s travels it was still a traditional society, with its own dialect, clothing, and culture, into which radio and tourism had yet to make inroads. His travelogue therefore provides a fascinating look at a European society in a state that could hardly be found anywhere else in the modern world.

“Go toward the Good,” one of them said, and the other, “May you have the Good Hour!”

The immobile figures of these two little Byzantines dwindled as we zigzagged downhill. Even at a distance we could sense the wide effulgent gaze which those four eyes aimed from ledge half-way to the sky. They waved when we were just about to dip out of sight. There are very few people in these surroundings, Yorgo observed. “They are wild and shy and not accustomed to talk.” He pointed straight up into the air. The canyon was closing round us. “They see nothing but God.”

Because there were no roads (today there are a few) the Maniot villages were accessible only on foot or by boat; Fermor and his wife did walk a bit, as in the passage just quoted, but for the most part their itinerary involved boating around the perimeter of the peninsula, stopping in villages along the way.

An account of their travels is interwoven with reflections on aspects of Maniot culture — or is it the other way around? We learn about the custom of the blood feud, a cause of much destruction and sorrow; we learn of the not-unrelated Maniot reputation for sung dirges, a skill taught especially to young woman and admired throughout Greece; we learn of the greatest Maniot of the modern era, Petrobey Mavromichalis, who led the war of independence which the Maniots waged against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century.

The Mani peninsula is not a hub of activity, and among the many pleasant qualities of its people is an appreciation of leisure, which Fermor summarizes thus in his marvellous prose:

One compensation of this kind of travel is the unchartable and unregimented leisure between the rigours of displacement. Letters build their vain pyramids on some table in Athens; weeks pass; their mute clamour dies down unanswered; dust and oblivion enshroud them and the flight of months makes them obsolete and strips them of all but antiquarian interest. This arduous and Olympian sloth is made more precious still by the evidence all round of arduous and boring toil. Here, too, in the absence of lofty theories about the intrinsic virtue of work regardless of results, no northern guilt comes to impair its full enjoyment. Such mephitic ideas cannot long survive the clear and decarbonizing sun.

The Maniots are Christians, but they are also Greeks, and Fermor notes that the old Greek paganism has retained a foothold in the culture, despite the efforts of the Church:

The supernatural ancien régime presented a conundrum to the Early Fathers. When the Fathers came into their own after long persecution in the name of the old gods, they adopted, as we have seen, bold and sweeping tactics. The gods and the more presentable figures were captured, baptized and camouflaged; their headquarters were either wrecked or re-garrisoned by the winners and up fluttered, as it were, the new victorious flag. Some of the dispossessed managed to keep a leg in both camps. Others–insignificant as possible leaders of counter-revolution or totally ineligible–were (as supernatural beings can only be burnt or smashed in effigy) outlawed en bloc. A banished mythology was left to skulk and roam in the mountains, eventually, it was hoped, to die of neglect. But from a mixture of ancient awe and, perhaps, Christian charity, the country people befriended them, and they are with us still.

In one of the most memorable passages, they pass a famous cave found at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, a cave which is the legendary entrance to the Underworld, through which Psyche passed in her quest for the casket which would restore her beauty, through which Orpheus passed to rescue Eurydice, and through which Herakles dragged triple-jawed Cerberus in the execution of his labours. “There is always something about these earthly identifications with Hades that fills one with awe,” he remarks.

As for Christianity among the Maniots, Fermor found it rich and integrated into the lives of the people, but focused more on practices and rituals than on doctrine. This character he attributes largely to its having passed through a long “Eastern dark ages”, covering the period from the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century until the period of Maniot independence in the 19th century. He writes rather beautifully on the theme:

Long gone were the days when the subtle Eastern theologians could with difficulty make the blunt Western prelates grasp the delicate shades of dogma; indeed the shoe was on the other foot. But the outward observances, the liturgy, some of the sacraments, prostrations, rigorous fasts, frequent signs of the cross, the great feasts of the Church — the cross thrown into the sea at Epiphany, the green branches of Palm Sunday, the candles and coloured eggs celebrating the risen Christ at Easter, the monthly censing of houses, and the devotion to ikons before which an oil-dip twinkles in every house — all this became rigid and talismanic: and so it has remained. Its scope is different from what is usually conjured up in the West by the word “Christianity”; but there is a tendency in the most peaceful nations to identify religion with the tribe and the reasons in Greece are more cogent than most. All the outward and visible signs are there and it would be a bold critic who would unburden them completely of inward and spiritual grace. There is nothing laggard or perfunctory about these signs; they are performed with reverence and love. They have the familiarity and the treasured intimacy of family passwords and countersigns. The day is punctuated by these fleeting mementoes, and pious landmarks in the calendar, usually solemnized with dance and rejoicing, space out the year; with the result that few gestures are wholly secular. They weave a continuous thread of the spiritual and supernatural through the quotidian homespun and ennoble the whole of life with a hieratic dignity.

As in Greek culture writ large, Maniot devotion is heavily invested in holy ikons, and I cannot resist quoting a passage in which Fermor tackles the daunting challenge of describing the style of Greek (well, specifically Cretan) iconography in prose. Quite apart from the interest of his argument, this is magnificent writing:

The detail is subtle and delicate: the cartographic wrinkles and circling contour-lines on the saints’ faces, the line of nose and nostril, the sweep of those hoary eyebrows over each of which beetles an outlined irascible and thought-indicating bulge; the dark and, by contrast, etiolating triangles that project point downwards from the lower lids, the bristling curl of the white locks round foreheads that catch the light like polished teak, the prescribed complexity of their beards cataracting in effulgent arcs or erupting like silver quills from swarthy physiognomies — all of this, on close inspection, proves to be built up of complementary planes of brick red and apple green applied with delicate impressionism to the black phantom of the saint or paladin beneath. The emergence of this dark background under a luminous and fragmentary carapace of skilfully superimposed light and colour…is the earmark of the Cretan mode. I am tempted to relate this very strange technique, especially in ikons of Our Lord, with reasons that are not purely plastic. It calls irresistibly to mind a characteristic passage of St Dionysios the Areopagite: “The Divine Dark,” writes this other Dionysios, “is the inaccessible Light in which God is said to dwell, and in this Dark, invisible because of its surpassing radiance and unapproachable because of the excess of the streams of supernatural light, everyone must enter who is deemed worthy to see or know God.”


Greek iconography, of all Christian art that includes the outward forms of sacred beings, seems to me to have set itself the highest and most difficult task. […] They sought ingress to the spirit, not through the easy channels of passion, but through the intellect. Religion and philosophy were as inextricably plaited as they had been in pre-Christian times and this was due to the same philosophical temper which had saved Judaic Christianity (a brief and local thing) and made it Greek, then universal. Skilled in the handling of abstractions, knowing that the representation of Christ as God was as impossible a task as uttering the ineffable, they tried to indicate the immediately assimilable incarnation of Christ in such a way that it gave wings to the mind and the spirit and sent them soaring through and beyond the symbol to its essence, the Transcendent God, with whom, as they themselves had defined, He was consubstantial. If they failed in this aspiration it was failure on a vertiginously exalted height.

And, if it isn’t already obvious, travel writing doesn’t often rise to the “vertiginously exalted heights” where Fermor dwells. He is that perfect combination: sensitive, observant, cultured, intelligent, and gifted with a golden pen. To spend time with one of his books is an almost sensual pleasure, so richly and evocatively does he write. I’m looking forward to going to Greece with him again.


I’ve just learned, from this essay, that Fermor and his wife actually bought a home and settled in Mani during their later years. It seems the journey recounted in this book made a lastingly good impression.


I cannot resist quoting one more passage, simply for its beauty. Here he writes about treading grapes in a Cretan village.

Now and then one finds oneself, in the dilettante fashion of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, helping in some pleasant and unexacting task: gathering olives onto spread blankets in late autumn, after beating fruit from the branches with long rods of bamboo; picking grapes into baskets, shelling peas or occasionally, in late summer, helping to tread the grapes. I remember one such occasion in Crete, in a cobbled and leafy yard in the village of Vaphe at the foothills of the White Mountains. First we spread deep layers of thyme branches at the bottom of a stone vat which stood breast-high like a giant Roman sarcophagus; then a troop of girls hoisted their heavy baskets and tipped in tangled cataracts of white and black grapes. The treading itself is considered a young man’s job. The first three, of which I was one, had their long mountain boots pulled off; buckets of water were sloshed over grimy shanks and breeches rolled above the knee. “A pity to wash off the dirt,” croaked the old men that always gather on such occasions. “You’ll spoil the taste.” This chestnut–which I imagine to have existed for several millenia–evoked its ritual laughter while we climbed on the edge and jumped down on the resilient mattress of grapes. Scores of skins exploded and the juice squirted between our toes… In a minute or two a mauve-pink trickle crossed the stone lip of the spout and dripped into the waiting tub; the trickle broadened, the drops became a stream and curved into a splashing arc… We were handed glasses of the sweet juice which already–or was this imagination?–had a corrupt and ghostly tang of fermentation. When the stream slackened, the manhood of the treaders, shuffling calf-deep in a tangled slush by now and purple to the groin, was jovially impugned…. For days the sweet heady smell of the must hangs over the village. All is sticky to the touch, purple splashes and handprints on the whitewash and spilt red rivulets between the cobbles and the clouds of flies suggest a massacre. Meanwhile, in the dark crypts of the houses, in huge grooved Minoan amphorae, the must grumbles and hits out and fills the house with unnerving fumes and a bubbling noise like the rumour of plots, a dark conspiracy of whispers. For as long as this vaulted collusion lasts, a mood of swooning and Dionysiac laxity roves the air.

Lecture night: Pope vs. Hitler

November 16, 2016

The Pius Wars, contesting the role that Pope Pius XII played in World War II, seem to have waned in recent years, but a new book on the subject, by Mark Reibling, has been getting a fair bit of attention. Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler is based in part on newly available documents which reveal not only that Pius XII was aware of numerous plots to assassinate Hitler, but that he actively aided the conspirators and acted as an emissary between them and the Allies.

Though legitimate questions remain, I think, about whether Pius’ strategy of subterfuge and oblique criticism of Nazism (as opposed to open and vociferous opposition) was the wisest course, the evidence marshalled by Reibling should lay to final rest the old accusations that he was secretly on Hitler’s side, as was once claimed.

Here is an extended interview about the book that Reibling gave to NPR:

There is also a television documentary, based on the book, that is quite good.

Briggs: Uncertainty

November 4, 2016

The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics
William Briggs
(Springer, 2016)
278 p.

Being something of a beginner in the art of statistical analysis, I thought this book on the philosophical and conceptual underpinnings of statistical methods would be instructive, and I was right. I learned so much I’m not sure I want to learn any more.

In a nutshell: Briggs is critical of most of the standard apparatus of statistical methods, both technical and interpretive. Hypothesis testing, regression, data smoothing, quantification of everything, and, above all, p-values he condemns to perdition. The problem is not that such methods have no value, but that they are widely misunderstood and misapplied, with the result that the conclusions drawn from statistical analyses are often either simply wrong or the uncertainty in those conclusions is underestimated (and by an unknown amount). He gives many examples of ways in which standard techniques lead to spurious “significant” results.

By criticizing standard statistical methods, one might get the impression that Briggs’ is a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but he has plenty of citations to offer for most of his arguments. He belongs to an alternate, minority, but not negligible tradition.

Some of the important points he makes:

Probability is logical. Logic concerns relationships between propositions, and so does probability, except that in the latter case the logic is extended to propositions the truth of which is uncertain. This point was made lucidly and rather beautifully by Jaynes, and reading Briggs has made me want to return to that book to read more of it.

Probability is not a cause. Probability can tell us about correlations, but nothing at all about causes. The habit of inferring causes from statistical correlations, absent a corresponding causal model, is a bad habit that leads many astray. In general, uncertainty reflects our ignorance of causes rather than our knowledge of them.

Probability is conditional. Probability statements are always conditional on a set of premises. This is no such thing as Pr(X), but only Pr(X|Y) — that is, the probability of X given some set of premises Y. If the premises change, the probability of X will, in general, change. Thus Briggs, while not quite a Bayesian, does think the Bayesians have it over the frequentists when it comes to the debate over whether probability is objective (ie. out there) or subjective (ie. in the mind). Probabilities reflect the uncertainty in propositions given what we know; they do not exist outside our minds, and they change when our knowledge changes. A corollary is that one should never say, “X has a probability of Z”. Nothing has a probability. Probability does not exist. One should only say, “Given premises Y, the probability of X is Z.”

Probability is often not quantifiable. If we know “Most people like ice cream and Sue is a person”, the probability that Sue likes ice cream cannot be naturally or unambiguously quantified unless the meaning of “most” is clarified. Moreover, it is often a mistake to force probabilistic arguments into a quantified form. Briggs argues that the habit of doing so (as with “instruments” for assessing subjective attitudes about politics or emotional responses to stimuli, for instance) often leads to misleading results and promotes the vice of scientism.

Statistical significance is not objective. No probability model can tell one whether a given probability is significant or not. This is an extra-statistical, and often an extra-scientific, question. Whether it is judged significant is a matter of prudential judgment based on the specific question at issue and the decisions to be made about it. Thus he would like to disrupt the “turn the crank” model of statistical analysis in which “significant” results pop out of the sausage-maker, returning such questions to spheres of deliberation and judgment.

Probability models should be predictive. Briggs’ principal constructive suggestion (apart from shoring up our understanding of what probability is) is that statistical models should be predictive. They should state their premises in as much detail as possible, and should predict observations on the basis of those premises (taking into account uncertainties, of course). If the models fail to predict the observables, they are not working and should be amended or scrapped. As I understand it, he is proposing that fields which lean heavily on statistics should, by following his proposals, become more like the hard sciences. True, progress will be slower, and (acknowledged) uncertainties larger, but progress will be surer and causes better understood.


Briggs has some fun pointing out common fallacies in statistical circles. There is, for instance, the We-Have-To-Do-Something Fallacy, in which a perceived imperative to do something about something (usually something political) leads to the employment of some defective or fallacious statistical method, the defectiveness or fallaciousness of which is then ignored. Or the Epidemiologist’s Fallacy, in which a statistician claims “X causes Y” even though X was never measured and though statistical models cannot in any case discern causes. (This fallacy is so-called because without it “most epidemiologists, especially those in government, would be out of a job”.)  Or the False Dichotomy Fallacy, which is the foundational principle of hypothesis testing. Or the Deadly Sin of Reification, whereby statisticians mistake parameters in their statistical models for real things. And so on.


Much of this might seem rather obvious to the uninitiated. I’m not an adept of the standard techniques, so I was at times a little puzzled as I tried to discern the particular bad habit Briggs was criticizing. But, as is increasingly appreciated (here and here, for instance), the use and abuse of the standard techniques have led wide swathes of the scientific community into error, most commonly the error of over-certainty, which is actually an uncertainty about what is true. An audience for this book clearly exists.

Were his recommendations to be followed, he argues that the effects would be

a return to a saner and less hyperbolic practice of science, one that is not quite so dictatorial and inflexible, one that is calmer and in less of a hurry, one that is far less sure of itself, one that has a proper appreciation of how much it doesn’t know.

But, on the other hand, it would reduce the rate at which papers could be published, would make decisions about significance matters of prudential judgment rather than scientific diktat, and would make scientific conclusions more uncertain. He is fighting an uphill battle.

Briggs is an adjunct professor at Columbia, and has done most of his scientific work in climate science (and is, as you would expect, skeptical of the predictions of statistical climate models, which provide a few of his case studies). He seems to be something of an atypical academic: this book, for instance, includes approving reference to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and even John Henry Newman (whose Grammar of Assent he cites as an example of non-quantitative probabilistic argumentation). It’s quite a rollicking read too. Briggs has a personality, and doesn’t try to hide it. Personally I found the tone of the book a little too breezy, the text sometimes reading almost as if it were transcribed lecture notes (I make no hypothesis), but overall the book is smart and clear-eyed, and I’m glad to have read it. Now back to Jaynes.


I found a good video which illustrates the problem with relying on p-values to determine statistical significance. When I consider that many of the findings of the social sciences are based on this criterion I’m not sure whether to cringe or weep. No wonder there is a replication crisis. Witness the dance of the p-values:

Here is a short video illustrating why it is reasonable to doubt the putative findings of many (and perhaps most) published research papers employing statistical methods. This argument and others are set forth in detail by Ioannidis.

Kirk: Ancestral Shadows

October 31, 2016

kirk-ancestral-shadowsAncestral Shadows
An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
Russell Kirk
(Eerdmans, 2004)
410 p.

Russell Kirk is remembered principally for his writings on politics and culture; I expect that even many of his admirers might be surprised to learn that he wrote fiction, and genre fiction at that. My own knowledge of Kirk has been entirely at second hand, but I had seen one or two appreciative references to these ghost stories, and when the opportunity arose I snatched them up.

I am glad that I did so; they are wonderful. I have made it my habit over the years to read ghost stories (or other macabre matter) during October, and I’ve roamed through classics from H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Oxford Books of This-or-Frightening-That, and whatever else I thought might qualify as (s)cream of the crop. I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed none of those more than I’ve enjoyed these. Kirk’s stories are intricate, original, eerie, and, best of all, superbly written (as the back-cover blurbs from T.S. Eliot, Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, and Thomas Howard attest). Kirk brings a sense of atmosphere to his tales, and atmosphere is critical for ghost stories.

I’m no taxonomist of supernatural fiction, but I am told that these are “Gothic” tales; I’m not sure why. They are scary, but outright malevolence is rare, and gore pretty much absent. Kirk himself, in an epilogue to this collection, calls them “experiments in the moral imagination,” and that gets nicely at part of their appeal. The stories couch their uncanny elements within a moral and even a metaphysical framework; haunting spectral presences are here often manifestations of an underlying order rather than disturbances of it. This is perhaps especially so of my favourite of the stories, “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” in which an ex-con finds himself caught up into an eerie supernatural encounter as an unwitting agent of justice. It’s simultaneously unsettling and genuinely tender. Its companion piece (and a number of these stories are paired with others sharing the same characters), “Watchers at the Strait Gate,” is also surprisingly touching.

Of the 19 stories collected in this volume, there is naturally some variation in quality. In the earlier stories he sometimes has a tendency to introduce political polemic, scoring points against urban planners and other bureaucrats whom, I gather, gave him nightmares. This I found a bit distracting, but it was less prevalent in the later tales. Also I must admit that I did not finish one of the stories, “The Reflex-Man of Whinneymuir Close”. Its epigraph is from Robert Kirk’s Commonwealth, and it is written in a seventeenth-century Scottish idiom to match. Nothing wrong with the story, so far as I know, but I grew impatient with the style and abandoned it. Mea culpa.

But overall this was a very enjoyable collection, warmly recommended to give you chills.

Mauriac: The Knot of Vipers

October 24, 2016

The Knot of Vipers
François Mauriac
Translated from the French by Gerard Hopkins
(Capuchin Classics, 2010) [1932]
208 p.

By reputation one of the great Catholic novels of the twentieth century, this is a richly rewarding study of a man whose soul has, on his own testimony, become a “knot of vipers”, and an account of the slow process by which that knot is loosened.

The novel begins with Louis, an aged Frenchman approaching death, writing a last epistle to his family. Many years before, it seems, his pride had been wounded by a passing comment made by his wife, and for his whole life he has nursed a grudge which has caused his soul to fester with barely concealed hatred. Now, in a final act of revenge, he hopes to ruin his wife and children by bestowing his family’s considerable fortune on one of his illegitimate children whom he hardly knows.

Louis writes to explain himself to them — the entire book is the text of his long letter — but in the process he finds that he is explaining himself to himself as well, and, perhaps simply from relief of speaking about his grievances, or perhaps because he gradually sees his own motives more clearly, or perhaps for some deeper reason, hidden from view, he finds in the course of his writing his vengeful delight dissipating, replaced, to his great surprise, by something approaching its opposite.

It is tempting to see the novel as akin to Brideshead Revisited insofar as it traces the delicate action of grace in a soul, but this might be pushing too hard. Although it is sometimes called a “Catholic novel”, there is in fact relatively little Catholicism in it — Louis has little interest in religion apart from its value as a topic on which to taunt his devout wife — and his transformation is a moral conversion rather than an overtly religious one. Even just as such, it is a tricky thing to manage, and on this first reading my main concern about the novel is that Louis’ change of heart, when it comes, comes a little too hastily and without adequate preparation. But this is a provisional judgment, for the psychology of the main character is so subtle and richly developed that the apparent fault may well rest with me, the insensitive reader.

It is hazardous to venture comments on style when reading in translation, but I was impressed by the quality of the writing. I relished Mauriac’s ability to set me down in a particular time and place, giving the story enough space to settle into a moment: looking out a window at night, or awaiting the onset of an approaching rain storm. At times I felt I could almost breath the same air as Louis.

This novel, in the same (and only) English translation, is also sold under the title Vipers’ Tangle. I prefer that title, as being punchier and having more poetry in it, but it seems that the edition I read has given the original title (Le Nœud de vipères) more straightforwardly. Oddly, my edition nowhere gives the name of the translator, Gerard Hopkins (not to be confused with the poet).

Cobbett: The Protestant Reformation

October 17, 2016

220px-william_cobbettA History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland
William Cobbett
(TAN Books, 1988) [c.1825]
432 p.

I do not know much about William Cobbett, but based on this book he seems the sort who had a habit of placing his index finger on the sternum of his conversation partners, who made honest but uncomfortable remarks at dinner parties, and who was a nasty thorn in the side of the establishment. He burned with zeal for justice. In this book he sallies out to slay a giant — the historiography of the English Reformation, which he calls “a mass of the most base falsehoods and misrepresentations” promulgated by “crafty and selfish revilers of the religion of our fathers” who are full of “presumption, impudence, inconsistency, and insincerity”.

Cobbett was himself a Protestant, but he despised the way the history of English religion since Henry VIII had been white-washed. Curiously, in this book he evinces little interest in “rites and ceremonies and articles of faith and rules of discipline”; he has no theological purpose. His wants simply to set the historical record straight, and then to argue that, quite apart from doctrinal matters, the Reformation was a social disaster for England.

His general view can be summarized, as gently and succinctly as possible, in the following way:

Now, my friends, a fair and honest inquiry will teach us, that this was an alteration greatly for the worse; that the “REFORMATION,” as it is called, was engendered in beastly lust, brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy, and cherished and fed by plunder, devastation, and by rivers of innocent English and Irish blood; and that, as to its more remote consequences, they are, some of them, now before as in that misery, that beggary, that nakedness, that hunger, that everlasting wrangling and spite, which now stare us in the face and stun our ears at every turn, and which the “Reformation” has given us in exchange for the ease and happiness and harmony and Christian charity, enjoyed so abundantly, and for so many ages, by our Catholic forefathers.

In other words, to counter the prevailing history in which Protestants did no wrong and Catholics did no right, Cobbett threw his weight heavily in the opposite direction, arguing not only that the motives and methods of the Protestants were evil, but that England before the Reformation was a kind of terrestrial paradise, untroubled by the problems besetting the sceptered isle in his own time. The lopsidedness of this view makes it vulnerable for many of the same reasons that the standard history was vulnerable, but, at the same time, it is rather thrilling to follow his take-no-prisoners approach.

A word-mincer he is not. He cites with evident relish Martin Luther’s description of Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill, the spawn of an adder, a basilisk, a lying buffoon dressed in a king’s robes, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face”, and then piles on by calling the king a “savage monster” and “the most unjust, hard-hearted, meanest and most sanguinary tyrant that the world had ever beheld”. Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “a name which deserves to be held in everlasting execration; a name which we could not pronounce without almost doubting of the justice of God, were it not for our knowledge of the fact, that the cold-blooded, most perfidious, most impious, most blasphemous caitiff expired, at last, amidst those flames which he himself had been the chief cause of kindling.” Cromwell is “slavish and base”, “the most insolent and cruel of ruffians”. Elizabeth, lauded by Protestant historians as “good Queen Bess”, Cobbett dubs “ripping-up Betsy”, “inexorable apostate”, “horrible lynx-like she-tyrant”, “terrible she-tyrant”, “termagant tyrant”, and “the worst woman that ever existed in England, or in the whole world, Jezebel herself not excepted.” Reformers in general he calls “ruffian devastators” for whom “plunder, sacrilege, adultery, polygamy, incest, perjury, and murder were almost as habitual as sleeping and waking”. By contrast, the Catholic queen Mary — “Bloody Mary” by convention — he cites as an “example of fidelity, sincerity, patience, resignation, generosity, gratitude, and purity in thought, word and deed”. The standard history he assaults from every side.


Though Cobbett, as I said, does not try to argue specific doctrinal points of contention between Catholics and Protestants, and indeed seems to think them almost matters of indifference, he does not forbear to prosecute the case of inconsistency against the Protestant reformers. He wryly notes that the Protestant polemic against Catholicism — the “Scarlet Whore” — risks proving too much: so great was the Established Church’s debt to Catholicism that each polemical assault on the latter could not but weaken the former as well. The Protestant devotion to the Bible, for instance, could only survive in the company of anti-Catholicism so long as the Catholic origins of the Bible were ignored:

To a pretty state do we come, when we, if we still listen to these calumniators, proclaim to the world, that our only hope of salvation rests on promises contained in a book, which we have received from the Scarlet Whore and of the authenticity of which we have no voucher other than that Scarlet Whore and that Church, whose worship is “idolatrous” and whose doctrines are “damnable.”

Similarly he lampoons the notion that there could be any legitimate national head of the Church who promulgates teachings in contradiction of the Pope’s, and yet somehow not have the unity of that national Church with the Church universal be impaired:

It is perfectly monstrous to suppose that there can be TWO true faiths. It cannot be: one of the two must be false. … How is the faith of all nations to continue to be ONE, it there be, in every nation, a head of the Church, who is to be appealed to, in the last resort, as to all questions, as to all points of dispute, which may arise? How, if this be the case, is there to be “one fold and one shepherd”? How is there to be “one faith and one baptism”? how are the “unity of the spirit and the bond of peace” to be preserved? We shall presently see what unity and what peace there were in England, the moment that the King became the head of the Church.

This is not a theological problem, as such, but simply a logical one: the Church of England cannot both be and not be part of the Catholic Church.


But inconsistencies of this sort don’t matter greatly to Cobbett because he believes they didn’t really matter greatly to the Reformers themselves. Instead, to his mind the intellectual case against Catholicism, cobbled and threadbare as it was, was simply cover for the real motive: plunder. There was “plunder at the bottom”; plunder was “the mainspring” from which the rest flowed.

I won’t pretend to adjudicate the motives of the Reformers, but I will agree with Cobbett that it would be foolish to consider those motives without taking plunder into account. There was immense wealth at stake: Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, with the confiscation of their lands and goods, and then appropriation of Church valuables, and his decision to give that wealth to the co-operative noble families of the realm meant that the nobility had powerful incentives to let Henry have his way in religious matters. Cobbett argues that the treatment of Catholics was harsher than that meted out to other religious groups at odds with the king, such as Quakers and Jews, and he attributes this to the simple fact that the Catholics had the wealth that the king wanted.

Whatever their motives, the dissolution of the monasteries was, for Cobbett, the chief calamity of the English reformation, for it did immeasurable harm to rural England. The monasteries had been more than simply houses of prayer: they were the chief landowners, and landlords, in the nation. Each monastery was a central hub for agriculture and commerce, on which ordinary people depended for their livelihoods, and monasteries were, by and large, good for those who depended on them:

…The Monastery was a proprietor that never died; its tenantry had to do with a deathless landlord; its lands and houses never changed owners; its tenants were liable to none of many uncertainties that other tenants were; its oaks had never to tremble at the axe of the squandering heir; its manors had not to dread a change of lords; its villagers had all been born and bred up under its eye and care; their character was of necessity a thing of great value, and, as such, would naturally be an object of great attention. A Monastery was the centre of a circle in the country, naturally drawing to it all that were in need of relief, advice, and protection, and containing a body of men, or of women, having no cares of their own, and having wisdom to guide the inexperienced, and wealth to relieve the distressed.

And was it a good thing, then, to plunder and devastate these establishments; was it a reformation to squander estates, thus employed, upon lay persons, who would not, who could not, and did not, do any part or particle of those benevolent acts, and acts of public utility, which naturally arose out of the monastic institutions?

When the monasteries were seized and the monks and nuns evicted, all those who depended upon them suffered, for the nobles who received the properties did not, by and large, live on those estates, but governed them from afar, and without the personal investment and sense of responsibility that had previously prevailed. Cobbett argues that in time this sea change in English economic and social life gave rise to a new English type: the pauper, the truly destitute citizen who had nowhere to turn for help. It harmed everyone except the most powerful:

To turn the possessors of so large a part of the estates out of those estates, to destroy establishments venerated by the people from their childhood, to set all law, divine as well as human, at defiance, to violate every principle on which property rested, to rob the poor and helpless of the means of sustenance, to deface the beauty of the country, and make it literally a heap of ruins…

[The dissolution of the monasteries was] “a breach of Magna Charta in the first place; a robbery of the monks and nuns in the next place; and, in the third place, a robbery of the indigents, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”

This line of argument is, for me, among the most interesting and, assuming that the facts are straight, compelling that Cobbett offers. I’d not really considered the Reformation from an economic point of view before, my own interests tending in other directions, but I can certainly see that the “transfer of ownership” (forgive the euphemism) of all those abbeys — and there were hundreds at the time of the Reformation, dotting the landscape across the whole of England –churches, and lands must have had a significant effect on the tenant farmers of those lands. Cobbett follows this thread right down to his own time, arguing that, one thing leading to another, the rise of Protestantism in England was a cause of much of the economic devastation he saw around him, and even led to the national debt (by way of funding wars against Catholics)!


It is fair to say that Cobbett sees no redeeming features in the reign of Henry VIII, and his successor Edward VI doesn’t fare much better. He cites David Hume’s History of England — the “lying book, which the Scotch call our history” — which says that

“All English historians dwell with pleasure on the excellences of this young king, whom the flattering promises of hope, joined to many real virtues, had made an object of the most tender affections of the public. He possessed mildness of disposition, a capacity to learn and to judge, and attachment to equity and justice.”

To which Cobbett offers the acerbic rejoinder:

Of his mildness we have, I suppose, a proof in his assenting to the burning of several Protestants, who did not protest in his way; in his signing of the death warrants of his two uncles; and in his wish to bring his sister Mary to trial for not conforming to what she deemed blasphemy, and from doing which he was deterred only by the menaces of the Emperor her cousin. So much for his mildness. As for his justice, who can doubt of that, who thinks of his will to disinherit his two sisters, even after the judges had unanimously declared to him, that it was contrary to law? The “tender affection” that the people had for him was, doubtless, evinced, by their rising in insurrection against his ordinances from one end of the kingdom to the other, and by their demanding the restoration of that religion, which all his acts tended wholly to extirpate.

So much for Edward VI.


As I mentioned above, Cobbett’s general strategy of switching the labels on those traditionally designated unimpeachably-good or irredeemably-bad leads him to say kind things about Mary I. Now, the tradition had dubbed her “Bloody Mary”, which is, to say the least, rather one-sided, so Cobbett’s defence of her has merit simply as a corrective. In fact, he’s more nuanced in his defence of her than is typical for him: he defends her not as being above criticism, but as being no worse than Henry VIII or Elizabeth, and in some respects better.

He argues, for instance, that she was, at least, not a hypocrite: she persecuted those who held a faith contrary to her own, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who held a faith that she herself had previously professed and defended. Moreover, she persecuted those who departed from the faith of their parents, not (as with Henry and Elizabeth) those who adhered to it; she defended the virtue of filial piety. Also, he argues that she acted as she did to contain and correct a situation created by her predecessors, not one of her own creation; she was a defender rather than an aggressor.

These and other arguments can be legitimately made in Mary’s defence (and other historians have expanded on the case). Though the lengths to which we will go to defend a woman who killed 283 (Cobbett thinks 277) of her religious opponents is necessarily limited. About these executions, Cobbett’s treatment is a mixture of fair and foul. Among his praiseworthy contributions is to point out that, although it is true that Mary re-instated statutes permitting the burning of heretics, statutes that had been previously repealed by Edward VI, it is not often noted that the reason Edward had repealed them was not from a surfeit of tender-heartedness, but because the statutes in question specifically authorized the burning of those who taught “contrary to the Catholic faith”, an awkward fact for Edward since it authorized the burning of his own party rather than his opponents. And although Cobbett correctly notes that Elizabeth executed more of her religious opponents than Mary did, he fails to note that Mary achieved her total in just a few years, as opposed to Elizabeth’s few decades.


Cobbett’s treatment of Elizabeth I is also fairly nuanced. It is true that he peppers his prose with a litany of devastating sobriquets, some of which I cited earlier. Here he sums up his case against her:

Elizabeth was as great a tyrant as ever lived; she was the most cruel of women; her disgusting amours were notorious; yet, she was the most popular sovereign that had ever reigned since the days of Alfred; and we have thousands of proofs, that her people, of all ranks and degrees, felt a most anxious interest in everything affecting her life or her health. Effects like this do not come from ordinary causes. Her treatment of great masses of her people, her almost unparalleled cruelties, her flagrant falsehoods, her haughtiness, her insolence and her lewd life, were naturally calculated to make her detested, and to make her people pray for any thing that might rid them of her.

We seem to have a puzzle before us: Elizabeth was cruel and detestable, but her people nonetheless rallied to her and were anxious for her well-being. The reason is not far to seek: the alternative to her was, by and large, considered worse. The alternative was subjection of England to foreign powers:

According to the decision of the head of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was an usurper; if she were an usurper, she ought to be set aside; if she were set aside, Mary Stuart and the King of France became Queen and King of England; if they became Queen and King of England, England became a mere province, ruled by Scotchmen and Frenchmen, the bare idea of which was quite sufficient to put every drop of English blood in motion. All men, therefore, of all ranks in life, whether Protestants or Catholics, were for Elizabeth.

The “decision” alluded to was Pope Pius V’s Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull which condemned Elizabeth’s birth as illegitimate and her claim to the throne as empty. Both charges were true, but if there were ever a case study to illustrate the value of a prudent silence, this is it, for the Pope’s bull put Elizabeth herself in an impossible position, provoked an intense persecution of English Catholics, and, in the end, nearly erased Catholicism from English life. Elizabeth acted from self-preservation:

In short, she saw clearly, that, if her people remained Catholics, she could never reign in perfect safety. She knew that she had no hereditary right; she knew that the law ascribed her birth to adultery. She never could think of reigning quietly over a people the head of whose Church refused to acknowledge her right to the crown. And resolving to wear that crown, she resolved, cost what ruin or blood it might, to compel her people to abandon that very religion, her belief in which she had, a few months before, declared, by praying to “God that the earth might open and swallow her alive, if she were not a true Roman Catholic.”

And so she prosecuted a policy of sustained and quite aggressive persecution of Catholics in her realm, a campaign that has been well-studied and about which I have written before (here). Cobbett also reviews the main features of this policy, and is quite good at conveying the experience of Catholics under what was, in effect, an early police state:

The Catholic gentleman’s own house afforded him no security; the indiscretion of children or friends, the malice of enemies, the dishonesty or revenge of tenants or servants, the hasty conclusions of false suspicion, the deadly wickedness of those ready to commit perjury for gain’s sake, the rapacity and corruption of constables, sheriffs, and magistrates, the virulent prejudice of fanaticism; to every passion hostile to justice, happiness, and peace; to every evil against which it is the object of just laws to protect a man, the conscientious Catholic gentleman lived continually exposed; and that, too, in that land which had become renowned throughout the world by those deeds of valour and those laws of freedom which had been performed and framed by his Catholic ancestors.

In the end, Elizabeth is portrayed as a ruthless and unprincipled monarch, but one whose hand was forced by papal imprudence and who acted to defend England.


With the accession of James I, Cobbett’s history begins to move more rapidly, and he returns to an emphasis on the social and economic consequences of the English Reformation. He argues, for instance, that the decision of the English monarchs to fight “no popery” wars on the continent led to the establishment of the English national debt, a millstone around the necks of all Englishman that continued to be borne in his day (and ours). (Yet I note that he does not consider the possibility that a Catholic England might have similarly fought “no popery” wars on the continent, but fought on the other side.) He describes the Penal Laws against Catholics that continued for generations after the Reformation, barring them from universities, civil or military service, and imposing other disabilities. He argues that James II was overthrown precisely because he suspended these laws and granted liberty of conscience; I don’t know this history well enough to know how plausible that claim is.

Although the French Revolution is not exactly part of English history, Cobbett can’t resist comparing the typical response of the English establishment to militant French atheism with the facts of England’s own history:

Now, in the first place, they saw about forty sorts of Protestant religion; they knew that thirty-nine of them must be false; they had seen our rulers make a church by law, just such an one as they pleased; they had seen them alter it by law; and, if there were no standard of faith; no generally acknowledged authority; if English law-makers were to change the sort of religion at their pleasure; why, pray, were not French law-makers to do the same? If English law-makers could take the spiritual supremacy from the successor of Saint Peter, and give it to HENRY THE-WIFE-KILLER, why might not the French give theirs to LEPEAU? Besides, as to the sort of religion, though ATHEISM is bad enough, could it be WORSE than what you tell us is “idolatrous and damnable”? It might cause people to be damned; but could it cause them to be more than damned? Alas!

And so it goes, as he brings his history up to the events of his own time.


The title of the book indicates that it is about the Reformation in England “and Ireland”. I haven’t said much about Ireland in these notes, and that because while Cobbett does occasionally refer to events in Ireland, he doesn’t give it a sustained treatment, and I don’t know enough to fill in the gaps. The Irish Penal Laws are his chief interest.


This is a highly enjoyable book. Yes, it is cranky, and surely a comparably-toned book written today would rub me the wrong way, but we make allowances for dear English eccentrics, and Cobbett is certainly one, in the best sense.

At the close of his book, he sums up his admirable motives in writing it, and it seems fitting to quote them in conclusion:

I have now performed my task. I have made good the positions with which I began. Born and bred a Protestant of the Church of England, having a wife and numerous family professing the same faith, having the mains of most dearly beloved parents lying in a Protestant church-yard, and trusting to conjugal or filial piety to place mine by their side, I have, in this undertaking, had no motive, I can have had no motive, but a sincere and disinterested love of truth and justice. It is not for the rich and the powerful of my countrymen that I have spoken; but for the poor, the persecuted, the proscribed. I have not been unmindful of the unpopularity and the prejudice that would attend the enterprise; but, when I considered the long, long triumph of calumny over the religion of those, to whom we owe all that we possess that is great and renowned; when I was convinced that I could do much towards the counteracting of that calumny; when duty so sacred bade me speak, it would have been baseness to hold my tongue, and baseness superlative would it have been, if, having the will as well as the power, I had been restrained by fear of the shafts of falsehood and of folly. To be clear of self-reproach is amongst the greatest of human consolations; and now, amidst all the dreadful perils, with which the event that I have treated of has, at last, surrounded my country, I can, while I pray God to save her from still further devastation and misery, safely say, that, neither expressly nor tacitly, am I guilty of any part of the cause of her ruin.

The Book of Margery Kempe

October 6, 2016

The Book of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe
(Penguin Classics, 1986) [c.1420]
336 p.

This autobiography, the earliest in English, was dictated to scribes (for Margery could neither read nor write) in the first decades of the fifteenth century. In it, Margery describes her spiritual life and her travels, and gives portraits of English life at the time.

Her writing has about it that same refreshing candidness and lack of pretension that I found in the writing of Julian of Norwich (whom Margery met on at least one occasion). She refers to herself as “that creature” much of the time, and is as matter-of-fact about the storms of her soul and the voices she hears as she is about weather and the hazards of travel.

Much of the book is devoted to Margery’s descriptions of her remarkably vivid spiritual experience. She reports having spoken with numerous saints — sometimes St Peter, sometimes St Paul, sometimes St Katherine or some other — with Our Lady, with Our Lord himself, and even with the Holy Trinity. She had an especially strong devotion to Christ’s Passion, and is regularly reduced to tears at the very thought of his suffering. Indeed, these plentiful tears, which she took as a special gift from God (“tears with love are the greatest gift that God may give on earth”), were also a recurring source of tension in Margery’s social circles, and I came to feel a certain affection for them. Again and again she describes how she was overcome with grief and cried out in great sorrow, with copious tears, abundant tears, astonishing tears, unquenchable tears, while those around her gazed with incomprehension or derided with scorn. “Some said it was a wicked spirit tormented her; some said it was an illness; some said she had drunk too much wine; some cursed her; some wished she was in the harbour; some wished she was on the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as he thought.” Margery was aware of the disdain, but, it seems, she remained grateful, for her tears “never came without surpassingly great sweetness of devotion and high contemplation”.

For me, among the most interesting parts of the book were those that described her travels. She made several pilgrimages, including journeys to Santiago, Jerusalem, and Rome. Late in life she volunteered to accompany a young widow from England to Germany. Her accounts are of great interest, partly for their details about the uncertainties of travel at that time, and partly for the descriptions of the places she went and the people she met.

The Book of Margery Kempe is not an immortal classic. It owes at least part of its fame to the mere fact of its survival (in a single manuscript, I note, which can be viewed online courtesy the British Library). I said above that Margery described her spiritual life in the down-to-earth manner in which one discusses the weather, and, as with descriptions of weather, a little goes a long way. But it was genuinely fascinating to read of her travels, to imagine her visiting places that I myself have visited, and to learn, through her, something of the attitudes and character of her contemporaries.


[Heavenly music]
One night, as this creature lay in bed with her husband, she heard a melodious sound so sweet and delectable that she thought she had been in paradise. And immediately she jumped out of bed and said, “Alas that ever I sinned! It is full merry in heaven.” This melody was so sweet that it surpassed all the melody that might be heard in this world, without any comparison, and it caused this creature when she afterwards heard any mirth or melody to shed very plentiful and abundant tears of high devotion, with great sobbings and sighings for the bliss of heaven, not fearing the shames and contempt of this wretched world. And ever after her being drawn towards God in this way, she kept in mind the joy and melody that there was in heaven, so much so that she could not very well restrain herself from speaking of it. For when she was in company with any people she would often say, “It is full merry in heaven!”

[God speaks to his daughter Margery]
“Daughter, you are as sure of the love of God, as God is God. Your soul is more sure of the love of God than of your own body, for your soul will part from your body, but God shall never part from your soul, for they are united together without end. Therefore, daughter, you have as great a reason to be merry as any lady in this world; and if you know, daughter, how much you please me when you willingly allow me to speak in you, you would never do otherwise, for this is a holy life and the time is very well spent. For, daughter, this life pleases me more than wearing the coat of mail for penance, or the hair-shirt, or fasting on bread and water; for if you said a thousand paternosters every day you would not please me as much as you do when you are in silence and allow me to speak to your soul.”

Children’s books: here be dragons

September 26, 2016

Beowulf the Warrior
Ian Serraillier
48 p.

A number of authors have distilled Beowulf into a version intended for children, but this is the only one of which I’m aware that does so in verse. Serraillier condenses the original 3800 lines of the poem into about 800 lines of blank verse. All of the essential plot elements of the story are included, and quite vividly depicted. Overall, the writing would be challenging for young children, but I think would be suitable for roughly ages 10 and up. This edition is complemented by interesting illustrations by “Severin”.


St. George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti
(CreateSpace, 2014)
162 p.

This short novel tells the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who encounters a fierce dragon lurking on the outskirts of his father’s estate. The story has a two-fold motion: the conflict with the dragon gradually escalates, on one hand, and on the other Marcellus encounters Christians and is gradually converted to the new faith (taking the baptismal name George). The two arcs come together in a final battle between George and the dragon — but of course we knew that would happen.

It’s a first novel for Michael Lotti, and quite a good one, best suited, I would estimate, for children aged about 8-12. The writing is not as supple and convincing as one gets from the most accomplished children’s writers, but the characters are well developed and the story is an interesting one. I would like to know how much of the material comes from the legends about St George, and how much was Lotti’s own creation. For me the most engaging aspect of the book concerned Marcellus’ encounters with the Christians, and especially with an itinerant Christian bishop named Agathon; there is a good deal of inspiring catechesis packed into those conversations, but I never felt that I was being preached to. I will certainly encourage my kids to read the book when they’re a little older.


The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
(HarperCollins, 2007) [1937]
300 p.

This was my third or fourth time through this book, but my first with the kids, to whom I read it aloud. I have not a great deal to a say about it, apart from reporting that it was a huge success with the older kids (now aged 5 and 7). Actually, the experience of reading it to them was enriching for me too; I do not recall enjoying it on previous readings as much as I did this time.

It is always amusing to see the light-hearted, gee-whiz attitude this book takes to the One Ring, which we know will later prove to be so doom-laden. I used to surmise that Tolkien had not yet worked out the Ring’s significance at the time of writing, but this time I noticed that he returns to the Ring at the very end, emphasizing that it was a secret ring and that Bilbo never spoke of it to anyone. This inclines me to suspect that Tolkien did know its significance after all.

Das Nibelungenlied

September 13, 2016

Das Nibelungenlied
Translated from the Middle High German by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 2006) [c.1200]
375 p.

The Germanic tradition of stories about the Nibelungs was familiar to me only through Wagner, but for some time I had wished to acquaint myself with the medieval roots of the legendarium, and at long last I arrived at this Song of the Nibelungs, which is one of the chief glories of that tradition. It was written by we know not whom, and we know not when (but probably around the year 1200).

I first noticed that although the story shares a number of characters with Wagner’s version — Sifried, Brunhild, Hagen, and Gunter, principally — the story as a whole bears no resemblance to Wagner’s, not even in the sections about those shared characters. But in adapting the story for his own purposes Wagner seems to have been in good company, for there is a rich and complex manuscript tradition testifying to the malleability and creativity with which medieval culture treated these tales. The translator, Burton Raffel, does not explain why it was this version of the story which he chose to translate, and I rather wish he had.

The basic arc of the story concerns two royal marriages which, poisoned by jealous pride and suspicion, erupt into violence that eventually leads to the downfall of all. Surprisingly (for those coming to the story from Wagner) there are no gods in the cast, and, although there are cursory references to Christianity here and there — the characters hear Mass in the morning, for instance — the poem as a whole shows little interest in religion, and is far from pious in spirit. There are a few magical elements around the edges, as when one character hears a prophecy from fountain sprites, but otherwise the tale is grounded in the political and interpersonal world of its characters.

I almost wrote that it is grounded in “realism”, but that would not be quite right. The knights at the center of this story — Sifried, Volker, Gunter, Hagen, Rudigor, and a few others — are heroes of legend, which means they fight with superhuman strength, slaying dozens or hundreds of adversaries with ease. The women are surpassingly beautiful. Everyone is impossibly polite: indeed, a significant part of the poem is devoted to the niceties of courtly etiquette, with page after page devoted to the elaborate ceremonies of court: gift-giving, welcomes, and feasts. The author seems to relish the intricacy and formality of these encounters, and the reader — the happy reader, at any rate — will relish them too.

The poem is not all please and thank-you, however. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, and death stalks through these stanzas. The poet’s dramatic strategy is to tell us in advance that things are going to turn out badly, and this is effective, for we as readers are then alert to missteps in courtly protocols and intimations of interpersonal friction:

The king’s attendants hurried \, about, making the royal /
palace fit for a visit \, from eagerly awaited, /
deeply beloved guests. \, Everyone was joyful, /
ready to welcome those \, their king had invited, who would try to destroy him.

(I note with some dismay that when formatted in WordPress the lines are too long for the available space. Slashes inserted to indicate the ends of lines.)

At its most violent, the poem can be quite gruesome. Here the Burgundian prince Giselher speaks following an extended battle against the Huns:

“We can’t afford bodies \, lying under foot. /
Before the Huns can claim \, victory in battle, /
we’ll get to chop them up \, again, which makes me happy. /
And I intend,” said he, \, “to have as good a time as I can.”

“Now that’s the kind of ruler \, I like having,” Hagen /
said. “Only a real \, warrior talks that way, /
gives you the kind of advice \, my prince has given today. /
All you Burgundy men \, should rejoice. That’s all I have to say!”

They did as the prince advised, \, and carried seven thousand /
bodies out the door \, of the hall. Then they dropped /
the corpses down the stairs, \, and left them where they stopped /
rolling. The dead men’s families \, wept and cried, and wrung their hands.

Some of the wounded men \, were still alive, at the start, /
and could have been completely \, healed, if cared for. The jarring /
fall had killed them, every \, single one. Their friends /
and families wailed in sorrow \, for such a bitter, painful end.”

It is worth noting that Giselher and Hagen are not the villains of the piece, but instead something like its heroes. In fact it’s not so easy to say just who the heroes are: everyone has faults, and everyone pays for those faults in the end. To my mind Sifried comes closest to being an unequivocal hero, but (***spoiler alert***) he is killed off in the early going, the victim of jealousy born of misunderstanding. His wife Krimhild is the wronged party who seeks revenge, which might, on a warrior’s code, be the honourable course, but she too is vindictive beyond measure. The poem is morally complex.


The original poem is written in quatrains consisting of rhyming couplets: AABB. Each line is divided into two halves, with each half-line having three (or, in the case of the last half-line of each quatrain, three or four) stresses. Raffel has tried to preserve this structure in his translation, but inevitably compromises were necessary. He has strictly preserved the metrical scheme, as is evident from the passages cited above. He claims to have usually preserved rhyme as well, but to my ear the rhymes are often only approximate, and as I read I was almost never aware of them.

Even with those efforts to preserve the poetry of the original, I confess I often found the translation very “prosy”. Here’s a sample stanza, plucked more or less at random:

Whatever other warriors \, did and were able to do, /
Dancwart and Hagen and many \, courageous, accomplished knights, /
however heroic they were, \, princess, it still remains true /
their deeds were nothing at all \, compared to noble Sifried’s might.

Take out the tabs and carriage returns and — again, judged by my ear — this turns into rather plain prose. It does rhyme, I grant, but it doesn’t sing to me, and I wish it did. Perhaps this can help me explain:

Take out the tabs and carriage \, returns and — again, judged /
by my ear — this \, turns into rather plain /
prose. It does rhyme, \, I grant, but it doesn’t sing /
to me, and I wish it did. \, Perhaps this can help me explain.

That rhymes at least we well as one of Raffel’s typical stanzas, and it has the right stress pattern, but I’d not call it poetry.

Having said that, the stress patterns did sometimes serve as a helpful guide to emphases in the lines. Take this example, for instance:

Then Krimhild’s father-in-law \, approached her, and said to the queen: /
“We ought to be at home. \, Neither of us can feel /
like welcome guests, here \, in Wurms along the Rhine. /
My dear Krimhild, now \, we need to return to my land. It’s time.

In the third line “here” gets a stress, emphasizing that where they are is the problem, and in the fourth line “now” gets a stress, emphasizing the need for immediate action. Were that stanza smeared out into prose, I’m not sure I’d read it in quite the same way.

Despite the difficulties I had with the translation, we English speakers do not have many means by which to get to know this poem, and I am grateful for Raffel’s labours.


Das Nibelungenlied is a great poem, one especially bracing for readers from our culture, for in it we encounter a world quite other than our own, where honour and strength are the leading virtues, and in which courtesy and violence are engaged in a high-stakes contest of wits. It has a cast of characters that is memorable in action and manageable in size, and strong dramatic instincts. In the sweepstakes of medieval Germanic poetry it doesn’t displace Beowulf in my affections, but I did certainly enjoy reading it.