Posts Tagged ‘Medieval’

Gloria in profundis Deo

April 2, 2017

In the world of early music, where manuscripts are often bereft of temporal markings, dynamic markings, and even pitch indications, a certain amount of creative interpretation is an inescapable part of any performance. But there’s interpretation and interpretation: sometimes musicians come along with a bold challenge to the received wisdom about how the music of a particular time and place should sound.

Case in point: Graindelavoix give us a version of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame that is frankly bizarre: pitches slide all over the place, the timbre is rough and unpolished, and ornamentation, inspired, it sounds, by Middle Eastern and Arabic singing, pervades all.

This embedded video contains a full performance of the Mass, with propers, but I’m queuing it up to the Gloria, which lasts for about 6 minutes. I’m mostly thrilled by the bass in this ensemble, who is some kind of monster: listen, for example, to the notes he sings at “Jesu Christe” (about 2-1/2 minutes in, and again at about 4 minutes in). Amazing.

I’m honestly not sure if I like what they’re doing — it comes close to being an early-music freak-show — but I do like that they emphasize how little we really know about how this music sounded to those who first wrote and performed it. And I definitely like that bass.

If you don’t know how this Mass usually sounds, here is a fairly typical reading of the same section.

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.”

Das Nibelungenlied

September 13, 2016

Das Nibelungenlied
Anonymous
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.
(1505)

(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.”
(2111-4)

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.
(228)

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.
(1073)

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.

Langland: Piers Plowman

May 13, 2016

Piers Plowman
William Langland
Rendered into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson
(WW Norton, 1990) [c.1380]
288 p.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in medieval literature, enjoying Chaucer and Dante, Chretien de Troyes and Beowulf. Naturally, some works have been more challenging than others, and for a variety of reasons: themes, structure, language. Piers Plowman is as difficult as anything I’ve come across, and then some. I’m tempted to say that there is nothing simple about it.

The work is an allegorical drama in which the main character, Will, wanders through the world populated with a variety of characters — Conscience, Truth, Scripture, all seven of the Deadly Sins, Reason, and so forth — on a journey to discover Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best. The characters offer Will advice, upbraid him, and encourage him on his moral quest, rather like a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is complicated by a series of dream-visions, and even dreams-within-dreams, that add layers of interpretive difficulty to a book already beset with vexatious challenges.

The poem is written in alliterative verse, similar to that written by the Gawain poet. The author (identified, apparently rather tenuously but tenaciously, with William Langland) writes in a dialect of Middle English that is rather different from Chaucer’s more familiar dialect. Here is a passage from the Prologue to illustrate how it reads:

Pilgrymes and palmers · pliȝten hem togidere
To seke seynt Iames · and seyntes in rome
Thei went forth in here wey · with many wise tales
And hadden leue to lye · al here lyf after
I seigh somme that seiden · þei had ysouȝt seyntes
To eche a tale þat þei tolde · here tonge was tempred to lye
More þan to sey soth · it semed bi here speche
Heremites on an heep · with hoked staues
Wenten to walsyngham · and here wenches after
Grete lobyes and longe · that loth were to swynke
Clotheden hem in copis · to ben knowen fram othere
And shopen hem heremites · here ese to haue

It’s not impenetrable, but there are enough unfamiliar words — “pliȝten”, “ysouȝt”, “lobyes”, “swynke” — that progress is slow. I was grateful, therefore, for E. Talbot Donaldson’s translation, which tries to preserve the alliterative verse but updates the language for modern readers. Donaldson is a respected medievalist who has also produced an edition of Beowulf and published a book on Chaucer. His rendering of the passage above reads this way:

Pilgrims and palmers · made pacts with each other
To seek out Saint James · and saints in Rome.
They went on their way · with many wise stories,
And had leave to lie · all their lives after.
I saw some that said · they’d sought after saints:
In every tale they told · their tongues were tuned to lie
More than to tell the truth — such talk was theirs.
A heap of hermits · with hooked staffs
Went off to Walsingham · with their wenches behind them.
Great long lubbers · that don’t like to work
Dressed up in cleric’s dress · to look different from other men
And behaved as they were hermits · to have an easy life.

It’s wordier (as modern English usually is in comparison to Old or Middle), but certainly much easier to follow.

Langland’s style in Piers Plowman is quite unusual. Though this might seem a wild comparison, as I read I kept thinking of Dostoyevsky, not for his interests or his genre (naturally) but just for that unhinged quality, as though the characters are a little wild-eyed, prone to do or say anything. Langland jumps from one thing to the next. He salts his poem liberally with Latin phrases, fragments of Scripture, and quotations from antiquity. He is going somewhere, but unsteadily, with numerous rapid detours. The language is thorny and angular.

I haven’t said anything yet about Piers Plowman, the title character. Will meets him at several points in the poem, always, I believe, in a dream. At various points Will meets him riding into Jerusalem, or in the guise of the Good Samaritan, or offering a pardon for sins. Will speculates that he is Christ in disguise, and, given his characteristics, this seems reasonable to me.

Commentators on Piers Plowman stress its moral seriousness and its satiric edge. Of the former there is ample evidence, for the poem contains many scathing criticisms of Church and society in his day, but of the latter I confess I was able to detect but little. Satire is a tonal matter much of the time, and that’s hard to convey in a translation and hard to detect in an unfamiliar dialect.

In the end, I am pleased to have read the poem, though I confess I did not greatly enjoy it. It is one of those hurdles that anyone wanting an education in medieval literature will have to clear, and it feels good to have cleared it (more or less!), but, unlike Chaucer or Dante or the Gawain poet, I doubt I’ll return to it for pleasure.

El Cid

August 11, 2015

El Cid
Anonymous
Translated from the Spanish by Burton Raffel
(Penguin Classics, 2009) [c.1200]
284 p.

The Cid was an important figure in the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula in the eleventh century. He was a gallant warrior around whom men rallied and about whom legends sprang up. This famous account of his life was written about a hundred years after his death, and it is generally considered to be one of the early masterpieces of Spanish literature.

The poem survives only in damaged manuscripts, so that it is incomplete as it stands. Most notably, there is a significant chunk missing from the beginning, and the ending is also lost. The poem we have opens in media res with the Cid — or, as he is usually called in the poem, my Cid — being exiled from Castile. Turning his lemons to lemonade, he takes the opportunity to make a name for himself in the wide world. The principal arc of the poem’s narrative concerns his roaming forays against Muslim towns, his eventual assault upon and triumph over the great coastal city of Valencia, and his defence of the same against Islamic efforts to dislodge him. Once established, he marries his daughters to some noblemen — who turn out to be strikingly ignoble in their treatment of their wives. The last act of the poem is concerned with the Cid’s revenge upon his scoundrel sons-in-law.

Naturally there is a good deal of military glory on display in the poem, and precious little cross-cultural toleration. In light of recent clashes between the Islamic world and the West, it certainly makes for interesting reading. The poem is unapologetic about the Cid’s ambitions to drive the Muslims out of Spain, but neither does it paint the conflict in the clear black and white that one might expect: Islamic warriors are honoured by the poet if they act bravely and nobly, and Christians — like the aforementioned scoundrel sons-in-law — are denounced if they merit it. But, still, when we read that

Bishop Don Jeronimo, as good a priest as could be,
Swung weapons with both hands: when he’d finished fighting
He could no longer count the Moors he had killed.

we might justifiably wish for a little more peace, love, and understanding.

I don’t want to come across as facetious. There is actually quite a lot of nuance in the text, and a considerable amount of tenderness to balance the violence. On one level the entire poem is a kind of domestic drama in which the Cid is only trying to secure good marriages for his daughters — a kind of cross between Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice. It is jarring to modern sensibilities, but arguably that is part of its appeal.

The truth is that of the major works of medieval literature that I have read — admittedly more or less limited to Chaucer, Dante, Chretien de Troyes, and Beowulf — El Cid is the one I have enjoyed the least. Its political incorrectness was not part of the problem for me — quite the opposite, if anything (I am sorry to say). The translation may be part of the issue, although I admire Raffel’s translations of Chretien de Troyes. Somehow the poem never really came to life for me. The Cid himself seemed a distant figure, dashing and brave, but thin. I worry that the poem’s fame is due more to its mere survival of the ravages of time than to its intrinsic merits. But one should not be overhasty with such judgments, especially when reading in translation.

Incidentally, the word “Cid” is a gloss on the Arabic “sayyid”, meaning, in context, something like “lord”.

Lenten reading: “the sharp dart”

March 6, 2015

He may well be loved, but not thought. By love He can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Therefore, though it may be good sometimes to think particularly about God’s kindness and worth, and though it may be enlightening too, and a part of contemplation, yet in the work now before us it must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you are to step over it resolutely and eagerly, with a devout and kindling love, and try to penetrate that darkness above you. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.

The Cloud of Unknowing.

Medieval philosophy, without any gaps

February 19, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve been listening in on a very interesting long-term podcast series: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, by Peter Adamson. After covering Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy the series has recently reached its 200th episode and has begun to explore medieval philosophy. The podcast is very well done; each episode is about 20 minutes long, with a new episode every week or so.

The “without any gaps” modifier is part of the appeal. For instance, a typical survey of philosophy makes a fairly cursory mention of St. Anselm and his ontological argument for God’s existence; Peter Adamson devoted three or four episodes to exploring various aspects of Anselm’s thought. He also gave a few episodes to the 9th century metaphysician John Scotus Eriugena, who is often skipped entirely. Yet despite this level of detail the podcast is clearly pitched at non-specialists. The discussion is generally clear and often enlivened by an endearingly corny wit. I find it very enjoyable.

I can’t help wondering how far Adamson has charted his course into the future; he makes occasional jokes about the series never actually coming to an end, but the joke has a point. If Anselm gets four episodes, how many will Aquinas get? And Kant?! Well, with a podcast this interesting I can hardly complain.

Children’s books, briefly noted

April 24, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve read a number of children’s books set in medieval Europe. Here are brief notes on several of them:

paterson-parzifalParzival
The Quest of the Grail Knight
Katherine Paterson
(Puffin, 1998) 127 p.

This is a brief re-telling, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach, of the story of Parsifal (Parzival) and his adventures in quest of the Holy Grail. I’ve not read von Eschenbach’s version, but I did note numerous differences from Chretien de Troyes’ earlier version of the story. Paterson’s tale moves quickly, and it told clearly but a little dryly in this unillustrated edition. There is a firm moral center to the story, and a strong Christian element. Suitable for young listeners aged 6 and up, and for somewhat older young readers. 3.5 stars.

Dragon Slayersutcliff-dragonslayer
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Penguin, 1961) 107 p.

A prose re-telling of the Beowulf story. All of the essential plot points are included, and atmospheric touches are added. The writing is strong, with a pleasing directness and raw vigour. Some violence, obviously, but the virtues of loyalty and courage are stressed. The grammar would be challenging for an early reader. Age 8-12? 4.5 stars.

good-mastersGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Voices from a Medieval Village
Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
(Candlewick, 2007) 85 p.

An interesting premise for a book: a series of loosely connected dramatic monologues intended for performance, each in the voice of a child from a medieval English village circa 1225. The monologues (plus two inventive dialogues) run about 2-4 pages each, and were originally written for the author’s own students. The language is solid, and doesn’t avoid obsolete words. There is an earthy quality to the whole. The historical accuracy is reasonable, although I do quarrel with a few of the marginal notes. (Villeins were not quite the same as slaves.) Age 10-16? 4 stars.

The Door in the Wallangeli-door
Marguerite de Angeli
(Yearling, 1949) 128 p.

This Newbery Medal winning book was recommended to me by a friend, and a good recommendation it was. Young Robin falls ill and becomes lame, but is befriended by a monk and taught a trade. Eventually, by a series of courageous and resourceful actions, he is able to save his friends from peril during a seige. The book paints an attractive picture of the Middle Ages. Age 8-12. 4 stars.

gray-adamAdam of the Road
Elizabeth Janet Gray
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
(Viking, 1943) 320 p.

This is a superb adventure story set in thirteenth-century England. Adam is an 11-year old boy, the son of a distinguished minstrel, who aspires to practice the same art. Adam’s beloved dog is stolen and he sets out on a quest to retrieve him, becoming separated from his father in the process. Adam must rely on his own resourcefulness, courage, and wit — and the kindness of strangers — to find his dog and re-unite with his father. The medieval world portrayed here is one of gaiety and gallantry, and the religious character of that society is woven naturally into the story. A splendid book for boys, especially. Winner of the Newbery Medal in the year of its publication.  Age 8-12? 4 stars.

**

I’ve just now noticed that all of these books were written by women.

Favourites of 2013: Books

January 3, 2014

As the pace of my life has accelerated and my hours of sleep have dwindled in recent years, I have become a little more exacting about the books I admit to my reading queue. At the beginning of 2013 I drew up a list of about thirty titles that I intended to read over the course of the year. Looking at that list again today, I see that I only half-succeeded. Well, at least I have a good start on my list for 2014.

Part of the reason for my slow progress was that I decided, mid-year, to ease up on my explorations of that vast ocean of “Books I Have Not Read.” I paused, took a deep breath, and went back to re-read some things that I had enjoyed on first acquaintance and always meant to return to. This was a good practice, and I am planning to continue it in the new year.

Among the books I did read this year, a few stood out as being particularly good.

Non-fiction

taruskin_3DCCOxford History of Western Music, Vol.V
Richard Taruskin [2005]

Let this final volume in Taruskin’s massive, and massively enjoyable, history stand in for the whole set, which I read in its entirety over the last few years. It is an amazing tour de force of historical and critical exposition, plump with enlightening remarks and (for the most part) accessible discussion of musical developments over the past thousand years of western culture. Taruskin is reputedly one of the world’s foremost musicologists, and in these volumes he has given music lovers an invaluable gift. A treasure. [Book Note]

Into the Silent Landlaird
Martin Laird [2006]

There are many books available about Christian contemplative prayer, and I have read a few over the years. This may be the best one that has come my way, not so much for sheer profundity, but for the way it strikes a nice balance between profundity and accessibility. Laird writes with a gentle authority which seems rooted in personal experience, and with sensitivity to the impediments which the beginner can expect to encounter. I found it an instructive and edifying book. [Book Note]

wildThe Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic
Robert Wild [2013]

I intend to write more about this book in the coming weeks, but I can make some brief comments here. Many books have been written about Chesterton, but Fr. Wild attempts something that I have not seen before: to describe the basic contours of Chesterton’s spiritual life. Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton is a kind of mystic, gifted with a special awareness of what he calls ‘the thereness-of-being-coming-forth’ — that is, an habitual apprehension of the contingency of creation and its dependence on God’s creative power for its continued existence. The argument is developed carefully and persuasively, drawing on a wide range of Chesterton’s writings. He goes on to argue not only that Chesterton lived this “Creator mysticism,” but that he had it in virtue of a special divine grace. That is harder to demonstrate, but the whole line of argument will surely be of special interest to the Bishop of Northampton. A stimulating read.

Fiction

Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus
Thomas Mann [1947]

It had been about ten years since I last read this wonderful novel; I am so glad that I took the time to revisit it. It is, of course, Mann’s modernized rendering of the Faust myth. The central character, Adrian Leverkuhn, is a composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a lifetime of creative genius and worldwide acclaim. I do not know why this book is not more widely read and more lavishly praised; few twentieth-century novels are its superior. Mann’s writing is superb: elegant, elaborate, and precise, with a charming loquacity that never wears out its welcome. It poses as a memoir written during the Second World War by Adrian’s childhood friend, and the events of Adrian’s life parallel Germany’s ill-starred bid for power under Hitler. But it would be crude to reduce the book to a political allegory: at its heart it is, I believe, a meditation on creativity and the sources and costs of artistic genius. The supernatural elements of the tale are handled deftly and with considerable subtlety: we are left in some doubt as to whether Adrian in fact encountered the devil or whether his genius and his eventual madness are together rooted in a physical malady, albeit one with a moral aspect. The book is a treat for music lovers too, as it contains some of the finest literary prose about music that I have ever encountered; the section on Beethoven’s last piano sonata is especially transporting. It is a great book from start to finish.

quest-holy-grailThe Quest of the Holy Grail
Anonymous [c.1225]

This year I devoted quite a lot of time to reading Thomas Malory’s Arthurian tales, most of them in the Middle English of Caxton’s original printing. In the course of doing so, I revisited this story about the adventures of Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad, and others as they search for the Holy Grail. For me this story, of all those in the Le Morte d’Arthur cycle (that I have so far read), is the most resonant and moving. It seems to me that, simply because of the nature of the story it is telling, it can be naturally interpreted as both a rousing adventure tale and as an allegory of the Christian soul’s quest for Christ. More effectively than in The Pilgrim’s Progress (which is so dourly moralistic), this story informs the inner life of prayer and devotion with magnanimity, gallantry, and the other splendid virtues of the Arthurian moral universe. It is a truly magnificent book.

Paradise Lostmilton-paradise-lost
John Milton [1674]

Speaking of dour — well, that’s not a fair way to begin, and “dour” is not quite the right word. Maclin Horton reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s comment about Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is”, and while I admit that I cannot help smiling with recognition at the truth of that, I will also confess that there were many points at which I was truly carried away, spell-bound, by the power of Milton’s poetry. His reputation as a stern taskmaster is not the whole story. He is perhaps hard to love, but he has my respect. And we English speakers are not so richly blessed with epic poems of genius that we can afford to be cavalier toward this one. Much has been made of the alleged attractiveness of Milton’s Satan; when I first read the poem some years ago I was willing to go along with it, but this time I was less convinced; Satan may be the most characterful figure in the story (and he is certainly far less problematic than Milton’s disastrous God character), but I did not find him remotely seductive.

As I read the poem, I leaned on two sources to help me better understand and appreciate it: Yale’s “Open Courses” lectures on Milton, and C.S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost. On balance, I do not recommend the former: the lecturer is so intent on discovering subtle and unexpected meanings that he routinely overlooks the obvious and evident (and sometimes opposite) meanings, and he too often exhibits what C.S. Lewis calls the “touching innocence” of critics who believe the claims of the father of lies; Satan’s absurd claim, for instance, that because he cannot remember his own creation he might — who can say? — be self-created is treated in these lectures as a kind of provoking paradox ripe with subversive wisdom. On the other hand, there was a very interesting discussion of how Milton, in his descriptions of pre-lapsarian Eden, uses words in such a way as to restore to them morally neutral meanings (for example, “error” is used to describe the wandering course of a river rather than a moral fault); that sort of thing I find fascinating. Lewis’ book, for its part, is outstanding; it’s an indispensable companion piece in my view, loaded with good sense and helpful background.

Children’s Books

toms midnightTom’s Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce [1958]

We read a lot of books with the kids; given their ages, these are mostly picture books short enough to get through at bedtime. But I have also been making an effort to “scout ahead,” reading a few popular children’s books that they might be ready for in 5 or 10 years. Thus it was that I came to Philippa Pearce’s magical little novel about a boy’s nocturnal adventures in a mysterious garden behind the London house he is visiting. The story has its secrets to disclose — I guessed the general shape of them fairly early on — but for me the attraction of the book is not so much in the story as the atmosphere: the book has a dreamy, hushed quality that has lingered long in my memory. Perhaps it would be an unusually sensitive child who would apprehend that tonal dimension, but my general rule is to give the children books that have more in them than they know. As such, Tom’s Midnight Garden is for keeps.

The Tale of DespereauxTale_of_Despereaux
Kate DiCamillo [2003]

We like Kate DiCamillo for her “Bink and Gollie” book, so I thought it would be fun to try this novel about a valiant little mouse who saves a princess. We actually read the whole book to our four-year old, and she followed it all the way through. There were some thematic elements early on that made me wary — tiresome tropes about rejecting the traditions one inherits and embracing one’s unique inner mouse — but of course whether that is objectionable depends very much on what is being rejected and what is being embraced, and in the end I was won over. Despereaux, with his large ears and wide eyes, is a splendid little hero. DiCamillo sets him apart from his kind by making him especially attentive to beauty, and it is his love of beauty that ennobles him and opens up for him a world that his friends and relations do not perceive or understand. This seems an unusually terrific premise for a children’s book. The writing is lively and clear, with strong but not simplistic characters. I’ve heard that there’s a film version of the book, but I’ve also heard that it’s not very good. The book, by that measure, is better.

adventures-tom-sawyer-mark-twain-paperback-cover-artTom Sawyer
Mark Twain [1876]

Would you believe that prior to taking up Tom Sawyer I had never read anything by Mark Twain? For some reason I had assumed that he was a hack, writing “exciting” adventure stories without much substance to them. I got a fitting comeuppance. It is true that the book is fairly episodic, but when the episodes are this entertaining I can hardly complain. I did not read a funnier book all year, but I love the book chiefly for its wide-eyed evocation of boyhood: granting that Tom is unusually adventurous and mischievous and exaggerated for comic effect (few boys of his time, I imagine, played at Robinson Crusoe long enough to make an appearance at their own funerals), the writing has the ring of truth to it: the awkwardness around girls, the failure to think through consequences, the inattention to schedules and cleanliness. Chesterton once wrote that childhood was “like a hundred windows open on all sides of the head,” and something of that experience makes it into these pages. Huck Finn is on my reading list for 2014.

***

And that’s the kind of year it’s been. Comments and recommendations welcome!

Undset: The Master of Hestviken

November 26, 2013

The Master of Hestviken
The Axe; The Snake Pit;
In the Wilderness; The Son Avenger

Sigrid Undset
[Translated from the Norwegian by Arthur G. Chater]
(A.A. Knopf, 1958) [1925-27]
994 p.

“A man’s faith is put to the test on the day God’s will is not his.”

“…whoso is minded to do as he himself wills will soon enough see the day when he will find he has done that which he had never willed.”

It has now been well over a year since I finished reading this great tetralogy. I have been putting off writing about it until I could find time and space to write something that would “do it justice”. But it is fairly evident that that time and space are not going to be found anytime in the near future or in this neighbourhood, so here I am, resigned to pecking out something inadequate but appreciative. Some spoilers follow.

The books tell the life story of Olav Audunssøn, a fourteenth-century Norwegian landowner. Olav is a Catholic, and much of the drama of the story is driven by the conflict between the moral vision of the Church, rooted in mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, and the traditional moral vision of the Scandanavian people, rooted in honour, reputation, and vengeance. Olav feels the demands of both moral systems in a very acute way, and he is crushed at the place where they press against one another.

In the first volume of the tetralogy Olav commits a murder. It is done for the best of reasons, so to speak, in order to defend his wife’s honour (and his own), and he does it without anyone knowing, or even suspecting, that anyone has died. He gets away with it, and he must keep it secret — not so much for civil reasons, for according to the honour code the murder was defensible, but because he cannot reveal his motive without revealing the shameful secret which the murder was committed to avenge.

Yet Olav’s conscience torments him, and his unwillingness to repent begins to harden his heart. His unwillingness to confess begins to disrupt his relationship to the Church. He twists and turns, rationalizing his acts. All the while he senses that Christ pursues him, offering grace which Olav refuses. “I thought I could not live if another had stained my honour and I let it go unavenged,” he says. “I thought it easier to live besmirched if I myself had stained my honour — so long as none knew of the stain. For such a cause as this I turned Judas against my Lord, armed me with the hardest sins, if but they might be hard enough to weigh upon my weakness like an armour.” The heart of the story, across all four books, is about how this internal struggle plays out. It is told with nuance and sensitivity, moral wisdom, and, I am convinced, love for Olav and sympathy with his predicament, in which he must suffer if he does not confess, yet also suffer — and not just him, but his family also — if he does.

Olav lives a long and eventful life; we travel with him to England on a commercial venture, and he joins his countrymen in a war against invading Danes. He is, in many significant respects, a good man: respected, magnanimous, protective and supportive of his family, willing to suffer for the good of others. Everything he does and sees is absorbed by his inner turmoil, casting it in new light or new shadow. He has moments of spiritual clarity (“But now he tardily understood that then he must choose, not between God and this or that upon earth, not even his worldly life, but between God and himself.”) but his general trajectory is one of growing hardness and reluctant resistance to grace. “His soul was grey and cold as a corpse,” we are told in the final volume. Yet Olav’s God is one who can raise even a corpse to new life. The offer of mercy is never foreclosed.

After his death, his son and daughter, even after learning of the great sin which had cast its long shadow over this life, call him “an upright man” for all the steady good he did them throughout his life. And he did more than they knew.

***

Readers of Undset’s more famous Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy might be amused to learn that Kristen’s parents make a brief appearance in these books. The two stories are quite closely related, and are, I am tempted to say, of comparable stature as literary achievements. I expect that her Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded chiefly on the strength of these two books. This English translation of The Master of Hestviken, by Arthur G. Chater, is serviceable; early in the first volume it is unpalatably sweet and somewhat stilted in its efforts to sound antiquated, but it improves as it goes. It is highly recommended nonetheless; there are no other options.