Merry Christmas from the World of Literature


King Arthur lay, at Camelot upon a Christmas-tide, with many a gallant lord and lovely lady, and all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table. There they held rich revels with gay talk and jest; one while they would ride forth to joust and tourney, and again back to the court to make carols; for there was the feast holden fifteen days with all the mirth that men could devise, song and glee, glorious to hear, in the daytime, and dancing at night. Halls and chambers were crowded with noble guests, the bravest of knights and the loveliest of ladies, and Arthur himself was the comeliest king that ever held a court. For all this fair folk were in their youth, the fairest and most fortunate under heaven, and the king himself of such fame that it were hard now to name so valiant a hero.

~Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century), translated by Jessie L. Weston in 1898

THEN stood the realm in great jeopardy long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made him strong, and many weened to have been king. Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and counselled him for to send for all the lords of the realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, that they should to London come by Christmas, upon pain of cursing; and for this cause, that Jesus, that was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, for to show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realm. So the Archbishop, by the advice of Merlin, sent for all the lords and gentlemen of arms that they should come by Christmas even unto London. And many of them made them clean of their life, that their prayer might be the more acceptable unto God. So in the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul’s or not the French book maketh no mention, all the estates were long or day in the church for to pray. And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus: — Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. Then the people marvelled, and told it to the Archbishop. “I command,” said the Archbishop, “that ye keep you within your church and pray unto God still, that no man touch the sword till the high mass be all done.” So when all masses were done all the lords went to behold the stone and the sword.

~ Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Chapter V

It was Christmas night and the proper things had been done. The whole village had come to dinner in hall. There had been boar’s head and venison and pork and beef and mutton and capons—but no turkey, because this bird had not yet been invented. There had  been plum pudding and snap-dragon, with blue fire on the tips of one’s fingers, and as much mead as anybody could drink. Sir Ector’s health had been drunk with “Best respects, Measter,” or “Best compliments of the Season, my lords and ladies, and many of them.” There had been mummers to play an exciting dramatic presentation of a story in which St. George and a Saracen and a funny Doctor did surprising things,[1] also carol-singers who rendered “Adeste Fideles” and “I Sing of a Maiden,” in high, clear tenor voices. After that, those children who had not been sick from their dinner played Hoodman Blind and other appropriate games, while the young men and maidens danced morris dances in the middle, the tables having been cleared away. The old folks sat round the walls holding glasses of mead in their hands and feeling thankful that they were past such capers, hoppings and skippings, while those children who had not been sick sat with them, and soon went to sleep, the small heads leaning against their shoulders. At the high table Sir Ector sat with his knightly guests, who had come for the morrow’s hunting, smiling and nodding and drinking burgundy or sherries sack or malmsey wine.

~ T.H. White, The Once and Future King, Chapter XV, 129.

“Come on!” cried Mr. Beaver, who was almost dancing with delight. “Come and see! This is a nasty knock for the Witch! It looks as if her power is already crumbling.”

“What do you mean, Mr. Beaver?” panted Peter as they all scrambled up the steep bank of the valley together.

“Didn’t I tell you,” answered Mr.  Beaver, “that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn’t I tell you? Well, just come and see!”

And then they were all at the top and did see.

It was a sledge, and it was a reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you se people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world—the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

“I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”

And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.

~ C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 106-107.

And of course, the original:

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

~ Luke 2: 1-20, NASB.
A most glorious and Merry Christmas to you all!


[1] What a fantastic episode of Doctor Who this would make!

Heroes of Old: Alexander the Great


You may recall how I thought one of the more exciting parts of The Habitation of the Blessed—Catherynne Valente’s reworking of the legends of Prester John’s magical kingdom deep in central Asia—was how she worked in a legend regarding Alexander the Great building a massive wall to imprison the evil giants Gog and Magog. As it happens, she was adapting part of the Romance of Alexander, a series of tales passed down since at least Roman times that were greatly expanded in the Middle Ages. Two selections from a loose translation of these tales, retold by Richard Steele in 1894, is available in The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader.

I recently read them, and was delighted. These are rousing adventure tales, reveling in the new, the exotic, and the bold. The presence of magic is generous. Curiosity is the virtue extolled here, and courage in exploration, and there is a palpable joy at the prospects of all that God’s great world might hold (though the deity Alexander seems most to honor is Bacchus, who also was reputed to travel widely into India).

The titles of these passages are: How Alexander Passed through the Land of Darkness and Slew the Basilisk and How Alexander Came to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon.

I love these titles.

The History

 A wonderful thing about Alexander the Great’s conquests, from a storytelling perspective, is how far he ventured into the sprawling regions of the East, filled, to the Greek mind, with every rumor and elusive dream that ancient lore could tell of. Beyond Babylon he marched, beyond Persia, and through Afghanistan (subduing it as no modern army has managed thus far) even into India and the Himalayas. He conquered, he colonized, and he explored. It took him something less than ten years, and he never saw defeat on the field of battle. He was driven to always keep moving, onward to the next city over the horizon, to see every wonder the world had to offer and to claim it as his own. He died in Babylon, aged 32, either by poison or some kind of illness, and reportedly wept that he had not conquered all the regions of the world.

Whoa.

These wide travels provide great fodder for legendary material. For all that ancient writers told about Alexander, much remains undocumented and open to speculation of both the serious and the fanciful kinds. Naturally, I am more interested in the fanciful kinds.

The Source

According to Turgon, the editor and compiler of The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader (and a founding member of TheOneRing.Net), most of the Alexander romances remain untranslated. These passages are from a retelling by Richard Steele; I have not yet found any other information about them from a scholarly source, and have thus resorted to Wikipedia. In summary, the various sources range from Roman-era Greeks like Arrian, Diodorus, and Plutarch to anonymous authors throughout the ages, extending into the late Renaissance. They appear in many languages, including Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic. Even the Koran records myths relating to the king of Macedon. And, at least for the European sources, it doesn’t seem that we know who wrote them.

The Stories

 How Alexander Passed Through the Land of Darkness and Slew the Basilisk

 Now the trees of this land were fruitful and bore all manner of food for man, and amongst them were apples and almonds, vines and pomegranates, and plums and damsons; and it was in this land that the Greeks first ate of damsons, for they did eat of them three days while they were in the forest. (Turgon 154)

 The story begins after the last of Alexander’s historical conquests, in India. He leads a combined army of Greeks and Indians into “a plain full of fair flowers and trees,” rich exotic fruits and spices, and peopled only by a race of cowardly giants who are easily routed. They venture further and discover more wonders, including a vast desert with a central region on which the sun never rises.

In the Land of Darkness, Alexander searches for the Well of Life with the aid of the magic stone Elmas, which shines brighter the nearer it is to the Well. Now the Well of Life is said to disappear once a man has bathed in it, and it does not reappear for another year. Alexander sends out search parties in every direction with instructions not to touch the water of the Well if they find it, but to return immediately to him. Because the land is still perpetually in night, trumpeters sound their instruments every hour so the searchers can always find their way back to camp. When one searcher, Philotus, returns with his hair wet, Alexander knows the man has found the Well and bathed in it, thus gaining immortal life. The king has Philotus take him to the spot, but the Well is gone.

Then the wrath of the King burst out, for he knew that he should see the Well no more for a year if he remained in that place, and that all the gray of his expedition was spent for nought but to make this Indian immortal, and he bade men bring great stones, and build them in a pillar round the Indian and close it at the top, and they did so, and he was left alive inside the pillar, for indeed the Greeks could not slay him. (157)

Alexander continues up into the eastern mountains, recalling a prophecy that said he would learn of his fate in the East. When his men start dropping dead in the mountain passes, he climbs to a high peak and spies a Basilisk—a great snakelike creature who slays merely by its glance—hiding among the rocks. He defeats the Basilisk in the time-honored way of Greek heroes, by use of a mirror, and collects precious ingredients from the monster’s remains.

Returning to a mountain temple he had previously passed, Alexander is told by the priests about a Northward Way that leads to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which can speak the future in human languages and read human minds.

How Alexander Came to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon

Ever the ambitious man, Alexander leaves his army and embarks upon the Northward Way with a small entourage. He finds “a great cliff, shining in the setting sun from thousands of brilliant points like diamonds, and from chains of red gold leading from step to step up the face of he rock, high up beyond the ken of men” (159).

Who has cut these steps—two thousand and five hundred of them!—into the mountainside? We don’t know, but Alexander climbs them anyway, and finds at the top a wide golden plain, full of trees bearing varied spices and fruits, and villages of friendly Indians wearing tiger skins, and far off a shining palace. The land is so beautiful and fertile that it seems only Paradise could excel it.

A gray Elder waits in the palace and impresses Alexander by knowing his name without being told. The Greeks ask for the Trees, and are led into a garden, where a colorful Phoenix is casually pointed out as it roosts in a hundred-foot high tree. Then they come to the Tree of the Sun, which is gold and male, and the Tree of the Moon, which is silver and female.

I interject merely to note that Tolkien reportedly cited this story as an inspiration for the Trees of Valinor, which were gold, silver, and sacred.

From the Trees Alexander learns the answers to his two most pressing questions: that he will never return home to his mother in Macedon, and that his death will come by poison at the hand of one of his most trusted friends. Hearing this, he is deeply grieved, and briefly considers whether by slaying all his friends he might save himself. But wisdom prevails, for he cannot bear the thought of the suspicion and dishonor that would bring him to the end of his days. And so he leaves the marvelous land, rejoins his army, lies about the Trees’ prophecies in order to lift the spirits of his men, and begins his journey home, joyous in outlook, but wary in spirit.

Pictured: Alexander doing something epic. In a boat with other dudes.

The Hero

Alexander is a hero in the classic sense; a man who accomplishes amazing feats the rest of us could only dream of. For him to have this quality we should, I think, be able to find some moral value in his deeds, if not his heart.

My favorite moment in these stories comes just before he reaches the land of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon:

“Early in the morning he arose, and when he had called to him his twelve tried princes, he began to ascend the steps on the side of the mountain, and as he went up it seemed to him that he was going into the clouds, and when he looked down, the path by which he had come seemed as a silver ribbon among the hills, and the men of his host seemed smaller than bees, and nothing that might happen seemed strange to him, for his joy and lightness of heart” (159).

This, to me, is the great virtue of Alexander as a hero: his delight in exploration, in seeing overwhelming natural wonders for the first time. I have felt a lesser version of it, once when I stood at the top of a Scottish munro, wrapped up to my nose from the chill and howling winds, gazing in rapture into the wide silver mists that obscured most of the wet, heather-filled world from view. Other ancient heroes desire fame, honor, and success in war. While Alexander undoubtedly wants to conquer and rule, he is also driven by this desire to see all great things the world has to offer.

This curiosity breeds a certain generosity and tolerance in him. The Greeks and Persians famously hated each other due to decades of bloody wars, but Alexander envisioned an empire-wide culture that fused Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Indian elements. Indian King Porus is his second-in-command, and he makes sacrifices at every alter he comes across, regardless of religion. Tellingly, he displays no desire to conquer the land of the Trees, though it is undoubtedly the richest and most wonderful land he has come across. He treats it with caution and respect, as if recognizing that its mere existence suggests the work of a deity greater than the kind he claims ancestry from.

Ruminations on “Beowulf”, Treasure, and Generosity


My OE prof was personal friends with Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and told him to his face that she hated his translation. It is, naturally, the only translation I've read all the way through.

Hwæt!

Today, I feel like talking about Beowulf.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Beowulf is that it is essentially a pagan heroic epic, yet it was written by a Christian for a Christian audience.  Naturally, there is an unmistakable contrast between the pagan themes inherent in the story and the Christian themes that are worked into the grain by the poet.  The theme of wealth, in particular, is one which both Beowulf and other Christian theological texts of the time period speak frequently about.

Christianity, by its very nature, focuses attention on the afterlife.  What we do on earth is important insomuch as it pleases God, works His will, and prepares our souls for Heaven. Especially in medieval Christianity, the presence of wealth was often seen as a distraction from spiritual things and a promoter of greed.  The monastic orders forsook all but the basic necessities of life in order to focus their minds and hearts on God, and the Protestant Reformers would later note how the luxuries of the papacy had perverted the office to something that was spiritual only in name.  Material wealth is of little use, said the Christians, for it cannot accompany you after death and is troublesome in life.  As Boethius pointed out,

“Money has no inherent property such as to stop it being taken away from those who possess it, against their will.”

The poet of Beowulf might consider Boethius’ statement a point well taken, as the poem is filled with battles in which the loser’s treasures invariably go to the one who defeated him.  Prowess in war is the most prized virtue, and it is assumed that the stronger man has earned the right to take whatever his strength allows him if the battle was justified for any reason.  Yet wealth serves another, vastly more important role in the society and Beowulf – it enables generosity.  Noble kings and thanes are often called ring-givers, because aside from valor in war, their honor and reputation is built on the hospitality they show to others and the ways they reward their loyal followers.  When Beowulf saves the hall of Heorot from Grendel, King Hrothgar not only lets him loot Grendel’s lair, but also heaps numerous other treasures on him and his soldiers to show the magnitude of his thankfulness and the greatness of his soul.  The poet remarks consistently how this giving of gifts marks the greatness of Hrothgar’s honor.  Beowulf then proceeds to reward his faithful followers with more gifts, not even neglecting the man who stayed on the coastline to watch their ship the whole time and was not present at any of the fights.  And when he arrives home in Geatland, Beowulf shows his appreciation to his king at home by giving him some of the treasure as well.  By such generosity, as well as fighting prowess, are men considered great in this world.

Wealth is seen as something to be used, not hoarded, and, I think, as a sort of vindication that the battle was worth it after all.  If the victor does not reward those who have helped him, he will reveal his arrogance and end up with enemies.  Those who do hoard wealth in this world inevitably lose it – in a curious affirmation of Beothius’ rule.  Grendel and Grendel’s mother have apparently raided and looted human settlements for centuries, and they lose all to Beowulf.  The dragon, too, has a hoard of treasure that does not belong to him, and so he too loses it to Beowulf.

Yet neither can Beowulf keep his winnings in the afterlife. Dying from the dragon’s wound, he commands his servant Wiglaf to find the monster’s treasure hoard for him, saying, “My going will be easier for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go of the life and lordship I have long maintained” (Heaney, 185). Why? Not for himself, but for his people. His wealth is only good so long as it strengthens the people of his kingdom, and the hero recognizes that it is to his honor to leave his loved ones better off after his passing.

Musings on “The Mabinogi”: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed


Recently I finished reading the cycle of Welsh tales commonly mis-called The Mabinogion, but which is properly called the Mabinogi. Full of strange wonders and bold figures, they have influenced many other legends and authors for centuries.

They’re also bewildering, nonsensical, and outright deranged.

(But they’re also “culture,” so you get to pat yourself on the back for making it through them!)

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

In this first branch of the Mabinogi (as they are called), it will be helpful to remember that in Welsh, w’s are pronounced like long u’s, by which I deduce that his name is pronounced POO-will. Any person knowledgeable of Welsh is more than welcome to correct me in these matters.

The first story about Pwyll I have heard retold in various places, Stephen Lawhead’s Merlin being one of them. I like it, though it doesn’t appear to have much of a “point.” To make recompense for an unintended breach of courtesy, Pwyll switches places with Arawn, lord of the Otherworld (called Annwfn), and is tasked with ruling his kingdom for one year and a day, while Arawn does the same for Dyfed. Arawn uses his power to cause them each to appear like the other, so no one will suspect the switch. Pwyll rules excellently, and even defeats one of Arawn’s enemies, another king named Hafgan. When the year is up and he and Arawn switch places again, Pwyll returns to Dyfed and asks his subjects their honest opinion on “his” recent ruling style. They say it has been better the past year than ever before, and Pwyll decides to continue those policies. The end.

That’s it, and it’s kind of nice, but there don’t seem to be any lasting effects of the adventure. I do like that Pwyll and Arawn both remain totally honorable when it comes to each others’ wives. Pwyll and Arawn’s queen get along very well (remember, she believes he really is Arawn), but every night he turns his back to her and neither touches her nor talks to her until the morning. Arawn is surprised to learn this from his wife at the end, since he had not bound Pwyll by any such oath, but Pwyll is just that kind of guy.

There is actually another story in this first branch, telling of the strange way that Pwyll meets his wife Rhiannon, the birth of their son Pryderi, and the near loss of the same. She’s a smart, feisty character, who deserves to have more stories told about her, and she frequently bails Pwyll out of stupid decisions. Stupid decisions such as promising a guest to their wedding, named Gwawl, any gift he requests, only to have said villainous guest request Rhiannon herself. For some reason Pwyll can’t refuse, and is forced to give up his fiancé in order to keep his honor. That’s the kind of stupid logic I don’t like in these stories. I know a man’s word of honor is supposed to be all-binding, but it seems that Gwawl’s request itself is a horrible breach of the guest-host relationship and need not be honored. Such as it is, Rhiannon must go with Gwawl, but not before devising a plan by which Pwyll can come after her, trap Gwawl in a magic bag, and along with his men dance around in a circle kicking the bag until Gwawl is so beat up that he begs for mercy and gives Rhiannon back.

Way to handle things the honorable way, Pwyll.

The last part of the story involves the birth of their son and his mysterious disappearance while still a babe. The women tasked with taking care of him blame Rhiannon and accuse her of killing him in her sleep. Despite her appeals to reason and the support of her husband, the king, the council of nobles believes her guilty. Her punishment is to stand by the gates to the settlement, tell her story to everyone who passes, and offer to carry any newcomers up to the court on her back, like a mule. This punishment continues for a few years. Then we discover that the infant has appeared in a stable belonging to another noble couple, who raise the boy as their own. As the boy grows older, they realize that he looks an awful lot like King Pwyll. So, being honorable, they take the boy to the court, where he is welcomed with joy and accepted as the lost prince. Rhiannon is relieved of her unjust punishment, and names her son Pryderi (pryder means “delivered of my anxiety”).

There will be more about him later.

Heroes of Old: Arrow-Odd


I’m adapting and expanding this article from one that I originally posted on my old Xanga site back in April 2010. Because of this, it doesn’t really follow the format I established in my previous post about the Cid of discussing first the source material, then the historical background, and finally the hero himself. This time it’s more a rumination on the, well, oddness of the title character.

The entire story, in addition to six more tales from Scandinavia, can be found in Seven Viking Romances.

Viking sagas don’t always have protagonists that are very sympathetic, and it can be annoying when the text itself doesn’t seem to realize this. Take, for instance, the saga of Örvar-Oddr, a.k.a. Arrow-Odd. It was written down in the 13th century, in Iceland, as most Viking sagas were, and concerns the adventures and fate of the titular hero.

As a boy growing up, Odd has a completely envious life, but frankly is an egotistic jerk. First, he has famous and excellent parents: his good father Grim Hairy-Cheek (sic) is the son of the great hero Ketil Trout, and his beautiful mother is Lofthæna, daughter of chief Harald of Oslofjord (an immensely important port). He is raised by Ingjald of Berurjord, who is well off and treats him like a prince alongside his own son, Asmund. So Odd grows up living very comfortably, well-loved, with a ready-made best friend/step-brother, and utterly doted upon by almost everyone…except for when they whisper about how he’s kind of an insensitive jerk behind his back. Consider this:

Odd has his own specially-made arrows, but he leaves them laying around everywhere, so that some people have gotten hurt by accidentally sitting on them. So Ingjald says:

‘There’s one thing, foster-son, that gets you a bad name…You don’t take proper care of your arrows like other people.’
‘I’d have thought you could only blame me if you’d given me something to keep them in,’ said Odd.
‘Whatever you want, I’ll give you,’ said Ingjald.
‘I don’t think you will,’ said Odd.
‘That’s not so,’ said Ingjald.
‘You’ve a black three-year-old goat,’ said Odd. ‘I want it killed and the skin flayed off in one piece, with the horns and the hooves.’

See what I mean?  His foster-father comes to him with a reasonable request, and Odd immediately blames him for not pampering him enough. Then, when Ingjald agrees to give him whatever he asks for, Odd makes a very expensive and unusual request. And he is never grateful.

Okay, so that’s how he acts for about half of this very long saga. Beside the violence. There’s a prophecy that moves the plot along and is fairly interesting – a witch woman visits their home, Odd insults and assaults her, and so she delivers the prophecy that he will die here, in his foster-father’s home (instead of on the sea or in battle as a Viking should), and that the cause of his death will be the skull of his horse Faxi. Because only this can be his death, that does mean that nothing else can kill him – and that he will live for 300 years. After this, Odd and his step-brother Asmund leave to go a-viking, because he is determined to defy the prophecy and win more glory than any other warrior. Before they leave, he kills the horse Faxi and buries by the sea, as a Take That. (SPOILER: he still dies by the horse’s skull in the end!)

So Odd sails all over the northern seas, raiding and plundering, and seeking out famous warriors to defeat them and gain glory. He becomes more and more famous. He fights giants in Finland (called Permia back then) and Lappland, he acquires a magic bow-and-arrows called Gusir’s Gifts that always hit their mark, always kill, and always fly back to the owner. Asmund dies in Ireland (while attacking people), and Odd goes on a bloody rampage until a gorgeous Irish woman (named Olvor) offers to make him a magic mail shirt, and then marry him.  So he gets this gift from her, marries her, sires a daughter, and promptly leaves before the child is born.  What a charmer.

The saga doesn’t keep track of time very well, but you gradually get the sense that generations do start to pass.  Odd’s name is becoming legendary everywhere, and whereas at the beginning he was seeking out the famous warriors to defeat, now the glory-seeking young Vikings are seeking him out.  Still he remains undefeated.  And, thankfully, time seems to mellow him a bit.  As he passes 100 and moves further through his life, he is less and less a jerk. A bloody fighter always, and supremely confidant, but he tends to get a bit less abrasive with strangers.

I will now talk briefly about two parts I really do like about this saga. Firstly, a mysterious fellow named Red-Beard that Odd meets late in the story. At this point, Odd is alone and wandering in the wilderness – all the men of his latest raiding party were slain by giants in a strange land, and he has wandered alone for many years now.  Then…

One day Odd came out of the forest very tired, and sat down under an oak tree. Then he saw a man walking by, about middle height, wearing a blue-striped cloak and high boots, and carrying a reed in his hand. He wore gold-emblazoned gloves and had a courteous look about him, though a hood concealed his face. He had large moustaches and a long beard, both red in colour. He turned towards where Odd was sitting, and greeted him by name. Odd returns his greeting in a friendly way and asked who he was. He said his name was Beard and that he was known as Red-Beard.

Does this remind you of anyone? Well, perhaps not immediately. I happened to pick it up at once, but for those not tuned to this kind of description, it might take a while to notice various things about this man. For one, he refuses to fight – very unusual for a Viking – and yet he gives uncannily good advice, and seem to appear and disappear often. Plus, no other character in the saga gets quite as detailed a physical description as him, even though he is only around for a few chapters. Perhaps one reason you may not recognize him is that he is missing his customary companions: 2 ravens, 2 wolves, and a very peculiar steed. Any guesses?  Anybody, anybody?

He’s Odin!  Yes indeed, good ol’ Odin, who loves to travel incognito as an old man to make sure mortals are acting the way they are supposed to. Odin, whose general fashion sense (if not colors) and mystique were passed on directly to our friend Gandalf the Grey. Anyway, it was fun to spot him in the saga and recognize his true identity long before the main characters did.  +)

The other thing I like is the character of Hjalmar, a stout warrior who joins Odd’s crew for much of the latter half of the saga. He’s a good guy, and while he’s one of the strongest warriors around, he’s unusual because he doesn’t desire battle glory so much. All he desires is the hand of the lovely Ingibjorg in marriage. They are intensely in love, but Ingibjorg’s father is wealthy and won’t let Hjalmar marry her unless he can prove his worth. So he set out on his own, a-viking and gaining glory and wealth, and joining up with Odd for so many years. Then, in single combat with another Viking on a raid, Hjalmar is mortally wounded. He kills his opponent, then stumbles against a nearby hummock.  Odd rushes over to him.

‘It’s been proved right,’ said Odd, what I told you; it would never do for us if you were to fight Angantyr.’
…said Hjalmar, ‘Everyone has to die.’

Then he tells Odd to bring his body back to Sweden, to his dear love Ingibjorg, along with this poem he composes, where he relates (for her father’s benefit) all the glories and honors he has won. In the poem, he apologizes to Ingibjorg for ever leaving her side, and for causing her grief by dying, though it is what is expected of him.  Then he tells Odd, still in poetic verse,

Take the ring from my arm,
The red bracelet,
The gift given
To the girl Ingibjorg:
Deep in her mind
The maid will mourn
That nevermore
We two shall meet.
Well I remember
The women, seated,
Persuading me – don’t
Set out from Sigtun:
Ale and good company
In the king’s hall
Will never again
Gladden Hjalmar’s heart.

Odd takes not only the arm-ring, but also Hjalmar’s body, back with him to Ingibjorg.  He tells her what happened and gives her the ring, with Hjalmar’s message.

‘Here’s the bracelet,’ said Odd, ‘which Hjalmar sent you with his greetings on the day he died.’
She [Ingibjorg] took the bracelet and looked at it in silence. Then she leaned back against the chair posts and died.

It is easily the most touching moment in the poem. The two lovers who could not be together in life, will be together in death. Part of the reason it is so touching here is that it’s such a rare spot of romanticism in an otherwise cold, hard tale. Odd is no romantic, and no one in this world waxes poetic about love like medieval knights and troubadours. But still they can have intense affection like anyone else.  Odd buries them together, and Ingibjorg’s father, greatly saddened, holds a funeral feast in Hjalmar’s honor. It is a rare, sad, quiet break in the poem’s violent escapades. When it is done, Odd leaves to once more search the world for his arch-nemesis, Ogmund Eythjof’s-Killer. The rest of the tale I will leave you to discover on your own.

Odd informs Ingibjorg of Hjalmar's death. (Art by August Malmstrom)

Heroes of Old: The Cid


The literature of ages past has given us many iconic heroes, whose feats and fame have defined for us what it means for a human to be extraordinary. Some were historical, some purely imaginative, and still others combined qualities of both. Hercules, Beowulf, Arthur, Cú Chulainn, Arrow-Odd – all of them admired for possessing certain qualities that allowed them to achieve things or see wonders that the rest of humanity only dreams of.

But it is in my mind that most of these heroes are better known by generalized reputation than actual familiarity with the original stories. So, as I reflect upon these elevated individuals in my personal readings, I will also share some of my thoughts on them with you.

The first hero, since I recently reread his story, is Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, more commonly known as the Cid. (Or as El Cid Campeador, or simply Ruy Díaz.)

The Source

The Poem of the Cid, composed most likely around A.D. 1200, is remarkable for two main reasons: it is by far the most complete epic of medieval Spain to have reached us (most others being so fragmentary as to be unreadable), and it tries very hard to root its stories in historical fact. The historic Cid was a knight of Castile, vassal to King Alfonso VI, and lived roughly between the years A.D. 1042 and 1099. His many battles and exploits won him fame and honor, and although The Poem of the Cid does freely take artistic license, it also strives hard to connect its invented story elements with many known facts of the Cid’s life.

The story is separated into three parts, called Cantars, and the frame story is this: certain evil nobles at the court of King Alfonso are jealous of the Cid and have turned the king against him through the spreading of lies. In his unjust anger, Alfonso exiles the Cid, swearing that if he ever returns to Castile his life and lands will be forfeit. But so beloved is Ruy Díaz that hundreds of knights and soldiers join him on his way out, filling the ranks of his army and bolstering his spirit. As he leaves Castile, the Cid swears that he will work incessantly to regain the favor of the king, and will hold no grudges nor enmity against him.

The First and Second Cantars are mostly a series of battles and conquests. The Cid, with his army of volunteers, is attacked by neighboring kings who fear his presence. Both Christian and Muslim armies he routs, with his brilliant cavalry charges always causing the numerically superior foes to break. He plunders so much gold and valuables that he can make all his men wealthy and still be rich himself. This section of story can become tedious, as there is neither much tension nor much of a plot. The Cid always wins, no matter what.

The Third Cantar is where the story itself becomes interesting, because it provides the Cid with a battle that cannot be won on the battlefield, but only through moral fortitude. His battles won and his favor with King Alfonso regained, the Cid celebrates by allowing his precious daughters to be married to two young nobles, the Infantes of Carrión, at the nobles’ request. Unfortunately the Infantes are evil, cowardly men who nurse an absurd grudge against the Cid and are devoid of all the manly virtues. On the honeymoon, they humiliate, abuse, and abandon the Cid’s daughters as a way of getting revenge against him. Their stupidity should be evident. Yet the Cid’s reaction is a very telling one, I think, and not necessarily the most expected. Rather than seek revenge, he appeals to Alfonso for justice, demanding only a trial, and that the wedding gifts he gave to the Infantes be returned and his daughters held innocent of this dishonor. The trial becomes a matter of interest for the whole kingdom, with all the nobles gathered to hear the testimonies of both sides and pass judgment. In the end, two of the Cid’s closest friends and vassals step forward to fight the Infantes in a trial-by-combat. The Cid should not have to defend himself against such outrageous insults as the Infantes offer. Of course the villains are slain, the daughters remarried to good men, and the Cid becomes an ancestor to future kings of Spain.

I am using the translation by Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry, first published by Manchester University Press in 1975, re-published by Penguin Classics in 1984.

The History

My interest is only in the Cid as a poetic and literary character, but that examination will be helped by knowledge of some of the story’s historic context.

Obviously the real Cid looked like Charlton Heston.

Eleventh-century Spain was a kaleidescope of Christian and Muslim petty kingdoms, almost evenly split between the two religions in terms of land. Muslim armies from the Umayyad kingdom in Morocco had invaded in the year 711 and conquered most of the Iberian peninsula, until they were halted by Christian victories at Toulouse, Covadonga, and Tours (when they invaded France). The intervening centuries saw the beginning of the Reconquista, a general push by the Christian kingdoms to retake their old lands. It was haphazard and disorganized, but fairly steady – it did not end until 1492, when the Castilians under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally captured the Moorish stronghold of Granada. (This victory allowed the monarchs to fund a certain nautical expedition by one Christopher Columbus.)

The period of the Cid is so fascinating because it lies right in the middle of this process. You see, contrary to what you might expect, there was not a perpetual war of hatred between the Christian and Muslim kingdoms. A kind of stalemate developed: the Muslims had taken the large, wealthy cities, but were unable to dislodge the Christians from their northern mountain strongholds. Both cultural groups had a multiplicity of leaders, all with their own ambitions, strategies, and personal prejudices. Christians often fought Christians with Muslim aid, and Muslims often fought Muslims with Christian aid, nearly as often as they fought each other. A king looking for some plunder was just as likely to attack a neighbor of the same religion as one of the enemy religion. There is even one fascinating story of a Muslim prince who, when his throne was usurped by his uncle, sought refuge in a nearby Christian city, whose monarch gave him military aid and put him back on his throne.

In short, most of the kings and generals of the time were concerned with politics more than religion, whatever they say in their chronicles.

The Hero

The world of the poem is much like the historical reality, but with virtues and villainy magnified to enhance the drama. Through this colorful landscape of ever-shifting borders, Eastern arches, and Western towers the Cid rides boldly. Since he is praised and admired by everyone, including his enemies, for his heroic virtues, I find it prudent to ask: what are they?

I haven't actually seen the 1961 film starring Charlton as the Cid and Sophia Loren as Dona Jimena.

Well, his title is from the Arabic Sayyidī, which means “my lord.” This immediately tells us a few things about him. First, although Christian, neither Ruy Díaz nor his soldiers think it strange or unseemly for him to have an epithet in a Muslim tongue. Secondly, the epithet is personal. While in translation he often gets called “the” Cid, or “El” Cid, the Spanish text always calls him Mio Cid, or “my Cid.” This man is equally beloved by those who write about him as those who follow him, and the reason is because he really loves his own people. He has a sensitivity to the needs of other people which is rare among epic heroes, and he is passionate. When happy, he sings in joy and clasps loved ones to his chest. When grieved, he weeps and pulls his flowing beard. When challenged, he steps forward fearlessly and encourages his friends. When offended, he restrains his anger and pursues justice and mercy, because he believes in the justice and mercy of God with all his heart.

An illustration of the last point is how he treats the Infantes of Carrión, his treacherous sons-in-law. Before the treachery, when he had every reason to believe them good men, he welcomed them generously into his family and defended them against other nobles who accused them of cowardice in battle. There’s a great scene where a lion has escaped from captivity and is roaming the palace at night. The Cid’s knights wake and immediately form a circle around their sleeping lord to protect him. The Infantes scream and run away in terror, one of them hiding under a couch. When the Cid wakes up and sees the lion, he calmly walks towards it, grabs it by the head, and guides it back to its enclosure. The Infantes are roundly mocked, but the Cid, refusing to fault them for reasonable fear, forbids the jokes at their expense. Later, when their treachery is revealed, he demands only justice, no more and no less. He contains his hurt and his rage, and remains a real man, while the Infantes remain pathetic, wicked dogs.

Contemplating how to get Sophia Loren to be less melodramatic.

He is also fantastically brave, of course, a paragon of valor. This seems a requirement of all heroes. When an army of fifty thousand men led by King Yusuf of Morocco arrives to besiege the Cid in Valencia, he watches them from the ramparts and laughs with joy because the plunder will make his men rich. He always leads his cavalry charges, taking the most dangerous risks in battle. He inspires every friend with courage and idealism, and every foe with fear and respect. He can cause five hundred men to defeat five thousand with a handful of losses, and then treat his conquered subjects with kindness. He is resolutely Christian, always praising God, but taking part in none of the nonsense of forced conversions or “holy” wars that many of his historical colleagues engaged in.

He is magnificent. He is larger-than-life, absurdly successful, portrayed as nearly faultless, and yet possesses a maturity and self-control that makes the heroes of Greek mythology seem like savage youths in comparison.

But you know what I really like about the Cid? How openly he loves his wife and daughters.

He’s just a big softie when it comes to his family. The poem opens with the Cid tearfully bidding them farewell, as he leaves them in the care of a trustworthy bishop. He kisses his wife, embraces his daughters, and is loathe to leave them. When they reunite many months later in the city the Cid has conquered, it is gloriously joyous. His daughters, Elvira and Sol, don’t have much character, but the Doña Jimena is an interesting woman. She and Ruy Díaz are clearly lovers as well as spouses, and she bears their separation with strength and dignity, never losing face in public but still managing to express her fear for his safety and her desire for his return. The Cid’s love is so great and emphasized so often that it’s really shocking when the Infantes disgrace his daughters so badly. Don’t these wicked idiots know how he loves these girls? Don’t they know the Cid is invincible, unstoppable, and loved by all?

In fact, this might be the main lesson The Poem of the Cid is trying to teach: that it is foolish to do evil to a good man.

Book Meme Day 25: A Character To Whom You Can Relate


I nearly gave up on this post. The difficulty of finding an answer for this meme topic distressed me. For a bibliophile to be faced with an inability to choose a single literary character he very much relates to is a troubling concept, for is that not one of the highest purposes of stories, to learn more about ourselves by experiencing the lives of fictional characters? Yet I do not typically read a book and think “Wow, I really identified with that character.” Perhaps some people do, but it is just not the way I think. My approach is not, I think, to look for how a character is similar to me, but to simply try to understand him on their own terms. That is my general approach, I think – I cannot claim to be as objective as that sounds.

Still, after spending many hours wondering, I finally settled on a plausible answer.

Sir Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By John Howe.

I relate to him spiritually. As Gawain eagerly loves and serves King Arthur, who is also his uncle, so do I love and serve God, my King, who has declared me (as all Christians) to be his adopted son. As Gawain is dedicated to maintaining his purity and honor, as a Knight of the Round Table and a Christian man, so do I, as a Christian man, seek to maintain my own of both.  And as Gawain is tempted so dangerously in these areas, so am I.

When the Lady of Castle Hautdesert tries to seduce Gawain, she does so with disarming grace and humor. Her intentions are clear, but her manner is not that of mere slut. Gawain is faced with a difficult quandary: how does he rebuff her and maintain his purity, while not offending her and possibly invoking her husband’s wrath? Now, as a Christian, it is clear to see what Gawain’s priorities should be; he should have fled from the Lady’s presence as soon as her intentions were apparent, and risked offending her. That would have been the best course of action. Gawain makes the mistake of trying to please the woman while still refusing her advances and maintaining his physical and spiritual purity. The danger is real: Gawain is deeply attracted to her beauty, intelligence, and grace, and is pleased by her flattery.

In my reading, I believe Gawain is truly, utterly sincere in his values. He knows that physical purity is not enough – God demands that he have pure thoughts as well as deeds. It is a difficult struggle, and one that every man can relate to, as we watch Gawain struggle over three days to figure out the right course of action. He is imperfect, and even though in the end he maintains his physical purity – which satisfies everyone else in the story – he knows that he did compromise his spiritual purity, and that bothers him. By human standards he did exceptionally well, morally, but Gawain knows that in God’s eyes he is still a sinner. His awareness is something I can relate to, even as I rejoice in the knowledge of God’s mercy and grace.