Book Review: “Warrior Scarlet” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Warrior Scarlet titleTitle: Warrior Scarlet
Series: No.
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Pages: 207
Published: 1958
Spoiler-free Synopsis: One-armed Drem desires to win acceptance and respect as a hunter in his tribe, but for that to happen he must prove his passage into manhood by killing a wild wolf on his own, and no one is allowed to help him even if it results in his death.
Reason for Beginning: Sutcliff.
Reason for Finishing: An enthralling character study of a boy who happens to have a disability, and a beautiful series of word-paintings of an ancient, beautiful British landscape.
Story Re-readability: Warrior Scarlet is the kind of book you may return to often throughout your life and be well-rewarded each time, but you’ll probably want to space those readings out to give yourself time to contemplate it more fully. It has a slower pace than many of Sutcliff’s other novels, but is no less worthwhile. Also, as Sutcliff herself was in a wheelchair for life, this may be one of her most personal novels.
Author Re-readability: Sutcliff.
Recommendation: Very much so, although it asks for some patience from the reader. I never found it to be boring in the least, but it has less action and overt tension than any of Sutcliff’s other novels that I have read.

Key Thoughts

Warrior Scarlet 1The wild landscape of Britain is more a character in Warrior Scarlet than in any other book I have read of Rosemary Sutcliff, and this for an author already famed for her lush and precise vocabulary of the natural world. Here more than ever she becomes a word-painter of every sort of tree and thicket, every spring flower and snow-covered moor, every sleeping valley and heather-banked brook, and all the other myriad wonders that God in His creative joy has adorned the earth. Bronze Age Britain is even less populated than Roman and post-Roman Britain, the eras of which she most frequently writes, and the connection between the native tribespeople and the land is stronger than ever. These are the Golden People, who have conquered the Dark Hill People on the island, and their way of life is the hunt, the bounding over earth in search of blood and food, and for this livelihood they learn all the sights, smells, touches, and even the tastes of nature.

Into this world is born Drem, a boy whose withered arm is the only thing that separates him from his ambition to become a great hunter. But this is a great divide, for if this one-armed boy cannot pass the test of manhood by slaying a wild wolf on his own, then he is driven from his tribe and forced to live as a shepherd among the servile Dark People of the hills. Despite the doubts of his family and tribe, Drem resolutely believes that he will slay the wolf and take his place as a man among men.

The forest is terrifying after dark.
The forest is terrifying after dark.

The plot is short, but full. It’s very satisfying if you are able to accept the novel’s slow pace; just don’t go in expecting rousing adventure of the sort Sutcliff offers in The Shining Company or Tristan and Iseult. There are many patient scenes of hunting and time spent among nature, where the story is not about accomplishing goals so much as realizing truths about oneself and finding one’s place in a vast, dangerous, and beautiful world. As ever, she avoids hysterics and forcibly shortened time spans, preferring to let her tale unfold naturally over many years. Dramatic crises are few for a novel of this length, but what unfold between them are clearly-seen moments of Drem’s life that reveal him as a proud and private boy, unworried by his disability except when his Grandfather refuses to believe he can overcome it, his mother tries to pamper him because of it, or his peers mock him for it. His family hut is also inhabited by his healthy big brother Drustic, who can be kind but does not quite understand him, the quiet, odd girl Blai, who was taken in by the family after being abandoned in the village by her traveling father, and the good dog Whitethroat, whom Drem wins by his own hunting prowess and raises from a pup.

Blood brothers.
Blood brothers.

Sutcliff herself suffered from Still’s Disease, which confined her to a wheelchair from early childhood to the end of her days, and she seems to write Drem with instinctive empathy. Warrior Scarlet is not about a disabled boy at all – it is a coming-of-age story and a tender study of a boy who happens to have but one arm. It is painful to him sometimes, and it is a big part of his life, but it does not define him, nor the book. When he makes friends, as with the venerable one-handed hunter Talore and the chieftain’s son Vortrix, it is because they realize this and do not address his lacking arm except when it is relevant, and even then they try not to give it more attention than Drem himself does. Part of the delight in this book comes from the emotional maturity and honorable friendship that Talore and Vortix offer Drem, and the true Manliness displayed therein. Drem himself struggles with the sort of gentleness his two friends display, as his instinctive reaction to fear is prideful anger. But he fights it, and begins to see that there is someone else in his life who needs the kindness and respect he himself desires. His realization carries through up until the very last page.

Shield or spear -- a one-armed boy must choose one or the other!
Shield or spear — a one-armed boy cannot carry both!

It is not all slow character-building and hunting scenes. There are some thrilling fights, some among prideful and cruel young boys, some between prideful and honor-bound young men, and some with animals. One such fight with a hungry wolf pack attacking in the middle of a blizzard is really harrowing stuff, as though the fierce brutality of Jack London’s stories were filtered through the lyricism of Robert Frost.

I admire Sutcliff’s willingness to take narrative risks and her ability to then handle them gracefully. We think we know what to expect from a plot like this, which we assume must be about overcoming a physical disability, preferably in a triumphantly public way. But in the final third of the book Sutcliff follows the road less taken, and allows a kind of failure where we expect victory. The key is that she doesn’t stop her story there, but explores the consequences of what happened and how Drem must deal with it. Life does not end merely because we do not accomplish our dreams and goals the way we expect. Disappointments are a part of life, and this book is the more powerful for showing how one may deal with them without succumbing to despair. The story, I think, reflects some Christian values relating to this, though not explicitly and perhaps unintentionally; the idea that the timing we desire for our lives is not the same as God’s timing. Our lives have more anticlimaxes than dramatic this-is-it-once-and-for-all climaxes and do not follow easy formulas. But hope persists, and the good may come slowly but it will come, and the faithful are rewarded in the end. Drem’s reward, when it comes, is swift, and almost too sudden, filled with unexpected joy, and perfectly fitting.

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Book Review: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Sadly not my edition’s cover. But an awesome cover nonetheless.

Title: Treasure Island
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Pages: 298 (Puffin Classics edition)
Published: 1883
Spoiler-free Synopsis: When Jim Hawkins discovers a treasure map amongst the effects of his late friend “Cap’n” Billy Bones, he has little idea the trouble and danger it will cause him. With his friends Dr. Livesy and Squire Trelawney joining him, he sails on the Hispaniola as cabin boy, along with the overtly friendly, yet cunning, Long John Silver as the ship’s cook, and a crew of shifty moods and uncertain loyalties on a remarkable and dangerous quest for the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Flint.
Reason for Beginning: It’s a classic about pirates by a legendary Scottish writer. I love classics and pirates. And Scottish writers. (Also, see my intro paragraph under Key Thoughts.)
Reason for Finishing: This is a genuinely exciting, even thrilling, adventure, and probably the best pirate story that has yet been told (or that I’ve yet come across, to be fair about my inexperience).
Story Re-readability: High, I’d reckon. Stevenson’s a master storyteller, and wastes no time with anything that might be uninteresting. The pace is fairly quick, but the characters and plot fleshed out enough, and the turns of event are fascinating not just for plot reasons, but for what they reveal about the characters involved.
Author Re-readability: Robert Louis Stevenson is regarded as one of the three Scottish literary giants, alongside Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns (to them I would add George MacDonald, who doesn’t get nearly their press but deserves to). This is because he tells great stories that can be reread and reread with great satisfaction each and every time.
Recommendation: Yes, for every reader. This book is everything it promises, and a little bit more. It is the definitive pirate story, yet also a deconstruction of the idea of the romantic pirate. It’s a fast-paced boys’ adventure, full of stormy coves, sun-spangled seas, mutinous rogues, and honorable Englishmen, yet also something of a character study and a coming-of-age story. It is tremendously enjoyable, yet sobering upon reflection. It also one of the few books I can find no fault with.

Key Thoughts

Many moons ago, when I was a bookish third grader, I had to do a book report and art project on Treasure Island. I got an A. I had read only a few chapters of it. So iconic was the story that it had seeped by osmosis into my imagination, and I could easily recap the plot to my teacher’s satisfaction. Finally (actually, much earlier this year), I picked up the book again and read it cover to cover. And I must say, it’s gratifying to read one of the classics—especially one so oft adapted and clearly outlined in the popular imagination—and have the adventure and characters be so fresh, so lively, and so colorful.

Robert Louis Stevenson has some of the most efficient creative prose around; just see how quickly he sketches the character of the wandering, alcoholic ex-pirate Billy Bones:

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking around the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –
Yo-ho-ho-, and a bottle of rum!’

in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard. (2-4)

It isn’t poetry, but it’s evocative. From the first page, you can smell the salt sea breeze that sweeps by the Admiral Benbow Inn; indeed, I’ve reread that first page many times just to revisit that place. Later you’ll hear the sounds of harbor bells and snapping sails, the shouts of sailors and the snarls of pirates, and the spouting and bellowing of breakers upon the island’s rocks. Stevenson has a strong sense of place; he knows exactly where his characters are and how to situate the reader in the same environment.

We see and hear the story mostly through the pen of Jim Hawkins, who writes to us after the fact and gives us some insight into the virtues and vices of all the major players. I like him; he’s an honest, observant boy, well-suited to such an adventure, but fairly naïve about the criminal mind. Not nearly so naïve as Squire Trelawney, though; a large, boisterous man whose careless tongue lets the whole Bristol harbor know that their “secret” expedition is for buried treasure, his mistakes—and his fiery, often unsupported, pride—can be exasperating. After all, it’s his fault that over half the crew he hired were secretly pirates planning a mutiny before the Hispaniolaever left port. But he makes up for this with conspicuous bravery and a determination to regain the respect of his peers.

Dr. Livesy is more reliable; a softspoken, stern man who thinks clearly and acts honorably, is absolutely devoted to his healing profession, and has nerves of steel. Consider one of his introductory scenes, where he is making a house call at the Admiral Benbow, while the drunk (and sick) Billy Bones is loudly intimidating and verbally abusing the other guests. When Livesy casually remarks that if Bones continues with his present drinking, the world will soon be rid “of a very dirty scoundrel,” Bones growls and brandishes a knife, threatening to pin him to the wall.

The doctor never so much as moved. He spoke to him, as before, over his shoulder, and in the same tone of voice; rather high, so that all the room might hear, but perfectly calm and steady:
‘If you do not put that knife this instant in your pocket, I promise, upon my honour, you shall hang at next assizes.’
Then followed a battle of looks between them; but the captain soon knuckled under, put up his weapon, and resumed his seat, grumbling like a beaten dog. (10-11)

Quite the cool fellow. Even cooler is Captain Smollet, who is hired to command the Hispaniola with no previous knowledge of its crew or destination. He may be my favorite character, for the surety of his honor, his cool sensibility under duress, and the sheer manliness of his gentlemanly nature.

But why beat about the bush? When people hear Treasure Island, they think of Long John Silver. The first thing you should know is that the literary character is every bit as charismatic, cunning, sympathetic, treacherous, and pretty much awesome as his pop culture reputation says he is. But what I hadn’t remembered from other adaptations is how desperate he is. I said in the Recommendation that Treasure Island is a deconstruction of the idea of the romantic pirate, and this is what I meant. For all of Silver’s picturesque charisma, long experience, entertaining cunning, admirable perception, and, sometimes, rogue’s honor, he is not ultimately an anti-hero or a person to be much admired. We like him because we recognize that God has allowed some good to survive in him despite his criminal lifestyle, and because he himself laments his evil nature and expresses a desire to be good. But he’s a lost soul. His life is full of wretchedness and poverty, filth and backstabbing. He has colleagues, but no friends he can trust—at least, not until Jim Hawkins. The pirate’s life is not one of freedom, dignity, and self-respect, no matter what Jack Sparrow may say. It’s murderous, low, and deeply unhealthy. Silver knows this in his bones, and his last act of piracy is a misguided attempt to be free of that life. Jim’s real moment of growth (into manhood, if we can say that for a young teenager) is when he recognizes this warring dynamic, which is Silver’s struggle against the dangers and addictions of sin.

So that’s what I found to be the story’s great staying power. Silver’s struggle against his sin nature is similar to our own. The friendship between Jim and Silver is so affecting because of its genuineness. And Jim’s coming-of-age is strongly linked to his greater understanding of human frailty, that love for a lost sinner should coexist with condemnation of the sin itself.

Of course, it’s a rollicking, red-blooded, action-packed adventure story, too. That Stevenson can balance such keen observations about human nature with such fun is a testament to his skill. And he makes it look easy!

In closing, I repeat here the poem Stevenson includes before the title page, which he addresses “To The Hesitating Purchaser”:

If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
 Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
 If schooners, islands, and maroons
 And Buccaneers and buried Gold,
 And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
 Can please, as me they pleased of old,
 The wiser youngsters of today:
--So be it, and fall on! If not,
 If studious youth no longer crave,
 His ancient appetites forgot,
 Kingston, or Ballyntyne the brave,
 Or Cooper of the wood and wave:
 So be it, also! And may I
 And all my pirates share the grave
 Where these and their creations lie!

Book Review: “Tristan & Iseult” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Title: Tristan & Iseult
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Pages: 150
Published: 1971
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the days of King Arthur, Tristan defeats Ireland’s champion and gains the friendship of his uncle, King Marc of Cornwall, who entrusts him with a mission: to sail the seas in search of a flame-haired queen. But a troublesome fate descends when Tristan and Iseult fall in love, and their passion for each other wars with their love and respect for Marc.
Reason for Beginning: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. BAM, said the lady.
Reason for Finishing: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. You get the picture.
Story Re-readability: Fairly high, I should think. It’s very short for a novel, and moves quickly. The story, legend that it is, has more inherent drama than is usual for Sutcliff’s laid-back novels, so every chapter you read will tell you something interesting and important that is happening. And you’ll like these characters enough to revisit them.
Author Re-readability: It’s no secret that I love Sutcliff and find her the most endlessly re-readable author in my library. For me to reread her novels is like reminiscing about the good times with an old friend. Maybe not everyone will feel as strongly as I do, but if you read a book of hers once and like it, I highly recommend you reread it again after a year or so. She always rewards her readers with more subtle depth in her stories than we initially expect. After two, three, four, or even five rereads, many of her characters will be counted among your dear friends.
Recommendation: Most certainly, for everyone. In fact, this is probably a good introduction: 1) to Sutcliff, if you’re wary of committing the time of a longer, slower novel for an author you’ve never read, or 2) to Arthurian romance, if you’re intimidated by the medieval tellings themselves but want to get some of their feel and texture through a modern lens. Established fans of Sutcliff or this subject matter will be completely satisfied with her treatment.

Key Thoughts

In most of her novels, Sutcliff’s prose evokes deep, earthy textures that seep into you as you read; sometimes you have to slow down a bit and breathe a bit slower as her sentences curl their roots around your imagination, intending to stay and grow there. In Tristan & Iseult, her prose is quicker, livelier, but still uniquely hers, like a thickly woven tapestry which is not as immersive as, say, a sculpture, but is not as two-dimensional as a painting. At least, that is how I think of it. It’s the perfect style for this story, hovering as it does between historical fiction and legend. We watch it unfold in a fairly accurately-described Wales, Ireland, and Brittany, but on the edges of the tale are King Arthur and a dragon, and at its center is the tragic love triangle that gave birth to the intrigues of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

What makes it especially tragic is that there is no villain. We love all three of them, and they all love each other: Tristan, Iseult, and King Marc. They are all good people, who desire justice and admire it in others. When Marc discovers the affair, neither of the lovers can blame him for his anger and pain, because they know in their hearts they have wronged him. But they are too weak to the temptations of the flesh to stop themselves, and King Marc too hurt by the betrayal of his two dearest companions, that we feel the threads of a black fate tightening around them all, bringing inevitable doom and heartbreak to the end.

And when he made no reply, she said, ‘Shall I tell you the true reason that I did not kill you when I found the splinter lacking from your sword blade?’

‘I am thinking,’ said Tristan, ‘that it is best you do not tell me.’

‘It was because I loved you,’ said the Princess. ‘I was not knowing it then. I was not knowing why it was like a sword turning in my heart when you stood before my father and claimed me for the King of Cornwall when I had thought to hear you claim me for yourself. I was not knowing until you lifted me in your arms to carry me ashore in this place. Tristan, whoever takes me for his wife, whether you will or no, and God help me, you are my Lord as long as I live.’

And Tristan bent his head into his hands and groaned.

Although these are the characters and landscape of legend, Sutcliff writes them with tender dignity and a sort of restrained realism, the kind that takes note that the trees overhanging the lovers’ hideout are not just any trees, but hazel and hawthorn and thick-set oak. They are flesh and blood and tears; whereas some medieval versions of the story invoked a love potion to force Tristan and Iseult into adultery, here it is just their passion and their loneliness. There is some room for epic heroism, though. Tristan’s worries and passions are recognizably human, but his feats are just larger enough than life to inject the somber tale with some good, old-fashioned thrill and excitement.

The gulls wove their white curves of flight across the face of the cliffs below him; the jump would have been death to any other man, but Tristan had learned well from his masters in his Lothian boyhood, and had not forgotten how to make the Hero Leap. He filled himself with air until he felt as light as the wheeling sea-birds, and drew himself together and sprang out and down.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Sutcliff makes Tristan so good, honest, and self-controlled that I can hardly believe he would actually betray his uncle and best friend with Iseult. Both he and Iseult know it is wrong, and Tristan at least is very principled. I didn’t quite believe that they would give into their passions, when Marc himself is so good and worthy a friend to them both. But this is legend, and their fates are sealed. I think I can detect, from Sutcliff’s telling, a loneliness to both Tristan and Iseult. They each are greatly loved by many people and have many friends, but no true spiritual companions except each other. Maybe that’s why Sutcliff thinks they fell into each others’ arms so desperately, so often, despite the harm they knew they were doing to a good man.

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.

TV Show Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.06 “The Tax Man Cometh”

Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.06 “The Tax Man Cometh”
Original Air Date: November 11, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Dwight O’Dwyer
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Lucy Griffiths (Marian), Anjali Jay (Djaq)
Synopsis: “Robin captures a tax inspector and plots to heist the year’s taxes, but a surprise is in store for both him and the sheriff; Marian makes her own preparations after a row with her father, and Gisborne makes his intentions clear.”
Recommendation: Another fun episode with lots of tricking going on. Probably a good entry point for someone new to the show, I think.

Key Thoughts

Allan A Dale

Aside from the entertaining villains, I really am liking Robin himself and the outlaws. They’re all appealing personalities, especially Allan A Dale. In fact, Much is the one who is becoming increasingly annoying. Not horribly so, but so far he has been stuck in the mode of “wimpy complainer.” He’s the butt of jokes, eternally frightened and over-earnest either about silly things, or about serious things in a silly way, and lacks any discernable toughness or sense of humor. I feel that any serious outlaw group would long ago have left him behind or found a way to keep him out of their important outlaw endeavors. In the first episode, he somewhat functioned as an extra conscience for Robin (despite Robin himself being generally the most upright character), but since then that role has been usurped by Allan. This may account partially for Allan being my favorite outlaw, but much also has to be said for his good sense, good humor, warm-hearted honesty, and considerable competence. On the whole, they are a proper band of capable young men out to fight injustice and have some fun along the way.

The outlaw with the least development thus far is the new girl Djaq, the “Saracen” with an anti-Christian anti-English chip on her shoulder (courtesy of the nasty Crusades). Considering she was just introduced last episode, it’s surprising that she should get no more than two or three lines this time. She’s not given any personality traits beyond “feisty” and “angry,” and so appears to be a pointless novelty.

Sir Guy of Gisborne is quite sympathetic in this episode. His concern for the (apparently wounded near death) “Abbess of Rufford” is genuine, even earning him scorn from the Sheriff. And he is consistently nice towards Marian, and almost romantic as he declares that he will continue to be kind to her and pursue her affections in spite of her rejections. He does not force himself on her; in fact, he almost seems a tad bit tongue-tied in her presence. In his wooing there is a certain gentleness and vulnerability. It’s no wonder he’s popular with fangirls. Of course he would make a terrible husband for Marian, being hard and intolerant of her outspokenness, and he has earned his villain-hood already (you’ll pardon the pun). Yet he is a character with layers and believability, and I like that.

Obligatory Marian rant

Of Marian herself, she continues to be selfish and arrogant while inexplicably retaining the show’s support. I suppose we are expected to cheer for her as some sort of feminist paradigm, and yet all I see is a spoiled brat who disrespects her father and her friends and gets away with it because of her pretty face. She manipulates everyone around her into thinking she is a brave little victim, when truthfully most of her troubles are her own fault. She is perfectly placed to be Robin’s help inside Nottingham and its castle, but she performs that role reluctantly, and almost with disgust. One thinks she would not be satisfied unless she were the leader of a band of outlaws herself, gaining her own fame by rubbing in the mud the faces of all those who annoy her.

Oh alright, she has her nice moments. Her concern for the oppressed peasants feels genuine, and the revelation of how deep is her father’s love for her brings out a nice tearful hug. But these moments almost feel like exceptions to the rule. At the very least, they do not excuse her poor behavior elsewhere.

TV Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.05 “Turk Flu”

Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.05 “Turk Flu”
Original Air Date: March 31, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Dwight O’Dwyer
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Synopsis: “The Sheriff is importing slaves to work in a dangerous mine. In the meantime there is an archery competition at Nottingham Fair.” (Wikipedia)
Recommendation: While the story has some interesting aspects, including a different take on the classic archery competition, it also introduces the ridiculous character of Djaq, a “Saracen” girl, who so far has greatly annoyed me.

Key Thoughts

This episode includes many references to modern-day issues, such as the suspicion of Middle-Easterners in the West, Britain’s 2006 bird flu, and Muslim resentment towards “Christian” nations (yet interestingly, nothing about the dangers of radical Islam). The vehicle for these “themes” is the arrival in Nottingham of a batch of “Saracen” slaves that the Sheriff has bought to work his deadly iron mines, represented by the spunky girl-poorly-disguised-as-a-boy Djaq. Unfortunately, both the character and the references are basically ham-handed liberal rants against the West that threaten to interfere with the more fun aspects of this episode’s story. Djaq is less a character than a mouthpiece, and despite being apparently a teenager, she seems to be this wise (yet fiery) receptacle of all Arab science and knowledge. Her lines are few, but annoying. Her actions and reactions are mostly illogical, especially her ill-explained decision to join Robin’s group at the episode’s end (or was there even an explanation? Everyone seemed to take it for granted).

Apparently all English believe that "Turks" have a contagious and deadly flu. Or at least, that's what Robin hopes they believe...

Robin’s men intercept the slaves as they are being conspicuously transported in a wagon, and once our boy Hood realizes the situation, he resolves to strike at the Sheriff twice with one stroke; firstly, by using the slaves to help him infiltrate and destroy the mine, and secondly, to free the slaves. Ah, but that’s not all he has to worry about! For the Sheriff is holding an archery contest—for the express purpose of trapping him, naturally—and even though Robin knows it is a trap, it pains him that the job destroying the mine is keeping him from attending. But of course, you know things will work out so that Robin gets to win the contest and accomplish his other noble goals. Of course!

I think my favorite moment is the look on the Sheriff’s face when—reclining happily at the archery contest, waiting for Robin to arrive—he is told that his precious iron mine has been destroyed and all the slaves set free. It’s a look of absolute horror and panic, followed by he and Guy galloping desperately to the mine in time to see Robin mock them and escape.

Would I watch it again? Probably not, unless I was bored. All of the Robin Hood episodes seem pretty interchangeable. The fun comes from the fast-paced adventure and abundant roguish quips, making the increasingly-frequent “political commentary” quite annoying and out-of-place.