Archive for December, 2017

The Demaundes Joyous
The lightness of these, when measured against the Old English Riddles, makes them seem mere bagatelles. Quite a lot of those Old English Riddles are light and jokey also; it is just the labour of translation makes them seem less. But for ease of reading, and sheer fun, we  have these.
Did I mention translation? Yes, well, these are also translations – but not from the heavy?, stodgy? Anglo-Saxon – no, they are from the Romance of northern French.

The Demaundes Joyous

1 Who was Adam’s moder?

2 What space is from the hyest space of the se to the depest?

3 How many calves tayles behoveth to reche from the erthe to the skye?

4 Which parte of a sergeaunte love ye best toward you?

5 Which is the moost profitable beest, and that men eteth leest of?

6 Which is the broadest water and leest jeopardye to passe over?

7 What beest is it that hath her tayle between her eyen?

8 Wherefore set they upon churche steples more a cocke than a henne?

9  Why doth an ox or a cowe lye?

10 Which was first, the henne or the egge?

11 Which tyme in the yere bereth a gose moost feders?

 

– It is always best to have a ‘flavour’ of the kind of answer expected. So, here is the answer to Question 3:
No more but one if it be long ynough.

If you want to try and answer these… then let’s say you must do so in the curious English of their period.

The source of these Demaundes Joyous is Wynkyn de Worde, 1511.
The collection contains about fifty such riddles – I have skipped the more church-orientated, and so maybe a little obscure now eg Why come dogges so often to the churche? etc.
My source says the collection here is based partly on an early sixteenth-century French collection, Demandes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets.

There are some old crocks here: Which came first, egg or hen? But there is no Why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe that is in the other forty, not included.
Some are a little… indelicate? Some just crazy. All have the flavour of their period.

Enjoy.

Happy Festive Season!

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Cover

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So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and through to the present day.
The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory.
The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

I look at twenty-plus texts from ancient times, through the medieval flowering, down to the present day.
You’d be surprised what I found.

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There are distinct similarities between the Calypso episode in The Odyssey, and the Border Ballad, Thomas the Rhymer.
Both Odysseus/Ulysses and Thomas, were taken for seven/eight years; they were taken ‘out of the world’; they were taken by a woman of other-than-human nature; they were to be their lover.

The gods intervened in Odysseus/Ulysses’ case, and under threat of Zeus’ anger Calypso was forced to relinquish her captive. She did it with better grace than Odysseus/Ulysses’ own sojourn had been with her. But perhaps it was the normality, the Penelope-and-marriage bond that was being promoted – much as it was the superiority of Athens, and Athen’s justice, was being sold big in the last of The Orestia, The Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus, in later centuries.

As for Thomas, he went along gladly with her.

There is a moment in verses 16, 17 and 18 of the ballad that he maintains his own integrity.
She offered him an apple:
‘Take this for thy wages, true Thomas;
It will give thee a tongue that can never lie.’

‘My tongue is mine ain,’ true Thomas said;
‘A gudely gift you wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy or sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

‘I dought neither speak to prince nor peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair layde.’

And her reply?

‘Now hold your peace!’ the lady said,
‘For as I say, so it must be.’

He admits he hardly had been to able to wheedle or lie (‘dought’) to begin with; her gift changed little. What is implied here is that for such as this he had gone with her.

They reach a point on the way where three roads branch off:

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it few enquires.

‘And see ye not that braid braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the road of wickedness,
Though some call it the road to heaven.

And, I have to admit, I love the salty humour here: the lily lawn road to wickedness. What a paradox! Wickedness as heavenly, that too! And the road to righteousness… the ‘narrow way’ of the church, so little sought. Satire sits with wry humour.
What of the other road, though?

‘And see you not that bonny road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

And there is that ‘thou’, the intimate address, crashing in after the more distanced, explanatory, discursive, and descriptive converse. The winding road along the brae – not over, not at the foot of; no straight Roman or military road; no trudging, sun or wind and rain-blasted heath.
The road winds, it does not follow logic or argument, it is not, therefore, a reasonable or rational place to where they go.
When Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span sings this, the music becomes delicate, low key, the line becomes ‘that bonny, bonny road’.

Elfland? The Land of Faerie? Is there a difference?
We know nothing of the Elf Queen from the song, except that she has a timeless quality, can appear to whom she chooses. And that there are restrictions, differences on behaviour, perhaps etiquette, between the two realms of our life and their world. Thomas is warned not to speak whilst there.
Calyspo, similarly, has that timeless quality of the gods; she can appear forever youthful.

Thomas initially address as the Queen of Heaven. She takes pains to deny that title:

‘O no, O no, Thomas’ she said,
‘That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

Calypso is given a geneology, and her place in Olympus detailed and plotted.In another ballad, Tamlane, there is another abduction into that other place. Tamlane reveals he can be saved, if his lover, fair Janet, trusts in him despite the magical transformations the Queen of Fairies puts him through to regain him. In fact she faces down her father and all his knights when she is found to be pregnant with Tamlane’s child.
The Queen of Fairies, we also learn from this ballad, must pay a tribute to Hell every seven years.
The Faerie were not as automonous as the Elfen folk, it would appear.

 

For Odysseus/Ulysses his sojourn seems to have been a sexual enslavement.

The interlude with Circe was of a completely different nature, here Hermes stepped in with his gift of Moly, advice, foreknowledge. The relationship was based on agreement, forced maybe, but accepted.
The nature of Thomas’ relationship appears different. As the ballad begins it seems very much as though he had been wilfully negligent of his duties, almost inviting the tryst. The sexual element is down-played, as in all the Border Ballads. It could be said, however, that sexual jealousy lays at the root of many. Theirs was a tightly constricted society, both in terms of gender roles, and socially and economically. A woman’s role was very much that of home-maker, mother, griever. She was bride-wealth, cement for family truces, essential networker binding all together against a common enemy.
In this environment, a woman riding out, choosing her own mate; of a man idling, eschewing duty and obligation, this was dangerous, even more lawless than family-feuding which recognised strict family loyalties.
It could be argued that only in such a tightly controlled and constricted environment could that third road be found.

It is interesting to see Thomas’ vow of a seven-year silence from speech, whilst in Elfland. It is like an apprenticeship. What was his craft? His art? It was supposedly to be able to propheci, to put second-sight, clairvoyance, into verbal forms.

What was the apprenticeship of Odysseus/Ulysses? What was his craft? It is impossible to see the Calypso incident apart from the whole mythic pattern of the ‘wandering.’ But it is significant that straight from Calypso’s isle he (just about) got to the isle of Nausicca. It is there he told his tale for the first time. That telling could be what his apprenticeship was about.
A muse ascription hovers around these two tellings.

In the novel,  Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, we read how the people of faerie left the human world ‘three hundred years’ ago.’ Mr Norrell constantly throws this out.
The book is set about 1805 onwards, which gives us…  the early 1500s.
What is significant about this time?
If we set the date at the breaking away of the English church from Rome, Catholocism, the Reformation, we perhaps see a connection.

What is especially noticeable and surprising about Catholicism to a non-Catholic, is the emphasis on the world as cherished, made by God; of the body as also cherished. It is a religion of ceremony and celebration.
To the Protestant, the body is despised, it is to be ignored, hated, and trampled beneath the grey whispy vapour of the undefined spirit. It is a religion where the person is to cower alone and undefended by intermediaries, angels etc, before God himself.
Similarly with the world: where the Catholic church encourages all to cherish the earth, the Protestant church denigrates it.

It is ‘interesting’ that the tales of Faery stopped being made, told, when the Protestant church  became dominant.
Faery has very many elements that settle  well within Catholicism’s cherishment-programme. Its history of mariolatry resonates here also, as if with a more distant memory, of a bell rung in another realm.
But which realm resonates to which? Does Faery take from Catholicism, more than Catholicism from Faery? Is Faery a tarnished-glass reflection of elements of Catholicism? Or do certain elements come from similar roots?

Faery have a healthy sexual attitude, when compared to both churches.
Although the Catholic church cherishes the body, it is only so more believers can be born to worship God. And let us not forget the likes of the flagellants, the celibacy of the priesthood, and what it does to one’s behaviour in a world full of more explicit temptations. Who could forget that.

I suspect that that other road along the brae will be well sought-after, in the coming years of hardship.

 

I was just flipping through excerpts from Homer’s Iliad – as we all do in those idle moments, of which we are inundated – and I noticed just how effective the imagery was. And also, apologies, just how unintentionally and grimly funny some of it was.

Maybe, I thought, it is the translation/translator’s unconscious input to ‘image the English’ this way. And so I tried several translations. You will have guessed by now I have not even a little Latin, and certainly less than no Greek, to quote Robert Greene on Shakespeare.

Take, for instance, one of the later dreadful moments before the gates of Troy. Hector is outside, all the other Trojans having just been chased in by the Greeks. King Priam sees Achilles racing across to challenge his son, Hector, who is below.

Robert Fagles gives us:

And old King Priam was the first to see him coming,
surging over the plain, blazing like the star
that rears at harvest, flaming up in its brilliance –
……………………………………
that star called Orion’s Dog – brightest of all
………………………………………
So the bronze flared on his chest as on he raced –

Robert Fitzgerald’s version:

And ageing Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on that plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out ………………………..
the one they call Orion’s dog, most brilliant
……………………………………..
……………….. So pure and bright
the bronze gear blazed upon him as he ran.

And we see it.

The immediacy is in the imagery, its tactile and visual appeals; Priam’s shock and dread provides a platform for what is being visualised so clearly. There are literary tropes and elements in profusion, of course, as we know from Hesiod, but the translators here both resort to the same cognitive palate. Was this ‘Homer’s’ cognitive palate, too?

There is something about this imagery I recognised from exercises in visualisation, in art, and especially in ‘drawing from the right side of the brain’. The imagery here in the above passages is focused on the subject, and yet relaxed sufficiently for extraneous detail to be noted. Visualisation techniques, in their early stages, foreground their subject, and relegate all other detail to background. The effect is of creating, say, a huge central figure/image. Much as Achilles is presented in the whole passage.

I have seen similar effects in sleep experiments, where REM dreaming creates a further distorting effect. And more importantly, we have all done it – not just every night we go to sleep, but as kids in staring games: the fixed eyes exaggerate their focus, the other’s face distorts, a well-known face becomes unrecognisable.
I have watched this in action as Alzheimers affected cognitive function: ‘That is not your face.

Ok, that is somewhat different – the point I am making here is that the cognitive appeals in the above passages denote an internal visualisation of the scene, that is then held in the mind’s eye, whilst it is described/written down.
No easy task.

On another scale there is how Gaelic poets composed – by lying, in subdued light, quiet – isolated – with a stone/small rock held against the stomach.
I can appreciate the need for this: the stone/rock centres the attention, provides tactile input, becomes the prompt to the act of composition. Why was this method noteworthy? It helped in their manipulation of strict forms, of intertexuality; of a hundred and one rules, appeals, concerns, to be addressed. It was the calm, timeless quality of the setting, of the quality of enduring stone/rock, that provided the context for the frame of mind, of being, that the poetic composition demanded. The rock connected one to one’s time, to the world, to earth; it provided a point of contact between inner visualising/mentation, and outside demand/input. It grounded the imagery.

Grim humour?

Well, I couldn’t help but notice, later on in this passage…

(Priam pleading with Hector to come indoors)
 ……………….. Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war
…………………………………………………
……………………………………………………
…………………….When an old man’s killed
… the dogs go at the grey head and the grey beard
and mutilate the genitals -………….

Or, as Robert Fitzgerald has it:

………………………….Everything done
to a young man killed in war becomes his glory
…………………………………………………
………………………………………………..
………………. But when an old man falls ,
the dogs disfigure his grey head and cheek
and genitals…………………

And if that wasn’t enough:

And his mother wailed now…………
………………………loosing her robes with one hand
and holding out her bare breast with the other……………
…………………………………………………………………..

……………………………. – have some respect for this! (sic)