"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, August 28, 2008

13th. Century Literature: Part II

I was going to begin with a grand paean in praise of The Nibelungenlied, extolling it as the great epic of German legendary history. But that sort of thing is boring to most people including myself. In fact, the very name of The Nibelungenlied, if it sparks any recognition at all, is not likely to kindle a flame of interest. Stories with Homeric battles, lengthy and improbable speeches, all written in (or translated into) archaic language, are not likely to rivet the attention of most people. So instead I’ll briefly describe some of the characters.

Though my knowledge of ancient and medieval literature is limited, it seems to me that Sigfried, Kriemhild and others are delineated with a clearness and realism lacking in most old texts. A notable exception is Hagen, but of him later. First, who is Sigfried? Before this story opens in the mythical past of Germanic Europe he was reputed to have won a fabulous treasure by killing a dragon. Those who have read The Hobbit or the end of Beowulf will have a good grasp on this dragon/treasure principle in literature. Unlike Beowulf, who is slain, Sigfried survives and rubs the blood of the dragon all over his skin. Except for a small spot on his back. If you reach one arm over your shoulder and twist the other behind your back you will notice that (besides being uncomfortable and looking stupid) it is extremely difficult to make your hands touch somewhere between your shoulder blades. This is Sigfried’s Achilles Heel; the one spot not made invulnerable by virtue of the dragon’s blood. It is though this, and the cunning of Hagen, that Sigfried is treacherously murdered.

From the beginning his death is hinted at. It is really the focus of the whole story. It seems odd that the hero of a story should die halfway through the book, but if Sigfried had not died early on in the story there would be no Nibelungenlied; his death sets into motion a host of other evils: lies, greed, revenge, and lastly, war. Sigfried's death is a tragedy but it is not the last, nor even, I think, the greatest, tragedy in this story.

Who is most grieved over the death of Sigfried? Who but his wife, the lovely Kriemhild. And good reason she has to be grieved; not only over Sigfried, but also over the way her kinsmen and Hagen treat her after his death. How right it is to sympathize with Kriemhild yet how wrong to support her later actions. To understand this claim will require explaining the further events of the story. Kriemhild eventually remarries a distant king; however, rather than causing her to forget Sigfried, this only elevates her into a position powerful enough to avenge his death. It takes awhile, but finally she lures Hagen and her kinsmen to her new husband’s realm with pretended overtures of friendliness. Her intention is to start a conflict on some pretext and slaughter them. Her kinsmen and Hagen seem almost equally inclined to belligerence and demonstrate it by their disrespect and arrogance. It is, therefore, almost irrelevant who struck the first blow.

The men of Hagen and G√ľnther (Kriemhild’s brother) easily get the upper hand in the first bout. They barricade themselves into the main hall and fight off every assault launched against them. All day they fight till Kriemhild, with the logic (and cruelty) of a woman, orders the hall burnt down. Somehow a few of them survive the flames and fight on the next day amid the charred rubble. At this point the fighting reaches Hollywood quality but it tops Hollywood (as most books do) by searching out what drives good and bad men to war. Rudiger and Dietrich, unwilling warriors, are perhaps the most human and the most heroic, and therefore the best, characters in the story apart from Sigfried himself. How and why they fight is both tragic and glorious, but mostly tragic. Even Dietrich’s victory over Hagen is no cause for joy.

So who is the hero in this tale? All through the book I was looking for a hero (after Sigfried died anyway). While there are many noble and heroic characters scattered throughout, the main conflict centers between Kriemhild and Hagen. Hagen, as the murderer of Sigfried, was obviously out, but the bloodthirsty revenge of Kriemhild went beyond simply a desire for justice as well. In the end I did not know what to think. I tinkered with the idea that this was a postmodern book (written, of course, around 1200 A.D) with no good guy/bad guy distinctions. Yet while no one was right, it does not follow postmodern epistemology that no one was wrong. Both were wrong. There may be different degrees of wrongness, but the central fact remains: both Hagen and Kriemhild were wrong. The consequence of their actions was the slaughter and decimation of entire Kingdoms.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

13th. Century Literature: Part I

Among the small backlog of unreviewed books on my desk, The Mabinogion is probably most obscure. This collection of ancient Welsh tales and Arthurian legends was written down around the 13th century but is, like Beowulf and many other early European manuscripts, derived from a much older source, probably oral. The authors or compilers (most likely many) are likewise veiled in obscurity. Mabinogi are the traditional stories of the ancient Celtic people that all bards and most people would have known; something like what the legends of Johnny Appleseed and George Washington chopping down the cherry tree are to Americans.

The nearest definition I can give of these stories as a whole would be fantasy. About half of them in some way mention Arthur or are versions of the better-known Arthurian canon. Having just read Chretien De Troyes a few months ago helped in navigating the maze of outlandish adventurers. Unfortunately, names in my edition are translated with what is evidently a near approximation to their Gaelic originals so even a comparatively easy to recognize name like Guinever is spelled Gwenhwyvar. Among the many long lists of names are ones like: “Adaon the son of Taliesin, Llary the son of Kasnar Wledig, Fflewddur Fflam, and Greidant Galldovydd, Gilbert the son of Kadgyffro, Menw the son of Teirgwaedd,” and so on, and on, and on.

My high expectations were tolerably met in the first story or “branch” of The Mabinogion that recounts the tale of Pwyll, prince of Dyved who exchanges kingdoms for one year with another king he meets while hunting. As I continued reading, though, my interest waned. Long lists of funny names (spanning multiple pages Old Testament style), events that lacked any verisimilitude, and flat undeveloped characters that all appeared the same, must have been what did it for me. I am, however, being unfair to a book from the Middle Ages. Of course it is not going to compare to a novel by Dickens or Austen. But it did little good to tell myself this while drifting into a doze.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Notting Hill and Other Mountains I Have Climbed

The main reason I reread G.K.Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill was because I needed a lightweight paperback to take backpacking. Weighing in at a mere 3.75 ounces (110g), it was the perfect choice for a week in the wilderness. Looking at my shelves, I realized hefty tomes cover most of them. The few that are not an inordinate burden I have already read so my choices were severely limited.

But Chesterton is an excellent author to read or reread so I was not sorry as I stuffed him into my pack next to a jumble of spare socks, sunscreen, and sierra cup. As Auberon Quin (aptly named after the King of the Fairies) walked up Pump Street, I walked up an unnamed logging road. When Auberon was standing on his head in the middle of the road, I was lying on my back in the middle of the camp. When Auberon pored over a map of the suburbs of London, I pored over a map of the Russian Wilderness. When Adam Wayne entered the shop of the grocer, I opened the sack of the gourp. When the men of Notting Hill were attacked, the mosquitoes and nighttime chill attacked. When Wayne climbed onto a wall and looked down on his foe, I climbed onto a rock and looked down on the bear (yeah, the bear, we have pictures to prove it. They must like me because I rode my mountain bike around a blind curve last Saturday and surprised another one 25 feet down the trail).

This post is really about bears. Chesterton, I am sorry to say is only a pretext. Out of a sense of duty, however, I’ll say this much: The Napoleon of Notting Hill is primarily political. Patriotism and individual sovereignty is lost in the future world that Chesterton envisions: a world prophetically similar to that of the U.N and European Union. James Barker explains the mentality of that future age in one paragraph:
we are, in a sense, the purest democracy. We have become a despotism. Have you not noticed how continually in history democracy becomes despotism? People call it the decay of democracy. It is simply its fulfillment (25).
Chesterton, G.K. The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Penguin Books. Penguin Modern Classics, Great Britain, 1982.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tribute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn

One of my favorite Russian authors, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, died Sunday. While I have only read 5 of his books, I've been meaning to read more for some time. Like all Russian authors I have encountered, Solzhenitsyn wrote at great length about serious subjects. His novels do not always end happily and his autobiography The Oak and the Calf records a series of trials encountered in his life. Yet his writing sought to advocate justice and the "eternal oughtness" of moral choices.