Literature: October 2006 Archives

Middlemarch Revisited

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This is the woman that George Eliot wants us to sympathize with, or at least accept as the heroine of our novel:

from Middlemarch Chapter 4
George Eliot

Dorothea laughed. "O Kitty, you are a wonderful creature!" She pinched
Celia's chin, being in the mood now to think her very winning and
lovely--fit hereafter to be an eternal cherub, and if it were not
doctrinally wrong to say so, hardly more in need of salvation than a squirrel.
"Of course people need not be always talking well. Only one tells the
quality of their minds when they try to talk well."

. . . .

"_Fad_ to draw plans! Do you think I only care about my
fellow-creatures' houses in that childish way? I may well make mistakes. How can
one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty

No more was said; Dorothea was too much jarred to recover her temper
and behave so as to show that she admitted any error in herself. She was
disposed rather to accuse the intolerable narrowness and the purblind
conscience of the society around her: and Celia was no longer the
eternal cherub, but a thorn in her spirit, a pink-and-white nullifidian,
worse than any discouraging presence in the "Pilgrim's Progress." The _fad_
of drawing plans! What was life worth--what great faith was possible
when the whole effect of one's actions could be withered up into such
parched rubbish as that? When she got out of the carriage, her cheeks
were pale and her eyelids red. She was an image of sorrow, and her uncle
who met her in the hall would have been alarmed, if Celia had not been
close to her looking so pretty and composed, that he at once concluded
Dorothea's tears to have their origin in her excessive religiousness.
He had returned, during their absence, from a journey to the county
town, about a petition for the pardon of some criminal.

What a dreadful, supercilious woman--unfortunately, from all signs, she has her comeuppance shortly, and it is like to be as dreadful as a woman who thinks of her sister as a squirrel.

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More Middle English


Just a sampling from the relatively easy to read Stanzaic Life of Katherine:

Incipit vita sancte Katerine virginis.

He that made bothe sunne and mone
In hevene and erthe for to schyne,
Brynge us to Hevene with Hym to wone
And schylde us from helle pyne!
Lystnys and I schal yow telle
The lyf of an holy virgyne
That trewely Jhesu lovede wel -
Here name was callyd Katerine.

I undyrstonde, it betydde soo:
In Grece ther was an emperour;
He was kyng of landes moo,
Of casteles grete and many a tour.
The ryche men of that land
They servyd hym with mekyl honour.
Maxenceus was his name hotand,
A man he was ful sterne and stour.

The actual text which can be reached through the site referenced below has glosses on the difficult words to get you started.

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The Stanzaic Morte Arthur


from "The Stanzaic Morte Arthur"

Til on a time that it befell
The king in bed lay by the queen;
Of aunters they began to tell,
Many that in that land had been:
"Sir, yif that it were your will,
Of a wonder thing I wolde you mene,
How that your court beginneth to spill
Of doughty knightes all bydene;

A rough paraphrase--while the king and queen were in bed the queen said, "Hey Bozo, your court is becoming completely worthless, empty of worthy men. They're becoming a bunch of slackers."*

This little passage reminded me of the Horslips album The Tain which is a modern musical transcription of the Tain Bo Cuailgne--a little song called "The War Between the Sheets." The following gives the start of that little discussion in an English translation of the original book. (If you can, listen to the song, gets to the point a lot faster.)

from "The Cattle Raid of Cooley

ONCE of a time, that Ailill and Medb had spread their royal bed in Cruachan, the stronghold of Connacht, such was the pillow-talk that befell betwixt them:

Quoth Ailill: "True is the saying, lady, 'She is a well-off woman that is a rich man's wife.'" "Aye,that she is," answered the wife; "but wherefore opin'st thou so?" "For this," Ailill replied,"that thou art this day better off than the day that first I took thee." Then answered Medb: "As well-off was I before I ever saw thee." "It was a wealth, forsooth, we never heard nor knew of," Ailill said; "but a woman's wealth was all thou hadst, and foes from lands next thine were used to carry off the spoil and booty that they took from thee."

Not so was I," quoth Medb; "the High King of Erin himself was my sire, Eocho Fedlech ('the Enduring') son of Finn, by name, who was son of Findoman, son of Finden, son of Findguin, son of Rogen Ruad ('the Red'), son of Rigen, son of Blathacht, son of Beothacht, son of Enna Agnech, son of Oengus Turbech. Of daughters, had he six: Derbriu, Ethne and Ele, Clothru, Mugain and Medb, myself, that was the noblest and seemliest of them."

And so on. . . (for a complete English translation see here. Oh, and yes indeed, the English "Cooley" is a rough guide to the pronunciation of the insane orthography employed by the Erse.

The point is that bardic traditions appeared to borrow just about anything they could find laying around. Thus the Arthurian Mythos seems to be a rather patchwork collection of French, German, Welsh, Irish, English, and any other traditions that happened to be available to the wander Scop, Bard, troubadour. And as anyone who has done more than scratch the surface can tell you--the Arthurian tradition has a lot of traditions--from the Fisher King to Nimue.

That said, return for a moment to "The Cattle Rain of Cooley." Note the Queen's name, here render Mebd, but often transliterated Maeve, or by Shakespeare's time Mab. This is the Queen he had over the fairies, but note that she has nothing whatever to do with the fairies in the course of this story.

And while I'm on tradition--you might want to look into Alexander McCall Smith's newest book which is a series of stories in the Dream Angus (oar Oengus) tradition.

Okay, didn't really say what I started out to, but then no one really wanted a lot of talk about the Stanzaic Morte Arthur anyway, did they?

* For those who care, a glossed version might be:

Til on a time that it befell
The king in bed lay by the queen;
Of adventures they began to tell,
Many that in that land had been:
"Sir, if that it were your will,
Of a wondrous thing I wolde you tell,
How that your court beginneth to empty
Of doughty knightes all completely;

(I only changed the words that might be difficult. If you're interested find here the Complete Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and here a list of other interesting Middle English Texts on-line including Middle English lives of Katherine of Alexandria (their spelling, not mine) and Margaret of Antioch.

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Epic and Magnificent

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from "Descent of the Goddess Ishtar into the Lower World

To the land of no return, the land of darkness,
Ishtar, the daughter of Sin directed her thought,
Directed her thought, Ishtar, the daughter of Sin,
To the house of shadows, the dwelling, of Irkalla,
To the house without exit for him who enters therein,
To the road, whence there is no turning,
To the house without light for him who enters therein,
The place where dust is their nourishment, clay their food.'
They have no light, in darkness they dwell.
Clothed like birds, with wings as garments,
Over door and bolt, dust has gathered.
Ishtar on arriving at the gate of the land of no return,
To the gatekeeper thus addressed herself:

"Gatekeeper, ho, open thy gate!
Open thy gate that I may enter!
If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door, I will wrench the lock,
I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living."

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This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from October 2006.

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