The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

The 1977 Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Sand is in two parts. Part one consists of a baker’s dozen of late short stories which take up 90 pages. Part two contains 35 poems taken from two of Borges’s final volumes of poetry, The Gold of the Tigers and The Unending Rose, presented in the original Spanish with English translations by the Scottish poet Alastair Reid on the facing page, and also taking up about 90 pages.

There’s an author’s note and an afterword. In the author’s note Borges reaffirms his allegiance to H.G. Wells, often overlooked by literary studies but clearly one of the most fertile, imaginative and influential writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

I have tried to be faithful to the example of H. G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.

In the event, some of the premises of the stories may be fantastical, but they are all conveyed in such a low-key, downbeat, almost offhand manner that you barely notice. The stories don’t signpost their own remarkableness, they downplay it. The stories feel different from those in Dr Brodie’s Report, more consistently fantastical or imaginative than the determinedly realistic narratives in that collection – but both books have more in common and are very different from the intensely bookish ficciones of his Labyrinths phase. Any reader hoping for more ficciones will be sorely disappointed but will, if they allow their expectations to be reshaped by the texts, be rewarded by subtler, more fleeting pleasures.

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A very relaxed, low key story in which Borges quietly remembers going to sit on a bench in Cambridge Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River and realising the young fellow who’s sitting at the other end of the bench is his own self, 50 years earlier. The young self thinks he is sitting on a bench in Geneva overlooking the river Rhone. Old Borges chats a bit about what’s happened to mum and dad, then when young Borges reveals the book in his hand is by Dostoyevsky, they fall to chatting about literature, as you do, quoting Victor Hugo and Whitman.

Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in, which makes conversation difficult. Each of us was a caricature copy of the other. The situation was too abnormal to last much longer…

Neither is terrified, but both afflicted with unease, and so hasten to make their excuses, say goodbye, promise to meet up the next day, and walk briskly away with no intention of keeping the rendezvous.

You know the big difference between this and a story by H.G. Wells. This one has no excitement. It is a teasing situation, but with no development or payoff. In fact it just dribbles to a close.

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

The narrator is named Javier Otálora. He is a professor at the University of the Andes. He is visiting York (in England) when he hears a pretty young woman talking in the hotel bar, gets chatting to her, they go for a walk across the freshly fallen snow which becomes steadily more archetypal or allegorical. There are no cars or roads, just them alone in the deep woods. They hear a wolf howl, she kisses him, they invoke the shades of Sigurd and Brynhilde, they arrive at another inn, climb as in a dream up the stairs to a bed where they make love. I think it is a waking dream. I think the author has been beguiled into some kind of re-enactment of the Sigurd and Brnyhilde legend.

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

Don Alejandro Glencoe was a Uruguayan ranch owner and landowner. At one time he had ambitions to stand for the Uruguayan Congress but the political bosses barred  his way. And so, inspired by something he’d read, he decided to set up a Universal Congress, representing all people, representing all humanity. He starts the process by inviting an assortment of 20 or so people to meet regularly at the Gas-Lamp Coffee House in Buenos Aires, trying to ensure a cross-selection, including women and gauchos and blacks. The narrator is Alejandro Ferri and we follow as he is, first, told about the Congress, then taken along, then becomes an active participant, travelling to England on research into ways to expand it and into which books to order to create a definitive library for the Congress.

Soon after his return, in what one could possibly take to be a typically quixotic, random, Hispanic gesture, Don Alejandro scraps his own creation and abolishes the Congress, insisting the members take the library of (rather random) books they have painstakingly assembled and burning them in the street. The members go on to have a wild, intoxicating night together, then part, never to see each other, but convinced by Don Alejandro’s exhortation that the Congress is not dead; on the contrary, it has now become universal and all men and women are members of it, even if they don’t know it. All this happened between 1899, when the narrator arrived in Buenos Aires, and 1902, when he undertook his ill-fated journey to a snowbound London.

The best of Borges’s ficciones left you with your mind completely blown by the intensity and profundity of the ideas and visions he conjured up. These stories are much more ‘meh’. This is the longest of all Borges’s works of fiction and, after this volume was published, he claimed it was his favourite. Meh.

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

A deliberately hammy hommage to the lurid horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, this one concerns a young student just finishing his studies. He had an uncle who had a house built in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The narrator gets news that his uncle has, sadly, died and then follows from a distance the subsequent developments, namely that the house is sold to a mysterious man who asks the original architect to build new extensions, which the architect indignantly refuses to do. After a few more investigations, the narrator one night, min a heavy storm, finds himself at the gate of the mysterious house, finds himself pushing open the gate, walking up the path, pushing open the front door and investigating the apparently empty and abandoned house and discovering it full of artefacts which make no sense, which don’t seem to have been designed for the human body or purposes… and while he is slowly coming down the stepladder from the attic, he hears the sound of ‘slow and oppressive and twofold’ coming up the ramp into the house…

5. The Sect of the Thirty (4th century Mediterranean)

A fairly brief account which purports to be a manuscript from the fourth century AD describing a Christian heresy, dwelling on the origin of the number 30 before going on to consider the drama of the Crucifixion and to identify ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ actors in it, concluding that there were only 2 intentional ones, namely Jesus and Judas. So the ‘Sect of the Thirty’ takes its name from the thirty pieces of silver which Jesus gave Judas.

This echoes the ficcione ‘Three Versions of Judas’ in which a renegade theologian develops the idea that the real Son of God was Judas, for whereas Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven after a few hours suffering, Judas made the ultimate sacrifice and condemned himself to everlasting hell.

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

Many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila on Florida Street up around Piedad, a group of men are gathered and having an earnest discussion about Plato’s theory of knowledge (which is that we already know everything but have forgotten it, so that ‘learning’ is merely remembering) when an older man interjects with a long and complicated story.

It is the story of the most memorable night of his life, the night of the thirtieth of April 1874,when he was little more than a boy, he was staying on the ranch of some cousins, and met Rufino, a seasoned cowhand. One night Rufino takes him into town to a brothel down a dirty back alley. The narrator is a bit overwhelmed. When confident Rufino sees him looking at a younger, shy woman, Rufino asks her to tell her tale. In a dreamy voice, the young woman, nicknamed The Captive, begins to tell the story about the time the Indians raided her ranch and took her away, but she’s barely got as far as the Indians riding towards her when the door bursts open and real-life bandits enter, led by the notorious outlaw Juan Moreira! He starts causing a lot of noise and when the little house doggy approaches, whips him so hard the dog dies there and then.

Terrified, in all the brawling, the boy narrator slips down a hallway, finds a secret stairwell and goes upstairs, into a room and hides there. It is, unsurprisingly, the room of The Captive, who quietly comes in, closes the door, slips off her clothes and makes him lie with her. It’s not described but the implication is that he loses his virginity.

But then there’s a lot more banging and a gunshot and the Captive tells our narrator to leave by the back stairs. He does so, nips across the garden and shimmies over the wall. He comes face to face with a policeman who grins and lets him go, but as he loiters, the famous outlaw Moreira slips over the same wall, presumably escaping the cops who’ve gone in the front, and the policeman steps forward and bayonets Moreira. And again. While the horrified boy looks on

Then we snap back to the ‘present’ and the now-old man reflecting on his story, that he experienced two of the Great Experiences of Life in the same night, losing his virginity and seeing a man killed in front of him.

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

After the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, in which he had defeated a Norse-Irish coalition, the High King of Ireland orders his chief bard, Ollan, to commemorate it in heroic verse. The story quickly becomes a kind of fairy tale, for it is structured round three magical events. The king gives his bard a year to go to England, travel widely, and compose a great poem. A year later he returns, and amid great ceremony, recites the poem, which is a masterpiece, which repeats and supersedes all the conventions of his forebears. The king rewards him with a silver mirror.

Then the poet goes off to England for another year, sees and hears many things, returns and this time reads from a manuscript, a poem which is much stranger, in form and substance, combining the Christian Trinity with the pagan gods, in which subject and verbs and nouns do not agree but present strange new combinations. Dazzled, the king says that only the learned can understand so strange a composition and that he will store the manuscript in an ivory casket and he gives the poet a golden mask.

After another year the poet arrives at the king’s court but he is a man transfigured, ‘His eyes seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind.’ This time the man asks to see the king alone and laments that the has produced the finest poem yet but wishes the Lord had prevented it. He asks for the hall to be emptied and then recites the poem which consists of just one line, but which is so transcendent, so numinous that both king and bard are shaken to their core, both wondering whether knowing such Beauty is a sin.

‘The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden to men. Now it behoves us to expiate it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the last.’ In the bard’s right hand he placed a dagger. Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland – which was once his kingdom – and that he has never repeated the poem.

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

This short text is pleasurably complicated, working at multiple removes in narrator and time and place. First of all it claims, in the time-honoured way, to be a transcription of a fragment of manuscript found in a dusty old volume in a library, namely an account by of Adam of Bremen, who, ‘as everyone knows’, was born and died in the eleventh century, and it starts off by being an account of what he has discovered about a people named the Urns, who live in Scandinavia.

But barely a page has gone by before Adam brings in a specific character, a traveller from Iceland named Ulf Sigurdsson. Adam claims to have met him at Uppsala, by the famous pagan temple there, where Ulf tells him his story. So now we have three layers of text:

  1. the introductory paragraph explaining this is all a manuscript in an old book
  2. the text itself describing Adam’s journeys into Sweden
  3. the narrative of Ulf

Ulf explains that he was a skald or poet from Iceland and had travelled to Sweden because he had heard that the Urns create poems with just one word. He meets a blacksmith who prepares him to be taken before the king of the Urns, Gunnlaug, in readiness for which Ulf composes a drapa, an elaborate genre of Icelandic poetry. However, when he performs it for the king, although the latter gives him a silver ring, his place is soon taken by a local poet who strikes his lyre and recites a poem which consists of just one word and everyone is much moved.

On leaving the king’s cabin, Ulf is accosted by a fellow poet, Bjarni Thorkelsson, who confirms that the old tropes Ulf used have been superseded and tells him his life is in danger. Together they conspire to get Ulf onto a boat which heads south.

At this point follows a brief summary of the rest of Ulf’s life, which was action-packed and included being an oarsman, a slave dealer, a slave, a woodcutter, a highwayman, a singer, a taster of deep waters and metals, spending a year in the quicksilver mines, fighting in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, having a big love affair with a woman by Sea of Azov, fighting a duel with a Greek, fighting the Blue Men of Serkland, the Saracens.

At the end of this long life, Ulf is a tired old man who makes his way back to the land of the Urns and, after some difficulty, finds the house of the fellow skald who saved him, Bjarni Thorkelsson. Bjarni is bed-ridden and insists on hearing Ulf’s entire life story. As a reward he takes up his harp and speaks the one Word, undr, which means ‘wonder’. The wonder of the world, and finally he understands.

With that the text ends. It does not go back up a level to Adam’s narrative, or up two levels to the original framing modern explanation. It deliberately ends on this symbolic note.

In the afterword Borges points out that one of his most famous ficciones is about an infinite library which contains every combination of every letter in every language ever conceived by man. This is the opposite, a story about just one word, which manages to capture the entire life of a culture.

9. A Weary Man’s Utopia (centuries in the future)

Some kind of vision or maybe dream. The narrator identifies himself as Eudoro Acevedo, born in 1897 in the city of Buenos Aires, 70 years old, a professor of English and American literatures and a writer of imaginative tales i.e. an avatar of Borges himself.

He is walking over a plain in the rain and sees the lights of a house and walks over to it and the door is opened by a tall man who invites him in and signals straight away that he has entered a different century, apparently in the future when other languages have fallen into desuetude and educated people speak Latin. The host is very relaxed and says they receive visitors from the past ‘from century to century’.

In this future the people are taught to forget history and culture and to rise above the present, to live in all time. He is four centuries old and has only read half a dozen books. Printing has been abolished. For his part the narrator explains that in his world, there were newspapers which made a big fuss about the latest news, a continuous turnover of trivia, plus advertising for a thousand and one products no-one needs. To fully exist you needed to be photographed.

Whereas in this future nobody has possessions, there is no money. People study philosophy or play chess. They are free to kill themselves. Everyone must sire one child but this means the human race is slowly dying out. Politics has ceased to exist because nobody paid any attention. He spends his time painting, he shows the narrator some of his paintings and gives him one as a gift.

Then a woman and three or four men enter the house peacefully and they work with the owner to dismantle all the belongings and then carry them through the streets to a crematorium where they burn all his belongings. The scene cuts back to the ‘present’ where the narrator is writing this text,

In my study on Mexico Street, in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.

There is no drama and barely any plot. Instead it is a thing of changing moods and angles.

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

As the narrator admits at the outset this is more of an anecdote than a story. It concerns three American academics who are all specialists in Anglo-Saxon literature. It takes quite a while to explain because it is about a subtle psychological point which requires an explanation of the ‘politics’ in the English Department at the University of Texas.

A key figure in the department is the upright scion of a New England family Dr Ezra Winthrop. He has been helped in his editing of Anglo-Saxon texts by the able scholar Herbert Locke. A conference is coming up, in Wisconsin. Winthrop is advising the head of the department, Lee Rosenthal, who to send.

Recently the department has been joined by a naturalised American of Icelandic descent named Eric Einarsson. The text describes a series of publications he’s made, starting with a new edition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon (which I have reviewed in this blog) then, only a few weeks before the conference, he publishes a long article in the Yale Philological Quarterly. The aim of the article is to attack the way Anglo-Saxon is taught in the department, which mainly focuses on Beowulf (which I have reviewed in this blog) which the article considers too long, confused but above all too refined and baroque a production to teach beginners.

Partly as a result of the article, Winthrop advises Rosenthal to choose Einarsson to represent the department at the forthcoming conference, rather than the loyal capable Locke. The story such as it is, boils down to the final and only real scene in the text, wherein Einarsson drops into Winthrop’s office to thank him for helping choose him to attend the conference – and then candidly lets Winthrop know how he engineered the decision. When he first met him, Einarsson was surprised that Winthrop, despite being a principled Northern, defended the South’s right to secede from the Union in the American civil war. Einarsson realised in a flash that Winthrop’s rigid Puritan morality made him bend over backwards to see the opposing point of view.

That is why he wrote a long article criticising the way the department teaches Anglo-Saxon. It was reverse psychology. He knew that Winthrop would bend over backwards to be fair so someone who had just attacked him, and choose Einarsson over loyal Locke. And that is just what happened. Low-key, eh? Subtle.

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

A peculiar story set in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1897 during the civil war which ravaged the country. It tells of a man from the country, Avelino Arredondo, a little over 20, thin, shortish, poor. He is a part of a group of young men who meet at the Café del Globo. One day he tells them he is going away. He kisses goodbye to his girlfriend, Clementina, adieu to his friends, but instead of setting off to a distant town as he told everyone, he holes up in his little apartment, never going out or reading the papers, attended by an ancient servant who brings him his meals. All is aimed towards the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, which is months away and, because this date is mentioned several times, the reader naturally wonders what might happen. Because the slow passage of time and in fact the change in the subjective experience of time is mentioned several times, we wonder if this is a science fiction story and some fabulous transformation will take place.

Alas, no. Arrendondo wakes on the morning of 25 August, dresses, breakfast, then makes his way to the cathedral square just as a group of dignitaries are leaving morning Mass. He asks a bystander to point out the president of this wartorn country, Juan Idiarte Borda, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. He belongs to the other side in the civil war (the Whites against the Reds). At his trial he is careful to emphasise that he has lived isolated from the world for months, having said goodbye to his girlfriends, all his acquaintances and not read a newspaper for months – all the more to bring out that this was an entirely existential decision by he and he alone.

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

A wonderfully short and strange story. The narrator is a poor woodcutter. A stranger turns up at his hut. He gives him food and shelter. Next morning they go for a walk. When the stranger drops his staff he orders the woodcutter to pick it up. ‘Why?’ asks the woodcutter. ‘Because I am king,’ says the stranger, ‘I am of the line of Odin’. The woodcutter replies he is a Christian. The slightly mad old king says he can prove he is king by showing him the thing in his hand. He opens his fist. There is nothing there, but when the woodcutter tentatively puts out his finger he feels something cold and sees a glitter in the sunshine.

Here is the one spooky eerie detail which makes the whole thing cohere. The king tells him it is Odin’s disk and it has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side.

13. The Book of Sand

The narrator suffers from myopia, lives in a flat by himself. A tall stranger knocks on the door, he lets him in. He says he is from the Orkney Islands. He says he sells Bibles, The narrator replies that he already owns several English translations of the Bible (as you might expect). Then the salesman opens his case and gets out another book. He bought it off an illiterate Untouchable in India. It is called the Book of Sand because, like the desert, it has no end.

No matter where he opens it there seem to be more pages at the front and back. The pages bear fantastically large page numbers and it is impossible to find one again. They haggle about a price and the salesman parts with it for a monthly pension payment and the black letter Wycliff Bible, packs his case and leaves.

Only then are we treated to the slow possession the infinite book begins to exert over its owner. He stops going out, he devotes his life to trying to tabulate the content of the infinite book, he becomes paranoid, he hides is behind other volumes on his shelves, but he begins to realise it is driving him mad, he realises the bookseller came to him willing to get rid of it at almost any price.

One day he takes it along to the National Library (which Borges himself was Director of), slips past the staff, down into the dusty basement, and without paying too much attention to the rack or shelf or position slips it in among thousand of other anonymous volumes and quickly departs, as if from the scene of a crime.

Late style

Writers who live long enough often develop a recognisably late style. In these late stories Borges is closer to the ficciones of Labyrinths than he was in Dr Brodie’s Report – for a start they’re not all set in contemporary Argentina as most of those stories were; many return to the European settings or to the remote times and places of the ficciones, although he appears to show a fondness for rugged medieval pagan Europe more than the flashy worlds of Islam and China which attracted him in the ficciones. I know what he means. There’s something more genuinely weird and eerie and rebarbative about hearing one wolf howl in the great snowy Northern forests, than there is in seeing a thousand geniis pop out of a bottle or all the dragons of Chinese legend.

But it’s not so much the subject matter, it’s the treatment. The tales are more elliptical and elusive. Borges’s late style has learned to eschew flashy effects for something more subtle and lateral. I liked Ulrikke, The Mirror, Undr, A Weary Man because the inconsequentiality of the dream subject matter matches the flat obliquity of the style.

Is it the wisdom of age or the tiredness of age or the indifference of age? Or is it the result of Borges’s blindness? He never learned braille and dictated all his later works, having them read back to him and correcting them orally, a completely different method of composition from seeing the words you write, and re-seeing them, and seeing them again as you review over and over what you have written to give it not only a rhetorical flow but a visual styling, on the page. None of that here. All of that dense reworking, the temptation to be ‘baroque’, had departed along with his sight.

Was it all or any or a combination of these factors, or just a realisation that, after the metaphysical pyrotechnics of ficciones, it was on many levels more satisfying to play a subtler game, to create not the vaunting elephants and leaping tigers of a Salvador Dali painting, but the subtle understatement of a miniaturist. In the afterword Borges describes A Weary Man’s Utopia as the most ‘honest’ of the stories. In it the exhausted and ancient man of the future devotes his life to painting what appear to be modest, not very dramatic, and semi-abstract works.

I examined the canvases, stopping before the smallest one, which represented, or suggested, a sunset and which encompassed something infinite. ‘If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend,’ he said matter-of-factly. I thanked him, but there were a few canvases that left me uneasy. I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Maybe that is an apt description of these stories, products of an old man, far advanced in his chosen craft, indifferent to praise or blame, making them for his own amusement, no longer impressed by the flashy effects of youth and middle age. Lucid and reflective.

I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Nearly… but not quite.


Related link

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


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In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


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A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris (2008)

This is a really good book about a key figure in medieval history: it feels deep and rich, comprehensively researched, and consistently thought-provoking. It provides a long, thorough and convincing portrait of this ‘great’ medieval king, with lots of insights into the culture and society of his time, not only of England, but of Wales and Scotland too. Above all, ploughing through this detailed account of the challenges Edward faced gives you a profound understanding of the sheer difficulty of being a medieval king.

You can read a good account of Edward I’s reign on Wikipedia. From Morris’s book a number of themes and ideas emerge over and above the basic facts:

The name ‘Edward’

Edward was an odd and unfashionable name for a Plantagenet king. It is a Saxon name from the same stable as Egbert and Aelfred – starkly different from the French names Norman aristocracy and royalty were used to – Guillaume, Henri, Jean, Richard and so on. This was because Edward’s father, Henry III, a feeble king, grew increasingly obsessed by religion and in particular with the last king of Saxon England, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Henry went so far as to have the Confessor’s bones dug up and reinterred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry also had rebuilt to the Confessor’s greater glory. And this is why he named his first-born son Edward.

Young manhood and education

Born in 1239, Edward grew up amid the chaos of the reign of useless father, Henry III. A major contributing factor to the chaos was the corrupt and violent behaviour of Henry’s in-laws, the French de Lusignan family (relatives of Henry’s scheming wife, Eleanor of Provence).

Discontent erupted in 1258 when a group of Henry’s senior nobles staged what was in effect a coup, forcing the king to expel the de Lusignans and to agree a comprehensive reform programme known as the Provisions of Oxford. From this high point the barons’ coup then slowly crumbled from within as they squabbled among themselves, but Henry was unable to regain full control of his kingdom and the ongoing instability led to another eruption in 1263, named The Second Barons War.

The rebel barons were led by the religious fanatic and land-grabbing baron Simon de Montfort. There’s quite a back story here, because earlier in his reign the impressionable Henry had allowed the charismatic and overbearing Montfort to marry his sister (against a lot of courtly opposition), so the rebel leader was in fact Henry’s own brother-in-law.

The rebels won the bloody Battle of Lewes in 1264, taking Henry and prince Edward (aged 25) prisoner. Edward was moved to a ‘safe’ castle in the west of England and generously given free reign which proved to be a mistake because one day he escaped on horseback to rejoin his royalist colleagues. The regrouped royalists brought the rebels to battle at Evesham in the West Midlands, killing the leading rebels including de Montfort.

Henry III was restored to a shaky sort of power, but now limited by the charters and rules he’d been obliged to comply with – the rough outlines of a ‘constitution’. For example, it was agreed that there would now be regular meetings of his nobles, the knights of the shires and burgesses from the major towns and cities. The new word ‘parliament’ began to be applied to these triannual meetings.

Henry III at first fiercely punished the rebels, confiscating their lands, imposing massive fines – but slowly discovered that this only drove the scattered rebels into further confrontation. Soon there were so many of them they acquired a name, ‘the Disinherited’, and hid out in remote parts of the realm such as the Isle of Ely, where they were difficult to defeat.

Edward learned a lot from all this.

a) In the initial stages of the rebellion he had (unbelievably) sided with de Montfort; only later, when push came to shove, did he rejoin his father’s party. Because of this he acquired a reputation for deceit and flipping sides which, as king, he was determined to rise above, by making clear and consistent decisions.
b) He realised it is a bad tactic to fiercely crush the defeated (cf the Allies’ behaviour to Wilhelmine Germany after the Great War) – you only sow the seeds for further conflict. Much better is the grand magnanimity and forgiveness practiced by his great-grandfather, Henry II, who repeatedly forgave his rebellious sons and other nobles (or America’s astonishingly forgiving attitude to defeated Japan in 1945).
c) Regular parliaments are an excellent way of letting disgruntled citizens state their problems. Right from the start of Edward’s reign he instituted regular meetings of the ‘parliament’ and he made a point of following up problems of corruption and out-of-date laws.

Crusade

If his father was besotted with the historic figure of Edward the Confessor, Edward developed a cult for the legendary King Arthur. Morris has some amusing pages explaining the rise of the legend of Arthur and the key part played in it by the fraud Geoffrey of Monmouth whose History of the Kings of Britain (written about 1136) is a farrago of fantasy and tall stories, but which devotes 60 or so pages to this King Arthur, providing a ‘factual’ basis which later writers spun out into extravagant stories.

So the first thing Edward did after marrying Eleanor of Castile was take his new bride to Glastonbury to see the (alleged and certainly faked) burial caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere. Edward was always to understand the importance of managing public events connected with the monarchy with high drama and theatrical trappings so as to imbue them with the maximum meaning and power.

He made a grand ceremony of ‘taking the cross’ to go a-crusading in 1268, in his father’s waning years. Morris shows in detail how he then set about mulcting the kingdom for the money he would need to lead his pack of knights and hangers-on to the Holy Land. Part one of the route was to head to the South of France to rendezvous with the senior partner in the crusade, King Louis IX of France. But on arrival at the Mediterranean he was dismayed to discover that Louis had been persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, not to sail to the Holy Land, but to Tunis in North Africa, to put down pirates who were causing Charles trouble. By the time Edward arrived in Tunis, Louis had made a peace treaty with the local emir so there was no fighting to be done.

The two fleets then sailed to Sicily but here a massive storm wrecked the French fleet, anchored on one side of Sicily, and the French king decided to go home. Edward continued with the English fleet – safely anchored on the other side of Sicily – to the Holy Land. His time here wasn’t quite a fiasco but it wasn’t a stunning success: Jerusalem had fallen fifty years earlier and the Crusader ‘kingdom’ more or less amounted to the town of Acre and a slender stretch of coastline. This was menaced by the Mamluk Muslims under their canny leader Baybars. A pointless foray to attack some Arab villages led to ferocious counter-measures.

The Crusaders’ best hope was to make an alliance with the new threat from the north, the Mongols, who had swept out of central Asia in the late 1100s and now held territory right across Asia, including to the north of Palestine in modern Iran. For various reasons the alliance didn’t come off. Edward realised the futility of his presence when Hugh II, king of Jerusalem, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Baybars, and all offensive operations were cancelled.

The most dramatic thing that happened to Edward in the Holy Land was an assassination attempt by a lone killer sent from Baybars, who made his way into the royal chamber and then attacked Edward with a knife. He managed to wound the king in the arm before Edward overpowered and killed him. The wound took some time to heal, but eventually Edward was well enough to pack up and set off back to England.

It was en route, in Sicily, that he learned that his father had died, in November 1272. Surprisingly, he didn’t rush home, but took his time, visiting his lands in Gascony, south-west France, and then making a point of visiting the French king and renewing his father’s fealty to him i.e. confirming the arrangement that Edward ‘owned’ Gascony on behalf of the French king.

It is a forlorn theme of the rest of Edward’s life, which Morris brings out, that he repeatedly made massive efforts to raise the money to go on a further crusade – but every time his preparations were stymied by the outbreak of conflict nearer to home and the money and troops raised to free the Holy Land were repeatedly decoyed into the never-ending conflicts in Wales or Scotland or France.

France

Edward’s father, the weakling Henry III, had been compelled in 1259 to travel to Paris and kneel before King Louis IX. Under the Treaty of Paris, Henry gave up any claim to his family’s lands in the north of France – this represented the final irrevocable loss of Normandy, Brittany, Anjour, Maine – all the territories his father (John) and uncle (Richard) and grandfather (Henry II) had laboured so long and hard to preserve. In return, though, Henry – and Edward after him – were confirmed as the legitimate rulers of Gascony, the rich wine-growing region in south-west France – so long as they did homage and recognised Louis as their feudal lord for these possessions.

Although it was an unstable arrangement, Edward had good personal relations with the French kings of his day, travelled to Paris more than once to confirm the arrangement and so – eerily – we were at peace with France for the first half of his reign.

This changed abruptly in Edward’s final, troubled decade, with the advent of a new French king, Philip IV. The French encouraged their merchant ships in the Channel to clash with English ships, with casualties on both sides. When Philip requested Edward to attend in person in Paris to discuss these and other minor skirmishes, Edward was too busy in Scotland to attend and so the French king declared Gascony forfeit.

Outraged, for the next ten years Edward tried to organise a major reconquest of Gascony but kept getting derailed by his troubles in Wales and Scotland. Some expeditionary forces were sent to the province, but generally were defeated or made small gains which were overturned by the much larger French forces. In the end it was the pope who came to Edward’s aid, demanding a peace between the two Christian kings and the restoration of the province by the French under pain of excommunication. We regained Gascony thanks to the pope.

Wales

The leading figure in late 12th century Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He was based in the core Welsh territory in the north, Gwynedd, which included the Isle of Anglesea. During the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, Llywelyn – via the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery – had expanded his territory to include the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad and was recognised in his title of Prince of Wales.

Morris explains how different Welsh laws and customs were to English ones. The Welsh regarded themselves as heirs to the Britons who once inhabited all of Britain but had been disinherited twice over – once by the invading Anglo-Saxons from the 500s  and then by the Normans after 1066. Successive English kings had allotted the lands along the border with Wales to their strongest nobles. The border was known as the March and the nobles collectively as the Marchers. March lands had their own laws and customs and the Marcher lords liked to think that they were bounden to neither Welsh nor English laws. Low-level conflict between the Marcher lords and the Welsh was almost permanent.

English estates were passed on through primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. This has the merit of keeping grand estates united, making clear who the heir is, and has the spin-off effect of motivating younger sons to go and do something worthwhile like fight for the king or go on crusade. The Welsh had a completely different system of partitioning the estate of a dead man among all his male heirs. This led to the continual fragmentation of Welsh territory into small, relatively powerless estates, and to continual conflict between male members of families, and their allies.

So it was that Llywelyn’s fiercest enemies weren’t the English Marcher lords, but his own family, specifically his younger brother Dafydd. In 1274 Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys organised an assassination attempt against Llywelyn. It failed and they defected to the English, promising to fight for Edward in return for part of Llywelyn’s land. Morris enumerates the numerous minor incursions and skirmishes between English and Welsh in these years – but the snapping point came when Llywelyn announced his intention to marry Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of his father. The alliance of his Welsh enemies with the powerful de Montfort family on the Continent was too dangerous to be allowed. In November 1276 Edward declared war on Llywelyn and invaded with a massive force of 15,500 – of whom 9,000 were Welshmen. There wasn’t any single major battle, just skirmishes, the Welsh making hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the larger force then running back to the hills.

(In fact it’s a characteristic of medieval warfare that there were very few battles; campaigns consisted of armies making great marches destroying, burning and pillaging everything in their path. It’s startling to read that, when King Edward finally brought William Wallace to battle at Falkirk on 22 July 1298, it was the first battle Edward had been involved in for 33 years, since the Battle of Evesham in 1265!)

Edward reinforced his advance by setting masons to build castles at key defensive points on his march into Llywelyn’s heartland. While his military campaign squeezed the Welsh into more remote fastnesses, the castles were built to protect Edward’s rear and to provide a permanent means of controlling the region. Llywelyn was forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was deprived of all his conquests of the previous twenty years, and left only with the core heartland of Gwynedd, and the rather empty title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

Edward pressed on with his castle-building. Most of the castles which the Welsh Tourist Board invites you to come and marvel at are in fact symbols of their nation’s subjection by the English.

But the insensitive imposition of English law and practices turned many minor Welsh nobility who had been neutral in the Llywelyn war against the settlement, and in 1282 war broke out again, led again by the difficult Dafydd. This time Edward was angry at the breach of the peace treaty, and invaded in full strength determined to take no prisoners. Llywelyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in December 1282. In June 1283 Dafydd was also captured, taken to Shrewsbury, and hanged, drawn and quartered. The heads of the rebellious brothers were sent to London to be exhibited on spikes.

But peace in the Middle Ages never lasts long. There were further rebellions in 1287–88 and, in 1294, a serious uprising under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward successfully suppressed both, but at some cost, and causing disruption to his other plans (the Holy Land, Gascony).

Edward was determined to stamp complete control on Wales. By the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales was incorporated into England and was given an administrative system like the English, with counties policed by sheriffs – ‘coins, laws, towns and charters’ as Morris sums it up. Edward embarked on the full-scale English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. The inhabitants of these towns were to be solely English, with the Welsh banned from living in them. Morris doesn’t hesitate to call this a form of apartheid.

(A fascinating aspect of these new towns or bastides is that, contrary to popular belief that the Middle Ages built everything in quaint windy lanes, they were laid out on a rigid grid pattern as this aerial view of Winchelsea, one of Edward’s English new towns, makes clear.)

Castles

The main medieval strategy for securing a conquered territory was to build castles. We are lucky in having the name of Edward’s master mason, an Italian he recruited in his slow journey back from the Ninth Crusade – Master James of Saint George.

Master James built the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, which were intended as both fortresses and royal palaces for the King. These strongholds made a strong statement about Edward’s intentions to rule North Wales permanently. They drew on imagery from both the Byzantine Empire (in the shape and coloration of the buildings) and the legend of King Arthur, to assert the legitimacy of Edward’s rule.

In 1284 King Edward ensured that his son Edward (later Edward II) was born at Caernarfon Castle – another deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ – a tradition which continues to this day – and was granted land across North Wales with a view to permanently controlling the region.

Scotland

Morris has an interesting few pages about 13th century English racism i.e. the firm conviction that the Welsh, Irish and Scots were semi-human barbarians. This was based on their poverty relative to lush fertile England, to their chaotic social structures (the hosts of petty ‘kings’ always fighting each other), to their different attitudes to sex and marriage, and to their traditions of Christianity, alien in many ways to the orthodox Catholicism of the English and especially of the Europeanised Norman kings.

But within this general observation there are fascinating insights.

For example, the Welsh were ethnically very unified, descendants of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the island, who had been pushed west by the Romans, more so by the Angles and Saxons, and then again by the Norman invaders. Yet, partly because of their tradition of partitioning estates at the death of their owner among all adult males, the country was in a permanent state of infighting among a host of petty lords.

This contrasted strongly with 13th century Scotland, which was a surprisingly multi-ethnic society: in the south-west were the original ‘Brittonic elements’, but the south-east was mostly populated by English, remnants of the extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; in the west the inhabitants were of Gaelic stock, having immigrated from Ireland during the Dark Ages; and all around the coast, especially in the islands, lived people of Norwegian (Viking) stock (p.241). Then, after the Conquest, numbers of Norman knights settled in Scottish lands and, in the mid-12th century, there was a large influx of Flemish settlers.

Yet despite this multi-ethnicity, ironically the Scots had a more unified political culture than the Welsh, mainly because they had adopted the European idea of primogeniture, which ensured the maintenance of a strong central power. There were still civil wars and rebellions, but behind them all was always the established idea of one king of Scotland, in a way that there wasn’t an accepted idea of one central king of Wales.

It’s interesting to learn that around the end of the 11th century Scotland underwent a significant ‘anglicisation’. It is usually dated to the rule of Scots King David I. David had been brought up at the court of Henry I, around 1100, where he imbibed the courtly and urbane manners of European culture. As Morris points out, before this Scots kings had generally had Gaelic names, like Malcolm (Máel Coluim); afterwards they tended to have classical, Biblical or Norman names – Alexander, William, David. In fact, so sweeping were the changes that medieval scholars refer to them collectively as the ‘Davidian Revolution’:

The Davidian Revolution is a term given by many scholars to the changes which took place in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of David I (1124–1153). These included his foundation of burghs, implementation of the ideals of Gregorian Reform, foundation of monasteries, Normanization of the Scottish government, and the introduction of feudalism through immigrant Norman and Anglo-Norman knights. (Wikipedia)

All this meant that the kings of England tended to have much more respect for the King of the unified Scots than for the prince of the squabbling Welsh. They were more their idea of what kings should be. Edward I had been on good terms with the Scots king of his day, Alexander III (reigned 1249 to 1286), who paid him homage for the English lands he held of him (much as Edward paid the King of France homage for his territory of Gascony).

But when Alexander’s two sons and daughter all died young, and then Alexander himself died in 1286, and then his grand-daughter, seven-year-old Matilda, died while sailing back from Norway (where she’d been born) in 1290, there were no blood relatives left – the line of Alexander became defunct. This led to a massive succession crisis known in Scotland as ‘The Great Cause’.

There was a wide range of candidates to succeed and so an independent arbiter was needed. The nobles in charge of the process, the so-called ‘Guardians’ of Scotland, decided to ask King Edward to adjudicate the various claims. But Edward promptly horrified the Scots nobles by claiming complete sovereignty over Scotland. This set off a long train of highly legalistic disputes, claims and counter-claims. Morris details the complex negotiations whereby both sides tried to reconcile their conflicting views.

In fact a distinguishing feature of this book is the detail Morris goes into to show how legalistic so many of these disputes were in origin and enactment. I.e Edward was generally at pains to establish his right to a territory or cause; in the case of the Scots legalistic attempts to establish the next king dragged on for years before there was any hint of violence and many of the details are illuminating and amusing, for example the refusal of the Scots nobles to pay homage to Edward on English soil, leading to a lot of toing and froing over the bridge over the Tweed which formed the border between the two kingdoms.

On a high level, the legal approaches broke down and led to open warfare, which dragged on for the rest of Edward’s reign. The English beat the Scots, the Scots beat the English – either one of the two main contenders for the throne – Robert the Bruce or John Balliol – alternately allied with Edward then turned against him. Stirling castle was lost, then won again, then lost again.

In a way these wars are like love stories – ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again’ is the famous summary of all Hollywood love stories – similarly, ‘King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England loses Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland) again’ is the high level summary. the interest is in the detail, and a lot of the detail in fact comes down to money.

Taxes

In his preface Morris says this is the first full-length biography of Edward for a century. I would guess that some of the biggest changes since the last one would be a more politically correct, culturally aware sense of the impact of English rule on the other nations of Britain (described above). But I also imagine this book goes into much greater detail about the economics of kingship.

These kings lived in a state of permanent financial crisis. The uprising against Henry III was prompted partly because of the corrupt influence of foreigners at court, but also because of Henry’s arbitrary and fierce levying of taxes on his subjects. The single biggest theme in Morris’s book isn’t war or King Arthur or Scotland – it is Edward’s permanent struggle to find enough money to pay for everything.

Crusades, building castles, fighting the Welsh, fighting the Scots, defending Gascony – they all cost money, drained the royal coffers, and Morris goes into exacting detail about Edward’s finances. Broadly speaking, in the first half of his reign Edward went out of his way to appear constitutional, to confirm the annual calling of parliaments, to confirm Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests, to review grievances and issues all around his kingdom, to tour his lands and listen to local sheriffs and knights. Morris details the clever arrangement Edward devised with his Italian bankers, the Riccardi family from Lucca, whereby Edward swore over to them a fixed annual percentage of his wool tax in return for loans.

But in the 1290s this system broke down under the pressure of multiple threats, in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and then the brief intense threat of invasion from France (French ships raided and burned some of the Cinque Ports on the South Coast). Edward was forced by the huge expenditure required by these simultaneous wars to break many of the good practices of his early reign, by imposing a bewildering range of clever and onerous taxes, on towns and merchants, on the entire wool trade, on nobles and barons, and a punishing set of taxes on the (very wealthy) English church. Among many other things, the book is a thorough introduction to the world of medieval taxes, to maltotes and prises, to scutage and tallages and fifteenths and thirtieths.

The last quarter of the book describes how Edward threw away much of the goodwill generated by 20 years of good kingship, and comprehensively alienated every element in society, prompting armed insurrection by a number of leading nobles (most frequently the earls of Norfolk and Hereford, Roger Bigod and Humphrey de Bohun). In the legalistic way of the age (and of Morris’s account) this led to numerous parliaments and confrontations – but by 1300 England teetered on the brink of a civil war, with church and nobility allied against the king, which hadn’t been seen since the bad days of King Henry in the 1250s.

Luckily, this very moment saw the eruption onto the scene of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace, who raised forces in the west of Scotland and went onto win a series of devastating victories against the (badly supplied) English garrisons. As news of these reached England, the crisis (temporarily) united king and aristocracy into a determination to defeat Wallace.

But even though the nobility closed ranks, Morris’s account is fascinating in showing just how hard it still was for Edward to persuade his nobility to fight at all – many of them refused the call to rally to the king’s standard or marched north only to hesitate and pull out at the last moment. Time and again Morris shows how the initially impressive levies of infantry quickly melted away once they’d crossed the border, basically because the king ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay them. Edward’s letters to his Exchequer survive and record a king driven to mounting rage and frustration at not being sent enough money to pay  his troops, which melt away just at vital moments of the campaign.

I came to this book knowing that Edward was known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ but come away with a much more informed sense of the difficulty of funding medieval kingship and the really immense challenge of raising enough money to fund even a single military campaign.

In a telling symbol, Morris points out how Master James the castle builder had thousands of pounds in the 1280s to build edifices like Caernarfon out of solid stone, but by the late 1290s the money had slowed to a trickle and he was being paid only £20 a week to build the final castles of the reign, Linlithgow and Selkirk – and in wood!

The last seven years of his reign (to his death in 1307) involved more fighting against the Welsh and Scots and French but none of these was brought to a final resolution and he handed over the conflicts, the dire state of royal finances, and a nobility and church very disgruntled at being repeatedly fleeced and mulcted, over to his son, Edward II.

Wife and children

When he was 14 Edward was married off by his father to 13-year-old Eleanor, the half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile. The idea behind this alliance was to make the southern borders of Gascony safe from attack. In this respect it worked but also, unusually for a medieval royal couple, Edward and Eleanor fell deeply in love. For their entire adult lives they were inseparable.

When Eleanor of Castile died, aged just 49, in 1290, Edward’s grief was immense and sincere. He built the largest funerary monument ever created in England – separate tombs, at Lincoln and Westminster. And a series of twelve large stone and marble crosses to mark each of the resting points of her corpse as it was carried from Lincoln to London – the last one being in central London at the station now known as Charing Cross (corrupted from the French chère reine or ‘dear queen’).

Eleanor of Castile had borne Edward 15 or 16 children (the precise number is uncertain). Only four of these were boys and so able to inherit the throne, but two died very young, John aged 4 and Henry aged 6. The succession then passed to the third son – Alfonso. Alfonso. There could have been an English king named Alfonso! But in the event, prince Alfonso also died relatively young – aged just 9 – and the throne was to pass to Edward and Eleanor’s 12th child and 4th son, also named Edward.


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The Muse Among the Motors by Rudyard Kipling

‘A series of verses on motoring and motorists, in the form of parodies in the style of earlier writers’

a) Kipling was an early enthusiast for motor cars from the moment his friend, the newspaper tycoon Lord Harmsworth, arrived at his Sussex home in one in 1900. He quickly bought a very early model – in fact a soon-to-be redundant steam-powered car, a ‘Locomobile’ – and employed the first of a series of chauffeur-engineers to drive and maintain it for him.

b) Kipling’s family was very artistic and throughout the children’s childhood and youth, the whole family read poetry and plays together, especially Shakespeare. Encouraged by this cultured environment, Kipling showed a precocious ability at writing pastiches and parodies from an early age. One of his first books was a self-published collection of parodies titled Echoes, printed when he was just 19.

After the turn of the century, when the South African war was over and Kipling had settled into his new home in rural Sussex, the two interests came together in a series of light-hearted pastiches of early, medieval and romantic poetry, with Kipling copying the styles of various classic poets (Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Donne, Milton, Byron Wordsworth and so on) as if they’d written poems about motor cars.

The first 14 were published in the Daily Mail in 1904 – to which he added six more in 1919, and a further six in 1929, making 26 in total. Some are very short. None are masterpieces. Some are mildly amusing. I like his take on the alliterative four-stress line of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

The Advertisement

(In the Manner of the Earlier English)

Whether to wend through straight streets strictly,
Trimly by towns perfectly paved;
Or after office, as fitteth thy fancy,
Faring with friends far among fields;
There is none other equal in action,
Sith she is silent, nimble, unnoisome,
Lordly of leather, gaudily gilded,
Burgeoning brightly in a brass bonnet,
Certain to steer well between wains.

and his spoof of Chaucer (I particularly like the line about Paris, that is exactly the kind of thing Chaucer says about his characters):

The Justice’s Tale

(Chaucer)

WITH them there rode a lustie Engineere
Wel skilled to handel everich waie her geere,
Hee was soe wise ne man colde showe him naught
And out of Paris was hys learnynge brought.
Frontlings mid brazen wheeles and wandes he sat,
And on hys heade he bare an leathern hat.
Hee was soe certaine of his governance,
That, by the Road, he tooke everie chaunce.
For simple people and for lordlings eke
Hee wolde not bate a del but onlie squeeke
Behinde their backés on an horné hie
Until they crope into a piggestie.
He was more wood than bull in china-shoppe,
And yet for cowes and doggés wolde hee stop,
Not our of Marcie but for Preudence-sake—
Than hys dependaunce ever was hys brake.

and this one, copying Adam Lindsay Gordon who I’ve never heard of, but which has the combination of sentimental pathos and humour of the Barrack-Room Ballads and also the punchiest final line.

The Dying Chauffeur

(Adam Lindsay Gordon)

WHEEL me gently to the garage, since my car and I must part –
No more for me the record and the run.
That cursèd left-hand cylinder the doctors call my heart
Is pinking past redemption – I am done!

They’ll never strike a mixture that’ll help me pull my load.
My gears are stripped – I cannot set my brakes.
I am entered for the finals down the timeless untimed Road
To the Maker of the makers of all makes!

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A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)


Related links

On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas

“Alas! the subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land.”

The 6th century Welsh monk Gildas is the patron saint of all those well-educated people who think the country’s going to the dogs. He is the first Daily Mail leader writer, 1,400 years before the Daily Mail was founded. He even blames the immigrants for bringing the country to its knees – though for him it isn’t blacks or Asians or Poles – it’s the damn Angles and Saxons and Jutes.

And I thought to myself, ‘If God’s peculiar people, chosen from all the people of the world, the royal seed, and holy nation, to whom he had said, “My first begotten Israel,” its priests, prophets, and kings, throughout so many ages, his servant and apostle, and the members of his primitive church, were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this our age, in which, besides all the huge and heinous sins, which it has common with all the wicked of the world committed, is found an innate, indelible, and irremediable load of folly and inconstancy?’

These quotes are from his best-known work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in which he bemoans everything. The work is in 110 paragraphs which are conventionally divided into three parts: the background or history (the bit we’re interested in); a short condemnation of three contemporary kings followed by a long sequence of extensive quotes from Old Testament prophets to back Gildas up; and then condemnation of his fellow religious, priests and monks – all are to blame for the dire state of affairs in sub-Roman Britain.

Despite its slavish, often obscure and extremely lengthy references to Scripture and its convoluted style, the De Excidio is the only significant source for the period written by a near contemporary of the people and events described – and as such is invaluable.

But it is, alas, not a history:

To my mind, it is a grave mistake to call Gildas a ‘historian’: neither Columbanus, writing about forty years after his death, nor Alcuin, in the last quarter of the eighth century, regard him in this light… Gildas would never have regarded himself as a ‘historian’: he is a preacher, a revivalist, who will ‘attempt to state a few facts’ (pauca dicere conamur), by way of illustrating his message, that divine anger must visit with punishment a sinning people and priesthood. (Hugh Williams).

It is a sermon against unjust rulers, a Tract for the Times, a warning and a harrowing blast against ungodliness. The brief history it contains is just an introduction to the lengthy diatribe.

Choice of editions

I am aware of three web locations for the text:

Summary

Preface Paragraphs 1-2 – Preface and motives for writing

Part I Paragraphs 3-26 Description of Britain and a history from the Romans to Gildas’ time. His account of the 400 year Roman occupation seems garbled: he thinks the Romans only stayed periodically, arriving to put down incursions by the Picts and Scots or Boadicea and promptly departing. Very wrong. He skips several centuries from Boadicea to arrive at the crowning of Maximus emperor who takes the Roman legions with him to claim his throne on the continent in the 400s. It is in this section that we have our only reference to the letter supposedly written to Aetius the Roman by the Britons once they’d been abandoned to their fate by the departed legions:

Therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—”To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.” And again a little further, thus:—”The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” The Romans, however, could not assist them…

For Gildas the greatest catastrophe was to invite the Saxons to come help us against the raids of the Picts and the Scots in the North:

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel!

The Saxons ask for more and more pay until open hostility breaks out with their British hosts and, as the Saxons recruit more and more reinforcements from across the North Sea, the Britons are forced to retreat in their own land:

Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain… some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation… Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country.

But the remnant is led by one Ambrosius Aurelianus who leads the Britons to victory against the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and a period of peace ensues, though a peace among the ruins.

But not even at the present day are the cities of our country inhabited as formerly; deserted and dismantled, they lie neglected until now, because, although wars with foreigners have ceased, domestic wars continue.

These three – the begging letter, the invitation to the Saxons, the battle of Mons Badonicus – occur in no other source and are taken up by all succeeding historians down to our own time.

Part II Paragraphs 27-37 form the Denunciation of the Five Kings for their various sins, a list which includes utterly obscure figures and relatively well-documented ones:

  • Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia: charged with murdering two royal youths in a church – murder and sacrilege – putting away his first wife – adultery & fornication
  • thou lion’s whelp (as the prophet saith), Aurelius Conanus, a pagan, charged with murder, fornication, adultery
  • Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians – growing old and rich in murder and adulteries and the practices of a shameless daughter
  • Cuneglasse who has rejected his wife and married her sister
  • Maglocune who killed his uncle, the king, converted to become a monk, but then abandoned his vows to revert to being a dissolute licentious king, murdering his nephew and first wife. Gildas says his sin is all the worse because he had the most eloquent master in Britain as tutor. Who?

How useful it would have been to have their family trees explained, their achievements listed and their supposed crimes explained; instead Gildas resorts to lengthy biblical quotes and exegeses which bury the reality of historic individuals under tonnes of second hand verbiage:

And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary, whereby I might the less carefully avoid that saying of Isaiah, “Woe be to them who call good evil, and evil good placing darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, who seeing see not, and hearing hear not, whose hearts are overshadowed with a thick and black cloud of vices; “I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon.

BUT, Gildas’s learning and sense of design is to be noted a) the five princes chosen for vilification are described with the same adjectives as the beast in the Book of revelation b) the long section in which Gildas quotes the authority of the prophets to back up his condemnation of the kings follows the same order of the source books in the Old Testament.

He was known as Gildas Sapiens, Gildas the Wise, and is referred to in letters of St Columbanus to the Pope around 600, and by Alcuin in the later 700s. He was clearly a name, a big man, in his time.

Part III Paragraphs 38-63 Extensive quotations from Scripture against wicked kings. Gildas works systematically and in order through the books of the Old Testament taking quotes which rail against unjust kings and how they will be sent to Hell.

What then shall unhappy leaders do now? Those few who have abandoned the broad way and are finding the narrow, are forbidden by God to pour out prayers for you, who persist in evil and tempt Him so greatly: upon whom, on the contrary, if you return with your heart unto God, they could not bring vengeance, because God is unwilling that the soul of man should perish, but calls it back, lest he who is cast away should utterly perish. Because, not even Jonas the prophet, and that when he greatly desired it, could bring vengeance on the Ninevites. But putting aside, meanwhile, our own words, let us rather hear what sound the prophetic trumpet gives: And if thou say this in thy heart, wherefore are these evils come? They come for the greatness of thy iniquity. If the Ethiop can change his skin, or the leopard his spots, ye also can do good, who have learnt to do evil.

Part IV Paragraphs 64-110 a similar attack upon the British clergy of the age which holds up to them lengthy examples of self-sacrifice and holiness from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Lives of the Saints and Martyrs.

Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly. They have church edifices, but enter them for the sake of filthy lucre; they teach the people, but by furnishing the worst examples, teach vice and evil morals; they seldom sacrifice, and never stand among the altars with pure heart; they do not reprove the people on account of their sins, nay, in fact, they commit the same; they despise the commandments of Christ, and are careful to satisfy their own lusts with all their prayers: they get possession of the seat of the apostle Peter with unclean feet, but, by the desert of cupidity, fall into the unwholesome chair of the traitor Judas.

Regret

The De Excidio is a fascinating insight into the mindset of a 6th century Welsh monk, a very educated man living in difficult times whose entire mental outlook, whose intellectual framework, is completely determined by Christian Scripture and teaching, its slightly hysterical millennial sense of the nearness of Doomsday and the burning urgency of repentance and prostration before God. Compared to the suave ironies of the pagan Tacitus, this is the new verbose, florid and emotional voice of the Christian Middle Ages.

But oh oh oh if only he had made fewer tedious references to the Old Testament we all know too well and had elaborated just a little on the pagan Britons’ religious beliefs and rituals of which we know virtually nothing:

I shall, therefore, omit those ancient errors common to all the nations of the earth, in which, before Christ came in the flesh, all mankind were bound; nor shall I enumerate those diabolical idols of my country, which almost surpassed in number those of Egypt, and of which we still see some mouldering away within or without the deserted temples, with stiff and deformed features as was customary. Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which now are subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.

What diabolical idols? Where were these temples, what were they like, what ceremonies were carried out there? Why were the idols features stiff and deformed? How did the people pay honour to the mountains, fountains, hills and rivers?

So tantalisingly close – and yet so frustratingly far.

More about Gildas

1638 translation of Gildas into English

1638 translation of Gildas into English

Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics by JRR Tolkien (1936)

Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1925 to 1945. In 1936 he delivered this lecture about Beowulf to the British Academy. It is often cited as a turning point in studies of the poem because it completely changed the focus from seeing Beowulf as a primarily historical document – which (from a historian’s point of view) frustratingly fails to explain the many legends it fleetingly refers to, and wastes all its energy on childish monsters – to viewing it as a sophisticated work of art which uses its fairy-tale monsters to convey a surprisingly modern and relevant worldview about the ubiquity of Evil and the need to confront it, no matter what the cost.

Beowulf misused as history Tolkien claims that up to his time Beowulf has been recognised as important by critics and historians but consistently misinterpreted. By historians, philologists, archaeologists etc it has been mined for information about Germanic customs and religion and clothes and warfare. But Beowulf is not a historical document: it is a poem, a work of art. Its very success as a poem has created the sense that it is historical when, in fact, the most recent research has tended to highlight (as with Shakespeare’s treatment of history) its inconsistencies and cavalier approach.

So far from being a poem so poor that only its accidental historical interest can still recommend it, Beowulf is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent even of the most important facts… that research has discovered. It is indeed a curious fact that it is one of the peculiar poetic virtues of Beowulf that has contributed to its own critical misfortunes. The illusion of historical truth and perspective that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry, is largely a product of art. The author has used an instinctive historical sense – a part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.

Critics despise the monsters And literary critics have consistently been embarrassed by the centrality to the plot of the monsters which Beowulf has to kill – Grendel, his mother and the dragon.

Literary critics up to Tolkien’s day preferred the many Germanic tales which are alluded to throughout the poem, stories which dealt with purely mortal men and sounded a lot like the classical Greek tragedies they had all studied in Classics at school.

For these critics, the Beowulf poet was guilty of crass bad taste in banishing these moving adult tragedies to the periphery and placing at the centre of the poem a series of childish folk tales, dealing with creatures out of fairy story or nursery rhyme. Tolkien quotes the great critic W.P. Ker, who in 1905 wrote:

The great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.

Tolkien’s counter arguments It is this damning perception which Tolkien sets out to overturn, and he succeeded so well that his lecture is cited by every subsequent study as marking a sea change in attitudes.

For Tolkien asserted that, far from being the rag-tag, miscellany of an immature and juvenile culture, the ragamuffin product of a poet overwhelmed by silly folk stories and stitching them together willy-nilly – the Beowulf poet was a latecomer, arriving at the end of a mature and full civilisation, after it had been converted to Christianity, well aware of all the old legends and stories, who made a conscious choice to place the monsters at the centre of the poem because they are in fact the quintessence of the old pagan worldview: they encapsulate on a mythical level the evil, the unreason and the unavoidable death which all men face.

Tolkien marshals a range of arguments:

  • Other long Old English poems – e.g. Andreas, Guthlac – which contain just as dignified and high a style, somehow fail to have anything like the impact of Beowulf – could it be the much-condemned mythical subject matter which gives Beowulf depth and not its peers?
  • Criticism of the triviality and folk-taleness of the plot stem from reducing it to a synopsis, telling the story in outline – a fine methodology for comparative folk tale analysis but disastrous for poetry, which is made out of the texture of the words.
  • A deep prejudice of taste makes the critics of his time rate purely human tragedies as the highest genre: as he puts it, ‘Doom is held less literary than άµαρτία”. This represents, in Tolkien’s view, a lack of feeling for ‘the mythological mode of imagination’.

The significance of a myth is not easily pinned down on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and, what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.

  • The very process of analysing the poem, for purely historical or archaeological or narratological purposes, destroys its greatest effect, its power in every part.

Far from putting the essential legends of Germanic heroes at the periphery and filling the foreground with triteness, the Beowulf-poet has summarised the essence of the Northern worldview, of a doomed hero with his back against the wall – the exaltation of undefeated will. This is the Northern spirit which receives such stirring expression in the words of Byrhtwold at the battle of Maldon.

It is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to this theme, and has drawn the struggle in different proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… The particular is on the outer edge, the essential in the centre…

When we have read his poem, as a poem, rather than as a collection of episodes, we perceive that he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; whereon, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat….

Beowulf is not, then, the hero of an heroic lay, precisely. He has no enmeshed loyalties, nor hapless love. He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy…

It is not an irritating accident that the tone of the poem is so high and its theme so low. It is the theme in its deadly seriousness that begets the dignity of tone:

lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.

So deadly and ineluctable is the underlying thought, that those who in the circle of light, within the besieged hall, are absorbed in work or talk and do not look to the battlements, either do not regard it or recoil. Death comes to the feast, and they say He gibbers: He has no sense of proportion. I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.

By putting the monsters at the centre of his poem, the poet transcends the details of time and place to confront the timeless Problem of Evil

Tolkien goes on to address various other criticisms which have been made, such as the accusation that the poet’s combination of Old Testament with Germanic legends shows confusion and primitiveness. Tolkien argues at length that it shows just the opposite – a profound mind meditating on and assimilating the implications of the new Christian worldview:

In the poem I think we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion. But that shift is not complete in Beowulf – whatever may have been true of its period in general. Its author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise…

Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there. The worth of defeated valour in this world is deeply felt. As the poet looks back into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’or ‘civilization’) ends in night. The solution of that tragedy is not treated – it does not arise out of the material.

We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair. He could view from without, but still feel immediately and from within, the old dogma: despair of the event, combined with faith in the value of doomed resistance. He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse.

Tolkien contrasts Beowulf with the southern, Mediterranean world of the Classics, which so many of his contemporaries were brought up on and against which they are judging Beowulf and finding it lacking:

It is the strength of the Northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

Unlike, say, the Odyssey with its strange, hanging happy ending or the Iliad which ends in media res with the funeral of Patroclus but the war still unconcluded, Beowulf ends with the funeral and burial of the hero and the threatened end of his people, the Geats.

Although it manages to have Christian sentiment throughout, the final feeling is of a very modern existentialist view of the world, as cold, heartless, shelterless, where most of us are abandoned to figure out our lives by whatever code or guidelines we can muster.

For Tolkien, delivering this lecture in the 1930s, in the shadow of the Nazis, the heartless Northern view of life must have seemed much more pressing and contemporary than the sweet perfections of the Classical tradition.


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Beowulf – elements of style

In the introduction to his Penguin 1973 edition of Beowulf, Michael Alexander summarises elements of the style of Beowulf and their consequences. (All quotes in the following are from Michael Alexander’s 1973 translation, reproduced with kind permission of the author):

1. The alliterative verse line

Number one is the use of alliteration as a device to order the verse rather than end-rhyme. Alliteration is much more intrusive, up to three words are dictated by the form as opposed the one of end-rhyme and this helps the tendency to clump words into alliterating stock phrases. Next is the inflected nature of the language which allows complex meaning to be conveyed by one word, and powerful meanings by just two. Compact and energetic. But the real key to Old English verse structure is the caesura which divides the two half lines, holding in balance the short clauses:

þaér æt hýðe | stód hringedstefna

There at hythe [harbour] | stood the ringed-prow [ship]

This balancing has all kinds of affects, as Alexander puts it:

Traditional oral composition by phrase accounts for an exclamatory lack of syntactic subordination and for the tacking, eddying, resumptive movement of the sense.

There is a continual play between the demands of sense ie the syntactic units not to be too far apart – and of the alliterative scheme ie some sets of words fit fluently together regardless of sense and so being grouped together regardless of sense: an accumulation of short stocky phrases.

The symmetry of the halves of the line produces balance, antithesis and chiasmos much more commonly than in unrhymed iambic pentameter, and the forward movement is much more impeded than in later English blank verse. The halves of the line are, as often as not, out of the natural sequence of prose or spoken syntax and, as the mind reshuffles the parts of the sentence, the tendency is for the half-lines to move apart; but the alliteration and the stress pattern bind them together. The final impression of the verse in Beowulf is of contrasting energies being held in a rhythmic balance – and this is also the impression of the poem as a whole.

This is what Alexander captures in his use of “exclamatory”. Reading Anglo Saxon verse is like a series of hand grenades going off in your mind, in your mouth, as punchy phrase follows punchy phrase. Or, as Tolkien puts it in his famous essay, The Monsters and the Critics:

We must not view this poem as in intention an exciting narrative or a romantic tale.The very nature of Old English metre is often misjudged. In it there is no single rhythmic pattern progressing from the beginning of a line to the end, and repeated with variation in other lines. The lines do not go according to a tune. They are founded on a balance; an opposition between two halves of roughly equivalent phonetic weight, and significant content, which are more often rhythmically contrasted than similar. They are more like masonry than music.

2. Other elements of style

The kenning is a figure of speech in old Germanic or Norse literature which uses two words, one in the genitive or possessive case, to create a periphrasis or roundabout way of describing an object. Thus, in Beowulf, the sea is described as the seġl-rād “sail-road” (1429b), swan-rād “swan-road” (200a), hron-rād “whale-road” (10). (Riddles were a big part of Germanic culture. There are two entire sets of riddles in the AngloSaxon corpus, 90 riddles survive in the Exeter Book. Kennings are a kind of miniature riddle).

From the south blazed
the sun, the world’s candle (1965-6)

When heaven’s jewel
has glided from the world… (2073)

God they thanked
For the smooth going over the salt-trails (228)

Day in the east grew
God’s bright beacon, | and the billows sank… (571)

… a chief shall greet
his fellow with gifts | over the gannet’s bath (1861)

Riding at anchor
the strayer of ocean… (1882)

A special sea dress, | a sail, was hoisted… (1906)

… until they took part | in that play-of-the-shields… (2038)

the daring-in-battle | would address the harp,
the joy wood… (2108)

since the legacy of the hammer [sword], | hard and battle-scarred,
the iron edges, | had utterly destroyed him (2828)

As this selection shows they are good but not that good. Some of them stray from being kennings to being simple metaphors. In fact it’s surprising and a little disappointing that there are so few kennings in Beowulf, I counted fewer than 20 in total. This is not where the poet’s energies were directed. More effort went into…

Pleasure in elaborating – armour God, kings, heroes and some classes of objects tend to have repeatable descriptive phrases cluster round them in apposition.

He then saw in the hall | a host of young soldiers,
a company of kinsmen | caught away in sleep,
a whole warrior-band. (728)

the grisly plaint of God’s enemy,
his song of ill-success, the sobs of the damned one
bewailing his pain. (786)

Let’s take objects first: the poem is awash with description of objects, especially those manmade objects which indicate status and class and that means, pre-eminently, arms and armour. Finely carved armour, especially if it involved gold, was possibly the most precious and rare object in the Migration Age; cups, goblets, jewellery come a close second but armour was heavily invested with the masculine values of the time – the strongest warrior was expected to wear the finest armour; and arms and armour were also an important part of the gift-giving which bound Dark Age society together:

The war-coats shone
and the links of hard | hand-locked iron
sang in their harness | as they stepped along
in their gear of grim aspect | going to the hall.
Sea-wearied, they then | set against the wall
their broad shields | of special temper,
and bowed to bench, | battle-shirts clinking,
the war-dress of warriors. (322-8)

Then as a sign of victory | the son of Healfdene
bestowed on Beowulf | a standard worked in gold,
a figured battle-banner, | breast and head armour;
and many admired | the marvellous sword
that was borne before the hero. (1021-5)

Against sea-beasts | my body-armour,
hand-linked and hammered, | helped me then,
this forge-knit battleshirt | bright with gold,
decking my breast. (550-3)

Then the cup was taken to him | and he was entreated kindly
to honour their feast: | ornate gold
was presented in trophy: | two arm-wreaths,
with robes and rings also, | and the richest collar
I have ever heard of | in all the world. (1192-6)

On a side note, much of the armour has the image of a boar on it. Not sure if this was a generic symbol of warriors or relates to a particular tribe but, strikingly, boar motifs were found on the armour at the famous Sutton Hoo archaeological site.

Over the cheek-pieces
boar-shapes shone out, | bristling with gold,
blazing and fire-hard, | fierce guards
of their bearers’ lives… (303-6)

where the bound blade, | beaten out by hammers,
cuts, with its sharp edges | shining with blood,
through the boars that bristle | above the foes’ helmets! ( 1285-87)

He was my closest councillor, | he was keeper of my thoughts,
he stood at my shoulder | when we struck for our lives
as the crashing together | of companies of foot,
when blows rained on boar-crests. (1325-8)

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Boar carved in iron on a helmet from the Sutton Hoo excavations

Elaboration of names Not only are important objects described at length but important people tend to have multiple epithets clustered around them, “a series of synonyms in apposition”. A king or hero will be named and then their position as leader or their family position clarified, their genealogy or their deeds will be summarised in an apposite phrase or two. It bigs them up, it makes them more potent (as, to this day, we give the royal family or eminent soldiers or notable citizens an accumulation of names, titles and awards).

It also has a secondary affect, as Alexander points out, of placing everything and everyone within a realistically-conceived world. Characters don’t appear out of nowhere: their names, their deeds, their family and their history are all explained, and this technique is part of what gives to the poem its epic quality of describing a real and objective world.

to earth’s men the most glorious
of houses under heaven, | the home of the king (309)

“The Master of the Danes,
Lord of the Scyldings, | shall learn of your request.
I shall gladly ask | my honoured chief,
giver of armbands, | about your undertaking… (350)

“The Master of Battles | bids me announce,
the Lord of the North-Danes, | that he knows your ancestry…” (391)

To you I will now
put one request, | Royal Scylding,
Shield of the South-Danes, | one sole favour
that you’ll not deny me, | dear lord of your people,
now that I have come thus far, | Fastness of Warriors.. (426)

Great then was the hope | of the grey-locked Hrothgar,
warrior, giver of rings. | Great was the trust
of the Shield of the Danes, | shepherd of the people… (607)

… hoping that their lord’s son | would live and in ripeness
assume the kingdom, | the care of his people,
the hoard and the stronghold, | the storehouse of heroes,
the Scylding homeland. (910)

… stepping on eagerly | to the stronghold where
Ongentheow’s conqueror, | the earl’s defender,
the warlike young king… (1967)

The protector of warriors | rewarded me
with a heap of treasure, | Healfdene’s son. (2142)

… when Hygelac was slain
when that kindly lord of the peoples, | the king of the Geats,
the son of Hrethel, | among the hurl of battle
slaked the sword’s thirst… (2355)

Elaboration of God’s names And of course this applies most of all to descriptions of God who, naturally, merits multiple appositional phrases, to big up his magnitude, as he does in all churches to this day. To this day it is felt by many users of English that the only way to convey somebody or something’s power is to give them multiple epithets. More is more:

The Maker was unknown to them
the Judge of all actions, | the Almighty was unheard of,
they knew not hot to praise | the Prince of heaven,
the Wielder of Glory. (180)

The Father in His wisdom
shall apportion the honours then, | the All-Holy Lord… (687-8)

The ancient arose and | offered thanks to God,
to the Lord Almighty, | for what this man had spoken. (1396)

“I wish to put in words my thanks
to the King of Glory, | the Giver of All,
the Lord of Eternity, | for these treasures that I see… (2794)

Understatement of experience “Litotes is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, principally via double negatives. Rather than saying something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is ‘not unattractive'”. A bluff Northern Yorkshire understatement is meant to be a leading characteristic of Norse and Anglo Saxon verse but I found litotes relatively rare in Beowulf.

Nor was it ungraciously | that he greeted the strangers (1892)

The wind did not hinder | the wave-skimming ship (1907)

There was little cause | for crowing among the Hetware
for their conduct of the foot-fight… (2363)

Related to it is the way eloquent verse paragraphs often end with a short, pithy, blunt, ironic comment, like a capstone.

The Scylding champion, | shaking with war rage,
caught it by its rich hilt, and, | careless of his life,
brandished its circles, | and brought it down in fury
to take her full and fairly across the neck,
breaking the bones; | the blade sheared
through the death-doomed flesh. | She fell to the ground;
the sword was gory; | he was glad at the deed.

The last line and a half is the conclusion and climax of 50 lines describing the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s dam, and very characteristically Anglo Saxon in its sudden laconic brevity: three short, pithy half lines, summing up the action with Nordic indirectness (“the sword was gory”) and understatement of emotion (“he was glad at the deed”).

He had dived to his doom, | he had died miserably;
here in his fen-lair | he had laid aside
his heathen soul. | Hell welcomed it. (850-52)

There were melting heads
and bursting wounds, | as the blood sprang out
from weapon-bitten bodies. | Blazing fire,
most insatiable of spirits, | swallowed the remains
of the victims of both nations. | Their valour was no more. (1120)

Before morning’s light
he flew back to the hoard | in its hidden chamber.
He had poured out fire | and flame on the people,
he had put them to the torch; | he trusted now to the barrow’s walls
and to his fighting strength; | his faith misled him. (2320)

It was not granted to him
that an iron edge | could ever lend him
help in a battle; | his hand was too strong.
I have heard that any sword, | however hardened by wounds,
that he bore into battle, | his blow would overtax
– any weapon whatever: | it was the worse for him. (2682)

Archaic and artful Anglo Saxon poetic diction is deliberately more archaic and elaborate than Anglo Saxon prose which tends to be simpler and more analytic. Many words occur in the poetry which are found nowhere in the prose, some of them related to older Norse terms. Ie Anglo Saxon poetry is a highly artificial and artful creation. The use of multiple short, laconic, forceful phrases in apposition creates a steady, powerful impact. As Alexander eloquently puts it:

the effect is of strenuous and untiring eloquence.

Credit

All quotes copyright © Michael Alexander 1973, reproduced with kind permission of the author.


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