Archive for February, 2016

Social Media and Trolling:When History turns Nasty!

February 25, 2016

Having been a member of various historical groups and pages on social media for several years now I am a veteran of the ‘cut and thrust’ of historical debate and the high level of passion that runs through threads. I think this is generally a very positive feature of history forums on social media as it shows that people around the world care deeply about the subject and want to debate controversial areas and often hold strong opinions.

I truly believe that we are seeing a renaissance in historical interest and study and that this is a wonderful sign for the future of the subject and should have a very promising outcome in terms of preserving our historical monuments, funding museums and exhibitions and carrying forward research in future generations. Heritage/ Tourism is a major industry which provided many other associated benefits to the hospitality, leisure and transport industries and for tour guiding and living history interpreters and as a former tour guide I welcome the increased interest in this sector too.

Further I actually think that passionate interest and commitment to particular periods of history is a beneficial aspect of a wider interest in history. People need to dig down deeper into their subject areas and spend time looking in detail at the main figures and their world in order to pick up on small details which may have been overlooked in the source material and sharing that passion and knowledge on social media encourages others to do the same.

I have found myself that in order to counter a particular argument from someone with an opposing view that I have had to go back and re-read source evidence and re-evaluate my argument. Sometimes I have agreed with the other viewpoint and learnt something valuable and sometimes my argument has been the stronger one. Although it is always satisfying to be proved correct, it is also no bad thing to be educated and to change your viewpoint as you learn more about a subject. This is part of the inter-active process of debating on forums and in the vast majority of cases we all seem to learn and explore together. History is not a fixed discipline. It is a dizzying combination of rational argument, emotional connection and intuitive response. Changing and adapting our ideas and arguments keeps us moving forward and may help us to get closer to the real ‘truth’, whatever that may be in the end.

Trolling is a problem across social media and the area of historical forums is as open to the ‘troll’ as any other platform. It is sometimes difficult to even define ‘trolling’ as distinct from healthy and robust debate. It is always worth giving someone else the benefit of the doubt in a medium where you can’t read facial expression or hear the spoken word. Posts can appear much more hostile at first reading than the poster ever intended. Often by the second or third comment initial frostiness has been replaced with a more discursive and friendly tone which benefits everyone involved.

I’ve had some battle royals over the years with people who hold very different views from me on a variety of different topics from Viking shield-maidens to Tudor politics and the most heated and controversial ones have usually centred around ‘he-who-shall-not-be named’ i.e. King Richard III. I have to admit that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed nearly all of them and usually been on good terms with the posters throughout. I’ve never (so far) blocked anyone as I do genuinely enjoy the argument and try to respect their opinions even if I don’t share them or admire the way in which they were couched.

A nadir was reached during the period between the discovery of Richard’s bones and his re-interment at Leicester Cathedral when the debate on all sides got very heated and personal and there were so many conflicting opinions and issues that social media became a real battleground between pro-Leicester, anti-Leicester, pro-York, anti-York, Ricardian and anti-Ricardian factions and people ‘bused in’ supporters from other groups and pages when a ‘rumble’ was on the cards. Emotions ran very high and several group sites like the Richard III Society stopped allowing any posts to be added without vetting them.

In one sense this was all very negative and disappointing but at another level I think it also demonstrated the depth of sentiment that history can inspire in people about characters and events which much of the general public are hardly even aware of and that is surely a good thing even if the form these feelings took was hurtful and damaging at times.

The one undoubtedly positive facet to come out of the ‘hoo-haa’ was the interest shown by school children and their involvement in the re-interment which will hopefully lead to future generations taking a real interest in the history of this period. Combined with the numbers of visits who have come to visit his grave and make a ‘pilgrimage’ to sites around the country that were connected to him, I see a bright future for C15th history.

Trolling does have a wholly negative aspect though as well. It stops some people from debating at all. I’ve seen fledgling interest crushed by heavy-handed and patronising comebacks. Some people who don’t feel terribly confident can be completely turned off by getting such a harsh response to their tentative thoughts and, lets face it, much of what we are debating is not set in stone anyway. We should all know that the past is another country and that we are feeling our way in order to make connections and piece together events and evidence in the teeth of many intervening centuries of destruction, bias and propaganda, changing religious and social practices.

History is so compelling and fascinating and wonderful because we need to tread carefully wherever we go and be open to suggestions and nuances along the path. Trolls don’t accept the truth of this. To a troll there is only one way and one truth and everyone else as a heretic who must be shouted down and rubbished and derided as publically as possible in order to score a petty point. They keep coming back too like a cancer that won’t be eradicated!

Administrators must often feel that they are fighting a constant war against trolls and this takes up their time when they could be engaged with the debates and posting new material on to their groups and must be deeply frustrating for them so I totally understand that sometimes they have to make a call and stop posts of specific topic areas completely for periods of time in order to let things calm down and other posts to be considered. It is a shame as freedom of speech and thought are so essential to our society and to the spirit of social media and the exchange of thoughts across the planet but it is sometimes necessary when things get too out of control.

Another area of trolling that I really do dislike is taking screen shots of debates and then removing this to another group page and discussing specific people by name when they are unaware that this has been done. I do feel that this is unfair as someone should be able to defend their posts, even if they might be accused of trolling in them, on the same site that the post was originally made. It speaks too much of school yard bullying to me and whenever I’ve found myself in danger of being sucked into this I have stopped posting and withdrawn as soon as I became aware I was engaging in it.

This is another facet of the problem because it is easy to make an instant response and regret it later on. This happened recently to me when I discovered the identity of someone who was being criticised on another group forum and commented before I had considered how much I dislike this sort of posting. I apologise for it.

Trolls a tend to think that they ‘know’ everything about someone based on prejudices and pre-conceived ideas about other people. I’ve come across many trolls like this over the years. If you argue even one point that is commonly held by a particular faction then you must believe and agree with everything else they say. This type of mentality is again very frustrating and undermines free debate. It is perfectly possible to admire a king for his legislation or military skill but find him capable of committing ruthless acts to secure his position. Conversely we might actively dislike another character yet admire some of their qualities. Most of us are probably guilty of making assumptions based on a small section of text written by another poster and sometimes we are even adult enough to admit to this and start over again. I don’t see any shame in that as we all make mistakes at times and might be more forgiving of historical figures if we stopped to consider the complexities of their situation rather than making instant value judgements.

Of course trolling applies to professional historians as well as amateur interest groups. I think there is scope for lambasting a public figure and satirising their work and broadcasts but not in personal attacks on them as people and it is often a fine line. Historians are seen as powerful figures who lend legitimacy to their argument because of the exposure their assessments are given in the media and their role as ‘talking heads’ on documentaries and current affairs programmes. On the one hand they appear to making a living from judging people who can’t respond and on the other hand they may well be encouraging more people to become interested in history who are capable of thinking independently and making their own judgements at a later date.

Again I think that on balance it is more important to hear their arguments even if we can pick holes in them at our leisure than to resort to trolling and personal attacks but people should be free to reply and point out inaccuracies and bias as well. I can think of one published historian who automatically blocks anyone who posts a counter-argument on their website and refuses to post their comments. This is counter-productive because it forces the disgruntled to sound off on lots of other sites and creates an atmosphere where the free exchange of ideas is closed down. A historian should be able to take criticism and win by force of argument or give ground gracefully where they have been inaccurate or mis-leading and still be regarded highly by their peers and the general public. They are allowed to make mistakes too but might end up getting laughed at a bit along the way!

So, having covered the aggressors, I want to also mention the passive-aggressors who claim to be the victims of trolling when anyone disagrees with their viewpoint. This is often harder to deal with that blatant aggression because they put you on the back foot. Again it is a grey area where there should be some genuine room for allowance and mutual respect before we assume the worst of someone. Rather like posters who can’t get a thought down without mentioning how many degrees they hold or those who demand source evidence for every assertion, there is a mixture of the genuine and the ‘wind-up’ about these posts.

Personally I think it is perfectly permissible to go onto a site with a strong bias towards one side of the debate and stir things up a bit. I also think that people who persistently attack the fundamental views of a site and can’t move the debate on should retire gracefully having made their point rather than returning over and over again with the same criticisms. Life is too short, frankly and we all need to ‘get some closure here’. I also think it is fine to mention your degree or who you’ve studied with but not in a way that implies that anyone who holds a different view is clearly a village idiot or unqualified to have an opinion on the subject. That is particular off-putting for younger posters or people who may not have had access to higher learning but should be welcomed with open arms to social media debates and on-line courses. This is one of the great benefits and advances of our age like the opening of public libraries and working-men’s reading rooms in previous centuries. It is a very mean spirited soul who would chase off someone at the start of their journey by hitting them over the head with their privilege and attainments.

Finally, I want to make a plea for all those who post on social media about historical topics. Please share your passion and put forward your arguments. Admit when you’ve been hasty and made a mistake and try to assume that other posters are nice people who you might sit and have a cup of tea with before you ago on the offensive and remember that we are all dealing with a very complex and nuanced subject that is very subjective but incredibly worthwhile to study and debate about so try to be kind! Thank you for reading. 🙂

 

 

Troubadors: The Soul of Occitania in the C12th and C13th

February 24, 2016

courtly music

Courtly love and the culture of the Troubadors go hand-in-hand. Listening to the music of the troubadors is like opening a window on a lost world which is by turns haunting and evocative, sensual and refined. There are Iberian and Moorish influences as the music and presence of the troubadors in the Pays D’Oc may have originated in Moorish Spain and been brought back by crusading knights like William IX, Duke of Aquitaine who was one of the best known and most influential troubadors or even by Muslim captives who were brought to the area as prisoners of war. The sound is unmistakably ‘Southern’ in flavour; full of soft breezes and sultry nights, languid fountains and dusty earth.

muslim troubadors

Musical collaboration between Muslim and Christian Troubadors

 

The word troubadour comes from the Occitanian trobar, “to invent.” A troubadour was an inventor of new poetry, and constructing musical forms around this. Some of the troubadours’ work has survived, preserved in manuscripts known as chansonniers or ‘songbooks’, and there were rules written down in a work called Leys d’amors (1340) about  how their works were composed.

They may well have also adapted the work of other troubadors to increase their repetoire. Some melodies derive from folk tunes or even religious pieces and some troubadors were even priests and bishops, the most famous being Folquet de Marselha, later the Bishop of Toulouse, though the church generally frowned on secular music being written and performed by the clergy.

It is also possible that the creative process was a collaborative one, between a lyricist and a musical composer though there seems to be more weight on the former than the later in terms of recording the name of the composers.

troubadors two

Jongleurs

 

‘The verse form they used most frequently was the canso, consisting of five or six stanzas with an envoy. They also used the dansa, or balada, a dance song with a refrain; the pastorela, telling the tale of the love request by a knight to a shepherdess; the jeu parti, or débat, a debate on love between two poets and the alba, or morning song, in which lovers are warned by a night watchman that day approaches and that the jealous husband may at any time surprise them.’ (http://www.britannica.com/art/troubadour-lyric-artist)

Phebi Claro Nondum Orto Iubare’

With pale Phoebus, in the clear east, not yet bright,

Aurora sheds, on earth, ethereal light:

While the watchman, to the idle, cries: ‘Arise!’

Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Ah, alas! It is he! See there, the shadows pass!

Behold, the heedless, torpid, yearn to try

And block the insidious entry, there they lie,

Whom the herald summons urging them to rise.

Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Ah, alas! It is he! See there, the shadows pass!

From Arcturus, the North Wind soon separates.
The star about the Pole conceals its bright rays.
Towards the east the Plough its brief journey makes.

 Dawn now breaks; sunlight rakes the swollen seas;

Now, alas! It is he! 

(http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/French/FromDawnToDawn.htm)

The ‘alba’ would find expression later in Shakespeare’s famous lines in Romeo and Juliet where the lovers debate whether it is yet dawn during their discussion over of the nightingale and the lark’s song.

One of the famous aristocratic troubadors, Bertrand de Born, a contemporary of Henry, the Young king and Richard Coeur de Lion was known for his sirventes or serventes.The name comes from sirvent “serviceman”, and conveys the sentiments of the soldier . Sirventes usually took the form of parodies, borrowing the melody, metrical structure and often even the rhymes of a well-known piece to address a controversial subject, often a current event and could be subversive or carry an overt political message. Bertrand became involved in the rebellion of Henry, The young King an his work reflects his views on contemporary politics.

About 300 troubador texts survive and demonstrate the variety of styles and subject matter covered by these artists within the general conventions of courtly love and codes of chivalric behaviour.

bertrand de Born

Bertrand de Born as a knight from a C13th chansonnier

 

Here are the opening lines of Bernart de Venadorn’s song:

Can vei la lauzeta mover
When I see the lark display

His wings with joy against the day,

Forgetting, fold then fall away,

As sweetness to his heart makes way,

Such great envy then invades

My mind: I see the rest take fire,

And marvel at it, for no way

Can my heart turn from its desire.

 

Ah, I so dearly wished to know

Of love, yet so little learn,

For I cannot keep from loving her

Who will not have me, though I burn.

She stole my heart, and all of me,

And she herself, and worlds apart;

Lacking herself, now nothing’s left

But longing and the willing heart.

220px-BnF_ms._12473_fol._15v_-_Bernart_de_Ventadour_(1)

Bernart de Ventadorn

 

Beyond the poetic conventions of courtly love, the cultural changes which took place in Occitania had a profound effect on the status of high born ladies at the courts where this music was sung and composed. Not only were women courted and sighed over, they were also projected to a higher level than they had previously enjoyed in Christian culture. Bernart de Ventadorn’s work shows the duality of male attitudes to women at this time. His female characters are elevated to the status of divine agents at one moment and then compared to Eve and reduced to temptresses the next. (Wilhelm, James J. “Lyrics of the Middle Ages” (46).)

St Bernard of Clairvaux was a passionate advocate for the particular veneration of the Virgin Mary and this emphasis on her role as mother and divine intercessor combined with the conventions of the troubadors allowed women to be ‘adored’ and valued in a new way but also elevated to an almost ‘mystical’ level. This seems at odds with the real power and authority which the vast majority of women enjoyed in their own lives yet there are many notable examples of women during this period who exercised considerable influence over their lands and husband’s domains, administered estates, engaged in diplomacy and acted as ambassadors and intercessors and even led the defence of castles and strongholds like Sybilla of Jerusalem against Saladin’s forces. Their abilities and competence were less open to question if they exercised or held power in the name of a male relative, whether that be a husband or son until he reached manhood, the real problem seeming to be any attempt to hold power in their own right and it was a constant battle for these women to receive acknowledgement of their achievements but they were there as players in the game of international politics and diplomacy as well as running religious foundations and acting as patrons to the arts in all forms.

B de Dia

Beatriz de Dia

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most notorious and powerful women of her age and she was also a patron of troubador culture at her courts across Aquitaine and also in France and England during her marriages to Louis VII and Henry II. As the grand-daughter of William IX of Aquitaine she grew up emmersed in the culture of the troubadors and her eldest dauighter Marie of Champagne also became a particular patron of troubadour culture.

Aristocratic ladies were not only patrons but also might become Troubairitz themselves. The most famous of these was Beatriz de Dia, Countess of Dia and married to Guillem de Poitiers, Count of Viennois. She made little secret of her illicit passion for Raimbaut d’ Orange and her song ‘A Chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria‘ is the only surviving score for a troubairitz though some of their lyrics have survived. The score is found in Le manuscript di roi, a collection of songs copied circa 1270 for Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX.

Estat ai en greu cossirier

I’ve been in great distress of mind,

About a knight whom I possessed,

How I’ve loved him to excess

I want known, throughout all time;

Now I feel myself betrayed

Because I did not tell my love,

In great torment so I prove,

In bed or in my clothes arrayed.

 

Would that I might hold my knight

Till morning naked in my arms,

Intoxicated by my charms

He’d think himself in paradise;

For more pleased with him am I

Than Floris was with Blancheflor:

I grant him my heart, my amour,

My eyes, my mind, and my life.

 

Sweet friend, so good so gracious

When shall I have you in my power,

And lie with you at midnight hour,

And grant you kisses amorous?

Know, great desire I nurture too

To have you in my husband’s place,

As soon as you grant me, with grace,

To do all that I’d have you do.

I wonder what her husband made of this?!

170px-BnF_ms._12473_fol._110v_-_Na_Castelloza_(2)

The Troubairitz Castelloza

 

Castelloza was another high-ranking lady who wrote her own compositions. She was married to Turc of Mairona, Lord of Meyronne and was reputed to have been in love with Arman de Brion, a member of the house of Bréon and of greater social rank than her, about whom she wrote several songs. Her ‘vida’ or biography records her to have been “very gay”, “very learned”, and “very beautiful”. About three or four pieces have been attributed to her and survived.

The information we get from these ‘vidas’ is highly subjective but full of the flavour of the age and provides evidence of the ‘legendary’ qualities which grew up around the troubadors and troubairitz and their place in society, not only in Occitania itself but also in Spain and Italy.

The vehicle provided by poetry and song allowed a few women a voice which has come down to us and would otherwise have been lost to history. Indeed the songs of the troubairitz were the first non-religious compositions by medieval women to have survived to the modern day and stand as a fascinating contrast to the sublime music of Hildegaarde von Bingen which transports you to the gates of heaven by virtue of its clear beauty and ecstatic qualities. Secular love and sacred love as expressed by women in their own voices which are full of passion and longing and feels as fresh to the ear as the day it was composed.

The actual land of Occitania pervades so much of this poetry; The birds in flight and the stars fading in the morning sky are beautifully expressed by these poets.  The natural world is a source of metaphor but also the landscape around them which they observed on their travels and which becomes a part of the experience of listening to their songs.

The Pay D’Oc is a land of rivers and meadows, dramatic mountains to the South and close to the wide, untamed sea. It is rich and fertile, dotted with castles and churches and settlements, with grazing livestock and the hum of bees.

We glimpse the passing of the seasons and the great events of the wider world through the lyrics. Beyond the known landscape there is the distant dream world of Outremer and the Holy places. The troubadors mourn the loss of good men in the crusades and struggle to understand the losses of loved ones to disease and decay at home. They understand that life is precarious, often unjust and corrupt and that youth and beauty will soon decay and therefore they live in the moment, for the length of a song or the consideration of a single line or phrase and so their whole world is encapsulated, like a precious jewel, in their work.

There is also a stillness and measured quality to their songs. Time was understood in a wholly different way in C12th, regulated by the religious services and bells, lived in rhythm with the turning seasons and the agricultural calendar and the pace of life allowed for time to stop and observe the little details. The songs are not only windows into their world but also the spaces between breaths, the pauses between the sounds are as filled with the life and culture of Occitania as the sounds which separate them and to be treasured for all time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chanson de Roland: Echoes of Beowulf and an Age of Heroes

February 22, 2016

400px-Grandes_chroniques_Roland

This painting depicts the main events in the Chanson de Roland, an epic lyric poem about the courage and calamity of the central hero, Roland, and his relationships with his feudal overlord, Charlemagne, his peers and the wars to re-conquer the Iberian peninsula from Moorish occupation during the C8th around 4000 lines long.

The main themes concern loyalty, service and betrayal, courage and friendship and the importance of renown. What Roland characterises in terms of his courage he balances with his lack of foresight. Like the Iliad, the Chanson de Roland explores where fate will lead good men and like the Iliad, it is not Achilles but Hector in the shape of Roland’s wise friend Olivier who advises caution and is taken down with the rest in violence and betrayal.

”Kar vasselage par sens nen est folie,
Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie.”

  • For courage mixed with prudence is not foolish,
    And moderation betters recklessness.
  • Stanza CXXXI, line 1724

The Chanson is the best known example of the ‘chansons de geste’, or songs of deeds which were popular forms of entertainment, propaganda and artistic expression through song or recitation during the C11th – C15th in what is now called France and reached their peak between 1150-1250 AD.

We do not know who composed the Chanson de Roland though it has been linked to a man called Turold who is mentioned in the closing lines of the poem and thought to have lived sometime between 1040-1115 AD.

‘Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet.”
Thus ends the poem that Turoldus declines.

  • Stanza CCXCVIII, line 4000

Turold may have been the original composer or a jongleur who adapted the piece or the person who finally committed it to a written form.

The wandering jongleurs and minstrels who recited the chansons pre-dated their more aristocratic troubadour relations but like them, composed, adapted and recalled their work for the courts of great lords and ladies. Their stories passed into popular culture and inspired other artistic forms.

troubadors two

Jouglerus

 

There is an argument that the basic form of the Chanson de Roland could date to the period of Charlemagne’s ascendency over Francia and was passed down orally through several generations, being adapted as it went until it was recorded in written form. At some point during this transmission, the Basque attackers changed into Moors and the story of the ambush was slewed to become a straight fight between Christian and Muslim forces at the pass of Roncevaux in 778AD. There may be several reasons for this – clarity of plotlines, anti-Muslim propaganda or later historical events which cast their shadow back into the C8th.

Others argue that it could have been inspired by the Castilian campaign in the 1030’s and harks back to a glorious former era in order to encourage knights to emulate the achievements of their ancestors in their fight to re-claim Spain or that it was a propaganda piece that fired up Christian crusading zeal before the First Crusade was preached in 1095.

manuscript

First page of the Chanson de Roland

 

According to William of Malmesbury’s later account, the Norman soldiers at Hastings began to recite the story of Roland to psyche themselves up before battle commenced and it had the desired effect. This suggests that it had become a part of popular culture by 1066 even if not in exactly the same form as the written versions which have survived and was commonly known by Norman soldiers and used to incite patriotic fervour and inspire courage.

”Tunc cantilena Rollandi inchoata, ut martium viri exemplum pugnaturos accenderet, inclamatoque Dei auxilio prelium consertum bellatumque acriter, neutris in multam diei horam cedentibus.”

  • Then the soldiers began the song of Roland so that the martial example of this man should excite them, and calling upon God’s help, they began the fight and most bitter battle, with neither side yielding until late in the day.
  • William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum, Bk. 3, section 242; translation from John Haines Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères (Cambridge, 2004) p. 58.

There was a historical Roland, who held the Breton Marches for Charlemagne but through the Chanson he becomes a ‘paladin’, one of the twelve peers who were the foremost knights of Charlemagne’s court. Legends grew around him and his exploits, the most famous being that he wielded a magical sword called Durandal which was given to him by the Holy Roman Emperor and contained sacred relics from the saints ( not unlike the mighty Ulfberht Viking swords which were forged with bones which gave them superior strength and durability in battle) and a swift horse called Veillantif which enabled him to fight and ride with added skill.

paladin

Charlemagne presents Roland with Durandal

 

These mythic or legendary qualities echo the sentiments of earlier, Anglo-Saxon and Norse plotlines with their magical swords and hero cults and also in terms of the relationships between the male characters which are bound up with brotherhood, friendship and the bonds of ‘comitatus’ which was morphing into the feudal bonds and chivalric ethics of the later medieval period.

The father/ son relationship in Beowulf between Hrothgar and Beowulf is mirrored in the Chanson de Roland in the bond between Charlemagne and his nephew. Hrothgar claims that Beowulf has become his son after his defeat of the monstrous Grendal:

”Beowulf, I now take you to my bosom as a son, O best of men, and cherish
you in my heart. Hold yourself well in this new relation!”

Similarly the Chanson relates the depths of Charlemagne’s grief at the loss of Roland and his feelings of failure that he couldn’t prevent his death which leads to the revenge attack and victory over the Moors at the end of the poem.

”Pur sun seignur deit hom susfrir granz mals
E endurer e forz freiz e granz chalz,
Si·n deit hom perdre del sanc e de la char.”

  • A man should suffer greatly for his lord,
    Endure both biting cold and sweltering heat
    And sacrifice for him both flesh and blood.
  • Stanza LXXXVIII, line 1117

The gift-giving and presentation of rings in Beowulf are balanced by the exchange of Durandal and Veillantif in Roland with the same unspoken promises of reciprocal service for reward, honour and mutual respect despite the differences in time and society. The Franks of Charlemagne’s court were not so far removed from their Germanic ancestry and the bonds of tribal loyalty.

charlemagne

Charlemagne arrives to find Roland dead, C14th manuscript

 

The Chanson builds to the climatic death of Roland and the final sounding of his legendary Oliphant horn which alerts Charlemagne to the attack on his rear-guard at the pass through the mountains. There certainly is a feeling of doomed grandeur and heroic defiance in these passages which again echo the sentiment and language of Beowulf, particularly with regard to his final confrontation with the hoard-dwelling dragon who will be his doom. Like Beowulf, the hero stands with a trusted friend at the last moment. Wiglaf will not desert his lord anymore than Olivier despite Roland’s refusal to heed his advice. Both are fated to meet their destiny at this moment of truth. Beowulf dies defending his people, as does Roland. They die with honour and the high regard of their companions and become mythologised through their ordeals.

”Rollant ad mis l’olifan a sa buche,
Empeint le ben, par grant vertut le sunet.
Halt sunt li pui e la voiz est mult lunge,
Granz ·xxx· liwes l’oïrent il respundre.
Karles l’oït e ses cumpaignes tutes.
Ço dit li reis: “Bataille funt nostre hume.”

  • Count Roland lifts the horn up to his mouth,
    Then sets his lips and blows it with great force.
    The hills are high; the horn’s voice loud and long;
    They hear it echoing full thirty leagues.
    King Charles and his companions hear it sound.
    The king declares, “Our men are in a battle.”
  • Stanza CXXXIII, line 1753
death of roland

The Death of Roland, C15th manuscript

it is, perhaps, harder to empathise with Roland than Beowulf, as he seems more concerned with personal glory, even at the expense of those his commands, than the older and wiser leader of his people who faces his ‘wyrd’ with fortitude as a necessary sacrifice for the good of his community. Roland’s speech sums this up nicely:

”Respunt Rollant: “Jo fereie que fols,
En dulce France en perdreie mun los”.

Roland replies, “That would be mad, insane!
For I would lose renown throughout sweet France.”

  • Stanza LXXXIII, line 1049
He’s definitely an Achilles, not a Hector!
The final section of the Chanson carries a heavy moral lesson for those listening to the recitation. Charlemagne seeks revenge and justice for the betrayal of his rear-guard and death of his knights. Ganelon, the treacherous Frank is picked out by divine will, after his challenger loses the ordeal by combat and sentenced to a grisly end, thus restoring the cosmic order and re-establishing Charlemagne’s control and authority over his people. I wonder how the Norman soldiers before Hastings read that particular moral outcome in relation to William of Normandy’s claims that Harold had perjured himself when he took the throne of England after swearing fealty to William and allegedly recognizing his claim? Perhaps he was lucky to die in combat rather than being captured after the battle though they certainly treated his body with little respect.
There is also an element of shaming in Beowulf as Wiglaf verbally attacks the thanes who failed to stay with their lord in his last challenge though there doesn’t seem to be any punishment meted out to them, unlike the hapless Ganelon. Beowulf ends in a spirit of loss and grief as does the chanson, focussing on those left behind when a hero dies.
“Deus,” dist li reis, “si penuse est ma vie!”
Pluret des oilz, sa barbe blanche tiret.
Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet.
  • “God,” says the king, “how wearisome my life!”
    He weeps and pulls at his white beard.
    Thus ends the poem that Turoldus declines.
  • Stanza CCXCVIII, line 4000

Sherlock: The Mystery of the Princes

February 22, 2016

sherlock head

Sherlock and Watson are looking for a killer. There has to be a killer or killers because Dan Jones said that ‘The Princes Must Die’ (episode three of Britain’s Bloodiest Crown) and after the Christmas special they are able to time travel which is just as well as they need to whizz back to late C15th England in order to solve the case.

The Game is On!

The list of suspects is fairly normal – people who needed to remove them in order to get closer to the throne, the newly crowned king who feared they would remain figureheads, disgruntled nobles, people who didn’t want the ‘old royal blood’ diluted by ‘chav-bloods’ (thanks Dan – it’s just a touch of Harry Potter for the kids yet also relevant to TOWIE fans) and then there are hired killers who might have done it for the money, to get out of the hangman’s noose, to get into the history books!

princes

So, to the murder scene: – mist rolls in off the river, occasional lights from un-shuttered windows shine on wet cobbles as our intrepid duo slip like shadows into the precincts of the Tower. Access is restricted but that’s no bar to a genius like Holmes. He can disguise himself in a myriad of costumes; boatman, delivery man, guard, servant, one of the king’s men, one of Buckingham’s, Stanley’s, a priest, a rat catcher. The possibilities are endless.

Sherlock knows his stuff, he’s read contemporary accounts and knows that they were seen less and less after the summer of 1483, most likely being moved deeper into the precincts of the Tower. He knows that the most secure area would be the White Tower, the centre of the complex and that few people would have had access to them since Richard’s coronation. There were rumours of plots to free them so the guards had likely been increased as Richard was away on his first royal progress.

The boys have lost everything – their titles, their status, their legitimacy. They have no resources, no coin, no clothes but those that are brought to them. Their doctor, John Argentine reported that the elder of the two prayed constantly and kept his soul clean, fearing imminent death.

Watson has been reading Sir Thomas More’s later account of their murder and has some questions. ‘According to More, Richard ordered John Green, a messenger, to ride to the Tower and demand that Sir Robert Brackenbury, the Constable of the Tower, kill the princes. King Richard was at Gloucester on his progress at this time. Brackenbury refused so Green rode back to his king who had reached Warwick and at this point a servant suggested that Sir James Tyrell might do it as he wanted promotion so Richard ordered him to take a letter to Brackenbury demanding the keys for the night so that Tyrrell could carry out the crime. He in turn hired two assassins, Miles Forest who More says was already a murderer and John Dighton, Tyrrell’s horsekeeper to murder the princes. This was risky because men can talk, they can betray secrets and this was a very big secret. More didn’t know exactly what Richard instructed them to do with the corpses though he did know that Richard thought up the idea whilst on the toilet which is surprising! According to More that meant that John Green, Sir Robert, the servant and the two assassins all knew about what happened yet none of them talked or were subsequently silenced by Richard. So, if Dighton and Forest killed them perhaps they panicked and started digging or perhaps they thought all along that burying them at the murder scene was the best way to preserve the secrecy of their crime? Why?’

‘Go on Watson.’ Sherlock is pacing about at the foot on a staircase, looking for newly disturbed stonework.

‘So, according to More after the two murderers had dug out ten foot of rubble under the stairs they must have lowered the bodies down into the hole. This is where the discovery of two skeletal remains in the 1600’s come in because if these were the remains of the two princes they were placed inside a wooden box because this is clearly mentioned in the accounts. Guess that makes sense to contain the smell of decomposition but bearing in mind their ages, 9 and 12 it would have to be quite a big box to lower into a specifically dug hole. That would be difficult to fit under the staircase unless the remains were dismembered before they were placed there to fit into a smaller box. Messy and long winded when they could have been bundled out in the bed linen and buried elsewhere.’

‘Go on Watson!’ Sherlock notes the position of the staircase next to the chapel area where regular services are being held through the hours. This would pose a serious problem to would-be killers. What would they do with all the rubble while they were digging down 10 feet, how could they not be seen, and heard? ‘So the bodies in the urn where found exactly where More said they were buried?’

‘Well, that’s just it because in More’s account Richard changed his mind and ordered the bodies to be dug up and moved elsewhere though Tyrrell said in his later ‘confession’ that he didn’t know where they had buried so the remains were found exactly where More said they wouldn’t have been unless the murderers fooled the king and didn’t remove them and he never asked for proof.’

‘Yes, and according to this source the killers were still alive many years into the Tudor period?’ Sherlock puts his folded hands to his lips and looks at Watson.

‘So, what can we deduce from More’s account about King Richard?’

Watson shrugs, ‘That he wanted them dead but didn’t want to get his hands dirty so sent killers to do it but didn’t think it through very well and changed his mind. He panicked under pressure and tried to clear the trail of evidence in order to avoid being implicated though everyone rumoured that he had had his brother’s children murdered anyway. He discussed his planned crime whilst on the toilet as it was the most private place to talk about such things yet must have trusted all the people he discussed it with very much and decided to let them all live despite the possibility of them talking or betraying him to his enemies.’

‘He also left the two killers at large after the murders when they could have used their knowledge of his crime to devastating effect against him or to blackmail him. Dighton and Forrest sound shady types that could easily talk in the alehouse or demand money for their silence.’ Sherlock sniffs and paces away to peer out of a nearby arrow slit.

‘Perhaps he threated them if they revealed anything?’

‘Why not just arrange for them to disappear too? If he really was capable of double infanticide why would he stop with two low-lifes who he had no reason to trust?’

‘Hmmm, interesting. He needed them dead though. There is clear motive and opportunity there. As king he had access to them through his agents.’

‘Yes, they were still a threat to him despite having been offered the throne by members of the three estates and being an anointed king and by far the most practical solution to the succession crisis. There were people who wanted to use them as figureheads for revolt or pawns in their own power games. What intrigues me though is why Richard didn’t display their bodies to stop any pretenders in the future?’

‘Well everyone would have known he had killed them.’

‘Yes, but being unable to produce them alive would lead to the same conclusion without the benefit of proving they were no longer there to be rallied around. A ‘Perkin Warbeck’ could have been as much a thorn in Richard’s side as he proved to be for Henry Tudor.’

‘True but how far ahead was Richard thinking? Wasn’t he just trying to survive in the short-term and they were a threat if someone rescued them or took them to use as pawns.’

‘They could have been moved elsewhere though. It wouldn’t actually make much sense to keep them where likely plotters thought they would be. Two boys would be fairly easy to smuggle out, especially with the river close by. It might account for the paying off of servants and the doctor so that no one could say where they had gone. Did he really HAVE to murder them when their illegitimacy had already been publically presented and he was now the anointed king? It’s not that I don’t think he was capable of ruthless action but that killing them was unnecessary at this point and might actually work against his own self interest. He invested his own son as Prince of Wales a few months after his coronation so he had an heir at this point to secure the succession. Did he HAVE to murder them and bring down the wrath of God on his kingship and person?’

‘I don’t follow, why would it be against his self interests to have them killed?’

‘Number one: Their mother, the Dowager queen, was still in sanctuary with their sisters. Richard was desperate to get her out as it was a dreadful embarrassment for him. He could use the boys as leverage to make her more responsive to his demands if he had them in custody. If she was told they were dead or found out she would be less likely to hand over her daughters. Number two: If the boys were dead their sisters became more important, he’d be handing her cards to play with as he didn’t yet have the sisters under his control. Number three: Many Yorkists were unsure about the illegitimacy and unhappy about Richard’s Northern support base. Killing the boys would make him a monster in their eyes and drive them into the arms of his enemies. Number four: Richard knew there were other claimants out there in the world like the ‘sometime’ Duke of Richmond. He was removing two impediments to anyone else who wanted to make a bid for the throne with a less than perfect hereditary claim.’

‘That happened anyway though. Everyone thought they were dead and he didn’t produce them.’

‘Yes, but he couldn’t have shown them off without re-igniting attempts to release them and if he’d had them smuggled out what would be the point of announcing to everyone with a vested interest that they were still there to be rescued. Perhaps he wanted to sit out the rumours and for people to settle down and realise where the future lay?’

‘So we have no idea if they were killed or not, if they were whether it happened at the Tower or elsewhere or whether they were smuggled out and ended up anywhere else.’ Watson scratched his head and sat down on a nearby bench.

‘Correct! Also think about Sir Robert Brackenbury. He’s Constable of the Tower, he refuses his king’s command yet he died with Richard’s household cavalry at Bosworth. No evidence of any punishment for failing to carry out his orders, delaying this crucially important act or disloyalty to his king. Richard seems to have been very forgiving for a tyrant and child killer!’

‘Just going back to the whole ‘illegitimacy thing’ though, if parliament had agreed that they were bastards it could also reverse that decision at a later date. Richard must have been worried about his security at this point?’

‘Well, yes and no. As the lords spiritual and temporal had only just offered him the crown I think they would have given him time to prove himself. He was the most sensible choice from the possible claimants by far. The most powerful and respected lord in the land, the late king’s trusted brother with a track record of military success and he had a son, if rather young, to potentially succeed him. He had a good record of administration in the North and had managed to juggle the feuding northern magnates for a decade which was no mean achievement. He was also free of the corruption of the previous regime and young enough to rule for another twenty years or more. Of course there were factions who didn’t want him as king and he was clearly vulnerable if someone had been able to rescue the princes and use them as figureheads for rebellion but not so much so if he smuggled them away from the Tower before he began his progress. I think parliament and the people were also motivated by self-interest. They wanted stable government and an end to factional divisions after a generation of intermittent civil war. Trade and good laws mattered more than pursuing the claims of a boy king with unpopular relatives and Richard knew that. Also everyone who had just propelled him to the throne would be traitors if the boy was restored. Who wanted another round of attainders and land seizures that would go straight into the Woodville’s pockets. France and Scotland remained constant threats too. England needed a firm, adult, male hand on the tiller and someone who would fight for English interests and Richard also had a track record of standing up for national interests rather than caving in for a cash hand-out. His first parliament passed laws to protect English traders as well as good laws which benefitted the people and began to tackle corruption in the legal system.’

‘So what if they were murdered but not by King Richard. There’s the Duke of Buckingham who could have been on the scene as he was in London during Richard’s progress or sent someone else to do it. He was high in the king’s favour and of the old royal blood with a claim to the throne himself. He was about to rebel against Richard within a few months and perhaps intended to kill them to remove another impediment to his own ascent to the throne. Also as Constable of England he had the clout to get into the Tower?’

‘He could have been acting for a variety of reasons, his own self interest either before he made a move or in order to clear the way for Henry Tudor. He claimed to be rebelling in order to put the older prince back on the throne yet changed once he had gathered loyalist supporters in favour of Henry Tudor. A Bishop, John Morton was said to be responsible for the change of heart.’

‘Now this is a problem – imagine you are one of the princes in the Tower and you want revenge as soon as you are at liberty to pursue your vendetta. After uncle Richard who do you hate most? The Duke of Buckingham – he’s married to your mother’s sister but has publically declared her family to be beneath his dignity, he was at Stoney Stratford with armed men and supported Richard’s seizure of your person and the arrest and execution of your uncle Rivers. He persuaded the Mayor and Aldermen of London to believe that you were a bastard and has been Richard’s right-hand man throughout the last few awful months of your life. If you were rescued and restored to power you would make it your first priority to get rid of Buckingham. Buckingham would have known that any alliance with the Woodvilles would only last long enough for someone to put a knife through his rib-cage. Further how did Buckingham plan to co-ordinate a rebellion in the Welsh marches with freeing the princes in London? He never intended to try and free them at all.’

‘OK, so was he rebelling to put himself on the throne or in support of Tudor?’

‘Either course of action would have been high-risk. He could have been a chancer but I don’t see him seriously thinking that the parliament or people would accept him as king when there were other candidates with a better hereditary claim. He didn’t have much of a track record to prove himself fit for kingship and proved to be a poor military leader too as it turned out and what would be the point of putting Tudor on the throne in order to enjoy the same position as he already had in Richard’s regime? What could Tudor offer him that Richard hadn’t already granted?

‘It doesn’t make sense at a logical level at all unless he knew that the princes were definitely dead and how could he know this unless either he had killed them himself or Morton provided evidence of this that was strong enough for him to accept and that begs the question of how Morton could know this?’

‘He could have killed them, thinking that Richard would be delighted only to discover that he was furious and then felt backed into a corner and turned to Morton for help.’

‘It’s possible but wouldn’t Richard have reacted immediately and stripped him of his offices and certainly not have placed Morton with him under house arrest? No, Richard trusted him completely to the point when he discovered his rebellion. That’s why he called him the ‘most untrue creature living’ because it came out of the blue and shocked him to the core.’

‘What about this Morton figure then, what do we know about him?’

‘He was deeply connected to Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort and by extension to her husband, Lord Stanley. He was Bishop of Ely and therefore a powerful figure in the church. He was prepared to risk his life in the cause of getting Tudor on the throne and had already been arrested for plotting with Hastings to assassinate Richard before he became king and was richly rewarded as soon as Tudor was crowned, being made Archbishop of Canterbury. He fled into exile immediately after Buckingham’s fall and spread the word that Richard had murdered Edward IV’s sons in order to strengthen Tudor’s invasion plans by winning French backers. People tend to forget that Tudor needed them removed before he set foot in England for fear of them being rescued before he could get to the capital. they also forget that the French needed to believe they were out of the way in order to lend him their support and finance his enterprise.’

‘So what about Margaret, could she have arranged their murder after Richard’s coronation in the hope of promoting her son’s interests?’

margaret

‘Possibly though the trail of evidence is non existent. She certainly had the motive and may have been able to contrive the opportunity to get killers into the Tower through her husband’s high standing at court and considerable personal power. Lord Stanley was Steward of the Royal Household at this point. We also have Tudor’s court historian, Polydore Vergil, stating later on that she delighted in the news of their deaths because it helped her son’s ambitions during his exile. We also know that she was plotting with the Dowager queen to marry her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, to her son to assist in establishing his legitimacy if he could defeat Richard in battle. She had been stripped of her titles and estates for plotting treason against Richard but as these were transferred to her husband Richard had done all he could to keep them both in line and on-side. Stanley got Buckingham’s titles after his rebellion so he could have been playing a complicated game, waiting to see which side his bread was buttered thickest?’

‘That would seem to follow true to nature as he did exactly this at Bosworth, sitting it out til the last minute before throwing his lot in with his step-son.’

‘Exactly, who knows what went on in that marriage and who trusted who. I do think Margaret was astute enough to understand her husband’s nature and her only goal was getting her son on to the throne. Stanley would have sold his grandmother for his own advantage so she probably distrusted his commitment to the cause. Perhaps she saw the prospect of ensuring their sister would become queen as balancing out their disappearance?’

‘Doesn’t this plot between the mothers suggest that the Dowager queen knew her sons were dead by this point? If they turned out to be alive Tudor wasn’t going to risk his skin to fight for them even if they promised him the earth if he planned to take the ultimate prize for himself and when his children could be heirs presumptive?’

‘It would suggest that she had given up on them ever being found alive by this point, yes. She had to play the cards that she held and Elizabeth was her best chance of retaining any control over her own destiny or her other daughters. She had lost so much in a short space of time.’

elizabeth

‘Poor woman, she must have been desperate.’

‘Yes, well let’s not let sentiment cloud the facts, Watson. She played for high stakes and lost. Everyone was gambling with their own lives and their family not to mention the poor unfortunates who followed them blindly into war.’

‘So where do we go from here? The trail of evidence has gone stone cold. They might have been moved from the Tower, they might have been buried here and then dug up and re-buried elsewhere, they might have got away or been taken anywhere. Strange that Henry Tudor never formally accused Richard of killing his wife’s brothers, never had masses said for them or found bodies though.’

henry

‘Indeed, he wanted them to disappear as much as anyone else and to establish his own legitimacy as quickly as possible. It was fortunate for him that Elizabeth proved to be fertile so quickly and he had a new Tudor/ Plantagenet prince in the cradle to take people’s minds off the princes. Of course their ghosts continued to harass and obstruct him throughout his reign, first with Lambert Simnel and then Perkin Warbeck. Usurpers usually tend to spend their reigns fighting off challengers. Richard would have found the same problem if he had survived Bosworth. There would have been pretenders without bodies to prove otherwise.’

‘So, we’ve failed then. Hit a dead end. Even the great Sherlock Holmes couldn’t solve this case.’ Watson looked crestfallen at Holmes who remains unmoved as usual.

‘There’s always the next Christmas special Watson, with no Downton Abbey in the picture we could double our ratings….Let’s focus on Warbeck and the holes in his confession.’

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nostalgia, Anglo-Saxon poetry and JRR Tolkien’s world view

February 8, 2016

anglo-saxon brooch

The common thread that runs through Anglo-Saxon poetry like the golden coils of a Sutton Hoo serpent is the nostalgic pain of longing for lost things. Again and again the same phrases are spoken in ‘Beowulf’ and in poems like ‘The Seafarer’ and ‘The Wanderer’. It feels as if one were a direct source for another and they may well have been if the poets were familiar with other works and created variations on a common theme of loss on a heroic scale through generations of oral transmission, weaving one passage into another over time.

Reading these works we almost get a sense that the Anglo-Saxons were fixated by the imagery of hardship and loss. Whether it be the exile of the sea or the abandonment of old age; the longing for the mead hall in days gone by pervades their poetry and the imagery is poignant and beautiful and intensely moving.

In the Sea-Farer we feel the bitterness of old age:

‘The days have departed, all the presumption
of earthly rule—there are no longer
the kings or kaisers or the gold-givers such as there were,
when they performed the greatest glories among them
and dwelt in the most sovereign reputation.
Crumbled are all these glories, their joys have departed.
The weaker abide and keep hold of the world,
brooking it by their busyness. The fruits are brought low.
The glory of the earth elders and withers,
as now do all men throughout middle-earth:
old age overtakes him, blanching his face—
the grey haired grieve. He knows his olden friend,
the noble child, was given up to the ground.’

There is an element of Viking culture here, better to die young in the prime of your life, cut down in the pursuit of glory and fame than to suffer the slights of old age and wither away, the last of your generation and live to see a smaller, less glorious age of men. This speaks of the shared ‘hero culture’ of the Germanic peoples which found expression in the Anglo-Saxon mead hall and war-band, through the bond of comitatus, as it did in the warrior culture of the Vikings to the north.

“Where has the horse gone? Where is the man? Where is the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas the bright goblet! Alas the mailed warrior!
Alas the pride of princes! How the time has passed,
it grows dark beneath the night-helm, as if it never was!

This passage from The Wanderer re-phrases the same sentiment of loss and memory for those who have departed middle-earth and left one behind to bear witness to the past. This was, after all, the function of the Scop in Anglo-Saxon society – to be the conduit of culture and memory, to bear witness in poetic form to the deeds of great men and keep their fame alive long after they were mouldering in their barrows or consigned to the flames of their funeral pyres. The poetic voice speaks so clear and true because it is the voice of the Scop, redolent with prophetic vision and doomed to carry the folk memory of their people in their heads.

The listing of symbolic images is a commonly shared device in this poetry which emphasizes all that is lost. Gold or precious objects such as cups go hand in hand with armour, weapons and other status objects which carry a weight beyond their actual, physical presence. These are symbols for the lost world because each one re-inforces the other.

The cup or the golden objects represent the wealth of the lord’s hall, his success in battle and alliances. They are the physical objects which bear out his ability to be a ‘good cycinga’ to his people. The lord as the ring-giver, the wealth provider, the strong central leader who keeps the people safe from their enemies and distributes land, armour and objects in the symbiotic relationship between ruler and his thanes. They return loyalty, service and love to their lord, making the community strong and secure.

VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

Brooch detail

The nostaglic pain over the armour is even deeper. The mail shirts, the shield, the sword and the great battle helm speak deeply to the one left behind because they embody the glory of past victories, they stood with the war-band in the days of greatest peril. Rather than being practical objects which were owned and put on when the need arose, they are almost separate ‘personalities’ who share in the experience of warfare. They represent the bonds of brotherhood on the field of battle, the glory of courage and ancestral spirit, handed down from generation to generation along with the genetics of bravery in the face of death and the nerve to stand your ground and go hand in hand with the deeply held belief in ‘wyrd’ or fate which was carried in the Anglo-Saxon DNA.

sutton hoo helm

We can see how legends grow up around armour and swords in particular during this period due to the nature of warrior culture and particularly the poetic expression of a heroic, warrior creed. If fame is dependent on personal courage and winning victory by strength of arms then the sword which deals the fatal blow takes on a personality and character of its own. In an arms race between tribes with varying access to new technology from the East the strength of your sword and the legend that grows up around it has huge symbolic power against your enemies and among your friends alike. The power of the sword takes on magical qualities and we see this is myth-making throughout this period from the earliest Arthurian legends of Excaliber, through Naegling, Joyeuse and the mighty Ulfberht Viking blades, forged with the bones of animals and ancestors, into later literature and Tolkien’s Narzil and Anduril.

BlogRings

Indeed Tolkien’s works are also suffused with the same sense of loss and regret. The passing of the Elves is hugely symbolic. It is a metaphor for the end of a golden age that lasted for thousands of years and which can never be seen again on Middle Earth. In human culture, Tolkien takes up this theme in the ruination of the ancient kingdom of Gondor and the end of the line of kings, in the fallen stonework in Ithilien and most particularly in the person of Theoden King.

Theoden becomes a symbol of kingly wisdom, concern for his people and ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of mankind. In this poem about the culture of Rohan, Tolkien pays tribute to the Anglo-Saxon poets more than any other:

‘Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?’

Rohan is a old culture, full of tradition and custom and deeply rooted in the symbolism and spirit of the horse-lords but it is under the threat of extinction from dark forces. Theoden has been bound by dark magic and so reduced that he can not even recognize his own kin but he is redeemed by the white magic of the wizard Gandalf in order to lead his people in their hour of greatest need. There is an Arthurian undertone to this, ‘the once and future king’, who will return to his people and lead them against their greatest enemy with the help of Merlin’s magic. There is also a deep vein of sacrifice in Theoden’s journey. In order to fulfil his destiny and be worthy of lying with the great kings of old he must lay down his life for his people and spend his old age, not in the peace of his hall at Meduseld, but on horseback and in armour. Theoden has doubts and fears, he suffers and grieves and sometimes fails to listen to good council but he is brave and true-hearted and he dies honourably in battle. There are also comparisons to be drawn with Beowulf’s last stand against the dragon. Like Theoden he has ruled his people for many years, he is respected and loved. He must summon up his old heroic courage to meet his doom and like Theoden he has one companion who faces his final nemesis with him in loyalty and love. Beowulf finds his ‘brother-in-peril’ in Wiglaf and Theoden discovers that it is his niece Eowyn, disguised as Durnhelm who stands between him and the Nazgul.

Returning to the Ango-Saxon poetry which inspired Tolkien ‘The Wanderer’ continues:

‘Therefore he knows who must long forgo
the counsels of beloved lord,
when sleep and sorrow both together
often constrain the miserable loner,
it seems to him in his mind that he embraces
and kisses his lord, and lays both hands and head
on his knee, just as he sometimes
in the days of old delighted in the gift-throne.
Then he soon wakes up, a friendless man,
seeing before him the fallow waves,
the sea-birds bathing, fanning their feathers,
ice and snow falling down, mixed with hail.

Then the hurt of the heart will be heavier,
painful after the beloved. Sorrow will be renewed.
Whenever the memory of kin pervades his mind,
he greets them joyfully, eagerly looking them up and down,
the companions of men—
they always swim away.
The spirits of seabirds do not bring many
familiar voices there. Cares will be renewed
for him who must very frequently send
his weary soul over the binding of the waves.’

anglo-saxon warband

This dream-vision form is particularly poignant as we feel the grief of the wanderer who on waking, realizes that the image of the lord and the hall and his companions are but a dream, a memory of things which have passed and can not be felt again. The Dream-vision form which we find in the extraordinary ‘The Dream of the Rood’ poem would continue into medieval literature and is highly expressive. Our sub-conscious reveals our greatest desires to us as we sleep. We can conjour a fully-fleshed, three-dimensional world inside our heads which is so bright and clear that we can smell and taste it but when we wake it dissolves and disappears like mist, leaving behind only regret and longing.

‘The Ruin’ is another powerful Anglo-Saxon poem dealing with the remembrance of things lost. Here the ruins of a mighty settlement or dwelling are described with loving detail and already myth is interwoven with reality. It was built by giants rather than men though the ghosts of the craftsmen and builders live on beyond the ‘grave’s-grip.’

‘These wall-stones are wondrous —
crumpled by calamity, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants
corrupted. The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.
Ice at the joints has unroofed the barred-gates, sheared
the scarred storm-walls have disappeared—
the years have gnawed them from beneath. A grave-grip holds
the master-crafters, decrepit and departed, in the ground’s harsh
grasp, until one hundred generations of human-nations have
trod past. Subsequently this wall, lichen-grey and rust-stained,
often experiencing one kingdom after another,
standing still under storms, high and wide—
it failed—’

mead hall

There is an epic grandeur and nobility of spirit in this writing which speaks to us through all the intervening centuries and touches us with a common bond of of human kinship. We all know what it feels like to walk around a ruined castle or a deserted abbey and feel the weight of history around us and sense the ghosts of the dead so close that we can almost turn and glimpse them through through a faded archway. We can all relate to the sense of loss for another age which the poet is alluding to and which has come down through the ages to us in the words of Shakespeare, Milton or Shelley…

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

All of these ideas and images come together, for me, in the most beautiful passage of Beowulf and expressed through the poetic genius of Seamus Heaney’s translation. Here the poet conjours up the image of an old man who must bury the treasures of his house in a barrow because he senses that his time is running short. As he commits the objects to the earth he remembers the glories of the older days and the destruction of his people:

‘A newly constructed 

Barrow stood waiting, on a wide headland

Close to the waves, its entryway secured.

Into it the keeper of the hoard had carried

All the goods and golden ware

Worth preserving.  His words were few:

“Now, earth, hold what earls once held

And heroes can no more; it was mined from you first

By honorable men.  My own people

Have been ruined in war; one by one                     2250

They went down to death, looked their last

On sweet life in the hall.  I am left with nobody

To bear a sword or burnish plated goblets,

Put a sheen on the cup.  The companies have departed.

The hard helmet, hasped with gold,

Will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner

Who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps;

The coat of mail that came through all fights,

Through shield-collapse and cut of sword,

Decays with the warrior.  Nor may webbed mail           2260

Range far and wide on a warlord’s back

Beside his mustered troops.  No trembling harp,

No tuned timber, no tumbling hawk

Swerving through the hall, no swift horse

Pawing the courtyard.  pillage and slaughter

Have emptied the earth of entire peoples.”

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,

Deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness

Day and night, until death’s flood

Brimmed up in his heart.’

What more eloquent passage could have been written for a lost age than this one? We have it all here, the respect for dead leaders, the memory of the good life of the mead hall and all that meant in terms of warmth, light, security, friendship and honour. We have the remembered servants who polished the war-gear and readied their lords for battle and the list of the objects most poignantly described in terms of what they withstood in battle but in addition a new layer of imagery is added. Now we also hear the Scop’s harp ringing in the tuned timbers of the great hall, the princely hawk; echoing another great image from the Anglo-Saxon age of the sparrow’s flight through the hall of life before it flies out again into the darkness of eternity; and finally the mighty war horse, eager for action in the courtyard beyond the hall.  It is a dream-vision but spoken rather than recalled. It goes to the very heart of Anglo-Saxon culture and everything I admire about it.