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From The Wild Hunt, a [neo-]pagan blog, comes the most bizarre piece of medievalist news I have heard all week. Arthur Uther Pendragon, modern druid and reincarnation of the famous king, is running to become an independent MP in Salisbury. I find myself speechless, and thus am reduced to blockquoting:
“One of the counts I will be most interested in following on election night will be the one down in Salisbury, where the ever-colourful King Arthur Pendragon is standing. You’ve got to love him: a man in a dress who rides a motorbike and carries a dirty big sword called Excalibur around … He’s a sort of wayward son of the Druid movement – the armed proletarian wing – with a taste in wild women and flashy silver jewellery and a kind of persistent stubbornness that is almost Churchillian in its scope. I think there may be other candidates, but I’ve already forgotten who they are.”
I must admit to being inclined to agreement with Rob Mayall on that one. For all that I am quite fond of my local MPs, I would probably vote for a chap wielding a sword and riding about on a motorbike. It adds a certain colour which is somewhat lacking in Australian -and most other- English elections.
Oh, certainly, I could write something about the immense influence the Arthurian mythology retains even in our modern age, wax lyrical about the lack of romance in current-day politics. I could write a post about barmy New Age types, or rattle on about religious influences in politics
But Mister Pendragon seems relatively harmless- he’s vowed never to unsheathe Excalibur in anger.
Wiht cwom gongan þær weras sæton
monige on mæðle, mode snottre;
hæfde an eage ond earan twa,
ond twegen fet, twelf hund heafda,
hrycg ond eaxle, anne sweoran,
ond sidan twa. Saga hwæt ic hatte.
A creature came walking to where men sat,
many at meeting, wise in mind;
it had one eye, and two ears,
and two feet, twelve hundred heads,
a back and shoulders, one neck,
and two sides. Say what I am called.
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,
neahbuendum nyt. Nængun sceþþe
burgsittendra nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah; stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on rodne, reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona
mines gemotes seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc- wæt bið þæt eage.
I am a wonderful being: for pleasure to women,
useful to neighbours. None are injured
of the enclosure-dwellers, save the slayer alone.
My foundation is steep-high; I stood in a bed,
hairy somewhere below. A fully-fair
churl’s daughter ventures sometimes,
a spirit-proud maiden, that she gropes me,
rushes me to redness, ravages my head,
fixes me onto fastness. She immediately feels
the encounter with me, she who forces me in,
the woman with braided hair- wet is that eye.
Wrætlic hongað bi weres þeo,
frean under sceate. Foran is þyrel.
Bið stiþ ond heard, stede hafað godne;
þonne se esne his agen hrægl
ofer cneo hefeð, wile þæt cuþe hol
mid his hangellan heafde gretan
þæt he efenlang ær oft gefylde.
The wonder hangs by the man’s thigh,
under the lord’s fold. To the fore is a hole.
It will be firm and hard, has good firmness;
then the man raises his own garment
over his knee, wishes to greet that familiar
hole with the head of his hanging thing
which he has long filled before.
Ic on wincle gefrægn weaxan nathwæt,
þindan ond þunian, þecene hebban;
on þæt banlease bryf grapode,
hygewlonc hondum, hrægle þeahte
þrindende þing þeodnes dohtor.
I discovered something grows in the corner,
swelled and puffing up, raises a cover;
a bride, proud-minded one, grasped that boneless thing,
covered the swelling thing with a garment
using her hands, the lord’s daughter.
A few days ago, Mister Jarrett posted one of the more revolting hagiographical miracles I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Pleasure may not be the correct term, but his tale of saint-spittle and demonic possession entertained me. What that tells you about me I do not even know. At any rate, it reminded me of the most disgusting piece of Latin I have ever had the pleasure of translating.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an undergraduate essay on Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the famous leper king. My argument was that the apparent softening of attitudes towards lepers in the Latin East had less to do with the king and more to do with other factors. Not least of these was the increasing influence of the order of leper knights, the Order of Saint Lazarus. In order to write about these things I also had to discuss leprosy in the thirteenth century more generally, and a damn fascinating topic it is. I tell you, I was quite the life of the party during that period, delighting in regaling friends and family with the grotesque details of the disease as well as some of the treatments proscribed.
One of the more obscure sources I found was one Gerard of Nazareth, bishop of Laodicea by 1140. The scholarly giant Benjamin Z. Kedar wrote a paper on the cleric, having collated the surviving fragments of his works. Among other things, Gerard discussed hermits and monasteries and the imitatio christi interpreted by some as requiring care of the ill. One particular monk he discusses in detail is Alberic, who was devoted to the lepers of a house outside the walls of Jerusalem. (A house I suspect was that granted to the Order of Lazarus, as a matter of fact.) Apparently Alberic was not a quiet man, prone to hurling abuse and invectives at passers-by.
Nonetheless, he was extremely devoted to his charges:
Albericus…Ierosolymis leprosis inservivit. Is ea quae reliqua fecerant leprosi, comedit, singulos quotidie exacta Missa exosculatus est, pedes eorum lavit, tersit, stravit lectos, languentes humeris cubitum portavit.
Alberic… was devoted to the lepers of Jerusalem. He ate those things which the lepers had left over, he kissed them individually every day at the end of Mass, washed their feet, cleansed them, made the beds, he carried those tiring leaning on him by the shoulders.
In fact, he was very devoted.
Cumque uni aliquando pedes lavisset, et aqua sanguine et sanie mixta ipsi nauseam moveret, protinus faciem immersit, et partem non exiguam (horrible dictu) exhausit.
And once when he had washed the feet of one of them, and the water mixed with blood and pus moved nausea in him, right away he immersed his face and (awful to say!) drained not a small part.
Naturally this reveals interesting details in the lives of both lepers and those devoted to them. Cleaning feet will minimize the secondary infections which are so dangerous to those afflicted with the disease, for example. Feeling (natural) disgust at the sight of such infected blood goes against the teachings that Alberic was following. There are valuable insights to be found here.
Yet it is inescapable that this excerpt of Latin describes a monk immersing his face in water mixed with blood and pus and then drinking some. Yum.
Catherynne M. Valente is always difficult to review. She is a poet of a prose author, and her writing is dense and baroque- sometimes excessively so. The writing of Under in the Mere (2009) has a dream-like surreal quality which makes it difficult to come to certain conclusions about how the novella is to read.
Is Under in the Mere good? The answer is certainly a yes. The imagery is astounding; the combination of Arthurian myth and Californian deserts resonate at a perfect- well, I’m not sure of the metaphor. It works. The illustrations are brilliant, pen-and-ink images of Death playing chess, Galahad slumped in a cheap bar. The simplicity of James A. Owen and Jeremy Owen’s work serves as the perfect foil to Valente’s sometimes labyrinthine prose.
The novella itself is divided into chapters/short stories, each focusing on an individual in King Arthur’s court. It has been a while since I read any of the Matter of Britain, but these are not the same as the tales my father read to me as a child. Lancelot is broken; Kay is a hollow thing, driven by his love of Arthur; Mordred is… oh, Mordred. And poor, poor Dagonet, whose story will break your heart as it did mine. There is a thread of continuity throughout -sometimes invisible, ever present- as each of the knights Quests in the name of Arthur, while the Lady ever seeks the King.
This is not a fantasy, a novel in the regular sense. The plot is hidden in layers of metaphor and poetic prose. It is not easy reading. I’faith, it took me longer to read than a far longer book due to sheer exhaustion. If one has a taste for the wrought -and I do- then it is enjoyable, but it is never relaxing.
If there is a real weakness to the novel, then this is it. The characters Valente paints with her wordbrush sound much the same. Rendered into complex, dreaming prose-verse, characterisation is difficult to discern. Lancelot is not Galahad, and their stories sound and feel and remember differently, yet the style is distinct. It is not unpleasant, but I cannot imagine that all would enjoy it.
I am an unabashed fan of reinterpretations of Arthurian myth. I love words for the sheer sake of words, and writing that glories in being gilded, ornate and glowing without cause. Under in the Mere is rich and excessive like the very best of dark chocolate.
Read it with a glass of port.