Regular readers may notice a pattern in my regular translations, or at least an absence: there is no Middle English. Now may well be a good time to admit a deeply shaming secret, one that has haunted my undergraduate career… I have never studied any Middle English. Oh, sure, I know what it is, I have read a few things about pieces written in that intermediary language- but I have never studied Chaucer, or the Pearl poet. Gawain and the Green Knight is the longest piece I have read, and that in translation. On the other hand, I have read some Middle Scots.

Jeff Sypeck‘s translation of The Taill of Rauf Coilyear as The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (2010) has filled that void in my life- a void I was unaware of until he brought this delightful story to the attention of the blogosphere. It is a tale of the great king Charlemagne, his travelling companions lost and scattered by a violent storm, seeking refuge with our humble charcoal-burner, Ralph. The king fails in certain aspects of receiving hospitality and is chastised by his proud host. As Sypeck himself says, it may be  “the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.”

Eventually the emperor manages to return to his journey, encouraging the collier to come visit him in Paris. Of course, our humble protagonist has no idea that Charlemagne is really the king. In the grand tradition of folk-tales the world over wherein great men conceal their identities, he believes that ol’ Karl is merely ‘Wymond the Wardrober”. I am sure you can imagine what happens when Ralph arrives in Paris, and the wacky hijinks that ensue.

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is a translation, but unlike my own mostly-literal works, Sypeck has managed the incredible. With care and an open thesaurus, he has managed to maintain much of both the rhyme scheme and the alliteration of the poem. Furthermore he’s done this without the result sounding either archaic or too ridiculous. More importantly, he has not sacrificed meaning. If only all translations could manage this. For comparison, the first stanza:

In the cheiftyme of Charlis, that chosin chiftane,
Thair fell ane ferlyfull flan within thay fellis wyde
Quhair empreouris and erlis and uther mony ane
Turnit fra Sanct Thomas befoir the Yule tyde.
Thay past unto Paris, thay proudest in pane,
With mony prelatis and princis that was of mekle pryde.
All thay went with the King to his worthy wane;
Ovir the feildis sa fair thay fure be his syde.
All the worthiest went in the morning —

Baith dukis and duchepeiris,
Barrounis and bacheleiris.
Mony stout man steiris

Of town with the King.

And in translation:

In the chiefdom of Charles, by chance it befell
That there struck a strong storm on the slope steep and wide
Where emperors, earls, other men in that dell,
Having turned from Saint Thomas before the Yuletide,
Where passing to Paris, appareled so well,
Those prelates and princes all puffed up with pride
Who willingly went where the king wished to dwell;
Through the fairest of fields did they fare by his side
In the morning, the worthiest, wide of renown,

With dukes and Twelve Peers,
Barons, knights young of years;
Each proudly appears

With the king leaving town.

Probably more important than Sypeck’s skill with Middle Scots is that the Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is genuinely a lot of fun. For all that the high-minded epics of the period are important and worthy, not everyone can sit through the stirring war-poetry of the chansons de geste without eventually getting sick of mail-clad warriors brutalising one another. Ralph is a relatively light-hearted dance through medieval France (if it looks a lot like medieval Scotland) with low humour, king-slapping and the sometimes excessive pride of a low-born man.

Because of my own deficiencies, I am unable to say ‘if you love Middle English poetry, you’ll love this!’ although you probably would. On the other hand, I can say that if you enjoy the lighter side of the middle ages, you will enjoy it. If watching a translator’s skill at work is as interesting for you as for me, Ralph is for you. The poem really is a lot of fun, and Sypeck’s occasional footnote and erudite introduction means that it can be a learning experience. I should know- it was for me.

To purchase this delightful little tale, just head on over to Quid Plura?, where Master Sypeck has set up a variety of methods for purchase. Or, if you have one of those high-tech papyrus scrolls, you can get it for the Kindle at Amazon.

Due to difficulties of copyright, Sypeck’s translation does not have a facing original. Those interested in seeing the poem in the original Middle Scots can do so online thanks to the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages.