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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.


Becoming Charlemagne

I am a terrible person, you know. Jeff Sypeck sent me a copy of his book some time in 2008, in return for a donation to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. I was happy to do so, because I am pretty fond of disabled people getting better care, and also because it meant that I received a copy of an excellent book about one of my favourite medieval figures. At the time, I promised that I would review the book. It took me over a year to get around to it, and this is a repost of that review.

Becoming Charlemagne (2006) narrates in vivid detail the events that led a Germanic barbarian king to become Charlemagne, a name now associated with the idea of a greater Europe, the Holy Roman Empire -a term Karl would have never heard- and tainted by Hitlerian pseudo-history. It is not a complete biography of the man, and I think Sypeck did the right thing by focusing on the handful of years surrounding the coronation and constructing an image of the era in as much detail as possible.

The book is split in two parts; the first half details the setting, the empires and peoples of the late 8thC. There is one chapter on each of Aachen, Byzantium, Alcuin,1 Baghdad, and European Jews. The second draws together narrative threads from the first to construct the events which help define the next millenium or so of European history. The first half of Becoming Charlemagne is the most fascinating to me- I have studied Charlemagne before, and the details of his accession to imperator do not intrigue me nearly as much as the Sypeck’s portrayal of the powers of the time. Your mileage may vary.

As a general rule, this is most unusual for me. The kind of history I prefer to read is the dry, dull stuff so derided by generations of bored schoolchildren. I like political history, the careful analysis of sources, and king-names (even if I can never remember them). Then again, I enjoy etymology.2 Sypeck doesn’t write this kind of history, although his love affair with the oft-ambiguous source is clear in his notes and his attention to detail.

What Sypeck writes is more narrative, more flavoured with real people, real consequences, real emotions. He describes the medieval world in taste and scent as much as in political movement. One can imagine the riotous marketplaces of Baghdad, the mud-splattered contempt of Greek emissaries to the pathetic German capital of Aachen, the exhaustion of Isaac as he leads the elephant Abul Abaz across the entire world.3 The court of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid is described in terms which make me wish a West Wing-style television drama would be set therein:

When duty called [Harun] rode into battle or made the pilgrimage to Mecca; otherwise, he quietly enjoyed his world of earthly delights. He delighted in the company of his pious and wealthy cousin Zubayda, who was also his favourite wife and the mother of his heir apparent. His friends all came to him, among them the physician Jubrail bin Bakhtishu, who dined with him nightly, and Ibn Abi Maryam al-Madani, a storyteller and legal expert who lazed around the palace and haunted the harem.

These kind of details brings a level of detail to the political and social changes rippling across Europe a clarity and a narrative power exactly as required in popular history. Sypeck does an excellent job.

He is careful not to get carried away and ascribe as historical fact things which his imagination has conjured, but sometimes these things are some potent images. The events leading to King Karl becoming Karolus serenissimus Augustus are exciting and bloody, and would make for wealth-making film. After the famous botched blinding attack on Pope Leo, the pontiff escapes over a wall, perhaps lowered by his chamberlain. Sypeck speculates about details which medieval chroniclers would never give us:4

Albinus the chamberlain sneaking along a cloister in the dark or bribing a guard to look the other way; the pope, accustomed to fine robes and flattery, being lowered over the wall like a latrine bucket; and the furious Paschalius and Campulus [the conspirators] berating their flunkies at daybreak while wondering, with growing desperation, what in God’s name they were going to do next.

Screw the latest cartoon series from the 80s, Hollywood. Write me a movie about that.

[An aside: I have long bemoaned the loss of the Frankish epics and grammars to history, despite Charlemagne’s attempt to preserve them. Yet who could not grin at Sypeck’s note that “the monks who collected the old pagan songs probably had to extract them from weird old coots”?]

If I must, as I always do, bring up a note of discord in Becoming Charlemagne, it is this: there is so little about the women. Women are near-invisible in much medieval history, and Sypeck is hardly to be blamed for that. Indeed, if only because of Empress Irene of Byzantium, he includes more than some writers of medieval history do. Yet aside from noting that Karl loved his daughters, and turned a blind eye to their affairs, there is little about the women in this world. Is this caused by lack of evidence? Probably.

Yet when speaking of Irene, the impressively fierce empress who blinded her own son to ensure her rise to power, Sypeck falls back on stereotypically gendered language. This is irksome. She is described as ‘brooding’ over her fragile reign with ‘motherly zeal’. Seriously? Motherly zeal? This woman had her own son blinded. ‘Motherly’, whatever that means, is the absolute last word I would use to describe her. When describing the moment of her son’s butchering, he wonders if she prayed for a moment for Heaven to help for the way she is.

I find it difficult to believe that he would write such words into the mouth of any fierce, male usurper. Why write them into the mouth of a fierce, female usurper? Irene is one of the powerful women of the whole period, and she would surely not brook such disrespect.

On the subjects of Becoming Charlemagne, on the rise of Karl to become Charlemagne, on the intricate and fragile international state of Aachen-Rome-Constantinople-Baghdad, and on the eventual collapse of the empire, Sypeck writes with careful attention to detail and -to mix metaphors- paints an intricate picture of medieval Europe as the western half of the continent changes into something new.

I recommend Becoming Charlemagne as an good, solid starting point. It is a good book to start reading about Charlemagne, and his time, and the middle years of the early middle ages. It is a good book to get some personal details about peoples and lands. High schoolers and undergraduates in history who don’t know very much will alike find it a good place to start on the ninth century- as will anyone who gets their learnin’ about the middle ages from the movies.

Jeff Sypeck blogs about matters medieval, gargoyles grotesque, and applied paleobromatology over at Quid Plura?, one of the more consistently interesting blogs in the medieval blagocube.

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I want a pet manticore. I never knew that about myself until I first encountered Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, but it’s true. The webcomic’s protagonist, Skittles, is just too damn adorable for words. Oh, there are those -such as the authors- who will argue that the actual protagonist is the eponymous Darwin, but they are wrong. Skittles is the true hero of the piece- who is it that adorns the banner? That’s right. Darwin’s tale of woe is just a framing mechanism, used by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan to situate Skitíls saga fegursturs in a manner to which modern audiences may relate.

The Darwin Carmichael of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell1 is cursed to Hell. I guess you can get that from the title. It turns out that his karma is out of balance thanks to an incident in his wayward youth involving a babysitting gig, a punk girlfriend, and an unstable high chair. The story of the webcomic has us witnessing Darwin’s shitty job, his best friends, the stoner angels crashing on his couch -and his pet Skittles, the true hero of the story- as he half-heartedly attempts to rectify his error and save his soul from eternal damnation.

If this sounds like a bad White Wolf adaption, you couldn’t be more wrong. DCiGtH2 brings the serious occasionally, but for the most part the ‘comic is hilarious with the occasional side note toward adorable. The clash of the everyday New York life with some of the more bizarre creatures of mythology provides endless opportunities for humour. Like all good works of fantasy, much of the funny is satire directed at modern life. Hipsters take it in the teeth, as does urban development, and the sexism inherent in art.

As mentioned, Skittles steals rightfully claims the spotlight. A two thousand year old manticore with the heart of a thirteen year old girl and the eyes of a despairing puppy, the plotlines dominated by him never fail to bring a smile to my face. Whether it is his birthday party (revealing that most mythological critters are adolescent girls at heart), or the crayon episodes detailing the adventures with his previous owners, his tales are hilarious and sweet in equal measure. For all my jesting about him being the true hero of the piece, I actually suspect his role is critical. The little guy frolicked alongside Christ, Oscar Wilde, and Joan of Arc, among others. These are important figures in literature and history, and all of them faced severe trials of faith and spirit in their time. Is it a coincidence that Skittles is now companion and friend to Darwin Carmichael, Damned? I doubt it.

I will freely admit that I am drawn to DCiGtH because of the mythological content. I am a fantasy fan of long standing, having grown up on Greek myths and King Arthur and studying, you know- medieval history and literatures. The concept of ancient deities waiting bars, citizens balancing karmic checkbooks, and mermaid artists with their own tank (how does she get around?) appeals to  my very bones. I am particularly pleased that Jordan and Goldstein include elements of Christian mythology in their tale; the stoner angels and their demonic dealer are a nice touch. Too often these sorts of stories are hesitant to treat all mythologies as equal.

Of course I could not go without mentioning the jokes levelled at atheists! The fanatical, proselytising street atheists of DCiGtH make me walk the streets with a giant grin for days every time they make their appearance. The joke works on several levels, which I am not standing here to discuss, and each of them makes me smile. The fanatical Einstein lookalike who briefly deconverts the angels; the grouchy street preacher who gets annoyed when he is mocked. Pure comedy gold.

I have to confess that when DC3 started I was not sure where it was going. The art looked occasionally awkward in the first few strips, I was not sure of the plotline, and I thought Skittles was grating. I know! I was so wrong– I must repent. These issues resolved themselves rapidly, demonstrating that they were just the bumps every new webcomic must endure before it can get great. The art has improved while retaining Goldstein’s style of clear lines and simple colours, and the writing has become clear and sharp. The result may not necessarily be to everyone’s taste -some people just don’t like nice things- but it is a good piece of work.

Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell has become one of my favourite ‘comics over the year and change it has been running. The updates are regular, there is a cast page, an about page- all the minimum standards a modern webcomic ought to have. It is difficult for my native perfectionism to rise up and find nits at which I may pick in Goldstein and Jordan’s work. This is pleasing, because it is such fine work. Wholesome and fun, funny and engaging, DCiGtH is realistic myth-fantasy about a manticore named Skittles and a boy named Darwin at the highest levels. You owe it to yourself to have a read.

Full Disclosure: I’ve known Jenn Jordan on the internet for a while. She blogs at Per Omnia Saecula where she watches bad medieval movies so we don’t have to, and is generally awesome. Plus, the DCiGtH creators are offering a t-shirt as a prize to people who say nice things about them, so.

1. There has to be a better shorthand than DCiGtH for that.
2. There must be.
3. See, this one doesn’t work because it looks like that famous comic company.

Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew

By the time I had finished the second paragraph of the first page, a pleasantly warm feeling had spread through my belly and I had a broad smile on my face. Ursula Vernon’s Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of A (Somewhat) Brave Shrew (2008) is the most charming book I can ever remember reading. It is warm and nice and funny and smart.

I wish it had existed when I was around eight or so. I am torn between pleasure that it now exists for today’s children and jealousy that I can only appreciate it as an adult. It has all the charming gentleness of the best parts of The Hobbit mixed with wit akin to Terry Pratchett. It has an adorable protagonist and gorgeous scenery and lovely artwork.

The scenery of Nurk is spectacular. I think the tree of fish is my favourite image, but we also have walls of giant mushrooms, a court of shimmering dragonflies, and bright clean socks. Tying the fantastic and rich world our tiny hero is cast into is a slender thread of common-sense, jointly narrated by Nurk and his heroic grandmother Surka who offers such semi-literate gems as this:

a tRUe aDvEnTuRer nEeDs a keeN WiT, a sTout HeARt, and a stRonG bLAdDeR. Dumb LUck cAn sTAnD in FoR thE WiT aNd THe heARt, bUT i’vE NEveR yEt FouND a GOod sUBstiTutE foR thE BLaDdER.

The Tree of Salmon

The pacing is perfect. Nurk, our reluctant shrew hero, receives a mysterious letter and things step along from there as he goes through his small acts of bravery moving on up to an awesome climax. Vernon never wastes a word and employs adorable poetic techniques (watch the alliteration and repetition) to ensure that the smile I had from the first page remained though the whole book.

I hate to trot out tired clichés, but that ‘book for the whole family’ thing is completely true for Nurk. Read this to your small children. After you have bought it for your selfish, childfree self you should have children so you can read Nurk to them.

Ursula Vernon is an award-winning comic book author, children’s book author, illustrator, artist, and a creator of some truly bizarre things. She has a website, is the author of the webcomic Digger and blogs mostly at Bark Like a Fish, Damnit!

I have been struggling with this review for some time. I am hopeless with poetry! I may know I like a given piece, a collection, but when I try and define why, look for the use of -of things I struggle. I could talk about Anglo-Saxon poetry, discuss alliteration and themes, and (pseudo-) historical allusions, but modern poetry confuses me. ‘I knows what I likes,’ as they say, and the best I can do is flail about enthusiastically and hope I may hit why.

One of the modern poets I know I likes is Adrienne J. Odasso. Her first collection, Lost Books (2010), was published a short time ago and I was lucky enough to receive one hot from the presses. This is a first edition, folks, signed and everything. You can bet I cherish it.

Odasso’s work is haunting and mysterious, nostalgic and bittersweet, mysterious and sublime; the pieces run the gamut of human emotion. The tone is not what I would call dark, but it is not entirely light-hearted either. There are currents of heartbreak and uncertainty running through her work, dark forests littered with bone fragments. As related in “Mason-Dixson”, there are gunshots in the hills.

Other pieces feel unsettled, with an atmosphere distinctly of the Northern Hemisphere, yet neither European nor American. Some pieces are strange, leaving the stomach uneasy and the mind swimming for an interpretation in the mist. My personal favourite may well be “Which it was,” a beautiful and romantic piece. Or perhaps “Heresies”, a two-part poem that seems to tell an unfinished story.

Do not be mistaken. Lost Books is not miserable. I have heard it described as ‘ethereal’ and that is somewhat closer the mark. You cannot have heartbreak without love, or a dark wood without bright berries. One of the most clear and beautiful poems in the collection is “Not Eden”, about the joys of old books, strange wilderness- and eating sweet berries when you know you oughtn’t. It makes me smile everytime I read it.

I would read Odasso’s poetry into the long hours of the night, yet I can only take them piece by quiet piece. Like rich, soft chocolate or fine wine; you wish to never stop, and must.

Lost Books may be purchased online from many, many places, or from Flipped Eye Press directly.

Adrienne blogs over at Lost in Transcription.

Full disclosure: I have been an avid reader of Adrienne Odasso’s online work for some time. I would consider her a friend. Read this review accordingly. 


May 2018
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