Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Information

Goodreads: Beowulf: A New Translation
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2020

Official Summary

A new, feminist translation of Beowulf by the author of The Mere Wife.

Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world — there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements never before translated into English.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. These familiar components of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history. Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment — of powerful men seeking to become more powerful and one woman seeking justice for her child — but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation; her Beowulf is one for the twenty-first century.

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Review

This is a difficult review for me to write because, on one hand, I understand what Maria Dahvana Headley is doing with this translation. She’s making Beowulf more modern and accessible, and she’s using her translation to draw out a new interpretation of the story, one where Grendel’s mother is a grief-stricken mom before than a monster and where Beowulf and company are still impressive warriors but also kind of bragging dude bros who don’t know everything. I see her vision, and I get where she’s coming from. On the other hand: it just isn’t my thing.

I’ve read a number of translations of Beowulf (such as Heaney’s and Tolkien’s), and I’ve written a post for the blog about whether the story is one of adventure or one of loss. I LIKE the old feel of the story and I like the translator interpretation that Beowulf used antiquated language when it was written; it sounded old to its first Anglo-Saxon listeners. I like feeling that I’m in a far-off time and place where the things that mattered to people are sometimes strikingly familiar and sometimes completely foreign. I’m not really into a version of Beowulf where Beowulf calls everyone, including kings, “bro” and the narrator calls Beowulf Hrothgar’s “new best boy.”

I also didn’t think the combo old/new language meshed. Maria Dahvana Headley talks in the introduction about how she wants the story to be approachable and how she wants it to sound like someone telling a story, like something someone would say. Except, well, none of it sounds like something anyone would say. I cannot imagine someone standing somewhere and saying these lines:

I’ve racked my brain, bro, but, Unferth,
I can’t unpack any similar stories of
heroics from you. Let me say it straight:
You don’t rate and neither did Breca
when it came to battle. The gulf? You’re cattle,
and I’m a wolf . . . (581-586)

There’s something about the way that the translation sometimes uses the Anglo-Saxon language (ex. kennings like “whale-road”) and sometimes uses modern language (ex. “daddy” or “bullshit”) and fits into some poetic meter that isn’t quite Anglo-Saxon but clearly based around it that all comes across as awkward to me. And who would really brag to someone by saying, “The gulf?” and then calling the other person cattle? I get that all this is actually the appeal of this translation to many people, but I didn’t like it.

The one part I did like is that Grendel’s mother truly gets a better light here. She’s still metaphorically a monster and she still has to die, but Headley translates her as just a woman who is (reasonably) upset her son has been killed. Headley makes the point that the Old English wording doesn’t mean she actually has to be labelled a hag or monster or swamp thing or whatever else translators have come up with. She can just be a woman who lives in the mere, who has an impressive hoard of weapons and a lot of strength.

So, if you like Beowulf, this is definitely worth looking into just as a new perspective on the story. If you don’t like Beowulf or you’ve always been intimidated by old-timey language translations, this could also be of interest to you. Again, it’s just not for me. I’m glad I read it once, but I don’t think I’ll be rereading it for any reason.

Briana

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 11-20)

Reading Through Nancy Drew

I have loved Nancy Drew for years, but will rereading the entire series of the yellow spine books hold up to my memories? Join me as I find out! Read part one here.

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Book 11: The Clue of the Broken Locket

The Clue of the Broken Locket

The eleventh installment of the series contains all the elements that make a classic Nancy Drew read. Upon driving to Maryland to help one of her father’s clients, Nancy discovers a mystery involving a missing treasure, a phantom ship, and a possible kidnapping. While attempting to solve the case, Nancy inevitably finds herself in danger of being imprisoned, kidnapped, and murdered herself. Plenty of action combined with a spooky mystery and a search for secret passageways shows the Nancy Drew series at the height of its powers.

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Book 12: The Message in the Hollow Oak

Message in the Hollow Oak

Book twelve mixes things up a little as Nancy attempts to track down a legendary message said to have been hidden in a hollow oak in the eighteenth century. Along the way, she gets tangled up with a confidence man determined to find the hollow oak himself. Nancy’s presence at an archaeological dig adds a little more historical interest to the story, though the book could do more to interrogate the ethical implications of digging up a burial ground, aside from one character’s objections about the disrespect to the dead it implies. The concept of tracking down a centuries-old treasure makes this book unique in the series so far, but it is arguably not very interesting to watch Nancy and her friends merely look for unusual trees and then walk around in the woods for a bit. The Message in the Hollow Oak has a good premise, but it fails to deliver on it as much as it might have.

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Book 13: The Mystery of the Ivory Charm

The Mystery of the Ivory Charm

This is one of the books where the rewrites meant to remove racism do not entirely succeed. Nancy and the other characters treat India as an exotic country full of many marvels, but also linger over details of the caste system, child marriage, and more that make the nation seem not entirely civilized. Many of the Indian characters in the book are very superstitious, which does not reflect well on them in a mystery where the protagonists are all about evidence and facts. The actual mystery is a rather convoluted one involving the kidnapping of a baby, theft of Indian treasures, blackmail, and more. The story is not as streamlined as many of the others, and it can feel a bit like a chore to get through.

Read my comparison review of the 1936 version versus the 1974 revised edition.

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Book 14: The Whispering Statue

The Whispering Statue

This adventure sees Nancy don a disguise in a fun attempt to solve two different mysteries while working undercover in a bookshop/art dealership. Her simultaneous stay at a yacht club adds some spice to the story, as she enters a sailing competition and Bess flirts with the handsome boat attendant. A break-in, kidnapping, sailing accident, near boat collision, and more lend extra excitement to a series that always tries to cram in as much drama as possible. The Whispering Statue has its odd moments (such as Nancy making sales off-the-clock for a business owner who seems to have skipped town), but its sense of narrative drama makes it an exemplar of why generations of children have been engrossed by the series.

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Book 15: The Haunted Bridge

The Haunted Bridge

Nancy’s stay at a resort with a gold club adds some interest to what is otherwise a bit of a lackluster mystery. Her father is on the trail of a ring of international jewel thieves, and Nancy manages to catch them almost entirely by accident when she stumbles upon a small chest belonging to a mysterious woman. The question of whether Nancy can win the amateur golf tournament somehow becomes more pressing than the question of whether she will crack the case.

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Book 16: The Clue of the Tapping Heels

Clue of the Tapping Heels

Nancy tries to solve a mystery where a woman is hearing ghostly tapping noises in her home, and her prize Persian cats are being stolen. Normally, I really love the stories where someone’s house is supposedly “haunted,” but for some reason this installment of the series feels a little lackluster. The big excitement is when Nancy, Bess, and George go to a cat show. And Nancy is targeted in a series of violent incidents that seem over-the-top for some guy just trying to steal some stuff out of a house. The book ends when all the culprits conveniently confess to everything. Definitely not one of my favorites.

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Book 17: The Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk

Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trun k

Nancy Drew and her friends are aboard a ship sailing from the Netherlands back to New York City when they become involved in a mystery surrounding an international group of smugglers. The setting makes the story fun as the girls swim, play Ping-Pong, and flirt with cute boys, but it seems like the series is already running out of new catastrophes to strike. Nancy almost gets hit by a meteor in this book! Aside from the meteor, however, the story is pretty interesting, as Nancy must outwit a gang of thieves using sophisticated disguises.

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Book 18: The Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion

Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion

I thought maybe the Nancy Drew series had jumped the shark in the previous installment, when Nancy and her friends are almost hit by a meteor. Book 18, however, is even more ludicrous, so much so that I might have thought I was watching the 1960s Batman show instead of reading Nancy Drew. Steaming pools of water to cast hapless victims into? Exploding oranges meant to take down a rocket ship? It’s hard to take this story seriously.

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Book 19: The Quest of the Missing Map

Quest of the Missing Map

I cannot decide if having Nancy sail to an uncharted island for actual buried treasure is exciting or just really corny. The real problem, however, is that Nancy acquires clues in this mystery far too easily for it to feel rewarding when she finally outwits the bad guys. The main draw is that this book feels perfect for an adaptation into one of the Nancy Drew PC games, with its hidden passages and contraptions left by an eccentric inventor.

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Book 20: The Clue in the Jewel Box

The Clue in the Jewel Box

This is another Nancy Drew story that verges on the fantastic, as it seems based on the story of the missing Anastasia. Nancy meets an elderly woman who turns out to be a former queen, who has fled from her country after the late revolution, and who is now looking for her lost grandson. There are enough twists and turns, however, to keep things lively as Nancy deals with pickpockets and an imposter. The series is picking up again after a decided lull.

What Periods of Classic Literature Get a Bit Overlooked? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Is there a period of literature that you think gets overlooked when classics are discussed? Why or why not?

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My initial answer to this question is (predictably, if you know me) is:

Medieval literature!

Half the time when I mention medieval literature to people, they don’t even know what time period I am referring to. A lot of people are under the impression that Shakespeare counts as medieval literature and/or that his plays are written in Old English. I told a friend I’d written my thesis on a “medieval romance,” and she genuinely thought I meant something like a Julia Quinn novel. If someone does get the time period correct, they are likely to mention one of only three things: Chaucer, King Arthur, or Robin Hood. Suffice to say, I think medieval literature could grow a bit in popularity among people who aren’t actually medievalists.

And I’ve already written a couple posts about that:


So I’d like to offer a second time period I think is overlooked:

The 17th century!

Seriously, when is the last time you heard someone say they were reading something written in the 17th century. Or that they ever had? (As a full disclaimer, I don’t exactly go around reading texts from this period that frequently myself.)

However, this century offers us some great authors, including:

  • John Milton
  • Alexander Pope
  • Jonathan Swift
  • Moliere
  • John Dryden

And some Shakespeare.

What do you think? What are some books you’ve read from the Middle Ages or from the 17th century?

Briana

Recommend a Diverse Classic: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Recommend a Diverse Classic

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Zora Neale Hurston was both an author and a folklorist, whose research influenced many of her writings. Her best known novel is perhaps Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which centers on Janie Crawford and her three marriages. Janie’s tale recounts how she initially was married off to an older man for protection, only to find that he doesn’t love her. She then runs off with another man, who only wants to use her. Finally, she marries for love, but again finds her relationship with her husband to be unstable. Through her three marriages, Janie (and Hurston) explore the gender roles and the expectations society places on women.

Though published in the 1930s, Their Eyes Were Watching God still feels incredibly relevant. The issues it grapples with, from domestic violence to the role of men and women in marriage are issues that society continues to grapple with. In many ways, the novel feels a bit ahead of its time, with Janie seeking love and self-fulfillment, while being open to her own sexuality, in the face of a disapproving society. The book, however, presents no easy answers. While Janie’s third marriage appears to be her happiest, because her husband Tea Cake sees her as more of an equal than her previous two husbands, the novel also suggests that Janie is not fully realized as an independent woman until after Tea Cake’s death. In this way, Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrates an intriguing tension that many readers may find relatable. Janie wants to find her identity in a happy marriage, but, if she cannot be seen as an equal to men, she may ultimately not be able to do so. She wants both love and respect, but can women truly have it all?

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful novel by a talented author–one whose work was not always appreciated in her own time. If you have not read it yet, maybe now is the time to give it a try.

The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage by Carolyn Keene

The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage

Information

Goodreads: The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage
Series: Dana Girls #2
Source: Library
Published: 1934

Summary

Louise and Jean Dana discover their English teacher’s car on the side of the road–Miss Tisdale has been abducted! Her mother does not want Mr. Tisdale to know, so she won’t contact the police. It’s up to the Dana girls to solve the mystery before it’s too late.

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Review

Published in the 1930s, the Dana Girls books were meant to capitalize on the success of serialized mysteries like Nancy Drew and, indeed, the same pseudonym was used for the series, though it has not managed to last through the decades. But the Dana Girls mysteries have their charms. They rely on the same, comforting formula as the Nancy Drew stories, while having the added interest of featuring two sisters solving cases while enrolled at a boarding school. The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage feels very much like stepping back in time to a wonderful moment where teens can take on adult responsibilities like detective work, while still enjoying the perks of school life. Anyone who loves Nancy Drew will want to check out the Dana Girls books.

Part of what makes this series so interesting is the fact that readers get two protagonists, as well as a boarding school setting for the series. Louise and Dana are one year apart, but they are nearly inseparable, which makes for a charming depiction of loving sisterhood, even as the two repeatedly rush headlong into danger. The series would admittedly be stronger, however, if it tried to differentiate the two girls a little more, aside from their hair color. They work, live, and study together to the point where they seem practically to be functioning as one person. While Louise seems to be a little more sensible than Jean, they work in tandem for the most part, taking turns discovering and solving clues and, in general, one girl could easily be replaced by the other and readers would probably barely notice. Hopefully, this weak characterization will be addressed as the series progresses.

Even so, the books are delightful and the boarding school setting adds to that. While Nancy Drew barely seems to have a home life, the Dana girls are firmly placed at Starrhurst Academy, and they must figure out how to balance their detective work with their studies–as well as with the rules of the school. Fortunately, for them, youth, good looks, money, and a pleasant disposition are usually enough for them to be able to bend the rules with only the occasional finger shaking from the headmistress, apparently so she can pretend she’s trying to be fair. More drama comes from the girls’ standing rivalry with mean girl Lettie Briggs, who enjoys playing mean pranks on them, just to liven up the plot between clues. This tactic of adding everyday drama is also a hallmark of the Nancy Drew stories, where every chapter must have some sort of dramatic incident, mystery-related or not, to keep readers engaged.

Overall, the Dana Girls books are pretty much what one would expect from a Nancy Drew story. Readers get rich, popular teen protagonists who like solving dangerous mysteries the officials cannot seem to crack, as well as the formulaic writing that makes the mystery easy to solve, but somehow still rewarding to read. Readers who enjoy Nancy Drew and are looking for something similar will find it in the Dana Girls books, which were written around the same time by the same syndicate. It’s hard to get closer to a new Nancy Drew than that!

4 stars

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 1-10)

Book One: The Secret of the Old Clock

It’s hard not to love the mystery that started it all. In The Secret of the Old Clock, readers are introduced to Nancy, an attractive, rich, and popular eighteen-year-old who enjoys helping her lawyer father with his cases. A chance encounter leads her to suspect that a rich bachelor left a second will to his fortune, and she begins tracking down his relatives to uncover more clues. This story establishes many of the later traits of the series, such as Nancy’s curiosity and resolve, her involvement with Carson Drew’s legal work, and her ability to ingratiate herself into the lives of random strangers so she can solve mysteries for them.

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Book Two: The Hidden Staircase

Who doesn’t love a classic haunted house mystery? In her second case, Nancy answers a friend’s plea to discover the truth behind the ghost frightening her relatives. At the same time, Nancy begins to investigate a railroad case her father is working on, and the threats he is receiving as a result. This is a fun mystery that includes all the staples such as hidden passages, disguises, and good old-fashioned sleuthing.

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Book Three: The Bungalow Mystery

Nancy’s third mystery gets a little wilder than the previous installments. This time, Nancy suspects that the guardians of a girl she met while on vacation are not what they seem. As usual, her mystery ends up being connected with a case her father is working on, though the odds of such a connection are slim indeed. Readers will need a healthy helping of credulity to enjoy this story, but that is true of most of Nancy’s mysteries.

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Book Four: The Mystery at Lilac Inn

This is arguably one of the weaker installments of the series. The motivations of the villain are a little unbelievable, as is her bizarre method of revenge. A series of coincidences ends up connecting two disparate cases Nancy is working on, and she ends up solving the mystery largely by stumbling into the villains instead of by actively sleuthing. The plot is also a bit redundant, recycling elements from previous books such as a capsized boat, a storm, and a haunted building.

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Book Five: The Secret of Shadow Ranch

Shadow Ranch is one of the most popular Nancy Drew books, and for good reason. This story takes Nancy out West, where the author delights in creating a deeply atmospheric setting full of old cave dwellings, square dancing, and horseback riding. The accuracy of this depiction may be suspect, but it is fun, and the setting is furthermore tied to a romantic story involving the doomed love between an outlaw and a sheriff’s daughter, which gives the story a sense of historical depth. This installment is also notable for introducing Nancy’s best friends George and Bess and for name dropping Ned, though Nancy will not actually meet him until book seven. All this, combined with a fast-paced plot and hint of romance with Dave the cowboy, makes Shadow Ranch one of the best Nancy Drew mysteries.

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Book Six: The Secret of Red Gate Farm

The Secret of Red Gate Farm throws a new, tantalizing mystery Nancy’s way as she tries to figure out why a mysterious saleswoman was so reluctant to sell Bess a bottle of perfume, as well as whether or not the “nature cult” on Red Gate Farm is truly what it seems. As usual, Nancy manages to solve the case when no one else can simply because she is incredibly lucky. The bottle of perfume, the man she meets on the train, the strange job advertisement her friend answers, and the cult–they all happen to be related! But, though the plot is unbelievable, it is still entertaining. I enjoyed something new since three of the last five books included haunted properties.

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Book Seven: The Clue in the Diary

Book seven is most notable for the introduction of Ned Nickerson, soon to be Nancy’s steady boyfriend (for the next few decades!). It is fun to see the usually composed Nancy start to blush and get nervous around Ned, who quickly proves himself a valuable asset to the sleuthing team. Nancy deserves someone who is interested in and supportive of her work, and she gets that in Ned, who gamely runs errands for Nancy and is always willing to lend a hand. There’s also a mystery involving two missing persons, a suspected arson, and mail theft, but, it is not one of the stronger plot lines in the series.

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Book Eight: Nancy’s Mysterious Letter

Book eight is not known for being one of the stronger installments of the series, but I admit I heartily enjoyed this mystery. Nancy mistakenly receives a letter addressed to another Nancy Drew, who has inherited a fortune in England. Now, Nancy must find the other woman before she is swindled out of her money. The story is essentially a comedy of errors, with Nancy tracking down two individuals, and always arriving at their former location just as they have left. There may be little mystery here, since Nancy knows exactly whom she seeks. But I enjoyed the chase nonetheless.

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Book Nine: The Sign of the Twisted Candles

Book nine is certainly one of the stronger mysteries of the series. Nancy arrives at an inn to investigate rumors that the old man who lives there is being kept as a prisoner in the tower by the innkeepers. In the process, she discovers an ancient feud that also threatens to estrange her from Bess and George. A gripping plot, combined with richly-drawn characters, secret compartments, and plenty of danger makes this a thrilling story.

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Book Ten: Password to Larkspur Lane

Password to Larkspur Lane continues a strong streak for the series. An injured messenger pigeon leads Nancy to two related mysteries, one involving a strange wheel of fire at her friend’s grandparents’ house and one involving a missing woman. Nancy does some solid sleuthing, piecing together some fairly tenuous clues to arrive at the truth, before attempting a daring rescue escape, complete with disguises, angry guard dogs, and airplanes. The series needs more stories like this!

5 Classics from the Middle Ages I Recommend (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Recommend a classic from the Middle Ages.

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5 Classics from the Middle Ages

The Obvious

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. If you know very little about medieval literature, you’re probably familiar with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. All of these I do, in fact, recommend, although I admit it took me a while personally to warm up to The Canterbury Tales and appreciate them, and I literally studied medieval literature in grad school. So they’re worth reading, but you don’t have to start there, and I wouldn’t sweat it if they’re not your thing. Also, there is the small problem that there isn’t really an original/definitive King Arthur OR Robin Hood tale. There are just a lot of stories from different authors and years during the Middle Ages, so if you’re interested in these things, you have a lot to choose from. Have at it. (The more obscure the stories are, however, the less likely there will be a modern English translation of it.)

For King Arthur (and his knights) stories, check out:

For Robin Hood stories, check out:

The Less Obvious

1

Silence

Silence French Romance

Silence is the story of a girl who is secretly raised as a boy because the king has decreed that women can no longer inherit, and her parents want her to have their estate after they die.  Silence wrestles with her identity throughout the story, knowing she has the body of a woman but recognizing that she acts like a man and enjoys playing a male role in society.  Nature and Nurture get into some heated arguments over what makes someone’s gender.

Read my full post: 5 Reasons to Read the French Romance Silence.

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2

The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France

A collection of twelve short stories recorded by Marie de France and translated into prose.  The stories are classic lais Marie heard told during her lifetime, often featuring brave knights, lovely ladies, and a bit of magic.

Read my full review here.

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The Song of Roland

An 11th century epic poem that takes place during the reign of Charlemagne. It tells the story of Roland, who is guarding Charlemagne’s rear as the army departs Spain, how his stepfather betrays Charlemagne and the Franks, and how he pridefully refuses to call for aid as he and his party become overwhelmed by enemy forces.

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four

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer

A classic love story that has been told and retold (Shakespeare wrote a play, too), featuring star-crossed lovers during the Siege of Troy. If you thought Chaucer only wrote The Canterbury Tales, you’ll be pleased and surprised by the nuance with which he tells the story of Troilus and Cressida and how they fall in love and experience tragedy.

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Amis and Amiloun

Amis and Amiloun cover

In this medieval romance, two knights (unrelated but very similar in appearance) swear a troth plight to be true to each other in wrong or right. The ethicalness of this oath comes into question when Amiloun agrees to fight as Amis in a trial by combat—where Amis is clearly in the wrong and deserves to lose. As a result of his decision, Amiloun is struck with leprosy, but is this a punishment from God or simply a trial he is willing to endure for his love of Amis? And is there anything Amis can do to repay him?

Read my full review of “Amis and Amiloun”.

Read the full text of “Amis and Amiloun” online (in Middle English).

Briana

A Classic I Just “Didn’t Get”: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Is there a classic book you just “didn’t get?”

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Madame Bovary A Classic I Didn't Get

Despite my love of classics, there are a number didn’t really “get” (at least until I went to a class discussion about them and could begin to see what other readers were getting out of the book!), but my mind really blanked at coming up with specific titles when I saw the prompt for this week.

In a stroke of genius, I decided to go to my Goodreads shelves and see what classics I had given low star ratings to. The only problem: many of these I read ten years ago or more, and I don’t think I remember enough about them to say why I didn’t like them or what I didn’t get about them! (Though I did actually write a review of The Turn of the Screw for the blog, and I think I “get” Brave New World; I just don’t like it.)

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With all that in mind, I’m officially going with:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Unfortunately I don’t seem to have written a review of Madame Bovary, which would be helpful in refreshing my thoughts because I read it in 2013. However, personally I’m just not a fan of that genre of novel that (perhaps reductively) could be called: wealthy woman becomes unhappy in her marriage and starts taking lovers and…readers are supposed to be sympathetic to that? I’m not a big fan of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence or The Awakening by Kate Chopin for similar reasons.

I suppose there’s an argument that, in the past, women were stuck in unhappy marriages, if divorce was not an option, and that makes infidelity more forgivable than if they could leave their husbands and pursue new prospects that way. Even with that in mind, I’ve never been on board with books about adultery, especially in instances where the woman isn’t really being treated badly but has just never been truly in love with or excited by her husband.

Madame Bovary really focuses on that point, that Madame Bovary is experiencing ennui. This means 1) it’s hard to feel that she’s doing the “right” thing or “doesn’t have other options” when she cheats because she’s just bored! and 2) the book is kind of boring because it focuses on how boring the life of the protagonist is. I felt as if I were listlessly drifting through the whole book, not as if I were reading anything interesting.

Even if one argues we’re not supposed to sympathize with Madame Bovary, I don’t get the appeal of the book. So Flaubert is just portraying a bored immoral woman and asking us to ponder how bored and immoral she is? I’ll pass, thanks.

Have you read Madame Bovary? What did you think?

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Summary of the Dover version of Madame Bovary:

Bored and unhappy in a lifeless marriage, Emma Bovary yearns to escape from the dull circumstances of provincial life. Married to a simple-minded but indulgent country doctor, she takes one lover, then another, hastens her husband’s financial ruin with her extravagance…

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1888) was brought to trial by the French government on the grounds of the novel’s alleged immorality, but unlike his less fortunate contemporary, Baudelaire, he narrowly escaped conviction.

Falubert’s powerful and deeply moving examination of the moral degeneration of a middle-class Frenchwoman is universally regarded as one of the landmarks of 19th-century fiction. It is reproduced here, complete and unabridged, in the classic translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx.

Briana

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

Belinda book cover

Information

Goodreads: Belinda
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1801

Official Summary

(Oxford World Classics edition)

The lively comedy of this novel in which a young woman comes of age amid the distractions and temptations of London high society belies the challenges it poses to the conventions of courtship, the dependence of women, and the limitations of domesticity. Contending with the perils and the varied cast of characters of the marriage market, Belinda strides resolutely toward independence. Admired by her contemporary, Jane Austen, and later by Thackeray and Turgenev, Edgeworth tackles issues of gender and race in a manner at once comic and thought-provoking. The 1802 text used in this edition also confronts the difficult and fascinating issues of racism and mixed marriage, which Edgeworth toned down in later editions.

Star Divider

Review

Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda is an exciting Regency-era novel that throws scandalous characters together with kindhearted ones to tell a story that ultimately brings most characters their happily-ever-after (or, in some cases, their just desserts!).

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Belinda, my knowledge of this time period, of course, being dominated by Jane Austen novels. I was startled to discover a novel that, at times, is a bit wild and over-the-top, with women challenging each other to duels and people playing scary pranks and all kinds of things. I had this vague idea I would be reading about balls and matrimonial maneuverings, and while those are part of the novel, their presence doesn’t make the book staid.

Protagonist Belinda herself, perhaps, will be accused of being dull by some readers; she’s a bit like Austen’s Fanny Price, very nice and proper, a young lady who could never be accused of anything by anybody. Personally I think her goodness grounds the book; if everyone were doing crazy things, the story might lose any sense of reality or any claim to its ability to comment on social issues or contemporary matters. (It does, for instance, quite directly address interracial marriage and the question of what women should look for in a marriage and domestic life in order to truly find happiness.) And Belinda, while a bit Mary Sue-ish, has her little challenges and frustrations to help make her more human.

The other characters are a bit more obviously fascinating. There is Belinda’s chaperone, who is wildly popular but has an unhappy domestic life and a secret she is keeping from even her husband. There are Belinda’s suitors. There is a mysterious girl who is beautiful and naïve and seems like something out of a fairy tale. (And, personally, I’d love to read some academic articles about this character in particular, if I had access to academic databases because I certainly have some questions about her that I’m sure have been explored in scholarship!)

In short, the book is wonderful. I enjoyed every moment of it (though the ending was a bit cheesy), and I’m not sure why I haven’t seen more people talking about this classic.

Briana
4 stars

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse book cover

Information

Goodreads: To the Lighthouse
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1927

Official Summary

The serene and maternal Mrs. Ramsay, the tragic yet absurd Mr. Ramsay, and their children and assorted guests are on holiday on the Isle of Skye. From the seemingly trivial postponement of a visit to a nearby lighthouse, Woolf constructs a remarkable, moving examination of the complex tensions and allegiances of family life and the conflict between men and women.

As time winds its way through their lives, the Ramsays face, alone and simultaneously, the greatest of human challenges and its greatest triumph—the human capacity for change.

Star Divider

Review

You can read Krysta’s review of To the Lighthouse here.

To the Lighthouse is, on the surface, a book not about much: it shows scenes from the lives of the Ramsay family and the impressions of some of their friends who stay at the house, yet without a central plot. However skeptical I was of this at the beginning, I came to appreciate the stream of consciousness and Woolf’s occasional keen insights into human nature and the thoughts that crossed her characters’ minds.

As someone who has studiously avoided any stream of consciousness literature up to this point, I’ve never encountered a book before that represents thinking how it so frequently occurs– that is, people often are thinking about things that have nothing to do with the scene in front of them or the actions they are taking. One might be sitting at dinner but actually randomly remembering something that happened 10 years ago. One might be playing with a small child but actually planning out one’s novel. Woolf captures this excellently.

The thoughts of Woolf’s characters are, of course, not entirely random, and her ability to touch on things like emotional labor and the mental load and how women relate to men also is impressive. For instance, Mrs. Ramsay sporadically thinks about the cost of repairing the greenhouse and how she must remember to bring it up with her husband. This could seem like a boring thing for her to think and a weird detail for Woolf to include– and I probably would have thought this myself about this book if I’d read it at a younger age. Now, however, I can appreciate that randomly intruding thoughts about mundane things are common for people trying to run a household– Oh, we need more milk. Remember to buy milk, Put milk on the list…. Tellingly, these thoughts tend to occur to the female characters in To the Lighthouse. The men are all too busy thinking about their great works, whether poetry or academic, to be bothered with such things.

To be fair, I think one book of this type is enough for me. Since the appeal is really the structure of the book, how Woolf captures thought and sometimes interesting human relations, and not any real plot, I don’t think I’d get much out of reading a second book of this type unless it had a bit more action going on. But for one time I definitely found it interesting, and I’m a bit sorry I put off reading anything by Woolf for so long.

Briana
4 stars