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

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

Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages by Frances Gies and Joseph Gies

Information

Goodreads: Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1989

Official Summary

Throughout history, the significance of the family—the basic social unit—has been vital. In Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, acclaimed historians Frances and Joseph Gies trace the development of marriage and the family from the medieval era to early modern times. It describes how the Roman and barbarian cultural streams merged under the influence of the Christian church to forge new concepts, customs, laws, and practices. Century by century, the Gies follow the development—sometimes gradual, at other times revolutionary—of significant components in the history of the family including:

  • The basic functions of the family as a production unit, as well as its religious, social, judicial, and educational roles.
  • The shift of marriage from private arrangement between families to public ceremony between individuals, and the adjustments in dowry, bride-price, and counter-dowry.
  • The development of consanguinity rules and incest taboos in church law and lay custom.
  • The peasant family in its varying condition of being free or unfree, poor, middling, or rich.
  • The aristocratic estate, the problem of the younger son, and the disinheritance of daughters.
  • The Black Death and its long-term effects on the family.
  • Sex attitudes and customs: the effects of variations in age of men and women at marriage.
  • The changing physical environment of noble, peasant, and urban families.
  • Arrangements by families for old age and retirement.

Expertly researched, master historians Frances and Joseph Gies—whose books were used by George R.R. Martin in his research for Game of Thrones—paint a compelling, detailed portrait of family life and social customs in one of the most riveting eras in history.

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Review

Although I studied medieval literature in grad school, I always felt a bit shaky on some aspects of actual medieval history since I tended to gather that type of information less directly (i.e. reading articles about medieval literature that referenced historical matters rather than reading sources actually about history). Marriage and the Family Life is an engaging and approachable overview of life in the Middle Ages, covering the full time period and geographic areas in England and on the Continent, including France, Spain, Italy, etc. I wish I’d read this earlier to get a digestible sense of how customs and philosophies about marriage, inheritance, family living situations, children, and more were approached during these 1000 years.

I don’t think one actually has to have an academic interest in the Middle Ages to find this book interesting. The book jacket makes much use of the fact that George R. R. Martin has said he’s read the authors’ works to aid in his writing, and I do think the book is very readable and would make sense to anyone who would like to learn more about the topic.

The authors do open with a literature review of various other books/articles that had previously covered these topics, but one can safely skip that if they have no use for it and get on to actually reading about the marriage and the family. In the main body of the text, little stories and examples are scattered throughout to liven up the information.

The book goes in chronological order, and it gives a great sense of how things changed over time. (Interestingly, women had fewer rights in terms of divorce and inheritance in the Late Middle Ages than they did in the Early Middle Ages! So much for progress, I guess.) So readers can get a sense of things like how the Church or the Black Plague influenced marriage and the family, as well.

The one “failing” is that the book IS an overview, so often it would mention something I found interesting and wanted to know more about but move on without fully elaborating. Obviously, I can look up more on my own, of course.

If you’re interested in the Middle Ages, I would highly recommend this. I hope to check out the authors’ other books on life in the medieval village and life in the medieval city sometime for some more overviews.

Briana
4 stars

The Romance of Tristan by Béroul

Romance of Tristan book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Romance of Tristan
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1170

Summary (Penguin Classics)

This edition contains perhaps the earliest and most elemental version of the tragic legend of Tristan and Yseult in a distinguished prose translation. Alan S. Fredrick summarizes missing episodes and includes a translation of ‘The Tale of Tristan’s Madness.’

One of the earliest extant versions of the Tristan and Yseut story, Beroul’s French manuscript of The Romance of Tristan dates back to the middle of the twelfth century. It recounts the legend of Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and the king’s Irish wife Yseut, who fall passionately in love after mistakenly drinking a potion. Their illicit romance remains secret for many years, but the relentless suspicion of the king’s barons and the fading effects of the magic draught eventually lead to tragedy for the lovers. While Beroul’s work emphasizes the impulsive and often brutal behaviour of the characters, its sympathetic depiction of two people struggling against their destiny is one of the most powerful versions of this enduringly popular legend. 

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Review

Béroul’s The Romance of Tristan is the earliest version we have of the Tristan and Yseult legend, often regarded as one of the world’s great love stories. Béroul’s version, however, entertained me with the wild antics of the characters and the story’s strange insistence that the two lovers were, in fact, worth rooting for in spite of their adultery.

Of course, the point of the story is that the two are forbidden lovers committing adultery in every version, but Béroul’s version goes through some interesting mental gymnastics to make this seem “acceptable.” For instance, the pair fall in love accidentally because of a love potion, so it’s “not really their fault,” and the story often suggests that God is on their side while anyone who opposes them and tries to expose their affair to the king is “evil.” For me, a lot of this raises the question of whether the story is really “romantic.” Do they really love each other if it’s because of a potion? I’d say no, but they seem to have feelings for each other even when the potion eventually wears off. And what does it mean for them to be the “good guys” of the story whom God apparently does not wish to punish?

There’s a lot to ponder in the story, but the text itself doesn’t always offer answers, in part because it’s frequently inconsistent. There are many examples of medieval texts where I would personally argue that “inconsistencies” and things that “don’t make sense” to modern audiences actually made sense to a medieval audience who might have approached things like the structure of a story differently. Here, however…the text really is at fault. A character who is killed off is later alive later in the story! So Béroul might not have gotten all his details tightly knit here.

I think the inconsistencies are entertaining, however, along with the general antics of the characters. There’s a whole scene of nobles falling in mud! Sadly, this text is only a fragment, and some interesting scenes can only be summarized by the editor to fill in the gaps, but I enjoyed what was there.

If you like medieval literature, classics, or just wild stories, this is for you.

Briana
4 stars

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Information

Goodreads: The Guinevere Deception
Series: Camelot Rising #1
Source: Library
Published: November 5, 2019

Official Summary

There was nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur’s knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

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Review

The Guinevere Deception is an imaginative retelling that weaves together pieces of Arthurian legend (itself often wildly but beautifully inconsistent) to create a story about a girl who needs to find herself while protecting her new home of Camelot.  While overall I think the story is strong and well-crafted and will be satisfying to a large number of readers, personally I was not always gripped and would have liked a bit more development of the plot.

Though there are a few aspects of the book I believe were intended to be plot twists, most of it was predictable—starting with the opening of the book where there is some “secret” the protagonist holds…which in this case is mentioned on the book jacket summary.  There is also a mysterious Guinevere herself must solve, and it’s also laughable how obvious it is she is following the wrong threads and clues.  I’m not generally one to read mainly for suspense or surprise, but it was a bit wearying to feel the character was wasting her time—and to feel I was, as well, as I had to plod through the requisite pages until she finally discovered how wrong she was and started doing something more useful.  Interestingly, the elements from Arthurian legend incorporated into the plot did not feel as blandly predictable, even though I was aware where certain scenes must be heading.

Guinevere as a character is interesting, however, and it was fun to read about her.  She is someone who is not necessarily drawn in detail in a lot of Arthurian source material, which can give writers some room to play.  White has a created a character who is both powerful and vulnerable, smart but often in the dark, important but clearly still very young.  Sometimes in YA, while the characters are doing great deeds, it’s hard to remember they’re teens; I generally remembered that Guinevere was, even as she was impressing me with her talents.

I also enjoyed the characterization of most of the other players in the novel and had fun picking out where White was inspired by her sources.  In addition to the obvious characters like Mordred and Merlin, White adds ones like Tristan and Isolde and Percival and Blancheflour, who might be less familiar to some readers.  Personally, I’ve always been interested in Gawain, so it would have been fun to see him get a larger role, as well, but that’s not actually a flaw of the book.

The main premise of the new vs. the old, magic vs. order, nature vs. peace, etc. is also interesting and nuanced, and I think there’s a lot of room for this to grow in the following books.  In some sense, The Guinevere Deception has the tiniest feel of The Lord of the Rings, as characters ponder whether it’s time for dangerous magic to leave and for a world ordered by men to take over.  There’s also general medieval influence here, of course, in the sense that magic and folklore beliefs coexisted with Christianity, sometimes openly and sometimes secretly, for quite a while in the Middle Ages.

The Guinevere Deception is a strong fantasy with strong female characters that will likely please many readers. I enjoyed it myself; I just wasn’t gripped enough to want to continue reading the series.

Briana
3 Stars

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion adapted by M. T. Anderson and Andrea Offermann

Yvain

Information

Goodreads: Yvain: The Knight of the Lion
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: March 14, 2017

Official Summary

Eager for glory and heedless of others, Sir Yvain sets out from King Arthur’s court and defeats a local lord in battle, unknowingly intertwining his future with the lives of two compelling women: Lady Laudine, the beautiful widow of the fallen lord, and her sly maid Lunette. In a stunning visual interpretation of a 12th century epic poem by Chrétien de Troyes, readers are — at first glance — transported into a classic Arthurian romance complete with errant knights, plundering giants, and fire-breathing dragons. A closer look, however, reveals a world rich with unspoken emotion. Striking, evocative art by Andrea Offermann sheds light upon the inner lives of medieval women and the consequences Yvain’s oblivious actions have upon Laudine and Lunette. Renowned author M. T. Anderson embraces a new form with a sophisticated graphic novel that challenges Yvain’s role as hero, delves into the honesty and anguish of love, and asks just how fundamentally the true self can really change.

Review

As a fan of medieval literature, I was excited to see Anderson adapt this story about one of King Arthur’s knights by Chrétien de Troyes for a new audience.  Although I enjoyed Anderson’s take in general, he does make changes to the plot and characters (presumably to streamline the story) that fundamentally change some of the themes explored in the original French medieval romance.  This, I think, does a disservice to Chrétien’s text, which is undoubtedly entertaining but is about so much more than epic battles and encounters with monsters.  Chrétien’s stories tend toward the complex and thought-provoking, and Anderson’s changes do away with some of this in order to present a slightly more digestible tale.

The story that Anderson and Offermann present is one of courage, love, and loyalty lost and regained. Yvain is not always heroic and the outcomes of the adventures are not always happy, but this is the point, and it paints a more complicated version of King Arthur’s times and his knights than readers get from other sources.  (Indeed, there are a lot of medieval texts that paint Arthur or his knights in a less than flattering light, which I think many modern readers are unaware of.) The female characters in particular in this story seem stuck between having power and being unable to wield it to get what they want.  It is a story that asks readers to question social and gender roles, as well as the definition of real power.

Offerman’s illustrations are gorgeous, if a bit lacking in color for my personal taste, and they are often the backbone of the story when Anderson chooses not to use words to explain plot events from his source material. Her art is detailed and based in extensive research, adding a wonderful layer of nuance to the book. This adaptation will make the most sense to readers who have read Chrétien’s version (and I do recommend reading that; Penguin publishes a very accessible translation), but it is a solid introduction to the medieval romance for those who have not read the original.

3 Stars Briana

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant

Information

Goodreads: The Buried Giant
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: March 3, 2015

Official Summary

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.

Review

I’ve read The Buried Giant twice now, and enjoyed it both times, but it’s taken me a while to sit down and write a review for it.  It’s a unique book, and though I know I like it, my thoughts are still a bit muddled–yet perhaps that’s part of the point.

The book follows an elderly Anglo-Saxon couple, Beatrice and Axl–who are setting out on a long-postponed journey to visit their son.  The problem? There’s a “fog” surrounding them and apparently the entire country; they find it hard to remember things, important things about themselves, their family, or the history of Britain itself.  The book is complicated because it intertwines the personal and the national.  It about both Axl and Beatrice AND the entire British identity.  As Axl and Beatrice travel, they meet a variety of people, including Sir Gawain, who raise questions about King Arthur and war and what horrors Britain experience or may experience in the future. The novel is about individual memory (and a friend of mine nicely noted that this is in large part a novel about dementia), but it is also about national memory. And these things do not always cleanly intersect into a coherent whole.

On top of this, the novel is also about love.  That’s partially connected to the personal memories of Axl and Beatrice, and there are questions about whether remembering or not remembering things can influence your love.  (Can you prove or know you really love someone if  you cannot remember your whole life together with them?)  And while this is fascinating, it often seems to be like it’s own separate theme and thread in the story.

Yet I like the book in spite of (because of?) this murkiness.  It’s unusual, unique.  First, books about elderly people are not entirely common. Second, books imagining the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain are not common.  Third, the Anglo-Saxon books that do exist focus on knights and royalty and those sorts of people.  While Beatrice and Axl meet knights, they themselves are perfectly ordinary peasants.  It’s interesting.

I haven’t read anything else by Ishiguro, but other people I’ve talked to have said that his writing style in The Buried Giant is similar to his other writing.  I personally don’t think the book sounds “old” or that he was necessarily trying to make it sound old.  He avoids anachronism (and I’ve had it pointed out to me that this is in itself difficult, which I concede), but the voice seems like a generic modern one to me, unobtrusive.  So if you like reading about older time periods but can’t deal with people walking around yelling, “Hark!” and “What aileth thee, goodman?” then this is a good choice for you.

I’m not about to prance off and read another Ishiguro book because what really drew me to this one was the setting and the plot. However, I do highly recommend The Buried Giant for a thoughtful story and imaginative book.

Note: You may have heard of the minor controversy around the book’s release when Ishiguro made a statement that many fantasy fans and authors (notably Ursual K. Le Guin) interpreted as a dig at fantasy.  After reading the book twice, I don’t think Ishiguro was actually trying to insult fantasy or to claim his book is not fantasy because he looks down on the genre (i.e. He wasn’t saying “Fantasy is garbage and my book is not garbage; therefore, I refuse to call it fantasy”).  I think he was actually just trying to grapple with a generic characterization of a book that has fantasy elements but also feels like history, memoir, magic realism, etc.

4 stars Briana

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

the-inquisitors-taleInformation

Goodreads: The Inquisitor’s Tale
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: September 27, 2016

Official Summary

1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.

Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.

Review

As some of you who follow the blog know, I study medieval literature, so I really, really wanted to like The Inquisitor’s Tale.  The world simply needed a middle grade novel inspired by Saint Guinefort (a greyhound who really did acquire his own cult during the Middle Ages).  Touches of Joan of Arc and other historical figures make this book right up my alley. So I’m sad to say I was bored through most of the book, and I really don’t think I would have enjoyed it if I’d read it as a child.

Most of my pleasure in the book came from playing “spot the medieval reference.” And medieval references are something Gidwitz is great at.  The book draws on a lot of medieval tales but mostly uses them as inspiration, rather  than using them in their entirety. So Jeanne has elements of Joan of Arc, but she isn’t Joan. She has visions, for instance, but she is not called to lead France through a war.  Jacob isn’t any historical figure in particular, but represents the Jews who lived in France in the Middle Ages.

And Gidwitz portrays the attitudes of the Middle Ages pretty faithfully.  Though there are violent parts of the book, one could argue that the darkest parts of the story are the various prejudices the children protagonists encounter: against Jews, Muslims, women, peasants, etc. Gidwitz explores these issues thoughtfully, while asking some tough questions like “How can someone say they hate Jews while befriending a Jewish boy?” Gidwitz shows the nuances in medieval thought, which is great, since the Middle Ages often get dismissed as a boring period of complete ignorance in pop culture.

The format of the book is also clever, if you’re into Chaucer.  Gidwitz alludes to The Canterbury Tales by having different characters tell each chapter and titling them such things as “The Jongleur’s Tale.”  There are also asides, as the storytellers interact with each other, in between telling their tales.  This structure, however, is also one of the sticking points for me.   It means that the protagonists’ story is told by a conglomeration of people who, for the post part, were not really in the story.  It creates some distance between the protagonists and the readers. It also means the story is constantly interrupted by the frame tale, which is something I just personally dislike in books.

The other reservation I have is about the plot and pacing. As I mentioned, I was simply bored thought a lot of the book. Stuff was constantly happening, but it took a while for it to all come together into any discernible overarching story.  I felt as if I were just watching characters run around inanely for half the book. The only reason I didn’t DNF is because, seriously, I’m really into the Middle Ages.

The Inquisitor’s Tale has really high ratings in general on Goodreads, and I can respect that since the book is clearly well-researched and rather creative.  However, this is one instance where I would love to get some children’s opinions on the book.  I do not think I would have liked or finished this novel if I had read it when I was in middle school. It’s slow and complex and altogether simply unusual for a children’s book. I didn’t relate to the characters or even understand for half the book what it was they were trying to accomplish.  I wonder if this will be a hit with adults more so than with the target audience.

3 stars Briana

Classic Remarks: Is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Feminist?

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. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!


Do you think “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer is feminist?

Canterbury Tales

Anyone who has ever taught a class about the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale will know that students love the Wife of Bath, and the number one thing they love about her is how feminist she seems.  She speaks her mind! She’s been married multiple times! She shows her husbands she has a say in the relationship, too! And her tale is about punishing a knight who raped a maiden!  However, all the essays in the world encounter a major problem: Can you call someone feminist who existed before feminism was even a concept?

It’s a tough question, one which people sometimes try to skirt by calling the Wife of Bath “proto-feminist” and moving on.  I think it’s more complicated than that, but for the sake of this post I’ll say that the Wife of Bath (particularly her Tale) does seem interested in increased equality between men and women, though she doesn’t have a 100% percent modern view of what that looks like and seems primarily interested in women being able to gain power in their marriages (basically the only place women had any power or social standing in the Middle Ages).  That is to say, the Wife of Bath doesn’t seem particularly interested in single women being respected or women being able to support themselves or anything like that.  Those would have been incredibly foreign ideas in medieval England, so much so that they simply don’t  occur to her–or really anyone.

However, yes, the Wife of Bath wants women to have sovereignty within their marriages, which is  the entire theme of her tale.  The story opens with a knight raping a maiden, and everyone is outraged and demands King Arthur dispense justice (already pro-woman).  Normally, “justice” is death, but Queen Guinevere proposes an alternative: If the knight can come back to court in a year and a day and tell her what women most desire, his life will be spared.  This is a very tidy plot, with related crime and punishment. The knight harmed a woman, and now he must learn to understand women to atone for his crime.  (Again, pretty pro-woman.)

The real puzzle comes at the end of the tale, however. If you’re reading this post, you probably know the plot of the tale: the knight finds a woman who gives him an answer to the riddle (Women most desire sovereignty) in exchange for his agreeing to marry her. He agrees because he wants to live, but the problem is that she’s an ugly old hag, and he’s not really into that. But, plot twist: On the night of the wedding, the hag (his wife) offers the knight another deal.   He can choose for her to be ugly and faithful to him or for her to be beautiful and potentially unfaithful.  The knight really wants her to not be ugly, but he also doesn’t want her sleeping with other men, so this is a dilemma. Unsure what to pick, he tells her to choose what she wants.  (He gives her sovereignty.)  Giving her sovereignty is the correct answer, so his wife tells him he can have everything, that she will be both beautiful and faithful:

‘Kiss me, and we won’t quarrel any more,
For I’ll be both to you, upon my honour!
That’s to say, beautiful as well as good.
May death and madness be my lot,’ she said,
‘If I am not a wife as good and true
As ever wife was since the world was new,
And if I’m not as pretty as a queen,
As ay empress that was ever seen
From east to west, before tomorrow’s dawn,
Then you can deal just as you like with me.
And now, lift up the curtain and see.’ (250)

Is this feminist? I’d say yes, since the wife seems to be making the decision to be both beautiful and faithful of her own free will.  A couple lines later, the narrator notes that “she obeyed him in all things,” but that also seems to be her decision.  There’s no implication that the knight is forcing her to do anything.  Everything–from getting married in the first place, to offering him the decision of how she will look and act, to choosing to obey him always–appears to have been her idea.  It sounds limiting from a modern perspective, yet she appears happy, and I suppose that’s what feminism aims for.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath has her own commentary on the story she just told:

And may Christ send up husbands who
Are meek and young, and spirited in bed;
And send us grace to outlive those we wed;
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who won’t be governed by their wives;
And as for all old and ill-tempered skinflints,
May heaven rain upon them pestilence! (250)

These final lines actually seem contradictory to her tale in some ways.  Is the knight really meek?  Or governed by his wife? We may not have enough details about their married life to know definitively.  We do know that the Wife of Bath wants women to have power in the marriages, but “sovereignty” doesn’t always have to be flashy or forceful.  The Wife might boss her own husband[s] around, but if the lady in her story finds happiness in doing what most pleases her husband, that seems fine too.

*Translation by David Wright (The Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press)

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Briana

The Life of Christina of Markyate (Trans. by C. H. Talbot)

Christina of MarkyateINformation

Goodreads: The Life of Christina of Markyate
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: Translation from 1998; Text from the 12th century

Official Summary

Here is the remarkable story of a twelfth-century holy woman, Christina of Markyate, who endured terrible physical and mental suffering in order to devote her life to God. This fast-moving narrative vividly describes her trials and temptations and her visionary experiences, all set against a backdrop of scheming and corruption and all-too-human greed. Determined to devote her life to God and to remain a virgin, Christina repulses the sexual advances of the bishop of Durham. In revenge he arranges her betrothal to a young nobleman, but Christina steadfastly refuses to consummate the marriage and defies her parents’ cruel coercion.

Sustained by visions, she finds refuge with the hermit Roger, and lives concealed at Markyate for four years, enduring terrible physical and emotional torment. Eventually Christina is supported by the abbot of St Albans and she became prioress of Markyate, and her reputation as a person of great holiness spreads far and wide. Written with striking candor by Christina’s anonymous biographer, the vividness and compelling detail of this account make it a social document as much as a religious one.

The editors provide an introduction which sets Christina in her social, historical, and religious context, and examines the visionary quality of her religious experiences and her powers as a seer.

Review

I’m always tempted to go off on an academic tangent about medieval texts.  How does this compare to other vitae? What’s historically interesting about it? How should we interpret it?  However, I realize that the majority of my audience is not comprised of people particularly interested in medieval literature, which leads me to the most pressing question: Will this book be engaging for those without an established academic interest in the topic? I think it can be.

The primary hurdle for medieval literature newbies may simply be the unfamiliarity of the writing.  This vita was originally written in Latin, so the modern English translation makes the language quite accessible.  However, the structure of the story simply doesn’t line up with the expectations readers may have for modern novels.  The pacing is different, interiority isn’t  a goal, etc.  However, once one gets into the writing as it stands, the story is quite interesting.

Saints’ lives were a pretty established genre, with a number of expected conventions.  Please note that (contrary to what some people are saying on Goodreads), not everything in saints’ lives is intended to be taking literally.  Miracles were taken seriously, but the question of whether a saint (or generic holy person, if not officially sainted) performed literally the miracle described in the story was not always important.  Here, the main points are that God performed miracles to help Christina avoid violating her vow of chastity, and Christina was supposed to have experience visions and could predict some of the future.  Whether she had the particular visions described could be up for debate.

So, accepting the writing style and the medieval belief in miracles, the narrative is really action-packed.  The text is a great look into the life of twelfth-century woman, and an admirably strong-willed one.  There’s definite historical value, even if not everything is literally “true.”  Yet the plot is also engaging just for the sake of a story.  Christina faces a lot of obstacles trying to maintain her vow of chastity and avoid a marriage she never wanted.  Her parents go to incredibly absurd lengths to attempt to force her to marry, and as much as it’s horrifying and sad, it’s also fairly amusing to envision the whole city going mad trying to make this girl get married.

A short, accessible text, this is a great read for anyone who wants to know more about medieval women or religious life. It’s also just remarkably entertaining.

Briana