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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (6) Medieval Literature (Reading List for Would-Be Epic Fantasists, Part 1)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Decameron" (art by Sandro Botticelli, 1482-83)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (art by Sandro Botticelli, 1482-83)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (6) Medieval Literature (Reading List for Would-Be Epic Fantasists, Part 1)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Still working through some suggestions about how we can reboot & universalize epic fantasy for the 21st Century, with this series of blogs focused on the “literary” side of things.

Now, unless you’ve really got a hankering to be a medievalist, I’m not recommending that would-be epic fantasists should completely immerse themselves in the study of medieval literature to the extent Lewis and Tolkien did, but wouldn’t you agree that their lifelong commitments to the study of times long-past certainly enhanced their fantasy worlds?

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Princess Parizade Bringing Home the Singing Tree," from One Thousand and One Nights (oil, Maxfield Parrish, 1906)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Princess Parizade Bringing Home the Singing Tree,” from One Thousand and One Nights (oil, Maxfield Parrish, 1906)

With the internet and various other resources, it is also feasible to extend your studies past the regions that preoccupied Tolkien & Lewis (primarily Britain and northern Europe), and reach to more Mediterranean climes, or points eastward to the Middle East and Asian continent.  Upon discovering some of these stories of a thousand years past, you’ll also be entertained in a very unusual way because while you’ll certainly be connecting with the minds of artistic creators of centuries past, an interest in epic fantasy and faux-medieval worlds has prepared you for the “real deal.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. and ed., "SIr Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo" (art by Julek Heller)

J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. and ed., “SIr Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo” (art by Julek Heller)

For example, here’s the moment when the Green Knight enters the dining hall of Camelot (from J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. and ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight):

“…For hardly had the music but a moment ended,
and the first course in the court as was custom been served,
when there passed through the portals a perilous horseman,
the mightiest on middle-earth in measure of height,
from his gorge to his girdle so great and so square,
and his loins and his limbs so long and so huge,
that half a troll upon earth I trow that he was,
but the largest man alive at least I declare him;
and yet the seemliest for his size that could sit on a horse,
for though in back and in breast his body was grim,
both his paunch and his waist were properly slight,
and all his features followed his fashion so gay in mode:
            for at the hue men gaped aghast,
            in his face and form that showed;
           as a fay-man fell he passed,
           and green all over glowed.”

Here’s another sample, “The Death of Sigfried,” from The Nibelungenlied (A.T. Hatto, trans. and editor, Penguin Books, 1969; note: in Scandinavian myths, this hero is known as “Sigurd”):

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas ("The Death of Sigurd," by Simon Brett, engraving)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (“The Death of Sigurd,” by Simon Brett, engraving)

The stream was cool, sweet, and clear.  Gunther stopped to its running waters and after drinking stood up and stepped aside. Siegfried in turn would have liked to do the same, but he paid for his good manners. For now Hagen carried Siegfried’s sword and bow beyond his reach, ran back for the spear, and searched for the sign on the brave man’s tunic.  Then, as Siegfried bent over the brook and drank, Hagen hurled the spear at the cross, so that the hero’s heart leapt from the wound and splashed against Hagen’s clothes. No warrior will ever do a darker deed.  Leaving the spear fixed in Siegfried’s heart, he fled in wild desperation, as he had never before fled from any man.

When lord Siegfried felt the great wound, maddened with rage he bounded back from the stream with the long shaft jutting from his heart. He was hoping to find either his bow or his sword, and, had he succeeded in doing so, Hagen would have had his pay.  But finding no sword, the gravely wounded man had nothing but his shield.  Snatching this from the bank he ran at Hagen, and King Gunther’s vassal was unable to elude him.  Siegfried was wounded to death, yet he struck so powerfully that he sent many precious stones whirling from the shield as it smashed to pieces …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Raoul of Cambrai" (art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Raoul of Cambrai” (art by John Vernon Lord)

These are but glimpses into the medieval literature that so inspired Tolkien and Lewis, but which resonate across time to strike us with imagery in a modern age; as with any literature, if you take time to read, to really allow the medieval writer to bring you into his (or her) world, you’ll interact with wellsprings of epic fantasy at a fundamental level.  When you close the book, or turn off the e-reader, you’ll step back and find that you might have an idea for a story that’s not solely reliant on Middle Earth or Narnia memes.  In short, I urge creators to wander both in the same Middle Ages where Lewis and Tolkien found so much inspiration, and to stretch yourself creatively by looking at other cultures during the same era of 500-1500 A.D.

To do that, a review of some relevant literature from that period can be really helpful.  Here’s my recommended reading list!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "The Mabinogion" (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “The Mabinogion” (art by Alan Lee)

 

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Merlin" (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Merlin” (art by Alan Lee)

Arabic Literature
9th-14th c. One Thousand and One Nights

Arthurian Literature
c. 1169-1181
 Chrétien de Troyes, Tristan and Iseult
c. 1169-1181  Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: The Story of the Grail
c. 1135 Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (section that contains acct. of Arthur’s life)
c. 1135 Geoffrey of Monmouth, Life of Merlin
c. 1390  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (use 1967, J.R.R. Tolkien trans. & ed.)
c. 14th c. Mabinogion (Peredur, Culhwch & Olwen)
c. 1155  Wace, Roman de Brut
c. 1469-1470  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur
c. 1590-1596  Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (late for medieval studies, but has Prince Arthur)

French Literature & Chansons de Geste
late 11th c.  The Song of Roland
late 11th c.  The Song of William
early 12th c.  Raoul de Cambrai
14th c.  John Mandeville, The Voyage and Travels of John Mandeville

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Legends (Manuscript Illust. from "Lancelot of the Lake," Walter Map, 1470)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Legends (Manuscript Illust. from “Lancelot of the Lake,” Walter Map, 1470)

GermanLiterature
12th c. Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan
c. 1210  Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzifal

 

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: "Petrarch and Laura" (Nicaise de Keyser, 1842)

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: “Petrarch and Laura” (Nicaise de Keyser, 1842)

Italian Literature
early 14th c.  Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise)
14th c.  Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
14th c.  Francesco Petrarch, Canzoniere (“Songbook”), Triofni (“Triumphs”), Sonnetsand Letters
early 16th c.  Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (16th century, but great insights into Italian city-states)

 

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Charlemagne Legends ("The Song of Roland," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Charlemagne Legends (“The Song of Roland,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Latin Literature
c. 4th-5th c.  St. Augustine, Confessions
c. 5th-6th c.  Boethius,  The Consolation of Philosophy
c. 6th c.  Gregory of Tours,  History of the Franks
c. 8th c.  Venerable Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
c. 9th c.   Einhard/Notker the Stammerer,  Two Lives of Charlemagne
c. 12th c.  Peter Abelard, Abelard and Heloise
early 16th c. (but dealing with remnants of medieval past; fun exercise is to read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, then this book!) Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly

Old English/Middle English Poetry & English Literature
late 10th-early 11th c. (earliest ms) Beowulf

Reminder: J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation and critical notes hits the market in May!  A great time to pick up a copy, & glimpse how Anglo-Saxon studies were taught in the 1930s … students of Tolkien’s lectures reported that the professor used to change his voice in class when reading excerpts.  I still use Seamus Heaney’s translation, but this text should be a great way for neophyte medieval/LotR fans to dip toes in the water and start experiencing the worlds of 500-1500!

9th-10th c. The Dream of the Rood
late 10th-early 11th c.  The Battle of Maldon

Next Time:  The Remainder of the Reading List!

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