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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (8) Medieval Literature (Reading List for Would-Be Epic Fantasists, Part 2)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("Beowulf's Funeral," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“Beowulf’s Funeral,” art by John Howe)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (8) Medieval Literature (Reading List for Would-Be Epic Fantasists, Part 2)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

In writing this series of blogs on the need for a new generation of epic fantasists to learn their medieval literature — the appeal goes for both fantasy writers and readers! — I’ve consciously been referring to J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the two foremost “creators” & popularizers of epic fantasy in the early 20th Century, because I believe in the axiom that one needs to “learn the rules before breaking them.”

In the case of building a faux-medieval world, the reasonable expectation follows that — before attempting to make-up stories that occur within that fantasy realm — one ought to at least take a look at the real literature from that world which existed c. 500-1500 A.D.  A familiarity with these sources certainly informed the imaginations of Tolkien and Lewis, so it might be worth a look, if you’re striving for the same kind of inspiration they found when creating Middle Earth and Narnia.

C.S. Lewis, "The Chronicles of Narnia" ("The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe," (Concept art for Cair Paravel, Disney, 2005)

C.S. Lewis, “The Chronicles of Narnia” (“The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe,” (Concept art for Cair Paravel, Disney, 2005)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963; TIME cover, 1947)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963; TIME cover, 1947)

Below is the second part of my recommended reading list for would-be epic fantasists, but as a preliminary, I thought it might be helpful to give a short excerpt from C.S. Lewis himself, advising in his essay “De audiendis poetis,” how one might want to approach the reading of medieval literature and, in this case, medieval poetry.

“… [When answering the question of how to read medieval literature] among lovers of poetry the question admits two answers. You may do which you please. There are two ways of enjoying the past, as there are two ways of enjoying a foreign country. One man carries his Englishry abroad with him and brings it home unchanged. Wherever he goes he consorts with the other English tourists. By a good hotel he means one that is like an English hotel. He complains of the bad tea where he might have had excellent coffee. He finds the ‘natives’ quaint and enjoys their quaintness … In the same way there is a man who carries his modernity with him through all his reading of past literatures and preserves it intact. The highlights in all ancient and medieval poetry are for him the bits that resemble — or can be so read that they seem to resemble — the poetry of his own age …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" (illuminated manuscript, c. 1420, The British Library, MS. Royal 18 D II, folio 148

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” (illuminated manuscript, c. 1420, The British Library, MS. Royal 18 D II, folio 148

[C.S. Lewis excerpt, continued]:
But there is another sort of traveling and another sort of reading. You can eat the local food and drink the local wines, you can share the foreign life, you can begin to see the foreign country as it looks, not to the tourist, but to its inhabitants. You can come home modified, thinking and feeling as you did not think and feel before. So with the old literature. You can go beyond the first impression that a poem makes on your modern sensibility. By study of things outside of the poem, by comparing it with other poems, by steeping yourself in the vanished period, you can then re-enter the poem with eyes more like those of the natives; now perhaps seeing the associations you gave to the old words were false, that the real implications were different from what you supposed, that what you thought strange was then ordinary and that what seemed to you ordinary was then strange …

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis & "Eclogues of Virgil" (Cod. Vat. lat 3867, Folio of Vergilius Romanus, 5th c.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis & “Eclogues of Virgil” (Cod. Vat. lat 3867, Folio of Vergilius Romanus, 5th c.)

[C.S. Lewis excerpt, continued]:
… We come to see the old texts with a sort of double vision. Most of us, I fancy, when we read Virgil’s 
Fourth Eclogue, see simultaneously … the poem as it may have been for the Romans and the poem as it came to be seen in Christian times.  But this double vision, the reward of some ripeness, is different from acquiescence in our first illusions:

A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passé,
And then the heaven espie.

If he pleaseth.  This is quite different from mistaking the flaws or blurrings of the glass for real clouds or hills. [End Lewis excerpt; from “De audiences poets,” in C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966, pp. 2-4).

______________________________________

Ok, A.J. here again … enough preliminaries, let’s move on with Part 2 of the recommended reading list!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Morning," from "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" (art by Edmund Dulac)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Morning,” from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (art by Edmund Dulac)

Persian Literature

11th & 12th c. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

There is a beauty in the imagery in the Rubaiyat that gives a sense of the artistic sensibilities from nine hundred years ago:

XXIV.
Alife for those who today prepare,
And those that after a tomorrow stare,
A Muezzín from the Tower of Darkness cries,
“Fools! your reward is neither Here nor There!”

XXV.
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d 
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

XXVI.
Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Night," from "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" (art by Edmund Dulac)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Night,” from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (art by Edmund Dulac)

XXVII.
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great
Argument 
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

XXVIII.
With the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d —
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

XXIX.
Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Not whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

Besides achieving all that one might hope from the poetic form, there is so much potential in even these few verses of the Rubaiyat to incorporate into modern-day epic-fantasy world-building:  “the Tower of Darkeness,” prophets & sages, old men & saints, cosmological hints at a wider “universe,” etc.

I don’t know about the would-be writers in the audience, but when I read a poem such as the Rubaiyat, I’m both inspired by the original story and its narrative line, but, as a creator, this kind of work gives me enough glimpses into a historic-literary world of Persia (Iran) — and what we now call the “Middle East” — that I can seek out other literary works and histories to inform my own story-telling.

Here are some other genres and needful-to-read literary works within the medieval milieu:

Pilgrimage Tradition
c. 1390  Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales

Romance Literature
c. 1185  Andreas Capellanus, De Amore (“On Love”), a.k.a., The Art of Courtly Love
13th c. Guillame de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s The Roman de la Rose
13th-14th c.  Sir Orfeo
late 14th c.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (use J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation, publ.  posthumously in 1975 by Christopher Tolkien, whose edition also contains “Pearl” & “Sir Orfeo”)
1485  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Sir Orfeo" (Trans. by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1944; publ. 1975; "Orpheus and Eurydice," art by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Sir Orfeo” (Trans. by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1944; publ. 1975; “Orpheus and Eurydice,” art by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot)

And Sir Orfeo contains one of my favorite introductions to any medieval poem, especially as translated by J.R.R. Tolkien:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Sir Orfeo," trans. & ed. by J.R.R. Tolkien (Del Rey, 1979)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Sir Orfeo,” trans. & ed. by J.R.R. Tolkien (Del Rey, 1979)

We often read and written find,
as learned men do us remind,
that lays that now the harpers sing
are wrought of many a marvelous thing.
Some are of weal, and some of woe,
and some do joy and gladness know;
in some are guile and treachery told,
in some the deeds that chanced of old;
some are jests and ribaldry,
and some are tales of Faërie.

Of all the things that men may heed
’tis most of love they sing indeed.
    In Britain all these lays are writ,
there issued first in rhyming fit,
concerning adventures in those days
whereof the Britons made their lays;
for when they heard men anywhere,
tell of adventures that there were,
they took their harps in their delight
and made a lay and named it right.
    Of adventures that did once befall
some can I tell you, but not all.
Listen now, lordings good and true,
and ‘Orfeo’ I will sing to you.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Celtic Myths ("Cernunnos," John Howe, 2007)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Celtic Myths (“Cernunnos,” John Howe, 2007)

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Norse Sagas (Emil Doepler, “Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen,” 1905)

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Norse Sagas (Emil Doepler, “Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen,” 1905)

Saga Literature & Epic Poetry:
c. 975-1025: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon)
Late 13th c.  (collecting poetry & sagas from 800-1200) The Elder Edda
13th c.  N’jal’s Saga
12th & 13th c.  Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda
13th c.  The Saga of the Volsungs
13th c.  The Niebelungenlied
14th c.  John Barbour, The Brus (“The Bruce”)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("The Hall of Heorot," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“The Hall of Heorot,” art by John Howe)

As Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf doesn’t get published until next month, here’s an excerpt from the edition I use when teaching Western Civ and Medieval Europe classes: Seamus Heaney, trans. & ed., Beowulf: A Bilingual Translation, New York: W.W. Norton, 2000; pp. 47-49).

In this scene, Grendel is again invading the mead-hall of the Geats, who have secured the help of a lying-in-wait Beowulf!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("Grendel," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“Grendel,” art by John Howe)

Then out of the night
came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift;
the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts, 
all except one; it was widely understood
that as long as God disallowed it, 
the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne.
One man, however, was in fighting mood,
awake and on edge, spoiling for action. 
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for prey in the high hall.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("Grendel," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“Grendel,” art by John Howe)

Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. Nor was that the first time
he had scouted the grounds of Hrothgar’s dwelling —
although never in his life, before or since,
did he find harder fortune or hall-defenders.
Spurned and joyless, he journeyed on ahead
and arrived at the bawn. The iron-braced door
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it.
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
pacing the length of the patterned floor
with his loathsome tread, while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes. 

Viking Village (Sod Huts at L'Anse aux Meadow, Newfoundland)

Viking Village (Sod Huts at L’Anse aux Meadow, Newfoundland)

He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
quartered together. And his glee was demonic,
picturing the mayhem: before morning
he would rip life from limb and devour them,
feed on their flesh; but his fate that night
was due to change, his days of ravening 
had come to an end … [end Beowulf excerpt]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: William Langland, "Piers the Plowman" ("March," Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry," 1410; Musée Condé, MS 65, fol. 3v)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: William Langland, “Piers the Plowman” (“March,” Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry,” 1410; Musée Condé, MS 65, fol. 3v)

Spanish Literature
12th c. The Song of My Cid (El cantor de mio Cid)

Visionary Literature
13th c.  Jacobus de Voraigne, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints
14th c. William Langland, Piers the Plowman

Women’s Experience
late 10th c.  Hrotsvita of Gandersheim, The Plays of Hrotsvita of Gandersheim
late 12th c. Marie de France, The Lays of Marie de France
12th century  Hildegarde of Bingen, Scivias (Know the Way)
14th & 15th c.  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
early 15th c.  Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies
early 15th c.  Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe

Any of these readings will help your writing epic fantasy because you’ll find that the images and concerns of people who lived six to ten centuries past can serve as great creative stimulants for writing about those times in the present.

Next time: Tolkien the Philologist & the Literary Realms of Faerie!

 

 

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