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“Happy Birthday, Sophia!” from A.J.’s Nordic Nine Worlds: Niflheim

“Happy Birthday, Sophia!” from A.J.’s Nordic Nine Worlds: Niflheim

Good Morning, Everyone!

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 1

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 1

Celebrating the birthday of my wife, Sophia, and here’s an excerpt from one of her favorite scenes in my book, The Codex Lacrimae!

This scene takes place near the end of Book 2’s “The Roots of Yggdrassil,” where Clarinda and Aurelius ride with newfound friends to a haven in Niflheim (the borderlands to the lands of Hel).

[Begin excerpt: A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight (Argo-Navis, 2012), pp. 298-301  http://Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1]

Clarinda and Aurelius sat astride Fenris, the Hospitaller holding onto the nape of the wolf’s neck while the Norn held tightly onto him with her arms around his waist.  She felt a gratefulness for the entire journey — astonishment at his physicality vied with excited disbelief that they were finally together.  After seeing each other so many times in her dreams, she was surprised that the reality of his presence was even better than what she’d expected from the visions.

Niflheim

Niflheim

Even at eighteen, Santini was simply the largest warrior she’d ever seen.  He stood a full head taller and broader than Alex, with so many heavily layered and toned muscles that it made her feel protected just being near him.  A quiet strength flowed from the knight that she needed in the inhospitable wastes through which they rode.  Was it the way he made reassuring squeezes on her arms when they were threatened by a particularly harsh period of pelting hail? She found herself squeezing back at those times to let him know she was fine.  What was happening to her?  Why couldn’t she think straight when she was close to him?

The Norse Niflheim-  Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland

As they rode, the youths were able to share information about their respective adventures since they’d parted in Hela’s Hall, but Clarinda found that she had to omit much from her own account because she didn’t feel as if riding on the back of a magical creature through a nightmarish land near Hel was the time nor place for discussing the Codex Lacrimae.

She did relay an important bit of information, though.  When the howling winds had diminished to a dull roar, she leaned forward until her lips were near his right ear and said, “I was able to retrieve Hav’s coral!”

A Nordic Niflheim -- Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland“Really?” he said, but his voice sounded strange.  Clarinda wasn’t certain if it was the news, or the fact that she was very close to him and practically breathing down his neck.  Neither youth moved away, however, and she replied “yes, really,” to him, before adding, “That was quite the stab at Old Nick. I thought you were going to cut his throat.”

“Luck,” he said.  “I just brought the sword up and cut the leather strap — but, I don’t think  a normal blade would kill him, do you?”

“No, but at least we’ll be able to surprise Hav the next time we see him” she said, reluctantly backing away to her position.  She was glad, at least, that she still got to hold onto the young man as the wild ride through Niflheim continued.

“-ust…until…him!” Aurelius shouted back as the winds picked up again.

“What?” She shouted, leaning forward again, and this time their cheeks brushed each other as he turned to shout again.

“Oh!” He said, awkwardly adjusting his neck and position to move away, but then crashing an elbow into her breasts.

“Oh, sorry!” he muttered, then, louder, repeated: “I said, you can just hold onto it until we see him!”

D’accordo,” she said, smiling at his embarrassment as she returned to her former position.  Perhaps he was feeling something toward her, too, if he could get flustered by such things?

They kept riding.  As hours passed and Fenris bounded at a fantastic pace through the eerie landscape and frozen, white-gilded trees, Clarinda found herself repeatedly giving silent thanks to Grimnir’s gift of the heavy cloak she wore over Santini’s Hospitaller robes, and for the winter clothing provided by the Norns.

“We’re almost there!” Skade shouted as the group reached a part of the forest densely wooded enough to blunt the slanting snowfall. “I can hear the waterfalls, Fenris!”

“We need to walk from here, my friends,” Fenris ordered, diminishing his proportions at a gradual enough rate that they leapt lightly off him onto the snow-covered escarpment when he’d almost returned to their sizes.  Clarinda reluctantly released her hold on Aurelius, realizing that she’d been clinging to his back with arms wrapped around his waist for the better part of three hours.

Light sprang from a glowing orb in Skade’s hand, illuminating the area with the color and intensity of a miniature sun.  Fenris was again clad only in soaked garments, and Aurelius returned the wolf pelts.  The wolf-man looked Promethean in the blazing radiance of the globe as he took the fireball from Skade and led the way into the woods, clots of snow and ice clinging to his beard and thick mane of hair.

“Here, Codex Wielder, take this for the short distance to the baude.  It’s called a s’lantar, and is of elvish make.” He handed the globe of fire to Aurelius.

Daunted, the knight nevertheless took the magical sphere and grunted in appreciation at its light weight.  Flames raged within, pressing against the confines of the glass with a scorching intensity that seemed as if it should sizzle into Aurelius’s hand, but he felt only a comfortable coolness radiating from it.  Strange but beautiful magic was at work there.

The s’lantar’s light revealed a thinly populated stand of trees at the base of a mountain, where at least three waterfalls plunged over the sides of a steeply inclined, granite-walled descent.  Moss and lichen covered the boulders that framed the great falls and, as Fenris began wending his way up a thin trail, it became obvious that the entire group was going to get very wet from the spray coming off the plunging waters.

“The glaciers that form the boundary between Niflheim and Midgard make these falls!” Fenris shouted against the roar.  “Come, quickly!  The storm is almost here and we need to be inside when it hits!”

Clarinda took Aurelius’s hand when he reached down for her at the first level of boulders,  and a thrill of excitement rushed through her body at his touch.  She only let go of him a few times during the ascent, thankful for the assistance, as well as the concern on his face when he seemed to recognize the fear of heights she usually tried to conceal.

A vast chalet stood suddenly before them, its great pine decks rising from the cliff face and providing a view from the house over the falls that must be spectacular even in the grey and depressing light of a Niflheimian day.  Fenris strode toward a mound of snow that lay banked against the front door and kicked it away until the area before the entrance was flattened. He pushed against a door that opened to a darkened hallway.

“Come in,” Fenris urged, letting Skade walk past him after she’d brushed the snow off her shoulders.  Skade lit sconces and passed from sight.   “Just a bit more,” he continued, “and then we’ll be in more comfortable surroundings.”

The wolf pack dashed off to a lower deck that seemed to go into the falls themselves, heading toward another entrance into the home.

Geri and Freki waited for Aurelius and Clarinda to move inside the doorway, and then followed as they went after Fenris to the base of a stairwell hewn from logs. He and Clarinda threw back their hoods, shut the door, and joined Fenris at the bottom of the steps.

“Welcome to our home,” the man said upon reaching the landing at the top, pushing against the thick-timbered wood of the door that swung noiselessly on well-oiled hinges.  A warm, amber light that vied with the glowing orb in the knight’s hand spilled onto the granite entryway, and Aurelius and Clarinda gasped in surprise at what they saw in the great chamber beyond…

[End excerpt, A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight (2012), pp. 298-301  http://Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1]

Happy Birthday, Sophia — Let’s hope that the next 22 years are just as fantastic as the last! Love, A.J.

 

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 5: Song of Roland

 

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: World of the Chansons de Geste (Carcassonne, France)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: World of the Chansons de Geste (Carcassonne, France)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 5: The Song of Roland

Good Morning, Everyone!

A.J. Carlisle, The Artifacts of Destiny: Book II — The Codex Vindicta: The Book of Vengeance

A.J. Carlisle, The Artifacts of Destiny:
Book II — The Codex Vindicta: The Book of Vengeance

Only at Wednesday, and it’s already been a very busy week, filled with some medieval history business, yard-work (mowing & getting things back into shape after a vacation), and lots of writing.  I spent much of yesterday drafting broad swaths of the plot for The Codex Vindicta: The Book of Vengeance, the second of my nine-book epic-fantasy series, The Artifacts of Destiny. As I let the characters and narrative of the new adventure unfold — at this stage, I just need the top-lines of where each person needs to be by the end of the book, and then the story almost writes itself! — the process reminded me of how much I enjoy the creative process of this job.  That’s the part where I retreat to the office, queue up some favorite music, and then just start drafting a story; depending on the day, that might mean scratching a series of plot-lines, research, rough drafts, and even conversations in a moleskin notebook, or sitting in front of the Mac and just letting my characters get to work and “live” while my fingers try to keep up the pace of their adventures on the keyboard.

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears

Editing’s a necessary evil for the writing craft, of course — and I’m in the midst of looking at The Codex Lacrimae to see if some things can be tweaked to reduce Part 2’s mammoth 792 page-count — but I think any writer would agree that revision is often a grueling process; in my case, that self-critical component too-often devolves into growling (me) and any number of the possible reactions from my immediate circle of readers/editors: (1) manuscript-slapping with a “WTF?” expression & irritated voice (my wife, Sophia), (2) compliments & graciously phrased corrections (my daughter, Ariadna), or (3) a disembodied voice from New York City saying “trim this, excise this” (my agent). [Here are links to the e-book versions of The Codex Lacrimae, Parts 1 & 2! CL, Pt 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight and CL, Pt 2: The Book of Tears]

Troubadours  (14th c.)

Troubadours (14th c.)

On the creative side, however, for epic-fantasy writing and creating a faux-medieval world, part of the imaginative journey I take when traveling into a new story is always governed by knowing something about the Middle Ages, and, particularly, the worlds of medieval literature that I’m trying to recapture in my own storytelling.  Historical knowledge is not the same as storytelling, but inarguably, some of the greatest storytellers in history were the troubadours of southern France in the 12th century, minstrels and singers who knew something of their own history and entertained courtly audiences (think Eleanor of Aquitaine) with tales of a fabled past.

"Emperor Charlemagne 747-814 Surrounded by his Principal Officers, Receiving Alcuin (c.735-804) who is Presenting some Manuscripts made by his Monks" (Jean-Victor Schnetz, 1830; oil on canvast, Louvre, Paris)

“Emperor Charlemagne 747-814 Surrounded by his Principal Officers, Receiving Alcuin (c.735-804) who is Presenting some Manuscripts made by his Monks” (Jean-Victor Schnetz, 1830; oil on canvast, Louvre, Paris)

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 (from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, V. 1, c. 1325-50)

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 (from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, V. 1, c. 1325-50)

Charlemagne was one of the most dominant figures in the history of Western Europe, and the troubadours often returned to him in their chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”).  No surprise there, because “Charles the Great,” or Charlemagne (r. 768-814), was a larger-than-life king who expanded the Frankish Empire to its greatest territorial extent, was acclaimed “emperor” by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800, and oversaw a revival of learning and cultural expression so dramatic that his era (and successors) is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. For a “writing blog,” the last achievement is the most important for us at a remove of 1,200 years.  During Charlemagne’s reign, he revived learning partly because he knew that any kind of good government needs literate officials, but also because he was enthusiastic about education; to this end, he included in his circle men such as Peter of Pisa (grammarian), Paul the Deacon (historian), Einhard (royal biographer), and other learned monks & scholars from Ireland and Germanic lands.  An Anglo-Saxon scholar from Northumbria, Alcuin of York (735-804), was the most important of Charlemagne’s friends, founding a palace school at Aachen and importing many scholars to work on translations and the recovery of the classical past.  The monastery at Fulda also became important during this period (under Abbot Hrabanus Maurus, d. 856), who along with Walafrid Strabo would carry educational reforms in French and German monasteries throughout the 9th century.

Carolingian Miniscule (as rendered by Bernhard Bischoff, "Latin Paleography: Antiquity & the Middle Ages," rev. ed. 1986)

Carolingian Miniscule (as rendered by Bernhard Bischoff, “Latin Paleography: Antiquity & the Middle Ages,” rev. ed. 1986)

The words you’re reading write now are perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the educational reforms of the Carolingian Renaissance; called “Carolingian minuscule,” these lower-case letters, or “book-hand” were devised at monasteries of Corbie and Tours, and allowed more words to be etched into the parchment pages of codexes and manuscripts.  Alcuin also developed what came to be called “scriptoriums” (or “writing offices”), whose monks were completely devoted to translating and editing texts of the Bible (or Vulgate).  When we think about the achievement of this period, note this:  90% of our textual evidence from antiquity (Roman sources) survive in their earliest forms because of the work of these Carolingian scribes!

"Christian Conversion of the Saxons" (A. de Neuville, c. 1869)

“Christian Conversion of the Saxons” (A. de Neuville, c. 1869)

However, while all of these educational developments were all well and good for the sake of posterity, it wasn’t so much Alcuin’s or Einhard’s literary concerns that the troubadours sang about in the chansons de geste.  No, it was Charlemagne the “action-hero” that caught the attention of minstrels and bards!  Charlemagne’s wartime successes were remarkable in any age:  he defeated the Lombards (northern Italian “barbarians”) in the 770s; invaded Bavaria in the 780s, whose defeat brought his kingdom into conflict with the Avars (son defeated them in the 790s); and, he brutally crushed the Saxons after a 20 year campaign, and forced them to convert to Christianity.  He also attacked Spanish Muslims in 778, and it was on the return from this campaign that his rear-guard was trapped by Christian Basques; the anonymous author of The Song of Roland (c. 11th-12th cent.) transformed those Basques into Muslims to make a story that pitted Christians against Muslims, but Charlemagne’s historical success was to make that strip of land in the Pyrenees into a “safe zone” called the Spanish March, a buffer given to succeeding barons that eventually evolved into the territory of Barcelona. So, when a fantasy writer takes the time to learn about medieval literature or history, I’ve found that you can bypass much of the rote-memorization of events and dates that makes most people groan and get to the story that resides in each period.  For a figure such as Charlemagne, we have the benefit of both historical and literary accounts.

The Context of the "chansons de geste"... Castles! (Château de Beynac, on the Dordogne River Valley, Southern France)

The Context of the “chansons de geste”… Castles! (Château de Beynac, on the Dordogne River Valley, Southern France)

As you check out these kinds of sources with an eye to inspiring your own writing, keep in mind a couple of points that will help create a faux-medieval world.  First, the chansons de geste represent a blend of oral tradition and literary expression that give us a bird’s eye view of how troubadours told their stories.  Second, the chansons are both a form of medieval entertainment most likely sung by troubadours in castle or courtly environments and a direct link to how medieval people perceived the world and were amused.  If you’re trying to create a story that evokes the spirit of the Middle Ages, these texts will reward the patient reader with many characters and adventures.  Third, it’s one thing to use the clichéd images and settings of medieval castles, but quite another to actually take yourself back in time to imagine yourself “listening” to a troubadour in the castle environments where the chansons were performed; you might not find anything in these chansons that relate to your particular storyline, but you’ll at least take away a memorable view of medieval society c. 1100-1300!

Aspiring Epic Fantasy Writers Take Note: You need to do more than just cite a clichéd castle setting ... think about what people were doing in them? Part of the time, perhaps listening to the "chansons de geste!" (Château de Puilaurens, southern France)

Aspiring Epic Fantasy Writers Take Note: You need to do more than just cite a clichéd castle setting … think about what people were doing in them? Part of the time, perhaps listening to the “chansons de geste!” (Château de Puilaurens, southern France)

Those are just a few of the reasons epic fantasy writers and readers should glance through some of the chansons.   When we look at the historical side of the record and bore down to look at a particular chansons de geste, here’s some background on the battle described in The Song of Roland (written c. 1050-1100).  This excerpt was written in Charlemagne’s own lifetime, by his biographer, Einhard (c. 775-840), whose Life of Charlemagne contains the clearest account that we have the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778, the conflict immortalized by an anonymous troubadour some two centuries later in The Song of Roland:

"Charlemagne Crossing the Alps in 773, detail of Emperor and His Retinue" (Eugene Roger, 1807-1840; Château de Versailles, France)

“Charlemagne Crossing the Alps in 773, detail of Emperor and His Retinue” (Eugene Roger, 1807-1840; Château de Versailles, France)

[Begin excerpt: From “The Spanish Campaign,” in Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne] [9] In the midst of this vigorous and almost uninterrupted struggle with the Saxons, he covered the frontier by garrisons at the proper points, and marched over the Pyrenees into Spain at the head of all the forces that he could muster. All the towns and castles that he attacked surrendered. and up to the time of his homeward march he sustained no loss whatever; but on his return through the Pyrenees he had cause to rue the treachery of the Gascons. That region is well adapted for ambuscades by reason of the thick forests that cover it; and as the army was advancing in the long line of march necessitated by the narrowness of the road, the Gascons, who lay in ambush [778] on the top of a very high mountain, attacked the rear of the baggage train and the rear guard in charge of it, and hurled them down to the very bottom of the valley [Roncesvalles]. In the struggle that ensued they cut them off to a man; they then plundered the baggage, and dispersed with all speed in every direction under cover of approaching night. The lightness of their armor and the nature of the battle ground stood the Gascons in good stead on this occasion, whereas the Franks fought at a disadvantage in every respect, because of the weight of their armor and the unevenness of the ground. Eggihard, the King’s steward; Anselm, Count Palatine; and Roland, Governor of the March of Brittany, with very many others, fell in this engagement. This ill turn could not be avenged for the nonce, because the enemy scattered so widely after carrying out their plan that not the least clue could be had to their whereabouts… [End excerpt from Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, Internet History Sourcebooks (Fordham Univ.)]

Chansons de Geste: "Charlemagne kills Moorish Leader" (in Jacob van Maerlant, Spiegel Historiael, ms KA 20, fol. 213r, Koninklijke Bibliotheeek, The Hague)

Chansons de Geste: “Charlemagne kills Moorish Leader” (in Jacob van Maerlant, Spiegel Historiael, ms KA 20, fol. 213r, Koninklijke Bibliotheeek, The Hague)

Okay, that’s the text from Charlemagne’s biographer in the early 9th century.  Now, let’s broaden the context of The Song of Roland before we look at the literature itself.  Here’s the entry for “The Song of Roland” from the Encyclopedia Britannica

"Emperor Charlemagne Finds Roland's Corpse after the Battle of Roncevaux" (Jean Fouquet, 1420-1481; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France)

“Emperor Charlemagne Finds Roland’s Corpse after the Battle of Roncevaux” (Jean Fouquet, 1420-1481; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France)

[Begin excerpt]: “La Chanson de Roland,” English The Song of Roland,  Old French epic poem that is probably the earliest (c. 1100) chanson de geste and is considered the masterpiece of the genre. The poem’s probable author was a Norman poet, Turold, whose name is introduced in its last line. The poem takes the historical Battle of Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) in 778 as its subject. Though this encounter was actually an insignificant skirmish between Charlemagne’s army and Basque forces, the poem transforms Roncesvalles into a battle against Saracens and magnifies it to the heroic stature of the Greek defense of Thermoypylae against the Persians in the 5th century BC.

"Roland at Roncesvalles" (Francois Guizot, 1883)

“Roland at Roncesvalles” (Francois Guizot, 1883)

The poem opens as Charlemagne having conquered all of Spain except Saragossa, receives overtures from the Saracen king and sends the knight Ganelon, Roland’s stepfather, to negotiate peace terms. Angry because Roland proposed him for the dangerous task, Ganelon plots with the Saracens to achieve his stepson’s destruction and, on his return, ensures that Roland will command the rear guard of the army when it withdraws from Spain. As the army crosses the Pyrenees, the rear guard is surrounded at the pass of Roncesvalles by an overwhelming Saracen force. Trapped against crushing odds, the headstrong hero Roland is the paragon of the unyielding warrior victorious in defeat. The composition of the poem is firm and coherent, the style direct, sober, and, on occasion, stark. Placed in the foreground is the personality clash between the recklessly courageous Roland and his more prudent friend Oliver (Olivier), which is also a conflict between divergent conceptions of feudal loyalty. Roland, whose judgment is clouded by his personal preoccupation with renown, rejects Oliver’s advice to blow his horn and summon help from Charlemagne. On Roland’s refusal, the hopeless battle is joined, and the flower of Frankish knighthood is reduced to a handful of men. The horn is finally sounded, too late to save Oliver, Turpin, or Roland, who has been struck in error by the blinded Oliver, but in time for Charlemagne to avenge his heroic vassals. Returning to France, the emperor breaks the news to Aude, Roland’s betrothed and the sister of Oliver, who falls dead at his feet. The poem ends with the trial and execution of Ganelon. [End excerpt]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Achille-Etna Michallon, d. 1822, "Roland & Oliver at Battle of Roncesvalles," oil on canvas)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Achille-Etna Michallon, d. 1822, “Roland & Oliver at Battle of Roncesvalles,” oil on canvas)

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)

Ok, we’ve got the history, we’ve got the context, now let’s look at part of the story of The Song of Roland, specifically at how battles and combatants were depicted.  At the heart of the chansons de geste lay the realistic depictions of battles and warfare so venerated by the warrior culture of a thousand years ago, and in literature the chansons were one of the first sustained attempts to entertain in a way different from recounting Bible stories or reading chronicles.  Yes, the chansons were probably performed in a courtly culture, but they can be very useful to an epic fantasist if she’s imaginative enough to suss out aspect of medieval life.  For example, as you read through this excerpt form The Song of Roland, see how many “realities” of medieval life you can learn from the battle between Charlemagne and the emir. [Begin excerpt from “The Song of Roland”]: …At this the emir starts to realize That he wrong and Charlemagne is right. The pagans from Arabia retreat. To his own people calls the emperor. ‘Say lords, in God’s name, will you give me aid?’ The Franks reply: ‘There is no need to ask: Only rogues will not strike with all their might!’

"The Death of Roland" (Illust. from ms. in Chantilly Museum)

“The Death of Roland” (Illust. from ms. in Chantilly Museum)

The day draws on, evening begins to fall. The Franks and pagans strike out with their swords. Valiant are those who locked the hosts in strife. They have not put their war-cries from their minds: Now the emir has shouted, ‘Precieuse!’ And Charles ‘Monjoie!’, the famous battle-call. Each knew the other by his loud, clear voice, And so, charging together in the field, They went to strike, gave and received great blows. They smite their circled targes with their spears And above the broad bosses shatter them; And then their hauberks’ skirts they rend apart But leave each other’s body quite untouched. The girths burst, and the saddles slip and turn, Both the kings fall and tumble to the ground Then swiftly rise up on their feet again. Now with great valor they have drawn their swords. Never will this combat of theirs be stopped: Only one man dead its end will come.

"Renaud de Montauban and Charlemagne, 742-814" (Loyset Liedet, 1420-1479; oil on canvas)

“Renaud de Montauban and Charlemagne, 742-814” (Loyset Liedet, 1420-1479; oil on canvas)

Charles of fair France is very valorous; The emir holds him in no fear or dread. Each to the other shows his naked sword, Exchanging on their shields prodigious blows, Slicing the leather and the double board; The nails fall and the bosses fly apart. On their unguarded byres then they smite. From their bright helmets fly up fiery sparks. This is a combat that can never cease Unless one of them should admit his wrong. The emir said: ‘Now, Charles, take careful thought: Resolve to show repentance towards me! You’ve slain my son, as I know very well, And criminally you dispute my land. Become my vassal: swear me loyalty, Come and serve me right in the Orient!’ Charles says: ‘What great baseness this seems to me! I should grant pagans neither peace nor love. Receive the faith that God reveals to us The Christian faith, and I’ll love you at once; Believe and serve then the almighty King!’ Baligant said: ‘Your homily starts ill!’ Then with their girded swords they set to strike.

"Charlemagne and his barons being enchanted" (Loyset Liedet, 1420-1479; oil on canvas)

“Charlemagne and his barons being enchanted” (Loyset Liedet, 1420-1479; oil on canvas)

The emir is possessed of mighty power. On Charlemagne’s burnished steel helm he strikes, Bursts it and splits it open to his head, Bringing the sword down onto his thick locks, Slicing away a full palm’s breadth and more To lay the bone at that place quite exposed. Charles staggers, and he very nearly falls; But God did not wish him vanquished or slain, And so Saint Gabriel returned to him And asked him: ‘Great king, what are you about?’ When Charles had heard the holy angel’s voice, He had no fear or dread that he would die. His memory and force returned to him. He strikes the emir with the sword of France, Shatters his helmet where the gems blaze forth, Cleaves his head open and spills out the brains, And cuts through the whole face to the white beard To fell him utterly past recall. ‘Monjoie!’ he cries to rally all his men. Hearing the call, Duke Naimes comes up to him. He takes Tencendur, and the great king mounts. The pagans turn: God would not have them stay. And now the French have at those whom they seek.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Charlemagne's Dream in "The Song of Roland," by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Charlemagne’s Dream in “The Song of Roland,” by John Vernon Lord)

The pagans flee as is the Lord God’s will; The Franks and emperor ride in pursuit. The king said: ‘Now, my lords, avenge your griefs, Work out your wrath and raise up all your hearts — Your eyes I saw this morning filled with tears.’ The Franks reply: ‘Yes, sire, this we must do.’ Each man then strikes what mighty blows he can. Few of the pagans there made their escape. Great is the heat, and high the dust-clouds rise. The pagans flee, and the French harry them. To Saragossa the pursuit goes on. Up to her tower Bramimonde has climbed; With her have gone her canons and her clerks Of the false faith that never had God’s love: They are not tonsured, no orders have they. When she beheld the Arabs so dismayed, She cried aloud: ‘Mahomet, give us aid!’ Ah, noble king, our men are vanquished now, And the emir is slain so shamefully!’ When Marsile hears her, he turns to the wall; Tears fill his eyes, his whole face is cast down; From grief he dies, prey to calamity. His soul he gives up to the fiends of Hell.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Song of Roland (Batlle of Roncesvalles Pass, 778)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Song of Roland (Batlle of Roncesvalles Pass, 778)

The infidels are dead [or some in flight], And in his battle Charles has won the day. Now Saragossa’s gate is broken down He knows full well it has no more defense. He takes the city, and his men come in: That night they all lie there as conquerors. The grizzle-bearded king is full of pride. From Bramimonde he has received the towers, Ten of them high, the other fifty small. He whom the Lord God helps does his task well. The day has waned, and now the night descends. The moon is bright, the blazing stars shine forth. The emperor of all Saragossa holds. He has a thousand French comb the town well, Searching the mosques and every heathen shrine. With iron mallets and axes in hand The statues and each idol they destroy: No sorcery or false thing will remain. The king believes in God, will serve Him well; And so his bishops bless the water there And lead the pagans to the baptistries… [End Excerpt from D.D.R. Owen, trans., “The Song of Roland,” in Richard Barber, ed., Epics of the Middle Ages; London, Folio Society, 2005; pp. 91-93]

"The Song of Roland" (Roland receives the sword, Durandal, from Charlemagne; ca. 1400, illum. ms.)

“The Song of Roland” (Roland receives the sword, Durandal, from Charlemagne; ca. 1400, illum. ms.)

Well?  Besides giving the reader an action-packed moment in time with imagery still vivid after nine hundred years, even in this short selection, the observant epic-fantasist (or epic fantasy enthusiast!) comes away from The Song of Roland with vivid images of medieval life: — warfare (battle-cries, weapons, rudimentary armor, sequence of fighting both on/off horses, wounds, etc) — religion (Christianity, Islam, views of paganism & heresy, hell, etc.) — depictions of women — depictions of horses (Tencendur) — depictions of nobility — iconoclasm (destroying idols and statues) — division of spoils & territories as reward to loyal followers (“feudalism”) You certainly don’t have to use all/any of these aspects, but knowing about this type of genre certainly can add a “flavor” to your faux-medieval world-building that go somewhat beyond the too-often clichéd sources of Tolkien and Lewis that writers & film-makers have been imitating since the 1950s and 1960s. Next Time: More Chansons!

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 4

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 (from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, V. 1, c. 1325-50)

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, 800 (from Chroniques de France ou de Saint-Denis, V. 1, c. 1325-50)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 4 (Defined)

Good Morning, Everyone!

For those would-be epic fantasy writers seeking to create a believable faux-medieval world, I’ve been recommending a return to the source-material of medieval literature and seeing what the chansons de geste have to offer for inspiration.

In haste today, so here’s an entry from the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the chansons to capture aspects I might have missed.

The Locales of the Chansons

The Locales of the Chansons

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("The Song of William," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“The Song of William,” art by John Vernon Lord)

[Begin Ency. Brit. definition] chanson de geste, ( French: “song of deeds”) any of the Old French epic poems forming the core of the Charlemagne legends. More than 80 chansons, most of them thousands of lines long, have survived in manuscripts dating from the 12th to the 15th century.

They deal chiefly with events of the 8th and 9th centuries during the reigns of Charlemagne and his successors. In general, the poems contain a core of historical truth overlaid with legendary accretions. Whether they were composed under the inspiration of the events they narrate and survived for generations in oral tradition or were the independent compositions of professional poets of a later date is still disputed. A few poems have authors’ names, but most are anonymous.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("The Deeds of the Norman People," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“The Deeds of the Norman People,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Chansons de geste are composed in lines of 10 or 12 syllables grouped into laisses (irregular stanzas) based on assonance or, later, rhyme. The poems’ lengths range from approximately 1,500 to more than 18,000 lines. The fictional background of the chansons is the struggle of Christian France against a conventionalized polytheistic or idolatrous “Muslim” enemy. The emperor Charlemagne is portrayed as the champion of Christendom. He is surrounded by his court of Twelve Noble Peers, among whom are Roland, Oliver (Olivier), Ogier the Dane, and Archbishop Turpin.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("The Song of William," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“The Song of William,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Besides the stories grouped around Charlemagne, there is a subordinate cycle of 24 poems dealing with Guillaume d’Orange, a loyal and long-suffering supporter of Charlemagne’s weak son, Louis the Pious. Another cycle deals with the wars of such powerful barons as Doon de Mayence, Girart de Roussillon, Ogier the Dane, or Raoul de Cambrai against the crown or against each other.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Charlemagne's Dream in "The Song of Roland," by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Charlemagne’s Dream in “The Song of Roland,” by John Vernon Lord)

The earlier chansons are heroic in spirit and theme. They focus on great battles or feuds and on the legal and moral niceties of feudal allegiances. After the 13th century, elements of romance and courtly love came to be introduced, and the austere early poems were supplemented by enfances (youthful exploits) of the heroes and fictitious adventures of their ancestors and descendants. The masterpiece and probably the earliest of the chansons de geste is the 4,000-line La Chanson de Roland (“The Song of Roland”).

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)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Godfrey of Boulogne" art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Godfrey of Boulogne” art by John Vernon Lord)

Appearing at the threshold of French epic literature, Roland was the formative influence on the rest of the chansons de geste. The chansons, in turn, spread throughout Europe. They strongly influenced Spanish heroic poetry; the mid-12th-century Spanish epic Cantar de mío Cid (“Song of My Cid”), in particular, is indebted to them. In Italy stories about Orlando and Rinaldo (Roland and Oliver) were very popular and formed the basis for the Renaissance epics Orlando innamorato by Matteo Boiardo (1495) and Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532).

In the 13th century the German poet Wolfram Von Eschenbach based his incomplete epic Willehalm on the life of William of Orange, and the chansons were recorded in prose in the Icelandic Karlamagnús saga. Charlemagne legends, referred to as “the matter of France,” were long staple subjects of romance. In the 20th century the chansons continued to enjoy a strange afterlife in folk ballads of the Brazilian backlands, called literatura de la corda (“literature on a string”) because, in pamphlet form, they were formerly hung from strings and sold in marketplaces. Frequently in these ballads, through a misunderstanding of a Portuguese homonym, Charlemagne is surrounded by a company of 24 knights—i.e., “Twelve Noble Pairs.” [End of Ency. Brit. definition]

Next time: Raoul of Cambrai, the Song of Roland,  the Song of William, and A.J.’s troubadour at the Battle of Mecina!

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 3 (as seen in Fritz Leiber & Frank Herbert)

Channeling the Medieval "Songs of Great Deeds" ("Chansons de Geste"): Frank Herbert's "Dune" ("Paul Muad'Dib Calling His First Sandworm," by John Schoenherr)

Channeling the Medieval “Songs of Great Deeds” (“Chansons de Geste”): Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (“Paul Muad’Dib Calling His First Sandworm,” by John Schoenherr)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 3 ; Finding Echoes of the Chanson de Geste Tradition from Lankhmar to Arrakis … a.k.a., Re-reading Fritz Leiber & Frank Herbert!

Good Morning, Everyone!

When I wasn’t playing on the water or catching-up with friends on land, my recent vacation to the Pacific Northwest gave me a chance to re-read works by two of my favorite authors, Fritz Leiber and Frank Herbert.

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)

Frank Herbert (1920-1986)

Frank Herbert (1920-1986)

In their respective books — Swords and Deviltry (1970) and Dune (1965) ―both Leiber and Herbert cleaved to some essential storytelling elements relevant to this blog series on how medieval literature can inform today’s generation of epic fantasists.  During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking at one of the oldest medieval literary forms, the chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds”), and in thinking about the worlds of Leiber’s “Nehwon” and Herbert’s desert planet of Arrakis, my fellow epic-fantasy writers might want to be mindful of a few themes that defined the chansons of a thousand years ago:  (1) the veneration of violence in warrior cultures, (2) the suspense of supernatural encounters, and (3) stories related to an emperor, or warrior-king/noble.

Fritz Leiber, "Swords against Death," Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Fritz Leiber, “Swords against Death,” Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Leiber, The Lankhmar Series (Fafhrd & Gray Mouser; art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Leiber, The Lankhmar Series (Fafhrd & Gray Mouser; art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Frank Herbert, "Dune" (1965)

Frank Herbert, “Dune” (1965)

Perhaps I’ve been thinking overmuch about medieval literature, but in Swords and Deviltry and Dune, it seemed as if Leiber and Herbert successfully channeled these three aspects of the chansons de geste.  Now, I know that the three themes of a martial society, otherworldly experiences, and high-born protagonists aren’t necessarily limited to a verse form prevalent in French lands c. 900-1200 A.D. — take a moment and reflect on how many of your favorite stories incorporate these attributes — but when we’ve been discussing what I see as an absence of medieval source material in current fantasy writing, these three qualities of the chansons de geste make for a decent start to the discussion.

I hope by the end of the next two blogs to show that familiarity with the chansons doesn’t necessarily mean slavish imitation; as with any skill worth mastering, fantasy-writing should draw from a variety of sources to keep both creator and audience entertained.  Learn some of the basics about the chansons and you’ll find that the stories therein might contribute to your own creative wellsprings.

Frank Herbert's "Dune" ("The Sardaukar Warriors," by John Schoenherr)

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (“The Sardaukar Warriors,” by John Schoenherr)

So, even if that 9th-12th century chansons weren’t in the minds of Leiber and Herbert when they created the still-vibrant mythologies of “Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser” and the House Atreides of “Dune. Arrakis. Desert Planet,” both works inarguably evoke the chansons’ tendency to describe kings’ & nobles’ adventures, the strength of arms & wits needful to survive in a warrior age, and the battles against both human armies and supernatural forces.

Fritz Leiber, "Swords against Wizardry" (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011

Fritz Leiber, “Swords against Wizardry” (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011

Fritz Leiber, "The Swords of Lankhmar" (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones)

Fritz Leiber, “The Swords of Lankhmar” (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones)

Fritz Leiber certainly captured the spirit of the chansons de geste in his fantasy novels (many of which are actually collections of short stories/novellas), immersing Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in adventure after adventure in the city and environs of Lankhmar, a place that still lingers in my mind’s eye after reading the stories for the first time back in the 1980s.  Fafhrd is a “northerner” whose barbaric upbringing and resentment against a matriarchal society leave him with a hankering for civilization and romantic, idealistic notions of the world; contrarily, the Mouser is a city-bred thief who seems have one foot inside of the political intrigue of the Thieves’ Guild and ruling powers of Lankhmar, and the other securely in the taverns and alleys where he and his best friend live a roguish existence.  And lest readers think that I’m stretching the chansons’ thematic connection too far past the Lankhmar books, in situating the city and its inhabitants, Leiber himself described his medieval inspirations:

[from Wikipedia entry, “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser,” http://en.Fafhrd_&_Gray_Mouser]
….Technology in Nehwon [“no when”] varies between the Iron Age and the Medieval. Leiber wrote of the Lankhmarts: “They may be likened to the Romans or be thought of as, if I may use such a term, southern medievals.” About his Eastern lands, he wrote, “think of Saracens, Arabs, Parthians, Assyrians even. They ride the camel and the elephant, and use the bow extensively.” [end Wikipedia excerpt]

Frank Herbert's "Dune" ("Stilgar and His Men," by John Schoenherr)

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (“Stilgar and His Men,” by John Schoenherr)

Frank Herbert's "Dune" ("Paul Administers the Oath of the Fedaykin," by John Schoenherr)

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (“Paul Administers the Oath of the Fedaykin,” by John Schoenherr)

Similarly, in Frank Herbert’s case, the genre of the Dune series might be Science Fiction, but from the cultures and peoples of Arrakis to the tales oriented around Paul Atreides, Dune‘s in-house troubadour (the baliset-playing Gurney Halleck) probably wouldn’t have any problem in finding the parallels I do between Herbert’s description of the Fremen who live 21,000 years in our future and the Bedouin tribes of the chanson de gestes’ heyday of 1150-1250 A.D.  However, instead of imitating the Crusader-era troubadours and casting these faux-Arabian people as adversaries (à la The Song of Roland’s transposition of Muslims for Spanish Basques in the 778 Battle of Roncesvalles), Herbert made the Fremen (“free men”) one of the centerpieces of his story, possessors of the secrets of water conservation (creation of still-suits, life in sietches, etc), the Sand Worms, and the spice melange.

Frank Herbert's "Dune" ("The Flight Through the Shield Wall," art by John Schoenherr)

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (“The Flight Through the Shield Wall,” art by John Schoenherr)

That’s a sketch of Herbert’s milieu, but let’s look at a few parallels between the themes of the chansons de geste and Dune. Veneration of a warrior society? Check. Besides the attention given to the lifestyles of the Fremen desert-warriors, the battles that begin in the fight for Arrakis between rebel Fremen and imperial Sadoukar yield a cycle of jihad and wars that stretch across a galaxy (and into Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and beyond).

Supernatural encounters and otherworldly experiences? Check. Besides the assortment of “witches” that comprise the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood (including Paul’s mother, Jessica) and the warlock/messiah aspect of Paul himself (the prophesied “Kwisatz Haderach”), think about the teleportation abilities of the Navigators of the Spicing Guild (whether described in terms of medieval magic or quantum physics, the Navigators’ ability to displace their gigantic heighliners in space-time still smacks of spice-gas inspired sorcery to this reader!).

Frank Herbert's "Dune" ("Baron Vladimir Harkonnen," by John Schoenherr)

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (“Baron Vladimir Harkonnen,” by John Schoenherr)

Lastly, the chansons’ tendency to relate stories centered on an emperor or warrior-king/noble?  Check. The story of Paul Atreides is one that begins and ends with a chanson-like focus on noble houses arrayed in fiefdoms across the galaxy with a premise that noble families or outsiders to a particular culture can impose complete — and sometimes catastrophic ― change on that society; in the case of Dune, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s machinations result in exiling Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, to a desert planet because of a rearrangement by the emperor of “fiefs.” When the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis ally with the Atreides against the Harkonnens and the Padishah Empire, all hell breaks loose. Come on! Are these, or are these not, the kinds of imperial and kingly/noble machinations the troubadours would have loved to sing about in the chansons de geste? I certainly think that they are.

Frank Herbert's "Dune" ("The Defeat of the Sardaukar," art by John Schoenherr)

Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (“The Defeat of the Sardaukar,” art by John Schoenherr)

Okay, vacation’s over, and I’ve shared some corresponding relevances I found unexpectedly in my “fun” reading of Leiber and Herbert and my “work” source-material of the chansons de geste.

Next time, we’ll look at a few excerpts from the chansons themselves, and then close this part of the blog series with some examples from my own work that try to make for an entertaining read in my novel, The Codex Lacrimae.

Next time: Raoul of Cambrai, the Song of Roland,  the Song of William, and A.J.’s troubadour at the Battle of Mecina!

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 2

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Song of Roland (Batlle of Roncesvalles Pass, 778)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Song of Roland (Batlle of Roncesvalles Pass, 778)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 2

Good Morning, Everyone!

Still on vacation in the Pacific Northwest, & sitting at the beach with Sophia & watching kids splashing in the icy cold waters of the northern part of the Puget Sound.  After eight days, I can definitely feel the restorative effects of the daily exposure to sea, sand, & sunshine…it will be bittersweet when the time comes to return to reality at the end of the week.

Thankfully, for me “back to reality” simply means a return to my life as a medieval historian and epic fantasist, so I actually look forward to a resumption of the research and creative writing that mark the majority of my workdays.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste ("Raoul of Cambrai")

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (“Raoul of Cambrai”)

To that point, in these blogs that serve as a way to pursue interests ancillary to history or fantasy writing, even relaxing moments can offer moments of meaningful reflection.  In this case, a series on how different forms of medieval literature can inspire the imagination of epic fantasists has me looking around at the conditions of the current world and seeing if any  lessons from medieval times have relevance today.

Point No Point Lighthouse (Kitsap Peninsula, WA)

Point No Point Lighthouse (Kitsap Peninsula, WA)

For instance, a few days ago, we took a boat-ride across the water to see a friend’s new house on the Kitsap Peninsula. (The Kitsap’s a landmass that forms part of the northern limits of the Puget Sound, northwest of Seattle, and part of the greater peninsula that eventually opens onto the Pacific Ocean-facing Olympic Mountain Range).

Hansville Beach, Kitsap Peninsula, WA

Hansville Beach, Kitsap Peninsula, WA

While sitting on that house’s deck and watching the marine traffic passing to and fro between the headlands of Foul Weather Bluff and the rustic lighthouse at Point No Point, I was struck by the fact that — as with land-based vehicles and roadways — all of the gigantic freighters, ocean liners, small fishing boats, and even kayaks were governed by rules and laws of the sea that our society’s created to make journeys relatively safe and predictable.

The Viking Age (8th to 11th c.)

The Viking Age (8th to 11th c.)

The same expectation couldn’t be said of Europe c. 1000-1200 A.D., the time of the chansons de geste, when lawlessness and unpredictability were the constants that informed a traveler’s experience in an often-wartorn and violent medieval world.

There’s the theme that will help us understand how reading the chansons de geste can elicit creativity in an epic fantasist who wants to “sub-create” (Tolkien’s term) a faux-medieval world:  war, and the insecurity that attends a lawless landscape, were medieval realities that both confronted medieval people in the High Middle Ages and resonate still in the 21st century.

Viking Longboats (art by Richard Benning)

Viking Longboats (art by Richard Benning)

Most of my readers don’t have the experience of living in Syria, Afghanistan, the Sudan, or any of the various hotspots around the world where a person awakens in uncertainty, not knowing whether she or her family will survive the day; indeed, depending on where one awakens in the United States, that feeling of insecurity may abide because of circumstance, location, or socio-economic status (just ask anyone in a crime-ridden neighborhood in a larger city).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Song of William")

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Song of William”)

But eight or nine hundred years ago — while the entirety of Continental Europe had begun that slow transition to “civilization” that eventually yielded city-states, the Renaissance, and a degree of protection & stability for citizens — despite the increasing power of certain French, English, and Germanic kings and dukes, the 11th and 12th Century medieval world remained mostly a lawless and predatory place, where military prowess, survival instinct, inate cunning, and defensive alliances with fellow villagers or a strong feudal lord were the only assets upon which one could rely to make it to another sunset.

Viking Funeral (Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee; Wikipedia)

Viking Funeral (Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee; Wikipedia)

In that bygone age, strength of arms and skill in combat were the only sureties for the variety of warriors, pilgrims, merchants, clergy, and nobility who took to the roads and waterways of Europe, Scandinavia, and the coastlines & hinterlands of the Mediterranean Sea.  In contrast to the curiosity Sophia and I experienced at seeing the next ship approach on a southern current across the Salish Sea, medieval people who lived along the coasts of Brittany or the Baltic and North Seas perceived a ship on the horizon as either an expected fishing or trading vessel or the harbinger of a potential invasion, recalling the bloody precedent of centuries of violent landfalls by Vikings and other seafarers.

Viking Longboat (art by David Seguin)

Viking Longboat (art by David Seguin)

The chansons de geste are a medieval literary form that preserves the martial qualities valued by medieval people; these “songs of great deeds” were sung in castles by minstrels and troubadours, and give us insight into the warrior ethos needed to survive in a violent period of European history.  As we look at some of the types of chansons in the next couple of blogs — ever mindful of how the source material might be used by epic fantasists who want to create a new version of the chansons in their own literary works — we should always remember that the environment of the medieval world was one very different than the “civilized” and law-ordered regions that surround us.

If you want your readers to experience that kind of immersion in a faux-medieval world, the chansons de geste are a good place to begin learning how your characters from that period might think and act in an era unlike our own.

Next time:  Finding Echoes of the Chanson de Geste Tradition from Lankhmar to Arrakis … a.k.a., re-reading Fritz Leiber & Frank Herbert!

 

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 1

 

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: French Chansons de Geste ("The Song of Roland," 15th c.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: French Chansons de Geste (“The Song of Roland,” 15th c.)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) The Chansons de Geste, Pt 1

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Really into vacation mode here on the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, with many hours devoted to beach-combing with Sophia & the kids, kayaking & crab-hunting with our old friend & host, John, and simply watching the waters of the Puget Sound while we converse late into the evening.

Fritz Leiber, "Swords against Death," Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Fritz Leiber, “Swords against Death,” Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

However, the time here hasn’t been entirely filled with jogging 5Ks along the coastline with my son, Seth, or hanging out with daughter, Adriana, & her boyfriend, Ethan; the beauty of the seaside environment inspires creativity, & I’ve been working on The Codex Vindicta, the next book in my Artifacts of Destiny epic fantasy series, & also spending some time re-reading the works of Fritz Leiber, one of my favorite writers. (I’d forgotten how quickly immersed one can become in Lankhmar, & the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser…if you haven’t read Leiber’s books yet, I envy your first exposure to this fighting team in the short story collection, Swords and Deviltry!)

As my readers know, part of my epic fantasy work includes maintaining a social media presence and, for me, blogging gives me a chance to discuss “matters medieval & fantastical” that fall outside the pages of a novel.

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)

So, drafted last night between sips of Balvenie scotch & listening to stories by a roaring bonfire on the beach, here’s the latest entry on medieval literature; specifically, how would-be epic fantasy writers who try to recreate a faux-medieval world might use certain 9th-15th c. literary styles to inform our 21st c. works. In this case, we’ll take a look at the chansons de geste.

$T2eC16F,!)!E9s2f!G,fBRVmitJZ9w~~_26As with any decent lecture, let’s have a clearly defined term to get us started; for a textbook definition of this literary form & its historical context, here’s an excerpt from Norman F. Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages:

(Begin Cantor excerpt)… The chansons de geste were long epic poems indigenous to northern France that portrayed deeds of heroics and other aspects of the life of the feudal nobility. They were certainly meant to entertain aristocratic courts, and they were probably stories that had circulated orally and been slowly expanded over three centuries before being written down at the end of the eleventh or in the early twelfth century. They were based upon incidents, some of he them known from historical sources, that occurred in Carolingian times.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (Cantar de Mio Cid, c. 1260)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (Cantar de Mio Cid, c. 1260)

These epic poems, written for the entertainment of the French feudal nobility, presumably portray the great lords of northern France in the way they liked to think of themselves. The result is an idealized picture of feudal life; it is one that is recognizable from, and in many instances vividly confirms, what we know about feudal life from non literary sources. Iberian-Christian literature began about the middle of the twelfth century with the great Spanish epic The Cid, an account of the deeds of a famous eleventh-century Spanish warrior. The ideals and attitudes expressed in The Cid are the same as in the French chansons de geste.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste ("The Song of Roland," c. 11th-12th C.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (“The Song of Roland,” c. 11th-12th C.)

The chansons de geste portray the feudatories as the leaders of society. The emperor-king is at best distant and at worst appears as weak and crooked, churchmen are merely assistants to the feudal nobility, peasants are a negligible social force who have no other function except to toil for their lords and be massacred during feudal wars, and the bourgeois are hardly mentioned. The cohesive force in the world of the chanson de geste is loyalty, and the theme around which the poem is built is always some question of vassalage, it’s fulfillments or it’s violations.

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)

Thus, in The Song of Roland, the earliest work of French literature through. Which so many generations of students have had to toil, the hero is a count who fulfills his oath of loyalty to Charlemagne even though it involves his certain death. Raoul of Cambrai, which is the most valuable of the epic poems for the social historian, is built round the troubles and violence that result when the emperor does not reward one of his leading vassals with the fief he claims by inheritance. In Raoul the bellicose disposition of the feudal nobility is starkly revealed; the wronged hero engages in a bloody rebellion and the massacre of innocent churchmen and bourgeois. Apparently the aristocratic audience enjoyed such incidents, and, in certain backward frontier regions such as Brittany and the Massif Central, such violence was still common, even in the year 1200…(End excerpt, 345-346)

Next Time: Themes in the Chansons that Might be of Use to an Epic Fantasist…

 

 

 

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (1) Introduction

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (1) Introduction

Good Morning, Everyone!

On vacation with Sophia & kids in Pacific Northwest, but in midst of relaxing on Puget Sound wanted to start new series on some aspects of medieval literature with which the current generation of epic fantasists should be familiar when creating faux-medieval worlds.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("The Burning of the Ships")

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“The Burning of the Ships”)

In previous blogs I’ve tried to make the Middle Ages more accessible by using the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as a springboard for discussing the medieval literary context; that approach seemed appropriate because whenever the creator of the epic fantasy genre as we know it discussed his fantasy writing, Tolkien repeatedly referred to his professional interests in medieval language and literature (Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, etc) as a way to understand The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (LotR), and The Silmarillion.

He wrote in the early to mid-20th Century, however, and in 2014 we need to expand our perspective a bit and leave Tolkien behind to assess the Middle Ages on their own terms, but always keeping in mind the long-term objective: answering the question of how today’s generation of epic-fantasists can take another look at the medieval period with an eye to using the historical & literary records to inform our own, original path in storytelling.

Given Tolkien’s popularity and my audience’s familiarity with his works, one way to begin this new blog series on “Worlds of Medieval Literature” and transition into a broader discussion of how those literary forms might be used by epic fantasists is to retain Tolkien as a frame of reference.  That is, keeping in mind some of the themes that I’ve introduced over the last couple of months, we can see in Tolkien’s works a reflection of historical realities occurring a thousand years ago.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Théoden & Aragorn at Helm's Deep" (Bernard Hill & Viggo Mortensen, in Peter Jackson's 2002 "The Two Towers," New Line Cinema)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Théoden & Aragorn at Helm’s Deep” (Bernard Hill & Viggo Mortensen, in Peter Jackson’s 2002 “The Two Towers,” New Line Cinema)

For example, take the character of Strider in LotR.  Eventually revealed to be Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and heir to the Kingdom of Gondor, Strider is introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring while cloaked and hidden in the Inn of the Prancing Pony, awaiting Frodo at Gandalf’s behest. Not only Frodo, but his friends — Sam, Merry, and Pippin — tumble into Bree in flight from Dark Riders, and from that moment Strider/Aragorn is a fixture in the story until his coronation in The Return of the King (and the reader even enjoys details of his life and death in that book’s Appendices).

When you look at this narrative line from a strictly storytelling perspective, the introduction of Aragorn (and thence Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir at the “Council of Elrond”) has an elegance to it in that the future king is allowed to establish his own relationship with the hobbits before either the titular “fellowship” is formed in Rivendell or his true heritage is revealed.

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

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

However, when you look at the story from a medievalist’s point-of-view, Tolkien’s achievement reveals a mastery (and upending) of medieval literary norms and themes.  He was a student of Beowulf, a work whose storytelling centers around kings and princes, with any “commoners” merely serving as victims in the mead-hall Heorot for Grendel & his dam, or (except for the loyal retainer, the Swedish clansman, Wiglaf) as soldiers and clansmen in the armies of the Geatish and Danish peoples.  Indeed, before The Hobbit was published, one would have expected an Anglo-Saxonist to feel more comfortable in telling a story that evoked the Viking-like leadership qualities venerated in the Old English lamentations and elegies of The Wanderer, or The Seafarer, with any main characters coming from the fledgling nobility (clan leaders) in the 8th to 11th centuries of early Britain or Scandinavia.  Instead, Tolkien’s heroes were…hobbits.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (by The Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (by The Brothers Hildebrandt)

In this approach, Tolkien flipped the early medieval expectation on its head, and departed from 10th century Beowulf mode of storytelling (and even the heroic saga literature of the 13th century), and instead focused on tales of “commoners” (Bilbo, Frodo) who enter titanic worlds of mythology to make stands where they can.  That reality is why its so important to remember that Tolkien may have researched and taught in Anglo-Saxon studies, with an emphasis on Beowulf, but he truly knew the entirety of the medieval literary genres.  The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion resonate so strongly with readers some forty years after Tolkien’s death because he incorporated so much of the centuries-long medieval literary experience and expressed aspects of that learning in a creative, original way.  Yes, in Strider/Aragorn, we get a story of a outcast becoming a king a la Beowulf coming to power, but Aragorn isn’t the central character in LotR.

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

Just as the Norman Conquest of 1066 did away with Anglo-Saxon as a written form — imposing along the way a Norman/French dynasty upon the English language and people — so too can Tolkien’s work be seen as a blending of that pre- and post-Conquest literary traditions.  Here I think of the particular focus that Tolkien admired in the perseverance of English for a couple centuries that eventually reemerged (transformed but still there!) in the vernacular Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  That is, Tolkien’s works retain that Anglo-Saxonite sense of a “lost world” (the end of the Third Age) which we saw in The Wanderer, a lamentation that repeatedly appears in LotR expressed in the elegiac language of the Elves (the sadness of Elrond & Galadriel, the tale of Beren and Luthien, etc) but subsumed into his tales a new, French-based literary form that includes elements of the chansons de geste, troubadour lyric poetry, and the high medieval Romance (viz. , the “quest” of the Fellowship, Arthurian themes of knights & gallantry, the “chanson de geste’s exaltation of — & sorrow at — medieval warfare in the siege at Helm’s Deep and concluding battles of the War of the Ring, the unrequited love between Aragorn & Arwen, etc).

Gimli, Legolas, & Boromir at Balin's Tomb (The FotR, New Line, 2001)

Gimli, Legolas, & Boromir at Balin’s Tomb (The FotR, New Line, 2001)

Where Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales peered into all aspects of late 14th-century English society, Tolkien’s LotR kept the plight of the hobbits center-most in a story whose larger canvas revealed the end of a world and beginning of a new Age.  I know that Tolkien wrote professionally on The Canterbury Tales [see J.R.R. Tolkien, “Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve’s Tale,” in Transactions of the Philological Society, London, 1934, pp. 1–70]but don’t think that he was consciously finding a parallel in the possibilities of having hobbits give us a similar pilgrim’s perspective as they made their way through Middle Earth, but both authors did share a trust in the ability of the “common folk” to discern Truth where the eyes of the nobility or upper classes could not (think of the failure of Boromir).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (art by Alan Lee)

So, as I leave Tolkien for a bit, the point of departure here is reminding readers of the mastery he had over the literature of the 8th through 14th centuries.  I want to assess some of the literary expressions in those centuries as a way to show would-be epic fantasists the possibilities that “returning to form” might offer if they return to some of the same sources with which Tolkien was so familiar. In upcoming weeks, I’ll be looking at varieties of medieval literature that include the following:  the chansons de geste, lyric poetry, sagas and epics, visionary literature, the impact of Christianity, King Arthur, and some other topics that should prove of interest.

If nothing else, the discussions will hopefully serve as food for thought as you seek a way to write originally about the Middle Ages in a world that seems filled with cliches and retreads of Professors Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Next time:  The Chansons de Geste and Warrior Spirit of the Middle Ages!

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