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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!

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