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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!

 

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