An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 7 (Conclusion) — Depictions of Medieval & Modern Violence
An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 7 (Conclusion) — Depictions of Medieval & Modern Violence
Good Morning, Everyone!
For creators and readers who are desperate for new approaches to epic-fantasy, in this series of blogs on the chansons de geste I’ve cast back to the minstrels of a thousand years ago to reveal depictions of violence and warfare that achieve both verisimilitude and entertainment. During times of escalating bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, those depictions too-often become a barrage of images and videos launched via social media networks whose reach truly seems global, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
These themes of violence and warfare can be ignored neither in the reality of our 24/7 news cycle, nor by epic fantasy writers who depend on dramatic conflicts between protagonists and antagonists to tell an adventure tale. Indeed, ever since J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis created the epic fantasy genre back in the 1930s through 1950s — with tweaks and improvements made by Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, et all — violence and warfare have been consistent elements of the epic/high fantasy form.
That is, whereas Tolkien and Lewis respectively created Middle Earth and Narnia as faux-medieval worlds that mirrored northern European medieval lands c. 500-1500 A.D., many of their stories also evoked crises and realities of the Modern Age. Remember, Tolkien himself fought in World War I, and all biographers & studies of the creator of the epic fantasy genre have included this relevant detail in assessing the martial aspects (and intimations of a soldier’s life) that appear in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. On many levels, both works may be seen as cautionary tales against warfare, even though the narratives of both works culminate in massive battles that forever change the political, social, and physical landscapes of different parts of Middle Earth (respectively, the region around Erebor, and the area of Gondor/Mordor).
Also, depending on how much you’ll allow an author’s own life to inform his creation, much of Tolkien’s own experiences in the military can be gleaned from his works. For example, one reading of Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit, might see in the main combatants of the Battle of the Five Armies resonances of the forces that informed Tolkien’s own life; in the case of the original novel, the alliance of Dwarves/Elves/Men/Eagles vs. the Goblins/Wargs could therefore be seen as respective proxies for the Allies vs. Germany in World War I. On the other, hand, ever-present in Tolkien’s works of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are descriptions of the physical and emotional toll taken upon the combatants who step onto the field of battle, and the lifetime of sorrow and grief that some war veterans might experience (e.g., the PTSD-like transformations that occur in Bilbo and Frodo by each story’s end).
Here’s an excerpt from each book to help us see how Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxon medievalist, described aspect of what he’d seen in an early 20th Century that was coming to grips with the realities of modern warfare:
[Begin excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Ch. 17, “The Clouds Burst”]:
…Thorin wielded his axe with mighty strokes, and nothing seemed to harm him.
“To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley.
Down, heedless of order, rushed all the dwarves of Dain to his help. Down too came many of the Lake-men, for Bard could not restrain them; and out upon the other side came many of the spearmen of the elves. Once again the goblins were stricken in the valley; and they were piled in heaps till Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses. The Wargs were scattered and Thorin drove right against the bodyguard of Bolg. But he could not pierce their ranks.
Already behind him among the goblin dead lay many men and many dwarves, and many a fair elf that should have lived yet long ages merrily in the wood. And as the valley widened his onset grew ever slower. His numbers were too few. His flanks were unguarded. Soon the attackers were attacked, and they were forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves returning to the assault. The bodyguard of Bolg came howling against them, and drove in upon their ranks like waves upon cliffs of sand…
On all this Bilbo looked with misery. He had taken his stand on Ravenhill among the Elves — partly because there was more chance of escape from that point, and partly (with the more Tookish part of his mind) because if was going to be in a desperate last stand, he preferred on the whole to defend the Elvenking. Gandalf, too, I may say, was there, sitting on the ground as if in deep thought, preparing, I suppose, some last blast of magic before the end.
That did not seem far off. “It will not be long now,” thought Bilbo, “before the goblins win the Gate, and we are all slaughtered or driven down or captured. Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili and all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard, too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves. Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious, It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.” [End excerpt, Tolkien, The Hobbit]
…and here, from Tolkien’s The Return of the King (1955), a moment during the Siege of Gondor whose horror resonates both modern and medieval uses of terror:
[Begin excerpt] … The Gate [of Minas Tirith] was shut. All night watchmen on the walls heard the rumour of the enemy that roamed outside, burning field and tree, and hewing any man that they found abroad, living or dead. The numbers that had already passed over the River could not be guessed in the darkness, but when morning, or its dim shadow, stole over the plain, it was seen that even fear by night had scarcely over-counted them. The plain was dark with their marching companies, and as far as eyes could strain in the mirk there sprouted, like a foul fungus-growth, all about the beleaguered city great camps of tents, black or sombre red.
Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot of the walls; and as the trenches were made each was filled with fire, though how it was kindled or fed, by art or deviltry, none could see. All day the labour went forward, while the men of Minas Tirith look on, unable to hinder it. And as each length of trench was completed, the could see great wains [wagons] approaching; and soon yet more companies of the enemy were swiftly setting up, each behind the cover of a trench, great engines for the casting of missiles. There were none upon the City walls large enough to reach so far or to stay the work.
At first men laughed and did not greatly fear such devices. For the main wall of the City was of great height and marvelous thickness, built ere the power and craft of Numénor waned in exile; and its outward face was like to the Tower of Orthanc, hard and dark and smooth, unconquerable by steel or fire, unbreakable except by some convulsion that would rend the very earth on which it stood.
“Nay,” they said, “not if the Nameless One himself should come, not even he could enter here while we yet live.” But some answered: “While we yet live? How long? He has a weapon that has brought low many strong places since the world began. Hunger. The roads are cut. Rohan will not come.”
But the engines did not waste shot upon the indomitable wall. It was no brigand or orc-chieftain that ordered the assault upon the Land of Mordor’s greatest foe. A power and mind of malice guided it. As soon as the catapults were set, with many yells and the creaking of rope and winch, they began to throw missiles marvelously high, so that they passed right above the battlement and fell thudding within the first circle of the City; and many of them by some secret art burst into flame as they came toppling down
Soon there was great peril of fire behind the wall, and all who could be spared were busy quelling flames that sprang up in many places. Then among the greater casts there fell another hail, less ruinous but more horrible. All about the streets and lanes behind the Gate it tumbled down, small round shot that did not burn. But when men ran to learn what it might be, they cried aloud or wept. For the enemy was flinging into the City all the heads of those who had fallen fighting at Osgiliath, or on the Rammas, or in the fields. They were grim to look on; for though some were crushed and shapeless, and some had been cruelly hewn, yet many had features that could be told, and it seemed that they had died in pain; and all were branded with the foul token of the Lidless Eye. But marred and dishonoured as they were, it often chanced that thus a man would see again the face of someone that he had known, who had walked proudly once in arms, or tilled the fields, or ridden in upon a holiday from the green vales in the hills.
In vain men shook their fists at the pitiless foes that swarmed before the Gate. Curses they heeded not, nor understood the tongues of western men, crying with harsh voices like beasts and carrion birds. But soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair.
The Nazgûl came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length, even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and crawling, and of death. [End Excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book V, Ch. 4 “The Siege of Gondor,” pp. 95-96]
Were Tolkien’s descriptions of decapitated heads in these passages informed by the First Crusade siege of Antioch in 1096? The Siege of Malta in 1565? Did the trench-digging and siege-devices reflect his own experiences in the Great War of 1914-1918? Or was the despair that radiated from the flying Nazgûl a reflection of 1940 Europe, when much of the Continent had fallen to Nazi Germany and Britain was being bombed in the Blitz? Whether the source was medieval or modern, the effects in this literary passage can’t help but resonate even through to 2014, almost 60 years after the publication of RotK. Tolkien’s description of the various means of waging war, both physically and psychologically, finds an analogue in today’s world on many levels; the most obvious is the resonance between ancient ways of causing fear and modern means of terror ― whether or not it was wooden catapults launching decapitated heads into a walled city or viral YouTube videos of ISIS murdering captives, one could argue that the effect is similar, and perhaps more widespread in a technological age where millions of people can be effected/traumatized by such scenes.
Back to the medieval literature component here and its connection to epic fantasy, especially Bilbo’s line, “Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious, It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”
The “glorious” aspect of war and violence to which Tolkien/Bilbo refers is the medieval literary tradition of the chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”), and in this moment of The Hobbit before the eagles come, the corpses of allies and foes that line the valley in front of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, give the lie to the fantasies sung by minstrels. (Or, in our context, the CGI-informed violence in films and video games, or celebratory mayhem in some slash-and-gore approaches to fantasy literature.)
As I close this series on the “chansons de geste,” let’s take look at one of the most violent scenes in this literary genre from 900 years ago, both (1) to show the kind of explicitly medieval sources that informed Tolkien’s work (again, he was an Anglo-Saxonist, well-versed in the literature of 900-1200), and also (2) to reveal a kind of warrior ethos appropriate to the warrior culture of the Middle Ages. For those readers and writers interested in the background to any decent epic fantasy work, these backgrounds will help you appreciate well-written examples of the genre (as well as be able to cry “foul!” for authors who don’t do their homework and try to impose 21st Century sensibilities into a medieval mindset).
Back around the years 1000-1200 A.D., in a generally pre-literate and definitely pre-Facebook Age, Tolkien knew that the main means of describing acts of war and violence were via these “songs of deeds,” extended epic poems that were performed by minstrels in the growing noble houses and courts of western Europe (remember Thorin’s cries of “To me! To me” when you read the excerpt and dialogues below.) And, yes, before I receive some emails about there being other means of medieval communication, I know that there were monks in cells or scriptoria throughout Europe, dutifully using quills to etch ink onto parchment and disseminate ideas via an elite, educated culture (however, there weren’t really any means of mass-media production of information until Johannes Gutenburg’s printing press c. 1450)!
In this chanson, a French lord, Raoul of Cambrai, goes crazy after the emperor’s disenfranchised him from the lands he inherited….
[Begin excerpt from “Raoul of Cambrai”:
The Fourth Geste: Death
Chant 1: Raoul’s Recklessness
Raoul spurred forth his worthy horse again;
Upon his shield he struck young Bertolai,
A cousin of Bernier, well-born and -bred,
Who held a fort down in the vale of Metz;
He’d struck to ground a mound of Cambrai men
And, striking him, Raoul filled with content;
He smote his shield, which like a mantle rent,
And ripped aside his hauberk at the neck;
From front to back he thrust his pennon, then
Upon the valley’s slope he flung him dead:
‘Cambrai!’ he cried, ‘Young vassals, forge ahead!
By God Who saved brave Daniel from the den,
I’ll not be caught in any trap they’ve set!’
The ground was soft beneath the falling rain;
The mud and slime was thick with blood that day,
And only I know who survived the fray,
Who won, who lost, the slayers and the slain;
Their weary steeds were worn out with the strain —
Their fleetest ones went now at a walking pace;
The losses of Count Herbert’s sons were great.
The rain came down and turned the ground to mud,
And all the steeds, both grey and bay, were stuck;
Ernaut, the count of all Douai, rode up
And saw Raoul of Cambrai in the crush;
I know full well Ernaut and reproved him thus:
‘By God, you’re one I’ll never love or trust,
Until you yield your sword or life to us!
You’ve slain my nephew Bertolai for one;
And Richerin, whom I most dearly loved,
I’ll see no more, and countless other ones.’
Raoul replied: ‘Their deaths are not enough!
I’ll slay you too, if but the chance should come.’
Ernaut replied: ‘My blade shall drink your blood!
I challenge you, by good Saint Nicholas;
The right is ours, so help me God above.’
‘Are you in truth the Cambrai Count, you blackguard?
I’ve not seen you since you began my sadness:
I have two sons, by holy, happy marriage,
And sent them both to Louis’s royal palace;
From Vermandois I saw them leave Paris;
You killed them both in foul and faithless fashion;
You struck no blow but stood and watched them stagger;
I hate you now because you let that happen —
But my good sword will see revenge exacted!
Your head will fall, or so will all my valor!’
Raoul replied: ‘You pledge yourself too rashly!
If I can’t make you eat your words, you braggart,
In Cambrai shire I’ll cast no more my shadow!’
With taunt and vaunt both nobles showed no measure;
They spurred their steeds and swiftly came together,
The bolder heart afraid of mortal peril;
Great blows they swapped on shields from Piacenza,
And though their coats proved able to deflect them,
Both knights at once were thrown upon the meadow;
They leapt aloft, so very great their strength was,
And struck again with blows of sharpest metal —
The bolder heart still beating hard with terror.
Both Counts had lost their stirrups and their steeds,
Raoul, who was a wondrous knight indeed,
Both strong and bold with any arm to wield,
Was first to draw his sword-blade from its sheath,
And struck Ernaut’s gold helm a blow so fierce
That all its stones and floral-gold flew free;
Without the coif upon his coat beneath,
It would have split his skull from top to teeth;
The blow slid off towards the left and sheared
One quarter of Ernaut’s well-crafted shield;
His hauberk lost two hundred links at least,
And he was stunned and fell upon the field;
His spirits sank to feel his strength grow weak,
And, crying out to God upon his knees,
He said: ‘Sweet Lord, support me in my need!’
I shall rebuild Your church at Origny!
Raoul, in truth, your ardor has no peer;
But with God’s help I’ll make you suffer dear
For killing those whose deaths so saddened me!’
How fine a knight Ernaut of Douai was:
Both strong and bold with any arm to clutch!
His heart aglow with courage, he stood up
And, like a lord, a mighty blow he struck
Upon Raoul’s embellished helmet’s front;
The fleurs-de-lys upon its crest were cut;
Had not the coif beneath it borne the brunt,
From top to teeth he would have split his skull;
Raoul was stunned and felt his strength grow numb;
Then, crying out, he said: ‘By God above,
Whoever wins, you’ve struck me well enough!
You want revenge, you say, for those you loved;
I say this not to justify what’s done,
But, by the Lord, Who died for all of us —
For good or ill, I never knew your sons.’
Raoul was struck so hard by Ernaut’s lunge
That all his cheek and mouth ran red with blood;
In Paris, where he’d gone when he was young,
He’d taught the skills of sword-play’s cut and thrust:
Against Ernaut he used them all at once.
How brave a knight was he, how great his strength!
He raised his arm and swung his sword’s sharp edge
To strike Ernaut upon his pointed helm;
The precious stones and floral-emblems fell;
The blade of steel slid over to the left,
But with great skill he forced it to deflect
And slice Ernaut’s left wrist in its descent;
The hand fell down and took the shield it held,
The strap of it still in its clasp well clenched.
Ernaut could see his chance was at an end:
Upon the ground his shield had come to rest,
And from his arm the blood ran out unchecked;
In great despair he mounted horse and fled
Beside the wood which stood there green and dense;
To blame Ernaut would make or show no sense;
In hot pursuit Raoul harassed him yet…
[End Excerpt from Michael Newth, trans.,
“Raoul of Cambrai,”
in Richard Barber, ed., Epics of the Middle Ages;
London, Folio Society,
2005; pp. 260-263]
Depictions of warriors such as Raoul of Cambrai, Roland, William of Orange, et al were western society’s first foray into the celebration of what we now call the “action hero.” When creating a faux-medieval world that touches upon the kinds of military conflicts that have informed human existence since the beginning, I hope that the examination of these chansons shows that an epic fantasist can depict violence and action in a realistic way, while still tending to the needs of the story. How? Again, by going to the same kinds of source material with which Tolkien and Lewis were familiar; by learning from the way the minstrels sang about violence and a warrior’s deeds and life; by understanding that whether battle occurred in the 8th & 9th century fields of Charlemagne’s France, or the 21st century deserts of Iraq and Syria, fighting and dying remain a grim reality with which all of us have to constantly contend.
When thinking about the medieval experience and trying to evoke aspects of that life via epic fantasy, the chansons are among the resources that we can use when trying to convey a truly “medieval” art form. While these songs were ways for courtly audiences to vicariously experience a warrior’s life from the safety of a castle’s dining hall, writers should also follow Tolkien’s lead in recalling that — as with Bilbo’s expectations concerning the “glory of war” — there was ever-present a tragic element in the chansons that made audience members relieved that the violence remained in the realm of story-telling.
I’ll end on that cautionary aspect of audience and complicity with violence because, along with the minstrels and courts of medieval times, there is ever a danger in depicting violence and war in such a way that, to echo Marshal McLuhan, “the medium becomes the message.”
For example, getting back to the horror that Tolkien evoked in the Siege of Gondor, and also relating that medievalist writings to our (re)current involvement in Syria with the ISIS terrorists, when discussing the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff a couple of weeks ago, columnist David Brooks observed:
[Begin Brooks excerpt, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05]
“…the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and ISIS means to show violence unbounded; ISIS will get in our heads in the darkest way… a beheading reminds us of something disturbing in ourselves. We want to watch and we don’t want to watch. Because of some warp in human nature, millions of people will go online to watch a beheading video though they might not even read about a simple shooting.
But the revulsion aroused by a beheading is a moral revulsion…It is not just an injury or crime. It is an indignity. A beheading is more like rape, castration, or cannibalism. It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.
But what is this sacred thing that is being violated?
Well the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.
We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don’t just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It’s spiritualized matter… [End David Brooks excerpt.]
As epic-fantasy novelists, a burden is not to “report the facts” or even comment upon them; plenty of avenues for those tasks in our 24/7 news cycles. However, when aspiring to write literary epic fantasy, I think that there is an obligation to confront, work through, and evoke some of the humanistic questions and issues that Brooks addresses in his article, especially in the depictions of violence and warfare that seem part-and-parcel of the epic-fantasy/sword-and-sorcery/#callitwhatyouwillitsFANTASY genre. Even a millennium in the past, the minstrels’ veneration of warfare and descriptions of warriors’ lives was nothing new; my daughter’s currently reading The Iliad and The Odyssey for her freshman Greek Literature in Translation class, and in those epic poems, Homer’s heroes of the Trojan War (c. 2,800 B.C.) do little else save discuss battles, confront monsters, and praise the attributes of fighting warriors!
For those outside of a theater of war, to get a sense of the battlefield our 21st century “sensibilities” about violence rely either on the accuracy of news reports, or on the entertainment industry. Depending on the bravery of a reporter or cameraperson, or on the vivacity of a film-maker’s imagination (and CGI budget), or immersion in a video game world, we can often view (and pretend to participate in) such violence from more than a bird’s eye perspective. Of course, we’re also safely removed from the action, thanks to the television, computer monitor, or gaming screens that convey violent images and the aftermath of war with an immediacy that ignores the thousands of miles distance from the conflict.
That combination of immediacy & remoteness also lay at the heart of the minstrel’s chanson a thousand years ago, with noble audiences vicariously partaking of war-torn and violent realities via poetic songs.
For us, as we cast about in a still very strife-filled world & try to make sense of (or escape) it via epic fantasy tales, we’d do well to tell the tales that our creative impulses need to express, but not to the extent that war and violence are glorified. Remember the tragedies that informed Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth; two of his close friends were among the 400,000 British soldiers killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and even later Tolkien remarked that his account of the “Dead Marshes” in LotR “…owe something to northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” [Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle-Earth, p. 12.]
Nancy Marie Ott contributed an article to the onering.net where she made a more explicit connection to this moment in The Two Towers:
[Begin excerpt, Ott:
The landscape of the Dead Marshes is also inspired by the Western Front. As Frodo, Sam, and their guide Gollum cross the Marshes, they see the ghostly, rotting forms of the dead soldiers of a war that had swept across the region thousands of years before. As Frodo tells Sam and Gollum,
“They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, with weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.”
— “The Passage of the Marshes”, The Two Towers
The dead lying in pools of mud is a powerful image of trench warfare on the Western Front, and is something that Tolkien would have undoubtably seen during his wartime service. As the autumn rains fell, the battlefield of the Somme turned into a stinking mire seeded with the rotting corpses of men and animals. The dead men that Frodo and Sam see are not physically present – only their ghostly shapes have been preserved –but their forms inspire horror and pity.
The landscape of Ithilien is in some ways like the landscape of rural France in the area behind the front lines. Although there is evidence of the nearby conflic – a few damaged buildings, some shell craters, and the general debris of war – the landscape is otherwise natural and unspoiled. It has not fallen fully under the dominion of war. So too is Ithilien, the deserted province of Gondor that had recently fallen under the dominion of Sauron…[End excerpt, Nancy Marie Ott: “JRR Tolkien and World War I” @ http://greenbooks.theonering.net/]
Later, when writing to his son, Christopher, who was serving with the RAF in South Africa during WWII, Tolkien offered this advice, which says much about how a modern “minstrel” of our age developed his own chansons:
[Begin excerpt, Letter of J.R.R. Tolkien]: “I think if you could begin to write…you would find it a great relief. I sense amongst your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way; to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes. Lots of the early parts of which….were done in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” [End excerpt, Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth, p. 13.]
As the drumbeats to war sound in many quarters these days, I’m not sure how much epic fantasy can contribute to the international debates raging among citizenry and policy-makers.
What fantasists can do, however, is strive to evoke something of human relevance in a story, and when violence appears, not to glorify it, but make it instead serve a narrative that ultimately celebrates life.
Next time: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3): The Romances of the Middle Ages
For the full text of David Brooks’s column, “The Body and the Spirit,” please see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05