Ravens on My Mind

It’s a gorgeous summer day in Colorado, so I’ve been trying to spend more time outside rather than work in my office. Today is no exception, and I’ve brought one of my cats outside to enjoy the fresh air with me.

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This is Genghis Khat. He’s huge, but he’s a big sweetie. He’s been begging me all summer to let him come out while I work, so I finally broke down and got him a harness.

Meanwhile, my other cats are glaring at me from inside the house.

But as I sat at my patio grading with Genghis lounging in the grass, a sudden and loud cawing caught our attention. A large black bird had settled in the lower branches of one of our pine trees and was quite displeased to find a cat in the backyard. I’ve worked out back several times this summer, and this is the first time that I’ve seen a black bird of that size. It sat in the tree for a minute or so, insistently berating us. I’ve seen enough amateur videos of birds dive-bombing cats, so I was ready to fly to Genghis’s defense if needed (the bird was about his size), but there was no need. The bird switched to a neighboring pine, glanced at us once more, and then launched itself to the neighbor’s roof. The last sight I had of it was as it was being chased out of the neighborhood by a group of smaller birds.

The question that came to mind, though, was whether we had seen a raven or a crow. I knew it was too big to be a grackle (and later, a grackle settled on the fence, its incandescently midnight blue body a slender fraction of the size of the earlier blackbird). Years ago, I saw the famous ravens at Tower Hill in London, and for some reason, I thought ravens were not indigenous to this area–at least, that one wouldn’t encounter one within city limits. Turns out that (far from the first time) I’m wrong. There are a few types of ravens quite common throughout the US, and while they prefer non-urban areas, they are quite adaptive. So what did I see?

This bird was quite large–larger than most of the black birds I’ve seen on my walks in the neighborhood–and had a fairly deep croak. I had always thought the main difference between crows and ravens was one of size, but apparently not. Crows can get up to approximately 20″ in length with a wingspan of 36″. The common raven *is* slightly larger–often 27″ in length with a wingspan of 46″ (source), but when you consider that a robin is typically no more than 11″ in length with a wingspan of about 15″ (source), both crows and ravens are going to appear to the untrained eye (such as mine) as rather large birds, especially if they aren’t accommodating enough to sit side-by-side with their counterpart.

Apparently, the shape of the bird’s tail while in flight can also determine the type, but I didn’t have the right angle to be able to determine if it was a crow (fan) or a raven (wedge) (source). Perhaps the best indicator, then, is the sound. A crow typically caws whereas a raven croaks. So I think the bird that came to visit us, alas, was just a crow.

Odin with Hugin and Munin. 18th century Icelandic manuscript "SÁM 66", Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

Odin with Hugin and Munin. 18th century Icelandic manuscript “SÁM 66”, Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

It would have been much cooler if it had been a raven, but neither Huginn nor Muninn was out collecting intel on my activities to report back to Odin. Not that they would have anything interesting to report.

I vaguely recall writing a short analytical essay on Ben Jonson’s early seventeenth-century play Volpone for a graduate class on literary comedies, looking at the animal imagery of the characters’ names–Volpone as the fox, Corbaccio the raven, and Corvino the crow, just to name a few. I doubt I had anything original (or particularly interesting) to say in that essay, but my encounter with the crow this afternoon is encouraging me to think about just how widespread ravens are in English culture. A brief glance at the etymology of the word itself shows in particular just how pervasive and significant this word was in Germanic cultures:

Etymology of "raven, n.1 and adj." from the Oxford English Dictionary

Etymology of “raven, n.1 and adj.” from the Oxford English Dictionary

There’s the legend that King Arthur has been resurrected as a raven–hence some prohibitions about killing ravens in England (you can read more about this here), and in the Middle Welsh story The Dream of Rhonabwy, Owain mab Urien (perhaps more commonly known in his French manifestation as Ywain) is accompanied by a large flock of ravens that wreck havoc upon some of Arthur’s men (you can read Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Guest’s translation here).

In fact, ravens appear throughout medieval literature–particularly those martial and/or mythological in nature–which is not surprising given that they are scavengers; along with the wolf and the eagle, ravens appear in the trope described by F.P. Magoun as the “beasts of battle” in both Old English and Old Norse literature. Geoffrey Chaucer echoes Ovid’s story of how the raven received its dark plumage in The Manciple’s Tale. Ravens can also be masculine or feminine–for example, in the Irish epics, the Irish battle goddess the Morrígan often takes the form of a crow or raven when encountering the hero Cúchulainn.

"The Dying Cuchulain" by Oliver Sheppard (1911), now at the GPO, Dublin.

“The Dying Cuchulain” by Oliver Sheppard (1911), now at the GPO, Dublin. Notice the crow perched on the hero’s shoulder.

And the number of heraldic devices containing ravens–yikes–probably way too many to count! The image of the raven appears in the Middle English romance Richard Coer de Lyon, for example, and even further back in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as the banners of the Northmen.

And of course, ravens now play significant roles in modern fantasy, thanks to J. R. R. Tolkien’s use in The Hobbit. I love that George R. R. Martin chose ravens to be messengers in his Song of Fire and Ice series as opposed to pigeons or other birds. Ravens are, after all, some of the most intelligent birds–there’s a reason why Odin chooses them to be his eyes and ears. Just check out all of the details on Wikipedia about their capacity to communicate and learn! And the History Channel’s show The Vikings has done a great job working ravens into their storyline in subtle ways.

And the range of possible literary interpretations! Isidore of Seville and Bartholomeus Anglicus both discuss ravens, and most bestiaries echo their ideas. The Aberdeen Bestiary, for example, offers that ravens can be omens of sin or bringers of salvation:

Iterum per corvum quilibet peccator intelli\gitur, qui quasi peccatorum plumis nigrescentibus vestitur. [Again, the raven can be taken to mean a sinner, since it is clad, so to speak, with the dark plumage of sin.]

. . . .

Sed in bona significatione corvus accipitur, ut per corvum quilibet\ doctus predicator intelligatur. Unde per beatum Job dicitur: Quis preparat\ corvo escam suam, quando pulli eius ad dominum clamant, vagantes eo quod\ non habeat cibos? Corvus sicut ait beatus Gregorius, est quisque predi\cator doctus, qui magna voce clamat, dum peccatorum suorum\ memoriam quasi quandam coloris nigredinem portat. [But the raven can also be interpreted in a good sense, as a learned preacher. On this subject, it says in the book of the blessed Job: ‘Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat’ (38:41). The raven, as the blessed Gregory says, is the learned teacher who cries out in a loud voice, carrying the memory of his sins like blackness around him.] (source)

Ravens refuse to feed their young until their feather grow and become black, and the parents can recognize them as their own. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 79r.

Ravens refuse to feed their young until their feather grow and become black, and the parents can recognize them as their own. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 79r.

Just as it can be difficult to distinguish a raven from a crow, so too might it be difficult to understand the significance of a raven within a literary work. Messenger from the gods? Harbinger of death? (And I haven’t even mentioned the biblical ravens or Native American ravens!) Mirrors of humanity? They are intelligent creatures who have learned to adapt to a wide variety of ecosystems. While they lack the ability to manipulate their surroundings (which distinguishes them from humanity), what can we learn from them, including what we might learn about ourselves?

And now a squirrel attempts to look nonchalant as it perches warily on the fence, watching Genghis as he sunbathes. It appears I’m being quite the disruptive force in the neighborhood today.

Vikings and Bears

[Beware–this post contains a few spoilers for Season 4 of Vikings.]

I’ve been thinking a lot about bears recently. Part of this is due to the theatrical release of the live-action Jungle Book (“Look for the bare necessities”) as well as an ongoing project on Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants (2008) in which Thor is transformed into a bear. I’ve heard that there’s a bear in the 2015 film The Revenant, but to be honest, I have no desire to see it. Since I’ve moved to Colorado, I’ve seen at least seven bears, including a mother bear and her two cubs near the aptly named Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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But most recently, an episode of the History Channel’s The Vikings has brought human/bear relationships to my attention once again.

What I’ve seen of Season 4 (I’m a little behind) has been great so far. I’ve enjoyed watching Floki’s storyline evoke that of his alleged ancestor Loki in significant ways, and the show has touched on the art of illuminated manuscripts. Poor Rollo is trying his best to please his French wife. Travis Fimmel as Ragnar continues to be mesmerizing. I’ve been particularly interested in the storyline of Björn Ironside, Ragnar’s eldest son, who has decided to spend the harsh winter in the wilderness in an attempt to prove himself to his father.

In the third episode of Season 4, Björn discovers that something has been destroying the traps that he has set. The culprit? A bear. When Michael Hirst, the show’s creator, asked  others in the studio, “I need a test for Bjorn. I want to send him into the wilderness. What kind of trials could he possibly have in the Scandinavian wilderness?” (Variety), I’m not surprised that an encounter with a bear was the answer, but I must admit my disappointment at how they realized this encounter, especially in light of the role of bears in Norse literature and mythology.

Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) will face off against a bear in Season 4, episode 3 of "Vikings." Photo: History Channel

Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) will face off against a bear in Season 4, episode 3 of “Vikings.” Photo: History Channel

When Björn first realizes a bear has been stealing from his traps, he tracks it to its lair only to find it is waiting for him on a snowy plain. The bear does not charge, however; rather, it stands and growls menacingly–but then it turns and then moves away in the opposite direction.

My first thought on seeing this scene was to expect Björn to follow the animal. After all, his name translates to “bear” in Old Norse. Perhaps the bear was his spirit animal. In addition, the enemies of Ragnar, learning of Björn’s isolation, have hired a berserker to track him down and kill him. I was hoping for a nice commentary on the human/animal binary, especially given that berserker is Old Norse for “bear shirt”–literally, one who acquires the strength of a bear by donning a bear skin.

Later in the episode, Björn discovers a flask of alcohol and spends the evening drunkenly howling at the Northern lights. The next morning, it is not the bitter cold that awakens him, but rather the bear. Once again, the bear turns and walks away from Björn without charging. Björn does not follow.

But when Björn next encounters the bear, he does so fully armed and the two engage in battle.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 6.12.25 PM.pngFollowing the death of the bear, Björn skins the bear and treats the wound he received from the beast. Later we see Björn emerging from the ice in a scene reminiscent of baptism.

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On one hand, the death of the bear will provide warmth (the bear skin), food, and much-needed confidence to Björn, but on the other hand, this episode, for me at least, marked how different Björn is from his father. Ragnar is very in tune with the spiritual–in fact, this same episode shows Ragnar communing with a lost friend–and when Björn kills the bear, the camera cuts to Ragnar, who hears Björn’s cry of victory as a raven–one of Odin’s totemic animals–flies overhead (and there have been several other moments in the series, from the very first episode even, where Ragnar is connected to Odin through a raven). 

In fact, just before Björn encounters the bear for the final time, Ragnar has been telling the story of Hárbarðsljóð to his younger sons. In this flyting poem (a translation is available here and the poem in Old Norse here), Odin disguises himself as the ferryman Harbard who subsequently refuses passage to Thor. Ragnar tells the story in part to shame his wife Aslaug (she had an affair with a man named Harbard in the previous season), but given the larger frame of the Björn/bear encounter, I can’t help but wonder if the Thor/Odin dynamic is a commentary on the Björn/Ragnar relationship as well.

While bears do not often show up in the Middle English romances with which I typically work, they do appear in the Old English and Norse material. The titular hero of Beowulf, for example, has linguistic connections to bears through his name (“Bee + Wolf”). Grettir, in Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, spends most of his time fighting other outlaws and the occasional troll, but a few bears show up as well. But then there’s the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.

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Even before Bodvar Bjarki appears, the motif of the Bear’s Son appears when Queen Hvit, after unsuccessfully propositioning the king’s son–aptly named Bjorn, curses Bjorn to live out the days of his life as a bear:

She then struck him with her wolfskin gloves, telling him to become a cave bear, grim and savage: ‘You will eat no food other than your own father’s livestock, and, in feeding yourself, you will kill more than has ever been observed before. You will never be released from the spell, and your awareness of this disgrace will be more dreadful to you than no remembrance at all.’ (Chapter 19 from Jesse Byock’s translation)

Bera, his beloved, follows after him and they live together for some time–even having children together (one of whom is Bodvar Bjarki, whose name means “Warlike Little-Bear”). Like Merida in Disney/Pixar’s Brave, Bera recognizes the humanity in Bjorn’s eyes. When Bodvar grows up, he seeks the court of Hrólfr Kraki and garners much glory. His connection to bears is more subtle than that of his father, as revealed in a battle scene:

Then Hjorvard and his men see a huge bear going before the King Hrolf’s men, always nearest to where the king was. He kills more men with his paw than any five of the king’s other champions. Blows and missiles glance off him. But he bursts under him both men and horses of King Hjorvard’s army; and everything that comes in his way, he crushes in his teeth, so that panic sweeps King Hjorvard’s army. (Chapter 50 from Peter Tunstall’s translation)

Bodvar’s companion, Hjalti, wonders where Bodvar is and leaves the battle to look for him. Upon finding Bodvar sitting motionless in a trance in the king’s hall, Hjalti rebukes him–but alas, the spell has been broken. Bodvar was present at the battle–he had sent his spirit into the fierce bear–but now the tide will turn and Bodvar, the king, and their noble companions will fall.

The fourth episode of Vikings (the most recent episode that I’ve seen) did nothing further with Björn‘s relationship to the bear. He defeats the berserker sent to kill him and returns to his father’s home (although now with a female companion), but I’ve not seen any evidence of change in him. Perhaps time will tell.

Oh, Deer! Reflections on Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse

This summer, I’ll be presenting a paper at the 23rd International Medieval Congress in the UK on the hunting scenes in A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. I won’t go into much detail in terms of my specific argument, but in preparation, I’ve been researching medieval deer and deer parks quite a lot recently. Part of my interest stems from visits to deer parks. Most recently, I visited the medieval deer park at Fountains Abbey where I was fortunate enough to come across a group of fallow and red deer (about ten total) resting in the shade of a large tree.

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Fallow and red deer at Fountains Abbey, UK

The park attendant had warned me that I was very unlikely to see any deer as it was midsummer and midday, but I was determined, and so I left the main trail and wandered deeper into the meadow. There was the occasional sun-bleached branch laying tauntingly in the grass, causing my hopes to soar; might those be antlers? Time and again, they were just branches.

When I first saw the group in the picture above, I doubted I would be so lucky; where best to find fallen branches, after all, than beneath an ancient tree? But as I walked closer, the heads came into view. I stood there for several minutes, aching to get closer but not wanting to spook the creatures, berating myself for not getting a decent camera (the picture above was taken with my camera phone). The deer were clearly aware of my presence; there was a light breeze that no doubt brought my scent to them, and they watched me warily.

Eventually, they tired of my intrusion and rose to their feet. There was no urgency to their movements, but they walked purposefully away from me and out of sight.

"Hunting and Taking the Hart" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 68)

“Hunting and Taking the Hart” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 68)

My experience that day was quite different from what I typically encounter in medieval literature. In the midst of the medieval hunt, the deer’s movements are rapid and frantic. Often manuscript illustrations, such as the image above, depict the deer in flight with hunters in close pursuit. As the anonymous fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveals, the medieval hunt was often a noisy affair:

At þe fyrst quethe of þe quest quaked þe wylde;
Der drof in þe dale, doted for drede,
Hiȝed to þe hyȝe, bot heterly þay were
Restayed with þe stablye, þat stoutly ascryed. (Fitt 3, Stanza 47)

This is reinforced in the image above by the hunters blowing upon their horns and the hounds baying in excitement. Many scholars have explored this type of hunt in great detail; see, for example, Susan Crane’s brilliant book Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. And of course, there were plenty of poachers who relied upon stealth, so I don’t mean to imply that all hunts were vociferous affairs. But I’m interested in the general atmosphere of the deer park–not just the moments in which the hunts take place.

The 1407 edition of Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse (the entire manuscript is available online here) contains several images of deer, and not all of them capture the hunt. Consider this image, which appears early in the text:

"The Hart" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 7)

“The Hart” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 7)

The deer in this image are clearly at rest; a hind and her young lay comfortably on the grass while others graze nearby. This is a moment in which their defenses have been lowered. Those who bow their heads to the ground are for the moment unable to catch the scent of any intruder while those who reach to nibble foliage are physically less able to respond to any threat. True, there are others on guard in this image, but I love that the illustrator has captured so many poses in one small image. Here’s another similar depiction:

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“The Roe” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 14)

The roe deer was slightly smaller than the hart, but still, we see these deer engaged in similar occupations, with the addition of two males at the top engaged in combat (I can’t tell if they are play-fighting or if they are in earnest).

One thing that I appreciate about Gaston Phoebus’s manuscript is that it shows us a different side to humanity’s relationship with deer than that so frequently depicted in medieval romance (including, but certainly not limited to Malory’s Le Morte Arthur, Awntyrs off Arthure, The Avowyng of Arthur, and of course the Tristan romances!). Consider this next image:

"Listening for the Hart's Bell" from Gaston Phoebus's Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 56v)

“Listening for the Hart’s Bell” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 56v)

The presence of a human does not always necessitate fear and flight among herds of deer. Yes, the man appears to be hiding behind a tree, but there is no doubt that the deer are aware of his presence. While the man is surveying the herd to determine which specific deer he will encourage his lord to pursue, the deer do not view him as an immediate threat. Here’s the description of the image from the Morgan Library & Museum website:

During the month of September when the male hart was in rut, its belling, or roaring, would permit a trained hunter to locate and judge it by ear alone. In the upper left of the miniature are two great old harts belling, extending their necks, and showing their teeth in order to attract the females opposite them.

Here in Colorado, I’ve lost count of the number of encounters I’ve had with deer. When I first moved here, I spent an afternoon hiking up the aptly named Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not surprisingly, along the trail was a small group of mule deer–perhaps six or seven–casually grazing.We like to get up to the park early in the morning, have breakfast, and then hit the trails, and one morning, a young doe strolled by us as we munched away on sausage, biscuits, and eggs.

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And it’s not a proper visit to the park if we’ve not seen at least one elk. Going up to the mountains is particularly fun in the fall when the rutting season takes place. Hearing the elk bugle is quite an experience, and we’ve had to wait patiently as large herds of elk crossed the road. One male with an impressive rack, stood firm in the middle of the road, glaring at us in our cars while the rest of the herd made its way across.

We were even fortunate enough to see two moose a few summers ago as they waded across the shallow Sprague Lake. Having reached a particularly fertile spot in the water, they stood patiently, munching away on vegetation as people gathered on the shores to snap pictures.

Moose August 2011

Each of these encounters shows how accustomed deer and their relatives can become when they are exposed to humans repeatedly and, perhaps more importantly, are exposed in an environment in which they are not preyed upon by humans. This is often the case, I am learning, in many of the medieval deer parks.

One of the texts that I’ve been reading is John Fletcher’s 2011 Gardens of Earthly Delight: The History of Deer Parks. Fletcher is the “UK’s most pre-eminent deer vet” (you can read more about him here), and his book is incredibly well-researched and compelling.

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I’m only a few chapters in so far, but it’s been fascinating (and can I nerd out for a moment and comment on the rich irony of his last name?!?). For so long, humanity’s relationship with deer has centered on control. Stone-age evidence reveals artificial structures designed to help drive and capture deer, as well as the transportation of deer across waterways in order to establish deer populations in a wider variety of places–both are practices still continued today. Antlers helped in the evolution of humanity as well–I had not been aware of how important they were, both in shaping the flint tools that enabled humans to bring down larger prey and in enabling early humans to break open bones to reach the nutrient-rich marrow that propelled the development of our brains.

Fletcher also discusses the domestication of deer and how they can be trained to come to humans even for just a handful of grain. It is surprising, he notes, that deer have not been domesticated as cows and pigs have been, but Fletcher’s hypothesis is that this is due in part to the ritualistic significance of the deer hunt and the strategy and skill often needed in pursuit of the deer. Indeed, as Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, in his fifteenth-century hunting treatise The Master of Game, writes, “The hertes bene the liȝtest beestes and stronge and mervelously of grete connyng” (15). The deer is often described as a noble creature (and bestiaries often imbue deer with religious significance–see, for example, the Aberdeen Bestiary’s description of deer here). In Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, deer are not the only creatures featured–illustrations of hares, bears, wild goats, badgers and wild boars appear, among others–but only the deer require subterfuge.

The illustrations of the other hunted animals show no physical separation between the hunter and the hunted; for example, here’s the illustration of the hare hunt:

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“Shooting Hares with Bows” from Gaston Phoebus’s Livre de la chasse, ca. 1407; MS M. 1044 (fol. 107)

In the medieval deer park, then, an artificial structure, the hunt becomes particularly complicated due to the context of human-deer relations. Depending on the frequency of the king’s attendance, deer may become very lax in an environment where they have few predators (beyond the occasional poacher). They may become accustomed to caretakers who hover on the periphery, maintaining a watchful eye on their “livestock,” if you will, noting the ages of the males, the richness of their droppings, et cetera. Perhaps it is in these precise settings that the noise of the medieval hunt–the baying of the hounds, the sounding of the horns, the jostling of the horses–becomes particularly necessary in order to jostle the deer out of their complacency and to add challenge to the hunt. Those deer parks where the deer are less accustomed to human presence–or perhaps are hunted more frequently–may be the sites where the elaborate blinds are needed.

Of course, there are other considerations–the number of deer being hunted, the social class(es) of the hunters, the size of the hunting party, the purpose of the hunt, the skills and/or preferences of the hunters, etc.–but to what extent is the medieval hunt impacted by the centuries of human-deer interactions?

As always, thanks for reading.

St Giles and his companion deer. Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial, traduction française par Jean de Vignay. vol. VI. Livres XXI-XXIV; Fol. 157v. 1370-1380.

St Giles and his companion deer. Vincent de Beauvais, Miroir Historial, traduction française par Jean de Vignay. vol. VI. Livres XXI-XXIV; Fol. 157v. 1370-1380.

Horses Ex Machina

A few weeks ago, I walked into my Arthurian Legends class prepared to talk about Arthur’s interactions with petitioners at court–male and female. My students had just read Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth” (in Le Morte Darthur) which offers plenty of material to analyze on this topic. My students, however, wanted to talk about two other things: dwarfs and horses.

For those unfamiliar with Malory’s story, let me give a brief summary: a “Fair Unknown” comes to Arthur’s court, takes on a dangerous quest (after spending a year working in the kitchens and being mocked by Sir Kay), and proves himself by his deeds rather than his name (he is later revealed to be the youngest brother of Sir Gawain). Along the way, he is accompanied by a dwarf who serves as his squire. At one point, the dwarf is kidnapped by those seeking to learn of Gareth’s true identity.

The discussion that followed in our classroom was great–lots of thoughtful commentary on human/animal relationships, object/possessor relationships, and of course, plenty of references to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (Tyrion Lannister was a favorite point of reference). Several students were quite dismayed at the high fatality rates for horses in Morte Darthur, and the seemingly-endless supply thereof; one student quipped, quite aptly, I think, “Horses ex machina!

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Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 46r

I’ve been exploring for quite some time now human/non-human relationships in medieval literature, thanks in part to Karl Steel’s How to Make a Human (2011), Joyce Salisbury’s The Beast Within (1994/2010), and most recently, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters (2012). These works, among others, have helped me greatly in thinking about relationships in the medieval Robin Hood ballads as well as within Malory’s “Tale of Sir Gareth.”

Within the context of my Arthurian Legends course, though, students were concerned about how  a questing knight would often ride a horse to death and casually leap onto another. Arthur does this early in his reign while hunting:

As soone as he was in the forest / the kynge sawe a grete hert afore hym / this herte wille I chace said kynge Arthur / And so he spored the hors / and rode after longe / And so by fyne force ofte he was lyke to haue smyten the herte / where as the kynge had chaced the herte soo long that his hors had loste hys brethe and fylle doune dede / Thenne a yoman fette the kynge another hors / So the kyng sawe the herte enbusshed and his hors dede / he sette hym doune by a fontayne and there he fell in grete thoughtes . . . (Book 1, Capitulum xix–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Horses are also frequently killed (or severely maimed) during battles, tournaments, and single combat. In that day’s assigned reading, for example, Sir Launcelot encounters Sir Tarquine:

And thēne they put theyr speres in the restys / & cam to gyders with her horses as fast as they myght renne / And eyther smote other in myddes of theyre sheldes that bothe theyre horse backes braste vnder them . . . (Book 6, Capitulum viij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

I didn’t have the heart at that point to tell them about what will happen to Sir Launcelot’s poor horse during the later Mellyagraunce episode (think porcupine, but with arrows).

Several students were frustrated with the knights’ attitudes towards horses–that the knights seemed to see their mounts as objects rather than companions that existed merely for their own benefit, that the knight/horse relationship was in no way reciprocal.

I wish I had come across the “Got Medieval” blog’s entry  “On Horses, Getting Back On Them” prior to the discussion in my Arthurian Legends course. Apparently, there exists several marginal images depicting horses reluctant to allow their armed knights to mount them. Horses are pretty intelligent creatures, after all.

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Bodleian Library, MS. Bodl. 264, fol. 96v

My response to my students was to draw upon Jeffrey Jerome Cohen‘s discussion of horses in his “Chevalerie” chapter in Medieval Identity Machines (2003), specifically his use of Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage to make the claim that the knight cannot exist without the horse–that the two are fused together in order to create the identity of the knight as a knight. I also told them about an incident during Malory’s “Book of Sir Tristram” (which we had to omit due to lack of time) where Palomides, in a fit of jealousy, deliberately kills Launcelot’s horse. Launcelot, in response, is ready to kill Palomides. Gawain, too, shows great loyalty to his horse Gringolet.

But now, looking back, I wish we had prolonged the discussion. How often will a knight, in the heat of battle, pause to rehorse another knight–sometimes even one whose identity is unknown but whose deeds mark him as worthy? What does this action mean? Does it reinforce the idea that a horse is a piece of property, or is it an acknowledgement of the horse’s importance to the identity of a knight? Is the knight doing the rehorsing thinking of the times he too has lost a horse, a companion, a friend, a comrade-in-arms?

In Book Ten of Morte (still in the adventures of Tristam), King Mark orders Sir Tristram to challenge Sir Lamorak de Galys during a tournament. I find Tristram’s response very interesting:

Syre said sir Tristram ye byd me doo a thynge that is ageynst knyghthode / And wel I can deme that I shal gyue hym a falle / For hit is no maystry / for my hors and I ben fresshe bothe / and so is not his hors and he . . . (Book 10, Capitulum xxxiij–Sommers’ edition of Caxton)

Tristram does not want to fight Sir Lamorak because unlike the latter, he has spent most of the day on the sidelines as an observer. What really interests me, though, is his inclusion of the horses–both his and that of Lamorak–in his consideration. Of course, a weak or injured horse can be a liability, but so too can a weak or injured knight in that he can make errors in judgement that can lead to the horse’s injury or death. But might this be an acknowledgement that horses are more than vehicles for knightly prowess?

Although I’ve loved horses my entire life, I’ve had few up-close encounters with them–as a teenager, my neighbors would allow me to stroke their horses’ noses, and during a semester abroad in college, I took an Equestrian Studies course in England. I’ve always seen intelligence and compassion in the eyes of every horse I’ve met, but I do not know horses as well as I would like.

Cats and dogs, on the other hand . . . I can’t remember a time when I did not have either as a companion, and the majority of my life, I’ve had both. When I first moved to Colorado, our cats remained in Kansas with my spouse for the first month or so, and let me tell you, never has a house felt less like a home.

More recently, following my spinal surgery, my cats were a near constant presence. They snuggled with me to comfort me during the endless pain-filled nights preceding the surgery, and they kept me company afterwards.

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In this picture, the boys are getting ready to duke it out for the heating pad that I had just vacated.

Just now, as I write this, another one of my cats just settled down next to me. Although she’s a little grumpy that my lap is currently occupied by my computer, her body is positioned alongside my thigh and she is purring. I’m sitting on a couch, and there is plenty of room–but right now, she finds comfort in being this close to me. And I have to say that the feeling is mutual.

My cats are a vital part of my family. They are not possessions. Each has such a unique personality and we relate to one another in very different ways.

Growing up, my family always had German Shepherds. One in particular still holds a special place in my heart–Ivory. She was a pure-bred white shepherd, and she accompanied my father and me the first summer that we spent hiking the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. She was . . . not stupid . . . but sometimes I wondered what was going on in her head. She was the sort to chase anything. A huge black snake, a stag with an impressive rack, a fully-grown black bear. Thank goodness none of these creatures ever bothered to look behind them.

One of my most vivid memories of Ivory took place just north of Damascus, a small city just inside the border of Virginia. The shelter we stayed in that night was in the middle of a forest, and yet, just behind the shelter was a beautiful, small meadow. If you’ve ever seen a fox leaping up into the air and diving down into the snow as it hunts, or if you’ve seen a deer bounding away across a field, then you can imagine how my Ivory pounced. I loved watching her, and she and I spent a good part of that evening chasing each other through that meadow, now lit by the setting sun.

Another memory of Ivory remains. As I noted in an earlier blog post, I liked to . . . well, I liked to take my time while hiking. I liked to look for salamanders under logs. I liked to pause when the forest yielded a panoramic vista of the valleys below. I liked to look at the trees and the plants and the birds, and well, you get the idea. My father, on the other hand, was all business when it came to hiking. Get up and get going. Resting was for after you set up camp at the end of the day. So Ivory got into the habit of traveling between us. Somewhere in Tennessee, the trail crossed a gravel road. For once, I wasn’t very far behind my father, so when I came to the road, I saw my father just beyond, with Ivory in the middle of the road, waiting for me to catch up.

Just then, a pickup truck filled with young men came roaring down the road.

To my horror, Ivory just stood there, unsure of which one of us to run to.

When the driver of the truck saw Ivory in the middle of the road, he sped up.

Thankfully, Ivory ran to me just in time. My dad, furious, screamed at the departing truck, throwing rocks at them. The people in the truck kept going, and we, terribly shaken, left the road for the safety of the forest. Although I did not let any physical distance build up between us, my dad spoke very little to me the rest of the day.

Losing Ivory would have been the same as losing a friend, a sibling, a parent.

Medieval theologians for the most part did not question whether or not non-human animals had souls; for many, the possession of a soul was unique to humans. There were a few who did not accept this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that an animal’s soul dissolved upon the moment of death while Adelard of Bath noted that because animals “have sensation and the judgement to desire or avoid things” (Kathleen Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets 2), they must possess souls.

I know where I stand on the question. There’s no doubt in my mind that they do.

Of course, we must be careful lest we impose our modern perceptions on the medieval period, but this is where Susan Crane’s excellent book Animal Encounters has helped my thinking–specifically her first chapter which discusses the Irish poem “Pangur Bán” in order to break down the distinction between human and non-human. In fact, here’s the image from the cover of her book:

6a00d8341c464853ef01a3fceb004b970b-800wi

From the Rochester Bestiary, England, c. 1230, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v

I love this image. When I first saw it, I thought the horses were hugging (and thankfully, I’m not the only person to have thought this–in fact, the Medieval manuscripts blog at the British Library has composed an entry to clarify the issue here). The horses are, like the two knights alongside them, engaged in combat. If horses were indeed dumb beasts, mere vehicles to their knights, wouldn’t they, when their riders alight, stand passively by (or, overwhelmed by the noise of battle, run away)? Horses have a long history of being trained for battle–of learning to strike out at enemies with their hooves–but it’s my understanding that they do so only as a result of specific instructions given to them by their riders.

Why, then, do these two horses fight? Might it be, as the Medieval manuscripts blog suggests, drawing upon entries in medieval bestiaries, out of a sense of loyalty to their knights? The parallelism in the positions of the horses relative to the knights is striking; the feet of the knight/horse on the left is just slightly raised in comparison to the knight/horse on the right, and the arm/head and front leg of the knight/horse on the left falls between the viewer and the body of the knight/horse on the right. If the horse fights, out of loyalty (as opposed to a result of its training), this suggests to me more of a partnership.

But I’ve rambled on for long enough. Let me close with this final image, from one of the Reynard the Fox manuscripts; here Tybalt the “Prince of Cats” taunts Reynard as he rides off on a horse.

Go give your furry friend some love, will ya?

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Roman de Renart; Paris, BnF, Fr. MS 12584, fol. 63r

Meditations on Massacres and Memory

I started this post several weeks ago while grading annotated bibliographies. The Paris shootings of November 2015 had just occurred, and I was having major difficulty focusing on the task at hand. Everywhere I looked, I saw images of Paris, of Beirut. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with images of the Eiffel Tower and quotations urging awareness, conversation, and an end to what seems to many of us senseless and horrific acts.

And I couldn’t help but think: we’ve been here before.

My Honors students at that time were reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015), and I found myself overwhelmed with the connections between this text and the events of recent memory.


When I first picked up this book over the summer, I was intrigued by the placement of a chalice on the cover. Expecting an appearance of the Holy Grail from Arthurian legend, I searched eagerly through the pages. Like much of modern Arthurian fiction, this book offers no grail. There is no cup, stone, or platter which heals all wounds, restores sanity, and restores life to a diseased and dead land. Just as in real life, there is no quick fix, no easy answer.

Interestingly, the Kindle edition features a tree rather than a chalice on its cover:

I wonder how much control Ishiguro had over the cover images. This second one speaks to me of roots sent deep into the earth, absorbing nutrients released from decaying matter. Thus, the past influences the future as nutrients are continually released to the environment only to be taken up by new growth. We can see this as a sacrifice of the older generations to nurture the future, but that doesn’t really seem to be a theme in Ishiguro’s text. Rather, what I’ve taken away from it all is the near impossibility of the younger generations–whether they be flora or fauna–to move away from the influences of the older.

Sometimes, though, those roots may be difficult to see. Consider this passage from the opening of Ishiguro’s novel:

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorlands. (3)

Our first day discussing The Buried Giant was focused on the setting, and I was struck by these opening lines, particularly the use of the word “uncultivated.” This is a land without memory–or at least, it first seems to be–and much of the narrative is driven to explore the implications of forgetting. But as the characters progress, they encounter the roots of their past–although often only as fragments rather than as a unified narrative:

“Here are the skulls of men, I won’t deny it. There an arm, there a leg, but just bones now. An old burial ground. And so it may be. I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. And I don’t talk, sir, only of those who received Christian burial. Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter. Horace and I, we’ve grown weary of it. Weary and we no longer young” (171).

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ishiguro had in mind the fields of Flanders, where waves of poppies obscured the horrific slaughters of World War I.

But as the characters within Ishiguro’s novel attempt to recapture their lost past and their distant heritage, Ishiguro’s prose reveals how difficult that can be. Notice the heavy use of the subjunctive mood (“would”) by the character Gawain in this passage:

“Master Axl, what was done in these Saxon towns today my uncle would have commanded only with a heavy heart, knowing of no other way for peace to prevail. Think, sir. Those small Saxon boys you lament would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers fallen today. The small girls soon bearing more in their wombs, and this circle of slaughter would never be broken. Look how deep runs the lust for vengeance!” (213)

Gawain is expressing his opinion–not facts. There is no guarantee that “Those small Saxon boys . . . would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers,” and Ishiguro expresses this through the young Saxon boy who travels with the main protagonists, an old Briton couple. This boy, devoid of the memory of the slaughter between the Saxons and the Britons, is not aflame with an inherited desire to revenge his predecessors–at least, not until another character–a Saxon warrior whom the young boy comes to admire greatly–begins to instill such ideas in him. But even then, when the young boy is compelled by his Saxon mentor to promise to hate all Britons, the boy pauses. . . . surely he is not meant to hate the kindly Briton couple with whom he has traveled?

My other class last semester was getting ready to begin Beowulf, and the story of the fight at Finnsburh immediately came to my mind. There is a moment when the leaders of the Danes and Frisians pledge peace to one another:

Ðá híe getruwedon on twá healfa
fæste frioðuwaére (1095-96)

But the peace is fragile, and the conflict between the two groups runs too deeply to be ignored:

þonne him Húnláfing, hildeléoman
billa sélest on bearm dyde (1143-44)

Towards the end of the winter, well after the death of the Danish leader Hnaef (whose sister had married Finn, the leader of the Frisians, a warrior places a prized sword in the lap of Hengest, Hnaef’s successor. This is a call to remember the death of Hnaef–not to celebrate his life, but rather to avenge his death. Finn and his retainers are slaughtered and the Danes return home (with Finn’s Danish bride). Despite the importance of the oral contract in Anglo-Saxon society, the memory of the deaths of their leaders is too strong and wins out.

And there are so many more examples that I can name–from Norse saga, where so many youths are killed (or hunted) so as to avoid future vengeance (Volsunga Saga, Hrolf Kraki). Closer to home is the thirteenth-century Suite du Merlin, where we see how one’s understanding of the past continues to influence the future, particularly in the case of Sir Gawain shortly after his knighting. Much earlier in the narrative, his father, King Lot of Orkney, has been killed by King Pellinore; now, as King Arthur prepares to welcome Pellinore into the company of the Round Table, Gawain reacts strongly (please allow me to quote at length from one of my articles on Gawain):

. . . after Gawain is knighted, “dirent auchun de Gavain pour chou que biel et apiert le veoient: ‘Cil vengera encore son pere, se il vit longuement, de chelui qui l’ochist’” (210) ‘some said of Gawain, because they saw him fine and capable, “He will yet avenge his father on the one who killed him, if he lives long enough”’ (Asher 120). Provided that Gawain survives into adulthood, there is complete certainty—as signaled by the use of the future tense—that he will behave in a way already predicted by social expectations. Also, inserted between Gawain’s recognition of Pellinor and his expression of grief is the comment that “on li ramentevoit chou qu’il avoit son pere ochis” (212) ‘someone reminded him that [Pellinor] had killed Gawain’s father’ (Asher 122). We quickly see this belief of social responsibility internalized by Gawain when he tells his brother that “‘se il plaisoit a Dieu que je venisse au dessus, je ne lairoie pour tout l’or de cest siecle que je ne li trenchaisse le chief aussi comme il fist a mon pere, si comme on me dist’” (213) ‘“If it pleases God that I come out on top, I won’t for all the gold in this world fail to cut off [Pellinore’s] head as he did to my father, as they tell me”’ (Asher 122).

Gawain, as a result of the society in which he has been raised, has no choice but to avenge his father.

So how did I get here from thinking about the Paris massacre? Let me try to pull my thoughts together.

In the days–weeks, even–following the Paris massacre, I saw a variety of responses, ranging from horror and calls for prayer, but also an increased emphasis on the “Other” and their differences from “us” (whoever the “us” may be) and a desire to isolate and even destroy that “Other.” Yes, the shooters belonged to ISIL–but they belong to a subset of Islam. As many over the last few weeks have attempted to make clear (although often to closed ears), not all Muslims are terrorists (and having lived several years in Kansas, I appreciated seeing friends comment, and in an attempt to help support this truth regarding ISIL and Islam, that people such as Fred Phelps do not represent all Christians)–yet despite these efforts, a Muslim woman who stood in silent protest at a recent Trump rally was quickly escorted from the premises.

A lot of my scholarship deals with the construction of identity, and one thing that I have learned over the years is that there is no one clear path, no formula for how to make a person, whether they be a knight, a damsel, a priest, et cetera. Each character–even in medieval romances–is subtly singular. Yet in the news surrounding me today, the individual faces are being blurred. One adherent of Islam is being made to represent all of Islam, followed quickly by a desire to condemn, exclude, and even eradicate all of its members.

I’d like to offer a variation on George Santayana’s well-known quotation from his 1905 The Life of Reason:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, the characters spend much of the narrative unable to remember the past, with the result that they often do fall into repetitive behaviors. Along the way, they grasp at fragments of memory–enough to ensure that once the mist which has robbed them of their memories has dissipated, they will, at least in Sir Gawain’s view, re-enter an endless cycle of slaughter. It’s not so much, though, that they remember the past–rather, they remember–or in the case of the young Saxon boy–are taught to remember–only part of the past–the strongest memories, the most painful losses, the searing rage–which then directs their behavior.

They remember a version of the past–and as a result, with no call to examine it carefully, they are doomed to repeat it.

A caution, though–please don’t misinterpret my comments as critiquing France’s response (or the world’s responses) to the November 2015 killings. These were horrific, just as were the killings in Baghdad, Nigeria, or Beirut (all also in November 2015). My intent in my rambling thoughts is to express my fear of these seemingly perpetual cycles of violence, particularly when they expand, through ignorance (either willful or not), to encompass innocent bystanders. Rather than react immediately out of fear or anger, can we not question instead the history which has led us to these points in time? Why do we do the things we do? Is it out of sheer necessity? Or perhaps the roots which connect us to our heritages serve more as puppet strings.

Perhaps those who examine the past–from multiple angles–are the ones who can escape the cycle.

Just my two cents, however naïve they may be. After all, regardless of our genders, social positions, education levels, religious views, or skin colors, we all share one important feature–humanity.

 

To the Pain

I’ve not been able to blog recently due to a variety of reasons–the most significant being a neck injury that led to surgery. The recovery has gone well, but I’m exhausted from the experience. Prior to the surgery, I had excruciating pain–significantly worse than the pain I experienced while in labor years ago pending the arrival of my daughter. Any movement sent waves of pain through my neck, across my upper back, and down my arms. All I could do for two weeks was to lay on a couch, trying to remain as still as possible. I couldn’t function from the pain.

Now that surgery has removed the pain, I’m curious about the experience of pain in the Middle Ages–a time long before drugs such as percocet and procedures such as spinal fusion could bring relief. How did they deal with perpetual and severe pain? Extant manuscripts such as MS. Ashmole 1462 (check out the gorgeous scans of 12th-century herbal remedies at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/medieval/mss/ashmole/1462.htm) show that they had some means at hand to alleviate their symptoms.

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But how is pain depicted in medieval romance? It seems to me that physical pain is rarely dwelt upon, although surely the occupation of the knight would provide many opportunities to experience pain of varying severities and durations. I can recall reading many a passage discoursing of the pain suffered by the lover . . . but rarely of the pain suffered by the  knight as a result of a corporeal wound.

One romance that immediately comes to mind is the 14th-century Stanzaic Morte Arthur. This details the final moments of the Arthurian world: Lancelot’s adultery with Guinevere has come to light, forcing Arthur and Gawain to wage war upon the former paragon of knighthood. Gawain demands single combat with the reluctant Lancelot, who

   gave Gawain a wounde wide;
The blood all covered his colour
And he fell down upon his side. (2815-17)

This is a wound which will haunt Gawain for the remainder of his (admittedly short) life. Yet neither Gawain nor the narrator comment upon the pain that he must be experiencing from such an injury. Instead, Gawain continues to hurl challenges at Lancelot:

Sir Gawain cried loud on high:
“Traitour and coward, come again,
When I am hole and going on high;
Then will I prove with might and main; (2828-31)

We are privy to Gawain’s medical care–his wounds are washed and he is placed on bed rest for two weeks:

A fourtenight, the sooth to say,
Full passing seke and unsound
There Sir Gawain on leching lay
Ere he were hole all of his wound. (2858-61)

One word here is all that is spared to touch upon Gawain’s experience of pain: he is “unsound.” Now, this word might suggest to the modern ear that Gawain is dealing with some mental issues–similar to the word “insane”–but that’s not the case, for during the Middle English period, “unsound” meant that one is “not free from grief, suffering emotional distress; of sighing: full of suffering, pained” (Middle English Dictionary, def. 1b). But yet this injury does not seem to slow him down any, for he is soon in the saddle again, charging at Lancelot, ready to go through the entire experience again, with the result that

[Lancelot] hit [Gawain] upon the olde wound
That over the saddle down he went,
And grisly groned upon the ground,
And there was good Gawain shent. (2910-13)

Here is much more evidence of Gawain’s physical suffering, but I’m struck by Gawain’s attitude towards his pain. He continues to verbally challenge Lancelot, and once he has healed sufficiently, he will be once more standing before Lancelot’s gate, hurling his challenge to the unbeatable knight (the only thing that stops Gawain is the news of Mordred’s usurpation of Arthur’s throne back in England). Gawain ignores his pain.

ywain-gawain

(actually, this is Yvain fighting Gawain)

So why do we feel pain? That is, what is its purpose? To stop a certain behavior, right? To slow us down or to get us to back away from something dangerous. That’s certainly the message that I’m trying to take away from my recent experience. But Gawain does not seem to learn; instead, he insists on engaging in destructive behavior. Over the years, I’ve heard a variety of conference papers explore this moment in the Arthurian legend, and some of the arguments have been quite compelling; some have commented on the obligation of the oath, while others have suggested that Gawain has a death wish.

Following the death of two of his brothers (they are killed when Lancelot rescues Guinevere from the fire), Gawain swears an oath:

“Betwix me and Launcelot du Lake,
Nis man on erthe, for sooth to sayn,
Shall trewes set and pees make
Ere either of us have other slain!” (2010-13)

Warning: I’m going to nerd out on the language here for just a moment. If you find your eyes glazing over, just skip down a paragraph or two. Gawain does not say that he will not rest until he’s killed Lancelot–just that one of them must die. Syntactically, Gawain and Lancelot are interchangeable through the use of the conjunction “and.” The word order in the final sentence is interesting, too–it’s not a passive construction of course, but there’s a suggestion that neither one of them are performing the action of potential killing. By placing the grammatical object between the auxiliary and the past participle, Gawain and Lancelot are further coupled in that they are placed before the action. In addition, the pronoun “us” also suggests the pairing, and by placing the pronoun referring to Lancelot and Gawain into a prepositional phrase requiring the object form rather than the subject form–coupled with the perfect aspect–there is an interesting loss of agency for both knights. It’s as if they are compelled to act by forces greater than themselves.

And indeed, Lancelot is obligated by his role as the Queen’s champion to rescue her from the fire (especially since Arthur denies her any sort of due process), and Gawain’s oath–possibly uttered in a moment of extreme emotion, or as something expected of him as Arthur’s nephew–obligates him to act or die trying. Lingering on the pain of Gawain’s wound would detract from Gawain’s adherence to his oath. It would diminish his nobility. The pain does not matter. Perhaps, given his dedication to his oath, Gawain has achieved a sort of mind-over-matter control over his pain. After all, we do not have any mystery maidens suddenly appearing on the scene with a magical ointment that miraculously heals his wounds (as in the stories of Yvain or Malory’s Gareth). After all, Gawain has been a knight for some time now, having experienced war as well as the tournament, and no doubt he has survived other wounds. Perhaps he has become numb to the pain–it is merely something that he must live with.

But then there’s the Fisher King of the Grail legend. The most familiar version is that of Chretien de Troyes in the 12th century (and I’m working from memory here), where the king has been wounded in the thighs as a result of a sexual indiscretion. He has suffered from this wound for a significantly long time. Hope comes to the Fisher King in the guise of the naive Percival, but his suffering is only increased when Percival fails to ask about the wonders observed while at the Fisher King’s court.

The Fisher King is obviously in pain, and both he, while in conversation with Perceval, and the narrator draw attention to his physical pain and how it limits him. When Perceval leaves the next day, he is accosted by a woman who also comments on the physical suffering of the Fisher King.

Why is so much more attention drawn to the pain of the Fisher King than that of Gawain? I think one reason may be the religious context of the former. Gawain is fighting for a secular king, whereas the Fisher King (sometimes called Anfortas) is the guardian of a holy relic. The pain suffered by the Fisher King may be parallel to that of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion, for as the Fisher King suffers, so too does his land.

Another possibility is the manner in which attention is drawn to the pain. The Fisher King does not try to draw much attention to his suffering. He first mentions it only because he must, due to the code of hospitality, explain his failure to rise to greet Percival. Having the narrator and other characters be the primary commentators on the king’s pain perhaps helps to prove the severity of his condition–there is less possibility of hyperbole for personal reasons.

And his age and position may also be a factor. Gawain is a young knight, and as such, is expected to receive (and give!) wounds. To show pain is to show weakness, and severe pain may prevent a knight from fully performing his knightly duties. The Fisher King, on the other hand, is a static figure, fixed in the center of his realm while his knights and other officials circle about him. His days as a knight errant are long past, and so to suffer from the wounds of knightly combat are no longer appropriate to either his age or place in society. His pain serves to remind him of his indiscretion, but his stoic stance towards his pain only causes those around him to admire him more. His pain, while limiting him physically, may actually be an asset rather than something to be ignored, as in the case of Gawain.

Many more knights and their injuries are coming to mind now–Malory’s Perceval who purposefully stabs himself in the thigh, Sir Urry who seeks the greatest knight to heal his wound and end his suffering. Even King Arthur as he is slowly carried to the water’s edge to await the barge which will convey him to Avalon. Now that I think on it, pain is more prevalent within the pages of medieval romance, playing a wide variety of roles–just as I imagine it does today.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Flooding of Memories

Years ago, one of my poetry professors told us to take an opening line from a published poem and to then write our own poem to go with it. I chose the first line of Seamus Heaney’s “Two Lorries” (first published, I believe, in his collection The Spirit Level: Poems):

It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.

Today, this line has come back to me several times throughout the day. I’d share with you the poem that I wrote, but I have no idea where it is. Whereas Heaney’s poem offered a glimpse into the everyday life of civilians in Northern Ireland, I recall that I was inspired by a summer hiking in North Carolina and Tennessee–the same summer in which I discovered efts hiding beneath rocks and branches. It seemed as if the rain would never stop, and I forgot, for a time, what dry socks felt like.

So you may have already guessed that it’s been raining a lot here in Colorado.

Walking along the sidewalks of my campus, I found I had to navigate carefully, for stretched across the pavement were hundreds of earthworms. Several trees on campus are in the process of dropping needles and twigs that are about the same length and width as the worms, and while I am indifferent to stepping on these, I wanted to avoid stepping on a worm. They may have minuscule brains, but they do have nervous systems and are capable of feeling pain. (Yes, I try to avoid stepping on other critters–ants, beetles, spiders, etc. I still feel terribly guilty about the massasauga rattlesnake that I ran over with my bicycle as a teenager. It blended in so well to the gravelly road that I did not see it until I was already halfway over it.)

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.

–Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits (1881)

I’ve always thought that earthworms came to the surface during rainstorms seeking refuge from their flooded tunnels, so I was surprised to learn that they “are unable to drown like a human would, and they can even survive several days fully submerged in water” (“Why Do Earthworms Surface After Rain?”). Rather, scientists suggest that earthworms take advantage of the moist conditions to migrate–they can travel above soil faster and do not have to fear the heat of the sun. Another possibility (both are discussed in the article linked above) is that the vibrations of the rain resemble the vibrations made by predators, and that earthworms surface to avoid becoming a mole’s dinner.

_Der Naturen Bloeme_, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 136r, ca. 1350. Two worms rising out of the soil.

I’m intrigued by the idea of worm migration, particularly since water has often played a major role in human migrations. I often have my students look at Matthew Paris’s 1250 Map of Britain, and one of the things that they tend to notice right away is the proliferation of towns along the rivers (not to mention the worm-like appearances of the rivers).

The fear of drowning, though, does not appear as often as one might expect in medieval literature. Custance, for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, is placed in “a ship al steerelees” (439); however, she is provided with ample provisions (a good thing since she floats in that boat for years). She briefly expresses her fear of drowning, equating the submersion of her body under the waves with the consumption of her body and soul by the devil, when she cries out to the Lord to protect her:

Me fro the feend and fro his clawes kepe,
That day that I shal drenchen in the depe. (454-55)

The waves are briefly “wilde” (468), suggesting that she experiences storms, but the text does not linger on the fear produced by the threatening waves.

Another medieval text, King Horn, features the dangers of the seas, for when the titular hero’s father is killed by Saracens, Horn is spared (due to his great beauty)–only to be placed, along with his twelve companions, in a boat. The Saracens tell him:

Tharvore thu most to stere,
Thu and thine ifere;
To schupe schulle ye funde,
And sinke to the grunde. (105-08)

The appearance of the protagonist in a rudderless boat is a common device in medieval romance (and we can trace it back further to the classical story of Danaë and Perseus), but my encounter with the worms braving the sidewalks in the rain has piqued my interest in these scenes and the expression of emotion. For example, in King Horn, the children are very frightened:

The se that schup so fasste drof
The children dradde therof. (123-24)

But as with Chaucer’s Custance, the narrator does not linger on the experience. Why might that be?

Manuscript images dealing with Noah’s flood depict the drowned in great detail. Take a look at this fourteenth-century depiction:

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Look at how calm the dead are:

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The awkward position of the hands and the open mouth of the man at the bottom suggests that he is in some distress, but the woman floating above him seems to have a serene look on her face (although I wonder about the curled toes and the uncomfortable angle of her left hand . . . ). The gentle undulations of the waves only add to the calm atmosphere of the water, especially when contrasted against the busy and angular background behind the ship as well as the patterning on the ship itself.

Another depiction of the drowned appears in the Bible pictures by William de Brailes:

These dead are much greater in number (not to mention orderly–there are clear layers of humans, birds, and domestic livestock), but they still look peaceful, almost as if they are slumbering:

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.29.25 PMSome of the bodies at the top almost resemble merpeople due to the lines of the waves. Speaking of which, these waves are more dangerous, threatening to break out of the image’s frame and almost evoking arms seeking the living to draw beneath the waves. (Perhaps this is why no Ark appears in the image?)

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I’m sure I could find many more medieval images of those drowned in the Biblical story of the Flood (and for those interested in the topic, the incomparable Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has written a blog post on another manuscript depiction of Noah’s flood at http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2013/05/intercatastrophe-overwhelmed-outside.html), but I won’t.

I wonder, though, if there’s something to the seeming gap between the living expressing their fear while at sea and those who have come to their watery grave. I recall hearing John Block Friedman speak a few years ago on werewolves and their transformation–he was interested in the lack of detail as to the actual transformation–manuscript images only depicted the before and the after–and I wonder if there’s something similar going on here. That is, I imagine drowning to be a terrible and frightening way to die (and so I’m glad to hear that worms cannot drown during rain storms). Perhaps, given the importance of maritime trade in England, drowning was a very real threat, but the agony of either drowning or watching another person drown was just too much for medieval authors and artists to imagine.

The allure of traveling by sea, despite its dangers, was too great for those living in the medieval period–the ability to rely on currents of wind and water rather than one’s own power, to see any enemies from afar rather than wondering if they lay in wait in the underbrush surrounding medieval roads. So too are earthworms driven above ground to migrate from one patch of soil to another. I don’t know if they are aware of the inherent dangers–from the tread of indifferent soles to animals in search of a quick meal. No doubt they can feel the vibrations as we approach them. Nonetheless, they–and we–are driven to chance these perilous paths.

Sudden Noise, White Noise

As I was leaving campus the other day, I was nearly run over.

Not by a car, though, but rather by a pair of squirrels. As winter approaches, the many squirrels on campus are intensifying their efforts to collect enough food to get them through the winter months, and as a result, they are increasingly territorial. These two squirrels could care less that I was in their path, or that I towered over them; rather, their focus was completely on establishing the boundaries of their territories from their own kind, and as the victor ran the other out of its foraging area, it stood on the fence, chattering angrily lest the loser dare return.

This is certainly not the first time that I’ve nearly been run over by an animal. As a child, I was walking along the shores of Red Rock Reservoir, a large beaver nearly barreled into me on its way into the water. En route to do some fishing in northwest Wyoming a few years later, I was so intent on the narrow path leading along the water’s edge that I somehow missed the noise of a young bull moose as it charged out of the woods. And of course, I can’t forget my sweet yet dense white German shepherd, Ivory, who often accompanied me while hiking on the east coast . . . and who was overly fond of chasing any living thing. There was the five-foot-long black snake that she flushed out a few feet ahead of me. A few weeks later, it was a large stag. Fortunately I was nowhere near her when she decided to chase a black bear later that summer.

But I digress. I couldn’t help but think, as I watched the quarreling squirrels, of this clip from Disney’s 1963 film The Sword in the Stone when Arthur (the Wart) is transformed into a squirrel by Merlin for the day’s lesson:

Although the encounter was grave for these two squirrels–after all, fighting could result in injuries that, if not fatal, could become infected or could incapacitate them so that they were no longer able to collect food in a timely fashion–I couldn’t help but chuckle as I watched them scamper around me, up a tree, back down to the ground, and around the fence posts in a flurry of reddish tails. Their movements strike me as playful, even though I know that they are not so, and I have often longed to be able to reach out and stroke their tantalizingly soft-looking tails.

Perhaps some of you have seen this story of the Belarussian soldier-turned-cab driver who, upon rescuing a baby squirrel, has gained a friend for life. And each time  I teach the medieval Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, several of my students and I are envious of Medb because of the pet squirrel perched upon her shoulder.

We don’t often get squirrels in our backyard, but last summer, there was one overly adventurous one that enjoying taunting one of our cats. Our calico, Cleokatra, was not amused.

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Later that same summer, while hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park, my daughter was terrorized by this fellow, a close relative of squirrels:

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This cheeky little guy was so accustomed to tourists with food that it scampered onto my daughter’s shoe despite her shrieking. This wasn’t our first encounter with avaricious chipmunks at the park–when my daughter was less than a year old, another chipmunk attempted to pick my husband’s pocket at Bear Lake!

Neither chipmunks nor squirrels play a major role in the medieval texts with which I typically work, so out of curiosity, I did a little searching. How did the medieval world view the squirrel?

(By the way, January 21st is National Squirrel Appreciation Day. Who knew?)

Karl Steel has written a stellar post on the history of squirrels as pets, from medieval to modern, as well as the etymology of the word squirrel (http://medievalkarl.com/tag/squirrels/), so I won’t duplicate his comments here. I will, however, reproduce this awesome image from the Ormesby Psalter, which depicts a woman holding a pet squirrel.

Ormesby Psalter (Bodleian Library MS. Douce 366), f131r

Ormesby Psalter (Bodleian Library MS. Douce 366), f131r

You can see many, many more images of squirrels in medieval manuscripts here: http://www.larsdatter.com/squirrels.htm. Even though squirrels aren’t common pets in United States now, there’s plenty of evidence that they were frequently kept as such during the Middle Ages!

But I’m still intrigued by my response to the squirrels that nearly collided with me. Because I was on campus, a carefully cultivated and maintained environment, my moment of fright was brief, quickly turning to amusement. There have been plenty of times when chipmunks and squirrels have startled me, but these have taken place in the mountains. Because I would jump so frequently at chipmunks or squirrels rustling in the underbrush (after nearly stepping on a copperhead my first time hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I was rather paranoid about the smallest of noises near my feet), my older brother took advantage, walking behind me so that he could chuck stones off to my side when I least expected it.

Several of the medieval romances with which I work take place in the forest, often during hunting scenes, and I’m now curious about the lack of attention to those little noises made by squirrels and other small animals. Many of these hunts are described as taking place on horseback and with large numbers of servants (Bertilak’s hunting party in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight immediately comes to mind), so perhaps the sheer noise produced by the passage of multiple feet would drown out the noise made by little critters.

But often the hunting required long periods of waiting. For example, in The Awntyrs Off Arthur, Arthur and his men dismount to take up positions to wait for the deer:

Under the bowes thei bode, thes burnes so bolde,
To byker at thes baraynes in bonkes so bare. (40-41)

Once the deer appear, chaos predictably reigns:

Thai werray the wilde and worchen hem wo.
The huntes thei halowe, in hurstes and huwes,
And till thaire riste raches relyes on the ro. (56-58)

Meanwhile, Guinevere and Gawain rest apart from the hunt:

By a lorer ho was light, undur a lefesale
Of box and of berber bigged ful bene. (70-71)

Neither of these moments–the hunters laying in wait or Guinevere and Gawain’s repose in the forest bower–make any mention of the crackling of leaves or the swishing of small bushy tails of scampering squirrels. Why might this be? Of course, the narrator is creating a bit of an idyllic scene in the case of the latter in order to provide a sharper contrast with the sudden storm and darkening of the sky that will quickly signal the approach of the frightful ghost. But at the same time, given the attention of the narrator to the landscape details elsewhere in the poem (including some lovely onomatopoetic moments such as the description of driving snow in the line “the sneterand snawe snartly hem snelles” [82]), why not linger on the details here? Might the rustling provide some tension as the men wait in the shadows?

Not all hunts required large parties. For example, in another romance, The Avowyng of Arthur, Arthur separates himself from his companions in order to chase a fierce boar; however, he is accompanied by his hounds. The pursuit of the boar is quite noisy between the baying of the hounds and the clashing of boar tusks against metal sword. Once the battle is won, though, and the beast has been appropriately butchered, Arthur must return to his retinue at Carlisle. Rather than detail his journey–where mention of the movements of small animals might be offered–however, the narrator jumps away from Arthur to discuss another major character. This text centers on the vows made by Arthur, Kay, Gawain, and Bishop Baldwin (Arthur’s vow was to kill the boar), so it makes sense to end his episode once his vow is fulfilled.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 7.40.02 PMNor did all hunts require noisy hounds. According to the fifteenth-century Master of Game, by Edward of Norwich, the second Duke of York, hounds are nearly synonymous with hunting (“in England [harts] are not slain except with hounds or with shot or with strength of running hounds” [30]), but this does not mean all hounds barked. For example, Marcelle Thiébaux in The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1974) notes that scenting hounds, or “limers,” led their masters silently to their quarry (28), and William Perry Marvin in Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006) writes that even poachers used “lurchers,” dogs who have been trained against barking (74).

So what does it mean that these medieval romance authors place their heroes in the midst of these forests but do not take any note of the smaller creatures scurrying underfoot? Would it be beneath the notice of these aristocratic (or gentry) audiences? That is, does the erasure of the aural traces of smaller creatures reinforce the social hierarchy? Boars, hares, foxes, and deer had material value, but perhaps squirrels and other rodents did not (at least, not for a medieval audience)? I don’t think that’s entirely the case, particularly since the fur of squirrels–known as “vair”–was a luxury item for lining collars and other pieces of clothing. Or were such sounds merely “white noise” to a medieval audience? Might this mean that they had either learned to shut out such sounds as insignificant or that they were so at home in the forest that such noises became more of a second nature?

Your thoughts?

Changing of the Seasons

1443284810614Autumn is quickly approaching, and I can’t wait. Autumn means jeans and sweatshirts. Raking leaves, carving pumpkins, and baking. Lots and lots of baking. There are some downsides–the constant viewing of football in our house, for example–but still, a minor price to pay given that the extremes of winter and summer are not for me.

Having lived in Colorado for several years now, I must admit that autumn is not quite as lovely as it used to be when I lived in a Midwest state. Don’t get me wrong–Colorado has its autumnal moments. The aspens, for example, turn a lovely shade of gold (and hearing the elk bugle in Rocky Mountain National Park is fun!).

Capitol Creek Aspens, Elk Mountains, Colorado. Photo © copyright by Jack Brauer. http://www.mountainphotography.com/photo/capitol-creek-aspens/

There’s still the crispness in the air–a nice change from the heat of summer–but I miss the sharper colors of fall in Eastern Kansas. Despite the massive efforts to irrigate land here in Colorado, the climate remains semi-arid, like that of a steppe, so there is not quite the contrast between summer and fall. We go from shades of brown to more shades of brown. I miss the green.

At my previous university, I drove through a neighborhood where trees provided a natural canopy to the surrounding streets, and in the fall, the sheer diversity of color–and the gentle undulations of leaves drifting down, down, down–only to be caught up and twirled around by a passing breeze before they finally settled upon the ground–etched itself upon my mind. Here, the shift from summer to winter seems to take a note from Monty Python.

Now that I think about it, I can’t recall any moments in medieval British literature that describe the fall season. There’s plenty of emphasis on the other seasons. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, for example, details the harsh British winter, imagining a landscape fettered by ice: “hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð” (102). The trope of Spring is memorably presented by Geoffrey Chaucer in his fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . . (1-4)

It may be that I’m just not reading the right texts to find descriptions of fall (after all, I primarily work on Middle English romance), but a quick search of the University of Michigan’s Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse doesn’t turn up much. Chaucer discusses fall in his translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and Lydgate makes several mentions in his fifteenth-century Troy Book.  Fall is also mentioned in scientific treatises (such as A Medieval English Anatomy or Treatises of Fistula). The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t much help, either; its earliest documentation of “Fall” to refer to the season is in 1545, and 1374 for “Autumn.” Neither entry has been updated since the late 1800s, though.

Perhaps, though, I’m being too narrow in my search terms. Neither “Fall” (a good Anglo-Saxon word) nor “Autumn” (a Latin borrowing) turn up much, but what about “harvest”?

Ah, there we go. Much more luck.

The OED's entry for "harvest" (n.)I’m particularly intrigued by the etymology–specifically, the relation between the Latin and Germanic cognates–I love finding examples of Grimm’s Law at work! Briefly, when the Germanic languages diverged from the rest of the Proto-Indo-European languages, a systemic sound change occurred. Wherever a /k/ sound appears in a Latinate word, for example, the corresponding Germanic word has an /h/. Thus, the word cardiac, with its Latin root, is related to the Germanic word heart; Latinate canine = Germanic hound, et cetera.

But enough linguistic nerding out.

The Middle English hervest (n.) appears quite frequently in Middle English texts, but as I scan the list of quotations provided by the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, I don’t see anything in the way of romance.  Why is that?

Given that the preferred word choice of harvest draws attention to the physical act of gathering crops, does the lack of attention to the fall season merely reflect the interests of the upper-class audiences of the medieval romances? Of course, this ignores the complex social changes that occurred in England post-Bubonic plague as social mobility became possible and a new sub-genre of romance–the gentry romances–emerged. But would an aristocratic audience be aware of and invested in the harvest season? Surely they must–at the very least, some of their income would be dependent on the success or failure of the annual harvest. For those with more leisure time, given the aesthetic appeal of fall, might some authors be inspired to muse on the mutability manifested by the falling leaves? Or perhaps since romances typically detail knights on quests, autumn falls by the wayside because it is not an ideal season for quests or military pursuits?

I’ll close with one of my favorite fall poems, by e.e. cummings:

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Perishing Polar Bears

Recently, I managed to watch a movie–all by myself!–at home on our main TV. That means I beat out my sports-loving husband and my cartoon-addicted child. This rarely happens.

As I scrolled through the “On Demand” options, I came across the 2014 film The Giver, based on the 1993 novel by Lois Lowry. I had heard about the book from several students over the years, so I settled in to watch it. Overall, I enjoyed it–especially the use (and absence) of color, but there was one moment in the film that really stuck with me. While explaining the past to the new Receiver of Memories, the Giver mentions that there once were other animals (and the film cuts to a scene of a rabbit in search of food). Unfortunately, the film did not go into much detail in terms of what led to the present absence of non-human animals (at one point, some characters present a blue elephant toy as a hippopotamus, commenting that it was extra fast because it had five legs!); however, the implication is clear–the rest of the animal kingdom died out as a result of human actions. In the meanwhile, the community enjoys fruit such as apples and walks through impeccably manicured lawns. In one transmitted memory, the receiver experiences being stung by a bee, and his reaction to the experience suggests that in addition to never having felt pain before, the receiver has also never seen a bee.

But is such a scenario possible? That is, I have no doubt that humanity is capable of decimating non-animal populations–especially at the rate we’re going–rather, could humanity survive if there were no other animal species on the planet? After all, we rely on so many creatures–directly and indirectly. Large predators help keep smaller species in check, which can help overgrazing on plants–the wolves in Yellowstone National Park are a great illustration of this. Birds and reptiles help to maintain insect populations, which in turn are vital to pollination and the aeration of soil, among other things. No bees, for example, should mean that the apples in The Giver should not exist (unless, of course, their technology has advanced to  allow them to cross-pollinate plants without the aid of insects). And of course, several species make up significant portions of the human diet.

Two days after I watched The Giver, this image by German photographer Kerstin Langenberger began making the rounds on social media today. I can’t get it out of my mind.

Langenberger wrote on her Facebook account that

I realized that the fat bears are nearly exclusively males which stay on the pack ice all year long. The females, on the other hand, which den on land to give birth to their young, are often slim. With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there’s not much food.

While I’ve never seen a polar bear in the wild, I’ve seen them at the Denver zoo (and of course through film and photographs), and one of my initial thoughts upon seeing Langenberger’s photo was disbelief–that emaciated creature surely could not be a polar bear. Are we moving towards the complete destruction of multiple species, or is there still time to halt–and hopefully reverse–these troubling declines?

Naturally, the experts are divided. A recent article (2015) in The Huffington Post quotes Ian Stirling, a polar bear researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, who cautions against leaping too quickly to the conclusion that the polar bear photographed by Langenberger is typical of all polar bears:

people should be careful about blaming climate change for the bear’s condition. He said the bear was more likely old, sick or hurt — not starving because of a lack of prey or ice.

In a later Q&A, Langenberger expanded on the context in which she took the photograph:

In the past four years I’ve seen about one extremely skinny bear a year, and every summer I see about 60-70 bears. So it is an unusual sight, yet normal. This was the most extreme sight, though, as it was so extremely powerful visually, with the bear being on a melting ice floe. Usually, the starving animals were on land. This one was close to land but on one of the last ice floes to be found.

Turns out that this particular bear had been wounded (Langenberger speculates that the bear was injured by a walrus), so Stirling’s reading of the photograph is correct–to an extent. The animal is wounded, but is the emaciation a result of the wound, or did the wound result because the bear, driven by great hunger, possibly engaged another large animal (which is what Langenberger suggests) in a conflict over food resources? Furthermore, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Geological Survey, “Future reduction of sea ice in the Arctic could result in a loss of 2/3 of the world’s polar bear population within 50 years” (source). And the science is clear, isn’t it, that the ice caps are disappearing at a rapid pace.

(from http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2012/08/year-2012-set-to-break-all-records.html)

With all of our technology and scientific knowledge, can’t we do more to help the polar bear–and in the process, help the other animals in its habitat (and thus ourselves in the long run)? Will polar bears be relegated to survival only in zoos–or worse–in memory?

When I was a graduate student, I took a semester of Old Norse. One of the first texts that we translated was the early thirteenth-century Auðunar þáttr vestfirska, or “The story of Auðun of the Westfjords.” Briefly, the main character, Auðun, spends all of his money to purchase a polar bear from a Greenlandic hunter in order to present the animal as a gift to King Svein Ulfsson in Denmark.

While it might initially boggle the mind that a person could travel nearly three thousand miles with a polar bear in captivity during the Middle Ages, Auðun’s story is not as far-fetched as it might seem. William Ian Miller, in his translation of and commentary on Audun and the Polar Bear (Leiden: Brill, 2014), writes that

Other sources note on several occasions that polar bears were given as gifts by Icelanders to rulers in Europe. So when Isleif Gizurarson sailed to Europe in 1055 to be consecrated the first bishop of Iceland he brought with him a “white bear from Greenland and the animal was the greatest of treasures,” using the same word—görsemi—that Audun’s Story uses to describe its bear, and which Isleif gave to the emperor Henry III Conradsson. Gifts of polar bears are unusual enough to get noted, but nary a word about the logistics of transporting or provisioning them in any of the sources in which such a gift occurs. Bears, polar or otherwise, it should be noted, were not native to Iceland. When a white bear appeared, it was because it was shipped over from Greenland, or because it arrived on drift ice. . .  (17-18)

There is a moment in Auðunar þáttr when the bear, along with Auðun, is on the verge of starvation (Auðun has run out of money), but Auðun finds an investment partner of sorts and the bear is saved. But other than this brief incident, there is little commentary on the bear itself. The king is grateful for the gift (and another king is quite envious), but there’s no mention of the bear’s ferocity (or tameness), its size, its hunger, etc. The bear is simply an object used to gain the favor of a king.

I’d like to think that we’ve progressed a bit in our thinking to recognize that these creatures, along with our other neighbors on this crowded planet, are not here for our pleasure. Rather, we must work together, and in the case of humanity, for these creatures–particularly since we are the primary causes of their difficulties in finding suitable habitats and food resources.

How many of us fell in love with the polar bears featured in holiday advertisements for Coca-Cola? (You can find a brief summary of the evolution of the Coke bears in a 2014 New Yorker article here.) I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw them–but I still will pause whatever I’m doing and watch their onscreen antics.

I was happy to learn that as a result of the success of the polar bears, Coca-cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in the last few years to try and preserve the Arctic.  I just hope these efforts are not too little, too late.

The world of The Giver has no appeal to me. Despite the overhanded use of the apple imagery to suggest a Garden of Eden, the lack of diversity does not lead to harmonious living. I’m reminded of the closing lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer:

Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!

As I discussed with my Old English students earlier this week, these lines open and close with the same words–symploce is the rhetorical term for this pattern–with the result that emphasis is placed on the transient and ever changing centers.  Roughly translated, the first line is “Here is treasure lent (or transitory, etc.) here is friend lent,” and the subsequent line continues the list of things that just do not last. The poem as a whole emphasizes the mutability of the mortal world and it has a strong Christian bent to it (as does most extant Anglo-Saxon poetry), but these lines always stand out to me, particularly the final line–all the earth shall become idel, “idle.” The absence of movement, the absence of variety, the absence of life. The absence of polar bears.