Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Test #1, Middle Ages

I'm afraid I don't feel like typing in the questions, but here are the answers to the things you didn't know that you didn't know (unless you knew the latter, in which case the former doesn't apply, whereas if you knew the former, the latter remains valid).

Enjoy (or suffer, just as you please).

J. A. Broussard
English 341, Exam #1: Middle Ages
V. Arthur

1). Four: Latin, French (technically often called Anglo-Norman), Celtic languages (Cymraeg, Gaeilge, etc), and English.

Short Answer

12). This one first, as I’m afraid that there’s a typo: line three should read “great mead-hall,” not “great mean-hall” (my spell-checker hates it too). It is of course Beowulf, and is the old section of Beowulf. I subscribe to the belief that there are two separate authors of Beowulf: the old oral tradition complete with Beowulf killing Grendelet mater familias, and the more recent section of Beowulf ruling his kingdom and killing a dragon, which was most likely composed as an elegy upon the death of a king. This sample is speaking of Hrothgar as he is deciding to build Heorot, which is later besieged by Grendel, who likes his Dane snacks raw.
Heorot itself is significant in part due to the high demands of hospitality of the time. Due to the fact that Napoleon Buonaparte moved his army in roughly the same manner and speed that Αλεχανδρος Μαγνος of Macedon did 2,000 years earlier, anyone traveling between the two would need to stop frequently, and a “castle” of the type of Heorot, complete with gallons of mead, all the fresh meat you could want and a king with a reputation as a generous “ring-giver” would be viewed by ancient travelers the way my father-in-law views any Best Western with an Olive Garden across the street: life’s too short for bad motels and cheap food. This in turn would cause his own fame to spread even farther and wider than it already was, which would be a huge boon to him, for what king doesn’t like to be revered? And what great king doesn’t hope to go down in history?

8). To follow suit, I shall continue with the much maligned Bear (Beo=bee and Wulf=hunter, therefore the delightful kenning “Beowulf” is a way of saying “Bear,” which seems peculiarly apt for a man with the strength of twenty men in each hand). This passage is describing the demon-spawn Grendel, who not only kills the Danes, which is bad enough, but can’t be got at to pay for them, which is simply intolerable. It reminds me of the Far Side where the indignant parents are saying to the witch “Let me get this straight: we hired you to babysit our children for the night, and you cooked and ate both of them?”
One of the big issues with Grendel is that he refused to pay the blood-price for the people that he ate (though we don’t really have the impression that he was asked; those that could speak to him typically had other things on their mind. Like his teeth.). In this culture, unexpected death was more prevalent and long life more uncertain than today, so if a man was killed by accident or intent, the killer could be held liable for the “blood-price” of the victim, money to be paid to the family, typically collected by those responsible for them. In this case, the responsible person would often be Hrothgar, so his inability to collect the blood-price from Grendel was a great dishonor to him.

5). This is a quote from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which Gawain is put into a rather awkward position. He is commanded to stay at home by his host, and then the host goes hunting while his wife attempts to seduce Gawain. Gawain gets to try not to offend her while also attempting not to end up sleeping with her, the latter of obviously greater import than the former. His courtesy is a mark of his great worth as a knight, and his ability to avoid either being rude to or sleeping with the naked chick that keeps climbing into bed with him is quite impressive.

10). Another from the unknown genius behind Gawain, this time describing the five-pointed star on the shield of Gawain. It is described both as a Celtic knot and as a memorial of the golden age of Israel under Solomon, both a Christ figure and the wisest king ever to have lived. This link between ancient Judaism and “modern” Christianity is quite interesting: the Christian theologians from Paul through the present maintain that Christianity is the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s faithful Judaism, while the Jews maintain (from AD 70 and particularly AD 94) that the Christian goyim (גימ) are wholly separate from them and especially accursed due to their inactivity during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Herodian temple (often considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world).
The five points represent a number of things, including two lists straight out of the Roman Catholic Church. This further demonstrates the thorough Christianity/Catholicism of the Medieval British world.

2). This selection and selection 15 are both from Malory’s MorteDarthur, which was a compilation of various stories of (usually) unknown authorship. This is one of our only sections in prose, due to the earlier works having to have been memorized. This also contributes greatly to the more minute focus in particular of the metaphysical poets over and against the great epic scope of the previous poets: when precision is possible, spending two hours debating which word to use is justifiable, but when the next Philistine to get his grubby hands on your work is just going to forget or change it, the exact sound isn’t quite so essential.
This is rather a tragic statement of Arthur’s. He is fully correct in realizing that, while his Guinevere was “expendable” to his court and way of life, Lancelot (and the many knights that went with him) was not. He is not saying that his wife is useless in comparison or anything like that; he is recognizing the death of a golden era, and the future proves him horrifically correct.

6). When dealing with this translation of Geoffrey Chaucer, I think it best to start by interpreting. So here’s a new translation (rough and neither versified or metered):

Nevertheless, while I have time and space,
Before I go any further with my story,
I think it would be good to talk,
And tell you all the circumstances
Of each of the people (or at least how they appeared):
Which ones, what rank
And what kind of order,
And with a knight will I begin.

I’m also not entirely sure how to explain the significance of this to the rest of the text. Chaucer is simply explaining what he’s going to do before he does it. So, it does inform us that there’s an omniscient narrator, but that’s no surprise. Further yet, I’m not entirely certain why Chaucer started with the knight, though, as all of this is speculation anyway, I would guess that it’s due to his massive genius when it came to human psychology. He was writing when the knight was already a type that was becoming obsolete: the cities and the merchant classes that arose in them were undermining the feudal order. The increased population increased the possibility of travel and trade, and for the first time, people had a real chance to actually improve their own lot in life, to grab their bootstraps and pull hard. So as the knights were fading, the idealism about them was arising, and thus Chaucer begins with them, as Cooper began with the frontier and good old Louis began with the Wild West: the reality had just passed, and therefore it must have been better than what we have now.

13). Everyman, the earliest extant copy of which dates to 1530, has delightful lines and is about as subtle and covert as a Mormon missionary (it’s the nametags and backpacks that give them away). It’s about you (hence the title). It’s about the future. It’s like a (far superior) precursor to Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames, and the fact that it’s actually effective is enough to drive even a Christian hedonist such as myself to nihilism.
In it, each thing in life is stripped of all possible worth and revealed to be hollow and worthless in the light of eternity. Which is a valuable lesson, yes, and is something that our filthy rich American drama queen generation could stand to learn a bit more thoroughly than we have as of yet, yes. I know. But life is good, meat is tasty, and mud between the toes is a perfect refutation of any Gnostic asceticism that I’ve yet found.
Anyway, this is worldly goods announcing that they tend to destroy men’s souls; that men belong to them and not the other way around. Men are transitory, but the wealth goes on unchanged; wealth is the redwood tree in the forest, and the men that “possess” it are nothing more than a slight flavor on the air. If goods save one man, they destroy a thousand, and we can’t take them with us.

7). This, the first line of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, is presented by our Norton Anthology as a pro-feminist line, immediately after it presents Chaucer, the author of the line, as a product of his misogynistic culture. Which I, at least, find entertaining. But I don’t typically look too deeply for meanings in things like this: when Mark Twain says he doesn’t want any of that nonsense about the Mississippi representing life, I tend to take it at face value, regardless of what modern interpreters have done to “correct” his meaning. Today’s critics and translators seem to be afflicted with some type of chronological snobbery and spend half their time “improving” works that they can’t even understand. And I won’t even start on filmmakers.
I think this is quite as simple as it sounds: even if there were no authority in this world, this woman’s experience gives her the right to speak of marriage. The passage that follows is highly ironic, quite cynical, and contains a wry wisdom that Chaucer gives to this foolish woman, allowing her to both confirm and satirize her judges. Personally, I think he kinda liked her. In any case, he was probably closer to Donne in his fondness for the ladies than we tend to think of him, and Donne seems to have inherited some of his wry cynicism that is delivered with either entirely too much asperity or (at times) overt joviality to be easily mistaken for a mordant bitterness.

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