Friday, April 4, 2008

'Twas Brillig

Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye,
The borgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes,
The tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght
Was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe.
Hit was Ennias the athel and his highe kynde
That sithen depreced provinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneghe of al the wele in the West Iles...

No, that is neither Esperanto nor border Spanish/English, not some conflation of vowel, accent and consonant that will inform the language as it evolves from American English to Internet English. That is the opening of the original text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, not as set to paper by the original and, alas, anonymous poet, but probably by some contemporary scribe who made a copy. Fortunately, the copy remains intact, transporting us back to the time when our language had a more Germanic touch to it than it does now.

For most of my reading life, I have been fascinated by this historical time, particularly persistent in trying to convince various institutions to allow me to teach a course in Chaucer, spending some unsuccessful time trying to teach myself Anglo-Saxon, although some success is manifest whenever I knock over a cup of coffee or drop something balanced precariously on something else I'm carrying.

The opening above translates like this:

Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the traitor who contrived such betrayal thereCheck Spelling
was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth;
so Aeneas, it was, with his boble warriors
went conquoring abroad, laying claim to the crowns
of the wealthiest kingdoms in the western world...

The translator is the scholar/novelist Simon Armitage, who has, to the ex tent I've read, done a remarkable job of making the language clear, evocative, and yet emblematic of the original language in use by the original poet when the narrative was first written. I'm reading this new translation because I admire the many earlier versions I have read, learning a bit more about the original and its language with each new version. It had not occurred to me before this version that the original begins with the sack of Troy, the bare bones of The Iliad. Nor had it remained in my mind that the opening also referenced another of the so-called classical pillars of Western literature, The Aeneid, of Cano arma virumque fame (I sing of arms and the man)by Virgil, which was later made much fun of by G.B. Shaw in his play, Arms and the Man.

It is interesting to speculate that the Gawain poet may well have been showing off; he was certainly an educated poet to have heard of the Trojan War and, indeed, the Aeneid; he may also have been trying to appeal to a particular audience with those references which. having been made, are dropped forthwith in favor of the present story, which involves King Arthur and his crew, having a bit of a Christmas gala when into their midst rides a strange, unearthly knight, all in green, seeming as odd and menacing to the Arthurian Round Table as Marlon Brando's Johnny Strabler character in the film, The Wild One.

Revivications of older works have, in modern times, resulted in some notable failures. King Kong comes to mind, along with legions of filmic remakes including the transmogrification of Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven although the Japanese version of Macbeth played well enough to leave a lasting impression, and some-but-not-all transformations of Shakespeare plays into other settings or time frames than they were intended have survived well, even to the point of providing fresh insight into the original as well as leaving a sense of some relevance to our present time.

I can imagine no better way for a writer to "get" a work from the past than to do a modernization of it, a thought that immediately causes me to wonder how Alexander Pope's magnificent jape, The Rape of the Lock, might play out as a contemporary venture. My current sense of having found the distinguished restaurant or splendid gift shop or used book store is The Canterbury Tales by he who was probably as urbane as Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, and Evelyn Waugh, rolled up into one, Geoffrey Chaucer, in many ways the father of our language of poetry, humor, and irony. As a youngster, just past the having learned to read stage, I recall weekly supplements in the Sunday Examiner, the morning Hearst paper in Los Angeles. There were the Charles Lamb synopses of Shakespeare plays and someone--I forget who--doing modern readable Canterbury Tales. There was also Krazy Kat, but that was another matter, or perhaps not, now that I think of it. I was affected and effected by those surreal tales of whim, pathos, and magic to the point where in my head Ignatz Mouse, Krazy Kat, and Offisa Pup were as real as the Knight, the pardoner, the Wife of Bath, and the entire Canterbury-bound ensemble cast.

Dream on. And watch out for slithy toves.

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