The History of the English Church and People – Bede

Here’s my serious reading for the year – one of the first primary sourced histories written out of England.

Bede was a monk who lived nearly his entire life between two monasteries in Northumberland, so there’s a decided religious slant to the narrative, but he’s very careful to give as well rounded a picture of the various secular doings of the age as well.     (It’s mostly Saxon kings, because let’s face it – kings always get the most press where anything historical is concerned.)

This book does concern the time before England was truly England – we’re talking after the Romans left, when the Britons and Saxons were still wrestling for control over land (non-spoiler spoiler if you’ve ever paid attention in history class – the Saxons won).     So we’re talking about various kings of smaller lands.    Bede being from Northumberland, there’s perhaps a bit more about the kings from northern England.     As well as plenty about St. Cuthbert – the local exulted saint.

It’s an interesting read – he did get as many primary sources as he could get his hands on – letters from the Pope to bishops in England, and the like.       There’s also a lot of flavor for the day – the thing that sticks out in my mind the most is that the Celtic church (up in Scotland), had apparently gotten it into their head that they were going to hold Easter two weeks later than the regular Catholic church, and Bede Did Not Approve.     Seriously, some note of disapproval is in almost every other chapter for a stretch.      There’s even a full chapter where the pope explains to one of the Scottish kings why their way of calculating Easter is correct.    (I skimmed.      It was detailed.    Very detailed.)       It’s all very distant and quaint in its own way.

Definitely an interesting read if you enjoy history, and don’t mind wading through a more archaic style of writing.

A Celtic Miscelleny – Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson

This book is a collection of translations from all the Celtic languages, meant to give a flavor for Celtic literature.    It’s most heavy on Irish, Scottish and Welsh, but does bring in a bit of Manx, Cornish and Breton.

The stories are loosely grouped by subjects – some are general, like Nature, but there are also categories for Celtic Magic, their particular take on religion (both old and Christian), and their bardic tradition.       It’s a nice mix – and there are notes at the beginning of each section to show where pieces from other sections cross over.

I ended up flagging several pieces – two in the Nature section, one in Elegy and one in Religion.      I really enjoyed the mix, and it did seem like a good survey of Celtic themes in translation.

The Death of King Arthur

Read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

I went a bit old-school in the folklore department for this next challenge selection.

The Death of King Arthur is a thirteenth century French version of the last days of King Arthur (though the text itself claims it’s written by a Welshman).   It’s the third book of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, and picks up after everyone has returned from the quest to find the Holy Grail.

Lancelot is really the main character of this story – it’s his affair with the queen (that he had apparently sworn to avoid in the last part of the story) that drives the action, and ultimately leads to the downfall of Arthur.   This was a apparently one of Thomas Malory’s main inspirations for his Le Morte d’Arthur (which I have read, and it really did give this book a certain air of déjà vu).

As older texts go, this is pretty readable – there are certain non-modern conventions that are a little weird, but I found it far easier to read then Chretien de Troyes.   The chivalrous relationships between the knights and the king are also a bit strange from a modern perspective, but if you just go with it, they make sense.   (It helps I took a Medieval European History class in college – a little context makes the reading easier).

The other thing that takes a little getting used to is that Arthur is a pretty passive character – you would think that everyone’s accusations against Lancelot and the Queen would greatly offend him, and he’s want to get to the bottom of things, but his nephews (mainly Agravain), have to drive him to finally do something about Lancelot.    And, once Lancelot is found out, and there’s a whole lot of grief caused by what follows, it’s his nephew Gawain that makes him go out after Lancelot.    Lancelot really comes out the strongest character in this particular version of the story, for better or worse.

To sum up: if you’ve read Le Morte d’Arthur, you could skip this book – it doesn’t really cover new ground.   But, it’s also highly readable for one of the older Arthur works, so it certainly won’t be too much of a burden if you do decide to give it a go.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffey Chaucer – Adapted by Seymore Chwast

Read for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

I’ll admit to enjoying this graphic novel adaptation purely for the front cover, and back and front inside covers, which portray the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales as a crowd on motorcycles. If that kind of thing offends your sense, don’t pick up this adaptation.

This graphic novel manages to capture all of the Canterbury Tales in abbreviated form, with drawing and modern language. The only truly modern device is the motorcycles (which I’ll admit, I don’t see much reason for, even if they are fun) – everything else is straight out of the original. Well, minus the Middle English, and much summarized.

For that reason, this would make a good intro to the tales. It’s certainly not to the depth of the original stories, but captures a flavor of them, and the language is certainly more accessible. There’s a great undercurrent of humor as well. Really, this would be a great teaching tool with teenagers. I’m pretty sure I would have been motivated to dive a little deeper into the full length tales, had I read this when I was that age.

The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

Read for the Really Old Classics Reading Challenge.

The Decameron was written in the 14th century, and frames 100 short stories as stories told by a group of ten friends over ten days when they have escaped to the country while the plague ravages Florence. It’s known for its bawdy tales, as well as being the source for a number of later writers, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a long while now. The version I managed to get my hands on is a selection of twenty of the stories, without the any of the narrative frame. Having whetted my appetite on a few of the stories, I will definitely go back for more at some point.

What I hadn’t realized is how many writers were influenced by the stories in this book. “A Wager over Virtue (Una scommesa sulla virtu)”, in which a husband makes a wager over his wife’s chastity, was the source for many of the plot points of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. “The Pot of Basil (Il vaso di basilico)”, was the foundation of Keat’s poem Isabella: or, the Pot of Basil. In addition, Chaucer found inspiration for several of the stories from The Canterbury Tales, with the most notable probably being “Patient Griselda”, which was the inspiration for “The Clerk’s Tale”, and was immediately familiar. So it was extremely interesting to take a tour through these stories and see the influence they had.

Historical significance aside, some of the stories are just plain fun. The first story “Master Ciappelletto’s Confession (La confessione di ser Ciappelleto)” is the tale a of a truly bad man, and how he manages to trick a very devote, holy monk into giving him a Christian burial when he fully doesn’t deserve it. In a nod to the bawdy, this anthology included the tale “Putting the Devil Back in Hell (Rimetterer il diavolo in inferno)” which if nothing else indicates why beautiful, naïve young women should not be hanging around with holy hermits. There were also several examples of stories about a foolish man named Calandrino, who was born to be made fun of.

I really enjoyed this book, and am sorry I wasn’t able to get my hands on a fuller version in time to read it for this challenge, but I definitely plan to find an unabridged edition at some point in the future. It’s that good a book.

Really Old Classics Challenge 11/1/2009 – 2/28/2010

This reading challenge immediately caught my eye. I have a number of classics in my reading queue, and it seemed like the perfect excuse to dust off that portion of my virtual TBR pile. The challenge is to read just one book. (There’s a higher level to read four books, but I tend to read classics slowly, so I won’t be going that route.) There’s also an extra credit to read a retelling of a classic story. That idea intrigues me, so if I find any interesting books in that vein, I’ll do the extra credit portion of the challenge.

The following are the books I have in my Paperspine queue that would fit the challenge. We’ll see which one of them shows up first:

Ecclesiastical History of the English People
The Decameron
The Journey Through Wales
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
The Heptameron
Troilus and Criseyde
Orkneyigna Saga
History of the Britons

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Seth Grahame-Smith

Jane Austen is either spinning in her grave, or laughing her ass off from heaven over this book. I’m sure many purists are full of righteous indignation over it, and I wouldn’t recommend it to my co-worker that reads Jane Austen, because I know the zombies aren’t her cup of tea, but this is a must read for any Jane Austen fan that also appreciates a good genre book.

What I enjoyed most is that author kept the original flavor of P&P quite well, even using a great deal of the original dialogue. When things deviate, they make sense. I was quite happy to read of the escapades of the Bennett sisters, defenders of Hertfordshire in the fight against the undead. I won’t go too much into the story, because it’s the differences from the original book here that make it fun. I will only say that it was a really great read (causing me to stay up way past my bedtime, in fact), perhaps best encapsulated by the last of the “Reader’s Discussion Guide” questions from the back of the book:

“10. Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?” Read the book in the spirit of this, and you’ll enjoy it immensely.

My one small quibble with the book is the illustrations. After retaining the flavor of the original so well, having illustrations done with the characters in a later style of clothing than the proper Regency dress was a bit disappointing. I’m not saying it killed my enjoyment of the book, but everything else was done so well, I’m surprised that this wasn’t.