Wednesday, July 31, 2013

More Monkish Humor

After a lot of book reviews, I’m aiming for some light-hearted fresh-scraped vellum humor for this week, thanks to the folks at Horrible Histories (and YouTube, of course - you can watch it here too).

Incidentally, in the Middle Ages vellum was made from calfskin, and parchment was made from sheepskin. I even included a mildly amusing exchange about this in Enoch’s Device when Ciarán and Dónall are with the eunuch Talid in the Great Library of Córdoba:
“I don’t smell any vellum,” Ciarán observed, noticing only the fragrance of sandalwood.
“Of course not. We use paper.”
“I suppose they don’t have it in your infidel homeland,” Talid said. “It’s made from wood instead of calfskin. It’s cleaner and far smoother to write on. And it makes our calves much happier than in your part of the world.”
Hope you enjoy the videos, and let me know if you have a favorite clip from the folks at Horrible Histories!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pirates & The Caribbean Part II

For the third year in a row, I plan to spend my summer vacation in the Bahamas. It’s hard not to like the Caribbean with its perfect beaches and wonderful resorts, but as a fan of history, the Caribbean always makes me think about pirates. Maybe it was the Disneyland ride I used to adore long before Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow, but for me it always comes back to those rum-swigging buccaneers. So two years ago I reviewed Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Pirate Latitudes, and this year I’m focusing on the most classic pirate story of all time: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The Coolest Treasure Island Cover I've Seen By Far!
After probably 30-some years, I re-read Treasure Island, this time with my eight-year-old daughter, and it was an interesting experience after half-a-lifetime of reading adventure tales. The first thing that struck me was how much dialect there is in this book. Half the time it was hard to understand what the heck Long John Silver and his pirate friends were saying to the poor, and much more well-spoken, protagonist Jim Hawkins. Here’s a good example from Mr. Silver’s mouth: “Not much worth to fight, you ain’t. P’r’aps you can understand King George’s English. I’m cap’n here by ‘lection.” I don’t know how I overlooked this as a kid, but it has far more dialect than I’m used to. Yet given that it’s a classic, that must have worked back in 1883, so I can’t be too critical.

Can you believe they named a fast-food place after this guy?
The story also contains less action than I’m used to from reading fiction written in the 20th and 21st centuries, but back in 1883, Treasure Island may have been that generation’s “Star Wars.” The plot is fairly straightforward. Young Jim Hawkins, who works with his mother at an English inn called the Admiral Benbow, meets a drunken old seaman named Billy Bones who is fearful of a mysterious one-legged man. After Billy dies, Jim discovers his old treasure map (with an “X” that marks the spot). He shows it to Dr. Livsey and Squire Trewlaney, a pair of gentlemen willing to take risks for the sake of adventure and a chest full of gold, and soon finds himself on a sea voyage to Skeleton Island. Unfortunately, the crew hired by Trewlaney – who seriously needs to work on his background checks – is comprised of former pirates who have been seeking the treasure for some time. Even worse, they are led by the one-legged man that Billy so feared: Long John Silver (“shiver my timbers!”). Naturally, a mutiny ensues, and before long, it’s up to young Jim to save the day.
Take that Israel Hands!
Almost every pirate cliché you can think of derived from this novel, including the peg-legged captain, the talking parrot, the map with a great big X, and “yo-ho and a bottle of rum!” No wonder it’s a classic. It did to pirates what Tolkien did to dwarves and elves. There were enough harrowing moments to keep me engaged, despite the awkward dialect and a penchant for “telling,” instead of “showing,” which seems to have been rampant in 19th century writing. There was more violence than I remembered, which made it less than ideal for my eight–year-old, but no one can fault Mr. Stevenson for that. I’m glad I re-read it, and I understand why it’s so famous, but I must say, I think I’d prefer a more recently crafted pirate tale. That said, it’s hard to be too hard on a classic.

Along with Pirate Latitudes, this makes a whopping two novels I’ve read about pirates and the Caribbean. If I go to the Bahamas next year, I’ll surely need one more, so any good recommendation will be much appreciated!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review – Hawk Quest

This week, I'm pleased to feature a review of Robert Lyndon’s Hawk Quest by guest reviewer Bill Brockman. Bill is an avid reader of historical fiction, but he’s also devoted his life to public service as a Battalion Chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and a 31-year part-time airman in the Air National Guard. Bill recently returned from a trip to Europe where he discovered this intriguing novel. His review follows after this very cool image of the book's cover.

I saw this thick paperback at a bookstore in a small English town this summer. It is the first novel by the English author, who has written on history and exploration, according to the brief biography. The cover calls it “an epic novel of the Norman Conquests” which isn’t really the case. I suppose the publisher thinks this will catch people’s eye with an historical event they’re familiar with, especially in England.

Actually, the novel takes place in 1072, six years after the Norman Conquest, and only the initial chapters take place in the England recently taken by the Normans under King William. The sprawling story takes the main characters from the Italian Alps to Northumbria, thence to Iceland, Greenland, the North Cape of Norway, the White Sea and Rus, the Varangian Way down to the Black Sea, and Anatolia in modern Turkey. As I noted, it’s sprawling.

Here's the cover of Bill's UK edition.

Vallon, a Frankish knight turned fugitive, comes across the Greek medical student Hero and his master Cosmas of Byzantium while sheltering from a violent storm. Vallon is headed south fleeing France, while the others are headed north toward England. Cosmas is dying, but first he passes a secret to Hero that leads Vallon to change his plans and send him and Hero on a quest that will span the continent. Norman knight Walter is a prisoner of the Seljuks following the battle of Manzikert in Anatolia. Following medieval custom, a ransom demand is being sent to his family in northern England with Cosmas as the messenger. Hero convinces Vallon to join him with the promise of riches unspecified. He also passes him a ring with certain “powers” that Vallon cannot remove from his finger.

The quest eventually comes down to delivering four extremely rare white gyrfalcons to the Seljuk Emir Suleiman. These can only to be found in Greenland. The rest of the novel follows the adventurers as they gain fellow travelers Walter’s brothers Drogo and Richard, German soldier Raul, mute orphan English boy Wayland and his dog, orphan English girl Syth, English sailor Garrick, Icelandic “princess” Caitlin and her suitor Helgi, and assorted others. Don’t ever assume that a character’s importance guarantees their survival either. Oh, and Wayland manages to capture six precious white gyrfalcons, including a remarkable “haggard” that will feature prominently in the tale. A number of the travelers have secrets that will come out, some to great consequence.

The journey must contend with Viking pirates, Cumin nomads, devious Russian nobles, and all manner of people as they journey through the Europe of the late 11th Century. In the end, nothing is quite as it seems and surprises await at every turn.

This could have actually been 3 or 4 separate books in my opinion. I count readers fortunate that it’s all included in one 750 page volume. The ending seems to hint at a sequel, but that’s for another day.

This book has a large map of the lands traveled, that could have benefitted from some more detail. Also, a glossary of falconry terms would have been highly appreciated. Overall, it’s a great adventure story set in a time about which most of us know little. I recommend it for those with the time to invest in reading it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur reminded me of another work of Arthurian fiction that’s related to Tolkien and has been stuck in my the back of my bookshelf for years. That work is Tolkien’s translation of a fourteenth century poem titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The famous poem is the work of an unnamed English author who may have lived around the time of Chaucer. Only a single copy of the poem survives in the British Museum, but Tolkien translated it from medieval English and his translation was published in 1975, a few years after his death.

Small knight, big green man!
In the introduction to his translation, Tolkien calls the poem “a fairy tale for adults, full of life and colour.” The poem is written as an “alliterative romance,” but it reads a bit more like a modern day story than the Old English prose Tolkien employed for The Fall of Arthur. Speaking of Arthur, he’s but a minor character in this tale, a king whose “youth made him so merry with the moods of a boy, he liked a lighthearted life ...” Sir Gawain is young too – the youngest of Arthur’s knights, in fact – and he’s the singular protagonist of this tale.

The story begins at a New Year’s feast at Camelot when in barges the Green Knight – a gigantic, mysterious horseman whose flesh and clothes glow with a green hue. He issues a morbid challenge: a chance to strike a blow against him with his very own axe in exchange for the Green Knight delivering a return blow a year later, in a place called the Green Chapel. When none of Arthur’s knights answer the challenge, the young king is prepared to strike the blow himself, until the noble Gawain rises to the task. Gawain strikes hard with the Green Knight’s axe, severing his head. But undeterred, the Green Knight picks up his severed head and warns Gawain that his time will come a year from now when the Green Knight will deliver his own merciless blow.

Mr. Virtuous himself: Sir Gawain
Fulfilling his end of the bargain, Gawain eventually embarks on a journey into Northern Wales to find the Green Chapel. His journey takes him to a castle, where he meets its wily lord and his beautiful wife. While the lord is off hunting, his wife tries mightily to seduce Gawain, but being a virtuous and Christian knight, he steadfastly refuses her advances. He refuses her gifts too, until she offers him her silk girdle, which she claims has the power to prevent physical harm – not a bad thing to have when an undead Green Knight is waiting to behead you!

A big reveal comes in the poem’s climax when Gawain goes to meet his fate before the Green Knight at an overgrown barrow mound that serves at the chapel. There’s a twist at the end, and it drives home the poem’s theme, which alludes to biblical tales and even mentions Adam, Solomon, and David at one point. Even a little research about this poem will reveal that its message and its myriad of symbols – the green man, the garter, and even Gawain’s shield, which is emblazoned with a golden pentacle – have been subject to a number of differing interpretations over time. The poem’s ending and all of the symbolism left me pondering its meaning as well. And in my book, that’s often the sign of a good tale.

The original manuscript penned way back when ...

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

Some of the finest words ever written, on July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

– The Declaration of Independence

Happy Fourth of July everyone! And next week, I hope to be back with another post on Arthurian fiction!