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Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

Currently reading

Nonlinear Time Series Analysis
Thomas Schreiber, Holger Kantz
Progress: 129/320 pages
The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future
Peter Moore
Basics of Plasma Astrophysics
Claudio Chiuderi, Marco Velli
Progress: 58/250 pages
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena / Stories and Songs (The Library of America)
Brian Attebery, Ursula K. Le Guin
Progress: 359/700 pages
A Student's Guide to Lagrangians and Hamiltonians
Patrick Hamill
Progress: 7/180 pages
Complete Poems, 1904-1962
E.E. Cummings
Progress: 110/1102 pages
The Complete Plays and Poems
E.D. Pendry, J.C. Maxwell, Christopher Marlowe
She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies (Oxford World's Classics)
Henry Fielding, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith
Progress: 76/448 pages
Gravitation (Physics Series)
Kip Thorne;Kip S. Thorne;Charles W. Misner;John Archibald Wheeler;John Wheeler
Progress: 48/1215 pages
I Am a Cat
Graeme Wilson, Aiko Ito, Sōseki Natsume
Progress: 357/638 pages

Cedilla, Adam Mars Jones

Cedilla  - Adam Mars-Jones

The second instalment of John Cromer's life story picks up where the first left off, with our youthful white British suburban Hindu starting his A-Level studies. Unfortunately, this continuation of the school career is very much more of the same thing covered at length in the first volume and it gets a bit dull.

 

Things liven up considerably when Cromer goes off to India on a spiritual quest, then upon returning heads to Downs College, Cambridge where life proves to be neither easy nor stereotypical and being a wheel chair user makes one prone to being kidnapped, exploited and dropped down stairs...

 

We're left on a bit of a physical and emotional cliff-hanger and who knows when a Volume 3 might appear to tell us where John and his adapted Mini might go next?

Reading progress update: I've read 204 out of 1327 pages.

The Riverside Chaucer - Geoffrey Chaucer

The Shipman's Tale.

Reading progress update: I've read 658 out of 782 pages.

The Sagas of Icelanders - Martin S. Regal, Ruth C. Ellison, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz, Andrew Wawn, Anthony Maxwell, Katrina C. Attwood, Robert Kellogg, Bernard Scudder, George Clark, Jane Smiley, Various

"In the summer Eirik left to settle in the country he had found, which he called Greenland, as he said people would be attracted there if it had a favourable name."

 

False advertising has been around at least a thousand years!

Reading progress update: I've read 600 out of 733 pages.

Cedilla  - Adam Mars-Jones

The other Boat Race: Eight pubs, eight pints, one hour, no peeing. John is volunteered as cox.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, Andrews and Waldron (eds.)

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: - Ronald Waldron, Unknown

Pearl
Previously familiar to me from Tolkien's translation.

It's tough going for the uninitiated, using original spelling (i.e. thorn, yogh, "u" for "v" etc.) and the dialect makes it even more difficult. I found it harder going even than Piers Plowman which itself is more demanding than Chaucer's dialect.

The poem is a dream-vision, as is Piers Plowman. Such visions also occur in Middle English Romances, e.g. the Sege of Melayne but they are of starkly contrasting nature. Piers and Pearl are both pious works, tackling serious theological questions and inhabiting a Christian space of serious reflection on Jesus' moral message, where-as the Romances tend towards psychopathic mass murder of Saracens/Muslims as the way to go if you want to get to heaven...

Here the author describes a man finding comfort in a dream of his recently deceased young daughter having come to Heaven and everlasting joy. It seems more tender and personal than Piers, leading many to assume that the dreamer and the dead girl are in fact the author and his daughter. It's also more accessible than Piers in that the theological discussions are at least conducted in (Middle) English as opposed to the continual Latin Biblical quotes of Piers - it's also a lot shorter!

Whilst I feel that the author is essentially telling himself a fairy tale in order to assuage his own grief, I can appreciate his feelings of love and loss and unfairness and they are set down in a way that sounds delightful if you can get your ear well enough attuned.

Cleanness

I enjoyed this a lot more than Pearl. It's more or less a sermon on the necessity for "cleneness" of spirit if one wants to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, illustrated by three Old Testament tales; Noah and the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and finally The Writing on the Wall. Not being Christian, the framing sermon is of little interest to me, but the Bible stories were great, because of the way they were re-told. The poet feels no need to restrict himself to the limits of the source and adds details and imagery from both common folklore and his own imagination. These add a great deal and show off the author's impressive descriptive powers - powers that did not really shine through in Pearl because of its very limited and oft repeated palette of metaphor. Here, however, diverse and vivid imagery abounds, along with little details that delight, e.g. the idea of Lot's wife being used as a salt lick by cattle after she foolishly turns to look at the destruction of the cities behind her.

Patience
The shortest of the four poems in the manuscript has more in common with Cleanness than the other two, since it follows the same format of a sermon followed by an "examplum" Biblical story. Here we have the tale of Jonah retold in the same style as the stories appearing in Cleanness, with embellishments, delightful imagery (sailors holding Jonah's feet while the whale has his head in its mouth stands out) and a verve that lacks in the original source. I would strongly recommend starting here rather than with Pearl if you want to find out how good the Gawain Poet can be.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This is, of course, the main event; what brought me to be reading this book in the first place. Twice as long as the next longest poem in the manuscript, in four parts and comprised of 101 stanzas. It's fundamentally different in approach to the other three poems. It's neither a dream-vision nor a sermon with exempla. Instead it is a Romance. No, not one of those preposterous billionaire alpha-hole marries shy and retiring introvert romances, a knights and ladies and preposterous adventures Romance. It is, however, still deeply informed by Christianity. Going by the extant Middle English poetry, there were really two major strands of Christian philosophy in the Mediaeval period. One was a gung-ho "we're better than everyone else and we'll slaughter you if you disagree in order to prove it," approach as exemplified by Romances such as The Sege of Melayne, in which the clergy form their own army to fight Saracen invaders. Another was a philosophical and introspective approach involving serious Bible study with a focus on the moral teachings of Jesus in particular, as exemplified by the lengthy Piers Plowman. Now, Gawain and the Green Knight has all the trappings of a Romance, what with a giant green knight with a green horse who can survive being beheaded turning up at King Arthur's Court, cavemen living in the wilds, a mysterious castle in the back of beyond and a witch who lives there, but it also clearly takes Christianity more seriously than just a tribal label to fight for, "My God is better than your God!"

This is first advertised fairly early on by the symbolism of the pentagram on Gawain's shield and the portrait of the Virgin Mary on its inside, then made clear when Gawain, despairing of ever finding the Green Chapel, mired in the wilds, suffering from being away from civilisation for months and running out of time, prays to Mary and finds an unfamiliar castle soon after. But the whole adventure is a series of tests. The over-arching requirement to attend an appointment with what one can reasonably only expect to be one's own death is a test of honour and bravery and the quest to find the Green Chapel is a test of commitment in the face of physical suffering and danger, with no guarantee of success, that is only passed through an act of Christian faith. (The prayer to Mary.) After arriving at Bertilak's castle and being assured that the Green Chapel is nearby and he can rest and relax, Gawain is in fact even more thoroughly morally examined. He's wooed continuously by Bertilak's wife and tempted to cheat on a silly game he's agreed to play with Bertilak. The temptation is enormous because it could turn out to be the only way Gawain can survive beyond the next day - and he succumbs to speaking a lie in order to try to preserve his own life. Gawain passes every test he's put through except this one. All of this is about faith, Christian and chivalric virtue and courtly manners, not about conquering the infidel in the name of the Lord. This, in the context of three other poems that treat themes of faith and personal virtue as the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven leads me to the strong conviction that what we have here is a deliberate and conscious subversion of the populist, xenophobic, intolerant and mostly plain silly Romance form to the ends of serious Christian moral instruction, written by a devout believer. Which leads to the question of what lesson we are supposed to learn.

In the introduction, Andrews and Waldron point out that there are three views expressed about Gawain's lie/cheat in the swapping game:

Gawain's own view is that it is a disaster that has ruined his honour forever. Whilst he ruefully complains about how women through history have tempted men to ruin, with examples such as Adam and Eve and Sampson and Delilah (note - Biblical cases) he also says he is going to openly wear the girdle that cost him his honour as an antidote to future pride and a spur to greater humility. He doesn't seem to be seriously saying the moral fault lies with anybody but himself. And it's a major fault.

Bertilak, instigator of this whole series of events, who openly admits that they were deliberately intended as a test of Arthur's court and it's reputation, is more forgiving. He says that Gawain's lie/cheat was trivial in the circumstances and fully repaid by the cut to the neck Gawain received (which it's later hinted leaves a permanent scar). That was punishment enough, given the threat to Gawain's life and his passing of all the more serious tests. Gawain should forget about it - he and Arthur's court are vindicated.

Finally, the knights back home take the view that the whole adventure redounds greatly and solely to the benefit of the reputation of Arthur's court and don't take the girdle incident at all seriously.

Who was right? What did the Pearl Poet think? Tolkien, in the intro to his translation, infers that the point is that courtly manners are entirely secondary to genuine Christian morals and that the fact that Gawain is not seduced by Bertilak's wife is what really counts. This might well be true. The Poet certainly never overtly states an opinion to the contrary. I can't help thinking, though, that the fact that Gawain wears the girdle as a reminder of past failure is actually the key lesson, because it fits so well with what is going on in the other poems. What Gawain learns is greater humility and not to pride himself on his honour but to try to do better in the future. Striving for self-improvement and forgiveness of past failure are major moral tenets of non-fundamentalist interpretations of Jesus' message and that's what happens: Bertilak forgives and Gawain goes forward trying to do better in future. 

Overview of the whole book
Wow! I knew this was going to be a challenge but didn't think it could be tougher than Piers Plowman. In fact the only ways in which Piers was harder were in over-all length and the heavy use of Latin that I simply don't know at all. Reading all four poems was a really worth-while exercise not solely because each has its merits but because taking them together informs each one individually. This was especially true of Gawain and I strongly recommend reading it last, rather than skipping the others or reading them after. This also has the incidental benefit of the reader having developed some familiarity with the obscure and difficult dialect and spelling that make Chaucer look like a book for kindergardeners. Pearl is the dullest, though most personal and heart-felt, of all the poems and lacks the story-telling verve and exciting and varied imagery of the others, so maybe don't start there, either. The re-tellings of Bible stories are the highlights of the other two poems and some of the scenes and images in those will stay with me just as long as any of the crazy events in Gawain.

So - hard work but amply repaid and a long standing ambition achieved!

Reading progress update: I've read 300 out of 414 pages.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: - Ronald Waldron, Unknown

The Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak and explains that the whole thing was a test of the reputation of Arthur's court. All the magic was performed by Morgan Le Fey, who is the old lady living in Bertilak's castle. Gawain declines to meet her and goes back to Arthur's court where he is hailed as having increased the renown of Arthur and his court by  the adventure.

Reading progress update: I've read 590 out of 733 pages.

Cedilla  - Adam Mars-Jones

Cromer is exploited by another undergrad more motivated by her self-righteousness than any genuine desire to improve the plight of the disabled and suffers "Does he take sugar?" syndrome. Also, is dropped down some stairs when the police raid a student protest about...something.

Reading progress update: I've read 1304 out of 1344 pages.

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

A Doctor comes up with a scheme to fix the gaoler's daughter that's just about as bonkers as anything said daughter has done or said!

Reading progress update: I've read 296 out of 414 pages.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: - Ronald Waldron, Unknown

The Green Knight says Gawain can keep the girdle as a memento of his adventure and should come back to the castle to spend the rest of the day celebrating New Year.

Reading progress update: I've read 1303 out of 1344 pages.

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

Emilia can't choose between Arcite and Palomon despite knowing Arcite when he was in disguise and never having spoken properly to Palomon.

Reading progress update: I've read 642 out of 782 pages.

The Sagas of Icelanders - Martin S. Regal, Ruth C. Ellison, Terry Gunnell, Keneva Kunz, Andrew Wawn, Anthony Maxwell, Katrina C. Attwood, Robert Kellogg, Bernard Scudder, George Clark, Jane Smiley, Various

Bjarni sights land along the North American coast four times but never goes ashore. Upon his return home he was "criticised" for this.

SPOILER ALERT!

Reading progress update: I've read 294 out of 414 pages.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: - Ronald Waldron, Unknown

The Green Knight swings his axe and hits Gawain but only just hard enough to cut the skin of the neck and make our hero bleed. He reveals that Bertilak and he are one and the same and that he only hurt Gawain even that much because of his cheating on the swapping game. Also that he sent his own wife to tempt Gawain.

 

Gawain is all, "Woe is me! My honour is in shreds!"
Bertilak says, " You're over-reacting, dude! Your life was under threat. A bitty little lie like that is understandable in the circumstances."

Reading progress update: I've read 524 out of 733 pages.

Cedilla  - Adam Mars-Jones

Stinky flowers!

Reading progress update: I've read 1302 out of 1344 pages.

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

The gaoler's daughter has gone, to use the technical term, completely bonkers.

Reading progress update: I've read 290 out of 414 pages.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: - Ronald Waldron, Unknown

Gawain flinches before the expected blow; the Green Knight taunts him, saying that he did not flinch in King Arthur's house. Gawain points out that there's a slight difference - Gawain can't stick his own head back on if it is removed!

 

This scene racks up the tension - what's going to happen? Will the girdle work? Previous poems in the manuscript the poet's genius for imagery but this shows his genius for narrative.

 

We are getting right down to the crux of the plot, now. If you don't know the story and don't want it spoiled, you should probably not read any further updates.

Cut-throat Celts (Horrible Histories) - Terry Deary

This just arrived courtesy of http://brokentune.booklikes.com/ 

Thanks!