Thursday, September 14, 2017

Not Everything Is Open To Interpretation

Reading Is Like a Puzzle
Language is a fun but convoluted thing. For example: emotions are real things that affect our lives, but when it comes to putting what one feels into words (even just words thought rather than spoken aloud or written out), it’s not always easy to thoroughly and accurately describe those feelings.

If we can’t even use words to explain these things to ourselves, it’s no wonder that we have difficulties communicating with each other! Luckily in most cases we can rely not just on words, but also on gesture, inflection, tone of voice, facial expression, to explain what our words mean.

What also helps is if we’re talking to a friend or family member or coworker who knows us, and therefore can fill in the gaps or “autocorrect” any mistakes in speech or writing that we might make. This is why, when at a loss for the right word, we can say to them, “Oh, you know what I mean!” and assume that yes, they do know, or at least can make an educated guess.

So reading, in addition to being symbols made of lines and dots on paper and screen to be deciphered into words, assigns the additional task to the reader of interpreting the words into actual meaning. It’s communication without the safety net of hearing the writer’s voice or seeing their face or gestures. Sometimes the reader has no knowledge of the writer at all, and so can’t interpret sincerity from irony with any real confidence.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Mabinogion - Sir Owain the Jerk Knight

If Sir Gawain is my favorite Knight of the Round Table, his cousin Owain is the opposite. It’s not just that, in later stories, Owain is portrayed as this easy-going nice-guy character who has to deal with his churlish cousin Gawain’s jealousy of his obvious superiority…although that has a lot to do with it, too.

It’s that, much as the storytellers seem to admire Owain, as I’m reading about him I can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a jerk. Especially to ladies.

Here’s a handy list to make my point:
1)  Falls in love and promises to marry lady. Goes off questing instead of marrying her.
2)  Stays at a place hanging out with friends for three years instead of three months. How can you even make that kind of mistake?
3)  After six years he finally gets around to marrying his lady.
4) Outlives his wife so he can conveniently be paired up with all the other maidens he encounters in his stories.
5)  This little line (which I admit is the fault of the author and not Owain, but still conveys the sort of attitude he seems to have):

“…And she was his wife as long as she lived.”

How lovely.

Owain isn’t just a jerk to ladies. He also is super arrogant and melodramatic when it comes to his fellow knights. Upon returning from a quest, he shows up in Camelot just in time for a tournament to determine the greatest knight in the realm.

(Just for the record, King Arthur himself is the greatest fighter among them, but as King he’s not allowed to enter tournaments and instead is relegated to judging them. However, if you’re reading Arthurian legends and a Black Knight shows up, most likely this is King Arthur in disguise.)

Instead of entering the tournament under his own name, Owain thinks it hilarious apparently to show up in strange armor and therefore unrecognizable even to his own relatives. This way he can defeat them, picking them off their horses with his lance one by one, without the risk of them not giving him birthday gifts or sending Christmas cards. It also has the deleterious effect of causing all the knights to hate him and conspire to kill him. It’s usually just by chance that his true identity is revealed before one of his own relatives slays him—Gawain, usually, in an attempt by the storyteller to make Gawain look like a villain for almost murdering poor wonderful Owain.

Although Owain is by no means the only knight to do this in various Arthurian legends, this is usually one of the hallmark scenes in any telling or retelling of his adventures. Hail the conquering hero, who returns incognito to beat up all his friends and relatives!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Mabinogion - Introduction

The Mabinogion is compilation of medieval British (specifically Welsh) stories of love, war, and magic. Although there are many references to Arthurian legends, this compilation includes a variety of other tales as well. Although probably not as well-known as Mallory’s Le Morte D’arthur, The Mabinogion nevertheless has had a lasting impact on literature. To reference some past blog posts where I discussed this influence, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is one example, and Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain another.

To the contemporary audiences of the 12-13th centuries or even before, this was their form of entertainment. Like television today, these oral recitations (or, once the stories were finally written down, read-alouds) had to serve in many roles: Romance, action, mystery, fantasy, philosophy, history, and perhaps even a little theology.

It takes a shift in values to understand how original audiences received these stories. To the modern reader, many of these heroes come across as meatheads and braggarts. Take Sir Kynon:

“I was the only son of my mother and father, and I was exceedingly aspiring and my daring was very great. I thought there was no enterprise in the world too mighty for me…”

Wow. Humble much?