Monday, September 26, 2016

The Vow of Silence in Chretien de Troyes' "Erec et Enide"

One of my favorite things to read as a teenager was Arthurian Romance cycles.  In addition to the adventure and heroism found in Greek epic poetry, Arthurian mythology holds a sort of mysterious quality in its tone.  These are not simply stories of battles for honor, glory, and country.  These are also stories of individuals embarking into the great unknown of life, questing for legendary objects such as the Holy Grail, which they may or may not succeed in obtaining.  This is the sort of thing that fascinates me, because it is a sort of allegory for life: we often embark into the unknown of the future, and our goals may or may not be realistic.

But as it says on the tin, "Arthurian Romance" cycles also include romance.  This is not so much the romance of today's Hallmark movies--though perhaps both are surreal in their idealism--but that of the French court of the time.  Romance had less to do with love leading to marriage and family, and more about a man's undying devotion to a lady from afar,* often proving it by beating other knights in tournaments in her honor or going on lengthy expeditions for something she requested of him.

One of the main proponents of the French courtier definition of Romance was Chretien de Troyes. Even those who don't recognize his name will have at least a passing familiarity with a character he popularized in his retelling of Arthurian legends: Lancelot du Lac.  The drama of Lancelot with King Arthur's wife Guenevere is the epitome of courtly romance, and Lancelot suddenly becoming the Greatest Knight of the Round Table in all the stories ever since would normally make me detest de Troyes...because obviously that honor belongs to none other than GAWAIN!!!!!!!!!!

But that is another rant for another post.

There are two things that redeem de Troyes' work in my opinion.  First, he is actually a very good writer. I do not speak or read French fluently, much less medieval French, so of course I'm judging according to experts' translations into English.  But through that lens I consider de Troyes' style of writing emotive, clear, interesting, and effortless in its bringing the magical world of Camelot to life in the reader's imagination.

Secondly, Chretien de Troyes wrote Erec et Enide.  Which happens to be one of my favorite non-Gawain Arthurian tales, even if it is quite obscure to the casual reader.  It's the love story of the most beautiful lady (it always is the most beautiful lady, even if there are a hundred other stories with a hundred more "most beautiful ladies") and the most valiant of knights (it always is the most valiant of knights, for the same reason), who fall in love.

But what sets Erec et Enide apart is that once Erec and Enide fall in love, they do the impossible according to French courtly love standards: THEY GET MARRIED.

Now this is awesome in its originality.  Unfortunately, in-story, Enide doesn't feel that way.  Now that her knight in shining armor has married her, he is no longer free to live a life dedicated to chivalry and honor.  Because Enide senses this as a failure, she reacts like any self-sacrificing Arthurian lady and takes all the blame onto herself.  Up until now she has been a peerless paragon of purity and beauty, not saying much at all.  Her first words in the story, in fact, are that she's unhappy that her marriage to Erec has damaged his chivalric reputation.  The result is Erec promptly becoming angry with her for saying this out loud, and then ordering her to not speak unless spoken to.

Now we reach the Vow of Silence. Until this point in the plot, Enide's words have not held much significance.  Erec fell in love with her, in true knightly form, on first sight, because she was beautiful in appearance.  Other people speak about her to him, of course, but it isn't until after they're married that Erec actually learns her name, and not until six pages after that that she actually opens her mouth.

But when Enide speaks, her words have a great impact on the story.  Her first words cause Erec and herself to begin questing, which causes both of them to be flung into danger at every turn.  However, if Enide's words put them into danger, they are also powerful enough to safe them.  As they're riding along on their quest, Enide is always the one to spot danger (Arthurian England is wrought with highwaymen and other knaves).  Every time, she chooses to break her vow of silence to warn Erec of an ambush.

As a plot device, the vow of silence functions as a way to show how much Enide loves Erec.  In spite of his cold attitude toward her at this point in the story, and disregarding the chivalric rules of keeping all promises, Enide is willing to break all rules and even throw away her honor for the life of the man she loves.  Maybe the point of Erec imposing such a vow on his was was to see which she prized more: the social constructs of chivalry, or his life.

*Unless of course he did die.  Then I guess it would be his...dying devotion?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Even Without a Biography

I'm sure of it.
That, if no one knows
The specifics of my biography,
I will be remembered.
If those who come after me
Cannot for the life of me
My birthday                        
My home
My family
My occupation or disposition
That I will be immortal as Sappho.

Who was Sappho?              A poet, immortal
Where did she live?           Lesbos, in Greece
Who were her family?       Cleis and Cleis, her mother and daughter
What was she like?  What did she do?
                                           It doesn't matter.  
                                           Like me, she wrote poetry.  
                                           And through my poetry 
                                          Those who come after will know who I am.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Suffering as a Part of Love according to Poetry of Sappho

The concept of love in Sappho's poetry is multifaceted, taking complex ideas--which other poets have written about ad nauseam--and putting them into concise, simplified form.  (This brevity is of course helped by the fact that Sappho's works have only survived to this day in extremely fragmented form, but this too serves as a testament to her artistry, as it has endured and is beautiful and meaningful even in its incompleteness.)

Sappho's love is not confined tot he romantic love between man and woman, but also on the love that makes poignant other relationships such as those of mother-daughter and woman-woman.  Although portions of her love poetry can be justifiably interpreted as erotic, Sappho's description of love transcends physical desire.  There is something deeper, spiritual, in the way Sappho talks about people in love, and of people's love for each other.  When creating the voice of a woman in love, she says:

I can't 
speak--my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under my skin*

This is a simple and relatable style that separates Sappho from lesser poets who have written on such a popular theme.

One facet of Sappho's love which differs from many other poetic interpretations is how she relates love to suffering.  In both "It's no use" and "He is more than a hero" the speaker refers to love as nearly killing her.  This may seem to be a trite description now, since many poets write about dying of love.

But Sappho relates love and suffering in a different way: suffering is not caused by love so much as it is a part of love.  Instead of complaining about how much pan love has caused her, Sappho's poems speak about it as if it were a natural part of being in love, as if love required a dichotomy of happiness and anxiety, pleasure and pain.  In this way Sappho's bittersweet love is different from the melancholy and melodrama of later Romantic poets.

*"He is more than a hero" lines 10-13

Monday, September 12, 2016

Who is Heroic? Achilles vs. Hector in Homer's "Iliad"

The Iliad portrays both Achilles and Hector as heroes with both admirable and faulty characteristics.  each represents his side of war: Achilles is the greatest warrior on the Greeks' side, Hector on the Trojan's.  

Despite the fact that both exhibit heroism and cowardice in this poem, it's always been my opinion that Hector represents the superior type of heroism.  Sure, one could argue that Achilles is brave in that he does not really have a vested interest in war, and volunteers of his own volition.  But Hector is one of the few warriors on the losing side, and he fights bravely for his family and country.  Instead of giving up when things don't go well for him, he perseveres.  this is in direct contrast with Achilles, who withdraws from war when he's insulted over petty matters of pride.  In fact, Achilles is only drawn out of sulking in his tent by the death of his friend at Hector's hands, and returns to battle not for any greater cause than to carry out a personal vendetta of revenge against Hector.

Another difference that illustrates Hector's superior heroism over Achilles is that while Achilles is in it for glory and hte mere sake of fighting, Hector is protecting his country and family.  The Iliad is essentially all the fault of Hector's long lost brother, Paris, who stole away Helen.  Nevertheless Hector is loyal to his brother.  It's hard to be faithful to someone as foolish as Paris, and so while tactically it's a foolish decision on Hector's part, it's also another form of courage.

To me, Achilles has always come across as self-centered in Homer's epic.  He's a good fighter, but he's also melodramatic and a mama's boy.  Even in fighting he's not at that great of a risk, since he's invulnerable except for one little area on his heel.  it's easy to be brave when you're unable to be hurt.  Achilles is also unsympathetic in that he lets his best friend go out and die in his place rather than forego his pouting--and then he blames Hector for his friend's death!  In this, not only does Achilles cause his loved ones to be put in danger, but he also doesn't take responsibility for the consequences.  Meanwhile Hector tries to protect his wife and son even when it's hopeless.

Up to the point of their climactic battle, Achilles and Hector are basically equal in their exhibitions of heroism--as well as their not-so-heroic acts that mark them as all-too-human characters.  Achilles sulks, Hector runs away, but the deciding factor in which is the more heroic is what they fight for, and why they fight.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Little Old Ladies 8: The Nosy Miss Marple

“I’m old and I have very little strength in my arms or my legs. Very little strength anywhere.  But I am in my own way an emissary of justice.”  
Miss Marple, Nemesis
Chapter 21: The Clock Strikes Three

While I love Agatha Christie’s writing, and am usually outwitted by her mastery of mystery, I am usually more of a fan of her one-off novels than of her series.  I’ve read a great deal of Poirot, all of her Mr. Quin, a few of her Tommy and Tuppence, and then a smattering of Miss Marple.  Of all these series, Miss Marple is next to last my least favorite (I really didn’t care for Mr. Quin, but that’s another blog for another time). 

Why do I dislike Miss Jane Marple?  She’s so odd, illogical, nosing into all sorts of crimes in a very un-grandmotherly type way.  I always feel that it is unrealistic when she starts questioning suspects and these people actually tell her things.  If some random lady came up to me and started talking local crime while she was knitting, I would at least equate her with a sort of Madame Defargean lady, especially if she started to rant about evil and seem morbidly fascinated with murder.  Also the fact that she seems less than six degrees separated from murder victims would make me paranoid; at best she’s a bad luck charm, at worst a serial killer! 

(Of course Poirot suffers the same bad luck, since every time he goes on vacation a body shows up.  This trend continues from books to television, so much that one wonders why Archie Goodwin ever leaves a client alone since they’re bound to be strangled by Nero Wolfe’s necktie, or why Jessica Fletcher isn’t banned from book tours.  Really, unless a detective is a cop or a private investigator, there is no other way of having a sleuth get involved in murder investigations, and even then fictional cops and gumshoes better never take a ride on the Orient Express unless they want to be accessories before or after the fact!)