A Medieval Greek Arthurian Poem: The Old Knight

I’m in Greece right now, enjoying the sea, and pistachios (my parents have pistachio trees in their orchard), and watermelon, and figs, and all the lovely summer things. And I thought this would be a good moment to share a little recording in Greek!

A project that came to fruition recently (after MANY years of working on it, on and off!) is a new edition and translation of a little-known medieval Arthurian poem (mid-15th century) – the only known example in Greek! I worked on the translation of this 307-line poem in collaboration with Thomas Crofts of East Tennessee State University, so I’m credited as co-translator (Thomas did all the hard work of editing, introduction, commentary, notes, etc.) The conventional title of the poem is “Ιππότης ο Πρεσβύτης” (The Old Knight) and the venue is the (very well-respected) journal Arthurian Literature. The story is a loose translation into Greek of the first part of the first episode of Rustichello da Pisa’s 13th-century French prose Compilazione (Rustichello is best known for “The Travels of Marco Polo.”)

In his introduction, Thomas notes

All other western-style, political-verse romances… are in ‘vulgar’ Greek (also called ‘impure Greek’ by the grammatikoi), reflecting the language as spoken in everyday life. But The Old Knight is composed in the high-literary ‘Atticizing’ register of the intellectual, professor or grammarian. Within this rarefied idiom, furthermore, the poem contains a rhetorical performance only the trained ear could have appreciated: that is, a chivalric romance – with a good deal of comedy – narrated with an epic fullness of expression, complete with Homeric syntax and diction. (p. 167)

To give a flavour of the language of the poem, I’ve recorded the first 16 lines (well, strictly speaking lines 2-16 as the first one is incomplete and I omitted it). Try to listen for the metre (the decapentasyllabic line still used today in Modern Greek folk poetry), and for the “Homeric” extended simile (lines 12-14).

 

Here’s a link to the press release about this publication by East Tenessee State University: http://www.etsu.edu/news/2017/04-apr/nr_crofts_thomas_old_knight.aspx

You can read a preview of this edition and translation here: https://www.academia.edu/31492424/The_Old_Knight_An_edition_of_the_Greek_Arthurian_poem_of_Vat._gr._1822_preview_

 

Reference:

Crofts, Thomas H. (2016) ‘Ιππότης ο Πρεσβύτης: The Old Knight: An Edition of the Greek Arthurian Poem of Vat. Gr. 1822, by Thomas H. Crofts, with a translation by Thomas H. Crofts and Dimitra Fimi’, Arthurian Literature XXXIII, pp. 158-218.

George MacDonald and one of Tolkien’s most quotable lines

I’ve been re-reading many of the works of George MacDonald recently, in preparation for my keynote lecture at the George MacDonald’s Scotland conference at the University of Aberdeen next week (https://gmdscotland.wordpress.com/). My lecture is titled “George MacDonald and Celticity”, and – among other works – I’ve just finished re-reading Sir Gibbie, one of MacDonald’s “realistic” novels with a Scottish setting (and extensive use of Scotch in the dialogue).

Just as I was about to start wrapping up my notes, I was struck again by these few lines, towards the end of the novel:

The one secret of life and development, is not to devise and plan, but to fall in with the forces at work—to do every moment’s duty aright—that being the part in the process allotted to us;…

Well, this time round, I know what it was that made these lines stand out for me the first time I read them! They brought to mind this exchange:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Though I know the emphasis of each extract is rather different (and so is the context!) the argument seems to me ostensibly the same. And knowing that Tolkien (and C.S. Lewis) read George MacDonald, one of the two main “grandfathers” of modern fantasy literature (the other is William Morris) makes the link even stronger in my mind.

I’ll leave this small observation here for you to ponder!

 

Beren and Lúthien: Some First Thoughts (and radio interview)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, was published yesterday. The book is an attempt by Christopher Tolkien to extract one of the most beautiful, moving, and personal stories of his father’s ‘legendarium’ into a standalone book, allowing the story to shine on its own, as well as showing its development over time. The books is accompanied by stunning illustrations by Alan Lee.

I was interviewed about this new book on BBC Radio Wales this morning by Felicity Evans, on Good Morning Wales. I first talked about the personal significance of the story for Tolkien: seeing his young wife, Edith, dancing in a woodland among white flowers near Roos in East Yorkshire became the heart of the tale of the mortal Beren falling in love with the immortal Lúthien. Michael Flowers’ research has added a lot to our understanding of this personal connection and the imagery of this scene – see here for his excellent blog post, including photographs from the location where Edith danced.

I actually found it very moving that Christopher Tolkien dedicates this book to his own wife, Baillie Tolkien, especially as he says in the preface that – at 93 – this may well be the last book of his father’s work he will edit. He also mentions hearing the story of Beren and Lúthien orally from his father in the early 1930s and refers to the famous letter his father sent him a year after Edith’s death, saying that his wife “was (and knew she was) my Lúthien” (Letter #340). Famously, the names Beren and Lúthien are inscribed on the gravestone where Tolkien and Edith are buried (Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford).

In my interview I also referred briefly to the creative reshaping of myth and legend in this tale: the union of a fairy woman with a mortal man (a widespread motif in European folklore), and the reversal of the Orpheus myth (Lúthien wins back Beren from the Halls of Mandos, as opposed to Orpheus getting back Eurydice from the Underworld). But there are, of course, many more such examples: Lúthien’s imprisonment in the tree-house brings to mind the tale of Rapunzel, and the hunt of Carcharoth resembles the hunt for the giant boar Twrch Trwyth in the Welsh Mabinogion. The interview then moved towards Tolkien’s popularity and the reasons why fantasy literature is flourishing recently.

You can listen to the interview here: