Fiction Feature: Chasing the Prize

This year I am being more intentional about featuring some of my original short stories here on the blog. This week’s story was a fun one to write. After all, who doesn’t like writing (and reading) about dinosaurs?

Chasing the Prize

by L.A. Smith

Amazon_Manaus_forest

Photo by Phil Harris, on Wikicommons

Jayda scanned the sky, for the thousandth time.

“Where do you think Stewart is?” Doug peered behind them, a sudden wind whipping his coat around him. He snatched at it and hastily zippered it up as the rain began to fall.

Jayda shrugged. Her rivals who were chasing the prize held no interest to her. She would find it first. She had to.

A pterodactyl. Could it really be?

“We should find shelter.” Riao, their guide, spoke from the back of their boat, where he manned the motor.

“Not yet.”

“Come on, we’re going to get soaked!” Doug said.

“It won’t last long. Keep going. We’ll stop if it goes longer than an hour.” Jayda had no intention of stopping, but she wasn’t telling them that.

In her pocket she felt a small vibration, and she pulled out her phone, surprised. They should be out of cell phone range by now. She sheltered it from the downpour to read the text.

This is crazy. We should talk. It was from Bryan.

Anger flared. Just her luck that the last message she got from civilization would be from her estranged husband. Seemed a fitting end to this crappy week.

But maybe her luck would change soon.

•••

After two hours, with no signs of the rain letting up, Jayda was forced to admit defeat, and they pulled off at a small inlet off the main river. They set up their tent, stringing a tarp over it to help deflect the worst of the rain.

Jayda watched the rain sheet down, and Doug sat down beside her.

“Maybe it doesn’t fly in the rain.”

“Who knows. Maybe it prefers to fly in the rain. Not like anyone is an expert on pterodactyl behaviour nowadays.”

“True.” He peered at the river, looking back the way they had come. “No one has passed us, anyway.”

“No. But that thing could be anywhere. Knowing my luck Stewart might get the scoop, after all.” Anxiety flared at the thought, and she stuffed it down with an effort.

“Aw, come on. We’ll see it first. The million bucks is ours. I know it.”

Darkness fell, sudden and complete, like it did in the tropics. Howler monkeys hooted close by, and further away some other monkeys screeched. At least it sounded like monkeys.

In the brief blurry video that had stunned the world the pterodactyl hadn’t made a sound, but the tour boat survivors swore they had heard a deafening screech before it had appeared, knocking two of them into the water. They had disappeared without a trace into the murky Amazon.

Doug froze, listening. “Crap. This place is creepy.” He blew out a breath and got up. “We should get some sleep, get an early start tomorrow.”

Jayda didn’t comment, and Doug soon walked away, his footsteps swallowed up in the jungle noises of birds and monkeys and insects. Even at night, this place was loud.

She doubted she would sleep much. She was so close.

Her marriage had fallen apart, she had lost her job at the Tribune. The million dollar prize for the first verified footage of whatever the tourists had seen was part of the tug that drove her on, but the bigger part was the drive to succeed. She had been on a downward spiral for so long. This challenge felt like the right way to turn that around.

***

 “Here,” Raio said, gesturing at a narrow channel. “This is where they saw it.” His face was placid, but Jayda saw fear flash through his eyes.

She didn’t blame him. Her stomach was in knots, too, as he steered the boat into the channel, the trees thick around them. In some spots they blocked out the sky completely.

Jayda bit back her frustration. If she couldn’t get a clear picture, this was all for nothing.

Doug’s tuneless nervous whistle scraped along her nerves, but she ignored it. She needed him. With her pictures and his writing talent, and the fame of being the first to verify the stories, their book would be a best-seller.

That would show him. Bryan’s book had been a mediocre success, at best.

They had travelled an hour down the channel when a sudden loud screech split the air, seconds before the creature appeared. Crested head, huge leathery wings, and a wicked serrated beak. Flashing impressions only, as Jayda dived to the bottom of the boat to escape it as it swooped down over the boat.

The camera. The thing had disappeared, but the screech deafened them again and Jayda twisted, scrabbling for her camera, scanning the narrow patch of sky above.

There. It was coming back, an arrow aimed right at them. Jayda took the shots as it plummeted. It’s wicked beak snapped just over her head, and she hastily flattened herself to avoid the dangling hooked claws.

“Look!” Doug pointed at the trees, at a huge mass of vines and sticks wedged between two thick branches.

A head popped over the edge: the twin of the pterodactyl, only smaller. Jayda pointed and aimed, taking the picture. Got it. 

The adult completed it’s clumsy turn, aiming at them again.

“Go, go!” Doug yelled at the guide.

She got a couple more pictures as Raio fumbled with the rudder, steering them away and gearing the motor up in to high speed.

She caught a last glimpse of the thing as it flapped clumsily back on the nest and then the trees blocked the view.

The glow of their success carried Jayda down the river until her phone buzzed again, at the same spot as before.

Please. I love you.

Doug saw her scowl, and looked over her shoulder before she shoved the phone in her pocket.

“Maybe you should give the guy a chance.”

A dull ache filled her at the thought of the tangle she and Bryan had made of their marriage. He loved her? He should act like it.  She shook her head. “It’s impossible.”

Doug snorted. “Impossible? We just saw a freaking pterodactyl. I’d say you had better redefine impossible. God moves in mysterious ways, and all that.”

“Hah.”

Rain started to fall again, a peaceful splatter this time. Jayda hugged her chest, breathing in the rich scents of the rainforest, the noisy chatter of birds and monkeys punctuating their passage as they slipped down the river.

They were going to pick up some supplies, send the pictures off, and then head back, to see if they could get more. Get a jump on the scientists that were bound to flood into the area.

It would be awhile before they got home. A month, maybe. It would be complicated when she got back, trying to navigate the book deals, the interviews. Trying to figure out what to do about Bryan.

Maybe the time away would be what they needed for a restart.

She peered down at her camera, looking through the pictures, thrilling again at the sight of the strange, otherworldly creature. Mysterious ways.

She found herself smiling, sadness evaporating along with the rain, hope flaring for the first time in weeks.

Maybe Doug was right. Maybe anything was possible, after all.


You can find some more of my short stories at the following links:

More

Life for Life

Dust

A Delicious Irony

Red

This Strange Thing Called Fear

 

Featured photo: The First Draft, by mpclemens, on flickr

What They Wore: Clothing in the 7th Century

When you think of people in Britain in the Dark Ages, or, as I would prefer to call it, the Early Middle Ages, how do you picture their clothing?

You might picture a peasant in bare feet wearing rough-hewn sackcloth and a fraying rope tied around his waist, or, you might think of a king, dressed in rich, fur-lined robes and a golden crown upon his head.

That’s pretty much how I pictured the people of the times when I first starting doing the research into my book, at any rate. And this was one of the first things I looked at, because it’s awfully hard to get a picture in your mind of the people of the day without some sense of what they wear, after all.

And once again, I found my suppositions challenged as I looked at the historical evidence.

Once again, information is scanty, but perhaps a little more exists than you might think. First of all, there are some artwork  from this time that helps to flesh out our understanding of clothing styles. In the illuminated manuscripts you get pictures of people, who are wearing what we assume would be the typical dress of the day. There are also tapestries such as the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the victory of William the Conqueror in 1066, which, although a few hundred years after the 7th century, still gives us some ideas as to clothing.

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A detail from the beautiful Bayeux Tapestry. It is not actually a tapestry, but embroidery, as you can see here. Anglo-Saxons were famous for their embroidery, and you can see why from this example.

We also have grave goods. There are very few items of actual clothing recovered from graves. Due to its nature cloth does not survive burial, unless it is in anaerobic conditions (waterlogged but without oxygen) which does not occur very often. And of course there are many pagan Saxon burials which were cremations. However, in some burials there impressions left behind on items of jewellery or in the earth that gives us an idea of the cloth that had been laying there, such as if you pressed a piece of clothing into the dirt and saw the impression of the pattern of weave left behind.

There are also items of jewellery and other objects found in graves that give hints as to clothing. For example, women are found with two brooches at each shoulder, often with a string of beads between them. These were the clasps that held up the tunic she was buried in. You will also find knives and other items such as leather pouches at the waist, indicating that they wore these things on a belt.

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This gives you an idea of what an Anglo-Saxon woman might have worn. Note the long dress over top of the long sleeve shirt, fastened together at the shoulders by brooches. Wealthier people might have embroidery along the neck edge or cuffs of the shirt. She seems to be tying her belt. Belts could also be made out of leather, and would hold  knives, keys, or pouches. She probably should have some kind of headdress or veil to make this costume completely authentic. Image from Richard’s Ramblings

The standard items of clothing in the Anglo-Saxon areas of Britain* in the 7th century for men were undershirts, long tunics over top, some type of trousers (sometimes with leggings underneath), a belt, and a cloak. Shoes or boots would be made out of leather. In some areas the fashion was for strips of leather or cloth to wind around the leg, binding the cloth of the trousers close to the leg. Hats, or hoods (separate from the cloak), gloves, and mittens would also be worn as weather dictated. For women it was much the same, except that the tunic would be a dress, and it’s unclear whether or not they were wore underwear (a tad chilly in winter, especially in the North, one would think!).

The clothing was likely more colourful than you might think. There were various ways to dye cloth, using oak bark, plants, vegetables and the like, producing blues, greens, and yellows, and even some red and purple.

Linen was a common fabric, as was wool. Silk would have been very expensive, as it would only have been available through trade, coming from China. Only for the very wealthy!

People would also likely use fur on their garments such as the lining of a cloak, to keep them warm in the winter.

Anglo-Saxons had a type of needlework which was a precursor to knitting and crocheting called nålbinding, which was basically knitting with one needle, using short strips of yarn. If you want to see a video demonstration you can find one here. This creates a fabric that is similar to a knitted one, and in fact is very difficult to distinguish from knitted fabrics. Socks, leggings, mittens, and other garments needing a circular shape could have been made this way. This ancient needleworking method (nålbound socks have been found from the Coptic Christians in Egypt from the 4th century AD, and nålbound fabrics from Peru from 300 BC) was still being used in parts of northern Europe until the 1950s! It almost died out at that point but is undergoing a bit of a revival today.

Surprisingly enough, both rich and poor dressed alike most of the time. But when you think about it, the same is true today, right? The difference would come in the quality of the material used for their clothing. The more affluent would have finer woven linen undershirts and woollen shirts and cloaks that were of better quality than the average coerl ‘s rougher and itchier garments. Because all of the clothing was handmade, it was patched and reused until it was unable to be repaired any longer. Clothing, especially the more expensive and luxurious items of the nobility, would have been either handed down to one’s children or given to the church for use by the church leaders for special occasions.

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In 1867 St. Cuthbert’s coffin was opened, and inside, along with the fabulous St. Cuthbert Gospel, were found the remains of a stole and maniple, shown here. This is an embroidered strip of cloth that hangs draped over the left arm when worn. This one was made of silk (almost all decayed away), embroidered with gold thread, and is the oldest surviving embroidery from the early Middle Ages. The figure portrayed is St. Peter. It is dated from 909-916 AD, long after the time of Cuthbert, who died in 687 AD.  On the back of stole and maniple is embroidered “”Aelflaed ordered this to be made”, and “for the pious bishop Frithstan”. Aeflaed was the second wife of Edward of Wessex (son of Alfred the Great). Edward’s son visited Cuthbert’s shrine in 934 AD and donated a number of articles, including a stole and maniple.

Speaking of the monks, priests, Abbots, and other church officials, you may as well get rid of the picture of the monk in a brown robe, tied at the waist with a rope. That kind of costume did not come until much later in the medieval period. The monks and church officials would dress simply, but in much the same fashion as everyone else, except that during church services they would have special vestments such as the alb (long white tunic with long sleeves, belted at the waist), chasuble (semi-circular cape of wool, embroidered along the edges) and stole (long strip of embroidered silk or linen, worn around the shoulders).

The wealthier people would have some luxury items of clothing, heavily decorated with embroidery and made out of the finest fabrics and even decorated with gemstones, but they didn’t wear these all the time, just for special occasions. Again, which is just like us, today. We don’t wear our fanciest outfits for everyday wear, either.

If you were not wealthy and couldn’t afford a tailor to make you clothing, you would either have to make it yourself (generally women’s work, along with the repair of said items) or bought or traded for at a market. Or you could have it handed down to you from a deceased relative.

However you obtained it, you would not have as much of it as the average person does today, that’s for sure!


*Clothing styles differed slightly from the south to the north, and the British Celtic people had slightly different dress from the Anglo-Saxons.

Featured image is from the BBC and shows a typical Anglo-Saxon house with a family gathered outside, wearing the clothing of the day. Hmm…one of these days I’m going to have to do a post on architecture….

YOFR: A Book of Any Genre That Addresses Current Events

This month I got more bang for my buck by choosing one book that would actually fit on both of the lists on the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. This month on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge (YOFR) I was supposed to read a book of any genre that addresses current events. But the book I chose, Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby, also would fit under the Reading for Growth Challenge, under this month’s category of a Genre I Usually Avoid, as it is science fiction. Although I can enjoy SF at times, it’s not one of my go-to genres.

However, Company Town is pretty soft science fiction, which is the way I like my SF, generally. So it’s not too far outside of my comfort zone.

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I picked this book for a number of reasons. First of all, in my quest to try to read more Canadian spec-fic authors (sparked by my verrry slow Book Bingo challenge from last year), this one, shortlisted for CBC’s 2017 Canada Reads competition, fit that bill. Secondly, it’s speculative fiction. Thirdly, it addresses current events.

Sort of. Company Town is set in the near future, in a town located off the east coast of Canada called New Arcadia which has been completely bought out and taken over by an oil company, whose rigs provide the main source of wealth in the town. In fact, the rig pretty much IS the town. The protagonist is Go-Jung Hwa, the only person in New Arcadia who does not have any bio-engineered enhancements, and that makes her difficult for others with enhancements to see. This, along with her expertise in self-defence, comes in handy in her job as a security guard, and she is hired to protect the son of the multi-billionaire owner of the oil company that owns the town.

This was all I knew about the book before I read it. I don’t like to know too much about a book going in, which sometimes is not the best strategy. You can see that from how often I have been surprised by a book being YA when I wasn’t expecting it. This one, thankfully, is not.

I picked it because I thought it was going to explore the oil industry, and where it might be going in the future.  I live in Alberta, where the oil industry is one of our major sources of income, and where there is considerable debate about its merits. I thought this book might address that in an interesting, fictional way.

Well, not so much. The book doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of the oil industry or our reliance on fossil fuels (which I admit I was rather glad about) but it does address other current issues such as the place of technology in our lives and where it might be leading us. That threw me for a loop, but once I realized it wasn’t really about the oil industry at all I readjusted and quit trying to find that thread in it. The casual acceptance of the bio-enhancements portrayed in the book was certainly food for thought, and frighteningly very plausible.

The book also speaks to the power of big corporations and their hold on ordinary people. The portrayal of both the oil company which holds all the purse strings in the town and is playing fast and loose with the truth of what it is actually developing under the water and the invasiveness of the bio-enhancements which people add to themselves to “keep up with the Jones'” has a lot to say about the power of greed, unbridled capitalism, and the effects of those on ordinary people who just want a job to go to and to be successful in their lives.

The book doesn’t hit you over the head with these themes, though, which I appreciate. It is basically set up as a murder mystery, with Hwa trying to solve some unsettling murders which all seem to be related to a threat faced by her teenaged charge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, Ashby is a strong writer technically, and she had an interesting idea. I loved the Canadian setting, and the near-future, gritty,  cyber-punky feel to the book. I liked the main character for the most part. Even though she would definitely fall under the category of “warrior-chick” which I get so tired of, Ashby fleshed her out enough that she is interesting and relatable.

However I did struggle reading it at times. It always takes awhile to settle into the world of any fantasy or science fiction book, so I tried to ignore my niggling questions and confusion I felt at the beginning. But those questions kept popping up, and kept not being resolved, and it started to bug me the further into the book I got. The worst was the questions that surrounded Hwa. You learn early on that she has a “stain” on her face, and for some reason this makes her unsuitable for enhancements. I assume the author meant a port wine stain but wasn’t sure why this made her unsuitable, which wasn’t revealed until later when you realize her mother thought her ugly and unworthy of the expense of enhancement.

But along with the stain she has some kind of mysterious medical condition which causes seizures, and it seemed to be related to the stain on her face, or was it? Do port wine stains cause seizures? I didn’t think so but maybe they do? Or maybe this was unrelated to the stain but the way it was written made me think it was…and so you see I keep being confused about this point which kept throwing me out of the book.

The setting, the oil rig/town with the various towers was a bit unclear to me too. I had a hard time getting settled into the landscape of the book. Maybe it was just me.

I found the plot confusing at times, too. It’s basically a sci-fi murder mystery, which is fine. But there is also some romance thrown in, which is also fine, but her love interest, Daniel, seems a little too good to be true and their relationship is not really believable at times.

I think that qualifier, “at times” sums up the problems I was having with this book. It was uneven. Maybe trying to do too much? Some places the book snaps along, at others it meanders, trying to find its way. And at times Ashby resorts to stock characters to prop up plot failings, and it doesn’t work.

All these problems come into stark relief at the climax of the book, unfortunately.  I looked at the Goodreads reviews I saw others struggled with the ending too. I’m not exactly sure I understand the explanation of it all, to tell you the truth. It all felt a bit forced and out of left field.

So while I really wanted to love this book, I came away unsatisfied. It has potential, but I wish it had just a little more cohesion and a better ending.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5. Stellar idea and good writing, but plot needs work.

 

Unlocking the Word-Hoard, Pt 2

Last week on the blog I wrote about the scops, and their place in 7th century Britain. This week I wanted to touch on the gleemen, and to highlight one particular form of poetry they would use in their entertainment. Riddles, anyone?

To recap, last week I explained that the scop was the poet/singer that wrote poetry extolling the virtues and accomplishments of the king (mostly). He would generally be attached to one court, and not travel around too much.

The other entertainers, called gleemen, were closer to what we think of as the travelling minstrel, who would go from place to place and sing songs and recite poetry in exchange for gifts and presumably, shelter and food. These would generally not compose their own material, but would rely on the work of the scop for their poems and songs. Which was handy for the scop, as it provided a way for the renown of his king to be known far and wide. And his own renown as well, if the songs were popular.

I’m using the word “song” loosely. It’s hard to say exactly how these poems were performed. As I mentioned last week, they might have been recited with the strumming of the lyre used as emphasis in the background. Or, they could have been set to music. There is no musical notations surviving from this era so we really don’t know what it would have sounded like, sadly.

There were other instruments other than the lyre that both scops and gleemen could use, such as drums, horns, and whistles made out of bone or antlers. Other stringed instruments such as the harp, lute, and the early type of violin known as the rebec appeared later, in the 9th to 12th centuries.

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This is an illustration from The Vespasian Psalter (prayer book, consisting of the book of Psalms), produced sometime in the second half of the 8th century AD. It adorns Psalm 27, and is meant to show King David playing his harp. It gives us a good look at the instruments of the day: the lyre, the bone whistles, and the horn. Image from wikiwand

It’s possible the scop would begin his career as a gleeman, travelling around and learning his trade, hoping to get good enough to attract the eye of a king or an up-and-coming war leader (who might possibly become king one day) and be invited to become his personal entertainer. He might also have a couple of other musicians travelling with him, but likely it would be just him. It would be easier for ordinary people to provide hospitality (i.e. food and drink) to just one person, rather than a group.

Gleemen, being travellers, would also spread news of what was going on in the kingdom. Most people did not travel much. It was too dangerous and difficult, and going any length of distance meant you had to somehow find food along the way, which was not easy. So having a travelling gleeman stop by your holding would have been a welcome diversion from the hardships of everyday life, both in terms of the entertainment he provided and the news he carried.

Part of that news, of course, would be the battles that the kings had taken part in. This is where the scop’s poems would come in handy. It’s much easier to remember poems than prose, which is why the battles were recounted that way. But there was another popular form of poem which were a type of riddle.

Here is an example, from the Exeter Book, a tenth century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, containing poems that dated from much earlier.

I saw a thing     in the dwellings of men
that feeds the cattle;     has many teeth.
The beak is useful to it;     it goes downwards,
ravages faithfully;     pulls homewards;
hunts along walls;     reaches for roots.
Always it finds them,     those which are not fast;
lets them, the beautiful,     when they are fast,
stand in quiet     in their proper places,
brightly shining,     growing, blooming.

Can you guess what the “thing” is? I’ll let you think about it for awhile.*

Here’s another one:

I am atheling’s     shoulder-companion,
a warrior’s comrade,     dear to my master,
a fellow of kings.     His fair-haired lady
sometimes will lay     her hand upon me,
a prince’s daughter,     noble though she be.
I have on my breast     what grew in the grove.
Sometimes I ride     on a proud steed
at the army’s head.     Hard is my tongue.
Often I bring     a reward for his words
to the singer after his song.     Good is my note,
and myself am dark-colored.     Say what my name is.

What do you think?**

Tolkien, himself an Anglo-Saxon scholar, used these types of riddles in the Lord of the Rings when Gollum bargains with Bilbo when Bilbo is seeking a way out of Gollum’s caverns.

Of course, Bilbo’s last riddle, “What do I have in my pocket?” is not one of these types of riddles. Bilbo cheated on that one, as Gollum rightly accuses him of doing. Good thing for Bilbo, though!

There are over ninety such riddles in the Exeter Book, covering all sorts of topics, but  much has been made of the eight which are the “off-colour” ones. The Anglo-Saxons apparently had a ribald sense of humour (same could be said of us, I suppose), and it shows in these riddles. Here’s an example.

I’m a wonderful thing,     a joy to women,
to neighbors useful.     I injure no one
who lives in a village     save only my slayer.
I stand up high     and steep over the bed;
underneath I’m shaggy.     Sometimes ventures
a young and handsome     peasant’s daughter,
a maiden proud,     to lay hold on me.
She seizes me, red,     plunders my head,
fixes on me fast,     feels straightway
what meeting me means     when she thus approaches,
a curly-haired woman.     Wet is that eye.

Er, yes. The answer, of course, is onion. What were you thinking?? Best appreciated in the company of warriors in the mead hall, drinking down the king’s fine ale, methinks.***

Here’s one spoken out loud in Anglo-Saxon, to give you a sense of how the language sounds, and shows you the use of word-puns in the riddle itself. Those Anglo-Saxons were clearly cheeky devils.

To be a person wandering around the country from holding to holding was not without danger. Outlaws along the roads could be a problem, as well as the inherent dangers of always being a stranger, without the backing of kith or kin if something goes wrong. It would have been a hard life in some ways, but it had it’s advantages. I’m sure that there were some who enjoyed this life on the road– heralded wherever he went, showered with gifts. He would have been seen as an exotic figure, knowledgable and mysterious, who has seen the world “out there” and lived to tell the tale, a friend of kings and commoners alike.

He held in his possession the vast treasures of the word-hoard, shared not only with the people of the times but with us today. They, and the scops, are romantic figures who come down to us from the mists of time in the very poems and songs they performed so long ago.

Wouldn’t you love to see one perform? I would. But I’m glad I don’t have to try to beat one in a riddle game!


*Rake

**Horn (Made from an antlers, and often given to a scop in appreciation for his work)

***It’s not just the mead-hall that rang with song after a feast. This was a regular feature of most gatherings, it seemed,  Even in the monasteries the monks would pass around the lyre for each to sing for the other’s entertainment after a feast. We know this from Bede, who recounts the story of Caedemon, a lay brother at Whitby Abbey, who was so ashamed of his lack of ability to put words to music that he left a feast before he was put on the spot. During the night he had a vision from God in which he composed a hymn and in the morning he recounted the vision to the Abbess, Hild. Hild was so impressed she encouraged him to take his vows and to learn history and doctrine, which he subsequently turned into verse. He is the first poet whose name is recorded in English history.

Unlocking the Word-Hoard, Pt. 1

Back in the 7th century people  had pretty hard lives. Just the sheer work of survival–planting and harvesting crops, hunting, fishing, making and repairing clothes, defending your holding against wild animals or wild men–would daunt even the hardiest of souls among us.

But that’s not to say that people in the so-called Dark Ages didn’t have any opportunities or time for entertainment. I have blogged the various ways people would entertain themselves before but I wanted to return to that topic. I will be exploring in this post and innate least one more (maybe two more!) the specific form of entertainment of reciting poems and songs,  and the person who would provide it, known as the scop or gleeman.

In this post I will focus in on the scop. As I have said before, in looking at this era there is often heated debate about the veracity of one thing or another, and in the case of the scop  there is discussion among scholars as to whether or not such a figure actually existed. The argument goes that although the scop appears as a figure in Early Medieval poetry such as Beowulf,  that doesn’t necessarily mean that there were such people in real life who provided this type of entertainment in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

I only mention this to acknowledge the discussion. I’m going to proceed with the assumption that there were such people, and that they did exactly as they are depicted in the poems, that is, perform poetry and songs for people, in exchange for gifts or other benefits. It just makes logical sense to me that there were people who provided this function in society, especially since both the Germanic culture from which the Anglo-Saxons sprang and the Celtic culture they lived amongst in Britain included people who did just that.

I mentioned both scop and gleeman earlier. These are actually two different types of people who brought poetry and song to their communities. The scop was generally attached to one king’s court, and would act as not only an entertainer for the people generally, but more importantly would be the king’s personal propaganda machine. He would be the one who would compose poems and songs that would extol the strength and virtue of his king, which would help to spread the fame of that particular king to others. He might occasionally travel from one court to another but for the most part he would be permanently attached to one king.

Of course, kings die and circumstances change, and so even a permanent place in a king’s court did not necessarily mean that the scop‘s future was secured. There are a couple of poems that come to us in the Exeter Book that seem to address the fate of a scop who is looking for new employment, so to speak. The first one, called Deor’s Lament, includes these verses at the end:

This I must say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga’s scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just lord. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors promised me.

Another one, called Widsith, is an interesting one. It begins,

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard, he who had travelled most of all men through tribes and nations across the earth.

A scholarly article by Lisa M. Horton, called Singing the Story: Narrative Voice and the Old English Scop gives some fascinating information about scops in general and this poem in particular. She suggests this poem could be seen as a sort of resume of the scop’s accomplishments and skill set, perhaps giving a potential employer confidence that the person reciting it knows his stuff, so to speak.

The poem is about the travelling minstrel, Widsith, as seen from the opening lines above, and it goes on to recount the various places the scop has travelled to and the various kings he has served. It is quite apparent, however, that this poem is not meant to be factual. The poet says he was with Caesar, the Huns and Goths, the Angles, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Irish, the Picts, the Israelites and Assyrians, and many, many others.* This is obviously not possible, but Horton postulates that the poem would demonstrate to potential employers (and to the listeners) that the scop has knowledge of all these kings and events and is therefore a worthy candidate for the position.

Scops used instruments in their performances. The main instrument seems to be the lyre, but harps and bone whistles were also used to make music. It’s unclear exactly how the poems and stories were performed. It’s possible the poems could have been sung, or perhaps recited, with the music as background music as the scop spoke.

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A reconstruction of the lyre that was buried in the Sutton Hoo burial. It is part of the grave goods of the high-ranking nobleman or King of East Anglia who was  laid to rest there in the first part of the 7th century AD.  Image from Wikicommons

This shows another one of the values to Anglo-Saxon society of the scop. Aside from the entertainment they provided they held the history of their people (and of others) and were able to impart it to their society. The scops would recount the battles and accomplishments of their lords and in so doing would give an account to others of what was happening in the wider world, even if that account was often one-sided or slanted in favour of the current king.

The scop held quite a bit of power and prestige in the court. Think about it. If your only chance of having your renown known beyond your death was to have your deeds immortalized in a poem the scop would be reciting after you were gone, you had a pretty good incentive to both perform the heroic deeds that were worth recording and to also make sure the scop was well taken care of so he would be inclined to write favourably of you as well.

And there would be no cheating on your part. It seems likely that the scops were not just on the sidelines, writing their poems from the accounts from the warriors who were present at the various battles. They were first-hand observers and likely participants who would write from what they had seen and experienced themselves. So a warrior couldn’t just make up a mighty deed of valour to tell the scop later.

This is a video of someone playing a replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre. It can be played by strumming, as shown here. or by plucking the individual strings.  

In her article, Horton points out that the first line of the Widsith poem gives us a another clue to the importance of the scop and the poetry and songs he shared. The line contains the phrase, wordhord onleac, translated above as unlocked the word-hoard.   This compares the value of the words to come with the value of a treasure hoard.

In an oral society, where only a few could read, and there was not much to read even if you were one of the privileged elite, having someone who could share with you the treasures of new words, stories, poems, and songs, would be someone highly esteemed indeed.

Being a wordsmith myself, I love this picture of the hoard of words, highly sought after and liberally shared by those who carried them around.

 


* You can find the original poem and a modern English translation here, if you are interested.

 

Coming in Pt. 2 – a closer look at the gleeman, and the types of songs and poems he would provide. 

Canada and a 6th Century Monk

Tomorrow, July 1st, 2017, is a very special Canada Day as we are celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday this year! So, I thought I would share one of my most popular posts from last year once again, to give some love to Brendan the Navigator, possibly one of the first Europeans to set foot in Canada, long before the Vikings…..


In honour of Canada Day, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my favourite stories from the Britain’s Early Middle Ages; that of the 6th century monk known as Brendan the Voyager. This story has a Canadian connection because it has been speculated that Brendan and some fellow monks, not the Vikings, were the first Europeans to set foot on North America, specifically Newfoundland.

Some 50 years after St. Patrick died in 461 A.D., Brendan and other Irish monks continued Patrick’s work of converting the pagan Irish Celts to Christianity. Brendan was born in 484 A.D. in County Karee in the south-west of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 28. He frequently sailed the seas to bring the gospel to not only Ireland but also Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Gaulish outpost in the north of present-day France.

This method of travel was not unusual at this time. Overland journeys were dangerous. The roads themselves may or may not be in repair, and one could easily get stuck or delayed by bad weather. The impressive roads that the Romans engineered as a means of moving their legions easily around the country were slowly falling into disrepair, making travel difficult.  As they were the main highways they were often frequented by outlaws, which was another outcome of the absence of Roman government. The tribal kings were meant to keep their people safe in return for their tribute, but it wasn’t the same as having the might of Rome patrolling the roads.

The other small, rutted tracks that criss-crossed the country could be difficult to navigate, and what if you came across a bridge that hadn’t been kept up?

For all these reasons, plus speed of travel, people of the day often preferred travelling by boat along the rivers or in ships along the coastlines, and many were quite at ease handling their vessels on the open sea to get between Britain and the continent. It is astonishing to learn of the people who voyaged between Britain and Jerusalem, and to begin to understand the amount of trade that went on between Britain, the rest of Europe, and beyond to Asia, as shown by various archaeological finds.

For the Irish, the traditional vessel of choice was called the currach. This was a wooden-framed boat over which was stretched animal hides. The seams were sealed with tar, or animal fat and grease. This could be rowed, and for larger, sea-going vessels, a mast and sail would be attached.

There are two main sources of information about Brendan and his journey; The Life of Brendan, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.  The second one, the Voyage is the more better-known of the two, and in fact became one of the most popular and enduring legends of the time. The earliest extant version of this dates from around 900 AD, but scholars feel that it was written sometime in the second half of the 8th century, due to references to it in other earlier manuscripts.

The Voyage is written as a type of immram, which was a genre of popular literature peculiar to Ireland at that time. These works were adventurous stories of seafaring heroes. The writer of the Voyage merged this type of story with that of the traditional stories of the aesthetic Irish monks who would travel alone in boats, just as the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century used to isolate themselves in caves.

The Voyage is fantastical reading, and that’s what makes it so fun. According to the tale, sometime between AD 512-530 Brendan  became inspired by the stories of another monk called St. Barinthus who claimed to have sailed to an island found beyond the horizon. Brendan gathered some other monks and after the requisite prayers and fasting set off to find this island. They journeyed for seven years, during which time they encountered various mysterious islands and creatures, including an Ethiopian devil; birds that sing psalms; magical water that put them to sleep for a number of days; a huge sleeping whale they mistook for an island which is roused when they build a fire on it; gryphons; crystal pillars floating in the ocean;  giants tossing fireballs; sea creatures; and my personal favourite – Judas, sitting on a rock in the middle of a cold, dark sea, on his weekly respite from Hell.

It is a religious work, meant to teach others about salvation,obedience, and faith. But there have been many scholars who have attempted to determine if Brendan actually took this voyage by trying to figure out the places mentioned in it. And this is where it gets interesting.

Trying to sift through the legends and myths in the story is difficult, but there are suggestions that make sense. The great crystal pillars could be icebergs. The giant demons tossing fireballs could be volcanic eruptions on Iceland. And when you look at a map, you can start to see that the journey from Ireland to present-day Canada actually might have been possible, for it is not just heading out in the open sea, but a series of navigations to the Faroe Isles, and then along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the shores of Labrador. This type of coastal navigation interspersed with short hops in-between would have been quite familiar to sailors of that time, as previously explained.

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If you are still skeptical that such a small and fragile vessel could survive such a journey, consider that in 1976 explorer Tim Severin built a currach using traditional methods and materials such as would be common in Brendan’s time and successfully used it to travel from Ireland to Canada in an attempt to recreate Brendan’s journey.

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There has also been arguments made that Christopher Columbus learned from the Voyage the directions of the prevailing winds and therefore the most favourable routes to take to and from North America on his famous journey of discovery.

It’s all fascinating stuff. So, today on Canada Day I’m hoisting my cup of tea to St. Brendan the Navigator, who possibly was the first European to set foot on our shores.

Here’s to you, Brendan, an honorary Canadian if there ever was one!


Featured picture is the marvellous bronze statue of St. Brendan crafted by Tighe O’Donaghue/Ross, found on Fenit Harbour on Great Samphire Island, in Ireland. He is depicted in traditional dress, clutching a Gospel book, leaning into a force 10 storm such as he might have faced on his travels, his cloak streaming out behind him. He points out to sea, urging us ever forward to spread the word of God. Picture from vanderkrogt.com

 

Year of Fun Reading: A Book About Books or Reading

June marks halfway through the year (!) and so I’m also halfway through my Year of Fun Reading Challenge. This month I was to read “a book about books or reading.” So in keeping with my take on this challenge, which is, as much as possible, to read books in each category that are speculative fiction, this month I read Ink and Bone: The Great Library #1, by Rachel Caine.

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One of the great sorrows in the world is that the great library compiled in Alexandria, Egypt, founded in 3 BC by Ptolemy I, the successor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed by fire either in 48 AD by Julius Caesar or sometime in the third century AD  by the Roman Emperor Aurelian. The remaining books (in the form of scrolls, of course) were moved to a secondary site called the Serapeum (a temple) that was destroyed either in the fourth century or the seventh century, depending on what narrative you believe. But no matter when it happened, at some point all the accumulated wisdom from centuries past that had been collected in the Great Library was lost, except for copies that had survived in other places. There is great speculation about what could have been housed there in its vast collection (some say up to half a million scrolls!) but no one knows for sure, as the index of the scrolls stored there was also destroyed along with the library.

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One artist’s conception of what the Great Library might have looked like. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo. It attracted the great teachers of the classic era, such as Euclid and Archimedes. Image from crystalinks.com

When I heard that the premise of Ink and Bone was of an alternate history where the Great Library had not been destroyed, I was immediately excited to read this book. It’s about books, and reading, so how could I go wrong?

The story opens in a sort of steam-punky London. The main character, seventeen-year-old Jess Brightwell, comes from a family of book smugglers, which steal originals of books and sell them to the highest bidders. This is necessary because the Great Library of Alexandria has grown to be the repository of all books, and ownership of original books is only possible for the very wealthy and privileged few.  Alchemy allows the Great Library to deliver copies of books to anyone, but not every book.

This is a fun take on the real history of the Library. It is said that as soon as any ship docked in Alexandria, they were searched, and any scrolls found on them were taken to the Great Library, where copies were made. The copies were delivered back to the ships and the Library kept the originals.

The books in this story are not papyri, but instead what is called “blanks”, which are very like an e-book. No one has the original paper books or parchment scrolls, except for the Library.

Jess is sent by his father as a sort of spy to the training school for students who wish to be employees of the Great Library. The Library is the enemy of the book smugglers, and so he wants his son to find out all he can about how the Library works and the various raids that might be coming up against book smugglers. Jess manages to pass the entrance exam and is sent to Alexandria, Egypt, the site of the Great Library, to begin his training. His fellow students come from around the world, and they all are in competition for the six spots that are open to them. They have to go through various tests set out for them their exacting teacher and mentor, Wolfe, in order to keep advancing towards their goal.

This is a YA novel (drat, I wish I had known that before I started it!) and there are several elements in it familiar to others. You have students in a school (Harry Potter), competition against each other to gain what they desire (Hunger Games) and a slightly dystopian setting (like so very many of the YA speculative fiction novels these days).

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But although in general I am not a big fan of YA fiction, I will say I did enjoy this book for the most part. Jess is an interesting character, and although there is a romance in the book it’s not quite as annoying as I find many of the love story elements of other YA books which have a female protagonist. In fact it was refreshing to have a male protagonist for a change!

There are definite twists and turns to the plot, which kept it interesting, and the interaction between the students and seeing them come together into a united group by the end was enjoyable to read.

But what I like most about this book is the setting. The whole concept of the survival of the Great Library and translating that into a more modern-day setting was intriguing. The big questions that book asks about censorship, and the power of knowledge, and the value of free access to knowledge as opposed to only knowing what “they” want you to know, added some thought-provoking elements to an otherwise standard YA novel.

There are other books in this series, but I’m not sure I will read them (YA is just not my thing, as I explained here.) But this one was a fun ride with deeper themes than most, all about the importance of books and the lengths taken to preserve them.  I give kudos to the author for indulging my fantasy of having access to the Great Library of Alexandria, but seeing as the Library in the book is a sinister entity, perhaps the lesson is that getting what you want is not always a good thing!

My rating: Three stars