YOFR : Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

(Last week I fell behind, and missed posting this on Friday. And then things got even busier. But I’m back on track now, so this week, you get two blog posts!)


This month my Year of Fun Reading Challenge required me to read a book recommended by someone with great taste.

I don’t know about you, but I have a book guru in my life. Someone who I look to for book recommendations, because I know she shares the same love of reading and appreciation of a good book that I do. And we also are similar in that we read widely in book genres. She might have a few more romance-y type books than I do, and I might stray a little further down the science fiction/fantasy path than she will, but generally we both like to read widely, and have pretty high standards when it comes to quality of writing and plot development.

So when I was looking for a book to fulfill this challenge, I decided to read a book that my book guru recommended, that being Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011). This book has been out for a few years, and has been getting rave reviews from day one.  However, I was a little leery of it because it features a teen mastermind who basically saves the world, and I don’t particularly like Young Adult fiction, nor storylines about teen geniuses that save the world (Wesley Crusher anyone? Ugh.)*.

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So I had been avoiding this book, until my book guru told me she had read it and enjoyed it, and recommended that I give it a go.

What makes a good book, anyway? For me it’s a mix of great characters, a compelling story and high quality of writing. You can play around on the sliding scale of good to bad on any one of these qualities but essentially I need a book to have some of all of them for me to truly enjoy it.

Ready Player One hits the mark on all of them, I am thankful to say. My book guru was right. I did enjoy it!

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There are a lot of dystopian future novels out there, and Ready Player One fits firmly in that camp. A lot of those YA dystopian novels also feature some kind of love triangle (i.e. Hunger Games). Although there is a romance in this book, it’s not a love triangle, thankfully.

The story is set in a near-future America (2044), where due to global warming, an energy crisis, and economic collapse,  life is pretty dire indeed. The only relief from the bleakness of life is the virtual reality platform called OASIS where players can immerse themselves in another world (or worlds, technically) using specialized goggles, haptic gloves (to feel things) and body suits.

On his death, James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, reveals that he has hidden a very special Easter egg inside of OASIS, which, if found, will enable the winner to inherit his  fortune and ownership of OASIS. An Easter egg, if you don’t know, is a special hidden bonus in video games that gamers can find, which may or may not have anything to do with the game itself.  This sets off a global egg hunt (inside the virtual realities of OASIS), but the clues are so tricky enthusiasm wanes quickly and eventually, five years after the announcement, no one has deciphered the first clue and the only ones left searching for the egg are the die-hard dedicated gamers.

The protagonist, Wade Watts, who has given his avatar in the game the name of Parzival, is a young teen who lives in the “stacks”, basically a trailer home in which the trailers are stacked on top of each other. He is your typical geek, who spends far more time in the virtual world of OASIS than in the real world. He spends most of his time trying to figure out the first clue to the first stage of the hunt and in a eureka moment figures out that the first clue will lead him to a place on the virtual planet that his (virtual) school is on.

When he finds it, the announcement goes out on the game scoreboard, and the interest in the hunt is revived world-wide, as people realize that the announcement of the Easter egg was not just a joke that the OASIS founder, James Halliday, had perpetuated on the world. Parzival is immediately famous, and the eyes of the world are on him as he begins to work out the next clue.

Wade (Parzival) has two good friends in OASIS: Art3mis (a girl he has a crush on), and Aesch (pronounced like the letter “h”). Wade has never met these people in real life, he only knows them through their avatars in OASIS. He helps both of them get the first clue as well, and the three of them begin the task of trying to figure out the rest of the clues and get the prize. They, along with a couple of others from japan (Daito and Shoto) become the top five “gunters” (egg-hunters).

Complicating the search is the main antagonist, Nolan Sorrento, the head of Innovative Online Services (IOI), the worldwide Internet provider, who wants to find the egg in order to gain control of OASIS and monetize it. The IOI players are well-funded and have all the resources that the gunters could only dream of.

This is a well-written novel, with likeable, realistic characters. The plot is exciting and interesting. It was a great deal of fun to be immersed in this Easter egg hunt along with Parzival. Sorrento and IOI are ruthless, even resorting to murder to advance their progress in the game. OASIS itself is a fascinating place, with lots of worlds to explore and puzzles to solve.

The plot builds to a satisfying and exciting climax, allowing our hero to grow along the way and face down his nemesis in a way that fits seamlessly into the plot.

The best part of Ready Player One, however, is the fact that the whole novel is immersed in the pop culture of the 1980s. Halliday, the creator of OASIS, was a 1980s aficionado, so the clues to the hunt and the various puzzles and challenges the gunters have to solve, are all related to the 1980s somehow, including games of PacMan, nods to Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and movies such as Blade Runner and War Games, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail (yessssss!).

I graduated high school in 1980, so all of these references made the book that much more fun. I suspect they are part of the reason why this book has become so popular. It has even caught the eye of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose film adaptation of the novel is coming out in 2018. Which is fantastic. This is one of those books that is just begging to be made into a movie, and to have Spielberg at the helm is perfect for it.

Ready Player One is a good book, meeting or exceeding all of my requirements for book excellence.

Thanks, Book Guru. I owe you one!

My rating: 5 stars. Loved it.


*Fun Fact: Will Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is the narrator for the audiobook of Ready Player One.

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Repost: It’s A Monk’s Life

It’s been a busy couple of weeks so I thought I would share a post from a couple of years ago that didn’t get a lot of looks.  Hope you enjoy!


Religion is what you do with your solitude.”  – Archbishop William Temple

The Irish Celtic monks who lived at Lindisfarne in the 7th century would have understood this quote. Solitude was an important part of their practice of faith – so much so that the choice of the tidal island of Lindisfarne was a deliberate one, made to accommodate their desire to set themselves apart from the world. This island that was separated by the tides twice a day was a perfect place to enforce that solitude.

The monks there practiced a rugged aesthetic Christianity, whose roots went back to the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Their monastery was modelled after the one at Hii (modern-day Iona) founded by Columba, which also was situated on an island and at the time the most influential centre for the particular flavour of Christianity practiced by the Irish monks. Lindisfarne’s Abbot and Bishop, Aidan, came from Iona in 635 AD along with 12 other monks at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernica, to start a monastery in that kingdom.

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Lindisfarne Island, Northumbria. CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr

Irish society at the time was based on clan and kinship ties, and the monasteries were similar, in that they revolved around the Abbot as leader and promoted a strong sense of community. The Celtic Christianity practiced by the monks included much that resonates with us today: the goodness of Creation, a greater allowance for the role of women in the church, and an emphasis on accountability between individuals. But it also contained elements we find difficult to understand. In particular, the extreme aestheticism shown by practices such as praying for hours while immersed in the cold ocean, rigorous fasting, hundreds of genuflections at a time, the cross-vigil (praying prostrate on the floor before a cross) and even self-flagellation.

There is not enough space in this blog post to fully comment on those practices, other than to say that they, like the monks themselves, are a part of their times, and difficult for us to understand without the same frame of reference that the people of the day shared. This was a chaotic time, and discipline was key to survival. Sacrifice and discipline were much more entrenched in that world, where pledging to your lord, and giving your life for him as part of a war band, was common. Sheer survival meant hard, disciplined work. The Irish/Celtic monks carried this idea into their practice of the faith, and added to it the religious ideal of becoming like Christ. In order to follow Him fully they dealt severely with any sin that might distract them from that goal.

It was through practicing the discipline of solitude that the monks built time into their day to meditate upon God and pray. Aidan, in particular, felt this need keenly as the busy monastery began to fill with students, guests and monks. He established a place away from the island, on another small tidal island a stone’s throw away from Lindisfarne, but this proved to be too close for true solitude and so he eventually made a retreat for himself on the Farne Islands nearer to Bamburgh.

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This is a replica of St. John’s Cross at Iona Abbey, in Ireland, founded by Columba in 563 AD.  The original is found in the Abbey museum. This is possibly the first “Celtic” Cross erected in Britain.

Meditation for Aidan and the monks was never an “emptying of the mind” such as is practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation for them chiefly meant meditation on Holy Scripture, much of which they had memorized. The monks were required to memorize all one hundred and fifty Psalms plus a Gospel; this, plus the many other scriptures they chanted together at their four times daily services would prove much food for prayerful meditation during their times of solitude. The monks also would meditate on the natural world: the tossing sea, the graceful way of birds in the wind, the rising of the sun and moon. This was not pantheism, but a deep awareness of the presence of God in all of Creation. God had created all, therefore all creation was good and held something to teach them of God and His ways.

In researching the lives of the monks I found much to challenge me and much to puzzle me. But I could not help but be impressed by their devotion. Of course they were not perfect people, and their emphasis on aestheticism led to some bizarre extremes that I find hard-pressed to justify. The temptation to go the extra mile and be “more” devoted than the next person was one that I feel some must have succumbed to, and in the end at times their strange practices became more about themselves and their own glory as opposed to the glory of God.

But that is not to say we cannot learn from these men (and women, there were some strong female figures at this time in the church, Hild, daughter of King Oswy, among them) and their practice of faith. I daresay I could use more time for solitude and meditation myself. Too often these days we are afraid of silence, filling our ears with ear buds rather than the sound of the wind or the birds. What are we losing? What do we not know about God that we would know if we would disconnect and listen for a time to the Word and Creation?

I have attempted some small retreats a time or two, and have found it surprisingly difficult to disconnect. The minute you start thinking about taking a day, or a half-day away, the “list” clamours up in your mind, demanding attention. And when you do manage to ignore that distraction and take the time, you find that silence is difficult. Listening prayer is difficult. And I suppose that is the point.

“Come further up, come further in!” urges Jewel the unicorn in Lewis’ The Last Battle. The monasteries were all about making a space for people to do just that, and to take what they learned back to their world in the form of education, healing, and spiritual direction.

This is all summed up nicely in a prayer attributed to Aidan himself:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.


Photo credit: Quiet Time, by Leland Francisco, on Flickr

Book Review: Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis

My stalled Book Bingo challenge is not going very well. But while I am not exactly reading suggested books on the bingo card, it has spurred me to read more Canadian speculative fiction, which I suppose is the point. So not an entire fail.

This month my local book club is reading Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. We are reading it at my suggestion, as it was the winner for CBC’s annual contest, Canada Reads, and it sounded intriguing to me.

Fifteen Dogs is a speculative fiction novel that has a fairly basic, but interesting, premise. Two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, decide to grant fifteen dogs human consciousness to see if it will bring the dogs happiness or misery.

I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. 

I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.

 Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift. 

 I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are if they had human intelligence. 

 An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

The fifteen dogs are chosen at random, they are ones at a nearby veterinarian’s clinic, and the story follows the exploits of the dogs as they begin to cope with having human consciousness.

I love dogs, and I love stories about dogs and stories that have dog narrators. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is one of my favourite books. And while I knew that Fifteen Dogs was more likely to be an exploration of what it meant to be human as opposed to what it means to be a dog, I still had high hopes that it would be one that I would really enjoy.

Unfortunately, not so much. In fact, I can honestly say I only finished it because we were reading it for book club.

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To start with the positive, though, the writing in the book is excellent. The prose is lyrical, and he does a good job of pulling all the stories of the dogs together, without making it too confusing.  The concept is an intriguing one, but the execution of it just doesn’t work for me.

This is a very depressing book. Alexis focusses on the negative aspects of humanity and dogs both, and I don’t think he gets the dog interactions exactly right, either. He sets his pack up using the concept of alpha and submissive dogs, which, although a very popular way of looking at dog psychology and behaviour, is becoming more and more outdated.*

So, marrying the idea of pack theory with humanity’s predilection for murder, greed, cheating, and selfishness makes for a very gloomy read indeed. Yes, the book is also a meditation on language, poetry, status, and power. And there are good points to ponder in the book about all those. But I just couldn’t get past my heartaches for the poor dogs to really appreciate them.

[SPOIER ALERT}

There is a lot of death in this book. Most of the dogs don’t make it out of the first few chapters. And like those dogs, the remaining ones die horrible deaths, especially the last one, due to interference by the gods, as Zeus tries to make something right but ends up making it worse.

Just as I quibble with the author’s understanding of dog behaviour, I quibble with his understanding of humanity. I will not argue with him that humanity is flawed, and that people do terrible things to each other. One can’t look at the nightly news and not come out believing otherwise.

But that is not all we are. And in my opinion, this book, which supposedly asks a question about  what it means to be human, only gives us part of the answer.

My rating: two stars out of five. One star for the excellent writing, one for the concept.


*if you are interested, here are a couple of articles about this.

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html

https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/dog-behavior-and-training-dominance-alpha-and-pack-leadership-what-does-it-really-mean

 

Back to School in the Dark Ages

It’s the first week of September, and back to school fever has gripped the land. My Facebook feed is full of “first day of…” photos, and everywhere kids big and small are getting back into the routine of teachers, classes, and new friends.

So, I thought this might be a good week to talk about what “school” looked like in the Dark Ages….specifically, of course, in Britain in the 7th century, as that is when my book is set. However, to a greater or lesser degree most of what I will write here will be typical of most of life in Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages (5th – 10th century AD), and even to a point for those in Celtic Britain at that time as well.

You might be surprised to learn that there even was something such as “school” way back then. I mean, everybody in the Dark Ages was pretty much ignorant and illiterate, weren’t they? A bunch of peasants who had to spend all of their days scrabbling out a meagre existence while fighting off hordes of Vikings and barbarians. They didn’t have time for school!

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Mostly wrong, anyway. Hopefully some of the previous posts I have done on life in the early Middle Ages in Britain will have given you some cause to be skeptical about those statements. However, there is actually some truth mixed in with the myths there.

First of all, was everyone in the Dark Ages ignorant and illiterate? My answer to that would be yes and no. Certainly most people would not know how to read, making them illiterate. But ignorant? Hm….

The schools during the 7th century were run by the Church. This is because Christianity is a religion very much based on a book, and in order for people to be able to understand and, more importantly, teach the religion to others, they had to know how to read. So from the very beginning the Church had a strong emphasis on literacy, and schools were quickly established along with the monasteries and cathedrals which began to flourish after Augustine came to Britain (to Canterbury, in Kent) with forty monks in 597 AD to evangelize the island.

Just a quick note here…the British/Celtic parts of the island (roughly Wales, Ireland and some parts of modern-day Scotland) didn’t exactly need (nor want, for the most part) Augustine’s help. The Church there was going strong, in an unbroken line from the days of Roman Occupation, which had come to a halt some two hundred years before. That was because those areas had never really been conquered by Rome, and so when the troops left to defend the Empire against the barbarian hordes and the rest of the island fell into chaos, vulnerable to the Germanic and local barbarians who came a-callin’ on all those rich, Romano-British estates and villages, the Celts sailed merrily along as they had been all along, Christian churches (and their schools) and all.

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that little Ecgfrith and Egbert were trotting off to school each day with an apple for the teacher and books slung over their shoulders. A lagre part of the population were peasants, working hard to survive (but not fighting off the Vikings. They came later. They had to deal with warring kings and raids from nasty people, though). Schooling was, for the most part, for the privileged few. The schools weren’t exactly large, with probably less than a dozen or so pupils each. These were oblates (children gifted to the Church as an act of piety), or, children of high-ranking nobles or kings whose families could afford the fee the Church charged for this service (grants of land, sheep, cows, whatever…).

But if you were one of the lucky ones and got to go to school, from all accounts the education you received was of a very high standard, to the point where by the end of the eight century the English schools which had produced such scholars such as Bede and Alcuin were seen as some of the finest in all of Europe.

It’s worth pointing out, as well, that it was not only boys who got to attend these schools. The double monasteries such as Hild’s at Whitby or Brigid’s at Kildare also educated the women in their care, many of whom would become able administrators of double monasteries of their own. As a matter of fact, both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures gave women more freedom and rights than what came after the Norman Conquest. The Normas brought with them the Roman Continental ideas about the place of women in society which prevailed until well into the 20th century. Gee, thanks, William….

So what were the students studying in those schools? Keeping in mind that the main point of the schools was to educate Christian leaders who then could spread the Gospel, one of the main focuses was, of course, to teach the Christian faith. As mentioned previously, in order to do that, they needed to read the Bible. And in order to do that, they had to learn Latin, for at this point there were no Anglo-Saxon translations of the Bible available. So a pretty rigorous study of Latin was a large part of the curriculum. The young oblates were first given the task of memorizing the psalter (the Book of Psalms), followed by the Wisdom books (Wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Book of Job*).

The students would use wax tablets for practicing their letters, which could be “erased” fairly easily and was much less expensive than paper!

As the students got more proficient in Latin, more difficult pieces would be tackled, classical works from both Christian-Latin poets as well as other classical poets such as Horace or Vergil. In fact the schools mainly followed the course of study set out in classical Latin education. This was broken up into the trivium, which included grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and the quadrivium, made up of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony/musical theory. The quadrivium was not as thoroughly covered, it seems, as the trivium, although one of the subjects definitely taught would have been the tricky subject of computus. 

Computus was the method by which one determined when the movable feasts of the Church would fall in the calendar year. Most particularly they were concerned with Easter, as it is dependent on the moon’s cycle. I tried to find a short description of the difficulties of this, but honestly I’m not sure I understand it well enough to describe it. For example, here’s part of the explanation from Wikipedia:

In principle, Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox (the paschal full moon). However, the vernal equinox and the full moon are not determined by astronomical observation. The vernal equinox is fixed to fall on 21 March (previously it varied in different areas and in some areas Easter was allowed to fall before the equinox). The full moon is an ecclesiastical full moon determined by reference to a lunar calendar, which again varied in different areas.

Er, ok. Bede used a perpetual calendar, an Easter table, tables for finding the moon’s age and the weekday, arithmetic tables, instructions for calculating and documents related to the history of the calendar in order to write his two textbooks on computus. It rather boggles the mind, doesn’t it? In fact, one could argue that this need to figure out exactly when Easter would fall each year was a major impetus for the study of astronomy.

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This is Byrhferth’s Diagram, from the Thorney Computus, an volume dedicated to texts and graphics explaining computus, made in the 10th century. This image is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in the description it says this diagram shows “the harmony of the twelve months and four elements, of time and the material world. The tables on the opposite page show a series of diagrams used for determining lunar cycles, days of the week, and divination diagrams based on numerical values assigned to the letters.” Alrighty then. 

 

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Of course if you didn’t have all those charts and whatnot handy, medieval scholars invented a manual method to calculate Easter (you never know when the King might need to know, after all….). One would use your hand to counting on the fingers (but not the thumbs, apparently!) and around the palm, allocating each joint and finger specific pieces of information such as the months, seasons, etc. Image from Voynich Imagery

So. Not just “Dick and Jane”, but computus, mathematics, classical Latin poets, and the Bible. And maybe a sprinkling of geometry or music. Those Anglo-Saxons who could afford to be educated (or who were plopped in the monastery by their parents) had a pretty vigorous education indeed, don’t you think?

Just be glad you don’t have to help your Grade 5 student with computus or conjugating Latin verbs!


*Astute readers may note that this list contains some books of what Protestants now call the Apocrypha. That is because these books, at that time, were accepted parts of the canon of Scripture. They weren’t taken out of Protestant Bibles until 1647, and some Catholic Bibles still include them.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Sutton_Hoo_Lyre_reconstruction_BM_SHR_9

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.

brendan_route

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.

Stbrendanscurrach

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