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austinchapman

in libris

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Currently reading

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 159 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

So, I've read a few more pages in this book, a section entitled "Celtic Contexts". What this means is a smattering of selections from Anglo-Norman literature with a Celtic twist or flavor. (Celtic here refers to remnants of Celtic culture that persisted in Brittany, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland after the Norman conquest of 1066).

 

Mostly, there is good material here. There was one piece, an excessively arid translation of a Tristran & Ysolt story, that I did not like... I am not naturally attracted to romance unless it is very well written, and this translation did nothing for me. Besides that, I liked a lot of the Celtic-influenced literature. The best piece is an Irish legend called "The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu" (that name is pronounced "ish-lu" -- one of these days I need to learn how to pronounce Irish names!), the tragic tale of a woman caught in a mess of love and politics. Refreshingly, the tragedy does not revolve around her desire to cohabit with a man but rather around her independence as a human being. It's interesting to see this kind of attitude expressed literarily in the 12th century, because it's easy for us moderns to forget the origins of our values.

 

The other selections exhibit a feminine perspective as well. Two poems by Marie of France are present in this edition, and both are excellent. "Lanval" is an entertaining tale of love between a handsome knight (Lanval) and the woman (likely a faerie queen) who seduces him. This one moves at a fresh clip, and the occasional kicks of irony make for pleasant reading. The second poem, much shorter, is called "Chevrefoil", a neat little French word that gets explained at the end of this piece, which riffs in riddling fashion on the love between Tristran and "the Queen" (Ysolt).

 

Finally, a selection from the "Rule for Anchoresses" -- an interesting allegory that compares the scenario of a handsome knight wooing a proud queen, with Christ wooing a proud humankind. Just as I remarked after reading Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry, it is fascinating to see Christ manifesting differently in different sets of literature -- he was a gold-giving king for the Anglo-Saxon word-mongers, and for the Anglo-Norman "romantics", he was a tournament-touring knight in shining armor.