Miscellany 42: Quirkiness, Medieval and Modern
In honor of the number ‘42’ (let the reader understand), this Miscellany is dedicated to literary quirkiness.
One of the (many) delightful things about medieval manuscripts is that they often contain small comments written in the margins by the monks who copied them. (The next time you blithely pick up a paperback book at Barnes & Noble, remember that a few centuries ago, each word in each copy of every book would have had to have been copied by hand, using a quill pen.) The famous epigram at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may have been added in that manner: “Hony soyt qui mal pence,” meaning “shame on him who finds evil here.” (Which is, by the way, a salutary warning for those interpreters of literature who are bound and determined to find sex everywhere, or to twist authors’ meanings to be the opposite of what’s in the text: for example, see most modern ‘critical introductions’ to Jane Austen’s works, which typically twist her works to be either a) proto-feminist, or b) attacking the very idea of romance and marriage. Hello?)
But I digress. Here is a sampling of some of the complaints that made it into the ends of medieval manuscripts — including “Oh, my hand” and one that I find quite moving: “This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’”
Even more fun, perhaps, are medieval manuscript doodles! From the post (which contains lots of pictures of these charming doodles): “Despite the fact that manuscripts were written entirely by hand, the doodle is somehow a more striking reminder that someone from the Middle Ages actually held the book, read the book, and even decided to doodle a little picture in the corner.”
Here’s a neat piece that shows various illustrations of the 8th century epic poem Beowulf as part of a lead-in a new, illustrated verse edition of Beowulf for young readers. I like some of the older illustrations that the author of the post doesn’t care for, but in any case, it’s pretty neat to see how this wonderful, monster-filled poem has been imagined by various artists.
And – you know you want to see this – an animated Bayeux Tapestry!
Just so it’s not all medieval… Here is something quirky but well worth taking seriously: John Mark Reynolds on why it’s ok to be bad at art (but do it anyway). “… perhaps poetry is too human to be left only to poets, music is too holy to be sung only be singers, and stories are too vital to be told only by writers… Maybe I can write the plain poetry, sing the simple songs, and write the imitative stories that are the warp and woof of a simple man’s life. Excellence, being really good at a thing, is wonderful, but it is not the only thing.”
He lived up to his words and gave a shot at a fiction novel! Chasing Shadows: Back to Barterra. I read it… and while it’s not a work of deathless prose, it’s lots of fun. I enjoyed it. It is also very quirky: think of it as the rough draft of a work Charles Williams might have written, if Williams had been Orthodox, played Dungeons and Dragons as a young man, drunk Diet Coke instead of tea, and had a fascination with the last Tsar of Russia. As for me, I am looking forward to the sequel…
Actually, comparing Reynolds to Williams is apropos. T.S. Eliot once commented that Williams wrote a lot of pot-boilers (this is true), but that Williams “always boiled an honest pot.” Words to live by.
What, you haven’t read Charles Williams? You should rectify that straight away. I recommend starting with Williams’ first novel, War in Heaven — about the Holy Grail, but spectacularly weird, and starting with perhaps the best opening sentence ever: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.”