Review of The Epic of Gilgamesh (Spoilers Included)

What was it about?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian epic poem written around 2500-2800 B.C. about the demigod Gilgamesh – the ruler of the Sumerian city Uruk. The people, tired of having Gilgamesh as their leader, ask the gods to fashion them a warrior who can defeat Gilgamesh and liberate the Sumerians. The gods oblige and create Enkidu. But by a series of events, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become the best of friends. Enkidu’s friendship and eventual death causes Gilgamesh to ask questions about the world and eternal life that only the great Utnapishtim can answer.

What did I think of it?

It is now common knowledge that the creation accounts in Genesis were inspired by the Gilgamesh legends. This is probably one of the major reasons for its fame today. The flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh was created by the gods to destroy all of creation. Utnapishtim created an ark and thwarted their plans. As a reward for his efforts, the gods deified Utnapishtim, making him the keeper of the secret of eternal life.

In general, I enjoyed the beauty and the action of the epic. My version was translated by Danny P. Jackson, and I recommend it to anyone looking for an easy-to-read, lyrical translation. Gilgamesh is a warrior as compelling as Beowulf and Roland but has a more complex personality than the other two. He can not only be fierce and tyrannical but also sensitive and loving. For an ancient story, The Epic of Gilgamesh is quite exciting.

Favorite Quote

“Then Gilgamesh spoke [to Enkidu]: ‘Brother,
as a man in tears would,
you transcend all the rest who’ve gathered,
for you can cry and kill
with equal force.
Hold my hand in yours,
and we will not fear what hands like ours can do.
Scream in unison, we will ascend
to death or love, to say in song what we shall do.
Our cry will shoot afar so
this new weakness, awful doubt,
will pass through you.
Stay, brother, let us ascend as one.’ “

Review of The Fifteen Joys of Marriage

What was it about?

The Fifteen Joys of Marriage (Les Quinze joies de mariage) is a 15th century satirical work on the joys of married life. The 15 “joys” are, in truth, miseries that men willingly accept out of love for their wives. Women are constantly demanding the impossible from their husbands and can’t keep their hands off other men, but the husbands ultimately convince themselves that marriage is a joyous establishment. The misogyny is blatant like most satirical works of the Middle Ages, but the anonymous author acknowledges at the end of the book that his work is very one-sided and that some men can commit even greater evils than women.

What did I think of it?

I usually read most French works written after 1350 either in the original dialect or in modern French, but I was lazy this time and decided to read Les Quinze joies de mariage in English (translated by Elisabeth Abbott). I found the book at my university’s research library and basically read it in one sitting. This edition contained cartoonish illustrations that complemented the subject matter. However, I would not want to own that edition because some of the illustrations were quite crude and explicit. I find Medieval literature fascinating because the humor and assumptions of 14th/15th century Europeans was so different from what we are used to. The Fifteen Joys of Marriage is written in the tradition of the fabliaux, so the humor is sexual, scatological (not so much in this book), and sexist. I call them the three Ss.
In the book, when a man wants sex, it’s the wife’s fault if she doesn’t cooperate. But when the woman wants sex, she is depicted as an animal with an insatiable lust. Women are blamed for their pregnancies, and the man is always the one with the heaviest burden. Husbands beating their wives is commonplace and evidently acceptable. But the conclusion of the book suggests that the author realizes how misogynistic his work is, and that this may be a part of the satire. The author writes from the perspective of a priest who only knows marriage secondhand. He may be ridiculing the one-sided criticisms he often gets from men. The husband in the 15 chapters is referred to as the “goodman”, while the woman is a “wench” and her friends “gossips”. Elsewhere, the author writes: “And know that men do the contrary to what is said here: for whatsoever women they have, they generally think them better than all other women. Now and then the rule fails, but that is in the case of desperate and beastly knaves who lack understanding. Thus one gladly sees many husbands praise their wives, recounting their good virtues; and in their opinion there are none to equal them nor any where they could find such virtues, such delights or such good appetite.” I sense a good bit of sarcasm in this passage because all the criticisms in the book come from a man’s perspective. We never get the woman’s perspective on the affair. There aren’t many reasonably-priced editions available online, but if you have access to a research library you may want to check it out.

Favorite Quote

“Nonetheless, the lady has not such travail as the goodman, who has labored to keep her at ease and in the estate which she has ever had fair and with great possessions.”

 

Review of The Crowning of Louis

What was it about?

The Crowning of Louis: A New Translation of the Old French Verse Epic is an epic poem of the William of Orange Cycle, translated from the Old French by the independent researcher Nirmal Dass.Written around 1130, Le Couronnement de Louis recounts Count William Shortnose’s many battles in defense of Pope Hadrian I and King Louis the Pious. Count William, like Roland of The Song of Roland, is a great warrior who protects the young king-elect Louis from traitors who wish to take the throne. At the same time, the Saracens seek to overthrow the papacy and win Rome. This epic poem is chock full of insults and bloody battles fought int the name of God and King.

What did I think of it?

The Crowning of Louis is an obscure epic poem that I borrowed from my university’s research library. While there is nothing outstanding about the story itself, I definitely enjoyed the poem. I started reading it at a coffee shop, but I had to leave after reading the first few pages because I couldn’t stop laughing. So many scenes read like something from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In one battle scene, King William lops off his opponent’s limbs, but, out of mercy, doesn’t kill him. Instead, William and the king embrace each other and depart in peace only to meet again later on horseback! Clearly, the poet had amnesia. The pope’s first challenger, King Galafrez, refers to the Bishop of Rome as the “great lord of the large hat” (vs. 475). King Galafrez promises him, “I shall roast you over coals in a hearth/ Till your liver falls on the heap of coals” (vs. 542-543). The humor is sky high. If you like Medieval battles, you will enjoy The Crowning of Louis. Unfortunately, there are no new copies available online. However, there are some cheap, used copies available on Amazon. It’s amazing what the characters are willing to do in the name of God.

Favorite Quote

All of Rome then cried out in one loud voice,
Along with the Pope, who shook with great dread:
“Saint Peter, lord, protect now your champion.
If he dies, you will be badly reproached.
In your church, where I now presently live,
I shall not sing Mass or read the lessons.” (vs. 1060-1065)

 

Classics Club June Meme: Religious Intolerance/Racism in The Song of Roland

This is the Classics Club question for June: “Think of an example of a classic you’ve read that presents issues like racism/sexism as acceptable within society. Do you think the reception of this classic work would be the same if it were newly published today? What can we get out of this work despite its weaknesses? Or, why would you say this work is still respected/treasured/remembered in 2014?”

I will answer these questions in a roundabout way.

Recently, I read and reviewed La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland). I took a French course last semester in which each student had to give a three-day presentation on a French text of their choice. Because of my love for Medieval French literature (with a particular emphasis on Medieval heroism and sanctity), I chose to present La Chanson de Roland, an 11th century epic poem set during the First Crusade. For those of you who do not know the story, Roland is the hero of the poem and a knight in the army of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne. In the poem, Roland’s godfather Ganelon betrays Charlemagne and makes an alliance with the Saracen King Marsile. Basically, Marsile had sent messengers to Charlemagne claiming that he wanted to convert to Christianity. However, Marsile, who had lost most of Spain to Charles, wanted to win back his lands through deceit. Charles believed and accepted Marsile’s offer. Roland nominated Ganelon to be Charlemagne’s messenger. In fear and anger, Ganelon swore to destroy Roland for sending his godfather on such a dangerous mission. Arriving at Marsile’s kingdom, Ganelon came up with a plan to defeat Roland and end the war between the two kings. He formed an alliance with the enemy.

At the start of the poem, the anonymous narrator claims that the Saracens are pagans who worship Mohammed and Apollo. The poem is replete with racism and religious intolerance. Christians are holy while Muslims are demonic. Christians/Franks are worshipers of the true God while Muslims/ Saracens are worshipers of statues and presented more like brutes than humans. Religious warfare is anathema to our modern sensibilities; yet, to appreciate the poem and to understand its message, it is necessary to read the poem in the context of crusade ideology.

Leading class discussions was an enlightening experience. The other students struggled not only to get past the religious intolerance but to understand Roland’s pride. In La Chanson de Roland, Roland’s pride costs Charlemagne his whole rearguard. However, Roland is still considered the hero of the poem. Such pride is condemned by modern Christianity, but Roland is not a modern Christian. Reading classics that contain racism/sexism/religious intolerance are important because of their historical value. I have read many historical books on the crusades. Yet, it is often difficult to learn about cultural values and sensibilities through history books.

Why is Roland a hero in the poem? In the 21st century, we would not consider Roland a hero. We wouldn’t justify warfare between Christians and Muslims. We would condemn misunderstandings about the Muslim faith. But in the 11th century when the First Crusade was being fought, the French had a different set of criteria for defining a hero. Roland is prideful, but in that era, pride in warfare was not condemned by the Church. This is is evident by reading another poem of the time, Beowulf.

I personally approach old literature like archaeological artifacts. Medieval literature (poems, plays, etc) reveals much about the values of the time period. These values are embodied in the heroes that are venerated. It is commonly accepted by scholars that La Chanson de Roland was written as crusade propaganda. Therefore, if Roland is the hero, it follows that he embodies values of the 11th century. The poem may be filled with offensive material, but it is valuable. Like archaeological artifacts, stories like La Chanson de Roland reveal not only differences between the 11th and 21st centuries but also the similarities. Maybe Western countries no longer fight wars under the banner of Christianity, but does it thereby follow that Western powers do not have similar motives to the Medieval Franks for fighting wars. I doubt it. Charlemagne claimed that he wanted to spread Christianity throughout the world, but he was a king and also wanted to conquer the world. What about the “War on Terror”? Is the only goal to fight terrorism? What do we gain by fighting these wars? Controversial works like La Chanson de Roland help us explore these questions.

 

Review of Beowulf

beowulfWhat is it about?

Here is what Goodreads has to say about Beowulf:

Beowulf is the greatest surviving work of literature in Old English, unparalleled in its epic grandeur and scope. It tells the story of the heroic Beowulf and of his battles, first with the monster Grendel, who has laid waste to the great hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, then with Grendel’s avenging mother, and finally with a dragon that threatens to devastate his homeland. Through its blend of myth and history, Beowulf vividly evokes a twilight world in which men and supernatural forces live side by side. And it celebrates the endurance of the human spirit in a transient world.”

What did I think about it?

Beowulf is an amazing warrior. He is fearless and powerful. Originally from the Kingdom of the Geats, Beowulf arrives at the Danish King Hrothgar’s mead house, Heoroth, one morning to defeat Grendel who has terrorized Hrothgar’s men for years. Beowulf helps Hrothgar because the latter helped end a feud between Beowulf’s father and the Wylfings.

My favorite character in the poem was Hrothgar because he is so kind and wise. He imparts fatherly wisdom to the young Beowulf, and is very generous in his gift giving. He sets a fantastic example for Beowulf to follow. In fact, in many passages, Hrothgar is described in the same biblical language used to describe Jesus.

I read the Penguin Classics version of Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander (2003). I thought the translation was beautiful and the notes at the back of the text were very helpful in understanding the history of the relationship between the Geats and the Danes. Major themes in the poem are the inevitability of death and the virtue of generosity.

Favorite Quote

[Hrothgar to Beowulf]: “Learn from this, Beowulf:/study openhandedness! It is for your ears that I relate/this,/and I am old in winters” [1720-1722].

 

 

Review of La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland)

What was it about?

The Franks under Charlemagne (King Charles) have conquered all of Spain except Saragosse. Saragosse is still under Saracen rule. The Saracen King Marsile, realizing that Charlemagne’ army is so much more powerful than his own, decides to defeat the Franks through deception. Marsile informs Charlemagne that he would like to get baptized. He claims that he is interested in becoming Christian and will give all of Spain to the Franks. After consulting his knights, Charlemagne decides to accept Marsile’s offer. Charles’ nephew, Roland, is a brave and loyal warrior. But, he is also prideful. His pride has resulted in many wars between the Christians and the Muslims. Roland nominates his godfather Ganelon to convey Charlemagne’s response to Marsile. Ganelon accepts the baton and the glove from Charlemagne, but he comes up with a plan to kill Roland. He betrays the Franks by allying with Marsile. He tells Marsile that if Roland is killed, the Franks will no longer fight the Saracens because Charlemagne is powerless without his nephew. Marsile sends word to Charlemagne that he will follow Charles to Aix where he will become Christian. Charles leaves behind Roland, the twelve pairs, and thousands of other knights to protect his Spanish territories. Without warning, Charlemagne’s rearguard is attacked by the Saracens.

What did I think about it?

How can one claim to know anything about the Crusades without having read The Song of Roland? True, it is fictional. But, the story was written in the 12th century, during the First Crusade. It served as war propaganda. If only for that reason, La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) should be read for its historical relevance. Roland is the ideal knight. He is willing to die for his God and his king.

The Song of Roland rewards a reader who understands and can identify Christian imagery. Charlemagne is a very wise and saintly figure. This 200 year old man with a long white beard is definitely an impressive character. Roland, Ganelon, ad Olivier are not one-dimensional. This is difficult to accomplish in a poem but the author succeeded in creating complex characters. However, the battles drag on for 50-100 pages each. Although I know that the repetitions in the poem serve to underline tension in the story, these repetitions (especially in the battle scenes) can be irritating at times. Because of the extremely boring final battle scene , I give the book 4 stars. But this rating should not dissuade you from reading this epic poem. Anyone interested in Medieval Europe should read The Song of Roland. It is comparable in fame to Homer’s Odyssey.