Tag Archives: chivalry

Mucho mejor

Much better. I made Rosinantes just a little bit bigger—115%. It made all the difference.

Don Quixote

What Picasso might have created if he’d learned how to draw. I have to admit I may have made Rosinantes too small. I’ll fix that when I paint him.

We did it! We slogged through every first piece of vernacular Western literature (written in the author’s own language rather than Latin)—at least all the ones I can think of. German, English, Italian, French, Spanish. Chivalry and knights in shining armor sure was a popular subject. It’s as if: even as writers were moving everyone into a more modern age they needed to fondly look back and say so-long to the Middle Ages.

Spanish author Miguel Cervantes (mee-GEL sair-VAHN-tez) was having none of that. It was the late 1500s, the Middle Ages were over and their foolishnesses needed to be lampooned. In his book, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha), the doddering old gentleman Don Quixote (DON kee-HO-tay) is obsessed day and night with reading those poems of chivalry and knights and their mighty deeds—to the point where his brain dries out. It’s cooked. Don Quixote loses his marbles; he becomes demented. Don Quixote gets the idea he should put on an old suit of armor he finds in a barn and become a knight-errant to restore honor to Spain. He talks a local peasant, Sancho Panza, into being his squire by promising him a parcel of real estate. The Don chooses as his steed a moth-eaten, played-out scrawny old horse named Rosinantes. As a nod to courtly love, he fixates on a local girl he calls Dulcinea—but she has no idea that she’s being honored this way.

Don Quixote and Sancho go adventuring across the countryside, questing for wrongs to be righted and monsters to vanquish. In the book’s most famous scene, Don Quixote (whose eyesight isn’t so good) mistakes a windmill for an ogre and charges at it with his lance. He gets caught up in the windmill’s vanes and has to be untangled. In nearly every other adventure, Don Quixote and Sancho get beat up by whomever they encounter.

Don Quixote is considered to be the first modern novel (a book-length work of fiction). Cervantes intended to move us out of the past into modernity, and he sure did. One bit of pure writing genius: Don Quixote speaks Old Spanish while the other characters speak modern Spanish. For us English speakers, imagine a modern novel’s character speaking like Chaucer or Shakespeare. Cervantes’ readers understood Don Quixote’s dialogue but he sounds antique and out-of-step.*

* In fact, Aldous Huxley used this gag in Brave New World to give us information about a character—https://www.litcharts.com/lit/brave-new-world/chapter-7

Wikipedia has a comprehensive entry for Don Quixote, including a summary of the story:
Look! You can get a poster of the title page of the 1605 edition of Don Quixote: https://www.amazon.com/Quixote-Ntitle-Cervantes-Published-Valencia/dp/B07C4K5LDY/ref=asc_df_B07C4K5LDY/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=527702999903&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=9503647619533183764&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9005111&hvtargid=pla-1401775165677&psc=1
And here’s Peter O’Toole in the musical Man of La Mancha. In this scene, Cervantes is in prison, entertaining his fellow prisoners. In real life he’d been imprisoned twice, the first stretch for 5 years as a guest of the Turks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH9nDlBr3b4
You can visit Don Quixote’s windmills—https://www.awayn.com/listing/all_listings/consuegra-spain-consuegra-the-windmills-of-don-quixote-hiking-trip/

Hey, whadayaknow—Sophia Loren’s in this movie, too! She’s Dulcinea, who maybe wasn’t so unaware of being treated like a lady. I know, it’s hokey, but I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42y15BYusmA&t=209s

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Le Morte d’Arthur

sketch of King Arthur based on a painting by Howard Pyle

Thomas Malory was a gifted writer (and convict*) who in 1470 brought the Arthurian stories together and organized them into a grand epic novel. His book has a French title, Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), though the text is Middle English with some French and Latin thrown in. The title is kind of a spoiler. For a while Britain was ruled justly and happily, but Camelot was ultimately doomed because nothing lasts forever. The high ideals that shaped Arthur’s reign were abandoned with the passage of time. Even knights of the Round Table are born weak and live in a broken world. Arthur’s closest allies betrayed him. His court fell apart. It was fun while it lasted. And yet, Malory gives us hope that Arthur and Camelot may return someday: on Arthur’s tomb is written, ‘Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus’ (Here lies Arthur, the once and future king).

I was a King Arthur geek when I was a tween. I did read Malory’s book and it was a glorious long slog. The version I read wasn’t in Middle English but somehow had the flavor of it (it was a library book and I can’t remember who translated it). Malory built the ‘once and future’ Camelot** word by word—the fellowship of the Table Round; the knights with their odd mannerisms and creaky old way of speaking; the exalted idealism; the shameful weaknesses. He showed me a sword magically embedded in an anvil and stone; a lady, naked as a needle, cursed to stand in boiling water until she was rescued by a very pure knight; a weird animal whose belly made the noise of a pack of hounds; ogres; giants; awkward love triangles; the Holy Grail (the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper). Malory conjured a dear old island that stood in that very misty spot where paganism hadn’t quite taken its leave and Christianity was just getting started.

* Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while he was serving time—probably as a political prisoner—at Newgate Prison. The prisons of the Middle Ages seem to have been full to bursting with authors cranking out the classics of Western Lit.

**The French poet Chretien de Troyes invented the name Camelot and created Sir Launcelot. That’s a lot.

I can’t top this article about Malory and his book—

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

A wooden statue of Geoffrey of Monmouth at Tintern Station https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6023609

King Arthur Pendragon may not have even existed. He was a figure from the mists of Welsh legend and made it into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of The Kings of Britain which he wrote in the 1100s. Geoffrey was not good at verifying historical facts—or he liked his history fanciful—but he gave us Arthur and Camelot. I’m a hopeless romantic so I like to think there really was a King Arthur.

During the 3 or four centuries after Geoffrey’s book came out, legends and folk tales emerged under the general heading of Arthurian. Figures of Arthur’s court came into being and had their own stories or they were given stories from older lore. Knights went on quests to prove themselves spiritually worthy. They fought wickedness when they found it and offered protection to the powerless. There was a mystical quality that surrounded Camelot and all of Arthur’s Britain—dragons, beasts, enchantments, sorceresses and Merlin the wizard. There was a beautiful young queen.


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The once and future blog post

“Who so pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.”

During the thousand years before the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, life for the British was one stinkin’ thing after another. If it wasn’t the Romans, it was the Angles. If it wasn’t the Angles, it was the Saxons. Or the Jutes. Or the Frisians. Everybody invaded Britain back then, it was the thing to do. Sometime during the ad 500s the British were in a life-and-death struggle to keep the Saxons from taking over their island. The Roman Empire had imploded and the Brits were on their own. The Saxons were unrelenting, ruthless and seemingly invincible. The British desperately needed a leader: someone just and moral; someone who could out-general the invaders; someone with a trusted band of mighty warrior-heroes; someone who would rally his countrymen to save their sceptre’d isle. They got one. The catch was that this chieftain and his friends were doomed—their time was to be only one brief shining moment. This chieftain? His name is Arthur.

Wow! That was some pretty good writing, huh? I should get a Brit actor like Kenneth Branagh or that Cumberbatch fella to read it out loud, backed up by an orchestra quietly playing the overture to Camelot.


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La Chanson de Roland

Roland a Roncevaux. It would be a stain on my escutcheon to poke fun at the war dead—even from 1300 years back—but I reckon it within bounds to lampoon a guy who didn’t call for help until all was clearly lost anyway.

The Song of Roland takes place during Charlemagne’s reign. Roland is Charles’ most trusted officer and the perfect embodiment of chivalry—pure in heart, doer of mighty deeds. In the story there’s a lot of diplomacy, intrigue, and military battles between Charles’ Franks and the wily Saracens in Spain (remember Spain and other big chunks of Europe were under Muslim control throughout the Middle Ages). Charles relies too heavily on his negotiator, the treacherous Ganelon. After a decisive battle a truce is reached and Charles agrees to withdraw his army with Roland commanding the rearguard. However, Ganelon has betrayed them and set a trap. Roland and his army must squeeze through a pass in the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. It’s there that the Saracens cut off the Frankish rearguard with their army that’s 20 times bigger. The Franks gallantly fight against hopeless odds. Roland has an elephant-tusk trumpet to summon help but he’s too proud to sound the alarm until the battle’s already lost. When he finally does, Roland bursts a blood vessel blowing that horn and dies. Charlemagne hears the call, rides to the rescue with more troops but when he arrives everybody is dead. Roland’s ghost is whisked up to Heaven by a bevy of angels.

The battle in the narrow mountain pass where Roland met his doom is ‘…loosely based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. However, the combatants in that skirmish were the Franks and the Christian Basques of Spain…’ If history teaches us anything, it’s this: never put all your Basques in one exit.

In Sicily, Roland’s story morphed into Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland) and is performed with rod puppets. They used to do this show in New York City’s Little Italy, too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwtwFK9dHfs
Santé vache! There’s a Roland movie with young Klaus Kinski in the lead—https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077317/

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The Norman Conquest and all that

My ham-fisted rendition of Edmund Blair Leighton’s 1900 painting ‘God Speed!’ A lady ties a ‘favor’ (an item of her clothing) on the arm of her paramour as he leaves to do battle.

Thanks to the Norman Conquest in ad 1066, French was introduced in the British Isles. French is another one of those Romance languages developed from Latin. The British natives had been speaking Old English/Anglo-Saxon which had Germanic roots (as we heard in Beowulf). The two cultures influenced each other. People were zipping back and forth across the English Channel (my British pal John W tells me on clear days he can see France from where he lives). English and French speakers swapped words (like lamb meat is mutton from French mouton). They influenced each other’s written language, too. Soon after 1066, church hymnals and psalters in England were written in French.

Later on mediæval England’s nobility became fascinated with chivalry, the knightly code of honor, and courtly love. They created a demand for literature that featured those themes. The nobility spoke French and Latin, so poetry was written in those languages. As time went on, French became the preferred language.*

* Courtly love is where a gentleman adored a lady from afar and performed brave, glorious deeds in her name. Often the ladies were other people’s wives. The romance between Queen Guinevere and Sir Launcelot is a famous example of courtly love. In theory the lady’s and gentleman’s code of honor forbade any monkey business—it was a strictly chaste relationship. Chivalry’s ideal man was a ‘verray parfit gentil knight.’ Even so, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee observed, “Well, it was touching to see the queen blush and smile, and look embarrassed and happy, and fling furtive glances at Sir Launcelot that would have got him shot in Arkansas, to a dead certainty.”


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