Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’

Introduction

The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]

Conclusion

The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.

References

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lion, the Lady and the Lackadaisical Lover

Introduction

I am working my way through the five romances attributed to the French poet, Chrétien de Troyes (late 12th century) – albeit in translation, as medieval French is quite different from the present-day language, and difficult.

Arguably, Chrétien’s Yvain, le chevalier au lion, is his best or one of his best.  It has twists and turns, conflicts that are resolved, psychological interest, ethical dilemmas, and a happy ending.  (Perceval [which I’ll read last] is important, partly because of the first mention, there, of the Grail; but it is unfinished.)

For its part, Wales has inherited its own tale (or romance) – Iarlles y Ffynnon = the Lady (or Countess) of the Fountain. The hero is Owain.  Germany has Iwein, by Hartmann von Aue.  Hartmann’s version of the tale is based on Chrétien’s and (like his) is in verse.

The anonymous Welsh tale is similar to the others as regards the main plot, but it differs in details.

The Fountain of the title may be regarded as symbolising eternity and fertility and (here) sovereignty.  To defend the Fountain against all-comers is to defend the domain of the ruler.

Principals

The male hero – Owain/Ivain/Iwein – marries the noble widow (the Lady of the Fountain, called Laudine by Chrétien), after he has killed her husband in one-to-one combat.  (By marrying her he takes on the responsibility of defending her territory.)  He leaves her, by returning to Arthur’s court and failing to come back to her at the agreed time.  This is a dereliction of duty.

Note the custom that dictates (apparently) that a woman rules the Fountain country, and that she chooses a husband as a helpmate.  Does this reflect a matriarchal tradition?

Apart from Laudine/the Countess herself, there is another important and active lady, namely, Luned/Lunete.  She gives counsel to her mistress, who relies on her, as she is very practical and sensible. It is she who advises the Lady to accept the necessity of having a strong husband and hence to marry the hero, as he has already proved himself in combat.  It is she too that brings the couple together.  (With Chrétien, she is the female messenger who challenges Yvain, at Arthur’s court, over his desertion.)  She is blamed, however, by the Lady’s retinue, when the couple become estranged, and she is threatened with death by them.

Luned/Lunete is vividly portrayed, and she is perhaps the most colourful character in the tale.

The male protagonist has numerous adventures, while he is separated from his wife.  He rescues a lion that is being attacked by a serpent (or dragon), and thereafter is accompanied by him on his adventures, and helped in his fights.  Hence, in the French version, Yvain is known as the ‘knight with the lion’.

What exactly does the lion mean, here?  Lions commonly symbolise authority, strength, confidence and courage.  This lion also represents gratitude, friendship and loyalty.  Perhaps he offers an example to the hero of correct behaviour.

Another colourful character is the forester who directs questing knights to the Fountain of the story.  In The Lady of the Fountain, he is a black (black-haired) giant, with one eye and one foot: he carries an iron club, with which he exercises power over the many animals that graze around him.  He appears to be an Otherworld creature – a sun god, come down from pre-Christian mythology.  (The one eye represents the sun.)  It is possible that he is a storm god too, if he is responsible for the ensuing storm at the Fountain.

The continental versions retain the giant’s function but differ considerably in the nature and scope of their description of this figure, and his mythological aspects are diminished.  This “churl” (“vilain”) is said to be misshapen but also to have “a head larger than that of a pack-horse or any other beast” and “great mossy ears like an elephant’s, heavy eyebrows and a flat face with owl’s eyes and a nose like a cat’s, a mouth split like a wolf’s, [and] the sharp yellow teeth of a wild boar”.   [Yvain, tr Owen, pp 284f]  And Hartmann’s description is similar and includes comparisons with animals.

(In this respect, compare the ugly female messenger who challenges the hero of Peredur, Chrétien’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, respectively.  In Peredur, the maiden is described as misshapen, but there are no references to animals, whereas in the continental analogues there are several comparisons to them, as there are in Yvain.)

Stylistic features

Chrétien includes a subplot: Yvain and his friend Gawain fight on opposite sides as champions for two sisters.  Chrétien says, in a long passage, that the two knights love each other, but when they are fighting on opposite sides, they hate each other.  Love and Hatred become allegorical characters.  The Welsh version has none of this.

There are shared magical elements, notably, a ring that confers invisibility and a panacea-like ointment, and the raising of a mighty storm by the pouring of water on to the slab at the Fountain.

There are polarities and mirror images in the basic story.  The hero is rescued by Luned/Lunete from certain death; and in turn he rescues her from execution, later on.  The Lady’s hatred for the hero, as the killer of her husband, turns to acceptance of him (love for him, in Yvain), then to hatred of him (in Yvain, at least), and finally to reconciliation.

Conclusion

I am inclined to believe that the French version represents an enlargement upon the Welsh, rather than that the Welsh version is a summary of the French.  The Welsh account is concise and always to-the-point.  The French version is much longer and far more elaborate and much more rhetorical than the Welsh.  Chrétien addresses his audience directly, from time to time; he includes long dialogues between characters.

Both versions of the story are attractive and have literary merit.  The simpler, more direct, concentrated Welsh version stands up well, against Chrétien’s, in my view.

Principal sources

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walshe, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, 5th edition, Oxford: OUP

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Lagarde, A and Michard, L (1964), Collections Textes et Littérature, I, Moyen Age, Paris: Bardas

Goetinck, G W (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

 

 

 

 

 

Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

Three Welsh medieval romances

Introduction

Students of Welsh literature are proud of the medieval inheritance, including the anonymous eleven tales bracketed together as the “Mabinogion”.  Among these are the three so-called “romances”.  They tell the story of Owain (Owein), in The Lady of the Fountain, of Peredur in the tale centred on him, and Geraint (Gereint) in Geraint son of Erbin.

These romances have analogues in French and German:

Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain ou le chevalier au lion and Hartmann’s Ywein (compare Iarlles y Ffynnon [Owain]);

Chrétien’s Ėrec et Ėnide and Hartmann’s Erec (compare Geraint);

Chrétien’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (compare Peredur).

Are the continental versions superior?  Or just different?  My own opinion is that the Welsh versions, albeit shorter than the continental ones, and in prose rather than in verse, have literary merit in their own right.

Features

1 The romances are patently not like present-day novels.  In varying degrees, the tales are episodic rather than connected and dominated by one plot; some incident episodes are interpolated, or added – after what would appear to be the natural ending.

2 The stories are Arthurian, although Arthur, and Gwenhywfar (= Guinevere), are somewhat peripheral, in two of the romances.  However, many episodes do start, or finish, at Arthur’s court, in Caerleon on Usk.  Arthur and Gwenhwyfar play prominent parts in the Geraint and Enid story.

3 The protagonists are knights and heroes.  They are associated with Arthur’s court but have independent adventures, which provide the content of the tales.  They are knights errant, seeking adventure.  Arthur’s court appears to be surrounded by independent chiefdoms, where either friendship or hostility may be encountered, and (perhaps) otherworld characters.

4 The eponymous heroes are always victorious in combat.  However, they are less successful in love than in battle – they have to work harder, to gain and to maintain relationships.  All three protagonists have to learn to take the responsibility of faithfulness to his lady seriously.  (Arthur and Gwenhwyfar serve as a model.)  The romances, then, are largely about love.

5 The heroes have to learn to take responsibility for leadership and rule, and to balance this with their matrimonial obligations.

6 The content reflects a society where there is a division of labour between men and women.  The knights do the fighting.  The ladies encourage and nurture the heroes: some of them need to be rescued (like “damsels in distress”).  Female messengers, moreover, confront heroes with their failings and stir them into action.

7 Some characters are individualised: Cei is always rude, Gwalchmai is always polite, Luned is kind and clever, Gwenhwyfar is the perfect hostess and sponsor, and Enid is loyal to Geraint, under pressure.

8 The chronology of each tale is linear; descriptions of combat are repetitive; descriptions of climactic events are colourful, however; and the characters’ dialogues are crisp.

9 There is much repetition, within episodes, but also subtle variation.  (Cynon’s story is repeated by Owain’s – with a different outcome.)

10 Supernatural characters, and figures of an ambiguous nature, play an important part.  The protagonists are tested by natural and by supernatural powers, on their journey to full maturity.

11 Significant symbols appear, for example, the bloody spear and severed head, in Peredur.

12 There and hints of both Christian and pre-Christian belief systems in the romances.

Assumptions concerning relationships between the Welsh romances and the works of Chrétien, Hartmann and Wolfram

1 The French versions by Chrétien de Troyes gave rise to the German versions by Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

2 The Welsh romances are not translations of the French; the French versions are not direct translations of the Welsh; the Welsh and French versions may derive from a common source.

3 The French and German versions refer to place names in Wales, rather distorted.  The Welsh setting points to strong Welsh influence.

4 At the same time, scholars detect French influence on the Welsh versions that have come down to us.

Iarlles y Ffynnon – the Lady of the Fountain

The story

The lady of the title (otherwise known as the Countess = Iarlles) is not named.  Her maid, who plays an important part in the story is named, as Luned.

The hero is Owain.  Other knights who are important in the story are Cynon and Gwalchmai.

The story is about a knight who leaves Arthur’s court home to go on a quest: he wins a wife, but he loses her (by his neglect of her); but finally he is reconciled with her.

On his quest, then, Owain defeats and mortally wounds the knight who defends the lands of his wife (the Countess) by guarding the symbolic fountain.  (Owain succeeds where his friend Cynon has already failed.)  Luned persuades the Countess to marry again.  With Owain himself already in mind, she advises the Countess thus:

Thou knowest that thy dominions cannot be defended save by main strength and arms; and for that reason seek quickly one who may defend them.

[Jones & Jones, page 168]

And accordingly, Owain marries the Countess.

Invited back to Arthur’s court, Owain goes for a visit.  A period of three months is agreed, but in the event Owain stays for three years, in effect, deserting his wife.  Then a female stranger comes to Arthur’s court.  She comes up to Owain and takes away the ring that is on his hand:

‘Thus,’ said she, ‘does one do to a false treacherous deceiver, to bring shame on thy beard.’  And she turned her horse’s head and away.

And then remembrance of his adventure came to Owein, and he was sorrowful.

[Jones & Jones, pages 173f]

Owain despairs at first; but then he rehabilitates himself (with the aid of a friendly lion).  In the end, Owain proves his fitness, once more, to be a true husband, and the couple are reconciled.

The History of Peredur son of Efrog

Summary

Peredur starts life as the seventh and sole surviving son of his widowed mother; he leaves his widowed mother; he becomes an Arthurian knight; he falls in love with various ladies; he sees “marvels” at an uncle’s castle; he avenges the harm done to his family on the perpetrators – the witches of Caer Loyw.

In his youth, Peredur receives instruction – in various proportions, as regards arms and courtesy, respectively – from a series of people, principally, his own mother, two uncles, and a hermit.

The hero’s duties

In Peredur, the hero can be said to have two obligations to fulfil: (i) the task of righting wrongs (through chivalry), and (ii) the task of finding (and keeping) a lady.

1 The righting of wrongs

The righting of wrongs has to do with avenging injuries suffered by Peredur himself (through Cei’s insults), members of his family, members of Arthur’s court, and others (eg “damsels in distress”).  This task is performed by force of arms.

In particular, Peredur is called upon to kill the witches of Caer Loyw, in revenge for the killing of a cousin and the laming of an uncle.  Moreover, by killing the witches, the sovereignty that belongs to his family is (or can be) passed on to Peredur himself.

2 Love

Somewhat like the other heroes of the romances, Peredur appears to find the maintenance of a love relationship (once achieved) much harder than achievements in combat.

Peredur has a series of love affairs, with three principal ladies in succession: (i) an unnamed fair lady*, (ii) Angharad Golden-hand, and (iii) the Empress of Constantinople.

Note that love too can be connected with sovereignty: a knight can gain it by marrying a powerful lady, as in Peredur’s relationship with the Empress of Constantinople, in Peredur, and in Owain’s marrying the Countess (in The Lady of the Fountain).

*The unnamed fair lady

The lady in question is described as follows:

Whiter was [her flesh] than flowers of the whitest crystal; but her hair and her eyebrows, blacker were they than jet.  Two small red spots on her cheeks, redder were they than aught reddest.

[Jones & Jones, pages 194f]

(Compare Chrétiens’s Blanchefleur and Wolfram’s Condwiramurs.)

Later, Peredur is entranced by a colourful sight that reminds him of the woman he loves:

The she-hawk rose up, and a raven alighted on the [duck’s] flesh.  Peredur stood and likened the exceeding blackness of the raven, and the whiteness of the snow, and the redness of the [duck’s] blood, to the hair of the woman he loved best, which was black as jet, and her flesh to the whiteness of the snow, and the redness of the blood in the white snow to the two red spots in the cheeks of the woman he loved best.

[Jones & Jones, page 199]

These parallel passages are fine in their own right.  They also point to a way the first love story could have gone.  Wolfram’s Parzival makes much of this knight-lady relationship and guides it towards a happy ending.

Variations on the Grail motif

The Grail as such does not appear in Peredur.

At the court of the second uncle, Peredur sees, not a “grail”, but a spear running with blood and the bloody severed head of a man on a salver.  Nobody present offers an explanation of these manifestations; and Peredur does not ask.  (Compare the behaviour of Perceval and Parzival.)

Later in the story, Peredur is confronted, at Arthur’s court, by a “black curly-headed maiden”, with a “rough unlovely look about her”, and misshapen: she tells him, accusingly, that she should have asked about the meaning of the spear and the severed head, when at his uncle’s court.

Later still, however, a “yellow-haired youth” makes a different point:

‘The [severed] head was thy cousin’s, and it was the witches of Caer Loyw that had slain him.  And ‘twas they that lamed thy [first] uncle.  And….it is prophesied that thou wilt avenge that.’

[Jones & Jones, page 226]

With the help of his Arthurian companions, Peredur proceeds to kill the witches of Caer Loyw – and so the story ends.

Comments:

1 The question test raised by the challenging maiden points to the insertion of new material, perhaps under the influence of Perceval or a source behind it.  (In both Perceval and Parzival, the question test is of major significance.)

2 The youth’s explanation of the significance of the bloody “marvels” fits in with the righting of wrongs element of Peredur.

3 Another genuine reason for the maiden’s challenge (in an earlier version) might have been a call to Peredur to return to his true wife (whichever lady she might be).  (Compare the story of Owain).  This would fit in with the love element of Peredur.

Conclusion

Peredur is interesting, because:

  1. it shows the development of the hero
  2. it shows the hero’s valour
  3. it shows the hero’s courtesy to women and to older men
  4. it has descriptions both of great ugliness and great beauty
  5. it has many magical or supernatural elements
  6. its contents and themes can be compared and contrasted with those that characterise Perceval and

Geraint son of Erbin

The characters of Geraint and of Enid (his wife)

In the first half of the story, Geraint displays courtesy and valour, respect for his father, and love for his wife (tending to uxoriousness).  In the second half, however, Geraint’s behaviour is marked by pride, jealousy and stubbornness.

Enid remains a loving and faithful wife to Geraint.  She warns him of oncoming dangers, as best she can, even though she is constantly rebuffed by Geraint for her pains.

The story

The theme is that of the hero winning a lady to wife, then losing her (cf Owain), and eventually achieving a reconciliation with her.

Geraint goes on a quest to avenge the hurt caused to one of Gwenhyfar’s maids (and indirectly to Gwenhwyfar herself).  He is victorious in a tournament; he puts right the wrongs suffered by the family he lodges with; he woos Enid, the daughter of the house, and marries her.

Geraint relaxes and adopts a life of ease and inactivity.  This gives rise to gossip, and causes distress to Enid.  The couple become estranged.  Precipitately, Geraint takes Enid off on a quest, without a clear object or direction, to prove his valour once more.

After numerous victories against opponents, Geraint ends up exhausted and wounded and unconscious, and seemingly near death.  A certain earl, taking advantage of the situation, tries to persuade Enid to leave Geraint for him.  Enid refuses, the earl hits her, and Enid shrieks; Geraint wakes up, seizes his sword and promptly kills the earl.  The couple make their escape.

Realising how emotionally cruel he has been to Enid, Geraint looks on her in a new light:

Geraint looked on Enid and a double grief came over him: the one to see how Enid had lost her colour and her mien, and the other was that he knew then she was in the right.

[Jones & Jones, page 269]

This change signals the beginning of the reconciliation process.  And the story ends happily for them.

Sources, in order of publication date

Jones, G and Jones, T (1949) (translators), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent & Sons (Everyman).

Jones, R M (Bobi) (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion.

Evans, J G (editor) (1973), Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch –Y Chwedlau a’r Rhamantau, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, with an Introduction by Evans, R M.

Goetinck, G W (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Goetinck, G W (ed) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Vitt, A M (2010), Peredur vab Efrawc – Edited Texts and Translations of the MSS Peniarth 7 and 14 Versions, MPhil, Aberystwyth University, viewed 28 April 2017, http://cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/handle/2160/6118/Vitt_Electronic%20MPhil%20Thesis.pdf?sequence=1

More to follow!

Sparks from the flint – an analysis of Chapter VIII of D H Lawrence’s 2nd version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

Introduction

Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in 1920s industrial England.  Lady Constance (“Connie”) Chatterley and the gamekeeper employed by her paraplegic husband (maimed in World War One) have an affair; Connie becomes pregnant; by the end, Connie and her lover are pondering their (rather limited) options for the future.  The novel ends with matters unresolved.

Three principal themes are: (i) class divisions, (ii) relationships between the sexes, and (iii) the dire effects of disappointment and frustration with one’s lot in life.  Class divisions affect sexual relationships across the divide – adversely.  They are implicated in physical damage to ordinary working people, through maiming and death for some.  (World War One has done this too.)  They are also implicated in emotional damage – the encouragement of domination on the part of the employers, and the hurting of pride, and promotion of defiance, on the part of the employed.

Three versions

There are three versions of the novel: the third is the best known.

Pascale Ferran’s film, Lady Chatterley et l’homme du bois (2006) is based on the 2nd version of the novel.  This was first published by Penguin in the UK in 1973.  (It is called John Thomas and Lady Jane; but Tenderness would be more appropriate.) 

The main themes and plot are common to versions 2 and 3, as regards the strengths (characterisation and social analysis) and weaknesses (preachiness).  At the same time, there are also important differences, in the nature of principal characters and in details of the ending.  In the 2nd version, for example, the gamekeeper is called Parkin, not Mellors.  By the end, moreover, Sir Clifford remains unaware both of the affair and of Connie’s pregnancy.  Parkin has to go away to find work, and this disrupts the pursuit of his relationship with Connie.

In my opinion, the 2nd version of the novel compares very well with the 3rd.

Relations among the main characters, in Chapter VIII of the 2nd version

Chapter VIII (which corresponds roughly to Chapter X in the 3rd version) covers one day.  It is pivotal in the development of the story, as I hope to show.  It also sheds light on the nature of the four important characters who appear and speak in the chapter:

  1. Connie Chatterley, lonely and isolated, frustrated with her life, before meeting Parkin
  2. Sir Clifford Chatterley, stoical, strong-willed and domineering, frustrated by his disability
  3. Oliver Parkin, solitary, resentful of authority, mistrustful of women but softened by meeting Connie
  4. Mrs Ivy Bolton, Sir Clifford’s live-in nurse and care giver

Mrs Flint, young mother – neighbour and acquaintance of the Chatterleys – also appears.

In the course of the day covered by Chapter VIII, Connie meets and talks to all the others.  I shall examine the viewpoints of each of these four people and how the events of the day affect them.

CONSTANCE (“CONNIE”)

This is Connie’s view of herself at the beginning of the day: “She was miserable and angry with herself, feeling today more paralysed than Clifford.”

Clifford has gone out: she feels she must go out – so she goes to see Mrs Flint.

This is Connie’s appreciation of Mrs Flint and her child: “The quiet female atmosphere, just Mrs Flint and the baby, and the servant-girl, was infinitely soothing.”

And later: “And she was thinking so deeply of Mrs Flint’s baby.  It was a nice little thing, with hair like red gossamer, and such a delicate skin.”

On her way home, Connie bumps into Parkin, with whom she has already had sex twice. He grabs hold of her – she first tries to push him away.  In the event, this is what happens: “Her instinct was to fight him. He held her so hard.  Yet why fight?  Why fight anybody?  Her will seemed to leave her and she was limp.”

Connie lets Parkin take her.  (Does she give true consent?)  In the event, the sex that follows is described by Lawrence in these florid terms:

And then, something awoke in her.  Strange, thrilling sensation that she had never known before woke up where he was within her, in wild thrills like wild, wild bells.

But, about their relationship, Connie acknowledges her ambivalent feelings:

When she woke to herself, she knew life had changed for her.  Changed with him.  And she was afraid.  She was afraid of loving him.  She was afraid of letting herself go…..Ah, she adored him!  And she longed to abandon herself to the luxury of loving him.  At the same time, she mistrusted yielding to her lover.

Connie is changing, and she realises that she is changing:

She was full of a strange triumph, and a sort of glory of new pleasure.  She could still feel the echoes of the thrill of passion in her blood, ebbing away down all her veins like the rich after-humming of deep bells.”

Connie has a new aspiration: “And she felt sure she would have a child, a baby with soft live limbs, ensheathed in her own life.”

At home, Connie sees Clifford with new eyes:

And she thought, suddenly, what a queer rapacity there was in his naked face and his alert cautious eyes….He no longer cared about persons.  It was the mines that occupied his attention, on them his will was fixed.  He was going to pull them out of the depression: he was going to make money.

CLIFFORD

Clifford has an inkling of changes in Connie and her drift away from him.  First, he notices her inattention to his reading out loud to her (one of their habits):

The reading finished.  She was startled.  She looked up, and was more startled still to see Clifford watching her with a faint, cruel smile in his eyes.

The growing gap is reinforced when Connie goes to bed and wishes Clifford “Good-night!” (only):

As she spoke, she drifted dreamily nearer the door.  She was going without kissing him good-night.  He watched her with lynx eyes.  Even that she could forget!  And he was too proud, too offended to remind her.  Though the kiss, indeed, was but a formality….He could not make love to her! and therefore she was withdrawing every tiny show of love.  She forgot, no doubt.  But the forgetfulness was part of the whole intention….Ah well! he was a man, and asked charity from nobody, not even his wife.

Clifford takes comfort in cherishing his master-servant (child-mother?) relationship with his nurse, Mrs Bolton:

But after all, Mrs Bolton was his best tonic.  She did not understand the awfulness of his mental condition, as Connie did, therefore she was the best help….His dread was for the night, when he could not sleep.  But now he would ring for Mrs Bolton, and she would come in her dressing-gown….strangely girlish and secretive, and talk to him, or play chess or cards with him.

PARKIN

Parkin shows evidence of obsession with Connie, and possessiveness.  When he bumps into Connie, on her homeward walk, he shows anger at the thought that she might be avoiding him.  “You wasn’t slivin’ past and not meanin’ to see me, was you?” he says, challengingly.

In the event, he is implicitly forgiven for his forceful manner, as the sexual act turns out to be satisfactory for both of them, this time: “We came off together that time,” he says to her.

At home, later, Parkin finds that he cannot sleep: “He was unsettled, in a ferment.”  He goes for a night walk, with his dog.   His steps take him to the Chatterleys’ house.  Looking up at it reinforces his desire for Connie, sleeping within:

He went slowly up the incline, towards the house, hoping for the woman.  It was a necessity that he should see her, should come to her, should touch her, if only for a moment.  If he found his way into the house! – or if he made her know he was there! – or if he waited, waited, waited for naked day.

But Parkin realises the “futility of his yearning”: so, “he turned away, slowly, ponderingly, despairingly”.

Parkin, moreover, worries about the strength of the relationship with Connie and about his obsession with her.  His pride and his need for independence come through, in his thoughts: “A man must not depend on a woman.”

MRS BOLTON

Mrs Bolton already has suspicions about Connie, arising from the recent change in her.  On Connie’s arrival home from her walk, they talk, and Mrs Bolton thinks:

The eyes of the two women met, Mrs Bolton’s, grey and bright and cool, Constance’s, bright and burning.  And with the infernal instinct of her kind, Mrs Bolton knew that Constance had a lover of some sort.  She had suspected it before.  Tonight she was sure.  And a curious pleasure, a satisfaction almost as if it had been her own lover, leaped up inside her.  Only the question began to burn in her mind, who was he?

Again, later:

Tonight, at the back of her mind, she was continually wondering whom her lady had found for a lover.  There seemed no gentleman possible.

She does think of Parkin, but rejects the idea:

There was Parkin in the wood, of course!….But then her ladyship would never stoop to him!….He might be attractive to a low sort of woman, if any one could stand his overbearing, nasty way.  But for a refined woman, he was just a snarling nasty brute.

Does Mrs Bolton show insight into Parkin’s character, or prejudice, or indeed both?

Mrs Bolton follows up her critique of Parkin with an unflattering observation about “refined ladies” in general and Connie in particular:

Still, you never knew!  When women did fall, they sometimes liked to fall as low as they could.  Refined ladies would fall in love with niggers, so her ladyship might enjoy demeaning herself with that foul-mouthed fellow, who would bully her the moment he got a chance.  But there, she’d had her own way for so long, she might be asking to be bullied.

Later, still awake, she spots Parkin as he approaches the house in the dark – seeing but remaining unseen.  Her suspicion is confirmed.  Her thoughts, now, mark the end of the chapter:

And Mrs Bolton….saw him turn and disappear.  Yes, he was gone!  And his going made her more certain than ever.

“Well, would you ever now!” she said to herself, dazed with sleep.  “And not a young man either!”

Conclusions and Questions

Is Lawrence obsessed with sex?  Does the reader appreciate Lawrence’s style, when he writes about sex, explicitly?  This is a matter of personal preference, perhaps.

Is Lawrence hostile, not only to class divisions and conflict but also to the sexual morality prevailing in 1920s England (which condemned sex outside marriage)?  I think so.

Are Lawrence’s characters rounded?  Do they change?  Do they arouse understanding, or even sympathy, in the reader?  Are there ambiguities?  Can Parkin (for example) be seen from more than one point of view?  Can they all be true?  Yes, he is hard at times, gentle at others.  (Is there a history behind his hardness?  Yes.)

I believe that in Chapter VIII Lawrence portrays his main characters’ profound feelings and thoughts, especially about their relations with each other, very well indeed.  He is very good at conveying the tensions inherent in the relationship between Connie and Parkin – the forces pushing them together and those wrenching them apart.  On the personal level, both have ambivalent feelings – each wishing to yield to the other, and not wishing to yield, at one and the same time.  True to life, no doubt.

 

 

 

 

 

A poet’s labour lost?

Arguably, it can be said of Love’s Labour’s Lost that, among Shakespeare’s plays, it is relatively seldom performed and therefore less known by those who go to see plays and those who study S’s works.

Kenneth Branagh made a film of LLL in 2000.  He used very little of the original text.  He set the story in the 1930s, with period American songs to match (like a musical).

In recent years, LLL has been put on at The Globe and by the RSC.  Seeing the latter on DVD has prompted me to reconsider my attitude to the play (which remains somewhat mixed).

What is it about?  Why is it less popular?

“Boy meets girl”

Here, we have the matter of four boys chasing the four girls who arrive at their court (ostensibly on an embassy).  The gentlemen (or lords) – The King of Navarre and his coterie – are boyish and immature.  They swear a foolish oath, to abjure the company of women for three years, and swiftly break it in the light of reality (their sexual drive).

The “girls”, on the other hand – the Princess of France and her attendants – are grown-up ladies.  They are impressed, neither by the men’s oath, nor their breaking of it.  The ladies leave to go home, on receipt of the news that the Princess’s father (the King of France) has died.  The coup-de-théâtre – the arrival of the messenger from France, in the middle of an entertainment – dramatically breaks the comical tone, bordering on the farcical, that has characterised the play hitherto.

The male suitors are made to wait for a year (and meanwhile to use their time wisely) before trying to court the ladies again.  As one gentleman (Browne) puts it: “Jack hath not Jill.”  (Compare the ending of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.)

Can one identify with any of these characters?  At least, the ladies are more sensible than the gentlemen.

The other characters

Most of these are comedians or caricatures (or both).  The comic ones are: the ladies’ male attendant, a Spanish knight (and braggart), his page, a pedantic schoolmaster, a curate, a constable, and a clown.  The dairymaid and the forester are neutral.  By virtue of his role, the messenger from France is serious.

Arguably, Shakespeare sees some of these men as figures of fun.  They tend (variously) to use puns and plays on words, Latinisms and ornate language.  There are jokes, but many of these are unintelligible nowadays, without notes; and so they are best omitted from the play in performance.  Notably, the knight’s language reveals no Hispanic features.  (The thinking behind this is lost to us.)

One can accuse the male suitors (above) of elaborate, dense language traits too.  The ladies are more straightforward, while still witty.

Aspect One

In a way, nothing much happens in this play.  The men talk, the ladies arrive, the men try to court the ladies (without success), and the ladies leave, leaving sound advice as their parting shot.

One can add that the dairymaid is revealed to be pregnant – either by the clown or the knight.  There is an implication that it is the knight who will care for her.

Aspect Two

The play has much to do about language – its uses and abuses.  (Compare The Merry Wives of Windsor, in this regard.)

Much of the play is written in rhymed verse (spoken by the lords and ladies).  Embedded in the speeches there are six sonnets, by my reckoning.  The four lords compose one love poem (each) to the ladies they profess to love: three of these are sonnets.  (Worth a look.)  (Three of the poems are reproduced in The Passionate Pilgrim.)

The play ends, delightfully, with two songs – (i) the spring song of the cuckoo and (ii) the winter song of the owl.  (Worth a look too.)

Aspect Three

The male characters – both lords and commoners – attempt to entertain the ladies – but with little or no success.

At one point, the lords approach the ladies disguised themselves as Muscovites (why!?); but, as the ladies have been tipped off, they have no difficulty in getting ready for them, by disguising themselves, too, and hence confusing them.

The comic male characters put on a show of the “Nine Worthies” (five attempting to portray nine, between them!); but their acting is disrupted, firstly by the derision of the lords, and secondly, by the arrival of the messenger from France.

Aspect Four

LLL has great displays of witBut how funny is it?

Perhaps the funniest part is to be found in Act 4, Scene 3.  Here the four lords, arrive, in succession, to read their love poems aloud but (as they suppose) in secret. They suffer the indignity of being spied on by their fellows and then being confronted with the breaking of the shared oath.  Each one has to admit that he is in love with one of the ladies.

(The men are fine poets but clumsy lovers.)

Conclusion

LLL is hard to put on; it is hard to make a success of it; it requires the exercise of imagination and a willingness to make cuts, on the part of the production team.  With the aid of explanatory notes, LLL is readable – in places, amusing, in other places, rather tedious.

Many of Shakespeare’s works show a timeless quality (although times and places are evoked).  On examination, LLL comes across as very much product of its period, the 1590s, by virtue of its veiled allusions (i) to the works of certain of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, eg those of Sir Philip Sidney, and (ii) to contemporary events, eg in France – all rather obscure, today.  Hence, there is a distance between the rather artificial world portrayed by LLL and our world today (and the literature and drama that reflect it).

Love’s Labour’s Won

Such a play may have existed – a sequel to LLL; but if so, it is lost, under this title.  Various hypotheses have been put forward, suggesting that one or other surviving play fits the bill – Love’s Labour’s Won under a different name – for example, Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well.  I venture to suggest, instead, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Fenton succeeds in marrying Miss Anne Page (winning out against Dr Caius and Slender).

Editions and versions taken into account

I have read these editions of LLL and the editors’ introductions:

1 Kerrigan, J (1982), Penguin: Harmondsworth (Middlesex)

2 Hibbard, G R (1990), OUP: Oxford

3 Woudhuysen, H R (1998), Arden 3 (Thomas Nelson & Sons): Walton-on-Thames

Performances

1 Branagh, K (director) (2000) – cinema film and video

2 Luscombe, C (director) (2015) – DVD of live performance.

 

 

 

Dulness, deceit and dunces; populism, priorities and prophecy

Populism and priorities

I used to think that populism was a good thing – the will of the people.  Now I have doubts.  It seems that populism represents a series of reactions to single issue problems.  It is likely to result in inconsistencies – trying to have your cake and eat it.  Object to wind turbines but still expect a cheap, reliable supply of electricity, for example.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism” – Aneurin Bevan (1949).  One could say, indeed, that the language of priorities is the language of politics.  But the present UK government chooses to underfund and to undermine public services.  Its priorities lie elsewhere – the maximisation of private profit.  The result is the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  (Trickle-down economics does not work.)

The world in 2017

I move on to British trade and foreign policy.  HM Government aims to abandon close ties with our European neighbours on our doorstep and to seek trade with countries far away.  The promises of success appear very dubious.

Today, Europe (including the UK) finds itself situated (sandwiched) between two powerful countries – Russia and the USA – between Putin and Trump – populist leaders.  Shouldn’t this be a factor in UK policy making?  Isn’t the UK safer, anchored in Europe?

Satire and prophecy

Satire appears inadequate to tackle this situation.  Over the centuries, satirists have bent their bows and let arrows fly.  Their admirers smile.  The people in power, targeted, ignore them or retaliate.  As time goes by, later readers fail to understand the context of the satire unless supplied with explanatory notes.

Despite this, I feel moved to draw upon satire – in particular, that of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744).  I see parallels between his world and ours.

I refer to Pope’s long polemical and satirical poem, the Dunciad, where Pope creates a mock anti-goddess, who he calls “Dulness”.  She represents trends in society, politics and the media towards obscurantism, selfishness, greed, cliquishness and monopolisation of power – a dystopic vision of a world governed by dunces.

I associate ‘Dulness’, indeed, with certain 21st century trends, for example, “post-truth” and “fake news” (also known simply as lies).

The poem

Here I quote from the beginning and end of the final version of the Dunciad (1743), which depict first the return and then the ultimate triumph of Dulness, in 18th century London:

                            In eldest time….

Dulness o’er all possessed her ancient right,

Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night:

Fate in their dotage this fair Ideot gave,

Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,

Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,

She ruled, in native Anarchy, the mind.

Still her old Empire to restore she tries,

For, born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

 

[Book I, 9-18]

 

         She comes! She comes! The sable Throne behold

Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!…

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

         Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

 

[Book IV: 651-656]

 

Evaluation

 

In my study of the writings of Alexander Pope, I rely largely on a slim volume of literary criticism (1989), produced by David Fairer, now professor of 18th century literature at Leeds University. In his chapter on the Dunciad, he comments: “In the world of Dulness there are no objective standards, no structures of ideas against which to measure the truth” [page 154].  (Does this sound familiar?)

 

David Fairer concludes his chapter with a warning:

 

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how the mad visions of the few, combined with the passive mindless of the many, could conceivably bring the end of the world.  The prophecies of The Dunciad are coming close to us, and it is becoming easier to discern a relationship between a pacifying mass culture (….), the growth of mass movements (….), and the concentration of power in the hands of a few charismatic leaders (….).  The pseudo-energy of Dulness, with her flagrant appeal to selfish instincts in the guise of freedom….is a principle which is still alive, and still threatens us. [Page 158]

 

Conclusion

 

David Fairer’s book was published in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War was coming to an end, and optimism pervaded the world.  See where we are now!

 

Pope’s and Fairer’s words are prophetic, indeed, and worth heeding.  We ignore them at our peril.

 

References

 

Butt, J (ed) (1963), The Poems of Alexander Pope (one-volume), London: Routledge.

 

Fairer, D (1989), The Poetry of Alexander Pope, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

 

 

 

Franz Kafka,’Das Schloss’ (‘The Castle’)

 

Sie sind nicht aus dem Schloẞ, Sie sind nicht aus dem Dorfe, Sie sind nichts.  Leider sind Sie doch etwas, ein Fremder, der ûberzählig und ûberall im Wege ist, einer, wegen dessen man immerfort Scherereien hat.

You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you are nothing.  Unfortunately, though, you are something – a stranger, superfluous, always in the way, constantly causing trouble.

[The landlady of the village inn to K, in Chapter 4]

 

The title

The word ‘Schloss’, in the title, can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ or “country house” (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears, however, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.

Publication

Kafka left his third novel incomplete (but see below).  It was published only after his death, at the instigation of his friend Max Brod.

The story

K arrives in a village, in winter, to take up an appointment as a land surveyor, for Count Westwest.  The local castle (the Castle) overlooks the village.  The Castle officials (an all-male elite) oversee all the goings-on in the village and record them, in bureaucratic detail.  They are respected and looked up to by the villagers, and indeed obeyed.

The Castle and the village are fundamentally separate.  Castle officials visit the village but villagers are not permitted to enter the Castle. The officials transact much of their business in the village itself, at night.  They conduct interviews with villagers at night too.

The novel largely consists of a record of the series of meetings between K and individuals – both villagers and officials – which give him some insight into how the place works.  (Called to his own first proper interview with an official, at night, K misses his appointment, by falling asleep!)

Some Castle officials abuse their power over the ordinary people by taking local women as their mistresses. They are free too to discard them.  (One man in particular – Herr Klamm – is mentioned.)  The women who are taken up by Castle officials gain rather than lose higher social status in the village!  (Any woman who rejects such a relationship is ostracised by the community)

K himself tries to use his relationship with a young villager (Frieda) as a bargaining tool in order to arrange a man-to-man interview with Klamm – this he fails to achieve.

K is engaged in a struggle for recognition as a professional person – a land surveyor.  He never has the opportunity to practise his profession.  Indeed, one informant tells him that his services are not required and that the job offer resulted from a bureaucratic error.

K remains an outsider.

The language

Kafka’s prose is precise.  It has many long sentences, with subordinate clauses.  Different aspects of a topic are balanced.  Different arguments are weighed against each other.  It reminds the reader of bureaucratic language.  Even the characters’ speeches tend to be formal.  Typically of literary German, reported speech features extensive use of the subjunctive mood.

Kafka’s German is fairly easy to understand, because of its clarity; but it is difficult to translate into fluent English.   For example, the word order sometimes has to be changed – but with this the delicate structure of the original may be impaired.

The story is told, in a way, from K’s perspective, as the reader is given access to his thoughts as well as his statements, as in a first person narrative.  The other characters’ thoughts are revealed in their body language (as reported) and what they say.

K, the protagonist

The reader is entitled to ask questions about K.

Why does he stay in the village, given that he suffers a series of rebuffs?

Is he too proud about his status?  (He does accept a job as a school caretaker as a temporary measure.)

Is he insufficiently flexible in his dealings with both villagers and officials?  Does he expect the system to adapt to him rather than the other way round?

What is more important to K – his proclaimed love for the barmaid Frieda or his wish to use her as way to set up an interview with Klamm (her former lover)?  Does he neglect her, in the pursuit of his struggle for recognition?  Does he, indeed, misuse her?

The officials

The bureaucrats communicate with K through letters and through interviews – solely on their own terms (who, when, where and how are entirely at their discretion).

The fact that the offer of an appointment to K as a land surveyor was a mistake is not officially recognised.

The bureaucrats fail to resolve K’s status and so leave him in limbo.

An ironic ending

In his afterword to the first edition of Das Schloss, Max Brod states that Kafka revealed to him how the story would end.  By this account, K does not give up his struggle; but he eventually dies in the attempt, from exhaustion.  The local people gather around his death bed.  Now the Castle officials hand down their decision: although they deny K any legal claim to live in the village, taking into account the circumstances, they grant him permission to live and to work there.

Themes

  • Class: the officials have arbitrary power over the lives of the villagers and appear to from a separate, superior class
  • Gender: the officials are all male; they abuse their power when they take village women (expected to comply) as their mistresses
  • Bureaucracy: while little indication is given of much activity being carried out in the village, it is made clear that the officials maintain detailed records of everything.

Meanings

1 The novel reflects the human search for belonging to a community

2 Similarly, it reflects the human search for recognition, by the community, of one’s personal worth

3 It may reflect the human search for order in society

4 It may also have something to do with the need for fairness and flexibility, which can temper the rigid administration of rules

5 It may reflect the elusive nature of a fair social order and the imperfections of human societies in reality

6 In part it may be a satire on excessive and inflexible bureaucracy (the maintenance of some sort of order, at any cost)

7 It may too represent a critique of excessive individualism

8 For a 21st century reader, it can be seen as a parable that illustrates the plight of people who remain outsiders, for example, the homeless, those who suffer discrimination, foreigners, asylum seekers and refugees

9 Fundamentally, Das Schloss remains ambiguous.

.

The nature of the Castle in Franz Kafka’s ‘Das Schloss’

I have picked up Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss again, after nearly fifty years, reading it again, and translating passages, for my own amusement.  I’ll be writing more about it, later.  On the cover of my copy (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main), Hermann Hesse is quoted as calling the novel “the most mysterious and beautiful of Kafka’s great works.”  (I agree with Hesse.)

The word ‘Schloss’ can be translated as ‘castle’ or ‘palace’ (or even ‘lock’).  The building (or buildings) that figure in Kafka’s novel appears not to satisfy either description but, rather, to be quite unimpressive – certainly, this is how it appears to ‘K’, the protagonist.

I turn to Chapter 1 and provide a free translation of a descriptive passage (below).

On the whole, the castle, as it appeared from a distance, corresponded to K’s expectations.   It was neither an old fortification, built by and for a knight, nor a new, magnificent palace, but an extensive structure, consisting of few two-storey buildings but many low buildings, tightly packed together.  If one had not known that it was a castle, one could have taken it to be a small town.  K could see only one tower.  He could not make out whether it belonged to a dwelling or a church.  A swarm of crows circled round it.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the castle, K kept on walking.  Nothing else concerned him.  As he got closer to it, however, the castle disappointed him: it was truly a miserable little town, distinguished only by the fact that all of it (perhaps) had been built in stone; but the paint had peeled off and the stone appeared to be crumbling.  K briefly thought of his home town: it hardly came second to this so-called castle.  If K had only been interested in sight-seeing, then he would have had a wasted journey, and he would have done better to visit his old home, where he had not been for such a long time.  He mentally compared the church tower of his home town with the tower in front of him.  That tower rose unhesitatingly and boldly, tapering to its broad roof, ending in red tiles – an earthly building (what else?), but with a higher purpose than the rows of low houses, and with a clearer expression than the grey workday.  This tower – the only one he could see – was apparently the tower of a dwelling, perhaps that of the main building.  It was perfectly round.  It was graced, in places, with ivy.  It had small windows, which reflected the sun, in a crazy pattern.  It had a balcony all round it, the battlements of which – unsafe, irregular and crumbling (as if hand-drawn by an anxious or careless child) – formed a serrated edge against the blue sky.  It was as if a gloomy occupant, who should have kept himself locked away in the remotest room, had broken through the roof, in order to show himself to the world.

From my background reading, it remains unclear to me whether the castle of the novel is based on a real place that Kafka had seen, or more than one, or whether it is derived from his vivid imagination.

In the novel, Kafka’s castle is the headquarters of the opaque bureaucracy that strictly governs everything that happens in the village below – with grave consequences for the fate of K himself.  As in Amerika and Der Prozess, powerful people look very ordinary (just like the castle itself).  They don’t need to show off.

 

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.

THEME 1 – KINGS

Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.

THEME 2 – ACTIONS

Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

THEME 3 – REACTIONS, MALE

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.

 

Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.

 

THEME 4 – REACTIONS, FEMALE

 

As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)

 

THE ENDING

 

The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’

 

Conclusion

 

A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)

 

But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?

 

In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.

 

On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]