Tag Archives: chivalry

High Adventure – The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated Fake Christmas. This is because on Real Christmas, we’ll be in Canada, and we don’t wish to haul our presents across the Atlantic and back. So we exchanged them early. Also, she cooked a chicken named George, and it was excellent!

As usual, my presents included a bit of High Adventure, in the form of The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt and The Fall of Arthur by J R R Tolkien. I have been reading The Letter for the King in earnest and am now about halfway through it.

I recommend this book to you wholeheartedly so far. I imagine I will do so after the second half is through. It is a Dutch children’s classic from 1962, first translated into English in 2013. I am amazed we Anglophone readers have gone so long without this book — a tale not only, as I say, of High Adventure but also of chivalry and knights and castles and, save for pirates, everything I loved most as a kid.

And maybe pirates will turn up in the second half! (Unlikely.)

The Letter for the King is the kind of fantasy we need more of these days, I think. It is the tale of young Tiuri who, on the eve of his knighting, is caught up in mysterious doings and charged with the delivery of a sealed letter to King Unauwen, the noble and just king of the neighbouring kingdom (this is, I believe, called a MacGuffin). So off he goes.

Of course, he is on the far eastern edge of his home kingdom, and King Unauwen lives on the western side of his own kingdom. And there is a mountain range in the middle (fact: mountain ranges are more natural cultural, linguistic, and political barriers than rivers). So there is much adventuring to be had between home and Tiuri’s destination. Basically, your old-fashioned Quest narrative or journey motif. Along the way, various characters are met, some of whom are wicked, some of whom are good, some of whom just are.There’s even a hermit.

I like Quest narratives, frankly. When we were kids, we had 12 acres to wander about, so my siblings and I naturally crafted wooden swords and shields and marauded throughout them on various Quests against the forces of evil. Reading this book, then, is like rediscovering 10-year-old Matthew.

One of the themes running throughout this book is the chivalric ideal — a knight isn’t just a wealthy warrior with a horse and a sword. He is a man who is trained in the just treatment of those he meets, whether friend or foe. He is to seek to uphold the good and protect the vulnerable, to do literal battle with evil men. He is to be courageous and merciful, sagacious and pious, skilled on a horse and quick with a sword.

Obviously, not every knight can aspire to this — else there would be no villains!

But the idea, the ideal, is worth holding forth.

Even if the human manifestation of such ideals of righteousness is never fully realised in this life, the cynical rejection of them and creation of worlds where every single person, action, and ideal is grey shading to black is a cancer that can eat away at the soul. There is right, even if we’re not always sure if we’ve achieved it.

Stories like these mediaeval-style tales of High Adventure remind us of this.

Also, this one in particular happens to be rollicking good fun. Even without pirates.

The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

The Wood Beyond the WorldThe Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

William Morris is one of those craftsmen/artists/thinkers that intrigue and inspire me — one of an old breed of mediaevalist who believed in mediaevalism and the romantic ideals of a pre-industrial world. The same sort of spirit that invigorated his friends the Pre-Raphaelites in their paintings or his own old-fashioned press for beautiful books runs through The Wood Beyond the World, one of our earliest modern(ish) fantasy novels, dating to 1894 and which has a few sequels.

The story is, plotwise, relatively simple and fairytale-like. Our middle-class adventurer is drawn beyond his known world into the sphere of influence of an enchantress of dread and great beauty who seeks to seduce him while he himself has fallen into the natural enchantment of love for the Lady’s maid. Also, there is a creepy dwarf who yells all the time. Adventure ensues.

Golden Walter, however, strikes me as both a bit thick and a bit naive. I don’t think that the first time you come upon a pretty girl in the woods you should trust everything she says. And when someone says, ‘I have a plan,’ you probably shouldn’t start fearing for your life when you know that the plan hasn’t even got rolling yet.

Nonetheless, in other ways Walter embodies the romantic, chivalric ideals of gallantry towards women and bravery in the face of danger — be that danger of human, animal, or magical origin. At one stage in the story (trying to avoid too many more spoilers), Walter demonstrates the ‘noble’ trait of charity towards the poor and mercy towards the imprisoned.

This idealising of the mediaeval noble class is precisely the sort of thing that made Mark Twain blame Sir Walter Scott for the Civil War, since the wealthy in the South decided that they, too, should have homes in baronial style and act like mediaeval nobles. However, when we see the ideal behaviour that Romantic novels such as this are meant to evoke in the reader, the acts of mercy and compassion and the seeking of the betterment of those less fortunate are meant to weigh much more highly in the nobleman’s heart than the building of ridiculous yet beautiful places such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.

That is to say: If romanticised visions of mediaeval life exacerbated existing disparities in the 19th century, the blame lies not entirely in the artists but more in the audience.

My great complaint and lament about this book was something of which Farah Mendelsohn and Edward James warn the reader in A Short History of Fantasy: the stilted, fake, olde Englishe that forsooth doth lie all about this here booke. Nonetheless, the going gets easier after a few chapters.

View all my reviews

The Nibelungenlied: Deception

This post is the third in a series on the Middle High German epic, The Nibelungenlied. The first is on variation, and the second about history. Two more will follow, one on betrayal, and the last on vengeance.

You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.
-Attrib. Abraham Lincoln

When Siegfried strides into the Nibelungenlied and gets the plot flowing, he goes to the court of Gunther, King of Burgundy, to woo the king’s sister, Kriemhilde. He has already slain Fafnir and bathed in the dragon’s blood. He also seems to have already encountered Brunhilde, although this is left vague in the epic; according to the Norse tradition, he and Brunhilde have already been intimate and have pledged their undying love with a promise from the hero to marry her. This might explain why Brunhilde is so displeased with him when she meets Siegfried in this version, since he turns up at her court (in Iceland, of all places) accompanying Gunther who is there to woo her – and he does so because Gunther will give him Kriemhilde’s hand in marriage if he helps.

I think I got ahead of myself there, but here is where the deception comes in. Siegfried, Gunther, Hagen, and Dancwart set off to win Gunther the fierce ‘Amazonian’ (as the blurb on the back of the Oxford translation calls her) queen Brunhilde. In order to win this woman’s hand, a warrior must defeat her in certain contests of skill and strength – the javelin and the hurling of the gigantic rock. Gunther is not actually able to defeat Brunhilde in this, but Siegfried helps using his cloak of invisibility.

The second deception comes later, after Gunther and Brunhilde’s marriage. The queen will not have relations with her husband unless he can physically subdue her by force. When he cannot do this, she ties him up and hangs him from a hook by the end of the bed. In great shame, Gunther tells Siegfried about this. Siegfried once again employs his cloak of invisibility to overcome Brunhilde, although this time it is unclear how he is able to go through with the feat without actually making love to her. In the course of this second deception, Siegfried steals a ring and a girdle from Brunhilda, which he later gives to his wife, Kriemhilde.

These deceptions of Brunhilde prove to be the source of Siegfried’s downfall – although one could argue that it is Brunhilde’s excessive pride, since she mistook Siegfried, who accompanied Gunther to Iceland as a friend, for a vassal of the Burgundian King, and no one except Siegfried’s proud wife tried to correct her error. Anyway, the two queens started quarrelling one day about whose husband was the greater, and Kriemhilde showed to Brunhilde the tokens of his conquest of her – not Gunther’s.

Siegfried’s fate was sealed. He was bound for Betrayal. But that for another day.

What I think of interest here is how all our secrets will out. We cannot escape them. Everything that is hidden will be made known. One lie leads to another, and the intricate web of deception people produce for themselves is actually very delicate, and can be destroyed, bringing down the deceivers themselves. I feel that this is one of the major themes of the first half of the poem. Deception will get you nowhere. It may win you friends (for a while), it may get you the girl of your dreams (for a while), but it ultimately brings dishonour.

Siegfried’s deception dishonoured Brunhilde. Hagen was well aware of this in his statement, ‘Are we to breed bastards?’ As in – what exactly was Siegfried up to? What more will he do to further his interests? One may protest that he was only helping Gunther, but his help of Gunther was also help for himself. A man who wins a bride by helping another man is not exactly a selfless hero when he helps that friend.

One of the things that poems like this reflect is the idea of a hero, the concept of chivalry. Is deception heroic? Is a knight ‘supposed’ to deceive? I don’t think so, unless it is to save a life. Siegfried had no truly noble, higher-than-self reason to deceive on behalf of Gunther. He may have been a dragon-slayer, he may have been extraordinarily strong and skilled with the sword, he may have been an excellent huntsman, he may have been handsome – but those other things that comprise chivalric manliness (or, to use the Latin, virtus) are also to be present. And being a deceiver disqualifies one from being the perfect chivalric knight.

And so Siegfried meets his doom.