Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 5: Into the Forest


When we lived in Massachusetts we walked in the Weston Woods that were close by.  The conservation lands were dense and diverse with White and Pitch Pine, Black Maple, and full of brush:  Hairy Wood Mint, Green Dragon, Prickly Rose and occasional Dwarf Mistletoe.  The trails were sometimes ambiguous, especially when featureless clouds deprived us of any sense of direction from the sun.  It was very different from hiking in the mountains of the west where the only problems are avoiding occasional snakes or bears or finding a way down.  The Weston Woods was the first place I was ever properly lost.

And the Weston Woods are small.  The woods of medieval England were vast.  I suspect T. H. White had it right when he characterized them as wild, dangerous places.  I’ve hiked in the Amazon rain forest.  There even trees are aggressive:  they want to poison you or enable their symbiotic insects to bite you so that you’ll die over their roots and provide nourishment.  I expect the woods of 15th century England were a bit like that.

The second probable reference to Thomas Malory’s young life is in the Codnor muster roll, dated March 1st, 1418.  Actually, two Thomas Malory’s are listed.  Field barely mentions it and suggests they’re the same person; Hardyment interprets the first to be the author’s uncle who died shortly thereafter and the second to be the author himself.  Record keeping in the 15th century was notoriously irregular, nevertheless, muster rolls had important, formal consequences, particularly payment.  While documenting ghost soldiers was a common ruse for fraud, including the same name on a single roll seems a bit much even by 15th century standards. I concur with Hardyment: there were two.  She then takes a large leap.  She posits that Malory probably accompanied Henry on his second great campaign between 1417 and 1420 and the seminal experiences Malory had then led to his deep interest in Chivalry.  I was skeptical until I thought about my own uncles, and Lynn’s father, who fought in World War II and their attitude about going.

One uncle even lied about his age and enlisted when he was fifteen.  They saw it as the great adventure of their time which they couldn’t bear to miss.  Henry V’s second invasion was much the same.  In that context and given his social position, it seems more likely Thomas Malory was with Henry than not.

Hardyment’s description of Henry V’s second campaign was a real pleasure.  I haven’t read a more engaging narrative of a period of Henry V’s life after Agincourt which is often given short shrift.  It compares very favorably with Ian Mortimer and Juliet Barker, which is no small praise.  Most importantly, she conveys the scope, the cultural importance and logistical complexity of the undertaking.

Yet that leads to a problem that has moved to the top of my list: why does Malory himself deal so casually with the complexity of medieval warfare and medieval life in general?  Peter Hoskins detailed memoir of hiking the Black Prince’s Poitiers campaign and describing in detail how the French countryside has changed since the 1350s gives you an immediate sense of the problem, yet Malory is remarkably casual about it.  His knights easily take horse, “dress their shields,” “couch their spears” and are off into the forest (those forests) for adventure.  But it wasn’t that easy.  Part of the answer, I know, is that Malory was translating older works.  But even early on he emends his sources to deal with issues such as Pellinore’s rape of Sir Tor’s mother to bring them more into alignment with his own probable Chivalric values.  If he was with Henry V, the Chivalric world he observed was very rich and complex indeed.

A curious personal aspect of this endeavor are the forgotten memories it’s wakened.  When I was about 5 years old, my uncle, the one who had enlisted in the Navy at 15, managed a lumber mill and for Christmas made amazing wood swords for my cousins and me.  The slightly swirled hilts were particularly fine.  Yet mine sat forgotten in a corner of my room until one day the following summer when I went outside and discovered a gang of neighborhood boys, mostly older than me, making crude wooden swords out of disused one-by-twos and playing at knights using aluminum garbage can lids.  I ran back in, found my own sword and went back out and grabbed our garbage can lid so that I could join them.  You’d have thought I’d brought Excalibur out to play.

Later, when I was called home for lunch the gang had moved far up the wooded street.  Now when I think of the boys scrapping in the distant yards and street under the trees I see bright surcoats, pennoncels and polished helms. 

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration.  A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.  So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
                                           Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot

As I write this I’m listening to “Forest” by the composer/cellist Zoe Keating.

Episode 6 is here

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Horseshoe Canyon, the First Time - A Memory


We left the inn in Castle Valley in the dark, just before dawn with a sheet of vague directions.  Only the military had GPS then and nothing visual was yet shared on the embryonic Internet.  We were casually on our own in the Southwest in a way few are any more.  I drove the rented, blue Ford Explorer and Lynn navigated:  first south along the Colorado River, cold and black in the early spring, crossed the river near Moab, north again to I-70, west, then south on U-24.  The weather was changeable.  In the first light there were black clouds over the tortured up-thrust of the San Rafael Swell and the mountains were snow-dusted.  Any weather was possible.

We drove past the dirt road leading into the Swell and to Goblin Valley, a place I’d spring camped with friends as an adolescent.  Further on was a barely legible wood sign on the other side of the highway:  “Canyonlands – Maze District.”  We turned onto the marginal dirt road aware that the weather threatening in the west was capable of washing out the road and stranding us.  As the morning sun strengthened, we found ourselves driving across a rolling, sage brush plain, the only major features, a butte and mountains that were too far away.  But we were looking for a canyon.

There were two or three forks, some noted in our directions, some not.  Sage scratched the side of the car and the road wound for no reason.  It seemed we had found our way to nowhere.  I remembered the scene in the movie “The Passenger” in which David Locke gets his Land Rover stuck in a sand dune in the middle of the sub-Saharan desert and there’s no one else around and nothing he can do about it.  But we kept on.  The road straightened and we surmounted a low rise which revealed a great deep and winding rift in the sage brush plain.

That was it:  there was another barely legible sign.  We took our packs, locked the SUV and began the steep hike down into Horseshoe Canyon.

At the bottom it was breezy which seemed odd since the canyon wasn’t wide.  I remember wondering where the wind was coming from and where it was going.  We hiked slowly:  we’d hunted pictographs and petroglyphs before and knew how easy it was to miss them.
The remnants of the river that had cut the rift still trickled in the valley floor and occasional Cottonwood trees grew at the edge.  They creaked and moaned with the wind and made me think about haunted places.  At that time it was thought the rock art we were looking for was 3,000 years old.  They’d be old ghosts indeed.  Small side canyons appeared, beckoning.

We kept on.  The first pictographs weren’t large but there were a lot:  a long, diverse party of figures at different scales.  One particular dark trapezoidal figure stood next to an animal with a long, curling tale.  I decided it could be me and our black cat Charlie, although I’m certain the artist wasn’t drawing a domestic feline.

Three miles in we came to the Great Gallery.  It’s still sometimes called “the Sistine Chapel of the West,” an epithet I find both irrelevant and irreverent  in many ways.  Consider how the Sistine Chapel overwhelms you with imagery and meaning when you step through the doorway.  This was entirely different.  We seemed to be all alone in the canyon.  We rounded a corner and saw far ahead an immense but shallow alcove with a line of painted figures.  Instead of an immediate assertion of meaning they were provocative, posing questions and the majesty of the endeavor of creating them grew steadily as we approached and could appreciate their size and intricacy.

Up close, the 8 foot tall ancient painted figures, some of the largest in the American Southwest, were most remarkable for the detail on their bodies:  vertical curves like snakes, fighting animals, intricate pecked arrays of small lines and dots.  There were almost no arms or legs, most faces were ominously empty except for eyes yet there was one with a wide grinning straight mouth.  In a couple of places smaller, human figures were around them in very natural human poses:  a pair fighting, a man playing a flute perhaps.

We ate lunch, studied the panel, took photos and listened to the wind.  Of the manifold possibilities I kept coming back to one, perhaps they functioned as heraldic figures.  I was reminded of the Chapel of St. George in Windsor Castle.  I also found myself thinking about DinĂ© sand paintings which sometimes incorporate anthropomorphic figures with symbolic roles.  The DinĂ© came late into the Southwest, around 1400, but I’ve always felt their relationship to the history and archaeology is more complex, interesting and important than we know.

As we walked out in the late afternoon we encountered another pair of hikers, the only others we saw that day.

Recent work suggests that the Barrier art in the canyon may be much more recent, around a thousand years old, which would place it at the time of great flowering of ancient Puebloan culture on the Colorado Plateau.  The site is deservedly more popular now and commonly visited.  A ranger is in residence most days and I’d expect you’d have to hike it in mid-winter to have something like the experience we had then.

As we drove back we discovered that it had rained while we’d been hiking but the road was passable.  It was dark when we returned to the inn and we were late for dinner.

Post script:  my Malory study continues.  I’ve just acquired Armstrong and Hodges 2014 text Mapping Malory:  Regional Identities and National Geographies in Le Morte Darthur and I’m far from finished with Hardyment and Field.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 4: Absurdity


I’m staring out at bare hills that should be deep in snow and recalling another barren year when I started graduate school.  An informal rite of passage for new maths students was playing what may have been the first computer adventure game  through to the end.  It was only and wonderfully in text and began with a few lines describing an innocuous tunnel in an empty forest.  Progress was easy enough at first then I encountered a dragon in a great room of the cave and needed the wit to use the unexpected tactic of releasing a small caged bird to scare it off.  Later, I encountered a maze in which every room had the same simple description:  “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”  The key to mapping the maze, indeed for identifying where you were, was to drop one of the things you were carrying so that you’d recognize the place when you came there again.  There’s a metaphor worthy of exploration.

The game cost me several nearly sleepless nights and I loved it and being part of the partly secret, informally elite society that had been carried out of the cave by friendly elves.  There was one particular moment late one night when I realized how vast and pleasantly difficult the game was.

Studying Malory’s life and reading Le Morte d’Arthur gives me the same cheery feeling.

On the biographical front, there’s a language issue I want to mention.  The word “siege” had two commonly used meanings in the 15th century.  It could mean a military siege as it does today.  But it also could mean simply a central place or even a seat.  Malory uses that meaning himself; remember the “Siege Perilous,” the dangerous chair at the Round Table?  The consequence for Malory’s biography is that Dugdale’s reference used to place his birth in 1401 may not be as precise as it first appears.  At the worst it means he would have served under Warwick at Calais sometime before 1422, the year Henry V died.  It’s another albeit minor ambiguity to keep in mind.

There’s no direct evidence telling us how Malory was raised.  Both Field and Hardyment discuss the possible importance of his uncles, which wouldn’t have been unusual at the time but which is necessarily no more than speculation.  Hardyment finds persuasive Beverly Kennedy’s premise in Knighthood in the Morte Darthur that Malory’s book presents three paradigms of knighthood, heroic, world-wise and spiritual, and that they may have been embodied for Malory by three uncles.  I find the idea appealing given my own early life.  It’s another path in the maze I’ll want to follow as far as it goes.

In Le Morte d’Arthur itself I’ve just finished reading and rereading and rereading the tale of Balin and Balan (Book 2, chapters I through IX).   Arthur calls all his knights together at Camelot and while they’re together a richly dressed “damosel” arrives.  She throws back her furred cloak revealing she has been girt with a sword by enchantment from which she wishes to be freed.    It doth her “great sorrow and cumbrance.”  I’ll bet, especially when changing clothes.  Not surprisingly, it can only be removed by a “passing good (knight) of his hands and of his deeds, and without villainy or treachery, and without treason.”  What follows, however, is particularly interesting.  Arthur himself, tries first, acknowledging the probability of his own failure so that his knights won’t be ashamed to try.  And he does fail and thus chooses to reveal his moral imperfection.  It’s a surprising and dangerous strategy for a medieval king, especially one who just faced a terrible insurrection.

Just before he had been seduced unknowingly by Morgause his half-sister and had ordered the death of all the infants born on May 1st in an attempt to kill the fruit of that union, Mordred.   Is Arthur a king who is innately good and loving as in T. H. White’s interpretation or someone who comes to goodness later but necessarily suffers for the evil he did when he was young?   Arthur’s personal moral journey with its political dimension deserves more attention than it often receives overshadowed as it is by Lancelot.

Fortunately, there is someone who can free the girl from her cumbersome burden:  the impoverished knight Balin.  He draws the sword, freeing her, but then refuses to give it back.  She then prophesies that as a result he will slay “the man that ye most love in the world, and the sword shall be (his) destruction.”  And so it proves.  Two elements of the story of Balin’s tragic quest which leads to a picturesque and bloody fatal joust with his brother are worth thinking about.  First, there is an element of the tragic in Balin, because he is a knight, the best that Arthur has at the time,  he must accept the quest of the hart and the brachet which comes as a result of his refusing to give up the sword which in turn gives him his identity as “The Knight with Two Swords.”  Second, absurdity, irony and destiny all play roles and, as such create a fabric upon which the future quest stories are told.  It’s almost palpable, like the linen background supporting the scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Absurdity in Malory is easily and often parodied, perhaps never better than by Python (M).  Nevertheless, it deserves to be seen in a serious and tragic light, too.  It’s not hard to imagine that a world view rich in the absurd resonated with those who lived in the 15th century.

As I read the battle of Balin and Balan, with both knights suitably surcoated and comparisoned in red, I couldn’t help but think of the battle in Eric Jager’s visceral history of the last judicial joust in France, The Last Duel, and how witnessing such terrible combat really was.  Not so strangely, I also recalled that Malory was T. E. Lawrence’s constant companion in the desert during World War I.

Episode 5 is here

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 3: 1401


There is a lesson I’ve learned at least twice:  first, when I was first doing Mathematics seriously and again when I returned to fencing.  The lesson is to be particularly wary of what you want to be true.  In Maths, you’ll have an algorithm or a strategy for proving a theorem that seems so good, so natural, so clever, it has to work.  But it doesn’t and it can keep  you for days or months from seeing the less attractive or essentially more complicated route which is necessary to solve the problem.  In fencing, beware the opponent who makes that one perfect, subtle mistake which happens to fit your best attack.  It’s a bait, not a mistake and he’ll kill you with it.

This is the third episode reporting on my personal quest to make sense of the eccentric and dramatic life of Sir Thomas Malory and his great work Le Morte d’Arthur.  The immediate question I’m facing is whether he was born in 1415 (Field 1993) or 1401 (Hardyment 2004).  The particular evidence in question, referenced by both, is William Dugdale’s assertion in his 1656 history of Warwickshire that Malory served in the retinue of the Earl of Warwick at the siege of Calais in King Henry V’s time.

More than one Thomas Malory is mentioned in the extant early 15th century records.  Field’s careful, detailed chapter summarizes all ten references and offers a self-acknowledged “risky” hypothesis that they refer to 3 different men.  Most importantly, he notes that with the exception of the siege of Calais reference, none specifically refer to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, the author.  Field then turns to demographic evidence.  Malory’s father was born in 1385, his mother about 1380, making them 15 and 20 respectively when Thomas was born.  Further, in 1437, Malory’s mother is formally named executrix of Malory’s father from which Field infers that Sir Thomas was a still a minor and hence couldn’t have been born in 1401.  If Malory, was born in 1401 he would have written Le Morte d’Arthur in his sixties.  On that point Field quotes George Lyman Kittredge, “Nothing is impossible but…recalling the vitality, energy and even occasional gaiety of Le Morte Darthur and the long, persistent labor that it represents, one needs hardly to be skeptical to doubt that the work was written by an ancient of seventy-five.”  Field’s solution:  throw out Dugdale’s controversial evidence. The Thomas Malory in the muster roll was a different Thomas Malory.  Dugdale wasn’t as careful an historian as he should have been.

Convinced?  Ready to make that lunge to the exposed shoulder?

Hardyment disagrees.  She accepts that Dugdale was referring to the right Sir Thomas Malory, argues convincingly that a timeline commencing with a birth in 1401 is far from the realm of possibility and, indeed that some of the later events make better sense in the context of the earlier date.  She writes,

“…(Field’s) book makes Malory’s life more, not less mystifying.  It does not explain the emergence of a clever, forceful writer who evidently had ideals for which he was willing to risk his life, a man whom the Lancastrian King Henry VI feared enough to imprison without trial for almost a decade, and who was one of a tiny handful of men excluded from pardon by Henry’s usurping Yorkist successor, Edward IV.  To achieve this, Malory’s birth needs to be returned to around 1400.”

Convinced?  Ready to make that lunge to the exposed shoulder?

Actually, I am, with qualifications, but I wouldn’t expect you to be:  these are imperfect summaries of the authors’ arguments, not the arguments themselves.  But here’s my view.  Field’s chapter on Malory’s birth does good service in presenting the details of the contemporary references.  But they are insufficient and not all pertinent for deciding Dugdale’s Calais siege reference is to someone other than Sir Thomas Malory, the author.  The most compelling aspects of Field’s argument, the absence of other specific references to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell in 1400-1415 and his mother’s acting as executrix in 1437 for his father can be rationalized as easily as Field rationalizes his alternative timeline.

William Dugdale’s book is remarkably carefully written and illustrated.  He documents the lost church windows of All Saints Grendon which depicted Sir Thomas Malory’s parents, for example.  He may even have seen parish records, now lost, documenting Malory’s birth though he doesn’t say so.  Field’s assertion that Dugdale incorrectly attributed the Calais siege reference to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell requires stronger justification.  At the worst, Field is editing his data to fit his hypothesis.

So, I’m going with 1401 as Malory’s birth year whilst keeping an eye out for further evidence supporting or contradicting it.  (For example, a larkish superficial search of Newgate prison records turned up nothing.)

A few final comments, the longer and more carefully I read Hardyment, the more impressed I am with her biography at multiple levels and would highly recommend it  which means of course I’ll be reading her with continued care and skepticism as I continue.  And, I must express appreciation to the Dugdale Society of Stratford-upon-Avon for their assistance in deciphering dates and genealogical tables in his book.

The fine and terrible mystery continues, of course.  I have a yellow legal pad filling with scrawled questions, such as why wasn’t Sir Thomas included in the windows of All Saints Grendon?  Why didn’t William Dugdale note that Sir Thomas was the author of Le Morte d’Arthur?

In As a Black Prince on Bloody Fields I made use of my favorite quote of Henry of Grosmont, the 1st Duke of Lancaster and his words come back to me now.  He wrote in his memoir Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines:  “All of us only want three things in life: to be praised, then loved, then lost."

Episode 4 is here