Friday, January 22, 2010

not sat in his hall

Prompted by Amateur Reader after yesterday's post, I hunted down The Green Man on my shelves (by the end of this digging and scuffling I'd thrown books all over the bed and the floor and discovered that I own twice as many Thea Astleys as I thought I did) and checked my Roman to find out if he was Ovid or not-Ovid. Not only was he not-Ovid but he was not the civil servant I thought he was. The man is a monk. In the prologue he sends a begging letter to a duke, asking for a horse and a mule and a small amount of silver so that he can travel northwards to convert the heathen. "The land northward of Frankish Colonia lies in darkness, and there I would journey (by my Patron's good will) so as to cast Christ's light through that obscurity," he writes. So the superiors I imagined punishing a misbehaving employee do not exist. I imagined them, and I imagined him. I invented him almost completely.

His Christian mission to the northerners comes to a halt when he's picked up by the king who, in Shakespeare's version of the story, will be known as Claudius -- I'll call him Claudius too -- so: illiterate Claudius decides to spare this monk's life because he needs a letter written to King Arthur in Britain. He, Claudius, intends to get rid of his stepson, Hamlet, by sending him to Arthur's court on a ship owned by the pirate named Beowulf. When Claudius gives the monk to Beowulf as a gift he becomes the pirate's war-strategist and multilingual scribe.

"So I would set down the saga of Beowulf. I would tell how he sailed into Heorot, slew the marsh-monster and her son, swam in the cruel sea among the drowned ships, then grew to be a Caesar and slew the dragon of the fiery breath. Yes, I would even claim for him a great funeral pyre with all the folk bewailing him. And so I would set him down for all time, to stand beside the Caesar and the Pharaohs."

He glanced sideways at the Geat-king to see whether he was listening; then he added, louder than before, "God knows what Agammemnon would seem now if the scribe Homer had not sat in his hall with him to write down his life."

Beowulf gives him a gold cup, promises him slaves, and so on. "The rude northern style [of poetry] was almost too much for him," Treece adds. "He cursed the uncouth words, the rough metre." Reading some of these pages again, I'm reminded of the ease with which Treece managed his heightened language. There's always a touch of formality in his prose, enough to lift his characters into a slightly more rarified, simple atmosphere, where their brutality and their faith in gods and sacrifices starts to seem natural. His voice doesn't have the very deliberate sculptural beauty of ER Eddison, that other lover of the Ancients, or the sometimes clumsy combination of middle-class English and saga vocabulary of a Tolkien -- Tolkien, with his ponderous 'smote.' Treece is never ponderous. He doesn't write long, grand passages, instead he'll do as he's done in that quote, above: he'll follow a moment of portentousness with a quick aside, some moment of comedy or earthy human behaviour, greed or smallness: the monk's speech about Caesars and Pharaohs offset by his calculating glance.

I wonder (idly, I have no proof) how much of this he owed to his years as a schoolteacher, how much of his willingness to divert and entertain, how much of his readiness to embrace the ancient world's blood and drama and dirt, came from time spent in front of young children, who would likely be enchanted by a place where everyone was constantly in action, and where you could be an adult, a king, and still get away with burping and punching people in public.

[Claudius] nodded, then belched … [Claudius] got up from his chair and took Gilliberht by the beard and said, "Now, little piglet …" [Claudius] spat upon the rushes.

The monk's second letter to the duke, which is also the book's afterword, starts with the flourish of titles I remembered. The monk is still trying to convert people to the true religion (now it's, "Odin, Thor, Freyja and Frigg look with pity upon you"), and the up-yours is there ("I will say no more but leave you humble, I hope, before my revelation"), but everything else I thought I remembered has changed. The odd thing is that this new man hasn't wiped out the Roman in my head, he hasn't replaced or evicted him: he's still there, I can feel the shape of him as clearly as I did on the beach. Where did I find him?

No comments:

Post a Comment