Monday, 28 April 2014

Ancient Equines

File:Odin rides to Hel.jpg
Odin Rides to Hel - W.G Collingwood (1908)

I've loved horses my whole life, and from a young age I was writing pretty class poems about them ("Big horse, little pony, fast trot, slow walk" - literary genius) and they are pretty much the inspiration for 99% of things I draw/paint, so why has it taken me so long to write a post about them?! They are wonderful, beautiful animals, they are extremely powerful, and most of them are extremely willing, they have fluffy ears and the softest loveliest noses, and they are afraid of silly things (gutters, leaves, things that weren't there yesterday), and they can mess you up if they want, and they can be complete assholes sometimes, and they make your life so much better. Respect, yo.

So, did the Ancient Everybodies love and respect horses as much as many people do today (I stress many, because there's too many who don't)? Today, there are still stories of horses from the ancient world and ancient mythologies, which seem to show that back in the day, horses mattered. Well, of course they did - they were handy for transport and war and keeping the lawn trimmed. But besides that, I want to look at some more famous horses.

Let's start with Bucephalus, who was the horse of Alexander the Great. Plutarch tells the story of how Philonicus the Thessalian brought the horse to Alexander's father Philip, but when they went to catch him, they found that he was batshit crazy and decided he was useless. Alexander, 13 at the time, noticed that he was a fine horse and said he would tame Bucephalus, to which everyone sniggered and muttered "lolz, ya rite", and if he failed, he would pay the full price for the horse: 
Alexander ran to the horse, and laying hold on the bridle, turned him to the sun; for he had observed, it seems, that the shadow which fell before the horse, and continually moved as he moved, greatly disturbed him. While his fierceness and fury abated, he kept speaking to him softly and stroking him; after which he gently let fall his mantle, leaped lightly upon his back, and got his seat very safe. Then, without pulling the reins too hard, or using either whip or spur, he set him a-going (Lanhornes' translation)
Alexander comes to us as some sort of Ancient horse whisperer of sorts. Seeing his son's taming of Bucephalus, Philip exclaims that Macedonia is too little for his son. And he was right, wasn't he - by the time he was 30 he had one of the biggest empires in the world.

Bucephalus is said to have been a huge, jet black horse, with a white star on his forhead, no doubt an inspiration to Anna Sewell when she wrote Black Beauty, and an obvious influence on Walter Farley's The Black Stallion, which tells of a boy, Alec, taming a black stallion (durr) on an island.
Bucephalus apparently died at the age of 30, which is a ripe old age even for horses these days, perhaps at battle. After the death of his beloved horse, Alexander founded the city Bucephala, in modern day Pakistan, to keep his memory alive. Unfortunately, it didn't remain as Bucephala, so so much for that.

One of my favourite people in history to read about is the Roman emperor Caligula, because he was pretty crazy (a bad crazy), but he was also crazy about his horse, Incitatus.... also perhaps a bad crazy. Caligula was so enamoured by his grey horse that he apparently had a stable made out of marble, a manger made of ivory, and a headcollar made from precious stones. Dio Cassius claimed that the horse had its own servants and was fed oats mixed with gold flakes. That's why I feel like Incitatus every time I drink goldshlager. It is also rumoured that Caligula planned to make Incitatus consul. However, it is disputed whether this was down to Caligula's insanity or his way of making a satire of the men in government. There is all sort of stories concerning Incitatus, some saying he was a racehorse from Spain, some saying he had his own house and gardens and that he held dinners for dignitaries. It is debated whether his treatment of his horse is accurate, or whether those who wrote about his life were exaggerating his folly in order with Clau-Clau-Claudius' (who succeeded him, also his uncle) regime. To which I would recommend reading I, Claudius by Robert Graves - a great book full of debauchery and so many characters that its hard to keep up.

Prince on horseback, possibly Caligula, Rome, 1 - 50 AD

I'll finish off with two mythological horses, the first of which is Pegasus - we couldn't leave him out! Pegasus's birth is a bit of a strange one, firstly because he is the son of Medusa (out of her union (possibly rape) with Poseidon), and was born at the same time as his brother Chrysaor. Even stranger again is that the two brothers were born when Perseus beheaded Medusa, and they somehow sprung out of her neck. Here is a depiction of it on an ancient Greek thing (although it leaves out Chrysaor):

Birth of Pegasus from the neck of Medusa | Greek vase, Athenian black figure white-ground lekythos

Pegasus is usually depicted as a pure white stallion (the horse world is still debating whether white horses actually exist, but well give him this, seen as he's mythological to begin with), his most important feature being his wings and his ability to fly. He was captured by Bellerophon with the help of Athena and Poseidon, and flew the hero to defeat the Chimera. Bellerophon is said to have fallen off Pegasus when Zeus sent a fly to sting him (the horse) - it hurts bad enough falling off a horse that can't fly, so I can only imagine. Pegasus then flew to Olympus where he was used as a pack horse to carry Zeus' thunderbolts. Noble ending, eh? Because of his loyalty, he was honoured with the legacy of becoming a constellation. 

Last, but not least, is the surprisingly not so famous Sleipnir, horse of Odin. Sleipnir has an even weirder birth and lineage than Pegasus, leading to many humorous Mother's Day Cards. Anyway, how did Sleipnir come about - a builder offered the gods to build a fortification to keep out invaders in exchange for Freyja, the sun, and the moon. The Gods agree, but only if the builder can build it within three seasons, with the help of no other men. He requests help from his horse Svaðilfari, and this is allowed, under the persuasion of Loki. The stallion turns out to be extremely strong and the Gods begin to panic, as the builder made fast progress. Three days before he is to finish the work, the gods gather around and point the finger at Loki and threaten him with death if he cannot find a way out of this. Basically the Gods are awful unfair cheaters. 

So...this is where it gets weird - Loki decides to turn into a mare, and seductively neighs to Svaðilfari, who being a stallion, cannot control himself and runs off with the mare and they frolic about for the night, causing the builder to fail in his challenge. A few months later, Loki gives birth to a lovely grey foal with eight legs (the kind of incident that would result in talks about genetic mutation and pollution and weird worship in modern times), described as the best horse among the gods and men.

File:Loki and Svadilfari by Hardy.jpg

Sleipnir is described numerous times as visiting Hel, with Odin and with Hermóðr. In the Prose Edda, Odin rides Sleipnir to Jötunheimr, land of the giants, where he encounters Hrungnir, who despite admitting that Sleipnir looks like a fine horse, that his own horse Gullfaxi (meaning "golden mane", no doubt an influence on Tolkiens Shadowfax), is much faster. Intending to attack Odin, he gallops after the two, only to find that he has chased the faster Sleipnir into the gates of Asgard.

File:Odin and Sleipnir - John Bauer.jpg
Odin and Sleipnir by John Bauer

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any famous horses from the Anglo-Saxon era. There were numerous different words for "horse", basically describing their different roles. It's unfortunate that there is no records of any famous horses, but a horse burial was found by Sutton Hoo, where a man was buried with his harnessed horse, who had a bucket of food by its head. Which is somewhat heart-warming. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Female power in Vikings Season 2

#vikings-shieldmaiden:  #Lagertha's career as a warrior began when Frø, king of Sweden, invaded #Norway and killed the Norwegian king Siward. F...

It is now half way through the second season of Vikings (for those who live in Canada or the US and for those who have few qualms regarding downloading). Obviously there will be spoilers, especially for those of you who are resigned to watching it in RTE 2! Suckers.

As she was in the first season, Lagertha is still my favourite character. This season also has a few more female characters of a bit more importance, most notably Aslaug, and it appears that the girl who Bjorn has his eye on may have a bigger role soon (But I can't help but be reminded of that absolute disaster The Legend of Hercules whenever I see her. Horrid flashbacks!). There are a few noteworthy moments involving the women of Vikings so far in the season:

Firstly, is Lagertha's decision to leave Ragnar, as Aslaug arrives on their doorstep with a bellyful of children. She has the dignity to walk away from Ragnar and start a new life with no drama involved, which is a nice change to the usual catfighting women screaming at one another over a man (even if he is as wonderful as Ragnar). In the actual mythology, Ragnar divorces Lagertha and there is a different woman, Þóra borgarhjörtr, in between her and Aslaug, but to be honest, that would make him look a bit too bad!

Four years later we see Lagertha with a new husband, Earl Sigvard, who is frankly, a bit of a dick. She stands up to his advances and his attempt to rape her and shows him where to shove it. As always, she does as she pleases, and returns to help Ragnar to reclaim Kattegat from Jarl Borg (as also happens in the myth - she comes to his aid with 120 ships, and saves his ass). 

In the last episode so far (episode 6), Lagertha returns to her second husband, despite still being in love with Ragnar (who is unwilling to choose just one wife). After getting his men to brutally beat her during the night, he attempts to publicly shame her by trying to show everyone at the table what lovely breasts she has. Unfortunately for him, she grabs a knife and turns around to stick it in his eye. Hell yeah! He is then beheaded by one of his own men (who I don't trust either...). In the myth, she is also responsible for her second husband's death; "the presumptious and self-indulgent woman would rather rule without her husband than share the glory with him" (Saxo Grammaticus). As you can see, the television series views her somewhat more sympathetically! Of course, this is as far as the mythology surrounding Lagertha appears to go, from what I can find, so its up to the series now! 

Another important scene takes place in Wessex in England (where attempts at speaking Old English are made...I understood cyning . . . so proud!) with Athelstan, the hot monk taken as a slave (and later made a free-man by Ragnar, and later captured by the people of Wessex), in episode 5. When a woman who is beaten because her husband thinks she has been unfaithful to him comes to King Ecgbert for counsel, the King asks him what the craic is with the pagans in such situations - Athelstan says that "if she was a free-woman, they would believe her word, and make judgement on her behalf". Ecgbert replies thinking that "surely her husband has every right over her, surely she belongs to him, to do with as he sees fit." Well, not according to the pagans! The open-minded Ecgbert (Athelstan has heard he is like Ragnar...and unlike the misogynistic Anglo-Saxons it would seem!) follows this pagan law and goes in the woman's favour. 

In general it would seem that the vast majority of main characters are somewhat "feminist" an extent. The Norse peoples, or as Ecgbert would say, the "pagans" have a more equal society than the Anglo-Saxons, allowing women to partake in raids and battle, and seemingly allowing them equal judgement in the eyes of the law. Of course, this didn't stop the vikings raping all around when they were on their raids, but this may also be seen as a "weapon of war" against the men, as much as it is seen as an act of violence against the women.

With regards to Aslaug, I am happy that this season is making a bit more of an attempt to flesh out her character, althoug it is not enough. Aslaug's character in mythology is pretty interesting - she is the daughter of Sigurd (who killed the dragon Fafnir) and Brynhildr, the shield-maiden, who I wrote a post on a few months back. As a child she was taken care of by a foster father, Heimer, and hid in a giant harp. Her next foster parents Ake and Grima, who killed Heimer as they thought there were valuables in the harp, found her hiding inside and raised her as their own, covering her in tar to hide her beauty (and therefore her noble birth). It is at this point that she meets Ragnar Lodbrok.
    Interestingly, Ragnar proposes to her, but she refuses him until he accomplished his mission in Norway. It is also, only after giving him three sons, that she reveals her true noble blood to him (after she hears that he has planned to marry Ingeborg), and promises to give birth to a child that bore a snake's eye, Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye!

In the series, although she is not so much the "Other Woman" as she was at the end of season one, she is still portrayed as a bit of a princess, complaining about dirt and playing the jealous wife when Ragnar speaks to other girls. Hopefully we will get a more rounded character as we go along.


Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Can translation ever convey the original adequately?

My simple answer!

I think the whole range of translations, along with the articles about these translations, even for Beowulf alone, is proof enough of this. Of course, nobody ever knows when it's a language like Old English, and until someone invents a time machine and returns to the Anglo-Saxon era, then we never will, and even then, it would still be impossible to truly convey the exact meaning and feel of the original. And who knows how much you'd even learn when the most readily available drinking source was ale.

When reading translations of modern literature, like Haruki Murakami or Mikhail Bulgakov, I actually spend a lot of time thinking how I will never know if this is how the author wanted to convey it exactly (so deep)...and I know it can never be perfect, for the simple reason that languages are different and have different sounds, and cultures are different and have different meanings and values. The English translation of Norwegian Wood, for example, is beautifully written, but it's not going to sound anything like the Japanese. How can I know myself, that that is what Murakami wanted to convey exactly. This is especially true for works that put a lot of emphasis on words and use particularly poetic language - yes, we can recreate the alliteration, but then we lose the exact meaning - so which do we pick - we lose something in the end. When I read translations, I often think that yes, this is so-and-so's ideas and story, but it's not necessarily their language. Does that ruin these books for me? Not really, but it is something that is in the back of my mind. First world problems, eh?

As Jay Rubin, the translator of Murakami's English publications states: "When you read Haruki Murakami, you're reading me, at least ninety-five percent of the time". And at that, Rubin has the advantage of being able to discuss translating with the author, whereas for things like Beowulf, we can't exactly phone up the scribe and ask him "what exactly did you mean on line 1294? Oh, is that so? Cheers lad, nice one". Imagine how more accurate Beowulf translations would be if the author was still alive? And yet it would still not be able to accurately convey everything because, at the end of the day, if we can't accurately translate a godamn author who is alive and living in the 21st century (even if it is Japan, and we all know how weird Japan is), then what hope do we have? Nada. And at least if we want to read the 'most accurate' translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, we can look up the hundreds of threads and blog posts about it, and yet, even when that language is still in use today, we can still never be satisfied.

The much awaited Tolkien translation, to be released this May. Yipee

Some translators of Beowulf may decide that taking the route that recreates the metre and the alliteration is the best, most accurate way to go, others will decide that a literal prose translation is the best way to go. Others may try to find a middle-ground. But in the end, nobody is really going to give us Beowulf as it was received by the Anglo-Saxons.

No matter what way someone goes about it, there's always going to be some criticism of something being lost in the process. It can't be faithful in every single way - it cannot maintain all alliteration, all metrical idiosyncracies, all syntax etc, while still maintaining the most accurate and literal translation of the language itself. As a French critic once said, translations are like women, they can be beautiful or faithful, but not both (certainly, he was full of crap). As a female, I like to think of beautiful but unfaithful translations as the Jude Law's of translation.

And even if there was some way of doing this, we still cannot understand the poem how Anglo-Saxons would have. We simply don't have the same culture or beliefs anymore (although maybe if you lived in one of those modern day Viking communes in Norway you might have a better understanding!). A good example, as John D. Niles points out, is the problem of the word cuþ, "known". He asks "how can a translator express the emotive force" that this word had "for an Old English speaker, who seems to have viewed the unknown as something terrifying and who placed exceptional value on the comforts of familiar surroundings". For a culture that (most likely)believed in dragons and panotti and blemmyae, the "known" had a completely different significance!

Even if we think of this issue from an Irish point of view and look at Irish writers like Flann O'Brien (Brian O'Nolan) for instance, whose writing has a particularly Irish feel about it (the syntax, the humour). Is it possible for another culture to 'get' it as much as an Irish person would 'get' it? I'm not so convinced. 

Good feckin' luck to ya

Niles, John D. “Rewriting Beowulf: The task of Translation.” College English 55.8 (1993): 858-878. Print.