Theseus is no fraud, or, Thank You Paul Auster!

There was a pattern in my students’ papers on The Knight’s Tale. Those who had read the Mark Sherman chapter, “Chivalry,” in the Oxford Chaucer Guide accused the whole chivalric class of fraud. Pretending to be the embodiments of high culture, pretending to be motivated by love, they were instead only bloodthirsty warriors; the Temple of Mars and the malignance of Saturn are the truth of knighthood; and so forth. I’m sympathetic to this view, and, because of my teaching, even responsible: my tribe, being suspicious of political power, is necessarily suspicious of Theseus, and loves to call him out as much for his mistaken reverence for the ineffectual Jupiter (I.2442) as for the tyranny of an Athenian parliament (I.2970) where Theseus does all the talking. I try, perhaps not very well, to tell them that my criticism is a phase, like any other phase, and that they may want to dip in other critical waters, or–to extend the metaphor–open a new canel. Perhaps it is time for we beautiful souls (plural of “yafeh nefesh” please?) to subject Theseus to a Chávezista or neocon interpretation, one suitable for our decade?

I’ve said only a bit of this in class; instead, I argued for the inextricability of chivalric culture from chivalric violence, and I thought, secretly (but perhaps not so secretly now), that the accusations of cultural fraud against knights is simultaneously cynical–“oh, those knights. they were really just stinky, illiterate, nasty types” (I think I have the right Pinkwater here)–and deeply sentimental (“true culture is elsewhere, with us beautiful souls, who don’t kill anyone”). I’d like to push matters a little bit further, so, with that in mind, tomorrow night, I will distribute to them a photocopy of Paul Auster’s stunning new translation of Bertran de Born’s most famous poem, which appears in the March 9, 2009 issue of The Nation. If you subscribe, great! But since the entire poem is accessible only to subscribers, I think I’d be violating something by quoting it in full. Our nonsubscribing academic readers, however, should have online access to it through their libraries; as for the others, my apologies: perhaps write to Auster directly. Here’s what The Nation provides for free:

I love the jubilance of springtime
When leaves and flowers burgeon forth,
And I exult in the mirth of bird songs
Resounding through the woods;
And I relish seeing the meadows
Adorned with tents and pavilions;
And great is my happiness
When the fields are packed
With armored knights and horses.And I thrill at the sight of scouts
Forcing men and women to flee with their belongings;
And gladness fills me when they are chased
By a dense throng of armed men;
And my heart soars
When I behold mighty castles under siege
As their ramparts crumble and collapse
With troops massed at the edge of the moat
And strong, solid barriers
Hemming in the target on all sides.

And, skipping a big chunk, here are the last two stanzas:

I tell you that eating, drinking, and sleeping
Give me less pleasure than hearing the shout
Of “Charge!” from both sides, and hearing
Cries of “Help! Help!,” and seeing
The great and the ungreat fall together
On the grass and in the ditches, and seeing
Corpses with the tips of broken, streamered lances
Jutting from their sides.Barons, better to pawn
Your castles, towns, and cities
Than to give up making war.

Now, this whole post is essentially an excuse to direct your attention to what strikes me as a supurb, timely translation. For my students, I trust they’ll understand, after reading this, that chivalric culture is–for better or worse–no fraud.

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