I had a long chat with Dad,' said Quintin Scott. 'He told me why he started this project.' Quintin stopped to gather his breath and gazed out towards Poole Bay and the distant cliffs of Dorset as Miranda approached from a perusal of the remains of a Bronze Age round barrow, on the summit of Headon Heath in the far west of the Isle of Wight. She made a scrunching noise over flint gravel and turned to look in the same direction as Quintin, as the sun burst through a cloud and began to make a spectacular display on the sea.
'It was an old Victorian book of Arthurian legends I know,' she said, shielding her eyes from the glare. 'I had a long chat with your father as well, while you were down with your grandmother at the co-op.' She shifted her foot on the awkward slope, just caught herself and regained her balance. Taking out her smartophone she offered it to Quintin, who put the earpiece into his right ear and tapped play:
'This entire project stems from the reading of two books in 1998, when my attention should probably have been directed elsewhere. One of them was a Penguin Classics edition of Chrétien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances in English translation. The other was a reprint of an old Victorian work called Arthurian Legends of the Middle Ages by George Cox and Eustace Jones, including the romances of Olger the Dane (Ogier le Danois), Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton. And I kept coming across the same thing repeated over and over again, the same motif.'
The audio came to an end. Quintin looked back at Miranda.
'He was surprised that nothing more had been made of it,' she said. 'The next file is a PDF audio readout of the reply he wrote to a rather nice American lady who sent him an email, questioning his choice of phraseology in two of his Middle English translations, once the website was up and running.'
Quintin located the audio file and tapped 'play'
''Many thanks for contacting me, regarding eleusinianm.co.uk. I take your comments on board, and I am sure you are right regarding some of my interpretations. I think an explanation concerning Orfeo and Heurodis, however, may go some way to setting out the broader style of my work as well.
I chose to use the names Orfeo and Euridice precisely because it is upon this ancient Greek tale that the story of Sir Orfeo is modelled. My intention in the retelling of this Middle English Breton lai is to try to lay bare its origins, so that the reader can be in no doubt where at least one Middle English Breton lai ultimately comes from. My retellings, and you are right, they are retellings rather than translations, are intended as fiction, as are the Hannah Scot manuscripts and the Blue Book of Wellow, aimed not only at the scholarly inquisitive but at a general reader interested in a good story. This is the whole purpose of what I am doing – to respect these tales and not to misrepresent them.
'In Sir Gowther, the child is obviously fathered by an incubus, and given that the Breton lais, which have a Celtic slant, would view Gowtherıs father as a creature from the Otherworld, I felt that to call Gowther a warlock, which is the gloss you favour, and which in Modern English now conjures something of a Harry Potter image, was less appropriate than 'fairy childı, with its Irish intonation (and there is also nothing in the rest of the tale to suggest that he knew any magic, which in my style of retelling is a very important consideration in itself). It also has the advantage of highlighting the Celtic antiquity of the tradition from which the tale, if it is indeed a Middle English Breton lai, derives. Slight abridgment in the retellings, too, is often useful to the readability and flow of a story.
I always produce a line by line translation of a Middle English work initially, then edit each sentence that comes out of it, rewrite that sentence, reshape it using modern grammer and delete it entirely if it repeats what has already been said. Most Middle English texts can be shortened in this way. Once this second draft is complete, I edit further for general readability, but always being true to the story.
'Like the field of science, in which I have my doctorate, I have set up a hypothesis from which predictions can be made and tested. Having found a number of examples of story elements in medieval romances whose repetition seems to guarantee their significance, it can be hypothesised that they will reappear and be re-used and re-encountered elsewhere. Boy, have I shown this to be true.
'In seismic reflection profiling it is possible to produce what is called a 'brute stackı, in a relatively short time, say three days, while a final stack may take six months to produce. The quality is by no means as good in the brute stack as in the final stack. It is a little like developing a photograph where the focus is not quite as sharp as it might be but it is quite good enough for some purposes, one of which is determining basic information such as whether the underlying rock is sedimentary (layered) or igneous (massive). A brute stake will reveal this information quite clearly.
'This is what I am trying to do in retelling – and I quite accept your phrase – the medieval stories that I have taken from those published in Middle English by TEAMS and the EETS. I am trying to create a brute stack of medieval romance, something that will allow the whole genre to be viewed in its entirety and bring out a number of characteristic, large-scale features that might then be called its hallmarks; not in terms of detail but in terms of whole-story elements. Just like layered sediments and massive igneous intrusions in a geological cross-section; the big picture. This is the context in which I would urge you to view my work.
'It is not even necessary that the story-elements I am interested in were those considered important by the storyteller who first committed the romance to writing. He or she may well have wished to portray some aspect of contemporary (medieval) life, as you say, and to use the story as a means of doing this. But nevertheless, the romance or Breton lai itself was expected to reuse one of a number of patterns, or containers, all of which seem to derive, or look back, I would argue, to an earlier age of pagan storytelling. The question then remains whether this story container, if you will, was simply a relic whose meaning had been forgotten, or an exotic container whose known pagan derivation was simply used to make it seem more exotic still, or perhaps something that was still alive and well in the medieval period and enjoying the odd kick and scream now and again. If this last possibility is true, then the story container chosen to carry the message throws light upon the European medieval period as well.
'There must be some reason why so many of these stories share so many features, even if it was only through tradition. Only if these story elements were all derived from Persia and India, as Richard Burton suggested for one of the medieval romances (I canıt remember which one offhand) in the 1880s, do they not hold any interest for those of us interested in European paganism. But then, where would this leave Marie de France and the Breton lais?
'I hope I am not conflicting in any way with the work of others and I certainly donıt want to tread on any academic toes. But I do find it intriguing how even small things may be capable of reinterpretation. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example; I know I am going to get huge flack for encroaching on this ground which is why Iıve set myself the task of completing my own 'brute stacks' of the Canterbury Tales, even though Peter Ackroyd has recently published his own prose retellings, but Iıve just completed an initial, rough draft of the Second Nunıs Tale and wondered to myself why the second nun makes a big thing about criticizing laziness, for no apparent reason connected to the story, and 'ydelnesse, [that is] rotten slogardye; of which ther never comth no good encrees, and to devouren all that othere swinke' when going on to extol a life of chastity, and an early Christian Pope spending his days lurking hidden in a graveyard. Chaucer had a ready wit for irony. Then in the next tale, the Canonıs Yeomanıs Tale, we are treated to a tirade against people who sacrifice all they possess in this world in order to pursue the dream of future riches!
'I just mention these examples because they are fresh in my mind. There are many impertinent questions a new approach might be able to throw up, and thatıs what I hope eleusinianm.co.uk will become, a new approach. Read Ipomadon and tell me what the climax near the end signifies. I will be delighted to hear from you.
'Many thanks for contacting me. I hope I have been able to answer some of your questions and many thanks for the feedback, I do appreciate it. As is always said, and is always true, the errors are all mine – as Geoffrey would have said, my wit is very light in this regard.
'You know the most incredible thing about those swords we saw last week?' asked Miranda, breaking a long silence which had been punctuated only by the sound of gulls and the drone of a coastguard helicopter flying up the Solent, as Quintin took out the earpiece.
'The ones that were thrown into that river in Lincolnshire over two thousand years ago?' he replied.
'The guidebook said they'd been thrown in as a sort of Iron Age religious statement,' said Miranda. 'From a time that Julius Caesar records the druids believing in reincarnation. But swords have been found there dating not only from the Iron Age but from the succeeding period when the Romans had conquered most of Britain, from the Viking age and even down to late-medieval times. And that shows that ancient pagan traditions were alive and well when all the medieval romances and Arthurian stories were being composed!' Miranda skipped down a gravel gully, sending a cascade of stones ahead of her. 'Anglo-French noblemen were throwing swords into that river, like pagan Iron Age warriors, when tales like Floris and Blancheflour, Ipomadon and the Breton lai Guigemar were being composed. And the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes,' she called.
'I was reading those again last month at the Farringford Hotel,' Quintin called back, as Miranda sent another cascade of flint gravel rolling down the slope as she turned back to face Quintin. 'Poetic intuition is supposed to be the most perceptive, after all,' he said, 'and Tennyson, whose house it once was, wrote:
'These words are like the rest,
no certain clearness, but at best
a vague suspicion of the breast.
'I cannot make this matter plain
but I would shoot, howe'er in vain
a random arrow from the brain.
'It may be that no life is found,
which only to one engine bound
falls off, but cycles always round.
'As old mythologies relate,
some draught of Lethe might await
the slipping thro' from state to state.'
from The Two Voices, by Alfred Lord Tennyson.