Review: Aucassin and Nicolette translated by Francis William Bourdillon vs. Andrew Lang

Title: Aucassin and Nicolette

Original Title: Aucassin et Nicolette

Author: Anonymous

Translated by Francis William Bourdillon / Andrew Lang

Genre: Cantafable, Humour, Satire, Parody

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011 / 2013

Published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. LTD / Delphi Classics

Rating: 3/5 stars

I’ve been thinking for a long time about writing a review about a tale I accidentally found on Amazon. Thus, I want to share with you some information and interpretations regarding this French medieval story most of you probably haven’t heard of.

Aucassin and Nicolette is an anonymous Old French chantefable (creation comprising prose and verse), probably from the 12th or 13th century; its only remaining source is a manuscript kept in the National Library of France, in Paris. The story fascinated authors such as Andrew Lang and Francis William Bourdillon, who translated the chantefable in English. I read both translations and I found them very good and similar, but I prefer Lang’s version because it’s more melodious and it sounds a little more old-fashioned than the other one. However, in this review, I will quote and use some of Bourdillon’s explanations from the preface of his edition and a few critical ideas from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages.

Bourdillon thinks that sometimes we need to leave modern complicated novels behind and turn to old and simple tales, which we may find “more moving, more tender, even more real, than all the laboured realism of these photographic days.” (Loc. 10) He compares Aucassin and Nicolette with Romeo and Juliet, Cupid and Psyche and other classic romances, but the things that make this Old French chantefable stand out are the “perpetual touches of actual life, and words that raise pictures (…)” (Loc.12). The translator speculates that the plot is not original because the particular form of this tale pre-exists in the Arabian or Moorish culture. Thus, Bourdillon suggests that the story probably comes from Spain, the place where two religions and mentalities met. To be more exact, the plot doesn’t seem to take place in Provence, where Old French literature flourished, but in Spain. The British poet argues that Carthage doesn’t refer to the Tunisian city, but to Cartagena (a port in South-East Spain), Valence is not the city situated on the Rhône River, but Valencia and the fictional name Torelore – the place where Aucassin and Nicolette shipwrecked – could be Torello.

That being said, let’s take a look at our protagonists. Aucassin is Count Garin or Warren of Beaucaire’s son, who should fight against Count Bulgarius or Bougars of Valence, his father’s enemy. However, the lad refuses to become a knight and save the besieged city because he has fallen in love with Nicolette, a christened Saracen girl, who was taken from Carthage as a slave and brought up in a culture different from her own. Unlike the other knights, Aucassin doesn’t care too much about duty or glory; he is constantly daydreaming about his sweetheart and laments when the two lovers are separated from each other by their parents.

A thing I haven’t expected to read in a 13th-century tale is the young man’s ideas about religion which are very modern for that time if you ask me. During an argument with the Viscount, Nicolette’s ‘father in God’, Aucassin says that he would rather go to hell than to heaven because in hell he would find all the great knights, courteous ladies, lovers, artists, princes and all the riches of the world. Well, you have to admit that he is certainly not your typical medieval Christian! Actually, if you look carefully at his name, Aucassin sounds pretty Moorish, unlike his sweetheart’s Christian name. Bourdillion writes that Aucassin could be related to the 11th century King of Cordova, Alcazin, whose name was turned into French.

Now let’s turn our attention to the relationship between the young man and the beautiful maiden. If Aucassin doesn’t like to fight against his father’s enemies, maybe he is better at fighting for his love interest, right? Unfortunately, he is more of a philosopher than a man of action, though you might expect more motivation in this case. Even though he goes to Nicolette’s house, fights and captures the Count of Valence just for the covenant’s sake or looks for his beloved into the forest, the young lady is the one n charge of their relationship. For example, she runs away from home in order to save herself from Count Beaucaire’s rage and determination to kill her. And, in order to return to her lover’s land, she dresses up as a troubadour. No damsel in distress has the courage and wit to do such a thing; at least I haven’t read of such women in medieval literature. It is true that Nicolette has sugary soliloquies like her lover and the narrator praises her beauty excessively, which matches perfectly the medieval female ideal – the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman with a light complexion and small, delicate hands.

The unusual twists and unspecific elements found in this story made critics see this tale as a parody of the epic, romance and saint’s life. Actually, this chantefable satirises many Old French genres, such as amor de lonh or distant love; here, the maiden is the one who searches her lover, not vice versa. Karl Uitti writes in the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that Aucassin and Nicolette combines elements from various Old French genres, such as ‘chanson de geste’, ‘lyric poems’ and ‘courtly novels’. He states that the term ‘chantefable’ appeared for the first time in the last line of this tale: “No cantefable prent fin”.

Some situations, such as the pregnant king in childbed and the rival armies, who fight against each other with baked apples, eggs and cheese projectiles, are truly hilarious scenes that reminded Lang of Rabelais’ grotesque humour. In real life, people fought in wars over food, not with food. If Aucassin and Nicolette’s romance was not enough to exemplify gender role reversals, the author threw in another one: the king lays in childbed and the queen is at war with the royal army. However, if we leave behind the comic aspects of the scene, we could follow Bourdillon’s interpretation of this strange behaviour. According to his research, in many cultures, there was a custom named Couvade, in which the father mimicked labour pains to sympathise with the mother and to protect her and the newborn against evil spirits. As a matter of fact, Strabo took notes of this ritual in his writings too.

In short, everything seems to be upside down in Aucassin and Nicolette, from the protagonist’s antiheroic character, the lady’s determination to be with him, their “against the grain” relationship, to the bizarre and funny situations they encounter.

 

Review: Wicked Words by Terry Deary

Title: Wicked Words

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown                

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published: 1996

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2013

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories Special

Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I’m no stranger to the English language, I was still curious to read what Terry Deary had to say about it, the origins of some of its words and the great writers who influenced and changed its shape for ever. As you already know from the title, today I’m going to review Terry Deary’s Wicked Words, the third Horrible Histories book I’ve read this year.

In the Introduction, we are told that words are power and they can hurt as deep as a sword. But, In order to gain this power and learn how to use it, we have to read this book. So, the purpose of this short volume is to make the young readers be both accustomed to and entertained by the English language and its secrets. Before the timeline, there’s a chapter dedicated to prehistoric times, the first language humans spoke (which made the difference between our survival and extinction) and what archaeological findings reveal about this topic. The Horrible Histories timeline for the English language stretches from Rome’s rule over Britain to the 20th century. But it also includes Gutenberg’s printing press, two of the most influential English writers and Dr Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary.

The table of content of this book is arranged alphabetically and each letter comprises a chapter or two and an aspect of the English language. Personally, I would have preferred the chronological order because it was strange to read about Dickens before Shakespeare. But let’s move on. In this book, you will read about the history of the English language (divided into six brief parts), Anglo-Saxon literature, stylistic literary devices such as alliteration, great English writers and poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, William Caxton, words and their etymologies, euphemisms, slang words, swear words and many more. You will also find fragments from, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Vision of Piers Plawman, The Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol etc. However, but beware, the endings of these literary works are spoiled in this book; so skip those parts if you haven’t read them yet.

In the end, I think that this book is great for children who are interested in language and grammar because Terry Deary explains everything clearly and inserts jokes, games riddles and stories along the way. For me, on the other hand, this book didn’t have a lot of new information to offer because I already knew enough about the English language and its history. Also, I wasn’t a big fan of the football metaphor for the various invasions of Britain, but I guess it might work for younger readers. Overall, it was a nice read, so please give this book a try, if you or your kids are into languages and British humour.

Review: Vile Victorians by Terry Deary

Title: Vile Victorians

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published in 1994

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Of all the Horrible Histories books I own, I was mostly excited to read Vile Victorians because some of my favourite writers belong to this period and because the 19th century is fascinating to me. With these ideas in mind and with child-like anticipation, I picked up Terry Deary’s book hoping to learn new and disgusting things that happened during Queen Victoria’s reign.

 In the Introduction, Terry Deary writes that there are two kinds of histories: the horrible history and the glorious history. It really depends on the teacher if one chooses to relate the truth about that certain period or one is carried away by the great deeds of the remarkable people from the past. Also, the author warns the reader that this book is not suited for sensitive persons; therefore: “If you have a weak stomach then don’t read it or, if you have to read it, then read it with your eyes closed.” (Loc. 27) Now, this is the funniest disclaimer I’ve ever read. However, I think that such a warning would have been necessary before the first chapter of Horrible Histories Gruesome Guide: London too because that book really grossed me out.

The Vile Victorians’ timeline stretches from Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837 to her death in 1902 and the author highlights the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of this historical era. In this book, you will read about: Queen Victoria, Victorian childhood and its hardships, Victorian schools, games, Victorian literature, aspects of Victorian life (towns, work and funerals), strange food, Victorian army, villains and so on.

Although I was very excited to read this book, it didn’t impress me as much as I’ve expected to because I already knew some of the information about Victorian Britain from the Horrible Histories TV show I watched a few years ago. Indeed, there are a lot of shocking facts that you probably didn’t know and some are very hard to believe, but if you read at least one of Charles Dickens’s novels, you will notice how hard life was for the poor and for the children living in London and in other parts of Britain. Small kids were forced to work in warehouses or in mines for many hours, putting their health at risk and their lives in danger for very few money. On the other hand, Victorian schools weren’t any better either, because teachers were very harsh and the pupils were usually punished for insignificant reasons. Another topic I’ve found both interesting and sad was the way girls were selected to become maids in the Victorian household and the schedule a maid had from the moment she was awake to her bedtime.

Besides Terry Deary’s jovial and witty style, I enjoyed the way he mocks writers playwright and poet for the excessive melodrama found in their works and he also gives some examples, including a small excerpt from Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop. There are also a few stories that will break your heart and question the sanity of adults and human nature in general.

In the end, Terry Deary concludes that the Victorian age wasn’t overall that bad because Britain had electricity and cars at the turn of the century. The author believes that the following quote from A Tale of Two Cities would have described Victorian Britain perfectly, not only France and its tumultuous Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”(Loc. 1300)

Review: London by Terry Deary

Title: London

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown                 

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published: 2005

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories Gruesome Guides

Rating: 4/5 stars

The first time I’ve begun reading a few pages from Horrible Histories Gruesome Guides: London was some years ago before visiting Britain’s capital. However, when I came back, other books caught my attention, so I left it unfinished for a while. In March I finally picked it up again feeling determined to finish it.

In the introduction, Terry Deary puts side by side two testimonials of two priests regarding the London of 1190, which are complete opposites. What does that tell us about history? It is never accurate because everyone sees the world through one’s perspective. In order to understand how people really lived in London throughout the centuries, “this book will only tell you the horrible bits of London’s history –about the bad, not the brave, the horrible, not the happy, the dreadful, disgusting and dirty, not the dear, drippy and delightful.” (Loc. 40-41)

And this book was gruesome indeed with a timeline that stretches from Ancient times to the Victorian era. You will read about legends linked to London and its history, interesting facts about The Tower of London, how horrible people treated animals for their entertainment in the Middle Ages and not only then, criminals and executions, ten dangerous and dirty jobs in London, stories about abused children and forced labour, some bits of information about some iconic buildings in London London’s underground and so on. Every time period has something interesting or disgusting to reveal. Besides the funny illustrations made by Martin Brown, there’s also a map of historical London at the end of the book.

Though the Horrible Histories books are usually very whimsical and you learn new thing while having fun, taking tests and laughing out loud at the jokes the author cracks, this time I think that the gruesomeness surpassed the humour because the animal beatings and fights, the stories about criminals and executions and those about child abuse, filth and disease made my stomach turn. However, I understand the purpose of this book. Usually, we learn at school about the bright side of history and about the brave or brilliant people who changed the world; but there’s also a darker or filthier side of history that is more appealing to us because it revolves around the ordinary people – the sick, the orphan the illiterate and the poor.

What do you think about this book? Have you read it? Leave your answers below.

Review: Terrible Tudors by Terry Deary

Title: Terrible Tudors

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published in 1993

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 5/5 stars

Through Terrible Tudors, I entered Terry Deary‘s world and, to this day, this book is still the one I enjoyed the most. However, I’m sure there are many Horrible Histories volumes that await to be read and reviewed and I bet those will be as fascinating as the one I’m going to talk about here.

The Terrible Tudor timeline stretches from the end of The War of the Roses to the last day Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Besides the Tudor dynasty, you will read about life and death in Tudor times including awful doctors and remedies that didn’t work, school and rules, crime, thieves’ slang and punishments, “terrible Shakespeare” (this is how Terry Deary gratulates the English bard), theatre, the mystery of Christopher Marlowe‘s sudden disappearance, witches and superstitions, strange food and endless banquets, Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada, life for women and so on.

Before revealing an interesting aspect I found in the chapter entitled Terrible Shakespeare, I cannot restrain myself from writing some peculiar facts about Queen Elizabeth I (or Gloriana, a term my headmaster taught me in high school). The English Sovereign was very ugly, had very bad teeth, a quick-temper and bathed only four times a year.  Are you surprised in a bad way? Oh, but her majesty was cleaner than King Louis XIV, who took only three baths per year.

Now let’s leave the filth behind – there’s a lot of that in Tudor England anyway – and return to Shakespeare. I won’t bore you with Shakespearean insults because you might already know some of them from the multitude of articles found on the internet about this subject, but I’m sure that you haven’t heard of Shakespeare’s curse. Yes, King Tut is not alone when it comes to curses. Some people speculate that plays unknown to us might be buried along with Shakespeare’s body, but nobody had the courage to open the tomb and put the curse to the test. Have I stirred your interest a little?  Here is the epitaph the bard wrote himself:

“BLEST BE THE MAN THAT SPARES THESE STONES
AND CURST BE HE THAT MOVES MY BONES
” (Loc.665)

In the end, Terry Deary asks the reader if one wants to live in Tudor times. Are we thankful that we live in a different and better era or do we agree with the history books that the Tudor period was the “Golden Age of Good Queen Bess and Jolly Old Henry VIII?” (Loc. 1540)

Review: Measly Middle Ages by Terry Deary

Title: Measly Middle Ages

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

Genre: Nonfiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published in 1990

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2011

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 5/5 stars

I guess you already know from my previous review that Terry Deary is one of my favourite authors because he knows how to retell history in a laid-back and funny way.  Now I’m going to talk about a historical period that began to interest me since I have learnt about Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in my English Medieval Literature class. Though Romantic writers tried to reinvent and paint the Dark Ages in pinkish shades, it’s pretty hard for me to understand how come courtesy, beautiful love poems and songs could live side by side with religious dogmatism and lack of basic hygiene, two causes that triggered the plague and many other bizarre diseases.

According to Measly Middle Ages timeline, one of the most despotic, bloodthirsty and ignorant historical periods, from my point of view, stretches from post-Roman England to the time of Alfred the Great, the Norman Conquest, the Angevin rule, The War of the Roses, to Christopher Columbus‘ discovery.

In this book, you can find out how people lived in the Middle Ages, how women and children were treated, what rules they had to obey, what kind of clothes and accessories people wore and how monks lived. You will also read about the Norman Conquest and the feudal rule, the Angevin Dynasty, the Black Death and inefficient medieval remedies, odd facts about food and drinks and so on.

If you wonder which chapter I found the most interesting and intriguing, the answer is Rotten Religion. In the Middle Ages, people’s ignorance and naivety were exploited by monks and priests, who forged all sorts of holy relics and other items which apparently cured any illness. For example, “Saint Apollonia is the patron of toothache, thus she could cure your tortured tootsie-peg. (…) Hundred of monasteries had a tooth from her mouth. Big mouth? No, simply another miracle, the monks explained. Henry VI of England collected a ton of them” (Loc. 908-911).

If we think about Medieval schools, the monks and priests were the only teachers of the time. Life in the countryside, as well as in towns, was very hard, therefore, many small boys and girls were sent by their parents to join the church as monks and nuns. Here, the author reveals the letter of a boy, who has been studying in a monastery and the way he describes his daily routine: harsh discipline, an exhausting schedule not fit for a child no older than 8 or 9, firm teachers, scarce food, fasting, praying and a lot of Bible reading. I don’t know about you, but when I read this letter, it occurred to me that Medieval school is as bad as Victorian school.

Towards the end of the book, Terry Deary writes that in Tudor times life began to be slightly better and people believed that the crude and Measly Middle Ages seemed very far away; however, if we look through the newspapers of our day, we may notice that those horrible times have not ended completely just yet.

 

Review: Savage Stone Age by Terry Deary

Title: Savage Stone Age

Author: Terry Deary

Illustrator: Martin Brown

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Children’s Books, Humour

First Published in 1999

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2008

Publisher: Scholastic Non-Fiction

Collection: Horrible Histories

Rating: 4/5 stars

Do you remember those days when you were in class and your history teacher overwhelmed you with more than a dozen crucial events and important dates? I guess everybody experienced that feeling of boredom at least once in their lifetime, along with the natural question: “Is history all that plain and difficult to like?

The answer is “no” because history – as well as any other school subject – has its dirty secrets and gruesome facts, which, unfortunately, are not taught because of their inappropriateness or doubtful existence. However, you can find a pleasant alternative to the multitude of documentaries and various articles you might find on the Internet; that alternative is British writer’s Terry Deary series of books Horrible Histories, a more terrible, measly, slimy, vile and funny approach to history, seasoned with jokes, irony and British humour.

The collection is made out of small books – almost 150 pages each – which usually give extraordinary and peculiar information about famous English monarchs and common people who lived in a certain time and space. Besides the history of England, which begins with Cut-Throat Celts and ends with The 20th Century, the author also published Savage Stone Age, Rotten Romans, Groovy Greeks, Awful Egyptians, Incredible Incas, Angry Aztecs, Horrible Histories Special: France, Horrible Histories Special: USA, Pirates and so on.

A few years ago I accidentally discovered the BBC adaptation of Terry Deary’s books entitled also Horrible Histories on Youtube, but only in late 2013, it occurred to me that I should read one of his books. At first, I didn’t know what to expect, but after reading three of his books, I must confess that Terry Deary became one of my favourite writers. Why? Because of the things mentioned above and many more.

The first book I’m going to talk about is Savage Stone Age and is actually the third one I’ve read, but its special subject forces me to put it in the top of the list. Throughout this book you will read about the timeline of human evolution and the three prehistoric periods of mankind (in a brief introductory chapter), how Stone Agers lived, the animals they hunted till becoming extinct. We will also learn more about the food they ate, how they cooked it, about their weird beliefs and gruesome burials, about brainy archaeologists, treasure hunters, accidental discoveries, stone circles legends and mysteries (including many fascinating facts about Stonehenge) and many other curious facts which won’t let you put the book or reading device down.

I don’t want to spoil your read, in case you plan to go through this book, but I will give you a tiny hint. For example, in the chapter Rotten Rituals, among many bizarre and pretty horrible funeral rituals, you will find out that there are many stone circles spread across Britain and their presence brings luck and good energies. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly what they were made for. Tradition says that if a girl wanted to know who will be her future husband, she had to travel to Arthur’s Stone (at Gower near Swansea, Wales), “wait until midnight when the moon is full and put cakes, milk and honey on the ancient stone. Crawl around the stone on your hands and knees and if the vision of your lover appears, then you will marry him. If not, then he’s probably too busy watching telly.” (Loc. 969-970)

There are also some little tests, through which Terry Deary challenges you to remember what you have learnt about the Stone Age Period. But don’t worry if you get the answers wrong, because you are doing it just for fun. For instance, there’s a test where the author asks you a few questions about the way Stone Agers lived and you have to choose the correct answer. If you get all the answers right, then you are a modern human being. If you get fewer answers right, depending on the number of wrong answers, you are a Neanderthal, chimpanzee or less than that.

Before ending this review, I must tell you that, although Savage Stone Age is a book for children, it helped me understand better my anthropology class and those history lessons from my childhood. Through the jokes and anecdotes inserted between the lines, the author reminds us that history can be child’s play and its main role is to captivate the audience because history also means story.