Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages by Jacques Le Goff

One of my life long interests has been the Middle Ages.  I love the myth, legend, art, music and history of that time period.  I'm especially interested in how our civilization developed over the approximate thousand year time span that we now label the Medieval Age.

Jacques le Goff is a prominent French researcher in not only the history but the sociology of this time period.  He has written many books about Western Medieval culture.  This particular book deals with what the title says:  How was the concept of time, work and culture developed.

The book is divided into four sections:  Time and Labor; Labor and Value Systems; High Culture and Popular Culture; and Toward a Historical Anthropology.

In Time and Culture le Goff discusses the invention of our modern concept of time.  It never occurred to me that people counted time any differently.  He notes that at first, laborers worked according to the sun but only worked half days.  It was the laborers of the land that insisted on working longer hours so they could receive greater pay.  

Time was at first measured according to the Church.  Clerics regarded time according to Biblical texts and church tradition.  Therefore all time is God's time.  The day was divided up according to the different hours of the church as well as days, weeks and months in that every day had its own particular time in the Church Year where a particular mass was celebrated.  Different masses sung different psalms according to what time of the day or week or month of the year.  

The rise of merchants redefined time in many respects but I don't have time to go into it here.  But this leads us to the next point of this section:  work.  The church held some jobs in honor but some in contempt.  The laborer was at first held in contempt in the early middle ages although this changed by the time of the high middle ages.   The merchant class likewise changed attitudes towards honorable and dishonorable work.  At first it was considered sinful to be usurers which is why Jews held that occupation for hundreds of years.  This made Jews vulnerable to backlash and persecution when times became unstable and people's minds were easily directed to make scapegoats of the people to whom they owed money.  The Bible also speaks of being no man's debter hmmm...

At any rate this whole division goes into much greater detail than I'm able about the rise of labor and merchant classes, the development of time, its origins in the church and later within the merchant community.

The third section describes the development of universities and trades and professions.  Certain people were expected to go to universities, primarily clergy which is only natural considering that universities were developed within the church with the primary objective of training clergy.  This later expanded to include people who attended trade schools and artisans.  Those particular schools were eventually absorbed into the university system.

Still, these schools were primarily schools of theology and exegetical training.  Indeed, back then church, learning, and trade were not separated.  Secular university systems did not exist and every subject, math, science, language arts etc.. was viewed through the lens of Scripture which was considered the crowning science.

The final chapter tells us how  the Public Authorities outside the church gained influence in the Universities during the Renaissance.

The third section is very interesting to me as a musician because it traces the development of high and popular culture in folklore traditions and music. High culture has its roots in religious music and literature while popular culture are those tales and songs people told each other at home and around the fire.

The final chapter was thought provoking because it described the development of symbolic rituals.  Even how the hand shake and greeting with a kiss came about, what it meant and how each person performed them according to their station.  Medieval Christianity was rife with rites and symbols so naturally these became a part of the culture as a whole.  

A lord would take both hands of a vassal in his hands while the vassal always pressed his hands together as in prayer to the Lord.  Le Goff maintains that this, coming from inside church tradition was not a symbol of obeisance as a servant but of a son.  He asserts that the relationship between feudal lords and the people under their authority was not impersonal but seen by both parties as familial.  Just as Christians upon baptism became members of the Christian family, when serfs or villagers ritually show their deference to the knight who promises to protect them, they are publicly proclaiming fidelity to not just their master, but the head of their family. 

The knight, in turn, kneels before the Pope, acknowledging the head of his family is Christ.  When the King "knights" someone by ritually touching his shoulders with a sword he is making the same statement.

This book is far more involved than what I've written.  The most I can hope is to whet someone's appetite to read Le Goff's books for him or herself.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

It took me a while to read this book because I had to read it slowly and underline many things said just to make sure I understood what Nietzsche was saying.  I wrote one sentence summaries at the end of  each chapter.  I'm going to write out my thoughts as recorded in my book.  This is my understanding of what he was saying.  Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, just please explain your reasoning.

Zarathustra is a "super" man, also, called a superhero.  He came down out of the mountains to proclaim truth to men.  The following are the truths as I understood him.

God is dead we have killed him. (Parable of the Madman)

The Three Metamorphoses:  It sounds like Nietzsche was saying we need to get rid of the ten commandments of the Bible.  We should stop following them and revert to a child like innocence, knowing neither right nor wrong.  People follow virtue to have an easy conscience but that notion is now outmoded.

Only the suffering invented a God because they were dying and wanted to believe that there was more to existence than this life and world.  If you believe in God you despise your body.  Only the Self determines our thinking.

You cannot enforce your virtue on anyone else and the only Evil that exists is in a conflict of virtues.  Good is evil and evil is now good.

Morality is madness.  Only what the Self desires is right.

Might makes right.  (War and Warriors pg. 43)
Chapters 11 and 12 speak of "superfluous people" that are like "flies".    Only the Supermen deserve to live.

Chapters 16 and 17:  Individuals don't matter only ideals.  Don't be a part of a crowd.  Supermen are "gods" and "creators".  The crowd will try to impose absolute morals on the supermen but they create their own morals.

Chapter 21 is title "Voluntary death".  Again he reiterates that some people are superfluous and deserve to die.  He claims that Jesus died too soon and had he lived longer He would have recanted His assertions about Himself.  Chapter two states that sick people are selfish.  Zarathustra is the god they should look up to.

In Part 2 Nietzsche uses a lot of Biblical metaphors and applies them to his Superman. He states that God is conjecture and the will can decide there is no god and the will can procreate so it doesn't need a creator.

He speaks again of the rabble that poison everything and are stupid enough to believe in a spirit.  Zarathustra belongs to an elite few that is above the rabble.

Chapter 36 holds people of "diverse colors" in contempt.  Chapter 38 ends with the sentence, "For men are not (his emphasis) equal: so speaketh justice.  And what I will, they may not will."

There are eighty chapters but the above largely covers the main claims of the Zarathustra, the "Superman".

In short, Zarathustra replaces God.  But he offers no mercy or compassion.  He is superior, most others are inferior and don't deserve to live.  He refers to them as parasites that are selfish for wanting to live.  His will determines right and wrong.

Nietzsche uses a lot of Biblical terminology, even in the way Zarathustra expresses himself (in chapter 69, he says "My kingdom is no longer of this world").  He goes up on Mount Olive, he holds a Last Supper with a group of devotees- who although devoted, receive nothing but contempt from Zarathustra.  He is superior and they are inferior. 

Zarathustra is the Higher Man and he states in chapter 73: "man must become better and eviler so do I teach.  The evilest is necessary for the Superman's best."

It's interesting the people who were attracted to Nietzsche's philosophy.  Of course we can all point to Hitler and the Nazi's.  They're the most obvious example.  But Nietzsche's philosophy appealed to intellectuals long before Hitler and also to many people in America during the first half of this century.  We don't like to talk about it now, but America had its own eugenics program that it was developing.  It got hushed up and swept under the carpet after Nazi Germany was exposed.

And many people today embrace Nietzsche's philosophy.  Like the man who wrote the foot notes and introduction to my copy of the book.  He holds a PhD in philosophy.  He dismisses Hitler with a shrug and a "he just misunderstood what Nietzsche was trying to say."  Really?  What was Nietzsche saying?

Something slightly unrelated that I found interesting was the use of "supermen" and "superheros".  These are names we've given our modern mythical men (and a few women).  The difference is that the superheros we read about in comics and now in movies are on the side of good and fight evil.  Probably because this concept is palatable to our minds that are conscious of right and wrong whatever Nietzsche may say.  However, it still relies on men to save the world and not God.

The final thing that hit me about Zarathustra is that he is supposed to replace God and Jesus Christ as the savior of mankind.  But he offers nothing.  He is simply superior and that's the end to it.  Nietzsche doesn't even explain what makes Zarathustra superior.  Certainly not those virtues that humans rely on that make life meaningful like mercy and compassion, joy, selflessness and courage.  In fact these traits are universally held to make us superior.  Lacking those qualities makes Zarathustra less than a human.  It makes him inferior.  He is the ultimate selfish narcissist.

And of course, the biggest point is that Nietzsche proves nothing that he asserts.  All he says is true because...he says so.  Quite the fairy tale.

I don't find it surprising that Nietzsche died insane.  Judging from all the Biblical parallels he made he read the Bible, but without the illumination of God's Spirit he had "Eyes to see but could not perceive; ears to hear but could not understand." (Mark 4:12)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

At Ease: Stories I Tell to My Friends by Dwight D. Eisenhower

Pile of books to review

Having read and reviewed a book about one of the British towering figures of the first half of the twentieth century(see review on Churchill),  I then read a book about one of our own, written by himself.

I read Eisenhower's biography in a 1830's log cabin deep in the heart of Texas twenty minutes southwest of Austin. It was June and extremely hot so afternoons were spent inside the cabin.  While I didn't suffer cabin fever (ha,ha) I did enjoy reading about the life of a great man.

Log Cabin in Kyle, Texas

Eisenhower wrote this book a couple of years before he died and after he became president, although he doesn't mention his presidency.  The book can be broken up into a couple of sections.  His childhood in Kansas and Texas.  His time at West Point, time spent in WWI and a little bit of time during WWII.  He states that he didn't feel the need to devote much time to the second war since he had written a whole book focusing on his time as General then.

His childhood is what we have come to know the greatest generation for.  Eisenhower first describes his parents upbringing and how those values shaped his own life.  People were poor back then and life was tough.  Electricity and running water were for the rich, not the common man until the forties and even fifties.  The hard work incurred from running a household from scratch involved everyone pulling their weight.

Ike has nothing but good memories of these times, however, and the greatest respect for his mother and father.  This was a time when families stuck it out, divorce was unheard of, and children came before career or status.

From Kansas, Eisenhower went to West Point.  It was surprising to me to find that he was not the stellar pupil there.  In fact, it took him a long time to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.  The one thing that sustained him was coming from a family that didn't coddle him.  He could take the discipline and hardship that was imposed on him at the Academy.  Other students didn't fare so well.

He spent some time in Texas and in Panama where he read voraciously the books by Greek philosophers and trained a race horse.  He and another general developed a prototype of the tank but were scorned by the Army who saw no need for a tank in war- a short-sighted attitude if ever there was one.

Between wars he became president of Columbia University and helped develop it into a major college draw for brilliant young minds.

While not delving too heavily into WWII he does tell some amusing stories that happened overseas as well as his relationships with Generals Patton and MacArthur.  He gives an interesting perspective of Patton who apparently was quite flamboyant.  According to Ike, Patton love to push the envelop and say or do things grossly inappropriate just to get a rise out of other people, like foreign dignitaries.  This, of course, would cause considerable embarrassment to the Americans.  Ike would have to take Patton aside and reprimand him.  Patton would respond by throwing his arms around Ike and crying that he would never do it again.  Awkward.

Eisenhower also shares his philosophy about running a country successfully and protecting it against nations and people who are hostile to its freedoms.

The book is written in a friendly, chatty format, as though Ike is just sharing anecdotes to friends seated in his living room.  The stories run one into another and I doubt young readers today would get half way through it.  But it is invaluable to read the thoughts of one of the greatest men of the last one hundred years and the processes that made him great.  I fear the culture that produced men like Eisenhower has pretty much disappeared.


Monday, September 1, 2014

The Curmudeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, ToughThinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life by Charles Murray

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray about his book, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead.  It intrigued me so I put the book on my Amazon wish list.  My parents gave it to me for my birthday.

This is a book that should be taught in every college and probably twelfth grade in high school.  Murray offers realism to today's entitled, sheltered youth.

It's a short book, I read it in a couple of sittings, and it's funny.  Murray is very witty.

But most importantly he's honest.  Here's what he has to say to the up and coming professionals who hope to get a job and promoted:

Most companies are run by white, middle-aged men (and women) and they are curmudgeons.  That means they are old fashioned and have old-fashioned values.  

So when you use the "F-word" in an  job interview (or twice in one young man's case), you're not going to get the job.

If you have visible tattoos or pierced ears (if you're a man), you're probably not going to get the job.

If you dress like a tramp (man or woman), you're not going to get the job.

If you do get the job and act as if menial work is beneath you, you roll your eyes at the boss or display no social skills (for instance, continue talking to friends in the hallway, oblivious of people trying to get past you), or dress as if you're going fishing, or dancing on bar tables, it's unlikely you'll be first choice to get the promotion, if it's ever offered to you.

Murray makes a caveat and says that none of this applies if you want to work in the entertainment industry or I.T. (Why I.T.?  I don't know.)

Here's the kicker and it's very important:  Because our contemporary American culture has made it taboo to even hint that what someone else is doing might be wrong, your curmudgeonly boss is never going to call you out on the behavior he despises.  But you're not going to get the job.  Or promoted.  You just won't know why.

That's why Murray has written this book.  So you can know beforehand what the person who holds that job in his hands is thinking.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Being a curmudgeon myself, I didn't need the above advice, it was just fun to read.  But Murray, who is a journalist, also devotes several chapters to writing skills.  As a writer, this part was especially helpful.

He also tells young people not to move so fast into the professional world right after college but rather get out of the sheltered bubble their parents have created for them and see the world.  This could mean joining the military, where a respect for authority-always a valuable trait-is instilled, or the peace corps, or travel and live some where that you have to learn another language and culture.

Finally, Murray finishes the book with an excellent chapter about religion.  He tells young people that he understands that the professors in college they came to respect and love were atheists.  His were, too.  But he doubts that any of them actually studied religion in depth and before they make opinions about something they should make sure they know what they are talking about.

Interestingly, Murray admits his own agnosticism has become shakier since his wife became a Quaker.

If you're a young person ready to go out and get that job.  Read this book.  If your a Curmudgeon like  me, read it to laugh and feel affirmed in your curmudgeonliness. There's a red squiggle under that last word so I must have invented it.  But it fits so it stays.

Maybe I'll write a book called The Art of Being Curmudgeonly.  I'm certainly qualified.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Jane Austin a Quick Traipse Through Six Novels

I have been horribly delinquent in posting on my blog.  Instead of giving you my harangue of excuses I'm going to jump in and do a fast and furious assault on some of my most beloved books.  There is a Jane Austin marathon going on somewhere that I learned of through Brian's Babbling Books.  I haven't participated in it but it has inspired me to share my opinions about Ms. Austin's works.

I am going to follow the format I used when my son was in speech and aural therapy.  He had to process information and then express it in a concise, coherent fashion, something he struggled at.  So while he was walking figure eights around two posts while jumping rope (yes, it was all a part of the therapy) I would read a story to him.  Afterwards, he would have to summarize  the story in three sentences.  Derek became quite good at doing this and it did wonders in enabling him to organize his thoughts.

Let's see how his dear old mother does-although I don't promise to hold myself to three sentences.  In fact I will not summarize the following books but simply tell what I remember about them.

First:  Persuasion

The BBC production of this book is the most romantic rendition I've ever seen.  Persuasion is Emma's last complete novel.  The heroine is Anne, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who squanders his money away and is forced to "retrench".  He moves to Bath with his eldest daughter, Elisabeth, where he hopes to ingratiate himself to the aristocracy there.  Anne joins them after visiting another sister, Mary, who has married "beneath herself" and doesn't fail to remind her husband's family of it at every opportunity. 

The core plot is that Anne had fallen in love with a man who proposed to her.  On the advice of a friend she turned him down, the main reason being that he wasn't good enough for her, had no money etc.  Anne, however, cannot forget this man and spends the next ten years in a state of depression. 

At the time of the story, however, this man has made a name for himself, is now Captain Wentworth, and has returned.

The story revolves around Anne's family members, both blood and through marriage, vying for the captain's attentions.  Austin gives us a picture of the class divisions, motivations for marriage, and the selfishness of Anne's family contrasted with her own, sometimes too, generous and noble character.  There is a little of the Cinderella in Anne. 

The thing that stands out the most to me is how, as in Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, people born into money show themselves to be such horrible stewards of it and spend most of their lives conniving how to marry others based on their wealth and social standing.

Anne's character is thrown into sharp relief because she is the only one who wants to marry for love.

Second:  Sense and Sensibility

Marrying to secure financial well being is also a theme in Sense and Sensibility.  This book was Austin's first to be published (1811) and was anonymously attributed to "A Lady".

In this story, two sisters find themselves penniless after their father's death.  The circumstances are made the more dire because being ladies of a certain class, they simply cannot earn their living. This dooms them to starvation unless they can marry men who are of their station and have the money to support them.

The younger sister, Marianne, is emotional, impetuous, and falls in love with the dashing John Willoughby.  Willoughby acts as though he returns her affection, but ultimately needs money himself so marries a rich woman.  Being strung along in such a way breaks Marianne's heart, but never fear!  The steadfast, older Colonel Brandon is waiting in the wings.

Elinor is the older sister and more mature and intelligent than Marianne.  She also falls in love with a man, Edward Ferrars, who returns her affection.  Unfortunately, he has intimated to another woman on a previous occasion that he would marry her.

That is what struck me as the most profound statement in this novel.  There was once upon a time when a man's word was as good as a written contract.  Even though  Ferrars is not in love with the other woman, he is bound by her unless she releases him of his declaration.  This woman, Lucy Steele, is not really interested in Edward either, but she also needs a living so she cannot give up a situation that will keep her out of poverty.

It is interesting how Lucy and her sister, Nancy, spend their lives scheming and conniving their way into the homes and lives of rich people as a way to survive.  While one finds it detestable, they also warrant a certain amount of sympathy because the reader understands that there are not a lot of options open to them.

Thirdly: Emma

My favorite of the favorites!  I love Emma.  Austin said that she wrote a character that only she could like, but I like Emma too.  Although it's easy to see why people would not like her and if she never saw the error of her ways she wouldn't be redeemable.

Emma is a sheltered, spoiled daughter of a wealthy landowner.  Since her mother's death, she largely has been allowed to raise herself.  She has a governess, Miss Taylor, but she is devoted to Emma and doesn't do much in the way of reigning her in.  In fact, what saves Emma from being a deplorable character is that she is genuinely a selfless and caring person.

But she is also young and strong willed.  She takes it in to her head to match make.  She does not have the maturity to understand how ill matched her targets are.  She befriends a young girl, Harriet, who is not Emma's intellectual equal.   Harriet is loved by a local farmer.  Emma believes this match is beneath her friend when in fact it would be highly propitious for Harriet, since she's a penniless orphan.

Luckily George Knightly, a man in his thirties, who has loved Emma since she was a child is around to temper her and help steer her in the right direction.

Men in their thirties marrying teenage girls is a common occurrence in Austin's stories but I suppose that was normal back then.  With the lack of medical care I dare say not many people-especially child bearing women- lived to ripe old ages.

Fourthly:  Pride and Prejudice

Of course everyone's favorite and mine too, after Emma.  In addition to all the social commentary already observed in the above novels, this story is the most light-hearted and witty.  Both the hero and heroine are very human but ultimately overcome their personal prejudices and pride.  

In a nutshell, Elizabeth Bennet overhears Mr. Darcy make a disparaging remark about her at a local dance.  In fact, Darcy was idly expressing his annoyance at being at a gathering he doesn't enjoy.  He refuses to dance, even at his friend Mr. Bentley's insistence.  Elizabeth, like your average woman, refuses to forget the slight.  After Darcy gets a more favorable impression of her, she spends most of the novel refusing to understand anything he says except in a negative light.  Darcy, for his part, is mostly amused by her and also taken with Elizabeth's beauty.  Without realizing it, he gradually develops romantic feelings for her.
These feelings reach a feverish pitch and he finally proposes to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is blind-sided by his declarations of love which is one of the most romantic proposals in literary history.

"in vain have I struggled.  It will not do...You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."  

She is soon sobered up when Darcy then proceeds to shred his own standing by informing Elizabeth  of his "sense of her inferiority-of its being a degradation"-etc..

The best part is how clueless Darcy is.

"He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security."

Then Elizabeth lets him have it right between the eyes.

 Austin is commenting on the power of the rich man versus the helplessness of a financially needy woman.  Of course she will accept.  She has to.  What other recourse does she have?

And I'm inclined to think that in reality she would have.  This, however, is fiction and Austin no doubt wrote what she would like to have happened.

In fact all of Austin's books are romantic fantasies.  Austin never married, herself, and she died young.  The men in her novels are the product of a woman's mind, which is why they are so attractive to us of the female gender.  In the real world, men think like men and not like women.  This makes our relationships with each other more challenging but not less worthwhile or intriguing.  

In fact, as much as I love Austin's novels I wouldn't trade reality with all the difficulties and even maddening situations I've had with my (newly married!) husband for all the Darcy's, Bentley's, Ferrars and Knightly's in the world.  I never know what's going to happen next.  Marriage is not only romantic, it's adventurous.

Fifthly:  Lady Susan

Lady Susan is an unfinished novel, it is short and- unlike the others- is written through the letters of the protagonist.  Lady Susan is a gold digger.  One sees her plight and that of her daughter's in these letters.  We see how she manipulates her way into households and tries to secure a husband for her daughter.  However, things take an unexpected turn at the end and we find that really all Lady Susan cares about is herself.

And finally:  Jane Austin:  A Family Record (enlarged and revised by Deirdre Le Faye)

This is as good a biography as any out there.  There is very little information on the life of Jane Austin but the authors, William Austin-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austin Leigh give as accurate a record as can be attained. The two men were descended from Jane's nephew James Edward.  They inherited the books, papers and letters of the Austin family and have written down this information in a readable style.

These are not the only Austin books I've read.  I've also read Northhanger Abby and Mansfield Park.  I can't say I enjoyed them as much so I will not attempt a review of them.  I see I was unable to describe each book in three sentences but hopefully I successfully conveyed my own thoughts about Jane Austin and her novels.

For those interested here is the link to Austin in August:


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Nibelungenlied: Prose Translation by Anonymous

After visiting Worms a couple of weeks ago I was inspired to read The Nibelungenlied.  Worms is a medieval town on the Rhine river where legend has it the saga of Siegfried and the Rhine gold took place.  There is an interesting museum in Worms that is housed in a remnant of the old city wall. Josh and I learned of the original tale (not much like Wagner's Ring cycle opera) and saw an eerie silent film of the Nibelung story made by Austrian Director, Fritz Lang. 

As I said in a previous post, I had quite a bit of time to read while waiting in airports.  The Nibelungenlied, however, I read while floating on the Rhine after a day's cycling from one Medieval village to the next.  I thought this was appropriate.

The Nibelungenlied is a very old saga dating all the way back to the fifth century and the Burgundian rule in Northern Europe.  The Bergundians were the people of the "long-haired" kings, where we get our fairy-tale image of kings and queens.

My translation had very good foot notes about the origins of the story.  Originally it was German but over the years, parallel Norse and Dutch stories attached themselves to it.  It is also clear that the story predates any serious Christian conversions on part of the nations but Christian terminology has obviously been inserted at a later date.  As a result it sticks out in an awkward, incongruous fashion.

Because the story was told orally for hundreds of years - the first written source can be traced to the thirteenth century - there are different versions. This is the story based on the book I downloaded from Amazon:

Sigfried, son of King Siegmund of the Netherlands is educated by a dwarf, Alberich, who later tries to kill him.  He fails, however, and Siegfried attempts to kill Alberich.  Alberich promises to show him his gold and give him a cloak of invisibility as well as an indestructible sword.

Siegfried takes these things and Alberich shows him the gold which is guarded by a dragon, who is actually Alberich's brother.  Siegfried kills both Alberich and the dragon and becomes possessor of the gold.

Through his travels, Siegfried learns of Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther of the Nibelungen, which is a part of the Bergundian empire.  Siegfried asks for Kriemhild's hand in marriage but King Gunther insists that he must help him first win over Brunhild, Queen of Iceland. They travel with their army of Burgundians to Brunhild's capital city.  Siegfried poses as Gunther's vassal.

Brunhild. What a battle ax if ever there was one.  Why any man in his right mind would want such a barbaric, violent, STRONG woman for a wife is beyond me.  I came to the conclusion that Gunther was a bit of a dunderhead.

They arrive at Brunhild's domain where she is on a tower throwing boulders and shooting javelins at all invaders.  No one can over come her power or strength. Brunhild challenges Gunther to a trial of strength, the prize being her hand in marriage.  Gunther wins only because Siegfried, wearing the cloak of invisibility that gives him the strength of ten men, actually performs all the deeds while making it look as if Gunther is doing them.

So Brunhild marries Gunther.  But the wedding night is less than romantic.  Brunhild defies that she shall ever lose her maidenhood by Gunther and ties him up and hangs him on a hook in the bedroom.

Again, Siegfried comes to the rescue.  Wearing his cloak he subdues Brunhild, causing her to lose her superhuman strength.

Returning home, Siegfried marries Kriemhild.

One would think that all's well that ends well.  Well, of course not.  What happens next is the pivotel point for the rest of the story.

Brunhild can't abide the thought that her sister-in-law is married to her husband's vassal and she gives Kriemhild no peace about it.  Finally, Kriemhild can contain herself no longer and reveals that Siegfried is actually prince of the Netherlands and furthermore, he is the one to subdue her and take away her strength.

In revenge Brunhild has a man, Hagan, kill Siegfried.  In some accounts, Hagan is Gunther's brother.  In the story I read he appears to be a main soldier or general in his army.  Through cunning Hagan has Kriemhild reveal that there is one spot on Siegfried's back that can kill him.  Kriemhild is apparently as bright as her brother. While hunting, Hagan throws a javelin at Siegfried and kills him. The story is not a third over and Sigfried is out of the picture.

Kriemhild chooses to lament and grieve for years, spending a lot of the gold Siegfried possessed on pious works and prayers in church for him.  This part I believe was inserted later because there's no mention of God or prayers prior to this.  Except the confrontation between Kriemhild and Brunhild which took place at a church.  However, earlier versions have it happen at a stream where the women are washing their hair.  Strangely enough, this is the end of any mention of Brunhild for the rest of the tale. And the story is not half over yet.

This is what happens for the rest of the book:

Some years' later Kriemhild marries Attila the Hun.  Hagan wants the gold which he confiscates and throws into the Rhine river.  Here he meets three mermaids that prophecy his fate to him.

Other than he dwarf, dragon, and these mermaids, there is no other mention of any type of fairy tale supernatural characters in the story.  They seem as incongruous as the occasional mention of God.

The rest of the story is one long tedium of revenge.  Kriemhild offers the gold to the Huns if they will kill Hagan and his army.  They can't do it.  Long descriptions of Hagan's and his comrades' heroic valor and mass murder of the Huns ensue. 

This also seems incongruous and perhaps a not so seamless addition of earlier tales to later ones.  At the beginning of the book, Hagan starts out as a cunning little weasel and by the end is portrayed as some Achilles type warrior that no one can defeat.

On and on the carnage goes.  Page after page. I read through the rest of the book just to see what happened to everybody.  This is what does:

Hagan finally is captured by Atilla and Kriemhild.  Her brother, Gunther, is also captured.  She threatens to kill them both if they don't reveal to her where the gold is hidden.  Neither does, both are killed, Hagan is cut up by Kriemhild herself.

In the end, all are sick of it.  The rest of the Nibelung (those that are left) hack Kriemhild to pieces. Ta da.  The end.

What fascinated me about the story was how it showed the lust for revenge turns people insane.  At first Kriemhild is presented as almost a Virgin Mary type.  She is happily married to a honorable and heroic hero.  When tragedy strikes her, she changes into a she-troll (figuratively speaking) who is willing for armies of men to lose their lives just so she can kill one man who hurt her.  Surely there was another way.  But perhaps this reveals a belief in doom and fate by this old Germanic culture.  Everything must eventually turn evil and never can hope offer peace.  This would certainly make these nations ripe for a Christian conversion.

In Heidelberg, Josh and I took a tour led by a middle aged German lady.  She seemed fixated on telling us how the poor German women were oppressed in the past and aren't we ladies all glad we live today.

Well, yes.  I'm certainly glad I live in a more enlightened era, but after reading The Nibelungenlied, I have serious doubts about the helplessness of German woman of a bygone era.  Their folktales certainly don't reflect weak and helpless females.

 One final point:  William Morris wrote a Scandinavian version of the Nibelungs titled, The Volsungs.  Norse and Icelandic parallel sagas are The Prose Edda; Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.  JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is also based on the Nibelungen legend. And, of course, we've all heard of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.  It lasts a mere three days and is fifteen hours long.

Next I hope to have photos up of our trip along the Rhine.

For those of you that want to see the silent film:
Fritz Lang's Nibelung 1924

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kindle reading at Airports

Want an impetus to read all those books that have been accumulating on your Kindle?  Spend hours waiting for your flights at airports.  The last two weeks I have been traveling to Europe and back with my new husband, Josh.  Thanks to layovers, long flights, cancelled flights, more layovers and rescheduled flights, I had quite a bit of time on my hands.

That's where a Kindle really comes in handy.  I read seven books, five of which I am going to review in this post.

The first book I read was during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, and flying across the Atlantic to Ireland.  It was the perfect prelude to our vacation.  Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad describes Twain's own travels to Germany (our final destination) and all the idiosyncrasies of German culture from an American's perspective.  He describes university life at Heidelberg, with the customs and practices of students (they enjoy dueling and have their own prison for miscreants), Wagnerian Opera (he doesn't hide his distaste for what he considers a lot of incomprehensible screaming), the various Germans he meets while he floats along the Rhine, climbs the Alps, and tries to communicate in very bad German.  His funniest chapter is devoted to "That Awful German Language" in which he describes how miserably different German is to English and how long it would take an American to master the German language ("about thirty years").  Twain enjoys mocking other people but he balances it out by mocking himself just as much.

After a couple of days in Dublin, we rushed to the airport at 3
am only to discover our 5:45am flight had been canceled.  Over the next ten hours, in between dozing and conversing with Josh, I read a enjoyable book titled, The Best American Humorous Short Stories, by various authors of the nineteenth century.  Most of the authors I had never heard of but a few like O Henry, Bret Harte, and Oliver Wendall Holmes were familiar to me. It also includes Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Much of the interest I had in these stories was the time period in which they were set (post civil war).  Some would seem antiquated to a twentieth century reader but I found them funny and many of them endearing.  One such story was about two boys who try to court the same girl but haven't got the nerve and WI Lampton's How the Widow Won the Deacon.  In this story, a widow finally wins a man over by sacrificing her dignity by jumping out of his wagon as he races his horse against another man's in order to lighten the load.

By the time I finished that book we had finally arrived in Frankfort and were on the boat, floating down the Rhine River.  We spent most of our time in Germany biking down the Rhine  and visiting the medieval towns there.  After spending an afternoon in Worms at the Nibelungen Museum I spent the evening on our boat reading The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous.  I want to do full justice to reviewing this book, so I'll save my comments for the next book review post.

Two more books I read while we were in Frankfort and while spending a long, uncomfortable night back in the Dublin airport.  They are by R.C. Sproul.  The first was Five Things Every Christian needs to Grow.  The five things are:  Bible Study, Prayer, Worship, Service and Stewardship.  My own beliefs most closely align with Reformed Theology so I found a lot of useful insight in Sproul's discussion of these various topics and how to implement them in your life.

The other book by Sproul was The Prayer of the Lord.  Here Sproul takes the reader step by step through each statement in the Lord's prayer, what they mean, and how to use each in sentence personally when applying it to our own prayers.

One last book I read on the flight back across the Atlantic was by Ralph Adams Cram:  Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories.  This collection, while written by Cram, are based on stories he heard during his world travels.  They include a demon possessed house in Paris, the wandering spirit of a nun in Italy and a horror tale told by a Swede that is worthy of Lovecraft.  Interestingly, Cram was a theologian a hundred years ago, so while his stories are interesting they are from a perspective that the supernatural and evil are real, unlike Lovecraft who attempts to apply naturalistic causes to the horrific beings he creates in his stories. 

One final book I read from Charlotte to Dallas was A Confession by Leo Tolstoy.  This book also deserves a longer review so I will wait to post it as well.

Next post I hope to have photos of our Honeymoon trip to an 1830 log cabin in central Texas and also our trip to Europe.