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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Just Finished Reading... Spotted Dog by Kerry Greenwood. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2018

It has been seven years since the last Corinna Chapman novel, but in the world of Corinna, it’s still summer of the year the original story began, soon after the events of Cooking The Books, in which Corinna was working as part of the catering team for the cast of a soap opera pilot, and solving some mysteries that felt like they came from a soapie.

In case you’re not familiar with this series, it’s by the author of the Phryne Fisher novels, but set in the CBD of modern Melbourne instead of the seaside suburb St Kilda in the 1920s. Unlike Phryne, Corinna Chapman is a large lady, rather like the author, and enjoys cooking, when she isn’t running her bakery downstairs from her flat in Insula, a Roman-themed apartment block in the middle of Melbourne. She isn’t really a sleuth in her own right, but having a private eye boyfriend means she is always solving mysteries with him.

This one involves a missing explosives sniffer dog and his former soldier handler, an Afghanistan veteran. There’s also someone breaking into Insula, hunting for a religious relic, a bunch of young actors rehearsing in the Mars apartment and a computer hacker doing nasty things to the computer belonging to the Pandamus family, owners of Cafe Delicious.

It’s a delightful read, and if you’ve been following the series, some things happen finally. Two likeable regular characters become an item. Timbo, Daniel and Corinna’s “chauffeur”, who was once a getaway driver before being rescued by Daniel, Corinna’s boyfriend, becomes their...getaway driver! Not only that, he finally eats with them. As usual, there are some red herrings along the way.

I found it very easy and comfortable to slip back into this universe after reading and re-reading the first six books in the series. To be honest, I am finding I prefer them to the Fisher novels, which were wonderful, but the later ones were not quite as enjoyable, for me at least, as the earlier novels. Most violence happens offstage. (In this one, the main violence involves an enraged naked Corinna dealing with a hapless burglar...) There are few dead bodies in this series, which truly deserves to be called a “cosy.”  The mysteries are about missing people and, in one case, who has been vandalising the high quality chocolates from a shop down the road.

As usual, the novel ends with a party at Insula, and there are recipes from the novel to try. They are, as always, simple and based on stuff Kerry Greenwood cooks in her own kitchen. I wouldn’t mind trying the title recipe and onion pan bread, but there are others...

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Currently Rereading... Narnia!

I was sorting my shelves a while ago and found my one volume Chronicles Of Narnia. It’s in chronological order rather than order of publication, so that you can read the stories from The Magician’s Nephew to The Last Battle. I’ve decided to read it that way. I’m currently rereading Prince Caspian and thinking what it might be like to be a Pevensie child who remembers what it was like to be an adult - and then, by the way, have the Lion tell you that you’re too old now to return to Narnia.

The author does have some mercy on the kids, by suggesting that it’s only when they return to Narnia  that they remember properly and can do all that amazing stuff, such as when Edmund and Susan show their skills to Trumpkin the Dwarf, who has had trouble believing he is going to get any help from a bunch of children. But while they’re in Narnia, they can remember a whole life spent there, the battles they fought and won, the life at Cair Paravel. Heck, in The Horse And His Boy Susan was even considering getting married! Fortunately for her and the series, she didn’t. It might have been interesting, though, if she had married while in Narnia - would it have resulted in its own “problem of Susan”? (This is the discussion people are having about the author’s unfairness to Susan in The Last Battle. He was already being unfair to her in Prince Caspian, mind you. I don’t think. he liked her much)

But what would it be like to know what it is to be an adult and suddenly be a child again? A child going to school, with only one adult who respects and believes you, because he was there himself?

I probably should wait till I’ve reread the lot before going into detail in a separate post.

But that question bugs me.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Book Blogger Hop: One Book At A Time Or Multiple Books?

This weeek’s Book Blogger Hop asks if you’re reading one book at a time or more than one.

Anyone doing a book blog is likely to be reading many more than one. Firstly, if you have to review a book, you are likely to be reviewing more than one, if you want to stay up to date. Secondly, if you’re a passionate booklover, it’s just too hard to stick to one.

In my case, it’s definitely multiple books, especially since I got my iPad and iBooks. I just can’t defer gratification any more. A book that interests me can be downloaded immediately instead of having to wait till I get to the bookshop. Besides, it means carrying a whole library with me and happily wondering what I’ll read over lunch or dinner or on the train...

There’s a massive TBR pile of review books, which is why I’m not currently taking anything apart from regular publishers I deal with.

There is my cleanup, which I’ve been doing since earlier this year, when I became a free woman getting a very good superannuation pension. During my sorting and throwing out, donation and recycling, I’ve unearthed books I’d forgotten I had. Putting those already read on the shelves, I’ve discovered others I never got around to reading and started finally getting stuck into them. I finished Susan Cooper’s Green Boy yesterday, soon after John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice: The Lost Tales. Time now to get stuck into the first of the prequels, Tournament At Gorlan, which follows on immediately from a story in Lost Tales. I began yesterday. I’ve finally begun Joe Haldeman’s The Hemingway Hoax, which has been sitting on my shelves for years. The Chronicles Of Narnia is sitting in my smallest room. I’m halfway through The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, trying to decide if I might skip over The Horse And His Boy, my least favourite of the series.

Bedtime is for comfort reading. That means stuff I’ve already read, preferably many times. It soothes and it means I can close the book without wondering how it’s going to end. Harry Potter. Kerry Greenwood’s crime fiction. Terry Pratchett. And some non fiction, history for preference.

What am I saying here? If I did it one book at a time, I’d be reading for the rest of my life and still not be finished with what I have, let alone other books. So many books, way too little time...

Friday, September 21, 2018

Spartacus The Ballet - And The Novels!

On Monday evening, I’m going to the latest production of the ballet Spartacus. The Australian Ballet has done it before, using the Laszlo Seregi version, which was inspired by the Howard Fast novel and the film version. Before that, I saw a film with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Grigorovitch version. The male leads were played by Vladimir Vasiliev(Spartacus) and Maris Liepa(Crassus), with Natalia Bessmertnova in the female lead. It was shown at the National Theatre in St Kilda and I saw it several times.

I remember they had several leads in the Australian Ballet version. Greg Horsman, who was married to fellow dancer Lisa Pavane, played both the male leads and did both brilliantly. You have to be able to act as well as dance to play the villain, Crassus! That’s the role you’ll see him in if you get hold of the DVD. 

The new version is choreographed by Lucas Jervie, a dancer who was young and still in the corps de ballet last time. Should be interesting! It’s a ballet I love because of the music by Khachaturian - and trust me, you’ve heard the Adagio, even if you have never heard of the ballet! It’s played over and over on the radio and in concerts. It was used for the theme of a TV series called  The Onedin Line, but even if you’ve never seen that, I’m betting you’ve heard the tune. 

Mainly, I confess I love it because of all those male hunks leaping and twirling around the stage. Don’t get me wrong: I love ballet anyway. I adore Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Giselle has a male lead who has to be able to act. There are stacks of great ballets out there. But there is something very exciting about men showing what they can do in dance. And I’m going to have a seat that cost me $$$! It started off because I had trouble clicking into the page for the cheaper seats. And finally, after a struggle, I decided that what-the-heck, I was worth it, and it became my birthday gift to myself. Mum says I need to wear something special that night. 

The story of Spartacus, that “patron saint of revolutionaries” as he has been described, appears in Plutarch and Sallust. Plutarch was writing well after the time of the rebellion. His version of the story, in the Life of Crassus, mentions that Spartacus had a wife, a priestess who predicted his glorious death in battle. (Well, he did die in battle, contrary to what the film - and later versions of the ballet - said). Sallust was a small boy when it all happened. I got hold of that volume of Plutarch’s Lives when I was at university, but still haven’t acquired the Sallust. 

The story has been much dramatised and written into novels. I can think of three off the top of my head. Ben Kane, a popular historical novelist, did a duology, of which I have the first. It goes back to his time in his home country of Thrace, and gives him very good reasons for his desertion from the Roman army. Kane uses elements we don’t find in the classic Spartacus novels, Howard Fast’s Spartacus and Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators. Howard Fast’s hero is a born slave, first seen in the Nubian gold mines. Koestler’s version doesn’t say anything about his background, though he isn’t a born slave. The first you see of him, he has already escaped and led his men to Mount Vesuvius. He is mostly seen from other people’s viewpoints, but you also get into his head a fair amount.  You never really get into the mind of Fast’s hero, except briefly at the beginning, and then somebody else is telling the story. It’s all people’s memories of him, since the novel starts after the rebellion has been squashed.

I actually read the Koestler novel first. I was about twelve or thirteen when I found a copy in the bookshop at Myer’s department store. I didn’t know it was for adults, so I just read it, as I did Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. Certain things went above my head at the time,  but I understood enough to enjoy it. 

Koestler’s Spartacus was supposed to fight the Gaul Crixus in a battle to the death in the arena when they escaped. For the entire novel, he remembers that and thinks that probably he would have been the one to die. They work together well enough, but that is always in the background and affects their relationship. 

This Spartacus meets and is inspired by one of his followers, an Essene philosopher whose name we never learn. He speaks of “the Son of Man” and other things Biblical and then mentions the Essenes’ communal lifestyle. Some time later Spartacus attempts a commune himself. It fails disastrously. His followers want freedom, sure, but as far as they’re concerned, freedom means not having to work. That doesn’t go well with the creed of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” 

Nevertheless, he cares about his followers. The night before his final battle he goes under flag of truce to meet his enemy Crassus, who offers him - and any chosen officers - life and comfort somewhere nice if he  will abandon his people. Spartacus does think about it. Why wouldn’t he? Then he shakes his head, knowing he couldn’t live with himself. 

It is mentioned, by the way, that Crassus had a pretty degrading death some years later. Which he did. 

The story is mostly seen through the eyes of a small group of rebels - the Essene, a young man who joined the rebellion out of idealism, an old man and his son. Most of them are crucified at the end. 

Spartacus, which was turned into the Hollywood film, is very different. I got hold of that when I was fourteen. I remember discussing the two novels with a fellow nerd at school, and we agreed that we preferred Koestler’s hero. 

I think I need to reread both novels to decide which hero I’d prefer now. Both books have Communist elements in them. Koestler wrote his novel as the first of three on a theme. The second was Darkness At Noon, which was entirely set in a prison where a former high member of the Party is awaiting his death. He had done a lot of dreadful things in his time for the sake of the Party, out of a sort of idealism - is the end worth the means? The third was Arrival And Departure. I confess I can’t remember much about that one. At least, as far as I can remember, the hero wasn’t dead at the end! 

Howard Fast first wrote Spartacus in jail, where he went for refusing to co-operate with the McCarthy witch hunts. He had to publish it in Britain because of the censorship. I think there may even have been a pre-Internet crowd funding effort to pay for it! Fast was a devoted Communist for some time, but the Party hated the novel as much as the McCarthyites, though for different reasons. He had created a rich capitalist pig and showed him sympathetically. The character, Gracchus, was a working class man who had made it as a wealthy politician but was still living in the area where he had grown up. According to Fast’s autobiography he was meant to be the great American politician who had never forgotten his humble roots. And that’s the thing: his Rome was presented as Fast’s view of America. 

At one point, Gracchus tells a story to Roman writer Cicero. It was years later when I realised it was a solemn re-telling of a contemporary Jewish mother joke! Cicero doesn’t get it either, any more than I did at the time. 

The novel is mostly people telling others their memories of the rebellion. You know the rebellion will fail, already has failed when the story begins, but you can’t help but be moved anyway. There are a lot of characters you can care about. Spartacus himself is basically shown wearing a halo, though. 

If you’ve only seen the film, it did change some things. There is no Antoninus, the Tony Curtis character, 
for starters. He replaced a character called David, a Jewish boy who had been involved in a rebellion at home and ended up in the arena. Spartacus is his hero. After some years of bitterness he had found someone to admire and a cause to fight for. 

And neither in history nor in the novel was Spartacus crucified. 

But it was an intelligent movie, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, who had been another victim of the McCarthy era, having to write under pen names - he got two Oscars while blacklisted! Kirk Douglas, who produced the film, put his name up on the screen once more, and stuff the blacklist. 

Another writer was Peter Ustinov, who rewrote his scenes with Charles Laughton, who was convinced that there was a plot against him, according to Ustinov’s autobiography Dear Me

Anyway, if you want inspiration stuff and touching scenes, go for Spartacus. If you prefer something a bit more literary and philosophical, you may like The Gladiators better. 

I enjoyed both! 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Preparing For My Writer In Residence!

Next term I will be spending Wednesday mornings as writer in residence at a primary school in Melbourne's south east. It's my first ever go at this. It was arranged by Ardoch, which does the volunteer program in which I've been participating this term. They work with disadvantaged schools to give them freebies they otherwise couldn't afford. A while back, Nick, the guy who is in charge of the western suburbs volunteer program, asked me if I'd consider doing this for the Frankston area, because they were the only ones who hadn't had a chance to do this. I said yes. I haven't done it before and if I can learn how to do it now, I may be able to get some paid gigs next year.

Today I went to the school to have a chat with Jemma, the teacher who is arranging it all. She gave me a printout she had received from Ardoch. I've read it, but it wasn't really what the program is about now. It's aimed at having the kids write little books and drawing covers. The program now involves actually publishing a book professionally, complete with ISBN. What was described in the printout just doesn't allow you to do that. Angela, who does the same job as Nick, but in the south east, dropped in, so I was able to ask her for details. She said that yes, they do have the budget to publish it properly and that in the past they had taken the kids on an excursion to the State Library to present their book. I suggested that perhaps they might consider taking it to the local library. Jemma said that would work well, because the school has free public transport locally and the library is a stop further up the line. And then, Angela suggested, they might be able to get a tour of the library. I'm sure she can arrange that for us when the time comes.

After observing another WIR do a session I got some ideas. She does the actual writing, but the kids work out the storyline with her and get the chance to edit it. She uses things and animals that are around the school as part of the story, plus the theme of the term. She was lucky - their theme was space - whereas the theme for the kids in term 4 at this school is advertising! But there are ways.

The original plan was a special school, which would require quite a lot more thinking to get it going. However, the special school found they couldn't fit this in, so instead they moved on to this school, where not only are there ordinary kids, but the teacher concerned is choosing kids who like writing and may not be keen to let me do it all.  Maybe they can edit.

This is something to think about and perhaps discuss with the other teacher who is keen to join me. She is a proper primary teacher, who might have some better ideas to share.

After our meeting, I walked around the school grounds with Angela, who knows her way around, and took photos of the various parts of the yard. They have a kitchen garden, but it's currently out of action, so I can't work that into the story. They do have a comfort dog, Merlin, who is brought in by his human about three days a week - when I suggested he might be able to be a character in the story, both of them thought it was a good idea. For the Advertising theme, I suggested the possibility of a story in which the characters are preparing an ad for their end of year Christmas concert.

It will have to be kept simple. If the book is going to be properly printed, I can get some illustrators among the kids - perhaps those who are less keen to write(Jemma was pleased with that possibility, as it means she can give a few more kids a chance to take part).

If I'm going to have illustrations, I need a scanner, and mine died on me some years ago, so I stopped at Officeworks, where I'd seen a scanner like the one I used to have, only updated. Most scanners these days are stuck in with printers and faxes - the last thing I need! I was disappointed to find that not only had both scanners of the model I want been sold, but the company is not making them any more! However, the nice man at the counter checked it up for me and found that another of their stores had one left. It was a bit of a distance, three tram rides away, but I went and I picked up that last one and got it home.

And there, I had fun and games getting it installed! For starters, the installation disc was for Windows only, though the box specifically said that you could use it on the Mac - in fact, the minimum requirement was the OS I have. That's why I didn't buy this weeks ago, I had to check if my OS was okay.

However, I went to the web site and found a driver download. I still had struggles with getting it going, but after looking up the problem, I finally got it going, thank heaven! I told my mother that as well as using it for the school thing, I can scan the old family photos so they don't disappear. I have, so far, been taking photos of photos, but I'd rather have a scan. A pity this one doesn't do Word, like the other one, but we can't have everything!

So, that was my writerly day. Off to the shower now, and get ready for tomorrow's morning at the primary school in Sunshine!

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Belated Happy Star Trek Day

On Twitter this morning I noticed a post by SF author Diane Duane, reminding everyone it was Star Trek’s 52nd anniversary. Well, it still is in the US, but here it’s September 9. Ms Duane wrote Star Trek novels, as well as children’s books. The children’s books, for me, had a flavour of C.S Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, i.e hints of religious belief. But her Star Trek novels were the only ones I read that got the physics right.

Anyway, happy belated Star Trek Day! I posted this on the 50th anniversary, so I will make this post a little different. For me, Star Trek is more than just a TV series I grew up with and loved, a show that started with three seasons and is now a major thing, with several spinoffs and two film series. It’s about writing.

It’s not just the classic SF writers who wrote for the original series(afterwards, they dispensed with most of the real SF writers). It’s those of us who wrote fan fiction, who went on to become professionals. I’ve posted about this before. Here is one. There are more, which you’ll find if you type Fan Fiction into the search box.

I did write stuff before fan fiction, mostly horrible attempts at historical fiction. No, I have no intention of trying to sell it OR self publish! Don’t ask!

But my Star Trek fan fiction was actually published. It taught me to write short fiction. I learned to do characterisation. I learned to research properly(that came in handy in my career as a librarian!). If you got it wrong, the next issue of that fanzine would contain at least one letter to the editor correcting you and complaining. Oh, and because I did fanzine reviews, I learned to write book reviews, including illustrations, so - children’s picture books. Any review you’ve read on this blog I owe to my time as a Trek fanwtiter.

And it taught me that I can write, giving me the confidence to have a go at submitting to paying markets. And I wasn’t the only one. Plenty of big name writers started in fan fiction. Some, such as Kerry Greenwood, admit to still doing it, though in her case it’s only in her head. Her fanfic was Dr Who. 

I did write in other universes - mostly Robin of Sherwood and Blake’s 7 - but Star Trek TOS got me started. I loved the characters and the universe. I wrote my first Trek fan story in my teens, when our English teacher asked us to write a story “suitable for a half hour TV series.” Most of us took that as permission to write fan fiction and nobody paid attention to the half hour thing. I vaguely recall that mine was about Captain Kirk doing one of his “overturning the matriarchy” things and discovering he had stuffed up. I was about fifteen when I wrote that. Wonder what the teacher thought?

Any Trek fans or fan writers reading this? Tell us about it!

And happy birthday Star Trek

Friday, September 07, 2018

Book Blogger Hop: on Visiting The Location Of A Book

This week’s Book Blogger Hop asks if you have ever gone to the location of a book. Well, yes. In fact, I posted about it way back in 2012, in a post called “Going There Because Of Books.” No point in going into great detail here, but I’ve been to book places both here and in England simply because I read about them in a book, or, in one case, heard about it in a song.

That was the song “Nottingham Goose Fair”. I heard it on a recording a friend sent me which was bought at the Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre. It’s a bouncy little song about the delights of the Nottingham Goose Fair, which is held every year in October. My mother and I were in England at just the right time and I’d been to a Blake’s 7  con the week before. To be honest, I mostly went for Robin Hood, but I made sure we went to the Goose Fair which, I believe, has been going for hundreds of years, if not in its present form. There was not really a lot to do for adults, though I was tempted to check out one of the many fortune teller tents, for fun. It was mostly rides, and the rides were tiny, aimed strictly at children. But we did discover the delights of chip butties, which were, at that place, buttered rolls with hot chips in them. Mum still puts her chips in a roll.

I went to Shrewsbury for the Brother Cadfael novels, which were hugely popular at the time and bringing in a nice amount of tourist money for the town. A gorgeous town, and you could pick out the streets Ellis Peters had written about, she did it so accurately.

I went to York for Richard III, who has appeared in my large collection of historical novels, and met two pen pals who travelled there to meet me.

You can find more details of my overseas book adventures in my old post and do feel welcome to comment, I’ll get them in my inbox.

In Australia I’ve gone to a couple of places mentioned in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels, which are set in the 1920s. The Queenscliff Hotel was in the second novel, Flying Too High, and Phryne treats everyone to breakfast and dinner there. It’s a stunningly beautiful hotel, with stained glass windows and Art Deco design all over the place. I haven’t been in a while, since the Sorrento Youth Hostel closed down. I used to stay every year during term holidays, taking a ferry to Queenscliff and having my lunch on the hotel verandah, where there was a lovely view out to sea.

I also enjoy having afternoon tea at the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne, famous for its high teas. Phryne stayed there in the first novel, Cocaine Blues, just because she could, now being rich. A friend of mine from Brisbane was staying there once and I suggested we try the High Tea for fun, because of the Phryne Fisher novel. I’ve gone several times since then.

It’s nice to be still able to visit places mentioned in historical fiction, don’t you think? Where have you been that you read about? 

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Retro Review: Alyzon Whitestarr by Isobelle Carmody. Clifton Hill: Ford Street Publishing, 2016

Teenager Alyzon Whitestarr lives with her large, loving family. Her mother is a vague, dreamy painter, her father a brilliant musician and composer who is in a small band. After an accident in which she gets a bad hit on the head, she awakes after a month in a coma to find her senses have been extended, though her sense of smell is strongest. Everyone around her has a signature smell, one which tells her whether or not to trust them, whether they are worried or stressed or simply an evil person. She makes new friends through this sense of smell and discovers that there is something truly horrible about the school heart throb, a boy on whom she used to have a crush.

And then there’s her family. One of her sisters, Serenity, who now wants to be called Sybl and wears black, has a secret that greatly worries Alyzon. Her father, a truly gifted musician and a kind, loving person, has been approached by an entrepreneur who is known for hanging out with artists who... change. With her new friends, Alyzon must find out what’s going on before horrible things happen to her loved ones - and others.

I missed this book when it first came out from a big publisher in 2005, but was allowed to go out of print. This is a revised edition, put out by Melbourne’s Ford Street Publishing in 2016. I bought my copy at a Ford Street event last week. I have found myself reading it even at night time, in bed, when I usually prefer to read familiar comfort reading, to help me sleep. It’s a very exciting read! Admittedly, there are long passages where the characters stop to discuss what they might be fighting and how it works, because there is something more to Alyzon’s extended senses than being able to work out who to trust and who not. Something nasty is using people’s vulnerability to infect them with anger, hatred and despair, and get them to spread the sickness.

It’s interesting- and unusual - how many older, even adult characters play a role here. A young technical genius called Raoul is still older than the others in Alyzon’s group. He drives and has quite a lot of money from his work. That’s helpful to the mystery they are all solving. Alyzon’s father is a major character in the story, though not involved with what his daughter and her friends are doing. There is a very dramatic climax near the end, which happens during a concert in which he is performing.

The characters are well worth caring about. Alyzon’s family are close knit and she is able to find pity even for some of the villains, once a touch has brought a flashback that explains  some things about them.

A book I’m sorry I didn’t read earlier!

If you’d like a print copy, the Ford Street Publishing website should have it. You can find an audiobook version on iBooks or Amazon, read by the author.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

On Rereading Some Middle English Romances

Recently, I needed to refresh my memory of the mediaeval poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight for a WIP. I first read it in the original at university, for third-year Middle English, with a nice young English Masters student, Bruce, as my tutor. (We also did Malory’s Arthurian tales with him).

This time, I wanted to read a translation for convenience and speed, though I could probably find my old Penguin edition of the original somewhere on my shelves in the study. I had a story to write! I decided that if I was going to read a translation it might as well be by someone who could write a fabulous mediaeval-type tale himself. I bought and downloaded the J.R.R Tolkien translation. That volume also has Pearl, the elegiac poem written for his little girl by a grieving Dad whom we only know as the Pearl poet, and Sir Orfeo, a mediaeval version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, one which has a happy ending!

I had forgotten how wonderful these poems are. I haven’t got around to Pearl yet, but after reading Gawain(written by “the Gawain poet”) I read Sir Orfeo and enjoyed it again. This Orpheus is a powerful mediaeval-style king, with knights, lords and all, ruling the English city of Winchester(then called Tracience, as the poet explains. Thrace, I assume, the country of the original Orpheus, now an English city!), descended from gods. He is, of course, a brilliant harper as the original myth tells us. His beloved Queen, Heurodis, is stolen from him by the King of Faerie, after sleeping under a grafted tree(an ymp  tree in the original Middle English).

Here is where it gets interesting. Faerie is not quite the Underworld, but in some ways it is. When Orfeo gets there, he sees a bunch of people at the gates still horrifically as they died - beheaded, burned, whatever - including his wife asleep under that tree. There were certainly connections back then between the creatures of folklore, the Otherworld and the afterlife. There was no mucking around with this connection in Breton folklore. Their supernatural beings were truly scary and connected with death.  But Sir Orfeo has it both ways. The King of the Underworld is also the King of Faerie.

So, poor Heurodis is gone and King Orfeo decides he can’t live in his kingdom without her. He goes into voluntary exile, leaving the governing to his steward, with instructions to have his lords choose a new king if he hears Orfeo is dead. He goes, taking with him nothing but his harp and what he’s wearing. For ten years he wanders, playing for himself and the wild animals, getting grubby and long-haired, bearded and shabby.  Then, one day, he sees a bunch of Faerie hunters gallop past, his wife among them. He follows them to their mound and slips in behind them. To his amazement, it’s merely the portal to a gorgeous place with plenty of sun and countryside and the castle of the King and Queen. He asks to be admitted and the porter lets him in to see his employers. Orfeo plays for them, impressing the King no end, and is offered whatever he wants as a reward. He asks for his Queen back. The Faerie ruler grumbles a bit, but agrees. No conditions, no “don’t look back or you lose her” in this version. So the couple are reunited and make their way back to Winchester, where he leaves his beloved with a beggar temporarily, while he goes to check out whether his steward was loyal. The man rides past and sees this filthy beggar asking if he can play the harp in the court. Filthy or not, he says, “You know what? My king was an amazing harper and for his sake, by all means come along, and have some hospitality from me while we're about it.” So he goes, and he plays, and moves everyone.

“Tell me, where did you get that harp?” asks the steward. “It looks familiar.” Orfeo tells him he found it with the corpse of a man  killed by lions. The poor steward bursts into tears. "Oh, no! No!" At that point, Orfeo is able to reveal himself, the steward and the knights rejoice and help him clean up. The Queen is brought home in procession. The faithful steward is named heir to the throne(presumably the royal couple are not all that young and won't be producing their own heir). Happily ever after.

Fascinating to see how Greek myth could be transformed into British folklore.

I'm currently reading a book by John Matthews, one of my favourite folkorists, Sir Gawain: Knight of The Goddess. I've had it for ages, and have finally gotten around to reading it properly. Fascinating stuff that will, I think, explain the reasons for the difference between the Gawain of Malory, who is loud and vulgar and bad-tempered, tending to fail all his quests and kill without thinking, and the Gawain of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, who is courteous and loved by all, and carries a shield with a pentangle device to remind him of the Virgin Mary, the knight who manages to gently turn down Lady Bertilak, the wife of his host, without upsetting her, and keep her talking till she leaves him with no more than a kiss or two - which he then has to pass on to his hearty, jolly host as his "gain" for the day! I recommend this book if you love folklore.

As I recall, in the old folk tales, the hero was the King's nephew, his sister's son. He would have been heir to the throne in those days, too. Check out the stories of the Mabinogion, especially Culhwch and Olwen. And Gawain is, in fact, Arthur's nephew, his older sister's son.

This poem is set in the court of a young Arthur, one who zooms around the hall, being a good host, refusing to eat till something interesting has happened. (There is, by the way, a Robin Hood poem, the Geste of Robin Hood, in which that happens, though in his case the "something interesting" is a poverty-stricken knight who has been badly treated by the local Abbot and will lose everything that very day)

So, imagine Camelot on New Year's Eve. There's a huge party going on. Everyone is having a great time. Arthur is waiting for his amazing event before he can eat. When this huge green knight - literally! Even his skin is green and so is his horse - rides into the hall, dressed festively and unarmed except for a giant green axe, and carrying a bunch of holly, Arthur happily invites him to pull up a chair and eat with them.

No, thanks, says the knight, I have other business here. I want one of you to use this axe on me, to cut off my head and accept a blow from me in exchange a year and a day from now.

Deadly silence for a moment. He has to be kidding! But this is a magical world. If a man with green skin and hair and a green horse can ride in and issue that kind of a challenge, chances are he isn't planning to commit suicide here on New Year's Eve!

As you might guess, the volunteer is Gawain, the king's nephew, his sister's son, presumably the heir for now. Grabbing the axe, he swipes off the Green Knight's head. And then... the arm of a man who should be dead gropes for his head and swings it around, scaring the hell out of everyone.

Come and meet me in a year and a day at the Green Chapel, he tells Gawain. And he rides out. At this point, everyone comes back out of their frozen senses and the party continues, with Gawain and his uncle laughing and joking about the scary thing that just happened. Yeah. Right. Well, there is a whole year...

And then the poet tells us how the year passes, with all its seasons and their warmth and cold. A nice touch. Time is passing, as the poet reminds us. Not so much time left. Gawain still doesn't know where the Green Chapel is and decides he really has to go early enough to find it. He will go after All Hallows(Halloween, you know? The start of winter and the Celtic New Year, when the doors between the worlds were open). At that point, on the day he goes, we are treated to a description of his dressing and arming and even how he dresses his horse, whose name we are told: Gringolet. Gringolet, I believe, was a dapple grey horse, traditionally Gawain's mount. The Gawain and Gringolet who leave Camelot are looking amazing. At that point, I couldn't help thinking it was a sort of finger to the universe - "Stuff you, Green Knight! If I have to do this, I'm going to look good!"

And we might ask, why does he have to do this? It's stupid! What's the Green Knight going to do about it? Well... maybe he'll tell everybody how dishonourable you are. And there's the thing about the whole story: honour. Doing what you promised. Because in the end, what will bring Gawain back to Camelot feeling he has failed is a very small and silly thing for which nobody blames him except himself - not even the Knight. (Well, not too much, anyway)

So he sets off and has some fairly typical knightly adventures which the poet doesn't bother to describe, as it doesn't connect with the main story. Finally, only a few days before he is due at the Green Chapel,  the location of which he still doesn't know, he finds himself at a castle where everyone is celebrating the holidays. The jolly lord who lives there with his beautiful wife and a heap of retainers makes him welcome. He invites him to stay a while. Gawain explains that he can't stay long because he has an appointment at the Green Chapel on New Year's Day. Oh, that? says his host. Hey, it's only two miles away, I'll have someone guide you and you can even sleep in on the day. Gawain accepts happily. You're guessing where this is going, aren't you?

So, the next three days the lord goes off hunting and leaves Gawain to enjoy chatting with his lovely wife. For fun, he suggests, let's exchange at the end of each day whatever we gained during the day. Gawain agrees.

The young wife spends the next three days trying to seduce him, entering his room and plonking herself on his bed, refusing to let him up. He manages to avoid anything more than a kiss the first day, two on the second. On the third morning, she practically tries to rape him, but he manages to avoid it, politely as usual, and she gives him three kisses. But that isn't where it ends. She offers him a ring, which he refuses, then something he just can't refuse: a green girdle that will, she says, keep him from harm. The first two days, he had passed on the kisses, amusing his host, in exchange for a deer and a boar. This time, he passes on the three kisses, but doesn't tell Bertilak about the other thing.

Who can blame him?

Again, we're told he dresses carefully in his best clothes and armour, and is guided to the Green Chapel by a servant who tries to talk him out of it, even offering to keep the secret. "Bugger off and I won't tell anyone! Honestly!"

But Gawain refuses the offer. He agreed to this a year ago and his honour won't let him weasel out of it.

And this is where the poem describes the bleak landscape and reflects what must be Gawain's mood. He approaches the Green Chapel and hears someone grinding and sharpening what he can only assume is the axe that's going to cut off his head. Gulping, he goes forward to his doom.

What excited me this time, as I'd forgotten it from last time I read the poem, in my university days, is the fact that the Green Chapel isn't remotely related to Christianity. It's not even a pagan temple. It's a barrow. You know - an ancient grave mound? The kind that frightened us all so much in the early chapters of Lord Of The Rings? There are plenty of those in Ireland, and I just read about one this morning on The History Girls. But in this poem, it might as well be a portal to the Otherworld.

The Green Knight emerges with his freshly-sharpened axe. Gawain kneels for his execution. The axe comes whistling down - and stops. Whoops! says the Knight. Sorry about that. Let's try again. And again he stops. Gawain tells him angrily to stop messing around and just get on with it. It's becoming harder to be brave. The third time, he does get a cut - but not enough to kill him or even harm him seriously.

At this point, he leaps up, sword in hand, and says, Right! You've had your blow. I'm not letting you try again.

But the Knight doesn't try. He's amused, the bastard! At this point, we find out, if we hadn't already worked it out, that the Green Knight is not an Otherworld creature at all, he is Gawain's jolly host Bertilak, changed by the magic of Arthur's annoying sorceress sister Morgana, who wanted him to scare the hell out of Guinevere. We never really know what was in it for him. But he did do his own test of Gawain, a test the young man has mostly passed. Mostly. That third stroke, when he actually touched Gawain, was for hiding the green girdle on the third day, instead of handing it over.

Poor Gawain! A whole year of stress and he kept his word about coming to the Green Chapel to be beheaded and he has, as he sees it, lost his honour because of a silly little thing, a joke agreement. But it was an agreement, see. And he didn't keep his word. We don't blame him. The Green Knight only blames him a little bit. But he blames himself, the idiot!

He goes home shamed, vowing to wear the green girdle as a sign of his shame. Everyone at home is so pleased to see him, they all get their own green girdles or baldrics to wear as a sign of support. They won't let him wallow.

It doesn't tell you how he reacted, but I imagine he cringed.

The translation: I wonder if it helps when the translator not only knows about the writing of the time but is an artist himself? After all,  Tolkien based his universe on what he knew from his studies. And he did it superbly. I think he did it far better than Professor Nerk of the ANU, someone who was a fine scholar, but not himself/herself an artist, might have done it. When I went to see Shakespeare in Hebrew at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, it still felt like Shakespeare and no wonder, the translator being one of Israel's top poets.

In any case, I felt through the translator the power of the Gawain poet. It made you feel for the hero, really feel for him,  showed time passing far too fast, reflected his feelings in the bleak landscape and - that nice touch! - the sound of an axe being sharpened when he gets to the grave mound that is called a chapel...

I'm not surprised that writing like this has lasted so long, hundreds of years. I have to wonder if anything written in recent years, the sort of stuff that wins major awards, will even last half a century, let alone more.

I think Lord Of The Rings is a good candidate, don't you? Anything you can think of that might still be in print in the 25th century, if we haven't been wiped out by climate change or World War III?