31 July, 2007

Rockin' Girl Bloggers

Susan Higginbotham very kindly named me as one of her Rockin' Girl Bloggers, which I gather means I'm to nominate five more. See Susan's post for the pretty pink button thingy that goes with the nomination; I can't figure out the code.

I'm very late to the party on this meme, owing to pressure of work, so most people have already been tagged. As it's a girls-only thing, I'm not allowed to recommend Rick, Martin Rundqvist of Aardvarchaeology or Scott Oden.

So here are some girls' blogs that are well worth reading and that don't already seem to have been nominated (as far as I know):

  • Constance - writer of poetry, keeper of Corgis, and creator of fearsome gnomes

  • Anne Gilbert - newcomer to the blogosphere and writer of historical science fiction. Welcome, Anne!

  • Elizabeth Chadwick - posts on the medieval history background to her novels and occasional re-enactment pics

  • Maxine Clarke of Petrona - publishing news and crime fiction (currently taking a break)

  • Lucy Ann White - book reviews, gardening and South Africa

19 July, 2007

Old English Riddles, part 2 – word puzzles

As well as the double entendre humorous riddles discussed here earlier, the Exeter Book contains riddles that have more of the character of a cryptic crossword. These word puzzles form the majority of the riddles in the collection. An everyday object or activity is described in a roundabout way and the listener (or reader) has to work out the intended meaning. Anyone who has read The Hobbit (which I suspect includes most readers of this blog) is familiar with the word-puzzle form of Old English riddles. Remember Bilbo playing Gollum at riddles for his life by the dark lake under the goblins’ den in the Misty Mountains? They take it in turns to tell riddles, and the stakes are high; if Gollum fails to answer one of Bilbo’s riddles he will show Bilbo the way out (and thus lose the prospect of a meal), and if Bilbo fails to answer Gollum will eat him. For example:

“A box without hinges, key or lid
Yet golden treasure inside is hid”

“It cannot be seen, cannot be felt
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt
It lies behind stars and under hills
And empty holes it fills
It comes first and follows after
Ends life, kills laughter”
--The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien

(Answers at the foot of the post).

The Exeter Book Riddles clearly belong to the same tradition, and Tolkien may well have consciously drawn on them for the scene. For example:

Riddle 34:
“In the town I saw a creature
that feeds the cattle. It has many teeth
its beak is useful as it points down,
gently plunders and turns for home;
it searches for plants along the slopes
and always finds those not rooted firmly;
it leaves the living ones held by their roots,
quietly standing where they spring from the soil
brightly gleaming, blowing and glowing.”

Riddle 35:
“The dank earth, wondrously cold
first delivered me from her womb.
I know in my mind I wasn’t made
From wool, skilfully fashioned with skeins.
Neither warp nor weft wind about me
no thread thrums for me in the thrashing loom
nor does a shuttle rattle for me,
nor does the weaver’s rod bang and beat me.
Worms that decorate the yellow web
never spun for me with the skills of the Fates.
Yet all over the earth one man will tell another
that I’m an excellent garment.
Wise man, say what I am called.”

(Answers at the foot of the post)

These are two of the shorter riddles, and two for which a solution is fairly well agreed among scholars. The Exeter Book does not give solutions (perhaps, in true cryptic crossword fashion, they were to come in next week’s edition?), and consequently it is not known what the intended solutions were, if indeed there were intended to be ‘right’ answers at all. Quite a few of the riddles are still the subject of fierce academic debate.

Many of the Exeter Book riddles are complex and require the listener to have either a considerable amount of background knowledge or a talent for lateral thinking or both. Often there is more to them than simply finding a solution. For example, Riddle 35 above refers to the three supernatural female powers who wove the fates of men and gods, “wyrda craeftum”, translated as “…spun for me with the skills of the Fates.” In Norse mythology these three supernatural women were the Norns, in Greek mythology the Fates. In Old English fate or destiny is ‘wyrd’, from which we get the modern English word “weird”, and Shakespeare’s three Weird Sisters in the Scottish Play must surely reflect the same three figures. You don’t need this to solve the riddle, but it adds an extra layer to the image of weaving cloth, and the wearer of a mail coat would especially like the Three Ladies of Fate to be on his side as he goes into battle.

Riddles and riddling phrases such as these are closely related to a word form characteristic of Old English and Norse poetry, the kenning. ‘Kenning’ comes from the Old English ‘cen’ meaning ‘to know’ or ‘to make known’, now obsolete in English but still around as ‘ken’, ‘to know’, in Scots (as in the phrase, “Ye ken, lassie….” beloved of Scottish Romances.

Norse kennings can be very complex, requiring knowledge of one or more myths to decipher them. For example, ‘Sif’s hair’ as a kenning for gold, which refers to the story that Loki cut off the goddess Sif’s beautiful fair hair and the dwarves made her a replacement in gold. English kennings tend to be simpler. For example, in Beowulf the sea is referred to as ‘hron-rade’ (‘whale road’), ‘ganotes baed’ (gannet’s bath), and ‘swan-rade’ (‘swan’s road’), icicles are ‘wael-rapas’ (‘water ropes’), and the ribcage is ‘banhus’ (‘bone house’). Kennings such as these are condensed riddles, describing a familiar object in elliptical terms. Or, saying the same thing another way, riddles are extended kennings.

Unlike the double entendre riddles, these word puzzles don’t seem to be intended to have the audience rolling in the aisles. They display a delight in the flexibility of language and a recognition that even ordinary objects, such as a rake, can be described in poetic terms. Like a modern cryptic crossword, they also provide an intellectual challenge and an opportunity for both setter and solver to compete in knowledge and vocabulary. Riddle games like the one Bilbo plays with Gollum may well have been regular entertainments in halls and humbler houses alike (though, one hopes, in less desperate circumstances). Theresa Tomlinson uses retellings of some of the Exeter Book riddles to great effect in her novel Wolf Girl, where a monk, a princess, a cowherd and a weaver’s daughter use riddles to cheer themselves up, as well as acting as an analogy for the main plot of solving a mystery.

Bilbo’s riddle: an egg
Gollum’s riddle: darkness
Riddle 34: a rake
Riddle 35: a mail coat

17 July, 2007

July recipe: Summer pudding

Most recipes for summer pudding tell you to use raspberries and redcurrants, so for years I never made it. I prefer to eat raspberries fresh, and on the rare occasions when the canes produce more than we can eat, I make the surplus into jam. It was only recently that I came up with the idea of trying summer pudding with blackcurrants (yes, I am slow on the uptake), which are just a little too tart to eat fresh and which make marvellous puddings. July is prime blackcurrant season, so here’s my recipe. You need decent white bread for a good summer pudding – I’m afraid mass-produced blotting-paper sliced white just doesn’t cut it. I make my own bread (it’s not difficult), so I’ve included the bread recipe as well.

If you don’t like blackcurrants, replace them with raspberries and redcurrants in about a 2:1 ratio, and reduce the sugar.

Summer pudding always looks to me, as a non-expert in the history of food, as if it ought to go back centuries, but apparently it’s a twentieth-century invention. Which just proves there is such a thing as progress.

Oh, and by the way, don’t skimp on the cream. Summer pudding itself contains no fat at all if you use my bread recipe, so you’re entitled to a free hand with the cream.

Summer pudding (serves 6)

1.5 lb (approx. 700 g) blackcurrants
6 oz (approx. 150 g) sugar
8 oz (approx 250 g) good-quality white bread, a day old
Double cream to serve

Wash the blackcurrants and remove the stalks.
Put the blackcurrants and sugar in a saucepan and simmer for 3-4 minutes to soften the fruit and get the juices to run. Remove from heat.
Cut the bread into slices about 0.25-0.5 inch thick (about 0.5-1 cm thick).
Cut a piece from one slice to fit the bottom of a 2 pint (approx. 1 litre) pudding basin.
Reserve enough bread slices to cover the top of the pudding basin, and put them to one side.
Cut the remaining slices into fingers and fit them around the sides of the basin. Cut off any bread that sticks out above the top of the basin. Fill in any gaps with small pieces of bread. Some people find it easier to dip the bread in the blackcurrant juice first, as this helps it to adhere to the sides of the basin and gives it an even colour.
Pour in the fruit and sugar mixture. It doesn’t matter whether it’s still hot or has cooled down.
Cover the top of the fruit mixture with the reserved slices of bread.
Put a small saucer or plate on top, and weight it down with something heavy. I use a plastic milk carton full of water, which weighs about 1.25 lb (approx 600 g), and this seems to work quite well.
Stand the weighted pudding overnight in the fridge, on a plate or tray just in case any juices spill out.
Next day, serve the pudding cut into wedges, with plenty of cream to pour over it. If you’re feeling really confident, you can turn the pudding out onto a plate before serving it. I generally just scoop the servings out of the pudding basin.
Any left over will keep in the fridge for several days, though once cut it will start to collapse (and it would therefore be a good idea to leave it in the basin, rather than turning it out, if you’re intending to eat it over several days).
It won’t freeze, though you can make it with frozen blackcurrants.

Plain white bread (makes 1 x 8 oz [approx 250 g] loaf)

5 oz (approx 130 g) strong white bread flour
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) sugar
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) dried baking yeast
Water to mix

Put about 25 ml of boiling water and 25 ml of cold water into a cup. Stir in the sugar. Sprinkle the dried yeast on top.
Leave for 10-15 minutes for the yeast to froth up.
Put the flour in a bowl and make a hollow in the centre. Pour the yeast liquid into the hollow and mix well. Gradually add more water until the mixture forms a soft dough.
Knead the dough for a minute or two.
Put the dough back in the bowl and leave for 45-60 min to rise.
Knead again for a minute or two. Shape into a loaf. Put the loaf on a greased baking sheet and leave for another 45-60 min to rise again.
Bake for 25-30 min in a hot oven (approx 250 C) until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the base.
Cool on a wire rack.

The above quantity will make a loaf of about the right size for the summer pudding recipe. If you want to make more bread, double up the quantities as needed. The yeast quantity as given above is generous for the amount of flour, chiefly because trying to measure less than half a teaspoon is a pain. I usually make it in larger quantities, and use a teaspoon of dried yeast to raise 1 lb (approx 500 g) of flour. Dried yeast may vary by brand, so read the instructions on the packet. I use Allinsons Traditional Dried Active Yeast, which is available at most UK supermarkets, but I have no idea at all what the equivalent might be in other countries. I also have no experience with the ‘easy bake’ yeasts where you put the dried yeast straight in with the flour, so if you’re using those you’re on your own.
The bread can be eaten hot the day it is made (delicious with butter melting on it), cold the following day, or can be frozen as soon as it has cooled. Or you can use it in summer pudding.

10 July, 2007

Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran. Book review

Edition reviewed: uncorrected proof, Crown, 2007, ISBN 978-0-307-38146-0

Set in Egypt towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, in 1351-1335 BC, Nefertiti tells the story of two sisters at the heart of Egypt’s royal family. All the main characters in the novel are historical personages.

Nefertiti is the elder sister, beautiful, ambitious and egotistical, who desires wealth and power. Mutnodjmet, the younger sister, is sensible, thoughtful, affectionate, pretty rather than beautiful, and hopes for love and a happy family life. Nefertiti’s marriage to the Pharaoh Akhenaten as his Chief Wife provides her with the opportunity to gain the power she craves, and plunges Mutnodjmet into a world of ruthless political intrigue. Nefertiti and the sisters’ father, Grand Vizier Ay, thrive on politics and plotting, but Mutnodjmet longs for a quiet family life with her love, the military officer Nakhtmin. Can Mutnodjmet emerge from her sister’s shadow and make the life that she wants for herself?

If this sounds reminiscent of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, that’s because I found the similarities striking. The scheming court, the slippery politicians in family factions who use their daughters to gain power, the erratic and all-powerful ruler, and most of all the two sisters and their contrasting quests for power or love. Readers who enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl will probably find much to like in Nefertiti.

Nefertiti is rich in period detail. Clothing, fabrics, perfume, make-up, jewellery, furniture, food, markets, building techniques, herbs and their medicinal uses, tombs, burial rites, gods and religion are all lovingly described. If you have ever tried to imagine how the numerous Egyptian artefacts in museums were used in real life, you’ll find the descriptions fascinating.

The central characters of Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet (Mutny for short) are well drawn. I found Mutny, who narrates the novel in first person, much the more sympathetic of the two. Nefertiti’s selfishness, constant demands for her own way and apparent willingness to sacrifice her sister’s happiness for her own ambitions make her a compelling figure but not a very likeable one. The unstable Pharaoh Akhenaten is a spoilt child who throws temper tantrums and expects other people to pick up the pieces. His obsession is changing the religion of Egypt from its numerous traditional gods and goddesses to worship of a single god, the sun-disk or Aten. This experiment, known now as the Amarna heresy, was unpopular and near-disastrous, and was swiftly reversed after Akhenaten’s death. In the novel, Nefertiti is placed as Akhenaten’s wife by her family in the hope that she will control his religious obsession, but instead she panders to it as a way of bolstering her position at the expense of Akhenaten’s other wife. This could have been very interesting to explore – did Nefertiti share her husband’s beliefs, did she recognise the damage he was doing and consciously accept it as the price of her own power, did she try to talk him out of his more crackpot schemes? But because the novel is told in first person through Mutnodjmet’s eyes, the reader never gets to see Nefertiti’s thoughts. There’s one line where Mutnodjmet wonders whether Nefertiti struggles with her conscience, and almost at the end of the novel Mutnodjmet is told by her father that Nefertiti had mitigated some of Akhenaten’s stupider decisions and thus limited the damage, but this aspect is never shown or explored in any detail.

I would also have liked to see how Nefertiti ruled as Pharaoh in her own right. Had she matured from the vain and foolish girl at the beginning of the story? Did she make a more successful job of running the country than her late husband? (Not a very high hurdle!). Yet the years of Nefertiti’s rule are skipped over in a few pages at the end of the novel, which seems a missed opportunity. It would have been fascinating to show a much-vaunted “strong woman” actually wielding political power in her own right. After having spent her lifetime obtaining it, what did she do with it?

The novel provides an interesting solution to some puzzles in Egyptian history. I gather that there is considerable confusion about the Amarna heresy and its aftermath, not least because subsequent rulers tried to expunge the ‘heretic Pharaoh’ from the records. For example, the identity of the Pharaoh Smenkhare who succeeded Akhenaten is unclear (see Wikipedia for some theories), and in the novel Smenkhare is explained as a coronation name taken by Nefertiti on her accession as Pharaoh. The author provides some useful historical notes on her website, though there was no author’s note in the book itself. However, this may have been because it was a proof copy, which would also explain the absence of the map referred to on the back cover (which would have been extremely helpful).

Richly detailed recreation of a fascinating episode in Egypt’s colourful history.

04 July, 2007

A grain of truth?

Every visitor to the mountain village of Beddgelert in North Wales hears the touching legend of Gelert, the faithful greyhound unjustly slain by his master Llewelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales. The legend as inscribed on the handsome nineteenth-century tombstone goes as follows:

In the 13th century Llywelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, "The Faithful Hound", who was unaccountably absent. On Llywelyn's return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant's cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged his sword into the hounds side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog's dying yell was answered by a child's cry. Llywelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but near by lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain. The prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here.

And that is how the village came to be named Beddgelert, ‘The Grave of Gelert’.

Except it probably isn’t. The village name goes back centuries, recorded as Bedkelert in a document of 1281 (Room 1988), but according to modern scholars the story of Llewelyn and his greyhound was unknown in the area before 1784, when it was invented by David Prichard, landlord of the local hotel (Jones 2002). Mr Prichard and a group of local worthies are said to have set up the present tombstone beside an ancient cromlech, and made a tidy living from the new breed of Romantic tourists who flocked to visit the site of the legend.

Hats off to Mr Prichard for enterprise. Gelert the greyhound became immensely popular, is the subject of a famous poem (scroll down the page in the link), and is now at least as secure of his immortality as Prince Llewelyn the Great himself. Whoever the original Gelert or Celert commemorated in the village name may have been, his place in history has been well and truly usurped by a (fictional?) dog. I hope the poor man has a sense of humour.

Not everyone approved of Mr Prichard’s storytelling, prompting someone to coin the acid aphorism, “Here not a greyhound but a landlord lies.” But that judgement may be a little over-harsh. According to Malcolm Jones, “in 1484 the heraldic Rous Roll gives the arms of Wales as a helm on which the crest is a dog and cradle, which surely suggests that some version of the tale was already associated with the Welsh royal line at this date.” By 1484, of course, the princely dynasties of independent Wales were long gone, so the association may or may not have been a genuine tradition. Still, perhaps Mr Prichard was guilty of little more than borrowing an existing legend and moving it to his home town. The romantic in me would like to think so.

Room, A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1988, ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.
Jones, M. The Secret Middle Ages. Sutton, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6.

(Many thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick for recommending The Secret Middle Ages in an earlier comment!)