Reflections

Reading Obscure Books

We readers know all too well the gnawing desire to talk about a favorite work with others. That’s one of the reasons we create and follow blogs. But I have a huge interest in medieval epics, and these works are often only available in research libraries.

In the past few months, I’ve been reading Gerbert, a 13th century epic in the Lorrains Epic Cycle. The work has been translated into modern French by Bernard Guidot. It is quite the page-turner! The plot is outrageously funny, and King Pepin’s wife is kick-ass. A couple days ago I found the first book in the cycle: Garin le Lorrain. My last institution’s research library didn’t have a copy of the first book, so I was excited to find a copy. Gerbert will certainly be one of my favorite reads of 2017.

Guidot’s translation of Gerbert was a labor of love. Only medieval scholars will read his translation. I can’t recommend this book to anyone I know because even if my friends know French they most likely won’t be able to purchase a reasonably-priced copy of this work. There are hundreds of medieval stories in vernacular French and English at the research library, but only the Arthurian ones are known by the general public.

Don’t get me wrong. I know why these works aren’t mass produced. For one thing, they are quite problematic. The representation of women and non-Christian religions in these stories is terrible. Still, I find it a bit upsetting that there are thousands of stories published every year that most book reviewers will never get to read and review. They don’t even know these books exist. Guidot has translated a handful of epics into modern French, but none of them are available for the general French public. It’s a truism that scholars publish books that no one reads, but it must be frustrating for a translator to publish a translation of an interesting story that only a few scholars (and the occasional medieval nerd) will ever read. It is not enough for an ancient text to be discovered. It must be translated into a modern language and then publicized. Gerbert has been translated, but it has not been publicized.

In the next few months, I hope to read as many stories in the 13th century William of Orange Cycle as I can find. Because I am interested in the chanson de geste tradition, I will post a brief summary of each of the works I read. I will also write brief reflections about the experience of reading medieval epics. It warms the cockles of my heart that so many book bloggers have read and enjoyed the Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes. Even if medieval stories tend to have problematic representation, outrageous plots, and flat characters, they allow the modern reader to encounter the medieval imagination and a culture very different from their own. And above all, they’re fun!

4 thoughts on “Reading Obscure Books”

    1. Yup! I didn’t think about that, but you’re right. Books published by small presses and self-published books get minimal publicity. I wonder, though, how our knowledge of history is stunted by the lack of publicity of certain books. Our knowledge of history is based on what is available from the past and accessible to us.

  1. It’s a shame to think that there is all of this undiscovered literature. It’s a disservice that they aren’t available translated at book stores and public libraries. I love obscure literature and seek it out. I some forgotten books in my personal library from the 1700 and 1800s, as well as obscure contemporary literature. I am now eager to seek out this medieval epic you have so lovingly talked about.

    1. There are so many books in the world, and most are out of print. I fully understand why most are not reprinted or translated, but I find it a bit depressing that so many translated works remain exclusively in research libraries.

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