Courtly Love, Poetry, Satire/Comedy

Aucassin and Nicolette

Today is the first day of my “Post Everyday in November” challenge. Click here for more information about the challenge.

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I recently finished reading the 12th-century work Aucassin et Nicolette, a parody of the courtly romance genre written in mixed form (in alternating prose and verse). At the start of the work, Aucassin’s father forbids his son from marrying Nicolette because Nicolette was born a pagan; she was kidnapped from Cartagena (a Sarassin kingdom) by her future godfather and baptized shortly thereafter into the Christian faith. Aucassin is so in love with Nicolette that he neglects his knightly duties. When his father chides Aucassin for failing to live up to the standards of a knight, Aucassin promises to fight his father’s enemies in return for Nicolette’s hand in marriage. The father initially agrees to Aucassin’s request, but later (after Aucassin keeps his side of the bargain), the duke goes back on his word and pretends that he had never made the promise. To prevent further temptation, the duke and the viscount imprison both Aucassin and Nicolette in towers. But Nicolette cannot be restrained. She finds a way out of prison and escapes into a nearby forest.

Despite this surface resemblance to a courtly romance, the anonymous author of Aucassin et Nicolette turns the genre on its head. The damsel Nicolette is described as brave and chivalrous, while Aucassin is sentimental and neglects his knightly duties. Nicolette is valorous despite her lack of experience in warfare. The poem, thus, interrogates traditional standards of courtliness. Furthermore, Aucassin is a Christian with an Arabic-sounding name, while Nicolette is a Sarasin with a Christian-sounding name. This discrepancy between name and identity calls attention to the work’s other subversive elements.

Having finished the book only an hour ago, I do not have any profound observations to share with you. It is, however, clear that a straightforward reading of Aucassin et Nicolette is impossible. Not even the narrative style is consistent. Chapters alternate between prose and verse. Repetition – a common literary device in medieval writing- is present, but with a twist. A prose scene in one chapter is immediately followed by a repetition of the same scene but in verse. Why the change in literary language? Why say the same thing in two different ways?

I keep having to stop myself from calling Aucassin et Nicolette a poem. It is true that some parts are in verse, but prose takes up at least 50% of the work. Maybe I want to call it a poem because I associate the courtly romance genre with poetry. Chrétien de Troyes wrote his Arthurian romances in octosyllabic rhyming couplets.

I love coming across medieval works that play with literary genre and narrative form. I wrote about the Roman de la Rose last year, which also defies a straightforward reading. Like the Rose, Aucassin et Nicolette can be interpreted in many (and even contradictory) ways. Rather than ask, “What is the message?”, it might be more appropriate to consider why the work inspires so many different readings.

Aucassin et Nicolette is a very short work with a relatively simple plot, but it is certainly not a simple work.

Adventure, Goldman, William

Review of The Princess Bride

Image result for the princess bride bookThe film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is a cult classic. But not many fans of the movie have read the book. Although this review will be spoiler-free, my intended audience is people familiar with the movie.

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I am always the last person to see a film. Less than a year ago, one of my best friends encouraged me to give The Princess Bride a try. Despite my dislike for fictional romance, I finally gave in and rented the movie from Amazon. I am the most movie-ignorant person I know.

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed by the film. I enjoyed the outlandish characters and the parody on courtly romance, but nothing stood out to me as particularly noteworthy. Whenever I am disappointed by a hyped work, I convince myself that I’m missing something: Fans are seeing something that I’m just not seeing. But before re-watching the film, I thought to read William Goldman’s book. I have been inspired in the past to re-watch a movie because of the book (ex. The Lord of the Rings movies).

The first thing that struck me about the book was the frame narrative. The preface establishes the story as an abridgment of a larger European satire of the same name. A fictional William Goldman recounts his childhood love for S. Morgenstern’s book. His father read it to him for the first time while he was recovering from Pneumonia. But William was concerned that his son Billy would find the many asides and descriptions boring. William, himself, had always felt that those sections of Morgenstern’s book were unnecessary to the plot. Hence, the frame narrator’s decision to produce an abridgment of The Princess Bride. Multiple times in the story, our fictional William Goldman intervenes to tell the reader how he has edited the original work and the reasons for his edits. The frame narrative is much more prominent in the book than in the movie. I prefer the book’s metatextual elements for the questions they raise about the purpose of storytelling.

I was also surprised by William Goldman’s fictional persona. He is not a very likable character. William is the quintessential racist,misogynistic white male author. He is self-absorbed, dislikes his wife, and is absent from his son’s life. At first, the casual racism and misogyny were quite off-putting, but I am now convinced that the real William Goldman very consciously included those elements in order to parody aspects of the literary industry. The real author does not have a son, and his wife is not a psychiatrist.

The Princess Bride is the perfect book to read when sick. It is fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny. Westley’s bad-ass persona is even more apparent in the book than the movie. He leaves Buttercup as a lowly farm boy, but develops some insane fighting skills in no time. Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo have the most interesting backstories. I recall not being able to keep the characters straight in the movie. Thankfully, they are more distinct in the book. Not once did I feel that the narrator’s interjections or character backstories undermined the general action of the story.

And yes, Inigo does give his famous line – about a dozen times.

There’s something quite Rabelaisian about the novel. I was surprised and entertained by the outrageous violence and occasional vulgarity in the novel. The narrator presents The Princess Bride as a story for children, but it is clearly written for adults. I’ve never laughed so hard while reading about torture!

I will certainly be rewatching the film adaptation in the near future. I will be paying close attention to how the film follows or modifies the book because William Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the movie. The next time I’m sick or unable to sleep, I will pick up A Princess Bride. It’s the perfect escapist read.

Satire

Review of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

And now for something completely different.

Image result for sense and sensibility and sea monsters

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben Winters is published by Quirk Books, the same publisher that put out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If you have been following me for a while, you probably know that Jane Austen and I don’t get along. I have tried to get into her works, but both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility have bored me to tears. I thought reading the latter next to the Niagara Falls would spice up the reading experience. The woman who lent me her copy told me that she had reread Sense and Sensibility at least five times! What?! I don’t understand. It took me a month to finish the work.

But man-eating sea monsters can make even the most boring of works exciting. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters keeps the general plot of the Austen novel (and around 60% of the original lines) while terrorizing the reader with highly-enhanced sea creatures. Lobsters lop off heads and German shepherd-sized hermit crabs crush bones to powder. There are even pirates in this book.

At the start of the novel, John Dashwood’s father Henry is devoured by a hermit crab. Before breathing his last, Henry bequeaths his house to his son but insists that John’s half sisters and step mother get a share of the inheritance. Consequently, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood are sent to live near Sir John and his indigenous wife Lady Middleton in a rickety shack by the sea.

If you are squeamish, this is definitely not the book for you. Ben Winters revels in violence and gore.

Despite the obvious silliness, the novel offers a refreshing perspective on Regency England. Sir John is an explorer, who massacred an entire population of indigenous people. Lady Middleton and her mother Mrs. Jennings were the only two women on the island whom Sir John spared. Many reviewers on Goodreads are appalled by this flippant treatment of genocide, but disregard for the lives of anyone not upper class and white is a running theme in the novel. The Dashwood sisters chat nonchalantly about their love interests  while servants are devoured before their very eyes. I believe that Winters pokes fun at these atrocities to draw attention to the social and racial inequalities of Austen’s England. In Winters’ novel polite society is built on the backs of the oppressed.

I understand why most Jane Austen fans dislike Winters’ book. It reads like a satire of the original. But I admit that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters appealed to me largely because I found Austen’s work so frustratingly cloying. I wish I could appreciate Jane Austen’s social commentaries. I wish I could care about the men and women in her novels.

Maybe Northanger Abbey will appeal to me, since it is a satire on gothic conventions.

Maybe.

I obviously prefer to read classics in the original, but if I dislike one – especially a well-known classic – I will seek out a parody of it. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was a good palate cleaners.