Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gesta Romanorum & Gilgamesh: J398 Style

I love old books.

A library is likely to be held in high esteem if I can find books with faded spines and hard textured binding, fuzzy and broken at the edges to display the cardboard underneath. Brown, stained pages and remnants of the true “card catalogue” only add. Need I even mention the smell?

Oh, book bunny trails.


This why I love college and university libraries. They don’t discard these old books to fill their shelves with new, glossy ones--even if these shiny imposters are good books, it never really seems justified to me.

But I have found a public library with books not only marked with due-dates from the 90s, but also this amending stamp on the card holder: “10c per Day Fine Effective Jan 1, 1970.”

And so, by this long way around, we come to The Riddle of the Black Knight and Other Tales and Fables Based on the “Gesta Romanorum” by Thomas B. Leekley.

There are many reasons why I picked up this book. The main reason I actually checked it out is this:

“What Sort of Book is This?”

The stories you will find here are all in some way based upon a medieval book called Gesta Romanorum, a title which, translated, means Deeds of the Romans. Someone has pointed out that the stories in it are not about real deeds, nor about real Romans either; but writers have never been very accurate in naming their books, and perhaps it makes very little difference.


What follows lives up to its J398 shelving. It is a collection of “fairy tales” or “morality tales”--only, they’re ones you probably haven’t heard before. I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable read, wished there were $0.01 copies in the Amazon used section (alas, they hover more around $7), and wished I wouldn’t get weird looks if I asked about reading it aloud to younger siblings.

In the same vein, I recently discovered Gilgamesh by Bernarda Bryson. This book, published in the 1960s, is a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest works of literature we know. Besides the text, which overall reminded me of days when I read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, this book also included dozens of illustrations by the author, based on contemporary art. I again wished I could snatch it from the library ($9 on Amazon, sigh) and read it to siblings.

Perhaps I should explain my sudden obsession with enforcing my children’s literature taste on younger siblings via Important Bonding Time.

I am very bothered by the way history is taught. The first history textbook I ever saw (okay, in my possession with intent to read) came to my hands in my freshman year of college. What is this foul monster we have avoided for so long?! Does it bite?

When I wrote my 5,000+ word research paper for College Writing II (bear with me, guys), it unwittingly turned into a passionate rant:

Generalizing and compartmentalizing [medieval people] lives makes them inhuman. History becomes a study of facts and figures, and not one of red-blooded humanity. Humans are complex beings, and society is a complex organism. Simplifying and dehumanizing history is creating a straw man of it: a straw man encourages chronological snobbery and ignorance.

History via the textbook in general strips it of the story. And it removes its characters, beyond the ones that we deem “important” enough for brief bios. But who’s to say that Richard the Lionheart’s crusades were more important than those tilling fields back home?

Writing my historical novel and the years of research it spawned has given me such a rich idea of what the past is. Deeply and closely studying 12th century England gives me a greater appreciation for the nuances of 16th century Japan, not because I’m on expert on Japan, but because I’m not. I know if I studied it as closely as I have the 12th century, it would be a fascinating and utterly different tapestry of lives. I respect that.

Children’s books like Riddle of the Black Knight and Gilgamesh give me hope. I see historical fiction as a bridge to the fascinating land of the past, inhabited by our ancestors and the accumulated wisdom (one can hope) of the human race.

One can never start over that bridge too early.

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