24 March 2002 life, death and all risks

foyer of Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, London

After sitting entranced by the sight of middle-aged people meeting and talking before a concert* as I began to read a book I bought today after long searching and choosing (The Nibelungenlied,translated by A T Hatto, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1965) a book I regretted not buying earlier - if only because of the remarks** of its translator, a person I'd like to meet if he is still alive (I fear he is not)... This is a most timely and most connective moment - for reasons too extensive to say.

But why am I so taken by this book in itself, as I was by the Arthurian Romancesof Chrétien de Troyes? Why am I seeing through what I'd previously dismissed as romantic/aristocratic nonsense to perceive something wondrous beneath or beyond?

It is the tone, the kinds of things mentioned, or omitted, or assumed, and the world thus implied, as in the speech of children, or of eccentrics, or (as in this book) of medieval courts and their chroniclers, revealing a world I've never known and one in which intangibles (such as chivalry, manners, pride, valour) are as real as are physical objects. A world of belief and of honour and of other such conventions accepted as a basis for life, death and all risks... A life of higher things than comfort, security or profit. Surely, somehow I have to conjure some new equivalents for and in new stories of our time? This is the moment.

*The ones I noticed particularly were seven women and one man, sitting round a table. They each had grey or greyish hair, some tousled or carelessly arranged, with animated faces and much laughter... others sat assiduously reading, and not talking to each other as they waited for the concert... most of them seemed to me to be enjoying the moment without concern for convention and to be sure in their tastes and their slightest actions. Nice people - they made me feel more alive than I'd been feeling all day as I saw them against a skyline of lit-up buildings in fading daylight across the river.

**The first such remark of the translator is 'Richard Wagner... has unfortunately harmed the cause of medieval German poetry by intruding reckless distortions between us and an ancient masterpiece... those who come to The Nibelungenlied from Wagner will be much surprised by what they read in it.' And another (re the unknown author) 'He thus achieves a work the finest moments of which would come through in pidgin-English...' And various kinds of readers, he says, 'could enjoy it in English better or worse than mine'. I like both his modesty and his sureness; Arthur Thomas Hatto, for 39 years Head of the Department of German, Queen Mary College, London University and since then a student of 'epic poetry and shamanism in Northern Asia'. His commentary on The Nibilungenliedis titled 'An Introduction to a Second Reading' and appears after the translation. How nice! Each such detail is the result of much thought, I feel sure.

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© 2002 john chris jones

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