Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Vintage copy of Far From the Madding Crowd
My copy of Far From the Madding Crowd, which I believe to be over 100 years old. It was a delight to read from–the right size and weight, and the pages always lay nicely flat.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
1874, England

Full of this dim and temperate bliss, he went on to fling the ewe over upon her other side, covering her head with his knee, gradually running the shears line after line round her dewlap, thence about her flank and back, and finishing over the tail.

[…]

The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece—how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized—looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment, which lay on the floor in one soft cloud, united throughout, the portion visible being the inner surface only, which, never before exposed, was white as snow, and without flaw or blemish of the minutest kind. (Ch. 22)

It’s possible that I enjoyed Far From the Madding Crowd as much as I did because of the sheep scenes—the herding, the washing, the shearing, the sheep market. My inner fiber artist was drawn to and enchanted by this great sheep novel.

I joke, of course. At least in part.

After all, I did enjoy the sheep scenes, and in a sense, there would be no story without the sheep and the dramas (and traumas) of raising sheep, but it is primarily a human drama, in pastoral setting.

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Thomas Hardy’s earliest novels, and was his first real success. It tells the tale of Bathsheba Everdene and the three very different men who woo her—Victorian love-quadrangle, oh, the scandal!—: the solid Gabriel Oak, dashing Sergeant Troy, and passionate Farmer Boldwood, all while set against the rhythms of the changing seasons and farming responsibilities. (Those names…Mr. Hardy, I see what you did there.) The novel is not merely set in the country, but rather the backdrop of farming is integral to the characters, their histories, their responsibilities (or lack thereof). How any one character responds to the demands of pastoral life illuminates the rest of their character and mind-set: thus we see that Gabriel is an honorable man worthy of great responsibility, while Farmer Boldwood’s growing obsession with Bathsheba is nowhere made clearer than in his neglect of his own harvest. And that is to speak nothing of Troy’s relationship to the pastoral setting;  I’m pretty sure he made an earlier appearance in Sense and Sensibility under the name “Mr. Willoughby.”

The citizen’s Then is the rustic’s Now. In London, twenty of thirty years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone. (Ch. 22)

Of course, though an early Hardy, this is still Hardy, and as such, though I found it enjoyable, it is rarely lighthearted. Despite the appeal of the ideal of “pastoral,” the reality of farm life is difficult, hard work, and into this mix Hardy throws additional human drama—there is tragedy, both on field and at hearth. (Okay, has anyone else looked up “bloat” or “ruminal tympany” because of Hardy? I told you, I have a sheep thing…) But in the end I have to agree that this is an “accessible” Hardy and would recommend it as a starting place for someone wanting to try his novels out.

I read Far From the Madding Crowd for Classics Spin #22. It also qualifies as my adaption title for Back to the Classics, a classic that takes place in a country that I don’t live in for Reading the Classics, and is one of my Classics Club and Realists and Romantics project titles. Phew! That’s a lot of work for one book.

Classics Spin #22

I was looking over my Classics Club list recently, and truthfully, wondering why I ever put some of these titles on the list. Why so many long books? Or really, really old books? Or just books that aren’t grabbing my interest today? The answer, of course: most of them are already on my shelves. That doesn’t necessarily inspire me to read them right now, though. But a Classics Club spin, is usually good for a bit of inspiration, and what better way to pick my classic to start the new year? Here’s hoping for something I’ll love!

  1. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  2. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  3. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  4. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  5. Anonymous: Njal’s Saga (Iceland, 13th century)
  6. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)
  7. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  8. Radcliffe, Ann: The Italian (England, 1797)
  9. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  10. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)
  11. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  12. Brontë, Anne: Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  13. Hardy, Thomas: Far From the Madding Crowd (England, 1874)
  14. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Cranford (England, 1853)
  15. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
  16. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
  17. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  18. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  19. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  20. Borges, Jorge Luis: Ficciones (Argentina, 1962)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
c. late 14th century, England
J.R.R. Tolkien, translator (pub. 1975)

And so this Yule passed over and
the year after, and severally the seasons ensued in their
turn: after Christmas there came the crabbed Lenten that
with fish tries the flesh and with food more meagre; but
then the weather in the world makes war on the winter,
cold creeps into the earth, clouds are uplifted, shining rain
is shed in showers that all warm fall on the fair turf,
flowers there open, of grounds and groves green is
the raiment, birds are busy a-building and bravely are
singing for sweetness of the soft summer that will soon be on
     the way
and blossoms burgeon and blow
in hedgerows bright and gay;
then glorious musics go
through the woods in proud array. (Stanza 22)

If I recall correctly, my familiarity with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, prior to listening to The Great Courses® series The Western Literary Canon in Context, was seeing it listed as one of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a misattribution–although he contributed to a scholarly edition of the Middle English text, his only other involvement in a Sir Gawain story was as a translator. But even with the Tolkien connection, chances are it very likely would never have made it onto any of my Classics Club lists were it not for the aforementioned Great Courses series–I have not yet read a large number of the titles covered by Professor John M. Bowers, and so have started adding them to my various “to read” lists. Thus it was with Sir Gawain.*

Although written in the late 14th century, making the anonymous author roughly a contemporary of Chaucer, unlike the more famous works by the London poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stayed in relative obscurity for centuries, with only one manuscript–a scribal transcription rather than an original–surviving. Little is thus known about the author of Sir Gawain, although based on his dialect, it is believed that the author was from the West Midlands of England, perhaps Cheshire, and it is possible that his work lost favor for political rather than literary reasons (the author may have been a part of Richard II’s court, who was deposed by the future Henry IV). It is possible–Tolkien thinks likely–that he wrote a number of other poems as well, including Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience, all of which were contained in the same manuscript. It is also possible that he was a clergyman (so Bowers speculates), though Tolkien suggests that his interest in theology may have been that of an amateur.

‘But in this you lacked, sir, a little, and of loyalty came short.
But that was for no artful wickedness, nor for wooing either,
but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame you.’ (stanza 95)

Certainly, Christianity flavors the entire story, with references to Biblical stories and faith throughout. After introductory stanzas connecting the kings of Britain with Aeneas (of Trojan War and Aeneid fame)–apparently it was the thing to connect Britain to Troy–we enter a Christmastime scene at King Arthur’s Camelot court. It is a season of celebration, but King Arthur is also fond of a challenge, and is only too happy when the Green Knight–not merely dressed in green, but with hair and skin of a green hue as well, and towering over the knights at court–appears to challenge a courageous knight to trade blows. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, beheading the Green Knight. Of course, this being a chivalric romance, the knight calmly picks up his head, reminds Sir Gawain that he has promised to appear before the Green Knight in a year to bravely take a blow from the Knight’s hands, and leaves. The remainder of the poem that follows is the story of Sir Gawain’s unplanned visit at Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert’s castle before his necessary departure to place his fate in the hands of the Green Knight. But the bulk of the poem–most of part II and all of part III–takes place at the castle, as we follow the games and temptations that ensue as both Lord and Lady Bertilak extract hasty promises from Sir Gawain who struggles to live up to the codes of Chivalry and courtesy in the face of temptations and the fear of his likely impending death. I can’t recall if it is ever directly stated, but even if not, it is clearly strongly implied that the codes by which Sir Gawain is expected to live and the courtesy for which he is known are considered not merely knightly virtues, but Christian ones, and by extension, the temptations he faces, are temptations to sin not merely against his host but against God.

The story is told over 101 stanzas of varying length, but following a poetic style known as the Alliterative Revival (revived from older Anglo-Saxon works). Unlike what we might think of as alliteration today, Sir Gawain’s alliteration is based on the sounds of words on the stressed syllable. To borrow an example from the Appendix, in the phrase “apt alliteration’s artful aide,” “alliteration” does NOT alliterate because the stressed syllable is “-lit-.” On the other hand, every word in the phrase “Old English art” would have been considered alliterative, because vowels alliterated with each other. Each line was divided into two halves, and the alliterative sound between the front and back half may not have always been the same (although, perhaps more so in the original than in translation). Interestingly, alliterating many (say 3 or 4) syllables in a half-line was not considered necessary. The stanzas ended with a device known as the “bob and wheel,” a five line structure of one very short (typically two to three syllables) line (the bob) followed by four more lines about half as long as the rest of the stanza (the wheel). In addition to maintaining alliteration in the wheel, a rhyme scheme, absent elsewhere, is added: ABABA. Amazingly, Tolkien is able to maintain all this complexity throughout his translation!

The language–dialect–of Sir Gawain is apparently even further from Modern English than Chaucer’s, and so Tolkien, in his introduction states that for any but the Medieval scholar translation is necessary. (A statement I easily believe based on snippets of the original in the Appendix of my copy as well as those I’ve seen online.) Reading it, I appreciate the availability of translation to bring us this gem, but is one of those many times when I have appreciated the difficulty of the translator’s task–and wondered how, with its poetic structure, it could possibly be translated into a language with completely different characteristics (as from a Germanic to a Romance language). Certainly, it seems it would bring a different reading experience–and makes me pause to wonder how different it is when translated into a descendant language. After all, there were times when I noted that the syntax seemed perhaps a bit Yoda-like: was this play of word order unique on Tolkien’s part in order to match the original’s alliteration as closely as possible, or is it a carry-over from the original? In his commentary on the verse form of the poem, Tolkien does note that at times he had to vary the alliteration more than the original, if for no other reason than that there were no appropriate equivalent-meaning words in Modern English that could alliterate with a key word that couldn’t change (a location name, for example)

(Source, Simon Armitage translation. Click either for full size)

It took me some time to decide on which translation I wanted to read of Sir Gawain. A decent number are available; the most recent by Simon Armitage is, I believe, the edition currently selected for the Norton Anthology of English Literature. However, when I read some bits as translated by Armitage, I was reminded of one of my particular translation preferences: when a work is old (especially very old, as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I prefer the translation to sound as if it is old as well–almost as if it is of the same era, just in English I can understand. Perhaps other translations may be of a better quality or more readable, or flow better, but Tolkien’s fits my own preferences. Sir Gawain  is old and sounds it. Of course, sometimes this means that Tolkien uses archaic (or for that matter, obscure armor-related) terms; fortunately there is a glossary. But overall, I was satisfied with my choice. It doesn’t hurt that the book comes with two other Tolkien translations as well, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. Guess what’s up next on my reading plans?

* Context information from the Introduction and Appendix to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1975 (HarperCollins) and from The Great Courses® course, The Western Literary Canon in Context, taught by Professor John M. Bowers, 2008 (The Teaching Company).

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the 20th Classics Club Spin. It also slots into the “translation” category for Back to the Classics 2019.

And the Spin is…

Lucky number 19!

Sir Gawain first page 670x990

It never fails – the book that I get for a Classics Club spin is never one of the ones I had my fingers crossed for–or even one that the comments discuss! No one mentioned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at all – apparently not very popular? Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my own, so it’s translation selection time. As I’ve been doing some quick research, I’m becoming more excited about this title, though–can’t wait to have it in my hands!

Did you spin? Are you looking forward to–or dreading!–your selection?

Happy reading!

Classics Spin #20

Question Mark - cover place holder

So there’s another Classics Spin? And I still haven’t finished my book from the last spin? And there’s a pile of library books still waiting to be finished?

Well, sign me up, of course!

It’s a mark of my consistent bookish optimism that I keep signing up for the spins, but there’s just something so irresistible about letting a “roll of the dice” decide my next read – at least, when dozens of other readers are playing along! And so, I present my semi-randomized list of twenty:

  1. Carson, Anne, translator – An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan – Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  3. Radcliffe, Ann – The Italian (England, 1797)
  4. Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de – Three Exemplary Novels (Spain, 1613)
  5. Gaskell, Elizabeth – Cranford (England, 1853)
  6. Brontë, Anne – Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  7. Anonymous – The Epic of Gilgaesh (Sumerian, c. 2150-1000 BCE)
  8. Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World (England, 1932)
  9. Wright, Richard – Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  10. Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain (U.S., 1953)
  11. Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  12. Anonymous – Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  13. Camões, Luís Vaz de – The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  14. Bolaño, Roberto – 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  15. Bromfield, Louis – The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  16. Woolf, Virginia – Mrs. Dalloway (England, 1925)
  17. Lawrence, D.H. – Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  18. Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  19. Anonymous – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, 14th century)
  20. Anonymous – Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)

I’m most hoping for The Farm (#15) as I’d like to read it this spring. Or there’s Gilgamesh (#7) which is one of those library books that I should be reading anyways… But really, I won’t complain (I don’t think…) if I get any of these.

Any favorites you hope I get?

Happy spinning!