She’s with the Giants, He’s with the Ghouls, Can it be any more Obvious?

After being cast into the Valley of Ghouls at his deceptive mother’s command, King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan finds himself in a “land of spacious gardens and spreading plants and meadows” full of birds and trees and rivers and fruit and fragrances (135). He sleeps in a tree over night to protect himself from the Ghouls. The next morning he sees deformed Ghouls coming to the tree, meets an old woman who is their ruler, refuses to eat the dead deer the old woman offers him, and eats lotus fruit instead. He then asks the old woman “Where have you come from, and what are these ghouls?” and, through the woman’s story, he learns about the cross-species and diseased origins of the monsters. The woman who had given birth to the Ghouls was “afflicted with an itch on her private parts,” and in order to fall asleep she sought relief from the itch by going into her private orchard to scratch herself with sticks or lift up her skirt and letting the air assuage her. It was this disease which caused her to fall asleep with her legs raised against a tree, so that when a he-wolf entered the garden he has “access” to her body, and though “she had woken while the wolf was with her” she “dared not move for fear the beast should kill her.” So the wolf’s seed combined in her womb with the smoke from a burnt stick she used to itch herself, and combined still further that night with her husband’s seed. The result: Ghouls – ugly, deformed, vaguely humanoid creatures with fangs, large ears, sharp nails, covered in hair “like the quills of a porcupine,” who want to kill and eat humans. 

The pseudo-chemistry of this moment seemingly operates by unspoken laws, as if King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is not only learning the origins of Ghouls, but also how to make one; of course this is how monsters are made, in a diseased and afflicted vagina (too accessible, too penetrable) as a mixture of human, non-human, and other (burnt plant) organic materials. As if the wife were a petri dish where the genetic experimentation and biological concerns of the sira can be played out. This origin story of monstrous conception and birth follows on the heels of King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan’s refusal to eat meat – Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan, the epitome of the virtuous king we are meant to admire, chooses a vegetarian diet, refusing to allow the meat of the deer to enter his body, just before he is told the story of a woman who was not so careful about regulating her orifices. Of course, Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan has his own bizarre origins, being found as an abandoned child suckling on a the teet gazelle. When  King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is first found, the hunter who found him wondered what manner of gazelle it was “that gives birth to a human baby” (16). His first given name is “Wahsh al-Fala,” which we are told means “Beast of the Wild.” There is clearly some logic by which the human, plant, and animal worlds ought or ought not to mix. Suckling on the teet of a wild gazelle is okay, and a gazelle giving birth to a human is a wonder or a marvel, not a transgression. Using a not-burn stick or orchard trees to help relieve one’s painful genital itch is also acceptable, but being raped by wolves due to one’s disease or scratching oneself with a stick filled with smoke is sure to result in monstrous birth. 

Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is not the only one to be cast into a valley of monsters in this moment of course. His wife Shama had already been cast into the Valley of Giants, where she is almost executed for her “small stature; for he supposed she was deformed because she had offended their god,” the sheep, for whom she is gifted two chickens and bread every day for taking care of (134). Both King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan and Shama’s experiences very clearly intersect bodily difference, disease, gender, food, political violence, and the non-human. It’s difficult to track the logic of these encounters – both are gifted with food, Shama is thought to be deformed and Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan hears the story of a diseased woman, the giants worship a sheep as their god and the ghouls credit a wolf, a burnt stick, and a disease with their creation. Parsing out the relationships in these two episodes – as I have attempted to start to do here – will I believe help piece together the logic by which the human interacts with the non-human world in the sira.

Deformed Trees and a Patchwork Eden

(This isn’t my best work – it’s very jumbled, waxes fairly poetic in moments, and it lacks a clear argument, but I was exhausted after a full day of teaching (up since 6am, 3 hours teaching and over 4 hours of commute, three buses, a subway, and the PATH, to work at two different schools because I’m a poor grad student whose work is exploited) and I have a conference paper I’m writing for this weekend’s ISSM conference (forthcoming) so I didn’t have as much time to work on this response as I would have wanted. All the same; enjoy my ramblings!)

The Prologue to Matthew of Vendome’s Ars Versificatoria, ends with an indignant take down of false versifiers, who Matthew calls the “stitchers of patches,” and who he says should be “excluded from examining this work.” These are versifiers who “rely on title alone and pant according to the meter of the verses rather than the beauty of what is in the meter. Some merely rearrange the patchwork line which throws the shadow of a trunk, not of foliage, and strive to pound into a unit and aggregate of triffles, which because of their own deformity do not dare to go out in public, and seem to take turns among themselves in shouting: We are numbers only, born to consume the fruits / of the earth.” Here false versifiers are seen, hunched over with scissors in hand, cutting up verses and stitching them together to match meter, creating deformed and unnatural and barren silhouettes, shadows that do not dare to be seen in public due to their ugliness. This book is not for them.

This description of the “stitcher of patches” and their patchwork verse draws on the language of trees, foliage, deformity and disability. There is a tangled web of images here that seems to make several different points about verse at once. The first point is that verse and the natural world are linked in some way. A patchwork verse, such as the one described here, is “the shadow of a trunk, but not of foliage” – a more beautiful verse would presumably be a tree with foliage, or at least the shadow of one. Another point the end of the prologue makes is that, most likely because of their relationship to the natural world and the natural order, verse contain some inherent “beauty of what is in the meter.” This beauty can, however, be butchered; this is the next point. What I suppose would be deemed “unnatural” verse is also possible; verse can become stitched patchwork, a textile that is cut up and sown back together. This verse is so ashamed of its own de-formity (that is, literally the removal (de-) of its form) that it hides from the public, is embarrassed and crying out in hunger, recognizing its base state as no more than numbers. Meter, stripped of its inherent beauty, is a shame-filled grouping of numbers.

Shame, patchwork, stitching, fruit and foliage all evoke popular post-fall depiction of man. The fall of man when he consumed the fruit of the earth causes him to feel shame, stitch foliage together in a patchwork, and cry about his base nature as he is kicked out of the beauty of Eden. This is when disorder and deformity entered the world. It seems that the argument Matthew may be making about verse is that there is a “pre-” and “post-fall” verse, and the “stitchers of patches” – those who would reduce meter to numbers and sew for it a covering of foliage – ought to be kicked out of the “Eden,” and “excluded from examining this work.”

I feel as though I may be over-reading this metaphor a bit, but nevertheless there are some provocative claims being made in this moment. Is verse like a tree? Like a patchwork? Like a deformed body? Is verse human? Is it capable of falling? Clearly it can lose its form. Is the verse a body? And if so, is it (imagined as) a human one? Or rather is it an aggregate of plant, animal, form and deformed?  The way in which verse becomes its own microcosm connected to a larger macrocosm of order and disorder, form and deformity, beauty and sin, is a throughline for the instructions of Ars Versificatoria itself – for example, the suggestion in #16 that one begin a verse with “a general idea to which credence is customarily given.” The “general idea” is the connection to a larger order – the verse then follows the beauty of what is in the meter, the beauty of what is in that order.

Birds, Dragons, and Wolves, Oh My!

(I will should be posting weekly on Thursdays my responses for Karl Steel’s Intro to Medieval class Fall 2019, let’s see how this goes!)

In the Volsung Saga, when Sigurd kills the dragon and drinks its blood, he gains the ability to talk to birds: “when the juice sputtered out he touched it with his finger to see whether it was done. He jerked his finger to his mouth, and when the blood from the dragon’s heart touched his tongue he could understand the language of birds. He heard some tits twittering near him in the thicket” (33). Sigurd overhears the birds discussing how he would be foolish not to kill Regin in order to protect himself from harm and take the dragon’s gold for himself, and so he does as they deem wise and cuts of Regin’s head. In his notes on this moment, R.G. Finch acknowledges that the belief that birds could warn about impending danger was widespread in medieval Europe, and that the dragon’s blood’s ability to hear the speech of birds could have derived from the belief in Iceland that eating the heart of a raven could grant the same skill. The saga suggests that animals have a language they communicate in, and that this language is somehow analogous (or, at least, translatable) to human speech. The moment Sigurd understands the birds isn’t described as a skill, but rather as an effect caused by the ingestion of the dragon’s blood (“when…he could”). Once he is able to understand the birds, he overhears them already speaking about him as if he couldn’t hear them. This suggests that the saga assumes birds are watching us always, and conversing or communicating about our choices, having marginal conversations, glossing and interpreting our decisions, whether we can understand their “speech” or not. Sigurd listens to and follows the birds’ advice in this moment, which prompts further questions about the potential consequences of understanding the marginal speech of birds: if we could understand them, would they influence our decisions? And would they do so wisely? Did they advise Sigurd properly? The assumption that the saga makes – that birds converse amongst themselves about human actions – intervenes in the understanding of human/animal relationships with questions of the relative wisdom and knowledge of birds, as well as the function and purpose of that knowledge in human narrative.

The saga makes the suggestion that animals have their own speech multiple times, one of the first being when Sigmund and Sinfjotli wear the wolfskins: “Sigmund and Sinjotli got into the skins, and could not get out of them again – the strange power was there, just as before, and they even howled like wolves, both understanding what was being said” (11). Their inability to understand wolf howls prior to putting on the wolf skin and becoming wolves themselves suggests that wolf howls were always intelligible communication, but that humans do not know that they mean, and they cannot unless they go through some kind of transformation beyond the human. However, the irreversible nature of the skins (the “got into the skins and could not get out of them again”) suggests that the consequences of the change are also irreversible. Sigmund is described as howling “with his wolf’s voice” (11), as if there were many voices he might howl with, the wolf voice being one possible voice in a list of potential voices (including bird voices perhaps). The connection here between wolves and speech may reach back even earlier in the narrative, to the moment that Sigmund bites the tongue off the she-wolf who licks the honey out of his mouth (the wolf who some people believed “was King Siggeri’s mother who had assumed that shape on account of witchcraft and magic”). The connection between tongue and speech is obvious, but whether this moment of mother-wolf transformation and tongue-biting is meant to foreshadow or forewarn Sigmund about the enchanted wolf-skins (the way the birds forewarn Sigurd) is unclear. What is clear is that the saga once again suggests a complex mode of speech and communication that is outside of and marginal to/co-existent with human language, but that the human might gain access to, and which has equal weight in the events of the narrative.

This extra-human communication seems to apply to other human bodies – or, at least, once-human bodies – in the poem as well. The conversation Sigurd has with Fafnir is one that requires a very particular subliteracy, as both Sigurd and Fafnir reference culturally contingent stories in their conversation. Clearly there seems to be some kind of miscommunication, or at least a lack of listening on Sigurd’s part, as Fafnir acknowledges “You’ll not be guided much by what I say” (31). Similarly to the situation with the birds a few lines later, it seems that Fafnir knows something Sigurd doesn’t, and is speaking in a mode that inhibits Sigurd from understanding properly, despite the fact that he (Fafnir) presumably speaks in human language. Similarly to Sinfjolti and Sigmund in the beginning of the saga, Fafnir was also once human, but has undergone a transformation, and this transformation seems to have granted him access to certain kinds of knowledge (specifically about the gold) that Sigurd does not have access to.

The cross-contamination of human and non-human bodies – the consuming of dragon blood, the biting of the wolf tongue, the donning of wolf pelts, etc – disrupts the boundaries of the human and animal bodies in the saga. These boundaries do not seem to be clearly defined by the saga to begin with, however, so rather than suggesting that the poem is anxious about or seeks to enforce this binary, I actually wonder if the saga has an altogether different way of imagining the relationship between the human and the animal, one where human and non-human talk about each other, but just cannot understand what the other is saying.