Tag Archives: heroic age

Sea-birds and Wanderlust

Species: Several, most importantly seagull (Larus argentatus) and cuckoo (Cuculus canorus).

Source: Two Old English lyric elegies: ‘The Seafarer’ and ’The Wanderer’.

Date: Seafarer c.850, Wanderer c.900 AD. (Klinck, 1992:13-21)

Highlights: Tolkien’s totally stole the idea of “sea-longing” from medieval poetry.

Now I’m not saying Tolkien was a sneaking-snaking-snarer who purposefully snuck medieval literature into his stories to educate people, but, well, they didn’t call him Professor for nothing. Photograph by Julian Nitzsche CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Now I’m not saying Tolkien was a sneaking-snaking-snarer who purposefully snuck medieval literature into his stories to educate people, but, well, they didn’t call him Professor for nothing.
Photograph by Julian Nitzsche CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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Gareth and the Power Rangers

Species: One black hauthorne (unearthly Crataegus monogyna / Crataegus laevigata) and one generic thorn (most likely the same species). These bushes are, strangely both used by knights to store their weapons.

Source: ‘Sir Gareth’ one of the tales from Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory.

Date: Le Morte Darthur was probably complete in manuscript form by 1460 CE, and was first published by Caxton in 1485.

Highlights: A significant portion of the plot of ‘Gareth’ is concerned with the main character’s battles with a group of Power Rangers. He defeats a Black Knight, a Green Knight, a Red Knight, a Blue Knight a second Red Knight and a Brown Knight.

Is Gareth seeking perfection through alchemy (Wheeler, 1994)? Is Gareth seeking to fight his way up through the ranks to becoming the golden knight (Tiller, 2007)? Where do the bushes come in? Is this the end of the Power Rangers?

Read on to find out.

The MS image is from BL Royal 14 E III, f.97v. One of the knights is Gareth. It is in the public domain because of its age. The photograph was taken by Mooshuu and is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. If you know the identity of the cosplayers here please let me know.

The MS image is from BL Royal 14 E III, f.97v. One of the knights is Gareth. It is in the public domain because of its age. The photograph was taken by Mooshuu and is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. If you know the identity of the cosplayers here please let me know.

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Back when the birds spoke Gaelic

Species: A tawny owl (Strix aluco) and magpie (Pica pica) have a battle of wits and it gets UGLY. An ambiguous grey bird is the judge.

Source: ‘Dàn mu Chonaltradh’ (English title: The Colloquy of the Birds).

Date: Modern! First published 1798, and written a few years before.

Highlights: Once upon a time, long ago, birds could speak Gaelic. Here’s the most famous example.

Magpies from Addition MS 26968 fol.282v. Owl from Harley 2887, fol.29. Both images are in the public domain because of their age.

Magpies from Addition MS 26968 fol.282v. Owl from Harley 2887, fol.29. Both images are in the public domain because of their age.

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When Arthur met an Eagle

Species: One woodland-adapted sea-eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).

Source: ‘Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr’ (the Conversation between Arthur and the Eagle), a teaching text on Christian theology with an Arthurian frame story.

Date: Most probably original to the Jesus 20 manuscript: 1300-1350 A.D.

Highlights: Once Arthur found an eagle laughing at him. He was annoyed until he found out it was his dead nephew, Eliwlad. At that point he hinted he could make war on God if it would help…

sea eagle

Sea Eagle photographed by GerardM, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Sea eagles (=white-tailed eagles; fish-eagles) often nest in lowland trees.

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What is a sea swallow? (morwennawl, morwennol)

Species: ‘Swallow’ (Hirunda sp.); ‘Sea-swallow’ (=tern, Sterna sp.)

Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’, the earliest Welsh prose tale.

Date: c.1100 A.D., but from the oldest-seeing part of a story with a known ninth century version.

Highlights: Our story pauses mid-way through to admire the figure of Culhwch, boy-hero. He’s so fly, even the mud off his horse’s hooves come out like swallows, and his hounds are as agile as terns.

Common tern (Stena hirundo) photographed by Tony Hisgett.

Common tern (Stena hirundo) photographed by Tony Hisgett.

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Speaking Starlings

Here are three things you should know about starlings: (i) They have cool little stars all over their feathers. (ii) Boring people get very excited watching them gather together in clouds. (iii) They can learn to speak medieval Welsh, unlike most undergrads.

Species: The common but surprisingly cool starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Source: ‘Branwen’, second of the ‘Mabinogi’ stories.

Date: 1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: If you are ever a victim of domestic abuse, our text suggests that your best option is to train a starling to talk, and send it to your brother with orders to summon his army and invade.

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Mystical Apple Trees in the Black Book of Carmarthen

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris)

Photograph of crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris) by Katy Wrathall licensed under CC-BY-SA-ND.

 Species Mentioned: A series of crab apple trees (Malus sylvestris).

Source: ‘Yr Afallenau’, a series of  Old Welsh prophetic verses found in the Black Book of Carmarthen and Peniarth 3.

Date: Pre-1138. Suggested earliest form c.800-899 A.D., but little evidence for this.

Highlights: Myrddin the Mad is the literary inspiration for THE Merlin you’ve heard about. He goes to live in the woods and gives prophecies to a series of apple trees. He believes some of these are magic and they hide him from “his enemies” (possibly just friends trying to get him to come down from that tree and put some clothes on.)

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