February 9, 2022

The Brass Horse

         Today’s poem is an unusual one, as it is just a very small excerpt from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (England, c1340-1400).  The Canterbury Tales are a diverse collection of stories, reported as being told by a diverse collection of people.  They range from lewd tales of sex and farting, to sermons on penance, to animal fables, to tales of courtly love.  There are also several stories that we would class as fairy tales, which include elements that are present in many other traditional fairy tales, both from Europe and the 1001 Nights.  The Squire’s Tale is one of these.  Chaucer clearly satirizes the Squire in the portrayal of his verbose, tangential style, which in the end is interrupted by the next character basically saying, “Great, we get the idea,” and proceeding with his own story.  Nevertheless, the Squire gets to tell us about some excellent fantastical elements.  Genghis Khan is holding a party, when in comes a knight bearing gifts from the King of Arabia and India.  These gifts are a brass horse that can carry the rider anywhere in 24 hours or less, a mirror which shows what all the king’s friends and enemies are up to, a ring which allows the wearer to understand the language of birds and the medicinal uses of plants, and a sword that cuts through any armor and can also heal from the wounds it causes.
        Because the tale is unfinished, we never actually find out what happens with any of the gifts (except the ring), but we do get a long exposition about the magical objects and what all the courtiers thought of them.  Today’s excerpt comes from that section.  I offer below two “translations.”  One is sort of halfway between the original Middle English and a modern translation.  It changes as little as possible, but does modernize some of the grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.  The second version is more modern, so pick that if you’re more interested in the sense than the linguistics!  (If you want to read the original, it’s here.  My excerpt begins at line 199.  Or try a twenty-first century colloquial version here.)

But evermore their moste wonder was
How that it coulde go, and was of brass;
It was of Faerie, as the people seem'd.
Diverse folk diversely they deem'd;
As many heads, as many wittes been.
They murmured, as doth a swarm of been,
And made skills after their fantasies,
Rehearsing of the olde poetries,
And said that it was like the Pegasee,
The horse that hadde winges for to flee;
Or else it was the Greeke's horse Sinon,
That broughte Troye to destruction,
As men may in the olde gestes read.
Mine heart," quoth one, "is evermore in dread;
I trow some men of armes be therein,
That shape them this city for to win:
It were right good that all such thing were know."
Another rowned to his fellow low,
And said, "He lies; for it is rather like
An apparence made by some magic,
As jugglers playen at these feastes great."
Of sundry doubts they jangle thus and treat.
As lewed people deeme commonly
Of thinges that be made more subtilly
Than they can in their lewdness comprehend;
They deeme gladly to the badder end. 

But evermore their greatest wonder was,
How it could go, being made all of brass;
It was of Faery, as to people seemed.
And divers folk diversely of it deemed;

So many heads, so many wits, one sees.

They buzzed and murmured like a swarm of bees,

And played about it with their fantasy,

Recalling what they'd learned from poetry;

Like Pegasus it was that mounted high,

That horse which had great wings and so could fly;

Or else it was the horse of Greek Sinon

Who brought Troy to destruction, years agone.

As men in these old histories may read.

"My heart," said one, "is evermore in dread;

I think some men-at-arms are hid therein

Who have in mind this capital to win.

It were right well that of such things we know."

Another whispered to his fellow, low,

And said: "He lies, for it is rather like

Some conjured up appearance of magic,

Which jugglers practise at these banquets great."

Of sundry doubts like these they all did treat,

As vulgar people chatter commonly

Of all things that are made more cunningly

Than they can in their ignorance comprehend;

They gladly judge they're made for some base end.

        The reason I picked this section is that I love seeing what the contemporary audience might have made of the possibility of magic.  They knew it had to have some sort of trick about it for a brass horse to be able to move, but what form of magic was it?  Did it come from fairyland, was it more like the living Pegasus, or more like the Trojan Horse that was all treachery instead of true magic?  Or was it simply a stage illusion?  There is also in other parts of the tale much discussion of alchemy.  This is a fun reminder that just because people in the fourteenth century believed in the possibility of magic doesn’t mean they uncritically believed in all claims of magic.  If this story were set in the present, the people might be speculating that it was made with alien technology, or came from high-tech labs in China and was stuffed full of surveillance programs.  Plus, I’m amused by the Squire’s (or possibly Chaucer’s) satirical comment that people always try to come up with elaborate explanations for the things they’re too stupid to understand.
        (One fun linguistic note about the Fairyland explanation: the original Middle English doesn’t say that the horse comes from Fairyland but that it “was a fairye.”  I think this usage reflects the very earliest meaning of the word “fairy” in English, which was neither the place nor its denizens, but rather “enchantment.”  You can see more history of the word here.)
        What do you think is the best explanation of

This steed of brass, that easily and well
Can in the space of one day naturel
(This is to say, in four-and-twenty hours),
Whereso you list, in drought or else in show'rs,
Beare your body into every place
To which your hearte willeth for to pace,
Withoute harm to you, through foul or fair.
Or if you list to fly as high in air
As doth an eagle, when him list to soar,
This same steed shall bear you evermore
Withoute harm, till ye be where you lest
(Though that ye sleepen on his back, or rest).

[Pictures: There came a knight upon a steed of brass, illustration by Walter Appleton Clark, 1914 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Ebony Horse, linocut and woodcut by Bill Reily, 1960 (Image from theMcNay);

Ebony Horse, frontispiece by John Dickson Batten from More Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights, 1895 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Mounting the Ebony Horse, illustration by Marc Chagall from Four Tales from the Arabian Nights, 1948 (Image from Indianapolis Museum of Art).]

And the rest of the versions I've excerpted above, here and here.

1 comment:

Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

Thank you for this enlightening look on magic, credulity and otherworldliness and also on faerie and fairy. For me Faerie was always the land or an adjective, but being a non-native, I was probably too much influenced by "The Faerie Queen" (and Tolkien's theories and wonderings of languages). And a funny detail, for me, A Dane, old English is not much harder to read than the modern variety, as many of the old words are Germanic or Nordic in origin ;) Of course I am a language nerd, who loves reading dictionary articles for fun and find etymology highly interesting. I even studied Slavonic Linguistics once upon a time ;)
Thanks again for these interesting articles.