A Rare, Early Version of the King Arthur Legend Found & Translated

The stories of King Arthur and his court took shape over a period of a few hundred years; like most ancient legends, they evolved through many iterations — not a little like the stories in modern-day comic books. “The medieval Arthurian legends were a bit like the Marvel Universe,” explains Laura Campbell, a medieval language scholar at Durham University. “They constituted a coherent fictional world that had certain rules and a set of well-known characters who appeared and interacted with each other in multiple different stories.”

The first account of Arthur comes from a text in Latin called the Historia Brittonum, a compilation of sources assembled sometime in 829 or 830. Here, Arthur is mentioned as a historical figure, “variously described,” notes the British Library, “as a war lord (dux bellorum), as a Christian soldier who carries either an image of the virgin or Christ’s cross, and as a legendary figure associated with miraculous events.”

Merlin the magician — the figure we most associate with miraculous events in the Arthurian legends — doesn’t show up for another two hundred years or so, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. “After Geoffrey,” writes Kathryn Walton at Medievalists.net, “Merlin becomes a fixture of the Arthurian legend and appears in all kinds of different versions of the story across the Middle Ages.” One Merlin story that appears in many versions involves a figure called Nimue, Viviane, and other names in French, English, and Welsh. (She is sometimes identified with the Lady of the Lake).

The Merlin and Vivien stories have “survived throughout the ages in a way that not many other stories have,” the University of Rochester’s Robyn Pollack writes, “because writers have found remarkable ways to transform the characters and the narrative over the centuries.” Now, scholars at the University of Bristol have announced, two years after its discovery, the authentication of a fragment containing yet another version of the story.

Found glued into the binding of a late 15th century book at the Bristol public library (one of the world’s oldest libraries), the seven fragments in Old French, dated between 1250 and 1275, contain the “most chaste version” of the Merlin and Viviane legend, says Leah Tether, co-author of the new English translation and commentary, The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment. “The most significant difference to be found in this particular set of fragments is where Viviane, the enchantress, casts a spell.”

In other versions, her magic inscribes three names on her groin, a spell that keeps Merlin away from the same area. In the re-discovered fragment, which shows evidence of two scribal hands, Viviane engraves the three names on a ring, thereby preventing Merlin from speaking to her. “With medieval texts there was no such thing as copyright,” says Campbell, one of the project’s translators and authors. “So, if you were a scribe copying a manuscript, there was nothing to stop you from just changing things a bit.”

Part of a collection of Arthurian stories known as the Vulgate Cycle, the fragment provides further evidence of the Merlin character’s evolution, and considerable softening, over time. At his first introduction, Merlin was the literal son of Satan, a kind of antichrist sent to earth to wreak havoc. Over the centuries, he became much less sinister, transforming into the wise advisor of the ideal English king, Arthur, a character who did a fair bit of transforming himself as his legend grew and changed.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold the Newly-Discovered Sketch by Vincent van Gogh Sketch, “Study for Worn Out” (1882)

Having been dead for more than 130 years now, Vincent van Gogh seldom comes up with a new piece of work. But when he does, you can be sure it will draw the art world’s attention as few works by living artists could. Such has been the case with the newly discovered Study for Worn Out, an 1882 sketch that recently came into possession of the Van Gogh Museum, according to Margherita Cole at My Modern Met, “when a Dutch family requested that specialists take a look at their unsigned drawing.” The figure in the drawing strongly resembles the one in van Gogh’s 1890 painting At Eternity’s Gate. But it took the experts at the museum to determine that the artist was none other than van Gogh himself.

“Today and yesterday I drew two figures of an old man with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands,” wrote the 29-year-old van Gogh to his brother in a letter from 1882. “What a fine sight an old working man makes, in his patched bombazine suit with his bald head.” The immediate fruit of these labors was the pencil drawing Worn Out, for which “the artist employed one of his favorite models, an elderly man named Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland who boasted distinctive sideburns (and who appears in at least 40 of van Gogh’s sketches from this period).” So writes Smithsonian.com’s Nora McGreevy, who adds that van Gogh revisited the work to adapt it as a painting “just two months before his death” in an asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

“In drawings like these,”  says the Van Gogh Museum, “the artist not only displayed his sympathy for the socially disadvantaged — no way inferior in his eyes to the well-to-do bourgeoisie — he actively called attention to them too.” Another aim with Worn Out, adds McGreevy, was “to seek employment at a British publication, but he either failed to follow through on this idea or had his work rejected.” This would have counted as just another seeming instance of failure, the likes of which characterized the painter’s short life. Little could he, his correspondents, or his models have imagined that his works would one day become some of the most famous in the world — and certainly not that one of his sketches would go on to be enshrined well over a century later, as it has been since last Friday at the museum that bears his name.

via My Modern Met

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the Brazilian Metal Band Singing in–and Trying to Save–Their Native Language of Tupi-Guarani

The indigenous languages spoken in Brazil number around 170, a testament to the survival of tribal communities nearly wiped out by colonialism and commerce. Yet 40 of those languages have fewer than 100 speakers, and many more are declining rapidly. For linguists, “it’s a fight against time,” Luisi Destri writes at Pesquisa. Researchers estimate most, if not all, of these languages could disappear within 50 to 100 years, and some believe 30 percent might fade in the next 15 years.

“Knowledge is passed down from generation to generation,” says Luciano Storto, professor of linguistics at the University of São Paulo, “mainly through narratives told by the oldest and most experienced to the community’s youngest members.” What happens when those younger generations are uprooted and leave home. When their elders die without passing on their knowledge? (What happens to language in general as the linguistic gene pool shrinks?) These questions weighed on Zhândio Aquino in 2004 when he founded Brazilian metal band Arandu Arakuaa.

Aquino has a degree in pedagogy and his band has been invited to play in schools and lecture at universities. But they do not use indigenous instrumentation and sing in an indigenous Tupi-Guarani language as a purely academic exercise. Raised in the northern state of Tocantins and descended from a Guarani-speaking tribe, the guitarist and singer says, “I [had] very close contact with indigenous culture because of my grandmother and classmates. When I [began] playing in bands, it just felt natural to put my background on it.”

When he moved to Brasilia in 2004, Aquino searched for like-minded musicians and formed what may be the country’s first folk metal band. While folk metal as a category is hardly new (metal has always incorporated elements of folk music, from its earliest incarnations in Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to the bleakest of Scandinavian black metal bands), most folk metal has been European (and Pagan or Viking or Pirate), and some of it has allied, sadly, with the same fascist movements that threaten indigenous existence.

While Arandu Arakuaa — the name translates to “cosmos knowledge” — may be one of the first folk metal bands in Brazil, it isn’t the only one. Along with bands like Aclla, Armahda, and Tamuya Thrash Tribe, the band is part of a movement called the Levante do Metal Nativo, or Native Metal Uprising, a collection of musicians using native instruments, themes, and languages — or all three in the case of Arandu Arakuaa, who incorporate maracas and the guitar-like viola caipira.

How do acoustic indigenous folk and the electric crunch and growl of metal come together? Hear for yourself in the videos here. Aquino knows Arandu Arakuaa doesn’t win everyone over at first. “People are not indifferent to our music,” he says. “They will love it or hate it. Most people think it’s strange at first and then we have to prove that we are good.”

While intelligible lyrics are hardly necessary in metal, the language barrier may turn some listeners away. But subtitled videos help. Arandu Arakuaa might seem to have a different focus than most metal bands, but in songs like “Red People,” we hear the rage and the resistance to war and depredation that bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Metallica — all influences on the Brazilian band –have channeled in their music:

Some of us ran away, we hide in the forest
We still fight
The red people still resisting, while there is land, while there is forest
Everything became different
Our spirits are called demons
Each day less trees, less animals, less histories, less songs…

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hobbes, Locke & Rousseau: An Animated Introduction to Their Political Theories

The phrase “state of nature” doesn’t get much use in philosophy these days, but every political philosopher must grapple with the history of the idea — a foundational conceit of modern Euro-American thought in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These three “contractualist” philosophers, often grouped together in syllabi and selected introductory texts, relied on the notion that humans once existed in an anarchic state predating civil society, and that this state might be re-discoverable in indigenous ways of life in the Americas. In the three School of Life videos here, you can learn the basics about each of these philosophers and their political theories.

Unlike the Biblical garden of Eden, the state of nature was hardly perfect, at least for Hobbes and Locke, who saw government as a necessary mediator for competing self-interests. The kinds of governments they theorized were vastly different from each other — one an absolute monarchy and the other a capitalist republic. But in each theorist’s pseudo-prehistory, early humans gave up their independence by making social contracts for protection and mutual interest. These “contracts,” claimed both Hobbes and Locke, were the origin of governments.

Hobbes was the first major thinker to elaborate a version of this story, and his description of life before government is well-known: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of their painful existence, humans would have sought out a powerful ruler to protect them. They were right to do so, Hobbes believed, because only a king, as he argued in Leviathan, could provide the protection people need. It was perhaps no coincidence that Hobbes worked for a king, his former student, Charles II, restored to the throne after the English Civil War that drove Hobbes to his authoritarian views, supposedly.

Despite his defense of divine power, Hobbes stood accused of atheism and blasphemy for, among other things, writing a secular justification for monarchy that was not based on revelation or the divine right of kings. Likewise, the first part of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government was a forceful refutation of divine right. But Locke’s ideas of toleration were far more threatening to the state, which is why he published anonymously. In his Second Treatise, he laid out his version of the state of nature and the social contract — ideas drawn in part from travelogues written by early colonial adventurers.

Locke’s theory of government is also a theory of private property — the rightful source of political power, he believed — and who should own it. Decades later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his most salient works, including a book titled The Social Contract, in opposition to the inequality of Hobbesian and Lockean states. Rousseau believed in human perfectibility and claimed that governments imposed a “general will” on individuals, repressing an essentially benevolent state of nature in which resources were shared.

Rousseau’s rejoinder to the myth of vicious savagery gave rise to another: that of the noble savage, an appealing image for the revolutionaries of late-18th century France and later utopian socialists tasked with the difficult project of imagining an alternative to political hierarchy. In social contract theory, the imagined way forward derives from an imagined precolonial past, more “moral fiction” than “historical fact,” as scholar Richard Ashcraft argues. Learn more about the mythical state of nature and the primary theorists of the social contract above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When the Nobel Prize Committee Rejected The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien “Has Not Measured Up to Storytelling of the Highest Quality” (1961)

When J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books appeared in the mid-1950s, they were met with very mixed reviews, an unsurprising reception given that nothing like them had been written for adult readers since Edmund Spencer’s epic 16th century English poem The Faerie Queene, perhaps. At least, this was the contention of reviewer Richard Hughes, who went on to write that “for width of imagination,” The Lord of the Rings “almost beggars parallel.”

Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison did find a comparison: to Sir Thomas Malory, author of the 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur — hardly misplaced, given Tolkien’s day job as an Oxford don of English literature, but not the sort of thing that passed for contemporary writing in the 1950s, notwithstanding the serious appreciation of writers like W.H. Auden for Tolkien’s trilogy. “No previous writer,” the poet remarked in a New York Times review, “has, to my knowledge, created an imaginary world and a feigned history in such detail.”

Auden did find fault with Tolkien’s poetry, a fact upon which critic Edmund Wilson seized in his scathing 1956 Lord of the Rings review. “Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive — through lack of interest in the other department,” wrote Wilson, “to the fact that Tolkien’s prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness.” Five years later, the Nobel prize jury would make the same judgement when they excluded Tolkien’s books from consideration. Tolkien’s prose, wrote jury member Anders Österling, “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.”

The note was discovered recently by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekström, who delved into the Nobel archive for 1961 and found that “the jury passed over names including Lawrence Durrell, Robert Frost, Graham Green, E.M. Forster, and Tolkien to come up with their eventual winner, Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić,” as Alison Flood reports at The Guardian. (The Nobel archives are sealed until 50 years after the year the award is given.) Ekström has been reading through the archives “for the past five years or so,” he says, “and this was the first time I have seen Tolkien’s name among the suggested candidates.” His name appeared on the list chiefly through the machinations of his closest friend and chief supporter, C.S. Lewis.

Lewis, “also of Oxford,” Wilson sneered, “is able to top them all” in praise of Tolkien’s books. From the first appearance of his Middle Earth fantasy in The Hobbit, Lewis promised to “do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves,” as he wrote in a 1953 letter to British publisher Stanley Unwin. In what might be considered an unethical promotion of his friend’s work today, Lewis responded tirelessly to critics of the trilogy, going so far, after the publication of The Two Towers, to pen an essay on the subject titled “The Dethronement of Power.” Here, Lewis explains the prolix quality of Tolkien’s prose — that which critics called “tedious” — as a narrative necessity: “I do not think he could have done it any other way.”

Tolkien’s biggest fan also urged readers to spend more time with the books and promised that the rewards would be great. In defense of the second work of the trilogy, he concluded, “the book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our rereadings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.” And so has all of Tolkien’s work, becoming the literary standard by which high fantasy is measured, with or without a Nobel prize.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Good with Words: A Series of Writing & Editing Courses from the University of Michigan

We’ve all used words just about as long as we’ve been alive. This obvious truth, alas, has led too many of us into the delusion that we’re good with words: that we’re good speakers and, even more commonly and less justifiably, that we’re good writers. Yet anyone who’s seen or heard much of how words are used in the realms of business and academia — to say nothing of personal correspondence — does understand, on some level, the true rarity of these skills. Now, those of us who recognize the need to shore up our own skills can do so through Good with Words, a specialization in writing and editing now offered by the University of Michigan through online education platform Coursera.

Good with Words comprises individual courses on word choice and word order, structure and organization, drafting, and revising. Here to teach them is Michigan Law School Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Patrick Barry, of whose lecturing style you can get a taste in this Youtube playlist collecting clips of a writing workshop held for Michigan Law students in 2014. In the clip above, he takes on the common problem of verbal clutter, working from the definition originally laid out by On Writing Well author William Zinsser (whose ten writing tips we previously featured here on Open Culture). In other brief views, Barry touches on everything from the power of description and sentence flow to facts versus truths and zombie nouns.

In one workshop clip, Barry reminds his students that, in order to write good sentences, they must read good sentences. This point bears repeating, and indeed Barry repeats it in his Coursera course, the relevant excerpt of which you can view here. “A young writer must read,” he quotes Colum McCann declaring in the book Letters to a Young Writer. “She must read and read and read. Adventurously. Promiscuously. Unfailingly.” But taking a course as well couldn’t hurt, especially when, as with Good with Words, it can be audited for free. (Coursera also offers a paid option for students who would like to receive a certificate upon completing the specialization.) Barry offers plenty of example sentences, good and less so, but the true writers among us will never stop looking for their own, even after Good with Words‘ suggested four-month duration is over.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Death of Soap Operas (Is Greatly Exaggerated) — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #105

Writers Sarahlyn Bruck and Kayla Dreysse join your host Mark Linsenmayer to discuss how this once very popular TV show type has simultaneously become niche, yet has had a tremendous influence on current prestige TV as well as reality shows. We talk about soaps’ story and structure conventions, the demands on soap actors and writers, and how changing market forces and technology have affected the genre. How much of a role does sexism play in the critical dismissal of soaps?

In addition to the daytime soaps like General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful, we touch on nighttime soaps like Dallas, teen soaps like Beverly Hills 90210, Downton Abbey, White Orchid, Breaking Bad, 24, Gray’s Anatomy, and more.

Get Sarahlyn’s novel Daytime Drama and follow her at @sarahlynbruck.

We all watched the 2020 documentary The Story of Soaps, which is available on YouTube. A fun podcast Mark listened to some of is A Trip Down Soap Lane.

Other sources that inspired us included:

Sample the Muppets’ fake soap opera that Mark’s intro references.

This episode includes bonus discussion you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Superstar Violinist Nigel Kennedy Reinvents Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”: Watch Two Dynamic Performances

Violinists don’t often make the news these days, but when one does, you can be reasonably assured either that a musical controversy is afoot, or that the violinist in question is Nigel Kennedy. This time, both of those are the case: Kennedy, as The Guardian‘s Dalya Alberge reports, “has pulled out of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall with only days to go after accusing the radio station Classic FM of preventing him from performing a Jimi Hendrix tribute.” At issue is his intent to perform a version of Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” but even with its “Celtic-sounding melody,” that composition was ultimately deemed “not suitable” for the audience.

It seems that Classic FM’s management would have preferred Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, of which Kennedy recorded the world’s best-selling version in 1989. That a classical radio station famous for concentrating its programming on the “hits” and a classical performer famous for deliberately unorthodox musical turns would fail to see eye-to-eye should not, perhaps, come as a surprise.

But then, Kennedy has long displayed a keen instinct for publicity and a tendency to — well, one would say épater les bourgeois, were Hendrix not now regarded as so thoroughly respectable in his own right. As Kennedy sees it, he was “one of the foremost composers of the 20th century, along with Stravinsky and Duke Ellington.”

The guitarist’s exalted status rests, Kennedy argues, on his having “brought all types of music together.” Even in a song like “Purple Haze” — which you can see Kennedy reinterpret with the Polish Chamber Orchestra in 2005, and again at the 2015 Thanks Jim Festival in Wroclaw — musicologists hear traces of both the American blues and the Mixolydian mode, along with such unconventional-for-1967 touches as the diminished-fifth melodic interval, long known as the “diabolus in musica” and the E7♯9 chord, now known as the “Hendrix chord.” Much of the song only uses two other chords, making “Purple Haze” the rare three-chord, under-three-minute rock hit that contains more than enough substance to inspire an unconventionally minded classical musician. But then, try telling that to a program director.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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