Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Another Poem Translation

Erich Kästner (1899-1974). German writer, best known for his YA fiction, but he also wrote adult books and poetry, often with satirical tones. He became a pacifist after WW1 and thus he was at odds with Hitler's Reich albeit he never fled Germany. His books were forbidden, though, and published in Switzerland.

The poem represents the status of science at about 1930.

You can find more information about Erich Kästner here.

Fortschritt der Menschheit
(Progress of Mankind)

Once, the guys sat in the trees,
Ugly, and with angry faces.
They were coaxed out of the wood;
And their world was storeyed up
Right to the thirtieth floor.

There now they sat, fled from the fleas,
In central heated rooms.
There now they sit, using the phone,
And using still the same ol' tone
As back in jungle trees.

They listen far, they watch TV.
They are in touch with the universe.
They brush their teeth. They breathe clean air.
The earth is an educated star
With lots of water flushing.

They shoot letters through a tube,
And hunt and breed microbes.
They equip nature with comfort;
And rocket right up to the sky
And stay there for two weeks.

They turn to cotton the remains
Of what their body didn't digest.
They cleave atoms and they heal incest,
And divine by analysis of style
That Caesar had flat feet.

Thus they created with head and mouth
Progression of mankind.
But that aside,
And seen by light, they still remain
The same ol' hairy apes.

For Tess Gerritsen who recently had to suffer from someone who obviously has problems with human evolution.

Translation is mine, done right on the spot, because her blogpost reminded me of the poem.

  Finally, the Five Book Meme, With a Twist

Some time ago, a 'Your Favourite Five Historical Novels'-meme made the rounds, but I had so much on my brain I never got to it. Not to mention I can't for the life of me, restrict my favourite historical fiction novels to five. Thus I decided to give it a bit of a twist and present the

Five Historical Novels You Blame for Writing Historical Fiction-meme

1) Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth
I loved her books since childhood, but The Eagle of the Ninth is the one that made me write a novel with a Roman Britain setting as second book (The Charioteer, formerly The Tribune of the Lost Fort, a still ongoing project). As (1a) I name Hans Baumann, Ich zog mit Hannibal, a YA novel about Hannibal's Italian War.

2) Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
I wrote War and Peace fanfiction before the word was invented. So there. :)

3) Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
This book stands for a number of books by Scott, Alexandre Dumas (I fell in love with Athos from The Three Musketeers), Wilhelm Hauff and other 19th century writers of historical novels that I always loved. One I should mention as (3a) is the German author Felix Dahn whose Kampf um Rom got me interested in the Goths. And of course, (3b) Forester's Hornblower books.

4) Laxdoela Saga
and other Icelandic sagas; not only subject of my academic studies, but a love and in some way, a model for my own writing. I should name (4a) a German YA book, Barbara Bartos-Höppner's Tausend Schiffe trieb der Wind, about the Vikings in Ireland, as well.

5) The Illiad
and other epics from the Song of Roland to the Song of the Niblungs. I read the Illiad when I was eight, and epics have always stuck with me. As academic subject as well. In a way, (5a) Tolkien's Lord of the Rings belongs in the list despite the fact it isn't Historical Fiction. It surely has the heroic elements of a good epic which I have to try and modernise, de-mythicise, without losing what makes such characters so appealing

More recent influences are the Arthur and Saxon books by Bernard Cornwell, the Mediaeval novels of Umberto Eco with their amazing worldbuilding and background, and when it comes to meticulous research, Sharon Kay Penman and Rebecca Gablé. My interest in the books of Halldór Laxness is the logical continuation of the Icelandic sagas; he has taught me much. That also goes for Thomas Mann's Joseph-trilogy, an epic-philosophical take on the Biblical story that in some way closes the circle to War and Peace.

  Günter Grass and a Moral Dilemma

Those who follow this blog from the beginning will remember that I sometimes post reviews of interesting books by German writers that have been translated into English (links in the sidebar). Among those is Crabwalk by Günter Grass. Grass has, as writer and as person, always stressed the importance of dealing with the past, not denying what has happened, and having people responsible for war cruelties and the holocaust answer for their deeds.

Now it turns out that Grass, thus far the pillar of German morals (self proclaimed as well as styled as such by the press) has been member of the SS during the last months of the war and never told anyone. Can we say hypocrite?

I have considered whether or not to remove the review of his book from my blog. I decided not to, for two reasons. As angry as I am about his double morals, those last months of the war were a mess, and many young men had no say in being pushed into the army. What I do blame him for is that he never came forth with this information, as he always demanded others to do. Second, I still think Crabwalk is a good book.

Thus, the review will stay, but I'll use this post to state that I am dissappointed in Grass' double standards. Though I also think it's an exaggeration to demand he'll give the Nobel Prize back and other such extreme things I've read in the papers. He got the prize for his books, not his life. But Grass should apologise for preaching a moral he didn't live up to himself.

  Anyone know some AngloSaxon?

I need a word for Blood Avenger or something along those lines. You know, a guy who is after another one who killed his brother. All through 8th century Saxonia and Frankia. :)

It's PBW's fault. Why must she come up with an e-book challenge the moment I get a fresh batch of mutant plotbunnies? Now I have this Saxon guy, Ricmar, who kills the wrong man, is condemned to being an outlaw and flees all the way to the Rhine, joins the Franks under Charlemange but isn't happy about being on the other side, tries to clear his name with his people - and all the time his avenger on hot pursuit.

  The German Wall

It was one of the most intriguing discoveries at Kalkriese. Those big blond Germans had learned a few things from the Romans, and one was that walls are a good place to hide behind. So, along the smallest part of the path between woods and swamp, they built a series of wall and wicker or palisade defenses to make it even more difficult for the Romans to escape into the woods, and to hide behind until the moment of the ambush. That required planning ahead and a few weeks of work.

The walls were probably camouflaged by bushes and near to invisible. The pic above shows a piece of reconstructed wall - made of earth and grass cuts - from the 'Roman" side, the one to the left shows me standing on the 'German' side. The wicker screens were higher back then but have been adapted to school kid size (Kalkriese is a good place to visit for kids). So far, beside the reconstructed wall, iron palisades demonstrate the line along which the wall ran but I hope they will rebuild more of it until 2009.


  The Museum Park at Kalkriese

An extended essay about the Varus battle will appear soon, taking into account new discoveries (added Jan. 2015).

Below is an overview photo taken from the museum tower. Of course, the landscape has changed a lot since 9 AD; what was a nasty bog where the Romans got stuck now are fields, the hill on the other side is less high because the land has risen thanks to a fertilizing system that used cut out grass sods turned upside down (the layer is about three metres today) trees have been felled, all that stuff.

Picture taken from the watchtower (not a Roman one, a modern building that also contains the museum

The winding grey way in the middle that cuts right through the iron enclave in the centre of the pic is the Roman marching line; to the left is the woodcovered hill, to the right the former swamp. Within the area enclosed by ruddy iron plates, the original landscape, wood, German wall and wicker defenses, small sandy stripe and bog have already been reconstructed, and it is planned to change a larger area back to what it might have looked like in 9 AD.

The German woods were proverbial in Latin literature, dark, impenetrable, hostile. It became a topos, a metaphor for a country that would not become a Roman province. Sure, Germany was more densely forested than today, but even in 9 AD there were populated areas, clearings, fields, pasture, and settlements, some along the Main and Neckar rivers and in the Wetterau plain already oppidum-sized. The Romans had built fortified camps as far east as Hedemünden at the Werra (Weser and Werra, the Roman Visurgis, are the same river*), the kernel of a Roman system of settlements and roads, left unfinished after Tiberius called the army back in 16 AD. The disaster in 9 AD reinforced the Scary German Woods-topos, and the German woods were present in Latin literature about Germania ever since until the Vandals, Burgundians, Suevi and Alemanni crossed the frozen Rhine in 406 AD and in the years to follow founded their Germanic kingdoms in Gallia and Hispania, exchanging their woods for olive groves and fertile fields.

If you walk some 50 metres into the wood, it becomes a lot more like what the Romans saw. Boggy ground, dense foliage, trees hindering the way. And German altars, places where they spoke to their gods, that contrary to the Celtic ones, never made it into the Romano-Greek-Mithraic pantheon.

I would have liked to also see the skeleton of a Roman on an altar, and his skull on a pole, but since the park is visited by children, I assume it was considered too scary. I bet for some horse-loving teenage girls that hide is scary enough.

Roman sources agree on the fact that it had rained the days previous, and during the Varus battle. I think they could be right there, German autums can be on the wet side, lol. Now, imagine a Roman legionary carried some 30 kilo equipment; I have no idea what the stuff weighs when wet, but according to Bernard Hill's statement in the LOTR extras, it's a lot (his armour as Théoden is a mix of metal and leather as well). In 9 AD the mail shirt was still the more common armour albeit some pieces of lorica segmentata, the rectangular plates connected with leather straps we know from the movies, have been found at Kalkriese. This new form of armour became more popular in the time to follow because it was less heavy than mail.

The poor legionnaires also carried a large shield made of leather fortified plywood. That's a lot of leather to get soaked. Not to mention wet equipment doesn't work well: the Romans had a whole auxiliary company of Balearic slingers with wet slings, archers with wet bows, legionnaires with wet feet, soaked shields and rusty mail, and mules with sore hooves.

And this sorry troop, already diminished and disenheartened by two days of continous guerilla attacks from the Germans, now gets driven into bogs by a horde of Germans more used to getting wet, with smaller shields and less armour.

The weather surely was on Arminius' side but would the outcome have been different with weather as sunny as I experienced at Kalkriese? The Romans still would not have been able to display their army in proper fighting order, and a marching column is always an easier target. The bogs would still have been there (like in this little, reconstructed patch),

and we don't know how many Germans there were, not even the Roman sources, usually not beyond exaggerating the numbers, do mention any numbers at all. Maybe a few more Romans would have managed to break through but I think even with good weather, the battle in the Teutoburg woods would have been a disaster. The problems the Romans encountered were too varied, and obviously a bad command - Varus was an administration guy, not a military leader - was among these factors. A psychological aspect as well, I think, the Romans hated the German woods and if you talk about the boogieman long enough, people will believe in it.

* The old Germanic forms of both names are something like Visera / Wesera, and in some German dialects a so called rhotazism took place, that is, a -s- between two vowels became a -r-. Since Germanic languages stress the first syllable of a word, the following syllables are prone to get contracted or weakened. Werera soon became Werra, while Wesera weakened the final -a- into -e- and finally lost it altogether and became Weser. The border between the two names is given by the fact that a rather large river, the Fulda, confluences into the Weser, and that looks as if Fulda and Werra join and become a new river. The name goes back to an Indoeuropean root *uis- that means 'water' and is also in the word Whisky.


  I'm Back

Tired, but it was fun. The museum and park of the Varus Battle are great, especially the park. And the weather didn't listen to the forecast that predicted lots of rain. We got sunshine instead. We also visited some other places, Osnabrück (as mentioned before), the remains of a castle and fortification structure near Osnabrück that is said to have been held by the Saxon leader Widukind, one of Charlemagne's enemies; and the Canoness Chapter at Fischbeck/Weser which has a very old church.

Yes, there will be pics. As soon as my father gets them onto a CD. And not all of them at once; I need some icing for future posts. *grin*

BTW, I got plotbunnies. I knew I would. Damn little buggers.

Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.