Shakespeare’s Quartos, Digitized

The British Library has digitized its collection of 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642. Shakespeare’s plays appear to have been first printed in 1594. Titus Andronicus was probably the first one. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto editions before he died in 1616. Quartos are small and very portable (think modern paperback) books that were made by folding a large sheet of paper into quarters. The first collected “official” printing of Shakespeare’s plays was the 1623 “first folio” edition of 36 plays by Shakespeare. The first folio was a production of Shakespeare’s friends, including actors from his company. The quartos are important because they’re typically the earliest, and hence presumably closest to Shakespeare’s own, versions of the plays. Some of them appear to have been versions that were edited for specific audiences, like the so-called “bad quartos” of Hamlet.

Byatt on Modern Fantasy

In a New York Times piece, linked and commented on in Metafilter, author A. S. Byatt mourns the state of current fantasy literature, particularly Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Byatt refers to such books as “secondary secondary fantasy.” According to Byatt:

Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, “only personal.” Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family…. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

Essentially, what Byatt is saying, is that she doesn’t like Rowling’s books because they aren’t the sort of fantasy Byatt favors; she then uses her personal taste to bludgeon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and the taste of those readers who do like them, condemning them as "secondary secondary" fantasy.

She’s missing something rather important. I too very much like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones (warning, Flash site), Tolkien—and a host of others like them, for instance, Patricia McKillip’s RiddleMaster of Hed, or Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles . . . or, oh heck here’s a page I made. The books Byatt favors, and that I very much like, are derived from or influenced very strongly by medieval Celtic myth, and, in Tolkien’s case, Germanic and Finnish traditions.

Harry Potter is descended from an alternate tradition, that of Victorian children’s fantasy. The tradition includes the books of George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, and the "allegorical" member of the Inklings, C. S. Lewis. Victorian fantasy has as legitimate a pedigree as the Celtic stuff (which also has a Victorian heritage in the the Lady Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion).

Were Byatt to compare Victorian fantasy to Victorian fantasy, she would do better to look to Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, or perhaps Garth Nix‘s Old Kingdom trilogy.

Tolkien on Beowulf

There’s a SlashDot story that links to a story about the discovery by Professor Michael Drout (yes, he of the Wormtalk blog) having brought to light an unpublished and hitherto unknown translation of Beowulf by Tolkien. Drout has already edited and published Beowulf and the Critics.

I can see, from the SlashDot story and other things I’ve seen on and off line about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, in part because of the films, that I need to write an FAQ about Tolkien and languages, particularly the Celtic ones. Give me a couple of days, and I will.

Roman and Celtic Olfactory History

I’m working on my diss, and I notice that one of my citations lacks the publication date. I borrowed the book from a friend, and returned it long ago, so I decide to use Amazon to check the data. In the process I discover that there are, I kid you not, scratch and sniff history texts for kids. Like Roman Aromas, of which the publisher says:

Young readers will learn that smells have played a powerful role in our history with these often funny tours back in time

When the Romans arrived in Britain they soon showed the rampaging Celts the way to perfumed perfection. Poor old Celts–with their oils, and baths, and drains those Romans really got up their noses. Sample the splendors of the public baths and a fabulous feast, or suffer with the soldiers in the frozen latrines on Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. You won’t forget those Roman Aromas in a hurry.

There are others in the Smelly Old History series.

Speaking of Roman history, and things Celtic, Julius Caesar, invader of England and less than kind to the Celts, has his own Bloggus Caesari.