a game of chess (?)

I promised, quite some time ago, to talk a bit more about War Music, Christopher Logue’s “account” of the Iliad.  Fortunately, I’ve also had the chance to do a bit more translating, in between creating lesson plans for my summer school mythology course for advanced middle-schoolers.  Conveniently, there’s a bit of a dovetail there, so I’ll mention both.

Garry Wills’s preface to War Music rather knocked me on my ass.  He comes out swinging, but hard:

Translators come and go, but it is given to few poets to bring Homer crashing into their time, like a giant trampling forests.  In English, only three have done it — George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and Christopher Logue.

All three, as they say, “take liberties,” but not to get away from Homer.  Theirs are tremendous efforts toward him.  Poets who cannot or will not take such risks never get near their man.  They assemble dictionary equivalents, like that unoffending prosateur Richmond Lattimore, and call the result an epic.

Strong words!  But indeed, while Logue’s version may be a rover, it is rich and evocative.  For example, in the early confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, he captures both elegant poetry (honor is “like silence, like the gods,/ the movement of the stars! Beyond the stars!/ Dividing man from beast, hero from host,/ that proves best, best, that only death can reach,/ Yet cannot die because it will be said, be sung,/ Now, and in time to be, for evermore.”) and gruff soldiertalk (Paris is a “platinum maggot”; Achilles’s sobriquet for Agamemnon is not one to be repeated in polite, or even fairly rude, company).

His descriptions of action are far from word-from-word, but allow one to picture the scene in vivid detail, even be drawn into it.  He describes Achilles, pushed too far by Agamemnon’s grasping: “But those still dying see:/ Achilles leap the 15 yards between/ Himself and Agamemnon;/ Achilles land, and straighten up, in one;/ Achilles’s fingertips — such elegance! –/ Push push-push push, push Agamemnon’s chest;/ The King lean back; Achilles grab/ And twist the mace out of his royal hand/ And lift it…Oh…flash! flash!”

I mention this scene in particular because Logue’s effort toward specificity, that schoolyard shove that is as much for the benefit of the crowd as for the violence itself, was in my mind as I approached a difficult crux in The Witch’s Spell.  After the gods establish their homes, they make artifacts of gold and gad about playing board games on the grass until this golden age abruptly and mysteriously comes to its close.  Here’s Ursula Dronke’s literal translation:

They played chequers in the meadow, they were merry —

for them there was no want of gold —

until there came three ogres’ daughters,

of redoubtable strength, from Giant Realms.

Well, okay.  But what just happened?  In the next verse, the gods go rushing off and decide to create the dwarves, in a seeming non sequitur.  If we trust that there is some structure to the poem what does the board game have to do with the riches have to do with the ogresses have to do with the dwarves?  Dronke, in her commentary, proposes an idea.  Taking as an analogue a mill that produces endless gold — you’ve heard of this sort of thing in fairy tales — that is eventually destroyed by giantesses forced to work it, she posits that the game itself produces gold for the winner.  And since the gods are just playing themselves, there are no real stakes; they win no matter what.  But, when the giantesses appear, there is a threat in paradise.  Dronke posits that the giantesses challenge the gods and are on the verge of winning when the gods overturn the board in a fit of petulance or rage.  The pieces are scattered in the tall grass and forgotten, not to be recovered until the next age.   And the gods must find a new way to produce gold — hence the dwarves.

I like this idea quite a bit, and as I don’t have a better explanation, my goal’s become to depict that story while keeping it somewhat compact.  While I think it’s fine for Logue to take his digressions and invent dialogue, that also fits Homer’s style.  My poet is far more concise, and I’d like to maintain that concision wherever possible.  In this case, however, perhaps emboldened by Logue and Mills, I decided to give myself a little more room to maneuver, as I simply couldn’t find a way to make that very complex scene comprehensible without including a footnote of my own (I am no David Foster Wallace, nor was meant to be!)

At the same time, Logue’s Achilles was leaping about the room and jabbing my chest.  I had to have the scene fully pictured in my own head to be able to convey those slight hints and details and breathe some life into the confusing, awkward scene. I had to be willing to fill in some blanks and take those chances.

So first of all, at the risk of making things more foreign than need be, I decided that the gods were playing neither checkers nor chess, but rather hnefatafl, a Scandinavian variation on the theme. It’s most notable for its asymmetrical play; the King and his men begin outnumbered and surrounded by enemies and must escape to the board’s edge.  I thought the image would be a nice precursor to Ragnarok, where they would again find themselves beset on all sides, doomed to be overwhelmed.  With that said, I retained the word “chessmen” over “Kingsmen” under advisement, to help make the fact that they’re playing a board game a little more apparent.  I hope that doesn’t just cancel out this whole paragraph…

Indeed, another visual hint might be making the pieces themselves in the gods’ own images as they appear at Ragnarok, as yet unrecognizable to themselves.  Odin has not yet lost his eye, the Aesir have not yet allied with the Vanir, and so forth.  Because of this, Odin himself should be the god challenged to a game, so that he literally overthrows himself unknowingly at game’s end.  The fact that, before the giantesses arrive, they are playfully attacking their own king is made less perverse by the fact that they do not recognize him.  Perhaps he always escapes.  And it also reminds how low the stakes are; after all, the world has never really known war.  Why not laugh?  

No fine young fellow wants to imagine he'll one day be wedged in a bitty chair, wedded to a woman who's either in a state of permanent dismay or concerned about a massive zit.

The idea of Odin showing bad faith, of reneging on terms in a petty way, is an important one, as it presages other, more serious, broken oaths.  Soon the gods will betray the giant builder of the walls of Asgard, a turning point in the poem as events hasten toward catastrophe.  I wanted to fold all that history yet to unfold into a simple, thoughtless, frustrated flick of his wrist.

The giantesses’ very arrival in the gods’ enclave heralds that doom; one way or another, things will not remain the same on the swirling plane of Idavöll.  I liked very much the image of their shadow being the first sign they give Odin, enraptured with his game, of their ominous presence, like a bully stepping over a dusty recess game of marbles behind the gym.  The downside was that, for the shadow line, I really wanted to use the term “athwart” to describe the shadow falling across the board.  Alliteration dictated that the giantesses ought to be called “thurse” in that case, which is a little more archaic than I normally prefer to be.  Ryan got all up in arms about that one, saying no one would know what on earth I was talking about.   The compromise was to use some repetition — classic Anglo-Saxon poetic trick.  Call them “thurse-girls,” then “monstrous maidens,” then “ogresses,” and folks’ll figure it out from context.

I think the gold production can probably be glossed over, although Dronke may well be right about it, so I’ve moved the line about “no want of gold” to the previous stanza, where it has settled in comfortably.

Enough.  Here’s what I produced, turning Dronke’s one stanza into two of my own:

As breeze-sweep licks the lovely lushness,

they loll on the lawn; one, laughing, traps

the brawny chessmen on the bright-buffed board.

Athwart falls the shadow of thurse-girls three,

Those monstrous maidens who mean to play,

ogresses keen-eyed to outfox Odin.

They hound the champions.  Chase and checkmate.

A whine and a whisk; King’s in the weeds.



  1. mordicai said,

    May 12, 2010 at 4:06 am

    …I’ve never heard the word “thurse” before?!

  2. mordicai said,

    May 12, 2010 at 4:36 am

    Also yeah, using the chess-terms is clearly correct.

  3. May 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    No kidding? Thurse is straight up Anglo-Saxon/Old Norse. Shows up in Beowulf and all that.

    Here are some of the other terms kicked around:

    a) giant, which comes through Middle English, from Old French, from Latin, from Greek

    b) ogre, from French, possibly from Latin.

    c) eten, which is Old English. Ryan liked it b/c he said fantasy fans would know it from D&D. To me, that’s a bit of a downside, since it’s otherwise equally obscure. Plus, of course, there’s alliteration to deal with.

    d) monster, from French, from Latin

    There are trolls, but I think of those as pretty different and distinct from giant-women, who are actually pretty enough to consort with the Aesir…

  4. Meggy said,

    May 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    I love this post — maybe in part because I was struggling with you as you tried to figure out this stanza. Lookin’ good, fella.

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