05 September 2006

Dry and Dusty

Oh my! I just started to read Ivanhoe this evening, this month's selection for my book club.

At the beginning is the Dedicatory Epistle (as if that isn't enough to frighten away a trepidacious reader), addressed to Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. Dryasdust? Dry.As.Dust?

I fear that the name is not meant to be funny. Oh my! What lies ahead?

In the Epistle, the fictitious Laurence Templeton writes:
He who first opens Chaucer, or any other ancient poet, is so much struck with the obsolete spelling, multiplied consonants, and antiquated appearance of the language, that he is apt to lay the work down in despair, as encrusted too deep with the rust of antiquity to permit his judging of its merits or tasting its beauties. But if some intelligent and accomplished friend point out to him that the difficulties by which he is startled are more in appearance than reality, if, by reading aloud to him, or by reducing the ordinary works to the modern orthography, he satisfies his proselyte that only about one-tenth part of the words employed are in fact obsolete, the novice may be easily persuaded to approach the "well of English undefiled," with the certainty that a slender degree of patience will enable him to enjoy both the humour and the pathos with which old Geoffrey delighted the age of Cressy and of Poictiers.

Cautiously, I approach Chapter 1 and am surprised to read the author addressing me, the reader, providing a bit of backstory:

This state of things I have thought it necessary to premise for the information of the general reader, who might be apt to forget that, although no great historical events, such as war or insurrection, mark the existence of the Anglo-Saxons as a separate people subsequent to the reign of William the Second, yet the great national distinctions betwixt them and their conquerors, the recollection of what they had formerly been, and to what they were now reduced, continued, down to the reign of Edward the Third, to keep open the wounds which with the Conquest had inflicted, and to maintain a line of separation betwixt the descendants of the victor Normans and the vanquished Saxons.

After choking down that bit of brevity, I read this beautiful description and almost overlook that there are nearly 100 words between the Initial Cap of hundreds and the terminal endmark following solitude.

Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copse-wood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to intercept the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas in the intricacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of silvan solitude.

This continues on, subsequent sentences competing for the highest adjectival word count and then, the reader gets to the action a few pages later after the scene has been set.

"Betray thee! Answered the Jester; "no, that were the trick of a wise man; a fool cannot half so well help himself. But soft, whom have we here?"
"A murrain take thee!" rejoined the swineherd; "wilt thou talk of such things, while a terrible storm of thunder and lightening is raging with a few miles of us? Hark, how the thunder rumbles! and for summer rain, I never saw such broad downright flat drops fall out of the clouds; the oaks, too, notwithstanding the calm weather, sob and creak with their great boughs as if announcing a tempest. Thou canst play the rational if thou wilt; credit me for once, and let us home ere the storm begins to rage, for the night will be fearful."

Elizabethan dialog?

Hark, let us home this book into the dustbin with Mr. Dryasthesame and Sir Whatishisname. I do not posses such a slender degree of patience, nor such a vast well of time, to enjoy the humor and pathos of this. No earthly way this reader will finish this tome by Thursday night hence.


Danielle said...

Hmm. I just last night wrote this book down as one I need to keep an eye out for...perhaps I will reconsider!

litlove said...

I have every sympathy with that decision! I remained a modernist because I couldn't take books seriously that began to thee and thou...