Beowulf, Cloacina, Connacht, Grendel, Heorot, Horatius, King of Leinster, Lembas, Lord Chesterfield, Mac Da Tho, Mordor, Odysseus, Penelope, Tamora Pierce, The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Tolkien, Ulster
Welcome, as always, to our blog. In this posting, we want to consider something usually invisible, but, at the same time, for reader/listeners, always there in adventure stories.
Think for a moment about your day. And how filled it is with requirements of the body, from sleep to washing to eating to—yes, you see where we’re going.
(And we can’t see this 18th century outhouse—sometimes called a “necessary” or a “privy” then—without thinking of part of a letter by the famous 18th-century essayist/letter-writer Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773).
Who wrote a series of affectionate and very worldly-wise letters to his illegitimate son. In one of them he had the following advice—
“I knew a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained, and I recommend you to follow his example…. Books of science and of a grave sort must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches and unconnectedly: such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his Æneid, and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading that will not take up above seven or eight minutes.”
Cloacina was the patron goddess of the ancient main drain of Rome. Here’s an image of her shrine—
and here’s her drain
But, as we were starting to say, things of the body, ordinary things, are almost entirely ignored both in traditional adventure and in modern versions. In fact, it’s a bit of a shock to see, in some of Tamora Pierce’s YA novels (a big favorite of ours), that people actually use a latrine.
When we look at JRRT, for example, whose works we’ve often tried to set into a medieval context, we never see what one would have seen in such a context, whether behind a farmhouse
or in some place grand.
We began with the least common possibility, but this is as true for other functions—usually taken for granted, except for specific reasons. Sleep, for example, is very often employed simply as a way to show the passage of time during an adventure—and, in worlds without googlemaps, Siri, and perhaps even signposts
it’s a very natural and easy way to mark time and distance simultaneously.
Eating can show the same—think of Sam hoarding lembas as he and Frodo trek towards Mordor—
JRRT then uses it to show urgency, as well—what will they do in Mordor, when it runs out?
Of course, eating—in the form of feasting, in particular—can provide a major plot element.
Think of Heorot, the feasting hall, in Beowulf, for instance,
where feasts are ruined until Beowulf defeats their ruiner, Grendel.
Or the endless feasting of the suitors in the Odyssey
as they eat up everything which makes Odysseus the lord of his lands, besides trying to steal his wife, Penelope.
Here, eating and drinking take on a greater significance in that they are symbolic of the slow destruction of Odysseus’ household. They also provide a great setting for his reappearance and then, with the help of Athena, his massacre of the suitors in one of the wildest revenge scenes we know. It has quite a number of illustrators, from ancient
to modern—and our favorite, for the way it’s being shown from the angle of Odysseus’ patron, Athena
And then there is the feast, held in the rath of the king of Leinster, Mac Da Tho, which has to be one of the zaniest scela in Old Irish literature. Leinster’s most powerful neighbors, Ulster and Connacht, are at dinner, but there is a sudden difficulty over who will carve the pig.
Like so many of the stories of the so-called “Ulster Cycle”, it is full of over-the-top violence and grim humor as both powers struggle to gain the honor of carving and therefore having the right to award the curadmir, the “hero’s portion”.
As you think about your favorite heroic or adventure story, consider the above—where can you see body care/body functions? Then, to take it a step farther: where does anyone ever sneeze? (We can think of one special one, but what can you come up with?—Hint: see Odyssey 17…)
Thanks, as ever, for reading.