The Shattered Kingdom has been broken for an age and a half. Only one man can unite it.
I had an interesting email conversation with Sommer Nectarhoff, English major and author of The Book of Lokk. We’re talking about his Death of Ydain, a fantasy epic modeled on Le Morte d’Artur and written in Middle English.
Me: In what ways is the Death of Ydain like the Arthurian legends?
Sommer: Part of what makes the old Knights of the Round Table stories so awesome is just how strangely they foreign they are to us now. While we tend only to think of dragons and knights when we think of magic back then, there were all sorts of other things going on. For instance, one of my favorite Arthurian legends involves a knight traveling through the forest and coming across a fountain, but when he drinks from it a terrible storm comes and destroys the entire forest. Of course, it happens to be a magical fountain, and soon a king comes along whose lands were destroyed, and it is his duty to challenge whoever drinks from his fountain. In the Death of Ydain there is all sorts of strange, unexplained magic—the type of things that get dreamed up when tales are told and twisted for hundreds of years.
Me: How did you go about translating the book into Middle English?
Sommer: I didn’t translate the book into Middle English—I wrote it in Middle English! However, it’s not quite like Chaucer or Syr Mallory’s original “le Morte d’Arthur”. While the grammar and vocabulary I’ve used are based on the written language of the late 1400s (near the beginning of early Modern Shakespeare), I’ve used modernized spelling.
Me: What are some things you did in the Death of Ydain that you couldn’t do in Modern English?
I wouldn’t say that there are things I couldn’t do in the Death of Ydain because of the language itself, but rather because of the way language was spoken and written at the time I was trying to emulate. People were still experimenting with English prose, and writers like Mallory relied more on exposition than dialogue. And while there was certainly plenty of brutality in their writing, it was taken much more nonchalantly, and there was certainly very little graphic sex. But because of this I couldn’t remain true to the source materials while also going for the “grim-dark” tone we see today in a lot of contemporary fantasy. For this reason, while still being pretty complicated, mature, and high-brow, the Death of Ydain is in general a lot more of a fun book than a dark one.
Me: Will it be difficult for Modern English speakers to understand?
Sommer: Not at all! I wrote the Death of Ydain because after extensively reading old Arthurian legends in a non-academic setting I absolutely loved them. The way language was used back then—while maybe not meant to be this way at the time—is so fun in itself to read as a modern fantasy-lover. There are definitely quirks to the grammar and word usage, but for any archaisms I’ve included a glossary in the back, so that if a knight calls someone a “doted varlet” you’ll know he means “idiot servant,” or if a giant sings in “dulcet” tones you’ll know he has a particularly sweet voice.
Me: Can we see a sample of the text?
Anon Syr Bellor pulled his skirt from the damosel’s grip, and ungirt his sword ere he clomb the hillside, and when it befell that he stood afore the smoke which flew from the cave it was nought he could espy through the darkness, though the odour which came therefrom was so heinous it would have quailed the freshest milk. Wretched Giant, called then the knight, Come and meet my glaive for thy crimes, and taste its metal, the which thou well deservest. Forthwith a cry came from the cave, that anon out stepped the giant, and he stood afore Syr Bellor a twelve foot tall, that over his shoulder he held a laton club so thick and long as Syr Bellor’s leg, that she Shield of Ferryl should have looked passing good upon his arm. And the giant said, Who art thou, foolish Man, that thou wouldst come unto mine home and missay me these words of such lewd import? Recreant, said Syr Bellor, Thou hast slewest the knight of yonder fair damosel, that I shall avenge him. And tho Syr Bellor turned and pointed back over his shoulder to the damosel, for she waited at the bottom of the hill, yet no sooner had the knight looked away than the spiteful giant lift his club and smote Syr Bellor on the side such a buffet that his armour brake and he rolled all down the hill. But when the knight stopped at the bottom he stood and called thus on high: Churl, thou hast incurred my wroth, and now I shall smite thee where thou standest.
Incontinent Syr Bellor flang up the mountain, and raising his sword he smote down upon the giant such a mighty buffet that it severed the giant’s arm at the elbow. And withal the giant fell unto his knees and looked up to Syr Bellor, that he said, Fair Knight, I beseek you for your mercy, sith in troth yon damosel and her knight slept in my forest, and were thus in my demesne and subject to my rule. And at that Syr Bellor redounded unto the damosel, the which had clomb the hill and was standing afore them. Fair Damosel, said then the knight, What wishest thou should become of this cravenly giant? And the damosel said, I would that thou slewest him, for he hath done wrong and had no reason therefor, that we shall soon discover what other manifold mischiefs pertaineth unto him when we scour his cave.
Thou heardest the damosel, said then Syr Bellor, and he raised his sword and swang such a blow unto the giant that his head was clave in sunder all down between his shoulders and up unto his heart. At that the damosel held out her hand, thereas Syr Bellor knelt and gave it the softest kiss. Fair Knight, said she, I am cleped Ylane, and I am ever in your repay. Anon Syr Bellor stood, and with the damosel in hand he went unto the cave, the which was so dark as it were eventide, such was the quantity of that blackest smoke which filled the air. Thence Syr Bellor doused the fire, which was poorly made and for thus spat such smoke, and withal he built it anew with his vaster manly knowledge, and only then did the knight and damosel discover what was hidden in the giant’s den. Forsooth, many fallen knights lay braken upon the ground still in their armour, though not a one was still living, and withal there were some few aumbries filled with coins. Yet in the back of the cave Ylane discovered a great horse that was black and strong, and nigh six heads taller than that of Syr Bellor.