BMCR 1997.05.05

1997.05.05, The Alexandreis of Walter of Chatillon

, , The Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon : a twelfth-century epic : a verse translation. The Middle Ages series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. xxix, 214 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780812233476 $37.50.

A good free translation into English verse of the Alexandreis, the epic poem in classical style by Walter of Châtillon (fl. 1175) about the life and achievements of Alexander the Great, has long been desirable. It is a work that deserves to be made accessible to a diverse audience of scholars, students, and general readers, Latinists and non-Latinists alike, in a form that attempts to preserve some suggestion of the literary merits of the original. This verse translation by David Townsend, elegantly published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, is a very good one indeed.

In recent years Walter has probably been best known and most admired for his lyric and satirical poetry, among the finest of its kind in Latin. These have long been accessible to scholars in good critical texts edited by Karl Strecker (Berlin, 1925 and Heidelberg, 1929). In his own time, however, and for centuries after that, Walter’s claim to enduring fame was based on the Alexandreis. An astonishing number of manuscripts of this work was produced, of which no fewer than two hundred actually survive. The Alexandreis was intensively studied for many generations during the late Middle Ages, and copiously provided with glosses and other marginalia, on a scale that rivals the scholia of almost any ancient poet. But until less than twenty years ago, it was accessible to scholars only in antiquated editions, one dating from 1659, edited by Athanasius Gugger (reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, Vol. CCIX), and one from 1863 by F.A.W. Mueldener, which lacks even so much as a critical apparatus or an index.

In 1978 the text of the Alexandreis was at last made available in an excellent critical edition by Marvin L. Colker (Editrice Antenore, Padua). Together with the poem, Colker also provided useful complete texts (occupying about half of the entire volume) of the scholia and other commentary from two representative manuscripts, with a selection of “the more interesting scholia” from two others.

One of the early fruits of Colker’s edition of the Alexandreis was the publication of a complete concordance by Heinz Erich Stiene and Jutta Grub (Georg Olms Verlag, 1985). There has ensued a flood of books, monographs, and articles dealing with the work’s dating, style, metrics, epic quality, sources, historical value, contemporary allusions, politics, world view, etc. Several of the best among these are David Townsend’s own scholarly contributions. In 1986, the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto published a prose translation of the Alexandreis by R. Telfryn Pritchard. Pritchard’s timing was rather unfortunate. He worked from a Latin text he had established himself, and which he had evidently substantially completed before he became aware of the imminent appearance of Colker’s text. He was able to add an appendix of variations between the two “for those who will be using Colker’s text.” His translation, while accurate enough, makes little attempt to reflect the literary qualities of Walter’s work, resulting inevitably in a rather wooden effect, quite unlike Walter’s original Latin in that regard. Such a translation has its place, and Pritchard’s work will remain useful to some readers for some purposes. I doubt if the appearance of Townsend’s translation will cause the Alexandreis to supplant Walter’s other poetry as the most admired of his works today, but it will at least make it possible for a wide audience to appreciate the work properly as a literary experience. Townsend provides a serviceable Introduction to his translation, dealing with all the essentials on the ideal scale for a general readership: Walter’s life and works, the sources of the Alexandreis, and its reception in its own time. The concluding pages of the Introduction that Townsend devotes to the style and the literary significance of the Alexandreis are particularly illuminating and provocative. The principal ancient source by far for the Alexandreis is Curtius Rufus, whom Walter follows very closely, both verbally and chronologically, with only a few significant rearrangements or omissions. The latter deal largely with sexual matters that Walter apparently considered detrimental to Alexander’s reputation. There is little if any of the bizarre material of the “Alexander legend” of the Middle Ages. In his Introduction, Townsend gives a full and clear statement of his principles of translation (pp. xxii-xxv). He justifies very persuasively his choice of a freely varied five-beat line, basically iambic. This scheme produces a very satisfying result. As for literal closeness to the original, “At times,” he says, “loyalty to spirit superseded loyalty to letter.” His aim is to “balance the claims of literal accuracy against those of the esthetic effects, at least as I perceive them, of the original.” Thus he freely recasts syntax when a smooth English rendering seems to him to require it, omits repetitious words or replaces them with synonyms, rearranges clauses and other material, and the like. He goes so far as to introduce the anachronism of lines “closely reminiscent of (if not directly lifted from) canonical English works,” intending by this to “approximate the effect that Walter’s uses of Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, Horace, and Claudian would have had on cultured twelfth-century readers.” Some of these borrowed lines, he acknowledges, reflect Walter’s text only loosely, and “in some cases their addition is actually gratuitous” (p. xxiii). Latinless readers therefore will have to be very wary of drawing conclusions about the original from Townsend’s treatment of it, as he himself very fairly warns them, suggesting that they must check any substantive claims against the original Latin, “or at least against R. Telfryn Pritchard’s more literal prose version of 1986” (p. xxii). Some readers will approve of Townsend’s licenses, some not, and probably nothing a reviewer says will change anyone’s mind in that regard. But I expect that most will in any event be pleased with his translation as a highly readable one. The English flows well, and sounds good when read aloud. To allow readers to judge for themselves, I present a few sample passages. (In what follows, W attached to a reference signifies Walter’s original Latin, T signifies Townsend’s translation, and C the source in Curtius Rufus.) The opening lines of the proemium (I. 1-5W / I. 1-7T) naturally constitute a particular challenge to the translator:

Gesta ducis Macedum totum digesta per orbem,
Quam large dispersit opes, quo milite Porum
Vicerit et Darium, quo principe Grecia victrix
Risit et a Persia rediere tributa Chorintum,
Musa refer.

How generously the Duke of Macedon
dispensed his wealth, with what a splendid host
he conquered Darius’ and Porus’ lands,
tell us, Muse; how Greece laughed in her triumph,
and once again to Corinth tribute came
home from the Persians—these are deeds well known
through all the earth.

Gesta initiates an acrostic, carried out in the initial letters of the books that follow, of the name GUILLERMUS, William of the White Hands, to whom Walter dedicated the Alexandreis. Townsend’s thorough rearrangement of clauses here may well seem to some rather extreme, as part of the first line of the original becomes the last lines of the translation, and the address to the Muse is displaced from the end to the middle. There are instances—not particularly momentous ones, to be sure—of omission ( quo principe) as well as of added words (“splendid,” “lands”). In his Commentary (p. 186) Townsend justifies the translation of dux throughout the text as “Duke” by noting that as read in Walter’s day, “a more feudal sense of dux suggests itself,” and he compares Shakespeare’s conversion of Theseus to “Duke of Athens.” I myself find this procedure (and the comparison) rather dubious. (I wonder, if Walter had happened to refer to Talestris, the Queen of the Amazons, who makes an appearance in Book VIII, as dux—as well he might have; cf. Vergil’s reference to Dido as dux, Aen. I.364—would Townsend then call her the Duchess? Heaven forfend.) Next I give a passage from Walter’s account of the visit of the Amazon Talestris to the camp of Alexander, which she undertook with the intention of becoming pregnant by him, for eugenic reasons. This is a description of the garments of the Amazons. Here I also quote the source in Curtius Rufus, to show how closely Walter succeeds in adhering to it (VI.5.27-28C / VIII.16-23W / VIII.18-27T):

Vestis non tota Amazonum corpori obducitur: nam laeva pars ad pectus est nuda, cetera deinde velantur. Nec tamen sinus vestis, quem nodo colligunt, infra genua descendit. Altera papilla intacta servatur, qua muliebris sexus liberos alant: aduritur dextera, ut arcus facilius intendant et tela vibrent.

Vestis Amazonibus non totum corpus obumbrat.
Pectoris a leua nudatur, cetera uestis
Occupat et celat celanda, nichil tamen infra
Iuncturam genuum descendit mollis amictus.
Leua papilla manet et conseruatur adultis,
Cuius lacte infans sexus muliebris alatur.
Non intacta manet sed aduritur altera lentos
Prompcius ut tendant arcus et spicula uibrent.

The dress of Amazons does not obscure
their bodies wholly. On the left, their chests
are bared; their garments settle on the rest,
and hide what must be hidden, though the soft raiment
doesn’t fall below the knee-joint.
The left teat is preserved until adulthood
to nurse their infants of the female sex;
the other one receives an early searing
to ease their wielding of the pliant bow,
and leave them unencumbered for the javelin.

I append a few words of the conclusion of the passage about Talestris, again with the source in Curtius Rufus. This time it will be seen Walter leaves out some interesting details in the middle (VI.5.31-32C / VIII. 44-48W / VIII. 52-57 T).

Alexander, an cum ipso militare vellet, interrogat; at illa causata, sine custode regnum reliquisse, petere perseverabat, ne se inritam spei abire pateretur. Acrior ad venerem feminae cupido quam regis, ut paucos dies subsisteret, perpulit. XIII dies in obsequium desiderii eius absumpti sunt. Tum illa regnum suum, rex Parthienen petiverunt.

Quaerit Alexander sub eone uacare Talestris
Miliciae uelit. Illa suum custode carere
Causatur regnum. tandem pro munere noctem
Ter deciesque tulit, et quod querebat adepta
Ad solium regni patriasque reuertitur urbes.

The king inquired whether Talestris cared
to take up arms beneath him, but she pleaded
her realm now lacked a guardian. Finally
she took the gift of thirteen nights, and gained
what she was seeking. Then she turned her steps
back to her realm’s throne and ancestral cities.

One of Townsend’s alterations here is a trivial one—or not, depending on what use a particular reader may wish to make of the translation: the substitution of “The king” for “Alexander.” In fact, Alexander is variously referred to in the course of the Latin text as Alexander (in over seventy occurrences, without exception divided between the first two feet of the dactylic line), dux, rex, Macedo, Magnus, etc., and Townsend makes no attempt to be consistent in following the specific usage of the original in each case. There is some prosaic language (“finally,” emphasized by the meter) and some awkward diction (“her realm’s throne,” something of a tongue-twister). A noteworthy circumstance in Walter’s original is in the last line, where the Amazon is said to return ad patrias urbes—this after a statement of the female-centered system of the Amazons that would appear to render the choice of adjective here incongruous. The effect is essentially untranslatable. Townsend settles for the neutral ancestral cities (Pritchard: “native cities”). He discusses this incongruity in detail in his very fine article, “Sex and the Single Amazon in Twelfth-Century Latin Epic” ( University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 64, 1995, pp. 255 ff.). One of Townsend’s most successful translations is of the long, moving speech by a Scythian envoy, depicted as a “noble savage,” who attempts (unsuccessfully) to persuade Alexander not to let his ruinous ambition destroy the Scythians’ idyllic way of life. Here again I begin with the source in Curtius Rufus, to demonstrate Walter’s fidelity to it (VII.8.14-15C / VIII.391-400W / VIII.452-464T).

Quid? tu ignoras arbores magnas diu crescere, una hora extirpari? Stultus est, qui fructus earum spectat, altitudinem non metitur. Vide, ne, dum ad cacumen pervenire contendis, cum ipsis ramis, quos conprehenderis, decidas. Leo quoque aliquando minimarum avium pabulum fuit, et ferrum robigo consumit.

An nescis longo quod prouocat ethera ramo
Arboreum robur, firma radice superbum,
Quodque diu creuit, hora exstirparier una?
Stultus qui fructum cum suspicit arboris, altum
Non uult metiri. uideas, sublime cacumen
Prendere dum tendis, postquam comprenderis illud,
Cum ramis ne forte cadas. auium fuit esca
Paruarum quandoque leo, rex ante ferarum.
Ferrum, cuncta domans atque omni durius ere,
Consumit robigo uorax.

Or don’t you know, the strength of a great tree
can be thrown over in a single hour,
though long it’s challenged heaven, haughty in
its mighty roots, though vast of branch it grows?
Only the fool refuses to assess
the tree’s height, as he gazes at the fruit.
Take care, that while you aim to reach its crown,
you do not fall amidst its shattered branches,
once you’ve attained it. Often will the lion
become a banquet for the little birds,
though once the lord of beasts; and iron,
though harder still than bronze or any metal,
is yet consumed by rust.

Elsewhere in this speech of the Scythian messenger, Walter, uncharacteristically but to excellent poetic effect, treats his source freely, reordering, reworking, and supplementing it from his own imagination. For example, he introduces the figure of parens Natura (VIII.410W / VIII.477T), which does not occur in Curtius Rufus. Evidently Townsend feels particular sympathy for the Scythian messenger, as he is one of several to whom he dedicates his translation, the others being Talestris and “the heroes in the margins of the Text.” These “heroes in the margins of the Text” are honored by Townsend with more than just this dedication. For his commentary he has had the superb idea of utilizing translations of the medieval scholia wherever possible, “so that the reader may develop some sense of how his or her own desires for clarification may parallel those of readers far closer in time to Walter’s own day” (p. xxiv). In fact the glosses constitute the bulk of the commentary by far. The effect for the reader is exactly as Townsend intended, and they add a valuable dimension to his work. Townsend adds the necessary caveat, “Such glosses of course reflect medieval understandings rather than modern historicist scruples, and they should be taken as such: the note on I.322, for example, records a thirteenth-century academic’s fantasy, not the historical organization of Athens in the fourth century B.C.E.” It would be tempting to cite many other passages from this translation with all its variety—gory battle scenes, conspiracies, geographical excursuses, meditations on the character of Alexander and on the exercise of power (which sometimes inspire references to events of Walter’s own time), and the fantastic ecphrases—among others, of the tomb Alexander built for the wife of Darius, decorated with Old Testament scenes (IV.176-275W / IV.222-342T). But I trust the above will provide an adequate sampling to demonstrate Townsend’s accuracy and readability. David Townsend has produced a useful tool for an approach to what may be the most ambitious and the best of medieval Latin epics. A perusal of his entire translation will provide pleasure and profit for any interested reader. He states (p. xxii): “One of my fondest hopes is that this translation might persuade a few readers to acquire sufficient Latin of their own to get to Walter more directly.” And, happily, such is the quality of his translation that I believe his hope may well be realized, perhaps with even more than “a few readers.”