Read “Part 1 (beginning of recorded history through those dramatic Romans)” here.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, poetry didn’t die. In the almost-thousand years between when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus and the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta, poetry flourished all over the world. Much of the extant Latin-language work is ecclesiastical, with occasional references to “pagan” gods and goddesses. The 5th century poet Coluthus, who lived in Lycopolis/Asyut in the Egyptian Thebaid, left behind a Greek-language poem in 394 hexameters called The Rape of Helen, which tells the story of Helen and Paris prior to their arrival in Troy. It’s got nymphs and goddesses and spite, and because the author was a most likely a Christian and believed this story to be a “myth” his poem falls squarely into the realm of speculative fiction. Dracontius of Carthage, another Christian poet, also wrote poetry about “the rape of Helen” (a popular subject), Medea, Hylas, and other Greek mythic staples.
Around the same time we get the Silappatikaram, one of the Great Epics of Tamil literature. This poem begins with a precis telling the reader what is about to happen, and then unfolds the tale in three chapters. It introduces the intermingling of poetry with prose, a form not seen in previous Tamil works, and is also credited with introducing folk songs into literature. It’s the story of a wronged woman who’s husband – a guy with maybe not the best judgement or luck – gets beheaded when he’s accused of stealing the Queen’s bracelet (in order to restart his life in a new town after his “inappropriate relationship with a dancer”). The wife proves her husband’s innocence and then IGNITES THE CITY with, essentially, the glorious power of her rightness.
You can read it and more here.
In the 6th century, pre-Islamic poetry hits the big time, but was largely concerned with biographies, inter-tribal disputes, and the occasional zoological description.* In that sense, it is very similar to Greek and Roman classical poetry in subject, though with a dearth of “mythic” fiction which may be attributed to destruction by later religions or governments. Example: during this century, Musaeus Grammaticus wrote 340 hexameter line on the story of Hero and Leander (the one where the boy from the wrong side of the straights convinces the girl to have sex with him because “the Goddess Venus would want it that way”), later considered “the most beautiful of the age”. He’s also said to have written a cute little version of “Alpheus and Arethusa”, a classic of the Greek “chase+rape=love poem” oeuvre, so there’s that. Oh, and Procopius of Caesarea, principal Western historian of the 6th century, wrote Secret History, which says – in part – that Emperor Justinian was actually a headless monster who phased in and out of reality late at night.
We also get the rise of the Welsh bardic tradition, collected in later centuries as the Book of Taliesin (named for the earliest identified Welsh poet, whose work is included). Mixed in with elegies and Christian hymns are prophecies about the future and several poems about magic. Battling trees, evil witches, princes under a curse, hounds of hell – all the good stuff. We even get the introduction of Cerridwen, the Middle Welsh aspect of Homer’s Circe.
In the 7th century, Laidcenn mac Buith Bannaig (an Irish monastic scholar) composed lorica: charm prayers written as poetry, which protected various body parts when worn, carried, or recited. Similar to many of the later Filipino anting-anting, they mixed the idea of protection spells with Christian imagery, and called upon God to work magic on the bearer’s behalf. We also get the anonymous poem, Dream of the Rood, which portrays the cross used to crucify Jesus as a magical tree, self-aware, cut down and taken to the mount, where it realizes the role it’s about the play and stoically resists pain as it, too, is pierced with nails. Later, the tree is adorned with silver and gold and “honored above all other trees”.
Though in China and Japan** in this time period, poetry was considered a staple of one’s education, the focus was on landscape, pastoral, and elegy poetry. Thousands of extant poetry survives from the 7th century, nearly all of this “realist” style. One standout was Tang Dynasty poet Meng Haoran (孟浩然) who wrote the legends of his birthplace, Xiangyang, China, into verse, though I haven’t been able to find a good translation.
In the 8th century, popular poetry was rigid, structured, and lacking in speculative elements. Japanese society decides poetry is awesome! And immediately writes a textbook on how not to suck at it! Which basically says “don’t rhyme in the wrong places” and “don’t write about stupid things” (fiction). Toward the end of the century, the Mofaddaliyat (المفضليات) is finished, assembling what contemporaries believed to be the 128 greatest poems of the time (just before the appearance of Islam) but none of the work is speculative at all.
In the 9th century, poetry begins to get interesting again. The verses of One Thousand and One Nights ( كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة) are collected in Baghdad. The Book of Dede Korkut showcases the ethnic identity – including Islamic religious and pre-Islamic magic tales – of the Oghuz Turks.***
Bragi Boddason, the first skaldic poet, records a great deal of Norse mythology (thank him the next time you enjoy a Marvel Universe movie). A bit later, Þjóðólfr of Hvinir [Thjodolf] writes down some more. Around this time we also get Beowulf, though the oldest surviving written copy of it dates to about 1000. (Note: these are considered speculative fiction because the poets recording them at the time considered the topics to be myth and legend, sometimes entertainment, sometimes lending power to their kings’ right to rule, but not generally part of contemporary religious practice.)
In the 10th century, the English discover rhyming poetry, and the skaldic poem Hákonarmál is written to eulogize a Christian king as being “a friend to the pagans” by showing him ascending to Valhalla after death.
In the 11th century, Turkish and Uzbek oral legends are transcribed as the Epic of Koroghlu, describing a Herculean hero who was born to a woman who’d been dead for a few months, raised himself from infancy (living in her grave and stealing local sheep), grew up with a blind father, drank a magical foam to become immortal (leading to his father’s death), and spent many years battling the forces of oppression until he quits because guns have been invented and are taking all of the glory out of battle.
The epic (I mean, seriously epic) poem Shahnameh is written which covers basically the entire mythic history of Persia, and is 50,000 verses long. God created the first man, a Persian named Keyumars, who becomes king, and settles the world with his offspring, who discover fire, religion, and romance. Yay! Then there’s a bunch of magical battles, some dragon slaying, and a tiny bit of actual history at the end.
Speaking of dragon-slaying, the Nibelungenlied is written in the 12th century.
The 12th century Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, was written by Prince Shota Rustaveli, who used over 1600 quatrains to tell the story of a man wearing a panther skin, and his new friend, rescuing a princess from a tower full of evil spirits, which ends in a double-wedding. (Read a 1912 English translation here.)
In the 13th century, a French troubadour gives us Huon of Bordeaux, which tells how a prince has to tackle three impossible tasks, and accomplishes them with the help of Oberon, king of the fairies. Around the same time, we also get the oral beginnings of The “Sundiata Keita”, an epic poem of the Malinke people which tells the story of the founder of the Mali Empire in Africa. Like similar works, it involves prophecy, divine intervention, and magic. There are several versions which do not quite match, and no author is known. It also may have inspired the character of Aragorn from Tolkien’s books. (Read more on that here.)
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” appears in the 14th century, and the Red Book of Hergest – a Welsh text published at the same time – collects several slightly-earlier Arthurian tales.
And then, colonialism. Related? Of course! But we’ll talk about that next time.
(Part 3 will post on Tuesday evening at 8 pm EST.)
* Arabian poet ‘Alqama al-Fahl (علقمة الفحل) was said to be famous for his piece about ostriches. The poet Tarafa wrote a long, anatomically exact description of his camel praised by the Bedouins for several centuries.
** Japanese poetry is considered to be in the Chinese style from the 5th to 7th centuries, and doesn’t emerge as its own thing until the 8th century. The Man’yōshū, collected in 759, anthologizes popular examples and sorts them by time period.
*** Dresden has a beautiful copy online here.