Straightening out “Hunchback”

Disney’s myths and Victor Hugo (DeDisneyfication, Part 1)

Reading Barthes’ Mythologies helped me put my finger on what bothers me about the Disneyfication of fairy tales and other works. His definition of “myth” is nonstandard—here it is the creation of symbols. I almost always find the book misfiled in used bookstores and quietly repair their error. I jotted some notes about the systematic appropriation of the cultures represented by these tales and how they have been turned into bourgeois myths. But writing a piece so purely critical, though it might provide some entertaining venting of my spleen, seemed somewhat pointless and ultimately unlikely to win me any friends. And indeed, later in the book, Barthes himself cautions:¹

But when a myth reaches the entire community, it is from the latter that the mythologist must become estranged if he wants to liberate the myth.

And ultimately, he came to question the relevance of his work still further when corporations began to approach him to create such myths for them as well.

But then I encountered the excellent article, “Moana and Resistance Spectating”,² and realized this is what I had been doing to some extent and the taking back that I’ve tried to do with Norse esoterica would be a much more constructive approach to Disneyfication than a vitriolic rant.

I’d also like to acknowledge a positive aspect to these Disney films—they expose a broad audience to works they might otherwise know nothing about. My hope is this fosters curiosity about the source material, rather than simple acceptance of the symbols the studio has created.

First, let’s define our terms: Disneyfication, as I’ve already noted, involves cultural appropriation and the creation of bourgeois myths. It is one of the most aggressive forms of Hollywoodization, part of which involves a nearly fetishistic focus on the redux, and another is the culture of the final cut which, if it encounters a work of art, seeks to render it into entertainment instead.

A classic example of both comes in the Hollywoodization of the 1985 German film Zuckerbaby into 1989’s horrifically saccharine Baby Cakes: The award-winning German film has the main character, Marianne (Marianne Sägebrecht), throw herself under the wheels of the train being driven by the lover (Eisi Gulp) who has spurned her. Whereas in the nearly unknown US version, the protagonist, renamed Grace (Ricki Lake), decides to quit being afraid of what the world thinks of her and to follow her dreams, becoming a beautician, while Rob (her lover, Craig Sheffer) realizes his girlfriend (Cynthia Dale) will never accept him as he is and he really loves Grace.

Please don’t imagine for a single second the first one is regressive and horrible and the second is empowering—go watch them (if you can even stomach the latter version) and you’ll see a lion whose teeth have been extracted. But as they say in Hollywoodese, “That one wasn’t going to sell a lot of popcorn.”

So now to the task—first up: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

This infinitely forgettable mid-’90s mediocrity derives from a Victor Hugo novel, so it differs a bit from typical Disney fare. As with nearly everything Disney, there are numerous redux from which they have drawn and adapted this version, including 10 films, nine theatrical versions, three ballets, two TV miniseries, and two musical retellings, to say nothing of all the translations into various languages over the years. The 1939 version, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in particular seems to have been the basis for the Disney film. Rather than breaking down the entire plot structures of the Hugo and Disney versions, I’ll focus on a few key differences.

Let’s begin with the title: the original was called Notre-Dame de Paris, placing the focus not on the characters, but on the cathedral itself, as the book was ultimately about the architecture of Paris. Hugo hated the English title, which shifted this emphasis and prompted filmic adaptations criticized as vulgar freak shows. If anything, the double meaning of the title was a reference to Esmeralda, as the dame—“lady” of the cathedral she claims sanctuary in, and who, ultimately, is the main character rather than Quasimodo.

The hunchback is another metaphor for the cathedral that is his home, which in turn is one for Parisian architecture, and even that of every city of significant age: though its features can be seen as monstrous (or at least asymmetrical), ultimately they are a part of a character with a heart of gold. This theme of the majestic messiness of reality runs through the whole work, encompassing, in particular, the relationships among the characters. The book is largely a response to a movement to renovate the city afoot in Hugo’s time,time, of which he was not a fan:³

Thus it is that the wondrous art of the Middle Ages has been treated in almost every country, and especially in France. In its ruin three sorts of inroads are distinguishable, having marred it to different depths; first, Time, which has insensibly made breaches here and there, and rusted its whole surface; then, religious and political revolutions, which, blind and furious in their nature, have tumultuously wreaked their wrath upon it, torn its rich garment of sculpture and carving, shivered its rose windows, shattered its necklaces of arabesques and quaint figures, torn down its statues, here for their mitre, there for their crown; and lastly, changing fashion, growing ever more grotesque and absurd, commencing with the anarchical yet splendid deviations of the Renaissance, have succeeded one another in the unavoidable decline of architecture.

Nonetheless, as implied here, he is willing to accept the changes made, but feels these should stop, leaving the cathedral, the city, the world in this imperfect yet glorious state.

It’s easy to see why Disney would not have been comfortable with this message even if this amount of nuance was anywhere near their wheelhouse, as their stock in trade involves creating sterile consumerist utopias on swampland. Rather than dealing with these metaphors, we are left instead with an empty shell.

Next, let’s move to “Quasi’s” cutesy gargoyle sidekicks, Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. Disney always likes to insert characters like these, as well as, in this film, a horse named Achilles (apparently entirely to set up the laff line “Achilles, heel!”). Certainly, I understand their thinking; many of the dialogues that are internal in novels and fairy tales become conversations between these creatures and the people they are associated with—not to mention the toy sales. But this trio is particularly weird and unneeded, and while the names of the first two form a dubious homage to the author from whose work the film is drawn, the last one is “wackily” named after one of the Andrews sisters.

On to the Cour des miracles: Disney’s Esmeralda entrusts Quasi with a pendant containing a map to the gypsies’ hideout, the Court of Miracles, which proves problematic when it falls into the wrong hands. This is simply ridiculous. While the many slums of Paris were known by this collective name, the film implies there is one such place, and its location is somehow secret. Some claimed these were simply squalid cesspits of lawless villainy, while others held guilds of thieves and beggars organized their trades, and, in order to be exempt from “taxes” to the Grand Coësre, archissupots provided lessons on argot to new recruits. The Grand Coësre is the head of the thieves’ and beggar’s guild and an archissupot is a scholarly rogue—both themselves argot terms.

These areas, which inspired both Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables, were cleared, an effort that began in 1667, and was finally completed by the Haussmannization of Paris in the late 19th century. Georges-Eugène Hausmann’s renovation of Paris occurred between 1853 and 1870, following the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris, so even though his work was celebrated, Hugo’s warnings were not heeded. Ironically, one of the areas on the Rive Droite created in this effort was Place Victor Hugo.

Finally, the endings of the two works differ the most dramatically: In the animated film, Frollo “accidentally” falls to his death in the molten lead-flooded streets surrounding the cathedral, Esmeralda marries Phoebus, the Captain of Frollo’s guard (Captain of the Archers in the novel). and in a Baby Cakes-esque turn of events, Quasi is accepted by society.

Hugo, on the other hand, has Frollo turn Esmeralda, condemned of attempting to murder Phoebus, over to the troops, and when he laughs during her hanging, Quasimodo pushes him from the top of the cathedral to his death. The hunchback later finds Esmeralda’s dead body at the mass grave for criminals at Montfaucon and remains there to eventually perish of starvation. Their intertwined skeletons are found some time later, which, when an attempt is made to separate them, crumble into dust.

In closing, I actually doff my hat to Disney for embracing one dark element of the original in particular: Frollo’s mixture of lust and loathing for Esmeralda, treatment of which, mainly embodied in the musical number, “Hellfire”, garnered the flick an unheard of (for Disney) PG rating. It would have been easy to leave out, but the creative team seems to have successfully fought the studio execs to keep it in. As it’s ultimately a commentary on the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy, it’s a fairly charged theme to have made it into such an otherwise vanilla effort.

Read subsequent articles in the DeDisneyfication series

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


  1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957.
  2. Richard Wolfgramm, “Moana and Resistance Spectating”, November 2016.
  3. Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris), 1831. This is from J. Carroll Beckwith’s 1892 translation.

Wanting to be Magic

A starry robe, a pointy hat, and thou, Rilke (Translating Poetry, Part 3)

Poring as I have over Borgesessays on translation, particularly of poetry, I still nearly missed a line that finally reveals his thoughts on the topic:

Words become incantations and poetry wants to be magic.

Even his essays are far from straightforward and must be carefully read. This sentence is drawn from “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), and it is not at all elaborated on.

Nonetheless, I find myself in accord: the process of reading poetry is different from reading other types of works. Or at least it should be although there are some works of prose for which the process is like reading poetry—Finnegan’s Wake comes to mind. The poet’s choices must be carefully made, but even more is demanded of the reader, who must study and perform the magic. You can’t simply glean the meaning and move on; each line, and maybe each word, must be lingered over, read aloud, and allowed to reverberate, whereas in “normal” reading even moving your lips is worthy of derision.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work is often described as mystical and lyrically intense. His words are invocations, using haunting images to express highly existential themes, such as the difficulties of communion with the ineffable in the disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety of the fin de siècle.

So when a friend posted a version of a Rilke poem on Facebook, it caught my eye. I haven’t been able to identify the translator of this version. Sometimes called “Passages”, it is actually untitled:

Understand, I’ll slip quietly
away from the noisy crowd
when I see the pale
stars rising, blooming over the oaks.
I’ll pursue solitary pathways
through the pale twilit meadows,
with only this one dream:
you come too.

Some great stuff here, but again, I wanted to see it as Rilke wrote it, which was:

Weisst du, ich will mich schleichen
leise aus lautem Kreis,
wenn ich erst die bleichen
Sterne über den Eichen
blühen weiß.
Wege will ich erkiesen,
die selten wer betritt
in blassen Abendwiesen—
und keinen Traum, als diesen:
Du gehst mit.

I found the original more haunting and beautiful and containing themes I related to. It’s just two sentences, but invites the imagined lover/ reader, to flee the urban masses into a luminous countryside.

There’s also an ABAAB rhyming scheme present, but I remain committed to free verse as being the best choice for the translation of poetry. The rhymes rely mainly on the -en endings of both plurals and infinitives in German (used for all the As). While it might seem a strange aesthetic to apply, Einstürzende Neubauten front man Blixa Bargeld’s lyrical style of using single-syllable words rich with multiple meanings is one that I’ve long since adopted in my own writing, and seemed especially appropriate here. At one point he simply made a list of these evocative words and used them as a lyric, described as “sound scenery”. “Compressors in the Dark”, whose refrain, “ich gehe jetzt” (“I’m leaving now”) is nearly a reply to Rilke.

These are a few of the sensibilities that went into my version:

Know that I will slink
quietly from the noisy crowd,
when first I sense that ghostly
stars crest the oaks
blooming white.
I’ll choose to make tracks
where a rare few walk
in pale twilight meadows—
with no dream but this:
You go with me.

The final line I deemed then, and still do, a bit overly literal, and perhaps demonstrative of the limitations of the English language, but perhaps this is a result only of my own “exhaustion” as a translator as Borges would say. I did remark at the time, and still fancy that the Japanese phrase issho ni (一緒に) might express the idea better than English, or even the original German could. It is often translated simply as “together”, but as with a lot of the diction we’re dealing with, the nuances run deep.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Faithful Treason

Part 2: The Middle Way

The Middle Way

From Virgil to Dante through the lens of Borges (Translating Poetry, Part 2)

In “Two Ways to Translate”, Jorge Luis Borges identifies these “two ways” as classical and romantic. His description of the former is:¹

The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies.

And the latter:

Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. […] That reverence for the I, for the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.

The essay concludes with two representative translations of the first line of Martín Fierro, an epic poem about the titular gaucho by Argentine José Hernández:²

Aquí me pongo a cantar. Al compás de la vigüela

We can translate them in a long-winded literal way: “In this same place where I am, I am beginning to sing with my guitar,” and with high-sounding paraphrase: “Here, in the company of my guitar, I begin to sing, […].”

For comparison, the “standard translation” offered in the essay is:

And here I begin to sing—to the rhythm of the vihuela.

Although Borges taxonomizes the classical and romantic types, though he does decry poetic cliché, he does not seem to favor either. And nor do I. Elements of each seem appropriate to me in different situations.

By way of illustration, let’s look at some Dante. When Robert Pinsky’s translation of the Inferno came out, I heard good things and picked it up. A passage I had not remembered from my previous reading caught my eye:

In that part of the young year when the sun
Goes under Aquarius to rinse his beams,
And the long nights already begin to wane

Toward half the day, and when the hoarfrost mimes
The image of her white sister upon the ground—
But only a while, because her pen, it seems,

Is not sharp long—a peasant who has found
That he is running short of fodder might rise
And go outside and see the fields have turned

To white, and slap his thigh, and back in the house
Pace grumbling here and there like some poor wretch
Who can’t see what to do; and then he goes

Back out, and finds hope back within his reach,
Seeing in how little time the world outside
Has changed its face, and takes his crook to fetch

His sheep to pasture.

First, this simile that begins Canto XXIV is one of the longest in the work, a welcome reprieve from Dante’s extensive revenge fantasies and classical references. Second, I loved the bucolic imagery which then shifts to refer to Virgil (the peasant) who is leading Dante (his flock),³ which, of course, is also classic Christian symbolism.

But the structure is frankly annoying—basically the last bit of each sentence has been shoved into the next line throughout, and the rhymes are pretty weak. An excellent illustration of the problem of trying to preserve an original’s meter, especially Dante’s intricate, interlocking terza rima scheme. Sun/ wane, beam/ mimes/ seems, ground/ found/ turned, rise/ house/ goes, wretch/ reach/ fetch are some rough rhymes, but it seems meter and rhyme were Pinsky’s secondary focus, as he says in his Translator’s Note, apologizing for the difficulties. I’ll let him off the hook just a bit by noting even in more rhyme-rich Italian, and with all his poetic skill, Dante rhymes both tempra and faccia with themselves in the passage.

It was second nature to consult the original:

In quella parte del giovanetto anno
che ’l sole i crin sotto l’Aquario tempra
e già le notti al mezzo dì sen vanno,

quando la brina in su la terra assempra
l’imagine di sua sorella bianca,
ma poco dura a la sua penna tempra,

lo villanello a cui la roba manca,
si leva, e guarda, e vede la campagna
biancheggiar tutta; ond’ei si batte l’anca,

ritorna in casa, e qua e là si lagna,
come ‘l tapin che non sa che si faccia;
poi riede, e la speranza ringavagna,

veggendo ‘l mondo aver cangiata faccia
in poco d’ora, e prende suo vincastro
e fuor le pecorelle a pascer caccia.

And, as I have suggested, my version is indeed a mix. Just as with the Aeneid passage, I feel it’s important to understand the original and its context, but it’s still more important the metaphors of the original make sense in English:

In that moment of the fledgling year when the Sun douses his crown beneath Aquarius and the night becomes half a day’s length,

When the Frost traces the image of her white sister upon the ground, even though her quill’s sharpness lasts but briefly,

The peasant, low on fodder, rises and gazes out, and seeing all the countryside gone pale, slaps his thigh,

He turns back indoors, lamenting to and fro—a poor wretch who knows not what to do; but then, returning, his hope revives,

Seeing how the world’s face has changed in so short a while, takes up his staff and drives his lambs to pasture.

I won’t digress into a belabored discussion of the reasoning behind each word I chose, but just to give one example, the original has crin—“hair” as what the sun is “putting under Aquarius”, and Pinsky has the sun “rinse his beams”, both of which seem strange to my ears. I gave the sun a crown, which seemed a more sensible image using its double meaning as the item of regalia—and of course the sun is king of the heavens—but also the top of the head. In any case, I think my overall rendering lets the depth and resonance of the original shine through.

Read subsequent articles in the Translating Poetry series

Part 3: Wanting to be Magic

Read previous articles in the Translating Poetry series

Part 1: Faithful Treason


  1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), 1926, collected in English in On Writing, Suzanne Jill Levine ed., 2010.
  2. José Hernández, Martín Fierro (originally, El Gaucho Martín Fierro), 1872., quoted in ibid.
  3. That is, the characters of Dante and Virgil.

Faithful Treason

The endless word game of translating poetry (Translating Poetry, Part 1)

In Jorge Luis Borges’ essay, “Two Ways to Translate”, he begins by citing the Italian quip traduttore, traditore (“translator, traitor”), which he then goes on to discredit thus:¹

[I] believe in the good translations of literary works (not to mention didactic or speculative works) and am of the opinion that even poetry is translatable.

Nonetheless, in another essay on the topic, “The Homeric Versions”, he also concedes that it is not easy:²

[N]o problem is as consubstantial to literature and its modest mysteries as the one posed by translation. […] Translation […] seems destined to illustrate aesthetic debate. The model to be imitated is a visible text, not an immeasurable labyrinth of former projects or a submission to the momentary temptation of fluency.

He discusses one specific problem, that of a shared context between writer and reader:³

Evaristo Carriego’s poems will appear slighter to a Chilean’s ear than to myself: I will have a feeling for those Southside sunsets, the local characters, and even the details of a landscape not registered but latent, such as a corral, a fig tree behind a rose-colored wall, a bonfire in the street.

Pointing back to the notion framed in traduttore, traditore that the original text is somehow sacrosanct, and that therefore all translations are lesser works, he continues,⁴

To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H [i.e. Homer’s draft]—for there only can be drafts. The concept of the “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion.

Long before I first encountered Borges, and especially these lesser-known essays of his, I was tinkering with conlangs, and one of the ways I would test them is to try to use them to translate poetry. Within fairly brief passages, I could quickly see if the lexicon needed expanding, if the grammar and morphology I was creating were sufficient to the task.

The first poetry translation I did into a “real” language was, rather oddly, of a Chinese poem into Japanese. The poem by Du Fu (杜甫), reminded me of haiku both in its succinctness and its feeling of mono no aware (もののあわれ); a wistful sense of the ephemerality of reality. Indeed, the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), seemingly influenced by this poem, penned a quite similar one. Du Fu’s runs:⁵

Cicadas’ voices echo in the old temple.
Birds’ shadows fly across the cold pond.

The matching of the exact parts of speech and relationships of the words in the two lines was another intriguing element that caused it to stick in my mind. And so, when I was working in Japan, where I was doing a great deal of translation of Japanese game text into English, I decided to share it with some of my coworkers there, as:


Semi no koe, furui tera de hibikimasu.
Tori no kage, samui ike de tobimasu.

Translating poetry from other languages into English began for me with a passage from Virgil, and my experience followed Borges’ description closely. Indeed in all the examples discussed in this series, I encountered the work in English translation, was struck by it, consulted the original, and executed my own version.

During the development of Diablo II, I was looking for an inspirational piece regarding hell, and the one from Dante’s Inferno was feeling a bit tired—“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate […]” (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here….”) It’s actually a great passage, but was one of the pieces I had been using to test conlangs for some time. I ran across this section of the Aeneid:⁶

Just in the gate, and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell;
And pale Diseases, and repining Age,
Want, Fear, and Famine‘s unresisted rage;
Here Toils, and Death, and Death’s half-brother Sleep
(Forms terrible to view), their sentry keep;
With anxious Pleasures of a guilty mind;
Deep Frauds before, and open Force behind;
The Furies iron beds; and Strife, that shakes
Her hissing tresses, and unfolds her snakes.

Overall it was interesting, and in fact, the Inferno passage is an homage to this one. But some of it felt a bit clumsy to me, in particular, the forced meter and rhyme: In this version, Dryden expands the original by an entire line to make it work. So, although I’ll admit to being a Latin novice at the time, I turned to the source, finding:

vestibulum ante ipsum primisque in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae,
pallentesque habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque;
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruenti.

I took on my own translation, yielding:

Before the entrance, at the very maw of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Anxiety make their Lair,
Here pallid dwells Disease, sad Senescence,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Poverty,
Shapes terrible to behold, Death and Exhaustion;
Then Sleep, of one blood with Death, and Dark
Joys, and against the gate, deadly War,
The Fates in rooms of iron and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky hair bound in ribbons oozing gore.

Attempting to preserve the meter, much less adapt a different one seemed a fool’s errand, and rhyming is, let’s be honest, a bit of a silly linguistic game. Instead I was interested in the metaphors the original work was dealing in, the resonances and nuances of its diction.

My focus initially was on using English cognates of the Latin words when they were available, but words like senescence later seemed like they’d only appear on the SAT. I did have enough restraint to not use consanguineous, and indeed many more Latin words that have been borrowed directly into English, since at a certain point it would cease being a translation. Furthermore, when I was working on Gods and Heroes, I came to understand that the passage presented several lesser deities of the Roman pantheon, and these had accepted English equivalents. Dryden, too, seems to have been unaware of the standard renderings of these deities’ names. I’ve capitalized them in my translation, below. Additionally, my ability to parse the fairly complex Latin had increased significantly, I had studied Roman culture in great depth, and I had read the Aeneid in its entirety. This resulted in another pass from this period:

Before the antechamber, even in the very gullet of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Cares have made their lair,
Here abide discoloring Diseases, melancholy Old-Age,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Want,
Forms dreadful to behold: Death and Distress;
Next, Death’s kinsman Sleep, and the soul’s
Guilty Joys, and opposite the threshold, death-bringing War,
And the Furies’ chambers of iron, and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.

As far as a series of drafts, mine improved by coming to grips with the issues that Borges pointed out. And in fact, these drafts, as Borges suggests, are merely some relatively stable ones, there were many more in between them. Greater understanding of the original language and cultural context and an attempt to bring that information to a modern English-speaking audience informed the more recent one. Rather than focusing on cognates of the original Latin words in English, I moved toward diction relatively accessible to a moderately educated reader, but containing resonances that attempt the depth of the model’s.

I’ll close with one final Borges quote that sums up his (and my) thoughts on the topic:⁷

The original is unfaithful to the translation.


I quite recently learned from a course on Roman architecture that the term fauces, an inflected form of which, faucibus, appears in the first line of the Virgil verse, which both Dryden and I took in an anatomical sense of “jaws, maw, gullet”, is actually an architectural feature common to Roman houses.⁸ As further such language is used by Virgil (vestibulum, cubilia, limine, thalami), we can conclude that his intent is to juxtapose these mundane domestic elements with the horrible creatures appearing within them, similar to that of of the white vitta (“hairband”), and the blood staining it. Yet another draft was therefore needed:

Before the anteroom, even at the very entrance of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Cares have made their parlors,
Here dwell discoloring Diseases, melancholy Old-Age,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Want,
Forms dreadful to behold: Death and Distress;
Next, Death’s kinsman Sleep, and the soul’s
Guilty Joys, and opposite the doorway, death-bringing War,
And the Furies’ iron bedrooms, and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.

Read Subsequent Posts in This Series:

Part 2: The Middle Way

Part 3: Wanting to be Magic


  1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), 1926, collected in English in On Writing, Suzanne Jill Levine ed., 2010.
  2. Borges, “The Homeric Versions” (“Las versiones homéricas”), 1932,  also collected in On Writing.
  3. Borges 1926.
  4. Borges, 1932.
  5. I was unable to locate the original.
  6. Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), Aeneis (Aeneid), VI, 273–81, 29–19 BCE, this is from the 1697 John Dryden translation.
  7. “[E]l original es infiel a la traducción.” Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek” (“Sobre el Vathek de William Beckford”), 1943, collected in Selected Non-Fictions, 1999.
  8. Diana E. E. Kleiner, “5. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Houses and Villas at Pompeii”, Roman Architecture, 2016.

The Role of the Ear-Lopper

Incorporating the outsider as a source of innovation (Creator Styles, Part 2)

Some commented on my previous article on creator styles, I was comparing apples and oranges—individual artists versus the team dynamic at work in video game development—but was I? Actually, schools of art provide something of a corollary. In these schools, individuals with shared goals work closely together, learning from one another to advance the aesthetic they are trying to achieve. As David Galenson notes in Old Masters and Young Geniuses, we should remember that:¹

[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.

Certainly, there remain differences in these contexts, as the artists are still creating their own individual works, but there are also situations like studios where works would be executed under the name and direction of a master by various artists, etc., and the Brothers le Nain even worked on one another’s paintings, to the extent art historians are still trying to puzzle out which of the brothers is responsible for which elements of which works.

And so, as I continued to peruse Galenson’s work, a passage leapt off the page at me:²

What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.

He’s talking about van Gogh, an artist instrumental in the Impressionist movement. Obviously, using him as the example here is somewhat charged due to his mental instability and eventual suicide, but it’s also inarguable he was an artistic genius. Because he had his own ideas, he moved to the middle of nowhere, perfected his style, and then, unfortunately, went a bit crazy.

And, in the team-based creation process of games, a van Gogh sounds like a troublemaker, right? There needs to be unity; everyone on the same page, rowing in the same direction. Wrong:³

[W]ith astonishing speed van Gogh gained a knowledge of the methods and goals not only of Impressionism but also of Neo-Impressionism, and he became acquainted with Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, and a number of other young artists who were developing a new Symbolist art.

And, yet we know van Gogh clashed with his contemporaries, as well as his brother Theo, repeatedly. When he left Paris for Arles, it was partly from exhaustion from his work, having produced some 200 paintings during his two years in the capital. But also because his personal style was diverging from Impressionism and he knew the group would never accept it. In his own words:⁴

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully. […] I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of the red and green […].

This passage shows how he is moving past the strict dictates of the movement to explore new territory that was to show the way to Symbolism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. But the clashes still weren’t over—when Gauguin came to visit and paint with him, they had a massive quarrel: van Gogh threatened his colleague with a straight razor and then used it to slice off part of his own ear.

In the world of game development, I have championed passionate people, and especially those whose views are not mainstream. This can be a tough row to hoe: management typically dislikes disruptions and sees “company culture” as monolithic; a world where everyone plays nice and gets along. My view is different perspectives, devil’s advocates, and clashes, as long as they can be kept constructive and no one loses an ear, make a team stronger.

In my brief encounters with Hollywood, I’ve seen how sycophancy can distort the creative process: those who should be challenging an artist instead simply say “yes”. I’ll provide one salient anecdote: when a coworker of mine and I were on the set of Antitrust, Tim Robbins improvised a line about creativity, saying, “Use the left side of the brain”. Everyone fell over each other to confirm it was correct. It’s not.⁵ My colleague, another pilgrim in this unholy land, looked at me imploringly. “We’re not here to fight this fight,” I told him, sotto voce, “they’ll just have to fix it in post.”

Perhaps I relate to the ear-lopper role because I’ve lived it. When I got into game development, I did so very much as an outsider, in terms of nearly everything: influences, experience, values, goals. I was perhaps even more of an outsider than van Gogh—he at least was attracted to a school of painting, while I entered a medium wherein various genres and styles coexist, many times even within companies. On top of this, my first real development role was in Japan.

Working in Japan was pretty crazy—basically nearly no one in the company had the intent to make games, instead they were recruited as unskilled workers graduating from university to become sararīman (サラリーマン). Derived from English “salary-man”, the term refers to white-collar workers for corporations but also implies lifetime employment, for whichever company makes the best offer, including banks, or electronics manufacturers, or whatever. Whether they came to have passion or even aptitude for their work was a matter of complete happenstance. And indeed, even those who did succeed often did so only to see their ambitions crushed, as they typically had little control over the strict hierarchy within which they worked. Of the handful of Americans I worked with in this organization, none were on the creative side: they were either translators or programmers, just as likely to fit into their roles as their Japanese counterparts. I’m not sure if any besides me continued in the field of games—I certainly haven’t run across any of them.

Then there was me. I’ve already detailed some of my background in earlier posts, so I won’t belabor the point here. On top of all that, I came from art school, believing in the integrity and grand potential of the medium, rather than thinking of games in terms of a set of genre-defined components.

And indeed, although I clashed strongly with many teams, especially early in my career, I feel it is appropriate to credit the successes of games I’ve worked on to my nontraditional approach. The very name of this blog, which comes from the Japanese expression, deru kugi wa utareru (出る釘は打たれる), reflects this; the phrase roughly translates to “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down”, though I’ve taken only the first part, having managed to remain so.

Read subsequent articles in the Creator Styles series

Part 3: Closing the Circle

Read previous articles in the Creator Styles series

Part 1: Passing on Picasso


  1. David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, 2007.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo, Arles, ca. August 1888.
  5. The pop psychology notion on the lateralization of the brain holds that the left side is logical and the right creative, but science doesn’t bear this out, so it’s actually doubly wrong.

So Long, Satire

How political humor has paved the way to political hell

No more Daily Show; no more Last Week Tonight; no more Full Frontal; no more Real Time. I’m off them all. It will be hard, and it will feel like a loss, but I’m solidly done. “Why?” you might well ask, and I’ll tell you: It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s fault.

I’ve read pretty much everything Gladwell has written, and when it somehow got by me, a friend told me about his podcast, Revisionist History. I heartily and unreservedly recommend RevHist and, indeed all of Gladwell’s work¹—he’s made a career of questioning conventional wisdom and digging into poorly understood and overlooked topics.

In one RevHist episode, “The Satire Paradox”, he covered political humor, focusing on whether or not it was effective in terms of changing opinions or achieving actual change. It resonated with some events that were current when I was listening to it, but that’s was as far as it went—I agreed with Gladwell that we shouldn’t let politicians off the hook by ignoring their political issues and instead treating them with humor.

But Gladwell does his homework, and he shares that homework with us. For every episode of his RevHist, he supplies a section of Reference Docs, and reading, watching, and listening to this additional information is a great way to get some of the depth that his 45-minute format doesn’t permit.

For this particular episode, one of the Reference Docs was an article in the London Review of Books called “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, written by Jonathan Coe and discussing Harry Mount’s The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. And this piece gives the topic both barrels. Or maybe every possible barrel.

The article begins by discussing the rise of anti-establishment political humor in the UK. Coe traces the lineage of the genre from Beyond the Fringe to Monty Python, Have I got News for You, and That Was the Week That Was. He points out that the creators of this brand of comedy are essentially those “trained to lead” the establishment they criticize, engaging in some good-natured rebellion during or after attending Oxford or Cambridge. He also points out that being anti is a vague and not necessarily pointful position.

Then he gets mean. He cites Steve Fielding, introduced only as “an academic”:

[I]n accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it ‘can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit’.

The Fielding thread goes on:

The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is ‘a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong’.

Indeed, the amazing depths to which the tone of political discourse has fallen can easily be seen to reflect this. The “low standards” to which we hold egomaniacal charlatans are the standards we have created and accepted. The fact that it’s become difficult to distinguish news from satire has been so often remarked on that #NotTheOnion has become a thing, but this is neither weird nor eerie; it’s a causal relationship.

Turning to the comedians themselves, Peter Cook, a widely acknowledged “comic genius” and perhaps one of the greatest practitioners of this form of humor seems to have grown to understand it limits:

Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’.

Michael Frayn, a critic, takes even squarer aim:

[T]he middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or queer, or mad, or old. Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.


The piece returns to Boris Johnson, whom the book reviewed is ultimately about, and who has been able to cleverly take advantage of this climate to rise to political power, even satirizing himself in order to render himself “safe” to the public through laughter. This bullying xenophobic demagogue, with clear echoes this side of the pond, is the type of political leader that we have come to deserve.

So goodbye Trevor, adieu John, adios Sam, and auf wiederschauen Bill.


  1. Things have changed since the writing of this article.

Magical Staves

Old Norse magical symbols, and ones that aren’t (Viking Esoterica, Part 3)

A while back a friend on Facebook shared a link to an interview with Björk from 1988. In the video, she’s talking some endearing nonsense about televisions and lying poets. But what struck me immediately was the tattoo on her upper arm.

I’ll cut to the chase; this strange, eight-legged thing is a Galdrastafur, or Icelandic Magical Stave, and this particular one is the Vegvisir, which is meant to keep one from losing their way. The literal translation is veg, “way” + visir, “guide”. It seems to have been tempting for translators to relate it to German Wegweiser, “signpost”, but while it comprises cognate terms, this is incorrect. It has also been characterized as a “Viking compass”, because of its eight legs, but this is also wrong. There is a wide variety of these staves, with my personal favorite being the Smjörhnútur, which protects one from butter created through witchcraft. I might even have gotten a Björkesque tat of it but unfortunately, it’s a bit nondescript; it just looks like a pentagram with a vertical line down the middle (below). Additionally, as a fencer, I don’t cotton much to the idea of someone jabbing me with a sharp metal object without my being allowed to jab back.

Unfortunately, for those interested in the historical lore of the Vikings, these are not. In fact, they are from a much later date, apparently from around the 15th–19th centuries, with the majority of the corpus coming from the 17th, so in historical terms it would be a mistake on the order of attributing Leaves of Grass to Dante Alighieri. As with the other elements of Nordic esoterica that I’ve discussed in this series, this is partly because of the appropriation of these symbols by various groups, and in particular, Neo-Pagans, though it should be noted, also black metal groups.

The best known Galdrastafur by far is the Ægishjálmur. Performing a quick Google search for it returns “about 166,000 results”, more than triple the population of 50,400 in Iceland in 1703.

Indeed, in addition to many a tat, it has seen increasing use in Vikingy settings of late, appearing in particular on round wooden shields. And again, this is a massive anachronism. It is true, however, that while never used by Vikings, these signs do incorporate elements of runes and pagan symbols.

The place in history of the Galdrastafir matches more closely with the Maleus Malefacarum. The emphasis on witchcraft is a demonstration of the turning back toward superstition of a people who have nominally accepted the Christian faith. Similar to the pentacles of the Clavicula Salomonis or the magical signs, even including some figures quite similar to Galdrastafir, on this scroll I took a picture of in the Tyrolian Museum of Folk Art (Tiroler Volkunstmuseum), Innsbruck.

It’s even shown in a Wikipedia article labeled as ægishjálmr (sic, should be Œgishjalmr), with the article’s name having been backformed from Icelandic into Old Norse. To be fair, this word does exist in Old Norse, it was just never used to refer to this symbol, as it did not exist. Instead it literally meant: “helm of terror”, which was appears to be skaldic language for a terror-striking glance rather than a physical object.

Let me quickly note that Icelandic, which some mistakenly think is synonymous with Old Norse, features several changes to both orthography and pronunciation, including -r → -ur for strong masculine noun endings, made, one imagines to avoid the difficulty in pronouncing a consonant as its own syllable, but it also creates an –ur/-ir pluralization that is linguistically abhorrent. Other North Germanic languages simply dropped the ending, e.g., the Old Norse form of my name is Stigr (the e simply representing a modern spelling variant which the Novelist with the Dragon Tattoo also used).

Back to the Eddas, we read in Fáfnismál

Fáfnir kvað:
“Ægishjalm bar ek of alda sonum,
meðan ek of menjum lák;
einn rammari hugðumk öllum vera,
fannk-a ek svá marga mögu.”
Sigurðr kvað:
“Ægishjalmr bergr einungi,
hvar skulu vreiðir vega;
þá þat finnr, er með fleirum kemr,
at engi er einna hvatastr.”

Fafnir spake:
“The fear-helm I wore to afright mankind,
While guarding my gold I lay;
Mightier seemed I than any man,
For a fiercer never I found.”
Sigurthr spake:
“The fear-helm surely no man shields
When he faces a valiant foe;
Oft one finds, when the foe he meets,
That he is not the bravest of all.”

The conversation is clearly not about an actual helm—shielding against a helm sounds entirely absurd barring an unlikely headbutting reference—but the fear the dragon Fafnir instills in mortals. The place of the word hjalmr in the kenning is locating the cause of fear in the head, or more specifically, the face and eyes.

All of the Magical Staves are essentially material manifestations of Abracadabra—meaningless mummery whose effect, if any, is psychological. These signs essentially represent an evolution: Before writing, there were symbols, then, when writing was created it was magic in itself, as we have seen in our discussion of runes. The defixiones of the Romans, the papyri (πάπυροι) of the Greeks, are magical formulae that are written simply using words—sometimes accompanied by magical charakteres, but the formulae take primacy—and indeed, even in Sumerian, one of the first written languages, apotropaic tablets, as well as ones bearing curses fit this pattern. It is only later, when words are no longer obscure enough that symbols return.

udug’khulne alaḫulne puakuba!

May the evil udugs and the evil alas tremble!

In this Sumerian incantation, an udug is a ghost/ demon of the desert, mountain, sea, and tomb, while an ala is a demon of suffering; the two are often mentioned together. In both cases, but particularly the latter, the descriptor khul—“evil”—seems fairly redundant.

So did the Vikings use magical symbols other than runes and bindrunes? Yes, there were a few.

The best known of these is the Thor’s Hammer (Þórrshmmarr). This is often shown as a simple, T-shaped emblem of the thunder god’s weapon. Some say this might be a cross variant, like a Tau cross, but the crosses found in post-Christian Scandinavian carvings are of a fairly distinct type, and the serpents that also tend to appear with the Þórrshamarr don’t make sense to Christian symbolism, whereas Þórr is a dragonslayer of some renown.

Even as late as the turn of the last century, a T shape was traditionally carved above doorways in southern Tyrol (I’m not sure why the Tyroleans keep turning up here…), for protection from many kinds of evils but storms in particular. In runic carvings it is clear that it is an invocation of the god to hallow and protect.

The so-called valknutr is another one. So-called, because the term is actually a modern coinage, while its true name is unknown, although many point to this passage as referring to it, and personally, I agree:²

hrungnir átti hjarta þat, er frægt er, af hǫrðum steini ok tindótt með þrimr hornum, svá sem síðan er gert ristubragð þar er hrungnishjarta heitir.

Hrungnir had the heart which is notorious, of hard stone and spiked with three corners, even as the written character is since formed, which men call Hrungnir’s Heart.

The image is rendered either as three interlocking triangles similar to the Borromean rings or as a unicursal trefoil knot. There are not many attested, but here’s one:

There is also this image from the Snoldelev Stone in Ramsø, Denmark, which is literally three interlocking horns, and might be either another variant, or the specific sign referred to in the passage above:

There are various lines of thinking on the symbol’s use, mainly in association with Oðinn, and possibly relating to his ability to bind and unbind minds. If the hrungnishjarta name is correct, however, there is also a connection to Þórr, as the slayer of this jǫtunn: The “troll”, Hrungnir, had entered Valhalla (Valhǫll), gotten drunk and was wrecking the place, so they called Þórr. Þórr threw his hammer, and Hrungnir threw his weapon, a massive whetstone. Mjǫllnir shattered the whetstone and slew the giant, with shards raining down on Midgard (Miðgarðr) to become flint, and one jagged chunk lodged forever in Þórr’s head.

The Marvel folks seem to have opted for what is perhaps a more elegant version, known as the triquetra, using the symbol on their Thor’s hammer, but which is not found in Viking art:

The other symbol that the Vikings clearly used, is unfortunately one that can never be taken back: it is the swastika:

It appears on several bracteates like this one, which also includes the alu formula, so showing that it bears a charm. The swastika is also associated with Þórr, and indeed, may simply have been another depiction of mjǫllnir.

Through all three parts in this series, we have seen that Norse esoterica is a minefield of misinformation and appropriation by Neo-Pagans and Nazis. Even beyond this, much of the material has been mishandled and misrepresented. I’m often down with the “rule of cool”, but It’s important to at least understand if you’re taking liberties with historicity, and definitely if you’ve been duped by reappropriations. It’s also important to understand the context of how these things were used, and to take care in how you represent them—even simply doubling sól, the runic equivalent of s, might make someone think you’re into Gene Simmons.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Runes

Part 2: Bindrunes


  1. I’ve used the translation from Henry Adams Bellows, The Poetic Edda, 1936 here.
  2. This passage comes from the Skáldskaparmál section of the Snorra Edda, as translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, 1916; emphasis mine.

The Dutch Defense

How Willem II’s sword wound up in the Witham (Solving the sword, Part 5)

I have posited the mysterious Witham Sword was Dutch, with the inscription it bears associating it with Willem II. If this hypothesis is correct, there were many opportunities for it to move to England after Willem’s son, Floris V, retrieved it from West Frisia: Floris was in the British Isles extensively, arranging his treaty with Edward I of England and making his case in the Great Cause of Scotland, negotiating at length with Robert the Bruce for mutual support. Floris’ son, Jan I, was raised in the royal court for a decade as well, and Jan’s English wife, Elizabeth, returned to Holland with him, but on his death at only 16, she returned home.

Although Jan’s death represented the end of Willem’s direct line, Jean II, the old count’s nephew, cemented rule of Holland and Hainault upon his succession, also—finally—adding Zeeland. By the succession of Jean’s son, Willem III, not only was rulership in the area firmly settled, but his marriage to Joan de Valois, sister of the future king of France, Philip VI, and subsequent marriages of their daughters, Margaretha to Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Philippa to Edward III of England meant the family was directly connected to essentially all the major power brokers in Europe.

And Philippa presents yet one more opportunity for the sword’s arrival in England. But regardless of how it got there, why bother bringing it there just to throw it in a river—a misguided attempt to see if the Lady of the Lake’s hand would emerge from the water to catch it? Indeed, I don’t think that’s what happened: Let’s look at yet another sword:

This sword, found along with some 80 others in the Dordogne river, is presumed to have been from the Battle of Castillon, fixing the date at 1453. The swords, all now in similar condition, were packed into barrels after the battle and shipped away on barges, which then sank. The sword is therefore actually 200 years newer than the Witham sword but clearly in significantly worse shape, with rust eating away its edges and causing a number of notches to appear. This strongly suggests not only was Willem’s sword not lobbed into the Witham during his lifetime, it was probably done much later even than the Castillon sword.

So we’ll turn our focus instead to a motive for ditching the sword: The Low Countries and England have always had a strong connection; although Calais sits closer, it’s not by much, and indeed France was often the mutual enemy against which these two united. This became even truer with the rise of their shared Protestant faith on a continent dominated by Catholicism. Still, a significant breach in these cordial relations did occur. We’ll have to go halfway around the world and hundreds of years later to find it.

Ironically, the breach was a direct result of the closeness of the two nations. By the late 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were in a cold trade war with the Dutch¹ and English. For the most part, this was carried out through embargoes, privateering, diplomacy, and the occasional taking by force of colonial outposts. Anglo-Dutch cooperation against the Iberian powers was formalized with the Treaty of Defense of 1619. Because economic factors were foremost in this alliance, the main bodies involved, rather than the nations, were the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC), who additionally created a Council of Defense in Batavia (Modern day Jakarta, Indonesia). So hand in glove did these companies work their employees were commonly to be found in one another’s vessels and outposts. The treaty’s regulations allowing this were to be tested in a set of unfortunate circumstances in Amboyna, Indonesia (AKA Ambon Island, present-day Maluku), in 1623.

Although the governments and companies were allied on paper, on the ground, they were still competitors; there were more-or-less petty grievances, tensions, jealousies, and mutual suspicions. Amboyna had all of these in abundance: the VOC’s governor for the area, Herman van Speult, seeing signs the Sultan of Ternate, a former power center in the area, was favoring the Spanish, thought the British might ultimately be behind this reversal of allegiance. Their treaty stated each country was to maintain and police the posts it occupied, which the governor interpreted as meaning he had legal jurisdiction in the area. He rounded up suspects, tortured (waterboarding was the method employed), tried, and executed 10 employees of the EIC, nine Japanese ronin (浪人, rōnin—mercenaries), and one Portuguese employee of the VOC. Four more Englishmen and two Japanese were also found guilty but pardoned.

The EIC, however, did not share van Speult’s opinion of the law. Instead, they believed that the joint body in Batavia should have tried the case. The British dubbed the incident a “massacre”, and proceeded to put out broadsheets including images drawn from martyrology, demonizing the Dutch and fomenting war.

Still, though anti-Dutch sentiment was clearly inflamed, actual war had to wait another 29 years until the pretext could be employed. The Dutch head of state (stadtholder), Frederick Henry, deeply deplored the regicide committed by Oliver Cromwell, having backed Charles I of England in the English Civil war. Indeed, there were Royalists and pro-Commonwealth factions across Europe plotting and inveigling, which, added to the mix of economic tensions, proved a powderkeg. It was lit when Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp was slow to lower his flag to General-at-Sea Robert Blake in the English Channel and the latter fired on him.

Although the “Amboyna Massacre” was hardly a true casus belli, it was now used as a pretext, as it was in the two Anglo-Dutch Wars to follow, in 1665 and 1672. It was such a never-forget moment it’s referenced in Gulliver’s Travels when the eponymous hero boards a Dutch ship called the Amboyna in Japan, pretending to be a “Hollander”. When he refuses to trample a crucifix, the Emperor promises to keep it quiet:²

For he assured me, that if the secret should be discovered by my Countrymen, the Dutch, they would cut my Throat in the Voyage.

Many pejorative terms including the descriptor Dutch entered the English language around this time: Dutch courage—false bravado gained by the consumption of alcohol—being the most common today.³ Others include:

  • Dutch bargain or Dutch reckoning: an arbitrary bill that only goes up if you try to negotiate it
  • Dutch-belliedDutch-builtDutch-buttocked or Dutch-cut: poorly built or ungainly
  • Dutch comfort or Dutch consolation: summed up as “thank God it’s no worse
  • Dutch concert: where every instrument plays a different tune
  • Dutch defense: the treacherous or cowardly delivery of a thing into enemy hands
  • Dutch leave: desertion
  • Dutch nightingale: a frog, alluding to the country’s marshiness, as well as the people’s poor singing ability
  • Dutch uncle: someone who is not a relative, yet offers frank advice and/ or rebukes as if they were
  • Dutch widow: a prostitute

In a similar period of anti-German sentiment, WWI, George V of England changed the name of his House from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. If occasions like this are enough to make the highest of royals change their names to make allegiances clear, certainly keeping around relic tying you to whomever national hatred is turned against would also seem in need of remedy.

So much the more so in Lincolnshire, center of the wool trade with the Low Countries since the Late Middle Ages, with its own village of New Holland and district of South Holland. John of Gaunt, son of Phillipa of Hainault and Edward III held the proverbial vast tracts there, and a street in the town of Lincoln bears his name, as does a football ground formerly home to Lincoln City.

It’s hard to trace who lived in Lincoln Castle down the years, or who the descendants of this or that duke might be, but I think the sword was in this area from the time of John of Gaunt, until, during some Anglo-Dutch War, through some combination of spite and desire to not be thought of as pro-Dutch, some successor or inheritor took this ancient relic of a forgotten line and flung it into the Witham.

And for comparison, I present a Hungarian riverfind sword; this one from the 17th century, which appears to have gone into the drink shortly after its creation:

You can see the condition of this blade bears a strong resemblance to the Witham sword; the grip is gone, there is an eating away of the flat surfaces, but the edge is intact. It is interestingly archaic in type, but I am assured of the date—perhaps it’s a sword of rank, just as the French Sabre de Troupe à Pied Modèle 1831 resembled a Roman gladius.

It is beyond my scope, and indeed my abilities, to eliminate all the variables in drawing equivalencies between these three swords, but we have the dates of manufacture for all three, and approximate dates for the submersions of the swords I’ve brought in for comparison. All three were found in large, slow-moving rivers prone to silting—all were found during dredging operations. None of them appear to have been scabbarded when sunk; generally, while the organic parts of scabbards, just as with grips, decay quickly, the metal fittings do not, however none of these finds mention any such pieces. If you’re feeling these examples are cherry-picked, I don’t blame you, but sadly I chose them due to the scarcity of reliable evidence rather than its abundance: give me access to the arms collections of several European musea and I’ll be happy to conduct a more thorough survey.

Is the case I made airtight? Hardly, but based on the information I could access, I’ve put together what I think is a fairly compelling hypothesis. Short of making a late career change into academia or being independently wealthy with nothing but time on my hands like the guy in Tim’s Vermeer, this is where the trail must end for me: this blade with which Willem II planned to enforce his ambition to expand his realm, unite the Low Countries, and become a player on the greater European stage, passed through many hands. It was lost to the Frisians, but Floris V recovered it. Willem’s family eventually achieved the high rank and status he had sought, and the sword became an heirloom of the Lancasters. And in a time of ill-feeling between the two nations, someone saw fit to lob it in the river.


I ran across a great quote perfectly summing up the anti-Dutch sentiment in England, especially in the latter half of the 17th century:⁴

What trades and artifices of all kinds do they set up, to the ruin of many a poor Englishman that has lived an apprentice and bondman seven years to attain his art and occupation? What trades are there in which they have not stocks going, or scriveners with money to lend? What land is to be sold, or mortgage to be had, that they have not the first refusal of? What marriages of man or woman falls amongst them that they will enrich the English with so long as any of their country or tribe is found amongst them? What maritime town, or other of account within twenty miles of the sea, opposite to Holland, that is not stuffed or filled with their people, to the impoverishing of the inhabitants and dwellers? What masses of money and gold have they, against the laws of the realm, transported out of it as truth has made it plain?

I also found more terms of disparagement using the descriptor “Dutch”, including a different meaning for Dutch bargain:

  • Dutch almanac: gibberish
  • Dutch bargain: a one-sided deal or one concluded over drinks
  • Dutch father: same as Dutch uncle
  • Dutch feast: where the host gets drunk before the guests or monopolizes the booze
  • Dutch fustian: nonsense; thieves’ jargon
  • Dutch medley: same as Dutch concert
  • Dutch nerve or Dutch spunk: same as Dutch courage

Read previous articles in the Solving the sword series

Part 1: Solving the Sword

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning

Part 4: God of the Peasants


  1. Although some will say it is not technically correct, I’ll use Holland and Dutch to refer to the United Provinces of the Netherlands and its people, respectively. This simplifies things, maintains clarity, and is a common usage.
  2. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1726.
  3. Dutch treat, also called going Dutch, is tempting, but is actually a US English term from much later, and probably refers to German (Deutsch)-speaking immigrants. There is a plethora of terms like this in the English language, with their time of origin strongly indicating the disfavored group of that day.
  4. Sir William Monson, Naval Tracts, 1703.

God of the Peasants

Revolt, flood, war, revenge, murder, and betrayal in the reign of Floris V (Solving the sword, Part 4)

During a military incursion into West Frisia in 1256, Willem II of Holland managed to end up with only a small contingent of foot soldiers and floundering in a semi-frozen lake near the town of Hoogwoud where his foes were able to make short work of him. The most current theory of his death is it was not deliberate. The Frisians simply saw a foreign knight leading his infantry across the iced-over Berkmeer and attacked. Only after the deed did one of them recognize the red lion of Holland and the black eagle of Germany on his arms and ask his fellow warriors what in God’s name they had done.

Generally, slaying royalty was bad business. It was much more profitable to hold them for ransom, trading them either for gold or for various other concessions rather than killing them and triggering a war of vengeance. It’s quite easy to imagine the Frisians setting Willem free on the condition he relinquish his claims on their lands, for example. As things stood, although they couldn’t have known it at the time, they had just doomed West Frisia to another three decades of war with, and ultimately complete subjugation by Holland.

As things stood, they apparently were careful with the king’s corpse, salting his remains to prevent decay, and burying him deep in the ground in a wooden box, rather than trying to hide what they had done by scattering the remains. Some presentiment seems to have been at work they’d eventually have to return the king’s body, and, I’d venture, his effects, including the sword, which were similarly kept safe.

Floris was only one-and-a-half years old when his father was slain. Just as with Willem’s succession at a young age, his holdings as Count of Holland and Zeeland were kept provisionally by his uncle, Floris de Voogd, until he was old enough to rule for himself in 1266. Unfortunately, eight years before his majority, his uncle passed away, precipitating a battle over the custody of his realms between his aunt Aleid (Willem’s sister; her husband, Jean de Avesnes, had also passed away in 1257, leaving her to rule Hainault) and Otto II, Count of Guelders. Otto’s victory in the battle of Reimerswaal in 1263 enabled him to become regent for the remaining three years.

Presumably to settle the bad blood between the counts of Hainault and Flanders, Floris married Beatrix, daughter of Jean de Avesnes’ hated rival, Gui de Dampierre, in 1269. With things in the rest of the Low Countries seemingly thus settled, the purpose of avenging his father’s death at the hands of the West Frisians, apparently always in the back of his mind, came to the fore.

Floris first invaded Friesland in 1272, but gained little ground, and had to return home in 1274 as the peasantry of Haarlem, Alkmaar, and the surrounding areas joined the West Frisians in a revolt, later known as the Uprising of the Kennemers (Opstand der Kennemers),¹ The Bishop of Utrecht, who had turned against Holland near the end of Willem II’s reign, suborned the nobles whose lands bordered on his bishopric, including Gijsbrecht IV and Arnoud of Amstel, Zweder of Abcoude, and Herman VI van Woerden to seize the opportunity to also join the rebellion. Utrecht’s disgruntled craftsmen further swelled the revolt’s ranks. Floris rapidly put all these forces down, annexing the diocese of Utrecht, the regions of Waterland and Gooi, as well as the borderlands of Amstel and Woerden.

Finally, in 1282, Floris was able to return to Frisia, where his victory at the battle of Vronen crushed resistance in the area and he went in search of his father’s bones. Many legends surround both where Willem was buried and how it came to be known, but I’ll relate the most common (although folkloric) of these: By the time Floris reached the area of Hoogwoud, only four old men who knew the location of Willem’s corpse were still alive—after all, 27 years had passed at a time when the average lifespan wasn’t much more than that, and moreover in an area wracked by nearly constant warfare. These old men were simply executed one at a time until the last begged for his life in exchange for showing the count to the location of his father’s corpse.

Digging down two and a half meters, they found the coffin, which was apparently such a triumph for Floris that he carried the remains back to Middleburg at once and interred them with solemn ceremony in the Abbey Church (Abdijkerk) there.

A chapel was built on the site of Willem’s first burial as well, which subsequently fell into ruin, but has been rebuilt within the grounds of the West Frisian Farm Museum (Museumboerderij West-Frisia).

Floris did not end his war, however, and indeed it took another six years of wars and severe flooding before the West Frisians finally decided they’d prefer to be on good terms with Holland, signing a treaty in 1289.

One of these floods in particular is noteworthy: known as the Sint-Luciavloed, it was the sixth largest in history. This North Sea tidal surge occurred on the 14th of December, 1287, the day after St. Lucia’s Day, from which it takes its name. It enveloped the river Vlie and a nearby freshwater lake, sweeping away natural clay and dune barriers, and submerging peatlands to create what is now known as the Zuiderzee, also greatly enlarging the Waddenzee and IJsselmeer bodies of water. Starum, Frisia’s oldest city and a powerful trading center, fell into decline as it no longer was accessible from the sea, with the formerly landlocked Griend taking its place even though the island in the Waddenzee it sat on was all but wiped out. Somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people lost their lives in the cataclysm, with entire villages vanishing completely. Importantly, the Zuiderzee’s inlet now divided West Frisia from Frisia proper, with Holland becoming its sole neighbor and isolation the only alternative to making peace, so peace was made.²

Floris constructed four castles in Medemblik, Wijdenes, Eenigenburg, and Alkmaar, to keep his new and restless subjects in check. However, he also built dikes in the area to keep incidents like the Sint-Luciavloed from recurring, as well as many roads, and these structural improvements soon endeared him to the people, as well as increasing Holland’s importance in regional agriculture. He assaulted Frisia proper as well, but even though he gained little more than a beachhead, from 1291 on he appended Lord of Frisia to his titles.

Whatever his expectations might have been when he wed Beatrix, her father Gui seems to have been intractable. The records show Floris’ attempt at a formal alliance in 1277 was rebuffed, and when, in 1287, Rudolf I of Germany, first of the Habsburgs, gave Floris the rights to the area controlling access to the Scheldt river (Zeeland-bewester-Schelde), thus infringing on Flemish lands, relations hit a new low. In 1290, encouraged by local nobles who supported his rule, Gui invaded the area, and when Floris arranged a meeting to try to work things out, his father-in-law imprisoned him in the castle of Biervliet, a town in Zeeland. Only when the Count of Holland agreed to relinquish his claims on the area was he released.

Flanders, as had often been the case, was backed by France, so Floris sought to ally himself still more firmly to England. In 1285, Floris betrothed his son Jan to Edward I’s daughter Elizabeth, also sending the infant to be raised and educated in the English court. The treaty thus sealed provided huge advantages for Holland, including making Dordrecht the center of the wool trade from the island nation and providing fishing rights off its coast.

However, during the Great Cause of Scotland, in which Floris was one of the few legitimate contenders for succession to the throne—his great-grandmother Ada was King William I “the Lion” of Scotland’s sister—Edward did not support him, ruling John Balliol the rightful king instead. The winds were shifting in the Low Countries as well, with Flanders finally turning its back on France, so Floris seized the opportunity to switch his allegiances as well. His cousin, Jean II of Hainault, having succeeded in 1280, was already allied with the French, and in 1296, persuaded him to join in order to finally crush the despised Dampierres. Far from accomplishing this end, however, it led to Floris’.

Edward appealed to the very same nobles Floris had defeated and disgraced during the Opstand der Kennemers. They set upon Floris during a hunt and took him prisoner with the object of delivering him to England. But the local peasantry, now solidly behind the charismatic ruler who had brought them such prosperity, rose up to prevent this. When the nobles attempted to leave Muiderslot castle with the count, they were met by an angry mob, panicked and slew Floris rather than allow his escape. This senseless killing spread the revolt across Holland, with commoners even in West Frisia clamoring for revenge for their count. The murderer, Gerard of Velzen, was captured and executed, while the other lords fled the country for their lives. The title of this section, God of the Peasants, is the English translation of Floris’ nickname, Der Keerlen God, which reflects the sentiments of his subjects.

The tale I have presented here strongly suggests Willem’s sword came back to Floris, if not when he recovered his father’s remains, then certainly by the end of his own life, after he had become immensely favored by all the commoners of his realm, which had come to include the area in which his father died, West Frisia. The close relationship between Holland and England, despite some bumps in the road, also grew considerably during his reign, which I’ll discuss further in Part 5.

Read subsequent articles in the Solving the sword series

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read previous articles in the Solving the sword series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning


  1. Kennemer is the demonym of Kennemerland, an area of dunes stretching from Haarlem to Alkmaar.
  2. It is known simply as “The Great Storm” in England where there was also massive flooding and damage, with hundreds dead and the decline of the port city of Dunwich.

De Gouden Koning

Willem II consolidates the Low Countries with a new sword (Solving the sword, Part 3)

Outside the Binnenhof palace in The Hague, stands a golden statue of its builder. Though he is little known elsewhere, Netherlanders venerate him as a founding father, and the continued popularity of the name Willem dates from his rule.

The statue bears the inscription:

Ter nagedachtenis van Willem II Roomsch Koning en Graaf van Holland, Begunstiger der stedelijke vrijheden, beschermer der kunst, stichter der kasteelen in ‘s-Gravenhage en Haarlem, geb. MCCXXVII †MCCLVI†
In memory of William II, King of the Romans and Count of Holland, supporter of urban liberties, protector of art, founder of castles in The Hague and Haarlem, born 1227, died 1256

This is the king I was led to by the “mysterious inscription” of the Witham Sword. In a feud between the papacy and Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) Frederick II, Willem was crowned [link to from] in full regalia to this same throne—therefore the anti-king—and proceeded to score a series of battlefield victories, forcing the embattled Frederick to shift his focus to the south.

By the mid-13th century, Frederick had been excommunicated by two different Popes, deposed as HRE, a crusade against him was preached, and two different anti-kings had been elected to invade his territories, and, if possible, do him in. While certainly troubled by these events, rather than sulking, he had simply withdrawn from northern Germany and continued his consolidation of the Italian peninsula. Despite Wilem’s successes, the German princes had still not closed ranks behind the ruler they still regarded with some suspicion as Pope Innocent’s pawn. Those presiding over Willem’s election had been almost entirely ecclesiastical, and some princes, such as the Duke of Saxony, had even directly opposed it. While still continuing to attempt to politick his way through this imperial/ pontifical mess, the anti-king withdrew his forces from the south in order to direct them instead toward goals closer to home.

This opportunity came about via Jean I d’Avesnes, Willem’s brother-in-lawbrother-in-law. He had married Willem’s sister, Aleid, in 1246, and supported him in the siege of Aachen. That accomplished, Jean had a bone to pick with his mother, Marguerite II, Countess of Flanders, and entreated his new and powerful relative to take his part. Indeed,Indeed, the timing of his marriage suggests it was specifically intended to gain him an ally in the Wars of Flemish Succession (as marriage often had strategic aims in those days), though it had preceded William’s election, which event must then have seemed fortunate beyond Jean’s wildest dreams. On the other hand, Willem’s ambitions in the region were already clear as well.

The bad blood between Jean and Marguerite came following the first conflict in the War of the Flemish Succession, in which Jean had battled his younger half-brother, Guillaume III de Dampierre. King Louis IX of France and Bishop Odo of Tusculum had finally intervened, settling Flanders on Guillaume and Hainault on Jean.¹

Now however, with Louis away on the Seventh Crusade, it had become clear Marguerite had no plans to relinquish Hainault, so Jean turned on both her and the king, asking Willem to annex Hainault to his lands and give it to Jean to rule as its count which should already have been his right twice over. Hainault, along with much of central Europe, was already an Imperial fiefdom, so this act, like Willem’s later declaration of his kingship of Zeeland, was merely taking something his by right and attempting to make it his in fact. As for the newly crowned Emperor, the appeal of extending his rule in the Low Countries was clear. He seems to have allowed himself to be persuaded, adding Hainault to his titles. And here, finally, is where the Witham sword enters the story.

To the trained eye, the Witham sword differs greatly from the Zeremonienschwert. Although not as elaborate as ceremonial swords were to become, the latter blade is clearly meant for symbolic rather than martial use. The square grip would make it painful to wield, and it looks blade-heavy as well. As I noted earlier, the pommel has been changed. The original could have been a heavier one—based on the style of the parts of the sword that are original, I’d guess it was a large, square cross-sectioned disk—and again fairly unergonomic. The square guard is bulky and its shape ineffective. The blade is unadorned, its cross section is flat—overall it seems intended simply to look impressive sheathed, which in fact it would typically be, as the coronation ceremony has the officiant gird the king with the scabbarded sword. It was apparently used for knightings under the Habsburgs, which would have involved unsheathing it, but by then it would have been fully anachronistic, and impressive mainly for its glitter and history.

Everything about the blade from Lincolnshire, by contrast, says it is a weapon of war: It has a heavy pommel to balance the weight of the blade and a sturdy, double-fullered, lenticular cross-section. The guard is thin but functional, with flared ends to arrest a foe’s blade. The grip is missing, having likely decomposed in the river, which means it was of organic material, likely wood and leather, to absorb the shocks of cuts, thrusts, and parries. Shark- or ray skin, called shagreen, was a popular grip covering as the scaly surface was naturally nonslip. Even the inscription is in keeping with its warlike purpose; the invocation is meant to gain the favor of God and inspire valor in battle. It is now my conjecture this sword was created upon the declaration of William’s kingship of Hainault, perhaps Jean’s gift to his brother-in-law. It also makes sense as the last title presented in the inscription, with the purpose of going to war with the Dampierres, which is exactly what occurred. Willem seems to have declared his kingship over Hainault in 1249, while his title Duke of Swabia was appended in 1254, giving a five-year window for the inscription, as the Witham sword does not bear the latter title. He also became King of Zeeland in 1256.

The war seems to have been focused in Zeeland, sitting between Flanders and Willem’s base in Holland.² Here Willem and Jean, and their Brabantine allies scored a series of victories in the five-year conflict. These culminated with the decisive battle of Westkapelle, in 1253, which crushed military resistance in the area, forcing Marguerite and Gui de Dampierre (his older brother, Guillaume, having been killed earlier in the conflict) to acknowledge the earlier settlement granting Hainault to Jean.

This treaty was not worth the vellum it was written on, however, as the treacherous Marguerite promised Hainault to Louis IX’s brother Charles d’Anjou. Willem entreated aid from Henry III of England to balance the scales. Charles attacked Jean at Valenciennes, where the Frenchman was soundly defeated and nearly killed. In the end, it took King Louis’ return from the crusades to settle the matter and set Jean firmly on the Hainault throne. But even before all this was resolved, apparently dissatisfied with his gains in the Flemish wars, Willem had already turned to his forces against the West Frisians, his neighbors to the northeast, in a new series of battles.

Widening our focus back to Europe’s ongoing political turmoil, in 1250, Frederick II died, and was succeeded by his son Conrad IV. The pope swiftly excommunicated him, deposed him as HRE, and stripped him of his duchy of Swabia, conferring it on the anti-king instead. Already in the previous year at the papal Council of Lyon, Willem had started negotiations for an imperial coronation in Rome, even performing the Officum Stratoris et Strepae; a strange ceremony originated by Emperor Constantine. He describes it thus:³

[H]olding the rein of [the Pope’s] horse, out of reverence for blessed Peter we performed for him the office of a groom.

Essentially, this was an act of humility before the Church and, as such, many rulers flatly refused to do it.

The next year, Willem married Elizabeth, the daughter of Otto the Child, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, thereby becoming the symbolic head of the Guelphs. The Guelphs and the Ghibellines were two opposing parties Dante often referenced in his Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia). The Hohenstaufens—to which Frederick II belonged—essentially headed up the latter, refusing to acknowledge the church’s authority over temporal matters, while the church predictably backed the former. This alliance added secular backing to Willem’s former, mainly ecclesiastical support, and allowed his re-election as the German King in 1252.

These events snowballed with the death of Frederick’s successor, Conrad, even despite Innocent IX perishing in the same year, with disarray created in both successions. In 1254, the Rhenish League decided to pay homage to the anti-king, and his indisputable re-coronation in Rome was planned for 1256. But this was not to be.

Even with his kingship of Germany seemingly about to be settled, Willem still was focused on the consolidation of the Low Countries under his rule. He continued his campaign in West Frisia, where an expedition near the town of Hoogwoud on 28 January 1256 proved his undoing. Cut off from his troops and having lost his bearings, he tried to cross a frozen lake called the Berkmeer. The ice could not support him cap-a-pie in mail atop his destrier, so horse and rider plunged into the frigid morass beneath. In this soggy, cold, dismounted, and bemired state, the Frisians made short work of him, and buried him under a house in the region.

There are several depictions of the event, all of which seem to depict the Frisians as brutish and cruel, but really, they were only trying to remain free from feudal subjugation. In some, at least, there is a dissenter among them.

It is not recorded what was done with Willem’s arms and armor, including, according to my theory, the Witham sword, but as expensive and well-wrought trophies, one can imagine the Frisians did not want to part with such gear easily. Perhaps they split the loot, each carrying off a few items.

Oh, and just by the way, Willem is my 25th great-uncle. I only found this out about a week before this article’s publication. My mother-in-law’s hobby is genealogy; she’s been working on my wife’s side of the family for several years now but has recently turned to mine. Closely following my penning of Part 1 (which is to say in completely independent research), she excitedly told me I was related to Edward III of England, tracing back from my mother’s grandfather, Peter Keplinger. I found this interesting, but not especially so until she mentioned his wife Phillipa of Hainault. Yep, that’s right; I am a direct descendant of Jean d’Avesnes and Willem II’s sister, Aleid.


Unexpectedly, while reading Prague in Black and Gold, I ran across an interesting take on the renewal of Willem’s attempt at the German kingship:

At the beginning of his reign, Otakar [II of Bohemia] supported the candidacy of Wilhelm of Holland, who was also backed by a league of Rhenish towns, but by 1254 his own chances were propitious: the German princes were not unwilling to consider him, the rich son of a Hohenstaufen princess, secret negotiations were held, and Wilhelm of Holland suggested his willingness to withdraw his candidacy if it paid off sufficiently.

This fits my view Willem was much more concerned with consolidating his power in the Low Countries than tilting at the windmill of ruling the HRE.

Read subsequent articles in the Solving the sword series

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read previous articles in the Solving the sword series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor


  1. I use the French forms here as this seems to reflect both the extraction and loyalties of this family (at least initially). Jean is often given as John or Jan as well.
  2. A map representing the proper time period and region was impossible to find, so I had to adapt one; the political regions shown are generally correct.
  3. I have stressed the English translation of the ceremony’s name here.
  4. Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold, 1997. He incorrectly uses the German form of Willem’s name.