Monday, January 21, 2008

Sir John the Fool

Sir John Harington and other famous European fools

by Rolf-Peter Wille

How, you are asking, can we perceive the merit of a certain culture? How do we know that the English culture is greater, more civilized than, for example, the Antarctic one? Well, we could count the number of Nobel prize winners, right? Wrong! Believe me: It is foolish to count Nobel prize winners. The true value of any unique culture is defined by the quality of its fools.

If you think that I am fooling you, consider the centrality of foolishness in European culture. The most perfect essay ever written and one of the truly influential works in Western literature is "In Praise of Folly" by Erasmus of Rotterdam. The eloquent orator here is not just anybody. She is a god, Folly herself, nursed by Inebriation and Ignorance, whose faithful companions include Self-love, Flattery, Oblivion, Laziness, Pleasure, Madness, Wantonness, Intemperance and Dead sleep. The essay was enormously popular and before Erasmus’ death it already had been translated into French and German with an English edition soon following.

The art of writing eloquently on a trivial subject (adoxography) soon became a popular exercise in Elizabethan grammar schools. I believe it certainly is no coincidence that Britain has the highest number of eccentrics in the world (see the blood sausage throwing contest in Eccentric Britain : The Guide to Britain's Follies and Foibles). It is eye opening to find so many eccentric fools among the heroes of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet, the genius of awareness, acts as a fool, King Lear foolishly abdicates the throne and divides his kingdom among his greedy daughters, Othello, a military genius, succumbs to foolish jealousy, Anthony and Cleopatra behave like foolish children without any common sense whatsoever. In comparison to these foolish heroes, the so called "Fools" in Shakespeare are unusually wise characters and Lear’s Fool unfoolishly calls Lear a fool. Shakespeare’s most famous fool, Falstaff, is a clown rather than a fool. But the greatest eccentric fool in European literature is not the "Fat knight" but the "Knight of the Sorrowful Face". Don Quixote is gallantly battling windmills and slaying wineskins. His horse is an old nag. His squire is a village simpleton. His helmet is a washbasin. His lady, the most beauteous maid in the world, is a common country bumpkin, and he hasn’t even met her. With his "Don Quixote" Cervantes did not only invent the novel but he also created a knight more famous than all the "true" knights before him.

Of course Don Quixote is neither the first foolish nor the most crazy knight. He is only the most quixotic one. The truly crazy one is "Orlando furioso". This paladin of the emperor Charlemagne is everything that a knight should be, chivalric, valorous, invulnerable, invincible, a real killing machine. And he falls hopelessly in love with Angelica, a princess of Cathay. When she marries somebody else, Orlando becomes insane and runs amok through Europe and Africa destroying everything in his path, uprooting giant trees and plucking off people’s heads as easily as one might take apples from a tree. Finally a friend of Orlando, an English knight, mounts his winged horse and flies up to the moon where everything lost on earth is to be found, including Orlando's wits. He brings them back in a bottle and makes Orlando sniff them, thus restoring him to sanity.

A journey to the moon sounds lunatic indeed. Yet some famous writers discussed the feasibility of making the moon a fool’s paradise. Milton changed the location of the fool’s paradise to "limbo" in his "Paradise Lost" and thus "corrected" Ariosto. "Orlando furioso" is one of the longest poems ever written, containing 38,736 lines or 4,842 stanzas in ottava rima. It certainly will take a few hours for a very gifted poet to translate a single Italian stanza into English and only a complete fool would begin to translate all of them. Nevertheless, in 1591 a courtier and godson of Queen Elisabeth I, Sir John Harington, published the first edition of his complete translation. I am truly relieved, though, to learn that he did not translate the entire text voluntarily. Quite cleverly he only chose canto 28, the juiciest, which describes a very funny ménage à quatre, a tale almost as bawdy as "Putting the Devil back into Hell" by Boccaccio. Sir John then vainly circulated this dirty story around the Court and it was voraciously devoured by the Queen’s maids of honor until the Queen herself read it and discovered the source of it. If the historians are correct, she was furious—though maybe not as much as Orlando. Elizabeta furiosa did not pluck the head of Sir John but condemned him to translate the entire "Orlando furioso". And he was banished from Court until he had finished it. She might as well have condemned him to fly to the moon and find his own lost wits. It is bad enough to sign your own name a few hundred times. But translating 38,736 lines of Italian poetry into English verse complete with rhyme?

Nevertheless, when Harington’s translation was published, it did not only contend the entire text in English heroic verse but also lots of marginal notes, illustrations, commentary, summary, and other literary addition. Sometimes, it seems, he imposed his own persona upon the work and the reader. The translation was successful and Sir John Harington should have been very happy to finally have fallen back into favor with the Queen. But I am shocked to read that he went on to invent the flush toilet. This, of course, is nothing dirty in itself though it does vex me to find another poet with a fable for toilets. But Harington introduced his invention in a satirical essay which described the stinking matter in such graphic detail, worthy of Rabelais, that he almost did not find a publisher for it. And maybe that would have been better, because his godmother, Elizabeta furiosa, almost banished Sir John again for it. Nevertheless, a WC alla John was finally installed in the palace and till today "John" is still American slang for "toilet".

And, wait a moment: I wanted to write an essay on culture and on the importance of fools. How did I end up with toilets?

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