jan shirley french translator and childrens author

Dauntless the Slughorn

To his lips he set

Didn’t he?

No, alas, poor Browning did not realise that when fighting Scots sounded the slughorn as they charged the enemy, they were not blowing a musical instrument but shouting a war cry. From the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, a word that also gave us ‘slogan’.

How reassuring it is that from Homer onwards, even the greatest make mistakes. I once had occasion to write, hesitantly, to the famous scholar David Knowles, to ask him exactly how many Roberts of Merton occurred in connection with Thomas Becket, the murdered archbishop. Dom David’s work spoke of two, but I thought I had found three. Yet how could I be right and he wrong? He sent me the kindest reply, saying that one’s sins do indeed find one out, and that three was the right count: a canon of Merton priory whom Thomas would have known when he went to school there, and then two successive priors, all three called Robert.

There is a mistake, too, in the bible of my student days, Godefroy, Godefroy himself, compiler of the Lexique de l’ancien français revered by us all. In the Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris, the author describes festivities in Paris during which a tightrope walker amused the crowds. Look at the manuscript and you’ll see that he is described as un homme despartise, and Godefroy gives ‘despartisé = déguisé’, that’s to say disguised, in fancy dress. But the mss do not use accents or apostrophes, and I think this man was not disguised but skilful, a man ‘d’espartise’, of expertise.

And then there’s the Roland. Towards the end of that glorious poem, laisse 192, coming at the start of a line and therefore often given a capital letter, is the word espaneliz.  Write it with a capital and you think, Espaneliz, I wonder who he was? Scholars have used a lot of ink on this one. Myself, I feel sure that he wasn’t a person at all, if only for the reason that if he is, then he is the one and only character in the entire poem who enters it without a brief description. Turold (if he was Turold) takes care to establish identities, no one comes on stage bleak and naked like that. They are tall or fat or clever, curly haired, good with a battle axe, irresistible to women, heathen, christian, something.  In the context here, people are coming ashore off boats, and I think that in some way espaneliz refers to where they were going – Spainwards. Viva España!

As for the challenge in Chaucer's description of his Knight who 'th'abord began', did he preside at dinner or lead the assault?

An error I am taking care not to mention is my own idiotic one on a page of the Parisian Journal. If we ever bring out a reprint I shall get this changed.

Meanwhile the slughorn is a great comfort.