Review of the Introduction to a Book

No, really. I have a weird habit, at least for my household – I almost always read all the front matter in whatever books I read. (Sometimes, as in some philosophical works, I might read it after I’ve read the work itself, if I suspect it will bias my reading – but I’ll almost always read it.) My wife, who is as OK-read (well-read is maybe a stretch for me) as I am, pretty much never does this; neither do my kids, as far as I know. You guys? Skip to the good parts, or slog through the front matter first?

For my White Handled Blade series (yea, yea, gotta write Book 1 before you can have a series, I get it) I’m reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a copy of which was in the stacks. Not sure how I had not run across Burton Raffel before – or, if I did, how he failed to make an impression – but this guy, a famous translator, is a character and a half. His Introduction is about as bare-knuckles an assessment of his ‘competitors’ as I’ve ever seen. Reminded me of the old saying in academia: never is the fight more brutal than when the stakes are really low.

To sum up: he’s not real impressed by the work of other translators and commentators of Green Knight. Here are some samples, from his 31 page introduction to a 75 page poem:

It is no defense of Tolkien, Gordon, and Davis, but most literary criticism of medieval poetry suffers from just this kind of “lengthy, mostly irrelevant” insensitivity to the poem as a poem.

p. 34

Sure. A little further, Raffel goes after scholarly critics as a group, giving examples of scholarly assertions contradicted by text within a few lines of the source of the initial assertions:

But the critics’ attention span is somehow limited by their scholarship, or alternatively by their desire to assert some interpretive claim.

p. 35

He also makes charming, look how smart I am observations, such as this, after his analysis of how the Poet portrays what is going on in Gawain’s mind and soul during his temptation by the Green Knight’s wife, and how it does not admit of a simply linear understanding as we moderns might be tempted to impress on it:

The Gawain Poet plainly knows this, and just as plainly knows his Hegel-like perception of the antithesis concealed within the synthesis is the only sane way to see things. And he is phenomenally sane. He is, in fact, so powerful a literary mind that what could be a mere matter of philosophy , with a lesser writer, is transformed for him into a vital matter of literary technique.

p. 29

O, come on, Burtie, old boy, you’re just yanking chains! Don’t make me slap that smirk off your elderly (well, dead, now) face.

The whole Introduction provides the kind of background information that is reason I read introductions, so that’s good, interspersed with patches that read like Raffel getting even with people or calling them idiots. He kindly allows of one scholar’s work that “…it is not all as bad as the passages I have cited.” At another scholar’s assertions, Raffel says: “I can gape: where has the man been?” Or that the “weird” analysis of another is revealed in a passage “which speaks, unfortunately, for itself.” Did somebody steal his lunch money, or something?

The Introduction was certainly entertaining, the poem itself is wonderful, and I appreciate Raffel’s guidance in taking it seriously as a masterpiece – hard to do with the rather less structured? Logical? bits of Arthuriana I’ve read so far. Maybe I’ll review it when I’m done.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Review of the Introduction to a Book”

  1. I’m a huge fan of introductions and forewords. I think Tom Wolfe’s introduction to “The Pump House Gang” might be my favorite of his essays, although the introduction to “The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby” is up there as well.

    1. I’ll have to check those out.

      For reasons that now escape me, read Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius decades ago. The best part of which was his opening section “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book.” He advised the reader that the best part was really the first 4 chapters, after which the book was uneven, and he would hardly blame anyone for just stopping after CH 4. Proved to be sound advise.

  2. Since Tolkien’s translation was my first read, and the one that taught me to read the stories AS stories… I am…dubious of this Raffel chap.

    I read intros or not based on their boring-ness., though I might give a boring one a second try after I have finished the book.

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