Saturday 25 February 2012

Triip to Tallinn (Part 1)

As I sat in the Munich airport, watching the line of snowploughs heading out towards the runways, it occurred to me that travelling to the Baltics in February might not have been my best idea...

A year ago, I had never heard of Tallinn (Tal-in), the capital of Estonia.  I came across it accidentally online. But something about its towers and spires, its cold remoteness, and its many years spent behind the iron curtain caught my fancy.  Without giving it too much thought, I bought a pair of plane tickets as a Christmas surprise for my wife.

Unfortunately, our journey did not go as planned. By the time our plane left London, bound for Frankfurt, we’d already missed our connecting flight.  Germany, it seemed, was having a little problem with snow. However, to the credit of Lufthansa (our German airline), they had already worked out a new plan before we landed. From Frankfurt we were put on a short plane ride to Munich to catch the last flight to Tallinn.  Unfortunately, Munich was in a bad way.  Snow was pelting down in sheets as snowploughs fought a losing battle to keep the runways clear.  We read, did crosswords, shared a frankfurter, and waited. Eventually, we were put on a bus and driven across the airport where, amidst the swirling snow, we boarded a plane. It took another couple of hours to gather the last passengers from other delayed flights, then to have our plane sprayed with anti-freeze, but happily, we did get off the ground.  We arrived at Tallinn late in the night, after seventeen hours of travel, and caught a taxi to our hotel, where we collapsed and were soon asleep.

The next day dawned bright and cold in Tallinn, and after a hearty breakfast, with adventure in our hearts, we confidently set off to explore the city’s famous medieval Old Town.  Of course, we set off in the wrong direction, and for the next 90 minutes all we saw were ugly, weather-beaten buildings, and greasy piles of snow. 

There is no sense in telling the next part of the story chronologically. Once we found the Old Town, we spent two full days exploring the many winding streets and passageways, marvelling at the Cathedrals and fortifications, and soaking in an atmosphere that wanted you to believe in Christmas in February. Once the fresh snow fell, which it inevitably did, this became even more powerful. So, let me just share some of the many highlights of this old, old city.

In a city full of striking buildings, none catches the attention quite like the Alesander Nevski Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. Although beautiful, the church was also a symbol of Russian power, built directly across the street from the Estonian parliament (and causing the removal of a famous statue of Martin Luther). I have never before been inside a Russian Orthodox church, and I must say it was an eye-opener.  Golden icons of dozens of saints hung on every wall and pillar, blazing in the intense candlelight. Most of the saints were unrecognizable to me, but one caught my eye.  In one corner, I spied a middle-age man, praying for the intercession of a knight on horseback, riding down a dragon.  St. George may be the patron saint of England, but here he is taken seriously.
Just down the hill from the A. N. Cathedral is the less attractive, but thoroughly imposing Church of Saint Nicholas (Niguliste kirik). Whereas the Cathedral above burned with active light, this church felt old and dead, which is perhaps fitting, as it contains one very unique item, the only surviving piece of Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre . During the 15th Century, Bernt Notke painted two versions of the Danse Macabre, the first was destroyed in a fire. No-one is quite sure of the history of the second, except that a quarter of it ended up in Tallinn. I say it is a fragment, because most of it is missing, but it is still a huge work, running an entire length of wall. It is a tremendous work, and worthy of close study.

These are just two of the many churches whose spires dominate the skyline of Tallinn. One, the Church of Saint Olaf, was once the world’s tallest building. Unfortunately, its metal spire also made it one of the most lightning-prone, and it twice burnt to the ground.

Despite all of its religiousness, Tallinn was also a dangerous place. Sitting on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, it remains an important strategic point for Russia’s outlet to the Baltic sea.  Thus it is no surprise that it was besieged and changed hands on numerous occasions, and its mighty stone walls suffered a pounding over the years. At one end of the city stands the chunky Kiek in de Kok (Peek into the Kitchen) a cannon tower that traded blows with the forces of Ivan the Terrible, and later used some of his stone cannon balls to help repair the damage. Of the original walls, probably about half remain, but this is enough to give a good sense of how strong the defences must have been.

While Tallinn has plenty of traditional souvenir shops, it also has many antique (antik) shops. These mainly contain two types of items, left over Soviet (or Nazi) paraphernalia and medieval icons. These gorgeous, hand-painted icons, usually about the size of a piece of paper, were available all over town. Most had obviously been roughly cut from walls or doors. I would have dearly loved to buy my own Saint George, however, with a normal asking price of around 400-1,000 Euros, they were a little out of my price range, and I settled for a small reproduction instead.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Gawain’s Sword

After last week’s post about Gawain’s sword, long-time reader, Angus McWasp, wrote in with a couple of additional details.
As I mentioned previously, in the Death of Arthur poem, Gawain’s sword is named ‘Galuth’ a Hebrew word for exile.  Apart from alliteration, there is no clear reason why Gawain would have a sword with a Hebrew name, and it is likely that this is just coincidence. Angus points out that Thomas Malory used this poem as a source for his Le Morte d’Arthur, but renames Gawain’s sword ‘Galantine’, which has a much more heroic (and French) ring to it.
In earlier works, Gawain’s sword was either unnamed, or he was said to carry Excalibur.  In fact, one story even has King Arthur bestowing the sword on his nephew.  Considering that Arthur didn’t do much adventuring in his later years, this makes sense.
If anyone has any more information on this, or any other great sword of myth and legend, please do share.

Monday 6 February 2012


I am currently undergoing a massive re-evaluation of my miniatures collection. Over the years, I have accumulated hundreds, if not thousands, of figures. I could assemble a scores of armies from dozens of different historical periods or fantastical words. But what began as the enjoyment of endless possibility, has begun to weight me down with the seeming impossibility of ever completing it all. 

So I am pruning down the collection, slowly selling off items I am never likely to use, and focusing in on the projects that are most important to me.

One of the projects I have been working on the longest, and that I am most found of, is my Warhammer 40K Demon Hunters Army.  I have started this army twice, once in each of my countries.  Soon, I hope to pull out all of the pieces, reform them into one fighting force, and, under the leadership of Inquisitor Lord Voulgaris, send them out in the battle-carrier Black Moab to scour the galaxy for evil in all its forms. 

As I was going through my unpainted miniatures, I recently came across this little guy.  It occurred to me that the Black Moab would probably carry its own printing press, and this guy would be a perfect candidate to run it. I had a ball painting him.  As much as Games Workshop has made me unhappy with many of their decisions over the last ten years, they still produce some of the nicest figures on the market. 

More on the adventures of the Black Moab coming soon.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Magic Swords

Just one more note on the Death of King Arthur. In the poem, Gawain’s sword is named Galuth.  Thanks to the stories of King Arthur (and probably Tolkien), I’ve always assumed that if a sword has a name it must be magical.  Galuth isn’t given any magical properties in the story, but Gawain is such a mighty warrior, he certainly might have been receiving a little magic sword assistance.
Most likely the name ‘Galuth’ was chosen because it makes the alliteration easier when writing about Gawain.  What I didn’t know, until I just looked it up, is that ‘Galuth’ is also a Hebrew word meaning the forced exile of the Jews from Palestine.  

Friday 3 February 2012

The Death of King Arthur

‘Find comfort as you can as you cool in the clay.’
During my time at UNC, I took a load of really fun and interesting courses. As it turned out, ‘Arthurian Literature’ was not one of them. The problem, as I remember it, is that most Arthurian literature is very long and more than a bit repetitive. It’s great to read one every once-and-awhile, but cramming a load of them into a short college term isn’t the best way to increase your appreciation. Regardless, the class served my purpose, and I came out with a much better knowledge of Arthurian myth than previously. And there, for the most part, I have left it for the last ten-to-fifteen years.
Lately however, I have experienced a resurgence in my interest in myths and legends, which has taken me to less visited portions of bookstores. Over Christmas I wandered into the poetry section and discovered ‘The Death of Arthur’ by Simon Armitage. Contained in the attractive hardback book is Simon’s translation of a unique fourteenth century manuscript which relates the death of Arthur in 4,000 words of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse.  Despite my previous education, I had never heard of the work, and, considering the form of poetry is my favourite, I bought it without much thought.
Yesterday, I finished reading it and can heartily recommend it, even if it isn't the greatest story. Basically Arthur gets challenged by the Emperor of Rome, gathers his army, sails to France, kicks the Emperor’s butt, finds out he’s been betrayed by Mordred who he left to guard the kingdom, sails home, and kills his nephew while being fatally wounded.  But there are many points of discussion.
Perhaps the most interesting to me is the very small part played by Lancelot. In the poem, he is just another knight, a good one, but nothing special. He plays no part in the betrayal of Arthur, nor the outcome of the story.  Instead, centre stage is taken by Sir Gawain. If we didn’t know that the manuscript was written by an Englishmen, this alone would nearly confirm it.  Near the end of the poem, Gawain is killed by Mordred, and a remorseful Mordred delivers one of the best passages in the work:
Then Sir Mordred was moved to mouth this tribute:
‘He was unmatched in this world, I admit it; that man
was good Sir Gawain, the greatest of mortals
and most gracious of lords who lived under God.
A man fierce of fist, favoured in warfare,
honoured in hall above all under heaven,
the lordliest of leaders for as long as he lived,
loudly lionised in lands near and far.
Had you known him, Sir King, in his native country,
his craft and his courtesy and his kindly works,
his bravery and boldness and his deeds in battle,
his death you would lament all the days of your life.'

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to translate poetry and attempt to keep a similar alliterative rhythm, but Simon Armitage seems to do an admirable job, and there are many delightful lines and passages.

I will say that it is a very bloody tale and so destructive, that one begins to wonder exactly how the original poet felt about the glorious conquests of Arthur. Still, if you love Arthurian myth, the book is a necessary addition to your collection, but have a care...

‘for when the dragon is flown, death surely follows.’