I want to thank Bob Harbor for his recordings of this speech, which lay out Mr. McKeeby's views on the Metafiction. - Rahima
In 15 August, 778, a Frankish warrior named Roland, lord of the Breton March, died in battle. In terms of historiography it is not strange that we know so little of his death. Death was anonymous for most people in that era. If we locate their bodies we rarely can place a name on them, and if we know their name we often cannot say for sure where they died and how they perished. For the vast majority of humanity death was like life was like birth, unremarked and now lost in time and space.
Roland though was different. It was a balmy fall afternoon a couple of decades ago when a driver let me off in a parking lot on the Calle Roncesvalles. This was a Basque town, I could be set down blindfolded and tell immediately this was the case because of the words on the signs. A fronton stood before me and a park by my side. I was a little drunk from the driver’s wine, but he had been also.
I walked to the little park down the road twenty meters and stood by a bench and said, “This is where Roland died.” A man in a beret and dark clothes feed small birds looked at me with a smile and said, “zut.” I nodded and knew I was right. I was in the little town of Burguette Auritz on which was a ride spot on a highway the locals literally called the “Road to France”, which happens to be in the Valley of Roncevalles where Roland saved his king by forming a rear guard and dying somewhere close by.
And that is history. We assume it is true because Einhard. the court historian to the great King Charles of the Franks mentions him in the book Vita Karoli Magni, and without this work all of the era of Charles would be much darker, not just the life of one knight. In my backpack I have a copy of this work, or at least the part I am interested in, courtesy of a librarian in Pau. I sit by the man feeding birds, and I take out my photocopy of the work from my canvas pack, and I look it over closely.
In quo proelio Eggihardus regiae mensae praepositus, Anshelmus comes palatii et Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus cum aliis conpluribus interficiuntur.
And that is all that Roland is mentions. It says:
These nobles were killed in battle: Eggihard, royal seneschal; Anselm, count of the palace, and Roland, prefect of the Breton March.
Two locals who had been practicing in the fronton joined me and the bird feeder in the park and there is a bottle of Txakoli de Getaria and oddly shaped bottles of Coca Cola by the time some women studying here from the university join us and I should be off of Roland but his unmarked grave is too close by and several of my new friends are desperate for English practice, something I find is nearly universal in France and Spain among the educated and slacker classes, those who drink wine after playing jai lai in a fronton in a valley that bleeds history while you sing Woodie Guthrie songs in the growing night. You see, tonight I would meet Jainese, Hector, and Roland himself, and consider the idea of metacritical hypernarrative fiction.
Before I get too drunk and distracted to clearly outline logical ideas it is a good idea to give the suffering audience who both lacks the beautiful view of an evening falling in the Roncesvalles and the taste of bottomless bottles of strange white wine to lubricate conversation and patience some definitions. Meta and hyper are not tautologies but are connected concepts of nonlinear thinking that can be used by story tellers to explore ideas and concepts that may defy completely rational analysis. Meta is the process of looking at a concept in an artificial environment where the viewer is conscious of the artificiality of the circumstances, allowing a more complete understanding of events and circumstances, and also allowing the viewer to spot attempts at narrators pushing hidden falsehoods on the viewer. Hyper information is nonlinear information where the thinker leaves the plane of orderly progression in time, logic, subject, or even acceptable grammatical order to enrich understanding and to allow happenstance to fit normally unconnected concepts together in a form of logical chiaroscuro. Thus both the meta and the hyper are tools that disturb the normal process of rational truth construction, but with the intention of allowing greater understanding and truth.
If you think that paragraph was easy to write twenty odd years after it was thought, when its original consideration occurred in an alcoholic pologlotural bacchanalic haze, then please consider that although both the original thinker and the writer of now are autistic. Which means places a special pressure onto the process. Autism is not a disability, but a difference, however it is like having a million train tracks running though your head and having access to a million train cars of information when everyone else drives their thoughts around in automobiles.
Luckily for King Charles fleeing for safety, and lucky for us faced with a night of reflexive maundering, the pass of Roncevalles narrows down small enough that a few men can defend it, and so does this attempt at exposition. I intend to only discuss these two thesis concepts connected to one small field of information theory, the ideals of narrative and fiction.
Lets define these two ideas before the trains all jump the tracks and head off into space time searching for a bar that no longer exists. Meta and hyper are actually suffixes because they can be used as tools to reveal all sorts of truth, and in my case I am hooking them up to the concepts of narrative and fiction. Now, I prefer metafiction and hypernarrative, but if you are ever drinking in the evening one the Basque countryside and decided to start playing a game of shuffling suffixes, the ideas are pretty fungible. A narrative is a story told from a fixed point of view where the audience is looking in through one hole in the curtain surrounding the stage and the narrator is looking down from above the stage at the entire story. Narrations start at the beginning and finish at the end, like a story told by a fire. Fiction is the assumption that the story is something other than reality, but that is going to get upended pretty quickly.
You see, lots of people tell fictional stories and expect the audience to buy into them as real. You believe this fiction because the King or the President, or the Boss have capitals in front of their titles and you are a subject, a citizen, or a worker, all lower case. And until Aristotle has anything to say on that score, this is how it goes. But then someone like me throws the prefix meta in front of fiction, challenging both your spellchecker and your idea of reality, and now you get to lift the curtain to see if the Wizard really has the goods.
Back to Roncevalles and the story of Roland, The purely objective Roland has a story that can be written on a trading card, but in that story their was the chance at hidden truth and hidden depth. Story tellers at an early age decided that this hidden depth should be mined, and they used hypernarrative and metafiction to shift the soil looking for placer nuggets of truth,
It was Hector, a metal worker who made wonderful knives and elaborate jewelry, who early in the evening as bread was being passed to help keep the wine in its place told the growing crowd about Durendal, Roland’s sword.
Before I recount his story, let me rewind a second and logic this out. Roland is a human. He is more than just that, he is a medieval Frankish warrior. This allows us to make some assumptions of science based on Occam’s razor without leaving the realm of objective rationalism. And I hcan make these assumptions because my favorite philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, has given me special permission. As he says, “Nothing is more certain than the fact that we have two hands or a body (1969, p125).” And since raining on the parade of Cartesians is nearly as precious to me in my waning years as intellectually insulting hapless and hopeless Hegelians, I will use this option with abandon in this speech.
You see, Roland was human, and due to his occupation of warrior we know he has not only hands, but legs that are long enough to reach from his hips to his feet, and feet that can move him across the countryside, and and arms that reach from his shoulders to his hands, and his hands have a number of fingers which can be estimated by the formula of X=<3 and those fingers can clutch things, and one of those things he would clutch is a sword. His rank, class, and occupation not only tells us it was a sword, but assures us it was a certain type of sword. The contemporary writer Notker the Stammerer wrote in Gesta Caroli Magni a description of the dress of a knight of Charles the Great, and included this detail:
Then came a rich linen shirt and then a buckled sword-belt. The great sword was surrounded first with a sheath, then with a covering of leather, and lastly with a linen wrap hardened with shining wax.
-(Thorpe, 1969, p. 103)
The term “sword” is a direct translation, but is modified by calling it “great.” The traditional latin sword is shorter than what would arm knights in the Hundred Years war. So what is being described was the longer, iron sword of the Franks, hundreds of which have been recovered and studied. These weapons were the rockstars of the field of deadly weapons. Vikings were said to covet these weapons, having little iron and poor technology (which is why they used axes). Each weapon required a swordsmith working a coal fired forge with access to iron with a high carbon content and little sulphur a month or more to make. Inferior swords would break in a dozen or fewer swings. The real deal could last years and would be passed from warrior to warrior, sometimes serving generations of families and becoming embedded into culture as objects of history. Very fine specimens would be named, and story tellers would create history lessons around these weapons in an era when textbooks, schools, and even fixed concepts of time and space were non-existent.
So when Hector began the story of Durendal it was a rational and reasonable metafictional divergence from the story of Roland. Roland has hands, fingers, and Roland would have had a sword. And that sword may have had a name, no harm in calling it Durendal.
The story of Durendal though is a hypernarrative in that it runs immediately into a new series of truths, and it is metafictional because those truths are realities, just not the objective realities of the original story. And I smile because as an autistic person I like it when stories diverge and reunite because it is how I think with my train track of truth. You ride off on a switch and who knows when the line will come back again.
Durendal, Hector explained, means “Endurance" in Frankish because the sword was indestructible. It was made by a Saracen smith who, knowing the power of the Christian God, had a trove of blood, fingers, bones, teeth, hair, eyeballs, and skin of various saints and martyrs to use in weapon making. Bits and parts of saint went into the new blade, which was so holy that an angel sang over it as it cooled in its quench, binding the metal and sharpening it until it needed a special sheaf just to carry it. So equipped it was given to a caliph, but the Muslim warrior found out it was impossible for a blade with such a holy aspect to be wielded by an apostate. It was then that he had an idea, and the sword was sent as tribute to the Christian King Charles whose grandfather had defeated the Caliph’s Grandfather many years before at Tours.
On receiving the blade, Charles drew the weapon and proceeded to demonstrate to its court the weapon’s character, cleaving stones with it, defeating fellow warriors in mock combat, and generally impressing the hell out of everyone. When it came time for it to be bestowed on one of his Paladins though, its holy aspect caused some trouble. None of his men, despite being powerful and strong, were good enough to wield it without discomfort. The priests, banned from spilling blood, likewise were unsuitable for its presentation, although they were holy enough to carry it around. Finally a solution was found. The Kingdom had two Marches, lands facing implacable enemies of the Franks. They were each named for the race of beings the lands faced. To the north was the Viking Marches, facing the Mark of Dane and the cold Northern Sea. To the west was the Breton Marches, facing the implacable Aenglish. It was this Breton March that the greatest warrior of the Kingdom had been proving himself for years a bulwark against the savage Saxons. Called Roland, he was summoned to court and presented the blade.
Now, I am not going to critique the story of Durendal as told by Hector and recounted by me for its outright historical accuracy, but I will give some thought to how this metafictional hyernarrative divergence allows for truth to be explored in fantasy. In the era of Charles the Great the world was roughly divided into three spheres. The first was the Roman Empire. Forget everything you have read about the Roman Empire falling in 410 to sack and St. Jerome bellyaching from the farther shore that the world fell with Rome, in 800 the Roman Empire was a going concern in the East, with a capital in the great city of Constantinople. Rome the city and its loss was lamented, but more by the Catholic portion of the Christian schism than by the empire whom it birthed. They went on calling themselves Romans, telling their history as the history of the empire stated by Caesar Augustus and even captured Rome back again a hundred years later, although the cost of keeping it was more than the revenue it generated. The Roman Empire of 800 was a bastion of civilization, law, and learning, although strained by fighting enemies in all directions.
The second section of civilization in 800 was the Muslim Caliphates. Muhammed, the Prophet of Islam, was an active governor and when he died in 632 large parts of the Middle East had fallen under his sway. This remained intact for twenty years until the Sunni - Shia split rent the Muslim world apart and lead to a general period of war called the Fitna. By 700 these wars had settled down, and the Muslim Caliphates started to expand. Blocked by the Roman Empire, they fell on Africa, then took Iberia from its romanized, Christian inhabitants. Entering Europe they were stopped at the Battle of Poitiers by Charles the Great’s grandfather Charles Martel.
The third segment of civilization, called that by me because it was literate and recorded its history, was The Kingdom of the Franks. The story of Durendal is a patchwork of fantasy, but it does teach truths about that Kingdom that were never recorded word for word, but were understood and can be inferred by other literature. The value the Kingdom placed on its Christian foundations can be found in the Catholic Church and its Popes. Robbed of temporal power by the schism in the church which made the Emperor in the Roman Empire the religious elder of the Orthodox Church, the Roman Popes began to flog the idea of a Holy Roman Empire being the true descendant of the great Roman Empire. With the most religious and powerful empire, who had successfully blocked the incursion of Muslims into Europe, being the Kingdom of the Franks, successive Catholic Popes designated Charles as the Emperor of Rome, hinting that they not only should retake Rome for themselves, but invite the Popes to be sort of super-rulers over their new Empire. Now, Charles never was interested in this, but he accepted the title. It was just that he knew perfectly well their was a Roman Empire already in business.
The story of Durendal also ties the Kingdom of the Franks to an uncomfortable truth, the Muslim caliphate was superior to the Europeans in technology. While the Franks were definitely superior to the various tribes they faced to the North, East, and West, and the education reforms Charles the Great enacted that would result in the first Western Europeans centers of higher learning would sustain this, sourcing Durendal to a Muslim smith is not unheard of in epic literature of the time, and expressed a hidden concern of Europeans raised by the more advanced Empire and Caliphate.
The next hidden tidbit out meta-voyage through hyper knowledge brings us is the connection of martial valor to holiness. Christianity at its core was a religion of non-violence. Its transformation to a state religion of the Romans had twisted it, but prohibitions against violence had removed gladiators and blood sports from the Roman culture. By 800 though the Franks, surrounded by enemies (which can be seen by the creation of the Marches from which Roland hailed) were rapidly becoming a martial society, and those warriors were using their new power to build the social system that would eventually be called Feudalism. The same holiness that imbues Roland and made him worthy of further stories and praise is the holiness that also allows him to lead, and others cast in his mold to hold noble rank when the Christian foundation mores clearly call for relative equality.
Thorpe, L. (1969). Two lives of Charlemagne / by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Wittgenstein, L. (1969), On Certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, tr. D. Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe, Blackwell, Oxford.