“Put it all down to chemistry…”

Yesterday, I posted one of the more humorous poems of Theodulf of Orleans. Here’s another one, loosely translated from quantitative meter into rhyming couplets. Those of you with kids may get a kick out of it.


Grande habet initium cum res vilissima dictu,
Tunc gignis murem, magne elephante, brevem.
Sic patri quidam retulit sua somnia natus,
Depromens animo frivola dicta suo:
“O pater, in somnis dicam quae mira videbam,
Moverunt animum talia visa meum.
Bos dabat humanas nostras hac nocte loquelas,
Ille loquebatur, nos stupebamus,” ait.
Tum pater attonitus rem sic inquirit ab illo:
“Dic, quod dicebat,” intulit ille: “Nihil.”


When momentous beginnings mere trifles espouse,
Then you, mighty elephant, bring forth a mouse.
A son told his father his dreams; thus he heard
What fell from his thoughts, every frivolous word:
“Father, I’ll say what I see in my mind.
The most troubling visions in sleep do I find:
An ox who could speak I encountered tonight.
He talked! We were rather amazed at the sight.”
Inquired the father, “What news did he bring?”
Answering him, he replied, “Not a thing.”

“There were plants and birds and rocks and things…”

While I was writing Becoming Charlemagne, I spent a fair amount of time skimming the works of Theodulf of Orleans, the witty bishop who left behind a significant corpus of poetry. Most of his longer works about religious doctrine are a bit boring for the modern reader and way beyond my ability to parse, but a few of his shorter poems are gems—and a pleasure to translate.

Here’s one such poem, first in the original Latin, and then in my own translation (in rhymed couplets, an arbitrarily chosen form).


Saepe dat ingenium quod vis conferre negabat.
Compos et arte est, qui viribus impos erat.
Ereptum furto castrensi in turbine quidam.
Accipe, qua miles arte recepit equum.
Orbus equo fit, preco ciet hae compita voce:
“Quisquis habet nostrum, reddere certet equum.
Sin alias, tanta faciam ratione coactus,
Quod noster Roma fecit in urbe pater.”
Res movet haec omnes, et equum fur sivit abire.
Dum sua vel populi damna pavenda timet.
Hunc herus ut reperit, gaudet potiturque reperto,
Gratanturque illi, quis metus ante fuit.
Inde rogant, quid equo fuerat facturus adempto,
Vel quid in urbe suus egerit ante pater.
“Sellae,” ait, “adiunctis collo revehendo lupatis
Sarcinulisque aliis ibat onustus inops.
Nil quod pungat habens, calcaria calce reportans,
Olim eques, inde redit ad sua tecta pedes.
Hunc imitatus ego fecissem talia tristis,
Ni foret iste mihi, crede, repertus equus.”


Brains can defend you where brawn can’t assist;
Often a weakling on wits can subsist.
So hear how a soldier, employing no force,
In his encampment retrieved his lost horse.
He stood at the crossroads and made this decree:
“If you stole my horse, then return it to me!
For if you should fail, I’ll be forced to proceed
Like my father before me in Rome—so take heed!”
The men all grew nervous; the thief felt remorse:
Fearing for all, he returned the man’s horse.
The owner rejoiced; celebration was made
By all of the men who had been so afraid.
At last they inquired of him, every one,
Just what it was that his father had done.
“His bridle, his saddle, his old traveling-sack
He flung ’round his neck, the poor man, and walked back.
So useless his spurs; on his heels they stayed put.
Once a great horseman, he came home on foot.
Believe me, I almost pursued his sad course:
I’d have done the same thing had I not found my horse.”

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier.

[UPDATE: As of December 2012, information on purchasing The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier as either a paperback or an e-book can be found here.]

Do students better appreciate the artistry of great medieval poets if they also read some of the less studied works of the Middle Ages? After teaching a survey course for several years, I wondered about that—but I also knew that time constraints prevented me from assigning lengthy Middle English poems that would take students weeks to read. Instead, I decided to make my own classroom translations of several medieval romances, lively narrative poems that put more frequently studied works in context but which themselves rarely appear on an undergraduate syllabus.

“The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier” is my third modern English translation of a Middle English work. It’s an entertaining 972-line romance packed with folktale motifs, elements of French chansons, burlesque humor, post-Crusades Christianity, and an examination of the rules of courtesy that may be more thoughtful than it first appears. (If you’d like to read “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original language, you can check it out at the TEAMS Web site.)

You don’t need a background in medieval literature to enjoy this translation. If you’re new to the storytelling of this period, you’ll notice a typically medieval mixture of the familiar and the strange. The lengthy alliterative stanzas and many of the plot twists may frustrate modern sensibilities, but I hope readers can benefit from greater access to a story that once delighted late medieval people.

This translation—a no-frills, low-resolution, 19-page PDF—is free to download. However, if you find it useful, edifying, or entertaining, please support my efforts by purchasing a copy of my book Becoming Charlemagne in hardcover, paperback, or Kindle edition.

If you’d like to refer someone to this translation, please don’t link directly to the PDF or distribute it through other Web sites. Instead, please link to this page.

I hope you enjoy this other Christmas story about an unlikely hero named Ralph.