Weekend reading: Lewis and Valla

This weekend I read Lorenzo Valla’s Treatise on the Donation of Constantine and C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. Valla was for work; Lewis for pleasure, and so that I would be better able to compare the movie to the book when I eventually go and see the movie.

Valla is great. He totally rips the popes apart by showing that the “Donation of Constantine” is a forgery. This was the document that medieval pope after medieval pope claimed that Constantine gave to Pope Sylvester, essentially giving him dominion over Italy and the whole Roman Empire. Valla’s treatise is considered the founding document in textual criticism—criticism of a text based on a historical awareness of style and meaning. When a document claims to be by Constantine but uses phrases that did not gain currency until 400 years later, you know the document is a forgery. His scorn for Latin barbarisms warms the student-paper-marking portion of my heart.

I had to laugh at Lewis . . . the kids in Prince Caspian are “cool” because they use such current slang. The best example of this is Edmund’s saying “Great Scott!” about three different times. But Edmund also claims that he can’t see Aslan because the light is “rum.” If you look up “rum” in the OED, the first entry says “Good, fine, excellent; great.” The second entry says “Odd, strange, queer. Also, bad, spurious.” If you ask me, that’s quite a rum definition.

Another word Lewis loves—nay, overuses—is “bivouac.” People in this book never camp, they bivouac. And the place where they sleep at night is not a camp but a bivouac. I’m guessing he just means they slept outdoors without tents? The OED gives a great extra word that I’m going to use from now on: “bivvy-bag”. No more sleeping bags for me!

bivouac bag n. Mountaineering a waterproof sleeping bag used outdoors instead of a tent; cf. bivvy bag

Lewis, while throwing in dated phrases like “Great Scott,” also throws in some seriously dated terms, in order to lend Narnia an antique feel. King Miraz has the best one of these: he refers to his “jackanapes nephew” (i.e., Caspian). The only other place I’ve heard this heavily 16th-century word (aside from my first reading of Prince Caspian, which I had forgotten entirely) is in the movie Cromwell. There the line is something like, “who is this jackanapes, who would mouth such treasons in your presence?”

Jackanapes: “as common noun: One who is like an ape in tricks, airs, or behaviour; a ridiculous upstart; a pert, impertinent fellow, who assumes ridiculous airs; a coxcomb. (The current use.)”

Leave it to the OED to claim that a word like “jackanapes” has a “current use.”


One Response to “Weekend reading: Lewis and Valla”

  1. Sam Says:

    I read Lorenzo Valla for pleasure, not work. You’re right in your assessment! He lived a pretty cool life all around, and after trashing the papacy, he got it to give him a pension!

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