, , ,

Voltaire said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. But Charlemagne’s achievement was admirable. In an age of illiteracy and barbarism, he gathered international scholars to his court, established schools, and encouraged art, music and architecture. Today it is disturbingly easy to imagine a breakdown of civilization, though the apocalyptic entertainments of Hollywood fail to convey both the impact of simple deprivations (of clean water, food, medicine) and of more complex ones (the culture of books, art, music and theatre). But what would a rebirth look like?

Surely it would involve that most reliable of technologies, paper.


Saint Mark the Evangelist, from the Ebbo Gospel, an extraordinary Carolingian book.

17. Hound-Slayer

By the middle of the next week, Tabitha was immersed in translating the Latin text inscribed in her manuscript fragment. Consistent with the scant description supplied by the previous owners, it seemed to be a heroic narrative of some kind, though none of the characters’ Latin names were familiar to her from Greco-Roman mythology, and several seemed to be allegorical.

“He has a typical hero’s birth, sired by a god on a mortal woman, and then adopted by someone else,” she told Nigel. “There’s no hint that it’s a Christian narrative. I think it may be a pagan Roman story, though a late one. But the names are all unrecognizable.”

“Galen will be very pleased if this turns out to be a completely new text,” said Nigel. “You need to check with someone who has expertise in late antique Latin narratives. I’ve got someone in mind who does all that fourth and fifth-century stuff, Claudian, Solinus, Donatus. I’ll send you his contact information.”

Tabitha agreed to this, though she was less than pleased to be told, in so many words, that her own expertise was unequal to the job. Still, her field was so complex that few scholars could claim to have mastered it all. This unknown expert might recognize her story right off the bat, and save her many hours of work. When she opened Nigel’s email late that afternoon, something about it tugged gently at her memory, but she couldn’t place it. Dr. Rúairí Lafferty, Language Lecturer in Latin, Department of Classics, New York University. Apparently he was not a tenured faculty member, but an adjunct, someone who was employed on a part-time basis. Well, she certainly would not hold that against him. She knew all too well how difficult it was for people with highly specialized expertise to find jobs.

She called the number, and was a little surprised to catch him in the office. “Dr. Lafferty? My name is Tabitha Hill, and I work for the Porteous Collection as a research librarian. I know you’re acquainted with Nigel, and he gave me your number. He thought you could help with a manuscript we’re trying to identify.”

“Tabitha,” he said. “Tabitha… of course, I’d be delighted to help. What can you tell me about the manuscript?” He had a low musical voice, with an accent. Another Irishman, she thought, but her mind was racing ahead, trying to frame a summary of the problem.

“It’s probably tenth century, from Tours. It’s a narrative about a hero called Scivius who lives on the Citadel of the Plain. His mother seems to be a dwarf woman, impregnated by a god called Long-Arm, though a magician takes him away and gives him to a different mother. He matures at a preternatural rate and carries a man’s arms by the time he’s four years old.”

“That’s extremely interesting,” said Lafferty. “The precocious hero sounds a bit like Heracles.”

“Yes, that’s what I thought,” replied Tabitha, excited. “Didn’t Heracles strangle some snakes that attacked him when he was a baby? Something similar happens in this story, except that it’s a dog.”

“A dog?” he asked. “Are you certain of that?”

“Yes, it says canem potentem occidit, he slew a mighty hound.”

There was a silence on the other end of the line, and then he said, “I’d love to know more about this narrative. I can’t place it at the moment, but maybe if I read the whole thing… Wait a minute! What did you say the hero’s name is? Scivius?”

“Yes.” She spelled out the name. “He who has knowledge of the way. I thought it might be allegorical. Like the choice of Heracles, where he has to decide between the steep, rocky path of virtue and the smooth, easy path of vice.”

“Exactly,” he replied. “But that name does ring a bell. I’m almost certain I saw it somewhere in Freeman Gibson’s notes. He was my dissertation advisor, and when he passed, his widow asked me to be his literary executor. Give me a few days to look it up, and I’ll let you know if I find anything.”

“That’s very kind of you. I can’t thank you enough,” she told him. “Um, I feel a little awkward about this, but I’m not sure how to say your name.”

“Rory. It’s Rory Lafferty.”

Rory. “Is there any chance that I met you the Sunday before last? At the farmer’s market?” She felt awkward bringing it up. If he wasn’t Farmer Rory, he might be offended. Or what if he thinks I’m coming on to him?

But when he spoke, she could tell from the sound of his voice that he was smiling. “Yes, Tabitha. You met me and Snorri there. I remember you very well.”

“How does an expert on late antique Latin literature come to be running an organic farm?” She pictured Farmer Rory in his form-fitting black T-shirt, the muscles of his pectorals and biceps stretching the fabric tight.

“It’s a long story, but I can boil it down for you. I never got a real job. I teach Elementary Latin at NYU for peanuts, as you Americans say, and I grow a hill of beans with Snorri.”

“I understand,” she told him. “I was a scholar gypsy myself until a few short weeks ago. It’s been a long, rough haul. Thanks for helping me, Rúairí. Let me know if you come up with anything.”

She hung up and realized that her heart was pounding. The thrill of the chase? Yes, she could almost feel the story opening itself up to her. But there was more, a secret which she could barely admit to herself, much less to Rúairí. The narrative in the manuscript mirrored the events in her dreams. She had not been recording the dreams in a journal, thinking that the exercise might worsen her preoccupation with them. But now she wished desperately that she had taken Dr. Liffey’s advice. She read over the work she had completed so far:

This is the life of the warrior Scivius, son of the god Longilacertus and Aequa, the lady of horses. In the fullness of time Aequa was reborn as a nameless dwarf, but she received the spear of the god and bore Scivius. He, however, did not remain with her long, for he was taken by Bellator the magus to be raised by the king’s sister Decima. The boy grew with unexpected speed and soon came to the Citadel of the Plain to test his feats of strength against the other youths under the eye of the king, Canephilus. When no more than four years of age, he slew a mighty hound that attacked him, thus earning a man’s arms. As a youth, Scivius wooed Parata, a woman of exceptional beauty and spirit. Her father opposed the match, declaring that he would only give Parata to the hero if he sought the far off land of Scythia for his warrior’s training, and returned alive. Scivius therefore found his way to the citadel of Umbrosa the Amazon in Scythia.

Tabitha sat frowning in front of her computer, until its screensaver of medieval herbals kicked in. Many heroes of Classical myth had been sent on supposedly impossible quests, and many, like Perseus and Heracles, had fought the Amazons. Yet she could recall no example of a hero who actually received his warrior’s training from an Amazon. Such a reversal of gender roles, with a powerful older woman training an inexperienced youth, was utterly foreign to the Greeks and Romans. And not that familiar to us, either, she thought. The woman warrior in her dream seemed to run a sort of Hogwarts Academy for aspiring heroes. But what’s going to happen next? And are my dreams really the same story? The dream-names always slipped away from her when she woke, along with the other linguistic elements of the dreamworld. She resolved to record her dreams over the next week or two, with special attention to names, before she transcribed any more of the manuscript. Nigel had some new items for her to catalogue, and it would do her good to get away from the mystery book while she waited to hear back from Rúairí Lafferty.

Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss

Notes: The Irish sagas include plenty of women warriors, whose status is surprisingly high for women in a patriarchal culture. Granted, they don’t always prevail, and Cúchulainn himself defeated and took captive the warrior Aoife. Continental and British scholars assimilated the Irish warrior women to the Classical Amazons, supposedly a tribe in Scythia which expelled its male children in order to remain all-female. To the Greeks, these mythical women existed in order to be conquered, and every Greek hero has his Amazon battle.


Greek warriors dominating Amazon opponents on a frieze from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos.