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The Vinland Sagas: The Men Who Discovered America Before Columbus

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle heads off to medieval America and the world of the sagas

Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, when he landed on mainland North America, thus sparking the colonisation of the continent by the Europeans.

This is the mainstream conception, and it’s entirely wrong. Columbus never landed on the mainland of the continent we now call North America. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have been the first European to do so. European settlement in North America had first occurred almost half a millennium before Columbus was even born. In around the year 1000, a group of Icelandic explorers made a series of journeys along the northern rim of the Atlantic, and attempted to found a colony somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard of the continent of North America, probably somewhere around what is now Newfoundland and the Gulf of St Lawrence. Read the rest of this entry

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10 of the Best Poems about Hair

Classic poems about long flowing locks and keepsakes

Poets and hair: now that would make for an interesting literary study. There’s Lord Byron, of course, who, when he received requests from admiring young women for a lock of his hair, would send them some hair snipped from his dog. But many poets (Byron included) have written poems in praise of hair, or about the beauty of hair. Here are ten of the best poems on a hairy theme.

Gwerful Mechain, Cywydd y Cedor (‘Ode to Pubic Hair’). We begin our rundown of the greatest hair poems in fifteenth-century Wales: Gwerful Mechain was a Welsh-language poet who, after the eighteenth-century Ann Griffiths, is probably the most famous female poet to have written in the Welsh language. In this poem, as the blog Rejected Princesses summarises it, ‘she criticizes men for praising the other parts of a woman’s body, but not the genitalia. She declares herself “of great noble stock,” urges poets to “let songs about the quim circulate,” and ends by saying “lovely bush, God save it.”’ What more incentive do you need to read on?

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 68. Sometimes known as Shakespeare’s ‘wig sonnet’, this poem has been described by the poet Don Paterson in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets as ‘a tirade against wigs, by a baldie’, who goes on to note, ‘as much as some commentators would prefer it were otherwise, this is mainly a poem about wigs.’ In this sonnet, Shakespeare praises the Fair Youth’s beauty – and his fair hair – for its authenticity, harking back to a time before dead people’s hair was snipped off and plonked on the bald heads of the living. Read the rest of this entry

A Summary and Analysis of ‘The Frog Prince’

An introduction to a classic fairy tale

Beware of amphibians who can speak in verse. That seems to be the moral of ‘The Frog Prince’, though we’re not sure about that. ‘The Frog Prince’ is perhaps, of all the classic fairy tales, the one that most succinctly encapsulates the notion of ‘fairy tales’, ‘the fairy-tale ending’, and the spirit of transformation and ‘living happily ever after’ which pervades so many of the best-loved fairy tales. But what is the meaning of ‘The Frog Prince’, and what are the story’s origins? Before we offer an analysis of the story’s key features, it might be worth summarising its content:

A young princess is playing with a golden ball by a woodland spring one day, throwing the ball in the air and catching it. Once when she throws the ball up, though, she fails to catch it and it falls into the spring. She looks into the water but it’s so deep that she cannot see the bottom of the spring, and so cannot retrieve her ball. She’s so fond of her little ball that she sighs and says she would give all her fine clothes and possessions if she could get it back. Read the rest of this entry