Star Catcher

Thanks to Chaucer, I’m developing a fascination with the astrolabe. Astrolabes (star-catchers/capturers) are good to think with. And alone among its medieval-elementary-textbook-of-astronomy peers, Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has a fascinating introduction. (Well, okay, to be honest, I haven’t read any other medieval texts wholly devoted to basic principles of astronomy.) But Chaucer’s treatise is unique. It is addressed to his ten year old son, “Litel Lowys.” And it is in Middle English, instead of Latin, the language Chaucer’s contemporaries expected to meet when they came face to face with an astronomical textbook.

I am not saying the whole treatise is a thrill. For most people it is extremely difficult to visualize the possible applications of an astrolabe – with the help of the diagrams in the original. Astronomy, even for ten year olds, is pretty heavy on the jargon. For example, what do you make of this?

To knowe the verrey degre of eny maner sterre, straunge or unstraunge, after his longitude; though he be indetermynat in thin Astralabye, sothly to the trouthe thus he schal be knowe.

(To know the true degree of any manner of star, strange or unstrange, after its longitude; though it be indeterminate in your Astrolabe, accurate to the truth thus shall it be known.)

Tak the altitude of this sterre whan he is on the est syde of the lyne meridionall, as nye as thou mayst gesse; and tak an ascendent anon right by som manere sterre fix which that thou knowist; and forget not the altitude of the firste sterre ne thyn ascendent. And whan that this is don, aspye diligently whan this same firste sterre passith eny thyng the south westward; and cacche him anon right in the same nombre of altitude on the west syde of this lyne meridional, as he was kaught on the est syde […]

(Take the altitude of this star when it is on the east side of the line meridional, as near as you may guess; and take an ascendant right away by some manner of fixed star that you know; and forget not the altitude of the first star nor your ascendant. And when that is done, look carefully for when this same first star passes anything the south westward; and catch it right away in the same number of altitude on the west side of this line meridional, as it was caught on the east side […])

Is that clear? Chaucer explains everything quite plainly, but if you’re new to medieval astronomy and astrolabes you are probably still struggling to figure out: 1) which concepts are covered by ascendants, fixed stars, altitudes, and meridional lines, 2) which markings on the astrolabe correspond to the aforementioned concepts, and 3) how to manipulate, position or “read” the astrolabe in relation to what it represents. It isn’t really like reading a map because you hold the astrolabe in the air and line it up with celestial bodies; you take measurements with it. So the device is somewhat mysterious, even when it is explained. It seems capable of just about anything, intricate and alien as it is, metal and heavy, with arcane markings, with moving parts.

But I am forgetting that you don’t have one in front of you – you need the materiality of the astrolabe to fully understand its usefulness for thinking with. Here’s a ~2 min visualization to help you get a sense of the device itself.

Why is this remarkable doohicky useful to think with? Well, in a seminar I’m taking this semester, we’ve been thinking that in some ways the astrolabe is like story. And the comparison provokes fascinating questions: What if we thought of narrative as a kind of modeling device for finding things out? As a machine, functional at the basic level but also capable of more than most of us will ever use it for? As an interface, a thing which represents a version of the mysterious workings of what we cannot really get at directly (the world), a thing with which we can engage? (A character might then be an operation or application that one “runs” to simulate a certain way of being in the world). And importantly, as a machine that simultaneously serves as an art object, which one is initially interested in for its ornate materiality – I mean something like imagery or basic plot – but eventually grows to appreciate as a way of taking “measurements.” *

To be more precise, what if we read The Canterbury Tales like a bunch of litel Lowyses, ten years old and not yet very good at navigating the world, but eager to use all the available navigational tools (and delighted to begin learning at last how they work)?

It might seem a bit perverse to take the Tales, of all works, as some kind of didactic machine. They are deliberately evasive when it comes to evaluating characters and (im)moral actions; they force us to make our own conclusions. But I think the difference between the Tales and an astrolabe is one of degree, and not kind. Chaucer’s treatise is an elementary textbook for using the astrolabe – perhaps we could imagine the Tales as an intermediate “textbook” – or even an advanced one.

I also like to think of the Tales as a teaching machine because of the apparent credulousness of Chaucer the character – who praises characters that are clearly flawed for trivial reasons – as if Chaucer the author was saying, okay, now it’s time for the difficult stuff. In the Treatise it was all about “tak kep, litel Lowys,” “Understond wel that __,” and “Forget nat thys, my sone.” Now it’s time for you to solve the problems on your own, with a different, more versatile, more complex kind of astrolabe. Here are the characters and their stories (the numbers you have to work with) – what do you think the answers are? **

(I realize that to some extent we’ve always been treating story in just this way, but I had never before realized how neatly astrolabe can stand in for story.)


*Taking “measurements” is particularly interesting for narrative if you bring in Karen Barad’s argument in Meeting the Universe Halfway. (Random, I know, but surprisingly relevant.) Barad builds on things the physicist Niels Bohr wrote about the difficulty of separating subject from object in experiments, especially those related to quantum physics – eg a phenomenon is part measurement, part thing-being-measured, not the behavior of an independent physical object – in order to advance a particular kind of socioconstructivism. (She calls it agential realism.) The main interest for me here is the concept of phenomenon: I toy with applying it to literature. If one uses a literary apparatus to measure or observe the behavior of, say, a man in a desperate situation, the result could be called a phenomenon in Bohr’s sense of the word, because the type of apparatus we choose to observe with necessarily influences the result – ie, what we see as reality. Like scientific devices for measurement, stories assume things about the world even as they observe it – “before” they observe it, in a sense.

**For those whose hackles rise at the suggestion that reading/studying literature is somehow about “finding the answers,” I want to make clear that I am more interested in how literature can be used to find things out about life than in finding out how the text works, or what Chaucer thought “the answers” were, or figuring out his real intentions (though all of those things interest me).

The Incomplete Encyclopedia: A Matter of Place

In the following we shall speak touching the vexing matter of place; what it is, how cosmographers, geosophists and poets treat of it, and some examples thereof.

Inasmuch as place is passing difficult to define shortly and with clarity, in this part I will treat of what place may be. For some of the things a place may be may not be the whole of the place always.

I.  A place may be part of another place. Efnisian says, “Before I went to sea, the Rush was only the part of the river near my home. But when I left, the whole river became the Rush. And a city may be a part of a province, and a province a part of a kingdom. Is it the kingdom or the city that is the true place? Wise poets give many and diverse answers.” To which I add but one exception, the world, because all places belong to the world, which cannot belong to another greater place or it would not be itself.

II. The borders of a place may be understood by means of mountains, rivers and forests. The Thith is its own place because it is the space in between the Rush and the Knarry, and in the direction of the sea it is bounded by Föhrewood, and in its border to the north and west it is bounded by mountains. And not only by encompassing mountains, rivers and forests can a place be known, but by walls and doors, and by the nature of the things that are enclosed within them.

III. A place may appear or disappear, and that in so short a time as a twinkling. For men say that in ancient times there was a great fortress in the mountain pass at Wirral, but it collapsed in an earth-shaking and was lost, for the slopes there are very steep. And places may grow and wither, and fences be torn up, and lakes be dried up, to be absorbed by the bigger places they once belonged to, or else by the neighboring places. From this observation the geosophists deduce the rule of conservation of place: the amount of place in the world remains constant over time, though the number of places changes often.

IV. A place may be a unit of space. But cosmographers reject it as a unit because they say the world is the only true place, it being so big that it is of little use for measurement, and geosophists reject it because they measure in regions – in example the part of the Rush across from wise Efnisian’s home cannot be a region, but it is manifestly a place – and poets reject it because they care for different quiddities. So in this matter I am soundly overruled.

Sir Turquin and The Missing Princess

Excerpt from a story that my sister and I started writing together. 


Nigel Crumpworthy, master of the detective arts and wizard for hire, strode into King Karsheesh’s throne room with a cigar clamped between his teeth. He stopped, turned at an angle of thirty-six degrees, removed his hat and flung it on to the royal coat rack with perfect accuracy. Ah, a real professional, everyone thought.  He took his cigar from his mouth with two dexterous fingers, blew out a languid smoke ring and said,

“Crown. Gold. 24 karat. Aristocratic posture. Attendants arranged in classic Malaking-malaki formation. Distinct lack of antique vases. You must be King Karsheesh. By the way, did you know that one of your maids is stealing preserves from the kitchen at this very moment?” He put the cigar back in his mouth.

King Karsheesh blinked, but he was not a man to be talked down to or intimidated. In classic kingly fashion, he ignored everything that the wizard had said and shouted, “Ah, Nigel! You look just the chap for the job. You know the details, I trust?”

“Certainly. Princess. Grey eyes. Raven black hair. Delicate features. Missing. Likely a cooking accident.”

King Karsheesh had been nodding up until the last phrase.

“Mm, Princess, …eyes …hair…features …yes… cooking accident?!

The wizard simply smirked. The King stroked his chin.

“Well, yes. I suppose we might have thought of that.”

The wizard said, “Naturally, you just assumed that she was stolen. A pretext for expanding the empire, yes?”

“A pretext for expanding the empire, no,” returned Karsheesh coolly. “You overstep yourself, Mr. Crumpworthy.”

Nigel shrugged. “As you say, sire.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get going.”

The wizard got going. On his way out, he stopped, and tapped his cigar on the shield of one of the guards. The ash trickled down onto the royal carpet. The guard glared at him. “Hat,” said Nigel Crumpworthy, and it sailed off the coatrack and into his hand. He tipped it at the guard insolently and left. 

The Moth’s Return: The Endless Bowl of Porridge

“Why is it called the Endless Bowl of Porridge?” asked Icarus eventually.

“Because it never runs out of porridge, obviously.”

“I know what it does; I’m asking whether the name is a good one. Shouldn’t it be called the Bowl of Endless Porridge?”

They heard Cat chuckling from his position at the front of the line.

Owl looked stumped for a minute. Icarus almost thought that he was going to admit intellectual defeat, but then his friend brightened.

“Of course it’s an endless bowl. It has to be to contain an endless amount of porridge. I suppose it could have been called the Endless Bowl of Endless Porridge, but really, no-one likes to have more than one epithet attached to magical items. It makes talking about them… clumsy. Can you imagine the Poisonous Burning Sword of Doom of Wyrnach the Giant King? It’s preposterous! And on top of that you start to wonder whether the sword will be the doom of the giant king, or whether it is his sword, and the doom is merely incidental…” The owl trailed off, lost in the convolutions of his thoughts.

The Adventures of Jaundice and Euripides

A new story I am working on. Probability that I shall finish? Zero to five percent. Nevertheless! here is a piece of it:


“J-jow- how do you pronounce it?” mumbled Mrs. Primula. She looked up. “Jaun?” Everyone shifted in their seats. A clear voice said,


There was more shifting. Neck-craning, too. Mrs. Primula said, “You go by John? Did I pronounce that correctly?” All eyes shifted from the front of the room to the back, where, in the corner, a dark haired girl dressed in yellow was sitting very straight.

“Yes,” she said crisply. “It’s short for Jaundice.”

“Sorry, Janice?”

“Jaundice,” the girl corrected.

Mrs. Primula thought, oh dear. She thought, her hair is like a birdsnest. She thought, but what good posture!

It is hard to say what the class was thinking. None of them laughed. Out loud.

The roll call continued, in no particular order:

Zachary. Neufield. Zack for short.

David. Green.

Alisha. Bergen.

Ben. Sikorski.

Maria. Sanchez.

Euripides. Woo.

“Euripides?! Is this a joke?”

“No,” said Euripides.

This time there were muffled snickers. Mrs. Primula looked hard at him. He coloured and looked away to the back corner. Jaundice was writing furiously in her notebook. He thought, ah, she is the notebook type. Finally Mrs. Primula asked if he had a nickname. He said no. More snickers – too quiet to earn a shushing, but audible nonetheless. The calling of the roll resumed.


Excerpt from Return of the Moth: Ontzlake Rakes

Raking leaves, Sir Ontzlake reflected, is much overrated, especially in the wind and rain. He’d been trying to read, but the maples outside the garden kept throwing down their soggy leaves one by one, like gauntlets, and so, with knitted brow, he’d taken up his rake and gone forth to meet them like a man. He was bundled up under his armour (a good knight is always prepared for attack) but some of the rain got through, and it was the kind of rain that had no right to be rain – snow in rain’s clothing, he thought. It was unfairly cold.

He raked furiously for a while to keep warm. After a while a gust came up and he swooped down with his rake, meaning to corral any escaping leaves from an existing pile. The pile was duly squashed, but the leaves bunched up on the end of the rake, as wet leaves will. Shaking the rake is no good, he thought, The leaves are all wet and they won’t come off. But he shook it anyway, and frowned when it made no difference. Every book he’d ever read that mentioned raking leaves made the activity seem joyous and frolicsome. Some of the illuminated books even showed depictions of children jumping into piles of leaves. Like jumping into a garbage dump, he grumped, while he raked up slugs and poisonous mushrooms with indiscriminate swipes.

Excerpt from Return of the Moth: Still More Porridge

“Why are you looking so jubilant?” said Owl nastily.

“I stole this ancient artifact from Grim!” Cat held up a carved wooden bowl. Everyone crowded round to examine it.

“This is porridge,” said Sir Ontzlake after a moment.

Endless porridge,” corrected the Cat.

“Exactly what will that be useful for?”

“Well, say that we wanted to build a castle. This would be invaluable!” They looked at him blankly. Cat elaborated, “For mortar, you chumps! Cold porridge sets up just like rock. And this ancient porridge happens to be exceptionally sticky.” He paused for a moment. “They don’t make porridge like they used to.”

“It’s true,” said the Owl, “When I was an owlet they used to grind boulders—but why on earth would we need to build a castle?”

Cat rolled his eyes. “Details, details.” Still, there was a contemplative silence. What could be done with the artifact?

“Maybe we could… eat it?” suggested Icarus. They all looked at the bowl and discovered that they were quite full. Sir Ontzlake turned faintly green. There was nothing disugsting about the appearance of the bowl’s contents per se, but the thought of sixty or seventy squelches of a spoon into that heavy, endless slop was enough to make him sick.

“Well,” said the Cat. “Why don’t you carry it.” He handed it to Icarus before there was time to object. Then they set off marching again. Everyone who could took care to stay upwind of the bowl.

“Couldn’t you have discovered the Endless Bowl of Diamonds and Gold?” asked the Owl peevishly.