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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Solomon and Marcolf

translated and with commentary by
Jan M. Ziolkowski

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To purchase Solomon and Marcolf

Title: Solomon and Marcolf
Author: .
Genre: Fiction
Written: (1410) (Eng. 2008)
Length: 389 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: Solomon and Marcolf - US
Solomon and Marcolf - UK
Solomon and Marcolf - Canada
  • Latin title: Dialogus Salomonis et Marcolfi
  • Translated and with Commentary by Jan M. Ziolkowski
  • Includes the Latin text
  • Includes extensive notes
  • Includes: 'A Welsh Solomon and Marcolf, translated by Diana Luft'

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Our Assessment:

(--) : limited piece of fiction -- but pretty much all you could ask for in an edition of it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
J. of Folklore Research . 8/12/2009 Steve Stanzak

  From the Reviews:
  • "I, for one, am thankful to Ziolkowski for channeling his inner Marcolf. The translated text itself is a treasure for folklorists, particularly those interested in proverbs, and Ziolkowski has already done the important comparative work of providing tale type and motif numbers. (...) Latin students today may not feel as subversive as medieval students probably did while reading it, but they will certainly enjoy the vulgar content and the unusual vocabulary" - Steve Stanzak, Journal of Folklore Research

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Solomon and Marcolf was a tremendously popular work in the Middle Ages: as Jan M. Ziolkowski notes in his Introduction, forty-nine editions of the Latin appeared between ca. 1473 to 1619. Widely translated, too, at the time, this, however, is the first Latin-to-English rendering since 1492 (!) -- indeed, Ziolkowski points out that:

     Although the early twentieth-century edition of the Latin has been reprinted often (always with a degradation of its exhaustiveness), it has never been translated into a modern language.
       Solomon and Marcolf is a two-part work, each pitting the Biblical Solomon against this Marcolf. Except for a brief narrative Prologue and Epilogue, the first part consists entirely of dialogue, most of which is a rapid-fire back and forth; as Ziolkowski has it:
     Most of the dialogue proper (or improper) in S&M records pairs of antithetical proverbs and observations, in which Solomon presents orthodox observations and Marcolf responds subversively.
       As Ziolkowski explains in a footnote:
The pun on sadomasochism in the designation S&M is both intentional and very appropriate to the text under examination.
       And, indeed, much of the popularity and notoriety of the text is due to its very rawness; interestingly:
     The crude words and deeds of S&M have drawn many inquisitive eyes to the text, but at the same time they have rendered its readers over the past two centuries much more squeamish about translating it in toto than were their predecessors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and already the early modern translations toned down and even expurgated the most intense vulgarity and blasphemy).
       Modern readers shouldn't expect too much, but Solomon and Marcolf is an amusing period-piece (and, indeed, a fun source of Latin expressions that you won't come across in your school-primer). There's not much story to it -- certainly not the first part, which amounts to a sort of battle of wits -- but it is an entertaining tale in contrasts, as Marcolf -- valde turpissimum et deformem, sed eloquentissimum ("most exceedingly ugly and misshapen, but most eloquent") -- shows up at King Solomon's court and, in a manner of speaking, holds his own.
       Solomon proudly recites his lineage, noting that he comes from twelve generations of prophets; Marcolf equally proudly recites his own lineage :
Et ego sum de duodecim generacionibus rusticorum: Rusticus genuit Rustan, Rustan genuit Rusticium, Rusticium genuit Rusticellum [...] et ego sum Marcolfus follus.

And I come from twelve generations of boors: Rusticus begat Rustan, Rustan begat Rusticium, Rusticium begat Rusticellum [...] and I am Marcolf the fool.
       (Marcolf's geneaology-list is one of the places where the English translation most obviously can't capture all the Latin; Ziolkowski's extensive commentary proves helpful -- as does the presence of the original Latin text facing the English one.)
       Marcolf is boorish, but he's no fool; indeed, he is very quick-witted -- though the wit also tends to be of the crudest sort. His thoughts are not as lofty as Solomon's:
Solomon: "Between two mountains you will find a valley."
Marcolf: "Between two large thighs a vulva often lies hidden."
Solomon: "From a good man comes a good wife."
Marcolf: "From a good dinner party comes good shitting."
       Yes, Solomon and Marcolf is not exactly an edifying text. But while Solomon's (semi-)wise words are often proverbially familiar (and occasionally bafflingly dull -- "The moon completes its course within thirty days"), Marcolf does offer some more down-to-earth and unusual insight:
The man who fears straw never shits on stubble.
A spurned vulva and an unfed dog go to rest sadly.
       And there is certainly some appeal to his peasant-wisdom:
When hernias turn serious, the testicles wither; when rain has come, the hot season goes away.
       The bilingual format, supplemented by the extensive commentary (itself over 140 pages long), is particularly helpful -- though occasionally neither the Latin nor Ziolkowski's gloss and theories are sufficient to entirely demystify Marcolf's sayings -- as with:
Sorex que non potest ire ad suum foramen malleum ad suam caudam ligat.

A mouse that cannot go to its hole ties a hammer to its tail.
       The second part of Solomon and Marcolf is a bit more conventional (and descriptive) narrative, in which Solomon and Marcolf again square off. Here too, as Solomon puts it: Per ingenium omnis facis, Marcolfe ("You accomplish everything through wit, Marcolf"), with even those with no Latin recognizing that ingenium describes Marcolf's talents better than mere 'wit'. Among the episodes related here is the famous Solomonic judgement about the baby that is to be split in two; in all of these episodes Marcolf's subversive contrariety makes for provocative and amusing entertainment.
       Eventually Marcolf goes too far in his insults and Solomon condemns him to be hanged from a tree; quick-witted Marcolf at least gets him to agree that Marcolf should be allowed to choose which tree he's hanged from -- with predictable results that see them travel far (really far) and wide in search for a tree that meets Marcolf's approval (which, of course, none do) until they're so fed up they let him go.
       As narrative, Solomon and Marcolf is of middling interest. The dialogue-part is fairly rough and falls far short of being Socratic or even merely dramatic; the second part offers a bit more of a story-arc. It's all good fun, and appealingly harmlessly shocking, what with the rawness of the language, suggestions, and actions.
       For anyone interested in Solomon and Marcolf, however, this edition certainly seems to cover it all. Ziolkowski presents a unified text (and solid translation), but also offers extensive Textual Notes and a wealth of annotations in the very long Commentary. There is an 'Alternative Beginning and Ending' (also with annotations), a useful appendix of 'Sources, Analogues, and Testimonia', and even 'A Welsh Solomon and Marcolf' (translated by Diana Luft). A table comparing the sequence of questions and answers in various editions is also provided, and there are indices of 'Latin words and phrases', 'Scriptural references', and 'Motifs, proverbs, and tale types' to go along with the traditional subject-index.
       Admirably presented, Solomon and Marcolf is an amusing if fairly slight entertainment.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 December 2009

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Solomon and Marcolf: Jan Ziolkowski: Other books of interest under review:

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