John Steinbeck, a Knight of the Round Table, and Contentment

December 19, 2014

“Contentment requires so little and so much.”

These words are spoken by Sir Marhalt, in Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (176). Marhalt is a knight of King Arthur’s “Round Table,” travelling with a “lady” adventuring companion. He makes the pronouncement after catching some trout and sitting down to relax in their forest camp. The scene is set in the following passage.

In a little glade beside a spring of cold bubbling water he built a cunning little house of boughs hacked off with a sword, and bedded it deep with dried sweet-smelling ferns. Nearby he fitted stones in a structure to hold the little pot, and gathered a heap of dry wood cloven from the underside of a fallen tree, and he tethered his horse in nearby grass. His armor hung on the oak beside the bower and his shield and lance beside it. The damsel was not still. When he had robed himself she washed his underthings and hung them on a gooseberry bush to dry. She filled her little pot with gooseberries and watching and listening followed the flight of bees and brought wild honey from a hollow tree for sweetening. And in the bower she busied herself spreading wild thyme to perfume the couch, rolling sweet grasses in her tight-woven cloth to make a rich soft pillow, arranging her little store of needments in domestic order, and with her small strong knife she cut and notched saplings from which to hang her clothing. Her knight begged the golden pin that held her hair, and he pulled tail hair from his horse and braided a line, and he went toward the sound of water falling in a pool and gathered mayflies as he went. And shortly he returned with four fine speckled trout, straightened her hairpin, and gave it to her. And then he wrapped the trout in a blanket of green fern and laid them by to place in hot ashes in the evening. (175).

The passage brings to mind the description of Schionatulander, another figure associated with King Arthur, fly fishing in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century Titurel. Steinbeck’s Marhalt does not use the “feathered hook” that Schionatulander does, but he is clearly willing to make use of the trout’s attraction to flies. Steinbeck, himself, was an avid fisher. As indicated in his description of Marhalt’s fishing method, however, he was not strictly devoted to one type of fishing or another. Steinbeck scholar (and f;y fisher) Robert DeMott explains that Steinbeck simply enjoyed catching or even trying to catch fish. He was not a “meat” fisherman, and he clearly held a deep, if somewhat romantic, appreciation of the fish themselves. This is seen in a moving quote provided by DeMott, in his recent Steinbeck Review article, “Of Fish and Men.” DeMott writes, “A decade later, according to his eldest son, Thom, Steinbeck placed a large piece of broken mirror in a mountain stream near Los Gatos so that the streams single resident—a small trout—on seeing its  own image would not feel lonely” (114). Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur was published posthumously, in  1976, by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. The stories were inspired by those recorded by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur. Mallory’s text was published by William Caxton in 1485. Steinbeck, however, worked from the earlier “Winchester Manuscript” and “other sources.”


“The Fight with Sir Marhaus” (stained glass), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1862. Copyright: Bradford Art Galleries and Museum, West Yorkshire, UK.

Sir Marhalt is “Sir Marhaus” in Mallory’s La Morte d’Arthur. A long-standing character in Arthurian and related narratives, his name is rendered many other ways by other or unknown authors. He is generally associated with the Irish princess Iseult or Isolde and meets his death at the hands of Iseult’s lover, Tristan (as spelled by Steinbeck) or Tristram. Steinbeck portrays Sir Marhalt as a wise man. Most of us, whether we are fishers or not, can likely relate to Marhalt’s statement about contentment—that it is both easy and hard to achieve. On the one hand, life often seems so simple and enjoyable. Yet, nearly as soon as we see it so, we are faced with new complexities that make contentment challenging to maintain. No doubt, this is why so many of us return to the stream, again and again, to cast our flies. Like Sir Marhalt, we can find contentment there. Sometimes that contentment slips away, off of the water. But we always know where to find it once more. Also like Marhalt, however, we should look for it in companionship, and in many other places as well. Sources: DeMott, Robert. “Of Fish and Men.” Steinbeck Review 11: 2 (2014), 113-137. Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. Chase Horton, ed. New York: Penguin, 2008.

“Human Blood and Woman’s Milk”

December 7, 2014
Tegernsee Abbey today. It no longer houses a monastic community.

Tegernsee Abbey today. It no longer houses a monastic community.

Richard Hoffman published a translation of a fragmentary text written around 1500 AD, which has become known as “Tegernseer Angel- und Fishbucklein.” In his book, Fisher’s Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages (1997), Hoffman identifies the text in English as “Tegernsee Fishing Advice.”  The “advice” is that presumably recorded by a Benedictine monk at the Tegernsee Abbey in Bavaria, in the late 15th century. The advice was probably intended for one of the fishermen licensed by the abbey to provide food for the monks.(117) Interestingly, much of “Tegernsee Fishing Advice” is devoted to fly fishing. This means that fly fishing was not just a pastime of nobility in 15th and 16th century Bavaria; it was also used to acquire food by peasants such as those working for the Abbey. A passage from the translated text, dealing with flies, follows:

Thereafter, as soon as the brooks become small and clear, like in May, [whether it] is the first month or second, then see to it to put ‘stone bait’ on the feathered hook which should be tied with yellow silk and with pinkish-coloured silk around the ‘heart’ [and] with a black one mixed around the ‘heart.’ (141).

However, the monks also provided fishing advice for fishing in still waters that is even more surprising to read:

If you want to catch fish in still waters, in brooks, or in lakes, then take and prepare a bait this way. Take human blood and woman’s milk together in a vessel, and take raw barley and cook it very well and completely and press it in a mortar while still wet until it all becomes like a gruel. After that press it through a cloth, and if it will not go easily through the cloth then add to it a little of the liquid in which it was cooked so that it does go through easily.Take that very thing [that was] pressed through a let it parch and dry up completely, and then make it into a fine powder. Then take that [powder] out and the above-mentioned blood and woman’s milk and stir it [all] together then, and make something like a gruel. Then let that become very hard and dry in the air. Thus it is ready. …. To that thing [will] so rush all the fish which live in that same water, and they will not turn back until after they have come into the trap. (171).

Today, we often think of fly tying as a time-consuming passion. But just you try making a complicated bait from human blood and woman’s milk.

Ready . . . .

November 20, 2014



November 10, 2014

Fall fishing is a revival after the quieter times of summer. Cooler nights and the melt of early snowfall in the mountains bring falling water temperatures and rains freshen the streams. Shadows are longer, shielding the pools. The fish are more active and there is a touch of urgency about it all, a feeling that it cannot last very long so one had better get out and be doing. After all, there have been falls when the heavy rains came early and suddenly, the streams flooded and everything was over before it had started.

Roderick Haig-Brown, Fisherman’s Fall, 1964.




Ichabod Crane and the Angler

October 31, 2014


As another Halloween passes, I repost this essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.”

Originally posted on The Literary Fly Fisher:

Painting of Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Painting of Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

At this time of year, Washington Irving’s well-known “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is often brought to mind. This, of course, is the classic tale of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, his romantic rivalry with Brom Bones to gain the affections of Katrina Van Tassel, and his terrifying encounter with the Headless Horseman. It was originally part of a much larger collection of works by Irving, titled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published in 1819 and 1820. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has subsequently been published many times as a solitary work.

The person who actually reads “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the Sketchbook, will find that it is preceded by a reminiscence entitled “The Angler.”  Here, Irving shows a very clear familiarity with fly fishing and angling literature.  He first describes his initiatory fly fishing…

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“More Perfect”

October 22, 2014

photo 3

Balsa Bug (top), tied by Jack Boehme (approx. 1885-1956); Bunyan Bug, tied by Norman “Paul Bunyan” Means (approx. 1899-1986); “Bunyan Bug” woodcut print by Barry Moser (1940-present), from Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, 1989 Pennyroyal Press edition.

“The River of the Road to Buffaloe”

October 16, 2014

photo nfk

In 1806, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and other members of the “Corps of Discovery,” made their return from the West Coast of North America, over the Continental Divide, on their way back to Saint Louis. In approaching the Divide, they relied heavily upon the knowledge and physical guidance of the Nez Perce or Nimiipuu. On July 3, Lewis and Clark divided the Corps, in order to explore different areas. Lewis and his party travelled east along what we now know as the Big Blackfoot River. The Nez Perce guides told the party that the river was the Cokahlarishkit, as Lewis rendered it, or “the River of the Road to Buffaloe” (better transcribed as Qoq’áax ‘í skit and translated as “buffalo road”).

On July 6, 1806, Lewis notes that the party crossed the North Fork of the Big Blackfoot. He describes it as 45 yards wide, deep, rapid, and turbid. He notes the squirrels, goats, deer, curlews, woodpeckers, plovers, robins, doves, hawks, sparrows and duck in the area. He also remarks on the cottonwoods and pines.

He notes, too, that the Corps was wary of meeting parties of the Blackfoot tribes or their allies. The Blackfeet, or Niitsitapiiksi (“Real People”), reside on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. At the time of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the Blackfeet largely controlled Nez Perce and other Plateau people’s access to the bison of the Plains

I spend a great deal of time near the North Fork of the Big Blackfoot, as our family cabin is in the area. And, indeed, I drive along the main river, via Highway 200, to visit friends on the Blackfeet Reservation or on the Canadian reserves. The North Fork remains the powerful river described by Lewis over two hundred years ago. And the drainage remains a lively place, populated by all of the flora and fauna recorded by Lewis and many other plants and animals as well (including trout). It is a particularly pretty place during the fall. For this reason, I share a few pictures taken during my latest visit (the trout picture was taken my by friend, Bill Gregory).

photo bill


Opinel “Trout” Knife

October 5, 2014

I discovered recently that the venerable French maker of  knives, Opinel, offers a model with trout engraved on an oak handle.  Opinel has made simple, folding knives, in a variety of numbered sizes, for over 100 years.  Despite their continued popularity and the fact that they are still made in France, Opinel knives remain very affordable to the working people for whom they were originally intended.

photo opinel 2

Today, Opinel knives are popular enough among outdoors persons that Patagonia sells them along with its own products.  Patagonia describes the Opinel No. 8 that they offer, online, they describe their Opinel No. 8:

If we made knives, this is the one we’d want to make. The Opinel folding knife, with its clean, simple design and remarkable utility, has been prized by adventurers, artists and chefs for more than 100 years. This modern version of the classic Opinel No8 features a 3-1/4” stainless steel blade and beautiful olive-wood handle. It fits easily in a pocket, but also comes with a leather belt sheath for easier access. Packaged in a wooden, slide-top box.

You can read about the Opinel No. 8, oak-handled “trout” knife, available directly (and much less expensively) from Opinel, at their website. You will notice that they offer custom engraving.  When ordering one, I could not resist making use of this service. It has been a handy companion during my time beyond the paved world.

photo opinel

A Father’s Songs and a Daughter’s Memoir

September 27, 2014

Thomas Tod Stoddart, as pictured in Angling Songs.

In 1889, Anna M. Stodddart published a loving memoir of her father, Thomas Tod Stoddart (1810-1880),  along with a collection of verses written by him (some of which were previously published).  Most of these verses have to do with fishing.  Thomas Stoddart was licensed to practice law, but he seems to have spent most of his life writing and engaged in fishing and fishing related activities. He was particularly involved in conservation. Living in Kelso, Scotland, the Rivers Tweed and Teviot received most of his attention. Besides his writer daughter, he had two other children-both boys.

To illustrate how seriously the senior Stoddart took his identity as an angler, daughter Anna writes:

My father called one day on Henry Glassford Bell, and the genial Sheriff hailed him with the very natural question, “Well, Tom, and what are you doing now?” With a moment’s resentment, my father brought his friend to his bearings. “Doing? Man, I’m an angler.”

Angling Songs, with a Memoir

Angling Songs, with a Memoir

I can relate to Thomas Stoddart, as he responds to Bell. If my own daughter were ever to write a memoir about me after my death, she might very well include a similar story, to illustrate just how passionate about fly fishing I was. She could not describe me as a poet, however; in that way I am different from Thomas Stoddart.  Thus, due in part to my own lack of talent, I include two of the “songs” written by Thomas and published by Anna in Angling Songs, with a Memoir.



‘Twas a bland summer’s eve, when the forest I trod;

The dew-gems were starring the flowers of the sod,

And “faire mistress moone,” as she rose from the sea,

Shed apart the green leaves of each shadowing tree.


I passed by a brook, where her silvers lay flung,

Among knolls of wild fern it witchingly sung,

While a long fairy angler with glimmering hand

From the odorous banks waved her delicate wand.


In silence I watched, as with eager intent

O’er the moon-silvered water she gracefully bent,

And plied with green rush-rod, new torn from its bed,

Her line of the thorn-spider’s mystical thread.


A pannier of moss-leaves her shoulder’s bedecked,

The nest of some bird, with the night winds had wrecked,

Slung round with a tendril of ivy so gay,

And a belt of stream flowers bound her woodland array.


No snow-flake e’er dropped from its cloud on the brook

So gently impelled as her moth-plumaged hood;

The pearl-sided parlet and minnow obeyed

The magical beck of that wandering maid.


And aye as her rush-rod she waved o’er the rill,

Sweet words floated round her, I treasure them still,

Tho’ like a bright moon-cloud resolved in the air,

Passed from me, regretted, the vision so faire.




Through sun-bright lakes,

Round islets gay,

The river takes

It western way,

And the water-chime

Soft  zephyrs time

Each gladsome summer day.


The starry trout,

Fair to behold,

Roameth about

One fin of gold;

At root of tree

His haunt you may see,

Rude rock or crevice old.


And  hither dart

The salmon grey,

From the deep heart

Of some sea bay;

And herling wild

Is beguiled

To hold autumnal play.


Oh! ’tis a stream

Most fair to see,

As in a dream

Flows pleastantly;

And our hearts are woo’d

To a kind of sweet mood

By its wondrous witchery.

University Course: “Salmon and People”

September 18, 2014

I am sharing the flyer for a course that a colleague in anthropology is teaching. She is an archaeologist, but she is offering a comprehensive look at the place of salmon in Pacific and Inland Northwest cultures, both Native and non-Native. She has worked closely with Nez Perce representatives to incorporate contemporary Native views. All in all, it’s an impressive course.  In fact, it would be nice to see more classes that focus upon such basic, yet essential topics. Academic theories are important devices through which to understand human perception of the world. But discussions should always start with the tangible things in life.Salmon


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