Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Key to "The Name of the Rose"

By Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, 1987.
University of Michigan Press 1999, ISBN 0-472086219; Paperback $14.95.

Review by Allen B. Ruch

Eco enthusiasts have reason to rejoice. Long overdue for a second printing, The Key to "The Name of the Rose" has been given a new life by The University of Michigan Press.
Umberto Eco's monumental 1980 novel The Name of the Rose has an unusual history. The first work of fiction by the Italian professor of semiotics, it was not expected to be anything close to a best-seller. A long and multifaceted novel, it plunges readers directly into a Byzantine world of medieval politics and arcane religious intrigues, uses modern semiotic theory to inform much of the dialogue, and invests its cast of characters with multilayered allusions to historical and literary figures. Eco himself has admitted that the first hundred pages were deliberately opaque, a sort of semi-permeable membrane that allowed passage to only the most dedicated reader. But despite all this -- or, one hopefully thinks, because of this -- the book proved to be an international phenomenon, selling millions of copies and placing Professor Eco firmly in the literary limelight. The book also received additional attention in 1986, when it was made into a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. This, perhaps more than anything else, turned countless new readers onto Rose, many of whom were startled to find the original a good deal more complex than the watered-down version they had seen on the screen. The novel has since taken its place as a contemporary classic, a work that for many readers has become a stepping stone from popular fiction into the world of modern literature.
Given both the difficulty of the work and its unusually broad audience, Rose was a book that cried out for an accessible guide to its many allusions and frequent use of Latin and other "dead" languages. That challenge was met by three scholars and fellow admirers of the novel: Adele Haft and Robert White of the Hunter College Classics department, and Robert's wife Jane White, chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages at the Dwight-Englewood School of New Jersey. Combining their talents in medieval history and Latin with their appreciation of Eco's work in semiotics, the three produced The Key to "The Name of the Rose." Published by Thomas Cahill and Company, the book stood as the only general guide to Rose until it was allowed to fall out of print. Though the guide became increasingly more difficult to acquire in the Nineties, Eco's novel kept selling more copies, and finally the University of Michigan Press decided The Key deserved a new audience.
And what a welcome decision that was. Simply put, this is a marvelous book, a wonderful resource for both the beginner and the Eco scholar alike. The writing style is fresh and very readable, striking the perfect balance between academic rigor and simplicity of use -- it tells you exactly what you need to know, often pointing out small jokes, interesting asides, and occasional inconsistencies.
The book is also attractively and intelligently designed, with each chapter headed by a distinguished title in Caslon Antique, followed by a witty Rose-like commentary on the chapter's contents. The work is divided clearly into four main chapters with a few helpful extras at the beginning and end. After a warm preface and introduction, Chapter One sets up the book with an essay on "Umberto Eco, Semiotics, and Medieval Thought." Knowing that their audience is expecting a guide to a novel and not a scholarly dissertation on Eco and his work, the authors keep this essay to the perfect length and include just the right amount of information. Umberto Eco's career is briefly outlined, which leads into a short but lucid discussion of semiotics, focusing on its relation to both the Middle Ages and the novel itself. The Middle Ages are presented as an "open work," a time between the classical period and the Renaissance where human intellect debated the very nature of meaning and representation. Aspects of the Middle Ages which are relevant to Rose are highlighted, including the influence of Aristotle, the concept of Universals, and the conflicts between logical reasoning and infallible ediction. Modern literary influences on the novel are brought into play as well, with emphasis on both Sherlock Holmes and Jorge Luis Borges. The essay concludes with some thoughts on the oft-pondered title of the novel.
Chapter Two is titled "A Brief Chronology of the Middle Ages," and lists events from 480 AD to 1367 AD that have relevance to the plot. This is followed by Chapter Three, "An Annotated Guide to the Historical and Literary References." Structured like an encyclopedia, these 58 pages comprise nearly a third of The Key, and provide notes on everything from Peter Abelard to the Williamites. Countless scholars, popes, saints and heretics are referenced, long with various sects, books, mythical places and fantastical beasts. The glosses and biographical sketches are concise, appropriate, and often touched with a dry humor; they have also been cross-linked to the rest of the book through boldface typing. Certainly the most amusing and informative part of the book, one doesn't even need to read Rose to enjoy this collection of anecdotes and characterizations.
Chapter Four, "Notes on the Text of The Name of the Rose," is the second most useful section of the book, and was in fact the reason the authors began this project -- to provide a translation the Latin passages. This chapter contains a complete annotation of all the non-English phrases in the novel, whether Latin, medieval German, Arabic, or even the Babel-esque mutterings of the wretched Salvatore. The annotations are easy to follow, with pagination for all three existing versions of Rose, and thoughtfully provide a recap of the original as well as the translation. What's more, some of the annotations come with highly illuminating notes, the best being an illustrated commentary on possible sources for Eco's central labyrinth.
The main text ends with a "Postscript," an essay intended for readers who have completed the novel. Here the authors set aside their glosses and engage in some speculation, discussing the Apocalyptic themes inherent in Rose as well as its enigmatic conclusion. The Key closes with three handy sections: a complete bibliography of Eco's work up to 1998, a bibliography of sources consulted in the writing of the guide, and some notes on the authors themselves.
I highly recommend The Key to "The Name of the Rose" to both new readers and those who are already familiar with Eco's great novel. It really is a small treasure, and while it may not be as indispensable as a guide to Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, the illuminations it provides for Eco's labyrinthine text are as engaging and clever as those drawn by poor Adelmo himself. [source]

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