I was not born great. I first oped my eyes in the old Earl’s stable. A place of scents and sounds most dear to me.
But my lord’s stable was not so peaceful after my little niece lodged there. She oft told me that she longed to be akwaynted with a book. I believe it was our play that put this maggot in her head.
One day when my house was quiet (most being gone to a fair or somesuch) I offered to show her the book chamber.
My niece – unaccustomed to so great a house – was doubtful. She crept in low-bellied, her eyes wide and dark. I told her we would hear if any came. She could hide herself while I feigned mouse-watch.
She whispered that she feared the books who sat so still. “They mean to spring on us,” she sayt.
“They lack the power of motion,” sayt I, and plucked one from the shelf.
She sprang away, but then sat swivel-eared. “It tells of nowt. I cannot hear it, nor take its thoughts.”
When she grew bold enough to nose it, she sayt, “It tells of you, and of a man. He had his hand on a dog not long since.”
I sayt, “Your nose tells who last pawed it. If you could read, your eyes would show you hawks. This book is of falconry.”
Her innocent questions made me merry. But I was mazed, too.
I entered my lord’s service before I was weaned. I sat with him and his lady sister in the schoolroom and took my learning there. I had forgot how strange all must seem to one reared in a barn.
I offered to show her another part of the house. I arrkst if she would like to swing from a curtain, or see her self in a mirror.
She refused. “I wish to know what reading is,” she sayt.
So I leapt onto a table where a soiled, sour thing lay. Some knave had thumbed it in an alehouse before he left it here. But it would serve.
“Now see,” sayt I, “these black marks? Like to a host of little worms? They are sounds imprinted.”
She joined me, and sayt she could see nowt.
“You’re too near,” sayt I. “You must sit a way off.”
She drew back, then poked the page. “They will not move,” she sayt.
“They’re not true worms,” sayt I. “But they can creep from your eyes to your brain and grow wings there. Look! Here it says: tread on a worm and it will turn. I believe that means a snake will bite you.”
I read a little more, and sayt, “Here it tells of a tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide. I have a tiger’s heart, as do you, for all are cats. But how came a mere player to have the heart of a cat? Perchance he thieved it. We must read more to know. ”
“Worms! Flies! Tigers! Eyes!” She struck the page four times.
“Have a care,” I warned her. “If any page be clawed or torn, this chamber might be closed to me.”
Another lesson I learnt young. But how learnt I to read?
Then it come to me. First I learnt to write. I listened to the sounds my lord made, and watched him make marks with his pen.
And after I could write these marks, I looked for them in books.
The marks in books were many, and oft unknown to me. Some books are imprinted fair; others are foul and hard to read, but I found a book of little tales I liked.
Next I came upon the Bevis book. From that I made my first tale.
I believe there are some in this world who can read what’s imprinted, but know not how to write. There are others who can hold a pen and make their names or another pretty mark, but cannot read.
I can do both. “And that,” as I told my niece, “is why I achieved greatness as a poet.”
“And why my mother told me you never caught owt in your life save a jewel hung from our Earl’s ear,” she sayt. “But now I know you watch for worm-words, not mice.”
I sayt, “If you are as witty [clever] as your mother was, I can teach you to write. You need not trouble yourself with reading.”
“Good,” sayt she. “Your books are false. I believe what my nose, mine eyes, mine ears, and my whiskers tell me. And what my mother sayt. Nowt else.”
As I led her from the house I sayt, “I’ll fetch you when next I find all that’s needful for writing left readie.”
She did not ask what was needful. For which I offer thanks: I had not the strength to explain the use of quills, ink, and paper.
Instead she sayt, “Then I’ll have greatness thrust upon me.”
Saucie. Like unto her mother.
The first book Gib read “of little tales” was probably a collection of Aesop’s fables. We know he read some of these, because his tale of The Fox and the Cat is derived from Aesop.
The “sour thing” – he means its smell – that he shows his niece is Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, published in 1592 and attributed to the playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592). It’s famous nowadays for its attack on an actor referred to as an “upstart crow” who, owing his success to the work of writers such as Greene, thinks he can “bombast out a blank verse” and is “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” This is almost universally accepted as an attack on William Shakespeare, though a case has been made for the actor Edward Alleyn.
However, astute readers of this blog have spotted that Shakespeare appears to have pilfered some of Gib’s work. Oh dear. Who wrote what, and about whom, is just so complicated.