Realism in “Chansons de Geste” – Magic & Myth in the Legends of “Charlemagne” & “Roland the Valiant”

In my quest to paint a perfect image of medieval times for myself, I, with wide eyes, enter such chansons de geste, or “poems of courage,” as that of The Song of Roland and can’t help myself from identifying a few misconceptions about life in the Middle Ages.

stark realism in french chanson de geste poetic medieval legends.png

1902
England

Though they may be filled with fantastical magic and myths, these chansons de geste, taking place in the 9th century, portray a much more realistic picture of medieval times compared to the majority of today’s medieval fantasy fiction. In the epic poems of Charlemagne, you’ll find small groups of courageous knights valiantly defending breaches in their towers with their shields against hordes of javelin-throwing Saracens. Sieges last for months, and knights are careful to arm themselves rightly in real, historical armor. But despite all this awesome realism, authors love to boon their storytelling with another sort of awesomeness–the fantasy trope. Aye, the trope, a cliché or misconception added for entertainment’s sake, is even highly abundant in the French medieval epic poems of Charlemagne!

Here, after having studied Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France by Rev. A.J. Church, MA (Steeley & Co. 1902), the reference for this discussion, I’ll be examining 2 historical tropes that are misconceptions and 1 fascinating highly realistic thing Charlemagne’s knights did in epic romance that doesn’t appear often in today’s fantasy fiction.

Keep in mind I’ll be drawing my information from an English translation of medieval French poems. The author himself, A.J. Church, at the beginning of his preface, tells us, “I have endeavoured to tell in this volume the story of Charlemagne, the Charlemagne, it must be understood, not of history, but of Romance.”


 

But before we begin…

A bonus misconception to debunk!

Here is the cover of our aforementioned book of reference, Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France, printed in 1902:

charlemagne chanson de geste review and analysis.png

1902
England

Our book of Roland the Valiant boasts, “Many a blow did he deal to the enemy with his mighty spear, and when the spear was shivered in his hand, … he seized his good sword Durendal, and smote man after man to the ground (p. 266).”

Indeed, Charlemagne’s knights are often described as having spear, sword and shield, which makes sense considering those golden knights above, who are wearing 14th century armor, should realistically look similar to this 9th century illustration because, you know, Charlemagne died in the 9th century. Just look at that handsome Frenchman!

medieval armor from the 9th century

801-850
Paris, France

From this point on, the images I’ve used to illustrate my discoveries may lead to the same misconception shown above, so it’s a good thing you’re paying attention. Now let us begin!


 

Medieval Trope Misconception 1:

“SWORDS THAT CAN CUT THROUGH ANYTHING!”

Durendal, the trusty sword of Roland the Valiant, is the slayer of countless men, and let us not forget about Oliver, his companion, who wields the sword Hautclere. Aye, Hautclere must be made of the same Valyrian steel from A Game of Thrones, because, as our book says, “he (Oliver) drew the good sword from its scabbard, and smote a heathen knight, Justin of the Iron Valley. A mighty blow it was, cleaving the man in twain down to his saddle–aye, and the saddle itself with its adorning of gold and jewels, and the very backbone also of the steed whereon he rode, so that horse and man fell dead together on the plains. ‘Well done!’ cried Roland; ‘you are a true brother of mine. ‘Tis such strokes as this that makes the Emperor love us (p. 267).'”

medieval swords from legends and myths founded in reality

1399
Paris, France

Aye, the burnished sword of these courageous French warriors, often gilded, baring jewels and holy relics in their pommels, are not to be underestimated. Even Charlemagne himself bears such a sword, as described when “… he dismounted in great wrath, and ran at the giant, and smote him with Joyous so rudely that he fell to the ground nigh cut in twain (p. 219).” Though in some strange context cutting a giant nigh in twain may be plausible, this next quote, I insist, could never on this dear earth come close to being so: “As for the Admiral he escaped most narrowly; for as he leapt from a window Roland dealt a great blow at him with his sword, and the sword made a hole of a foot deep in the marble stone of the window (p. 184).”

In other occasions arms and armor are described quite realistically, as helmets are damaged and brains are left unharmed. However, for the sake of drama, of exaggerating the great strength of these valiant knights, this trope of inexorable sword blades for the most part still stands strong throughout The Song of Roland and other chansons, as countless helmets are cut in twain. This trope can be directly compared to much 20th century fantasy fiction, where heroes give their swords legendary names and cut through everything with ease.

No armor, even hardened steel breastplates, can possibly stop the hefty strikes of these fantastical swords. In reality, though, a sword could never slice a helmet in twain, could never stab through a breastplate; ’tis exactly why such weapons as the war hammer and mace became popular.

realism in medieval warfare compared to misconceptions in fantasy literature

1375-1400
Paris, France

Another noteworthy trope from the chansons that commonly appears in today’s fantasy fiction is that of the hero slaying scores of men effortlessly: “Thereupon he (Roland) charged at them (Saracens) with such fierceness that the hardiest of them turned to fly; yet they fled not so fast but that Roland killed twenty out of the thirty (p. 195).”


 

Medieval Trope Misconception 2:

“WHEN IN DOUBT, SWOON!”

There are numerous accounts of people swooning throughout the chansons. I’ll say that each swoon occurs for a respectable reason, like finding your son dead, and it’s possible that anyone can swoon unexpectedly at any time for swooning is a natural phenomenon, but with all that said it’s still impossible to ignore how exaggerated the swoons can be in the chansons, as the amount at which they occur would be hard to find in today’s fantasy fiction.

Read this quote from the story of Reynaud and tell me it does not remind you of so many romantic plays in premodern theater: “When the Lady Clare saw him (Reynaud) go she fell again into a swoon, and this so sore that her gentlewomen deemed that she was dead. When she revived she said, ‘O Reynaud, my lord, there was never husband so good as you (p. 105).'”

romance in medieval chansons and epic poems, exaggeration of emotion in literature

1380-1385
Milan, Italy

There could be a whole paper written on trying to prove if medieval people really swooned more frequently than us postmodern-ers, but it’s more likely that we’re dealing with an authentic medieval trope here. Sometimes in medieval stories the theatrical dramatization of emotions becomes so intense, people literally die of broken hearts, like when Queen Branimonde says, “… ‘O Sire, our people are vanquished, and the Emir is dead.’ When King Marsilas heard these words he turned him to the wall, and covered his face and wept. So great was his grief that his heart was broken in his breast, and he died (p. 312).”

theatrical intense dramatic eomtion and swooning in medieval epic peoms, literature and chansons de geste

1244-1254
Paris, France

In other occasions throughout the chansons, characters fall into swooning fits that last for hours, with intervals of brief consciousness, and it’s not uncommon to find a knight swooning on his horse, held in place only by the stirrups around his feet. For instance, our book says of Roland, “And again he swooned where he sat on his horse. But the stirrup held him up that he did not fall to the ground (p. 284).” For a dramatic performance during a certain epic scene of intense emotion, I, while writing my own medieval fantasy, might try to remember this historical trope.


 

Awesome Realism 1:

“THE POWER OF GOD, GLORY, HONOR & KING!”

Concerning the year 1098, during the Christian defense of Antioch in the First Crusade, when the Franks were hard-pressed under the leadership of Bohemond, Zoé Oldenbourg’s The Crusades describes, “When Peter Bartholomew emerged from the hole in the ground clutching the spearhead (Holy Lance) in his arms, all doubts were forgotten and everyone present, beginning with Raymond of Aguilers, … fell upon the poor relic, still caked with earth, and smothered it with tears and kisses (p. 109).”

Having extreme faith in a god, in upholding honor, plays more of role in many medieval wars than gold itself. It’s extremely difficult for postmodern people to understand how the belief in God and saints can effect your actions on a medieval battlefield. Zoé Oldenbourg continues, “The discovery of this dubious relic (Holy Lance) probably aroused more enthusiasm among the rank and file of the Crusaders than the invention of a new nuclear device … would cause in our own day (p. 109).”

god glory and honor in medieval warfare and piety in the middle ages

1400-1425
Paris, France

I’ve been slowly watching History’s new TV series Knightfall and though I laugh at its unrealistic sword-fighting choreography I appreciate its insight into piety among Crusading knights. The love for serving a god has just as much to do with war in medieval times as the making of arms and armor. This stark realism is rarely portrayed in today’s fantasy fiction because it’s hard for us to comprehend. However, the medieval poets of France understood it all too well, which is why in The Song of Roland you can try to understand what a knight fighting for God and the honor of his king might look like.

religious influence on war in medieval times

1400-1425
France

While bleeding to death as the last man alive after a brutal battle in Spain against the heathen, Roland “… made a loud confession of his sins, stretching his hand to the heaven. ‘Forgive me, Lord,’ he cried, ‘my sins, little and great, all that I have committed since the day of my birth to this hour in which I am stricken to death.’ So he prayed; and, as he lay, he thought of many things, of the countries which he had conquered, and of his dear Fatherland France, and of his kinsfolk, and of the good King Charles (p. 296).”

If believing in a god won’t have power over you on the battlefield, than fearing the scrutiny of your overlord certainly will, as vassals and knights go to war merely to uphold their honor by fulfilling an oath of allegiance. This is another concept so hard for today’s writers to understand, the relationship between a vassal and an overlord, as bloody wars suddenly end because one man swore allegiance to another. A realistic example of this is shown in the story of Reynaud.

When Charlemagne wished to end a conflict, he said to his messenger, “Go now to Reynaud and say to him, ‘The King gives you peace on these conditions. You shall go in pilgrim’s garb to the Holy Land, and on foot, begging your bread. You shall leave me your horse Bayard. On the other hand, I will restore your brothers all their lands (p.104).'” The conditions are accepted and Reynaud goes on to fulfill his oath with much honor, for the love of his brothers who will be saved.

oaths pledge of allegience in romantic literature

1300-1325
Saint-Omer, France

For some men, having given a pledge of service to another man means a lifetime of bondage, and they do it right willingly because the greatest shame in all the world would be to lose all honor, because there is glory in honor, glory in serving your lord for the victory of your armies. But this honor dwells in the relationships between nobles, between vassals and overlords, not your typical men, and we must always remember that honor doesn’t dwell in every noble or knight. Sometimes swearing an oath of allegiance is merely a way to save one’s own life only to wreak vengeance on a later date. Clearly, while reading of deception and betrayal throughout the Middle Ages, remembering the honorless use of the longbow, we should never rely on honor alone to keep a man loyal, unless, of course, the man in question is a true man of ideal chivalry like our friend Roland the Valiant, whom so many other knights in later centuries looked up to as a model of perfection.

Mountjoy! Mountjoy!


And there we have it. Please thank Manuscript Miniatures for supplying so many medieval images to the public!

If this subject of realism in literature intrigues you, consider following my newsletter by clicking here:  http://eepurl.com/caJpnH. This year I’ll be beginning the Medieval Studies program at University of Victoria because there’re still so many questions to ask about what life in the Middle Ages was really like.

Until next time, happy daydreaming!

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Who Decides What Becomes Literature? Understanding Literary Fantasy (from an outright amateur’s perspective)

If a masterpiece of artful and amazing prose on the human experience never reaches the public eye, is never praised by academics, never sells a single copy, is it still literature?

Who decides what is literature and what isn’t? Elitist assholes or literary experts? If you wish to skim through this blog post, I’ve bolded the juicy bits for your convenience. If you wish to read normally, please keep in mind that by “literature” I don’t simply mean “literate material,” but Merriam-Webster’s 3rd definition: “writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Continue reading

The “real” Second Renaissance: Revival, Progress and Cooperative Nationalism

Millennials are no longer making the same unethical and environmentally-damaging mistakes made by our predecessors in the Industrial Revolution. Thinkers, noticing this change, like to call our current conditioning “post-modern.” They are right to do so because history is never static. She is contently and constantly on the move. We cannot be modern forever. The word, for me at least, conjures images of World War I and II. But on the other hand, “The Second Renaissance,” when uttered, augurs images of green energy and nations working together.

I have so much hope for the future!

the second renaissance in the 21st century

To make this idea of being passed modern, being in the beginnings of a wide-spread renaissance more understandable for everyone I feel obliged to speak of a phenomenon that since the fall of the Roman Empire has only happened once before: a vast cultural revival due to a vast discovery of precious, old knowledge.

Brief side note: There’s an article on the Huffington Post website about the rise of nationalism in Europe and America. But bear with me here. I’m talking about the revival of national histories. Call it geographical-culturalism if you will. Forget all the secondary and extremist definitions. Nationalism here simply means the conscious awareness that you are part of a nation.

To strengthen the assertion of a “second vast revival” I will, in ambiguous ways, be answering these questions: What changes mark the beginning of the First Renaissance? How do these changes compare to our current situation in the 21st century?

The ending of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance together mark a blurry line, but it’s safe to say these two categories of time merge for roughly one- or two-hundred years. For understanding the differences between these times and ours it’s important to note some things here: People in the Early Middle Ages had no idea they were “being medieval.” Japan, a very educated society, had to learn she was “becoming modern.” And Petrarca, the voice of the Renaissance in 14th century Italy, spoke of a moving forward for the better because being medieval was similar to being barbaric.

Today we are very much moving forward, away from barbarism and modernism. For some people it may not seem like it but really we’re on a planet revolving around in space and we can’t stop ourselves from moving forward. If you are alive and reading this then you are experiencing or are studying the beginnings of the age of the digital coin, the first days of the internet, and together we’re watching a generation of humans be born into a world where their parents are highly distracted by floods of information.

Like Petrarca when he rediscovered and studied ancient writings in the Late Middle Ages, the parents of today are exploring and discovering writings on places like Reddit and universities where people with interests are discussing interesting things.

For the first time ever in human history, people are translating and sharing rediscovered medieval writings, much like Petrarca did for rediscovered ancient writings in the early days of print publishing.

Some minor notes to throw: Just recently, people in Britain were awfully excited to get the Bayeux Tapestry back. And Britain is just one nation. Without the concept of nations, or geographical-cultures, could people in Renaissance France ever hope to get some Frankish artifact back onto mother soil? Speaking of nations, Japan, India, Korea, China, Russia, Mexico, Jamaica, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and many other “modern” nations separate from Europe are likewise becoming more interested in their own pasts because lost information about them is being revealed for the first time in centuries.

Nationalism for many people is a derogatory word because of some lunatic-fringes. This is why I decided to categorize a related phenomenon–“cooperative nationalism.” Nations have been at daggers drawn countless times throughout history, some still are today, but in Canadian universities young people are still being open about their national backgrounds, even Israelis and Palestinians, and, as they’re learning about all the horrible things their nations did to each other in the past, they’re also digging into the fascinating culture each nation has to offer. I call this cooperative nationalism because, not only are students sharing insightful truths around campus and on Reddit, nations themselves are increasingly finding ways to work together and cooperate.

bringing history to life

A vast moving forward. But it’s not all change. A lot of it’s revival. A second renaissance if you will. A resurrection of history

For I see harbors where people are giving tours on ships that were built to replicate real medieval ships. On screens and tablets I see people watching longsword tournaments instead of modern football. In popular culture I see castles and cartoon samurai. Welcome to the Second Renaissance where digital currencies can be discovered in mathematical equations, where answers to ancient questions are being shared in vast quantities and where people are harnessing the wind once more instead of burning coal.

I leave you to enjoy this spectacular time in history.

For you are no longer modern.

Yuk, modern is so drab.

 

 

Fantasy’s Everlasting Quality: A Service You Can’t Get Anywhere Else

Like any artform fantasy is susceptible to change. Think of 60s rock-and-roll and compare it to modern rock, 90s cartoons compared to cartoons today. Just like how music is changing due to technology, fantasy is changing due to a flux of information on the internet. Continue reading

Magical Realism plus Medieval Fantasy equals what? Historical Fiction with Magic or something totally new?

It’s common for people to confuse magical realism with fantasy, but what, I ask, after understanding their differences, would they look like combined? Combined, would it simply be medieval historical fiction with some magic thrown in or would we be dealing with a whole new genre? You may find my conclusion very interesting. Continue reading

Crusading to bring “Truth” to Medieval Fantasy Movies, Books & Games

I chose the title for this paper very carefully. A few months ago I might have said “time to begin the Great Crusade against Misconceptions in the Medieval Fantasy Genre,” but I’ve learned that in order to win this holy war we must not fight against what we hate–lies and misconceptions–but rather save what we love–truth!

the crusade against medieval misconceptions

Like the great Latin barons of the first military Crusade, not the People’s Crusade, I’m not warring for myself or for any material gains; I’m warring because I truly believe it’s wrong to pump misconceptions into young people’s minds so that they then go on to take it all as truth! Like Peter the Hermit, I’m appealing to a subconscious need, one inherent in many of us, that may take several decades to ripen into material life, and as things like HEMA and Lindybeige become more popular my quest will become easier. I see Lindybeige as one of the great Crusader barons bringing truth to the Holy Land, and each and every HEMA practitioner, every Matt Easton fan, as one of the many knights, footmen, auxiliaries and camp-followers who are making this Crusade possible. Go ahead and laugh because I did too after reading this again!

How many people do you know believe that knights in plate armor were walking tin cans that could barely run and jump? How many people do you know believe that you can hold back the drawstring of a war bow at full draw for as long as you want in order to threaten someone with dialogue? How many people do you know believe that cannons weren’t around in the Middle Ages? These people have been lied to, arguably unintentionally, and they don’t even know it yet. It’s our duty to “wake them up” so to speak. I’m exaggerating this to make it sound somewhat like a pompous speech one would here from a priest as he’s riling some archers to fight for their god during a siege, though I’m sure it still gets the point across, or at least I hope it does. I must be that man who can be laughed at as he follows his dream through the purple haze, toward epic reenactment of medieval culture.

Because out there in the market I like options and one option should be a genre of fantasy that gives you an understanding of what life in the Middle Ages was really like. If I don’t do something about it in the next few decades, someone else will.

If you live in Victoria BC, Canada and are interested in custom leather book binding or collecting rare vintage books I highly recommend Period Fine Bindings in Oak Bay. There I recently got my hands on a A New Dictionary of Heraldry printed in 1739 and will soon be using it to design the coats of arms for many characters in the Medieverse.

 

How To Triple Your Vocab In A Year!

I could just say ‘keep a dictionary by the toilet’ and end this article there but I actually found a very efficient way for everyone to grow their vocabularies at alarming rates. Get ready to impress your friends!

Most people unintentionally grow their vocabulary over many years, kind of like how laborers and lumberjacks unintentionally grow muscle mass. So to intentionally grow your vocabulary is very similar to purposely growing a six pack or losing 300 pounds; it takes hard work and dedication. But with the tips and advice you’ll find below, the journey to tripling or doubling your vocabulary in the next year will not only be easier but more fun as well.

Before I spiel my secret, however, I want to share some additional knowledge that may save you gobs of time and hardship. If you wish to skip this additional knowledge, just scroll down to the picture of me holding an old leather booklet and read on from there.

building your vocabulary has never been so easy

I was going to write this article months ago, but I’m glad I decided to wait because, at the same time as learning so many new words with my special technique, I’ve also learned that it’s very important to know when to use the words you’ve learned. Growing a vocabulary is necessary for every writer or speaker but learning discipline is key. What do I mean by ‘discipline’ in this context? I mean don’t purposely structure or restructure your sentences JUST so that you can implement an exciting new word. To create a smooth read you must force yourself to only use the words that come naturally to you during the writing process. Let me explain this a bit more before we get to the good stuff.

When I first started intentionally building my vocabulary, my writing suddenly became unnatural and overly complicated because, rather than getting in the zone and letting my subconscious mind select the right words, I was strenuously trying to use as many big and new words as I possibly could. Even though this created some interesting and artistic paragraphs, I nevertheless created many headaches for my readers.

Reading, for many people, is a relaxing hobby–something they can do to enjoy their time. Therefore you take much of the fun away when you have them scrounging in a dictionary every three sentences. For my writing this problem of using too many new words was tenfold because I specialize in medieval fantasy and love archaic/medieval words. I flooded my writing with countless terms that most people will never hear or read in their lives. As much as I want to use a sexy medieval word sometimes, I know the better decision is to use the first word that comes to mind during the writing process (unless, of course, you have the habit of using a particular word too much).

author explains

So what’s the point of learning new words if you shouldn’t use them when you want? After you truly learn a word, have used it at least three times with a bit of strained effort, it will naturally start to find itself in your writing and speaking. About 80% of the words I’ve learned over the past year haven’t been shown in my writing yet, and now, unlike before, I know that’s a very good thing. In the future, after years of writing and honing my craft, those exciting words which I haven’t used yet, so long as I keep them in my vocabulary/memory, will one day find a natural place in my writing.

Now I’m about to contradict myself because there will be instances when a word you’ve recently learned should replace an old word in your completed writing. A perfect example of this is when I learned the word ‘linstock’. A linstock is a tool used to fire a cannon. Before I knew this, the characters in my writing were using torches to fire their cannons and so of course I had to go back and replace all those torches with linstocks. Situations like this are the rare exceptions.

On the other hand, reading for many others is an opportunity to learn; they love having to lookup a word in the dictionary. Like me when I read historical fiction from the early 20th century, I spend nearly just as much time in the dictionary as I do reading because I never let a word I don’t know slip by. But even readers like me, the ones who treat dictionaries like bibles, will admit that, when they’re reading a particularly suspenseful scene, it’s much better to have a smooth read so that the story flows unhindered. In some very rare cases I’ll let a word I don’t know slip by ONLY because I’m too eager to know what will happen next in the story.

With all that said, it’s finally time for you to learn my secret. How did I triple my vocabulary in a year? It’s quite simple.

Book of Words

Allow me to introduce you to my Book of Words, my very own handwritten dictionary/notepad/journal that I bring with me wherever I go.

Remember when I said ‘keep a dictionary by the toilet’? Well, my secret is somewhat similar except instead of a dictionary you’ll need a blank booklet and instead of a toilet you’ll need, literally, EVERYWHERE YOU GO!

After following the tips listed below, the blank pages of your newly acquired booklet will start to look like this:

details matter

Like a daily diary, you’ll start off by writing the date. Underneath the date you’ll scrawl down every unfamiliar word you come across throughout the day. I write down the words in capital letters just to make the page seem less jumbled. Beside the listed words, like I’ve done above, you should have space to write down the words’ definitions. It’s also useful to use symbols to identify if the word is a noun, verb, etc. On average I learn about 5 new words per day. Some days it’s only 1 or 2, and on others it’s 10 or 20!

So how do I come across these new words? By listening and reading! When I watch a Ted Talk there’s a good chance the speaker will use a word I don’t know and, knowing me, I’ll have to Google it. I never let a word I don’t know slip by. I do the same thing when I’m reading. And by reading everyday, you’ll watch your Book of Words grow and grow and grow. By writing your new words down, you’ll not only remember them more easily but you’ll also be able to go back and find them when you’re struggling to remember them.

Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll remember there’s a word for some certain thing I’m trying to describe but I won’t be able to recall it right off the bat. No worries! All I have to do, because I’ve dated my words, is remember roughly when I learned the word and then leaf through my Book until I find it again. Then–bam!–the word slides right into its slot. You’ll never forget a word again so long as you bring your Book of Words with you wherever you go.

never stop learning

But what if you’re one of those readers who hates stopping to look in a dictionary? Simple! If you’re willing to, you can scrawl down the word as fast as you can, highlight it, do whatever you have to do to remember it, and then once your reading session is over you can go back and Google the words you’ve listed to find their definitions. That, in fact, is exactly what I did during my reading session yesterday. I chose to do an hour of reading in the park and, since I didn’t have internet or a dictionary at the bench with me to define the unfamiliar words I found, I just wrote them down and later when I got home I sat at my desk and did some quick and easy Google searches. Here is a picture to show what that looks like:

collecting words on the go

For Tuesday, June 6th, as you can see, I discovered 7 words that I otherwise may’ve overlooked if I wasn’t intentionally trying to build my vocabulary. And by discovering words in a natural setting, as opposed to just poring idly through a dictionary, I typically remember when and where I learned these words and so they have a lot more meaning to me. For example, I’ll never forget the time I learned the word ‘machicolation’ because, rather than just finding it by skimming through the dictionary, I came across it via a speaker in a YouTube video and so whenever I hear or use the word ‘machicolation’, a string of memory comes attached to it.

Sometimes when I’m walking down the road or riding on the bus I’ll flip to a random page in my Book of Words and point at a word I haven’t used yet. I’ll turn the word around in my head, look at it from different angles, place it in different settings, all the while having the sole intention of using it in a natural setting one day.

Thanks for reading and I hope this helps!

P.S. Join my mailing list by clicking HERE and get the short story “A Quarrel for a Quarrel” in PDF format for free!