Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The Time Travel Diaries, by Caroline Lawrence

I recently wrote an article on Caroline Lawrence's children's historical detective series The Roman Mysteries, which will be published soon at the online The Journal of Historical Fictions, and Caroline is coming to give a talk at Newman University, where I work, on 20 March 2019. She was kind enough to send me an Advanced Reading Copy of her forthcoming children's book, her first venture fully into the world of science fiction and fantasy (though she's paddled around the edges of SFF before - which is what my article is about!).

The Time Travel Diaries tells the story of Alex, a London teenager of Greek descent who travels back in time to Roman London. I've always enjoyed timeslip and time travel stories - as a child, Tom's Midnight Garden was one of my favourite books, and as an adult, I've really been enjoying the Outlander TV series (I haven't read the books yet, but I plan to!). (I also loved reading Time Travelling With a Hamster a couple of years ago, but that was a bit different, as it involved travelling much less far back in time!).

One of the biggest benefits of timeslip stories, especially in children's literature, is that it's a lot easier for the author to describe the past clearly when they can use a common frame of reference with the reader. Lawrence uses lots of references to movies and to modern life to explain what's going on to readers as we see everything through pop culture junkie Alex's eyes. It's more than just a few modern references, though. Characters who come from the past don't take note of every aspect of their surroundings every time they walk out of the door any more than we would. In taking us to Roman London with a modern time traveller, Lawrence provides vivid descriptions of the sights and smells of the past world, drawing out all the sorts of things that would seem completely normal to a Roman but completely strange to us. I especially loved her descriptions of the smells of the ancient world, which can be the hardest part to imagine, but is often the most evocative.

Another of my favourite things in novels is a strong sense of place, and if it includes descriptions of real places, so much the better, so I really enjoyed the use of the London Mithraeum as the location for the time portal in this story. Lawrence's rules for time travel are quite strict (far more so than most timeslip stories) and I appreciated the emphasis on the physical location of Roman London (underneath the modern city). The scenes set there will also hopefully encourage children and their families to visit the site, which is free and very much worth experiencing, as the 'immersive experience' (plunging visitors into darkness and using light and sound to evoke an ancient ceremony) is very effective.

Of course, the other advantage to setting anything in a Mithraeum is that we don't know much about the secretive cult of Mithras, which gives authors lots of room to invent detail. The scenes that take place in the Mithraeum are thoroughly researched and follow current thinking about what went on in the cult, but ultimately we don't really know, so stories can take us to places history can't and fill in the gaps however they want to. I won't spoil Lawrence's visualisation of a Mithraic ceremony here, but it fits the known evidence and sounds just about the right level of strange but not too strange to me! (Particularly the symbolic - but not real - actions taken as part of the initiation ceremony).

Of course, my absolute favourite thing about Lawrence's strict time travel rules was that she doesn't hold back on the language issue. Alex is chosen to travel back in time to the Roman world because he's been going to Latin club, and he's able to communicate fluently when he gets there because he's fluent in modern Greek (modern Greek is quite closely related to ancient Greek, far more closely than modern English is to Old English). The other time traveller in the story is Romanian and is able to understand a little because modern Romanian is quite close to Latin. The book is full of snippets of Latin dialogue, so it will be a brilliant read for anyone with a little bit of Latin (or who needs to revise Latin for an exam!) - but all the Latin is clearly translated, so it's not a requirement to read the book! I love languages so I really enjoyed that aspect of the story.

The three main rules for time travel given to Alex are that he must travel naked, he must not eat anything, and he must interact as little as possible. The naked rule was quite funny and resulted in some amusing scenes as the boys try to find clothing. Interacting as little as possible is a good goal to have but, of course, will always turn out to be impossible or there wouldn't be much of a story! I have to confess I was a bit less keen on the rule about not eating or drinking. I would have enjoyed descriptions of taste as well as smell (the time travellers can drink, but tend to stick to water), and while I understand that fasting is something practiced all over the world for many reasons, for personal reasons I don't really enjoy reading descriptions of teenagers deliberately avoiding eating food.

The novel forms a neat and self-contained story. Only pre-pubescents can time travel according to Lawrence's rules, and the story centres around a girl who died shortly after the events it depicts. This is another link with the real world, as she is based on a real girl whose body was excavated from Roman London, and I love that readers can actually go and see her in reality. It does mean that there isn't anywhere else for the story to go, though! However, nothing is impossible in the world of fiction, whether we join Alex and his friends again, or follow new adolescents back in time (though it's hard to imagine a better qualified pair to time travel to the Roman world than a Greek and a Romanian! An Italian teenager maybe?). Plus of course, a time machine can go to all sorts of places, and isn't restricted to the Roman world - though since Lawrence is a Classicist I suspect if we see more of Alex or the time machine, we'll return to ancient Rome!

I really enjoyed this book, especially the really evocative descriptions of Roman London. I'm good with words but I have terrible trouble visualising things, and Lawrence's descriptions, combined with setting memorable scenes around mud flats and bridges (rather than just stating that they're there) and a clear map really helped me to picture Roman London in a way that I haven't before. It's also nice to be able to visit sites like the Mithraeum or read about the real girl with the ivory knife who inspired the story. I hope the scientists in Lawrence's fictional world find a way for older teens to time travel so that we can go back in time with Alex once again!

The Time Travel Diaries will be released on 4th April 2019 in the UK.

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Monday, 20 August 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)

Contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible - Fallout and probably all the previous Mission: Impossible films as well - I don't know, I've only seen Rogue Nation and Fallout!

I've been listening to the Empire Podcast's extraordinary 3-part Spoiler Special on Mission: Impossible - Fallout, which features over 5 hours of in-depth interviews with writer and director Christopher McQuarrie on the making of the movie, plus a discussion of the film with Empire magazine's staff. It's a fascinating insight into the movie-making process and a must-listen for anyone with any interest at all in the art and the practicalities of film-making, so (as long as you've seen the film, or don't care about spoilers) I'd highly recommend heading over to listen to it. Part 1 is here. If I ever meet Chris McQuarrie, I'll have to thank him for taking so much time to explain how this process has worked for him and for being so enthusiastic about doing it!

During Part 2, Chris Hewitt, Helen O'Hara, Nick de Semlyen and James Dyer talk about the film's early scene set supposedly in Belfast (though, as Hewitt and O'Hara point out, it is clearly not Belfast as there is not a Tayto in sight), in which Tom Cruise's lead character Ethan Hunt is reading Homer's Odyssey. They talk briefly about how the Odyssey links to some of the themes of the film, but point out that the film's plot doesn't really resemble that of the Odyssey in any substantial way. I thought the choice of book was really interesting - and there's a lingering shot of it, so it's clearly meant to mean something - so here's my take on it.

There are a few over-riding themes in the Odyssey:
 - A difficult journey, specifically by sea.
 - Numerous adventures. However, please note that this bit occupies only three 'Books' (i.e. chapters) of a 24-Book poem, and there's a good chance Odysseus is making it all up to impress King Alcinous and his pretty daughter Nausicaa anyway.
 - The homecomings of veterans returning from a long war (not limited to Odysseus himself).
 - Marriage and the joy of coming home to a faithful wife (as opposed to an unfaithful wife whose lover murders you, like Agamemnon).
 - Kingship and the importance of not letting the plebs take over your kingdom while you've been away for 20 years fighting someone else's war and then shagging a sea goddess. This part tends to get brushed aside by modern versions!

Safe to say, it's probably 'long and difficult journey' and 'homecoming of veterans' that McQuarrie and the film-makers are going for here!

As Team Empire point out, the plot of Fallout ends up going in rather the opposite direction to the Odyssey. Ethan is reunited with his wife, but she has left him and married someone else, and the film clearly implies that this is a good thing, that she is happy, and that Ethan should (as he has done) let her go. So why the Odyssey flag at the beginning of the film, if this Penelope has gone off and married one of the suitors?

I'd suggest that the Odyssey reference is implying the search for a home, including a partner of the desired gender (in this case a woman). OK, Ethan's Penelope has left, but there is another woman with him at the end of the film. Indeed, the reminder at the beginning of the film of Odysseus' desire to return to his wife plays into the scene near the end when Ilsa sees Ethan talking to Julia. She is concerned that, like Odysseus, Ethan will want to return to his lost love - but unlike Odysseus, Ethan is able to move on.

Both Rogue Nation and Fallout play with the idea that Ethan could, if he chose to, retire from his lifestyle full of dangerous adventures and create a more stable home with Ilsa, who is a veteran just like him, who shares his experiences and understands them in a way Julia never could, but who doesn't actually want to live that way. There is just a hint of a suggestion that perhaps, eventually, Ethan could finally come 'home', in the sense that he could create a home, instead of sleeping alone in a dark room with a sad lack of cheese and onion Taytos (the best flavour).

Northern Ireland take their devotion to Taytos crisps very seriously - this is the actual taxi rank shelter at Belfast City Airport, reminding everyone to buy Taytos immediately

There is another inversion of the plot of the Odyssey in this film as well. Odysseus famously manages to lose his entire crew over the course of his voyage, largely due to their own stupidity and inability to follow simple instructions. Ethan Hunt, on the other hand, is motivated throughout the film by his desire not to lose any of his crew, and is criticised for caring too much about their lives instead of his mission. In this way, his reading of the Odyssey at the beginning of the film acts as a warning, and a reminder of how important it is to him to avoid Odysseus' fate in that respect. Both inversions are reminders of what could have been - a happy ending denied (possibly prompting him to look for a new one), and a tragedy avoided.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Xena Warrior Princess: The Deliverer

This post contains spoilers for Xena: Warrior Princess season three as a whole, not just this episode - if you're watching Xena for the first time and haven't finished season three yet, stop reading now!

I'm watching my way through all of Xena at the moment - I'll catch up on blogging it all eventually! For today, continuing the Roman Britain theme, I'm going to concentrate on the first episode set in Roman Britain (otherwise known as Britannia, or 'the island north of Gaul'), season three's 'The Deliverer'.

One of the core arguments of the monograph I'm working on about screen depictions of Roman Britain with Antony Keen is that there are a few core plots that come up time and again - the invasion of Julius Caesar, the rebellion of Boudicca, the 'disappearance' of the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian's Wall, Arthurian legend. Xena's going to get to Arthurian legend in the next episode - for this one, the writers decide to go two for one and throw Boudicca's rebellion and Julius Caesar's invasion together, regardless of the teensy issue of the 110-year time gap between the two (but then, Xena's lifetime has already encompassed the Trojan War, the reign of King David and Julius Caesar's early years, so by Xena's standards this is closer than usual!).

Xena has always been deliberately ahistorical, of course. One of the joys of the show is the way it throws together whatever stories take the writers' interest in whatever way they want, using history as inspiration for a fantasy world. It's not dissimilar to Game of Thrones, really, except that Xena doesn't bother changing anyone's name, and in fact relies on a certain amount of recognition for its twists on some stories to work. (Julius Caesar's introductory episode, intriguingly, is based in a lot of real history, but I'll get to that when I get to blogging it!).

I wonder if this deliberate playing with history is why Boudicca here goes by the name 'Boadicea'. By the 1990s, most people had settled fairly firmly on 'Boudicca' as the version of her name closer to ancient British (these days, 'Boudica' tends to be preferred, and there's some debate over whether it's a name or a title). 'Boadicea' was popularised by the Victorians, but by the 1990s was broadly considered to be 'wrong'. And yet that's the name Xena goes for - in what I think is a deliberate nod to the re-writing of history in the episode. This is a fictional character who embodies tropes associated with 'Boadicea', not a real British woman.

The episode doesn't really do much with Caesar or Boadicea in the end, though, because it's interested in the development of an entirely different story - Caesar and Boadicea are just the way we get there. This story is heading in a very different direction, which will determine the course of the rest of season three.

The episode sets up a major mis-direct leading up to a huge twist well into the episode. From the moment we meet Martin Csokas' Khrafstar, we're encouraged to think that his cult of the one god is our introduction to Christianity in Xena's world. We've already met the Israelites in 'The Giant Killer', and Hercules has taken part in the Christian Nativity story in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' 'A Star to Guide Them'. There's clear precedent for including Christianity in a series set in any version of the ancient Roman world, where Christianity originated, even an ahistorical one. A cult of the Son that was a clear reference to Christianity appeared, for example, in Star Trek's Planet of the Romans episode, 'Bread and Circuses'.

Everything seems to be leading up to a positive depiction of Christianity, which is what might be expected (especially in those pre-Supernatural, pre-Luther days). Ares and Discord are worried about the cult, fearing it means the end of their worship (as Christianity eventually would). The god has a name but they aren't allowed to speak it. Direct confrontation is discouraged. We meet the cultists carrying cross-bars for crosses over their shoulders (in a random moment of historical accuracy) and Khrafstar and Gabrielle are crucified at one point, Xena rescuing them just before their legs are broken (which speeds up the suffocation that is the cause of death in crucifixion). Ares is obsessed with destroying the one god's temple (as the Romans would destroy the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, dedicated to the same God, in AD 70).

We realise something different is going on when the cult tricks Gabrielle into killing for the first time, so they embrace both human sacrifice (the priestess basically goes into this as a suicide mission as it's all clearly planned) and deliberately forcing Gabrielle into something that will traumatise her. Ares was right when he told Xena to trust him after all, which is an interesting twist in itself. At this point, the show makes it very, very clear that this is not, in fact, the Christian God. We discover the god is called Dahak (guess they could say his name after all). He is 'the dark one', the dark force who will sweep the world with war. Xena specifically says 'this is not the One God of the Israelites' and Khrafster says no, their dark god will 'take care of' the Israelite God later. Dahak 'appreciates rage'.

And then we see him, claiming to be the Deliverer, and of course, he's the Devil, horns and fire and all. This development gives the world of Xena a truly evil antagonist (as opposed to the love to hate him, conflicted relationship she has with Ares or the coldly human villainy of Caesar). Probably more significantly, this will lead to a Rosemary's Baby style plot development that will have all sorts of dramatic repercussions over the whole course of this season of the show.
This is not going to end well

Aside from being an effective plot twist, this is a really interesting take on the material. The cult sounds so much like Christianity and like something good when Khrafstar first explains it to Gabrielle, which is why she trusts him and ends up playing into his hands. In some ways, this plays into ideas about devil worship that were current in the 1990s and can also be seen in X-Files episodes like 'Die Hand Die Verlezt'. But it's also a reminder that sometimes, something can look and sound like Christianity, but at its heart, can be something very different indeed, and much less loving.

This episode is much more about setting up the rather grim arc plot of the third season than it is about Caesar, Boadicea or Britain. However, it's worth noting that Xena rescues the cultists and goes to Britannia in the first place out of sheer personal hatred for Caesar. The dark turn Xena and Gabrielle's lives are about to take, and Gabrielle's loss of innocence (established firmly as essential to her character) is all, ultimately, brought about by Xena's desire for revenge on Caesar - that desire for vengeance becomes the start of all sorts of darkness and suffering.

The episode stops being about anything resembling Roman Britain pretty quickly as it gets caught up in these bigger issues. The view of Britain it offers is unusual, though. Screen depictions of Roman Britain are usually produced by British people, in British television shows and films. Every now and again, Hollywood creates a character from Roman Britain to accommodate a British actor (as in Spartacus and Pompeii, though this is really unnecessary, considering how many British accents are all over Rome most of the time!), but most have their roots in modern Britain.

Because Roman Britain usually appears in British productions, it is usually depicted in a positive way. Granted, the weather is always awful, but the people are usually hardy, resilient, plucky fighters, while the occupying Romans are often beleaguered, suffering from colds, trying to do their best in a difficult posting. Both sides are usually presented broadly sympathetically, because modern British people tend to see themselves in both the native Britons and the occupying Romans.

This production, almost entirely lacking in British input, is very different. Our national heroine is suddenly French! (Xena knew her in Gaul and she escaped to Britain). British productions depict Boudicca as the ultimate British freedom fighter, especially following World War Two - she embodies the idea of plucky little Britain (enormous British empire notwithstanding - that gets left out of the British narrative) standing up against the Nazi invasion. Here, however, she just turns up after being in Gaul, fights a bit, and disappears.

In this episode, Britain is the home of literal devil worship, and one of British prehistoric ancestors' greatest achievements, a World Heritage Site, is a temple to the Devil himself that must be destroyed - Dahak's temple, once the main building is burned down, looks an awful lot like Stonehenge (which is in reality, of course, a deliberately open-air structure that's thousands of years older than the Roman Empire).

This sort of reflects Roman attitudes towards Britain in a way. The Devil is a medieval Christian concept, but Pliny the Elder, while claiming that everyone agrees magic comes form Persia, said Britannia was so full of magic it might even have been the Britons that first brought it over to Persia (how they bypassed Rome and the rest of Europe on the way, he doesn't say!). Even the Romans didn't think Britannia was literally the home of evil, but they weren't all that keen and were pretty suspicious of it, and of the Druid culture Britain shared with many other parts of Europe, beyond complaining about the weather.

Overall, a really unusual take on Roman Britain - and not just for the mashing up of history! This is a good episode, though, with a genuinely unexpected twist, and a grim plot that sets up more than a year's worth of story-telling across both Xena and Hercules.

Some other random thoughts:

 - This part of New Zealand, as is well known from The Lord of the Rings, looks a lot more like Britain than it does like Greece or Italy!

 - Of course, in the world of Xena, Julius Caesar looks a lot like Cupid, but that kinda works in its own weird way! He was a man fond of a lively sex life. And we get to see two very different sides of Karl Urban.

 - The boobs on Boadicea's breastplate are really distracting, they look like saucepans.


Xena: You half-witted toady to a third rate god, come and get me!

Gabrielle: Everything's changed. Everything.

Disclaimer: Gabrielle was slightly well done during the filming of this motion picture. However, the producers would like to recommend a zesty barbeque sauce to bring out the full flavour of this episode.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Eagle of the Ninth: Esca

Having covered Marcus Aquila's arrival in Britain in the first episode, it is this second episode that really sets up the characters we'll be following through the rest of the story as our hero meets and buys a British slave called Esca.

Both the book and the TV series cover Marcus' relationship with another Briton, before Esca, in detail. He first meets and befriends Caradoc, and goes hunting with him. However, Caradoc conspires with other British to attack the fort and the ensuing battle, in which Caradoc is killed, is when Marcus received his career-ending injury. The film touched on this, but the television series is able to devote the whole of the first half-hour episode to it, making it a separate point in itself. When Marcus meets Esca, therefore, he has much more reason to be wary of making friends with any Briton, and to worry about how their loyalty to other Britons may conflict with friendship with him. The series also drives the point home with flashbacks of Caradoc, just to make sure no one has missed the point, so there is much more tension between Marcus and Esca on both sides here.

Esca has a Northern English regional accent. The lack of RP, in the 1970s, presents him as lower class (at that time, newsreaders and other television personalities all used RP). His geographical origins are, of course, important to the story.

The series also includes Marcus' love interest, who was left out of the film to focus on the relationship between Marcus and Esca. Unsurprisingly, she looks a lot older than 13, as she is in the book! That would be creepy. Camilla/Cottia is from the Iceni tribe and has reddish hair, because heaven forbid we should get through a story set in Roman Britain without a reference to Boudicca! Unlike the other British characters, Cottia has an RP accent though, presumably to emphasise the Roman upbringing she is getting from her Roman aunt and uncle.

We get to see some gladiatorial combat in this episode, and the set for the small provincial amphitheatre is fairly impressive. All of our heroes, while not necessarily against blood sport in humans, are against animal cruelty, as modern literary Romans nearly always are. Audiences can accept that these people of a different time are okay with humans fighting and killing each other, but not that they are okay with animal cruelty. This is why the dog never dies in action movies.

This is where we meet Esca and in another unsurprising move, he's fighting a retiarius. There's something about the retiarius (the fighter who uses a net and trident) that really appeals to film-makers, presumably because it looks so different to more familiar forms of single combat from other eras, like sword fighting. A retiarius is clearly, absolutley Roman. I really like the way the Roman and Esca the Briton take completely different fighting stances here, not just due to their different weapons, but as a visual reminder that they have been raised in completely different ways, with completely different fighting styles.

The series continues to make good use of its budget in several ways. I'm impressed with the full on pool in the bathhouse (with everyone wearing shorts because child audience!). The apparently mechanical wolf in one scene is a bit distracting though.

This is still essentially set-up, as the episode is entirely devoted to introducing the audience to Esca and Camilla/Cottia. To a generation raised on Classic Doctor Who, this would have been entirely normal. Six-part Classic Doctor Who stories often spent two episodes introducing new places and characters and wandering around a bit, and even the four-part stories are sometimes half set-up, half pay-off. How well this would go down with a generation raised on 45-minute stories is hard to say! On the plus side, it gives the setting and characters room to breathe, and we have time to get to know them - and it replicates the structure of the book, which also spends a long time establishing the relationships between Marcus, Esca and Cottia before the journey that forms the bulk of the plot. On the down side, we're an hour in and the story hasn't actually started yet...

Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Eagle of the Ninth: Frontier Fort

The Eagle of the Ninth is a six-part television adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's novel, better known to modern audiences from the 2011 film adaptation The Eagle.

The adaptation was made for transmission on Sunday evenings in six half hour episodes. For years, the BBC used to show adaptations of classic children's novels on Sunday evenings during the autumn or in the lead up to Christmas, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers and Merlin of the Crystal Cave. I used to love them, and looked forward to them as a child. The previous year, in autumn 1976, the BBC has transmitted its phenomenally successful adaptation of Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius for adults (definitely for adults) so it is not surprising that their choice of children's novel for 1977 was a Roman-set one.

The use of accents, as in any show about Roman Britain, is interesting. The Romans here have proper plummy BBC accents. They all speak Received Pronunciation, which implies they are educated and associates them with the ruling classes. This goes for all the Roman troops, not just the commanders, which is unusual - even I, Claudius the year before used regional accents for lower ranking soldiers. The British, meanwhile, speak with a vaguely West Country accent (which is clearly being put on, badly, by the actors) in order to associate them with farming, with the land and with lower social classes (think Sam Gamgee's accent from The Lord of the Rings).

This series follows the book much more closely than the 2011 film (unsurprisingly), so this whole first episode is basically set-up for the main part of the story. In this particular case, that works rather well for the story, as it allows Marcus' initial experience of Britain to stand as a story on its own, before following him out of the army in the rest of the series.

I like the opening of the show, with a bit of black and white filming and a marching song that, while written to have vaguely Roman-appropriate lyrics, is clearly an old British-style marching song, all about leaving a girl behind and so on (see this rather wonderful Tumblr thread about different types of folk songs!). The Roman soldiers are therefore clearly presented to the audience as figures to identify with, singing the sort of marching songs British soldiers might have sung during the wars that were still very much in living memory (the children watching this in the 1970s may have had parents who fought in World War Two). The British, so far, are rather wilder.

Despite being aimed at children and families, this show actually has a lot more action than I, Claudius. It obviously had a much bigger budget, as it includes actual outdoor filming. The battle scene is brief, shot in close-up and bloodless (the result of both budget and being aimed at a child audience), but we do get to see the testudo in action and it allows the series to do a bit more showing and a bit less telling. On the whole, though, like I, Claudius, the series relies heavily on small, indoor sets featuring a couple of theatrically trained actors crossly providing exposition to each other.

I happen to be watching it now on an old, scratched, slightly fuzzy TV/DVD player that was a kind donation from my partner's cousins, that makes a weird clicking sound as the DVD plays. This is probably the closest modern way to replicate the experience of watching it in the 1970s! It's certainly far closer to our family TV from the 1980s than the elaborate projector screen system my partner has set up downstairs. Still, if modern eyes can get past the old-fashioned filming style and sometimes stilted delivery, the series is well worth a look.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Britannia: Episode 1

It starts with rain - of course. Roman Britain = rain. It is known.

Wikipedia calls this series 'historical fantasy'. On the basis of this first episode, it looks like it's somewhere on the border between fantasy and slightly weird historical drama.

The Outcast's visit to the underworld could be halluciantions brought on by a dangerous but survivable situation, while the smoke spirit inhaled in the initiation ceremony could be a drug of some kind. The hypnotism is a bit weirder, but still just on the border of the almost plausible. Maybe! Antonius' impersonation of Plautius' grandfather/possession by his spirit is the oddest and hardest to explain, and indicates that perhaps the series is going to venture into fully fantastical territory in future episodes.

Much of what we "know" about Druids and British culture before the Roman occupation is educated guesswork, from what archaeological evidence is available (much of it dating to after the Roman invasion and therefore showing Roman influences) and from texts written by Romans, most of whom, with the exception of Julius Caesar, had never been there themselves. Our knowledge of Druid religion and culture is, therefore, very patchy and focuses mainly on the more sensationalist bits that the Romans wrote about, like human sacrifice and strange divinatory practices. The advantage of this for film and television producers, of course, is that they can make up all sorts of things about the Druids and we can't really complain that they're inaccurate, because we don't really know that much about them in the first place.

(Of course, the one thing we do know a bit about is the position they buried people in, so that's handy when you're filming a funeral scene!).

This series seems pretty engaging so far. I like the opening focus on female initiation rituals, which don't always get as much attention as male ones, and I notice we haven't been told the young girl's name yet. It wouldn't be Boudicca, by any chance? Boudicca's revolt took place just under 20 years after the invasion, so the timescale just about works, assuming this girl gets married and has children within about 5 years. Boudicca was Queen of the Iceni, not the Cantii (called the Canti in the series), but that was because her husband was king, so it's possible she could have married into that tribe from another one. Her hair is brown rather than red, but henna hair dye to colour hair red was around in the Roman world, and Greek and Roman descriptions of hair colours are difficult to interpret anyway, so even that's not a deal-breaker. (Boudicca's hair is described as 'xanthe' by Cassius Dio, the same colour as Achilles' and the root of a common slave name in Classical Greece, meaning broadly blonde, ginger or red).

The suddenness and violence of the Roman invasion, appearing out of nowhere through the trees while we're completely wrapped up in the ritual, is really well done. David Morrissey is at his most grim and soldier-y, playing a Roman again, and Zoe Wanamaker has fabulous eyeshadow (though her character doesn't know how to do diplomacy).

The main historical issues so far relate to the series' firm insistence that the British and the Romans know nothing about each other. British culture was pretty similar to Northern French (Gaulish) culture back then - you can still see the similarities in Brittany (northern France) and Cornwall - so I'm not sure why the Romans are so taken aback by Britain considering they conquered Gaul years ago. And they had been trading with Britain and had several client kingdoms (British kings who paid tribute and were largely under Roman control) ever since the invasions under Julius Caesar. So the Romans should have some knowledge of Britain, and British girls living on the coast within sight of France should have some knowledge of the Romans. As indeed they clearly do, since Mackenzie Crook's Druid is able to communicate easily with Aaron Pierre's Roman solider of Numidian origin, which means they must both be speaking Latin, the language of communication in the Western Empire and, of course, the language of the Romans, as British Druids are unlikely to speak Numidian and Numidian soldiers unlikely to speak Celtic.

Historical issues aren't really the point, though. This is a drama series, not a documentary, and one that is clearly skirting the edge of fantasy. So far, the series has provided likeable characters (Cait/Unnamed/Possibly-Boudicca), intriguing characters (the Outcast), entertainingly vicious characters (Plautius and Antedia) and funny characters (the late Islene, but hopefully there will be more). It's got fairly high production values and seems well paced, so all in all the signs are good that this should be a fun ride - I look forward to the next episode!

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light

I'm working on a project focusing on Roman Britain in TV and film at the moment, so expect lots of posts about films and TV series set in Roman Britain!

I had meant to blog this episode back when it first aired because I thought it was brilliant, but as usual, didn't get around to it! I enjoyed a lot of Series 10, probably more than I've enjoyed a series of Doctor Who overall for a while, and this and the following episode ('World Enough and Time') were my favourites.

I totally sympathise with the Doctor when Bill insists she knows more about Romans than him, a person who has actually been to parts of the ancient Roman world several times (and apparently not just at the times we know about, though there's no such thing as a 'second class' Vestal Virgin and he hadn't been a woman yet at that point, so we'll have to assume that one's a joke). I have the same problem when students think they know more than me! Though if it's about the ancient military, which is not my area and which a lot of them know quite a lot about, they sometimes do.

The reason Bill has dragged the Doctor back to ancient Rome again is because she's really into the story of the Ninth Legion, who supposedly disappeared into the mists of Scotland, presumably slaughtered by Caledonians, during the second century AD (except they were probably just transferred to Europe and switched with the Sixth Legion). I've written about this before, because it's been the subject of several films, as well as Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth and its film and TV adaptations.

What I love the most about this episode, aside from just generally being really good, is that it offers a genuine glimpse into ancient Roman culture (what we know of it). It's not perfect (what is?!) and it's had to be censored a bit for a family audience, but the overall impression is more or less on the money, particularly when it comes to sexuality and ethnicity - both of which are significant issues for the characters given that Bill is both black and gay.

On sexuality, Bill is clearly nervous about explaining that she doesn't swing that way to the Roman Lucius, expecting judgment and/or confusion, and is pleasantly surprised to find the Romans completely unbothered and that one of them is gay. Another describes himself as 'ordinary' because he likes both men and women, and thinks Bill is restricted for liking only one gender. All of this is a pretty accurate brief representation of broad ancient attitudes towards sexuality. Perhaps implying that liking both describes the majority is a bit of an exaggeration for Rome (less so for ancient Greece) but we do have evidence for people discussing sexual attraction or admiration of beauty in both men and women (Apuleius in his defence speech, for example, though he mostly seems to prefer women and writes poems to young men, he says, as a literary exercise).

This is not to say the ancients didn't have any sexual prejudices or hang-ups - they did, but these would be unsuitable to explain to a family audience, as they often involve exactly what positions people have sex in and the relative ages and statuses of the participants. In the ancient world, sexual preferences tend to be described more as tastes than as essential aspects of someone's identity - rather than describe themselves as 'gay' or 'straight', Romans would describe themselves as preferring men or women, as these do. So all in all, this really neatly demonstrates that not all periods of history were like the Victorian period, and differing human sexualities have been a part of human life for as long as we've been around.

Race and ethnicity is not brought up overtly in the way that sexuality is. Back in Series 3, Martha expressed concern to the Doctor when they visited Elizabethan England, again projecting 18th, 19th and 20th century racism back onto the past. And again, it's not that racism didn't exist in the past - it certainly did, sadly - but that doesn't mean it's the same as in the modern world or as it was in recent modern history. (For Elizabethan racism, just watch or read Othello!). Bill seems less concerned than Martha, partly because she's already been to the past, and the 19th century at that, and partly because she's studied the Ninth Legion and she does know something about the Romans, so she knows she's unlikely to stand out that much to them.

Shortly after this episode came out, a British cartoon about ancient Roman daily life was attacked on Twitter for including a black character, and Mary Beard eloquently explained that the ancient Roman world and Roman Britain in particular was ethnically diverse, and this was not inaccurate. In addition to the evidence she brought up and the evidence discussed in the article at the link, a tombstone from South Shields commemorates a soldier's freedman called Victor who was from North Africa, a bronze figurine of a Berber cavalryman was found near Hadrian's Wall, and Ivory Bangle Woman, buried near York, was mixed race and was buried with two bangles, one of local jet, the other African ivory. The Romans never conquered below the Sahara and their contacts were mostly Berber, but they traded with and were well aware of the sub-Saharan inhabitants of Africa as well. In this episode, no one remarks on Bill's race and the Roman soldiers are of various ethnicities, none of which is explicitly explained - which is exactly how it would have been, as this would have been normal.

Fictional answers to the apparent mystery of the Ninth Legion often have them mostly killed, with survivors blending into British culture, marrying British women, and only occasionally meeting King Arthur. For Doctor Who, of course the answer involves aliens, but I rather like the idea that they commit themselves to protecting Britain and become part of Scotland and the landscape, which is a twist on the usual story of them blending into British life. Plus it's terribly noble of them.

Other random thoughts...

 - The talking crows thing is a bit weird. Very Tolkein-esque.

 - There's a nice Outlander vibe to the whole thing as well. Plus yay for Peter Capaldi getting to be in an episode in Scotland, and unlike David Tennant, getting to use his own accent and all.

 - It's taken Bill this long to notice that everyone in space speaks English! Good point on the lip-sync though.

This is a good episode, and it doesn't really require any knowledge of Doctor Who to follow it, either. The last five minutes are about the arc plot, but the rest of the story stands alone. This is also quite a good time to get into Doctor Who, as the show has just gained a new showrunner and new Doctor (the character regenerates into a new actor every so often), so the first episode of the new season is likely to re-set the show a bit and re-introduce the Doctor and her world, as well as giving her new co-stars as her Companions, who will be new characters. If you fancy giving modern Doctor Who a go, you like stories about ancient Rome, and you want to try out a fairly recent episode, this would be a good one to go for.

More blog posts on Doctor Who

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Archers of Isca (by Caroline Lawrence)

I've been sitting on this book for two years and finally managed to read it! It's been a busy couple of years.

I'm very glad I did though - as ever with Caroline Lawrence's books, I thoroughly enjoyed this. After taking months and months to read a very long non-fiction book about America and American history (In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, which I thoroughly recommend, but it took me a while to get through it) I devoured this one in a few nights. I was so pleased to finally sit down and spend time with these characters again. My heart will always belong to Flavia and Nubia, but Juba, Ursula, Fronto and Bouda are equally engaging and likeable characters with fascinating stories to tell.

As a British person living in England, the special joy of this series lies in the setting in Roman Britain, and in recognising familiar places. I love the Roman Baths at Bath, so the visit to Aquae Sulis was great fun. I've still never been to Caerleon, so this was another reminder that I really need to get there! I also really enjoyed the descriptions of British Iron Age village life (which made a refreshing change from Roman, though I sympathise with Fronto feeling more at home in Roman buildings!).

The story is framed by the Celtic festivals of Samhain and Beltane, and features two very different giant Wicker Men. These are best known from the film(s) but, as the book tells us, they are described by Caesar and Strabo, and I've been teaching these texts (looking at them together together with the evidence of human sacrifice from bog bodies) for years so I got a kick out of that. You can still see a sort of survival of this custom in some Guy Fawkes celebrations - I went to Bonfire Night in Oxford in 2010 and the 'guy' - usually a human-size figure in early modern dress sitting on the bonfire - had been replaced with a giant wicker man which was set alight.
It was impossible to get a decent picture,
but this is the giant corn dolly/Wicker Man on fire!

On the Classical side, one particularly effective scene has the two young girls, Ursula and Bouda, kidnapped while they are out picking flowers and making garlands in a spring meadow. This clearly followed ancient descriptions of the abduction of Persephone and was all the creepier and more effective for it. Thankfully, the girls' abductors had a different aim in mind than Hades did.

The first book in this series, although it followed all three Roman children's perspectives, focused primarily on Juba, and this second highlights Fronto. His story, in which he joins the army, reminded me a little of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic The Eagle of the Ninth, and brought with it another fascinating change of scenery. Presumably the third and fourth books will highlight Ursula and Bouda - I'm especially looking forward to the Bouda volume, as she is still a bit of a mystery here!

I've already ordered the next book, which promises to have gladiators in it, always one of my favourite ancient tropes. I'm confident it won't take me another two years to read it! (Come back in two years and find out...!)
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