Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Giles the classicist?


An explanation for this post: I've been presenting at a multi-disciplinary poster conference all day. My thesis is on whether Romans believed that dreams might foretell the future or provide a way to communicate with gods or the dead. Several times today, people asked me whether I believe that dreams can tell the future. Slightly flustered, I tried to answer, while also trying to explain that that isn't what my research is about - I'm not looking at whether dreams might be divine or not, but whether Roman writers thought they might be divine or not.

Anyway, after an (exhausting!) day of presenting, I thought I'd write a blog about a representation of a Classicist in popular culture. Except I can't think of any! There are plenty of archaeologists, a few scattered Classics teachers, but no professional researchers who are Classicists or ancient historians (or historians either). Its no wonder no one knows what I do for a living.

So the closest I could come was Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Giles works in heritage management (he used to work in 'a British museum, or the British Museum, I'm not sure' - Willow, 'Welcome to the Hellmouth') but his knowledge of ancient languages suggests he must have a classics background, so he's as close as I could get.

When Giles first appears, he seems to be the worst sort of British stereotype - always in tweed, uncoordinated, useless at fighting etc. All that changed in 'The Dark Age', when his dodgey past as a dabbler in dark magics is revealed and he suddenly gains a whole bunch of fighting skills he never had before. Giles is always at his coolest when he's being his nastier alter ago, Ripper - as when he reverted to teenagehood (and his own accent instead of the fake posh one) in 'Band Candy' and when he coldly murders Ben in 'The Gift'. What it says about me, that these are the bits I like, is probably best left unexplored!

As a lone Brit in America (well, except for Spike) Giles gets some great one liners. Two of my favourites are:

'I just think it's rather odd that a nation that prides itself on its virility should feel compelled to strap on forty pounds of protective gear just in order to play rugby' ('Some Assembly Required')
'"Do you like my mask? Isn't it pretty? It raises the dead!" Americans!' ('Dead Man's Party')

Unfortunately for me, if Giles was studying dreams in ancient Rome, he really would be looking to find out whether dreams actually do predict the future. Ancient texts in Buffy (as in most sci-fi and fantasy shows) are used to find out how the magical thingummy of the week works. The ancient text is always absolutely accurate and our heroes are always able to translate it precisely (see earlier post-come-rant on Night at the Museum 2). In my (real) world, no ancient text can be precisely translated, they are very rarely accurate and regularly tell outright lies, and I have yet to discover an ancient artefact or spell with actual magical powers. But I guess that just isn't very interesting!


'Xander, don't speak Latin in front of the books!'
Giles, 'Superstar'

12 comments:

  1. ...people asked me whether I believe that dreams can predict the future.

    *facepalm*

    I never got into Buffy (for me Anthony Michael Head will always be either the coffee guy or the Prime Minister), but I'm sure there must be other historians/classicists somewhere out there in pop culture. Not that any come to mind, right now. Maybe the guy from American Werewolf/Love & Curses?

    Centaur follow-up: Obviously not my original source, but the Brill's New Pauly article on centaurs says that humanoid centaurs were standard until the 2nd half of the 7th century. They cite a clay statuette from Lefkandi in the Eretria Museum from the late 10th century BC and late Geometric vases from 725-700 BC. They also note that sometimes the human legs have horse's hooves, citing the 'Campana' Dinus, Copenhagen, NM, 540/525 BC.

    I'd have pasted in the actual text, but for some reason cut and paste and the arrow keys don't work in your comment box.

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  2. Giles also appears to know Sumerian (lucky him), although I never actually saw him with a clay tablet in hand. This is especially interesting in reference to what you said about characters coming up with perfect translations, considering that Sumerian really isn't that well understood!

    By the way, I think the actor's name is Anthony Stewart Head? And what happened to the British Giles spin off?

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  3. Yes, his name is Anthony Stewart Head. 'Ripper', the British spin off, seems to get brought up every few years and then nothing ever happens! I bet it ends up being a series of comic books.

    Giles and Dawn between them seem to know every ancient language there is, including Sumerian as you say (which mysteriously I think they read from very old books) and Etruscan - do we even know much Etruscan?! Not Inca though - they needed some help from the actual mummy girl with that one.

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  4. Yeah, Stewart. Must have had Anthony Michael Hall in mind. But as far as I'm concerned, he's still the Prime Minister, not Giles.

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  5. Apparently Ripper was about to make it as a movie produced by Welsh BBC (as Head introduced Whedon to the head of that studio since he knows her via Merlin) but Whedon got sidetracked by this little show called... Dollhouse...

    You got me laughing so loud with those one-liners my dog up and left the room! :p

    Giles needed help from the Inca mummy girl... but he seemed to be deciphering quite a bit of it on his own!

    For me Tony Head will always be Giles... but I've only seen him as a safecracker (in the Invisibles) and as King Uther (not bad that one!).

    Juliette, please don't have so many interesting posts in here... I have work I need to get to and I can't stop reading! lol! And I hear you on how tiring conferences can be, but I've always managed to have quite a bit of fun in them as well! ;o)

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  6. One of my new supervisees is all fired up to write her final-year dissertation on Latin in Buffy - this makes me very happy.

    Have you got onto Battlestar Galactica yet?

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  7. No, I still haven't seen it - maybe after the thesis is finished I'll borrow some DVDs and have a marathon viewing!

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  8. You absolutely MUST watch Battlestar Galactica- I'm on the fourth series and it's brilliant!

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  9. Jim Lloyd in The Archers is allegedly an ancient historian, having published a book on Caligula. I say 'allegedly' because he seems to have been teaching at Stirling, and to have taught and written on lots of other later history periods. Unfortunately, he's been poorly researched, by someone who assumed that ancient historians were a subset of historians, which, generally, they're not. But most depictions of academics are inaccurate - remember Ross Geller, Ph.D., and his apartment entirely devoid of books?

    Apart from that I can't think of anyone off the top of my head, if we're to disqualify schoolteachers like Mr Chips or Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version.

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  10. I'd never thought of that problem with Ross! He does have lots of fossils at least. My Dad's a geologist and I have great sympathy with Chandler when Ross is moving and Chandler says, trying to lift a particularly heavy box 'What's in here, rocks?', Ross says its full of fossils and Chandler says 'So, rocks!'. Whenever we moved house (which we did several times) there were always lots of boxes of rocks.

    it's true I can't think of a really accurate depiction of an academic though. Scientists probably have an even worse time than we do...

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  11. I've just re-watched the episode where Giles/Buffy speak Sumerian (as it's on TV right now) and have to say that purely from a sound point of view the Sumerian sounds somewhat accurate. I even recognised some words and some plural endings. Though we don't really know how Sumerian was exactly pronounced, the way it's done on the show is mostly with standard Sumerological/Assyriological practice. As far as whether or not it is a fully understood language, it mostly is, though some grammatical details elude us, but not to the point where proper translations can't be/haven't been made. I'm still disappointed by the lack of tablets though.

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  12. That's actually quite impressive - I didn't realise they'd bothered to check the pronunciation!

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