Monday, 3 August 2009

Stardust (by Neil Gaiman, film dir. Matthew Vaughn 2007)

Stardust is a novel by Neil Gaiman (originally illustrated by Charles Vess, but I only have the text-only version) which was made into a film in 2007. Apparently it takes place within the same universe as American Gods, but since I'm partway through reading American Gods, I don't want to know any more! The story follows Tristran, a young man who promises to bring a girl he likes a fallen star from beyond a mysterious Wall, not realising that the star is actually a very annoyed young woman called Yvaine.

Most of the elements of Stardust's fantasy world of Stormhold come from various parts of British and Celtic folklore, like the lion and the unicorn (book only). However, there are a few Classical references scattered around the place. Most obviously, the King's seven sons are called Primus, Secundus, Tertius, Quartus, Quintus, Sextus and Septimus. As well as being Latinate versions of first, second, third etc, this actually reflects some old Roman naming practices, in which children were named for their number - Quintus for a boy, Quinta for a girl. Many children did not survive infancy, so a family might only have a Quintus and a Sextus reach maturity, and sometimes children were named directly for their parent - Octavian and Octavia were the children of Octavius, not the eighth son and daughter. The King's only daughter is called Una, one - obviously he knew he would have lots of sons but only one daughter.


This is a tapestry I got in France of a different story, involving a lot of knights (hence all the shields), which I can't remember right now, but it's a lion and a unicorn...

The witches also have some Classical roots. In the film, their leader is called Lamia. In Greek myth, Lamia was the beautiful queen of Libya, daughter of Belus and Libya, who had children by Zeus. Hera killed her children in a rage, so Lamia took to devouring other children. Over time, her face became ugly and bestial. The Oxford Classical Dictionary describes her a 'nursery bogey', and Diodorus Siculus describes her briefly in the same way (20.41).

The witches also use the ancient divinatory technique of extispicy; killing an animal and examining the entrails (and various other bits) in order to read omens from it (like reading tea leaves. But with more blood). The witches seem to forego the necessary ritual to accompany the sacrifice, but the technique is definitely the same one.

I love both the book and the movie, though I confess a very slight preference for the film. I'm not the biggest fan of bittersweet endings and the film is really beautifully made - an all-star cast of brilliant actors, gorgeous costumes and set design, fabulous music (by Ilan Eshkeri) and sweeping landscapes, mostly from Scotland and Wales (though I think the incredibly cold beach, which highlights the most amazing colour contrast between orange costume and blue sea, might have been Iceland). It's also very, very funny. (And yes, I like Robert de Niro in it. He makes me laugh. Michelle Pfeiffer admiring her own naked body in a mirror is another highlight). The film also gives the witch a stronger ending to her story. And I want Claire Danes' dress. The book is great as well though - somehow Gaiman makes the oldest cliché sound, if not fresh, at least plausible.

Castle Combe, Wiltshire, where the village of Wall was filmed for the movie

9 comments:

  1. You have given me a memory flashback! I have to admit I giggled when I read the details about Lamia, Julz. Reason is that 'Lamia' is still so ... alive and vivid... in modern tradition that when Greek children misbehave, their mothers and gnandmothers theaten them that if they don't behave, Lamia will come and get them! I have heard the 'Lamia will come and get you'expression hundreds of times as a child! Lamia, even in modern Greek tradition, appears as a bad, ugly old woman who performs powerful black magic. My mum used to present her to me as an old ugly gypsy woman, who lives in a cave on the mountains and davours misbehaving children for breakfast.

    As for the romantic part of the Stardust story, here you go, the title song from my personal collection.
    http://tinyurl.com/lsxtkb

    Marsia

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  2. I didn't know the story was still so popular! That's really cool.

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  3. I wouldn't have said that Stardust and American Gods are in the same universe. Stardust seems to have a very fantastic setting, while AG is very much in THIS universe (more or less). I'd say that AG and Anansi Boys (lots of dream stuff there for you) are the same universe, though.

    In the older Roman naming conventions, Quinta would not have been a girl's actual name, but merely a nickname to distinguish her from her sisters, all of whom would simply have the feminine form of the family nomen as a name. By the late Republic, number names weren't terribly popular for boys, with the possible exceptions of Quintus and Sextus (bit of bragging, I suppose). Octavian and Octavia were not number names, but come from the gens Octavius. Octavia, like all girls, simply has the feminine form, and Octavian was originally Gaius Octavius, but took the -an- infix when he was adopted by Caesar, thus becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Ocatavianus.

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  4. Apparently it becomes clear that Stardust and American Gods are in the same universe if you read Wall: A Prolgue. I haven't yet, since I haven't finished American Gods yet. See here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Stardust

    I did point out that Octavia and Octavian were not number names in the post. The point is, presumably the name originated as a number name some time way back when. Obviously the idea became less fashionable, or Roman history would be full of Primuses etc.

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  5. Ah, I misread your comments as suggesting that their father had a number name. True, there are actually several "number" gentes, at least from Quintius to Octavius that I can think of. I wonder if numerical praenomens were ever really popular, or if maybe they represented a trend within a certain subgroup or class. It's not something that gets a lot of attention paid to it, since we tend to think of most Romans by their gentile name and/or cognomen.

    I suppose Stardust and American Gods could be in the same universe, but it must be a complicated and very Gaimanian road from one to the other.

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  6. I think it was probably something that happened waaaay back in the distant past and then kind of hung around in names like Quintus, Sextus and Septimius. It is also tied in with the high infant mortality rate of course - I don't think you'd actually get a family with a full compliment of Primus, Secundus etc!

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  7. Maybe it started out as a means of designating the child before it reached a certain age where it looked as though it might live and then got another name more along the lines of Marcus or Gaius. I bet the higher value names stuck around as a bit of braggadoccio. "That's my boy Septimus. Yep, that's right, seven kids!" It also makes me think of Charlie Chan and Number One Son.

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  8. Gideon Nisbet5 August 2009 19:09

    Neil Gaiman is awesome - a very clever and extraordinarily well-read writer who's also a lovely bloke. I highly recommend 'Sandman' or, for a more portable read, 'The Books of Magic', his 1993 miniseries reconciling all the strands of magic in the DC Universe.

    Naturally, I have the original issues, because I'm that kind of nerd.

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  9. I'm with you re: Sandman - it's phenomenal.

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