Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail


Since I keep quoting from this every time I mention the Trojan Horse, I thought I should give it its own post.
This is one of my favourite scenes from my favourite Monty Python film, in which Sir Bedevere's plan to outwit the taunting French castle guards ('Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!') goes a little bit wrong...

BEDEVERE: Sir! I have a plan, sir.

[later] [wind] [saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw saw] [clunk] [bang] [rewr!] [squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak] [rrrr rrrr rrrr] [drilllll] [sawwwww] [clunk] [crash] [clang] [squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak...] [creak]

FRENCH GUARDS: [whispering] C'est un lapin, lapin de bois. Quoi? Un cadeau. What? A present. Oh, un cadeau. Oui, oui. Allons-y! What? Let's go. Oh. On y va. Bon magne. Over here... [squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak...] [clllank]

ARTHUR: What happens now?

BEDEVERE: Well, now, uh, Lancelot, Galahad, and I, uh, wait until nightfall, and then leap out of the rabbit, taking the French, uh, by surprise. Not only by surprise, but totally unarmed!

ARTHUR: Who leaps out?

BEDEVERE: U-- u-- uh, Lancelot, Galahad, and I. Uh, leap out of the rabbit, uh, and uh...

ARTHUR: Ohh.

BEDEVERE: Oh. Um, l-- look, i-- i-- if we built this large wooden badger-- [clank] [twong]
ARTHUR: Run away!

KNIGHTS: Run away! Run away! Run away! Run away! Run away! Run away! Run away!

[CRASH]

FRENCH GUARDS: Oh, haw haw haw haw! Haw! Haw haw heh...

There are so many reasons I love this scene. The Fronglais is brilliant and I love the way the French soldiers don't actually speak French. I'm not sure whether this counts as breaking the fourth wall (because the English actors can't speak French) or if its just Python madness, but it's very funny. My favourite bit of Fronglais occurs just before this section, when one French guard orders another to 'Fetchez la vache!' - a perfect blend of French grammar and English vocab.

Bedevere's incompetance is also hilarious - he's thought the whole thing through so carefully, but missed one vital element of the plan...

Finally, this scene is funny because, once again, it demonstrates how supremely silly the story of the Trojan Horse is. The idea of sneaking a few soldiers in to take the city by surprise is perfectly sensible, but the idea of doing so using a giant wooden horse is less so, and the image of a giant wooden rabbit (and Bedevere's plan to use a badger next) shows just how silly it is. There are all sorts of theories about why this imagery is used, some of them focused around the idea that the story has Indo-European origins (the Wikipedia link here seems decent, but caution is advised - although the links between Indo-European languages have been well established and are pretty much universally accepted, there is pretty much no proof of any of the theories concerning myth, and so a lot of rubbish gets spouted on this subject. And bear in mind that several Indo-European motifs do not appear in Greek myth). For example, one theory says that the Indian aśvamedha ritual consisted of the sacrifice of a horse and may have been linked with the consolidation of a ruler, so the Trojan Horse might represent a horse sacrifice to achieve victory, resulting in the destruction of the enemy ruler. But all of this must be taken with a huge pinch of salt - there just isn't enough evidence to make any theory convincing.

And it all ends with Python's classic battle cry, beloved of all those of a practical bent - 'Run away! Run away!'


For anyone who's interested - my lecture on the historicity of the Trojan War


Sunday, 28 June 2009

Ancient ruins in pop culture

I was at Stonehenge this morning and discovered that there are big plans afoot to move all the roads that run near it so that it can be surrounded by green fields. I must admit, I’m not wild about this idea – I actually like seeing the modern and the ancient next to each other, and we can’t recreate the monument’s original setting, as it would have been surrounded by trees.

Anyway, this is what made me think about the use of ancient architecture to tell later-set stories. Ancient monuments can provide wonderful dramatic settings – in the 1978 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, the apparently deranged Jackie stalks her former friend Linnet and former fiancée Simon on top of one of the pyramids at Giza and, complete with monstrous echo, at Abu Simbel. The ancient setting, and Jackie’s reciting of tourist information at her shocked friends, adds a sinister air to the whole thing, especially when Linnet and Simon stand, dwarfed by the enormous statues at Abu Simbel, with Jackie above them, looking down in satisfaction as they cower before her (see the video here).

Ancient ruins can also be sad and melancholy. In The Lord of the Rings, there are no real ancient ruins, but the story is full of relics of bygone eras from Tolkien’s mythology, such as this passage from The Two Towers.

‘The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure... The years had gnawed it and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone...
Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.’
The Two Towers, ‘Journey to the Crossroads’.
From the film of The Return of the King, moved from its place in the book. I think there is an Alan Lee illustration of this scene, but can't find it at the moment.

Tolkien’s imagined ruins add both melancholy and hope to the scene, and his characters find meaning for themselves in seeing the ancient remains. The 2001-2004 movie adaptations use similar imagery, setting Frodo and Boromir’s confrontation in The Fellowship of the Ring next to a giant fallen head of a statue and making much of the Company’s first sight of the Argonath, which also formed a big part of the advertising campaign for the first film.

The 2006 film version of Tristan and Isolde has the lovers meet in the ruins of a Roman villa. The ruined house increases the romantic atmosphere, because there is something inherently romantic about ruins. Maybe this idea is a relic of Victorian and Edwardian photographers who liked to set up photographs of their subjects lounging about ancient ruins, or maybe its all Byron’s fault. It’s hard to say. But there is something about a ruin that seems to scream ‘romance!’ across our collective consciousness. In this case, the romance is heightened by the idea that the villa belongs to a more ‘civilised’ era, and may have been a happy family home, in contrast to the dark, medieval misery Tristan and Isolde are living in. (Of course, the family who lived in the villa might have been utterly miserable and hated each other, but this is not the first thought that comes to mind).

Disney’s 1992 Aladdin also uses ancient ruins to romantic effect, in this case the Parthenon, which Aladdin and Jasmine fly around on the magic carpet. They also pass by the Sphinx at Giza, where an Egyptian workman is just finishing off the nose – and is so surprised to see two people fly past on a magic carpet that his hand slips and the tip of the nose falls off. In jokes like this are the most fun part of using ancient ruins, and of allowing outside characters to interact with the architecture we already know.

Jasmine helpfully waves at the unfortunate Sphinx artist

(Aladdin and Jasmine, by the way, get all the way to China from the Middle East in an evening – I hope they have some kind of windshield for that carpet).
Many of these uses would not be possible in a modern-set story, depending on how much access one can get to ancient ruins. Obviously, I am in favour of preserving ancient ruins as much as possible, but I think it's a shame if this is done at the expense of allowing people to enjoy them, and allowing new stories to take place among the ruins of the old.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2004)


Warning: this is a really long post. I have a crazily busy weekend coming up so this is several days’ worth of blogging at once.

OK, here’s how this is going to work. I actually like Troy. I really do. I think it’s fun, it’s suitably tragic, it has lots of hot men in it, I like what they’ve done with the costumes and sets and I think most (though unfortunately not all) of the performances are good. Yes, it’s no classic – it’s no Gladiator. But it’s a good evening out, or it was, when it was in the cinema.

I also have no problem with the fact that the story has been altered. Greek mythology was an ever-changing thing and no two versions were ever the same. Helen, for example, was variously kidnapped, seduced, went off willingly or, in one version, sent off to Egypt for the entire ten-year war while Paris took a phantom image of her to Troy. Every Greek writer adapted the story to suit his (unfortunately it was generally his) own era and culture. I think it’s entirely appropriate to change the story to suit modern audiences. (I am less forgiving when it comes to actual history rather than myth, though even there I am not totally unbending, as my love of Gladiator will tell you.) Having said that, this post will include a lot of commentary on the changes that have been made from Greco-Roman myth and from the Iliad in particular. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, I hope that anyone who is less familiar with Greece and Rome will find the differences interesting. Secondly, the film did, to some extent, market itself as an adaptation of the Iliad, so it seems right to explore just how the story has been adapted. (Though the Iliad only actually covers a tiny fraction of the story, from the taking of Briseis by Agamemnon to the meeting between Priam and Achilles). Thirdly, some of the changes are quite dramatic and while I totally respect the filmmaker’s right to make said changes, it can be a bit jarring on first viewing if you know other versions of the story.

So, disclaimers out of the way, I am going to re-cap, and in places, try to recreate my reactions to the film when I first saw it, five years ago, in the cinema. I was with a group of friends from uni and we were all in the middle of our Ancient History exams...

We open with some exotic wailing, as the soundtrack (by James Horner) tries to be the soundtrack to Gladiator (which was by Hans Zimmer, with Lisa Gerrard).The Bit With The Writing sets out the scene, which has been altered from classical versions. In the traditional myth, Helen had many, many suitors who all vowed to uphold the right of the eventual groom to her hand (and the rest of her). As a result, when Paris abducted her, they were all forced to go and help Menelaus get her back (though some of them went to quite some lengths to try to get out of it – Odysseus pretended to be mad and Achilles lived in drag with a group of maidens – which sounds like an episode of Blackadder to me...). Even in Antiquity, the idea that a great war might be started over a single woman sounded a bit odd and was ripe for mockery by writers like Petronius and Lucan. I really like the solution here – once the situation is set up, and we’ve established the tense peace between Menelaus and Troy and Agamemnon’s ambition, it really does make sense that Paris’ act, which becomes deliberately aggressive in addition to damaging Menelaus’ honour, would kick everything off. The abduction/seduction of Helen becomes the trigger that sets off an already volatile situation, rather than the sole cause of the war.The reference to the ‘emerging Greek nation’ is a bit off though – no such thing at that time.

Mmm, Sean Bean’s voice. Odysseus by way of Sheffield – fab. Also, a neat encapsulation of a major theme of the Iliad – the attempt to win eternal fame and glory through battle.

Brian Cox as Agamemnon – nicely evil. He sends what looks like a hobbit to fetch his best fighter, Achilles, as played by Naked!Brad Pitt. I’ve got nothing against Naked!Brad Pitt, which is very nice to look at, though I could do without the two naked women entwined around him. Unfortunately, his performance as Achilles is as flat and cardboard as a MacDonalds hamburger. Brad Pitt is fine when he’s required to play a good-looking modern man, but between this and his dismal performance in Friends (no comic timing whatsoever) he’s not currently my favourite actor.

The Greeks are wearing some very short skirts indeed – apparently accurate (not my area of expertise!) but a little silly looking. Agamemnon hates Achilles – oooh, Foreshadowing...

Sparta. Mmmm, Eric Bana as Hector. Orlando Bloom as Paris doesn’t look quite as good as he did in The Lord of the Rings, but he’s perfectly cast. Poor Diane Kruger has to look like the most beautiful woman in the world, with a face that launched a thousand ships – an impossible task for any woman. I think she perfectly attractive, but I wouldn’t know really.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? (Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus)

Her line about how she used to be just a ‘ghost’ sounds really... odd. It sounds very much like something you’d write, not something you’d say. This version goes for an equally passionate love affair on both sides, of course – we’d feel no sympathy for Paris if he was a rapist.

The Trojan costumes look a bit silly too, but they’re such a pretty shade of blue, I forgive them. Mad Eye Moody (Brenden Gleeson as Menelaus) is *very* cross when he finds out what’s happened though, and we see Agamemnon take advantage of that (still keeping it nicely plausible).

Achilles is fighting what looks like a member of Hansen c1995 (otherwise known as Patroclus). The film has, perhaps wisely, sidestepped the debate concerning Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship (the Iliad suggests that Patroclus is older and they’re just good friends, later Classical readings assumed that they were lovers and some made Patroclus the younger, as in this case Achilles would need to be the more macho one. The film makes them cousins – a blood relationship that allows them to depict them as very affectionate without complicating the later romantic subplot with Briseis).

Mmm, Sean Bean. Odysseus wants Achilles to fight to protect his own behind. Achilles checks with his Mum, who’s paddling – is she, as in the Iliad, a sea goddess? Does she just have hot feet? Who can say? She does, however, explain Achilles’ choice – between a long, happy, unknown life and a short, violent, famous one – and Julie Christie is, as ever, great.

Love the shot of the thousand ships. Very cool.

Lawrence of Arabia is Priam, king of Troy. He’s good as ever, though a bit wide-eyed, naive and ineffectual for such a powerful figure. For an even better Peter O’Toole-as-a-king performance, see The Lion in Winter. Briseis has been changed into a priestess of royal birth, presumably to give her a relationship with Priam, Hector and Paris and increase her emotional investment in what happens to them.

Priam expects the gods to do everything for him. Grr. No ancient ruler would actually behave that way (they might tell their people they behaved that way – there’s a difference). On the other hand, this is mythology, so I guess they can do what they want.

Aw, look at how cute little Astyanax is. Sniff...

There’s some random fighting showing how, in this version, Achilles gets hold of Briseis. In traditional myth, the first to disembark on the beaches was killed. James Horner’s music is now channelling his early film score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and my head is filled with images of the Enterprise and the Reliant flying around a purple nebula and Ricardo Montalban hissing at William Shatner.

Oh – now the score’s turned into Horner’s score for Titanic, and I’m picturing the ship going slowly down while Kate and Leo run for their lives.

They’re still fighting. Ooh, look at the blue of that sea and the heat of the sun... I need to get back to the Med sometime soon...

I think Brad Pitt is doing Joey’s ‘smell the fart acting’ from Friends. Achilles doesn’t respect the gods – I smell a modern writer inflicting his own views on an ancient character. There’s only one Ajax, which is good, as I can never remember which is which out of the Greater and Lesser Ajax. Achilles and Briseis meet. This is a tricky part for the filmmakers. They want their hero, Achilles, to have a (female) love interest, because in our Western culture, heroes always have a love interest. Briseis is the obvious solution, but the traditional story – Achilles kills her father and kidnaps and presumably rapes her and Briseis’ opinion on the matter is never considered, though she mourns when Patroclus dies – would completely destroy any audience sympathy for Achilles. So the two of them walk a fine line, with Achilles as abductor and Briseis as prisoner, trying to avoid implying rape or Stockholm Syndrome in their relationship.

Now we reach the plot of the Iliad as Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles and Achilles goes off in a sulk, refusing to fight any more. Then there’s lots of scenes of Helen and Paris feeling guilty. Good – so they jolly well should.

A-ha! Big battle time. Well, almost. The movie hasn’t taken ten years to get here (though it feels like it) so everyone is still just as young and pretty and the armies are at full strength. It’s time for the duel between Paris and Menelaus, which comes to an abrupt end in the Iliad when Aphrodite forcibly whisks Paris away for some hot lovin’ with Helen. Obviously, they’re not going to do that in the movie (the entire divine machinery, the actions of the gods, has been removed, which is wise – modern audiences just wouldn’t buy it in an epic war film, though it might work better in the Odyssey and Jason and the Argonauts just about gets away with it). Ah yes, there goes Paris, running away – wait, what’s Hector doing? What’s going on? OH MY GOODNESS THEY’VE KILLED MENELAUS!

They killed Menelaus! They killed Menelaus! Huh?! How could they DO that? Menelaus is destined to eventually win, get Helen back and go back to live a long, happy life in Sparta – in fact, he ends up better off than any other member of the Greek army (including Odysseus, who has ten extra years of sailing, loses all his crew and still isn’t finished when he gets home). What’s going on? My world is crumbling!!!

OK, so now we know - all bets are off. Up to this point, all the changes have been relatively minor – even things that seem big, like changing Briseis’ social station or Agamemnon’s motives for fighting – haven’t really affected the plot in any truly significant way. But this is a major change – this is becoming a completely different story. Suddenly, I have no idea what’s going to happen next. Paris does correctly grab Hector’s knees in supplication though. Nice touch.

More fighting. Achilles whinges about how they’re doing it wrong. Ajax, whichever one he is, goes down (they’ve killed Menelaus and Ajax? I’m so confused!). I’m also disappointed, as one of my favourite images from the myth (and I’ve temporarily forgotten which version its in – possibly the Odyssey) is of Ajax (presumably the Greater one) carrying Achilles’ dead body out of the battle while Odysseus fights off anyone who comes near them. It’s an honour thing. (Followed by fighting and suicide. That’s Greeks for you).

Achilles rescues Briseis. Homer would have thought that was very strange (in the poem, his problem with Agamemnon taking her is that its an affront to his honour, not that he cares about her). They hadn’t invented chivalry in archaic Greece. Sex follows, still trying to walk the fine line that keeps it romantic and not extremely dubious. Briseis obviously wasn’t terribly attached to her vows of celibacy.Mmm, Sean Bean is back.

Mmm, Sean Bean

Hansen member c1995 is having a patriotic moment (about an as yet non-existent country). So he steals Achilles’ armour, goes off to fight, and gets himself killed by Hector. His death is really nasty, all gurgling blood – yuck.

Big sulks from Achilles. He doesn’t cry for his mummy though. My favourite bits from the Iliad are the sections he spends hanging around on the beach, weeping and asking his Mum to solve all his problems for him (Zeus owes her a favour apparently). Hmpf.

Hector shows Andromache a way out and explains what traditionally happened to her in Greek myth – Astyanax was thrown off the walls and she was taken as a slave. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the beautifully tragic scene from the Iliad where the baby is frightened by Hector, in his armour and helmet, but never mind. Orlando remembers what he can do (shoot things) and goes back in to Legolas mode.

Mmm, shirtless Eric Bana. All leading up to the tragic duel between Hector and Achilles – tragic because, no matter what version of the story we’re in, Hector is ten times more sympathetic than Achilles but Achilles always wins. The fight itself looks pretty well done to me, but I’m not a very good judge of these things (I switch off during fight sequences, except for the ones in Gladiator, which are more interesting).

Achilles defiles Hector’s body and Priam comes to see him to beg for it to be returned, and we’ve reached Book 24 of the Iliad. Peter O’Toole is excellent. Brad Pitt looks constipated. He does finally cry though. Priam takes Briseis back with him, which an ancient Greek so would not do – she’s damaged goods now after all.

We’re moving into the last part of the film now, and Odysseus has his bright idea (‘well we all jump out of the rabbit – Lancelot, Galahad and I...’) There’s just no getting away from the fact that Priam has to be spectacularly stupid here – ‘Beware Trojans, they’re complete smegheads!’


Beware Trojans, they're complete smegheads!


And so we come to the destruction of Troy. O’Toole can’t quite match the sheer tragic power of John Gielgud and Judi Dench’s two seconds in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, but he does pretty well.

Andromache leads a small group of the young and the old, including Helen, to her secret escape route. Paris finds a young man called Aeneas helping his old father out, and gives him the sword of Troy and tells him to lead their people! Hehe! Go Aeneas! – and all five of us giggle with glee. The rest of the cinema, who probably haven’t read the Aeneid, stay silent and look over at us, wondering what’s so funny. Andromache and little Astyanax get away – hooray!

Agamemnon attacks Briseis at an altar and Achilles kills him. We’re miles away from Greek myth now, though the incident does strongly recall the rape of Cassandra at an altar. Paris thinks Achilles is attacking Briseis and shoots him, fist of all in the heel – nice touch. That’s a bit closer to the usual version too, though at the end, Paris is still alive and Agamemnon is dead – this is not the usual way round, though it is much more satisfying.

And one last time – mmm, Sean Bean. He calls Hector ‘tamer of horses’, his poetic epithet – very cool. The credit says ‘inspired by the Iliad’, which seems fair. Weird song though, presumably an attempt to get an Oscar nomination. If only this movie had been better received, they might have made the Odyssey with Sean Bean in it, and I would really like to see that. I guess I’ll just have to go watch The Fellowship of the Ring for the umpteenth time instead...


View of Ithaca, Odysseus' home, from Kefalonia


*It has come to my attention that Briseis may have killed Agamemnon. It was pretty late by the time I got to that bit and I wasn't paying attention. Either way, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are going to be disappointed.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Red Dwarf: Meltdown

'Meltdown' is a pastiche of Westworld (which I haven't seen), in which our heroes are trapped on a planet entirely populated by wax-droids - robotic waxworks of various famous historical and literary figures. The wax-droids have run amok in the millenia since humanity became extinct and are reaching the climax of an epic battle between Good and Evil (as the entertainment complex was originally divided into areas for Heroes and Villains). The Heroes are losing, since the Villains have all the more accomplished military strategists.


One the side of Good, along with Stan Laurel, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, is Pythagoras, who is convinced that there must be a solution, probably involving triangles. Pythagoras' obsession with triangles, and Einstein's frustration with it, are hilarious, and accurately rest upon the fact that the only thing most of us remember about Pythagoras is that he came up with a theory about triangles (maths not being my strong point, I can't even remember what it is...).


Fun facts about Pythagoras that don't involve triangles: He was a late 6th century BC philosopher who really did think that mathematics was the key to life, the universe and everything (urgh!). Josephus claims that Pythagoras used to communicate, both at night and during the day, with the soul of a dead friend, who gave him instructions. He refused to eat beans, and some say that he thought that the souls of the dead were in beans (unlikely - but he does seem to have supported the idea of reincarnation, which is probably the source of this rumour). It is more likely that he refused them because beans cause indigestion, and indigestion disturbs the sleep and prevents truthful dreams while creating false ones.

On the side of Evil is the Emperor Caligula, everyone's second favourite mad emperor (after Nero). There'll be a lot more on him in future posts on I, Claudius. Caligula's funniest trait in the episode is his habit of slapping Lister every time the Cat annoys him. He seems to have acquired a silent Rasputin as a sidekick, and he has some great ideas for punishments:


Two men enter the cell.

CALIGULA: On your feet, pigs!
CAT: Hey, buddy, we just {something}.
CALIGULA: Silence, scum! (Wack -- he hits LISTER in the face.) Do you not sink to your knees and bow in the presence of the emperor, Caligula?
CAT: Who is this guy?
LISTER: I think he was a famous Roman Emperor. He slept with his mother, both his sisters, and ended up eating his son.
CAT: Hey, a little advice, bud: we all feel peckish after making love but most of us settle for pizza.
CALIGULA: You are an impudent fool! (Wack -- he slaps LISTER again.)
LISTER: Dunno who the other one is.
LINCOLN: That's Rasputin, the most hated, loathed and despised man of his era.
CALIGULA: This machine -- how does it work?
LISTER: Don't know. If I did, I wouldn't be here.
CALIGULA: Very well, if that's the way you want to play it. Rasputin, bring in the bucket of soapy frogs and remove his trousers!
LISTER: Hang on, it's got something to do with travelling across sub space.
CALIGULA: Demonstrate.
LISTER: Well, like I said, I don't really know.
CALIGULA: Very well. Rasputin, bring hither the skin-diving suit with the bottom cut out and unleash the rampant wildebeest.
LISTER: Hang on, I'll try my best! I'll try my best! Just give it here.
CALIGULA: Aah, you think I'm insane?
CAT: Shall we take a quick vote?
CALIGULA: Silence, scum! (Wack -- he slaps LISTER, not CAT.)
LISTER: (To CAT) Shut up!
CALIGULA: We will all hold on to it.Everyone holds on to the paddle.

LISTER, CAT and LINCOLN look at eachother -- when LISTER speaks the three of them let go.

LISTER: Now!

Buzzzt -- only CALIGULA vanishes.

LISTER: Come on, let's get out of here.

They leave the cell. Just after they go, the door to the metal cabinetopens and CALIGULA and Rasputin exit.

CALIGULA: Rasputin, I'm very cross indeed! Guards!



Lister and the Cat in their cell

As far as we know, Caligula did not sleep with his mother, who was a very well respected Roman matron. He may have slept with his sisters - in fact, he probably did sleep with his sisters (all three of them). He did not eat his son - Lister (who is remarkably well educated for someone who's 'never read... a book', 'Future Echoes') has been watching the BBC I, Claudius, which is where this little gem appears, so it'll be covered when I get that far with the I, Claudius re-caps/reviews.


I really like 'Meltdown', if only for the fun of watching a wide variety of historical and literary characters interact, and for Lister's expression after he witnesses the death by firing squad of Winnie the Pooh ('That is something no-one should ever have to see!'). The rest of the episode concerns Rimmer's entry into the war and subsequent destruction of all the remaining wax-droids, and the theme song is sung by Elvis Presley (well, an Elvis Presley impersonator). It's also an anti-war statement, as Rimmer takes a ridiculous amount of satisfaction in the deaths of every single droid (he feels he still won). Lister takes revenge by swallowing his light bee.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Discworld: General Tacticus

He was trying to find some help in the ancient military journals of General Tacticus, whose intelligent campaigning had been so successful that he'd lent his very name to the detailed prosecution of martial endeavour, and had actually found a section headed What to Do If One Army Occupies a Well-fortified and Superior Ground and the Other Does Not, but since the first sentence read "Endeavour to be the one inside" he'd rather lost heart.
-- (Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum)


I went to see a production of Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment, starring my ex-housemate, in London yesterday, which I really enjoyed - I'd never seen a Discworld stage play before and it was really funny, a really good evening out.

Promotional material from the production

Since the play was about the army, I was reminded of this elusive character, who is mentioned in a number of Discworld novels (I don't know how many, but I'm sure there's a website somewhere that does!). When I was a first year undergraduate studying ancient history, I was briefly very confused because, thanks to the Discworld, I thought that Tacticus was named after Tacitus, and that Tacitus was, therefore, a famous military commander and military historian (which isn't a million miles from the truth but isn't quite right, at least not in the way that I was imagining). Of course, I also thought that Spartacus was called 'Sparatacus', because that's what Cher calls him in Clueless. How I eventually got to PhD level is mystery.

The possible Classical and other antecendants of General Tacticus are listed at the Discworld wiki here, which appears to be reasonably accurate (I checked it against the Oxford Classical Dictionary!). On the etymology of 'tactics', see the Online Etymology dictionary here; although they don't mention Aeneas Tacticus, it wouldn't surprise me if the word came in to popular usage partly because of his name.

However, until today, I'd never heard of these people (I had a vague notion there was an ancient Chinese book on the Art of War, but that's about it). I had, however, heard of Tacitus, who did write some military history, though his work is more a record of past military maneouvers than a guide to future military endeavours. Tacitus' chief surviving works are the Histories, the Annals, Agricola and Germania, and he is an important written source for Roman Britain. He did serve in the army, but is not known for his military achievements.

Most people reading Discworld novels, like me, won't have heard of Aeneas Tacticus. They might have heard of Tacitus, but the historical characters Pratchett evokes when he writes this character are different - in addition to Sun Tzu, the author of the Art of War, most people will think of Julius Caesar.

General Tacticus' habit of conquering everything in sight certainly owes more to these two than to obscure Greek military historians and Pratchett deliberately recalls Caesar with the title of Tacticus' journal Veni Vidi Vici: A Soldier's Life. Pratchett might reasonably assume that the majority of his readers will have heard of Caesar, so it is Caesar who is actually Tacticus' real-world counterpart, though their stories end rather differently. Caesar declared war on his own city-state, Rome, in an act of civil war, conquered it and, by adopting Octavian (Augustus) as his successor, caused the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire. Tacticus, however, declared war on Ankh-Morpork from a leadership position in another city and destroyed its Empire. Perhaps this change is the result of Discworld's position at the far cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs Cynicism.

Caesar. Just look at that expression. You do not want to mess with this guy.

Thinking of great conquerers of Antiquity might lead some to think of Alexander the Great, but, great military leader though he was, Alexander was also an alcoholic with a quick temper who enjoyed the luxurious benefits of being ultimate ruler rather too much, and Tacticus feels more like a Caesar than an Alexander to me. Additionally, Discworld's 'old' language Latatian is clearly Latin, while Greece is more usually represented by Ephebe, which doesn't seem to have its own language, or if it does, it isn't discussed.

I like General Tacticus and his practical but not always helpful advice. He reminds me very much of this helpful section from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

BOOK: What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can't move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn't been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won't be troubling you much longer. (Douglas Adams, Fit the Eighth)

General Tacticus' advice is generally as helpful as this to our heroes when in a sticky spot, but Vimes seems to find him useful in Jingo anyway. In the end, though, Tacticus may only be the second greatest military thinker in the history of the Disc. The greatest is probably the man who has, as per Tacticus' advice, carefully avoided getting into a war in the first place, while ruling the world through commerce instead.



Veni, Vidi... Vetinari.


(The artwork is not mine: The top illustration is by the late Josh Kirby, and this one is by Tealin - visit the website here for this and many more Discworld images)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hercules (Disney, 1997)


There are two main reasons why all classicists should watch Disney's Hercules. Firstly, because for future generations of classicists, this will, quite possibly, have been their first introduction to anything from the ancient world and secondly, because the music is ace (what can I say, I'm a sucker for a good show tune).

The style of the animation in Hercules is suppoed to evoke the style of Greek vases, though I have to confess it looks a little odd to me. 'Hercules' is actually the Roman name for this hero - the Greek is Herakles. Everyone else's names are Greek though ('Meg' being short for 'Megara').

We hear the deep, serious voice of Charlton Heston, assuring us that this is indeed a story of Long Ago and Far Away by sounding cool and mysterious, then launch into the first number, in which five of the (nine) Muses introduce us to Ancient Greece and the Greek gods.

(I have to confess, I'm always a little uncomfortable with the refrain about how they're singing 'the gospel truth'. It strikes me as a bit disrespectful towards Christianity, and it's not at all appropriate to Greek religion, which was not dogmatic and which always allowed for multiple, contradictory stories about the same hero. But that may just be me being over-sensitive).

We're introduced to Zeus and Hera as Hercules' parents, and as husband and wife. Oddly enough, Disney leaves out the detail that they're also brother and sister. In the World According to Disney, Hercules is the son of Zeus and Hera, both gods, not the result of a liason between Zeus and Alcmene. This leaves them with a bit of a problem - how can Hercules be half-mortal without a mortal parent?

A Disney movie also needs a bad guy, so enter Hades, who is much more interesting to watch than any of the others because he's much funnier. When power over the cosmos was handed out, Zeus got the sky, Poseidon got the sea and Hades got the underworld and, in this version, he is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a bit miffed. He is assisted by Pain and Panic (A variant of Those Two Guys) and the Fates (who assure him that indoor plumbing has a future).

The plot of the movie is basically the invention of the Disney writers, though they draw on elements of Hercules' mythology. However, none of the major plot elements from the film come from ancient myths, and they have more in common with Disney's usual basic plot elements; young guy undergoes rite of passage type experience in which he defeats the bad guy and gets the girl (see also Aladdin). This is presumably because the Disney corporation feels that extra-marital affairs, spousal homicide, man-consuming fire and a whole lot of dung are unsuitable for their tender audiences.

So Disney's Hercules is found by Alcmene and Amphitryon, having survived Pain and Panic's attempt to poison him, which has left him mortal (i.e. not glowing any more - all gods glow, apparently) but supernaturally strong. This would presumably be fine if he wasn't also very clumsy, but his tendency to knock buildings down has made him an outcast, so he asks Mum and Dad why he's 'different' and why he dreams about people cheering his name (other than the obvious vanity). They explain that they found him with a medallion showing 'the symbol of the gods' (a bolt of lightning - not actually 'the symbol of the gods', but it would be associated with Zeus). So off he goes to a temple of Zeus to pray for an answer.

Herc wanders off through the rain and up a hill to a temple that looks a little bit like the Athenian Parthenon, where, magically, he finds the lost statue of Zeus from Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (see Wikipedia). Maybe this is why its lost - because some fool stole it from the town of Olympia and stuck it on top of a hill...


A very old and fuzzy photo of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, from a school trip from many years ago. That's me in the middle, pretending to be Zeus. Don't ask.


As soon as Herc has finished his prayer, the statue comes to life, starts talking to him, and tells him he's actually its own son. Strangely, Hercules does not assume that he ate a dodgey mushroom, but buys the whole story. I think I'd worry about anyone who cheerfully accepted the information that they're the son of the chief god that quickly, thought of course, it does explain his super strength. I can't quite make out whether the statue stands up or not - if it stood up in its own temple it would break the roof, but maybe the new temple is taller.

Zeus reunites Hercules with Pegasus, the flying horse who was given to him as a child (this is bound to annoy Bellerophon, who more usually rides Pegasus). Zeus tells Hercules that if he becomes a true hero, he can become immortal again and join the other gods on Mount Olympus, and sends him to Philoctetes for training. Its a good thing Herc doesn't go to see the better known Philoctetes, who was a man who left with the Greeks to fight the Trojan War but was left behind on the island of Lemnos because he'd been bitten by a snake and the wound was too smelly.

This is an entirely new Philotetes, but he does behave much more like a character from Greek mythology than the rest - a typical satyr, he's a pervert who spies on naked women, who are then forced to turn into trees to avoid him.

Then there's a Training Montage! By the end of it, Hercules is about four times as big and muscly as he was at the start.

Finally, we meet Meg, one of Disney's best heroines (if we overlook her ridiculous figure). Surprsingly and somewhat disturbingly, Disney have apparently decided that rape is far too big a part of Greek mythology to leave out, though they leave it at attempted rape and they swap Hercules' second wife, Deianeira, for Meg, but this is probably the closest the film gets to actual Greek myth. Meg even explains what happened to Hercules, who doesn't understand, and tells him Philoctetes will explain it to him later. I bet a lot of parents loved that.

Meg, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern girl and has a fantastic conviction that all men are worthless, making even more cool and snarky than Princess Jasmine. Pegasus is really, really jealous of the attention Hercules gives her, which might lead one to worry about their relationship...

Phil takes Hercules to Thebes, which was a somewhat unfortunate city according to ancient mythology. Meg has soldher soul to Hades and is working with Pain and Panic to do Hercules in, so they lure him into a fight with the Hydra (actually one of the Twelve Labours: see here). I like Hercules' solution here, it's very cool.

Then there's another montage! Leading to my favourite lines:
Hades: 'I've got 24 hours to get rid of this bozo... and you are wearing HIS MERCHANDISE?!'

Hercules: 'I'm a action figure!'

And my third favourite, the song lyric in which two Muses argue over how to pronounce 'vase'.

The montage includes images from the some of the Twelve Labours, like the boar and the lion, all put on vases, which is a nice touch. Still no dung, though. Love seeing Hercules posing for a vase painting wearing the lion skin as well (he is frequently shown wearing this in ancient art, its his main distinguishing feature).

There's some slushy stuff between Meg and Hercules, prompting Meg to sing her song, one of Disney's best romantic songs - 'It's too cliche, I won't say I'm in love' etc.

As the plot starts to work towards its conclusion, we seen Hercules give up his strength for Meg, only to find out he's been betrayed - very tragic, very Greek. (Yes I know, Greek tragedies often had happy endings, it's Blogger's artistic licence, OK?!). Although the loss of strength thing is actually kinda Biblical. Hercules is willing to let others die to save Meg, but the film, oddly enough, doesn't look into the implications of that.

The conclusion involves the Titans capturing the Olympian gods, because all Disney movies have to have a BIG conclusion. Literally. The bad guys always suddenly becomes a giant, or a giant creautre, or calls up a giant creature to do bad things. I have never understood why Disney feels this is so essential to the climx of a movie, but there you go. I guess its the kiddie version of lots of explosives. Hercules also grabs hold of a tornado. Hmm.

I love the depiction of the underworld in this movie by the way. Its suitably gloomy and spooky and huge and empty, just like it should be. Not a nice place. Hercules gets a very cool katabasis (journey down to the underworld) in this movie, much cooler than his usual task of retreiving Cerberus. Here, he goes down to get Meg back (who has been remarkably cleanly crushed to death), more like Orpheus. The effect of the river, striping away his youth and killing him, is pretty creepy too.

All ends well, though, because in the World According to Disney, if you sacrifice your life to save someone else, this is what makes you a true hero, because the test of a hero is the strength of his heart. This would sound pretty weird to an ancient Greek. They told stories about a woman who sacrificed her life for her husband, but, generally speaking, they weren't very into self-sacrifice. As far as mythological heroes were concerned, what made you a true hero was killing a very very large number of people, preferably your enemies. Killing monsters would also do, but was not essential.

This being Disney, however, it works a treat and Hercules gets to be a god and goes all glow-y. However, he decides he'd rather stay mortal and be with Meg - a truly heroic choice, considering he's seen what the underworld is like. How her crushed body is repaired is also a story left untold.

For some mysterious reason, Disney didn't do a sequel covering the rest of the story, in which Hercules is driven mad and murders Meg and all their children. Strange, that.

Hercules while temporarily a god - note glowyness

Saturday, 13 June 2009

I, Claudius: Waiting in the Wings




'Waiting in the Wings' starts with Old!Claudius looking for something and comically (at least, I assume that was the intention) bashing his head on his desk as he crawls all over his study. It turns out he is looking for an old letter Livia sent to Tiberius.

Tiberius, last seen trying to get away and being banished for hitting Julia, has apparently got bored of sitting around on a beautiful Mediterranean island and is whinging that he wants to go back to Rome. The letter has been brought by his astrologer, Thrasyllus, who is consistently predicting that good news is coming, and carefully makes sure to interpret whatever actually turns out to be in the letter as good news. Since Tiberius is threatening to throw him off the cliff if he doesn't prophesy something good, this is unsurprising.

Next we see Julia, whose behaviour is apparently the biggest scandal in Rome, and Antonia, who is planning to leave so that Julia can enjoy her extra-curricular activites in private. Julia's eldest son has died in mysterious circumstances, and she is having her way with a close friend of her second son (among others).

We see the younger generation, bickering and squabbling, and establish who fancies who (apparently none of them will change their affections from the age of 12 onwards). We see that Claudius' mother is thoroughly ashamed of him because of his limp, stammer and apparant stupidity (which, it is suggested, is actually difficulty hearing, not lack of intelligence).

An eagle drops a wounded wolf cub into Claudius' lap and an old astrologer who has randomly stopped by says it means he will care for a wounded Rome. This bit reminds me most of Jon Pertwee's doddery old soothsayer in Carry on Cleo to be honest ('sooth! sooth!'). Antonia sends Livilla to her room without supper - note the Foreshadowing! This is our first view of the adolescant Claudius - scared and covered in blood, but quite fond of the wolf cub.

Livia manipulates Lucius' friend, Julia's lover, into keeping a record of all Julia's indiscretions (a tall order) and even encouraging her.

Finally, we see Augustus again - greyer and utterly grief-stricken over the death of Gaius. He takes out his frustration on a groups of 'knights' (presumably equites), telling them off in no uncertain terms for not getting married and having legitimate Roman children, though he does himself no favours by grabbing Claudius as an example of 'a fine product of a proper Roman union'.

Livia fails to persuade Augustus to let Tiberius back, and he challenges her to produce proof, if Julia has done wrong. She is more successful in getting her granddaughter (through Drusus) Livilla engaged to her grandson (through Tiberius) 'Castor' (really another Drusus, but Graves sensibly thought that would be too confusing) instead of Postumus (Julia's third son).

Orgy time! As orgies go, this one is pretty tame though, just a bit of kissing, a flute, and a woman undressing in shadow, and the camera pans away. The orgies will get more elaborate later in the series - this is an Augustan orgy, and therefore more tasteful.

Next we are introduced to Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, who executed Herod Agrippa's father, his son, shortly after Agrippa's birth. Herod is a bit of a suck-up and is instantly liked by everyone.

Lucius' friend produces his list of Julia's lovers and Livia tells him she has another, less pleasant job for him. Livia manages to manipulate Lucius himself into showing it to Augustus, who had been completely oblivious of the whole thing. Augustus is, to put it mildly, not impressed, though Lucius manages to stay in his good books. We come to BRIAN BLESSED's favourite scene from the whole series - Augustus gathers a group of Julia's lovers together and asks them, one by one, if they slept with his daughter (some of them look pretty old and unattractive - Julia obviously has no taste at all). One of them manages to say 'not slept', apparently thinking this will help, but Augustus does not feel that having sex with his daughter standing up is any better. He stands in the middle of the room and screams,

'IS THERE ANYONE IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER?'

BRIAN BLESSED says on the DVD that he loves how the viewer knows these men are all doomed. Historically, Augustus probably banished them, as he does Julia, and some historians think that this is why Ovid was banished - because he may have been one of Julia's lovers, or perhaps because his poetry was considered a bad influence.

Head of Augustus, in the British Museum. He looks a bit shocked - maybe someone just told him about Julia...

There's some more screaming as Julia tried to persuade Augustus to talk to her, and she knows that Livia is ultimately responsible. She reminds Livia that she has 2 sons, who both come before Tiberius - a bad idea, as Livia is getting very good at getting rid of people. Augustus stays in his room with his hands over his ears until Julia is gone (sent to a tiny island with no company except the slaves who bring food). Augustus think he is cursed and Livia comforts him, Once again, she tries to get Tiberius back, but Augustus still blames him for abandoing Julia in the first place and refuses.

We cut to Tiberius and Thrasyllus on the island, and George Baker's favourite scene of the series (and mine!). Tiberius is consulting Thrasyllus' horoscope, because he has decided to throw Thrasyllus off the cliff if there is no good news on the latest boat from Rome. Tiberius says the horoscope is very bad and calls a large, heavy set slave to push Thrasyllus off the cliff. Poor Thrasyllus insists there will be good news and sits, clinging to his desk for dear life, as the slave tries to pull him away. Tiberius lets him stay until the imperial courier from the boat has delievered his news.

A soldier appears and gives Tiberius a letter. The letter informs him that Lucius is dead and Augustus has ordered him to return to Rome immediately. Tiberius and Thrasyllus look at each other and both break into peals of laughter, Thrasyllus throwing his hat in the air in joy. The completely baffled soldier says that all Rome is drowned in grief, as Tiberius giggles 'of course they are, its only natural!' The viewer infers from the soldier's report that Livia has hired Lucius' friend to drown him while fishing and make it look like an accident. The unfortunate messenger keeps eyeballing the other two the whole time, while Tiberius and Thrasyllus are barely able to control themselves.

Augustus, when Tiberius returns, is not so happy. He is now almost catatonic with stress and grief, and has obviously been forced to bring Tiberius back somewhat unwillingly, though he refuses to bring Julia back no matter how much the crowds demand it. Livia notes that he is starting to become confused, forgetting which Parthian king he is talking about.

Claudius and Herod find Postumus sitting in the courtyard, upset because Tiberius has been adopted by Augustus as well as himself, and because he misses his mother and brothers, and we pan back to Old!Claudius to end the episode.

The episode as a whole is a bit bitty and feels rather slow, but it does feature two of the best scenes in the series, and by the end of it, Livia has arranged two more murders (it is strongly implied that she arranged Gaius' death as well) and one banishment. There's not as much action as in other episodes, as both the murders and most of the sex happen offscreen, but BRIAN BLESSED wonderfully depicts Augustus as a man who is slowly losing it, Sian Philips is as satisfyingly evil as ever, and that scene with Tiberius and Thrasyllus is utterly hilarious and provides welcome relief from the generally gloomy atmosphere of this episode.

Thrasyllus, trying not to get thrown off a cliff

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'

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Yes Minister: The Bed of Nails


Since the news is full of nothing but MPs at the moment, I thought I'd blog about Yes, Minister, a sitcom which often seems to be talking about the exact same things that are in the news, despite the fact it was made nearly 30 years ago.

(I wanted to look at some of the Classics-inspired Original Series Star Trek episodes, but apparently only Americans are allowed to watch them online. I don't have them on video, and being a cheapskate, I only have 5 TV channels, and they're not on. So those will follow as soon as I manage to beg, borrow or steal the episodes!)

Jim Hacker has been offered a job working on Transport issues and Sir Humphrey is explaining to him why its a completely terrible idea (thanks to Wikiquote):
Hacker: Sir Mark thinks there might be votes in it, and I do not intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister, that you are looking a Trojan horse in the mouth.
Hacker: You mean if we look closely at this gift horse, we'll find it's full of Trojans?
Bernard: Um, if you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside. Well, the point is that it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan horse to the Trojans, so technically it wasn't a Trojan horse at all; it was a Greek horse. Hence the tag "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes", which, you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as "beware of Greeks bearing gifts", or doubtless you would have recalled, had you not attended the LSE.
Hacker: Yes, well I'm sure Greek tags are all very well in their way, but can we stick to the point?
Bernard: Sorry, sorry, Greek tags?
Hacker: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts." I suppose the EEC equivalent would be "Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus".
Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister.
Bernard: No, well, the point is, Minister, that just as the Trojan horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It's obvious really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one can use such a participle (bewaring that is), and it's clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in "-o", because the Greek first person also ends in "-o" – although actually there is a Greek word timao, meaning 'I honour' – but the "-os" ending is a nominative singular termination of a second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course, though actually Danaos is not only the Greek for 'Greek'; it's also the Latin for 'Greek'. It's very interesting, really.
An extended clip is on YouTube, here, and is worth watching for the completely dumbfounded look on Hacker's face, and even Sir Humphrey starts edging away from Bernard as he really starts to warm to his theme.

Picking apart everyone's metaphors is one of Bernard's defining character traits (along with looking wide-eyed and saying 'Gosh!') so this is an exaggerated version of his character's usual behaviour - never use any kind of similie or metaphor when Bernard is around. Like Lister (see the previous post on Red Dwarf), Bernard has been thinking about the whole issue of whose horse it is and what we should really take away from this story, but with a somewhat fuller knowledge of Greek and Latin to back it up (so far as I can tell, everything Bernard says is correct). Beranrd's smile when he says its all very interesting is brilliant - he obviously thinks it is, while Hacker is completely lost and Humphrey just wants to get back to the point.

The joke about how Hacker would have recalled this if he hadn't gone to the LSE is, of course, indicative of the cultural hole many of us are trying to drag Classics out of. In Bernard's world, you can go to private school/some grammar schools (though not mine!), learn Latin and Greek, go to Oxbridge etc - as he and Humphrey have done - or you can go to a state school, not learn any Latin or Greek, and go somewhere else. (I don't remember them ever mentioning where Hacker went to school, but he is often mocked for having gone to the LSE rather than Oxbridge). Classics becomes something valued only by the upper and some upper middle classes and everyone else despises it, and the study of Classics slowly dies.

What many of us want to see is Latin and Greek reintroduced into *all* schools and everyone being able to study Classics if they're interested. This is partly what initiatives like Minimus are about. Eventually, the hope is, jokes like Bernard's would become obsolete and no one would get it any more.

OK, I promise I will try really hard not to start going off on one about the British educational system in my next post!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Harry Potter: Books 4-5 - Centaurs and Sphinxes


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an odd one for me - the book is my least favourite of the series, but the film is my favourite of the films so far.

Being annoyingly serious for a moment, I can't stand the house elves sub-plot in the book, because I don't think slavery is a suitable subject to play for laughs. All of Ron's justifications for enslaving the house elves - that they like it, that they were born to serve etc - have been used of real slaves by real slave owners, and the way Hermione is treated by both the other characters and the narrator for trying to win rights for the house elves - laughed at and ignored - seems totally inappropriate to me, especially in a book aimed at a young audience.

I don't get the main plot of Goblet of Fire either - why on earth would Voldemort hatch such an incredibly complicated plan to get his hands on Harry, when surely Wormtail could just kidnap him in Hogsmeade? Why would the Triwizard Tournament have such ridiculously unbendable rules in the first place, how could Harry be magically bound by a contract he didn't sign and why didn't the Ministry cancel the tournament when it became obvious that something very dodgy was going on? For me, all of these are worse problems than the question of why Gandalf didn't just fly to Mordor on an eagle in The Lord of the Rings.

But, for some reason, in the film, none of this bothers me! I get swept up in the story and stop worrying about all these things and, best of all, the house elves sub-plot is gone! Patrick Doyle's music is sublime and the film has some really powerful sequences - Harry and Cedric racing each
other to get to the Goblet, Harry nearly becoming overcome with competitive ambition and abandoning Cedric, the entire scene in the graveyard, especially Ralph Fiennes who is amazingly good at playing pure evil (is there anything more chilling than his cry 'I want to see the light leave your eyes!') and, most brilliantly horrible of all, Harry appearing, clutching Cedric's body and weeping, among a crowd of cheering schoolchildren, parents and a brass band playing eerily cheerful music.

Goblet of Fire has the usual mix of Classical, Norse, Celtic and other mythologies, but the bit I'm picking up on today, ironically, isn't in the film. I also have to confess that I haven't read the book in a while and don't have it in front of me - I have several copies of Philosopher's Stone in several languages (including Latin and Ancient Greek) but Goblet of Fire is at my parents' house, so I'm relying on the internet to refresh my memory.

During the third task, in the maze, Harry encounters a Sphinx who asks him a riddle. Sphinxes (body of an animal, usually a lion, head of either a man or a woman) are known from art all over the ancient Mediterranean, including from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoan and Mycenean art on Crete and mainland Greece, and later Classical Greek art. In literature, the best known sphinx is the one that harrassed Thebes until she met Oedipus. Oedipus himself is much better known for the later parts of his story, but it is his defeat of the sphinx that gets him married to his mother in the first place (see the pretty decent Wikipedia article here).

The Greek sphinx's riddle is a simple and traditional riddle, in which the words of the riddle need to be understood symbolically in order to produce the answer. The riddle Harry's sphinx asks is a bit different:

"First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies,
Next tell me what's always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?

And finally give me the sound often heard,
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?"
(Thanks to Mugglenet - the editorial here is somewhat out of date, but makes interesting reading.)

The answer Harry gives, correctly, is 'spider'. This is more like a series of crossword clues than a riddle, relying on word play. If this riddle had appeared in an ancient Greek text, it would make no sense at all as soon as it was translated into another language. The last bit is especially odd, as the one creature in all the Harry-Potter-verse that one would least want to kiss is obviously a Dementor. Sure, kissing a spider would be pretty unpleasant and certainly gives me nightmares, but its not a particuarly clever observation.

Its a nice idea to use a sphinx - a suitably scary-looking creature - and a riddle in the maze, playing on not only Greek mythology, but also echoing JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, which features riddles heavily in what would turn out to be its most important chapter. I find the riddle itself somewhat disappointing though - for several rather better designed riddles, see the aforementioned Hobbit, 'Riddles in the Dark'.


Two enormous sphinxes guard the entrance to some of the Near Eastern galleries at the British Museum. The picture on the left, which unfortunately came out a bit dark, gives some sense of the scale of these - compare the size of the person with the statue.





Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is actually one of my favourites of the books, while the film is not my least favourite, but definitely comes behind 3 and 4. The first time I read Order of the Phoenix I didn't like it - because it was too well written. JKR really excels at describing teenage-dom in all its glory and misery, and just as the Yule Ball (both film and book versions) reminds me of every teenage dance that left half the attendants in tears or sulks, the OWLs in Book 5 are just too well-described.

Explanation for non-Brits: OWLs are the wizardly version of British GCSEs, playing on the old exams taken by my parents that GCSEs replaced - O-Levels, standing for Ordinary Level (hence Ordinary Wizarding Level). Whereas most other sensible countries have 1 set of school-leaving exams, when I was at school we had 2, and now we actually have 3 (I was the in last year group to take old A-Levels, thank goodness). Students can leave school at 16, after taking GCSEs, or can choose to stay and take AS-Levels and A-Levels, and university requires A-Levels or equivalent.

Although I have done many, many exams since and have two degrees with a third hopefully coming up soon, I remember Year 11, GCSE year, as the most horrifically stressful of the lot (closely followed by MA year, FYI). I only took 3 A-Levels, but 9 and a half GCSEs, which is still less than many others do. The worst part was the pressure put on us by the teachers - 'this is the most important year of your life, how you do in these exams will affect your future career, you must study, you must work', etc etc etc. All of that comes across so clearly in Book 5 that I was taken right back to the age of 16 and I hated it. Later, I read it again, put a bit more distance between it and me, and loved it. I do have a bit of a fondness for ridiculously long fantasy books.

The most intriguing use of Greek mythology to me in Order of the Phoenix is the depiction of the centaurs. I grew up with a Narnian view of centaurs - wise, noble, vicious and brave in battle it's true, but absolutely peaceful unless forced to fight. Harry Potter's centaurs are actually closer to the Greek version. Greek centaurs were imagined as, for the most part, a gang of wild, drunken, violent rapists, presented as the opposite of human civilization. There were occasional exceptions, and both Narnian and Potterian centaurs get their astrological skill from Chiron, who seems to have tutored half the heroes of Greek mythology (see Wikipedia again). However, star-gazing aside and leaving out the rape and alcohol parts, Potter's centaurs are much closer to Greek centaurs than Lewis' noble heroes. Like Greek centaurs, they live in the wild forest, in opposition to human civilization (represented by Hogwarts) and whatever it is that they do to Umbridge is, thankfully, left undescribed.

I like the Classical rendering of the centaurs, and I like that they are so different to Narnian centaurs (while retaining the useful divinatory astrological knowledge) but I must admit, I'm always a little disturbed at the way Hermione deliberately leaves Umbridge to their mercy, and that they would have killed Hermione and Harry without Grawp (my least favourite character of all, by the way). But then, Umbridge was pretty nasty, and its a very effective scary set piece.



A Roman mosaic showing a very unusual image - a female centaur. Unfortunately I didn't write down the exact date of this piece. The mosaic is in the museum at Tunis and is therefore probably Imperial or Late, since Carthage was repopulated under Augustus.

Hmm, between anti-slavery campaigns and the woes of the British educational system, that ended up being a rather more earnest blog than I had anticipated! I'll have to find something more light-hearted to look at before tackling Jesus Christ Superstar...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The West Wing: The Stackhouse Filibuster



I've been researching the goddess Isis in the Greek and Roman worlds all day, and was reminded of this sequence from The West Wing. An Egyptian diplomat is going to visit and the President needs to display a gift - a statue of a cat, sacred to the goddess Bast - that he was given when he visited Egypt. Unfortunately, the statue was given to CJ, who has a problem...

C.J. Back to the cat story dad, I've done my research, and sure enough, I was quite screwed. I was in trouble, and I needed to tell someone, a cohort. Someone whose criminal mind is equal to my own.

CUT TO: INT. HALLWAY - DAY

C.J. catches up with Donna, who is carrying a bunch of files.

C.J. Donna, I need to talk to you right now.
DONNA I have to get these to people.
C.J. So, we went to Cairo last year.
DONNA Not me.
C.J. Right.
DONNA I had strep.
C.J. I didn't which is sad for me.
DONNA Are you in trouble?
C.J. I may be in a spot of trouble, yes.
DONNA What happened?
C.J. Hassan Ali gave the President a gift, a small ceramic statue of Bast.
DONNA Bast?
C.J. Bast. A cat goddess. She was...
STAFFER [holding a phone] Donna, did Josh leave?
DONNA He went to lunch.
C.J. She was the patron saint of Bubastis and rose to prominence during the period of the 22nd Dynasty.
DONNA How do you know all this?
C.J. I looked it up. The cats in the temple...
DONNA What temple?
C.J. The temple of Bubastis, maybe, I don't know. The cats in the temple wore jeweled collars. They were treated royally. They thought cats controlled the movement of the moon. They had total authority over royal houses because of their ability to see in the dark. Anyone who killed a cat was put to death.
DONNA I'm sorry, C.J. I'm not...
C.J. stops walking and so does Donna.
C.J. I broke the damn statue. Not badly, but you know, in several pieces. And since it came out of his own collection, breaking the figurine would amount to a personal affront implying he had bad taste, and that the object was of little personal value to the President.
STAFFER 2[walking by] Donna, they're asking for you back at your desk.
DONNA How did you break it?
C.J. The gift officer handed it to me. I tossed it in my suitcase.
DONNA You tossed it in your suitcase?
C.J. Do you have any idea how many pieces of crap gets stuck in the President's hands every time he leaves the building?
DONNA Didn't the gift officer know it was a priceless relic?
C.J. Well, apparently not, because she handed it to me with a couple of T-shirts and a box of baklava.
STAFFER 3 [OS]Donna!
DONNA Yeah. [to C.J.] Why are you telling me this?
C.J. I thought maybe you'd have an idea.
DONNA Well, there's nothing really I can think of right now, except agree that you're monumentally screwed. I mean I hate to leave it at that.
C.J. But you're gonna.
DONNA Yeah.


It eventually transpires that CJ had been using the statue as a pot pourri holder and had Crazy-Glued it back together after she broke it. Though she's still worried that she is now under the curse of Bast.

Bubastis is a town, by the way, not a person or deity, as CJ seems to imply.

This tiny C-story always makes me smile. It helps that it's from one of the best episodes of The West Wing, from the end of Season 2 when every episode seemed even better than the last one. It's also an important bit of light relief, with a nicely heart warming main storyline, before we really get into the ever darker story of Bartlett's concealment of his MS. Maybe its just because I like cats, but I find CJ's conviction that she's now under some kind of curse, coupled with her sheepish expression and Donna's unhelpful response, really funny.


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