Monday, 31 August 2009

Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, 1973)

It's late evening on the Bank Holiday and I've just managed to finish the final draft of the thesis and send it to my supervisor. I now have one month to fiddle with it and get it up to standard... After all that typing, I mustn't spend too long on this post, or my fingers will fall off!

Jesus Christ Superstar is Andrew Lloyd Webber's early rock opera, much of which looks at the Passion story from Judas' point of view (until he necessarily disappears towards the end). The film was made in 1973 and is the only Jesus film I've seen which actually filmed in Israel, rather than in a ninth-century Tunisian fortress or in Morocco.

The reason this was possible is that the film does not try to replicate first century Palestine, but is filmed chiefly in modern dress among the ruins. I rather like the modern dress idea and I love seeing the actual Roman ruins, rather than sets or Islamic fortresses. I do find it interesting that Jesus is the only character to wear a more traditional costume, perhaps to make him seem less connected to everyone else. The other problem with the modern dress, of course, is that 'modern' in this case means the 1970s, so some of the costumes are rather interesting and the movie looks more dated than it otherwise would.

There are plenty of fascinating theological issues I could discuss, but as usual, I'll stick to my academic area of expertise and focus on the movie's depiction of Rome and the Romans. The film makes great use of its Roman locations, with some spectacular dance numbers set in the open ruins, while Pilate's audience with the people takes place in an amphitheatre.

Most of the cast wear hippie style 70s fashion, but the Roman guards, although they are not in Roman dress, are given a uniform. They have been allowed to keep their long 70s hair, but it is hidden under somewhat bucket-like helmets, and they wear khaki trousers to indicate that they are the military, and purple vests to show that they are Roman. Purple dye was quite expensive in the ancient world, and was associated with power, being a colour worn particularly (though not exclusively) by the upper classes, and especially by emperors. It is this association with power that makes it especially suitable for the army in the film.

Pilate, to indicate his especially high status, wears purple velvet, with a red velvet cloak over it. He, Jesus and the Jewish priests are given costumes rather than basic 70s clothing; while Jesus is in a traditional (very clean) white robe, Pilate wears a costume that (deliberately) looks a bit like something your Mum might put together for you to play a Roman in school, while the priests wear some absolutely fantastic, crazy-looking costumes that make them look like vultures (again, this is not a theological statement, I just think they look cool!).

Pilate wears a reddish velvet cloak over his purple velvet (which clashes), which evokes the bloodshed of the final act (emphasised especially when he washes his hands of the situation... in a glass bowl). He also wears a rather lovely golden laurel wreath. Laural wreaths were prizes in much older Greek athletic competitions, while Caesar made a point of refusing a crown in public to avoid looking like a monarch (although he was a dictator, he was careful never to call himself a king). Like the rest of Pilate's costume, this is not related to actual Roman dress, but to modern perceptions of what it is to be Roman.

One final point about the Romans in this film - they are by far the most stern and sober characters in the movie. Jesus' disciples are the characters the 70s audience is encouraged to identify with, carefree, energetic and eating something highly dubious (the lyrics to the song accompanying the Last Supper include 'what's that in the bread, it's gone to my head'). The priests are stern enough, but obsessed with this man that they perceive as a threat, while Herod is clearly off his face and completely hilarious. The Roman soldiers behave in a similar way to those in the Life of Brian - they mostly passively observe events, with occasional expressions of exasperation, until they are forced, reluctantly, to intervene. They are also solely represented by the army - Pilate's wife's dream has been given to Pilate, so every Roman character is a soldier on duty. They are a sinister occupying force, a police force, a controlled backdrop and a threat all in one.

Annas and Caiaphas, in rather exciting costumes

I love this film - I love the musical and I think the performances here, especially Ted Neeley as Jesus, Carl Anderson as Judas and Barry Dennan as Pontius Pilate, are breathtaking. There's a powerful moment during Jesus' solo 'Gethsemane' which uses Renaissance art to beautiful effect to depict the horror of crucifixion, the contrast between Caiaphas' bass and Annas' counter tenor is brilliant and I can forgive it for not showing the Resurrection - it is a Passion play after all, and one told from a distinctly agnostic point of view at that. There's also a lovely touch when we see the actors get back on the bus they arrived on, but without Jesus (well, either its lovely or they've actually crucified and abandoned him, but I think they were going for a spiritual effect, and Ted Neeley seems perfectly healthy on the DVD commentary!). As the film ends, watch out for a shepherd who, by pure coincidence, wandered across in front of the camera as they filmed the final shot - it's a bit fuzzy on the video, but clearer on the DVD.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The West Wing: He Shall, From Time to Time

Well, I'm in the new place, squashed but intact, and desperately behind on the thesis, but remaining confident that the final draft WILL be ready by Monday. In the meantime, a quick blog post.

This is the episode of The West Wing in which Leo and the audience discover that President Bartlett has a relapsing remitting form of MS (aptly described by Bartlett as 'the good kind'. He eventually starts to develop early signs of the bad kind in season 4 and gets slowly worse, in an very accurate portrayal of the early stages of the disease).

But, of course, that's not what we're interested in here! The interesting bit Classics-wise comes at the end, when Bartlett has recovered from his attack and is preparing to give the State of the Union. One person from the line of succession (or however you describe it in a republic) has to stay out of the State of the Union in case Guy Fawkes blows them up, and Bartlett decides to give a little pep talk to the chosen person, just in case. The person in question (The Secretary of Agriculture) walks in and it turns out he's The Mayor! So now I'm spending the entire scene expecting him to turn into a giant snake and eat Bartlett. Anyway, The Mayor has brought Bartlett a present: the Constitution of the United States of America, translated into Latin.

Harry Groener as Mayor Richard Wilkins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Latin is used a lot on The West Wing. Bartlett, being both a Catholic and something of an amateur classicist, loves it and refers to it frequently (comparatively speaking) and it's even used in episode titles - not just for religious references, like 'In Excelsis Deo', but Roman proverbs like 'Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc' as well (all of which I'm sure I'll post on at some point).

I have to confess, though, I'm a bit confused as to why anyone would want a copy of the Constitution in Latin. Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh make sense, they're a good way to practise, but the Constitution? Does anyone read that for fun? The Mayor explains that it was a school project that got published, which does make more sense, and that he's highlighted an appropriate passage, which Bartlett reads and simultaneously translates, because now he's just showing off. It is this passage that the title of the episode is taken from.

The whole thing is really just an excuse to have Bartlett read that particular part of the Constitution out loud, in tones of due reverence. The first series of The West Wing is, in some ways, the most fun because it's still so in love with its concept. This episode is just thrilled at the whole idea of the State of the Union, and the wonderfully-named W. G. Snuffy Walden's music swells with pride as Bartlett walks out. Even the MS storyline, which the show would do such great things with in Season 2, was originally written because Aaron Sorkin wanted to engineer a situation in which the President would be sitting in bed watching daytime TV (and getting quite into it). So the Latin is really just a tool to get Bartlett waxing lyrical about the State of the Union.

It is an appropriate present for Bartlett though, who does love his Latin, for the above mentioned reasons. The Mayor doesn't mention whether the Latin in question was Classical Latin or Vulgate Latin (the Latin used by the Catholic Church) but, being a school project, it was probably Classical. Bartlett would love it either way, since he's also interested in Classics, a character trait which, in some cases, allows for very interesting parallels to be drawn between the US and the Roman Empire. But I have a thesis to finish, so that will have to wait for another day!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Lawrence of Arabia


I'm spending this week moving house and completing a final draft of the thesis at the same time, so I'm afraid this will have to be a quick post and I may not be able to post again until the end of the week.


I wrote a couple of months ago about the difficulty of finding representations of classicists in popular culture. It recently occured to me, while going through old editions of various texts and spotting the name 'T. E. Lawrence', that there is one Classicist who is rather well known.


Lawrence wasn't a professional Classicist, which is partly why I hadn't thought of him before. He was a writer, but, having been privately educated, he read Greek and Latin and among his other works, he published a translation of The Odyssey in the 1930s, originally under the name T E Shaw (you can read the review by The Times here). He was also an archaeologist, working chiefly in the Middle East.


I have to confess I don't know much about Lawrence, and am therefore more reliant than I'd like to be on the internet for information. I've also never seen the David Lean film all the way through - I watched most of it on a long Bank Holiday afternoon years ago (and then felt guilty, as I thought there must have been other things I could do with the Bank Holiday!). What I can't remember is whether there are any references to Lawrence's interest in classics and history in the film?


The real T. E. Lawrence, looking frighteningly like Peter O'Toole


If the film does make mention of Lawrence's appreciation of Classics, that probably makes Lawrence the most famous Classicist around. Since the film is highly romanticised and Lawrence presented as a heroic, dashing (if slightly bonkers, if I remember rightly?) character, that gives Classicists a rather more appealing image than they might otherwise get (not that Giles isn't heroic as well).

If, as I rather suspect, it doesn't, that relegates Lawrence's interest in Classics to a lesser known and not overly interesting (to those outside Classics) fact about him. Perhaps a re-make is in order...



What, you though you were getting away without a camel picture?!

Friday, 21 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Myth Makers 2, Small Prophet, Quick Return


First of all, this is definitely the older reconstruction of this lost episode. Looking again at the shots of Agamemnon, I can see that they come from Carry on Cleo (though rendered in black and white) and Frances White, who plays Cassandra, is illustrated with shots from I, Claudius, where she played Julia; the shots mostly show Julia either eating figs or yelling at Livia. This partly explains the funny hats - and the extremely comical expression on Priam's face, as some images been taken from Up Pompeii!

The Doctor and Steven finally give up on pretending to be gods or spies and tell the truth, which is so ridiculous that Odysseus decides they can't have made it up. Meanwhile, the TARDIS, with Vicki inside it, has been taken into the city of Troy - which I though was very funny, I must admit. The Fall of Troy was dramatic enough, but imagine what havoc could have been wreaked if the Greek army had had access to the TARDIS... It has been brought in by Paris, wonderfully characterised as a rather ineffectual prince who just wants it all to go away, but who is a decent enough fighter when he needs to be, and who thinks he has captured something valuable to the Greeks.

Cassandra disagrees; she has foreseen the whole Trojan Horse thing in a dream (and thinks it's exactly the sort of thing Odysseus would do) and is therefore suspicious of anything left hanging around outside by the Greeks. Cassandra is one of pop culture's favourite characters from Greek myth, because of the inherant tragedy and pathos in her curse from Apollo - she has the gift of accurate prophecy, but no one will ever believe her and she is doomed to foresee all the horrible things that will happen to her and to Troy, and to be unable to prevent them. She also has a conveniently modern name (or rather, an ancient name that is still in widespread use in English-speaking countries), so she can be referenced in everything from Red Dwarf to Buffy. In this version, her characterisation is a bit different from usual - rather than tragically misunderstood, she is somewhat unpleasant, quick to order the execution of our heroes, and the reason no one will believe her prophecies is because, like Sybil Trelawny (named after another classical prophetess) or Puddleglum, she has a tendency to keep predicting doom and gloom for everyone and they're all fed up of hearing it (of course, the trouble is, she's right).

It's particularly interesting that Cassandra says she foresaw all this in a dream. In Greek myth, Cassandra's gift is simply the ability to know the future - she doesn't need a dream to foresee it, that is the way other people, who are not prophets, catch glimpses of the future. Presumably, this has been altered to try to keep the story 'historical' - many people today would not believe that someone could know the future, but they might suspend disbelief to imagine that someone might have a dream based on known facts (the Trojans love horses, Odysseus will want to smuggle soldiers into the city) that ends up coming true. Tony Keen has talked about the tendency of modern historical fiction to include prophetic dreams on his blog - perhaps this is another example to add. (Or possibly it comes from the later medieval and Shakespearian stories - see below).

The Trojans are about to burn the TARDIS as an offering to the gods, so Vicki is forced to come out and tell them all that she is from the future. Cassandra thinks she means she is a rival prophet and is unimpressed (and incorrectly claims to be an expert in augury - augury refers to a Roman form of divination. She's on safer ground with the general description of divining by the flights of birds or extispicy though). Priam decides to rename Vicki 'Cressida' and suddenly I'm remembering something I read in an old Doctor Who guide about Vicki... Cassandra wants to have her killed as a Greek spy but Priam takes her under his wing. He also orders Paris to go and kill Achilles, to avenge the death of Hector.

Vicki and Barbara, from an earlier and presumably better preserved episode

Back in the Greek camp (which looks like something out of Robin Hood, by the way, presumably another picture taken from a different source), the Doctor has a similar opinion of the whole Trojan Horse incident to me, though he thinks it was an invention of Homer - possible but unlikely, as the Horse only appears in flashback in the Odyssey, and not at all in the Iliad, and was probably an older aspect of the story. Steven seems to be under the (sorely mistaken) impression that the ancient Trojans will abide by the Geneva Convention, and decides to get himself captured so that he can find Vicki, while the Doctor has been given two days to come up with a plan to capture Troy.

This gives a scene that's almost the exact opposite of one of Troy's more memorable setpieces - instead of Achilles yelling for Hector at the top of his voice, we see Paris whispering for Achilles (because he doesn't actually want to be heard, so he won't have to fight). Paris gets Steven instead and agrees to take him prisoner because it gets him out of fighting for the time being.

Back in Troy, 'Cressida' quite fancies Troilus, another prince - which reveals the source for a lot of this to be Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and other versions of the Troilus and Cressida story, not Homer or classical myth. That explains a lot! I don't know Troilus and Cressida at all, nor do I know the Chaucer poem or the other medieval versions - but I do know that it is a medieval story with very little basis in classical sources (the Shakespeare play does appear to include material from the Iliad, but the sections relating to Troilus and Cressida themselves are medieval). This makes a brief reference to Diomedes as dead all the more confusing though, since not only does he survive the Iliad, he is instrumental to the plot of the Shakespearian and Chaucerian stories.

At the end of the episode, Paris brings Steven in to Priam and Steven and Vicki recognise each other, leading Cassandra immediately to order both their deaths. Da da daaaaaah!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Roman Mysteries: The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina

After a mad rush to read all of The Time Traveler's Wife before seeing the movie, I have finally finished The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina!

This is a very different type of story from The Pirates of Pompeii. Where that was an adventure story involving kidnapping and slavery set in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius, this is a much more domestic story. This story is about young love, and about a child in a single parent family coming to terms with a potential step-mother, and I'm sure many young readers will identify with Flavia's tribulations here. It's a wonderful idea to use the same basic set-up - children solve mysteries in ancient Rome - to tell such different stories, and I suspect every reader will end up with a different favourite, according to their different tastes.

This story also comes closer to fantasy than most, as Flavia has two significant dreams over the course of it. As you know, my thesis is on dreams in ancient literature (but not the dream of Scipio - wrong period, but I will read it for background!), so I could go on about the dreams for pages, but I'll restrain myself. There were two main types of dream story in the ancient world, the message dream (a god or deceased person comes and delivers a message) and the symbolic dream (everything else!). Flavia's first dream is a message dream from Hercules, the sort of dream that crops up all over ancient literature, both in poetry and in history, but people probably didn't actually experience much, if at all (this point is debatable but I really don't want to put half my thesis on here - just trust me!). This dream sets up the rest of the story, as Flavia follows clues relating to the Labours of Hercules to try to solve the mystery surrounding her proposed new stepmother. This is a bit like the sort of dreams you see in Greek romance novels, which send the characters off on their adventures - which is very appropriate! Flavia also doesn't fully understand the nature of her 'offence', which Hercules refers to, at first, fitting with another popular theme in ancient literature, that of the misunderstood oracle or dream.

Flavia's second dream is much more like a real dream, Roman or otherwise. It's a confused fever dream which ends on a beautifully touching note that any reader who's lost someone close to them can easily relate to.

Obviously, Flavia and her friends don't actually carry out the Labours of Hercules, but the clues are neatly arranged to relate to the stories. The closest anyone comes to actually accomplishing a Labour is actually Nubia's 'defeat' of an escaped lion in an exciting and tense sequence (it should be called The Twelve Tasks of Flavia and her Friends!). There's a lot of fun to be had with the small group of escaped animals, including an ostrich which the children mistake for a Stymphalian Bird and a 'camelopard', which is eventually revealed to be a giraffe.

Camelopards and Stymphalian Birds! You can see them if you squint... Photos taken at Longleat Safari Park, 2006

There are some great details of Roman everyday life in here, and I have to join Jonathan in his reaction to the ingredients of a love potion - ewwwww! I love the Saturnalia setting as well, which allows the characters even greater freedom than they normally exercise. I didn't notice as many pop culture references (possibly because I kept reading while half asleep) but there was a lovely Midsummer Night's Dream feel to the developing love triangles in the woods, despite the midwinter setting (one of the unfortunate lovers is called Lysander). I'm rather fond of Flavia's habit of swearing 'Pollux!' because (and I have no idea if this is intended or not, it might just be my wicked mind!) it sounds a bit like one of my favourite curse words... The thought that Flavia is in love with The Godfather also continues to amuse me.

Ostia, where Flavia and her friends live. Usual apologies for photo quality.

Of course, there are instances of artistic licence. Even given the Saturnalia setting, Diana's behaviour is a tad excessive, and there's no real evidence for the Tarantella from as early as this - in fact, the Romans weren't quite as keen on dancing as the Greeks, though there were Roman dances, including one danced by maidens in honour of Juno. On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that, though it can't be proved, can't be disproved either, so it's not unreasonable to include it in a fictional story.

I enjoyed this book very much, but (without wanting to give too much away) the ending was awfully sad (and, being based on a flu epidemic, a teensy bit unsettling) - hopefully the next one I read will end more cheerfully!*

*(This is one of the good things about the books, though - like The Pirates of Pompeii, this book pulls no punches on the realities of ancient life).

Edited to add some pretty pictures, thanks Caroline!



The new cover of this book and Lupus, Nubia and Flavia in slightly inaccurate Satrunalia clothes from the TV adaptation (© 2008 LEG)





Miriam in Roman bridal couture, from the wedding that takes place at the end of the book (© 2008 LEG)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

I, Claudius: Some Justice

How do you follow a powerful, dramatic episode containing an event as cataclysmic as the death of Augustus? Well, if you're I, Claudius, you use the bulk of the next episode for a courtroom drama that subtly displays the shifting power structure in the wake of Augustus' death.

The episode is quickly set up in an interesting opening featuring Old!Claudius settling down on the loo for a Number 2. He explains that Tiberius had got so fed up of waiting for Augustus to die that he didn’t want the Empire by the time he got it, and that Tiberius was ‘strange’ and ‘filthy’, and only Germanicus could keep him in check – so, of course, Germanicus immediately (well, five years into Tiberius’ reign) ups and dies. The cause of his death will be the main subject of the rest of the episode.

As we flashback to Germanicus’ dead body, we are introduced to two vital characters – the grown up Agrippina (the Elder), Germanicus’ widow, and their son, the young Gaius, nicknamed Caligula (‘Little Boot’) while living with the army. Fiona Walker overacts a bit as Agrippina, but she has the steely gaze down pat, while Robert Morgan is excellent as the creepy, too quiet young Caligula. Oh, and Herod is back – yay!

Sejanus is now running the Empire, while Tiberius complains about being unloved and Livia feels frustrated that Tiberius, surprisingly, is proving less pliable than Augustus was.

Agrippina is convinced that Germanicus was murderd by Piso, the governor of Syria, on the orders of Tiberius (because the army wanted Germanicus to be emperor). Antonia, ever moral and who used to be close to Tiberius, refuses to believe it, but Tiberius’ own son ‘Castor’ (Drusus the Younger) is more than willing to do so. Agrippina also thinks that the murder weapon was a combination of poison and witchcraft, which only Herod refuses to believe. Germanicus had dismissed Piso, and Agrippina suspects his wife, Plancina, of killing him by these methods. Agrippina explains the various incidents which led her to suspect witchcraft, including gruesome discoveries of the bodies of a cat and baby (the dead baby, by the way, is hilariously obviously a plastic toy of the sort I used to play with in nursery school). Another involved the number 17, which Germanicus was afraid of and which Agrippina thought that only she knew. These things were found in rooms the slaves could not get to and where the windows were too small for a man to climb through.

As Agrippina explains to a sceptical Herod how a tiny figurine disappeared from underneath Germanicus’ pillow and asks him how it could possibly have disappeared, the camera pans round to reveal Caligula standing behind her in the background, listening. This is a rather neat piece of visual foreshadowing, and is even a bit creepy (certainly creepier than the plastic baby was).

Caligula has had a nightmare and wants to sleep in his sister’s room. This is less subtle foreshadowing. A few scenes later we see Antonia incandescent with fury because she has actually caught the two of them naked in bed together, and Claudius rescues Caligula from being locked in the cellar, for which his mother helpfully yells that he should have died, rather than Germanicus.

Our gang’s case rests on a witness called Martina, a well known poisoner who knew Plancina in Antioch. Our gang, by the way, consists of Agrippina, Castor, Antonia, Herod, an unnamed man we don’t know and Claudius, who seems to get on quite well and be considered reasonably intelligent by these members of his family, even if Herod does patronise him and call him ‘Claw-Claw’. They agree to ask for a trial under Tiberius in the Senate, so that he can’t fix it quietly.

Cesare Maccari, "Quo usque tandem (1882-1888, Sala Maccari in the Italian Senate, Rome). Cicero give his first speech against Catiline, who sits alone. From www.wilamette.edu.

Piso is a blustering man who puts all his faith in Tiberius (who is scowling even more than usual), while Plancina is calmer and less cocksure (so you can tell who has more chance of escaping alive). The audience discover that Tiberius has, in fact, encouraged Piso to off Germanicus by letter, and although the letters cannot be read because they bear the imperial seal, every senator will know what they mean and vote in his favour. This tactic, when he uses it, does not impress Tiberius in the least, as he comes under pressure to allow the letters to be read.

Piso also seems to remember killing Germanicus as Plancina’s idea, which puts her in an especially bad mood. She becomes nervous that he will sacrifice her to protect himself. Evil!Captain Picard (Sejanus) put guards around their house and grins at them evilly as he tells them so and demands the return of the letters.

(One of the great things about I, Claudius, by the way, is the attention to detail – Piso throws his toga to the floor carelessly for a slave to pick up and Plancina, like Livia, remains relatively quiet while Piso talks with other men, though she can yell with the best of them when they are alone).

Sejanus tells Tiberius he has to sacrifice Piso and Plancina or the mob will riot, as Germanicus’ supporters are too popular.

Martina disappears and our lot assume that Sejanus has got to her. However, the audience are allowed to discover that Sejanus has now idea where she is either and is also looking for her, as he wants a conviction.

Martina, it turns out (who is played by Nursie from Blackadder by the way) has been snatched by Livia, who is feeding her dinner and discussing poison. Martina is eating the dinner because she is under the false impression that Livia doesn’t get a chance to practice the delicate art of poisoning. (Poisoning, by the way, was considered a woman’s murder method, for obvious reasons – it can be administered in food, which a matron might be overseeing the cooking of, and it doesn’t require muscle power. This is why there are so many women accused of poisoning people, including Livia, Plancina and Agrippina the Younger. Anywhere you read about a Roman man accused of poisoning, the writer is suggesting that there was something effeminate about him).

Martina explains everything to Livia before the dinner starts its work. She got hold of the poison and Plancina planned the murder, but it was actually carried out by Caligula, who hated his father for being too strict. He was responsible for all the supposed witchcraft (knowing things about Germanicus Plancina could not know, getting through small windows and so on). Martina had explained to him how to help the poison by frightening Germanicus to death with apparent witchcraft.

Historically, we don’t know much about Caligula before he became emperor, and we know that for the first few months of his reign all seemed well. He fell gravely ill after these first few months and after that, it was all downhill from there. It is possible, therefore, that he was perfectly fine before the illness but suffered some kind of mental breakdown at that point. (I believe that there are similar theories about Henry VIII, who only started chopping off his wives’ heads after a bad fall from his horse, but I don’t know quite so much about that). On the other hand, it is equally possible that, as I, Claudius suggests, Caligula was always a little disturbed, and the illness just made a problem that was already there worse. In this version, Caligula already thinks he is god, before he’s even reached puberty.

Back in the Senate, Plancina asks (from the steps where she is sitting, as she is not allowed in the Senate) to be tried separately from Piso, since she can see which way the wind is blowing. Plancina tries to convince Piso to kill himself to protect their sons’ inheritance, and goes to Livia to beg for help. Piso insists that he will read another incriminating letter from Livia, which does not have the imperial seal if she does not help him.

This leads to a huge row between Tiberius and Livia, since he won’t let her use the seal and refuses to help her. Livia tells Plancina she will be spared if Piso commits suicide (though Tiberius has promised no such thing) and Plancina convinces Piso to do so, promising (untruthfully) to die with him. When it comes to it, he can’t quite do it, and Plancina ends up shoving the sword into him herself.

Plancina helps Piso exit this world

Our gang’s sombre discussion of the outcome – Piso is dead but Plancina is free – is interrupted by Caligula burning the house down, seemingly for the fun of it, with which the episode ends.

How much you like this episode really depends on how you feel about courtroom drama. As courtroom dramas go, this is well done. Of course, if we're going to see a courtroom drama set in ancient Rome, it would be more fun to see one of Cicero's cases, but since Cicero died some years before the start point of I, Claudius that is hardly possible here (and I wouldn't envy any actor having to portray Cicero in action in court). Ciceronian courtroom drama is available, in the novels of Steven Saylor; this episode of I, Claudius is probably as good as non-Ciceronian Roman courtroom drama can get. It is perhaps a slightly odd choice for a follow-up to the death of Augustus, as it has a slow, steady pace and most of the action happens off screen or in flashback, but that does provide some breathing space before the next episode, which raises the dramatic stakes even higher.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Lord of the Rings: Journey to the Underworld

As I've mentioned before, katabasis, a journey down to the underworld (the land of the dead) was a popular theme in Greek mythology. Hercules went down there, Theseus popped down for a bit of attempted kidnapping and Orpheus' problems in this area are well known. Odysseus also stopped by near the entrance for a visit, and Aeneas got a guided tour. However, despite the frequent hero-traffic, the underworld was, essentially, a place the living could not access. It was situated underground, or at the edge of the world, or both and was the realm of Hades and his abducted bride Persephone. The spirits of the dead existed here, but it was often depicted as a grim place where the dead had no real energy, substance or intelligence (in the Odyssey, Odysseus has to feed the souls of the dead blood before they can recognise him or speak to him).

Elements of the underworld and of heroic katabasis crop up all over the place in fantasy literature. Sometimes, the underworld is literally the land of the dead, as in Greek myth (like that depicted in Maggie Furey's Artefacts of Power series, which I haven't read in years and must re-read...), sometimes it is just a similar sitation that is reminiscent of the ancient underworld (as in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).

The Lord of the Rings doesn't include a great deal of obviously classical mythology; Tolkien was more inspired by ancient Norse and Germanic myths, and he disapproved of mixing and matching mythologies in the way that C. S. Lewis did. However, the appearance of the Paths of the Dead in The Return of the King is pretty clearly influenced by ancient katabasis.

Strictly speaking, the journey to the Paths of the Dead is not a katabasis in the sense that it is not specifically a journey to the land of the dead. There are a couple of different afterlives in Tolkien's mythology, with one for men (and, presumably, hobbits, dwarves and so on) and a separate one for Elves (I'm not sure what happened to Orcs. I haven't read The Silmarillion or all of the Unfinished Tales, so maybe someone who has can enlighten me!). The Paths of the Dead don't go through any of them; rather, they go under a mountain where a group of oath-breaking military ghosts have been cursed to remain until they fulfil the oath they broke. Like the Harry Potter example, this is reminiscent of katabasis, as the characters have to go underground and walk through a place filled with dead people, rather than a literal katabasis. The dead are also somewhat more lively than the classical variety, though perhaps even more unpleasant.

I have to confess, although normally I'm a sucker for an underworld story and am particularly interested in epic descriptions of the underworld, the Paths of the Dead has always been one of my least favourite bits of The Lord of the Rings. In the book (which I first read aged about 10 or 11) I was never quite sure what was going on - Aragorn had joined up with his old buddies and wandered off somewhere, Gimli didn't like it, then we don't hear from them again for ages. By the time they finally turn up again I just want to get back to Frodo.

The film had the potential to do something pretty cool with this section, and I am generally in favour of having the dead show up at the Battle of the Pelannor Fields, since it makes it clear how useful they are, though I think perhaps they shouldn't have won quite so easily - maybe have a slightly smaller army of dead people so it takes longer. My biggest problem with them, though, is that they're green. Why are they green?! It's not an army of the dead, it's an army of Borg. Or maybe they're all related to Slimer from Ghostbusters. Anyway, they look weird.

Why, why are they green?!



I suppose part of the problem is that there's so much going on by this point, one thing is always going to seem less interesting than the others. I love the story between Merry and Theoden in the book, and Eowyn is my hero(ine) so I guess anything that takes me away from that story is bound to seem less interesting. I think I also prefer actual katabasis - that is, a journey to the place where we go when we die - to these similar journeys, which have some of the same elements, but don't offer that privileged glimpse into the next life that real katabasis does.

On the other hand, the disadvantage of a classical journey to the land of the dead is that most of them (with some exceptions) are utterly miserable. The dead are empty and shapeless. If they can talk, they say how much they envy the living, or they continue to mourn wrongs done to them while alive, or the cause of their death. The whole place is dark and shadowy, and although descriptions of Tartarus are sometimes included, we rarely see any sign of the Elysian Fields or the Isles of the Blest (though follow the link for a rare exception from a work of satire). Only in comedy is there any hope for a decent afterlife; all of which is rather depressing for all concerned. A scene like the Paths of the Dead allows the author to indulge in some properly gloomy, scary, spooky underworld imagery without suggesting that this is what all the characters have to look forward to when they eventually die, and this may be its greatest achievement.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)

Gladiator is one of my all-time favourite movies. I loved it so much I went to see it for the second time in France, despite my shaky French (assuring my brother, who has no French, that ‘arrrrgggh!’ is universal). It helps that, in Hans Zimmer’s score and Lisa Gerrard’s vocals, the movie has one of the best movie soundtracks in history (coming second only to Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings in a Classic FM poll in 2005). It’s easy to make fun of this sort of score, especially since so many other films, like Troy, have aped it, but it really is a fantastic piece of music. It also helps that the action sequences are so well choreographed that even I find them interesting.

First things first though: as I think many people know by now, Gladiator is not historically accurate. Which is putting it mildly. It recently made No 8 in a list of the 10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies Ever, just two places behind Apocalypto (though this article would be a lot more convincing if the author hadn't misspelled Marcus Aurelius as Marcus Araelius). I have to confess, though, that I find the historical inaccuracies here much, much less irritating than those that appear in The Patriot (at least Gladiator does not accuse my ancestors of war crimes actually committed by the Nazis) or U-571 (as there are no actual Romans, or close descendants of Romans, left alive to be offended, nor does the film take a notable military achievement from my country and give it to someone else).

The article explains the basic differences between history according to Gladiator and actual history: for anyone who wants to have a look at the primary evidence, Cassius Dio is a good place to start (Books 72 and 73 especially). The most notable change is the restoration of the Republic in AD 180, about 1800 years early (after 31 BC, neither Rome nor any part of Italy was a Republic again until the nineteenth century AD). Presumably modern Western (for which read American) audiences are presumed only to be capable of rooting for someone who's fighting for democracy (don't get me started on 300 - we'll leave that for another day). Cassius Dio does say that Marcus Aurelius may have been concerned about Commodus' character before he died, but most of the rest of the story is pure fiction.

But for all the messing around with history, Gladiator is still a great film. The opening sequences are gorgeous. The dialogue is a touch cheesy but it works, and I confess I love the tagline, 'What we do in life, echoes in eternity'. The battle is suitably epic, the action tough and bloody but then slowed down to something more artistic, the non-military scenes full of opulent fur cloaks and sexual tension all over the place. And Joaquin Phoenix with his shirt off. Yum.

It's also very funny in places - 'You have missed the war' is a rather good line, while I find Marcus Aurelius telling Maximus he just wants him to do one more favour - just a little thing, just
overthrow the current heir to the throne, restore the Republic, completely reorganise the political system of the biggest empire in the world - before he goes home (which Maximus was planning on doing pretty much straight away), absolutely hilarious every time.

Richard Harris puts in a great performance as the philosopher-emperor, showing all the latent power, thoughtfulness and tragedy that it's a great shame he never got to give Dumbledore. All the performances in this film are terrific, Connie Nielson's slightly off-putting accent notwithstanding (everyone else is, of course, speaking The Queen's Latin). Joaquin Phoenix has quite possibly never been better - he makes the seriously unhinged Commodus entirely believable, his actions, though sometimes repulsive, always plausible and shorn of the histrionics sometimes shown in portrayals of the two great mad emperors, Caligula and Nero.

So, to summarise some of the plot: Commodus inflicts Death By
Hug on his father and Maximus, who does not just kiss his hand and plot behind his back like the rest of us would because he is a Hero, has to make a swift getaway, back to his farm. Lucilla, being much more practical, does go for the kiss-the-hand-now, plot-later approach, and guess who's offspring is still alive at the end of the film?! (Yeah, I know, the real Lucius died, but I'm going entirely on the film's version of history now). The slap Lucilla gives Commodus before she kisses the hand is absolutely classic, and doesn't seem to worry him at all.

Having escaped execution (helpfully pausing to explain that the frost makes the blade stick, something the doomed soldier he was talking to probably knew), Maximus rides two horses away, but only has one as he reaches Spain. I think
he ate the other one. Unfortunately, one mand on two exhausted horses can't outrun a series of messengers and soldiers stationed at various points along the way, and we end up with the famous scene where Maximus weeps over the bodies of his wife and child, which is often made fun of for the snot, but is actually very touching and deserving of its Oscar glory.

We move into the middle section of the film, as Maximus is taken to North Africa and sold as a slave for the arena. Scott depic
ts the desert and the heat and the changed atmosphere of the new location brilliantly, though his depiction of Rome, as Commodus rides in, in almost black and white is les successful - grey is not a colour one usually associates with ancient Rome and the attempt to draw a parallel with footage of Hitler at Nuremberg is just a bit too obvious to really work. The scenes in North Africa (filmed in Morocco, though set in modern Algeria) look great though.

One of the most impressive surviving amphitheatres, El Jem in modern Tunisia

When Juba is asked his work and says 'I was a hunter', every time I expect the next lines to go: 'What did you hunt?' 'Romans'.


Maximus spends some time sulking, refusing to fight and ca
rving out bits of his own arm, but decides to put some effort in just in time - whether because he doesn't really have that much of a death wish, or because he is chained to Juba and wants to help him, is hard to say. The action here is so good even I enjoy it, though I do have to keep looking away from all the blood. The bit in a later fight, where Maximus takes two swords to chop off one guy's head, is particularly good. For some reason the bit where all the guys with bull's heads (to resemble the Minotaur) and maces and things are waiting for our guys to come in always reminds me of the house robots on Robot Wars, with the guys out front as the House Gladiators and our guys as the competitors - but I think I might be alone in that.

By the way, gladiator fights in reality were not always to the death. If one's best gladiators were always getting disabled or killed, one would spend an awful lot of money buying new gladiators all the time.

Meanwhile, back in Rome Derek Jacobi is playing a Roman again! Hooray! Gotta love the advert written in Latin as well.

The Colosseum, seen with the Roman Forum from the Victor Emmanuel II monument, and from the interior. Full of tourists, of course.

Maximus says he will give the crowds in Rome something they have never seen before, and our heroes make their way there to admire the Colosseum. We only see the foot of th
e colossal statue that gives it its name though, as Proximo looks up at it.

Commodus, not satisfied with perving over his sister, is leering at his nephew as well. Lucilla gives him a tonic - she really should have just slipped some arsenic in it there and then.

A few more scenes of build up and we're into by far the best sequence of t
he movie, right at the heart of the film. Maximus and friends have been cast as the Carthaginians in the Battle of Carthage, pitted against some fearsome female gladiators in chariots (see here on female gladiators). Maximus uses his superior General-skills to win (and there' some really gruesome actions involving people being sliced in two), leading to much amusement since the barabrians should lose the Battle of Carthage, and Commodus goes down to congratulate him, leading to the classic lines:

'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.'

Commodus is forced to let him live for fear of the crowd and Maximus leaves in triumph. The whole sequences is fantastic, and the score is brilliant as ever - the whole lot is on the soundtrack album in one 13-minute track.

Lucilla has a fabulous costume in this bit, by the way, though it looks more like it belongs on 19th century royalty than 2nd.

(I am aware of the debate surrounding whether thumbs up meant 'live' or 'die' - because one shoves the sword upwards to kill someone - but I think the movie makes the right decision in using the modern meaning of up=good, down=bad, otherwise the audience would be very confused).

After this various less exciting scenes follow, leading up to the inevitable conspiracy. Commodus' line about how Maximus' survival 'vexes me. I'm terribly vexed' is justifiably famous - Joaquin Phoenix is a comic genius.

The archaeology of the Colosseum, unlike the history, is accurately portrayed. As Commodus tries to have Maximus killed by tigers, we see the various trap doors and so on in the arena working in the way we think they did in ancient Rome. The crowd adore Maximus for being merciful but I have to admit, considering the injuries he's inflicted on his opponent and the state of ancient medicine (no anaesthetic) I'm not sure letting him live was the merciful option. Commodus taunts Maximus about the rape and murder of his wife, to make sure we all know just how eeeevil he is.

The tunnels and cells underneath the arena at El Jem, where gladiators, prisoners and wild animals were kept before being set on each other.

Commodus is also intent on bedding Lucilla, a trait usually associated with Caligula - pop culture is blending all the mad emperors into one again. According to Dio Cassius, the real Lucilla was just as bad as Commodus, though he doesn't suggest they slept together.

Maximus dithers for a while but eventually agrees to Lucilla and Gracchus' plan, which is to get him to where his former troops are encamped at Ostia (the town known as the port of Rome) and stage a military coup. Naturally, the plan goes horribly wrong, partly because Lucilla has apparently been over-sharing with her motor-mouthed son.

By the time they make the attempt, Gracchus has already been imprisoned and their other ally, Gaius, killed. Maximus and Lucilla manage to squeeze in a quick snog - nothing too heavy, as we need Maximus to keep focussing on his dead wife, and justified by the idea that they are old flames, then we're back to impending disaster. Maximus' nice German friend is killed, Proximo is killed (because Oliver Reed died; Proximo's ending is very well done and gives him a satisfyingly heroic exit) and Maximus is captured, while Lucilla is left to face a fate worse than death, which she cannot even escape by suicide. Thus we are set up for The Finale.

Commodus wants to fight Maximus himself, but of course, he is a dirty cheat and stabs him in the gut first so poor Maximus is dying throughout his last fight. Maximus said Marcus Aurelius said that death smiles at us all and all a man can do is smile back. I haven't noticed this exact quote in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, but it isn't unlike the sort of thing he said.

The last fight is decent enough; the moment when Maximus' old friend Quintus finally grows a spine and refuses to supply Commodus with a sword is very satisfying and Commodus' eventual death suitably gross (the sounds he makes as Maximus shoves a knife into his throat are truly icky). After that, it becomes difficult for me to see the screen through the flood of tears pouring down my face - I am a sucker for a tragic ending, especially when it involves visions of the afterlife and the solemn removal of the body by the survivors. It may be pure fiction, but it is good fiction. I'm not quite sure why Gracchus is being held prisoner under the Colosseum, but never mind - maybe Commodus was planning to feed him to the lions. Juba's final act in memory of his friend and his joyful expression as he says 'Now we are free' round it all off beautifully and the score excels itself.

One last thing to wonder though - just where do all those red petals at the end come from...?!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Myth Makers 1, Temple of Secrets

I wanted to blog about the Series 2 William Hartnell episode 'The Romans', but haven't yet been able to get hold of it. However, I did manage to find a reconstruction of the lost episode 'The Myth Makers', also a William Hartnell episode, so here we are, back at the Trojan War yet again! This episode has unfortunately been lost, but has been reconstructed by fans using old photos and sound recordings. These are linked with written narration.

So, the reconstruction opens with the First Doctor era credits. Man, I love old Doctor Who title credits! I don't know why, exactly. I suppose I like knowing that this is how the music was originally composed, and I love seeing the 60s psychedelic (albeit in black and white) images swirling across the screen. And it really is a classic tune.

The reconstruction provides a written setting: 'On the Great Plains of Asia Minor, Hector and Achilles battle. Hector is mighty of sword while Achilles is fleet of foot.' So far, so Homeric (though those descriptions, although entirely accurate as far as the Iliad goes, do make it sound like Achilles is running away from Hector, rather than vice versa!). The narration continues: 'Neither of them notice as a strange blue box appears from nowhere'.

(Random thought - why do characters keep calling the TARDIS a box? I imagine boxes to be fairly small, the TARDIS looks more like a shed or a small building or something - mainly it looks like a Portaloo, but they didn't have those in Ancient Turkey).

OK, first and foremost problem with this episode: THE TROJAN WAR (as represented by Homer) DID NOT REALLY HAPPEN. It is a fictional combat. So unless The Doctor has wandered into a Jasper Fforde novel, there is no possible way for him to be there, even if he can travel through all of time and space. Nowhere in time and space, in this universe, could The Doctor go and meet Hector or Achilles.

But, we've dealt with this issue before. So I'll just assume that The Doctor has accidentally wandered into a parallel universe where it really did happen and move on.

There's some great eerie sounding Radiophonic Workshop music going on in the background. Achilles and Hector are speaking - unfortunately, it's quite hard to hear them, due to the very old and crackly sound recording. I can make out that they are not only using classical Queen's English accents (British accents are to be expected of course - these have particularly posh accents, also to be expected in a BBC programme from the 60s); they are speaking some kind of cod-Shakespearian English - one of them calls the other 'princeling', for example. This is probably a deliberate attempt to make them sound Old, and also a result of using older translations of Homer.

The written narration explains what's going on as the two fight, Hector rather unpleasantly taunting Achilles about the death of Patroclus who is, once again, referred to as a 'boy' (see here). Hector seems to be a lot less sympathetic than usual in this version - not only less sympathetic than in other modern version, but nastier than he is in Homer as well. The old production photos reveal some great short-skirted costumes and one of them (I can't tell which) is wearing the most enormous plume in his helmet. In fact, they both have some exciting feather work going on.

The narration now says that, 'Realizing that Hector has an advantage in a straight fight, Achilles turns and runs out of reach once more, still ignoring the blue box'. Interesting... Achilles isn't coming off too well here either, and they really do want to depict Achilles as running away from Hector, when it should be vice versa. Traditionally, Achilles is the greatest warrior of all the Greeks at this point and Hector is utterly doomed (which is why it was foolish of him to think he'd killed Achilles when he killed Patroclus). We're obviously dealing with some pretty heavily altered characters here.

The Doctor, Steven and Vicki have been watching the fight. I haven't seen any of the surviving episodes featuring Steven or Vicki so I don't have much idea what they're like, though I can tell that we've moved past the phase where the companions were the heroes, right at the beginning of the show, and The Doctor is now leader and hero.

The Doctor decides to go and ask Hector and Achilles where they are, explaining that they seem to be doing more talking than fighting and warning Vicki that they might not appreciate her sracastic sense of humour. Achilles is now relying on help from Zeus, and Hector makes fun of Zeus in return. This does not seem like a good idea on either side. The narration then informs us that Hector becomes distracted by The Doctor emerging from the TARDIS, and Achilles takes advantage by running him through with a sword. So the death of Hector and, by extension, the fall of Troy itself (and by further extension, the founding of Rome) is actually all The Doctor's fault. Oops.

The Doctor helpfully explains that one should not kick a man when he is down, and observes that Hector is dead. Achilles thinks that The Doctor is Zeus, despite The Doctor's inital insistence that he is not, before he decides pretending to be Zeus might be useful (this will be a running theme for the next 50 years...). Achilles explains the situation and leads The Doctor off towards the City, to show him tha famous Walls. A 'rough-looking character' (according to the narration) appears with a group of sailors, Odysseus. Achilles is remarkably young and I'm pretty sure I heard Odysseus call him 'boy', and Odysseus seems to think he needs protection.

Odysseus is not buying the The-Doctor-is-Zeus story, and The Doctor walks off towards the TARDIS. Vicki seems to think a walking stick will hold off hardened warriors and gives one to Steven. Odysseus decides to forcibly take The Doctor to their camp, to interrogate him. Achilles is utterly powerless to stop them.

Steven decides to go after The Doctor, while Vicki enthuses about how wonderful it would be to meet the heroes of Greece. Vicki is ordered to stay behind because apparently she has a bad ankle (presumably from the previous serial).

The Doctor is taken to a tent where Agamemnon and Menelaus are feasting, and Agamemnon tells Menelaus off for not acting kingly enough, while Menelaus complains that he wishes he wasn't Agamemnon's brother and doesn't want Helen back, as this is not the first time she's been abducted and he was glad to get rid of her. Agamemnon is using family honour as an excuse for a wra over trade routes - the same explanation as Troy gives, and it works well. Agamemnon calls Menelaus a coward and tells him he should challenge Hector - but luckily their conversation is interrupted by Achilles' entrance and news.

Judging by the photos, the Greeks have some very posh outfits with them in their battle camp, but since they've been there for ten years, that's probably not surprising. Achilles tells the other two that Odysseus has taken the god Zeus prisoner and they have Odysseus and The Doctor brought to them, just in case he really is a god.

Odysseus is not impressed at being commanded by anyone and laughs at the idea that The Doctor is Zeus, while everyone else falls before him. The Doctor tries to prove his godhead with his supernatural knowledge of their private lives, then tells them to set him free, since he can hardly hurt them by himself if he is not a god. The Doctor prophesies their eventual victory, and they put him under a sort of house arrest while they decide what he really is.

Steven is caught by Odysseus and a small, one-eyed, tongueless servant of his called Cyclops (??!!). A very confusing conversation ensues which may or may not have been less confusing with video as well as audio. It involves Steven pretending not to know The Doctor, The Doctor pretending that Steven is Apollo, come to see him, and everyone accusing everyone of being a Trojan spy. In the end, The Doctor says he wants Steven brought to his temple (the TARDIS) as a sacrifice, but the TARDIS has disappeared - da da daaaaaa! End of Episode 1.

There's some really odd characterisation going on here - it remains to be seen whether this is all part of some larger point about history twisting what really happened (which would work as far as the Achilles/Hector fight goes) or whether its just the writers messing around. Agamemnon is recognisibly Agamemnon, and Menelaus' insistence that he doesn't want Helen back is quite funny and a fair adaptation (Menelaus never does want Helen back anyway, in ancient versions he usually wants to kill her and restore his honour). The others, however, are distinctly odd - Odysseus is something of a thug (which doesn't really fit his defining character trait of cleverness, though one could argue that they are all thugs), Achilles is a fairly wet boy and I'm not sure what the point of Cyclops is, though perhaps that will become clear in later episodes.

The more usual view of the clever Odysseus, protecting himself from the Sirens. Mosaic from Carthage museum, Tunisia.

All in all I found this episode more confusing than anything else, but it doesn't help that the visual has been lost and it probably made more sense before - the music certainly suggests that Exciting Things Are Happening at several points. I've also only seen the first episode so far, so it may be that it's working up to a conclusion in which everything will make sense. If it's reasonably faithful Homeric adaptation you're after though, you'll be better off with Troy!

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
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