Sunday, 31 October 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Halloween


'Halloween' is another classic comedy Buffy episode (and no one ever seems concerned that Willow is technically dead for most of the story - she certainly doesn't have Buffy's level of angst about it). The concept (everyone turns into the people they're dressed as) has loads of potential and Buffy as a helpless eighteenth century noblewoman is very amusing, though it's a shame the dress is such a hideous shade of bright pink - someone really needs to tell costume designers that getting an action-oriented character into a girly dress doesn't mean said dress has to be pinker than candyfloss (see also an episode of Firefly whose title I can't remember and, to a lesser extent, Hermione's dress in Goblet of Fire). This is also the episode that establishes that vampires and nasties supposedly stay home on Halloween and gives us lots of Cordelia flirting with Angel, so we can all enjoy the irony of Willow's attempts to assure Buffy that Angel would never go for Cordelia.

The reason everyone turns into their costumes is that the shop-owner, Ethan, has performed some kind of spell or ritual. Ethan, an old 'friend' of Giles's, apparently worships chaos and wanted to create, well, a chaotic situation. To perform his rituals, the words for which are, of course, in Latin, Ethan kneels in front of a double-faced bust that apparently represents Janus, a Roman god (whose name Ethan correctly pronounces 'Yanus', as the Latin word is 'Ianus').

Giles claims Janus stands for 'the division of self, male and female, light and dark'. Which, er, he doesn't. But it does go very well with the theme of the episode, in which we see the tougher (and more chivalrous) side of Xander, the weaker side of Buffy, the sexy side of Willow and the Dark Side of Giles - an excellent plot development that stopped Giles from being a tweed-wearing, tea drinking walking stereotype and gave us the sublime 'Band Candy' in season three.

Janus, from the Vatican museum

Janus was the god of doors and gateways and, like a door, looked both ways, hence the double head. He was also a god of beginnings, which is why he gives his name to January, the first month of the year. He stands, not so much for division, as for liminal spaces, that is, places or situations that exist on the borders, neither one thing nor the other. He is usually, though not always, depicted with two identical, often bearded faces. Ethan's bust is a bit different, with one plain and serious face and one bearded face which is modelled after 'comedy' masks from ancient theatre, so the whole effect essentially plays on the well known modern juxtaposition of comic and tragic masks. This is an unusal way to depict Janus, but it works very well for the episode's theme and the comic mask is nicely creepy and provides a more interesting look for the prop than a standard Janus bust would. (Greek theatrical masks are seriously creepy, especially the comic ones, how anyone sat through plays looking at them I don't know!)

Ethan's fantastically creepy Janus

Gates and especially doorways seem to have been used in Roman magic spells; certainly, the witches in poetry (who may or may not have anything in common with real magical practices) often refer to liminal places like cross-roads (Theocritus' Idyll 2) or doorways in their spells. So Janus is a fairly logical god to attach to a magic spell. He doesn't, however, have anything to do with Chaos. Chaos, parent of Night among others, was an important part of creation mythology, but not connected with regular worship or cult practices. If you were looking for an ancient deity to worship as the embodiment of chaos, well, there isn't one, but you'd be closer with Bacchus or Cybele.

'Halloween' is a brilliant episode, hilarious and sweet as all the best comedy episodes are (plus it's the introduction of Ripper Giles!). It ends with Ethan's ominous note, 'Be seeing you,' which is presumably a reference to classic British TV series The Prisoner, and suitably creepy. The episode's use of Janus is also very effective. Although the nature of the god has been altered somewhat from Roman mythology, the use of the double-faced god as a symbol of the division of self does work rather well and the use of the theatrical masks for his faces is a stroke of genius. The episode's emphasis on their incarnation of Janus as a symbol of one divided being does rather lose the emphasis on looking both forward and backward that gives the month of January its name, but having been transposed to Halloween, it works rather well, bringing out hidden aspects of the regular characters just as the mythology of Halloween suggests that the night brings hidden things, always present but not usually seen, out of the darkness.

If you're in the mood for more spooky-type classical references, here are some more Halloween-y posts from the archives:

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and Stardust
The Mummy (1999)
True Blood season two
Charmed, 'Oh my goddess!'
Satanic sit-com Old Harry's Game
Other Buffy and Angel posts: Giles the Classicist, 'Storyteller', 'Restless', Angel's Oracles, 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered'
Harry Potter posts: Books 1-3, Books 4-5, Philosopher's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Half-Blood Prince

One of Chris Riddell's beautiful illustrations from The Graveyard Book

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

True Blood Season Two (Part One)


Halloween seems to be especially big this year - it hasn't always been much of a thing in England (though both Ireland and Scotland have celebrated it for years, I think it may have originated in one or the other). I've always suspected that this is because it's too close to Bonfire Night, and we have our autumnal light-bringing ritual to mark the drawing in of the nights then. Anyway, everyone seems very excited about it this year so in addition to the Halloween-themed Buffy post I have planned for Sunday, I thought I'd get in the mood a little early with some very different vampires.

True Blood is an intriguing show. I started watching it because a couple of friends alerted me to the fact there appeared to be a maenad among the main characters. The show has a largely likeable cast (Sookie, Tara and the rather yummy Sam the bartender) and a great opening credits sequence. I've never been to the American South (though I'd love to go) so I have no idea how accurately the images here portray it, but it certainly conveys a really strong sense of atmosphere, helped by the deliciously catchy and naughty-sounding song 'I Wanna Do Bad Things With You'. (I could live without the gross dead animals though).

The trouble is, the vampires on True Blood are just too nasty for it to really work for me. They're represented as an oppressed minority, chiefly drawing parallels with the gay community (the title sequence features a church with a notice reading 'God hates Fangs' and vampires supposedly 'came out of the coffin' a couple of years ago). I can see the idea behind it - there are good vampires and bad vampires, just as there are good and bad people in any group. But the 'good' vampires here are not vegetarian Cullens, ensouled Angels or well-behaved members of the League of Temperance. Of the two main vampires, who both serve as love interests for the heroine, one locked a man in a cell and tortured him for weeks, throwing the dismembered limbs of his former cellmate around at him, and the other recently turned a teenage girl into a vampire. Apparently this was because he had killed another vampire, so he had to make one to replace the dead one. Just think about the implications of that metaphor for a moment. I really don't think implying that members of minority groups really are inherently violent and sadistic (the main love interest is also shown enjoying sex while covered in the blood of a gasping victim who hasn't died yet - lovely) is doing anyone any good, nor do I feel the slightest bit of sympathy for any of the True Blood vampires, who are all downright creepy and not remotely attractive (no, not even Alexander Skarsgard) (Later edit: I would like to retract that last statement. I get it now. Boy oh boy I get it now...).

Anyway, I started watching at episode 2, season 2 to see what this possible maenad was up to. I didn't post about it immediately because True Blood is one of those very arc-driven US shows where plot developments happen veeery slooowwly over a number of episodes, so single episodes don't necessarily move things along very far. However, we're halfway through season 2 now, so I thought I'd stop and take stock.

A maenad is a female follower of the god Bacchus/Dionysus. In real life, they had a biannual festival in which they went into the mountains and had wild party, complete with drumbeats and getting themselves into a state of ecstasy but probably without vast amounts of sex, since they were all women (I'm not saying that rules out sex, but sex was not the object of the ritual - there are other types of ecstasy). In myth, they were, of course, even wilder, tearing Pentheus to pieces and so on. They crop up every now and again, most bizarrely in Prince Caspian.

Weird shaky-thing, complete with Greek-ish costume, in case we haven't got it yet.

Maryann the maenad's main trick so far is to throw a wild party, do a weird shaky-thing with her body (a quite bizarre CG effect) and make everyone have a lot of sex while their eyes go black and they go into a trance. I'm calling her a maenad because that, according to the internet, is what she will turn out to be, though so far signals have been mixed. According to Billie Doux, the first episode of season 2 (which I missed) featured this line:

Maryann: "The Greeks knew there was the flimsiest veil between us and the divine. They didn't see the gods as inaccessible, the way everyone does today."

There was also a mural of Pan, the goat-legged god of music and shepherds. Her reference to accessing the gods makes sense for someone who is, essentially, a worshipper, not a divine being herself (though she seems to have aquired some supernatural powers). But in addition to apparently worshipping both Pan and Dionysus (nothing wrong with that in a polytheistic religion) she has the ability to force shape-changers to change, which in the ancient world would be connected with witchcraft (Circe turned men into pigs, while the witch in Apuleius' Metamorphoses turns into an owl and her magic turns Lucius into a donkey). Then things get really confused; there is yet another minotaur running around (whether there's more than one or not remains to be seen) and the ritual at her latest party involves some kind of bull's head thing.

In the latest episode, Sam told Daphne (a minion of Maryann) that he didn't want to go near drums because they only lead to hippies and cults. Daphne replied 'not this time' in the sort of knowing, evil tone of a minion about to reveal her evilness to the guy she's been duping - except that is exactly, in the most literal sense, what the drums are leading them to. The cult of Bacchus/Dionysus was one of the most prominent of the ancient religions known today as mystery cults ('cult' from the Latin cultus, worship). These were groups dedicated to a particular god who carried out secret rituals known only to members, and which new members had to undergo sometimes lengthy initiation ceremonies to join. Their secretive nature leads to all sorts of speculation from modern writers on what might have gone on behind closed doors with, of course, no evidence to contradict even the wildest ideas, because it was secret. Daphne has most definitely led Sam into a cult.

(Daphne is also a Greek name, but whether or not she has anything to do with Apollo or laurel trees remains to be seen).

The trouble with the bull's head thing, though, is that it's connected to the wrong cult. Bulls were associated with another mystery cult, that of Mithras, joined chiefly by soldiers. Bulls were also essential to the taurobolium, a rite carried out by followers of the cult of Cybele. I'm not sure, however, what they would have to do with the cult of Dionysus. And the minotaur thing is getting weird now - just what is so attractive about bull-headed men?!

Maryann's ultimate goal has yet to be revealed, but so far her parties seem to bear more resemblence to the pop culture notion of a Roman orgy than a Bacchic festival (though the word orgy does come from orgia, a Greek word for ritual connected with mystery religions). Ecstasy, sometimes including sexual ecstasy, is certainly a feature of the mythology of Bacchus and may have been a big part of Bacchic ritual (hmm, that sentence came out wrong!). But on the television - unsurprisingly - sexual ecstasy seems to be the only type that Maryann the maenad is interested in. Considering the title sequence includes images of Christian religious ecstasy, it seems rather a shame to reduce Bacchic ritual to just sex and nothing more.

Further analysis will have to wait until we know more about Maryann and what she actually wants, which so far is unclear (well, she wants everyone around her to have a lot of sex, but I'm guessing there's more to it than that). Meanwhile, I will continue to watch and hope to see more of cute Sam the bartender, and less of blood, guts or really any vampire at all! (Later edit: I would also like to retract this statement. Except for the part about Sam, I still like him too).

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (dir. Chris Columbus, 2002)


This is probably my least favourite of the Harry Potter films, though I enjoyed the book on first reading. The film seems to have all the flaws of Philosopher's Stone (false and forced sounding delivery from several places, which I put down to direction as they've all been perfectly good in other things, far too much crammed into an episodic and overlong storyline and although the sets and architecture look great, the landscape and weather is not very authentic) without the essential charm and magical, almost Christmassy feel of the first. Some of the problems come from the source novel, of course - the House Elves, my least favourite aspect of Harry's world, are introduced here, Ron throws up slugs (just disgusting), there are masses of giant spiders, every single female character turns into a drooling idiot at the sight of Gilderoy Lockhart and although Hagrid starts out well, rescuing Harry from Diagon Alley comforting Hermione, this book features him at his most dangerously stupid and irritating (no, Hagrid, you shouldn't send schoolboys off to talk to giant man-eating spiders).

It's not all bad though. The first time I read the book, I was really impressed, mainly because the petrification of Hermione and the identification of Ginny as the (mind-controlled) culprit were genuinely surprising, and the finale is exciting and much more plausible than that of Philosopher's Stone (those spells 'protecting' the Stone make no sense at all, except Dumbledore's). The movie does this well, the random North by Northwest-style of the sets works, and I think Daniel Radcliffe does a pretty good job of the nearly-dead-acting required. The reaction of the female characters to Lockhart is infuriating, but the character himself is pretty funny and Kenneth Branagh plays him well (but then, I think I could probably watch Kenneth Branagh read the phone book). The Burrow looks great too and the casting is perfect (plus we get the wonderful lines 'Mummy, have you seen my jumper?' 'Yes, dear, it was on the cat!'). Casting an adult as Moaning Myrtle was a bit of a surprise, but because she's so translucent (and Shirley Henderson is very good) they just about get away with it. The duels are rather good too.

Another view of Lacock. They stopped filming there after this film, and just stuck to sets.

The idea of the cry of the mandrake that kills those who hear it is best attested from Shakespeare onwards, but it is thought to have had its root (hehe) in the ancient world. Josephus mentions the danger of the mandrake and the difficulty of digging it up, though not specifically the scream (Jewish War, 7.6.3), and Pliny the Elder just says people avoid having the wind in their face while digging it up (Natural History 25.94); he adds that it can be used to treat the eyes.

Pliny is a bit more forthcoming on the Basilisci Serpentis, which apparently lives in North Africa, moves with its middle up the air, and can kill a man with poison transmitted through a spear and his clothing (Natural History 8.78). What Pliny is describing, though, isn't a mythological animal, but an animal that Pliny believed rally existed, so there is no petrification by sight; that belonged only in the realm of myth. He also says it's not much more than twelve inches long. The possibly giant, petrifying version seems to be a later, medieval, development.

We do, of course, see one solidly classical mythological beast in this film - Fawkes the phoenix. Having said that, Herodotus describes the phoenix as a real, though extremely rare, bird, which creates a egg of myrrh in which it carries its father to the temple of Helios (the sun) in Egypt (2.73). But we have some proper mythological sources for it as well, including Ovid's Metamorphoses - though even Ovid describes the phoenix born from the ashes as the offspring of the recently deceased 500-year-old bird, not the same bird reborn (15.385ff). Philostratos thought it sang it's own funeral dirge, like a swan (Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 3.49) but it's Claudian, a fourth century poet, who implies that the reborn phoenix is the same animal as the 'father' phoenix, and significantly one of the two poems in which he does so is about the rape of Persephone, a myth that signifies the death and rebirth of vegetation with the passing seasons (The Phoenix and The Rape of Proserpine 2.78ff). All agree that the phoenix lives for at least five hundred years, in which case Harry's walking in on Fawkes just as he burns is a staggering coincidence.

As far as I know, Rowling added the healing powers of phoenix tears and their ability to carry very heavy loads for plot-related purposes (I wonder if she was inspired in part by Tolkien's fondness for eagles ex machina?). Obviously, let me know in the comments if anyone knows of any other sources that list these as phoenix properties, but I'm not aware of any! Bizarrely, there are now, it seems, companies selling health products called 'phoenix tears' - Rowling has actually successfully added to a two and a half thousand year old myth (Tolkien must be turning green with envy in his grave). I like how Fawkes seems to be a very rare bird in the Potterverse - not the only one in the world, but phoenixes, it is implied, are few and far between and pretty special. This seems appropriate for a bird that can auto-regenerate and can fix any number of dire injuries by crying on them. Fawkes himself is rather beautiful. I'm so glad he's an animatronic creation rather than CGI - it makes him so much more solid and real, and the tilt of his head is rather endearing (though the CGI on his burning is very effective).

It really is far too long, but I can't hold too much against the film that gave us all Lucius Malfoy, the most wonderfully odious (and sexy, apparently - I'm more of a Snape woman myself) character in recent children's literature. It is hard to take it seriously, however, once you've seen French and Saunders' magnificent spoof, Harry Potter and the Secret Chamberpot of Azerbaijan. Which I recommend heartily, unless you're Rupert Grint, in which case, don't look and comfort yourself by remembering that it was a long time ago!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Beggar of Volubilis


This review shouldn’t contain such big spoilers as the last one, but for those who don’t like to know much at all going in, caution is advised!

Much like certain other well-known children’s series, as The Roman Mysteries passes the halfway mark (technically somewhere halfway through Book 9, The Colossus of Rhodes) it starts to build slowly towards the final conclusion, which will come in Book 17, The Man from Pomegranate Street. Some of the earlier books had cliffhangers that led on into the next book (notably between Books 2 and 3, The Secrets of Vesuvius and The Pirates of Pompeii, and between Books 7 and 8, The Enemies of Jupiter and The Gladiators from Capua) but from Book 13, The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem, onwards the stories begin to form part of one bigger story that will culminate with the end of Titus’ reign in the last book. Kids, if you can, persuade your parents to buy Books 13-17 all at once from Amazon, so you don’t have to wait for the next one! Each book still has its own conclusion, providing a satisfying ending to that book’s particular story and a conclusion to various plot threads, but the plot of each feeds into the overall story and sometimes not everything is as it seems.

The upshot of all this is that, although I have now finished the series, there are some aspects of the main plot I don't want to talk about too much here, for the benefit of anyone who hasn't read Books 15-17. (I also drafted this review before I finished the series, and I’m known for guessing the endings of things and not always being entirely right, and then I feel very embarrassed. Old Housemate/Best Friend – the one I watched Rome with – once spent 14 hours on a train with me going on about how I knew exactly who the Half-Blood Prince was, and wasn’t it obvious. I was completely wrong. I apologise to her about this from time to time).

This doesn’t matter, though, because The Beggar of Volubilis fits into one of my favourite sub-genres, the Quest story. Quests come in all shapes and sizes, often but not always in fantasy, but my favourite type is the variety where our heroes have to go on a long journey across difficult terrain to get to wherever it is they’re going. In Beggar, our heroes have been sent to find a gem for the Emperor, and thanks to a missed ship, they are forced to travel overland across the desert to get to Volubilis (in modern Morocco) from Sabratha (in modern Libya). The book’s descriptions of the desert and of life with a camel train are lovely. When I was a child, I loved stories about the desert – that’s partly why I loved The Horse and His Boy – and this is a good one. It also has something of a Famous Five vibe about it – rather than their usual practical caution, the children here run away from home and strike out on their own. They have good reasons for doing so, and it’s nice to see them standing on their own without adult assistance, making this a particularly exciting adventure for them. There are the usual fun nods to pop culture as well – in this case two pantomime artistes called Hanno and Barbarus – like Hanna Barbara perhaps?!

Also, I was always going to love this story because our heroes spent the entire time with one of my favourite animals - camels!


Camels! Aren't they gorgeous? That's me below, apologising to my camel - mentally named You B*****d in honour of Sir Pterry and for trying to throw me off sideways - here, I'm saying sorry for sitting on him wrong and making friends. He was much better behaved on the way back! These pics belong to Another Old Housemate/Best Friend, who deserves much respect and gratitude for letting me talk her into getting on a camel!

This book has a lot of fun playing around on the edges of Roman history. Basically, the titular Beggar is either a mad beggar who used to work for the Emperor Nero or, just possibly, Nero himself, having persuaded another to die in his place and escaped (something that was genuinely rumoured at the time – no member of the Imperial Family could die without someone turning up and insisting they were, in fact, the deceased and ought to be on the throne – it happened to Postumus as well). I confess, I love the idea that not only did Nero survive to become a mad beggar in North Africa, but that he was genuinely talented at playing the lyre! History assumes that he was really bad at it and that everyone around him was just toadying up to him when they gave him prizes or praised his playing, but I rather like the notion that, terrible, terrible Emperor though he was, he might really have been good at music.

[Edited to add - there was some very interesting stuff about Cleopatra in this book that I meant to talk about and forgot! Will discuss it when I do the next episode of Rome, which introduces Cleopatra].

It’s lovely to read a story that takes us beyond the well-trod ground of Rome, Athens, Egypt and the Near East and introduces us to a new area of the Roman Empire, which was not far off its biggest expansion when this story takes place. For the most part, this story is also pleasantly fun – there is certainly danger, as Flavia in particular discovers, but there is also a real sense of adventure here. This is because the children have, like Flavia’s uncle (and Jonathan’s brother-in-law) Gaius, literally run away from their problems at home and, in Flavia’s case, run away from the prospect of growing up, getting married and possibly dying in childbirth. Much as they acknowledge the wrongfulness of this, as Gaius agrees to return and Flavia reluctantly concludes that marriage might not be so bad after all, the fact that they have left behind the mourning in Ostia to travel across an exotic landscape creates a more fun and exciting story than would otherwise have been possible.

Camel outside the amphitheatre at El Jem, Tunisia. The muzzle makes me sad, but I love the coloured thing on his back.

This was a review copy.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Rome: Pharsalus


As this episode opens, everyone is recovering from earlier events and preparing for the coming battle. We see dead bodies on a beach, washed up from the shipwreck Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier were caught in at the end of the last episode. Boring and Dodgey themselves have, of course, survived. In ‘Caesar’s camp in Greece’, Caesar is putting up with some snark from his slave. Pompey’s lot are feeling confident (and are colour coded for your convenience – they were a bluey-greeny colour, Caesar and Antony wear red. Even Cato has got out of his robe and sandals and into a uniform). Cato is all for attacking Caesar and walking in his blood, Pompey is less convinced. The town crier informs all of Rome that Caesar is surrounded and outnumbered, which panics Atia into sending Octavia to ask Servilia for some guards to protect them when Pompey’s troops come marching back, victorious. Octavia doesn’t want to go and has ceased to care about her own potential ravishment and murder in her desperation for the whole thing to be over (and she’s hiding the fact that Servilia’s been flirting with her). Niobe’s sister comes over to make up, which is nice.

Boring and Dodgey have washed up on a sand bank in the middle of the sea. When Boring tells him not to bother fishing as they’ll die of thirst first, Dodgey suggests drinking the blood of the dead men, but Boring suggests this will be too salty. Boring seems to have decided to sit on the beach and die, while Dodgey is at least trying to do something about it.

Octavia is doing herself up for Servilia. She bursts into tears in front of Servilia, who tries to comfort her, but Octavia runs away before she can get any further. And thus begins Rome’s second most ludicrous, sex-for-the-sake-of-it, storyline (the first comes in an episode or two and also involves Octavia). Servilia was one of Caesar’s favourite mistresses and Octavia was the holier-than-thou, all too virtuous sister of Octavian. Both of them were, by all accounts, heterosexual. But, according to Rome, the two of them had a sexual relationship with each other.

In fairness to the writers, there is an argument to be made for this sort of invention. Roman writers usually recorded a man’s sexual preferences, but since they were writing for and about men, they hardly ever recorded instances of women having sexual relationships with other women. If a woman was unfaithful to her husband with a man (and was caught) that might be recorded, but since a sexual relationship with another woman cannot produce illegitimate children, it was of little interest and was rarely written about, though Sappho’s poetry was much admired. So it is entirely possible that some Roman women had sexual relationships with each other that we don’t know about and it could be a really interesting area to explore. But these particular women, who were little connected with each other in real life, seem a very odd choice and there seems to be no good reason for including this relationship other than titillation.

Caesar thinks his advantage in the battle is that they must win or die, whereas Pompey’s men have other options (running away, presumably). There is lots of ponderous washing of the face and putting on of armour on both sides, and Caesar shows how tough he is by cutting his own hand for no particular reason (presumably it’s supposed to be a religious ritual of some kind, but he’d be better off sacrificing a goat in that case, not cutting his own hand – a little bit of his blood isn’t much use to the gods).

The battle is represented by some blurry, slow-motion waving of swords, and takes about two seconds. Rome had a much, much bigger budget than I, Claudius or Spartacus: Blood and Sand but it was still only a television budget and that really shows here – I, Claudius’ verbal reports of battles were less incongruous than this. The sheer brevity of the scene, which covers one of the most important battles of the Civil War, makes it seem ridiculous and obviously done on the cheap – I would have preferred a slightly longer description by one bloodied soldier or messenger if actual fighting was too expensive.

Caesar wins and Pompey is very upset. So he sits under a tree for a bit.

Cato is heading off to Africa for money and soldiers, convinced they’re not beaten until dead. Brutus and Cicero, however, have had enough and are off to surrender to Caesar. Cicero insists that he is not afraid to die, just tired and fed up. Brutus appears to be fed up of the food. Even Cato has abandoned Pompey, insisting they should travel separately.

Boring Soldier is looking forward to seeing his mum again in the afterlife and Dodgey wonders if they have a system for finding people (he’s obviously never seen A Matter of Life and Death, where the afterlife is extremely well organised). Boring isn’t that keen to see his mum, though, as he abruptly changes his mind when he realises the potential of floating corpses as raft-building material.

Pompey is travelling incognito and arguing with his nose-less guide. Back in Rome, Octavia is masturbating and praying (not both at once) which we are presumably supposed to attribute to her feelings for Servilia. I’m not sure why she’s praying so much, lesbianism was not of sufficient interest to male Roman writers to bother prohibiting it and Sappho was positively admired. We’re several decades before Christianity and she’s not Jewish, so why is she so upset about it? She then pops over to Servilia’s to ‘do some weaving’. Actual looms have been set up but weaving is not entirely in evidence. While they’re flirting, a slave brings word of Caesar’s victory, but does not know what has happened to Brutus. Octavia goes to comfort Servilia and, of course, kissing ensues because on television it is impossible to comfort someone without kissing them.

Back to Greece again, where Cicero and Brutus surrender to Caesar, who responds by hugging them and grinning like a loon (maybe because Brutus really is his son?). Caesar was expecting Pompey, if still alive, to surrender and is baffled that they haven’t. Boring and Dodgey have, of course, run straight into Pompey, whom Dodgey recognises. Noseless tries to get Boring and Dodgey to join him in betraying Pompey and claiming a reward, so Boring kills him. Boring then tries to claim Pompey as a prisoner of the 13th Legion, despite the fact he and Dodgey are the only members of that Legion present. Pompey explains that he lost the battle because some of his men bolted and begs Boring to let him take his wife and children to Egypt for safety, to which Boring agrees because he is secretly on Pompey’s side anyway.

Octavia and Servilia have done the sex, somewhat surprisingly off screen (presumably this is bait to get people to tune in next time). Boring and Dodgey take a horse and some money and head off, Dodgey haranguing Boring all the way for letting Pompey go and denying them rich rewards from Caesar, while Boring complains that Pompey is not a slave to be sold. At the camp, Caesar tells the two of them that they are among only 14 survivors of the storm. And then Boring does the most ridiculously honourable and completely implausible thing he does throughout the series (and he does this sort of thing a lot) – he tells Caesar that they bumped into Pompey but let him go because ‘it would be wrong’ to capture him (he is at least good enough to leave Dodgey out of this insane notion). This is utterly, utterly ridiculous. Letting Pompey go was bad enough in itself, but going and telling Caesar about it is suicide. Caesar points out that he pretty much needs Pompey dead, otherwise people will still fight for him, and then lets them go with a warning that only he gets to be merciful. When they have left, he tells Antony that he thinks the two of them have powerful gods on their side and he doesn’t want to harm them for fear of offending said gods. This is equally silly. Caesar rarely referred to religion or the gods in his writing (I can tell you for a fact that he does not record a single prophetic dream in any of his works!). He did not, it would seem, consider ideas about the gods to be relevant to military strategy. So why would he be swayed by the notion that someone might be protected by the gods when they’d just let his mortal enemy go? It's lazy writing, using the fact that other Roman writers sometimes suggested that ideas about not wanting to offend the gods might motivate action to cover up for a really silly plot development. Basically, the whole scene completely disregards any kind of logic purely for the sake of keeping Boring and Dodgy alive when they shouldn’t be. Their encounter with Pompey itself is no more than an excuse to have Pompey interact with our Everyday Heroes – it would have been better and more logical to have Pompey express his despair to his wife.

Pompey’s ship arrives in Egypt and he takes a boat to go ashore, where he is promptly stabbed and then beheaded by a former legionary, in front of his wife and children, watching from the boat.

Since this episode is called ‘Pharsalus’, the lack of an actual battle or any detailed description of the battle is a bit of a disappointment, but the ending is very good. Pompey’s death is very well staged and shot, capturing both the indignity of it and the high tragedy, reflected in his wife and children witnessing it. Octavia and Servilia’s relationship makes no sense to me because I don’t see any strong narrative reason for it, and Boring is at his most ridiculously, suicidally pompous, but that ending pulls it all back up and has me eager to see the next episode, where we get to meet Cleopatra.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (dir. Chris Columbus, 2001)


This first Harry Potter film is not as accomplished as many of the later ones, being rather more cardboard cut-out in its style as well as somewhat overlong and bloated, but Columbus did manage to capture the magic of Harry Potter’s world, so I quite like it. Although this Hogwarts doesn’t look much like it’s in Scotland, the design of Diagon Alley is gorgeous, all rickety old houses and twisting streets and the castle of Hogwarts itself looks great (I had a lovely poster on my wall at university of Hogwarts at night, with all the first years in their boats rowing towards it). Casting and costumes both reflect the books perfectly (actually, I always pictured Professor McGonagall as Bebe Neuwirth, Lilith from Cheers and Frasier, but any excuse to watch Maggie Smith is a good one. And Snape really ought not to be any older than his mid-30s, but Alan Rickman is too completely perfect in the role for me to care. The glare at Harry and exquisite flick of the hair as he says, oozing malevolence, that ‘people will think you’re... up to something’ makes me grin every time. That man does the best Hair Acting I’ve ever seen).

As I re-watched the film, I wondered if wizards use owls for their postal service because owls symbolise wisdom – which does rather beg the question why Minerva McGonagall, named for Athena/Minerva, a goddess of wisdom and war who had a particular connection with owls, turns into a cat rather than an owl? But that’s really an issue with the books, not the films. Also in the category of things that hadn’t occurred to me before, how come Ron has a different accent to the rest of his family?!

Much like the plural minotaurs who seem to be all over fantasy at the moment, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone features a giant three-headed dog called Fluffy who is, we can only presume, one of a larger species of giant three-headed dogs. (The alternative is that the Irish fella Hagrid met in the pub went down to Hades and stole Hades’ personal hound, taking him back up to the world and selling him to a gameskeeper who decided to keep him in a school. Which seems... unlikely). Cerberus is supposed to be especially large in myth, but the gigantic dog here is bigger that Cerberus is in most vase paintings. This is partly because Heracles brought Cerberus us from the underworld, rather than killing him, so he’s unlikely to be that enormous, but mainly because otherwise he wouldn’t fit on the vase. The humungous dog here is nice, though, a suitably scary guard-dog (and would, of course, look smaller next to fully grown adults rather than eleven year olds).

Centaurs come up time and again and their most interesting Harry Potter appearance is in The Order of the Phoenix, so I won’t look at them in too much detail here (see previous discussions). I also don’t want to dwell on the centaurs in this movie too much, as the CGI is absolutely awful. I don’t usually complain about dodgy special effects because I think viewers should just use their imaginations, but this is a special case. The centaur here looks utterly ridiculous and bizarrely ape-like, and is rather larger than he needs to be. The BBC produced a slightly iffy but certainly satisfactory centaur in the late 1980s by splicing together footage of a man and footage of a horse – I’d much rather look at that than at this weird CG thing.

I’ll indulge in some random non-Classic-y thoughts as well while I’m here. I always thought, in the books, that the robes the children wear as their school uniform were more like the adults’ robes, or Gandalf’s – full garments that replace other clothing. I think the combination of ordinary school uniforms with robes as cloaks over the top works though – it makes the children look a bit less strange, as their outfits look more like graduation outfits, which we do see in the real world, albeit not very often, and they can look more casual by taking off the robes. The books in the restricted section have chains on them – have they been stolen from the Library of Unseen University?! And I’ve always thought Professor Quirrell’s end was a bit too horrifically nasty, especially given the general tone of the film and young target audience. And the fact that Harry essentially murders him doesn’t seem to worry anyone – sure, it was self-defense, but was putting his hands all over his face strictly necessary? But perhaps I’m just excessively squeamish.

And on a half-Classics-y note: does anyone else have fun imagining that it’s actually Emperor Marcus Aurelius running Hogwarts with serene philosophical majesty? Just me? OK, never mind.

It is over-long and it is lacks a certain depth, but I like this first Harry Potter movie. Not as much as the others perhaps, but I do like it – thanks largely to John Williams’ score, it has the magical feel it needs to have and although the movie may have gone a bit too far in trying to be faithful to the books, including just a bit too much stuff, it is fun seeing these characters come to life as if they’re sprung up from the page. I’ve even been known to shed a tear or two when Hagrid gives Harry that photo album at the end.

Lacock, near Bristol, where the first two Harry Potter movies did some filming. I think the cauldron was put in there for the tourists. And that's one of my best friends' elbows in the corner!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem


Spoiler warning – I’m going to start this review by revealing the end of the story, so turn away now if you want to be surprised!

Having said that, the reason I’m starting at the end is that when a book opens with a dedication that apologises to the actors for killing off their characters, followed by the opening sentence ‘Someone was going to die; of that he was perfectly sure’, the ending is not intended to be a surprise. When one lead female character is heavily pregnant, it’s also pretty clear who it is who’s going to kick the bucket. Alas, poor Miriam. In a way, it had to be. These books are intended to educate as well as entertain and although we know Flavia’s mother died in childbirth, that has less impact for young readers because it's the sort of old wound that you find all over children’s books. Orphans and children with missing parents crop up all the time, because getting rid of the parents frees the children up to have adventures, and their loss is rarely a source of mourning, except in Harry Potter. In the Roman Mysteries, Flavia does mourn the loss of her mother, but she does so along with all three of her friends (before Jonathan and Lupus’ mothers reappeared) and her loss has nothing of the trauma of Nubia’s, so it gets a bit buried (no pun intended). The death of a young character’s sister, however, a character we have got to know and who is barely older than our heroes, really brings home the dangers of marriage and childbirth in a pre-industrial society. Having cheated and started on the next book already, I know that this is a theme which is important in the following book, as Flavia and Nubia have to face the reality of marriage and the very real possibility of an early death, so it’s an important element to introduce. It’s a shame poor Jonathan has to suffer even more though. Much as he behaves in a thoroughly foolish manner sometimes, let’s hope God and Fortune smile on him a bit more in the remaining few books, as he does seem to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop more often than not!

Most of this story, however, is not about the misery of childbirth (thankfully). In fact, it’s a courtroom drama with some very nice fictional examples of Roman legal speeches, giving readers a flavour of what Roman justice was like. All the courtroom scenes are nicely done, but the most effective is probably the scene where one of the prosecutors attacks our heroes’ characters (which is not particularly difficult to do, given the events of the previous books). We readers know that our heroes are good and honourable and that there are explanations for all these things, but the judges and spectators do not, and respond with hostility. This is both an excellent demonstration of how Roman law worked, with character assassination at the heart of the legal proceedings (Cicero’s Pro Caelio is probably the best known example) and a sound lesson to young readers – a brief summary of selected highlights of someone’s history (all of which, in the story, were true, but misinterpreted) does not give you an accurate picture of their character.

The solution is nicely dramatic and incorporates that old favourite of pre-DNA testing courtroom dramas – the Wound That Could Only/Could Not Be Inflicted By A Left-Handed Person. Some of the other clues are really clever. Two are based on Latin (and no, I didn’t get either of them, but this is due to my usual inability to find clues in detective stories rather than a lack of Latin) and one is based on the Roman law concerning wills. Readers are not, of course, expected to pick up on these until they are explained in the narrative but it’s nice to think that someone with a good knowledge of both Latin and Roman law, and a better head for these things than me, might be able to pick up on them by themselves. And the one based on the different uses of the ablative is a lovely touch – perhaps readers who later study some Latin will be able to go back and see how it works.

The archaeological site at Masada

The other theme of this story is, of course, the suffering of the Jews in the Jewish Wars and, more specifically, the mass suicide at Masada. This is reported by Josephus, who claims that 960 men, women and children killed each other in a suicide pact (leaving the last man to fall on his sword) but that two women, one of whom was related to the leader, Eleazar, and five children escaped. In the novel, the titular slave-girl is one of these five children, and her mother was the woman related to Eleazar. In Josephus’ account, the mass suicide is an example of bravery and nobility, as in Roman culture, it was considered noble to fall on your sword rather than face execution (or, for the women and children, slavery). In the book, it is used by the prosecution against the defendant; the prosecution agrees with Josephus and calls Hephzibah, the defendant, a coward for not entering into the pact. The sympathetic characters, however, including the Roman soldiers who found the seven survivors and one of whom is one of the murder victims, unanimously view the event as a tragedy, wisely reflecting modern sympathies rather than Roman ones, as well as reflecting the very different attitude of someone who witnessed these events rather than someone who only heard them as a second hand story. The idea that Josephus bought the survivors and interrogated them on the incident is a nice one, that is perfectly plausible and would explain his intimate knowledge of events (though the extremely long speeches he includes in his account are clearly inventions on his own, in the usual tradition of Roman historians – Livy was particularly notorious for this).

This book is not actually as miserable as I’m making out here! The romantic subplot between Flavia and Flaccus (yes, the famous Flaccus) that develops over several books jumps ahead in leaps and bounds in this one. Flaccus is like a hero from Jane Austen – he can swoop in and do essential tasks only someone of his class and wealth could do (though his first, disastrous attempt at oratory is quite amusing). Hephzibah’s story is tragic but it ends well and there are a few minor characters who are quite delighted at how it turns out. The tragedy is mostly restricted to 'flahsbacks' and to the very end, and Miriam’s story is only very loosely connected to the trial (knowing she’ll probably die partly from premonitions and partly because she’s having twins, which is trickier, she needs Hephzibah alive and free to raise her children and she arranges wet nurses for the children during the story). Doctor Mordecai, who is forced to kill his daughter to save his grandsons, is the worst off, but the repercussions of this are almost entirely carried over into the next book – Slave Girl itself is a thoroughly satisfying courtroom drama with a really nice, intricate collection of clues and a satisfying conclusion.

Alas, poor Miriam. We knew her, Horatio. This image is from her wedding from the TV adaptation, but it's pretty! (C) 2008 LEG




This was a review copy of the book.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Xena Warrior Princess: The Titans


In this episode, Gabrielle awakens three Titans by reading a chant in a language that sounds mostly vaguely Greek, except for ‘noces’, which sounds Spanish to me, and hi-jinks ensue.

I spent the whole of this episode mishearing the murderous thief’s name ‘Hesiot’ as ‘Hesiod’. I’m rather disappointed I was wrong, as I thought it was hilarious. Hesiod is the archaic Greek poet I always think of as ‘the boring one’ – there’s Homer, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and then there’s Hesiod who wrote the Works and Days (summary: Life sucks and then you die) and the Theogony (divine family trees). To be fair, both Hesiod’s poems are actually very good and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading them, but they just don’t have the wow factor of the Homeric poems (and they’re much shorter – but that’s probably a point in their favour). Anyway, the image of Hesiod as a murderous, double-crossing ruffian was really funny, so I think I’ll continue to assume that that’s his name (that’s what it sounds like, anyway).

The use of the Titans is quite nice. They’re proper giants for starters, which is an improvement on Charmed. Giants are not my favourite thing in fantasy – apart from Narnia’s Giant Rumblebuffin and the BFG, I don’t really like them, not even Hagrid – but the Titans I suspect should be giants, so it’s all good. Many more bonus points for using the names of actual Titans – Theia, Titan goddess of light, heaven and prophecy, Hyperion, Titan god of light and time and Crius, Titan god of the constellations and the year, sometimes a Titan leader – as he is here. Their characterisation is perhaps less Titan-ic though. Hyperion wants to crush the puny mortals – so far, so good – but Crius actually likes them and Theia is well, completely useless until the last few minutes. Hyperion kills Crius about halfway through, which is also typical Titan behaviour (both were involved in holding their father Uranus down while Cronus castrated him) but Crius himself is a bit too good-cop to be properly Titan-like. Gabrielle really is a bit of an idiot though, for not realising that Titans were not going to take well to being employed as mud-movers. In Greek myth, Hyperion and Crius were thrown into the pit of Tartarus rather than turned to stone, but petrification in a cave works quite well in this context.

There were some other fun touches in this episode as well – Gabrielle asking the Titans please to not spread the world around the whole town that she’s a virgin was a highlight. Xena’s reassurance to Gabrielle that she would never leave her because her heart is in the right place was nice to see as well – only episode 7 and we’ve had some decent forward momentum on the character development front (as long as this doesn’t mean they fall into the trap of completing their characters’ arcs within the first two seasons and then wondering what to do with them). All in all, not a contender for a favourite as giants really aren’t my cup of tea, but a nice little episode and the most faithful reinterpretation of Greek mythology so far. Clearly, giant Titans running amok is not something the writers felt the need to mess around with too much – what that says about 1990s TV writers, I leave up to you.

My inner feminist mildly disapproves of the bare midriff, but it's nice to know that Gabrielle will finally, at some point in a later season, get out of the horrible peasant clothes.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Star Trek Voyager: Living Witness


This is one of the very best episodes of Voyager - possibly the best, though the same (fourth) season's two-parter 'Year of Hell' gives it a run for its money. 'Living Witness' has a great opening with one of Star Trek's fondest tropes, the evil version of the crew, but done with some beautiful subtlety among the eeeeevil cackling and black polo necks (including Janeway playing with her eeevil black glove, Tuvok having slighter larger ears, the Doctor as an android and so on). But this episode uses a different rationale than the usual mirror universe or altered timeline. This episode is a reflection on the nature of history and the evil version of Voyager's crew are the result of misunderstood historical evidence.

The sequence that opens this episode is a recreation on an alien holodeck in a museum. A new archaeological discovery allows the museum curator, who is an expert in the study of 'the Voyager Encounter', to activate a back-up programme - i.e., call to life the Doctor, though, since this is a back-up programme, there is still a Doctor on Voyager as well. (A few episodes previously, it had been established that it was impossible to back-up the Doctor, but this is neither here nor there - it's a fantastic set-up for an episode, and maybe they just worked really hard in between the two episodes to make a back-up possible).

Of course, the Doctor comes to life and is absolutely horrified at the way he and his crew have been interpreted by the historians on this planet. A combination of misinterpretations of the archaeological evidence and biased accounts from the survivors, who are still embroiled in racial tensions 700 years later, when the Doctor is re-activated, has resulted in a complete misunderstanding of what Voyager was - in this account, Voyager is a warship with its own mini-Borg collective and a crew of thugs (the episode is also, as all classic episodes must be, hilarious in places - the best line is the Doctor's horrified refutation, crying that none of the crew behaved like that - 'well, except for Mr Paris'). The racial tension on the planet itself is interesting as well, as, unusually, the Kirians, who are persecuted and kept down in the planet's present, turn out to be the aggressors in the past conflict, who made Voyager out to be the villains to protect themselves, so that nothing in this story is black and white and there are no clear good and bad guys, adding another layer of subtlety to the story. The most important point, though, is that the historical view of Voyager is utterly inaccurate, a point which becomes urgent as the Doctor, having been reactivated, may be put on trial for war crimes.

Eeeeevil Chakotay

The truth is, we might have got the ancient world as wrong as these aliens got Voyager. Archaeology is a fascinating discipline but it is not infallible, and all the textual sources we have are biased, they have been embroidered for literary effect and in many cases they were written decades, if not centuries, later. Many if not most of our sources are more interested in telling a good story than getting to the truth of the matter. For all we know, Caesar and Alexander were wet sops manoevered into position by their commanders, Livia was a saint who spent her time making soup for the homeless and Cicero bored his entire audience to tears. None of these things are particularly likely, but a less exaggerated misunderstanding may indeed have taken place.

This is, of course, why there is still work for historians to do. Every now and again, there will be a general reappraisal of something and we will come to the conclusion we've been wrong all along. A housemate once asked me in horror how I could possibly tell my students that there was no right or wrong answer - I tried my best to explain that we do not *know* anything about the ancient world, we only make (very well) educated guesses and try to piece together what we think the ancient world was like. That's partly why I love this episode so much - it highlights what being an historian is really like and how easy it is to become misled.

Towards the end of the episode, there is a riot in the museum, carried out by Kirians who do not want the Doctor to expose the darker side of their past. This is another frequent problem with the study of history in all periods - people bring their own issues, prejudices and loyalties to their research. The Doctor doubts whether knowing the truth - something he, of course, has unique access to - is worth violence and unrest in the present. The curator argues passionately that it is more important that people understand the truth of what really happened, rather than living with comfortable lies. In real life, until we invent a time machine, we will never have the kind of access to the truth of the past that the Doctor has, though the reaction of those who feel they have discovered or uncovered a new angle on something, who usually push it harder than ever if it is particularly controversial, suggests that perhaps most of us would agree with the curator here.

Although the story is about an alien planet, many of the themes of this episode touch upon the sort of issues that come up at the cutting edge of archaeology now, just as the archaeological remains from Voyager kick off events in the episode. It is also simply a wonderful episode, with lovely personal touches - Roxann Dawson, for example, could not appear as she was on maternity leave, so the Doctor describes B'Elanna instead - and a poignant ending that always makes me well up, as the Doctor, almost a millennium after the main events of the episode, sets off for home even in the full knowledge that his crew are long dead. It's a shame B'Elanna couldn't be in it, but an episode with humour, an evil version of the crew (always fun), a solid emotional base and musings on the nature of history - for me, that's pretty darn hard to top.

The museum curator. Whose particular form of bumpy-headedness is Kirian, by the way.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (dir. Andrew Adamson, 2005)

We're entering the run-up to the release of two movies I'm ridiculously over-excited about; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. So I thought that, in the weeks before their releases, I'd have another look at each of the preceeding films in a bit more detail than I have so far (with the possible exception of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I covered when it came out). Perversely, although Potter comes out first, on 19th November, and Dawn Treader on 10th December, I'm starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I grew up with the BBC television adaptations of four of the Narnia books, which I absolutely adore and, like Star Trek Voyager, will not hear a word against - you will not sway me on this (I'm sure posts on those series will follow at some point as well). But I also love the 2005 film, which is completely gorgeous and which impressed me right from the start with how strongly it placed Narnia within its historical context. In the books, the Second World War is not overtly present to a child reader (though an adult might notice some themes resonating with issues from that time). It is used mainly as a plot device to get the children into the Professor's house and then, from their point of view, largely forgotten for the rest of the series (The Silver Chair, in theory, should take place towards the end of the war, but in the real world sections of that book Lewis is clearly preoccupied with post-war education and the war itself seems largely forgotten). At the time Lewis was writing, this would not have been much of an issue - although his readers might be too young to remember the war themselves their parents and older siblings would be bound to tell them about it and, if they lived anywhere near London, they would still be able to see craters and damaged buildings from the wartime bombing.

This is not the case for modern viewers of the film, who may be three (or even four) generations removed from the war and who are unlikely instantly to understand the significance of evacuation, unless they happen to have covered it in school recently. This is why the air raid in the opening sequence is so important. The raid is actually historically inaccurate - the Pevensies would most likely have been evacuated during the mass evacuations of late 1939-early 1940, while the regular bombing raids on London did not start until the time of the Battle of Britain, in September 1940. Now normally, I come down like a ton of bricks on anything that includes inaccuracies or even biased emphases with regards to World War Two (a major pet peeve of mine resulting partly from the fact that both my grandfathers fought in it). But I think this minor inaccuracy is too valuable to complain about or lose. The important point for modern child viewers to understand about these introductory sections is that London is in danger and the children have been sent away (leaving their mother behind) to keep them safe from a very real threat. Actually showing a raid is a much more effective and dramatic way of getting this across than any amount of dialogue could be. The war continues to be present through references in the dialogue throughout the movie, which is very effective as a counterpart to the Narnian war the children are fighting.

Anyway, all that is by the by, as I'm supposed to be talking about Classics! Our first Classical encounter is, of course, with Mr Tumnus. As in the earlier BBC adaptation, Tumnus, although played by Scottish actor James McAvoy, is given a bog standard Received Pronunciation English accent (Micheal York, narrating the audio book, makes him Irish for some unfathomable reason - this would be less irritating if the Irish accent wasn't distinctly dodgey). Tumnus is a thoroughly middle-class ancient Roman woodland spirit, with a cave-home full of books and genteel furniture, so the accent makes sense. His physical appearance is exactly as described by Lewis (much as the sight is easy on the eye, poor McAvoy must have been freezing with no shirt on). We don't see the dryads and others described by Tumnus in a flashback, but we see fiery figures representing them, several of which seem to have animal heads, which is a bit odd. It's a brilliant scene, though, where the real danger Lucy's in and the creepiness of Mr Tumnus, potential child-abductor, is really strongly emphasised; Lucy is only saved by Aslan's intervention. Up until this point, Tumnus has had more in common with Bilbo Baggins than a wild Roman woodland creature, but here his wildness and dangerous side come to the fore.

The next time we see any Classical creatures, other than Mr Tumnus, is in the form of statues in the White Witch's courtyard. (People turning to stone is one of those themes that crops up in a number of different mythological traditions - maybe it's related to the tendency for rocks to look a bit like heads or faces sometimes). The first new creature we see in the flesh, as it were, is a Dryad who waves to Lucy as she, Peter and Susan make their way to Aslan's camp after the thaw. The interpretation of the dryads is particularly beautiful in this film, and quite original. Dryads are nymphs connected to trees - they appear occasionally in ancient literature but I suspect their popularity comes from later uses in early modern poetry and art. Usually, they are beautiful women (wearing varying amounts of clothing) who hang around near, or melt into, trees. In this case, however, the dryad is made up of the blossom of the tree, which is very pretty, and adds an extra reason for the dryad to have disappeared throughout the winter, when there are no leaves or petals to take shape from.

The Dryad, by Evelyn de Morgan

At Aslan's camp we see a large gathering of mythological beasties, mostly fauns and centaurs because they make the most human-looking soldiers. I've talked about centaurs in Narnia before, both here and in my Narnia article, so I'll let them go for now, but it is interesting how military the fauns and centaurs look here, with all their matching red and gold armour. It fits with the much more war-centric, military feel of the film as a whole, which is probably due in equal parts to the changed international situation (since the BBC's version in 1988) and to the need for a big holiday blockbuster to have large scale battle sequences a la The Lord of the Rings.

The White Witch's gang of largely mythological minions whom she summons to her sacrifice of Aslan are suitably scary here. The hag creatures are particularly unpleasant and look rather like Furies. The minotaurs (plural as ever, though in Greek mythology there is only one) are prominent, as they are among the scariest of the creatures present and the biggest and weirdest. The Witch, who has looked suitably wintery for the film so far, now looks like she belongs in a much hotter climate (which, according to The Magician's Nephew, she does) and the scene is full of big flaming torches, so the scary qualities inherent in it are rooted in the force and wildness of the Witch and her army, not in spookiness. Among her minions are quite a few Cyclopes for some reason; although they're not as tall as Cylopes should be - they're nowhere near giant, being shorter than the minotaurs - their one eye is quite clearly displayed. I suppose the designers thought they would be a cool scary creature to include, as although the Witch's list of evil minions is quite extensive, including Ghouls, Boggles, Cruels, Hags, Spectres, People of the Toadstools, Incubi, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Orknies, Sprites, Wooses, Ettins, and all whose evil works for her, Cyclopes are not among them. The designers have, quite fairly I think, decided that any creature from Greek mythology is fair game for Narnia and thrown in a few extras, which is rather cool.

That's not the only extra Classical reference in the film. Much, much earlier on, Susan insists on playing what Edmund quite rightly refers to as the worst game ever invented, getting her brothers to guess medical ailments or other complex terms she reads out from the dictionary. She reads out the word 'gastrovascular' and Peter correctly guesses that it derives from Latin before Lucy interrupts with the much better suggestion of hide and seek. As so often in popular culture, Latin is used here to demonstrate how boring and out of touch Susan is; Latin is held up as the dullest of subjects, scorned by everyone who isn't trying to sound clever. (It's all a far cry from the books, written by an Oxbridge scholar at a time when getting a good education meant learning Latin, in which Peter regularly swears 'By Jove!' as if he were actually a Roman).

Another big plus in this movie - Lewis' sexism has been surgically removed, so that Lucy should not fight because she's too little, and Susan has to suck it up and get on it with it. I honestly don't know what that hairy creature beside her is.

Returning to the Big Battle, Peter rides a unicorn for the final fight, a creature mostly associated with medieval art and literature, but which does have some Classical origins. Mostly, it just makes me think unkind thoughts that do not belong near a children's film. The most awesome thing about the Big Battle though, is another element of Greek mythology that, like the Cyclopes, has been added for the film - attack by phoenix. The Narnian phoenixes burst into flame while flying right in front of the enemy forces, which is really very cool and the most proactive use of the phoenix's special gift I've seen (normally, all phoenixes actually do is live for a very long time and occasionally burst into pretty flames, though Fawkes in Harry Potter makes himself useful).

The depiction of Cair Paravel in the film is one of the little things that really annoys me, as it looks rather more like a Georgian palace than a medieval castle, and I think Cair Paravel - with its turrets, and its dais for the royals - should be a medieval castle. The mermaids outside are very pretty and I believe, based on dolphins' tails - I'll talk more about mermaids when I get to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Then there are the costumes, which are far too obviously designed to be replicated in Disney stores - the BBC ones were much more tasteful. The crowns are absoutely gorgeous though. But I've gone rather off the point - which is that, although mythological creatures are kept in the foreground by having Mr Tumnus crown the children, the aesthetic of the last scenes has moved even beyond the medieval, never mind the Classical.

The film really is gorgeous, and although nitpickers might complain about the CGI, I like to use my imagination - it looks more than good enough for me, I don't need perfection. I like the added sequences, chiefly the melting river, which give the film a bit more action, and the music and cinematography are both absolutely beautiful. If only Mrs Macready wasn't given an Irish accent (she should be Scottish) it would be almost perfect. And Jim Broadbent will break your heart in the closing sting.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Charioteer of Delphi


Here are some things I know nothing about: Horses. Sport. Autism. Gambling. It might just be said that I am, perhaps, not the best qualified person to judge a story about an autistic charioteer and a plot to sabotage a chariot-racing team that may or may not be connected with a gambling ring.

But hear me out before you give up in disgust! One of the few sports that does grab my interest is racing in general and motor racing in particular - specifically, Formula One (do not ask me about any other type of motor racing, you will get a blank stare). And Formula One - or motor racing in general - is probably the closest sport to chariot racing in the modern world (actually, Nascar is even closer, due to the shape of the track, but I don't watch that). Actual horse racing might be said to be fairly close, of course, but the feel of one jockey urging his one horse to beat the others is not quite the same as the tactics required for a driver to edge his vehicle around the competition, sometimes working tactically with his teammate (both sports are usually played by men, which is a great shame - my childhood dream was to be a Formula One racing driver). This is the one modern sport that captures the excitement and sadly sometimes, though thankfully not often, the danger of chariot racing. So I do know a little about the fun of watching this sort of sport, and I can tell you that the book captures that feeling of excitement perfectly.

Like the best sports movies, this story builds up a feeling of despair and a series of disastrous losses before coming out in a splendid high at the end. This must be the most exuberant conclusion to any of the Roman Mysteries I've read so far. After the downright tragic ending of Twelve Tasks, the bittersweet endings of The Gladiators from Capua, The Assassins of Rome, The Colossus of Rhodes and The Sirens of Surrentum, and the happy but slightly muted ending of The Fugitive from Corinth, this is the first I've read since The Pirates of Pompeii to have a truly happy ending - and it outdoes Pirates in sheer exhuberance and joy, which is a delight to read. The traditional arc of the sports story is emphasised by references to some of the worst aspects of Roman slavery in flashbacks to Nubia's background, followed by the best outcome of slavery for a Roman, as Sisyphus is suddenly freed with the final victory. This makes the story about so much more than which set of horses wins a race and effectively uses the Romans' slave trade to enhance the sports story, while also maintaining a sense of the horrors of the world outside the Circus.

Unfortunately, the ecstatically happy ending is undercut by the Author's Note, which explains that one of the main characters was inspired by a man who died at the age of 27. But even this cannot entirely take away the joy of the story's conclusion, since it is pretty obvious that a Roman charioteer is not someone destined for a long life - we've already seen a dozen of them trampled, dragged and battered over the course of the book. Essentially, Scopas/Scorpus (and Pegasus the horse) has made the choice of Achilles, choosing a short but glorious life over a long but dull and unfulfilled one, and since he has made the choice freely, knowingly and willingly, the book's glorious ending can still stand, even against his ultimate untimely death (not that I'm advocating the idea that any sport is worth someone's life, but we are talking about ancient Rome, where there were an awful lot of other things around that could kill you).

Model of the Circus Maximus, from vroma.org

As a balance to the down-to-earth horse racing, the book also makes substantial use of visions and horse whispering - which I understand is a real thing, but I know absolutely nothing about. Unfortunately my ever-reliable Nubia, normally so sensible, does something spectacularly stupid in this book, though she does at least do it for good reasons (which ensures that her actions are plausible and still within character). This is probably a good thing - her friends have done so many silly things over the course of the books that it was about time Nubia caught up - they are children, after all! And her reasoning is very noble, if flawed.

The book is also full of the usual fun references, including mentions of Incitatus without ever suggesting he was actually made a senator or a consul (hurray!) and a plot revolving around a great play on the idea of the Trojan Horse - summed up by Jonathan in this brilliant line - 'Sagitta was like a Trojan Horse... only filled with fear, not Greek soldiers' (I don't know why, but that made me smile). As I mentioned above, the book also includes an autistic character, though of course none of the Roman characters are able to identify the illness, they just think he's strange (the Author's Note explains it). I remember reading a Babysitter's Club book that highlighted autism when I was little (I was an eleven-year-old girl, this was the height of literature at the time!); I think it's the sort of thing that it's useful to highlight in children's books, so that they realise strange behaviour can be the result of illness and is not a reason to bully someone. It's also a handy reminder that people down the ages have probably suffered from the same illnesses and allergies as us, but without names for them (restrospective diagnosis is a form of scholarship I find very interesting, though it's pretty much impossible to do with any certainty, considering how difficult it still is to diagnose a patient who's right in front of you, never mind one who's long dead).

The chariot race from Ben-Hur. Just 'cause it's awesome, inaccuracies notwithstanding.

I now proceed eagerly to the next book, in hopes of seeing Sisyphus again and finding out what he does with his freedom, but also with a slight sense of dread that, life being what it is, our heroes may never be this purely happy again...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

What's in a name?


When not teaching, I've been laid up with Fresher's Flu for a lot of the past few days, so I've been watching a lot of telly and thinking about classical names in modern pop culture.

Some ancient names are still in relatively common usage as names now - such as Helen, Alexander, Diana, Philip and, to a lesser extent, Hector. However, although mythological or other ancient names can be relatively common in modern Greece, in Anglophone countries they're rather more rare. My friends who teach in primary schools tell me that the sort of names parents give their children in Britain are much more varied now than when I was in primary school, when just about everyone was called Sarah or David, but classical names are mostly still a rarity I think. Marcus is perhaps becoming more popular, though when it was used in Sex and the City a few years ago, it still provoked the immediate response 'is he a Roman?!'

This makes classical and especially mythological names rather useful for writers wanting to give their characters unusual names. I'm talking specifically about contemporary fiction here, rather than science fiction or fantasy, where mythological or classical names are par for the course (I've already talked about Star Trek, Harry Potter and Inception and I'm sure The Matrix will get its own post some day). Sci-fi and fantasy use unusual-sounding names all the time, to help create their imaginary worlds, and the extra symbolism provided by using a classical name is very useful indeed. Using classical names in a story with a contemporary setting, though, stands out rather more as a deliberate oddness in a specific character.

This is probably why, most of the time, these names are suggested as a joke, rather than actually given to a character. In Friends, for example, when Monica and Phoebe (another classical name) are trying to work out the name of the man they accidentally put into a coma, Phoebe first suggests Glen. When Monica complains that Glen is 'not special enough', Phoebe suggests Agamemnon, which Monica insists is 'waaaay too special'. When I first saw the episode, the name meant nothing to me, other than a vague notion it might be mythological, and when I was a teenager I used to repeat this joke (yes, I was quite an annoying teenager) without being able to remember the name itself, just that it was madly long and complicated. This is the point of using the name here. The Greek name is too long to sound natural in English and the vague notion that it might be something mythical makes it sound suitably bizarre for a name Phoebe (who later suggests that Rachel name her child Phoebo, clearly unware that the masculine version of her name is Phoebus) to suggest and Monica to veto. Similarly, when Lisa is trying to name her new design of doll in The Simpsons, she suggests 'Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom', which leads to eye-rolling among the adults. Minerva doesn't sound right for a doll, as dolls usually have either fairly common names, or at least names that are easy to pronounce for small children (usually ending in -y or -ie). Minerva is too difficult for a child to pronounce and the fact that Minerva/Athena is goddess of wisdom probably wouldn't mean much to a small child who isn't Lisa Simpson. Unlike the symbolic names used in sci-fi and fantasy, which are often there to provide clues or in-jokes for the audience, these jokes only work by assuming the audience have little interest in classical myth.

Every now and again, though, a character will actually be given an unusal mythological name. I talked about Andromeda in My Sister's Keeper recently, and over the weekend I re-watched Juno, a very sweet movie which I really like, except for the one horrible bit where they show us a bit of a gory horror movie Juno is watching! As in My Sister's Keeper, the dialogue in Juno explains the myth behind the name for the benefit of anyone in the audience not familiar with the story, though, bizarrely, Juno describes the goddess she's named after as 'Zeus's wife'. This is true, but it's a weird mix-up of Greek and Latin - Zeus is the Greek name for the head god, married to Hera, and their Roman names are Jupiter and Juno. Using Juno rather than Hera makes sense - either could work, but Juno sounds less unusual in English and Hera carries implications concerning 'hero' that wouldn't work so well for the film. It just seems strange that she describes Juno as the wife of Zeus, especially since I would have thought Jupiter is the better known name - but perhaps that's the point, perhaps Zeus sounds more exotic and unusual.

The other thing that's always puzzled me about Juno is why anyone would want to name their child that in the first place! With apologies to anyone who is named Juno or Hera, this is the not the goddess I would have chosen to name my daughter after - in ancient literature, Hera is usually an infuriating nag who gets in the way of the hero, especially if said hero is Heracles. On the other hand, if you want to name a character like Juno after a Greco-Roman goddess, there probably isn't much choice. Athena/Minerva and Artemis/Diana are both virgin goddesses, which would be excessively ironic for Juno considering the movie's plot, and Aphrodite/Venus would be far too judgmental and even more ridiculously ironic - the name would be a false note in the movie, the sort of overly symbolic name only found in sci-fi and fantasy. Using Juno gives the character a quirky and meaningful name that doesn't sound horribly false within the context of the movie, to go with the quirky and unusual character of Juno herself.

If parents really are getting more adventurous with their children's names, we may find these names becoming more common and their use in fiction may come to mean nothing more than that the author liked the name. But at least, in cases like Juno and My Sister's Keeper, when characters actively explain the origins of their names, nerds like me can happily over-analyse the name's usage, knowing that the classical allusion is deliberate and does have a purpose!

(By the way - the fish in Finding Nemo is named after Captain Nemo, who I know nothing about, but 'nemo' in Latin means 'nobody' - so the film is called Finding Nobody! It's little things like this that make you laugh when you're stuck in bed with Mad Fresher Disease).
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