Friday, 28 December 2012

5 Suggested New Year's Resolutions for Historical Writers



It's that time of year when other people make resolutions about how they will improve their lives over the next twelve months. (I don't, I'm afraid, I gave up long ago. The only New Year's Resolution I've so far managed to keep was Project 365, which was rather fun). So in the spirit of the season, I thought I'd offer the writers, producers, directors, artists and all others involved in producing films, TV shows and books based on the Classical world a few suggestions for their 2013 New Year's Resolutions.





1. Remember that there are languages other than Latin.
Plutarch wrote in Greek. The inscription at the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi, in Greece, was (oddly enough) in Greek. The common language used for communication in the Eastern part of the Empire was Greek. Even Julius Caesar's famous last words were spoken in Greek. Some if these alterations are understandable as no one wants to confuse the audience too much - but Lisa Simpson's claim that Plutarch wrote in Latin is just plain wrong.
How to do it right: Not only do the Roman Mysteries books cover Nubia's slow improvement in Latin with care and sympathy, the children's TV series actually includes subtitled Greek when it shows Lupus' backstory. Goodness knows what young viewers thought, but I was impressed.

2. Go easy on the Minotaurs.
In Classical mythology, there was one Minotaur. It was the offspring of Pasiphae and the bull she fell madly in love with. It lived in the middle of the Labyrinth and was fed with regular sacrifices of virgins. Now, I don't really mind authors, filmmakers and artists playing around with mythology; there's nothing inherently wrong with populating one's fantasy with multiple minotaurs, and the recent Narnia movies in particular do quite interesting things with them. It's just that recently minotaurs seem to have become just another monster, playing no real role beyond showing off the skills of the special effects department. The Minotaur is a specific character from a specific story - it would be nice to see that reflected once in a while.
How to do it right: Um, I can't think of any pop cultural examples of the actual Minotaur. I'm sure there must be some, somewhere. Otherwise, the closest might be Doctor Who's 'The Horns of Nimon,' and that's just depressing.

3. Let archaeologists be archaeologists
'Scientists' are not a great big homogenous group who all do the same thing. The different branches of science are all unique and different from each other. Archaeology belongs with the human sciences, linked to sociology and anthropology, and is a very different beast from, say, nuclear physics. Archaeologists often have a certain linguistic expertise and there is some overlap between archaeology and anthropology, and between archaeology and philology, especially when one studies the ancient near east or Egypt, but archaeologists are not omnidisciplinary scientists. They cannot translate every language under the sun off the tops of their heads, they are not usually all that handy with a gun and believe it or not, not all of them wear glasses.
Of course, I might just be jealous because Classicists and ancient historians never get played by Harrison Ford, carrying a whip.
How to do it right: Lintilla the archaeologist in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (second radio series) is pretty handy in a crisis, but in terms of training and occupation, she stick to digging in the ground looking for the remnants of past civilizations.

4. Come up with something beyond 'it was Christianity's fault' to account for the fall of the Roman Empire
Christianity was certainly a factor in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but watching popular films, you'd think it was the only thing that brought an end to Roman civilzation. Whether it's the 1950s story of wonderful, moral Christianity overcoming the nasty, immoral Romans or Agora's story of the lovely, philosophical, wise Romans being overcome by nasty, evil Christians, either way, Christianity is held solely accountable for the fall of one of the world's most famous empires. In fact, Constantine the Great adopted a favorable position towards Christianity nearly 100 years before the Romans pulled out of Britain and not far off 200 years before the city of Rome was overrun. Christianity had its part to play in the decline of Roman civilization for sure, particularly in the decline of institutions like bath houses, that Christians thought were immoral, but it was only one factor of many.
How to do it right: Fall of the Roman Empire tried to introduce more complex details into the story, though this didn't go down too well with audiences.

5. Try to use orgies ironically
Ah, the Roman orgy. Such a well known trope of ancient Roman-set fiction. The trouble is, it's a concept that came about in the early twentieth century - real Romans were no more or less likely to engage in orgiastic activity than any other culture. I'm sure some of them had orgies, and some of the orgies depicted on film and television are what we might call real rumours (Suetonius reports that Caligula opened a brothel in the palace, for example). But while in some ways attitudes towards sex and sexuality in ancient Rome were very different from ours (slaves had no rights to their own bodies, male adultery was acceptable to many but female adultery was not, attitudes towards homosexuality depended partly on the relationship and positions employed), there were some similarities, and general social disapproval of wild sex parties was one of them. (Social and legal taboos against brother-sister and parent-child incest were another - the point of the stories about Caligula, Nero and the others were to make them look bad).
How to do it right: In Rome's second season, Agrippa lectures Maecenas on moral virtue and then carries Octavia back to her mother, forcing her to admit that she was at an orgy. It's hilarious and filmed with a distinct sense of post-modern ironic humour (whether deliberately so or not).

Happy New Year everyone! Here's to 2013!

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Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Hobbit (dir. Peter Jackson, 2012)

OK, there's nothing Classical in The Hobbit. It's Christmas, I don't care!

There are some spoilers near the bottom for the next couple of films, so if you don't want to read on the short version is - I loved it.

I did have one Classics-related thought during the film (I'm always on duty!). During one of the Radagast scenes, he said something about 'witchcraft' and, to the eternal shame of my inner feminist, for a moment I thought, 'huh? I don't remember a witch in this story. What's that about? Is this a new storyline?' Of course, it wasn't, it was a reference to the Witch-King of Angmar, aka the head of the Black riders, and to his buddy the Necromancer, since necromancy is a form of witchcraft. I had become so conditioned to the idea that witches are women that, despite my familiarity with both Tolkien's world and non-gender-specific witchcraft, my brain did a little double take for a moment.

Part of the reason for that sexist instinctive response is that modern fantasy often assumes that a 'witch' is a woman, whereas a 'wizard' is a man (whether or not witches are bad and wizards good, as is sometimes the case).  Occasionally the word 'warlock' is used for a male witch, as in Merlin; sometimes 'witch' and 'wizard' are the male and female versions of the same thing, as in Harry Potter, and sometimes magically-inclined women are 'witches' and magically-inclined men are 'wizards,' with the two being slightly different things, as in the Discworld series. (Good old True Blood has male witches, but I can't think of any other examples off the top of my head).

This idea that witches are women presumably dates back to the early modern witch-hunts in Europe and America, in which the witches/victims were predominantly women. This isn't my area, so I'm not sure exactly how that came to be the case, but somewhere in the mess of mean-ness and paranoia, witchcraft became thought of as a female thing. (I remember a friend of mine telling me once that young women who accused older women of witchcraft were often hurling themselves down stairs etc in an attempt to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy - perhaps the older women were midwives/abortionists? Or it might be something to do with the association of witchcraft with the Devil, the Devil with sexual naughtiness, and sexual naughtiness with women? I'll be honest, I really have no idea!).

The point is, as JRR Tolkien was well aware, witchcraft is not always - perhaps not even usually - associated with women. (His good friend CS Lewis would have been equally aware of this, but chose to ignore it). The people we call 'witch-doctors' (probably something of a misunderstanding of what they do, but still) are usually men. I'm sure there are plenty of cultures around the world where 'witchcraft' is non-gender-specific or even male-dominated. And, in the Classical world, witchcraft could be associated with men or women.

It has to be said, even in Greece and Rome, the stereotypical witch was, just as it is now, an ugly old woman. Erictho, the witch and necromancer in Lucan's poem the Civil War, who lives in graveyards and steals the nails used to pin crucifixion victims to their crosses, is a particularly memorable example of this trope. But there are also occasional characters who tend to be translated as magicians in English who are probably Classical witches, and in real life, anyone could be accused of witchcraft. One of my favourite Classical authors, Apuleius, was accused of witchcraft and had to defend himself in court - though it's worth noting that, when he wrote a witch into his novel Metamorphoses, he wrote her as a woman.

All in all, there's no reason we should think of witches as women, but we often do - which makes it doubly surprising that it's Tolkien who reminds us that witches can be men too. After all, Eowyn aside, he's not exactly known for his feminist credentials. In fact, the novel The Hobbit has not a single speaking female character (the Sackville-Bagginses are a homogenous group - Lobelia appears in The Lord of the Rings). Belladonna Took is fondly remembered at the start, and that's it. Bad Tolkien. You shall not have a cookie.

This means, of course, that one of the big advantages of the padding out of the film with other Tolkien material is that Galadriel appears, so there is a woman in it! (I should add, I have no problem with World War One stories with no women in them or anything like that, but fantasy and science fiction with no women rubs me up the wrong way). I really liked the scene between Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman; although tonally a shift from the rest of the film, it provided some nice context, and will be very necessary to explaining why Gandalf abandons our heroes to make their way through Mirkwood alone later in the story. I liked the flashbacks to Thorin's history too - I was always confused by a lot of the backstory as a child (beyond, obviously, 'dragon attacks, takes over mountain.' I could manage that). I'm hoping the Battle of the Five Armies, and the whole business with the Arkenstone, will actually make some kind of sense when the movies get to them, as I've never managed to follow them before!

Overall, I loved the film. I had a big stupid grin on my face from the first 'bing!' of the Star Trek preview (and my goodness that looks amazing!) right through to the credits. Yes, the film is too long - it could have lost a good half hour, mostly from the beginning and a little bit from the end. I like Tolkien's funny little songs, but we really didn't need to see the dwarves do the dishes. There were also some rather OTT action sequences; I was constantly reminded of computer game Fable 2's assertion that a Hero can survive a fall that would break all the bones of most people.

But overall, I loved it. The beautiful, deep, serious dwarf song sent chills down my spine (that bit I wanted to be longer!) and of course, the whole scene with Gollum in the cave was fantastic. Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo and both Kili and Thorin Oakenshield are really hot. FUTURE MOVIE SPOILER ALERT - I did notice that, with the exception of James Nesbitt's Bofur, the dwarves who were given some personality were the ones who are... going to die. Just to make sure we really care about them before they snuff it. Very sensible, very logical, but a bit obvious to those of us in the know!

I'm still not 100% convinced by the decision to make three films out of The Hobbit and some bits of appendices and The Silmarillion, especially since this film could so easily have been substantially shorter, but overall it's looking reasonably good. I suspect it all hangs on the next film, in which Bilbo and the dwarves travel through Mirkwood (and hopefully bump into Legolas) and Gandalf goes off to fight the Necromancer. We see none of Gandalf's struggle with this mysterious figure in The Hobbit, but presumably we'll see lots of it in the film, and on the basis of this first installment, I can't wait!

More CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Roman Mysteries: The Thieves of Ostia


Spoiler warning! There are spoilers ahead. I haven't given away who dunnit or anything, but still.

The Thieves of Ostia is the first Roman Mysteries novel, and its main purpose is to get everyone together and set the scene for the cataclysmic events of the second, The Secrets of Vesuvius. As such, you might be anticipating a small, quiet case to establish our heroes' characters and their world and ease us in. In a sense, this is indeed what you get, as the mystery here is a local problem restricted to a small part of Ostia, and does not relate to possibly-dead emperors or national disasters, widespread criminal organisations or royal noses.

However, this does not mean that the book is lighter or less dramatic than any of the other Roman Mysteries. This story contains attack by wild dogs, dead children, home invasion, mutilated animals, suicide and, probably most distressingly to children, murdered family pets. I'm a cat person rather than a dog person so was fine with this story, but I've been known to abandon books that were too mean to cats in the past, so dog lovers, be warned! (Not that any of the descriptions are too gruesome of course. The book that upset me so much was an Iain Banks book - and, I believe, a Raymond E Feist book - both were much more horrible than anything here). The fact that the mystery is much more personal and the threat so immediate actually makes it scarier, I think. Whole towns being destroyed (particularly by an act of nature) is much less frightening than a threat to a child hero's home or pet.

Our four heroes are introduced gradually and stamp their personalities out clearly - especially Flavia and Jonathan, since the other two haven't yet learned to communicate fluently. Lupus' actions speak louder than words and give him perhaps the most fully-developed character so far, though we get to know him much later in the story - most of the book is carried by Flavia and Flavia and Jonathan are more readily identifiable for children. Nubia's main traits are already present, particularly her love of music and animal-whispering abilities, but she's hindered by her language difficulties.

Although it makes her rather more mysterious as a character, Nubia's struggle to learn Latin is probably one of the most fruitful results of the ancient Roman setting. Many children now come to school with little or no knowledge of the language spoken there; I don't know if there are many stories dealing with such problems in a realistic setting, but in adventure stories, this problem is rarely addressed. In fantasy, in particular, entire magical worlds often seem to have only one language spoken. It's really nice to see an exciting story engaging with the problems faced by children struggling to communicate (a problem also faced by Lupus, of course, as he doesn't have his wax tablet yet). Hopefully this gives children who've faced similar experiences themselves a heroine to identify with.

The main adult to make an impression here, besides sleepy Caudex the door slave, is Mordecai. Jonathan's father is the perfect voice of reason and calm, though he also gets his action moment. I was reminded of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as the mild-mannered doctor shot arrows at a pack of wild dogs - and although Mordecai doesn't turn out to be quite as good a shot as Atticus, he makes up for it in swordsmanship. Mordecai's medical expertise makes him an especially reassuring presence, and the tension is greater by comparison when he's not around - an ideal benign adult figure for a children's adventure story.

It's hard to view this book as a stand-alone volume when you've read most of the rest of the series, but even allowing for that, there's a clear sequel hook at the end. Captain Geminus sends his children off to Pompeii where he believes they will be safer - and only the youngest children will be unaware that this may not turn out to be his best plan! But that isn't meant to imply that this book isn't a satisfying read in itself, as it certainly is. (It even finishes with a little homage to classic Scooby-Doo, the villain all but claiming that he would have got away with it if it weren't for those pesky kids). The Thieves of Ostia is the Roman Mysteries equivalent of the origin movie, and as everyone knows, origin movies are great fun and intriguing in themselves, even if the makers have put the most highly anticipated adventures in their back pocket for the sequel.

All Roman Mysteries reviews

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (BBC, 1988)

Christmas is coming, and that means - well, it means lots of things but in my house one of those things is re-watching the BBC television adaptations of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, which I and most of my friends who saw it as children absolutely adore.

These adaptations don't always have the best reputation these days. For one thing, some very rude things are said about the child actors, all of whom I thought were very good. Not perfect perhaps, but they're very young and probably working to a pretty tight TV schedule, I think they do a good job.

The more fantastical creatures are hand-drawn, which looks strange to anyone who's grown up on CGI.




Susan's companions/Edmund's rescue party. Like the recent film, the makers decided that any real or mythological animal could be thrown in, so this group includes a hippogriff and a winged horse from Classical mythology and, for some reason, a winged panther and a pelican.

Personally I think it makes them look somehow more magical, and is an inventive solution to a budget problem, but it depends on your point of view. The Witch's performance is rather pantomime-y and makes a feast of the scenery, but as a child, that's what you respond to. It's adults who find more subtle performances scary - children are less attuned to the subtle manners of adults, and enjoy a properly dramatic villain.

Of course, I'm completely biased, because I fell in love with the series at the age of 5. Just hearing the beautiful theme music tells me that it's Christmas, and takes me right back to decorating the tree, waiting eagerly for my Brussels sprouts (I love them, always have), opening my presents from Father Christmas, watching Narnia with my family. I remember wondering for years exactly how the conversation between the White Witch and Edmund was filmed because we missed that bit after dropping a relative off at the airport (I had already caught up with the story through the book, which Dad was reading to me - we whizzed past the TV series about halfway through). I remember the year Father Christmas brought me Prince Caspian on video and I told my parents he must have got the wrong house because we didn't have a video player - at which point they told me to go downstairs (where Father Christmas had left a shiny new VCR which he firmly stated was for Mum and Dad, particularly when it came to playing with the remote control...).

For me and I suspect for lots of other people my age, this was my first exposure to anything Classical and shaped my interpretations of Classical mythology for years. I grew up thinking a Faun look like this:



 - roughly accurate, except for the coat and scarf (the name comes from 'Faunus,' hence Lewis' careful use of the capital 'F' for them). I though a satyr looked like this:



 - which isn't too bad either, though the legs on both satyrs and Fauns look less like goat legs and more like very woolly trousers.  I thought Dryads and Naiads looked like this:






I have no idea what the men with laurel wreaths and skin-tight costumes are meant to be. Male dryads and naiads? I do like the Athena-style helmets the women wear though.

 - which is probably fine, though the Greeks might have put them in less clothing. All of it pales in comparison with the fact that I grew up thinking a beaver looked like this:




Seriously, it was years before I realised what beavers actually look like.


The series also included these little dinosaur-things. Hard to say why.


Hippogriff and winged cat approaching Cair Paravel. This is what Cair Paravel looks like - a medieval British castle. The 2005 movie got it totally wrong!

BBC adaptations tend to stick very closely to their source material, using mostly original dialogue from the book. In many ways, this is an advantage, and although the way the children speak in the book may sound strange to modern children, the period setting makes it entertainingly odd rather than being too confusing. At five years old, Classical references passed over my head, but most of them could be safely ignored. 'By Jove!' just sounds like a funny, old-fashioned expression so it doesn't cause a problem. Edmund's offer of 'Pax!' to Lucy is presumably more problematic for children who didn't grow up going to Catholic mass every week - I had an altar serving medal with a 'pax' sign on it, so I understood that bit. The programme makers even just about get away with the 'Daughter of Eve' stuff, since it confuses Lucy as well.

There is one line of dialogue, though, that always threw me as a child. When Lucy meets Mr Tumnus, she takes one look at him and asks 'Are you a Faun?' This always bothered me, because without Narnia I would have had no idea what a Faun was, and I never came across them in any other context. When Lewis was writing, presumably children with his level of education came across so much Classical material that they might have known what a Faun was,* but children in the late 1980s did not, and the more recent film adaptation more sensibly had Lucy just ask Mr Tumnus what he was. It's a small thing, but probably one of the occasions where taking a bit of a liberty with the text is a better idea that sticking pedantically to the exact required phrasing.

*(Actually, I suspect even Classics students, on being confronted by a man with goats' legs and horns, would ask if he was a satyr rather than a Faun, as they're rather better known. Satyrs don't necessarily have goats' legs, but sometimes do, whereas Fauns nearly always have the goats' legs, so Lucy is technically correct in thinking of Fauns first; but really, Fauns are pretty obscure. Unless you grew up obsessed with Narnia and take notice every time you see their name...)

Narnia's setting is pseudo-medieval, so I didn't really associate these images with Classical mythology as a child - it was only later that I started to realise that they had a different origin to dwarfs and unicorns (and I was a teenager before the fact that the Stone Table is an altar suddenly struck me like a bolt from above). The complete blending of elements of different mythologies was apparently something Tolkien criticised about Narnia (which is a bit rich coming from someone who wrote a mythology for ancient England in which people ate potatoes) but it makes no difference to young children - at that age, you just accept what you're told. This means that The Chronicles of Narnia don't necessarily get children interested in Classical Mythology the way that Disney's Hercules might, but a childhood love of Narnia can make Classical myth seem that much richer if and when you finally get around to reading it.

More posts on CS Lewis and Narnia

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