Monday, 29 April 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire: A Dance with Dragons

Spoilers for all published books in A Song of Ice and Fire follow. For my thoughts on Book 3, which are free of spoilers for Books 4 and 5, see here.

I have finally finished reading all so-far published books in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, the basis for HBO's Game of Thrones. Having lent them to me and pestered me to read them, Brother found himself regretting this decision when subjected to four hours of me analysing them and trying to predict what will happen in the last two books, while I myself am torn between a desperate desire for George RR Martin to write faster and yet, at the same time, a slight hope that maybe he won't bother at all and I can stick with the endings in my head, which I suspect are much happier (and much soppier) than whatever he's got planned. Look out for a predictions thread in which I'll share some of my theories over at Doux Reviews, after season three of Game of Thrones finishes airing.

Having finished the books, I have now allowed myself to look at some of the many websites devoted to the series, particularly the TV Tropes pages and The Citadel. This has brought up a few bits and pieces of Classical hints and allusions that I'd missed because, I have to confess, the only way I was able to get through these books was to skim large sections of them and in some cases, entire chapters. (In books 4 and 5, I skimmed almost every chapter relating to any Greyjoy who wasn't Theon or Asha and didn't pay 100% attention to most of what was going on in Dorne, or relating to people from Dorne, unless they happened to be with Tyrion at the time. Anything involving Jaime and/or Brienne, on the other hand, got read in minute detail, sometimes twice. I am still a twelve-year-old girl at heart).

I got quite interested when I read about a prophecy involving a 'wooden wall' because to a Classicist that means only one thing - ships. (From the famous incident in the Persian War, recorded by Herodotus, when the Athenians were told to use wooden walls, and some argued they should hide behind the walls of the city, but Themistocles convinced them in fact it meant they should rely on their navy and lure the Persians into a naval battle at Salamis). In fact, this particular prophecy does sound like it might refer to an actual wall made out of wood, given that flaming arrows are arching over it, but you never know. I'd love it if it turned out to involve ships (and I'd love it even more if the flaming arrows hit all the ships carrying Euron Greyjoy, Victarion Greyjoy and all the other Greyjoys who aren't Asha and wiped them all out...)

It was also only when the backstory was all laid out for me by the lovely people of the internet that I noticed how close some aspects of the origin story for the war are to the Trojan War. I read A Game of Thrones way back in 2002, so I had completely forgotten the details of how Robert's Rebellion started and what happened to Lyanna Stark, and the small, slow drip-feed of additions to the story had therefore passed me by a bit as well. Looking over the thing as a whole, it's suddenly blindingly obvious that there's more than a hint of the Trojan War in the story of the man who absconds with a woman promised to someone else (with the level of her willingness to go with him varying depending on whose version you're listening to) and the sets of brothers and semi-brothers (Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon having been raised together) who go after her. I'm not sure whether this will have any relevance to the story, other than providing a fun allusion, but it may lend credence to the idea that Lyanna was in love with Rhaegar - versions in which Helen is seduced or chooses to run off with Paris tend to outnumber versions in which she is raped or abducted, though you get both.

One line that jumped out at me from the TV Tropes pages was a very interesting description of the late Joanna Lannister - according to the page on Tywin, it's said that 'Tywin ruled the Seven Kingdoms, but his wife ruled Tywin' (I have no idea which book that's from, I missed it entirely!). That seems to me to be a clear paraphrase of Robert Graves' description of Augustus and Livia in I, Claudius - 'Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus.' Whether this will mean anything or not remains to be seen. So far Joanna Lannister doesn't really have a character - we know Tywin loved her, she died in childbirth, and that's about it. If she was like Graves' interpretation of Livia, you have to wonder if there's all sorts of scheming going on in the backstory that we don't know about yet. Even if not, the allusion gives us a lot more sense of her character than anything else I can remember about her (and is an interesting example of reception of a novel that is itself reception of the ancient world).

Of course, A Dance with Dragons includes one of my favourite ancient motifs, the gladiatorial arena. I loved the way this scene was written so that we, reading it, know that Dany is watching Tyrion and Penny joust, while they are completely anonymous to her. The scene affirms Dany's character and dislike of the Games, and putting one of our favourite characters in peril and seeing him saved somewhat at a distance is a great way of increasing the tension and drama of the moment (and is maybe the fifth time in the entire incredibly long series when someone has done something nice for someone else for no other reason than to be nice - the others being Arya taking Gendry and Hot Pie with her when she escapes, Jaime in the bear pit, Jaime letting Tyrion escape and Tyrion making sure Ser Jorah doesn't end up in the Pits. Dany trying to protect women from the Dothraki and freeing slaves may also count. There's a reason Jaime, Tyrion, Arya and Dany are my favourite characters!).

A Dance with Dragons, like Star Trek's 'The Gamesters of Triskelion,' uses gladiatorial-style Games to demonstrate the evils of slavery - though it hardly needed to, after the horror that is the very concept of the Unsullied. But the dramatic sequence in the Pits also allows for an extra element historical stories can't include - a bloody great dragon landing in the middle of the fight and the queen flying off on it. It is awesome (probably the third most awesome scene in the whole thing, after the Tolkien-echoing arrival of Stannis to join the battle at the Wall towards the end of A Storm of Swords - the only moment of the series in which I actually like Stannis - and the aforementioned bear-pit scene). The wild, dangerous, untamed dragon being attracted by the blood and violence emphasises the horror of gladiatorial combat, as well as giving Dany her moment of glory and, hopefully, indicating that the next book might involve some actual flying around on dragons, which would be a quicker mode of transport, if nothing else.

As a footnote to the gladiators thing, I loved the sequence towards the end in which Ser Barristan is  able to defeat a pit fighter because the pit fighter refuses to wear armour and keeps trying to shame Ser Barristan into taking off his. I suspect gladiators were pretty fearsome killing machines, but they were also highly specialised, mostly using particular sets of weapons against particular opponents, so might have struggled against an unfamiliar enemy - and of course, armour, as long as it's not too heavy, is a distinct advantage.

The dragon in question. It gets bigger...

We should get to see more of Meereen and its pyramids and its fighting pits in Season 3 of Game of Thrones, so I'm looking forward to that - though unfortunately we'll have to wait until Season 6 to get the awesome dragon scene! Hopefully it will be worth waiting for...

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Plebs: Saturnalia

For its first series finale, Plebs gives us Christmas in April, telling a story set during one of my favourite Roman festivals, the Saturnalia.

Most Roman-set stories that cover the Saturnalia portray it as the Roman equivalent of Christmas, for the fairly logical reason that it's where some of our Christmas traditions come from, and part of the reason we celebrate Christmas on 25th December. Plebs, however, takes a different approach and assimilates it to the modern Western celebration of New Year's, complete with their own version of Times Square on New Year's Eve and the idea that people kiss at midnight. Having already covered one of the Saturnalia's best known elements - slaves and masters swapping places - in an earlier episode, there's very little of the actual Saturnalia left other than Cynthia's straw animals and the time of year, plus the general party atmosphere, which is pretty accurate.

Part of the reason for this is that the series plays down any religious elements of the festival. There's a nice tension running throughout the episode between poor, superstitious Cynthia's terror at being cursed by a street-corner soothsayer and Grumio's total lack of concern for the gods on the grounds that they don't exist (and it's always nice to see ancient unbelief depicted in popular culture, as popular stories too often assume that everyone in the ancient world believed in every myth and every tradition). Since the writing leans firmly in Grumio's direction, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is current secular celebrations, rather than religious ones, that form the basis of the episode. More importantly, of course, Marcus is driven throughout the story by his desire to get a chance to kiss Cynthia at midnight, leading to a nice final gag which helps prevent this story from feeling too much like Friends in togas.

Grumio's story in this episode didn't work so well for me. It starts off with him stealing meat from religious sacrifices, which makes no sense at all because apart from a few vital organs, the meat from religious sacrifices in Rome was eaten at a sacrificial banquet. The Greeks and Romans were not stupid and they did not throw away tonnes of perfectly good meat on the gods. The Greeks even had a whole myth to explain why the gods got the bones and not the meat. Then Grumio nearly gets taken off to Cyprus by a cult who want to castrate him (which happened in the secretive mystery cult of Cybele, according to a slightly hysterical poem by Catullus). Which is fine, except that Grumio is a slave, so the cult aren't recruiting him so much as stealing him from Marcus. I know I'm not supposed to complain about historical inaccuracy, but this plotline just left me a bit cold, not to mention it included some rather poor taste jokes as well (though I did like the way the costume department had dressed the cult priests half in Christian monk-like robes and half in Buddhist monk-like robes - inaccurate, but rather fun).

Luckily Marcus and Sylax's plot is more successful and involves them teaming up with Water-Man, which is always nice. Cynthia's plot, though thin, is also fun and allows the episode to open with a lovely homage to Monty Python's Life of Brian as we meet a doom-mongering old crone (and there were a lot of prophecies about the end of the world and, if we believe the poets, a lot of soothsaying old crones around in Rome as well, so that works). Her logic concerning the 'accident' that's going to befall her and her conviction that if Landlord had done his job properly she would have had a worse accident was wonderful. There was some nice snappy dialogue in this episode too - I particularly enjoyed Stylax's optimistic assertion to Marcus that soon, 'You'll get with Cynthia, I'll get with everybody else!' and Landlord's insistence that the reason for the damp in one of the rooms was that it's 'a wet room.'

All in all, a fun end to the series, and fingers crossed ITV will give it a second shot, if only in the hope that poor Marcus can finally catch a break and get at least a hug from Cynthia.

All Plebs reviews

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Plebs: Bananae

In this episode, the boys's flat is overrun with Thracian fruit sellers, and Marcus falls foul of a group of veterans of the Roman army.

The essential basis of this episode is the constantly expanding nature of the Roman world. The details are all over the place (neither Thrace nor Britain had yet been conquered in 27 BC, though there were links with them, and I'm pretty sure bananas don't grow in Thrace, which is on the Black Sea, unless the climate was warmer back then). But the essential point is, our characters live at the hub of a world that is constantly changing thanks to the power plays of the higher-ups.

In Cynthia's case, this means accidentally donating money for the conquest of her own country. Cynthia and Metella come from outside the Empire, which is one reason for Cynthia's occasional confusion at Roman customs (like gladiatorial combat). Here, Cynthia is uncomfortably reminded that however well she might be trying to blend in she's not, in fact, Roman and is on some level still an outsider.

In the Thracians' case, we see the impact of conquest on people's lives, as they introduce the Romans to a previously unknown fruit, the banana. Bananas are Britain's favourite exciting and interesting fruit - they only grow far to the south so to a British audience they seem very exotic, there are jokes to be made when people discover the skin for the first time, and of course, as Plebs is keen to point out, they are... suggestively shaped.

We also see the boys react with extreme discomfort to the Thracians kissing them on the cheeks in greeting. The specifics of this reaction are, of course, transposed from modern Britain - this is the average British reaction when greeted this way by people from other parts of Europe (squirming and not knowing where to look, essentially. We tend to prefer a handshake in a business context, and a barely comprehensible grunt approximating to 'a'righ?' with a nod of the head when greeting friends). But the story as a whole is nice reflection on a world in which freshly conquered new people with new customs, new products and, historically, new religions pour in and shake things up every now and again.

I enjoyed this episode, particularly the terrible puns ('Thracist,' 'bananed'). Again, this is probably a reflection of my terrible sense of humour more than anything else, but I laughed every time someone said 'bananae.' I'm easily pleased.

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Monday, 15 April 2013

Plebs: The Herpes Cat

In the fourth episode of Plebs, Stylax has caught something nasty, and Grumio's lottery ticket may or may not be inside Cynthia's dead cat.

This is probably the least 'Roman' episode of Plebs so far. I probably don't need to say this, but Romans didn't have sexual health clinics, especially not staffed by attractive, single young women (women were midwives, men were physicians), and I'm not aware that they had lotteries either, though I suppose they might have done. What this means is that, more than any other episode so far, this is essentially a modern sitcom in which the protagonists wear tunics.

There was one concession to the setting of ancient Rome - I liked the way the show acknowledged the fact that everything Grumio has, including himself, belongs to Marcus. This was carried right through to the landlord negotiating how to split potential lottery wins from Grumio's ticket with Marcus, rather than Grumio. Slaves were often given an allowance and a close personal slave like Grumio might have possessions, but technically, legally, they all belonged to his master. The references to this situation, as well as giving Marcus a reason to be invested in digging up Cynthia's ex-cat, are a nice reminder that however much people will always be people, ancient Rome was in some ways a fairly alien world.

I'm a cat person, so violence to cats usually upsets me, but luckily the dead-cat moments were kept to a minimum. The cat ('Felix', Latin for good luck, which works rather nicely) is also by far the fattest, healthiest-looking stray cat I've ever seen, which I suppose is a good thing, since I'm glad the animals used seem healthy and happy, though anyone who's been on holiday to Rome knows that this isn't what the cats that prowl the streets of Rome look like. The pets of love interests in Roman-set stories are more often sparrows, to match Catullus' famous poem about how upset his lover Lesbia is because her pet sparrow has died (that's why Miriam's secret admirer gives her a sparrow in The Secrets of Vesuvius). But then, it would be harder for a sparrow to potentially choke on a lottery ticket.

Not as many laughs as the first two episodes, but less weeing and pooing than the third episode, so a step in the right direction!

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Thursday, 11 April 2013

Oblivion (dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2013)

Oblivion is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film starring Tom Cruise. Brother and I went to see it last night, and enjoyed ourselves. It's a bit long, and our reactions throughout the film were often along the lines of, 'Hmm, that looks like 2001,' 'this is making me want to watch Wall-E,' 'I've seen Moon too, and Independence Day' and several occasions when one or other of us predicted the next line, plus a moment towards the end where we both ruined the seriousness of the occasion by bursting into giggles at another, clearly deliberate, homage. But overall it was a good night out, pretty engaging considering it's over two hours long and beautifully shot.

Early on in the film, Tom Cruise (his character goes by the everyman name 'Jack', making this the second film this year where Tom Cruise has played someone called Jack) picks up an old book in the rubble of the ruined Earth (this is not a spoiler - the whole of the first few minutes is the biggest info-dump you've ever heard, including the fact that the Earth has been ruined. Do not, as I did, spend too long in the toilet and miss the beginning). The book is Lays of Ancient Rome, a book of Victorian poems by Lord Macaulay (that tells you quite a lot about them) based on ancient Roman legends. Cruise reads and looks thoughtful about part of the most famous poem, the story of Horatius, and particularly the lines,

And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.

Macaulay's poems are based on Roman myths and legends from the early Republican era (and a bit of the Roman monarchy). We don't often see this era represented in popular culture - outside of Spartacus and the fall of the Republic, modern writers aren't terribly interested (Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus actually goes out of its way to distance itself from the historical Rome). When popular culture tells stories about Romans, its interest is usually in telling stories about evil, corrupt empires which may or may not be defeated by holier-than-thou Christians. The focus is on orgies, gladiators, mad monarchs and blood sports. Romans are usually the evil Other, and those works that do present the Romans as 'just like us,' like Plebs, are more likely to focus on everyday life and unsung heroes rather than big names or famous stories.

These Lays, though, are based on the stories Romans told about themselves, rather than the stories that we tell about them. Just like most cultures, the Romans told stories of their early history that exemplified the values they treasured the most. In this story, when the rest of the army runs away, one man, Horatius (two others help but they give up after a while), defends a bridge against an invading army. He tells the others to destroy the (only) bridge behind him and holds the invaders off until they've done so, then swims over without even losing any of his weapons (this was given some importance by some of the Roman writers). Bravery, military glory and fighting for Rome are all part of this story. The Romans told lots of stories about their bygone glories (many of them involving war or women killing themselves, or both) that used to be quite popular, certainly up to the Victorian era and beyond, but that have fallen out of fashion in the twentieth century, especially since World War Two, as Rome has become synonymous with evil empires and general badness.

This is about to get very spoilery, so stop reading now if you want to go into the film fresh.

There's a really interesting moment at the end of the film, when Tom Cruise confronts the amusingly-designed alien thing and quotes Macaulay's lines back at it. He starts by saying that these words are from a story about 'a place called Rome' (or something to that effect - the film's too recent for transcripts to be available and I wasn't taking notes!). I found that particularly interesting because the last time I read a reference to a 'place called Rome' in a futuristic dystopia, it was in the third Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, and the reference was not meant to be particularly complimentary to Romans. But here, Rome is held up as an example. We as the audience are asked to identify with the Romans - and not with slaves like Spartacus, or downtrodden schlubs like the Plebs, but with a hero of Roman legend, fighting to preserve Rome. Of course, the reason this works is because the story is a defensive one, set far back in the Republic, so we're not being asked to identify with the Empire but with a smaller, democratic state fighting enemies who've allied with their evil ousted monarch. But I'm betting a lot of the audience don't know all that - they're simply being asked to identify with 'Rome' as a shining example of the bravery of humanity against a nasty, de-humanised alien threat. It's very unusual - and for a Romanist like me, quite nice!

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Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Plebs: The Erotic Vase

It's Grumio's birthday, and Stylax has bought him the titular (hehe) vase, which happens to include a picture that looks like Cynthia. I liked the vase - there are lots of vases like that from the ancient world (though possibly not detailed enough to look like a specific person). I liked the way everyone kept calling it 'vintage' too, as it would most likely be a very old Greek vase, judging by the style.

I also liked the detail that Grumio doesn't know how old he is, which is played for laughs but reflects what must have been a pretty common reality. Marcus has forgotten to get Grumio a present, so he offers to swap roles for a day - this is also something some Romans really did, as part of the Saturnalia. It would be up to the master whether to participate or not (and some, like Pliny the Younger, refused to swap roles but did go away to the country and leave the city slaves to have a holiday) but it was definitely a real thing, so that was fun too.

Much of this episode was concerned with Stylax's relationship with his cousin, and I was very happy to see incest depicted  as something thoroughly disapproved of by almost everyone else (even between cousins, which is more often considered OK in some cultures). One of my biggest pet peeves about popular culture interpretations of Rome is the notion that Romans were prone to having sex with siblings, parents, aunts and uncles all over. The truth is, historical writers accused certain emperors - the ones they didn't like - of having sex with their sisters, mothers and so on in order to show up how bad they were. (And Claudius did marry his niece, but he had to get special permission to do that). Historians also routinely accused bad emperors of being effeminate, thinking they were gods and being fond of money and luxury. Basically, all bad emperors were accused of being Cleopatra, which is probably where the whole notion came from in the first place (well, and Caligula might genuinely have been a bit off his rocker - it's debatable).

All of this means it's really refreshing to see a large number of Romans reacting with appropriate horror to the idea of incest - this time, Plebs actually reflects Roman reality more than popular culture tropes. The reference to how 'the royal family do it all the time' is a bit problematic because of the date - 'the royal family' would have to mean either Egyptian or Hellenistic monarchs, who were all gone by 27 BC (Cleopatra having killed herself three years earlier) or the Julio-Claudian emperors, in which case it would certainly be true as far as cousins and step-siblings go, but too early (Augustus is still only about 35). I do wonder if giving the series such a precise date was a good idea - I suppose it doesn't matter much since hardly anyone will notice, but if you do know the history, it does take you out of the comedy when you're distracted for several seconds thinking 'hang on, that doesn't work.' If the series was simply set in 'the Roman Empire' none of this would be a problem (nor would the fact Cynthia and Metella's home of Britain isn't a province yet, though there were trade links) - I rather hope something is made of the date to justify it at some point.

A bit slower than some earlier episodes, but Marcus walking around in a yellow dress was very funny, and talking of Cleopatra, Flavia bathing in asses' milk was a nice touch. Marcus clearly hadn't thought through his offer to buy Grumio a pointy hat, since a cone-shaped hat is the symbol of a freedman, but then I imagined it as the Roman equivalent of giving Dobby a sock, so that was quite funny too. And now we know how all those Greek pots ended up getting smashed...

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