Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ancient fandom and fan fiction

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a pile of episodes of Plebs and Atlantis I need to get to reviewing at some point, but am too snowed under with marking (not to mention two papers that urgently need worked on) to be able to do them just now. However, during lengthy sessions of sitting at the computer snuffling, rocking back and forth a little and occasionally marking something, I have been breaking up the work by poking around on Tumblr and being generally fascinated by online fan culture. And so, for Christmas, I thought I'd do a slightly silly post looking at possible ancient counterparts to modern popular culture, fan culture and fan fiction.

Something often bemoaned on film websites and in current film criticism is the fact that an awful lot of big films at the moment are based on pre-existing properties - sequels, prequels, re-boots, adaptations of popular books, adaptations of popular graphic novels, adaptations of obscure graphic novels about trees and raccoons, etc. As a complaint, this would make no sense to the ancient Greeks, since Athenian tragedy was almost always a prequel, sequel, re-imagining or re-boot of a pre-existing story. We have one surviving historical tragedy (Aeschylus' The Persians) and references to a few others, but they don't seem to have been terribly popular. According to Herodotus, the playwright Phrynichos was fined 1000 drachmas because his play The Capture of Miletos, about the titular military disaster, was Too Soon, and the capture of Miletos was outlawed as a tragic subject (Hdt. 6.121.2).

No one knows for sure why Athenian tragedy was nearly always myth-based. It's possible that this was part of the genre (just as satyr plays used comic mythological themes and subjects) or that it has to do with the plays being performed at a festival in honour of Dionysus. On the other hand, given that these plays were entered into competitions, maybe the ancients' motivations were the same as Hollywood's. Known properties come with a built-in audience and they sell. In the case of the Athenian drama, it's not necessarily about getting bums on seats - people would probably come to the festival anyway - but it's about getting people to enjoy your play so they give it first prize. Innovation was not the Athenians' thing - although Euripides' alteration to the plot of Medea, having her murder her own children, proved extremely popular and became the most widely known version in later years, it gained him last place in that year's competition. Give people characters they already know and love and a story that fulfills their expectations, and you're more likely to do well.

Of course, all this writing and re-writing of pre-existing characters and stories leads to works that take their inspiration from and build on the works of previous authors. Modern fiction draws a line between canonical stories, written professionally by people who own the copyright to the characters, and fan fiction, written not-for-profit by fans who don't own any rights to the characters and didn't invent them. However, even in a modern context, the line between the two is increasingly blurry - non-canon but professionally written TV tie-in novels have been around for years, and now there's a new set of Sookie Stackhouse short stories written by other authors coming out - and that's not even counting belated sequels to out-of-copyright properties, like Death Comes to Pemberly or Heidi Grows Up.

In the ancient world, not only were there no copyright laws, the mythological or folkloric subjects of most of the non-historical stories that appear in much of ancient literature had no individual author or creator in the first place, and anyone could do what they wanted with them. (Original Characters and stories do, of course, also appear in ancient literature as well. Novels like Petronius' Satyricon and collections of poems like the Latin love poems of the first century BC tell, so far as we know, fresh stories with new, contemporary characters, and Aristophanes' comedies are mostly fairly original). So, is a large part of ancient literature essentially fan fiction?

The answer is probably 'not really', because fan fiction implies being a fan of a specific thing and writing more of it, whereas most ancient literature takes pre-existing stories - but not particular authors or particular versions - and re-works them, as Shakespeare did. Still, it's a pretty fine line. Lucian has something of an obsession with Homer, but since it's a negative obsession, that's more spoofing than fan fiction. Seneca seems to have had a bit of a thing for Euripides, producing his own versions of Hippolytus (Phaedra), Medea, The Madness of Heracles (Hercules), Trojan Women and Phoenician Women. One of the most fan fiction-like bits of ancient literature, though, must be Ovid's Heroides. Although not based on a particular author's work, these letters from mythological heroines to their lovers do represent a common theme in fan fiction - expanding upon existing romantic relationships between fictional characters.

Of course, one of the most prevalent themes in modern fan fiction is shipping. The term apparently originated with fans of The X-Files who wanted Mulder and Scully to get together, while 'slash fiction' (male homoerotic shipping) was apparently used even earlier to refer to Kirk/Spock fiction (i.e. Kirk slash Spock fiction) but the concept far pre-dates the internet and may even pre-date Kirk and Spock. In Plato's philosophical dialogue The Symposium, Plato has one of the speakers (Phaedrus) explain his conviction that Aeschylus is wrong about Achilles being the active partner in a sexual relationship with Patroclus, since obviously it was the other way around. Since Homer's Iliad (which at least popularised the orally-told story) never explicitly states that Achilles and Patroclus are in a sexual relationship - there's plenty of phrases that could be read that way, but nothing definite - this surely makes Aeschylus and either Plato, Phaedrus or both Achilles/Patroclus shippers, and Achilles/Patroclus the first slash couple. (Hmm, there was probably Gilgamesh/Enkidu slash as well, but I doubt that's survived). Not sure what their ship name should be - Patrilles? Does this exist online as a ship? (I bet it does. Rule 34 and all that).

Of course, one difference between ancient treatments of myth and modern story-telling is that heroic myth was generally considered to be part of history in the ancient world, even if many people doubted the specifics of it. But then, I've broken the hearts of countless students with my insistence that King Arthur wasn't real over the years. Arthurian legend - whether specific re-tellings or the stories in general - has been subject to all the usual fan treatments over the years, including fan fiction attached to particular interpretations (most recently the BBC series) and shipping (definitely in the case of the BBC series - Merthur is pretty big on Tumblr).

I mentioned above the religious context of some of these texts (plays performed at the festival of Dionysus) and I've spent years showing students Aristophanes' Frogs (featuring the god Dionysus swapping places with his slave and a lot of fart jokes) and talking to them about how different ancient religion and literature was, since the ancients made fun of their gods in a way that modern Abrahamic religions generally don't. However, I confess that lately I've even had to re-think that. I watched all of Supernatural over the summer and (spoiler alert) here is how Supernatural portrays the Judaeo-Christian God:

He's called Chuck, He's a bad writer and he has regular phone sex with a woman called 'Mistress Magda' (he's got a 'virgin-hooker thing', it seems). The show also features the archangels Micheal, Raphael and Gabriel (all 'dicks', though Gabriel is the least dickish), Uriel (downgraded to regular angel), various other angels and, debateably, Jesus. Of course, that could just be Supernatural, but then I thought about the depiction of God in Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail

and (one of my favourite screen depictions of God) in Dogma

not forgetting, of course, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty

and Whoopi Goldberg, who has played God twice (It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and A Little Bit of Heaven).

Jesus is more likely to be treated respectfully, seen from a distance, or not appear at all, viewed chiefly through receptions of Him (like Dogma's classic Buddy Christ). But we don't really have that much of a problem depicting God in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the majority of the writers on these projects were atheist or agnostic, and several of them certainly attracted the wrath of organised Christian Churches or fundamentalist groups. But that doesn't mean they don't exist, and there are plenty of practicing Christians like me who enjoy these works even if it does mean they stand in church singing 'The Angel Gabriel' and picturing Richard Speight Jr's waggling eyebrows.

(gif from here)

Even if we want to restrict ourselves to works written by practicing Christians and approved by Christian leaders, we've still got a pretty famous depiction of Jesus as a lion with a (subtle) sense of humour.

So, to sum up, ancient and modern literature - possibly not so different after all.

Happy Christmas!

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2014)

(In case anyone is wondering where the Plebs and Atlantis reviews are: I am planning to catch up on all of them eventually, but it's just not possible to keep up every week with my current workload. So they will appear, sooner or later!).

I'm a huge fan of The Hunger Games, so I headed out to see Mockingjay Part 1 this weekend, and I wasn't disappointed. As usual, I wish the film-makers would take a few more liberties with the books and mix things up a bit. And I'm torn on whether it should have been left at one film. I enjoyed everything here (if 'enjoyed' is the right word) and it was vaguely pulled together by the theme of the media war between Plutarch and Snow with Katniss and Peeta as their weapons. I'm also not against splitting books on principle - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is actually my second favourite of the Potter films (my favourite is Goblet of Fire - exactly no one agrees with me on this) and I think the only one of the Twilight films that really qualifies as a quality movie is Breaking Dawn Part 1, because that stands alone as an effective pregnancy/body horror piece. I'm not entirely convinced Mockingjay benefits from the split other than financially, as I think a bit more adaptation and willingness to cut unnecessary material might have been an improvement, and we would have got complete arcs for the new characters who, apart from Coin, mostly just appear and give the vague impression we might need to know who they are in the next film. But it leaves space for lots of little things from the books, like Prim's cat and Finnick's rope (not commented on, but seen) and I think overall it's a good film.

I was kicking myself early on in the film, as I realised I'd never really given much thought to how much District 13 resembles ancient Sparta. I've always seen it as vaguely Communist, set against the Capitalist Capitol, but when Boggs told Katniss early in this film that 'the war never ended for us' it suddenly hit me that it's not Communist so much as it is Spartan.

Judging by the (not all that reliable) evidence we have, Spartan society around the fifth century BC was focused around transforming its male citizen into the perfect army (to better be able to quell revolts from the enslaved Messenian population). Spartan citizen males ate together in a sort of mess, and the food was not especially delicious (pigs boiled in their own blood seem to have been involved). The inhabitants of District 13 eat small portions of horrible food due to rationing, but the cafeteria or mess-like dining area is similar. Spartan boys were expected to wear one style of tunic all year round so they could cope with heat and cold equally well, a bit like District 13's jumpsuits, and both the dietary and wardrobe restrictions were also aimed at making sure all citizens were equal and no one tried to raise themselves above another.

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, after whom Plutarch Heavensbee is named, the legendary Spartan founder Lycurgus also insisted that the only form of currency to be used was big iron rods, treated with vinegar so the iron couldn't be melted down and re-used. This meant no one tried to get rich, as there was no inherent value in the money and it couldn't be exchanged with other currencies, so Spartan men were focused on improving their military skills and not distracted by trying to earn money. This would seem to fit with the Communist aesthetic and lack of currency in District 13 (I have often wondered why their President is called 'Coin' - this is surely significant, but I confess, it confuses me! Other than to imply that she is hard and cold, perhaps).

I feel like I may have heard a paper on this subject once, but I've forgotten - it certainly came back to me when Boggs explained how District 13 live by referring to the war never ending for them. The entire society is designed to be able to fight a war. Unlike the ancient Spartans, the inhabitants of District 13 don't have hundreds of slaves to do all the farming and production and so on for them, and they train women as well as men to fight, so there are some differences in how they're run, but thinking about it, it's clear that ancient Sparta is more the model for District 13 than Communist countries - though there are a fair few similarities between the two anyway.

Of course, whereas depictions of ancient Sparta tend to involve a lot of very fit men not wearing very much beyond their red cloaks and running around in the warm sunshine of Greece, District 13 is much more drab-looking. Thank goodness, then, for Effie! I was glad to see the writers (one of whom, Danny Strong, was Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I have random residual fondness for him on that basis alone) were willing to make a few changes from the book, and bringing Effie in to District 13 to replace Katniss' former fashion team (minus Cinna, *sob*!) was a great idea, leading to some of the few moments of levity in the entire, grim, relentlessly sad film. (I was going to make a comment about how poor Katniss is basically crying or nearly crying through most of the film, but honestly, that could describe any of the Hunger Games films). The moment between Effie and Haymitch in the briefing was wonderful.

I was glad to see Mockingjay once again expanding the story a bit beyond Katniss' point of view, and the scene with the group of people singing 'The Hanging Tree' was very effective. I suspect being able to include scenes like this is one of the advantages of splitting the film, so it may turn out to have been a good artistic decision as well as sound for obvious financial reasons - and Mockingjay is a book with a clear halfway point and a lot of material, so it stands up to the divide better than The Hobbit being split into three. With any luck, the final installment next year will round out a solid four-part series.

More on The Hunger Games:
The book trilogy (spoilery)
The Hunger Games (spoilery)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (also spoilery)

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Supernatural: Fan Fiction

'Fan Fiction' is the 200th episode of Supernatural. Not many shows reach such an impressive number, but those that do include Stargate SG-1 and its fabulous, hilarious, imaginatively named 200th episode '200', so this had a lot to live up to.

Lots of spoilers below.

Supernatural has been doing intensely meta-fictional episodes in several different flavours for years (though ironically 'Meta Fiction' isn't one of them, and nor is 'Slash Fiction') so it's hardly surprising that, like SG-1, the writers went for a meta-fictional plot for the 200th episode. The story is set around a high school play inspired by the novels that tell Dean and Sam's life stories (well established within the series, and involving metaphysics rather than the usual bad adaptation of events, so they're unusually accurate. The episode set around a fan convention for them is one of my favourites). Our heroes turn up to investigate after the drama teacher, threatening to shut the show down because "there's too much drama in the drama department", disappears. It turns out the show is being protected by Calliope, the Greek Muse and goddess of epic poetry.

Supernatural has done Greek gods before and, I have to admit, more effectively. The gods in 'Remember the Titans' are dressed in modern clothing and play roles reasonably close to their mythical characters, though there were some changes to Artemis that bothered me a bit. Calliope, however, is costumed in a really basic sub-Charmed-style Greek-type dress with purple flowers on it and an arm band and bears very little resemblance to anything remotely Greek (not many pictures online yet, just this one from one of the actresses' Twitter accounts). According to Supernatural, Calliope is:

  • Associated with the 'borage' or starflower;
  • Manifests creatures from the stories she's tuned in to;
  • Uses these manifestations to inspire and protect the author until their vision is realised...
  • then she eats the author.

Some of this makes sense. Calliope is, indeed, the Muse of epic poetry so her interest in the show is logical enough - for a musical version of Supernatural, they could also have gone for Melpomene (tragic plays) or Terpsichore (choral song and dance) but I liked Calliope's justification for her interest/defense of the show on the grounds that "It isn't some meandering piece of genre dreck. It's... epic." Besides, there weren't always nine Muses and they didn't always have such clearly differentiated spheres of interest - Calliope was the mother of the famous singer Orpheus and in older art is often shown with a lyre, so it makes sense that she'd like musicals. And while manifesting creatures from stories she's especially interested in has nothing to do with Greek mythology, it's necessary for the plot of the episode to work and for her to present some kind of threat, so that's fine too (plus, scarecrow callback!).

The flower thing is bit stranger. I'm not aware of any connection between Calliope and borage flowers, though of anyone knows of one, let me know. Ovid describes her wearing her hair in an ivy wreath. I suppose the show needed to invent something specific to her that would identify her. In art she's usually depicted with a lyre, tablet and stylus or scroll - none of which would be specific enough - or the head of her son Orpheus, which she recovered after he was torn limb from limb by Bacchants. Not too grim for Supernatural, but harder to place at the scene of every disappearance or use as a decorative motif on her dress, I guess.

The bit that really bothered me, though, was the idea that after the show, she eats the author. What?! I get that she has to threaten Marie's life - again, it's the only way for the story to work - but why eat her? That's just weird. She could just kill her in some unspecified way. If I were choosing punishments for authors from Greek mythology, I'd probably go for blinding them, which is something of a theme - Homer describes a blind poet, which lead the ancients to assume he was blind, Tiresias is blinded, in some versions for revealing secrets, and Oedipus blinds himself when he discovers the truth. I guess in Supernatural that might not work because it would be too associated with the angels burning people's eyes out, but still. Or Calliope could rip people's tongues out once their song is sung, or tear them to pieces like what happened to her son or... really anything other than eating them, which makes no sense. They try to justify it with her line saying she's "consumed many authors, many stories," implying it's something to do with 'consuming' stories as art, but just.... no. Too silly. (I choose to draw the 'too-silly' line in weird places in sci-fi and fantasy, but this is one of them).

Still, the reason the depiction of Calliope is rather surface-level is because she really isn't the point here. Of course, all myths and folktales used in Supernatural are there to further its own story and parallel the show's own characters, but Calliope is a particularly empty plot device - far more so than the interesting exploration of Prometheus and Zeus in 'Remember the Titans' - because as an anniversary episode, this episode has far more important things to do. Calliope is just the necessary MacGuffin to get the boys into the school, and we all know it.

OK, anyone who's reading this blog because you're interested in classics, classical reception, or academic research, you may want to just leave it here because the rest of this post is pure Supernatural fan-girling. There may be squee-ing.

I was really worried this was going to be awful, especially when I found out it was set at an all-girls' school play. Full disclosure: I went to all-girls' schools - two of them, because we moved house when I was 14. At my new school, my friends and I were really into VC Andrews' Flowers in the Attic and its sequels - gothic horror/romance novels about teenage incest. Also ballet. A couple of years later, we put on a play we wrote ourselves, in which a couple of us performed famous songs (one of my best friends sang 'I Put a Spell on You' and I think I did 'Close Every Door' from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) and in which I played the main character, whose boyfriend was named after a love interest from our favourite TV show at the time. There was also Shakespeare. And 'Do You Love Me?' So there's a possibility I over-identify with Marie (except for the fact I'm a Dean girl, obviously).

Luckily, in the end, I think I loved it. It's hard to compete with 'The Real Ghostbusters' or 'Changing Channels' (or SG-1's '200') but actually, miraculously, I think they pulled it off. They manage to use the all-girls' school setting largely without being creepy about it, which is something I was really worried about. I don't think any of our teachers would ever have referred to us as 'skanks' - I hope not - but the moment in which Dean accidentally called a young girl 'bitch' was actually very funny, and otherwise the guest characters were treated pretty respectfully. This features more female characters - and more women of colour - in one episode than Supernatural has featured in the rest of the show combined. And they all lived! It was an Everybody Lives episode! Has Supernatural even done one of those before? All I can think of is 'The End', in which everyone dies in the future, and, interestingly enough, 'The Monster at the End of This Book'. Both Chuck episodes as well. Hmm.

Obviously, being an anniversary episode, there were nods to the past and in-jokes all over the place, my favourite being the amused-hurt tone in Sam's voice as he wonders why 'Destiel' and not 'Sastiel'. The writers had promised to acknowledge everyone who'd been significant to the show, so while Sam and Dean and their musical counterparts get the most attention, we see plenty of Bobby, John, Castiel and Mary Winchester in singing form as well. At one point Sam remarks on the absence of Chuck in the cast line-up, and the characters he's looking at are:

  • John, Mary, Bobby, Castiel, Dean (definitely identifiable,these have lines and sing - Sam is played by the director by this point and standing in front of them);
  • Jody Mills (a character in a police uniform, and Jody was mentioned earlier so presumably this is her), Crowley, Jo, Ellen, Ash (guesses based on costume, but Ash couldn't be anyone else);
  • And a robot.
  • Plus several stagehands in black.

Notable characters from the first five seasons not featured include Bela, Ruby, Pamela and Anna, which is a bit of a shame, so let's pretend the four stagehands are playing them. The Ghostfacers get a mention as the girls psych themselves up to go on stage, which I loved because I'm a big fan of the Ghostfacers. Mind you, that was also the point I felt the collapse of the fourth wall was starting to threaten my suspension of disbelief, because the Ghostfacers really exist in the world of Supernatural, so wouldn't fans of the books Google them and discover they were real? Best not to think about it too much.

The whole story takes the rather sweet and self-deprecating approach that the first five seasons of the show, supervised by creator Eric Kripke, are 'canon', and all the rest of it since is fan fiction. This fits with the established mythology in which the writer (Chuck) is implied literally to be God, and stopped writing after Kripke's final episode 'Swan Song' (in which Chuck disappeared). Marie's dismissal of all the rest of the show as terrible fan fiction is very funny, and aside from the final Boy Melodrama moment (I prefer the term Misty-Eyed Boy Talk myself) we don't see anything of Act II of the musical, which in Marie's version apparently included robots, tentacles and space. I was glad to hear Kevin (easily my favourite new character from the later seasons, though I like Charlie Bradbury a lot too) get a name-check as Dean fills Marie in on the details of life since 'Swan Song', but overall the focus on the first five seasons, and that fantastic 'Then' title card, was a very sweet move on the writers' part, even if partly determined by Chuck's disappearance.

The most significant 'returning' character, though, was surely the third Winchester brother, Adam. I may have actually gasped when fake-Adam came on stage at the end of the show. It's ages since anyone acknowledged the fact that poor Adam is still trapped in a cage in Hell with Lucifer and Michael, and the fact that the episode makes such a big deal of him showing up and puts his appearance in the final sequence, after Calliope is defeated, makes me wonder if they're planning to go rescue him at last. I've been enjoying the story arc in season 10 more than any of the main arcs for years (well, seasons in my case, I watched them all this summer in one big lump), as the Mark of Cain has been pretty effective, and if the boys decided to go after Adam, that would be even better, and could fix something that's been bothering fans for ages.

Also, wasn't that the same young actress playing Adam as played Castiel? Which makes me wonder - did they just run out of young actresses who could sing and had to double up, or was it deliberate? Is Adam and/or Castiel going to possess the other? (Adam could be a demon by now, or Castiel could get his grace back...). And is that why Bobby appeared as part of the Winchester family group but Castiel didn't? ('Cause that bothered me. I'm obsessed with Castiel, who is the reason I watched the show in the first place. It's still suffering from a dire case of Insufficient Castiel).

This episode did fix one long-standing issue though - the Samulet is finally back! Sort of. This is probably the closest we'll get. It was given to Dean by Marie-playing-Sam (shortly after he called her 'Sammy'), and if it's hanging in the car it can't damage Jensen Ackles' teeth, so this will have to do. That made me very happy. And CHUCK! Squee. When Chuck turns up at the end, Marie questions whether Calliope came for her or for him which... raises some interesting questions. Was Calliope actually coming to do battle with an incarnation of a vaguely Judaeo-Christian God in the form of a scruffy author? Now that would be epic...

In summary: I liked it. The cover of 'Carry On, Wayward Son' - started by the fake Mary Winchester - was surprisingly affecting and the whole episode surprisingly effective for something that could have gone horribly wrong. This can take its place among the great milestone episodes. Also, in an astonishing about-turn for Supernatural, it wasn't unremittingly depressing! We even got to see Sam and Dean drive off into the sunset. Beautiful.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Plebs: The New Slave

If you thought Plebs couldn't get darker in tone than 'The Patron', you'd be wrong. It's hard to say whether this episode is just as dark, or even darker, since it combines a plot about having a creepy psychotic living in your house with, once again, the realities of ancient slavery, in which your only way to escape a master you don't want to work for is to get yourself kidnapped.

I love the idea of basing an episode around the impulse purchase of a very creepy slave, because the idea seems reasonably plausible in an ancient setting, but isn't something the ancients themselves wrote about (because ancient literature always emphasizes the slave's subservience to his or her master and Romans would not feel comfortable depicting any free born Roman being frightened of his slave. If you started putting that in plays or literature, the slaves might get ideas. Literature always emphasizes the absolute authority of the master, even in plays about clever slaves or novels in which the master is in love with the slave - the cleverest slave will still be afraid of his elderly master having him beaten. And, of course, since masters could have their slaves beaten whenever they wanted, slaves themselves would be unlikely to behave in any way that would make their masters uncomfortable). Tim Key's performance is great, carefully playing comedy-unhinged in a character that's just creepy enough for the joke to work without being completely horrific - very much in the vein of Eddie from Friends.

I also loved the way the episode addressed the fact that Grumio is, in fact, a pretty terrible slave, while at the same time showing that Marcus apparently does value Grumio enough (having presumably grown up together) to pay a lot of money to get him back after Grumio manages to get himself stolen and refuses to identify Marcus as his master. This, along with catching runaway slaves, is presumably why slaves in the real Roman world were often branded - and probably why slave-napping isn't something that comes up in ancient literature. The Romans were way ahead of their time when it comes to tagging your property - unfortunately in their case, the property in question was other human beings.

It's not hard to understand why Grumio was worried about having a very creepy fellow slave in the house, though putting yourself up for sale at the market is a pretty risky solution - goodness knows what sort of master you might end up with. But if Mushki attacked Grumio, the only result would be that Stylax would owe Marcus some money for damage to (or even the death of) his slave caused by Stylax's slave. On the other hand, if Mushki really went mad and killed Stylax, Grumio might be executed as well as Mushki, depending on whether they count as slaves within the same household (technically they have different masters, so he might be OK). Grumio may have felt he was better off taking his chances. Or, given that he's not very bright, he just hadn't thought through just how bad another master might end up being.

I had a couple of pedantic nit-picks with this one, the main one being that Mushki's hat looked like a freedman's cap (as modeled in the picture here) - which, for obvious reasons, a slave would not wear. It's the sort of thing that can take you out of the episode a bit. And I'm pretty sure it was the Romans who brought rabbits to Britain, so, given that we're still pre-invasion, Cynthia probably shouldn't have had a pet rabbit. And isn't Metella Cynthia's slave? Why is she being invited to dinner with her mistress?

But pedantic nit-picking aside, my main reservations are once again about the treatment of the female characters. I was a bit uncomfortable with the joke about leaving Metella's gag on, and even more so with the boys giving the psycho slave to Flavia, who may be a bit of a hard task-mistress who once tried to replace them with a furnace, but who hardly deserves to have a man who ties up and gags women knowingly placed in her home. That final scene felt really very dark to me, and not in a funny way.

I enjoyed the episode overall, though, and it certainly made me laugh. I loved Water-Man correcting his name to Water-Boy on auto-pilot before realising he'd actually been addressed as Water-Man for once, and I especially loved the use of Latin plurals for the flowers (geranii, croci etc.). I liked the joke about Metella putting tomato sauce on everything as well, something I did for years (and Mushki being set off by people putting condiments on things reminded me of one of Kryten from Red Dwarf's craziest moments, thanks to which I can no longer hear the phrase 'brown sauce' without hearing Kryten yelling in my head "You want brown ketchup with lobster?!").

It's also another episode firmly based in the realities of ancient life. I confess to feeling actually slightly uncomfortable when we opened on the slave market (partly because I associate such a scene with the heroes being auctioned off in The Chronicles of Narnia's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, possibly) and Stylax's comparison of buying a slave to buying an aubergine is, again, pretty dark - but these are the realities of life in a slave-owning society, and the sort of thing we rarely get to see in serious dramas set in the ancient world, in which it's necessary for the hero/protagonist to come across as rather more likeable and have a rather modern and forward-thinking attitude towards slaves and slavery (though Pullo in Rome is clearly the exception to that rule). Sometimes, you need the broad scope and surreal tone of a sitcom to deal with material like this.

All Plebs reviews

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Plebs: The Patron

(I'm a bit behind on the Plebs reviews but I'm catching up!)

How's this for a comedy pitch: in a society with a particularly high slave population and no free healthcare, a man refuses to pay for the treatment his slave needs, leaving the slave to die to save some money. That's some pretty black comedy right there, probably the blackest Plebs has done since Marcus more or less killed a man in series one's 'The Gladiator'. It basically works, but I must say I came out of this episode finally convinced of something I'd been thinking for a while, which is that Stylax is much, much nicer than Marcus. Stylax is a bit daft, but here he pays for his friend's slave's medicine out of his own pocket and grovels all over the place to both Flavia and Gaius in an attempt to get enough money to pay for Marcus' as well. Marcus, meanwhile, refuses to pay for medicine for his own slave and expects his friend to prostitute himself to get some when he needs it. Cynthia deserves better. Much better.

There's a tendency for modern writers sometimes to assume that people in the ancient world were faced with a choice when ill, of whether to pray to the gods and carry out religious or superstitious rituals, or rely on physicians and medicine. I have to admit, normally, this rather annoys me - I suspect the vast majority of people would simply do both, just as most religious people today tend to pray for health and recovery while also seeing doctors and getting scientific medical treatment. However, there were probably some people who tended to rely more on one or the other, so Cynthia's preference for religious ritual seems perfectly reasonable, and of course Marcus has other motivations.

The religious option wouldn't normally be cheaper - sleeping in an incubation sanctuary and praying for a healing dream, for example, required one to buy an animal to sacrifice before sleeping on its fleece, pay the priests and leave a substantial gift for the temple if it worked (the priests made sure to put up inscriptions noting that, for example, when one man was cured of blindness at Epidauros but didn't bring the thank offerings to the god Asclepius, the god made him blind again until he came back, presumably bringing the thank offerings this time). Cynthia's chosen ritual to the goddess Hygeia (daughter of Asclepius) sounds surprisingly cheap and short on animal sacrifice, however - and of course, Marcus' primary interest is in trying to get Cynthia to go out with him, which somewhat surprisingly nearly works.

The episode's other main plot is fairly black comedy as well, involving potential sexual harassment and a character trying to decide whether they should sell themselves to further their career. Between this and Bad Education, I'll never be able to look at Hugo from The Vicar of Dibley (or Tom from Four Weddings and a Funeral) the same way again. It was very funny though, and firmly based in real ancient Roman society, in which wealthy men acted as patrons for smaller businesses and clients.

Black though the comedy may have been, this episode was also very funny, and the make-up on the sick characters was impressive. I also loved the opening scene, set in a Roman toilet - which really were exactly like that (though surely no one would share sponge sticks - that's even worse than using someone's toothbrush...). I couldn't help thinking of The Roman Mystery Scrolls, the only other series I'm familiar with to set so much action in an accurately-depicted toilet, and author Caroline Lawrence's favourite prop, the sponge stick. The only other time I remember seeing a Roman toilet accurately depicted in a drama was a brief scene in Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, but there are other... distractions that may prevent viewers from paying much attention to the toilets in Spartacus. It's amazing the comic potential of the Romans' fondness for communal pooing hasn't been exploited more often.

What I loved about this episode was that everything in it came straight out of the ancient world. I can think of hardly anything that was contemporary in it - Landlord's life insurance scam was more modern (no life insurance in ancient Rome), but even that relied on Grumio not understanding the concept. (I'm also not sure why some of Flavia's costumes have looked sort of kimono-y lately, but I like it, it's a good look on her). Some things, like Marcus trying to get Cynthia to go out with him, are timeless, and when Gaius sat far too close to Stylax in the toilet I was reminded of people who sit unnecessarily close to someone else on the bus or in church, but most of this story could only have taken place in ancient Rome. Plus it was very funny. If only Metella could be given something to do other than being the only sane person on the block, but I suppose we can't have everything, and that shouldn't take away from how enjoyable this half hour was.

All Plebs reviews

Monday, 29 September 2014

Plebs: The Baby

I feel like I should be making some kind of Three Men and a Baby reference, but this episode is really Two Men and a Baby - Marcus wants nothing to do with any of it.

This is an episode based on a genuine ancient phenomenon, which always makes me happy (that the episode is based on something ancient that is, not the phenomenon itself, which is pretty horrible). In the ancient world, if people couldn't afford to raise a baby, they would expose it - we have a particularly brutal letter from a man in Roman Egypt to his pregnant wife telling her to raise the baby if it's a boy, but expose it if it's a girl.

One place you could expose the baby if you wanted to give it a fighting chance was the dump. People have to go to the dump to get rid of their rubbish, so there's a high chance of the baby being seen, and someone might take it in - either to raise as their own or, more likely, as a handy free slave (granted you have to put in a few years employing a wet nurse to feed it first, but at least none of your female slaves has to be pregnant for nine months, which affects their productivity). It's established here that this is how Marcus' parents acquired Grumio - on a hill, in his case - and this is how Grumio acquires Binny (technically for the ever-indulgent Marcus, unless Stylax claims her - Grumio can neither own property, including slaves, nor can he claim parental rights over any child, even if it was biologically his).

Obviously other aspects of the episode were less accurate - I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the Romans did not have paternity leave. They also didn't have orphanages - exposed babies were either picked up to be used as slaves or they died. I did like the child running around playing with a mace at the shelter though, which amused me. Perhaps it's a good thing I'm not a parent.

I loved the B plot in this episode, in which Shredder and Water-Man are replaced by a furnace and a table, thanks to the endless march of technology. I particularly enjoyed Water-Man's final triumphant "Water-Man!" as he proved that there are some things a person can do that a table can't (and nor could a water-cooler, for that matter). I was a bit confused at first when we saw the fans leaving because for a moment I thought they were chimney sweeps (which would be right out, since the Romans didn't have chimneys) - I didn't recognise the fans when they were held upright that way! Also it's late and it's been a long day...

The C plot about Cynthia's play was rather thin, but I did like her War Horse-inspired Trojan Horse costume.

Another enjoyable episode and actually almost touching in places. I rather hope we see Binny again, though since working with babies is famously difficult, it seems unlikely. I'm also still hoping Metella gets a bit more to do soon - I was almost hoping she and Cynthia would end up with Binny, just to give them a meatier storyline and something to do...

All Plebs reviews

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Plebs: The Best Men

Water-Man is getting married, and since Marcus and Stylax are his closest friends, it's up to them to organise his stag do.

Stag dos in sitcoms are always a good opportunity to flesh out one or two secondary characters a bit, and this one does that nicely. I always enjoy seeing more of Water-Man, and it's nice to see Claudius (who sends out messages to all staff, so I guess he's the equivalent of the person who runs the staff mailing lists?) getting fleshed out a bit more as well. Is it wrong that I really liked the sound of the ghost tour of Rome? But then, I am interested in ancient ghost stories and Roman afterlife beliefs, so I guess it would be weirder if I didn't.

We also get to meet Stylax's new driving instructor, and I'm desperately trying not to be bothered by the fact traffic was banned in Rome during the day because I am enjoying those scenes a lot (I have a weakness for quirky driving lessons or tests - the best example of which has to be the Assassin's Guild final exam in Terry Pratchett's Pyramids). Balbus himself is a bit of a stereotype, but then, they all are, and the idea of him sleeping in his chariot after his wife throws him out is pretty funny.

Grumio spends much of the stag do high on henbane, which leads to some amusing images as he hallucinates chickens everywhere. Henbane was known as a hallucinogen called hyoscyamos in the ancient world (Pliny the Elder talks about its negative effect on the mind, as well as the fact it induces vertigo; Natural History 25.17) and probably was taken re-creationally, especially as ancient writers sometimes compared it to wine. Half the internet seems to believe the priestess of Apollo took it to inspire oracles (at Delphi, presumably) and claim Pliny as the source of this information, but since none of the sites I've looked at provide a reference to Pliny and our best information for the priestess at Delphi comes from Plutarch, who doesn't mention anything about drugs taken orally (lots of sweet-smelling incense is involved, according to Plutarch), I'm rather skeptical of that - though if anyone does know of a reference for it, let me know. I'm also ignoring the fact that neither any form of drug, nor prostitution was illegal in the ancient world, so there's no reason for the guards to be after Landlord for drug dealing.

I'm enjoying this second season of Plebs so far, and I really like the way modern analogies like the driving lessons continue to be mixed up with genuinely ancient plots, like Water-Man's father arranging a marriage for him because it will be good for business. My main quibble with these first two episodes is that we've seen hardly anything of the girls. It's probably too much to expect them to have stories and character development of their own beyond providing lust objects for the boys, but in these two episodes Metella in particular feels like she's been given a line or two just to justify paying the actress, and even Cynthia has only turned up for a few minutes to yell at Marcus. Hopefully they'll have a bit more to do in the next episode.

All Plebs reviews

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Plebs: The Chariot

Plebs is back! And it knows how to get me on side right away by opening with a chariot race, though the fact it appeared to be taking place in an amphitheatre rather than a circus was a bit distracting.

As long-time readers know, I'm an F1 fanatic and a big fan of the idea that ancient chariot races were just like an ancient form of F1 (or NASCAR, since they took place around an oval track). So I was a big fan of the opening scene. The rest of the chariot = car/motorbike analogy was iffier on accuracy (traffic wasn't allowed to move through the streets of Rome during the day, because of the congestion) but I did like all the references to Stylax wearing 'leathers'. It did get me wondering whether anyone drove chariots around the streets - I was under the impression that the actual traffic in Rome consisted of carts, partly because of the massive cobbles that chariots would bounce around all over, but I hadn't really given it much thought, and even it that were the case, the idea of young people riding around in chariots all the time for fun is actually quite appealing and fits Plebs rather well.

The rest of this episode was a fairly predictable story about Marcus going out with the prostitute next door, but I did like the scene where the boys try to steal wishing pennies from the fountain. It seemed like a bright enough idea, and them splashing each other was fun, as well as a nice homage to the Friends opening sequence (the Friends pilot coincidentally having aired exactly twenty years before this episode did, which doesn't half make me feel old).

A fairly gentle episode to ease us back in (graphic sex scene notwithstanding) but it's great to have Plebs back. I didn't realise how much I'd missed it until I heard it's bizarre but strangely catchy and endearing reggae-type opening theme tune. Just try not to think about the fact it's Hizdahr zo Loraq running around ineffectually threatening cheating husbands.

Episode 2 review to follow later in the week.

All Plebs reviews

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Supernatural: Remember the Titans

In amongst writing conference papers, writing lecture slides and writing TV articles, I've spent an inordinate amount of time this summer binge-watching all nine years of Supernatural in an unhealthily short period. (Thanks to the awesome Billie Doux for persuading me to give it a go. I would like a Dean Winchester for Christmas please). Numerous episodes of Supernatural deal with Classical tropes, themes and references and I'm sure I'll blog them all eventually, but for today, having got as far as the back third of season eight (please don't tell me about season nine in the comments, though I do know what the latest cliffhanger is from Tumblr!), I thought I'd talk about Greek tragedies.

I often wonder if the experience of watching a TV episode based on ancient myth is similar to the experience of watching a tragic play in ancient Greece. They're based on old stories with which many of us are very familiar, so we have some idea what to expect - though in this case, Supernatural doesn't assume too much knowledge on its viewers' parts. Anyone with a working knowledge of Greek mythology knows what's going on as soon as the credits roll and we see an eagle eating the unfortunate "Shane"'s liver before "Shane" miraculously comes back to life, so sitting through the first act, in which the characters are trying to work out what's happening, can be little frustrating - Greek tragedies tend to avoid this by explaining to the audience exactly where we are in the story and then getting on with it. But still, this section isn't dragged out for too long and as the episode develops, we get into a re-telling of Greek mythology that, just like ancient tragedy, contains some familiar elements and some new ones.

In Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to mankind (among other things - he tricked Zeus into accepting the useless parts of sacrifices too) and was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day. I liked that this episode took up (one of) the ancient explanation(s) for Prometheus' punishment and wove it into the world of the show. Fire has always been the boys' primary weapon on Supernatural, so the sympathy and gratitude they felt towards Prometheus added some nice depth to the story. The exact nature of Prometheus' punishment was changed to fit better with the themes of the show - in myth, it's the experience and pain of having his liver eaten every day that is Prometheus' punishment, because he can't die at all no matter what. Here, this was changed to have him 'experience death' every day and then come back, so that Prometheus' experiences fit more closely with those of the protagonists, both of whom have died and come back on countless occasions and who are concerned it's about to happen again to Sam (though pedantically, I feel the need to observe Dean has actually died a lot more often than Sam, since he died every day for months in 'Mystery Spot', and he was actually killed before going to Hell, whereas Sam was dragged in, body and all. But I digress).

The main change from Greek myth I didn't like so much was the resolution, in which it was revealed that Artemis had an affair with Prometheus. Generally speaking, I liked Artemis, who was very cool in all her black leather with her fancy bow, and correctly identified as the goddess of hunters and therefore the one who would be Sam and Dean's patron goddess if Dean didn't pray to his best friend the angel (that was adorable, by the way) and Sam wasn't a possibly-lapsed-by-now Christian.

However, the addition of an affair between her and Prometheus bothered me for a couple of reasons. One is that one of Artemis' defining attributes is that she is a virgin. Obviously, I do not agree with the ancient Greeks that a woman can only take on a 'masculine' role (hunting in Artemis' case, warfare in Athena's) if she is a virgin (and, therefore, not a mother - ancient contraception wasn't up to much). But, whether we like it or not, it was one of her defining traits (plus this show has a habit of scoffing at virgins which is mildly irritating). That's not the main reason I dislike this change though. What really bothers me is that the goddess of hunting is completely turned around, to the point of killing her own father, because she has a thing for a guy. I'm probably being overly harsh - normally I like stories about the redeeming power of love (any kind of love). But it bothered me, probably because the only two women in the episode were entirely defined by their relationships with men, and the other one was pretty stupid to boot. How very ancient Greek.

At least the scene in which Sam throws out a bunch of wild educated guesses (who blabbed? Homer? Hesiod? Herodotus?) is pretty funny, largely thanks to Dean's fantastic facial expressions throughout. And we come back to the mythology as everything comes together and Sam, by motivating Artemis, 'frees' Prometheus (by inadvertently getting him killed) and his son (who speaks for the first time at the end of the episode) from the curse. In mythology, it was Hercules who freed Prometheus from his chains, and the show has already specifically pointed out that Sam is currently playing the role of Hercules, taking on a series of trials (only three though, what a wuss) including killing a hell-hound (at least it didn't have three heads - though, to be pedantic once again, Hercules captured Cerberus, he didn't kill him).

Supernatural episodes about pagan gods have varied in tone and theme depending on the nature of the episode (I'm especially fond of the cheery Christmas murderer-gods in 'A Very Supernatural Christmas'). This one, appropriately enough, had a melancholy, tragic tone to it that is found in few of the others. 'Defending Your Life' started to bring more of a sense of personal tragedy to these episodes, but it didn't quite have the pathos of this episode, which ends with the touchingly ironic image of Prometheus' body being burned with the fire he brought mankind. There's a lot of Greek tragedy in the DNA of Supernatural - it's frequently unremittingly depressing, for a start - but this episode brought that to the forefront in a particularly interesting way.

Monday, 11 August 2014

I, Claudius (by Robert Graves)

The TV adaptation of I, Claudius is one of my favourite television shows of all time, and one of only a handful I re-watch regularly every year (I can't think of any others at the moment except perhaps the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice - the Colin Firth one). The novel holds just such an important place as a classic and a genre-defining work, inspiring numerous novels based on Roman history and kick-starting the I, Noun/Name title format. I have to confess, I don't find the novel as re-readable as the TV series is re-watchable, but that's not to take away from how important it is, or how enjoyable I dimly remember it being on first read (which was some years ago now).

One of the quirks of Graves' writing style in this novel is that he carefully composes it as if it were written by the Emperor Claudius - not just using the first person, but incorporating many of the quirks and foibles of ancient history in general, and of the little we know of Claudius' own writing. Before he was Emperor, Claudius wrote several histories (including an autobiography), but unfortunately none have survived. Graves explains in his author's note that he used surviving fragments of a speech of Claudius' to try to ape his style - which Graves himself describes as 'inept' (according to Suetonius) and 'inelegant' with 'awkwardly placed digressions'.

Graves therefore conscientiously reproduces these flaws in the novel, which is very clever of him, but can be irritating to the reader. The fact that ancient histories are full of awkwardly placed digressions is one of the things that's annoying about them and off-putting to modern readers - it's not something I personally would choose to replicate in a novel, I have to confess. The structure of the novel is somewhere between the two forms of Roman history (annalistic, describing events year by year, or thematic, usually used in biographies). Claudius as narrator explains at the beginning that he is going to avoid the annalistic structure (and write in Greek, distancing himself a little from the Latin Roman histories) and in the early part especially, the narrative jumps around quite a lot (rather confusingly at times). However, it does follow a broadly chronological structure, from before Claudius' birth to his accession as Emperor, and the latter half proceeds in a rather more conventional chronological way (which is something of a relief).

Another consequence of Graves' careful portrayal of Claudius as an historian is that the book as a whole has a tendency to tell, rather than show, especially in the earlier sections. There has to be a specific source for all Claudius' knowledge and although some conversations he couldn't have been present for are invented, Claudius-as-narrator self-consciously avoids doing so as much as possible. The scene in which he talks to Livy and Pollio about their different ways of writing history sets out what are probably Graves' preferences and certainly the character Claudius's - privileging the facts so far as they are known over invention and artistic writing. We modern historians would certainly tend to agree with him there when it comes to history - but this is not, in fact, history, it's a novel. The result is that the early sections especially whizz through event after event, describing everything rather briefly and very matter-of-factly, and I have to wonder how much of an impression any of it would have made if I hadn't seen the TV series first.

In the preface to the sequel, Claudius the God, Graves replied rather defensively to some critics who had implied that in I, Claudius he 'had merely consulted Tacitus's Annals and Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, run them together, and expanded the result with my own "vigorous fancy". This was not so'. He then provides a long list of the primary sources he used in writing Claudius the God. I certainly don't disbelieve Graves - I'm sure he did read numerous ancient sources and that everything comes from one or another of them, and his research into Claudius' own writing style is impressive. You can see where the critics were coming from, though, as the book really does read like the slightly confused love-child of Tacitus' Annals and Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars.

Wherever Tacitus is available, Graves tends to follow him reasonably closely, and it's Tacitus who provides the indictment of Livia that Graves takes as his jumping-off point for portraying her (awesomely) as a serial killing megalomaniac. (His portrayal of Augustus makes the man who took over the world from the age of 19 into an 'overgrown schoolboy', with all his accomplishments credited to Livia, good and bad - but I don't want to go into that in too much detail right now because I'm giving a paper on it next week). The novel's account of the reign of Tiberius includes a lengthy digression on Germanicus' putting down of mutinies and war in Germany (justified on the grounds that he wrote to Claudius about it) which was presumably of interest to Graves, a veteran of the First World War, but also reflects the content of Tacitus' Annals and Tacitus' areas of interest.

When we get to Caligula, however, and Tacitus' account is lost, Graves gives in completely to Suetonian gossip, with just about every rumour and every bizarre act attributed to Caligula recorded as 'true' and attributed to madness, with little other motivation (he does talk about Caligula's reckless spending and need for money, but the building of temples to himself in Rome is attributed entirely to madness). As it happens, I tend to think Caligula was not quite sane as well, but it is noticeable that, while Tiberius' vices are referred to briefly and pages dedicated to Germanicus in Germania, Caligula's reign is nothing but complete insanity and personal gossip - perhaps partly because it's from Suetonius, not Tacitus.

The jacket describes the novel as 'racy' but Graves actually skirts over most of the sexual or violent sections fairly quickly. His portrayal of Tiberius is actually kind compared to Suetonius (absolving him of guilt for reading Drusus' republican letter to Augustus, for example) and he reports on Tiberius' sexual habits on Capri fairly briefly, without the details which Suetonius includes, which are enough to turn the stomach. Claudius as narrator states things simply, such as recording matter-of-factly that Caligula slept with all three of his sisters, but there are no details. A couple of gladiatorial combats and the assassination of Caligula are described in a little more detail, but even these are fairly brief. Or perhaps I've just become hard to shock after reading all of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Like most novelists, Graves uses the most common names for characters rather than their full Latin names (Mark Antony, not Marcus Antonius, for example). Most usefully, he also invents nicknames to compensate for the confusing Roman habit of giving each successive generation the same names as their forebears (which to be fair is not just Roman - my own grandfather, uncle and cousin are Jimmy, Jim and James). Characters who are differentiated in historical works in general by using a particular one of their names - such as Tiberius, Germanicus and Claudius, whose names were all extremely similar - are given their usual name. Female characters known as 'the Younger' are given the Latin diminutive suffix 'illa', which in English looks like a different name and so avoids confusion - so Agrippina the Younger becomes Agrippinilla, 'little Agrippina', Julia the Younger becomes 'Julilla' and so on. When stumped for a version of a character's actual name that will be sufficiently different, Graves makes up a family nickname, so Julia the Even Younger becomes 'Lesbia', Drusus the Younger 'Castor'; which is a very good idea and responsible for me always thinking of Drusus the Younger to myself as Castor. It does get a bit strange, though, when he extends this system to geography and talks about 'France' rather than 'Gaul' - I'm actually more familiar with Roman place names than modern ones in some cases and sometimes lost track of where everything was (and 'King of Britain' is just completely wrong on several levels).

I suspect the geographical naming may owe a little to the fact Graves was writing about a war involving France and Germany - let's just say the Germans don't come out of this novel especially brilliantly (though to be fair, no one does really). One of the perils of first person narrative is that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between really effectively getting inside a Roman's head and just plain dubious/typical 1930s thinking on things like feminism, racism, homophobia, etc. I could have done with a bit less on how lazy and useless slaves and freedmen are, I have to say (especially since Claudius as emperor was known for relying heavily on his freedmen). Several sections on the army and Claudius' opinions on different types of officer must surely be the product of Graves' experiences as well, though I confess I haven't yet read Goodbye To All That, which would probably shed some light on that.

Along with the digressions and occasionally odd ordering of events, the book sometimes gives away later plot points, presumably on the assumption that everyone already knows the history, which is a bit of a shame. I certainly didn't know anything about any of these Emperors (not even Nero) when I first saw the TV series as a teen - the only Roman history we were taught in school involved labeling the parts of a centurion's uniform and the rooms of a villa (it was spectacularly boring) and the rest of it was not the sort of thing people tell children. Horrible Histories was pretty much the only source of information available, so watching I, Claudius for the first time was very exciting. Graves doesn't do this with everything, however, and readers unfamiliar with the history should find the plot reasonably compelling.

This review sounds bizarrely negative for a book that's partly responsible for my choice of career, and I don't really mean it that way. I, Claudius is a celebrated classic for good reason - it's fast-paced, fascinating and clearly written, with the excellent nick-naming system helping to keep the characters clearly individualised.

All Graves' choices concerning skimming over some events (which is completely necessary when dealing with this period, especially Octavian and the Civil Wars - I tried to cover too much of the detail of those in lectures once and I'm pretty sure most of my students were asleep by the end of it), including various digressions, aping ancient authors in his style and ensuring that there is an explanation for how Claudius knows everything are very deliberate and done for good reasons. Ultimately, I think I prefer a little more invention and a little more more modern writing styles in my novels, so it's the TV series that I truly love - but the book is equally worth reading in its own right.

More posts on I, Claudius in its various forms

Friday, 25 July 2014

Hercules (dir. Brett Ratner, 2014)

Maybe I've just seen too many rubbish ancient world films, especially those based on mythology, but I thought this was really pretty good - I was pleasantly surprised. It was funny, the cast of British thespians did their thing well, The Rock was fine (I've quite enjoyed all the acting performances of his that I've seen, which is mainly The Mummy Returns and Star Trek: Voyager's 'Tsunkatse'), and most importantly it played around with ancient mythology in some interesting ways, putting some nice twists on the material.

For once, I've kept spoilers to a minimum in this review, because the film rests on a couple of turns and revelations that you should see for yourself if you're at all interested in this sort of film. I also won't go through the many ways in which the film differs from the various ancient sources, which would not only be tedious, but would miss the point entirely. The whole reason for telling new versions of ancient stories is to put a new spin on the material, which is what the ancient versions certainly do - you'd struggle to find any two or three versions of Hercules' story that are particularly similar. (I will mention briefly that the mythical Eurystheus is king of Mycenae, not Athens - evidently the writers thought the audience were more likely to have heard of Athens, or perhaps they just wanted to redress the balance a bit re screen interpretations of the city. We also get the ever-irritating assumption that 'Elysium' equates to heaven and 'Hades' to hell - heaven and hell are medieval Christian concepts).

I will say that the film used or referenced lots of aspects of Hercules' mythology, many of which often get left out of modern interpretations. It mentioned the derivation of his name (they went for 'glory of Hera' whereas I would usually translate it as 'glory through Hera', and it would have helped if they'd used the Greek 'Herakles' instead of the Latin 'Hercules', but still), as well as the various Labours, the snakes he supposedly strangled in his cradle, even the murder of his first wife Meg(ara) and their children, and he wore the skin of the Nemean Lion when fighting, which I loved (a reason is provided in story for such an impractical bit of kit, as well). It was lovely to see so many bits and piece of Hercules' mythology get a shout-out.

Considering how much of the ancient Hercules was put into the film, I have to confess I was a bit disappointed when the young man loudly singing Hercules' praises at the beginning turned out to be Iolaus, rather than Hylas, so there was no reference to the complexities of ancient sexuality. Iolaus in mythology is Hercules' nephew and much of Hercules' mythology revolves around his relationships with his two wives and his children, so the portrayal of uncle and nephew here would be perfectly recognisable to the Greeks - but the emphasis put on the blood relationship in Iolaus' early scenes and the lack of subtlety with which the point is made that Iolaus likes girls suggests the makers must be aware that some viewers might assume a different relationship between an older ancient Greek warrior and a younger man. How fantastic would it have been if this part went to Hylas, Hercules' younger lover, instead? Ah well, maybe some day.

Alongside the mythology, there was an interesting nod to historical developments as well. The warfare described in Homeric epic is all about individuals fighting alone and gaining glory, but sometime during the Archaic period, hoplite warfare was developed, which relied on soldiers creating a wall of shields, each half protecting himself, half the man next to him, and basically shoving the enemy as hard as possible (300 depicts this for about 30 seconds before it gets bored and everyone starts leaping about like a mad thing).

The Chigi Vase, which depicts hoplite warfare - it's all about shoving the enemy.

The film sort of seems to be trying to depict this change. Our heroes themselves fight individually and make use of chariots, like in the epics (these chariots are far too big to be Mycenaean war chariots - though they might fit Homer's somewhat inaccurate description of Mycenaean war chariots). However, Hercules teaches the army something like the hoplite style, focusing on maintaining a wall of shields - except he leaves out the bit about creating deep lines of hoplites, to help with the pushing. The shields the army are using are presumably supposed to reflect Ajax's tower shield from the Iliad, a style also seen on a Mycenaean ring from Mycenae, but most pre-hoplite Greek soldiers would have had smaller, round shields. Then Iolaus equips the men with hoplite armour, but only half of them - which would completely defeat the object, as they all have to have the same shields for the thing to work. All in all, it's a rather nice attempt to tie the story in to historical developments and a particular historical period, but there are some noticeable holes in the depiction of the fighting. (Edited to add: apparently the film is set in 358 BC - see comments - in which case this is all ridiculous, because it was all happening in the Archaic Age. Phillip II of Macedon made some changes to Macedonian phalanxes, e.g. giving them longer spears, around the fourth century BC, but hoplite warfare had been around for centuries).

My favourite thing about this film was that, like the BBC's Atlantis, it played around with the legend of Hercules and with the idea of storytelling. Ignore the incredibly misleading trailer (which also gives away the movie's best moment) because this is barely a fantasy film. It has prophecy in it, as do many ancient world stories, fantasy or otherwise (including I, Claudius and The Roman Mysteries) and the extent of Hercules' strength beggars belief, but otherwise this is a film in which the Hydra is a group of criminals wearing snake-like disguises and centaurs are just cavalry (rare in the mountainous landscape of Greece). In fact, the whole resolution of the plot, which I won't give away here, rests on the legend of Hercules, on how his story has grown and spread, regardless of the reality. It's an excellent theme for a version of a Greek myth, reflecting the importance of heroic kleos (glory) that gives Herakles his name.

I enjoyed this film a lot more than I expected to. I really liked Ian McShane's Amphiaraus, who's almost like a slightly chirpier version of The X-Files' Clyde Bruckman, and it was nice to see Atalanta in there (even if she's magically become an Amazon to save time on explaining her backstory). It's not a cinematic masterpiece or anything, but I found this an enjoyable and interesting addition to Hercules' mythology.

More movie reviews

Friday, 18 July 2014

Xena Warrior Princess: Remember Nothing

Xena: Warrior Princess does the It's a Wonderful Life thing. It's quite early in the show to be doing that, but then, Xena has a particularly dramatic backstory and a pre-existing history in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, so it works.

While paying her respects to her late brother, Xena protects a temple of the Fates, so they offer her a reward. Xena says all she wants is for the young boy she just killed (he was attacking her) to be alive, and she wishes she'd never 'followed the sword'. So the Fates change history, with the knock-on effect that her brother never died, but warn her that as soon as she spills a drop of blood in anger, everything will snap back into place.

The Fates here are represented as three woman spinning a thread, which is not far off the ancient Greek Fates. The Greek Fates were the Spinner, who spun the thread of life, the Apportioner of Lots, who measured it, and the one who cannot be turned, who cut it, rather than the maiden, mother and crone seen here (whether or not the maiden/mother/crone division goes back to ancient religion is debatable, but it has more to do with Robert Graves than anything else). The maiden/mother/crone thing works well enough, though, and I liked the simple visualisation of it using three actresses at various ages.

Xena's brother Lyceus at one point mentions that his virillus token, which Xena teases him for still wearing, once saved his life. This is presumably inspired by the ancient Roman bulla amulets freeborn children wore (girls and boys), which they took off when they came of age (i.e. got married for girls, or put on a toga for boys). The word 'virillus' is derived from the Latin for 'manly' ('vir' means 'man') so this seems to be the Xenaverse equivalent, though the name is a bit the wrong way around assuming you become a man when you take it off - it may be intended as a diminutive (like 'Drusilla', feminine diminutive form of 'Drusus') in which case the grammar's a bit off, but you can see what they were going for. It's a nice touch, throwing in a genuinely ancient custom that also serves the story by emphasising how young the boy Xena kills in the opening sequence is.

Roman bulla amulets at the Ashmoleon museum, Oxford

Xena is informed what will happen if she spills blood at the beginning of the episode and ends it by doing so anyway, but interestingly this is not an example of the classic trope in Greek mythology of people being given a clear instruction they utterly fail to follow for no particular reason (see: Orpheus, Odysseus' crew). The way the Fates initially give the instruction, saying "until you spill a drop of blood in anger", clearly indicates that they do not really expect Xena to be able to follow it, and they turn up a few times throughout the episode, almost seeming to want to persuade her to return to her old life.

In the end, Xena makes a conscious choice to spill blood and reset the world. I thought it was rather a shame that ultimately she did so to preserve Gabrielle's innocence and protect her from experiencing what it is to kill another person, since their lifestyle surely suggests Gabrielle will inevitably end up killing someone at some point in self-defence, and to sacrifice her brother for that specific reason doesn't seem quite right. Still, overall she was able to make some peace with herself when he encouraged her to stand with him and told her not to fight destiny. The Fates' real gift to Xena is that she feels better about her life and her choices, despite the high price she's had to pay - and they give her a little extra time to save the boy from the opening as well, so at least one life is spared in the end (and her mother's, of course - though I suspect most mothers would willingly exchange their life for their son's, which is why, although saddened, Xena doesn't change things back straight away on finding out her mother died).

In really liked this episode - I love It's a Wonderful Life episodes anyway and this one was really well done. Lucy Lawless' performance is great, giving Xena a softer edge (while Gabrielle's is much harder) and investing all of it, especially the scene at her mother's tomb, with real emotion. I also enjoyed seeing Xena use her brains as well as brawn and try to find increasingly inventive ways to fight people without spilling any blood (though I have to say, if you set someone on fire, you will spill their blood). I was a bit puzzled by the section in which our heroes are suspended in very high cages, as if being saved for dinner by the giant from 'Jack and the Beanstalk', and Xena's brother becomes the latest victim of the 'everyone Gabrielle fancies dies' curse, but overall it was a very satisfying installment. Even the opening shots of New Zealand were gorgeous, as long as you ignore the fact they're obviously re-used footage from season one (Gabrielle is in her early season one costume). Definitely a good use of the old trope.


Gabrielle: I don't know whether to thank you or to hate you.

Lyceus: Don't fight destiny!

Disclaimer: Xena's memory was not damaged or... ...what was I saying?

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Night Raid (by Caroline Lawrence)

The Night Raid is a re-telling of the story of Nisus and Euryalus from Book 9 of the Aeneid, specifically aimed at dyslexic teenage boys. It's written by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries, and published by Barrington Stoke, who specialise in books for dyslexic and reluctant readers. Caroline has blogged about the process of writing The Night Raid and aiming it especially at dyslexic readers here.

I don't want to go into the book as a book for dyslexic readers too much, as Caroline has explained that much more clearly than I can herself and it's not something I know much about. So instead, I'll just say a few words about how that particular emphasis affects the book for general readers, because it would be a terrible shame if knowing it has such a particular target audience put everyone else off reading it.

Essentially, this is a book written in a very clear and simple style but not aimed at particularly young readers. The target age range is 8-12 but, as you can see from the opening posted at Caroline's blog, the book is extremely gory (for a children's book) so it's aimed at either the older end of that range or younger children with strong stomachs (as I've said before, I was a right wuss when I was eight years old - everyone else in my class would have loved the gore I'm sure). I am firmly of the belief that you don't need complex language to tell a good story or make a clear point (this is something I try to practice in academic work, as far as possible) and this is an exciting and emotional story that had me happily hooked.

The main thing strong readers might notice is that, like books for younger children, the story is told in very short chapters made up of very short paragraphs and short sentences, and the book overall is shorter than some 'short' stories (at 10,000 words). Simpler Latin names like Turnus and Nisus are left as they are, while nick-names are substituted for awkwardly spelled names ('Rye' for Euryalus, 'the Leader' for Aeneas and most amusingly, 'Flame Head' for Neoptolemus, specifically because "his real name was too long and too horrible to say out loud"). Most of the other changes or alterations to make the book dyslexic-friendly probably aren't noticeable to general readers at all.

The best thing about the language used here it that it reflects Virgil's original Latin while keeping it readable and comprehensible for reluctant readers with no knowledge of the original. This is most obvious towards the end, when a few lines of the Aeneid are translated into English (though the Aeneid's line about 'as long as the father has imperium', a reference to Augustus' imperial power, is left out and replaced with a reference to the characters' eternal souls, to make the lines apply to Nisus and Euryalus' ongoing legend right through to the present day rather than tying it to the ancient Roman Empire; Aeneid 9.446-449). However, there are other, smaller references throughout, like the description of Euryalus' head drooping like a poppy in the rain as he dies, which comes straight out of the Aeneid.

A deliberate choice is made to tell the story as a Roman story, rather than as a Greek legend, again reflecting Virgil. This is most obvious when Euryalus refers to Latin as 'our language'. The story of the Trojan War is a Greek story about people from modern Turkey. Whatever language and culture the historical inhabitants of Troy had, in Greek literature they generally speak Greek and live in a vaguely Greek society - exactly what society the Homeric Trojans represent is the subject of intense academic debate, but they worship Greek gods, at the least. Latin literature varies in how far it represents them as Greek or as Roman and uses the Latin names for the gods (Juno not Hera, Jupiter not Zeus etc.). In the Aeneid, Roman customs such as worshiping household gods (which is also included here) are attributed to the ancient Trojans.

Nisus and Euryalus appear for the first time in the Aeneid and may be inventions of Virgil's so it makes sense to leave out the complicated historical setting of the story and just represent them as Romans. And so they speak Latin, address the gods by their Latin names and the description of Euryalus' Trojan home fits that of a Roman villa. This also extends to their afterlife belief, though once we reach the end, the book's treatment of the characters' existence after death is more of a combination of a more general spirituality with a much older, Greek, theme from the Homeric poems. In the Iliad, Achilles' aim is to win eternal kleos (glory) because, what with the Homeric afterlife being a rather miserable place, being eternally remembered in legend is your best chance at living forever. The Night Raid literalises this Homeric idea, as Nisus and Euryalus' souls are reunited and sustained by Virgil's telling of their story.

The exact nature of Nisus and Euryalus' relationship is, as in the Aeneid, unspecified. In general terms, the characters seem to fit perfectly the traditional Greek pair of an older and a younger (unshaved) lover, erastes and eromenos (lover and beloved). However, the Romans were slightly less keen on this idea in a military context, and Virgil describes Nisus' love for Euryalus as 'pious' (pius, a noble virtue especially important to Augustus; Aeneid 5.296). Some readers must have understood them to be lovers, while others would not. The Night Raid similarly leaves this up to the reader's imagination - when Nisus notes how beautiful Rye is, or holds his hands, it might be romantic, or they might just be really good friends (and interpretation will depend partly on the age of the child reading the book - younger children are unlikely to notice anything beyond friendship).

I really enjoyed this book. The characters were likeable and engaging, the story would make sense if you didn't know any ancient mythology but gains extra depth if you do and the action was exciting and definitely doesn't pull any punches. The language is simple, but the themes of the story are very complex, so it's a really nice choice especially for older children who struggle with reading, and who may appreciate a story with the depth (and gore) of more complex literature, but written in a style they can read for themselves. I also found it a really nice palate cleanser if you've been reading through something really dense, like A Song of Ice and Fire or, (in my personal case at the moment) Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings books. This has all the magic, fantasy (there are nymphs in it), complicated romance/deep friendship, adventure and gory, horrible death of those series, but in a fraction of the time it takes to read it! Probably my favourite Lawrence book since The Gladiators from Capua (as you tell, my tolerance for violence has got a lot stronger since I was eight years old). Highly recommended.

See all my reviews of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series here.

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