Thursday, 17 April 2014

Game of Thrones: The Lion and the Rose

I have just managed to see 'The Lion and the Rose', as I was away at the CA conference this week (and I noticed that I saw the major event revealed in at least two places online without me looking for anything Game of Thrones-related - luckily I'm a book reader so I knew what was going to happen in this episode anyway, but to avoid spoilers you really do have to avoid the internet sometimes don't you?!). I had originally been down to review this episode for Doux Reviews but had to rearrange due to the conference - just my luck! Anyway, all of this preamble is here to provide a nice big chunk of text as a spoiler-free safety net for anyone behind on Game of Thrones and the books its based on, and any TV fans who haven't read the books - spoilers lie ahead so stop reading now if you haven't read all of the books and seen up to season four, episode two.

Just to reiterate (and provide plenty of space before the spoilers come) - I will be spoiling all the books up to A Dance With Dragons and presumably upcoming episodes of the TV show. You have been warned.

There are plenty of excellent reviews of this episode out there so I won't go into great detail on the episode in general other than to say I was impressed with how tense the whole wedding sequence was despite the fact I knew exactly what was going to happen. I also loved all the little conversations going on through the wedding, with Jaime's 'oh crap' face when he sees Brienne and Cersei talking to each other being a particular highlight (and Cersei has a point about Brienne's ability to change sides). My least favourite aspects of the episode were Tyrion and Shae, whose story has been my least favourite aspect of the show for a while now and if the show follows the books, will actually be my least favourite thing about the entire series, so that's nothing new.

The reason I'm blogging it, however, is not to make up for missing out on reviewing it (oddly enough I quite enjoyed reviewing the premiere, even though it was much less exciting). What caught my eye Classics-wise was what looked to me like a couple of nice directorial references to I, Claudius.

As I mentioned when I looked at season one, blurbs on the Song of Ice and Fire books often compare the series to Suetonius' Twelve Caesars. I often have a sneaking suspicion that what they're really reminded of isn't so much Suetonius himself (though most of the lurid bits and pieces do come from his gossipy biographies) but Robert Graves' I, Claudius and especially the TV series based on it, which draw on Suetonius, Tacitus, a bit of Cassius Dio and, in the TV version, one spectacularly gory bit of pure invention. Martin certainly references it in the one tiny bit of background we have on the late Joanna Lannister - that Tywin ruled the kingdoms, but Joanna ruled Tywin ('Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus'). Whether that comparison is significant or not remains to be seen.

It's hardly surprising, then, that we see echoes of I, Claudius reverberating through an episode focused on the murder-by-poison of a king at a feast. According to the Roman mindset, poison was a woman's weapon. It is also a method of murder that in the days before forensic pathologists could look conveniently like a natural death - or, from the point of view of a gossipy historian or inventive author of historical fiction, allows for the re-casting of a natural death as a murder (Exhibit A: Augustus' natural death re-figured as Livia poisoning him with figs). It's hardly surprising that it features prominently in I, Claudius, a story which takes Tacitus' snide implications about Livia and really runs with them.

This episode of Game of Thrones, too, focuses heavily on women as the prime suspects in a royal poisoning. There are, of course, male suspects as well - Dontos, who ushers Sansa away; Loras, who storms off in a huff shortly before it all goes pear-shaped, and obviously Tyrion, the possibility of whose guilt the series has so far left open (the book tells this section from his point of view, so we know it wasn't him - though to be fair I've read detective stories in the past that have cleverly concealed the fact he narrator did it until the end). Frankly, I wouldn't even put it past Tywin, who has another grandson and is fed up of Joffrey, who's clearly a liability. Prime suspects, though, are Sansa, for obvious reasons, Margaery, whose acting skills are crumbling in the face of Joffrey's insanity (the character's acting skills that is - Natalie Dormer is excellent as ever) and Margaery's caring grandmother, Olenna Tyrell (we can probably discount Cersei, and Brienne would just have chopped his head off).

It's in the moments focused on Margaery that the I, Claudius references creep in. Desperate to distract Joffrey from tormenting people, she cries out 'Look! The pie!' with a level of excitement comparable to Augustus' daughter Julia spying cake (though in Julia's case she genuinely just wanted the cake) but the clue that it might be I, Claudius the director or writer is thinking of comes when she and Joffrey start eating the pie. She picks a piece off her own plate and feeds it to him from her fork - which is exactly the way the emperor Claudius is killed by his wife/niece Agrippinilla in I, Claudius (historically Agrippina the Younger). Agrippina supposedly poisoned a mushroom of her own and carefully fed it to her husband in order to get around his food tasters (I bet Jaime's wishing he'd thought of that right now, instead of fussing about where everyone was going to stand).

Now of course, book readers know that the deed was done by the process of Dontos, ordered by Littlefinger, giving Sansa poison to wear (here a necklace, in the book a hairnet) which Olenna then takes and sneaks into Joffrey's cup, making Littlefinger, Dontos, Sansa and Olenna all culpable, though Sansa doesn't appear to have known anything about it. It looks like the show is following the book in that, as it's while Olenna fiddles with Sansa's necklace (nabbing the poison) that she talks about how awful it is to kill a man at a wedding, sympathising with her over Robb's demise - there's no dramatic irony like really heavy-handed and unsubtle dramatic irony.

However, one of the big issues that's as yet unresolved in the books is whether Margaery knew about it. Olenna does it for Margaery - politically, she probably should have waited until Margaery and Joffrey had a child, preferably a son, before offing him, but she couldn't bear to let Margaery suffer being married to the little creep. But did Margaery know? Is she acting when she looks shocked and horrifed, or was she kept in the dark? We'll have to wait until Martin writes some more books and/or the series fills us in, but that visual reference is an interesting one - it certainly suggests to me that Margaery is in on it and as much a part of the poison plan as Olenna - it will be interesting to see how she reacts over the next few episodes.

More Game of Thrones thoughts

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff)

Rosemary Sutcliff explained the dual inspiration for her classic children's novel in the Foreward; the apparent mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion (which may not have been a disappearance at all) and the discovery of a wingless bronze eagle at Silchester, which Sutcliff described as a 'Roman Eagle', presumably believing it to be from the standard of the Roman Legion (it isn't, it's the wrong shape - as Reading museum explain). The fact that neither of the 'facts' the story was based on are, as it turns out, true is rather beside the point, as Sutcliff uses them to tell a classic historical children's adventure story featuring several scenes and themes I recognise from reading adventure and fantasy stories from the same period as a child, including secret paths through bogs, wild chases on horseback, mist in the mountains and extremely devoted pets.

I have to confess, I struggled a bit to get through this book, but I think that may be my own fault for seeing Kevin Macdonald's 2011 film adaptation The Eagle first. Throughout much of the story, despite dramatic changes in tone and theme, the actual plot of the movie follows the book fairly closely - it's only towards the end that the plot itself starts to diverge, and I found those latter sections easier and more enjoyable to read. Although the book includes some beautiful descriptions of the landscape, both in England and Scotland, it is fairly plot-centric, fast-paced and with enough characterisation to keep things interesting, but not as much depth or detail as some children's books, so I think those parts where I knew the story felt like a bit more of a slog for that reason.

While the plot may be superficially similar (up to the point where everyone starts killing each other - after the first battle, no one actually dies during the rest of the novel, except in flashback), the tone of the film and book, and especially Marcus and Esca's relationship, is markedly different. What first attracts Marcus to Esca in the book is not his defiance so much as his fear, which inspires some fellow feeling in him, and Book!Marcus frees Esca before they set off on their quest for the Eagle, so Esca comes and risks his life of his own free will (his duty to serve Marcus as his freedman is mentioned when they return, but Marcus makes it clear he does not want Esca to come unwillingly when they leave for the north). After some initial friction, the relationship between the two is so close that frankly it became almost dull and Esca's devotion seemed a tad extreme - but perhaps I'm just getting old and cynical. I never thought that about Frodo and Sam when I was a child. And Marcus did save his life, after all.

The book also presents a more grounded view than the film of the lands north of Hadrian's Wall and of Britain and the Britons in general. The existence of the Antonine Wall is acknowledged, and one set-piece takes place in an abandoned Roman watch-tower between the two, in what was briefly a Roman province. Although the various British tribes have their own cultures and ways, there is much more emphasis on all humankind's similarities. The tragedy of the rebellion that wounds Marcus is that he and the doomed leader were friends, similar men with similar interests who ended up on opposite sides. When Marcus and Esca travel north, they do so in disguise, since they know Romans won't be welcomed, and they spend time with the tribe who have taken the Eagle and get to know them (there seems to be one language called 'British' that Marcus is remarkably good at speaking, but we'll let that go).

Marcus is initiated in the cult of Mithras. Mithraism is very useful to authors for a couple of reasons. It shares several superficial similarities with Christianity, in some cases because Christianity co-opted elements of Mithraism. Mithras was a sun-god and the religion is also associated with the Moon. Although originating in Iran, the cult was especially popular in the Latin West of the empire and among soldiers. The focal part of Mithras' myth involved killing a bull and a fresco in a Mithraeum at Santa Prisca reads 'you saved us with the shed blood' (probably the bull's blood). There was probably some kind of Mithraic festival around the winter solstice as well, given that he was a sun-god. But most usefully of all for authors of fiction - we actually know very little about the cult, because it was a secretive mystery cult, only known to initiates, who were forbidden to write anything about it down. Nearly all the evidence for the cult is archaeological, and not heavy on text, so we're interpreting images without context as best we can. That's a goldmine for authors, who can pretty much make up whatever they want and claim it's historically plausible.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, to find Marcus following a heavily Christianised form of Mithraism (and hardly ever referring to the other gods, always praying to Mithras). The language he uses to pray is that of the King James Bible, using archaic 'thees' and 'thous' and saying things like 'O God of the Legions... send down thy light upon us.' Logical enough for a sun-god, but clearly Christianised. There's a tension between referring obliquely to the exotic Roman mystery cult and its mysterious initiation ceremonies, and presenting that religion to 1950s child readers (presumed Christian, or having had a Christian upbringing anyway) as something familiar and identifiable.

Although I found it a little slow going at times (despite the fairly fast-paced plot) I enjoyed this book, and I'm sure I'll go on to read the others in the series. Although many of the characters are fairly lightly sketched, they're all likeable, and there's even a female character in there, which is nice, even if she doesn't get to join in the adventure. There's a dry humour throughout the book too, and the setting and landscape are richly drawn. I wish I could love it as much as I know many of my colleagues do, but I think that just comes down to when you read it. Much of the book reminded me of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, right down to the sound of horns and trumpets heralding the arrival of the cavalry or a desperate chase on horseback through dangerous terrain. I suspect if I'd read it as a child, and without seeing the movie, I would have loved it as much as I know many others do.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Oedipal themes in Angel: the Series

There's something inherently Oedipal about modern romantic vampire mythology. When Byron's friend Polidori wrote about a sexy, beautiful 'vampyre' who preys on the protagonist's sister, he paved the way for later stories to depict vampirism as a metaphor for lust and the act of a vampire biting a victim as a metaphor for sex. Once the concept of the vampire sire had been developed, what you end up with in several modern vampire mythologies is a depiction of vampire 'families' consisting of 'parents' (the sire or sires) and 'children' (the vampires they've sired) in which the 'family' has been created by a process of the 'parent' having metaphorical sex with the 'child' (often accompanied by literal sex). The entire set-up revolves around the idea that the 'child' and 'parent' are sexually attracted to each other.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel play up this theme even more than many modern romantic vampire series, partly thanks to the presence of Drusilla in Angel's vampire 'family'. Drusilla's madness is depicted largely as making her child-like, fond of dolls and parties (and, er, children), so while Spike refers to the sire/offspring relationship as 'you were my Yoda' early on, implying more of a teacher/protegee relationship, Drusilla always comes across as the child in a twisted 'family'. She also refers to herself and the others that way more than most, explicitly calling Angelus 'Daddy' while cheating on Spike (later revealed to be her 'son' rather than, as initially implied, her 'brother') with him.

Later, when Drusilla appears on Angel to re-sire Angel's now human 'mother' Darla, Gunn again makes the relationship explicit by commenting on how weird it is that Darla's 'grand-daughter' is becoming her 'mother'. Meanwhile Drusilla buries Darla in a flower nursery, just to really drive home the mother/daughter point, before they embark on a killing spree so full of sexual tension between the two of them it's hardly surprising when a later flashback in season five reveals they have had a sexual relationship at least once, when they had a threesome with the Immortal. With season five also implying pretty strongly that Angel and Spike have got it together at least once, the whole 'family' is more twisted and incestuous than anything seen on HBO.

Angel, however, was not satisfied with the just the bog-standard Oedipal vampire 'family' - the show played with Oedipus complexes all over the place. Back on Buffy, Spike's relationship with his biological mother took vampiric Oedipal issues one step further when, as Giles would say, the subtext became the text and his newly sired mother (sired by Spike himself, making him 'lover', 'son' and 'father' all at once already) actually tried to come on to him, at which point he staked her (i.e. he shoved his hard pointy stick into her, which does not improve the situation, in Freudian terms). After Spike's move to Angel, Wesley re-enacts the other, less sexy, part of the Oedipus complex when he kills what he thinks is his father to save Fred; Spike's attempts to sympathise by telling him about his mum do not go down well.

The mother (hah!) of all Oedipus complexes on Angel, though, is only tangentially related to vampirism, though it does involve alternate dimensions and creepy god-like beings. When Darla kills herself to save her and Angel's son Connor, the baby is cared for by everyone at Angel Investigations including Cordelia, in whom Angel is clearly romantically interested. To cut a long story short, Connor ends up growing up in a demon dimension and coming back as a petulant teen, Cordelia gets possessed by an evil god-like thing, and they end up having sex so that the thing that made sure Connor was born in the first place can give birth to itself through Cordelia. Connor turns out to be impervious to the adoration his daughter Jasmine induces in everyone else, but Angel isn't, and ends up worshipping the ground his own grand-daughter walks on for a while, until Fred 'cures' him and Jasmine is eventually killed by her father, Connor.

Connor doesn't know about Cordelia being possessed by Jasmine at the time they have sex, but he does know how close Cordelia and his father - whom he makes several different attempts to kill - are, and that she looked after him as a baby. Eventually, Oedipus Rex finally gets a proper shout-out when the temporarily-returned Angelus tells Connor 'I mean, when you think about it, the first woman you boned is the closest thing you've ever had to a mother. Doing your mom and trying to kill your dad. There should be a play.'

Angel's interest in the Oedipus complex, then, seems to go a bit beyond the Oedipal themes that inevitably come up in romanticised vampire fiction. That's partly because, unlike many pop culture references to the Oedipus complex which focus only on the enticingly taboo wanting-to-have-sex-with-your-mother part, Angel is equally interested in the wanting-to-kill-your-father part (and of course, when Drusilla sires Darla she is both having metaphorical sex with and literally killing her 'grand-mother'). Because Angel is all about brooding and feeling guilty over past crimes, past relationships and bad decisions, it's just as interested in ruined and destructive relationships as it is in overly-close ones.

All these Oedipal issues may also be a simple result of taking common TV themes one step further than usual, in the heightened reality of the fantasy setting. Many modern TV shows represent a group of unrelated characters forming an ad hoc 'family' in the absence (for whatever reason) of their actual relatives, and friendship is depicted as 'family' in everything from Sex and the City to Community ('When you guys first came in, we were as wholesome as the family in The Brady Bunch. Now we're as dysfunctional and incestuous as the cast of The Brady Bunch'). TV shows also tend to pair off the characters in small casts to create romantic and sexual tension, so perhaps, once Angel's almost-grown-up son was thrown into the mix, Oedipal issues became inevitable even without the vampiric background. All the same, the sheer variety of Oedipal issues floating around on Angel are notable, and it certainly confirms the capacity for vampire fiction to deal with taboo subjects through metaphor in a much more explicit way than most non-cable prime-time American TV shows.

More Buffyverse posts

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