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

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