TV Tuesday: Vikings S03E10, “The Dead”

My attention span is so short these days that I did not really remember what this title was in reference to until a voiceover in the episode itself called it out. My god, I’ve become one of those people.

Boogady boogady BOO!
Boogady boogady BOO!

Right, let’s go through this piece by piece:

  • Speaking of being one of those people, I hate to say this but what was the point of Odo’s bondage scene? Gisla doesn’t like him, so he hooks up with some random Frankish flatterer — but he has … kinky … desires. Lord. OK, where to begin? Apparently Odo has some kind of sex dungeon right in the heart of Paris, and this is not an open secret. Leaving that aside, absolutely nothing happens in this scene. The woman (whose name I don’t think we even know) gets her kit off and Odo starts whipping her. I guess this is supposed to be a big revelation about Odo’s character? I’m not sure I see that, and it’s hard to see that anyone who knows more than one person who’s into BDSM could either (statistically, that’s everyone, I expect). Like … if you are trying to show me that Odo is a dominant personality who is into control, maybe the previous episodes in which he is the general of a fucking army might have given me a hint. I just … much is made of “sexposition” on Game of Thrones, and it was pretty stupid, but at least they tried to use their sex scenes to, y’know, illuminate the characters and advance the plot. Sometimes. But this? I mean … look, I’m not against boobs. I stand on my record there. But images of boobs are readily and cheaply available. If you’re going to put them into something otherwise boob-free, it would be nice if they played a role, or even nicer if they didn’t try to act like they were all significant and not just a lazy attempt to pander. Also, if you need to suggest that someone has a secret perversion, maybe don’t make it a) the most ubiquitous kink there is, and b) the same one as the last guy who had his secret perversions revealed, you know? Sorry; that went on longer than I expected it to.
  • I am, shall we say, not wholly convinced by Ragnar’s plan, but whatever — if it’s good enough for Snorri it’s good enough for me.
  • I mention Snorri because Ragnar’s plan is straight out of King Harald’s Saga again, although of course Harald Hardrada was already a Christian, it being the 11th century. This does mean that the saga account has the added detail that all the priests and monks want Harald buried in their churches because of the gifts it’ll bring. That’s a nice detail and it’s a shame the context here doesn’t allow it. Are we going to get the thing with the birds?

    Would you bite this man's style?
    Would you bite this man’s style?
  • Seriously, actually, that bird story is also told about Olga of Kiev, and I will forgive a lot if Olga turns up in this series as a tough-as-hell older queen. Make it happen, History Channel.
  • I don’t want to be all history-purist about Rollo and his conversion, but I am going to be mad as hell if this turns out to be Rollo’s downfall. The converts win in the end. You can’t fight City Hall. I realise this isn’t The Wire, but I have a lot of time for shows where you can’t fight City Hall. Also, I am given to understand that Paris worth a mass, and surely the same must be said for Normandy. I’m just waiting for him to turn up next season all clean-shaven. “Rollo, how could you?!” “It’s Robert now, actually.”
  • Speaking of Rollo, I do sometimes think that this show’s generally-clumsy dialogue can overshadow the fact that there is some particularly good acting happening at times. Take Clive Standen, for instance: I am only speculating, but I would assume that he was cast for being a huge ferocious-looking dude. But he nails that hopeful little “hello!” at the end of the episode in a way that reminds you that no matter how much of a goof he is, you secretly want Rollo to do well.
  • Having worn out all of his other co-conspirators, Ragnar seems to be relying on Bjorn these days. I hope that means that Bjorn will be the main character after Ragnar dies; it seems like we are due a time-jump between this season and the next, which presumably means we get the rest of the Ragnarssons as larger characters? That’d be nice.

And that’s it for this season. What am I going to be rude about now? When does Marco Polo start up again? I could be rude about that, maybe.

TV Tuesday: Vikings S03E10, “The Dead”

Movie Monday: Joan of Arc (1999), Part One


I was speaking to one of my students the other day and we were talking about women in medieval history. He asked me about Joan of Arc, saying that he thought she would be quite an interesting person to study, since female military leaders were very rare. I agreed, and so the thought of Joan was in my head when I searched for “medieval film” on Amazon. Lo and behold, there was this thing, which I believe to have been part of a miniseries. I cued it up.

I am justly slain with my own treachery.

The credits are your first sign that all is not well: Olympia Dukakis, Powers Boothe, Shirley Maclaine, Neil Patrick Harris, Maximilian Schell, Maury Chaykin and Leelee Sobieski in the title role. (I quite like Leelee Sobieski, as it happens, but she was in In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. That’s the kind of viewing that stays with you.) Oh, and we have Peter O’Toole in an “and” role.

Anyway, so we open with Joan being burned at the stake, looking up at heaven and saying “thank you.” That’s quite an interesting thing to say while being burned; perhaps this is going to be an exploration of the martyr’s mentality? And then …


Oh, hmm. I’m not sure I really think of the Hundred Years War as part of the Dark Ages per se, but maybe it’s just poetic licence …


Wh … bu … whth …


A quick trip to the kitchen helps me enlist the aid of my longtime film-watching partner Mr Dalwhinnie. Let us resume.

Flash back to Joan being born. Powers Boothe is dad, and he is concerned about the approaching English. He’s going to kill Joan, I guess? I’m not completely sure why. Anyway, the peasants are fleeing and Joan’s eyes are very blue. Flash forward ten years and Joan is an adorable moppet running around with sheep and a ruined castle. You know most castles in the middle ages weren’t actually ruins, right? That’s when they had castles.

Joan is prattling about “the Maid,” who is gonna come and save them. She has a freakout in church. Everything is dull brown because the middle ages. Nice archway on the church. Hey, it appears that St Catherine is speaking to Joan, which I believe is accurate. I can’t believe I’m nearly 400 words into this already. Time to speed up. The priest has an illuminated manuscript showing the Battle of Agincourt, which considering that it’s only 1422 and the battle was in 1415 is pretty up to date. The priest straight-up draws her a map of France and explains where everything is, including explaining the Burgundians.

Flash forward to 1429. Joan is Leelee Sobieski, who is riding around on a horse, hanging out with her friend Emil and gazing into the distance with a pure and noble gaze.


She shows compassion to some poor refugees, but Powers Boothe is not impressed. Joan explains about Saint Catherine to the priest. Blah blah destiny blah blah. Dialogue is not good, but points for casting Leelee Sobieski in the role of the person who stares at things intensely. The Burgundians show up and kill poor blind pal Emil.


The Lord appears in the form of some unconvincing special effects and Joan decides she has to go see the Dauphin, as one does. The French troops show up apologetically in the form of Maury Chaykin, who is delightful in his role as a lazy, greedy, amoral son of a bitch. Joan goes off to see the prince, but there is a lot of malarkey along the way. She starts accumulating followers to defend Vaucouleurs from the Burgundians. This is actually not historically off — there was a lot of rigmarole between Joan and Sir Robert de Baudricourt (Chaykin); the two soldiers who befriend her are also characters from history. There’s a good-looking one and a less-good-looking one, so I’m guessing the good-looking one is going to be the love interest.

Some of these sets don’t look so bad, but the production of the whole thing has the stink of cheap on it.

In some ways, this is more historical than its fellow 1999 effort, The Messenger … on the other hand, at least Luc Besson splashed out for some actual French people.

Anyway, there’s a long journey, and Joan gets hold of a sword via a miracle. Skeptical soldier Jean de Metz, who wears his mail in the middle of the night for some goddamn reason, appears convinced. The Burgundians are killing random possible Maids-of-Lorraine, and Joan and her escorts get chased. The French soldiers’ armour is so unconvincing; it must be just as difficult to make this stuff as it is to make something a little more authentic.

Anyway, some dude called Raymond that we have not met until now gets killed in slo-mo. Also, Joan gets a haircut. The soundtrack slobbers all over it.

The Dauphin is Neil Patrick Harris, and he’s debating finance and church policy with Peter O’Toole.


Am I imagining this? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would imagine, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would exist in reality either.

Cauchon: As His Majesty’s church-appointed spiritual advisor, I advise His Majesty not to ignore the advice of His Majesty’s church-appointed spiritual advisor.

I can’t tell if that’s genius or madness.

Anyway, the king does the old pretend-to-be-a-courtier trick, talks to Joan, blah blah blah. “No one believes in France anymore,” the Dauphin whines. Joan’s shirt is made from grommets for some reason.

Charles: The army will never follow the Dauphin, but they might follow the Maid of Lorraine.

Joan: I’m not the Maid.

Charles: You’ll have to learn to stop saying that.

I actually really like Harris’s brainy schemer here.

Anyway, Joan gets armoured up and goes off to lead her army, somewhat hesitantly. No one sees fit to give Jean (the handsome soldier) a coif that isn’t just a tea towel covered in grommets. Mother Babette (Olympia Dukakis) tells Joan to believe in herself, since this is a movie. The heads of the army drag their heels, but Joan takes no shit. Anyway, they plan an attack that relies on starting a fire. It’s always fires in medieval films. The French line up on horseback and it’s all very inspiring. Their map is a beautifully-illustrated three-quarter view of the castle, which seems implausible.

I am way less bored than I expected I would be from a 1-star Lovefilm movie. In fairness, I’m watching this and writing two blog posts at the same time. The super unconvincing armour keeps distracting me, though. They shoot at a tower, which immediately explodes into a million pieces. The French charge their cavalry right at the English tower, for some damn reason. Cheveaux-de-frise pose a problem, but the English have made the critical mistake of deploying a huge number of their dudes outside the castle,and they get mown down. The not-so-good-looking guy keeps shooting his flaming ballista bolts at the castle to start a fire; surely a ballista is the worst type of early siege weapon for the job? You want a nice easy lob over the wall.

One of these would also be cool.
One of these would also be cool.

Anyway, Joan is unprepared for the furious battle, but the French, inspired by her presence, give it some elbow. Joan gets winged by an arrow and her horse is also hit. There is quite an impressive fall! Her horse rolls over her and you can really see how that would mess someone up; it’s one of those stunts that is way more impressive than it looks. Joan’s armour looks veeeery plastic, though. Surely this thing is almost over. Anyway, Joan, wound or no, displays great courage and fortitude, remounts and renews the attack. She gallops off, and End Part One.

You know, I wound up liking this more than I thought I would. It’s bad by almost every standard, but there’s something about it. Maybe it’s just the longer length, but it does give some sense of the hesitation and weirdness of the story that’s missing in a more compact tale like The Messenger. I dunno.

I might watch Part Two. Maybe.

Movie Monday: Joan of Arc (1999), Part One

Comics! Again, possibly.

The other day I received some cool little mini-comics! They are by Gabriel Moshenska, and they’re about female archaeologists, a subject lately given some well-deserved attention by the tireless team over at Trowelblazers. Seriously, if you’re at all interested in the history of the field (or geology or palaeontology) you owe it to yourself to check out the work they’re doing.

Anyway, the comics! They came in the form of A4 sheets with eight colour panels on them.


Then you apply a set of instructions (I struggled at first to figure out which direction the folds go, but on the other hand I’m not too bright about these things):


Once you have folded and snipped, they look like this:


They are pretty adorable — and educational too!


In addition to the Margaret Murray and Elizabeth Pettigrew ones, I also got:

20150423_151359 20150423_151406

These are pretty neat, and I like the punkity-rock DIY vibe of the minicomics. Maybe I should do some for my own sensational character! Fame and fortune await.

Anyway, I’m not wholly sure what the mechanism is for you to get more of these, but you can read the Pettigrew and Caton Thompson ones online. 

Comics! Again, possibly.

TV Tuesday: Vikings S03E09, “Breaking Point”

Battles! Sneakiness! Ragnar gets the shits!

A cameo appearance from everyone's favourite Jorvik Viking Centre character!
A cameo appearance from everyone’s favourite Jorvik Viking Centre character!

Sorry for the lack of posts lately; it’s been a busy week with the Easter holidays ending and exam season approaching. I hope to have more posts, including a reader-questions post (or posts) soon, just bear with me.

Anyway, we are here to talk about another attempt to take Paris, plus a few reminders that shit is still going on back in Kattegat (which is a body of water, not a town, and a late-medieval term anyway, but whatever) and in Wessex. But my favourite thing about this episode is:

Either from his wounds or from the river water, Ragnar gets the galloping shits and spends the entire episode sweating, writhing and tripping balls. 

Now, viewed from a rational perspective, this raises more questions than it answers. Like, does this now mean we’re living in a more-or-less realistic universe, where people in the early middle ages get sick and post-injury care is a dicey proposition? Or are we in the universe where Bjorn can kill like a hundred dudes, then get shot twice with a crossbow and left in a pile of bodies and be not only well on the way to recovery but actually in better shape than his wheezing, ranting dad?

But I can’t help it — I like it.

Some other points:

  • Once again, anything that could possibly be construed as a music video in this show is pretty good. In this case, Ragnar’s visions while hallucinating are nicely atmospheric. It’s the dialogue, as a rule, that lets the series down.
  • The different members of Ragnar’s old crew are being nicely differentiated as commanders — here we see Lagertha and her shieldmaidens (I have expressed my mixed feelings about this idea previously) acting as some kind of commando squad. So we’ve got scouts (Lagertha), engineers (Floki) and an assault squad (Rollo). Technically I believe that means we need some mortars or maybe an anti-tank rocket next.
  • Charles is a weenie, in a clear parallel to the origins of his royal house, who were tough officials who took over from weenie kings. Or something.
  • Count Odo unleashes a great big spiked barrel, which Rollo takes out with some harpoons. I don’t … I just … the end of the passageway is a barricade swarming with crossbowmen, Odo. Don’t roll a big piece of cover at your attackers, just keep shooting them. It would also help if anyone in this show had a spear; you could totally jab them as they approached.
  • That said, it is nice to see the Vikings just sometimes getting their butts kicked in a stand-up fight; they were weirdly invincible in some previous episodes.
  • Do I have to say “what in the merry hell is everyone wearing” again? No? OK, good.
  • Cynric! Hey, everybody, it’s Cynric! I have legit no idea who that guy is. I think maybe he hung out with Aslaug in Season 2, but that’s it. It’s all vanished like smoke.
  • Oh, Earl Siegfried got captured. I’d feel very different about that if I cared who he was. He has stood around being tall in group shots, but other than that I don’t think he’s done much. Anyway, he gets the beheading bit which is from King Harald’s Saga, I believe? Certainly it is from a saga of some kind; I could be wrong about which one.
  • Saint Ansgar shows up and gets pretty summarily disposed of. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Ragnar’s seeming fixation with Christianity, I would be beginning to suspect this show of full-blown Cornwellism. I do like the idea that Ragnar’s going to come home and find that Aslaug has martyred a dude — a worthwhile reminder that way back in the day she was set up as being pretty magic-y.
  • Also, that hot iron ordeal thing is a custom from Anglo-Saxon England, although the specifics of it were a little different than the show portrays. The accused had to carry the hot iron bar a certain distance. At the end of the process his burns were bandaged; if after three days they had healed, he was innocent. The word for “infected” or “dirty” could also mean “guilty” in Old English — Anglo-Saxon culture was pretty obsessed with cleanliness. I assume that the priests administering the ordeal would either heat the bar to as hot as they wanted it to be or just look blithely at the wound and pronounce whatever result they preferred, but I’m a cynic.

Inga Endures the Ordeal of the Hot Iron

  • This sub-Game of Thrones stuff going on back in Wessex is pretty boring. I realise they’e just marking time until our heroes get back there, but oy.
  • Yay for bribery! Yay for the show’s totally impressionistic approach to who is speaking what language that actually makes it sound cool but is still easy to follow! Yay for Odo not being at all impressed by Sweaty McStaggers, which I hope hope hope explains why the Franks are going to continue to view Rollo as Top Viking.


Speaking of Game of Thrones, one of the cool things about the show these days is how disconnected from the books it is now. If you’ve already read them, it’s nice to feel like you don’t know what’s happening next (especially as the wait-for-interesting-stuff : interesting-stuff ratio in the books is high). But somehow in Vikings I keep wanting historical stuff to happen already, god damn it. For some reason I am really attached to the idea of Rollo’s impending heel (or is it face?) turn and I am impatient about seeing it happen. I’m not really sure why.

Anyway, thanks for reading! Next week we’ll be back with yet another episode of people shouting at Ragnar and not realising that if they don’t want to get betrayed they need to stab him. STAB. HIM. 

In the meantime, if you’ve read this far and you like Vikings, may I suggest that you might enjoy my short and inexpensive ebook, The Barest Branch? It is a story of Lovecraftian horror set in a somewhat impressionistic Viking age. You can buy it on Amazon (UK) (US), or from the good folks at DriveThru.

TV Tuesday: Vikings S03E09, “Breaking Point”

TV Tuesday: Vikings S03E08, “To the Gates”

Ah, the well-known Episode Where a Bunch of Shit Happens episode. So, obviously in this episode the main characters attack the walled city of Paris, defended tenaciously by the Franks. NorthmenBarques There were some interesting things about this battle:

  • I like how much time they devoted to the sort of logistical aspects of the thing. You got a definite sense of the Viking force as a patchwork of many different contingents, each with its own leaders, and some sense of how much faff and organisation and stuff was required to make it work. The early shots with the non-fighter types running around with buckets of water and so on were both a good buildup to the giant fight scene and a good indication of the complexity of warfare in a show that has sometimes neglected it.
  • Is this the first time we’ve seen Rollo at the head of a squad of similarly-shirtless berserks? I like that he’s acquired some followers now. And I guess that does explain why he goes around without a shirt on.
  • It is nice, for once, to see the defending side not being a bunch of idiots.
  • In grand let’s-mash-up-all-things-French tradition, Charles is sitting around being the Man in the Iron Mask while Gisla is preparing to be Joan of Arc. But isn’t it “Oriflamme,” not “ore-ih-flame?” Again, I could be wrong.
  • Similarly, it’s nice to see Floki getting into trouble resulting from his own blind conviction.
  • I am not convinced there were a lot of crossbows kicking around in the 9th century, although I speak subject to correction when it comes to Frankia. My understanding is that you only really start to get a lot of them in the 11th century? I could be wrong, though. Certainly Anna Comnena thought she had to explain what they were to her readers.
  • I get why Kalf saves Lagertha from the trap; she’s brave and forthright and direct, he’s brainy and cautious. But I do wish that they had had him do that in a way that didn’t make her look like such a chump; he actually cold-cocks her and drags her back, which is slightly out of character for a woman who chews up iron and spits out nails.

It looks good, particularly if you don’t look keenly at the dudes just standing around so Ragnar can axe them or wonder why the effing Jeff the Frankish crossbowmen aren’t lashing shot after shot into a mass of infantry standing stock still at close range. Anyway, Bjorn gets shot up but doesn’t die and Rollo gets looked at by Gisla and then falls in the water. We get a really long shot of him sinking into the river (and a really cool shot of his blood clouding the water) because it’s like baptism geddit? Geddit? Because he’s going to convert to Christianity, geddit?

I can’t believe we’re already so far into the season — I guess that is because I watched the first half all at once. I am quite interested to see where this goes, but I do not think I’m going to get the comeuppance scenes I want.

TV Tuesday: Vikings S03E08, “To the Gates”

The Curious Sea Shanties of Innsmouth, Mass.

While I was back in the US last spring, I got a wonderful gift: a copy of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society‘s The Curious Sea Shanty Variants of Innsmouth, Mass. This is a book-and-CD package, but it’s the book I really want to talk about. (Actually, I guess the CD is called The Curious Sea Shanties of Innsmouth, Mass.)


So, first the CD: longtime friend and collaborator-on-an-upcoming project Jesse Merlin performed on some of the songs on here; between this, Dreams in the Witch House and Re-Animator: The Musical he seems to be establishing a pattern of disturbing outline. Anyway, according to the liner, these are reconstructions of traditional Innsmouth shanties, sea songs and hymns rendered by the Miskatonic University Men’s Chorus. This song isn’t actually on the album:

They are fun, and they sound lovely, but it’s actually the book I want to talk about, because it’s the book that I found really impressive. It’s presented as a humanities monograph published by Miskatonic University Press in 1927, and it’s got a lot of lovely period detail, from the slightly blurry colour maps to the typeface.


The book (well, pamphlet, really — 46 pages) starts with an overview of both the history of Innsmouth from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and of sea shanties and sea songs in general, as well as the story of how the author became acquainted with them. We then get the lyrics and explanatory notes for 14 songs, most of them variants on well-known sea songs like “Old Maui,” “Leave Her Johnny,” “Blow the Man Down” or “New York Girls.” You have to be careful with this kind of thing — you’re always on the verge of filk with any sort of reinterpretation here, but it helps that there are so many different variants of these songs to start with, that the rewrites are restrained enough not to cover the lyrics in tentacles, and that the original lyrics are often a little weird to start with — there are a lot of damned peculiar things you can do with a drunken sailor, it turns out.

On a personal note, Jesse and I went to school together, and at a young age we went on one of those living-history things where we had to learn sailor-y type skills aboard the C. A. Thayer at the Hyde Street Pier Maritime Museum in San Francisco. I still remember ensnaring a passing student with a thrown monkey’s fist while practicing at school, a feat that would have been even more impressive if I hadn’t been trying to wrap my line around a basketball hoop some distance from the kid. But my point is that the bo’sun, Roy, did in fact lead the class in singing sea shanties, including several of the ones that appear in this book. At the time, he seemed like a salty old sea dog to me, although it was the 1980s so there’s also the possibility he was just a big Stan Rogers fan.

From the songs we then move on to some analysis, followed by a brief piece on the Esoteric Order of Dagon itself (in the words of Albert Wilmarth, who is of course the protagonist of “The Whisperer in Darkness.” After that, some speculation about where the “Kanaky” referred to in the shanties actually is. (This is why I was surprised that there wasn’t a variant of “John Kanaka” in this collection! I mean, look at the lyrics.)

What’s interesting to me is not only the fake-history aspect of this — as we have previously established, I love fake history — but the way in which it ties in to other bits of fake history. Obviously, there’s Lovecraft’s whole New England setting, but there’s also the list of other monographs which includes one written by Peter Dannseys (an anagram of Call of Cthulhu creator Sandy Petersen) together with Eliphas Fallworth (which makes no sense unless you know, as I do, that Eliphas’s middle name is “Cordvip,” making his name an anagram of “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”). Chaosium products referring to Miskatonic University from the 80s and maybe 90s often included these faculty members. There were loads of them: Eric K. Larkhan (Charlie Krank), Herbert Hike (Keith Herber), L. N. Isinwyll (Lynn Willis), F. Ford Ratsegg (Greg Stafford), Ivan Mustoll (Tom Sullivan), etc., etc. I can’t believe I remember them, actually. But there are probably not a lot of people who do, unless they’ve come back into use in the decade or so in which I’ve not been paying a lot of attention to Call of Cthulhu. But it’s that level of detailed nerdery you want and get from the HPLHS. I haven’t got the patience for that kind of thing, but boy do I respect it in others.


In fact, this might be one of those things that it does my heart good to know exists. I may hate on all the collectible-Cthulhu stuff there is out there now — just old-guy stuff, you know, grumbling about everything being a marketplace — but the HPLHS have paid their dues; hell, I first heard of them back in the 90s in that Unspeakable Oath article, which I must have read 100 times. And they do it with such labor-of-love attention to detail.

So, yeah. Another oddball pamphlet for my oddball pamphlets shelf. If you like this kind of thing, you will like this thing. Get you one.

Also: in “Old Maui,” the singer says: “it’s a damn tough life, full of toil and strife, we whalermen undergo.” But the first version I heard sounded a lot like “we whalemen,” and even though it’s still clear that means the crew of a whaling ship, I can’t help but think of it as “whale-men.”

From . Who knows.
The Curious Sea Shanties of Innsmouth, Mass.

TV Tuesday: Vikings S3E07, “Paris.”

Well, since for once I’m actually writing about a show while it is airing, more or less, let’s have a quick post to catch up with what’s going on on Vikings, shall we? In this week’s episode, everyone goes to Paris, while back at home and in Wessex things are getting even more Game-of-Thrones-y in narrative fragmentation terms. I’m not going to write a detailed recap, but the gist is that the invasion force arrives outside Paris, the Franks are holed up on the Ile de la Cite, we get to see some internal Frankish politics with the emperor Charles, his daughter Gisla and military leader Count Odo, Ragnar puts Floki in charge of the attack and Floki gets all inspired to build stuff. Meanwhile in England, Mercia and Wessex keep squabbling and the writers remember Northumbria exists. And back at home Thorunn wants to give up the baby but Aslaug advises her otherwise with what passes for feminism in the middle ages.

Floki wants more Ambiguously Supernatural Adventures!
Floki wants more Ambiguously Supernatural Adventures!

Thoughts I thought:

  • Man, I really regret all that stuff I said about Cwenthrith being a more complex character and not just all sexy-sexy. Her bullshit “I’m so kinky” seduction scene in this episode was just infuriating. Again, I can kind of see what they’re going for — like, she tries to seduce Aethelwulf because she knows she’s got shit-all else to use against him. And indeed, he gets all tormented by desire but in the end he points out that he has a big army and is not to be messed with and she has nowhere to go. But urrrrgh. I want more scenes with Aslaug being political and magic-y and wise (and somehow to forget that she showed up being all sexy and mysterious too).
  • Floki, as written, could be a really irritating character, so much love to Gustaf Skarsgard for selling him as a guy who is crazy and yet still nervous and uncertain a lot of the time. Like, you can see that religion helps give Floki a framework for knowing what to do with the fact that he’s mentally ill. And in a rare piece of above-average dialogue, his big awkward, soul-searching scene with Helga from last season is actually echoed in his lines in this episode: “Floki the boat-builder, Floki the tower … maker” recalls “Floki the boat-builder, Floki the fisherman,” at least to me. And we go back to the thing about Ragnar being a little bit crazy, too — he’s a surfer, not a planner, and the vulnerability this creates is partly why people stay loyal to him. Is the much more put-together Kalf meant to be a contrast?
  • I still miss Bjorn’s old haircut.
  • I have no idea why the Franks are wearing weird masks other than that I guess it is France so there has to be a man in an iron mask? I am not an expert on Frankia so if this turns out to be an actual thing somebody please tell me.
  • I wonder if there is just something about Rollo’s internal thermometer that is a couple of degrees out compared to everyone else’s. In the big last scene where Floki is whipping up the troops into a frenzy, all the leaders are standing up on the ridge thing looking at the city, and Rollo’s got his shirt off again. Who is he, Peter Quincy Taggart? I guess if you spend a lot of time in the early medieval gym, which Rollo clearly does, you want to get your early medieval kit off as much as possible. I’m not gonna lie, though, they actually do a really good job of portraying Rollo as a character who knows that a big part of his social role is to stand around looking hard as shit. It’s just still a bit noticeable.
Yeah, yeah, this was last season.
Yeah, yeah, this was last season.
  • Blah blah self-flagellation. In my mind, this is really a 14th-century thing, although I wouldn’t swear there aren’t earlier examples. But the church has spend a long time presenting itself as a timeless unity, so I guess there’s no room to complain when that’s how writers see it.

The theme of this episode for me is the contrast between Kattegatt, Wessex (and Mercia, I guess, whatever) and Paris. That is: in past episodes we have seen that Wessex was a bit of a shock to the Vikings, although of course Ragnar is too cool for school and didn’t show it. In this episode we get to see how dingy and poor Ecbert’s palace looks in comparison to Charles’s. This is some of that historical impressionism that tedious hack from a few posts ago was talking about — regardless of whether the details of the rooms and costumes and things are right (and they don’t appear to be), that comparison is probably about right. Ragnar is a bumpkin compared to Ecbert, who is a bumpkin compared to Charles, who is a bumpkin compared to the Byzantine emperor.

What they’re overplaying is the idea that this is totally alien to the Vikings. Way back in the first season when they arrived in England it was as if they arrived on the moon. Now this is smart screenwriting, I guess — obviously in reality these cultures had long been in contact, but it’s a lot easier to have people find things out in the actual episode than have them talk about stuff in “as you know, Bob” conversations. But it’s still an exaggeration. Denmark and Frankia are right next to each other, and the Franks are mixed up in Danish politics. I think that’s even how we know about the historical King Horik at all, although I may be misremembering. But the show plays up Denmark like it’s a (mountainous, fjord-having) island in the middle of the ocean, with no connections other than the ones Ragnar creates. Easy for simplicity’s sake, I guess.

As always, I find the uniforms in this show silly (see also: Game of Thrones) but I understand why they need to exist.

Next week: a big battle? Hopefully there will be some strategy in it. That’s if I don’t just binge-watch Daredevil instead.

TV Tuesday: Vikings S3E07, “Paris.”

Movie Monday: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Boy is this poster not a good representation of the film.

So, I’m watching Quatermass and the Pit, the 1967 Hammer Films remake of the classic 1958-9 television serial written by Nigel Kneale. As you are probably aware, this is not really a historical film, but I think that it’s relevant to the themes of the blog — particularly, I think it demonstrates some of the dangerous archaeology that I have referred to earlier in terms of the work of HP Lovecraft. (If you’re interested in me talking about archaeology in Lovecraft, I might write up my HPL talks as a longer piece one of these days).

Anyway, the story is a familiar one. Excavations for an Underground line reveal skeletons — happens all the time in reality. But these skeletons are a little weird: the press describes them as “underground ape men,” and they have some very unusual skulls. In another neat touch, when a metal object is found along with them, people assume it’s an unexploded bomb — as we’ve recently seen, this isn’t implausible.

(Prophetically, when the bomb squad are examining the metal object, they speculate that it’s a “Satan.”)

Meanwhile, amidst all these reminders of man’s inhumanity to man, Professor Quatermass is being prosed at about the need for military moon bases by the army. He and military rocket expert Breen (sp?) get called in to take a look at the metal object, which, it gradually becomes clear is some kind of spaceship. Simultaneously, it becomes clear that there’s something off about the whole area — people have always been frightened of it.

There’s a lovely, high-tech palaeontology lab in an old building, which is a very British thing and something I’m always happy to see. “We don’t just dig with trowels, you know,” the dude says. Of course, gradually it becomes clear that the object is a spaceship, somehow associated with these skellingtons that are millions of years old. Although the government denies the alien theory, odd things start to happen around the dig site …

I think the most interesting thing to me here is the way in which the story blends the pseudo-science of a Von-Daniken-like ancient alien thing and the traditional horror of a series of haunted-house incidents. In a way, it reminds of the way Ring 2 doubles down on its psychic pseudo-science, only a) obviously this came first, and b) less personal.

I saw goody Quatermass raisin' fundamental questions about human nature!
I saw goody Quatermass raisin’ fundamental questions about human nature!

I’m not going to recap the film here — I’m sure you can find better summaries and analysis elsewhere. But I did want to touch on the theme of dangerous archaeology a little bit. Here are some of the basic principles in bullet-point form:

  • Underground = secret = past = dead = dreams/unconscious
  • Archaeologists are portrayed as detectives, but also transgress the above-/under-ground boundary.
  • They “bring the past to life” — in education, this is good!
  • But in archaeological horror, it’s usually a bit more literal.

In my Lovecraft talk, I suggested that for Lovecraft, history and place are inextricably linked with identity. Historical or archaeological research has the potential to tell you that your history isn’t what you thought it was — which means you aren’t who you thought you were. So the specific brand of archaeological horror in Lovecraft isn’t just like a mummy or a vengeful ghost that comes to life and kills people, it’s a horror that comes from what archaeology actually does, i.e. tells you about your past. It’s just that if you’re a Lovecraft protagonist (or, as he acknowledged, Lovecraft himself) you probably don’t want to hear it. In many Lovecraft stories, learning about your past actually takes you back in time (“The Rats in the Walls”) or brings back creatures from long ago (“At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), but always with that subtext of there being an unpleasant revelation of your own poisoned heritage. (Some Lovecraft critic used that phrase, but I can’t remember who.)

In a way, the Quatermass story has the same sort of general principle — an archaeological revelation that actually regresses people to a primitive state, enacting genetic memories of a “race purge” and unleashing an urge to kill. But the film is so drenched in Gothic, diabolical imagery that its effect is very different from the poisoned history in Lovecraft — that annihilating, mutating influence. Instead of Lovecraft’s “if your history isn’t what you thought it was, then you aren’t who you thought you were,” it’s a subtly different “if your history isn’t what you told yourself it was, then you are who you were always afraid you were.

Now, in a way, I think that’s actually closer to what frightens people about what history reveals. Not that our past isn’t what we thought it was, but that it’s exactly what we thought it was, and we’re brutal, stupid, hate-filled monsters, doomed to repeat the same petty, vicious dramas forever and ever. As it happens, I don’t think that’s actually the case — I think (say it with me) it’s more complex than that — but I feel that tug just like everyone else does.

Also, the final shot — the two surviving main characters standing at opposite sides of the screen, unable to talk to or comfort each other, barely even able to look at each other — is pretty baller.

Also, Julian Glover is in everything.

Movie Monday: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)