I was shopping for a gift recently, and I did that thing that you’re not supposed to do — that is, I went to the kinds of places I would like to receive a gift from, which are similar to but not quite as the same as the kinds of places my friend would like a gift from.
Anyway, while browsing a bookshop, I did that thing I always do where I see a book on a topic I know nothing about and decide I must know more. Fortunately, I have a well-developed response to this impulse and I didn’t buy anything, but I was tempted by half a dozen titles including Nicholas Rogers’ book on the history of Hallowe’en (a topic about which I know a leetle but not an enormous amount).
Like I said, I didn’t buy it. I came home all virtuous and got an email from an editor asking me for, among other things, a piece on the history of Hallowe’en. I guess I can always claim it as a business expense now.
So there is a trailer for the new Guy Ritchie King Arthur film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, starring Charlie Hunnam and all sorts of other people (including David Beckham? Did I read that right?).
And it looks like … well, it looks like Guy Ritchie directing a King Arthur film, really:
So naturally, as a lover of medieval literature, I am outraged, right? Well … not really.
Look, don’t get me wrong: I’m sure this is going to do a lot of things that grate on me when I watch it: heaven knows Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes did, and I care way less about Victorian stuff than medieval stuff. But the thing is …
… the thing is …
.. that this is the tradition, right? Like, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a load of fantasy guff about giants and whatnot and had Arthur acting like a medieval knight. He was familiar with stories of Arthur, I suppose, but he worked them into the literary tradition of his age. Same goes for Malory, same goes for T. H. White, whose schoolboy heroes are, while not un-medieval, very much of their time. People bring Arthur into their cultural traditions and tell stories that are contemporary and set in a nonspecific historical fantasy milieu. That’s what happens in Camelot, that’s what happens in Excalibur, and that’s what’s happening here.
Now, obviously, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good, but it does mean that this isn’t some kind of weird deviation from the Arthurian tradition. This is what the Arthurian tradition is.
As I may have mentioned, the last few weeks have been a great opportunity for me to catch up on my reading. At the moment, I’m in the middle of James Ellroy’s latest, Perfidia.
I have blown hot and cold on Ellroy in the past — I love the LA Quartet, particularly the three ones everybody loves (that’s The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz for those unfamiliar), but I was less excited about the next three books. Perfidia seems to be an attempt to drag them all together by creating a unifying sort of dark history of WWII and postwar America. This means recapitulating a lot of stuff from the LA Quartet, to which this is essentially a prequel.
But it’s this idea of dark history that intrigues me. Ellroy has always used the fact that Americans typically have nostalgic views of the 1940s and 1950s to good effect: he depicts a world in which the guardians of law and order are racist thugs who spend all their time getting drunk and having sex with prostitutes and breaking into people’s houses and sniffing underwear and talking bullshit tough-guy philosophy and there’s just stale food and dog shit and razor blades everywhere.
Now, the fundamental truth — the people protecting the established order were a bunch of racist thugs, or at least willing to collude with racist thugs — is sound. But aesthetically I do wonder if we’re not seeing a modern version of that “everything is covered in filth” view of the middle ages that gradually rose from being an alternative take on the period to being the dominant one in the media. For a long time, this was obviously some kind of psychodrama: we know that James Ellroy lived in a house full of dog shit and broke into people’s houses and spent a lot of time drunk and, I don’t know, threw beer cans full of piss out the window, whatever James Ellroy characters do. And when it’s atmosphere in a crime novel, fair enough. But like all useful correctives, let’s not go nuts here. Let James Ellroy present history programs on TV — I hope you like hearing him say “BAM!” as much as I do — but let’s keep a little perspective.
I don’t know, I’m not necessarily criticising. So far, at least, he manages to avoid the usual conspiracy-history thing of just letting ordinary people off the hook. The conspirators are racist thugs, but only as racist as most people around them. It’s the thug part that’s different.
Anyway, I mentioned a word from our sponsor, but we don’t have any sponsors so we’ll have to have blatant self-promotion instead! DriveThru is having their annual Christmas in July sale, and lots of great stuff is on sale including my own The Barest Branch, the Viking Lovecraft horror story so unmarketable that I actually spiced it up with a drab brown cover and a who-gives-a-shit blurb. It’s available in both PDF and MOBI, although I have no idea how you read the .mobi with the Kindle app. It works fine on an actual Kindle, I know that much.
In 53 BC, the Parthians inflicted a major defeat on their Roman enemies at the Battle of Carrhae. Legend has it that some of the Roman captives wound up working as mercenaries for the Parthians and that they may even have made their way to China. Although there’s no concrete evidence for this theory, it keeps coming up. I think this is mainly because it’s a cool, romantic idea rather than because of any actual evidence, but it’s not my area or period.
Aaaaaanyhow, Dragon Blade claims to be inspired by true events, but only in the loosiest, goosiest manner. Jackie Chan plays Huo An, a Hun who was orphaned at a young age and raised by a Chinese army officer. Now he’s head of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a band of tough but loveable blah blah blah. He runs into Lucius (John Cusack, presumably cashing a welcome paycheque), a Roman officer who is protecting a young Roman noble from his evil brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody).
From this point you can probably figure out how this goes. Although Lucius and Huo initially find themselves in opposition, they learn to respect one another and work together. In between, there’s montages, fight scenes, chases and a big old battle or two. You know how these things go.
So is it any good? Well … it’s certainly spectacular. Big armies, cool sets, fancy costumes and plenty of lively fight choreography (I believe Jackie Chan was action director on this one). But insofar as it has human elements, they manifest in that weird Chinese-cinema combination of sentimental glurge and cheerful bloodthirstiness. There’s also a certain corny propaganda-ness to it; one of the big messages is that peace is possible if all the nations on the Silk Road will work together — under Chinese leadership, of course. It’s not very subtle.
Historical nonsense allied to colourful pageantry and plenty of big, nonsensical fight scenes: it’s basically a 1950s Technicolour epic catapulted forward 60 years. It’s good fun, but I wouldn’t really think about it too hard if I were you. In fact, it’s so silly in its history that that becomes part of its charm, at least for me.
So I have been thinking lately about historical just-so stories, especially as they relate to legends. You know the kind of thing: “the myth of Atlantis (or of the Flood) is just a garbled recollection of the Thera eruption,” or “the name of this 5th-century Romano-British official sounds kiiiiiinda like Arthur if you try to hear it.”
A few things have brought this to mind: first, in the most recent episode of my Doctor Who podcast, we’ve been discussing “The Time Monster,” which has a load of stuff about Atlantis. Second, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been watching the new season of Marco Polo, and it’s got Prester John in it (kind of). And I recently listened to the “In Our Time” episode about Prester John (in which a friend of mine’s father appears), which again is full of the host really wanting to know about the historical origin or inspiration for Prester John.
And this all strikes me as a bit weird.
Like … I get using the legend of Prester John to teach about the Christian churches of Asia, which are not very well known in the west (indeed, I know very little about them other than that they existed and that there were a lot more Christians in medieval Asia than people tend to think). And I get using Prester John to teach about medieval Europe, since, after all, that was the society that invented him. But you’re not going to find some thing in medieval Asia or Africa that you can point to and say “aha, Prester John,” and even if you did it wouldn’t really tell you anything, since you’d have to drift so far from the story that they would barely be connected.
Let’s say the story of Atlantis really is inspired by the Thera eruption. That would mean that the story of an island in the Aegean that was badly damaged by a volcanic eruption in 1600 BC or so turned into the story of a continent in the Atlantic that sank beneath the waves thousands of years earlier. The two stories would have nothing to do with each other other than “a natural disaster happened.” Which is not exactly novel or exciting.
It’s the same with Arthur: so you find a Romano-British officer with a name that sounds a bit like Arthur. That doesn’t mean he’s “King Arthur.” Still no magic sword, no Holy Grail, no love triangle, no giants, no round table. It would be like proving that there was someone in Kansas in the 1930s named “Clark Kent.” It wouldn’t make him Superman, and it would be interesting only in what it told us about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
I can only imagine that when people look for historical origins for fantastic stories they’re hoping that a historical element will lend some legitimacy to the fantastic bits, and while I’m sympathetic to that idea I think they’re going to be disappointed.
Marco Polo is back on Netflix, and I’m still enjoying it within its own somewhat derpy terms. It takes the story of Marco Polo and uses it to ask the question “what would it be like if Game of Thrones had more kung fu?” The answer is about as fun as it sounds.
As I have said before, they found a way to make a stock Chinese historical soap-epic thing with a white guy in the lead role, although to be perfectly honest calling Marco the lead and putting his face on the promo images is a bit of an exaggeration. This show should really be called Kublai Khan, since Benedict Wong’s performance is the centre of the whole thing. And the fact that Marco is the nominal lead tends to obscure the fact — the remarkable fact — that this is an American TV show with one-count-’em-one white dude in it, which is … again, that’s not common, surely.
Historically, it’s about as loosey-goosey as it was in the previous season; I had just looked up one of the characters and discovered that he lived to a ripe old age when I saw him brutally killed on the screen. A history lesson it ain’t. But on the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that this is probably the best American TV show ever made about medieval Chinese history. I could be wrong, but if there’s any competition other than the 1982 Marco Polo series, I don’t know what it is.
But even apart from the low standard of the competition, it does get across a few important ideas that your typical US TV viewer might not have known much about, including the idea of different regions of China having important differences, the Mongol court being ethnically and ideologically diverse (we see more Christian Mongols this season, for instance), and something of the politics of the Mongols, who are presented as a civilised nomadic warrior culture rather than as the usual greasy barbarians.
So, yeah; only three episodes in but I’ll continue to watch, primarily for the spectacle but also because they have Michelle Yeoh in this season (I guess that’s spectacle too) and because I really support people making TV shows out of periods of history that don’t get covered enough. The dialogue is still 85% terrible, though.
I missed Friday’s post; I’m afraid it’s been a bit of a hectic work and travel schedule, plus I was unwell for a few days, so I haven’t had time to sit down and write anything long for a bit. I do have a few museum visits lined up, so I’ll talk about those when I get to them.
I also have a talk upcoming at a convention here in Cambridge in October, so stay tuned for details here.
While on holiday I caught up with some long-overdue reading, including The Bone Thief, a 2012(?) novel by Victoria Whitworth. This has since had two sequels: The Traitors’ Pit, which I have bought but not read yet, and a third one, which I believe is coming out this year, though I could be wrong.
Anyway, this isn’t a review per se (short review: I thought it was pretty good!) but I thought it would be a good way to look at one approach to historical fiction.
As you may know, saints’ relics were a very big deal in medieval Christianity. They provided a physical expression of the holiness of a saint, and possession of a particularly impressive relic could boost the standing of a church or its patron, attract pilgrims and so on. Not that relics were just some form of social engineering; naturally they were regarded with that mixture of political pragmatism and sincere belief in the supernatural that is so much the hallmark of … pretty much any era before the modern at a minimum.
And of course you know that the written history of the early middle ages can be tantalisingly (or maddeningly depending on your perspective) vague. Case in point: in 909, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, together with her brother King Edward of Wessex, brought the relics of Saint Oswald from their resting place in Bardney — which at that time was in Danish territory — to the new minster in Gloucester. I came across this incident when I was doing my PhD; Saint Oswald’s (as the church came to be known) was one of the sites I studied. And clearly the author felt the same curiosity I did: did Aethelflaed really lead a military campaign to recover some relics? Or was it more of a small, commando-type operation? A diplomatic mission? What was going on?
So it’s that story that Whitworth sets out to tell — who was responsible for bringing the relics back to Mercia, and how did they do it? If you guessed “a mismatched band of Dark Ages characters from all levels of society” and “via a series of adventures and narrow escapes,” you’re on the right track, of course. But … and here I’m just being a grumpy person … they’re hair-raising adventures and narrow etc. that don’t require you to forget things about the historical period*. Instead, they sympathetically illuminate things about it.
And no surprise there, since the author is a legit historian of the period; I probably cited her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England more than anything that wasn’t an actual site report when writing my thesis (and brother, it wasn’t that cheap back then, I can tell you). Now, the common complaint about historical fiction written by experts on the period is that it can sometimes feel like a history lesson, but I didn’t feel that way here at all. Of course, a) this is kind of my period in the first place, and b) I really like history lessons, so I could be wrong.
The other thing that really pleased me was — and this is just a personal pet grumble — the way in which The Bone Thief portrays Christianity as a vital part of the lived experience of the medieval world, the context in which other things happen. There are pagan characters, of course, but they’re not presented as Romantic alternatives to a stuffy, life-hating Christianity. A lot of what bugs me about the way Christianity is portrayed in fiction set in the early medieval period is that it’s based on either Reformation critiques of the “medieval” church or modern celebrations of “earthy, vital” paganism. Bernard Cornwall, I’m looking at you here. But here there’s a very varied and human portrayal of the role of Christianity, including a cute scene in which our hero, Wulfgar, who is a bit of a religion nerd, is all shocked and dismayed by the sincere but procedurally-incorrect piety of the local people he meets but never quite works up the courage to say anything about it.
Anyway, The Bone Thief. Best portrayal of early medieval England within the context of a more-or-less straight-up adventure yarn yet? Possibly! I’m going to read the next one, but — and I know this is shallow — I bought it in large-format paperback and now I’m regretting that because it’s really big and it’s a pain in the butt to carry around. I do a lot of my reading on trains and things. Anyway. When I do finish it I’ll talk about it here, but in the meantime if you like the kinds of things I like you might very well like this.
(*To some extent all adventure yarns require you to forget that the circumstances under which a dangerous mission is entrusted to a well-meaning rookie are a little contrived, but that comes with the territory. Also, there’s a Hotheaded Impulsive One, a Beardy One, and The Sexy One. The Sexy One has plenty of agency and is actually a pretty convincing female lead in an early medieval story (if you want an independent woman in the 10th century, a Scandinavian merchant is a good choice).)
So we went to Villa Carlotta, a villa on the shore of Lake Como that was once a famous stop on the Grand Tour because of its collection of sculptures, engravings, cameos and so on. It also has botanical gardens if you like that kind of thing, which to be honest I don’t very much. Not that they’re not beautiful, but they just don’t fascinate me for more than the ten minutes or so we spent strolling around the grounds. The official tour can take up to 90, it seems.
But what of the house itself? Well, it’s definitely full of stuff. It’s got:
It was fascinating, not because it made me think what life was like for the people who lived there — indeed, there was very little about their actual lives, something I don’t think you’d see in a similar British or American historical building — but because it made me think about the process of the grand tour. Indeed, visiting the place seems to me to have a lot of the Grand Tour still about it, a feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on. Call it …
… call it the aesthetic experience of being educated. The thing that makes you walk out of a stately home, museum or historical site with a little feeling of satisfaction, that sense of “well, that was educational!” This has to combine with some kind of aesthetic appreciation, or it doesn’t work — you look at some paintings, you look at some furniture, you learn a fact or two about Napoleon, and you gaze out across the sparkling water at the villas on the far shore. It’s lovely, and it produces a tremendous sense of satisfaction that a more explicitly educational experience wouldn’t.
I’m not criticising that, by the way; obviously I enjoy adding trivia to my storehouse and obviously I enjoy feeling like I’m learning something. But it’s interesting to see a place that focused so solely on that. Of course, in the Grand Tour, the tourist himself or his tutor would be expected to provide the context that made it all make sense.
Again, I’m not knocking education-as-entertainment. That’s basically my career goal, after all. It was just interesting.