Trip report: Scythians

On Friday the 5th I went into London to see the Scythians special exhibition at the British Museum. Going into this exhibit, I knew about as much about the Scythians as I think a relatively well-read non-specialist. I was familiar with some of the most famous finds and some of the various ancient textual references, but that’s about it.

I never feel like I can adequately talk about museum trip visits, because they’re so individual, so let me get away from narrative format and maybe just talk in list terms.

Good things: 

The thing you can always rely on with one of these big British Museum exhibits is the collection itself. You’re going to get a lot of real marquee-value items in the exhibit. Here, for instance, we got to see the actual Pazyryk chief, which is pretty cool — even if you don’t really learn more from seeing the thing in real life than you do from the same diagram drawing of the tattoos that’s in every archaeology textbook ever printed.

Context is well-presented. You get a good amount of information on cultures that came before and after the Scythians, and you get some stuff on the context of the collections from the Hermitage that make up much of the exhibit. It is kind of weird that a lot of this information is repeated several times in the early part of the exhibition.

The Scythians are pretty cool. You get lots of interesting artefacts, from weapons and horse trappings to hemp-seed hotbox tents, human remains, clothing and even a couple of little lumps of cheese. It’s a good range of stuff.

I have discovered it’s pronounced SIH-thee-uns and will never have to wonder again.

Bad things: 

One thing the exhibition did a lot was to create comparisons with Iranian, Chinese and Greek art of contemporary periods. It would have been nice to see some of those things in the exhibition as well.

The first half of the exhibition has a lot of “here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a mythical predator attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a goat. I think panther fatigue set in, but then I got into the second area with the horse hats and hotboxes and things picked up again.

On a personal level, I always find these big crowd-drawing exhibitions tough. I went in the afternoon on a weekday, but that doesn’t matter to a tourist magnet like the British Museum (although I should probably not have waited until the last few weeks of the exhibition). Every cabinet basically had a continuous line of people in front of it, and it always feels like there isn’t really time to think or compare or do anything other than go “oh, interesting!” and then go on to the next thing. I am a big clumsy goof and I feel like a traffic obstacle at the best of times, so that didn’t help. So part of it is that honestly the experience of going to a marquee-value exhibition is not as enjoyable for me as it might be, largely for the same reasons that make me want to go to one. But that’s just me.

Overall:

It was good. In many ways, my frustrations stem from the fact that it was good and I wanted more of a chance to appreciate it. But I understand that there’s no Netflix for museum exhibits; they’re not going to bring it round to my house and let me watch it in my jammies. C’est la vie.

Advertisements
Trip report: Scythians

Movie Monday: William the Conqueror (2017ish)

A French film about William the Conqueror on newly-acquired Amazon Prime, you say? When pal Kit tipped me off about this one, I put it down on the list to watch when I got some free time. After all, William I is one of Britain’s national heroes and national villains, and it would be interesting to see what he looked like from the other side of the Channel, right?

Right?

Oh well.

WILLIAM_THE_CONQUERER_AMAZON-564x800

It’s not that bad, to be honest; it’s just a little … matter-of-fact.

We start on the eve of invasion in 1066. William is waiting to launch the invasion of England, tentatively waiting for the news — presumably of Hardrada’s invasion — to arrive. He appoints Robert Curthose his heir in a moment that is supposed to be symbolic of hope and future promise, both weird emotions to associate with Robert.

Anyway, all this talking about Robert’s future prompts gruff old William FitzOsbern, here called “Wilhelm,” presumably to avoid confusion, to reminisce to young Robert about when William were just a lad …

… and that’s the actual story of the movie. It’s about the anarchy that prevailed in Normandy following the death of Robert the Magnificent. Ickle babby William is forced to go scurrying around the countryside with only a handful of loyal vassals, etc., etc., while mean old baddie Ranulf chases him around. I think Ranulf is one of the nobles who rebelled against William in the 1040s, expanded into a generic villain who murders people out of hand and sneers and wears black.

Anyway, good old Osbern entrusts William to a band of Vikings who are pagans — in the 1040s? I guess there were probably still some pagans kicking around then, but the whole group? I dunno.

Anyway, William goes off to have adventures with the Vikings, who tell him the story of Rollo in a scene that’s kind of grey-blue and washed out to indicate that it’s a flashback, despite the fact that this is also a flashback. There is a witchity Viking lady named Hel, which … well, whatever. They get him to safety, having delivered their history lesson without any of that nasty old conflict or plot.

William and his companions Wilhelm and Gui frolic in the rustic simplicity of wherever it is and then they all grow up into adults who similarly enjoy frolicing in rustic simplicity and a-chasing the wild deer in a scene that will make you too say OK, OK, I get it! Gui falls in the water, which is extremely hilarious. Ah, youthful hijinks!

All this good-natured hilarity can have the effect of making you realise that you are halfway through a film about William the Conqueror and there has been not one battle and not much in the way of intrigue; mostly just some pontificating on the nature of leadership and a good deal of travel. However, we are starting to get the feeling that Gui is a surly little swine who is going to end up betraying everyone.

If I had to sum this middle sequence up in one word, I would call it leisurely. Lots of slow, gentle conversations. Not a lot of tension or excitement. You might find this puzzling until you watch the big fight scene that takes place when bad old Ranulf tries to kill young William. It’s … ropey. It has the universal ropey signifier of people in mail coats dropping dead when someone drags a sword over their tummies, which is a particular bugbear of mine, largely because it happens about every 30 seconds in Game of Thrones.

I don’t know if you have ever worn a mail coat, but they are made of interlinked metal rings. Fundamentally, they are made of metal, and although they have vulnerabilities they are pretty good at protecting people from sword cuts. I realise that that makes fights hard to choreograph, because fighting someone who has body armour and a shield is a tiresome process of trying to hit them in the face, hands, shins, or whatever and not super cool looking, but there you have it. The tummy-cut just looks dumb.

So a fight happens while portentous video-game-tier music plays. Ranulf kills Osbern and tries to pressure William into abdicating, but William is defiant. “Wilhelm” grows a scruffy little beard.

Then stuff starts to happen! A really mild Viking funeral! Grappling hooks! Sneaking into places! Riding around on a horsie! Daring escapes! Basically, the film turns the “adventure” dial up to 75% and kicks into a sequence of fights, infiltrations, escapades and strategic discussions that would have made a mildly disappointing episode of your third-favourite adventure.

Oh snap! It turns out Gui has switched sides and is working with Ranulf, so he and “Wilhelm” have a bit of a half-speed fight and Gui gets beat, a fact that is a total surprise because … he has been consistently shown throughout the movie to be the student in their swordfightin’ relationship … ?

Wounded, William is captured by a rebel baron — oh wait, no he’s not! He’s a nice baron after all, and with his help William goes off to France and meets Henri I, who offers to help.

I have to say that the costumes, armour and weapons in this movie mostly look pretty good except for some of the named characters, which makes me believe there are a lot of reenactors in this thing. They certainly do that reenactor thing of keeping time by drumming your weapons against your shields as you march, and they have the usual reenactorly high ratio of swords and other hand weapons to spears.

Battle battle, stab stab, horsie horsie, shakey camera movements, Henri I looking like a weenie because this is a movie about Normans by gum, choirs are singing so you know it’s important, William captures Ranulf, and “Wilhelm” doesn’t kill Gui because Gui lived to a ripe old age. And so we flash forward to “Wilhelm” telling the same story to ickle Robert and huzzah huzzah we’re off to conquer England the end.

You know, I didn’t think you could make a dull movie about the life of William the Conqueror, and yet here we are.

 

Movie Monday: William the Conqueror (2017ish)

Holiday reading: Daughter of the Wolf

Another book under the Christmas tree for me this year was Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth. The author is a historian — I cited her book Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon Englandlot while writing my thesis — and I have read and enjoyed her two previous novels set in Anglo-Saxon EnglandThe Bone Thief and The Traitor’s Pit.

20171226_012414

In keeping with my previous posts about these books, this is not a review. If you want my one-sentence review, I liked it and was really pleased with how it evoked its world. In this post, though, I really just want to talk about an issue that I think Daughter of the Wolf approaches very effectively.

So The Bone Thief and The Traitor’s Pit did a great job of putting a fundamentally different way of viewing the world at the centre of the story in a way that felt natural. This kind of thing really stands out in a historical novel, where differences between historical and modern, dare I say it, mentalities are either glossed over or tend to stick out a little awkwardly because of the light the author shines on them.

Now, and this is not a criticism, those books were, particularly The Bone Thief, adventure stories. A plucky band of unlikely heroes, travel to exotic places, a beautiful but possibly unreliable love interest, dangerous missions behind enemy lines, all that kind of thing. They were adventure stories without much fighting, which was nice to see in a period that’s mainly seen as all about the shield-wall and the Vikings and the wolf-time and what not. But they were definitely within the tradition of the historical adventure story. Again, that’s not a bad thing.

But Daughter of the Wolf moves even further away from that tradition. There is violence and danger in the story, of course, but this is a story that focuses on a young woman who has to run her family estate against a backdrop of both political and family intrigue. What that means is that it’s a dramatic historical narrative set within the framework of activities that would have been considered acceptable for women (more or less) within its ninth-century setting.

I’ve written before about some of the aspects of the early medieval shieldmaiden image that give me pause. Specifically, the celebration of female heroes who excel in traditionally male-dominated areas like combat and the military can be read as dismissive of the social areas in which women mostly did have agency. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with female fighting heroes, or that women didn’t or don’t fight — but it’s nice to see Daughter of the Wolf centering its narrative in the world of government, religion, economics, diplomacy and so on.

Anyway, I liked it a lot, but no surprise there; I’m 3/3 on this author.

Holiday reading: Daughter of the Wolf

TV Tuesday: Vikings is back!

dlzrkqdw4aeby90

One of the things that my wife and I did for Christmas was get ourselves an Amazon Prime subscription, and naturally we used it to watch all sorts of great films that we’d been promising ourselves we would catch up with …

… well, OK, we did watch one or two good things but also I gorged on what’s out so far of season “5.1” (again, it’s totally season 6; this show’s season numbering is an unacceptable pretension) of Vikings.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoy Vikings. It looks great and it’s often genuinely funny. But it doesn’t … what’s the phrase I’m looking for … make a whole lot of sense.

The central theme of this season is, I guess, the developing rivalry between the Ragnarssons, with Hvitserk torn between the level-headed leadership of Ubbe and the psycho ambitions of Ivarr. Meanwhile, Bjorn is off … basically just goofing around in the Mediterranean, a subplot that works only because Alexander Ludwig is at his best when Bjorn is being a charming doofus.

Having killed off all its extraneous characters in the previous seasons, Vikings now introduces a bunch of new ones, including Nice Cousin Whatsisname, The Greek Guy, and Guthrum, who I guess was technically in it already. Guthrum doesn’t die, for a wonder, since he is a Historical Character who is presumably being set up in advance for an eventual shoeing from Alfred. We also get the discovery of Iceland, including cameos from Ketil Flatnose and Aud the Deep-minded, who must be upset that no one can seem to agree how to pronounce her name.

The other big plot is Harald Fairhair’s desire to become king of all of Norway, which is kind of confusing. For one thing, this isn’t the reason that everyone moves to Iceland, even though medieval Icelanders could barely shut up about it. For another, no one points out to him that his ambition to conquer Lagertha’s town of Kattegat is a little weird since it is in Denmark. Wasn’t Donal Logue the king of Denmark way the hell back in seasons 1 and 2?

The show seems to think that it’s best feature is its battle scenes, which is … I don’t know. They are full of energy and gore and people getting hit with axes, which I guess is fun, but the fact that they don’t make any sense tends to get in the way. Take the ambush in York, for instance. Aethelwulf and Heahmund are lured into the city, believing that Ivarr and his forces have left. They even say the ships are gone, although they are not. How they left is not clear, since it’s not like one Viking can just stand in the back and fire up the Evinrude, but leave that aside.

They go into the city, and then Ivarr springs his ambush; his men, who have been concealed inside the sewers, rush up out of the manholes and attack. Now, what this means is that some poor sod of a choreographer had to block a scene in which the Vikings clamber one by one out of a narrow opening and the English just …

… stand around like dumbasses. Like, I am not a great tactician and I do not know anything about sword fighting, but I reckon that while a guy is using both his hands to climb up a ladder and is pinned in a narrow opening is an excellent time to stab him in his stupid face. You don’t even have to get that fancy; you could just bop him on the head with a big rock. Once he’s dead, you can kick him back down the ladder and, I don’t know, just put your shield on the manhole cover and stand on it.

Once you’ve got that sorted out, it’s Warhammer 4th Edition time. As we have seen from these battle scenes, no one without a name can possibly harm Aethelwulf or Heahmund, and there are only two Vikings in the entire city with names. In the narrow frontage of the sewer tunnels, the Vikings won’t know which direction you’re coming from, and the restricted width means you can just put Aethelwulf and Heahmund at the front and mince your way through the average Vikings until you get to Ivarr and And Hvitserk Too, which I believe is his full name. Then, I dunno, into your hands, blind Justice, and may God defend the right or something. Or just walk off and let a guy who can’t stand up and a guy with a scrubby little moustache rule York from the sewers, I dunno.

My point is basically that it’s not very impressive when your devious mastermind wins the day with a plan that wouldn’t fool a babby.

Also, does Judith have ears now?! I swear she had the tops of her ears cut off for adultery way back in Season 2 or 3 and started wearing her hair down so that people wouldn’t see. Now they’re back. Did they regenerate? Does she revert to her Platonic form when we’re not looking at her?

Anyway, I don’t know what I was expecting. It’s Vikings. It’s silly fun. I find it frustrating but I wouldn’t give it up.

I miss Rollo.

TV Tuesday: Vikings is back!

Holiday reading: Designing Utopia

I got Designing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift for Christmas and read it over the break. I thought it was pretty great.

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift are one of those weird groups that pop up in British history — a sort of back-to-the-land folk-y group originally intended as an alternative to conservative, militaristic Boy Scouting but also incorporating mysticism, eugenics, a secret initiatory occult lodge, a weird cult of personality, and lots of other stuff. From a social and artistic movement, it became a political party and protest organisation advocating for something called “Social Credit,” a radical (“crank?”) economic theory.

20171225_122633

Now, I have previously blogged about the Kibbo Kift, back when I went to the Whitechapel Gallery exhibit about them. This is a more detailed history of the organisation, and goes into more depth about John Hargraves’ life and the evolution of the Kibbo Kift. It’s a museum publication, so high production values, lots of pretty art, all that kind of thing.

What I really enjoyed about it was its emphasis on the extent to which the Kibbo Kift was within the intellectual mainstream of the interwar era. The outfits and the neologisms might have seemed a little strange to some observers, but every ingredient in the Kindred’s stew was something that was out there in the culture: an obsession with racial “health,” a sense that there was something wrong with civilised society, a skeptical view of the Empire and the military following the war, a belief in the power of symbolism, etc., etc.

What’s also interesting is the sense of John Hargraves’ personal command. Over its history, the Kibbo Kift shifts with Hargraves’ whims, going from a sort of volkisch mystical hiking and crafty club to a fringe political party with uniformed street team. These two incarnations don’t obviously seem to have much to do with each other, so we’re left with the conclusion that the Kibbo Kift is just the club that Hargraves uses to pursue whatever his current whim happens to be, with the stipulation that no matter what the group is doing, Hargraves, regardless of qualifications, is the boss.

Anyway, this was an interesting read about an interesting group and I was sufficiently keen that I read through it that morning. If you’re only going to read one book about the Kibbo Kift — which seems like a pretty good number — I recommend this one.

Holiday reading: Designing Utopia

2017 Year in Review

Well, another year draws to a close, and it’s been a quiet year on this blog. That’s bad in some ways, but not terrible.

It’s definitely the case that the heckshow that was 2016 diminished some of my enthusiasm for thinking about the kind of historical stuff I usually write about on this blog. In essence, I try to only write “serious” posts every so often, but I ended last year in a mood that didn’t really allow for the kind of writing I typically prefer. That wasn’t the only reason, though, and the other ones were a little better.

The first reason things went a little quiet is that a new project wound up taking a lot of my time. I’m referring of course to Monster Man, my new podcast about the 1977 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. I released over 30 episodes in 2017, and also spent a good amount of time blogging and promoting it. I even went up on Patreon, a project that was almost derailed by the recent Patreon shenanigans.

So obviously that project’s been taking up a good amount of my free time, and I’m very pleased with how it’s been going. But it’s not the only thing that I’ve been doing, and the other thing is a little more history-related.

As I have mentioned in the past, I started volunteering at the Centre for Computing History, the computer history museum here in Cambridge. I mostly do behind the scenes stuff, whether that’s adding items to the archive, helping to organise the collections, or just lugging stuff around. It’s fascinating to see the museum at work, and the team there are a great bunch of people. So that’s been good. I should blog a little bit more about it, honestly.

20171230_112120
I think the recreated 1970s office might be my favourite part. 

Anyway, all of this adds up to mean that I haven’t had a huge amount of time not spoken for, but hopefully I’ll be able to use the holiday to knock out a couple of posts on things I’ve been reading and watching lately.

Despite the fact that 2017 has been a rough year in many ways as well, I come into 2018 with more a … faint-glimmer-of-hope sort of feeling of optimism compared to the grim resolve of last year. Let’s see how the year develops. I hope that all of you enjoy your new year celebrations and that the coming year is a good one.

2017 Year in Review

Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

timthumb

So, first things first. I somehow missed that this movie was directed by Mel Gibson; under ordinary circumstances I would not support or endorse his work. However, I was halfway through this film, looking stuff up for this blog post, when I found it out, so whoops. I decided to finish it anyway.

So, anyway, Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie about a guy called Desmond Doss. Doss was a conscientious objector in WWII: as a Seventh Day Adventist, his beliefs forbid him from engaging in violence or carrying a weapon. he still wanted to serve, however, and ended up becoming a medic. He won the Medal of Honour for doing some stuff that was so outrageous they actually leave part of it out of the movie, presumably because it was either narratively inconvenient or ridiculously implausible. Check it out for yourself here. 

I said this was a war movie earlier; what I meant was that it is a War Movie. I don’t know to what extent the details are based on Doss’ actual experiences, and I’m open to the suggestion that it’s all true, but I mean, he turns up in his unit and within minutes he meets a guy called Tex who is doing a lasso trick. There’s also Grease, Teach, Hollywood, Smitty, and so on. It’s a bit … on the nose.

It’s not shy about its scenes of human destruction, either. It’s like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan turned up to a million zillion, with bone fragments and spurting arteries and people writhing around on fire and whatnot. I suppose I should have expected that from the guy who brought us The Passion of the Christ and, to a lesser extent, Apocalypto. I think that some indication of the devastation that war wreaks on the fragile human body is 100% valid for a movie about a combat medic who’s also a pacifist; I’m just saying it’s not for the squeamish.

I suppose this validates the decision to create all those one-note squaddie characters, since these are the guys who you see later on getting their various parts blown off and their faces shot full of holes. It does give it more impact, corny as the setup might have been.

It’s kind of interesting to see a movie that takes a religious commitment to pacifism seriously, although the film complicates this with some stuff about Doss’ dad’s traumatic experiences in WWI and also his history of drunken abuse and so on, giving Doss multiple reasons to be unhappy with the idea of violence. In that sense, I guess it’s a morally complex film, at least up to the point of believing that a person’s deep-seated moral convictions come from multiple sources. This fits in with the fact that Doss’ brother served in the navy, apparently lacking the same scruples about violence.

There are a couple of interesting details, like the meal in which we see meat on the plates of Doss’ father and brother, but not him or his mother. Although it’s not a requirement, Seventh Day Adventists do advocate vegetarianism, a point that comes up later on in the film as well. These little moments are interesting and fun, and they do something to humanise Doss, who would be a paragon of downhome folksy virtue if he weren’t also weird. The problem is that this movie is like two and a quarter hours long, and could have been shortened by the removal of at least one tender courtship scene and one scene about military officials being jerks to Doss about his CO status.

(I was very surprised by everyone being such a tool to Doss about being a CO. I assume it’s because he volunteered, putting him outside the normal CO pathways? By WWII, the US had been employing COs in various ways for decades, and their status was — as is eventually pointed out — well understood and protected by relevant legislation. Which doesn’t mean that everyone in an army at war was familiar with all of the relevant statutes, of course.)

Anyway, it’s not bad. It has a moment of genuine (if, again, on the nose) religious content. Andrew Garfield is fine, although he is visibly too old; Doss was in his early 20s, and Garfield is 10 years older than that and it really shows. Ultimately, it’s a regular old war movie with a little bit of a twist, the kind of thing you could enjoy and go away feeling you had learned some fun facts from, even the kind of thing that could genuinely impress you with the character’s selflessness. But then you remember Mel Gibson is involved, and it leaves you with a bit of a sour taste.

Apparently this thing’s based on a 2004 documentary. I should probably just watch that instead.

 

Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)