Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Discworld: The Last Hero

I haven't read this one for quite a while and I'd forgotten just how much there is to talk about in it... I'm bound to miss something! The Last Hero was originally released as an illustrated story - the front cover says 'A Discworld Fable' - and that's the version I have. The story is told more briefly and simply than the longer novels (for example, Carrot goes on a life-or-death mission to save the world without, within the narrative at least, saying goodbye to his girlfriend) and illustrated by Paul Kidby.

OK, well, first, the basic set-up - which is based on the myth of Prometheus, here renamed 'Mazda' (I'm not sure if that's significant, it doesn't mean anything to me) (Edit: it would appear that 'Mazda' is a Zoroastrian god associated with fire, which makes sense - see comments below). Prometheus, in Greek mythology, stole the secret of fire from the gods, and was punished by being chained to a rock for all eternity, with an giant eagle eating his liver every day (the liver regrowing overnight). The main source for his myth is Hesiod, who also has Heracles (Hercules) rescue Prometheus after a (fairly long) period of time. The Discworld version is very similar, though simplified (in Hesiod, Zeus has deprived men of fire in punishment for another trick of Prometheus', which is why it must be stolen back again) and the story of Mazda is accompanied by an illustration based very closely on this sixth century black figure vase, but incorporating the Discworld chief god Blind Io.

Ironically for one of the shortest Discworld novels, the themes of The Last Hero are those of epic poetry - mortality and the immortality that may be gained if a hero is remembered in song. Although the unnamed singer and some of the aesthetics - the heroes' fur costumes and Viking conceptions of both funerals and the afterlife - owe more to Beowulf (which is Anglo-Saxon) and probably Wagner, the problem of mortality is central to a lot of epic poetry. Perhaps it's not such a strong theme in the Odyssey, though it is there, especially in Odysseus' journey to the underworld, and the Song of Roland is quite keen on the idea of the glorious death in battle, but the Epic of Gilgamesh is about the search for immortality, the Iliad is all about problematizing the values of long life and peaceful death against a short life with poetic immortality and Beowulf itself sees its hero grow old and die.

Death is not something that is often embraced by Discworld characters, the series being built on Rincewind, a hero who is pretty determined not to die any time soon. However, it is occasionally embraced by elderly characters, like the witch in Mort or, to some extent, Miss Flitworth in Reaper Man, so it would not be entirely surprising to see the elderly Silver Horde of heroes of the barabarian variety die willingly. However, this is not what they have in mind. The Silver Horde are determined to rage against the dying of the light and are extremely angry at the gods for allowing old age and quiet, non-heroic death to overtake them, so they plan to return fire to the gods, with interest - interest in the form of a very large explosion.

Unfortunately, this explosion will destroy the world, so a different sort of hero has to be sent to stop them. Although they call themselves barbarians, the Silver Horde are pretty similar to Greek heroes - the job of a hero consists of murder, theft and pillage. The difference between them and Greek heroes is that they don't include rape, and don't have to, since the women they 'ravish' are apparently quite willing. (This is, of course, because modern readers tend not to sympathise with rapists). The hero who must stop them is Carrot, a more modern hero - a man with a steady job protecting the public whose idea of heroism is to save lives whenever possible, not take them. (The Dark Lord Evil Harry is also a more modern phenomenon - he belongs in 20th/21st century fantasy fiction, thanks to Tolkien).

The gods of the Discworld, as I noted in the last post, also have a distinctly Classical bent.


This is Paul Kidby's illustration of some of the Discworld gods - (l-r) Offler the Crocodile God, not actually an Egyptian deity (as far as I remember) but clearly inspired by Egyptian deities which included jackal-headed, dog-headed and eagle-headed gods, Flatulus God of the winds (ha ha ha, but note the Romanised name), Fate, Urika (no obvious Classical origin, but the name sounds like the Greek 'eureka!', I have it, shouted by Archimedes in the bath and possibly explaining why she's goddess of saunas), Blind Io (basically Zeus/Jupiter, but with the extra element of the floating eyes), Libertina (Goddess of apple pie among other things, which is best not to think about), The Lady (Luck/Fortuna), Bibulous, Patina, Goddess of Wisdom (Athena/Minerva, she's wearing Athena's helmet), Topaxi (little red one down at the front, no idea what he's about), Bast (cat goddess at the back, actually an Egyptian goddess though not originally associated with things left on the doorstep or half-digested under the bed, that's just modern domestic cats) and Nuggan (who comes up later in the story). Later, we see the blacksmith god, who is unnamed, but Hephaestion, Vulcan and Wayland (Celtic) are actually name-checked here (along with Dennis who I think is... less genuine).

As you can see, their home, Dunmanifestin (Dun manifestin', like dun roamin') also looks very Greek. Kidby's illustration of the outside of Dunmanifestin includes architectural elements from various religions - Egyptian, medieval Christian, Aztec, even the Easter Island faces - but the majority is vaguely Greco-Roman and the top area, where we see the gods play their games, looks definitely Greek. In the western imagination, polytheistic religion is Greco-Roman, with just a hint of Egyptian. (Edited to add: Their home, and the size and placement of the board game, is also clearly inspired by Jason and the Argonauts, which I recently re-watched!).

A lot of the story is about the fact that the world the barbarians lived in is slipping away, and in many ways the minstrel they bring along to witness and tell of their great deeds epitomises that. (The Horde have heard of the Muses, but they've either misunderstood their purpose - ancient poets don't claim to be witnesses of mythology, they are inspired by the Muses - or simply don't trust them to tell it right). The Horde need Homer or the author of Beowulf, but they've got Shakespeare - great with sonnets, not so good at epic. (They have been ruling the Agatean Empire, but rule out poets there for not writing more than 17 syllables - to the western imagination, all Asian poetry is haiku. This is entirely inaccurate, but there we have it). Over the course of the story, however, the minstrel becomes somewhat converted, though the emphasis on the music he plays at the end may imply he is going the route of Wagner rather than Homer.

As the minstrel tries to understand why the barabrians are doing what they're doing, he quotes the great conqueror Carelinus, who conquered all the known world except Fourecks and the Counterweight Continent (Australia and Asia - the Discworld does not appear to contain America, of which make what you will) and wept when he saw there were no more worlds to conquer - i.e., Romanised name notwithstanding, Alexander the Great. The line about Alexander weeping is of uncertain but not ancient origin, though it may stem from Plutarch's suggestion that, when he heard there were infinite worlds, Alexander wept because he had not yet conquered one. Cohen, though he thinks weeping is sissy (proving himself not to be a Greek hero, as Achilles and Odyseeus regularly burst into tears) thoroughly agrees with this sentiment.

There are some nicely satisfying moments for Classicists in this book. There's the obligatory rescue of Mazda of course (the eagle won't know what stabbed it with a big sword). Even better, while Ponder Stibbons struggles to come up with a way to stop the spaceship crashing when the designer (Leonard da Quirm, the Disc's greatest genius), the Patrician realises they should pull 'Prince Haran's Tiller' because Prince Haran was a legendary Klatchian hero whose ship had a magical tiller (I can't remember the real-world origin of this story at the moment, though 'Kltachian' suggests Arabian Nights).

Leonard da Quirm ws a genius, but hadn't quite got the hang of smiles. Illustration by Paul Kidby.

The last page of the book says 'No one remembers the singer. The song remains'. Homer, if he was a real person, might not approve entirely, but the story certainly comes to the same basic conclusion as the Iliad - that there is something to be said for a glorious death if it is remembered in song. The Horde, however, are considerably older than Achilles and although 'second star to the right and striaght on till morning' is pooh-poohed as a ridiculous method of astronavigation, the Horde do ride off on the horses of the Valkyries into the stars, with Death refusing to confirm whether they are alive or dead. It's a beautiful story, beautifully illustrated, and provides a suitable send-off for the now out-dated Silver Horde - for just as they have no place on the Discworld any more, modern tastes tend away from the barbarian hero, and thoughts turn more towards the philanthropic, self-sacrificing hero of Carrot's mould.

Edited to add: it's been pointed out to me below that I missed out the heroic trio's motto - Morituri Nolumus Mori, which roughly translates as 'we who are about to die don't want to die'. Rincewind suggests this, of course, demonstrating his well-known ability with languages as well as his fervant desire not to die yet. No one else seems to object to it though, and it's a rather good motto, though not as good as the dwarf battle cry which reworks the Klingon 'Today is a good day to die' into 'Today is a good day for someone else to die'...

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Discworld: Bilious, the Oh God of Hangovers

OK, here's what happened. I wanted to do a Christmas-themed post, but I'd already done The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina and I haven't read Lindsey Davies' Saturnalia yet, so I thought I'd do something on the Discworld gods, relating it to Bilious and Hogfather. And I was going to do it last week. But then Life and Christmas intervened and this morning I picked up The Last Hero and realised that there was loads more to say about the Discworld gods and The Last Hero in particular than I had time to look into right now. So that post will follow at a later date and for now, a (sort of) Christmas-themed taster: Bilious, the Oh God of Hangovers.

Bilious appears in the Discworld novel Hogfather, in which assassins are hired to inhume the Hogfather, the Discworld version of Father Christmas. On the Discworld, belief creates gods and other mythical beings (a philosophically fascinating idea that I haven't time to go into right now!) and without the Hogfather, the extra belief sloshing around starts to create several minor deities and folkloric beings, such as the Eater of Socks and the Jinglejingle Fairy. Among the beings created is Bilious.

Bilious is the natural opposite to Bibulous, the God of Wine. Bibulous is, of course, loosely modelled on Dionysus, what with his crown of vine leaves and constant partying, though he is also fat, which isn't especially Dionysian, and has its roots in modern imagery of excess. Bilious explains that the reason that Bibulous is so happy is that he never gets a hangover - they all come to Bilious, who is the Oh God of Hangovers - because when people witness him they clutch their head and say 'oh God...'

Bilious also wears a long white robe and crown of vine leaves - ensuring that he looks vaguely Greco-Roman, though the idea that Classical gods should wear long white robes probably has more to do with modern perceptions and children using sheets as togas than any actual knowledge of ancient costume. However, since I don't actually know much about ancient clothing either, I shouldn't pass judgement.

Bilious, as played by Rhodri Meilir in the Sky One adaptation of 'Hogfather'

Poor Bilious gets his revenge eventually - he takes a hangover cure put together by the wizards of Unseen University, and while it works to cure his hangover, the less pleasant side effects of the cure get transferred to Bibulous, who is interrupted mid-cocktail (he is enjoying some rather more modern luxury at the time, involving a cocktail with a slice of lemon in it and a rumba, and the timeless luxury of two gorgeous girls snuggling up to him). Bilious watches in fascination as all his misery is finally visited on the cause of it. It's very satisfying!

That's all I've really got time for now, but more thoughts on Discworld gods to follow at a later date. Also, I got the complete box-set of the BBC/HBO series Rome for Christmas, so once I've finished going through I, Claudius, I'll go backwards in time and start on Rome. Happy Christmas everyone!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Chelmsford 123: Arriverderci Roma!


Chelmsford 123 was a sitcom that ran for two series in the 1980s, currently available to view on 4oD in the UK. It was good fun - some episodes were better than others, obviously - but my two favourite episodes were the first one and the last one, because those two included some Latin.

The first episode opens, in an obvious homage to I, Claudius, at the Emperor's dining room in the middle of a feast. This Rome is the bog-standard city of vice and immoral behaviour so often shown in popular culture - the dinner has a 'prostitute course', for example. Technically, since the show is set in AD 123, this is the Emperor Hadrian, but he bears almost no resemblence to anything we know about Hadrian, except that they both have beards. This emperor is a combination of all the traits associated, in the popular imagination, with Roman emperors - so he's completely mad, he's married to a horse ('Portia'), divorced from a goat ('there were kids involved') and having an affair with a sheep.

While the characters are in Rome, they speak in Latin, with subtitles. Although the Latin is accurate (and pronounced in the correct Classical style), the jokes are all based on the English translation, as in the 'kids' example, though several jokes are also based around the fact that it's just funny to hear a rude word in a dead language - 'testiculos' for 'bollocks', for example (though I'm not 100% sure this is right...). It's a rather more fun way to practise Latin than grammar exercises though - I wish more sitcoms would film sequences in Latin.

The British characters, of course, speak English, as do the Roman characters when they arrive in Briton (supposedly they've learned the local language to try to blend in - highly unlikely, but unlike me, most of the country doesn't want to watch a sitcom filmed entirely in Latin). There are some more linguistic jokes in this episode, as the Romans struggle to get the hang of the language and mistake 'piss off' for a greeting.

Then there's this - one of the funniest things I've seen on a sitcom. But then, I have a very bad sense of humour. (The Doctor here is Tom Baker's Doctor - demonstrating that for many, many people, pre-David Tennant, Tom Baker really was THE Doctor, the best known and best loved of the lot).

I tend to find the Roman sequences funnier than the British ones in Chelmsford 123. Perhaps it's because the Roman sequences mock the popular perception of ancient Rome and previous Roman epics (chiefly I, Claudius of course) while the British sequences rely more on fairly generic pub humour involving blind men being cheated at cards and one very stupid character who doesn't understand anything (though his observation that all Romans are called Marcus did amuse me). Chief Badvok's 'girlfriend' is also an intensely irritating character (dropped for the second series), made more so by the inappropriateness of an historical character having a 'girlfriend' rather than a wife or mistress/concubine. ('Boy/girlfriends' in the modern sense don't exist in many historical societies).

By the end of the first episode, our Roman characters, Aulus and Grasientus, have started to settle in (despite the unfortunate 'piss off' misunderstanding) and the relationship between Badvok and Aulus - official emnity with an underlying sense of friendship only occasionally disturbed by attempts on each other's lives - has been firmly established. The rest of the series continues in a fun, silly vein, though sadly without the Latin, which doesn't reappear until the very last episode...

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

I, Claudius: Hail Who?

Apologies if posts are a bit few and far between this month. I've moved, but still not finished unpacking, and it seems that a clothes clear-out is in order, and I'm still trying to get two papers finished by January...

This episode of I, Claudius (which is not suitable for children, by the way) opens by introducing us to Claudius favourite slave/mistress/prostitute, and showing us a Claudius who barely seems to be part of the imperial family any more, but who is living - happily it seems - as an aristocrat in Rome. Herod has written to him and the two seem fairly close, probably because they're the last two standing. Caligula has opened a brothel at the palace, where he is forcing noble women to protitute themselves, and is employing Claudius as a doorman.

Which leads us to... a proper Roman orgy! After weeks of waiting, we are treated to a full on orgy - well, as full on as the BBC will allow, we're not talking Caligula here. But for it's time, it was pretty shocking,with bare breasts everywhere, cavorting, messed up togas, grapes and two men kissing practically on top of the camera, which was pretty far out for the BBC in the 70s. Caligula's pregnant wife, who is older, not especially pretty and seems bizarrely sane, thanks Claudius for rescuing a new mother from the orgy, and Caligula himslef enters, in all his barely dressed glory, to discover Claudius in the act of beating up another over-enthusiastic customer. Caligula has decided to go to war in Germania. To escape the degradation of Rome.

We jump forward in time a bit - the baby is now born - and Caligula thinks there is a conspiracy against him so has been killing off more senators and generals. Claudius is going to see him and to bring him Livia's belongings to auction off.

In Germania - you can tell we've moved north as it's pouring with rain - Claudius arrives with two others and is thrown in the river for coming by boat, when Caligula is at war with Neptune. Caligula rants and raves at the other two and is about to have them killed for plotting against him with Neptune when Claudius reappears, having climbed out of the river, soaking wet and covered in mud and a few raggedy bits of green stuff, and engages Caligula in his favourite non-sexual game, quoting bits of Homer at random. Caligula enjoys this so much he promises to save the other two if Claudius' next quote is appropriate, which luckily it is, being something about the greatness of Jove, i.e. Caligula himself.

The other two make a bid for freedom and Caligula gives his new chief soldier (having got rid of Gimli some time ago) the watchword - 'give us a kiss'. This is a very, very bad move on Caligula's part. He takes Claudius in for a drink and talks about his nightmares and how he hardly sleeps and the thumping in his head, and how he is punishing Cassius Chaerea, the guard, for weeping while torturing someone to death. John Hurt is brilliant as ever, totally unhinged and yet bizarrely sympathetic, so that you can see why his poor wife loves him (which Claudius believes is the reason he wants her) and the standout moment is when he asks Claudius, in all sincerity, 'Do you think I'm mad?' Since Claudius isn't mad, he assures Caligula of his absolute sanity. Caligula also think he's the Messiah - as we will see, there's a lot of that about. The only thing that worries him is a prophecy that he (the Messiah that is) will die young, and hated by his own people. I have no idea whether there was a prophecy like that - I don't know much about Jewish prophecy, except for Josephus' claims. It might be an invention of Graves'.

Caligula comes home and yells at everyone for not giving him a triumph, when he had ordered them not to. He then displays his booty from his war with Neptune - seashells. Once more, Claudius and Caesonia (the wife) have to physically restrain him, then beg him not to murder everyone in front of him on sight. Marcus Vinicius gets in trouble though, for mentioning that Agrippa was Caligula's grandfather, so Cassius takes the opportunity to suggest once again that it might be time to get rid of Caligula.

Caligula has one last, mad scene before we get into his demise and fall though. He calls for Claudius, Vinicius and another in the middle of the night and demands that they come to the palace. The three of them sit for hours, terrified, Claudius hoping whatever happens is 'quick', and Vinicius apologises for making fun of him and they all hold hands.

Just at this moment, Caligula jumps in to the room to the clash of a tamborine. He is wearing a gold bikini, big gold earrings, a wig that looks like his late, lamented sister Drusilla's hair, a LOT of make-up and some yellow-gold bits of net. It is strangely glorious. He has summoned them to see him perform a dance to a song about the goddess Dawn, at dawn. When it is finished, Claudius sucks up as only he knows how, and Caligula tells him that he is to move back to the palace and be married to a young girl who was in the dance - Messalina. Caligula thinks this will be very funny, as she is so young and beautiful. Claudius apologises, but Messalina tells him she would like to be married to him, and he instantly falls head over heels in love with her. Derek Jacobi plays Claudius' complete, irrational, consuming love for this first of his wives who has actually expressed some 'genuine' desire to be married to him perfectly.

Claudius may have done well out of the whole thing, but Vinicius is not impressed. When Caligula gives Cassius the watchword - 'bottoms up' - Vinicius gives him anther - 'liberty'.

We get to see Claudius and Messalina's wedding, to which 'the noble senator Incitatus' has been invited - a rather fine white horse wearing purple and with purple flowers round its ears. I discussed this the other week - this confirms that I, Claudius does indeed call him a 'senator', which is incorrect, it should be 'consul'. And actually, he shouldn't be there at all - as I said the other week, Suetonius and Dio Cassius only say that Caligula thought about making Incitatus a consul, not that he actually did so.

It's pretty funny though.

Cassius and Vinicius discuss their plans for killing Caligula, along with Caesonia, Claudius and the baby - they want to to elimnate the entire Imperial family in the hope of restoring the Republic. They discuss the problem of the German guards, who are loyal to the emperor (who pays their wages). They want to kill Caligula's two sisters too, which they'll have trouble doing 'tomorrow', as both sisters are currently living in that favourite state for female descendants of Augustus, in exile on tiny islands. Cassius tells Vinicius he'll only Caligula when Vinicius objects, but he's lying.

The conspirators trap Caligula in a corridor in the amphitheatre, though not before he's had a chance to declare everyone's favourite Caligula line - talking to the crowd as they boo him at the amphitheatre, he says 'if you only had one neck I'd chop it through'. His death is really rather tragic - as bloody as the BBC can make it (which isn't very) and I challenge anyone not to feel a little sorry for him as he goes from screaming 'You can't kill me, I'm a god!' to crying out for his dead sister 'Drusilla! Drusilla I'm dying!'. Although since he killed Drusilla, sympathy is limited.

The conspirators murder Caesonia and the baby, but before they can get to Claudius, the Praetorian guard, worried for their jobs, find him hiding behind a curtain and immediately declare him emperor. As the episode ends, Claudius is carried out on the soldiers of the Praetorian and German guards, wearing a wonky laurel wreath and protesting that he doesn't want to be emperor, to no avail.

Caligula has some really mad stuff to do in this episode, but somehow Hurt manages to keep him just grounded enough to hold on to some sympathy and stop him from becoming completely unbelieveable. At the same time, we get to enjoy all those aspects of Roman history that have the widest popular appeal - a mad emperor, an orgy, crazy stuff with animals, assassination and some very silly costumes. Whether Caligula was really that mad is hard to say and there's certainly been some exaggeration going on, even taking Suetonius and Cassius Dio as sources (Incitatus for example). It does, however, make great entertainment. The only problem is where to go from here - the real life emperor Claudius presents as much opportunity for craziness as the rest of his family, but since here he's our hero, he can't be portrayed in the same way as the others, or he'll lose our sympathy. The solution is to look to the wife...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

2012 (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2009)

OK, I know this seems like a totally bizarre subject for a Classics/Ancient History blog, but I do have a point, I promise. Bear with me. Minor spoilers follow.

I went to see this the other day and I have to admit, I actually really enjoyed it. I'm not suggesting it's a particularly good film necessarily, but I though it was genuinely fun and, unlike most viewers it seems, I wasn't bored by the 50-minute prelude before anything blows up. I actually liked the slow build-up of tension before the major stuff started happening, though I did think it was clear that John Cusack's character had never seen Dante's Peak during the Yellowstone section... Also, I learned from this film that it is possible to drive a limo through a building - glass, walls and all - and out the other side without damage to the limo or the people in it, even if one of the doors has already come off. Who knew?!

I did think the end was a bit too much - the movie seemed to be reaching a natural conclusion, then suddenly there was another 20 minutes of action and two more main character deaths, one a horribly contrived narrative convenience and the other - and I know this may sound crazy - I thought was a death too far. Yes, this is a movie that kills off half the human race. But that last death was narratively redundant, irritating and barely even noticed by the other characters (not to mention the physics of it were completely illogical).

There was one part that really irritated me though. The USian president and Italian prime minister nobly stay in their countries to 'go down with the ship' while other world leaders save themselves - fair enough, you might say. But one of the characters seen scuttling onto the ships to save themselves, as Mark Kermode put it, is the Queen (ours, that is. The Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). During World War Two, our present Queen and her sister were sent to Windsor Castle for safety, but her parents stayed in Buckingham Palace throughout the Blitz, despite receiving several hits (OK, it's a big building, but still). Of all the people to depict as rushing to save themselves, to choose the Queen seems in poor taste. (They also killed off a character in the same Paris tunnel where Princess Diana died, which I actually recognised, and which was thoroughly creepy. This was in even worse taste).

Anyway, the reason I'm covering it on the blog is a brief conversation between Chiwetal Ejiofor and Thandie Newton while on Air Force One. Thandie Newton's character, in addition to being the USian First Daughter, is a doctor of art history and has been working to save various masterpieces from destruction - Van Gogh, Da Vinci etc. Chiwetal Ejiofor's charater is a geologist who has brought his favourite, very unsuccessful, only-sold-400-copies science fiction novel with him. Thandie Newton muses on the process of deciding what to save - acknowledged 'masterpieces' which will now be the legacy of the human race - and Chiwetal Ejiofor points out that, along with all those, his personal favourite novel which no one else has read will also become part of their legacy, because he brought it and he is reading it.

My point (and I do have one) is that something similar happens with Classical texts. Many of them have been deliberately preserved because they are acknowledged masterpieces - Cicero, Virgil, Homer and so on. But some texts have been preserved, not because they were considered to be important works, but simply because people enjoyed reading them - the Greek novels spring to mind. Some texts are known only from fragments discovered in ancient Egyptian rubbish dumps. These can be just as revealing, if not more so, about the people who wrote and read them, but their survival is a matter of pure chance, like the barely-known novel saved in 2012 while millions of other, much more successful novels are lost. What they tell us about the ancient world is different from what we learn from the 'masterpieces' - acknowledged masterpieces show how people want to see themselves, but popular works show how they actually see themselves.

So there we go. Wisdom flowers in unexpected places. I'm moving house this weekend so forgive me if there's a bit of a break, and I promise I will at some point do another post on something more closely related to the Classical world!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Angel: The Oracles

The Oracles' tenure on Angel was pretty short-lived. They were introduced as a handy plot device in 'I Will Remember You', a first season episode that's a fan favourite and that I'm very fond of, but I have to confess the description I read of it once (I can't remember where I'm afraid, but it might have been Keith Toppings' Unoffical Guide) that it's basically fan fiction made canon is rather accurate. First, someone needs to explain the plot to Angel, then later and more importantly, someone or something has to turn back time for him.

Enter the Oracles, who fulfil this function in a nicely detached manner. There's nothing specifically Classical about oracles - various cultures have them, though the English word is from Latin. The term 'oracle' refers to a shrine where it is believed that the gods, or a god, answer questions. Sometimes they do so through a human being who speaks, often saying unintelligible things which are 'interpreted' by the priests, or the god might speak through wind or water, or through dreams. The human variety is probably the best known.

These are certainly not Classical in that sense, as these two are not humans, but higher beings of some kind. They exist in some parallel dimension and say things like 'I like time' when given a watch. They also require gift-offerings - that's more common, as a visit to an oracle would usually require a sacrifice and possibly a financial donation as well.

What makes Angel's Oracles Classical is their aesthetic. I'm not sure what's with the weird face paint, but the loose tunics are definitely meant to look vaguely Greco-Roman, as is the marble building they're in (though the arches are all wrong - they're pointed, which looks more like medieval gothic).

The motto over the gateway is also written in Greek. It's supposed to say 'Gateway of Lost Souls' apparently, but as far as I can tell it actually says 'Gate through/because of (dependant on case, which is impossible to tell here) [word that I can't track down without spending a few hours with a big dictionary] [word that sounds like psuche, soul, but doesn't match any of the case endings for psuche].

The Oracles are bit wasted in this show. They're a fun concept (though Angel does tend to chat to the Powers That Be a bit too often) and the actors are good, nice and quirky, with some fun dialogue. But they only appear twice more; in 'Parting Gifts', to explain why they won't turn back time every time something bad happens, and then they get murdered in 'To Shanshu in LA'. I'm not sure what kind of higher being can be killed with a scythe, but there we go. It's a shame - with some better Greek classes and a bit more to do beyone plot exposition/device, they could have been fun.

Hmm, two Joss Whedon posts in a row. I must branch out next time.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Musical Commentary



I don’t usually post two days in a row, but it’s my viva tomorrow and then things get pretty hectic, so just in case it’s a few days before I get another chance, I’ll post now. Also, I really love this!


OK, we’re descending deep into geekery with this one, so all you “normal” people, you may need to look away. This was passed on to me yesterday (thanks Gideon!) and it’s totally awesome but also so embroiled in levels of post-modernist… something… that the geek universe might just implode.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgYdhm_q7lg

Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, for those who haven’t heard of it, was an internet production put together by Joss Whedon during the writer’s strike the year before last. I saw it at the time and it’s fab, with almost annoyingly catchy tunes, but I found the ending a bit too… Whedon. I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it – watch it, it’s great. Also, I love the horse.

I hadn’t heard this before, but it appears to be a musical commentary on the blog. So this is a fictional musical commentary on a fictional musical blog of a fictional character. Whew.

The link is above, but these are the relevant lyrics:

Homer's Odyssey was swell,
A bunch of guys that went through hell,
He told the tale but didn't tell,
the audience why.
He didn't say, "Here's what it means"
And "Here's a few deleted scenes"
"Charybdis tested well with teens"
He's not the story,
He's just a door we open if,
our lives need liftin'...

But now we pick - pick - pick - pick - pick it apart,
Open it up to find the tick - tick - tick - of a heart,
A heart...
Broken.


The point Joss is making here, obviously (and I suspect only half-ironically) is that, in this age of DVD commentary and wall-to-wall media coverage and internet crazyness, we’ve lost something – the true appreciation of narrative, pure and simple. (Of course, some people don’t get into all that and do just enjoy the simple narrative, but I suspect the people listening to the fictional musical commentary on the fictional blog of the fictional character are not those people). JRR Tolkien would have thoroughly agreed (I told you we were deep into geekland). In his paper ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ Tolkien told a little story about how someone took apart a tower to see how it was made and, in doing so, destroyed the original tower, from which it was possible to see the sea. Tolkien meant to criticize people like me, who analyse literary works to try to discover something about their history, but it could equally apply to the modern obsession with knowing as much as humanly possible about the process behind the stories we tell.

In a way, Whedon has a point. There is something wonderful about how little we know about Homer. He is a complete mystery – perhaps not even one person, perhaps not even two people, with dozens if not hundreds of anonymous oral poets behind him, we don’t know where he was from, we don’t know where he went, we don’t know when he lived. (Yes, I realise I will get a bunch of comments about how he was a blind poet from Ionia and probably ten different opinions on exactly how many poets worked on the Iliad and the Odyssey. The point is, it’s all guesses and theory – we don’t know anything). All we have are two poems which tell wonderful stories (with the occasional really dull, if useful, digression about ships).

On the other hand, we should be wary of over-romanticising. Homer may not have explained what he meant (more’s the pity) or included deleted scenes (though, given the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey, there might be a few in there) but you can be sure he wouldn’t have included Charybdis if it didn’t go down well with audiences, teen or otherwise. Homer may not have had access to the internet, or Sky+, or polled his listeners every week, but he still had to deal with people, and he still had an audience to please.

Homer is also one of the most (over-)analysed writers in history. The lack of deleted scenes and commentary doesn’t stop people from analyzing every word of every sentence of those two poems, it just means there’s a greater chance of them being wrong. Homer isn’t here to tell us that actually, Dumbledore is gay, Spike was originally supposed to die in season 2 and the Ring was written long before the emergence of nuclear weapons. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if he was?!

Information from the author isn’t, as is widely believed, infallible. Firstly, they sometimes lie – apparently, Animal Farm is about animals. Even more importantly, there may be things that influence an author – world events, personal circumstances, things they’ve read or seen but forgotten – that do so subconsciously, so they can’t tell you where something came from or what it means because they’re not sure themselves. But they can put their readers, or viewers, right on the really big mistakes. They can answer the big questions, like why on earth does Aeneas leave the underworld via the gate of false dreams? Just what on earth was Virgil getting at – or is it the world’s most irritating manuscript error?!

So overall, I think the commentaries and dissections and interviews are a good thing, and if anything we do survives us, it may be better understood by the historians and literary analysts of the future. On the other hand, the point still stands. I imagine Whedon picked Homer – along with the caveman’s bison – because he stands at the very edge of history, where it borders on myth. It is possible, if you let yourself, to be swept away by Homer and to let yourself get completely swept up in the grandeur of something we don’t fully understand, which is wonderful for precisely that reason. As Tolkien said, from the top of the tower, we can see the sea.

Although it would be nice if he’d explained the point of the catalogue of ships…

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Yes, Prime Minister: The National Education Service

Another bit of dialogue from Yes, Prime Minister (basically, the last two series of Yes, Minister, in which Jim has been promoted!) which I talked about briefly during my paper the other week:

Hacker: That's not the point. Look at Latin. Hardly anybody knows that now.
Humphrey: Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.
Hacker: What?
Humphrey: Times change and we change with the times.
Hacker: Precisely.
Humphrey: Si tacuisses, philosophus manisses.
Hacker: What does that mean?
Humphrey: If you'd kept your mouth shut, we might have thought you were clever.
Hacker: I beg your pardon?
Humphrey: Not you, Prime Minister. That's the translation.
Bernard: No one would have thought Sir Humphrey was saying that about you.
Humphrey: Go away, Bernard, please.
Hacker: I can't believe it. You had a strict academic upbringing. Are you denying the value of it?
Humphrey: What's the use of it? I can't even call upon it in conversation with the Prime Minister of Great Britain!

Hacker has been arguing that the edcuation system needs reform, but Humphrey disagrees, so ends up slighting his own classical education while at the same time reinforcing his conviction that he much cleverer (and much better educated) than Hacker. He does it agian a little later, when Hacker says 'QED' and he can't resist adding 'quod erat demonstrandum'. I've talked about classics and the British education system before: like Jim Hacker, I would love to see more Latin taught in schools and prevent it from being something valued only by the rich and privileged.

The brilliance, and at the same time, the most depressing thing about Yes, (Prime) Minister is that you can choose any epsiode at random and the chances are, it will be discussing something that is still an issue today. We have moved on very little from the early 1980s (except in certian areas - it's actually quite encouraging to remember that apartheid has ended and Northern Ireland is in a much better state than it was when I was a child). For the most part, though, we are still having exactly the same arguments as we were back then, and this is one of them. I think we've made some progress though, and hopefully the best is yet to come!

As a random aside, while looking for this quote, I also found this on Wikipedia:

Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur - "whatever has been said in Latin seems deep". Or "anything said in Latin sounds profound". A recent ironic Latin phrase to poke fun at people who seem to use Latin phrases and quotations only to make themselves sound more important or "educated". Similar to the less common omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina.

This made me laugh. Very true, and something I'm looking into at the moment - the bizarre notion that things sound more important in Latin. Part of the subject of a paper I hope to write soon...

Friday, 27 November 2009

Bonekickers: Follow the Gleam

I apologise for putting up two Bonekickers posts in a row, but this is the last one, so bear with me. I need to get the DVD back, I'd drafted the post, so I thought I might as well put it out there. After this, no more Bonekickers!

So here we are at the last episode of Bonekickers. Some general thoughts on the series follow the recap.

Usually, when I recap things, I recap while watching the episode, pausing the DVD whenever I need to note something down. It has been suggested to me that, since I haven’t seen Bonekickers before, I might enjoy it more if I watch it through properly first. So I’ve given it a go, and it does help to watch it properly – it makes the whole thing less stilted and the end seems less far away. The recap will be a bit less detailed though, as I have so many hours in the day to spend watching Bonekickers! Also, this one is really, really bonkers…

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: King Arthur did not exist. Nor did Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, Agamemnon, Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus, Beowulf or Father Christmas and I’d be very dubious about Robin Hood. But we’ve discussed this before.

We’re now really, really deep into fantasyland, even borderline horror in places. If you step back and imagine you’re watching an episode of Stargate SG-1 or an Indiana Jones adventure, it’s um, well kinda fun in a this-is-so-bad-it’s-funny sort of way. The problem with Bonekickers is that it acts as if it’s somehow plausible…

The opening credits sum up some of the history of the mysterious sword, which Taggart now names as Excaliber, and show a rather nice shot of a meteorite landing which kind of makes me want to watch Stargate or Buffy. While Taggart muses about the sword and Tennyson, Viv bangs on her door screaming ‘I’m your sister!’ over and over again. Yes, I think she’s got the message now. Gillian screams and throws a book at the wall. Credits.

Glastonbury Tor! I’ve been there! And it’s Dexter Fletcher as an archaeologist! (Dexter Fletcher was the star of Press Gang, an 80s kids TV show that was repeated on Nikolodeon in the 90s. He was also a pirate in Stardust).

An amateur is trying to join in on the Glastonbury Tor dig and Dexter Fletcher dismisses him. The amateur has a strong West Country accent. Come on, BBC, are we still living in the 1930s? Plenty of academics have West Country accents, just as plenty have cockney accents.

The poor unfortunate amateur is dismissed and ridiculed by everyone around him until eventually he gets gruesomely bumped off, a few scenes from now. I realise that this was made before the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, which was discovered by an amateur metal detector who was thoroughly sensible about the whole thing, alerted professional archaeologists (from our university!) to dig it like he was supposed to and will soon be a very rich man because of it. If you want to see a true story about an extraordinary Dark Age find discovered by a lucky amateur, the Staffordshire Hoard is it, and we’re all very grateful to him. (There are no mythical swords in the Staffordshire Hoard I’m afraid, but it’s genuinely an incredibly exciting find which may change, or at least sharpen, our view of Dark Age Britain, which I think is pretty exciting, with or without Arthur).

Taggart’s mother is still mad, and being cared for by a bizarrely rude and pushy nurse. Taggart insists she has neither a sister nor a quest, despite all evidence to the contrary.

NIJ and AL are stuck between Viv and Taggart, who keep sniping at each other, and they take it out on the amateur, but they do all go out to see what he has found at Glastonbury, though not before they’ve made a scene in front of a very confused media whore (who, when Viv asks if she can quit and still get a good reference, asks if NIJ has been bothering her – I like him).

The find at Glastonbury is supposedly part of a large round table with the name ‘Arthur’ on it (and luckily I am spared a great deal of historical whinging by having already seen the episode – luckily even Bonekickers isn’t that ridiculous).

Glastonbury Tor. Where I have been.

The media whore has an encounter with one of Taggart’s stalkers, who appears to have an actual Bristol phone number – I hope that’s not someone’s real number. The amateur is kidnapped while NIJ thankfully explains that they didn’t have circular meeting tables in the sixth century and Taggart insists it’s a fake, though bizarrely AL is the believer this time around. Also, Taggart and Viv are still bickering and Taggart fires Viv. Then the unfortunate amateur is brutally murdered for betraying some scary people to Taggart.

There’s a Tennyson flashback which introduces us to the ‘Disciples of Good Use’, who wander around wearing scary white masks and murder people. Taggart tells NIJ that she thinks ‘Henry Timberdyne’ is after her and he freaks out, explains that ‘Henry Timberdyne’ and the Disciples of Good Use are a secret society who were behind her mother’s madness, then tells her they’re really really scary and he won’t have anything more to do with any of it, and promptly leaves.

Dexter Fletcher and the scary man nick the table fragment and get Viv to tell them what she knows about it. Taggart has established that the table fragment is a fake because she’s found a ring pull buried underneath it, and says a student must have buried it as a joke, and that she did the same as a student. AL tries to kiss her but she’s distracted by Dexter Fletcher talking about the table on the news.

The scary man is really annoyed when he finds out (through Viv) that the table is a fake, and that Dexter has made them all look really silly, so he murders Dexter Fletcher by shutting him in a coffin marked ‘Henry Timberdyne’ with some very large rats. Hmm, interesting method. They all somehow know that Taggart and Viv are sisters too, don’t’ know what’s going on there.

Taggart shows AL her Crazy Room full of drawings of swords and he is a little taken aback. Then they discuss how the sword fits into every episode we’ve seen – forged from a meteor in ancient Mesopotamia, picked up by Alexander (Cradle of Civilization), taken by Romans looting Alexander’s tomb, taken to Britain by Claudius, picked up briefly by Boudicca (The Eternal Fire), it hangs around Britain for a while and is used by Arthur (this one), then – and this is where they really start to struggle – taken by Britons to France fleeing a Saxon invasion (and I feel duty-bound to point out that we’re not sure the Saxons did invade, they may just have settled in less populated areas), the Templar Knights get it to St Joan (Army of God and The Lines of War – this link with Joan of Arc is really odd and kinda pointless, as it goes nowhere, they’re just desperate to shoehorn The Lines of War in somewhere), the remenants of the Knights Templar then recovered it, moved to Portugal, then the Portugese traded it with the Ashante from West Africa, they ended up shipwrecked in the Bristol Channel (Warriors) and the sword was lost. Where everyone has been going wrong has been stopping with Arthur and not knowing all the stuff our guys have been finding out.

Taggart finds a random face on her wall , meaning someone has been in there, but AL just thinks she’s going completely crazy at this point, like her mother, and has drawn it herself, so they have a big fight and he storms off. Meanwhile, Viv is in a room full of the scary white masks. How and why did she get there? No one knows! Viv refuses to share information, so the scary men shut her in the coffin, but without the rats this time – they just want to torture/scare her into talking. They try to get Taggart, but miss her because she’s in her mother’s secret underfloor hiding place where she keeps baby photos of Viv. Wow, that’s an impressive nursing home/asylum, that comes with secret underfloor compartments!

The media whore helps Taggart go through her mother’s old letters and a bunch of information about Tennyson and his friend Hallan, who got himself murdered by the Disciples of Good Use for. They actually work really well together and are both rendered less annoying – this part made me want to watch another series with just those two in it. They find a coded receipt from which Taggart works out that a beachcomber found the sword, handed it in to Hallan, the Disciples got involved and wanted to take over the country and killed him, and he left it to Tennyson as ‘the gleam’ with the words ‘know that the quest is everything’, and Tennyson buried it.

Outside Viv’s tomb, NIJ comes out from the bushes, decks the guard and rescues her, introducing me to a new sensation – being pleased to see him. They go back to headquarters (where the media whore amusingly lets slip that he fancies Taggart). They all work out from Tennyson’s In Memoriam that Tennyson buried the sword with Hallan, and NIJ explains that he helped Taggart’s mother as an undergrad and spent some time in the coffin as a result. The grave contains a letter with another clue, sending them to Wells Cathedral.

The sword turns out to be underneath a lake – OK, well – near the cathedral – of course. NIJ and Viv go to the cathedral to nose around, which is a bad idea of course, as they get attacked by the scary men, causing NIJ to yell ‘Don’t mess with me, I’m an archaeologist!’ I think they’re trying to replicate the hilarity and tone of something like Rachel Weisz’s line in The Mummy, where she says ‘I know what I am – I’m a librarian!’ with great pride, but it doesn’t really work. Taggart goes under the water to find the sword and AL has to abandon her to go and help the other two, which he does by wielding a mace, which is very cool.

Our guys win the fight, of course, and rush back to Taggart, who emerges triumphant from the water, holding the sword aloft, just like the Lady of the Lake. This bit is actually genuinely cool in a really cheesy way. She hugs Viv and apparently all is forgiven.

Then it all gets even weirder. A white-haired scary man in white mask turns up. He takes the sword and attacked Taggart, and manages to totally break it. Taggart points out that after thousands of years it’s destroyed itself in his hands, and he promptly drowns himself. Hmm.

Sacry man in scary white mask with sword.

They take the broken sword to Taggart and Viv’s mother so she can hold the hilt, then chuck it back into the lake because ‘the quest is everything’. OK then. Though the chucking back into the lake part is genuinely nicely evocative of Arthurian myth.

And that’s it. Bonekickers is finished.

This episode left an awful lot of questions unanswered. OK, we know Viv is Taggart’s half-sister, produced while Taggart and her mother weren’t in contact for a year, but who was her father? How did they meet? Did Taggart senior have an affair, or was she single by then? Why does Taggart think Viv was lying when it was clearly just an omission of the truth? And so on, and so forth. All the backstory they’ve been hinting at all series didn’t really come to much, in the end, other than an excuse for Taggart to yell at Viv some more.

Also, we vaguely get the impression that Taggart senior was driven mad by the scary men’s coffin-torture, but a little clarification might have been nice. And what about Taggart and AL? How can I go on with my life without knowing whether they get back together or not??!!

I have to confess, though, I enjoyed this episode more than the others. Maybe my friends are right and I just needed to watch it properly and not type at the same time. Maybe the Arthurian subject matter allowed me to let go a bit and give up on actual history, and just enjoy the ride. Maybe the gruesome murders made it a bit more interesting, Maybe all of the above. Who can say?! Actually, in all honesty, I think it’s the fantasy thing. I knew that this episode was going to be pure fantasy from start to finish, so I relaxed and let it go in a way that’s not possible in a story which keeps getting its preachy act on about World War One, or Iraq, or slavery. When Bonekickers starts mangling serious issues, it’s problematic. When it just lets itself go on a flight of fancy, it can be quite fun.

The basic problem with the series is that they want to make something that’s plausibly about archaeology, but they also want every episode to put our heroes in mortal danger, and preferably they want each episode to have some kind of social or historical moral as well – and to be about something that is still a current issue.

Now I’m all for making history exciting, and for exploring the history behind current issues. But Bonekickers’ combination of over-earnestness and the need to include the danger element is disastrous for this side of things. The history of the slave trade and the long and distinguished ancient history of Iraq and Iran are important things to explore and to improve public awareness of, but attaching them to stories where people try to kill our heroes does no good whatsoever. And don’t get me started on their attitude towards religion…

The other problem is that it’s one thing to write a science fiction or fantasy show in which King Arthur and the Tablet of Destinies really exist and the it’s somehow possible to locate the True Cross, because we all suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. If Stargate wants to pretend that the pyramids are really spaceships, then fine. But Bonekickers very carefully avoids any element of either science fiction or fantasy (with the possible exceptions of the glowing True Cross and the meteor from space that Excaliber is forged from). If the show is not SF/F, then presumably it is intended to be plausible and reasonably realistic.

There are plenty of shows that take a real job – policeman, doctor, pathologist, surgeon – and take some liberties with reality to make it seem more exciting. Most hospitals do not experience helicopter crashes as often as the one in ER does, and most rural detectives do not work on a different bizarre murder case every week. But Bonekickers just goes way too far – it’s one thing to insert a bit of excitement, and quite another to insist on the reality of King Arthur and Excaliber in a supposedly realistic programme.

View from the top of Glastonbury Tor.

I suspect the main comparable thing is The Da Vinci Code, but I very deliberately haven’t seen the film or read the book, partly because I can’t be bothered spending time reading something that will just annoy me, and partly because I don’t want to spend every social event where I have to make small talk with strangers explaining the many, many ways in which it’s wrong. My big issue with it is that people think it’s real – I once overheard a woman in a restaurant proclaiming loudly that it was all based on ‘real historical fact’ and shuddered. I doubt anyone will think Bonekickers has any relationship with reality, but it doesn’t really help, and I would just enjoy something so silly much more if it threw in a few aliens or witches or something so I know where I stand.

I believe some of my friends are planning to get together and watch Bonekickers with some booze one evening. If I can possibly join them, I will, as I think that is the way to really appreciate Bonekickers. Try to take it seriously, and it’s a disaster. Drink, laugh, admire the sexy men, revel in the cheesy action moments and enjoy mocking lines like ‘use you archaeological imagination’ and it could be a really good evening in.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Bonekickers: The Lines of War


Two more episodes of Bonekickers to go, which I must get on with before Dave breaks into my house to steal his DVD back...

Someone runs across muddy ground in Verdun, France, 1431, while someone recites pretentious sounding prose about hope over the top. We are told this is ‘577 years before the Hypermarket’ – coz, you know, none of us can do maths ourselves. The man is a monk who arrives with something at a nunnery and says, in German, 'Ich habe sie' - I have it. Then the camera cuts abruptly to dead, staring faces in a World War One trench and we are told that this is ’91 years before the Hypermarket’ (so, 1917). It’s snowy and some soldiers are coughing in a sickly manner (one of them is the rather handsome James D’Arcy – good name). The we cut to some French builders in much sunnier weather (though still pretty cold judging by the trees) and are told it is now ‘8 months before the Hypermarket’. We get it, they’re building an hypermarché. Move on! The French builders find something in the ground that makes one of them look very shocked. Title sequence.

As an interesting aside, as our guys drive through France on the wrong side of the road, the subtitles (which I’ve put on so that I catch all the French) list the wrong song – they think our guys are listening to Bohemian Rhapsody. They’re not. I guess they couldn’t get the rights to it…

Apparently they've come because the Commonwealth War Graves Comission requires that a British team excavate a British find. They find a buried British tank (that, again, no farmer doing the ploughing, or, for that matter, soldier with grenades in World War Two found in the whole ninety years since it was left there) with 'Joan' written on it, which Taggart explains is because of a habit the British had of writing women's names on their tanks. AL reckons the tank has been deliberately buried, which is definitely a bit weird. Then we get a bit of random trivia about the history of tanks and Taggart is mean to Viv again. Taggart reckons the fact she's being stalked gives her the right to yell at Viv, partly because she seems to think Viv has something to do with it.

NIJ accidentally sets off a grenade. Oops. Except it doesn't go off. AL seems to think that a dustbin can will protect him from a grenade going off. And this man has at least two degrees??!! Do the French not have a bomb disposal squad?

There's a bunch of bodies, burned, in the tank and NIJ gives Viv a talking to about how this isn't history because it's too recent, so it still counts as an atrocity. NIJ identifies the bodies as British because he finds traces of marmite. In the burned out tank. Marmite = totally fireproof - who knew?!

There's some obligatory banter with a smartly dressed Frenchman about the French surrendering all the time. Clearly I am the only person in the world who thinks that that joke has gotten really old. A German woman arrives, who Taggart does not seem to like, and who insists that if NIJ comes near her, he must be muzzled - I like her. Taggart acts like a child on the playground, insisting that it's her dig.

AL points out that Verdum was a French/German line and the British shouldn't have been there, but Viv insists the marmite proves it, because apparently it's impossible for two allied sides to exchange tanks or yeast products. They also discover that a German shot at them in the tank, which Viv thinks is horrible - maybe someone needs to explain the concept of war to her (it's all horrible).

There's a whole bunch of antagonism between the Brits and Germans, which is ridiculous - football fans may behave that way, but classicists and archaeologists are generally all for greater contact across Europe and German was the language of Classics (and science) for years. If I had handed in a thesis with no French or German books on the bibliography, I would not be doing very well. Taggart tries to claim they only hate the one German (the woman, Becker, whom I will refer to as she-Boris from now on, after my favourite tennis player and first crush from when I was about five) but the whole narrative set=up is really pathetic. Taggart accuses the French and Germans of looking for glory - Taggart, meet this black kettle.

They get some skin off the corpses because it was preserved by peat (which is really gross) and finds a tattoo of the cross of Lorraine, a French heraldic tattoo. The soldiers were shot in the back of the head, execution style, so Taggart says they must be looking at a war crime.

She-Boris thinks history is a puzzle too, so she just went right down in my estimation. Viv finds a picture of the tank and some soldiers in an old issue of King and Country (recommended by Blackadder as 'soft, strong and thoroughly absorbatn') and oh my goodness, it's Owen from Torchwood. No offence to Burn Gorman, who I'm sure is a lovely person, but Owen (and the others, except Tosh and the lovely Captian Jack) annoyed me so much I've only ever bothered to watch two or three episodes of Torchwood. NIJ can apparently tell he was 'a nice fellow' from the photo though, so that's me told. One of the men in the picture survived the war and wrote for King and Country, which NIJ reminds us was propaganda, but Viv says this particular writer wasn't so into that.

Captain Jack, Tosh and Owen in Torchwood

AL tells she-Boris whats going on at last. Taggart's mother is sick, so she starts yelling at Viv again and says she can't go home and see her until they get the bodies back to England - which is utter nonsense, the others could do that perfectly well without her and she could head home on the next flight. Viv is reading the pretentious prose from the beginning, which it turns out was written by the lovely Mr D'Arcy.

In flashback, Owen tells the other soldiers in the snow that the French and Germans are both pulling back and there's no one else left, then Mr D'Arcy offers him some marmite brew - just in case we, the viewers, are so incredibly stupid that we haven't worked out that these are the soldiers we're dealing with. 'Joan' is apparently stuck in the mud and Owen doesn't like Winston Churchill. Owen carries a book he 'found' while doing a research thesis which apparently reveals the weapon that will end the war, which Owen reckons he has.

Back to Taggart, moping. A sinister shadowy figure tries to put us all out of our misery by setting her tent on fire, but she's rescued by someone from the MoD. Taggart thinks the Germans did it, while a French girl accuses AL of killing her dog (it was actually the shadowy figure) and NIJ insists that accusing someone of killing your dog constitutes a declaration of war. Seriously, who these people? I know all workplaces contain elements of the playground - little cliques, gangs, gossip, sadly sometimes bullying - but this lot are ridiculous. They seem to think they're all still in primary school, just with a slightly better knowledge of history. MoD guy, unsurprisingly, is the only sensible one. He's an archivist, come to document their findings. He's also the only person who doesn't keep hand-wringing about how terrible it all is and doesn't insist on jumping to conclusions at every tiny detail. I really like him.

One of the bodies is a German called Grüber - surely not Lieutenant Grüber??!! No, wrong war (though it is in a tank...). Our guys realise this might be a British war crime. (Why are they so obsessed with this anyway? There's no one left to bring to trial. It's interesting, sure, but not that nail-bitingly stressful. And why oh why isn't Taggart on her way back to Britain to her sick mother? She's not a soldier, she's an archaeologist - she doesn't have a duty to dead bodies!).

Flashback again. A body is hanging and Mr D'Arcy finds it. The we're in the woods and a German walks towards our guys, who turns out to be a dear friend of Owen. The two of them (and a third, who has a moustache) want to find a weapon that will 'stop the killing overnight' - what is it, the Ring of Power? More Viv reading the pretentious prose over film images from World War One, one showing a very slim Winston Churchill - I wonder if these are real? That would be cool.

Mr D'Arcy, it turns out, had been a corresspondant of Winston Churchill, and spent his life after the war in an asylum, possibly because he started wittering to Winston Churchill about the lost Weapon of Lorraine (not the Ring of Power after all). Owen and his friends knew each other at Oxford. The media whore just wants to bury the bodies, which makes him a pretty rubbish archaeologist, while MoD guy wants to take over the site to stop Taggart causing another war.

Too late - outside, the French and the Germans are fighting because someone has hung up what looks like a guy from Guy Fawkes night with a Lorraine cross on it. If that person is found, they will be sent to bed without any supper. Then she-Boris goes off on one about the Brits and the French seeing the Germans as monsters, so I think we've moved into a different war entirely.

NIJ is humming Flight of the Valkyries - how very inappropriate. Meanwhile, someone has got rid of all their evidence, and the media whore says they have to go. As they prepare to leave, Viv discovers that our guys, including Grüber, were archaeologists - I hope she remembers what early 20th century archaeology was like. Oh right - it was like Bonekickers, but without the excitement. They were all obsessed with Joan of Arc, so we get to see Joan being burned alive at the stake.

Engraving of Joan of Arc in battle from Le Brun de Charmette’s L’Orléanide poème national

Suddenly, we see the monk and nun again while Taggart and NIJ give us a quick history lesson on Joan of Arc, then declare, on the basis of no evidence, that the French and Germans conspired to move her bones to Lorraine. Apparently the incredible weapon that was going to end the war was.... some relics. Uh-huh. You can totally end a massive war with some old bones. Oh yeah.

AL finds Owen's book in the pigeon carrier in the tank (where else would you keep a pigeon carrier?!), which is written in medieval Latin but has some co-ordinates pencilled in, showing our guys where to go. And oh look - another hole in the ground that no one has looked into in ninety years, even while there was another war going on around them. The flashbacks are mingled with the modern stuff. The soldiers are all convinced that the bones will make the French surrender (I really, really don't understand why that would be the case) and Owen says he has saved his country, along with everyone else's from more slaughter, while Mr D'Arcy calls him a traitor for letting the Germans win. If only there was someone there to tell them that some ancient Catholic relics will not make the slightest bit of difference to the war. Mr D'Arcy thinks if Germany win they will annexe Britain - wrong war again. According to Mr D'Arcy, the war will be over but Britain will be crushed. What, the entire British empire? Which, at this point, covered about a quarter of the globe? They seem blissfully unaware that there were other countries fighting with Germany as well, but I guess that might be the result of British propaganda, so I should give them that.

Owen is suddenly convinced by this speech and starts looking very suspiciously at his German friends. Then everyone pulls their guns out, Owen shoots a German, Grüber swallows his nametage to enable identification of his body and Mr D'Arcy executes all the Germans.

Why on earth would tje bones of a heroine make the French surrender? No, I really shouldn't give it that much thought.

Our guys reach the tomb and find Joan (who really ought to be in a reliquary). And a British bullet. Then MoD guy turns up and it turns out he was sabotaging the dig to try to stop the story coming out (which is as surprising as a bear sh*****g in the woods, being as he was the only obvious suspect for the pyromania etc). The whole cover up was orchestrated by Winston Churchill, who was told by Mr D'Arcy and the military have been covering up ever since.

Then there's a bunch of political stuff about the current war, which won't make a whole lot of sense to future audiences. MoD guy thinks a ninety year old scandal will destroy the reputation of his regiment and decides to execute them, though he first explains to Taggart that three soldiers were shot in the crypt, three in the tank - Mr D'Arcy shot his own men to cover it up. Our guys think their number is up - so Taggart is finally nice to Viv - but MoD guy buggers off.

NIJ is all excited that he might have discovered Joan of Arc. Hehe. Taggart apologises to she-Boris. Back in the UK, she and Viv visit her mother, and Viv reveals that she is actually Taggart's half-sister. Taggart stomps off. The End.

Well, that was... that. Um. Burn Gorman's character was actually less irritating in this one. Definitely glad I didn't decide to watch this on Remembrance Day. I think the rest of it speaks for itself, really. Just when you thought you'd hit rock bottom with Bonekickers, you find another 50 feet of rubbish. Next time, thankfully, the last episode, which involves lots of blood (sadly not Taggart's) and, I am led to believe, King Arthur. Sigh.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Horrible Histories: The Rotten Romans


I don't usually cover actual history books on this blog, because I'm generally more interested in fictionalised versions of the ancient world, though there are many "factual" (to a greater or lesser extent) programmes and books that are undoubtedly designed to be "popular". I'm making an exception for these books though, because they were my first ever exposure to ancient history.

Back when I was in primary school and thought Romans were boring, two new books came out and were advertised to us via the book club the school subscribed to. Several people bought The Terrible Tudors, including me - I was always very interested in the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and his six wives. I enjoyed it a lot, so I started collecting the books (I continued to try to own all of them for years, until eventually I had to give up as the cost of children's books started to skyrocket). The Rotten Romans was the third book to come out, in 1994 (The Awesome Egyptians was released at the same time as The Terrible Tudors, in 1993).

The books consist of lots of different written elements - quizzes, cartoon strips, pretend newspaper articles and diaries, timelines and other bits and pieces - and cartoon illustrations. I loved them, and repeated their jokes ad infinitum (still do - one of my favourites was The 20th Century (published 1996)'s prediction that we would all drown in fridge suits in the year 2000, at least, those of us who survived Mad Treacle Disease). This is where I first learned that Caligula made his favourite horse a senator (which, actually he didn't - Dio Cassius only says that he thought about making his horse a senator consul but died before he got the chance), that Boudicca is buried under Platform 10 of King's Cross Station (no idea if that's true, though I suspect not - and according to Bonekickers, she's in Bath!) and that, when he caught her plotting against him, the emperor Claudius had not only his wife Messalina executed but hundreds of her 'party friends' as well.

(Edited to add: It has been pointed out to me that both Dio Cassius and Suetonius write that Caligula intended to make Incitatus a consul, not a senator - see comments. This is entirely true - but I have a feeling The Rotten Romans, I, Claudius or both say 'senator', which is why I always make that mistake. When I can get hold of them, I will return with the answer).

You can see some of the problems with the books from the examples above - there are the sort of inaccuracies you get with broad generalisations, as in the Caligula's horse story, the books rely a lot on 'fun' trivia regardless of likliehood, like the Boudicca story, and they have to be censored for a young audience - those 'friends' were Messalina's lovers. They also focus, as the title suggests, on the gory side of things, on the assumpion that kids love gore, though some children (like me - I used to cry all through assemblies where upsetting stories were told) don't actually like gore or enjoy hearing nasty stories. (Not that I think things aimed at children should be censored or have all the scary stuff taken out, it's only a problem if they're treated as an educational tool and children are forced to endure something that upsets them).

Overall, though, I think the books are a great introduction to history for children. They try to introduce the concept of historical enquiry - I remember one which explained the controversy over the death of Christopher Marlowe - and they get children interested in history. For years, all I knew about the Romans was gleaned from The Rotten Romans. I still enjoy the books and find them hilariously funny, and one of these days, when I win the lottery, I'll collect them all...

The image at the top of the page is the original 1994 book cover, which I have to say, I much prefer. This is the new cover, and apparently there's some new content in this edition as well.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Bonekickers: The Cradle of Civilisation


Obligatory opening bit filmed by the legendary cameramen of the ancient world: Babylon, 331 BC. Bother – I thought this episode was going to look at ancient Mesopotamia – as in, something from the nearly 3,000 years of history that doesn’t get mentioned often enough in popular culture – but it looks like it will be about Alexander the Great, or something related. Not that there’s anything wrong with Alexander the Great, of course. The next title says ’50 miles south of Baghdad’. This is probably necessary – I’m not sure how many people realise where these places actually were. (One of my favourite ways to make small talk at parties where I can’t think of anything to say is to point out that civilization began in Iraq. People are always surprised). Something weird happens involving a digital special effect. Huh?

Modern day – soldiers everywhere, obviously (this show is very recent, made in 2008). A press van is shot at and a journalist hides in a hole in the ground, where he finds a skeleton and a box with a vase in it. Which no one else had noticed before (like the random ship on Breen).

Back in England, Taggart is pestering her mother about a stolen notebook. The journalist (an American) has made it back that far and is still playing with the pot.

A delegation from Iraq are visiting a Babylonian collection in Bath (I’m pretty sure no such thing exists). They include an archaeologist. The show is referring to as many exciting Babylonian things as it can – the Ishtar Gate and so on – but since it doesn’t explain what they are, it doesn’t mean much.

The archaeologist is an old friend of our lot and stops by for a chat. They all talk a lot about how wonderful ancient Iraq was and about the terrible problems caused by war and looting – all of which is absolutely true and I heartily agree with, but it’s delivered so earnestly as to be very dull and not very engaging. The archaeologist (Kahmil) says he has a brick from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and AL insists they were mythological, but for once I don’t agree with him – they may well have been real. But it turns out that the real problem is that Taggart slept with Kahmil six days after AL dumped her, so neither of them is really focused on the archaeology. There’s also a debate running about the interest level of Neolithic toothpicks vs the wonders of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, which would be more valid if Taggart hadn’t summarily dismissed Stonehenge as a rock garden.

The journalist sells the stuff to an old man who seems to be trying to sound like DelBoy but looks like the old guy from the Werther’s Original advert. He says the thing shows Tiamat, goddess of evil – and once again we chorus, No, No, No, No, NO! ‘Evil’ is largely a Judaeo-Christian concept and Tiamat was a goddess of the sea, of primordial chaos and, after being killed in a war of the gods by Marduk, her body made heaven and earth. All of which has nothing to do with the modern concept of ‘evil’. And the journalist can’t pronounce ‘cu-ne-i-form’.

Somehow, our guys track down the Werther’s Original guy – I have no idea how. Also, for some reason, every time they say Alexander’s name, they feel the need to say something borderline, sometimes actually, offensive about him being bisexual. I’m not denying that Alexander was bisexual, but the way they keep bringing it up all the time when it’s not relevant definitely borders on homophobic, especially given their tone.

NIJ explains to Viv about how rich and influential Kahmil is. Bizarrely, Viv thinks Kahmil is a lech but isn’t bothered by the ever-horny NIJ. NIJ also manages to find a link with Taggart’s bizarre ‘gleam’ thing, as he thinks meteoric rock could have made her magic sword. Taggart now thinks Alexander made it.

The digital effect is let loose on the Werther’s guy. Kahmil finds him and calls Taggart – Werther’s guy was bitten (fatally) by something (a snake, I’m guessing, judging by the low camera angle on the digital effect and I think someone mentioned a snake earlier). There’s more about Babylon as the cradle of civilization – again, true, but this is TV – show, don’t tell. Like the slavery episode, it’s falling over its own earnestness.

Taggart (talking to a small girl for some reason) thinks that history is a puzzle to solve. And I eat my own arm in frustration – history is not a puzzle you can solve, for pete’s sake, it’s a very long argument between academics trying to understand what the world might have been like in the past but without ever being able to ‘solve’ anything, at least until someone invents a time machine.

According to Kahmil, the ‘Followers of Tiamat’ are here and killed Werther’s guy. (He’s talking to someone in New York, represented by a fancy, modern looking hotel room!). Taggart refers to the possible Werther’s culprits as ‘cultists’ – huh? Who are these people anyway – I’m pretty sure the worship of Tiamat died out a good while ago. The journalist thinks Tiamat was ‘the serpent who enslaved the world’. Presumably they’re getting this from her association with sea serpents.

No, AL, Tiamat-worship is not like Babylonian devil-worship. No, NIJ, she is not ‘evil’. Grr, argh. Then there’s some stuff about the Enuma Elish and a tablet with a prophecy from a god. The Babylonian Ten Commandments, according to NIJ. Huh? They had the Code of Hammurabi… They haven’t even given the thing a good name – they’re calling it the ‘tablet of destinies’. We’re deep into fairyland here.

Neo-Assyrian 7th century BC cuneiform tablet telling the Epic of Creation

We get further in to fantasyland when Kahmil reveals that he thinks that the tablet predicts that he will reunite Iraq. Apparently he hopes that if people believe it, it will unify them, despite Taggart’s attempts to point out that they already have a religion, and it doesn’t involve Marduk.

Viv is watching a documentary about Alexander made by the media whore, but is dragged out to rescue Taggart by AL – which is good, as Taggart is being stalked – or slithered after – by the digital effect. And bugged. The digital effect is finally revealed to be, in fact, a snake – I’m not sure what kind (the computer-generated kind, mainly). NIJ gets it with a stick and it’s off to find the tablet of destinies – i.e., visit the journalist’s caravan. And break in. When the journalist returns, he pulls a gun on them, but is attacked by the snake (how did the snake get there? Who can say?). He shoots it, our guys get away, he dies. Taggart and Kahmil pick up the little girl, because the guy who’s supposed to be protecting her was following them, and I’m quite lost now but I’m afraid I don’t care enough to work out what’s going on!

The little girl works out from the documentary that the pot has the same markings as something else, and she can decipher it. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more Harry Potter, they sneak into a museum to read it. Why on earth do they have to sneak in? They’re professional archaeologists! The little girl solves the ‘puzzle’ (they’ve taken the word ‘code’ waaaay too literally) and Kahmil is not impressed with the answer. Then Viv and the little girl are attacked on the way to the toilet – I bet that got messy.

A member of the delegation then attacks Kahmil for putting them all in danger and he is bullied into handing over the box, but our guys get it back. The there’s a melodramatic showdown involving the phrase ‘I live on thin ice, love’ and AL waving a phone around as Taggart talks about a voice from ‘on high’. Basically, Kahmil = good but prone to pulling guns on people when stressed, his New York based brother = bad, Alexander = bad for hiding the tablet to stop people having hope, delegation woman played by the actress who always plays politician’s aides = bad, Taggart = quite clever for once (albeit reckless with archaeology), kidnapped girl = rescued.

The Crescent, in Bath

Taggart turns down the chance to work with the tablet to go back to Neolithic tooth picks. Kahmil kisses Viv and says ‘I know’, which is very weird and presumably relates to her still-mysterious backstory. Someone leaves Taggart a note with a picture of a sword – it’s a bit like the episodes of Buffy where Angelus is stalking her. She plans to attack the intruder with an Etruscan spear – the woman seriously needs a knuckle-duster and some spray. But whoever it was, they're not there. End of episode.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Discworld: Unseen Academicals


I've just finished reading this, the most recent Discworld book. If you're spoilerphobic, be warned, thar be spoilers 'ere...


I was hoping for an excuse to blog about this book, and I wasn't disappointed - although the book doesn't have any particularly strong classical themes, there are classical references scattered throughout.

There's the 'orange and black' (i.e. either red figure or black figure, it doesn't specify) urn that reveals how ancient football is, featuring two nude men involved in a 'tackle' (it's not very Greek though - apparently, their masculinity is 'beyond doubt', but unless they're both manifestations of the god Pan, if it was really Greek, they'd be rather unimpressive in that department. Apart from vases actually showing people mid-doing-the-deed, but that's different). There's a description of ancient footballing traditions involving naiads dancing on the edge of the field, which the wizards confuse with Sirens (clearly, Unseen University does not have a Classics department). There's Pepe's description of the ancient combats that used to take place in the Hippo (i.e. the hippodrome - whcih is odd, since ancient hippodromes were for chariot racing, it was amphitheatres that hosted gladiatorial combats) which includes a reference to men with spears fighting men with nets (men with nets are retiarii, though they also had a trident and a dagger). All of these things remind us that, just as Discworld is a mirror of us, its past mirrors our past, that is, the classical past of Europe (there are many other influences from around the world on the Discworld, but Ankh-Morpork's history is essentially European. The Counterweight Continent, of course, is another matter all together).

Glenda, one of the protagonists, thoroughly disapproves of the Guild of Historians' attempt to reclaim the game of the streets for high culture, and it is implied that the discovery of the urn is rather excessively convenient. The idea is that it is easier to persuade people of the importance of something if it can be proved that it was done a long time ago. I hope no one tries this with some other ancient traditions... The goddess football was originally played for was Pedestriana. Tee hee. (From the Latin for feet).

The editor of The Times, William de Worde, also fancies himself as a classicist, and throws 'classical' (in this case, purely Discworldian, though throwaway references to random battles could come from anywhere really) references at will into his football report. Similarly, the University's Master of Music insists on composing football chants in 'Latatian', because it just isn't proper music if it isn't in Latin. All of these little snobberies on the part of the middle and upper class characters are totally lost on the protagonists (except Nutt) and on many of the wizards as well.

There are a few classical characters as well. There's a throwaway reference to there being a Medusa in the Watch. Of course, in ancient myth there was only one Medusa. By race, she was a Gorgon, but Pratchett names his awkward race, who must wear very thick sunglasses in public, by the name of the best-known example. More importantly for the story, Nutt is followed and harrassed by a group of Furies, employed by her Ladyship to keep an eye on him and protect those around him. In Greek myth, the Furies (or Erinyes) pursued their victims for the purpose of retribution, but in this case, the Furies are more like very loud, very irritating bodyguards. I'm not sure what inspired Pratchett to use Furies, but their apperance is nicely exotic and horrific (and I don't remember them being used in Discworld before) and - and perhaps this was the inspriation and the point - their birdlike voices keep squwking 'awk! awk!' when they mean 'orc! orc!'.

Erinyes, Apulian red figure krater, 4th century BC

Finally, a non-Classical reference, but one related to my work - when Nutt, in a moment that struck me as pure Movie!Gollum (and, to an extent, Book!Gollum as well, though it was the movie that came to mind) psychoanalyses himself, the pschyanalyst half of him speaks with a Germanic accent - a clear nod to Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. (I look at Freud a lot in relation to dreams and to myth). Psychoanalyst!Nutt also has a distinct obsession with asking people about their relationship with their mother. I liked that bit!

There are lots of other things to talk about of course. 'Juliet' is so named because of a certain rather famous play, and her nickname is spelled 'Jools' most of the time, 'Jewels' when she's being a supermodel and, on one occasion where Pratchett's typist seems to have slipped up, 'Jules'. I spell it 'Juls', but that's a quirk of mine, from an old computer game that only gave you four letters for your name. 'Jules' is more common for girls and anyone who isn't Jools Holland.

Much as it doesn't seem very nice to point it out, this may be one of the last Discworld novels, so it was nice to see brief appearances by or mentions of lots of characters from Discworld history, even though the four chief protagonists of the novel were new characters. It was fun seeing Rincewind as a minor character as well - his books aren't among my favourites, but without him, there would be no Discworld so it's good to see him. I love books about the other wizards, too, and there are some very well-aimed jokes about academics, mostly revolving around big dinners and a reluctance to get involved in any actual lecturing. The attempt to create a football chant for Professor Macarona that include all his titles is very funny too.

I wasn't so keen on the new addition of Dr Hix, nor on the departure for pastures new of the Dean (though his rivalry with Ridcully is very funny), and this book contained quite possibly the worst-taste joke I've ever read, in Discworld or anything else (though I've seen worse on TV...). The use of an orc as a main character and major part of the plot is interesting - a bit cheeky, since I think Tolkien actually created orcs (though knowing Tolkien they come from some mythology somewhere) but very good, especially in its use for a nice story about nature and nurture. I'm not sure I'm quite on board with human/orc romance though...

I liked this book a lot - not up there with the absolute best of Discworld, but definitely one of the good 'uns. I especially loved how 'real' many of the characters felt - as if you expect to see them walking down the street before the next football match. Thoroughly recommended.
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