Sunday, July 12, 2015

Six And A Half Ways of Being Undead in "Game of Thrones"

Is Jon Snow really dead? That is the question that has been on everyone's minds since the finale of Season 5 (or since the end of ADWD)--including President Obama's. D. B. Weiss has said that Snow won't be back--"Dead is dead," quoth he. But of course, the learned reader knows that this phrase appears on the first page of A Game of Thrones, spoken by Gared, one of the Rangers. Royce responds, "But are they dead? What proof have we?"
In fact, there are a number of ways to come back from the dead on GoT, as we've seen since the pilot episode. 
1) Wights, the risen dead in thrall to the White Walkers.
2) Mirri Maz Duur's resurrection of Khal Drogo.
3) Beric Dondarrion's resurrections by Thoros of Myr.
4) Those who seek death in the House of Black and White live again when the Faceless Men use their identities. 
4.5) Qyburn "saves" The Mountain from death (or brings him back?) and turns him into something...else.

Book bonus:
5) Aeron "Damphair" Greyjoy serves the Drowned God as a priest, after he was drowned and resuscitated. 
6) Varamyr Sixskins, a warg, who lives on after his human death in his wolf One-Eye.

Any other examples?


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Out of Time: Outlander's Medievalism

"Outlander,"* the captivating historical fantasy/romance based on the series by Diana Gabaldon, has a lot going on: a charismatic, capable hero; a gorgeous love interest (or two); a terrifying villain; serpentine political machinations; textile porn; lush scenery; sex; and an unprecedented commitment to the female gaze. And something else: medievalism. 

The medievalism of "Outlander" is there from the outset. Thoroughly modern Claire Beauchamp Randall and her urbane, ardent husband, Frank, venture to the Scottish Highlands for their second honeymoon. In the pilot episode, Claire's (and Frank's) modernity is emphasized over and over again...and especially when she suggests, with a few glances and a tantalizing lack of undergarments, that her husband go down on her in an abandoned castle (he agrees with enthusiasm). Their egalitarian partnership--sexual and otherwise--and Claire's full autonomy are highlighted against the gloomy medieval backdrop, which itself dates from a time when, supposedly, women were little more than chattel and had no autonomy of their own. 

Later, Claire steps through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun and is thrown back in time, to 1743. The first thing that happens to her in 1743 is that she's almost raped by a British soldier and the second thing that happens is that she's rescued by a Scot and then taken prisoner--confirming the notion (for the audience and for Claire) that the past is a dangerous place for women. A mysterious local woman, Geillis Duncan, later warns Claire that the Highlands are no place for a woman alone; this warning stands in stark contrast to Claire's memories of the work she did as a nurse on the front lines in WWII, separated from her husband by their respective war duties. By the end of the episode, she ends up at the same castle--Castle Leoch--where she and Frank had their intimate interlude. Only now, Castle Leoch isn't abandoned. It's the bustling seat of Clan Mackenzie and Claire's new home/prison.

Claire's an Englishwoman in the Highlands, a sassenach (foreigner), and her Scots hosts (or captors) are suspicious of her for that reason. Her asynchrony is her secret, something that only she--and the audience--can know.** Claire's "out-of-time-ness" drives much of the plot: her attempts to escape her Scots guards and evade the sadistic British captain who tried to rape her and return to Frank, and her knowledge of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which virtually destroyed much of the distinctive Highland culture. The audience learns, through voice over and flashback (or is it flash-forward?), that after the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the Highland clans were broken and their language--Gaelic--forbidden by the British. For Claire and for the audience, the outcome of the Rising is both history and foreknowledge, and Claire's anachronism gives rise to nostalgia for a way of life that will soon be lost.

That way of life, which Claire--and the audience--get to know over several episodes, is distinctly medieval, uninterrupted for centuries. Collum Mackenzie, the laird (or lord) of the clan lives in a castle; his brother, Dougal, is a war-chieftain. Collum has a harper in his service, just like in days of yore. Claire acts as a healer, or Beaton, to the residents of Castle Leoch, and her disgust at the filthy and barbaric implements and remedies that her predecessor used highlights the "medieval" medicine available at the time. She attends the Gathering, when all of the laird's tenants come to the castle to pledge their fealty with solemn vow, and celebrate with games, drinking, and a boar hunt, and she saves a young boy from the clutches of the fanatical and benighted Father Bain by diagnosing him with accidental poisoning rather than demonic possession. Dougal and the men-at-arms (including Jamie) collect the annual rents from the laird's tenants. Despite the fact that specie is widely used, the Mackenzie tenants often pay their rent in livestock, grain, or other goods. The women in one of the settlements chant songs that have come down through generations of women, going back hundreds of years. The laird's man of law, Ned Gowan, admits to Claire that he came to the Highlands from tame, civilized Edinburgh in search of wilderness and adventure. The English soldiers that Claire meets in Brockton call the Scots uncivilized, brutish, and wild--not because they live in the Highlands, but because they live in the past. Their loyalty is to their local laird, not their distant king; they wear kilts instead of trousers; they speak Gaelic instead of English; they live in crofts and villages, rather than towns and cities. 
The trope of the Scottish Highlands as an untamed, uncivilized wilderness goes back to the Middle Ages, when Latin writers posited that Scotland (and Ireland) were at the far edges of the inhabited world, and were home to monsters, wild men, and forbidding topography and landscapes. "Outlander" dramatizes that trope and updates it, so that the Highlanders become medieval people living in the Georgian period, just as out of time as Claire.

* Talking about the tv show in this post, not the books.
** For now.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Vikings: They Do Things Differently There

Viking graffiti found in Orkney
"Vikings," the History Channel's scripted drama, just returned for its third season. Many others have written about the many historical antecedents and inaccuracies, exactly how metal the show is, and the political ideology behind the show. Despite the fact that the show airs on a channel called The History Channel, I find discussions of accuracy to be pointless. "Vikings" is a scripted drama, not a multi-series documentary about The Viking Age (NB: VPs of programming: I'd watch that, too), and, besides, The History Channel isn't that concerned with peer review or even historicity in much of its programming. 

There's plenty about the show that I don't care for (total absence of suspense, tedious love stories, gaping plot holes), but what I love about it is its total commitment to medievalism. The Vikings speak in what sounds like Old Norse, the Anglo-Saxons speak Old English. Aethelstan and his brethren labor in the scriptorium, copying ancient texts and making art to glorify Christianity. Enlightened characters, like Aethelstan and Ecgbert, have heard of the Romans and their achievements, while the common folk believe that giants once ruled England. The blood eagle makes an appearance (just like in "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned"), Charlemagne and Offa are name-checked, and everyone is dirty (except for the enlightened King Ecgbert, who bathes regularly).

And yet the show is so good at presenting the Northmen and Anglo-Saxons of the late 8th and early 9th centuries as just similar enough to us to be sympathetic, but strange enough to be compelling. I think Aristotle meant something else when he said that drama should be "transporting," but I still argue that "Vikings" transports the viewer to a very different time and place. The show looks good--the settlements, homesteads, and even great shrines (like Winchester) are small and poky, the great halls are big, smoky, and filled with people and animals. The women wear the same style of ornaments that I saw in York, Edinburgh, and London at different Viking exhibits. More importantly, the Northmen on the show are riveting and alien. They are motivated by different things from the viewers (and also the Anglo-Saxons)--the potency of their beliefs and rituals echoes throughout episodes like "A King's Ransom" and "Sacrifice" (dealing with burial and ritual sacrifice, respectively), but also in the repeated insistence on fate, the desire of the Northmen to die in battle, and their gender relations. 

The writers have admittedly drawn on some great historical source material: Saxo Grammaticus, Ibn Fadlan's account of his time among the Rus, sagas, annals, and skaldic poetry. But I wonder about another, uncredited source: King Hereafter. Ragnar reminds me of Thorfinn: His watchfulness, his soul-friendship with Aethelstan, his dry wit ("looks like your god really came through for you"), his gift for military and political strategy, and his gift for foresight are all qualities that he has in common with Thorfinn. Even Ragnar's complex relationship with Flokí is somewhat reminiscent of the dynamic between Thorfinn and Rognvald (without the homoeroticism). Perhaps the third season will bring more similarities between their storylines: Ragnar will reign and, like Thorfinn, will journey farther afield (perhaps Constantinople instead of Rome), have his faith in his gods tested, and eventually die in single combat and be called to Valhalla.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

You Must Change Your Life with Norse Paganism

News of Iceland's first temple to the Norse pantheon to be built in the last millennium arrived in my inbox the same week that I started trying to wrap my brain around Peter Sloterdijk's work (Spheres and You Must Change Your Life). The neo-pagans of Ásatrúarfélagið explicitly eschew literal belief in the myths of the pantheon. The temple will be the space for numerous life-cycle events, as well as the celebration of seasonal festivals. The temple itself will be circular, dug into a hillside, and topped with a dome. 

Like I said, I've had Sloterdijk on my I was tickled to read about the creation of a literal sphere as a place of religious worship. Spheres are Sloterdijk's model of the three "ages" of human existence (nested spheres inside one giant sphere; the terraquaeous globe; microspheres and "global foams"). And he contends that religion does not exist; instead, what we think of as religion is the misshapen, stunted distortion of poorly understood "spiritual regimens," in other words, religion is a bad translation of practices or habits that lead to transcendence. And since humans can never inhabit the exterior, only the interior, constructing the interior is what creates transcendence. 

The neo-pagans in Iceland explicitly reject the literality Old Norse beliefs in favor of creating a sphere of community (in the form of ritual, celebration, and ways to understand the world) based on the practices that Old Norse myths reveal. I hope their praxis and their new spherical interior lead them to transcendence, as Sloterdijk contends.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Do You Know?

You either know about Dorothy Dunnett, or you don't. If you know, it's because you either have read and adored her books, or because you have a loved one whom you periodically lose to others in interminable conversations about the comparable merits of The Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolo. If you don't know about her, it's because you've been unlucky thus far. That ends now. 

Dunnett is the best novelist you've never heard of. She's usually mentioned alongside Patrick O'Brian and Mary Renault, and that's because her novels are historical fiction. But in terms of characterization and detail she's like Dickens, and the swashbuckling scope of her novels recalls Dumas, Hugo, and her compatriot, Walter Scott. Francis Crawford of Lymond, the protagonist of The Lymond Chronicles, was just named the most popular character of Scottish fiction. Half Peter Wimsey, half Scarlet Pimpernel, Lymond moves seamlessly through the capitals of early modern Europe: Edinburgh, London, Moscow, Istanbul, and Paris. The House of Niccolo takes place a century earlier, and in wider scope, from the Faroe Islands to the Gambia, Danzig to Caffa. I discovered Dunnett as a teenager, and have returned to her novels every other year since then. The medieval robots I've spent the last fifteen years contemplating first appeared to me in her books.*

* The Spring of the Ram (Al-Jazari's elephant clock); To Lie with Lions (Hesdin); Pawn in Frankincense (horological spinet).

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Dung Heap of History

The past is shit. 

This is what I learned on a recent trip to the UK. I happened to be in York during the filming of the pilot of "Knifeman," a new AMC drama about a controversial 18th-century medical figure. The production team used the Shambles (the oldest street in York) and the area around the Minster to stand in for Georgian London. Although the book on which the tv show is based claims it is about the birth of "modern surgery,"* far from looking "modern," the extras all looked as pre-modern and disgusting as possible: muddy clothes, bad teeth, and dirty faces and fingernails. 

(*Someone better tell the people making "The Knick" that "modern surgery" started two centuries earlier.)

Later, I went to the Jorvik Viking Center, and learned all about the Vikings. I learned about their incredible long-distance trade and kinship networks; their love of finery, such as imported silk, amber, carnelian, and gold; and their scientific expertise. I also learned that they were giant poopers; viz. this massive human turd (this is apparently a sponsored object, and is officially known as the "Lloyds Bank Coprolite"), unearthed by archaeologists several decades ago

But that's not all: The ride through the recreated streets of Viking York (complete with fabulous and creepy life-size automata) concludes by passing a man straining in the privy, complete with vocal and intestinal sound effects.

Later, on a trip to the Roman fort, Housesteads, along Hadrian's Wall, the first thing our guide showed us was the well-preserved latrine. Her prop was a sponge on a stick, similar to the ones the Roman soldiers (and civilians? unclear) used to clean their bums after doing their business in the brown tent. A few days later, a fellow hotel guest, after learning what I do for a living, asked, "Why study the Middle Ages? Wasn't everyone just wading around in their own shit?"

Why is there such a fixation on the dirtiness of the past? Certainly, human waste can reveal a lot of important information about diet and disease in a population. And everyone poops, after all. Latrines are no less interesting or important than bathhouses or aqueducts or temples. The focus on the privy in Viking York, the chamberpots of the 15th century (at Barley Hall) and the close stools of the 16th century (Edinburgh Castle), and Roman latrines can, at first glance, be a way to close the temporal gap between then and now, between them and us.

But the focus on plumbing, hygiene, and bathing is also a way to widen that gap, to say that people in the past were more primitive and less intelligent than we are; that their tolerance for filth and dirt was higher than ours because they didn't know any better, not because they didn't have the same options that some of us have now. This false sense of superiority is what Monty Python brilliantly sends up in this clip from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
Here's what else I learned on my trip. Yes, our guide in Barley Hall, Master Paul, showed us the chamber pot. But he made sure to discuss the stringent regulations in 15th-century York that governed the disposal of waste (human, animal, and manufacturing). Contrary to popular belief, people did not fling the contents of their chamberpots out of the window and onto the street (especially after the 14th-century plague pandemic). The Neolithic (ca. 3200-2500 BCE) settlement at Skara Brae, in Orkney, contains an elaborate system of drains to wash away household and human waste, and each of the small houses contains a small "necessary room." Over 5000 years ago, Stone Age people, using stone tools, built an entire village with indoor plumbing. 

In many ways, people who lived long ago were the same as we are. They had less sophisticated tools, but not less sophisticated minds. We'd do well to remind ourselves of that, and to extend that same compassion to the millions of people in the world now who live amidst sewage, effluvium, and garbage. Contempt for those on the dung heap of history can so easily be transposed to contempt for those on the dung heap of global poverty. But most people don't want to live in their own filth. If they do, it's not because they're ignorant or irrational or subhuman, it's because they don't have another option.