Thursday, August 29, 2013

Popular Historical Shite? – Bring it on!

I loved the movie, Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves.

I still do.

There. I’ve said it. You may laugh now. It’s ok. I’ve got a good set of armour on.

For me that movie, Kevin Costner's accent and all, was a game changer. It gave my life some much needed direction in the confusing dark times of my early teenage years.

I’ve heard Robin Hood, Excalibur, Braveheart, Gladiator, the shows Hercules and Xena, and others, all called ‘popular crap’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘inaccurate drivel’, and loads of other names mostly by academics from the dusty upper floors of their ivory towers.

The critics pan these movies and shows, citing the poor acting, sad story lines and over-stretched budgets that somehow mark them as unworthy of viewing. Gladiator was the only one to garner any respect (less so for Braveheart) and that was probably due to the Oscars it rounded up (that was fantastic BTW!).

Robin Hood tends to lay gutted on the bottom of the pile of popular historical 'shite', bleeding into memory – that movie that was so ‘bad’, the one that Kevin Costner ‘butchered’.

You know what? I don’t care. I thought that film was brilliant and magical. Here’s why:

When the movie came out in 1991 I was fifteen going on sixteen and trying to navigate that utterly depressing world known as High School – which, for the record, I loathed.

I was hanging out with some questionable characters, not doing very well in class and had no real idea or vision for the future, my future.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t beaten or fed plates of gruel. I’m one of the fortunate ones who had a caring home life, parents who listened and a brother with whom it did not often come to outright fisticuffs. Swords yes, but rarely fists.

However, I did lack an interest to give me direction.

Then one Friday night, my dad comes home and hands me a video tape of Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves.

“Look what I’ve got,” he says. “Let’s watch it tonight. I think you’ll like it.”

Being a black-clad teenager, I grunted in response and hunkered down in silence on the sectional for a couple of hours.

If I remember correctly, I was hooked right from the beginning as the opening credits rolled images of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman Conquest. 

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
Of course, I didn’t know what the Norman Conquest was at the time, or that the year 1066 was any more significant than a thousand other dates.

It was the power of those images, the heroic music by Michael Kamen, and of course the fantastic story of Robin Hood that pulled me in and didn’t let go.

I can still remember sitting there that first time. Oh yes, I think I was a ‘popular historical’ virgin up to that point. I was so hooked that I watched that movie every day for six days straight, enjoying it every single time.

I watched Robin’s skill with blade and bow with awe, thrilled to his duel with the Sherriff of Nottingham, expertly played by Alan Rickman. The romantic in me was even awakened by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with whom I had fallen desperately in love.

History, and an ancient story, had spoken to me and I was having an epiphany – I loved it and that was what I wanted to do. I then decided that history was what I wanted to study.

As it turned out, that summer I had the opportunity to go to England with my mom to visit family. That first journey across the pond only served to fuel the fires of my enthusiasm.

I wanted to walk through every castle and manor house I saw, touch every suit of armour and look closely at every nicked sword blade on display in every museum. I was insatiable.

Carcasonne - France
Where part of Robin Hood was filmed
When I returned home, my parents bought me all the books (new and used) that I wanted on the Middle Ages, ancient world, swords, armour, the Crusades, you name it. I got a used book on the Bayeux Tapestry that I still have to this day. Biographies of kings and queens, chivalric ideals and stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood and others abounded. I also took up archery and fencing.

What is the point of all this?

My point is that without having seen that supposedly ‘crappy’ movie, I might not have become interested in all of this. I might not have improved my grades in high school, or gone on to undergrad studies in medieval history, a Master’s in Dark Age studies, or to work in museums or archaeology.

Without Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, I might not be writing!

Throughout my years in university and academic circles, I’ve always heard the same old argument that popular history is rubbish and a complete waste of time. “Stay away from that stuff!” one of my professor’s said one day after Braveheart had hit the big screens.

But you know what? That so-called ‘popular shite’ sparks more interest in young people’s minds than any lame, snoot-nosed history teacher who lectures their students without caring whether or not they are capturing their listeners’ imaginations.

It’s no wonder that movies like Robin Hood or Gladiator have left increased enrollment in medieval and ancient history courses in their wakes. They got people excited. What a concept!

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of good history teachers who did capture my imagination, who loved anything having to do with history. Sadly, most were not so good, but I’m glad that didn’t deter me.

I’ve been told by several of my readers that my writing makes history interesting to them, and THAT pleases me to no end.

This applies not only to movies but to all forms of popular historical fiction.

In the current issue of the Historic Novels Review, Richard Lee, the founder of the Historic Novel Society, notes that he has “heard EVERY type of historical fiction ridiculed for being untrue to the history. Sometimes the spite that is unleashed is phenomenal… My own view is that all kinds of historical fiction have value.”

I couldn’t agree more. Whether it is the period of history, or the format (book, TV or film), the sad truth is that popular history has often been frowned upon, locked out of the academic castle.

However, the numbers are far greater outside the walls of that castle and it is my hope that the gates will eventually be battered down so that the people can flood in, not to massacre, but to live together with the few in their towers.

Academia has its purpose, which is of utmost importance to our knowledge of the past. But there is also a place for popular historical fiction, a purpose in gathering people around, firing their interests and setting them on the path to learning more. It’s all good!

To quote Morgan Freeman’s character, Azeem, in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves:

“Allah loves wondrous variety.”

What's your favourite popular historical?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Picture Postcard #11 - The Sincerity of Offerings

Spring is my favourite time of year, not crispy autumn or damp winter. Not even heated summer. 

Spring: that time when the grass is at its greenest and sweetest, when multi-hued blossoms pop out of the ground at my feet. Fresh water tumbles from the mountains and the bees set about honeying the hills.

One particular spring stands out, and I remember it clearly. To think of it makes me jump for no apparent reason.

The smell of the cedar trees wafted down the hill to where we were playing in the olive groves. Sunlight spotted the ground from between the twitching leaves. A stranger appeared, dressed in white, robed like a cloud. I went up to him and asked if he wanted to play with us on such a fine day. He did not answer, but he did smile. I remember that. He motioned for me to follow. So I did.

I’m glad I did. There were all sorts of people I had never seen before: men and women, boys and girls. 

They were all happy. They welcomed me by singing beautiful songs as they washed me and gave me food and drink. 

Little girls and ladies placed perfect flowers around my head and neck, and we walked together, singing all the while. I couldn’t understand the song, but I felt special. I knew my brothers and sisters would be very jealous.

It was a long walk up the hill, but I did not care, especially when I saw the shiny round white house with the red clay roof. There were more people waiting there, also singing and smiling and showering me with scented petals. I tried to pick some of them up, but we were moving too quickly toward the white house.

A tall man stepped out of the house followed by smoke which then swirled into the blue sky. He wasn’t smiling like the rest, but he stroked my head, and said something soothing as he looked up at the sky. I didn’t know what he was holding but it looked cold and curved, like new shoots just as they break the surface of spring mud. The man made me look up too. People sang and flowers fell.

I felt a sudden sharp pinch and then I could not see any more.

When I awoke, very well-rested, I was in a new place. It was neither hot nor cold, but just the way I like it. The sun shone perfectly.

A group of others stared at me.

“Do you want to play?” one of them asked.

“Of course,” I answered before running off with them.

I stopped then, and looked behind me to see a river. I had not seen that river before. It was wide and still and black as black can be. Beyond the river were dark mountains and angry clouds where a storm raged. I was sad for anyone who lived on the other side because here it was spring and there was a lot of green grass for me to play around in and eat. I kicked up my hooves and joined the others.

I can still hear the people singing, wherever they are.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Writing the Great Ones


I recently finished The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon.  I’d been meaning to get to it for a while but just hadn’t managed until this summer. Any novel about ancient Greece or Alexander the Great ends up on my to-be-read list.  It’s a long list.

I’ve posted a review of the book which you can read on Goodreads or Amazon.

What I found interesting is that the book is not so much about Alexander; he has much more of a background role in the entire book.

Aristotle, the famous philosopher and tutor of the young Alexander, is the focus of this work.

This is a beautiful and immensely sad novel that gives us the author’s insights into this famous man of the ancient world, the successor of Plato and Socrates.

But, in reading this, I realized that I know very little of Aristotle.

I didn’t study philosophy in school, my tendencies being more toward ancient and medieval warfare. I know a lot more about Alexander than Aristotle.

And yet, most people with even a passing interest in history will know the name of Aristotle. Though he did not wage war or sack cities at the ends of the earth, he is legendary in his own way.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) wrote on an incredible range of subjects from metaphysics, the arts and rhetoric to government, politics, the natural sciences and much more. His work highly influenced the medieval Muslim and Christian worlds. Even today his teachings, I am told, greatly influence academia.

Alexander the Great
One might imagine such a man as Aristotle to be a Titan of the ancient world, tutor to a god.

But in The Golden Mean, that is not the case. Ms. Lyon does not present us with an intimidating figure. 

Rather, her Aristotle is frail, prone to fits of manic depression, a victim of his scientific mind and curiosity.

In this book, Aristotle is not what I expected.

And yet, isn’t that what is so great about historical fiction, that you can explore the unknown, the unpopular, in even the most famous of men?

In The Golden Mean, Aristotle and Alexander are talking about theatre and the use of dialogues to teach, the appeal of those methods. The character of Aristotle puts it nicely:

“You care more about the characters, about the outcomes of things. That’s the point of the literary arts, surely. You can convey ideas in an accessible way, and in a way that makes the reader or the viewer feel what is being told rather than just hear it.”

That’s a great observation by the author and one of the main reasons I believe good historical fiction is as important for teaching as entertaining, and should be a part of university reading lists.

Cover for The Golden Mean
I’ve had my own experiences in researching and writing about Alexander the Great, and that journey continues. As I mentioned in a previous post on that project, there are so many aspects to the character of Alexander that one cannot possibly get into every corner of his psyche. But you have to start digging somewhere.

I see these great men of history as fields in the landscape of history waiting to be excavated. Just as a single field might have revealed a fort in one excavation, so too can later digs reveal a civilian settlement, a coin hoard, or a burial, all of which tell a story about the place… just like a person.

Each novel about one of the great ones of history is like a test pit in a vast field, revealing a little more with each effort, getting us that much closer to knowing the whole of that person.

I’ve often thought that there must be little left to excavate or discover when it comes to the ancient and medieval worlds, and yet every day new discoveries are revealed that change our perspectives.

Academic research, archaeology, numismatics, toponymics and other fields add to our knowledge of history and past people.

But historical fiction has much to contribute in getting to know those that have gone before us. Only, when it comes to fiction, we get to know those people in a much more personal, intimate way that helps us to delve into their human side.

That’s what makes the melding of history and fiction so attractive to me. There is definitely a Golden Mean for historical fiction.

I think it best to end with Ms. Lyon’s description, through Aristotle, of the Golden Mean as he sees it:

“My few meagre tools with which I try to order the universe. You must look for the mean between extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time.”

Thank you for reading. 

Creating Perfection: the Golden Mean
and the Parthenon (from

Friday, August 9, 2013

Caligula – From Little Boots to Maniacal Monster

The BBC posted and interesting piece last week about a documentary on the Emperor Caligula.


The name certainly conjures images, doesn’t it? Oh yes. More so than the full Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Caligula definitely has more power, largely due to the stories behind the name.

You might envisage John Hurt in the television drama of Robert Graves’ I Claudius, his mouth bloody after eating the baby which he had put in his sister’s belly, believing himself to be Jove.

Or, perhaps more disturbingly, the image of Malcolm McDowell cavorts into your thoughts amid flashes of naked bodies and the bloody bits and pieces of Caligula’s victims in the infamous, star-clad film originally scripted by Gore Vidal, Caligula.

These are the images that we have of Caligula today. They are built on ancient sources and popular culture that described the reign of this most disturbing of Roman emperors.

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula
But is the portrayal of Caligula as an insane, perverted, and brutal maniac-of-an-emperor accurate? Is it fair?

Caligula had an interesting life as a boy. He was with his father, the Roman hero Germanicus, and the army along the northern frontier camps and it is said that this is where he got his nickname. ‘Caligula’ is a diminutive version of the word for military, hobnailed boots called ‘caligae’. He became ‘Little Boots’ because of the smaller pair of caligae he wore.

Maybe Caligula was a cute little boy? Odd to think after all the rumours.

The Emperor Tiberius was responsible, more or less, for killing Caligula’s family and so, ‘Little Boots’ ended up spending time with his great uncle, Tiberius, on Capri. This island is where the Emperor retreated to in his advanced years and it is rumoured that much depravity took place there, and that Caligula learned that behaviour.

Caligae - hob-nailed boots
But actually, the first six months of Caligula’s reign as emperor were said to be good and moderate. He fell seriously ill around that time however, and afterward the chroniclers speak of a young man who believed himself divine, and who became the most cruel, extravagant and perverse of tyrants.

I’m not an expert on the reign of Caligula and, in fact, it seems that few people are.

Caligula’s reign as Roman emperor is one of the most poorly documented in Roman history.

Since that is the case, it seems understandable that countless generations would cling to the tales told by Suetonius so many years after Caligula’s death: that he had sex with his sister on a regular basis, that he made his horse a consul and that he forced senators’ wives to have sex.

If you can make it up, it probably fits the historical and popular culture bill when it comes to Caligula.  
The other side of the argument says that all of the salacious tales were invented, pure fabrications created by Caligula’s, and the Julio-Claudian’s, enemies.

Villa Jovis, Capri
Perhaps. But must not there be some basis in fact?

Certainly, the senatorial and Praetorian conspirators behind the assassination of Caligula (he was the first emperor to be assassinated) needed to justify their actions.

Some believe that Caligula had tried very hard to increase the power of the Emperor and further minimize the Senate. This would make him a lot of enemies – enemies who would write the history of his reign long after his death.

There is real power in writing after the fact – which is why we must approach any source, modern or historical, with a degree of caution.

Even our views of the most famous and popular (even well-documented) figures of history can be flawed. History is written by the victors, or at the least by the survivors. Everyone, especially emperors, had enemies, even if they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rulers.

John Hurt in I Claudius
Popular media, such as film and fiction, can reveal to us certain aspects of historical people but we must take everything with a grain of salt. We have to accept that what we are reading or seeing might be based on subjective sources that had a particular goal in mind.

However, learning how a generation of people viewed a particular person (even though the stories may not be true) can also be useful. Their hatred, love or fear etc. must have come from somewhere!

Was Caligula as mad as they say or as we believe? Perhaps.

His depravity has made some good storytelling over the centuries. I suspect that some of it is true. But, like all good stories, things have been elaborated on for sheer entertainment value, especially when the man himself was safely dead.

I highly recommend Robert Graves’ I Claudius if you have not already read it. It’s a modern classic, as is its television dramatization starring John Hurt and Derek Jacobi.

On the other hand, if you have the stomach and libido for it, the film version of Caligula is a terror-filled, pornographic representation of Caligula that brings all of the most salacious tales of him to life.

We should, however, end with a quote from Suetonius who seems to be one of the main sources of all the tall tales that have been passed down the ages:

“…he (Caligula) could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, revelling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man, that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.”
                                               (Caius Suetonius Tranquillus; Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

As I said, history is written by the survivors.

Thank you for reading.