Category Archives: Movies

Some reasons to read Beowulf

Here are just a few reasons why you might want to read Beowulf. First, it is a famous example of literature from the Early Middle Ages. Second, it represents English-language literature in its infancy. Third, it has had impacted modern literature since its rediscovery.

The Early Middle Ages, although politically fractured and certainly with a lower standard of living than the Later Roman Empire or the High Middle Ages, are a period of great creativity and transformation within western Europe, as the post-Roman world resettles itself into something new. Beowulf is, in many ways, indicative of the Early Middle Ages. Culturally, the Early Middle Ages see the introduction of literacy and Christianity to more and more ‘barbarians’—the English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, various continental Germanic peoples, Danes, and more. As a poem about the pagan past being told from a Christian perspective, Beowulf encapsulates the early medieval world, not simply by showing us aspects of Anglo-Saxon society (the beerhall with the lord bestowing gifts upon his thegns—the world of Sutton Hoo), but of European society more broadly (the transformation of barbarian pagans into literate Christians).

Beowulf is one of the earliest long-form English poems. It shows, in a certain way, the foundations of English literature. This is a lofty claim; Beowulf certainly exerted no direct influence on Chaucer, who certainly had closer English poets as well as French and Latin literature to hand. Nonetheless, Beowulf was written in the English vernacular, composed from the stuff of the oral legends that existed as part of the cultural inheritance the English brought with them from the Continent. Its intrinsic interest, then, is that it is a so-called ‘primary’ epic, such as Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, and The Song of Roland, as opposed to Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Dante, or Ariosto. It depicts a pre-literate, warrior society, yet is itself cast in a beautiful, lyric form. Beowulf carries with it not just daring adventure and heroism, but also the hope of heaven and high ideals of loyalty and honour. These are ideals that are known to capture the hearts and minds of most people. Reading Beowulf shows us English poetry when England was barely English.

Finally, Beowulf has a strong influence on modern literature and art. Like most, if not all, early medieval vernacular literature, it lay dormant for many years. But nationalism, romanticism, and the rise of vernacular philology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that this Old English epic has found new life, being ushered back into the canon of English-language classics. Immediately, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, Oxford’s first Professor of Anglo-Saxon and critic of Beowulf comes to mind—especially since the publication of his translation with notes in 2014. It is widely known that Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf in crafting his fantasies, and The Hobbit in particular. From my own experience, many young people have been ushered into classic literature through the twofold gateway of Tolkien and Lewis. Beowulf also inspired the later portions of Eaters of the Dead (filmed as 1999’s The 13th Warrior) when Michael Crichton takes the story beyond Ibn Fadlan’s surviving narrative.

Furthermore, modern adaptations have made Beowulf a known entity, but—like the famous Victorian trio of horror stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—very little read. It has been unfaithfully adapted multiple times for the cinema, as well as a more faithful animated version with the voice talents of Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes. In print, John Gardner has given us Grendel, telling the tale from the perspective of the monster, and Gareth Hinds produced a vivid and captivating graphic novel. One of my favourite adaptations of Beowulf is the stilt play! There has also been an anthology of short fiction about the character inspired by the epic.

So, if you take C S Lewis’s advice and read an old book after every new book, why not pick up Beowulf next time? I’ve read and recommend the translations of Liuzza, Crossley-Holland, and Tolkien, but I expect Heaney’s is more than worth your time.

Cultural references and making class relevant

Q, a highly evolved being who does not, strictly speaking, have a body

I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.

‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’

Student: Which Star Trek?

Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Student: Good.

Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]

Student: Like the Q.

Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.

A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.

The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.

Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.

So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.

Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.

Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?

Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)

Other student: Notorious.

Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’

Another student: *laughs*

Me: That’s The Three Amigos.

Student who laughed: Best movie ever.

Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.

They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.

It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.

What successes or failures have you ever had?

Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

Thor & Plato: Mythology and Philosophy

I recently finished reading Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Vol. 1. Amongst the excellent tales gathered together in this volume, we are introduced to Malekith the Dark Elf. Most of us undoubtedly know Malekith best as performed by Christopher Eccleston in the film, Thor: The Dark World. Simonson’s Malekith is an excellent supervillain who blends together a bit of Norse, a bit of ‘Celtic’ fairy lore, and a bit of implication from the very name ‘dark elf’ (svart alf). In his return from exile in Simonson’s comic, Malekith — a capricious Dark Elf of Faerie — is seeking the Casket of Ancient Winters to unleash a new Ice Age and free the fiery being Surtur (adapted from the name Surtr) from Muspell to destroy the universe.

The film’s Malekith is an elemental being who has existed before the world, whose own element is darkness. Darkness, in Thor: The Dark World, pre-exists the universe. The goal of the Dark Elves is the unleashing of a substance called Aether that will turn the Nine Realms (the known universe in Thor cosmology) back into the darkness whence they came.

I was thinking about this, about Malekith, and the origins of the universe in mythology and philosophy. In the mythology of the Thor films, we see a universe born out of darkness. Or rather, in opposition to darkness. Darkness itself is pre-existent; it has its own substance, in fact. My first thought was that our modern conception of the universe tends towards seeing ‘nothing’ as darkness. But what we actually live in a universe replete with light? This is the implication of the medieval mind as described by C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image. Looking up at the rolling spheres of night, rather than seeing the black between, the medieval mind saw a universe filled with light.

What if before everything else, there was light?

Darkness, in such a world, has no substance of its own.

Either way — whether darkness is pre-existent or light — it is still something with substance, still a thing. Substance is, as a result, co-eternal with the universe and, one imagines, its Artificer.

The pre-existence of the matter, the stuff, the substance of the universe as raw material to be worked upon by the Maker is not restricted to the cinematic imagination. In the issues of The Mighty Thor that follow the tale of Malekith, wherein Surtur tries to destroy the universe and bring about Ragnarok, Simonson has Odin tell the tale of his encounter with Surtur at the origins of the universe, with references to the story as we know it best from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, such as using Ymir’s skull to form the heavens.

In the Poetic Edda, the universe is born out of a void, as in the Voluspá:

3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.

In the Prose Edda, we learn of Surtr — the inspiration for Simonson’s comics:

Yet first was the world in the southern region, which was named Múspell; it is light and hot; that region is glowing and burning, and impassable to such as are outlanders and have not their holdings there. He who sits there at the land’s-end, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire

As the Prose Edda makes its way to the creation of the universe as we know it, we encounter a chasm of ice, Ginnungagap, from which Ymir is born. What we do not meet in Norse mythology, whether in Snorri’s Prose Edda or the anonymous Voluspá of the Poetic Edda, is creatio ex nihilo — just as in Thor: The Dark World, something was there. Substance already was.

Greek cosmology is similar. Chaos is where Hesiod’s universe originates — self-generating deities emerge from it on their own. From these, as well as Earth, Tartarus, and Eros, all other deities of his Theogony are born. Chaos is, according the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddel and Scott, infinite space, a chasm, the nether abyss, infinite darkness, the air, any vast gulf or chasm; obviously not all of these at once. It is a nothing with substance. For a chasm cannot be defined without the substances it divides.

The difficulty with the Prose Edda, Voluspá, and Hesiod’s Theogony is that they are richly symbolic and potent expressions of something in the poetic and mythic mode. But not science; not meant to be. Not philosophy; not an attempt to look at the chaos and sort out, using reason and experience, what the cosmos (order) is and how it came to be.

The most influential Classical text that does that is Plato’s Timaeus. In this dialogue, Timaeus says:

This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the others. (30a-b, trans. Jowett,Vol. 3,  p. 717)

Earlier, Timaeus had said that the created universe was made as an image of the eternal, rational one that the Artificer had access to. Plato has no chaos; nor does he have creatio ex nihilo. Lucretius the Epicurean Latin poet-philosopher writes:

when we shall perceive that nothing can be created from nothing [nil posse creari de nilo], then we shall at once more correctly understand from that principle what we are seeking, both the source from which each thing can be made and the manner in which everything is done without the working of gods.

For if things came out of nothing [si de nilo fierent], all kinds of things could be produced from all things, nothing would want a seed. (De Rerum Natura 1.155-160; trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson Smith – Loeb)

I have passed the 1000-word mark, so shall now descend to commenting and skip Ovid. Although the film Thor: The Dark World does not seem to follow either Simonson nor the medieval Norse mythological texts, it is consonant with them in envisioning a universe where some sort of substance was coeval with all that is, even with the Artificer-God(s) — and Norse mythology, in turn, resonates with Hesiod in particular, but also Plato’s Timaeus and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

The material mind in a material world has difficulty conceptualising nothing, nihil. Indeed, it turns out that the ‘nothing’ of much scientific enquiry seems to have been a ‘something’ all along — that is, the ‘nothing’ of balanced equations. The ‘nothing’ of philosophy and theology remains literally ‘nothing’, no existence, neither darkness nor light, neither chasm nor sphere, without form or substance. Void.

But what if we turn back to hints in the Timaeus?

Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. … But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. (28a, 29a)

What if the uncreated Artificer, in fact, created the matter ex nihilo? A universe with no chasm of ice, no chaos, no sphere of unformed matter. Rather,

In the beginning, God created …

(Quick note for the trolls: The above has nothing [ha!] to do with a literal seven-day creation, so save yourselves time and effort by moving on. Thanks.)

Conan the Barbarian (1982, of course)

I have a cold, so I stayed in today to recuperate. And because a friend on Facebook has made some recent Conan the Barbarian soundtrack posts recently, I was in the mood for the Cimmerian’s days of High Adventure. While you read this post, enjoy Basil Poledouris’ soundtrack:

conan_1That soundtrack, in fact, is the best place to begin. Conan the Barbarian would not be the film it is with Poledouris’ soundtrack. Although I haven’t seen Conan the Destroyer since I was a kid, I have no doubt that it’s the best part of the sequel. This soundtrack is the other protagonist, some say. I believe it. Soundtracks provide the mood of a film, and the mood of this film is that of high adventure, of epic, of a grand stage on which daring deeds are performed. It’s like how either ‘the mood’ or ‘Gormenghast Castle’ are the actual main character of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, not the hypostatic characters.

At the beginning, as Conan’s father teachers him of Crom and discusses The Riddle of Steel, there is a feeling that here, in these early roots of fantasy (Robert E Howard, Conan’s creator, died in 1936), Northernism was already present.

That’s not the case. Sword and Sorcery — the subgenre to which Conan belongs — is not as Northern as Tolkien or The Worm Ouroboros by far. Howard set Conan and Kull in the Hyborian Age, between the Ice Age and the beginning of recorded history; later adaptors/continuators such as Roy Thomas in the comics and L. Sprague de Camp in print (amongst whose writing credits is the novelisation of Conan the Barbarian, one of the two Conan books I’ve read) set it ca 10,000 BC.

Whenever the Hyborian Age was, it is a time long past. It is by no means mediaeval, and, although Howard’s Cimmeria whence Conan hails is Northern, this film takes place farther south.

Indeed, the sets of Conan the Barbarian‘s cities feel like early cities, not dissimilar to Mesopotamia. Certainly the topography is not northern. We have here a land reminiscent of the Eurasian Steppe at times, at Central Asia at others (which I’m pretty sure is what they’re going for). It is refreshing, in a genre overrun by medievalism and northernism, to find a world that is consciously pre-historical yet urban, purposefully mythical and technologically primitive.

I’m sure other people could point out more, but there are a few Classical echoes in Conan the Barbarian — Conan’s homeland of Cimmeria is one of the lands in The Odyssey, Conan fights as a gladiator, reference is made to Titans, and Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. In the Bacchanalian scene at Thulsa Doom’s lair, there is even a tamed ‘panther’, drawing us into the world of Dionysius and his revels.

Furthermore, to show us how transgressive Thulsa Doom’s people are in relation to the wider world and how they undermine civilisation, they are anthropophagists (cannibals) — the eating of human flesh was a strong symbol of savagery and the undoing of civilised life in Greek literature; Polyneices was accused of metaphorically eating the flesh of his fellow citizens in Antigone, for example. Also, this was a bad idea:

Tydeus eats Melanippus' brain in the campaing of the Seven Against Thebes on the pediment of an Etruscan temple, now in the Villa Giulia, Rome

Tydeus eats Melanippus’ brain in the campaing of the Seven Against Thebes on the pediment of an Etruscan temple, now in the Villa Giulia, Rome

Tydeus never really lived down eating Melanippus’ brain. The gods above are quite shocked.

Here is an undoubtedly subconscious Classical resonance, but one nonetheless.

Another ancient resonance is Conan’s famous quotation that the best thing in life is:

Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.

One of the most ancient codes out there is simply: Help your friends; harm your foes. Its traces are found in Homer and a lot of archaic period Greek poetry. It is the code of Gilgamesh. It is the code of Niall’s Saga. Indeed, it underlies much feud practice, from Troy to gangland and drive-by shootings.

I don’t have very many other thoughts, except that I’m going to read some Robert E Howard soon. I’ve read a number of the Roy Thomas comics and black-and-white magazines, and I saw the original two films plus Kull, and I’ve read Kull. But it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in this, and I’ve actually read very little of Howard’s Conan output. Who knows what classical resonances I’ll find? Certainly, even if some scorn pulp and the sword and sorcery subgenre, these stories are amongst the foundations of modern fantasy.

But what about the Gammorean Guard? (Luke’s dark path)

Rancor eats gamorrean guardThe other night my wife and I were watching Return of the Jedi. As you well know, Luke Skywalker does battle with a monster called the Rancor in a cavern beneath the throne of Jabba the Hutt in Jabba’s Palace in Tattooine towards the beginning of the film. When Luke falls through the trapdoor activated by Jabba, one of the green, pig-headed guards — a Gammorean Guard (fact: Gommorian would be better) — falls with him.

The Gammorean Guard is promptly eaten by the Rancor.

Throughout Luke’s dragonslaying encounter with the Rancor, we get flashes of the crowd upstairs cheering on the fight or looking worried. Amongst them are other Gammorean Guards. Due to being men in rubber suits, they are impassive, unflappable. I noticed this time that as we see Luke’s accompanying Gammorean gobbled up by the Rancor that the shot cuts to one of the watching Gammorean Guards.

We don’t really think about this guy, do we? But I’m sure that his rubber heart was broken by watching a stop-motion version of his friend eaten by a stop-motion monster.

This is part of the whole wickedness of Jabba’s Palace. He doesn’t give a whit for sentient life. He lives for pleasure and monetary gain. When Luke poses a threat to that, not only does he casually attempt to feed Luke to a monster, he does so without being careful to keep his own minions safe. One of his personal guards is eaten by the monster to whom he feeds his enemies because of the hard, cruel heart lurking beneath his sluggish, flabby body.

jabba's palaceAnd then Luke kills the Rancor.

This looks to be a great moment for him. We see him in action, using his martial skills acquired in his Jedi training. We cheer him on in the conflict. Well done, Luke! You saved yourself and defeated the enemy.

But wars make one not great.

There lies the Rancor, dead and gone.

rancor keeperI’ve always been struck by the Rancor Keeper as he strides in, shirtless, to see his pet monster slain by the young Jedi. He sees the beast lying there dead and begins to cry, and an alien of some sort comforts him. I realised yesterday morning that I subconsciously thought of the Rancor Keeper as the Rancor’s dad.


Here’s the next question that the pain of the Rancor Keeper and the meaningless slaying of the Gammorean Guard raises — for what? Was it worth it?

We automatically say, ‘Yes! Luke would have died otherwise.’

But Luke was in Jabba’s Palace of his own free will. So then we say, ‘Ah, but he was there in a daring rescue mission to set Han free from the carbonite freezing.’

And look how that single rescue mission of one man — one man who is not essential for the survival of the human race, let alone the rebellion against the Galactic Empire — transpires. Besides the Gammorean Guard and the Rancor, there are the many others dead, slain at the Sarlic Pit, either by Luke’s lightsaber or by falling into the pit’s beast where they will be slowly digested for 1000 years. Fan favourite Boba Fett goes this way (don’t worry, the comic books resurrect him).

The famous Bible quote is, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’, not, ‘Greater love has no man that this, that he kill a whole bunch of dudes to rescue one friend.’

yodaIn The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke not to go to Cloud City and confront Darth Vader. Luke is not ready. Doing so will set Luke down a dangerous path, a path of dancing with darkness and fear, a path that could lead to the Dark Side. What if this opening scene at Jabba’s Palace is intentionally ambiguous rather than straightforwardly heroic? What if Luke is still on his ambiguous path from Empire?

Mark Hamill certainly thought so, and imagined that Luke would actually go over to the Dark Side before finding redemption, just like his father. Some have even speculated that Darth Luke is the reason we don’t see Skywalker on any of the movie posters or in the trailers for The Force Awakens.

I, for one, think that Luke was headed on an ambiguous path. And he found himself in the Emperor’s Throne Room, and he confronted Darth Vader, and he was headed towards the Dark Side. You can see it in his fury, his rage, his violence. And then he cuts off his father’s hand. He looks at his own robotic hand. He realises that he is doing exactly what the Emperor wants. He realises that he is headed towards the Dark Side.

And unlike Anakin Skywalker, he stops.

If Luke had turned to the Dark Side, he would have had to have killed Darth Vader, in cold blood, just as Anakin killed hundreds of Jedi himself. But Luke is not his father. He is his father’s redemption. Thus the return of the Jedi.

And as Luke suffers for his realisation and choice of the Light over the Dark, Anakin Skywalker, one of the greatest Jedis of history, returns and kills off the Sith Lord, Emperor Palpatine.

But the path that led to that Throne Room, to that moment of decision where Luke almost chooses Darkness over Light, violence over mercy, death over life, includes Jabba’s Palace and the deaths of many of Jabba’s minions, from the Gammorean Guard to Boba Fett to Jabba the Hutt himself.

Why I like science fiction films

This was meant to have been posted in July, but when I scheduled it, I accidentally scheduled it to post in 2010 not 2014, so it was filed where no one could find it! Enjoy.

For the oral exam in my French class last week, I drew a subject out of a hat and talked about it in front of my classmates. The question was which genre of film do I particularly like and why. My answer was science fiction, a fact recently bolstered by re-watching Alien and taking in last summer’s Oblivion (not bad, if not great) and Pacific Rim this month.

Why do I like science fiction movies?

First, growing up in a small town in Alberta leaves most opportunities for adventure up to the imagination. Of which I had no short supply as a child, I admit. What science fiction films provided for me was adventure far beyond the world of the Clearwater Forest, the North Saskatchewan River, the Rocky Mountains. A world where adventure was as thrilling as what I imagined was going on during a hike in the mountains.

Science fiction fuels the appetite of young boys and young men, provides us with vicarious adventures we’d not otherwise have. And not all sci-fi adventure is violent (not denying the violence of the Alien and Terminator franchises, though) — in The Empire Strikes Back we have the battle on Hoth at the beginning and then some firefight and a legendary light sabre duel at the end. Most of the adventure is spent in running from the Empire and meeting Yoda, the adventure of training young Luke Skywalker.

Second, and related, science fiction can help open our eyes to a bigger universe, a universe not simply of adventure but even of opportunity. My cousin who grew up in actual middle of nowhere at a missionary station in Africa says that Star Trek was a very important influence on her when young because it helped her see a world, a universe, larger than what she knew. Star Trek doesn’t just stave off boredom, it opens minds and eyes to the universe, to the potential of humanity. It can make clever young minds realise that perhaps they aren’t alone in the universe. (For the clever do so often feel alone. And I don’t mean aliens; I mean other clever people.)

Third, science fiction films can discuss issues of philosophy, politics, and society in an imaginary forum without the heat generated by real, live conversations. This way, a person who is being entertained can begin questioning him- or herself about his’er own life. Famously, Star Trek includes the first televised interracial kiss in the 1960s. It also features an episode where two races are at ceaseless war on a planet where one race was black on the left and white on the right half of their bodies, the other race the opposite. And that was the basis of their conflict. Star Trek shows the utter folly of racism.

District 9 raises questions about the treatment of refugees. Elysium makes us probe into the growing disparity between earth’s rich and poor and the mental apparatus for a just society. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country makes us ask: what is it to be human? Can ancient enemies become friends?

The final frontier is not space, my friends. It is the human mind, and human potential is the subject of many of the greatest science fiction stories, from Forbidden Planet through classic Star Trek to Inception. What are the limits of the mind? If you give a human brain too much power, what sort of person do you get? What does character have to do in relation to this intectual potential?

Finally, it’s fun. This is coming full circle to the first reason. Beyond the questions of what is human and what is just action and all of that, I like science fiction because I enjoy it. I read a lot of books all day and work fairly hard at my PhD. It is nice sometimes to come home and watch a movie like Pacific Rim that has a good story and is visually stunning but doesn’t require as much brain power as I’ve expended all day.

These are the reason I gave, only much more eloquently and with more examples in English than in French!

Movies that would be different with the Three Laws of Robotics

First, so you know what’s going on, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws were developed in Asimov’s various robot stories and novels as a way of protecting humanity from the Frankenstein complex. The laws are so thoroughly encoded into the positronic brain that an Asimovian robot would cease to function were it to break one of the laws.

The thought came to me while watching Elysium that none of the action of the film would have happened with the Three Laws — the robot cop wouldn’t have been able to use force against Matt Damon’s character, who would thence not be irrated, and thus never invade Elysium. Boom. Done.

What other films would be affected by the Three Laws of Robotics? Obviously robots built by aliens, such as Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, don’t count.

Well, straightaway, obviously no Terminator, Matrix, Blade Runner, or Battlestar Galactica or any other film/TV series wherein robots are the antagonists. The Three Laws are meant to prevent precisely those films.

Alien would only be slightly different. Ash would have to be replaced by a human who, for some diabolical reasoning or bent in his psychology, was willing to do what Weyland Industries wanted. Similarly, then, for Michael Fassbender’s robot in Prometheus. It is plausible to use a human being in these two cases.

Star Wars would lack the interrogation droid, but I’m pretty sure people could have given Princess Leia needles instead. And the droid army in Phantom Menace was utterly useless, anyway; the Trade Federation would have done better to hire mercs or something that can’t be taken down by a power failure. However, the fact that their actions in helping run small fighters kill ‘human’ life, programming R2 units and their ilk with the Three Laws would make them unserviceable in the Rebel fleet.

The auto-pilot in Wall-E would not have suppressed the information of Earth’s habitability brought back by EVE and they would have gone straight home.

Do mutants count as human? The Sentinals in X-Men: Days of Future Past are designed precisely to hunt down mutants, although they do turn on human sympathisers and potential parents of mutants. I wonder.

These are all I can think of. Of course, the robot brutality in Elysium is of interest because the robots can only harm or even arrest non-citizens of Elysium. So there is an element of the Three Laws as applied only to the wealthy in that case. So even foolproof programming can lead to problems for the fools…

Anniversaries for 2014

The Prima Porta AugustusA few months ago, I realised that 2014 will be the 2000th anniversary of the death of the Emperor Augustus — certainly one of the Great Men of History. As part of my personal commemoration of said emperor, I’m going to read a bit more about him and write up an anniversary blog post on August 19.

But Augustus’ death isn’t the only anniversary of note this New Year. In what follows, things I’m likely to blog about are in bold. The rest are for your reading pleasure:

January 14 marks the 2100th anniversary of the death of Gaius Marius.

January 27 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Viollet-le-Duc, the famous French Neo-Gothic architect and restorer of Notre-Dame.

January 28 marks 1200 years since the death of Charlemagne, yet another Great Man of History.

January 30 marks 9 years since my first date with Jennifer.

February 2 marks 100 years since Charlie Chaplin’s film début.

April 2 would mark Sir Alec Guiness’ 100th birthday (d. 2000).

April 5 is the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’ wedding.

April 6 marks the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the French monarchy.

April 7 marks the 400th anniversary of El Greco‘s death.

April 11 marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s abdication (he’ll be back, mind you).

May 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the House of Commons passing Irish Home Rule.

May 29 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Empress Josephine.

May 30 marks the 200th anniversary of the First Treaty of Paris signalling the supposed end of the Napoleonic Wars and the retreat of French borders back to what they were in 1792.

June 20 marks the 800th anniversary of the papal ordinance defining the rights of scholars at the University of Oxford.

June 22 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Matthew Henry, the biblical commentator.

Robert the BruceJune 24 marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

June 28 marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, mind-bogglingly starting the First World War. I leave out other WWI anniversaries for convenience.

July 7 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Waverley, Sir Walter Scott’s first historical novel.

July 10 would mark Joe Shuster’s 100th birthday (co-creator of Superman; d. 1992).

July 24 would mark Ed Mirvish’s 100th birthday (d. 2007).

July 25 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.

August 1 marks the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian succession to the throne of Great Britain.

August 24 marks the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington by British forces.

August 30 marks the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Arles that made Donatism officially schismatic in the eyes of the wider church.

Mom & Dad looking excellentOctober 1 would be the Roman historian Sallust’s 2100th birthday. It is also my dad’s 65th birthday.

October 8 marks the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of Cibalae where Constantine defeated Licinius.

October 17 marks the 200th anniversary of the London Beer Flood; less amusing than its name, nine people died in this flood of beer.

October 17 would also be Jerry Siegel’s 100th birthday (other co-creator of Superman; d. 1996)

December 4 marks the 800th anniversary of the death of King William the Lion of Scotland.

December 24 marks the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812.

2014 will also be the 2500th anniversary of death of Persian Emperor Darius I; the 2400th anniversary of the death of Greek comedic playwright Aristophanes; the 2200th anniversary of the banning of the Bacchanalian rites in Rome; the 1900th anniversary of the erection of Arch of Trajan at Beneventum; the 1800th birthdays of Roman Emperors Aurelian (d. 275)  and Claudius II (d. 270); the 1700th birthday of Greek rhetorician Libanius; the 1300th anniversary of Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel taking effective power; the 1100th anniversary of the town of Warwick, England; the 1100th anniversary of Waterford, Ireland; and the 800th anniversary of the rosary, according to tradition.

Have a happy 2014!

My Hobbit rant

I write this now in hopes that, having got it into the ether, I will be able to watch The Desolation of Smaug in December and enjoy myself…

Before I really get going with my The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rant, I would like to say that I am well aware that filmmakers are usually forced to change things when they adapt novels for the silver screen. There are various factors that contribute to this — filmability, a desire for more action, updating technology for a modern age, keeping the story to a desirable length. And so forth.

Nevertheless, sometimes filmmakers change things for no apparent good reason.

Peter Jackson is obsessed with unnecessarily long fight scenes, many of which are not in Tolkien’s books. I think he doesn’t know how to do adventure stories, quite frankly. But that’s not this rant. That I can sort of live with — although I shudder at scenes of dwarves in barrels battling elves and unnecessary Legolas derring-do in trailers for December’s film. This rant runs deeper, to the very fabric of Tolkien’s stories and how he reweaves it into something else.

At a few points in the first Hobbit film, events that were entirely random or by chance in the novel are given agency. For example, as they cross the Misty Mountains, they are manipulated by the goblins to take refuge in their cave. However, in the novel, they choose the goblin cave entirely by chance.

Later, after they escape from said goblins, they take refuge in a glade where, it turns out, some Wargs happen to be meeting that night. In the film, the Wargs, with accompanying goblins, chase them there (if memory serves aright) — and Azog is with them, hunting Thorin. The action of the film, rather than simply accidental as in the novel, is being propelled by some visible agent. And in the case of Azog, an agent who in the novel is elsewhere, making trouble for Dain in the Iron Hills. That would be a different rant.*

The first time I noticed Peter Jackson doing this sort of thing — taking Tolkien’s chance events and giving them an agent — was in The Fellowship of the Ring. There, everyone of the Fellowship and their companies arrive at Elrond’s for a council because Elrond has called them there. In the book, they all arrive at about the same time by chance, all for seemingly unrelated purposes that turn out to converge on the Ring.

Jackson has removed what appear to be chance events from the narrative.

But, you see, they aren’t chance events at all.

First, we could take the line that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and Catholic theology will tell you that God is in control and invisibly manipulating events to his own ends. In this direction, Tolkien’s Catholicism is silently shaping the stories, especially in the case of The Fellowship of the Ring where one senses that an unseen mover was at work (Illuvatar, anyone?). Thus, by making a visible character the agent who makes things transpire, Peter Jackson has changed the quiet theology that actually underpins Tolkien’s whole work — a theology that would make one think that Sauron was destined for defeat.

The other line is tied into Tolkien’s life as a mediaevalist and Germanic philologist (as I’ve observed in my series on Beowulf and The Hobbit). As an Oxford professor, J. R. R. Tolkien primarily researched and taught Old English and Old Norse; he even composed verse in Old English, besides modern English verse in Old English metres.

One of the powerful threads running through much Old English and Old Norse literature is the sense of fate, almost of what we might today think of as fatalism — but perhaps more properly destiny? Fatalism would be an anachronistic term to the northern Germanic peoples whose literature is under discussion.

The Old English elegies are a good example of this sense of fate. For a sample, here are the first lines of ‘The Wanderer’:

Often the Wanderer pleads for pity
and mercy from the Lord; but for a long time,
sad in mind, he must dip his oars
into icy waters, the lanes of the sea;
he must follow the paths of exile: fate is inflexible. (Trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology)

Fate is inflexible. This also governs the Icelandic sagas, where people do what they must do — give up a seat in the boat home, kill an ox, burn down an enemy’s house. Not because they wish to. Because they must. It is their destiny. Literature, narrative burdened and underpinned by destiny has a very different weight and feel to it from the submonotheistic literature of the everyday that looks at stars and sees only what they are made of, not what they are (to borrow from Tolkien’s colleague, C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) — the sort of narrative Peter Jackson crafts for us.

Jackson has removed destiny from Tolkien’s stories, he has removed an important part of the essence of the tales. Rather than being about people driven by circumstances beyond their control, someone, somewhere makes everything happen. And that diminishes them.

Other stuff I’ve said here about The Hobbit

Beowulf and The Hobbit — linking you to the final part of the series since it links you to the rest of them.

The Hobbit: Please Only Make Two Films

*Gist of other rant: By making characters who were originally offstage players in a worldwide arena onscreen players with the main action, the scope of Tolkien’s story is greatly diminished, as when Elves go to Helm’s Deep who should have been fighting evil elsewhere with Celeborn.