Tag Archives: wrath of khan

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!

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The Nibelungenlied: Vengeance

This is the final post in series on the Middle High German epic The Nibelungenlied. We began with variations, then moved on to history followed by deception and betrayal. We now come to vengeance.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.
-Klingon Proverb quoted by Khan Noonien Singh

Kriemhild from part 2 of Fritz Lang’s ‘Nibelungen’

Siegfried, for all his might and glory, spends much of the action in the first half of the Nibelungenlied deceiving Brunhilde, getting betrayed, and lying about dead in a very fancy coffin. His wife Kriemhilde cannot overcome his death. When Etzel (Atli; Attila the Hun) sends someone to woo her for him, she refuses until she realises that she can use the power of this faroff pagan king to work for her advantage and avenge the death of Siegfried.

So she marries Etzel and has some kids.

After several years, she decides it’s time to kill off the rest of the cast of the epic. So she invites her brothers and their entourage to Hungary to hang out with them there. Hagen of Tronege, Siegfried’s betrayer, knows that she hasn’t forgiven him for that or for stealing the treasure of the Nibelungs from her and then sinking it in the Rhine. So he tells everyone this is a bad idea. But everyone thinks him a coward, so to save his pride, he goes with them to Hungary. As they cross the Rhine, Hagen’s fears are confirmed by some water sprites who say that everyone except the chaplain will die.

They have some fun along the way, meet some people, marry off one of Kriemhilde’s (innocent) brothers, have some jousts. The usual sort of thing. Then, about halfway through the second half, they arrive in Hungary. There’s some more jousting. Then they have a feast. And then everyone dies.

It takes about one quarter of the epic for Kriemhilde to exact her revenge. Not only the guilty Gunther and Hagen die, but her innocent brothers Giselher and Gernot, almost all of Etzel’s men, and people who have nothing in stake in the dispute such as most of Dietrich of Bern’s men. It takes a long time to kill that many people, let me tell you.

I have to confess, I have never read a piece of literature so devoted not simply to revenge but to full-scale slaughter as the Nibelungenlied. You would think the Iliad would come close, but there’s a lot of fighting there that doesn’t end up with ten, twenty, a hundred people dead in five lines of poetry. I mean, this is the atreia of Achilles writ large, but with no Homeric similes or random anecdotes about someone’s father or the gods to break the sheer slaughter of the thing. I thought things were going to slow down when Kriemhilde set the banquet hall on fire – like in Icelandic sagas, you know? But no. We still had to kill off Dietrich of Bern’s men.

This butchery has understandably turned some people off the Nibelungenlied. They’d rather read a love story like Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan if they’re going to read a mediaeval German epic. Nonetheless, set in the wider context of the poem as a whole, I can’t help but wonder if we once again have a combination of moralism and subversion. Siegfried’s deception is moralistic in showing how lack of moral virtue can lead to a hero’s downfall, regardless of his other manly qualities. Hagen’s betrayal subverts the invincible hero – despite his might, Siegfried gets stabbed in the back. At least Beowulf saved his country upon his death! (Although there’s some subtle genre subversion in that epic as well.)

Here we see the pointlessness of revenge. Revenge is often central to heroic conceptions of virtus, of manliness. The primeval code it comes from is, ‘Help your friends, harm your foes.’ Thus the Iliad. Thus Medea’s murder of Jason’s second wife. Thus Roman military practices across the Rhine-Danube frontier. Thus The Count of Monte Cristo. Thus Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As with Khan, vengeance consumes Kriemhilde. Hagen even refers to her as a she-devil. Vengeance is all there is left to Kriemhilde in the years following Siegfried’s death as she broods alone in Burgundy and then pretends to play the life of a happy queen in Hungry.

And who are Kriemhilde’s true enemies?

  • Hagen of Tronege.
  • Her (penitent) brother, Gunther of Burgundy.
  • Her proud sister-in-law Brunhilde.
  • Ortwin of Metz.

That is the.

complete.

list.

And who dies because of Kriemhilde’s vengeance? Her two other, beloved brothers. Thousands of other Burgundians. Thousands of Huns. Rüedeger and his court. Dietrich of Bern’s men. Thousands slaughtered because of one woman’s revenge.

I believe that Dietrich’s presence in the Nibelungenlied is meant to underscore the futility and destructiveness of Kriemhilde’s vengeance. Almost all of his men are slain, solely because of feudal loyalty and Kriemhilde’s insistence that they get involved in a quarrel not their own.

Gold solidus from reign of Theoderic

Now, as you may recall, Dietrich of Bern is inspired by the long-distant memory of Theoderic the Great, Ostrogothic King of Italy in the early 500s. His presence in this poem ties the Nibelungenlied to the world of wider Germanic heroic literature, much the way Hercules voyaging with Jason connects the Argonautica to the world of wider Greek literature. You see, Dietrich of Bern has a whole series of epic poems about himself that predate the writing down of the Nibelungenlied. In this poem he may be an incidental character, but in those others, guessing from Cyril Edwards’ notes to his translation of the Nibelungenlied, he is not simply a major figure but a central liege with many heroes surrounding him, much like King Arthur or King Hrolf Kraki (who only gets one saga, though).

For this mighty man to lose so many of his mighty warriors, then, points to the sheer, utter destructiveness of vengeance. These deaths are harmful and ruinous, pointless and senseless.

The sheer pointlessness and senselessness of their deaths underscores the futility of revenge. A cold dish, it is not very palatable and does not warm the heart. It leaves you empty and alone, stained with the blood of your loved ones. Thus, again, does the Nibelungenlied subvert our expectations of heroic poetry even as it fulfils them.