Thursday, February 16, 2017

“Black Sails” Takes Artistic License with Blackbeard’s Fate

Well, the events of last week’s episode of Black Sails were unexpected. Yet maybe they shouldn’t have been.

Black Sails is not only wrapping up the prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but also its historical retelling of story of the Pirate Republic of Nassau. Already, Black Sails has tackled the fate of real life pirates such as Charles Vane, Edward Low, and Benjamin Hornigold, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we witnessed Blackbeard’s fate before the series’ end. That said, a good bit of artistic license was taken in the telling.

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve never been opposed to the taking of artistic license for the sake of good storytelling. In fact, I’ve written on the subject a number of times (see here and here, for example). In this instance, we saw Woodes Rogers take down Edward Teach, one of the most notorious pirates in history. Though, while the historical Rogers helped bring an end to the pirate republic, he was nowhere near Blackbeard when the famous pirate met his end. 

The historical Blackbeard found his demise at the hands of a British Lieutenant named Robert Maynard, who has never been depicted on the show. Yet the show’s writers did honor the story of how Blackbeard met his fate. After it appeared that Blackbeard had overcome Maynard’s [think Rogers’] sloop with cannon fire, Blackbeard and his men boarded the sloop to find much of its crew dead on the main deck. But Maynard had hidden more than a dozen men in the hull for an ambush. And the rest, shall we say, is history.

A must read for fans of the history behind Black Sails!
The keelhauling scene may have been gratuitous and lacking in historical evidence, though keelhauling was a very real and horrific practice in the golden age of piracy. According to Colin Woodard’s history on the matter, titled The Republic of Pirates (which I’m reading now),citing one historical account: “The final blow came from a Scots highlander who decapitated Blackbeard with a powerful swing of his sword, ‘laying it flat on his shoulder’ attached by a bit of flesh.” Alas, such a mighty Scotsman was absent on Black Sails, but Blackbeard’s fate worked out just fine in the name of good fiction.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.

Friday, February 10, 2017

On “Black Sails,” Israel Hands Adds Another Link to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”

I’ve been travelling the past seven days, so I just caught up on the latest episode of Black Sails. I’ll admit, a grin spread across my face when I realized who had captured Long John Silver.


Silver is the craftiest character on Black Sails, and once again his “silver” tongue saves his bacon after he’s captured by a weathered pirate living among the wreckage of an old ship. The pirate wants to sell Silver to the British, until Silver talks him out of it after recognizing who his captor is – a man who suffered a peculiar injury at the hands of Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard.


That man, Silver concludes, is Israel Hands, and suddenly the entire set up proved once again how brilliantly the show’s writers are sewing together this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Hands is an important character in Treasure Island, but he’s also one of Stevenson’s few characters who was actually a real-life pirate. 

Hands, as the show revealed, was Teach’s second in command. Historically, Hands is known for having been shot (but not killed) by Teach during a fit of rage. Hence that unique scar below his eye on the show (though by historic accounts, the bullet only pierced Hand’s knee). Hands’ notoriety grew tenfold when Stevenson made him one of Long John Silver’s pirates in Treasure Island. So it’s fitting on Black Sails that Silver has turned Hands from his captor to a deadly ally, as his attack on Max’s men proved last Sunday. 

I’ve always wondered if we’d ever see Israel Hands on the show. The emergence of Blackbeard last season suggested we would, but now it’s happened. And the links between Black Sails and Treasure Island only continue to grow.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The True Conflict Emerges on “Black Sails”

The final season of Black Sails on Starz looks to be as good as its predecessors, though I was struck by how quickly the fortunes turned for our favorite pirates.


At the end of Season 3, Silver and Flint had pulled off a massacre of Woodes Rogers’ British fleet with the help of Madi’s legion of freed slaves. Meanwhile, they had hidden the chest with the Urca’s treasure, with only Flint, Silver, and Jack Rackham knowing were it’s buried. While in Nassau, Billy Bones stoked the fearsome legend of Long John Silver to cow the rest of the pirates into opposing Rogers and the Brits. 

Yet twenty minutes in the premiere of Season 4, everything goes to hell. The Walrus is destroyed, Flint, Madi, and what remains of their crew are forced to flee in longboats, and Billy’s warning about the ambush that awaited Flint in Nassau somehow never was delivered. By the episode’s end, Silver is left for dead on the beach, and Black Beard is willing to abandon the pirates’ cause so long as Rogers surrenders Eleanor, whom Black Beard blames for the death of Charles Vane. All of which throws a huge wrench in Jack’s and Anne Bonny’s plans to make a new home in reclaimed Nassau.


While I was surprised at how quickly things deteriorated, the episode did a fantastic job of setting up the fundamental conflict that should lead to the series’ end and the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s all about the secret location of the buried Urca treasure. Yes, the same treasure, I believe, that Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawny, and young Jim Hawkins set out to search for in Stevenson’s classic tale.

The conflict emerges in the scene where Billy warns Flint that he’s no longer in charge of the pirates of Nassau:
“I prepared these men to follow Long John Silver upon his return,” Billy tells Flint. “Now if you assume in his absence that role reverts to you, then you assume wrong. See, my men know your name, but you’re not the one that recruited them into this. You weren’t the one that led them into those midnight raids in the western plantations. You weren’t the one who has lived with them, and drank with them, and bled with them. So in the absence of Long John Silver, the men will look to me, not you, for answers to what happens next. And I will be the one to give them those answers. Not you.”
In response, Flint plays the only card he has: “You’re forgetting one thing. Somewhere on an island a few days journey from here is a chest filled with treasure buried in a secret place. And of the three men who know of that place, I may be the last one alive after today.”
That’s when Billy reveals how important that treasure is: “Are you threatening to withhold the location of the chest that every man here has counted upon to provide for Nassau’s treasury once we secure it? Solely so you can maintain your status here?”
Which is exactly what Flint is doing: “There is an unthinkable victory within reach. And I will see this through with whatever means I have at my disposal.”
But that’s when Madi drops a bomb: Silver entrusted her with the treasure’s secret too. And so long as she know this, she vows: “There will be no pirate king here. Of that much, I am certain.”
This fundamental conflict promises to grow throughout the season, and consume most of the main characters before it’s done. After all, Black Sails began as a prequel to Treasure Island, and has slowly been moving toward the beginning of that novel. Somehow, Billy Bones is going to get his hands on that secret. And I won’t be surprised if we see him shuffling up to the common room of The Admiral Benbow before season’s end.

* Images courtesy of Starz and Rotten Tomatoes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Where Does History’s “Vikings” Go from Here?

With only two episodes left in the second part of Season 4 of Vikings, I’m not a hundred percent sure where the show is going now that Ragnar’s death has been avenged. But I suspect the show will alter history yet again.


The past few episodes of Vikings have embraced some of the more significant events in Viking lore: the famous death of Ragnar Lothbrok in the pit of serpents, the “Great Army” formed by Ragnar’s sons Ubbe and Ivar the Boneless to avenge Ragnar’s death, and King Aelle of Northumbria’s legendary demise by “blood eagle,” the most gruesome punishment of the Viking Age. Aelle’s death is really the end of the “legend” or “myth” of Ragnar Lothbrok, and gives way to real history after that – except on Vikings.


Historically, the Great Army invaded Northumbria in 865 A.D. and defeated King Aelle (whose defense of York, by all accounts, was wholly ineffective, as portrayed on the show). From there, the Great Army headed south, and a few years later pressed into Wessex, where it encountered a king named Ethelred and his younger brother Alfred at the Battle of Reading. Both, incidentally, were the sons of a king named Athelwulf of Wessex.

On the show, of course, there is no Ethelred. Instead King Ecbert has appointed his son Athelwulf to defend Wessex when the Vikings arrive. The historical Athelwulf, however, died in 858 A.D., ten years before the Great Army invaded Northumbria. But his son Alfred would, in fact, grow up to become King Alfred the Great, who’s renowned for saving England from the Vikings in the ninth century.

Viking’s Alfred (who happens to be the son of our favorite monk Athelstan instead of Athewulf) is clearly meant to be Alfred the Great. It also seems likely that Season 5 of Vikings will cover the conflict between Alfred and the Danes. So I suppose the next two episodes of Season 4 will take us to Wessex, where Ethelred does not exist and Athelwulf will leap through time and space to take on Ragnar’s vengeful sons. 


True history has always been a bit of a mess on History’s Vikings – something the show that follows Vikings freely admits. That said, I’ve long been okay with a story taking historical license to make great fiction, and I’m fine with it here. 

Yet one area the show has free reign, historically speaking, is with Lagertha, the famous shieldmaiden who may or may not have been a real historical figure. Season 4 has gone beyond the legendary account of Lagertha’a life by the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, so the writers have a blank slate as far as she’s concerned. Lagertha has always been one of my favorites on the show, and I hope she survives to Season 5. I’m don’t mind Vikings toying with real history, so long as it keeps one of the best parts of Norse legend around a while longer.

* Images courtesy of History

Thursday, January 12, 2017

On History’s “Vikings,” Ragnar Lothbrok Gives Rise to Bernard Cornwell’s “Last Kingdom”

I’ll be the first to admit that part 2 of Season 4 of Vikings on History snuck up on me. But when I started catching up with the new half-season, I did not realize that Vikings was becoming a prequel to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. In fact, it seems, we can credit Ragnar Lothbrok for giving rise to the very events that would create Uhtred of Bebbanburg. 


Unbeknownst to me, Vikings’ new half-season premiered on November 30th, right after Westworld’s penultimate episode, when I was too caught up with Delores and what may lie at the center of the Maze. I didn’t see a thing about Vikings on the 20 or so blogs I follow regularly, and had no idea the new half-season had even aired until one of my friends asked me about it. Needless to say, I’m a few episodes behind, but after the fourth episode, I was struck by the clever trick the writers had played with actual history.

When Season 4 began way back in February of 2016, I wondered if this season might end with Ragnar Lothbrok’s legendary death at the hands of King Aelle of Northumbria (Ælla, if using his proper Saxon name). Ragnar’s death is what inspires his famous sons to attack Britain, and nearly conquer the whole island. Then, lo and behold, at the end of Season 4’s first part, we’re introduced to the adult sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Everything seemed to be coming together.

Then History gave us a twist of sorts. I’ve long noted that the actual history on Vikings is quite skewed, especially its timeline. But that’s not the case for this twist. Rather, the writers have had Ragnar Lothbrok become the author of the event that would inspire his sons’ revenge.

Ivar the Boneless plays a role in Cornwell's The Last Kingdom
Throughout all of Season 4, Ragnar has been in a hugely dark place following the failed siege of Paris. In fact, Season 4 opened with Ragnar staring at the gates of Valhalla, only to see them shut before he gets there. He is a man wracked by guilt over the fate of the Viking settlers in Wessex and the death of his beloved friend Athelstan. He’s had a death wish all season and that desire worsens after he shows up years later in Kattegat, when the new half-season begins.

The dialogue between Ragnar and Ecbert was a fantastic scene!
When he and his son Ivar return to Wessex, Ragnar begs King Ecbert to kill him. But Ecbert can’t. The two men are like kindred souls, both haunted by similar demons, and I dare say they’ve almost become friends. But that’s when Ragnar – and the show’s writers – throw us the curve ball. It turns out that Ragnar himself hatches the plot to have King Aelle be his slayer. Ragnar convinces Ecbert to hand him over to Aelle (the very first king whose lands Ragnar ravaged way back in Season 1), with the promise that when his sons seek revenge for their father’s death, they will exact that revenge on Northumbria instead of Wessex. So not only has Ragnar arranged his own famous death, he has aimed his son’s wrath squarely on Northumbria – which is precisely where they go historically.

What the new half-season is setting up to be is a prequel to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, which chronicles the Viking conquest of Northumbria. In fact, the capture of York by Ragnar’s sons Ubba and Ivar is one of the first events in Cornwell’s novel, where a boy named Uhtred is captured by the Danes. Uhtred will go on to become one of Cornwell’s most iconic characters, and the hero of no less than 10 novels and a TV series that aired last year on BBC America. 

Uhtred of Bebbanburg on The Last Kingdom
With Vikings big twist, Ragnar Lothbrok has inadvertently set in motion the series of events that give birth to the hero Uhtred becomes. And for anyone who has read the Last Kingdom series (which also focuses on Alfred the Great, the king who basically saved England from becoming Daneland), this does not bode well for Ragnar’s descendants. Quick note to Ragnar’s son Ubba: You do not want to fight Uhtred of Bebbanburg!

Even more interesting is that Vikings has been renewed for a fifth season, which means that it and The Last Kingdom, which will air Season 2 on Netflix, may be covering the same historical events with many of the same characters. This seems surreal, but since both shows are great, I’m not sure I mind. In fact, I think the journey might be rather fun.

* Images courtesy of History and BBC America.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Season 4 of "Black Sails" Is Almost Here!


One of my favorite shows of the past few years has been Black Sails on Starz. It's an amazing prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and has been, in my view, one of the best shows on television. A rival, perhaps, to even Game of Thrones. The final season premiers on September 29, and one has to expect it will end right about where Treasure Island begins. Also, the trailer looks amazing!


I've written a lot about this show, but if you want to catch up before the final season begins, here are a few posts to start with: "On 'Black Sails' the Seeds of 'Treasure Island' are Beginning to Grow"; "Where Things Stand on Season 3 of 'Black Sails'"; "Eleanor is Making Cersei-like Decisions on 'Black Sails'"; and "It's All About Silver in the 'Black Sails' Season Finale!" You can also read my review of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island here.

Until then, I'll be counting the days until we can sail again on the high seas with Captain Flint, Long John Silver, Anne Bonny, and all the crew!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

“Unholy Night” – A Clever Reimagining of a Biblical Tale

For my final post of 2016, here’s my review of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Unholy Night. I had hoped to write this before Christmas, as the book is somewhat pertinent to that event, but alas holiday shopping and work got in the way. Yet as they say, better late than never . . .


I may never forget the Antioch Ghost. I had expected Seth Grahame-Smith’s Unholy Night to be a reimagining of the biblical nativity tale and Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt, one where the Three Wise Men were thieves instead of magi. In concept, the book was intriguing, especially to someone like myself who enjoys historical fantasy with religious elements. In practice, the books was so much more, all because Grahame-Smith gave us the Antioch Ghost.

In the story’s world, set in the year 2 B.C. during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Antioch Ghost is a legend, the Scourge of Rome and Thief of the Eastern Empire. The moniker belongs to Balthazar, a Syrian, who we find running from the army of Herod the Great, king of Jerusalem, who is pursuing the Ghost after his latest heist. When Balthazar is caught and imprisoned with two more outlaws, an African named Gaspar and a Greek named Melchyor, he must devise an ingenious escape, and three of Herod’s priests (“wise men,” no less) prove integral to that plan.

Balthazar and his companions have little in common with these magi!
On the run in Bethlehem, Balthazar and his two companions take refuge in a barn, where they encounter a carpenter named Joseph, his teenage wife, and their newborn son. They also encounter Herod’s men, who have orders from their king to kill every newborn in Judea to eliminate the Messiah, whom Herod’s prophets claim will topple all the kingdoms of the world. (Herod, by the way, proves to be a truly fiendish and memorable villain in this tale!) This slaughter of innocents proves more than Balthazar can bear, motivating him to save the young family and bring holy hell down on Rome.

As far as stories about thieves go – of the medieval and ancient kind, at least – Unholy Night is one of the best I’ve read. In fact, had the story simply been about Balthazar the thief, it would be a good read. Balthazar, however, is not a religious man, and like many a thief he thinks only of himself. Yet once he’s involved with Mary, Joseph, and especially their infant child, he’s forced to confront serious religious questions, including the purpose of God. This conflict elevates the novel in my view.

Though despite its religious themes, the novel is no sermon. Instead, it’s a rollicking adventure packed with plenty of supernatural elements for fans of historical fantasy. There’s even a magus – an old wizard who is the last of his race -- employed by the Romans to hunt down the child using unholy magic. And then there’s the young Roman officer named Pontius Pilate who Caesar sends to aid Herod in his dark quest. The appearance of a young Pilate was an unexpected twist, and Grahame-Smith does a clever job of tying the events in this novel to those later in Christ’s life, as well as to a scorchingly famous event in the history of Rome. 

In all, I thoroughly enjoyed this tale. My only disappointment is that it’s a standalone novel, which means there will be no more stories about the Antioch Ghost. The man had series potential, but at least, in his only performance, he stole the show.