Thursday, August 29, 2013

Pirates & the Caribbean Part III!

Summer is ending and oh how I wish I was still in the Caribbean. I had a wonderful vacation this year (even if there were hints of Lovecraftian horrors!), but I'd go back to Atlantis in a heartbeat, and I imagine I could get a ton of writing done in between dips in the Cove. Thoughts of the Caribbean, however, always conjure notions of pirates, and this week that means Blackbeard.

Arrr - The Capture of Blackbeard!
Yes, Captain Teach himself. And the reason was another amusing video from the talented folks at Horrible Histories, which mentioned one “Israel Hands,” who happened to be one of the antagonists in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. After a bit of research, it turns out that the Mr. Hands of Stevenson’s novel was named after a real life pirate who indeed worked for none other than the infamous Blackbeard! You can see the reference to him here.
Perhaps Treasure Island is actually the sequel to My Life With Blackbeard (or whatever his memoir was called), but now I’m thinking of pirates, which has me longing for the Caribbean and for Atlantis. If only summer was a few months longer! Despite the season’s end, however, I’m still smiling, especially after discovering this other video from Horrible Histories about that very effective form of discipline called keelhauling.

Yes, I suppose that lamenting the end of summer is better than being keelhauled. But I still wish I was back in Atlantis!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Magic & The White Queen

Starz’s The White Queen proved last Saturday that it was more than willing to cross the line between historical fiction and historical fantasy, and I really liked what I saw. I’ve not read Philippa Gregory’s books on which the show is based, but I assume the scriptwriters weren’t so bold as to add magic into the tale if it wasn’t in the original series.

The scene I’m talking about involved the Earl of Warwick and his family, along with King Edward’s brother George, escaping to France after he and Warwick plotted against the king. Elizabeth wants vengeance for the deaths of her father and brother at Warwick’s hands, so she uses the magic she inherited from her mother to summon a storm that roars across the English Channel and batters Warwick’s ship. This ends with some tragic consequences (which I won’t reveal here), but I absolutely loved the fact that the cause of the storm was Elizabeth and her arcane talents. It was a perfect use of fantasy within historical fiction.

I write historical fantasy so I’m a bit biased, but a little magic sprinkled believably into a historical setting can create an ideal blend. It provides a treat for viewers (and readers) who grew up on Tolkien and other fantasy greats, while preserving all the real-world facts and details that makes historical fiction so wonderful. I tend to prefer fantasy set it the real world – especially in the medieval or ancient eras – to the made up worlds common to fantasy fiction. There are of course some exceptions – Westeros of GRRM’s A Game of Thrones being one example – but it takes an extremely talented author to invent a world that I find more intriguing than our own Middle Ages or Classical times. So to me, a show like The White Queen provides a perfect mix. 

But I am curious as to your view? Do you mind a little magic mixed with your historical fiction? And how effectively do you think it’s being used in The White Queen?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: Brendán

As my series on the Magic of Medieval Fiction nears the Sixth Century, I decided to read Brendán by Morgan Llywelyn, a novel about one of that century’s most renowned Irish saints. I must say that in reading this book, all my research about Irish monks for Enoch’s Device seemed to come to life (which made me quite happy, by the way). My review follows this image of the book’s cover.

Set in Sixth Century Ireland, the novel reads like a biography of Saint Brendán the Navigator. While it’s primarily written in the third person, the narrative is interspersed with the saint's first-person recollections as if he was writing his memoir, as well as passages that purport to be from The Voyage of Saint Brendan, his personal account of his most legendary journey.

Brendán’s mentor is Bishop Erc, one of Saint Patrick’s original disciples and a former druid, and the connection between the druids and the early Irish clerics is one of the more interesting aspects of this novel. Erc wants Brendán to become an ordained priest, but Brendán’s wanderlust spoils the bishop’s plans. Eventually, Brendán convinces Erc to allow him to go on a pilgrimage across Ireland – the first of many such travels – and it’s these journeys that shape Brendán’s life.

His journeys also make him famous, allowing him to attract a variety of followers, including a pet raven named Préachán, who provides some of the novel's more touching scenes. Brendan ends up founding two monasteries, including Clonfert, where he became abbot later in life. Yet it is his final journey – a voyage across the Atlantic in search of Paradise – for which he is best known, and the tale of that journey weaves itself in short narratives throughout nearly every chapter of the book. While the rest of the novel is clearly grounded in reality, this final voyage is more of a mystical, spiritual journey, complete with angels and other miraculous happenings that reminded me a good bit of C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

An illumination of Saint Brendán from a medieval manuscript!
My one criticism is that the conflict level is fairly low throughout the story, which made the book too easy at times to put down. I kept reminding myself, however, that this was never intended to be an adventure tale, but rather an introspective and spiritual journey amid a backdrop of early Celtic Christianity. Fortunately, Saint Brendán is a likeable and admirable character, so following him on his journeys was enjoyable enough and made for a fulfilling read. 
Note, one of the most interesting theories about Saint Brendán's voyage is that his journey to discover Paradise actually took him to North America, centuries before Columbus supposedly discovered it. There is an interesting National Geographic article about this theory, which you can read here.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

My Vacation in Atlantis – or Was It R’lyeh?

This month, my family and I returned to one of our favorite vacation spots: Atlantis in the Bahamas. On the plane ride there, I decided to read a short story by H.P. Lovecraft called “The Temple.” It’s about a German U-boat commander whose sinking vessel settles upon the ruins of Atlantis after madness claims his crew. Having finished the story, I decided to read one of Lovecraft’s most famous tales, “The Call of Cthulhu.” This is something I’d been meaning to read for many years, and now that I’ve done so, I’ve realized something quite disturbing about the supposed “paradise” of this Bahamian Atlantis.
The Casino or the Mouth of Madness?

The Horror in Stone

My knowledge of this thing began on the first night of our trip, after my wife and daughter retired to the room and I wandered off to the casino. It was there, amid the smoky haze of a blackjack table, that I encountered Wilcox, a twenty-something Rhode Islander with an appetite for rum runners. Wilcox was seven runners in and $3,000 down, yet he was so distracted he didn’t seem to care. He spoke in a dreamy, stilted manner, muttering about something “calling him.”

“Can’t you hear it?” he asked me more than a few times.

I felt relieved when he left, and may never have thought of him again until I spied a man standing chest high in the Baths Colonnade Pool, staring at one of obelisks that rose fifteen feet out of the water. The column looked as if it had been ripped from the ruins of some ancient Egyptian shrine, crawling with hieroglyphs. To my surprise, the man was Wilcox. I waded in after him, fearing his penchant for rum runners may pose a problem for a disoriented, half-submerged man in a large swimming pool. Despite my calling his name, Wilcox just stared at the obelisk, muttering the same two words over and over. “Cthulhu fhtagn, Cthulhu fhtagn.” I figured his ramblings were the product of far too much rum.

But perhaps I was wrong.

The Tale of Inspector Legrasse

The next night I met Legrasse. He was sitting at the sushi bar of Nobu, right outside the casino. “Anything but the squid,” he told the man behind the bar, before pouring himself a cup of sake from the bottle clutched in his hand. He said he was here on vacation from New Orleans, where he had once served a police inspector. The whole time we talked, his eyes kept darting to the lamps hanging outside the restaurant, each one shaped like an octopus enveloping an orb of light. “They don’t warn you about it,” he said.

“Warn you about what?” I asked.

 “About what that really means.” He pointed a thick finger toward one of the hanging lamps. Then he asked if I’d been to the cove.

Of course, I replied, the cove was one of my favorite places on the island.

“Been there at night?”

I shook my head. That’s when he told me what he witnessed there just two nights ago: a throng of people engaged in a wild Bacchanalian ritual. His eyes grew wide and more crazed as he spoke. “Animal fury and orgiastic license whipping themselves to daemonic heights, with howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through the night like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell!” Then he raged about a monster in the cove, a “huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes!”

I was grateful when this hyperbolic Cajun got up and left, certain he was drunk on sake. But then I noticed the words scrawled on the napkin beneath his cup. 

Ph’nglui nglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
The next morning I returned to the cove and found no evidence of the Bacchanal ritual Legrasse spoke of, save for an empty solo cup cast along the sand. Nor did I encounter any huge polypous creature. Yet a question still nagged: What had inspired such strange thoughts in both Wilcox and in Legrasse?

The Madness from the Abyss

My concerns intensified later that day when I met Johansen. He was a Norwegian of some intelligence, sprawled on a lounge chair with a near-empty bottle of Captain Morgan by his side. He seemed barely coherent, gazing at a building that rose above a line of palm trees, which he referred to as “The Temple.” It was a massive stone structure of Cyclopean masonry, and Johansen seemed awed by the cosmic majesty of this dripping Babylon. I asked him about his fascination with this structure, and in reply, he told me of the terrors he’d experienced there last night.

A Temple or a Tomb?
Johansen and his six crewmates had arrived the morning before on a two-masted schooner named Emma. Following a long night of gambling and rum, they decided to sneak into the Temple after finding one of its iron gates unlocked. They climbed a winding, internal stairway until they reached the top. There stood a massive, crypt-like structure with a portal that opened like a gaping maw to the abyss. One of Johansen’s crewmates called down into the black void. Johansen seemed unsure about what happened next. “An awful squid head,” he said, “with writhing feelers reached up from the blackness!” It pulled five of his friends into the portal, while Johansen’s last mate went mad, laughing shrilly as he ran off, never to be seen again.

Casino sculpture or the Maw of Cthulhu?
The Norwegian drained the remains of his rum bottle. “Death would be a boon,” he said, “if only it could blot out the memories.”

I left Johansen passed out on the lounge chair, and despite his tale, found myself drawn to the Temple. I too scaled the many steps to the top and found the tomb-like opening. Sucking in a breath, I leapt into the abyss, plunging through mist and darkness until I landed with a thunderous splash into a water-filled cave surrounded by aquariums. I saw no sign of Johansen’s crew.

As I left the Temple, however, I could not ignore the similarity between the architecture of this place and the strange tales these men told, and even today I question whether some of what they said might be true. For if so, perhaps this place called “Atlantis” is really R’leyh, where Cthulhu still lives in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young.

Either that, or Johansen really needs to lay off the rum!

The Great Old One Himself by H.P. Lovecraft
Note, the italicized prose for this little parody was quoted or paraphrased from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Call of Cthulhu, which is a worthwhile read. It’s not Lovecraft’s best story by any means, but it’s clearly one of his most famous and it provides a core piece of the mythology that forms the basis of so many of Lovecraft’s tales. The story, while told in the first person, is really an account of prior writings about three men – Wilcox, Legrasse, and Johansen – each of whom had some connection to Cthulhu, whether it’s a bas-relief of the creature’s head, a grotesque idol worshiped by cultists in Bacchanal rituals outside New Orleans, or a soggy encounter with the Great Old One himself. Needless to say, there is way too much “telling” instead “showing” in this narrative form, and it removes what could have been a good bit of suspense (let’s just says it’s a far cry from Stephen King). But after nearly ninety years it’s become a classic, and, as I’ve said before, it’s hard to be too hard on a classic.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The White Queen & A Game of Thrones

This Saturday I watched the U.S. premiere of The White Queen on Starz, a miniseries based on the Philippa Gregory novel of the same name. The story is set during The War of the Roses, which happened to be the inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Needless to say, I enjoyed stumbling upon this post from titled “7 Ways Starz’s The White Queen Is Like Game of Thrones.”

My favorite part of the post was the discussion on character correlations (though you can read the whole post here):
It's not always direct in Game of Thrones, as one of George R.R. Martin's characters might share personality traits with a certain historical figure or group, yet a situation or position in common with another. But some people see Cersei from Game of Thrones in The White Queen's Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner Edward IV married; others see her in Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI (the king Edward IV helped depose) because she's a commanding woman fiercely devoted to putting her sociopathic son on the throne. Yes, there is a Joffrey predecessor, and his name is Edward of Lancaster, a.k.a. the Prince of Ice. Although these aren't precise match-ups, The White Queen also has a mad king (King Henry VI of Lancaster), as well as an exiled heir to the throne (Henry Tudor). Edward IV, like Robert, also has two brothers vying for the throne. (His brother George, like Renly, doesn't even want to wait for his death, telling him, "I was hoping for your crown.") Bran and Rickon, meanwhile, are probably the Princes in the Tower.
I jumped to the Cersei/Elizabeth connection too – she married a so-called “usurper” after all – but then Elizabeth seems way too nice for Cersei (though the Lancaster/Lannister similarity still keeps me guessing). As for a mad king, the first connection that jumped to my mind was Aerys II. Of course, he’s long dead by the time A Game of Thrones begins. I’m at a loss as to who might be Tyrion’s doppelganger in this English civil war, but I’m looking forward to figuring that one out.
I will say that one thing I really enjoyed was the hint of magic in The White Queen. I know this drives devotees of “purest” historical fiction batty, but I write historical fantasy, so a little magic in the story always makes me smile. It’s still many months until Season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and I’m glad The White Queen is here to help to bridge that gap!
I am curious, however, if anyone has read anything more specific about the character connections between The War of the Roses and A Song of Ice and Fire as actually intended by GRRM. Please comment and let me know.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Vikings vs. Monks!

My plans to write a more elaborate post this week were scuttled by my unforgiving travel schedule, but I did have enough time to find another amusing video from the talented folks at Horrible Histories. Hope you enjoy it!

(You can watch "Vikings vs. Monks" here too.)