A while back, I wrote this post about vampires and history. This time round, I thought I’d focus on magic. This is, in part, thanks to the new Mr Norrell and Dr Strange TV series, which looks at what would happen if magic was around in the Napoleonic 19th century. It also happens to be the weekend I am *ahem* going to the Harry Potter studio tour. So what better time?
Much like vampires, magic wasn’t actually a thing. At least, as far as I know. In fact, any film, TV series, or game, tends to focus on this, rather than the actual – you know – magic. Merlin is a good example of this; the first season made a big deal of the will-he-won’t-he aspect of whether Merlin would reveal his gift to his best friend Arthur. <SPOILER ALERT> He never does</SPOILER>. For this reason, above anything else, it is a useful proxy for talking about secret societies and emergent religions. Early Arthurian legends focussed on the contrast between paganism and Christianity.
Then, of course, you’ve got the animal side of things. Monsters are a major part of the magic genre, up there with castles and shiny swords, and they’ve been around for centuries. I have a theory that magical monsters are really a stand-in for extinct European megafauna. But, really, it is just a great way to talk about the wild and dangerous animals that were out there in our historic past.
But perhaps the single most important thing that magic does, is reintroduce mystery. With magic, you’re never going to know all of the things. You, let’s face it, are a muggle. You cannot do magic, and you don’t understand the limitations of the art. When Harry Potter introduced new elements every year, that was allowed, because no-one said it couldn’t. Things do go bump in the night, but with modern knowledge what it is, it’s harder to be afraid of that. With magic, you get All Of That back. And it’s awesome!
This week I have mainly been playing Mount & Blade; a game series that attempts to straddle the gap between first-person combat, and broader third-person strategy. While it doesn’t completely nail either, it reaches further than almost any other. I’m feeling particularly generous due to the sheer weight of hours I have clocked since I bought it a little over a week ago. The game itself is set in the low-fantasy realm of Calradia, but gets its inclusion on this blog by dint of the expanded content. These include games set in Northern Europe in the 9th century, Eastern Europe in the 17th Century, and Western Europe in the 19th century. The Fire and Sword series in particular has taught me a lot about Eastern European history that I really didn’t know. The depictions of Tartars and Cossacks, hussars and dragoons, and the burgeoning settlements are particularly vivid. So my question is this: What is the best perspective to take in history games? The Mount & Blade games try to work the large-scale army combat from a first-person perspective. However, they also throw in broader tactical views, as well as more RPG action in settlements. In many ways it mirrors Sid Meiers’ Pirates, which let you command fleet-to-fleet engagements, duel renowned pirates, and woo the governor’s daughter. Other games dominate the ends of the spectrum, from Assassins’ Creed’s detailed urban environments to Total War’s dynastic grandeur. But none of them get every angle perfectly. In particular, I think that it is harder to get the broad-stroke strategic angle right. First-person shooters have been around long enough that single-player games know where to put themselves. Larger ‘ruling’ games still need to develop their platform. And that’s bad news as far as historical games are concerned, because ‘big history’ seriously overshadows the everyday kind. And I think I’d like more horse crap on the roads.
This week we were lucky enough to steal some time from Andrew Gould, a partner from the New World Byzantine architectural design studio. If you’ve got a house that you want to look old, and you live in Charleston, South Carolina, maybe you can hire them! A lot of the people we’ve interviewed before work in a digital space, but these guys are totally concrete.
History Mine: How do you decide where to balance historical design with modern functionality?
Andrew Gould:I don’t see that as dichotomy, because I don’t consider my buildings “historical design” – I consider them “traditional design”. Architectural tradition is simply a loose cannon of sensible and pleasing ways that things have always been built. It is a broad cannon from which to choose inspiration, and the choice of which traditional materials and details I use is driven in large part by modern practicalities. For instance, solid brick buildings are historically prevalent in Charleston, but not practical to build nowadays due to earthquake codes. So I build from concrete block and stucco and use brick as accents. Even though concrete block is a fairly modern material, it’s still solid masonry, and still traditional if detailed right.
HM: The Mugdock Castle must’ve been an inspiring project. How does something like that come about?
AG: It’s an unusual story. My first building in Charleston was the Orthodox church I designed in the I’On neighborhood – a prominent new-urbanist development outside Charleston. The developer wanted churches in his subdivision so it would function as a traditional town. Well, that developer also wanted to get an Episcopal church in there, so he bought a deconsecrated historic stone church on Sullivan’s Island, a few miles away. He planned to move the building to I’On, using a barge, but Sullivan’s Island enacted a historic district to prevent him from removing their building. Being stuck with the old stone church, he decided to renovate it as an estate for his family, naming it after the Scottish castle of his ancestors. He turned the church into a great hall, and needed to build an addition to house the bedrooms. And he wanted to it to be quite tall to get a view of the ocean. He was so impressed with the massive medieval architecture of the church I had designed in I’On, that he asked me to design his castle addition. He said he wanted it to look older than the Gothic church, so I did it in a sort of whimsical Scottish Romanesque style. It was a wonderful project because I was able to design every little design over the course of several years.
HM: As a European, I find that Americans are fascinated with history. Is this a reflection of the fact that America is still a very young country?
AG: At least with regards to art and architecture, I think the American obsession with history can be ascribed to our dearth of beautiful buildings. Most Americans live in very bland and artificial environments, and rather desperately crave some connection to historical beauty. Unfortunately, this is usually manifest in ridiculous commercialism, like Thomas Kinkade paintings and suburban shopping malls called Ye Olde Towne Centre. It is very rare in America for new buildings to actually revive tradition, and not just superficially reference it. So the few actual historic buildings and towns we have are treated with a lot of reverence.
HM: Leading on from this, would you agree if I was to suggest that part of what you are doing is reinforcing that early colonial history?
AG: Yes, definitely. In colonial times, America had really fine art and architecture. It was distinctive, not quite the same as European styles, and in many ways, better. It was something to be proud of. By building new traditional buildings I am encouraging people to identify with their cultural heritage – to think of it as something relevant – something that is still part of American life.
Fortunately, the revival of American tradition is thriving in many other fields, such as craft brewing and distilling, heritage cuisine, graphic art, folk music, etc.
HM: Do you have any current or future projects which particularly excite you? Could you tell us a bit about them?
AG: I’m working on a big Orthodox church in Greenville, SC. It’s interesting because it is Byzantine in form (cruciform with a dome), but all built honestly out of wood in the style of a Victorian American church. It’s an experiment in uniting the liturgical traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy with the building traditions of South Carolina, and I think it will be quite successful. I enjoy projects like this, which result in a building that is wholly traditional, and yet does not particularly resemble any building that was ever built before.
This week I have been thinking about the Greeks a lot. Not all that tosh about democracy. Because, as we know, Greek democracy was propped up by a massive slave underclass, was exclusive to male citizens, and took a lot of commitment. No, I’ve been looking at Greek myths. Because frankly, they’re awesome!
But the main reason I wanted to cover this subject, is to contrast some of the ways that films deal with the subject of Greek myths, the gods and demigods they portray. Specifically, I have been watching Troy (2004), Clash of the Titans (2010), and Immortals (2011). None are overly faithful to the source material, but they stick to the gods you love, the heroes you know, and the plot arcs you expect.
Of the three, the surprise highlight was Immortals. I had low expectations for a film where Mickey Rourke is the bad guy, but it was visually amazing. Take note, Hollywood! The colour palette was carefully prepared, the CGI was relatively low key (compared to Clash’s giant scorpions at least), and the use of effects like speed ramping were tastefully applied.
Still, nothing is as awesome as Liam Neeson commanding ‘Release the Kraken!’
Clash is much more of a romp, bold, colourful, and unashamed. This is impressive, because it has a lot to be ashamed of. This was a film with Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson, and it made both of them seem old and hackneyed. Compared to Troy’s Peter O’Toole, or Immortals’ John Hurt, they’re decidedly wooden.
And Troy? I loved Troy. It set the bar for modern swords and sandals films, but it might honestly be the worst of the bunch. The duel between Hector and Achilles is one of the best I’ve ever seen, but in a lot of other places, the film missed the ball completely.
Given that the story of Troy is one of the most famous stories ever, the film’s decision to focus on the key plot points as much as the character moments is perhaps the wrong way to go. Time spent with Helen and Paris is, frankly, wasted in my eyes. Both lack any real depth.
I have previously both defended and condemned focus on historical accuracy but knowing that the Trojan War was in the middle of the Bronze Age also affects my verdict. I know that armies would not have been uniformed units, but more akin to heavily armoured lords, with less-well equipped retainers behind them. I could go on, but perhaps I’m being too picky?
Bottom line? Less is definitely more. For example, Immortals’ depiction of the minotaur as a man in a bull helmet was a simple, inspired choice that grounded the conflict, without reducing the threat level. Less armour, fewer men in the armies, fewer characters for me to remember. If you can’t make them utterly unique, interesting individuals, cut them out altogether. Some films do this better than others.