Lessons from ‘The Witcher’ about Medieval Europe

The ‘Witcher’ series of books and games has become very popular recently, and so I thought I should check them out (purely for your information, of course). What I discovered was a fully formed universe, which, while very much a ‘high’ fantasy, still reflects a lot of truth about our world, both in the modern day, and in the historical era.

witcher thieves

The original books were written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The stories weave in European folklore as part of their narrative colour. The Brothers Grimm are heavily sampled. In fact, The Witcher is regarded as such a major cornerstone of modern Polish culture that a copy of one of the games was once given to Barrack Obama as a diplomatic gift.

The basic premise is pretty straightforward, the main character is called Geralt. He is one of a number of ‘witchers’. It’s their job to kill monsters. Bish; bash; bosh.

the-witcher-3_geralt-fights-a-werewolf

The slightly more complex premise is that this world is in an unnatural state. It got to this state when something called the ‘Conjunction of the Spheres’ happened. This is actually a riff on the old ‘many universes’ theory, which Phillip Pullman put to use in the ‘His Dark Materials’ series (currently being made into a TV series). This event wound up with Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and a wide array of colourful monsters all inhabiting the same place.

But here’s where it gets interesting. By the time of the latest additions to the series, the monsters are less of a threat. Sure, they are still present in the games, but not in numbers large enough to maintain a stable breeding population. This actually reflects a historical truth that is often overlooked. Europe, which is the basis for the world of The Witcher, did have megafauna of its own, even into the historical era. The last lion died in Greece in 100 BCE; the last aurochs died in Poland in 1627 CE.

Geralt Griffon

In the more recent additions to the series, monsters aren’t the problem, humans are. In fact, they are causing problems in more ways than one. Pogroms against the ‘non-humans’ (elves, dwarves, etc) are pretty common, reflecting the way that medieval Europe dealt with external cultures, such as the Jews.

War, disease and death are common themes. In fact, many of the most common ‘mob’ enemies, are a reflection of this; bandits, or undead ‘drowners’ and ghouls are all intent on killing pretty much anyone who comes across them. Even the religions can be pretty heavy-handed. Playing the games it becomes apparent that most of the general population distrusts your Geralt with his unusual appearance. However, while the Witch Hunters actively pursue magic-users and non-humans, you always get the feeling that witchers are next on their list.

stake doppler

The Witcher series does come from a historical background. The story is warped through the hands of many folk stories, and completely high-fantasy, but it reflects a degree of historical reality. And that is the excuse I’m sticking to.

Sherlock: history and fan service

It’s been more than a few weeks since the Sherlock Christmas special came out, but we would be remiss if we failed to mention it at all. As such, consider this your [SPOILERS] warning for ‘The Abominable Bride’.

I, like many of you, am a fan of the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock series. It successfully reinvents a very Victorian concept for the modern era; updating the stories, without losing the essence of what makes them unique.

However, the series has also done more than any other to respond to fan feedback. Fans have been wondering for ages what would happen if you sent Sherlock back in time. The show runners were only too happy to oblige.

Sherlock Carriage

However, they also had to square the concept with the cast, and ground it in some sort of reality. As a result, the entire episode takes place inside modern Sherlock’s ‘Mind Palace’. This led to a particularly convoluted plot. At one point, modern Sherlock is thinking about Victorian Sherlock, who is thinking about modern Sherlock…

In fact, the entire episode tries to tap into modern feminist debate. At one point, Gatiss’s character, Mycroft (with the appropriate girth), makes an oblique reference to a great adversary who should win, because they are right. And this turns out to be the women’s rights movement. Alright, but do they need to dress up in purple KKK robes and murder people? It was about here that I stopped following the plot. Probably because it was getting out-of-hand ridiculous.

Sherlock KKK

‘The Abominable Bride’ failed because it tried too hard to please everyone. However, more and more films, games and TV shows are being made which seem more at home in the pages of Tumblr than in serious history books. The upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a good example, and others, such as Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter, or Cowboys and Aliens, I have already touched on. They go beyond mere counter-factual history, to sheer joyous silliness. And for that, we can forgive them.

Twisting historical realities: more harm than good?

Troy Hector Achilles duel

I  read an interesting blog the other day about Thomas More. You know, that guy in the woodcut:

This, in turn, got me thinking about the various different angles people have approached him from; particularly Wolf Hall. Many people criticised Hilary Mantell’s story as an adaptation of history, rather than the real thing. And it is, in that it only tells one story, rather than EVERYTHING. But was it a corruption of the facts? By leaving out details like Thomas Cromwell’s use of torture, was her story fundamentally flawed?

Well, if you think that’s bad, you’re really not going to like alternate histories. Assassin’s Creed is a classic example of a story that takes history and draws together threads to weave a new tapestry (if you’ll excuse the extended metaphor).

Assassin's Creed I's AltairMany would argue that the storyline is so warped from the actual course of history that it is completely useless as a source of information. But is it? Do we consume media for information or entertainment? In many cases, particularly with alternate histories, it feels like the latter. No matter how much I told myself that watching the DVD box set of ROME *was* useful exam revision, the guilt was still there. It certainly felt more like entertainment. For those of you who are interested, ROME technically was alternate history. Pullo and Vorenus were real people, mentioned only once by Caesar, but in his account they are both Centurions.

And yet, there is plenty to be learned from modern media. It can fill many gaps that academic textbooks cannot. Atmosphere is undoubtedly top of this list. And it is the world of gaming that is best at this. I’ve given games a hard time recently, but the fact remains that games are immersive. As Dara O’Briain pointed out “You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you, and deny you access to the rest of the video game.” Films and TV you can sit down and relax to. Games you can actually explore your universe.

I feel like I’ve strayed off the topic a bit here. My point is, yes, you will never learn the gospel truth about a topic. Actually, the gospels were not the whole factual history of how things went down either – particularly as only a handful of them even made it into the bible. Regardless of how factually accurate something pretends to be, you *have* to treat it with caution. But there’s no harm in enjoying it for its own sake.

Things We Did To History In 2014

Dracula Untold

This was the year I started this blog and, looking at how popular it has been, I think it was a good time to do so. 2014 has been a very interesting year for history. We really won’t just let it stay in the past. We insist on bringing it up again and again, and we don’t mind distorting it for our own entertainment. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to run down the top 12 posts of the last year for your consumption.

#12 American food in Lord of the Rings

This February blog argued that, if Middle Earth is supposed to be set in prehistoric Europe, the tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins are completely out of place. What’s more, strictly speaking, it probably should be cannabis they are smoking, not tobacco.

Radagast the Brown gets high
If ‘Old Toby’ was really just tobacco, would it have this affect?

#11 Counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

When it comes to history in popular culture, counterfactual histories (which did not happen, and would’ve changed the course of history if they had) are pretty damn popular. Don’t be surprised if we revisit this topic later. Hat tip to Alternate History for linking to this article.

Assassin's Creed I's Altair
Assassin’s Creed I’s Altair

#10 Chatting with Brick to the Past

2014 has also been the year of the Lego brick, with the franchise releasing a major blockbuster this year. In much the same spirit, I had a conversation with James Pegrum, who specialises in building historical Lego models. Since that conversation, he has set up a group, called Brick to the Past, and they go from strength to strength.

I’m a firestarter by James Pegrum
I’m a firestarter – courtesy of James Pegrum – the Great Fire of London begins

#9 Interviewing Mr Happle Tea: Scott Maynard

We are very lucky to have spoken to a large number of creative history fans this year. One man who embodies this trait is Scott Maynard, the illustrator behind the Happle Tea web comic. If you’re into crude humour and interesting historical facts, this is the place for you.

Horus gets The Talk
With a back-story like this, who needs childhood trauma?

#8 The time that cinema forgot

As someone who is interested in film and history, I can’t help but notice that some time periods just don’t get the same kind of coverage that others do. In this blog, I got all analytical and worked out exactly *how* neglected those periods are. Verdict? There’s plenty of scope for more films throughout our earlier history, but that imbalance isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon.

graph showing that recent history is far more popular as a film subject than older topics
Prehistory is particularly neglected

#7 Historical Honey tells us what historical figures would be doing now

Bored with modern celebrities? The lovely Historical Honey gave us a guest blog about what the heroes and villains of our past would get up to if they were around today. Would they slink to the shadows? Or are they more likely to grab the limelight, ever the attention grabber? What do you think?

What would Lucezia Borgia be doing now?
Is this what Lucezia Borgia would be doing now?

#6 Anne Boleyn is my spirit animal

One thing that I definitely needed to address this year is just why Anne Boleyn is so popular with the world of web historians. Because she is. If historians anywhere need a figurehead, this woman is, apparently, the one to go for. Thanks again to Historical Honey for the inspiration.

Anne Boleyn
Natalie Portman’s Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl

#5 Profiling the most influential wizard in the modern age

Alan Moore is, primarily, a graphic novelist. But he’s also a wizard, and a cult icon, and he really doesn’t like it when people get taken advantage of. So when he cropped up in the news twice in one week, in historically-related areas, I figured it was only fair we had a look at him, and why he matters.

This is Alan Moore in 2009. He's speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but I like to think he's rolling his lucky D20. Published under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy of Matt Bidulph https://www.flickr.com/people/51035707449@N01
This is Alan Moore in 2009. He’s speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but I like to think he’s rolling his lucky D20. Published under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy of Matt Bidulph https://www.flickr.com/people/51035707449@N01

#4 Vampires; what history wouldn’t say if it could speak

If there’s one vaguely-historical thing the public loves, it’s vampires. They’ve got that whole neck-nibbling thing going on. What with them being immortal, any film, TV series, or game that features them could quite justifiably see itself heading into the past at some point. But how helpful are vampires as a medium for history?

Dracula Untold
Dracula as he probably never looked

#3 That time I interviewed a YouTube sensation

Epic Rap Battles of History is an important part of modern culture, inasmuch as it teaches young people about important historical figures through the medium of confrontational music and aggressive posturing. With that in mind, I felt it was only appropriate to get one of the show’s creators in to discuss the hows and whys of the show.

 

#2 Someone we should all know more about

Janine Spendlove is a high school history teacher/US Marine/pilot/published author/mother/historical cosplayer. While all of those things are pretty impressive, and combined they’re are totally awesome, it was that last one that particularly interested us. We had a chat with the woman behind the outfits to find out how she does it.

Janine's Wonder Woman costume
Janine’s Wonder Woman costume

#1 When feminist satire ruled history

By far my most popular blog this year has been the time I interviewed Erin and Morag from Manfeels Park. The web comic combines quotes from actual comment threads and combines them with art from Jane Austen films, to highlight just how silly they are. Further comment threads ensue.

Mansplaining Manfeels Park
Real-world comments, in the mouths of Jane Austen characters

And that’s about it. It has been a busy first year for History Mine, and of course, we’ll be back next year. I’d like to end by giving further nods to people like Jamie (of History Behind Game of Thrones) and Kelly (of The Archaeology of Tomb Raider) for their support. Happy New Year everybody!

If you haven’t noticed, counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

Dracula Untold

While it’s not required reading, I have previously covered some elements of this topic in my article about how knowing history can undermine the plot lines of historical stories. It might be worth reading that article before you read this one.

Dracula Untold is out in cinemas this weekend. As I have already mentioned, the film looks like it will sit somewhere between genuine history and straight-up fantasy. This makes it a prime example of a ‘counterfactual history’; a ‘what if…’ scenario where we tweak one or two facts and see what happens. ‘Dracula Untold’ asks ‘What if vampires actually existed at the time of Vlad Țepeș?’ and then draws the logical (but also bat-shit crazy) conclusion.

DraculaUntold

This new release is just the latest in a wealth of counterfactual films, games and TV shows that have come out in recent years. Now, media producers tend to tweak facts in almost every single historical story. For example, that classic Braveheart is riddled with historical inconsistencies, from the tartan kilts to the people who were present at the battles. This is done for convenience, rather than to twist the course of events, so these examples don’t really constitute counterfactual histories.

One of the early big hitters in this list is 2004’s ‘King Arthur’, which took the titular myth and twisted it to fit a Roman/Saxon theme. Arthur himself became a Roman; Guinevere was now a Briton, and Lancelot and the other knights were Sarmatian auxiliaries. The story itself was within the realms of possibility, and was definitely grounded by the manly camaraderie between the knights. The love triangle is played down, and the whole thing works pretty well. The only slightly unbelievable area is when the audience is supposed to believe that there is a peaceful transition to a Romano-British kingdom under Arthur.

It’s not as if they had Boudicca riding an elephant into the Forum Romanum.

‘Ryse: Son of Rome’ is a major counterfactual leap away from reality. In the game, Nero has two sons; ‘Basilius’ and ‘Commodus’, who incite a rebellion in Britain that sweeps all the way back to the streets of Rome. The player goes on to kill those two sons, and also Boudicca, and finally Nero. None of these things actually happened. In combat games, there is a need for boss battles. But over a limited period of time, it is hard to introduce new characters and give them a detailed back story. Ryse cuts corners here by using historical figures out of context; ultimately, the story suffers for it.

But let’s move away from Romans. Another game series that relies heavily on counterfactual history is Assassin’s Creed. The premise of that series is that Earth was previously inhabited by a race of aliens who left artefacts of immense power, which two rival secret societies are fighting over. The series then posits that several significant historical events have been used as a cover for these conflicts. As far as counterfactual histories go, this one is pretty high maintenance.

But what if we go further than that? The eminent History Behind Game of Thrones blog argues that the entire premise of Game of Thrones might be based on counterfactual questions. For example, several female leaders, from Anne Boleyn to Lucrezia Borgia, have been accused of incest. What if those rumours were actually true? What if Richard III really didn’t murder the princes in the tower? Would the Middle Ages have been a less bloody time period if chivalry hadn’t existed? Sure, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, and as the seasons progress, I suspect the dragons and white walkers will have a bigger part to play, but without those historical questions it would be a lot shorter.

Ultimately, counterfactual histories are a way to have some fun with history, to engage with it, and ask *why* things happened the way they did. If you change one detail, what subsequent events also would have been altered?

3 Films That Shamelessly Rip Off Classic Literature

A couple of years ago, a guy called Christopher Booker came up with a theory that there are only seven (7) basic stories in existence. You’ve probably heard of it. According to Chrissy B, all the tales you know are based on these seven (7). No more, no less. Enterprising geniuses have since whittled this number down. But that generally means removing parallel points ’til all you have left is the theory of one story, wherein all you can say is that *plot happens*, which isn’t really all that genius.

However! If, like me, you enjoy watching films, you may have noticed that some of them seem oddly familiar. First, there’s this:

Pulp Fiction is Arthurian Legend

OK, I can sort-of see what’s going on here. Tarantino likes to borrow heavily from other genres. That said, it’s usually Hong Kong cinema and Westerns, right? There are a whole bunch of other things going on which rather undermine this theory. I’m pretty sure Arthurian legend doesn’t include sex dungeons or shoving family heirlooms into bodily orifices. But it’s true, it has been a while since I last read any, and the last adaptation I saw was Merlin, which, as a BBC show, probably wouldn’t depict that stuff anyway. On the other hand, this does actually lay on the religious side of things, which Merlin avoided completely, so what the hell, we’ll give it a pass. If nothing else, this does give a reason for the contrived way Vincent Vega ends up on a date with Mia Wallace.

O Brother Where Art Thou is Homer’s Odyssey

This one is no secret. The Coen brothers made plenty of allusions to their literary inspiration across the length and breath of this film. Everything from the hero’s name ‘Ulysses’ (the Roman version of ‘Odysseus’) to their adventures on the road. They are waylaid by sirens, assaulted by a one-eyed ‘cyclops’ and eventually have to see off a suitor who has been hanging round the hero’s wife.

Ulysses is supposed to be a smart guy, but in this scene, as throughout the movie, his biggest obstacle is water. Early on in the film he passes up the chance to get baptised, and is pursued by a policeman who is described as ‘the devil’. In this scene, three very wet sirens seduce and drug them. In the penultimate scene, he is caught in a flash flood. He survives by clinging to the remains of his old life, in the same manner as an Odyssean shipwreck.

Star Wars is the Downfall of the Roman Republic

Science fiction has been massively influenced by classical literature. Take, for example Star Trek, with its Romulans, Vulcans and James *Tiberius* Kirk. But, perhaps a better example is Star Wars, which borrows from both Roman history – not to mention the ‘immaculate conception’ of Anakin Skywalker.

What’s that? You want examples? Well alllllllrighty then! Darth Vader is Julius Caesar. Both men were generals, who were a little overconfident in their abilities. Sure, both of them dabbled in politics, but they made their names in conflict situations. Furthermore, when they want to build their power, they do it through alliances. Even after passing his Jedi trials, Anakin is still hanging out with Obi Wan, and when he goes over to the dark side, it is to play an important role in a governing partnership with Darth Sidious (Always two, there are!).

Luke Skywalker is Caesar’s rumoured son Brutus blended with Caesar’s adopted son Octavian. Brutus and Caesar ended up on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but their fortunes were very much intertwined. Brutus was one of Caesar’s killers, whereas Darth Vader had a late change of heart, and gave his life to save his son. It is unknown whether Brutus actually knew or believed the rumours about his parentage, but HBO covers the subject pretty well. Sure, it’s no “I am your father.” But nothing is. And if Luke is Brutus, then Padmé Amidala represents Servilia, who was Caesar’s long-term on-the-sly shag buddy and paramour, as well as Brutus’ mother.

Han Solo is Mark Anthony. In the expanded universe, Han starts out as a beggar and pickpocket who subsequently joins the Imperial navy. Likewise, Mark Anthony was a plebian, who ran with street gangs as a teen, and ended up in the Roman army.Either way, after Caesar’s death he joined up with Octavian and one other dude to form a new government. Han also marries princess Leia, who is the daughter of Anakin Skywalker and the Sister of Luke Skywalker. Octavian’s sister Octavia Minor was the fourth of Mark Anthony’s five wives. And, yep, even that incest thing is paralleled.

Modern stories borrow heavily from history and classic literature, just as Shakespeare borrowed from Ovid. But it’s down to the individuals to decide whether those storylines are cleverly re-worked, or just lazily rehashed. If you have any other ideas, please let me know in the comments section.

Can history have suspense if we know how it ends?

Theory: It is impossible to make a ‘big history’ film work, because everyone knows how it’s going to end.

Evidence: From my ‘dark ages of film‘ spreadsheet, here are some examples of films where you probably already know the basic plot, or at least a major event:

  • Gandhi
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade
  • The Young Victoria
  • The Alamo
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Elizabeth: The Golden Age
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • Braveheart
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Alexander
  • Troy

We know that India eventually gains its independence; we know that the Light Brigade is decimated, we know that Victoria shacks up with Albert and they have lots of sex. We know that Davy Crockett and the Texans are wiped out, but that Texas resists Mexican occupation. We know that Marie Antoinette gets the chop (but she doesn’t say ‘let them eat cake’, and neither does anyone else). We know that the Spanish Armada is defeated and Elizabeth dies single. We know that the ‘other Boleyn girl’ doesn’t end up with Henry. We know that William Wallace dies, but that Scotland gets independence (in its defence, I didn’t know this before, but I was only seven when it came out). Jesus dies at the end. Alexander conquers loads and then dies. Paris and Helen briefly shack up before Troy is crushed.

This blog is partly inspired by the show ‘Conversations With Myself About Movies’. In particular, the episode about Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, because most of the events of the film are common knowledge. We all know how the story of Abraham Lincoln ends.

Maybe I’m being too critical here. I mean, I doubt I’d have the same problem if I was reading a book. Almost all of historical films are adapted from one or more books. This is just another means of telling a story, right? Well… no. Films have set themselves up as more than that. They are entertainment; excitement even. The stories are supposed to be gripping. If you know how the story is going to end, then all you are wondering is, how are they going to show it?

With non-history films, let’s just pick an example; the Matrix. The first time you watched that film, you really didn’t know how it was going to end. Micro-histories like Aguirre, the Wrath of God are also fine. You don’t necessarily know the story, so you can engage with it on a deeper level.

And to that, I have two words; ‘Inglorious Basterds’.

Yeah, you didn’t expect Tarantino to be the saviour of historical movies, did you? If you haven’t watched it, the premise is this; Brad Pitt and a squad of Jews break into Nazi-occupied France and go on a rampage, before using a film premier to try and kill Hitler. Meanwhile a French Jew and her black projectionist boyfriend also come up with another plan…

So this starts off looking like a micro-history. I know Hitler didn’t die in a cinema, so I’m not thinking about the climax. When Pitt and his guys are trying to bluff their way round, pretending to be Italians, I am genuinely concerned for them. And then they go and kill Hitler. Suddenly I can’t approach historical films with such confidence any more. I can’t be certain that they will end the way I think. At any moment, someone could machine-gun a Nazi before his true downfall has come.

What do you think? Do you enjoy historical films on the same level as others? Have a read of my anachronism post, and see whether it gets you worked up.

What would the giants of history be doing today? by @HistoricalHoney

In the second half of our blog swap with Historical Honey, we’re taking a look at what historical figures would be doing if they got a second crack of the whip.

Just because you have a slick job in the city today doesn’t mean you would’ve been a high flyer a few centuries ago. Maybe you did get lucky and were a man at court, but it’s more likely that you drew the short straw and were either a farmer, chimney sweep, leather tanner, plague burier or, god forbid, a leech collector.

But what if we did a Blazin’ Squad and ‘flip reversed’ it; have you ever wondered what the giants of history would be doing if they stepped into our 21st century world? Let’s take a look…

Ever wondered what Oliver Cromwell would be doing today?

He’s a man you love to hate or hate to love; the marmite of the English Civil War, and as such he would no doubt take on a similar role in society today. Cromwell was always a man of government before his military career took off, and as such this talented statesman would return to the field he knew best. But with a Cambridge education Cromwell is no fool. After you’ve been posthumously hanged by disgruntled monarchists you would be quite content to retire to a job in the shadows as the nation’s tax man.

What would Cromwell be doing now?

Ever wondered what Pocahontas would be doing today?

Pocahontas managed to build relations between the tribal nations and colonial settlement in Virginia through her sympathies to Englishman John Smith. During her captivity she was forced to embrace other cultures and was even presented to English society as an example of the civilized ‘savage’ in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement – she must have been one brave and courageous woman! For a native tribeswoman to hold such sympathies towards foreigners settling on your land is quite remarkable, and therefore, there is no doubt Pocahontas would continue to maintain international peace as an ambassador of the United Nations.

What would Pocahontas be doing now?

Ever wondered what Catherine Parr would be doing today?

As the last surviving wife of Henry VIII, there is no doubt this woman recognised when it was time to act and when it was time to just shut up! She certainly knew what it took to not make a hat trick out of Henry’s penchant for headless wives. During her time on the throne Catherine demonstrated her intelligence, influence and skill for diplomacy by initiating the Third Succession Act and being appointed as Regent when Henry was on a military campaign in France. She even managed to find time to publish books, becoming the first queen ever to do so!

With a First Lady’s passion for charity and wellbeing, in a country strong on religion, there is no doubt this role would have suited Catherine to a T!

What would Catherine Parr be doing now?

Lucrezia Borgia

Even though she knew her own mind, there is no doubt Lucrezia was used as a pawn in the Borgia game to keep hold of the Popery. Being exposed to such a corrupt world the first time round would make Lucrezia want to break free of her ties and do whatever she wanted. The only people to figuratively ‘get away with murder’ these days are celebrities, and as a real beauty Lucrezia would have definitely followed suit. Nobody does it better than a certain twerk-happy pop princess!

What would Lucezia Borgia be doing now?

If this blog has only served to whet your appetite, you can find more historical figures here.