The first thing anyone learns about Vikings is that they had horns on their helmets. The second thing is that they didn’t. From there, surprisingly, things get easier.
And yet, it seems like most of pop culture skipped that second lesson. They skipped it so hard that this has become the easiest way to identify Vikings. Hell, at an uneducated glance, Vikings are only identifiable by a characteristic they didn’t have.
FYI, that second lesson goes a bit like this: horned helmets, if they did ever exist, were purely ornamental. In battle they add extra weight, for reduced utility. The second someone lands a blow on the horns, it will either jerk your head to one side, or chop the horn off. But they look *so majestic*!
Hell, the first thing modern culture does, if it wants to portray any kind of historical (or particularly fantasy) northerner, is whack a pair of horns on them.
My point is this; compared to almost any other foreign culture (remember these guys were pagans, from Scandinavia), they have endured incredibly well. They have made a significant impact on popular culture. And maybe that is, in part, because they are so recognisable.
And this is a theme that definitely bears thinking about. Because, while fantasy might be utterly absurd and largely drawn from imaginations, it is also grounded in the real history of our own world. So here we go:
#1: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is all the weirdness of our anthropological past
Like many other great fantasy authors, Pratchett is a student of history. In The Science of Discworld, it is explained that the Discworld works in a similar way to our own except that, instead of the fundamental laws of science, the Discworld has fundamental laws of magic. Therefore, if people once believed something existed in our world, it probably does exist in the Discworld, and is minding its own business thankyou very much.
#2 Tolkien’s Middle Earth is all the complexity of our linguistic past
JRR Tolkien was fascinated by language and linguistics, and spoke (and, more importantly as far we’re concerned, wrote in) a number of different languages, to varying levels of fluency. Languages were his bag. One of his many Elvish languages was based on Latin, by way of Finnish, Welsh, English, and Greek. And that’s not even abnormal. It’s just par for the course, baby!
#3 The Warhammer world is all the madness of our aggressive past
As a younger man, I was a massive fan of Warhammer. There is a vast mythology to the games which goes beyond any other series I’ve come across. The ultimate focus of it is on the aggressive jostling of different races of creatures and peoples. Warhammer is about fighting, and each race has its own style. The Empire, for example, is based on C14th German Landknecht culture. The colourful Lizardmen, by contrast, inhabit a continent that looks suspiciously like South America, and behave a lot like Mesoamerican civilisations.
#4 Robert E Howard’s Conan is all the brutality of our lawless past
While the other series on this list capture the broader sweep of history, Conan is all about one guy. Moreover, it is about the struggles between the powerful and the powerless. Conan, despite his heroic stature, is a powerless man. He is forever having people he cares about torn away from him. There is no higher power for him to appeal to. In many ways, he embodies ‘barbaric’ tribal prehistory, where an individual could either trust to primal gods, or take fate into their own hands. Conan doesn’t love battle, it is his last resort.
There are other fantasy series, but these are the cream of the crop, and all of them owe something to real world history.
I’ve got a bit of a drunk groove on at the moment, so I’d like to share that with you while you read this blog. Grab a glass of classy red plonk and listen to the following:
So. Anyone who follows me on Twitter or w/e will know that my avatar is a Lego centurion with specs. I have a cubic brick-shaped place in my heart for the building blocks. I recently went and bought a Lego Star Wars advent calendar (get them now, kids, they’re in high demand) and it was the best £25 I have spent in recent years. The weekend before that I went to the Great Western Brick Show, and hung out with the guys at Brick to the Past, who I have previously interviewed for this very blog. So yeah, that *kids* thing in the title also applies to fully grown people.
One of my strongest memories from childhood is of playing with a set of Playmobil jousting knights. Which is really meta, if you think about it; a kid playing with toys of men, who are playing at warfare. Just me? Well, anyway, somewhere along the line, I thought it might be an interesting idea to dissect that whole knight-in-shining-armour fascination.
The first topic must, necessarily, be violence. People are obsessed with the thought of damaging one another, even if that only manifests itself very rarely. We are a destructive race, and kids especially. Part of that is simply because it is easier to destroy that it is to create, and the other part is that kids haven’t really developed their creative skills. Seriously, the things I saw at the Great Western Brick Show took serious thought and artistry. More concentration than most kids would be able to muster.
However, you’ll also notice the relative lack of weapons in this picture. In the whole metres-long build there were only five (5) soldiers. So this is definitely something that people (mostly) grow out of.
One definite part of the fascination is all about costumes. Kids have imaginations that can turn a stick into a plethora of things, but the more props you give them, the deeper the fantasy gets. Armoured soldiers have the ultimate combination of costume and accessories, along with a distinctly defined role. You get a sword or an axe and you go out and defend your city. It’s the best thing in the world. Don’t get me wrong, princesses may have better costumes, but their exact function is way more vague. You can’t smite things if you’re a princess, can you? (Can you?)
The other side of things is that soldiery is an active thing. Beyond sportsing, fighting is one of the most active things you can do as a kid. You’re being really active with another person. Not like running, or its ilk. Toys are all well and good, but no self-respecting kid is just gonna build something and then leave it for people to admire. They want to have little people interacting, because that’s what playing is; figuring out how people interact, and why.
The booze seems to be wearing off, so I’ll stop now. Please let me know what your thoughts on the topic are though. Ross out.
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.
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.
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?
The other day I was watching Cowboys and Aliens. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great concept, with top actors, great CGI, and terrible writing. Case in point? At one point the posse stumbles upon a paddle steamer. It is upside down, “500 miles away from any river big enough to hold it”. No further explanation is given, and, if this is supposed to be an indication of just how messed up things have gotten, there are no other examples.
But the point I wanted to make is about the film’s portrayal of the Chiricahua Apaches. Their introduction comes via a swift ambush on the beleaguered posse. When the unconscious protagonist comes round they are being shoved around the camp by a mob of ululating braves. A dead member of the posse is aggressively thrown on the fire, and things look like they’re going to go south pretty quickly. [SPOILERS] occur, and attention shifts before things can get out of hand. Eventually, an alliance is formed, and the Chiricahuas heal the protagonist’s amnesia with psychedelics.
My point is, the tribe only seems to be there to drive the plot. The main character needs to start of with amnesia because the plot demands it. But when the writers needed a way to heal that amnesia quick, they got them some of that Injun magic. I’m no expert with psychedelics, but I’m pretty confident that they can’t just heal unspecified mental trauma on demand. Still, the confident way the Chiricahua chief says “they will take care of that” implies that they’ve done this thousands of times.
At the end, the main town of Absolution becomes a [SPOILER] mining town. This is despite the fact that the major deposits of [SPOILER] that we know about (because of plot) are right in the middle of Apache territory. I have a hard time believing that the Chiricahuas would just roll over and allow that. I also have beef with the fact that the white men are willing to let the fugitive protagonist ride off into the sunset because of their shared experiences, but presumably run the Chiricahuas off their land despite the fact that THEY ALSO SHARED IN THOSE EXPERIENCES.
But let’s stop picking on this particular film. These are actually some pretty common themes.
For example, in the Call of Juarez game, an Apache medicine man called Calm Water appears as a quest giver. Because of him the protagonist, Billy, learns how to use a bow and horse, and climbs up a steep mesa to retrieve an eagle’s feather. Billy goes on to become a braver man; facing his inner turmoil and standing up for himself and those he cares about. Yay for Apache-sponsored spiritual growth. Calm Water is subsequently killed for helping Billy, possibly because the plot demanded it.
Want more examples? I didn’t play Assassin’s Creed 3, and neither did any of my gamer friends, so I can’t really talk about Ratonhnhaké:ton, the Mohawk-English protagonist of that game. You’ll also notice I haven’t really gone into Red Dead Redemption. Again, this is because I haven’t played it, much as I would like to. But from all I’ve read, the old tropes are alive and well there. Neither do I want to talk about Fallout New Vegas: Honest Hearts, or the Twilight franchise because neither is set in the past. That said, they do comply with several of the common tropes associated with Native Americans. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Star Wars’ Sand People and Avatar’s Na’vi are both proxies for Native American cultures. And they both stink.
I did watch Appalloosa, the Ed Harris-directed film about two marshals who are trying to bring peace to a lawless town. While the two heroes are on the trail of their quarry, some more of those pesky Chiricahua turn up to ransack the bad guys, and carry off their guns, horses and wimmun. After a shoot-out, Viggo Mortensen resolves the thing by giving them a horse.
Another film I watched recently was A Million Ways to Die in the West. If there’s one thing that film did right it was to knowingly admit that the indigenous peoples were treated terribly by the settlers. But then Seth MacFarlane does drugs with them and grows spiritually so that he can go back and face the bad guy. Oh, and also, they provide him with [SPOILERS] so that he can outsmart that bad guy.
I could also go into Disney cartoons with Pocahontas and Peter Pan, but I think I’d probably get more hate there for ruining your childhoods. Suffice it to say, it’s always the white guys who end up with the minority women, and never the other way around. No wonder Save the Last Dance felt so progressive…
But anyway, Native American cultures are still suffering persecutions to this day. This frequently comes in the form of the erosion of their territories and reservations. However, it is also in the reduction of their culture to that of a plot device. They are inserted as one more hurdle for the inevitably white male protagonists to overcome. Hell, one reason I enjoyed True Grit so much was that it was told through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl. Switching things up a bit. History has not been kind to the more-than 500 different First Nations peoples. They had an oral culture, which has not often made the jump to the written word. Furthermore, their place within American society has very much been determined by others.
In media terms, Native Americans generally crop up in ‘Westerns’, which are dated to a specific era. It is very rare to find them depicted outside of this time period, and even when they do, such as in Twilight, they are generally portrayed as savages. They are shown as animals, who are defined by their curse, not by their mastery of it. And that sucks. I really want to see something different. No more magic, no psychedelics, no brave warriors. There has to be a whole side to that culture that I know nothing about, and I want a bit more balance, please.
The first character I want to discuss is from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, which was recently released as the surprisingly good movie; The Eagle. The hero of the story is Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, and in the film he is portrayed by Channing Tatum.
I have got beef with this name. It’s not that it’s a terribly bad name. Instead, rather like the ‘Captain John C. Shepherd Christ’, his name has certain connotations that just seem a bit too obvious. ‘Marcus’ is one of the most Roman names that also has biblical connotations. ‘Flavius’ is a clear nod to the Flavian dynasty of emperors, who ruled the empire around 100 years before this story was set. I actually have one issue with this, because Marcus’s father is a Legate. I am not convinced that the Roman government would give a member of a previous ruling dynasty command of a legion. Maybe that’s just me though.
But my real problem is the cognomen ‘Aquila’. This literally means ‘Eagle’. This name did exist at the time, but when your book is all about a guy going to find an Eagle, calling him ‘Eagle’, albeit in Latin, seems a bit cheap. The trouble is; since The Life of Brian, giving Roman characters names that foreshadow their role has become a bit of a joke. Now, I appreciate that the book was published in the ’50s, a long time before The Life of Brian, but the subsequent BBC radio drama and the film both came after. One tweak is all I’m asking, here.
Names in Assassin’s Creed
But let’s mix things up a bit here. What about the assassins of Assassin’s Creed? Sure, the series do reference a lot of real historical characters. Sometimes the hero is just bouncing between them, but the heroes are all entirely fictional. The first assassin you play as is Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. In Arabic this apparently means ‘the bird son of no one’. I don’t speak Arabic, but even I know that ‘Alt’ has certain connotations. In Germanic languages it means ‘other’ – as in ‘alternative’. In Romantic languages it suggests heights – as in ‘altitude’ – I also know this because my Uni’s motto was ‘per ardua ad alta’; ‘through hard work, great heights are achieved’.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. Altaïr is an ‘other’. He is radically different from the less-well-rendered civilians that inhabit his world. He also likes climbing. He *really* likes climbing. Plus heights. As long as there is a well-placed haystack at the bottom of his climb, he has absolutely no fear of heights. I might be stretching the point here, but I think that Altaïr also sounds a bit like ‘ulterior’, which, given that he is an assassin, may be fitting. It may also be worth mentioning that the second main character, Ezio, goes on to have a daughter, named Flavia. So there’s your segue.
Names in Oscar Wilde
While looking for a third example – and deciding not to include Asterix and company – I came across this, by Listverse. The infamous Dorian Gray is apparently based on John Gray; an acquaintance of Wilde’s. The first name change is possibly a reference to the Dorian Greeks (as opposed to the Ionians) who, yes, liked to have their way with teenage boys. There is also an undertone of this in the book, so this might be a deliberate connotation.
Referencing the Dorians may also be a less subtle way of explaining how cultured the main character is. The book came out in 1891, near the peak of the NeoClassical period. Wilde’s readers would’ve known the difference between a Doric and an Ionic column, but few of them would have had the balls to name their child after the classical cultures. Biblical names, such as ‘John’, were all the rage but Dorian Gray is a stranger animal and the reader is meant to know it.
For what it’s worth
I can’t hate authors too much for using these tricks. I once read a statistic that said something like 10% of all women’s names during the Tudor period can be accounted for by Henry VIII’s wives, and even then there are only three different Christian names. Don’t quote me on this one, and if you do know the real statistic, I would love to read it. My point is that historical names (particularly if they come from the Bible) are very common. It is quite hard to make a character seem ‘of that era’, and when you take the generation gap into consideration, it can be particularly tough to place your hero.
Character names can give a subtle indication of who that person is and where they are going. Far more subtle that most visual descriptions. As someone who has never named anything more significant than a guinea pig, I’m probably not the person to talk about naming real-live tiny human beings, but I think that many parents pick a name that they think will reflect who that person is, or who they hope that person will become. Those who create fictional characters do the same thing, with the added complication that their character must seem at home in the world around them. We know the past better than we know the future our children will grow up in.
I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for ‘Dracula Untold’, which actually looks vaguely historical. Don’t get me wrong here, I know vampires aren’t actually a thing, and if they were they wouldn’t have half as many teenage fangirls. But Dracula did exist. We call him Vlad Țepeș, and he impaled Turks for a living. The upshot of this trailer is that it looks like the film will feature Turks and spikes. So, at a stroke, this is likely to be one of the most historically accurate Dracula films we have seen in decades. That’s a little troubling, considering that this is a trailer where a guy one-punches an army with a horde of bats.
With all this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at vampires, and ask whether they have actually been a positive thing for students of history. The short answer is ‘no’. Vampires are not a real thing. At best, they will give you a twisted version of events. That said, vampires can be used as a vehicle to discuss common historical themes that are otherwise avoided by mass media.
Some people have drawn links between the fictional vampirism and real-world congenital disorders. This is a link that the Elder Scrolls games, in particular, have played on. The idea of a treatable disease is also a significant subplot in the Blade films, among others. Disease is a major problem worldwide and, historically, it was much more of an issue. However, this is often ignored. I blame The English Patient.
I once watched most of The Painted Veil, but films about disease don’t really appeal to me (at some point I will watch The Black Death, but only because it looks completely bonkers, and I know that Sean Bean will still be acting seriously serious). Getting back to my point; I don’t think I’m alone. Real-world disease is a box office buzz-kill, but the sexy vampire (along with its cousin, the zombie) is a legitimate target. Vampirism acts as a totem for all the real-world diseases out there.
From Blade to 30 Days of Night, vampires speak a different language. Maybe this is to emphasise their ‘other-ness’. They are not like us, the English-speaking audience. Or possibly it is there to suggest that their culture is older than the human culture they are now hiding within. If you couple this with species names like ‘hominus nocturna’, then the whole thing starts to remind me of the Neanderthals. Think about it; an ancient race, which predates humanity, and is back for revenge. It’s a studio exec’s wet dream.
Plus, with vampires, you can’t be accused of being racist (even though, that’s really what the undertones here are all about) because everyone knows that vampires are evil, and they are the aggressors. There are whole swathes of our history where race and culture has been used by one group of people to subjugate another. In this case it is worth giving a nod to Interview with a Vampire and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter for working the subject of slavery into their narrative.
In the original stories, vampires were heavily linked to Satan. They were unholy, and could be destroyed by holy water or crosses. Over the years, this link has been diluted and increasingly used for comic effect. In The Lost Boys, the tooling up sequence is broken when the protagonists barge into a church service to fill up their bottles at the font. In the farcical From Dusk Till Dawn, holy water condom ‘hand grenades’, crucifix-inscribed bullets, and a cross made from a shotgun and a baseball bat are all used to maximum effect. Vampire films are probably still the most common place to find religion, but I’d like to see a bit more variety than Christians=Good, Vampires=Bad.
Where From Dusk Till Dawn gets it right is in the closing seconds, when the camera pans back, and we see that the Titty Twister bar is actually just the top storey of a Central American pyramid. It turns out that the Aztecs were completely psycho when it came to their gods, so it follows that a temple would be just the place to house the local tribe of immortal blood-drinkers. This is a theme I could really stand to see more of.
Vampires are not a reflection of a historical reality
So, vampires are less likely to teach you about the historical past they are set in, and more likely to teach you the kind of things that the mass media would rather not present with a plain face. But, if you read between the lines, there are lessons to be learned.