Sunday, September 21, 2008

Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans...

I've developed a sudden interest in medieval England.

It started with a musty old book about mazes and labyrinths. I didn't care for most of it, but when the author started exploring the strange mysteries of the "Troy Town" turf mazes, I found myself strangely intrigued...but my total lack of knowledge about English monarchs, political development, and county locations made me eager to learn more.

I once had a University professor who told us that we should all read the Bible...not for religious reasons necessarily, but so we'd understand the countless references to it in literature.

Well, I tried to read the Bible once and I never made it past Genesis, but I still appreciate his point. For the same reason I'll never really "get" Shakespeare, or Dickens, or even the development of my own beloved language unless I do a bit of research.

So I bought some Middle English literature. I got a few pages into "Pearl" and two chapters into "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" before I realized that 14th century alliterative poetry annoys me. It SOUNDS nice, but damned if I'm going to spend more time deciphering it.

Next I bought a Francis Pryor book about Anglo-Saxon archeology, which is terribly written and largely tangential to my interests, but has at least given me insight into the joys of pot shards and sheep rearing.

While I was buying these books I was also picking the brains of various booksellers, asking them for the best introductory sources they had in stock. Mandy at Words Worth Books said "Why don't you rent a movie?" and I was like, "Hey, that's BRILLIANT!"

Now I'm working my way through Monarchy, which raced too quickly through the early kings but has settled down nicely around Henry VIII. I know who Oliver Cromwell was! I understand why the Protestants and Catholics hated each other so much! I know that Normandy was in FRANCE, and not in Norway as I'd always suspected!

Then I re-read "Murder in the Cathedral," which actually makes sense to me now, and re-watched "Becket" just to hammer home the plot. Beautiful movie, really, and a gripping story all around. They don't make them like that anymore, and they certainly don't ACT like that anymore, at least not offstage.

I'm filled with a desire to actually TOUCH one of those ancient buildings, to actually WALK THROUGH something that was built 1300 years ago! Lacking travel funds, however, I'm resorting to "Plan B": watching adaptations of Shakespear's plays, and then reading them to find out if now -- after all this research -- I'll finally be able to finish one.

Anybody have any film recommendations? No modern interpretations please...I don't want to see Macbeth on rollerskates or anything.


Unknown said...

I know you said no modern interpretations, but there are some really great ones. If you can find a better King Lear than Kurosawa's Ran, I'd like to hear about it. Note that it doesn't actually take place in modern times - it's set in Feudal Japan - but it's absolutely brilliant. He also adapted Macbeth as Throne Of Blood, equally great.

Also, the recent Richard III with Ian MacKellan (updated to the beginnings of Fascist Germany) is probably the best film version of that play to date.

One more odd one: Chimes At Midnight. Orson Welles (he also directed) plays Falstaff in all the scenes from Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Part II, Henry V and The Merry Wives Of Windsor.

Adam Thornton said...

I want to get a "feeling" for the time period by watching/reading these plays, so modern interpretations sort of spoil that goal.

But they're all good suggestions, and I know that SOMEDAY I should see "Ran!"

Jos said...

Films, no... but read Falstaff by Robert Nye, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. All spot on atmosphere-wise, and all good fun to read. Also, there was once a Gormenghast TV series that you may dig up.

Adam Thornton said...

Thanks Jos! I'll look into them.

I read all of the first Gormenghast, but somehow got sidetracked during the second book and didn't finish it...I am definitely planning to read them again soon, as they were nothing short of amazing.

The Gormenghast miniseries, however, didn't do much for seemed a bit too silly, lacking the dark elements of the books.

Anonymous said...

I'd recommend several things:

1. The Shakespeare film adaptations by Kenneth Branagh. Good, and fun too!

2. Any Shakespeare film with Sir Laurence Olivier.

3. for free ancient books that are out of copyright (just got Gulliver's Travels there last week - HTML or text formats).

4. "What If 2" - a book edited by Robert Cowley. Poses questions on "counter-factual" history - what if William hadn't been the Conqueror, or Charles I had died of plague, etc. It also reviews what actually happened, so that the what-ifs show how important quirks of fate were in shaping what actually happened.

5. Believe it or not, look at some Monarch or Cliff Notes for literature and history books from your era of interest. Usually they give a lot of background that explain not only the writing, but the times during which they were written.

6. ANNOTATED versions, if available, of any book that you want to read from that era. The Folger Shakespeare Library is one.

7. Another movie: "A Man For All Seasons."

Hope this has been helpful.

tanzi said...

I can't believe you don't' like good ol' Will! Love him. And I'm not trying to sound all snotty, as God knows I'm not that smart. Gen X has some groovy editions of some of his plays--check out the Macbeth with the guy from Wanted...why can't I remember his name??? No rollerskates...just some really pissed off chefs. Worth a look anyway. Look at the BBC website (don't worry; not the horrible BBC ones we were forced to endure in school with really bad overacting).
Kenneth Brannaugh's Hamlet is good...loooooong but good. Um...and the film Looking for Richard is fun.
Let me know how it goes!

tanzi said...

OOh--the Once and Future King is a great trilogy. Studied Arthurian legend at good ol' U of W and loved this book. It doesn't rhyme so you should be good. After the first one (Sword in the Stone) the books become more mature. Fun read.

tanzi said...

James McAvoy. That's the actor!

Unknown said...

Oh my God, you can feel yourself age during Kenneth Branaugh's (or however you spell his name) Hamlet. I like his Henry V just fine, and I have a soft spot for Much Ado About Nothing because Kate Beckinsale is a cute little button in it, but Hamlet is just fucking absurd. For some INSANE REASON, he chose to film the complete text, which makes no sense because half of the play is describing action on various fields of battle which you could JUST FUCKING SHOW ME BECAUSE I'M WATCHING A MOVIE AND AM NOT ACTUALLY TRAPPED IN A THEATRE, KENNETH. Also, Robin Williams is in it. So, you know, there's that.

Traditional stuff: Honestly, it doesn't get much better than good ol' Sir Lawrence. His Hamlet comes across as almost film noir. Oh, and I forgot one: Polanski's brutal, filthy Macbeth. Now there's a Bard adaptation you can really sink your teeth into.

Adam Thornton said...

Thanks Gary! Project Gutenberg is amazing, though I do prefer to have a physical book that I can carry around...fortunately Shakespeare plays are a dime a dozen at the used bookstores, though copiously underlined by students.

"What If 2" sounds amazing!

There's an old Doctor Who episode where a "meddling monk" travels back to 1066 to launch nuclear rockets at the Viking William would (supposedly) lose and never conquer.

Would that have lead to a more advanced England, as the monk supposed? Somehow I don't think so.

Adam Thornton said...

Tanzi, I just rented the Royal Shakespeare version of "Richard III" as well as "Elizabeth." In the meantime I'm also thinking that re-watching "The Lion In Winter" would be a good idea.

I have never liked Shakespeare, but I have always understood that the major problem was my ignorance of the time period. Maybe now that I'm taking care of that I'll finally be able to appreciate "Hamlet."

The Roman Polanski version of "Macbeth," however, was ALWAYS fun.

Adam Thornton said...

Kevin, I would only watch Robin Williams in an adaptation if he were playing a singing teapot.

Kimber said...

Try Kenneth B's Henry V. You get the added bonus of seeing inserted scenes from Henry IV. It's engaging and not tedious at all. Plus you get to see a relatively young KB.

Methinks Madkevin hasn't learned the art of drinking heavily whilst watching long-winded adaptations...

Anonymous said...


You just gotta come out to Stratford here and see some Willy S live at the Festival.

Their Hamlet was excellent this season, and their Taming of the Shrew was quite good as well, tho the latter was the more 'period' of the two. Hamlet looked (by costume) to be early 20th century Denmark.

Adam Thornton said...

That was the plan during those heady "own a car" days.

Barring that, however, it's an awfully long walk, and Stratford's bus service is AWFUL.


Kimber said...

Take the train Muffy! It would be a fabulous photo op as well. Just think: you in front of the famous Avon River with swans in the background...

Adam Thornton said...

Hey hey HEY!

Kim, you're a GENIUS. THAT is the plan!

Kimber said...

I'll be haunting Flickr and the Daily Muffy looking for those iconic Shakespearean shots...