Review– Troy: Fall of a City

Salvete, readers!

I finally finished the Netflix/BBC retelling of the Trojan War. It has taken me a while as I like to take my time when I’m watching a show I find interesting. ‘Interesting’ is probably the word for Troy: Fall of a City, in a good way for the most part. It’s a rich, complex adaptation with some amazing production values. It takes its time to convey the plot, but the characterisation has the chilliness of a Greek tragedy. Which makes sense, because that’s precisely what it’s meant to be.

Mild spoilers below.

troy-fall-of-a-city

I was amazed by the sheer scope of the show’s storytelling, and was surprised that it drew not only upon the Iliad but also the Odyssey and Aeneid, as well as Sophocles and Euripides. I get the sense that the show-runners wanted to convey the full sweep of the Trojan War and approach it from as many angles as possible. This ambition is simultaneously the show’s strength and its weakness. Though the cast is enormous and the story is rich with intrigue and tension, we never really spend enough time with any of the characters to become overly invested. I seldom had the sense that it was anybody’s story in particular, or a sense of the characters’ development or growth. The difference between this story and HBO’s Rome is striking. I think casual audiences would prefer to cheer on a likeable viewpoint character whom they could follow through this sea of names and faces. Troy: Fall of a City really needed an everyman character like Lucius Vorenus or Titus Pullo to work as a straightforward heroic narrative.

That said, the show plays with a lot of the tropes of Greek myth in a really clever way which absolutely drips with irony. A good example is a scene where Achilles slices an enemy’s Achilles tendons before he kills him. Another is where Hector declares that he would rather a short life with his family than a long one alone– a brilliant inversion of Achilles’ choice to have a short life as a warrior than a long one as a family man. The show also manages not to make the Trojans look like idiots for bringing the horse into the city, and that is actually quite a feat. The writers included gods in the story and succeeded in invoking a sense of the numinous rather than high camp. I’ve never seen that before.

Troy: Fall of a City differs greatly from the 2004 film Troy in that it doesn’t glorify war, and perhaps you’re not really meant to like any of the characters. There’s no honour or love to be won on this battlefield. Instead, the show captures the brutality and pathos of a Greek tragedy. It doesn’t have any of the warmth or human moments which fill Homer. One of my favourite scenes in the Iliad is from Book 6, where little Astynax interrupts an argument between his parents by crying at the sight of his father in a crested war-helmet. Andromache laughs and sniffles at the same time as Hector whips the helmet off and cuddles his son to calm him. It’s a tender scene, simultaneously sad and funny. You won’t find many such moments in Troy: Fall of a City. It’s mostly bluster and blood.

There’s no talking horses, either. But whatever.

It isn’t meant to be Homer, but a tragedy staged for the screen. It differs from most sword and sandal epics in that it’s a meditation on the horrors of war, told in a thoughtful and unrushed manner. The characters could be more approachable, but then, you don’t necessarily  go see a Greek tragedy because you want to cheer on the heroes as they rush toward their doom.

Until next time,

Valete

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Adventures in anachronism

Last week I took a shot at promoting my first academic book. This week I want to ramble a bit about my other great writing passion, historical fiction. This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love storytelling.

It happened when I was in my late teens. I was standing outside the mead tent at the medieval fair and feeling weirdly conspicuous. Everyone else was strutting around clad in armour, robes, gowns, tunics. Me? Jeans, t-shirt, jacket. Don’t get me wrong, I’d thought about dressing up. There was a brown cape I’d had my eye on all week. A monk, that’s what I’d be. I could wear my old Rosary beads. After the fair, the brown robes would be reborn as a Jedi costume—at parties and/or running around the house with my toy lightsaber. And yet something held me back. Fear. A lot of teenagers are afraid of standing out or looking silly. Lots of adults too, come to think of it. But that wasn’t it. For a history geek like me, there was another aspect. Fear of anachronism. Fear of getting it wrong.

I’d come a long way from being an odd kid with sock puppets and a love of I, Claudius. Now I was an odd teenager who wanted to be an historian—how could I live with myself if my costume was historically inaccurate? And now I was standing around with my hands in my pockets, feeling like the only clothed person at a nudist retreat. Or so I imagined.

I swallowed and looked around. It seemed like I was swimming in a sea of anachronisms. Sequins on medieval dresses, zippers on trousers. A guy brushed past me carrying what looked suspiciously like a Klingon dagger on his belt. He was wearing a woolly jumper spray-painted silver so it looked sort of like chain-mail. To judge by the fumes, he’d done it that very morning. I think the BBC used the same trick when they did Narnia in the 90s, though they allowed the paint time to dry. Probably.

This is stupid, I thought. I should go home.

Yeah, I was a pretty grumpy teenager. Thank goodness I emerged from the larval stage.

That’s when the guy with the Klingon knife turned around made eye contact. ‘This is great, huh?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. What else can you say to that?

His face creased into a smile. He was missing a tooth. That felt historically authentic, at least. But his smile was so genuine that I couldn’t help returning it.

It hit me like a mace to the back of the head. Trust me, that hurts. This guy had it right, and I had it wrong. It didn’t matter whether any of this stuff was accurate or carefully researched. He was in the moment, having the time of his life, and I bet it wasn’t just because he was high on paint fumes. People at the fair had embraced the past with glee, while I was a stick-in-the-mud who refused to have any fun.

When I write historical fiction, I always remember that day. One of the points of telling stories about the past is to take readers on a journey into another world. In the case of historical fantasy like my novel Ashes of Olympus, the otherworldliness is far more literal. I embrace the spirit of the past, leap into it, glory in all the silliness and splendour of the ancient and medieval worlds. Greek and Roman history have their share of the dour and humourless, but also of the ridiculous. The same age that birthed Thucydides and Plato also spat out Aristophanes. Late antiquity gave us wowsers like Augustine, sure. But when I hear him complaining about early Christians using feast days as an excuse to get drunk and party, the world he lived in seems that much more real. What is the point of interacting with the past, if you fetter the hurly-burly?

Fear of anachronism is very real for a lot of people with a love of history, and probably a lot more pertinent for an historical novelist than a pimply bespectacled boy with an attitude problem. Just as it stopped me from getting into the spirit of the medieval fair as a teen, it can also be crippling for an author. My experience at the fair led me to cross-examine my own preconceptions about history, fiction, and the relationship between them. The man in the woollen chain-mail prompted me to adopt the principle of historical authenticity as opposed to historical accuracy. The framework of authenticity allows the writer and reader a lot more freedom, and with freedom comes joy.

The distinction between accuracy and authenticity as frameworks for understanding historical fiction is something I shall explore in greater depth in the next couple of posts.

Until next time, vale.

The power of historical storytelling. And sock puppets.

The best place to start is the beginning, unless you’re Homer.

I first fell in love with all things Greek and Roman when I was about eight years old, sitting on the couch with my mum watching the BBC’s wonderful series I, Claudius. The sets might have been shaky, but even to my prepubescent mind the writing was solid. The story had everything: swords and sandals, poisoned mushrooms, Patrick Stewart in a toupee! Thank goodness Mum didn’t stop to consider whether the bloody saga of the Roman imperial family was age-appropriate. My immediate reaction, of course, was to stage my own version of I, Claudius with sock puppets for my third-grade classmates. For the most part, my long-suffering teacher managed to contain her bemusement. The kids cheered, and that’s what counted. Ever since, I’ve been convinced that story-telling is the most powerful means to bring the world of the ancients to life for today’s generation.

At the University of Queensland I leapt into studies of antiquity, striving to master Greek and Latin while working at the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum. You can still find my favourite artefact there. Just a simple clay jug, nothing fancy, but centuries ago somebody picked it up while the clay was still wet. The fingerprints remain visible even today. In the epic poetry of Homer and Vergil I discovered the power of language to sweep readers into the world of gods and magic. Eventually, my doctoral research led me to travels in Europe. Snowflakes swirled all around as I stood in the broken remains of a Roman amphitheatre. Wandering through the ancient ruins, I knew the myths had cast their spell on me. And they have never let go.

After finishing my PhD, I did a brief stint as a high school teacher, hated being called ‘sir,’ and dived into academic and creative writing. I was fortunate enough to achieve a research fellowship at my alma mater. Still, I prefer to call myself an itinerant bard. My first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child, is due to be released by Routledge on 3 March, 2017. I’ve also written a YA historical novel, the first of a trilogy based on Vergil’s Aeneid. The title is Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. Although I remain open to the possibilities of sock puppet theatre as a story-telling medium, historical fantasy is my passion.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll share a bit more about my research, writing, and current projects. Until then, vale.