Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Mystery of Roger De Flor. Novelizing the Middle Ages

I don't think there exists a competition for the ugliest book cover but, if there were one, this image would reasonably compete for a prize. Yet, the novel behind the ugly cover deserves a comment.

None of us can enter the mind of other people, but a novel writer must be able to do exactly that and to manage the characters he creates in such a way that they ring true in the mind of the readers. It is a nearly hopeless task especially with historical novels where the writer and the reader together attempt to recreate a world that they never directly experienced. Sometimes, though, it leads to flawless novels such as the "Memoirs of Hadrian" by Marguerite Yourcenar. I can't say what Emperor Hadrian would look like if I could meet him, but I wouldn't be surprised if he were exactly like the ghost that Yourcenar summoned.

But let me go to the matter I wanted to discuss here: the story of how the Catalan Company of the soldiers called the Almogavars fought a series of campaigns in Greece and in Asia Minor against Greeks, Turks, and other peoples around the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th. The company was led by Roger De Flor, also Roger von Blum, who was treacherously killed by his Byzanthine allies. It is a story told to us in the book the Crònica, written by one of the Catalan commanders, Ramon Muntaner (1265 – 1336). Not a novel, but an excellent book that reminds me of the "De Bello Gallico" by Julius Caesar. When an author knows what he is writing about, he writes well.

But every age needs to rewrite history according to its canons and, for us, the adventures of the Catalans can be seen as useful material to build the modern literary form called the novel. A form that, by the way, didn't exist in Europe at the time of Ramon Muntaner.

And that's the origin of Anderson's "Rogue Sword." Anderson (1926-2001) is one of the recognized masters of classic science fiction and he used to be, and still is, one of my favorite writers. But I recognize his limits and here they appear more clearly than in other novels of his. When he wrote this novel, Anderson was a little over 30 years old, already a mature writer in terms of writing techniques, but not yet able to master the rhythm and the structure of a complete novel.

So, what did Anderson have in mind with "Rogue Sword"? Possibly, the idea was to write a picaresque novel. Indeed, from the first scene we enter exactly that kind of mood, with the protagonist running away all naked from the fury of a husband who surprised him in bed with his wife. The scene is masterfully written, as most of the novel is. Apart from the various scenes of seduction, Anderson did his homework and he tells us of the Mediterranean world in a way that makes us almost see the colors, smell the smells, feel the breeze. Just think of how he notes that when sailing ships form a convoy, they must all be of the same shape and size, otherwise some will be faster than others and the convoy will disperse. Anderson never was the admiral of a Mediterranean medieval fleet but these are the kind of details that make a historical novel believable. The novel is true to history, it takes place after the death of Roger de Flor and features text taken directly from Muntaner's chronicle

The novel has more good points, one is the female characters. Na Violante de Lebia Tari, the femme fatale of the story, is more than a little overdone, but she is believable and wonderful. The Circassian girl, Diansha, is lovely, and the Greek widow, Xenia, is well described and human. It is what a good novelist should do, care for his or her characters.

But where the novel fails - and fails badly - is with the protagonist, Lucas Greco, never really making himself believable. One problem with picaresque novels is with the motivation of the protagonist or protagonists. What is that they want to accomplish? Mostly, it seems, they want to seduce as many women as they can and climb the social ladder as high as possible. But that makes for a repetitive an uninteresting plot.

And this is the problem with Rogue Sword. Lucas' character is consistent, but never really interesting. Anderson uses the partially omniscient viewpoint, which is the easiest way to write a novel, but also the way to write a sloppy one. So, we always know what Lucas thinks, but he thinks like a 20th-century character. He despises slavery and bloodbaths and he is a nice boy in all circumstances. But that's not the way we expect a Medieval rogue fighter to behave.

Where the plot really fails is at the end, where Anderson tries to make ends match with a totally unbelievable final battle royale where Lucas manages to kill all his enemies and gain the love of the girl he wanted. I don't have to tell you that it would never work in real life, but it doesn't work even in fiction -- it is pure nonsense that leaves the reader wonder how a professional author could write such tripe. Unfortunately, it is rather typical of Anderson to ruin a perfectly good novel with a final stretched way beyond credibility, but so it goes. As I said at the beginning, writing a novel is a monstrously difficult task.

Next post, we'll see how Elide Ceragioli has interpreted the same age and the same events, taking Roger de Flor as the protagonist of her novel. Overall with better results than Poul Anderson, but with defects, too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Doom that Came to Earth

Image by Chrononome

Sometimes, fiction resonates with us in ways that the authors wouldn't probably have thought possible. This piece, "The Doom that Came to Sarnath" was written by Howard Phillip Lovecraft (1890-1937) in 1920, one of his early works, yet mature in form and concept. The story of the city of Sarnath is told in masterful strokes in a crisp "mythical" style that reads like poetry in a rhytm that only good prose can maintain.

For us, this tale eerily resonates with the themes of our day: the evil we did to Nature, the havoc we created on what we despised, the way we tried to ignore all that, and how -- nevertheless -- we knew that the evil we did to others was going to take revenge on us, maybe in the form of the great catastrophe of runaway global warming.

Sarnath is a clear metaphor for our world. Maybe what we did was done already in earlier times and will be done again in future we cannot see for the infinite cycle of going and returning is our destiny in a world we are condemned to misunderstand always.

The Doom that Came to Sarnath
by H.P. Lovecraft - 1920
(Full Text from the H.P. Lovecraft Archive)

There is in the land of Mnar a vast still lake that is fed by no stream and out of which no stream flows. Ten thousand years ago there stood by its shore the mighty city of Sarnath, but Sarnath stands there no more.
It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. Very odd and ugly were these beings, as indeed are most beings of a world yet inchoate and rudely fashioned. It is written on the brick cylinders of Kadatheron that the beings of Ib were in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; that they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice. It is also written that they descended one night from the moon in a mist; they and the vast still lake and grey stone city Ib. However this may be, it is certain that they worshipped a sea-green stone idol chiselled in the likeness of Bokrug, the great water-lizard; before which they danced horribly when the moon was gibbous. And it is written in the papyrus of Ilarnek, that they one day discovered fire, and thereafter kindled flames on many ceremonial occasions. But not much is written of these beings, because they lived in very ancient times, and man is young, and knows little of the very ancient living things.
After many aeons men came to the land of Mnar; dark shepherd folk with their fleecy flocks, who built Thraa, Ilarnek, and Kadatheron on the winding river Ai. And certain tribes, more hardy than the rest, pushed on to the border of the lake and built Sarnath at a spot where precious metals were found in the earth.
Not far from the grey city of Ib did the wandering tribes lay the first stones of Sarnath, and at the beings of Ib they marvelled greatly. But with their marvelling was mixed hate, for they thought it not meet that beings of such aspect should walk about the world of men at dusk. Nor did they like the strange sculptures upon the grey monoliths of Ib, for those sculptures were terrible with great antiquity. Why the beings and the sculptures lingered so late in the world, even until the coming of men, none can tell; unless it was because the land of Mnar is very still, and remote from most other lands both of waking and of dream.
As the men of Sarnath beheld more of the beings of Ib their hate grew, and it was not less because they found the beings weak, and soft as jelly to the touch of stones and spears and arrows. So one day the young warriors, the slingers and the spearmen and the bowmen, marched against Ib and slew all the inhabitants thereof, pushing the queer bodies into the lake with long spears, because they did not wish to touch them. And because they did not like the grey sculptured monoliths of Ib they cast these also into the lake; wondering from the greatness of the labour how ever the stones were brought from afar, as they must have been, since there is naught like them in all the land of Mnar or in the lands adjacent.
Thus of the very ancient city of Ib was nothing spared save the sea-green stone idol chiselled in the likeness of Bokrug, the water-lizard. This the young warriors took back with them to Sarnath as a symbol of conquest over the old gods and beings of Ib, and a sign of leadership in Mnar. But on the night after it was set up in the temple a terrible thing must have happened, for weird lights were seen over the lake, and in the morning the people found the idol gone, and the high-priest Taran-Ish lying dead, as from some fear unspeakable. And before he died, Taran-Ish had scrawled upon the altar of chrysolite with coarse shaky strokes the sign of DOOM.
After Taran-Ish there were many high-priests in Sarnath, but never was the sea-green stone idol found. And many centuries came and went, wherein Sarnath prospered exceedingly, so that only priests and old women remembered what Taran-Ish had scrawled upon the altar of chrysolite. Betwixt Sarnath and the city of Ilarnek arose a caravan route, and the precious metals from the earth were exchanged for other metals and rare cloths and jewels and books and tools for artificers and all things of luxury that are known to the people who dwell along the winding river Ai and beyond. So Sarnath waxed mighty and learned and beautiful, and sent forth conquering armies to subdue the neighbouring cities; and in time there sate upon a throne in Sarnath the kings of all the land of Mnar and of many lands adjacent.
The wonder of the world and the pride of all mankind was Sarnath the magnificent. Of polished desert-quarried marble were its walls, in height 300 cubits and in breadth 75, so that chariots might pass each other as men drave them along the top. For full 500 stadia did they run, being open only on the side toward the lake; where a green stone sea-wall kept back the waves that rose oddly once a year at the festival of the destroying of Ib. In Sarnath were fifty streets from the lake to the gates of the caravans, and fifty more intersecting them. With onyx were they paved, save those whereon the horses and camels and elephants trod, which were paved with granite. And the gates of Sarnath were as many as the landward ends of the streets, each of bronze, and flanked by the figures of lions and elephants carven from some stone no longer known among men. The houses of Sarnath were of glazed brick and chalcedony, each having its walled garden and crystal lakelet. With strange art were they builded, for no other city had houses like them; and travellers from Thraa and Ilarnek and Kadatheron marvelled at the shining domes wherewith they were surmounted.
But more marvellous still were the palaces and the temples, and the gardens made by Zokkar the olden king. There were many palaces, the least of which were mightier than any in Thraa or Ilarnek or Kadatheron. So high were they that one within might sometimes fancy himself beneath only the sky; yet when lighted with torches dipt in the oil of Dothur their walls shewed vast paintings of kings and armies, of a splendour at once inspiring and stupefying to the beholder. Many were the pillars of the palaces, all of tinted marble, and carven into designs of surpassing beauty. And in most of the palaces the floors were mosaics of beryl and lapis-lazuli and sardonyx and carbuncle and other choice materials, so disposed that the beholder might fancy himself walking over beds of the rarest flowers. And there were likewise fountains, which cast scented waters about in pleasing jets arranged with cunning art. Outshining all others was the palace of the kings of Mnar and of the lands adjacent. On a pair of golden crouching lions rested the throne, many steps above the gleaming floor. And it was wrought of one piece of ivory, though no man lives who knows whence so vast a piece could have come. In that palace there were also many galleries, and many amphitheatres where lions and men and elephants battled at the pleasure of the kings. Sometimes the amphitheatres were flooded with water conveyed from the lake in mighty aqueducts, and then were enacted stirring sea-fights, or combats betwixt swimmers and deadly marine things.
Lofty and amazing were the seventeen tower-like temples of Sarnath, fashioned of a bright multi-coloured stone not known elsewhere. A full thousand cubits high stood the greatest among them, wherein the high-priests dwelt with a magnificence scarce less than that of the kings. On the ground were halls as vast and splendid as those of the palaces; where gathered throngs in worship of Zo-Kalar and Tamash and Lobon, the chief gods of Sarnath, whose incense-enveloped shrines were as the thrones of monarchs. Not like the eikons of other gods were those of Zo-Kalar and Tamash and Lobon, for so close to life were they that one might swear the graceful bearded gods themselves sate on the ivory thrones. And up unending steps of shining zircon was the tower-chamber, wherefrom the high-priests looked out over the city and the plains and the lake by day; and at the cryptic moon and significant stars and planets, and their reflections in the lake, by night. Here was done the very secret and ancient rite in detestation of Bokrug, the water-lizard, and here rested the altar of chrysolite which bore the DOOM-scrawl of Taran-Ish.
Wonderful likewise were the gardens made by Zokkar the olden king. In the centre of Sarnath they lay, covering a great space and encircled by a high wall. And they were surmounted by a mighty dome of glass, through which shone the sun and moon and stars and planets when it was clear, and from which were hung fulgent images of the sun and moon and stars and planets when it was not clear. In summer the gardens were cooled with fresh odorous breezes skilfully wafted by fans, and in winter they were heated with concealed fires, so that in those gardens it was always spring. There ran little streams over bright pebbles, dividing meads of green and gardens of many hues, and spanned by a multitude of bridges. Many were the waterfalls in their courses, and many were the lilied lakelets into which they expanded. Over the streams and lakelets rode white swans, whilst the music of rare birds chimed in with the melody of the waters. In ordered terraces rose the green banks, adorned here and there with bowers of vines and sweet blossoms, and seats and benches of marble and porphyry. And there were many small shrines and temples where one might rest or pray to small gods.
Each year there was celebrated in Sarnath the feast of the destroying of Ib, at which time wine, song, dancing, and merriment of every kind abounded. Great honours were then paid to the shades of those who had annihilated the odd ancient beings, and the memory of those beings and of their elder gods was derided by dancers and lutanists crowned with roses from the gardens of Zokkar. And the kings would look out over the lake and curse the bones of the dead that lay beneath it. At first the high-priests liked not these festivals, for there had descended amongst them queer tales of how the sea-green eikon had vanished, and how Taran-Ish had died from fear and left a warning. And they said that from their high tower they sometimes saw lights beneath the waters of the lake. But as many years passed without calamity even the priests laughed and cursed and joined in the orgies of the feasters. Indeed, had they not themselves, in their high tower, often performed the very ancient and secret rite in detestation of Bokrug, the water-lizard? And a thousand years of riches and delight passed over Sarnath, wonder of the world and pride of all mankind.
Gorgeous beyond thought was the feast of the thousandth year of the destroying of Ib. For a decade had it been talked of in the land of Mnar, and as it drew nigh there came to Sarnath on horses and camels and elephants men from Thraa, Ilarnek, and Kadatheron, and all the cities of Mnar and the lands beyond. Before the marble walls on the appointed night were pitched the pavilions of princes and the tents of travellers, and all the shore resounded with the song of happy revellers. Within his banquet-hall reclined Nargis-Hei, the king, drunken with ancient wine from the vaults of conquered Pnath, and surrounded by feasting nobles and hurrying slaves. There were eaten many strange delicacies at that feast; peacocks from the isles of Nariel in the Middle Ocean, young goats from the distant hills of Implan, heels of camels from the Bnazic desert, nuts and spices from Cydathrian groves, and pearls from wave-washed Mtal dissolved in the vinegar of Thraa. Of sauces there were an untold number, prepared by the subtlest cooks in all Mnar, and suited to the palate of every feaster. But most prized of all the viands were the great fishes from the lake, each of vast size, and served up on golden platters set with rubies and diamonds.
Whilst the king and his nobles feasted within the palace, and viewed the crowning dish as it awaited them on golden platters, others feasted elsewhere. In the tower of the great temple the priests held revels, and in pavilions without the walls the princes of neighbouring lands made merry. And it was the high-priest Gnai-Kah who first saw the shadows that descended from the gibbous moon into the lake, and the damnable green mists that arose from the lake to meet the moon and to shroud in a sinister haze the towers and the domes of fated Sarnath. Thereafter those in the towers and without the walls beheld strange lights on the water, and saw that the grey rock Akurion, which was wont to rear high above it near the shore, was almost submerged. And fear grew vaguely yet swiftly, so that the princes of Ilarnek and of far Rokol took down and folded their tents and pavilions and departed for the river Ai, though they scarce knew the reason for their departing.
Then, close to the hour of midnight, all the bronze gates of Sarnath burst open and emptied forth a frenzied throng that blackened the plain, so that all the visiting princes and travellers fled away in fright. For on the faces of this throng was writ a madness born of horror unendurable, and on their tongues were words so terrible that no hearer paused for proof. Men whose eyes were wild with fear shrieked aloud of the sight within the king’s banquet-hall, where through the windows were seen no longer the forms of Nargis-Hei and his nobles and slaves, but a horde of indescribable green voiceless things with bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears; things which danced horribly, bearing in their paws golden platters set with rubies and diamonds containing uncouth flames. And the princes and travellers, as they fled from the doomed city of Sarnath on horses and camels and elephants, looked again upon the mist-begetting lake and saw the grey rock Akurion was quite submerged.
Through all the land of Mnar and the lands adjacent spread the tales of those who had fled from Sarnath, and caravans sought that accursed city and its precious metals no more. It was long ere any traveller went thither, and even then only the brave and adventurous young men of distant Falona dared make the journey; adventurous young men of yellow hair and blue eyes, who are no kin to the men of Mnar. These men indeed went to the lake to view Sarnath; but though they found the vast still lake itself, and the grey rock Akurion which rears high above it near the shore, they beheld not the wonder of the world and pride of all mankind. Where once had risen walls of 300 cubits and towers yet higher, now stretched only the marshy shore, and where once had dwelt fifty millions of men now crawled only the detestable green water-lizard. Not even the mines of precious metal remained, for DOOM had come to Sarnath.
But half buried in the rushes was spied a curious green idol of stone; an exceedingly ancient idol coated with seaweed and chiselled in the likeness of Bokrug, the great water-lizard. That idol, enshrined in the high temple at Ilarnek, was subsequently worshipped beneath the gibbous moon throughout the land of Mnar.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Through the Gate of Wonder

 Through the Gate of Wonder

And she goes out
white-sparked, radiant
in the dark vault of evening's sky
star-steps in the street
through the Gate of Wonder

From Inanna and Ebih, by Enheduanna (translated by Betty De Shong Meador)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

When Jerusalem was in Tuscany: The Last Gasps of a Dying Empire

Did you know that in Tuscany there is a place called "Jerusalem in Tuscany?" In the monastery of "San Vivaldo" you can find a 16th century sanctuary structured in such a way to make pilgrims go through an experience similar to that they would have by visiting the real Jerusalem. The sanctuary is still very much the same it was when it was built, centuries ago, and it tells us something of the plight of the Catholic Church of the time, desperately trying to maintain its cultural and political dominance in Europe. It was a bold attempt to develop a new language. It didn't work, but it anticipated some of our modern trends, such as our icon-based signs and our comic strips.

Imagine yourself in Europe during the late Middle Ages -- it was a different world for many reasons but one would perhaps be the most striking: language. Today, Europe is organized in terms of sharp borders of linguistic areas that usually correspond to national states. Inside the borders, there is one -- and only one -- "correct" language while dialects or minority languages are at best tolerated and often despised. But, in the world of the Middle Ages, languages varied smoothly as you moved from one village to another and, after a few hundred kilometers, people could barely understand each other. And, of course, there were fuzzy boundaries for the main language areas: the Latin, the Germanic, the Celtic, the Greek, the Slavic, and other minor ones. Europe was truly a babel.

But there was a lingua franca that connected the various areas of Europe: Latin, an inheritance of the dead Roman Empire. The Romans had created a nearly homogeneous Latin-speaking language area that included most of Western Europe and of North Africa, while the rest of the Empire spoke Greek. That language unity had been lost with the fading of the empire, disappearing when its dominance tool, gold-based currency, had disappeared with the depletion of its gold mines. But the loss had been only partial. In Western Europe, Latin was still thriving and, in a certain sense, the Empire was still alive. A new organization had taken the place of the Roman Empire, the Church, which proclaimed itself "Catholic" ("universal" from καθολικός) and used many of the same tools: its structure was patterned on the Imperial one, with the Pope in Rome playing the role of the Emperor, the overseers (bishops) playing the role of the Roman governors, and with Latin remaining the universal language, at least for Western Europe.

The difference was that the Church couldn't use military force to maintain its dominance: legionnaires had to be paid and in the metal-poor Europe of Middle Ages, that wasn't possible. So, the Church never directly ruled Europe. It was, mainly, a supporting structure for Feudal Rulers who used churchmen as overseers, interpreters, counselors, accountants, and the like. Latin was a fundamental tool for this role: a monk from Ireland would speak Gaelic with the other monks of his monastery, but he could speak in Latin with a visiting priest from Italy. And both could advise their local kings when it was the time for negotiations with some foreign warlord. All over Western Europe, a Church-based latinized area had developed and it was the main cultural feature of Europe of the time (together with the Gothic cathedrals).

But things always change and, sometimes, change fast. Europe's population kept growing during the Middle Ages, not smoothly but in a series of collapses and rebounds. By the mid 14th century, the "black death" had killed some 30 million Europeans, about one-third of the population of the time. Half a century later, Europe had recovered and the population was skyrocketing up. It was the time of the great explorations, of the discovery of new lands, and of the return of abundant currency with gold coming from the Americas. The new wealth was creating new political structures: states much more powerful than the ragtag feudal kingdoms that had dominated Europe in earlier times.

With the economic changes, there came cultural changes. More people could afford to learn how to read and write and the monopoly of the Church on cultural matters was being threatened. Already during the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri wrote his "Comedy" not in Latin, the language of the intellectuals, but in Vernacular Italian: a language that the people of Florence could understand. But it was with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, in the mid 15th century, that things really took a different path. As long as a book had to be laboriously copied by hand by a scribe, it was an expensive tool for a class of specialists and it made no sense to write it in a language that wasn't Latin. The printing press made books affordable by people who were not part of the Church's clergy.

Revolutions always bring unexpected changes: the 15th-century European bourgeoisie who could afford printed books were not professional clergymen and few of them had studied Latin. Suddenly, a new market appeared: that of books printed in vernacular languages. Already in the late 15th century, Bibles in German were being printed and you know how Martin Luther published a German version of the Bible in 1522. That was, possibly, his most revolutionary act. With Bibles in their language, people didn't need anymore a priest to interpret the holy scriptures for them. The Latin-based Catholic Empire had suddenly become obsolete.

Of course, the Catholic Church didn't just sit and watch as it was being pushed into the waste bin of history. You know about the counter-reformation movement, the Council of Trento (1545- 1563), and the thirty-years war, up to recent times the bloodiest confrontation recorded in human history. With the counter-reformation, the Church reaffirmed the primacy of Latin as the language of choice, truly the sacred language of Europe.

But that couldn't work. Latin could be a lingua franca, a tool for understanding each other, but it was hardly a sacred language. Moslems could claim that God had spoken in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad. But never in the Christian scriptures you could read that God had spoken in Latin to anyone, He had spoken in Hebrew or, at most, in Aramaic. And the Christian prophets of the New Testament had used Greek. Latin could provide translations, but it wasn't the real thing.

So, the Catholic Church was fighting an impossible battle. It must be said that it put up a spirited resistance and that, during the 18th century, there was an attempt to revive Latin as a cultured language, for instance Isaac Newton wrote his "Principia" in Latin in 1687. But it was a brief revival, the tumultuous growth of Nation States in Europe destroyed all attempts to keep Latin as a universal language. By the late 19th century, Europe was what it is today: something that could be likened to a party of drunken psychopaths, each one armed to the teeth and ready to start shooting at the others at the slightest hint of a provocation. Engaged in their local quarrels, the European States were unable to stop the expansion of the American Empire and that led to the dominance of English during the second half of the 20th century. At that point, Latin had become a language as dead as ancient Sumerian.

During the transition, for the Catholic Church it was impossible to maintain the fiction of universality. During the Great War, Catholic Priests were blessing the Austrian and the Italian soldiers and encouraging them to kill each other all in the name of the same God and the same church. That made no sense, obviously, and the Church eventually admitted defeat with the Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965), when permissions were granted to celebrate the Mass in vernacular languages. It was the end of an age: the Catholic (universal) Church was not universal anymore. Even though theoretically still a structure dominated by the Roman Papacy, it was to become what it is now: a loose network of national churches, not unlike the Protestant Churches it had been battling against so strongly. The Catholic cycle of Western European history had lasted more than a millennium -- now it was over.

But let's go back to the 16th century, when the battle lines were just starting to be drawn. The Catholic Church didn't just resist change, it tried to fight back. It did so by using the weapons it had, in particular, its rich and varied tradition of iconography. There was a reason for this tradition: the Church had been using a language - Latin - that was completely alien to many of its followers, so it had used images as a way to buttress and expand the faith of the believers. In this sense, Christianity had followed a different path than Islam, which had instead capitalized on the capability of the Ummah of understanding, at least in part, Classical Arabic, the language of the Holy Quran. So, when the Latin-based claims to universality were threatened, the Church reacted by trying to develop a new universal language: a purely iconographic one. 

This is what the sanctuary of San Vivaldo was: a bold and original attempt to develop a new language, one that would bypass the Protestant target of the literate elites to speak directly to the illiterate masses (as we would call them today). The images of the sanctuary show strictly no text -- they are purely visual icons, based on color, movement, postures, expressions. They are very simple and direct: perhaps the earliest expression in history that we may see as similar to our modern comic strips.

We can imagine that the visitors of the various chapels were accompanied by guides explaining to them what they were seeing in their vernacular language -- these guides would play the role of the "text balloons" in our modern comics. And the full-immersion experience would have been remarkable in a world that had none of the modern graphical tricks: movies and newspapers. 

Did it work as planned? For us, some five centuries after that San Vivaldo was created, it is difficult to judge. There are many "Holy Mountains" in Europe which attempt to provide the same kind of emotional experience that San Vivaldo does, all based on simple and high-impact dioramas. At least one more "Italian Jerusalem" exists in Val Sesia, the Holy Mount of Varallo. (Link to the sanctuary site)

With the development of the popular press and of TV, these sanctuaries lost importance and became obsolete, although many of them still exist, scattered all over Europe. But the basic idea remains that of providing a non-text communication that bypasses the need for translation. Isn't it exactly what we are doing with the icon-based signs that you can find in all modern airports?  

Then, the development of machine translation may soon make universal languages obsolete. Maybe the new communication technologies will make speech fully user-transparent: the interface will transform our input in whatever vernacular we happen to speak into a different vernacular understood by the person on the other side of the system. Is this the ultimate Esperanto? And what effect will it have on the seemingly all-powerful nation-states of today, so fond of warring and of killing people? 

Impossible to say, but, as usual, we are running into the future without ever wondering if we really want to go there. 


Note: I went to San Vivaldo in 2017, the place is truly impressive and nearly unknown. If you have a chance to visit Tuscany, by all means take this less beaten path and take a look at this special jewel of Tuscan history.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

How do you Write a Novel set in the 13th Century? Simple: you use Magic

A good front cover for a novel -- Hildegard and the Mystery of the Archer -- that faces a gigantic challenge: describing the world of the time of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century in Europe. Despite some stylistic problems, the author, Elide Ceragioli, succeeds in mastering her task: the novel works. It is the magic of narrative.

My explorations of Novel-space are leading me to discover vast spaces where the unknown reigns. It is truly a travel among sideral archipelagos. In my latest report, I told you about how the sexual habits of Plutonians could be related to waitresses who talk with God every day - not a small twist in the space-time fabric.

Here, let me tell you of how Hildegard of Bingen, Christian intellectual of the 12th century, materialized in the suburbs of my town, Florence, in the work of Ms. Elide Ceragioli who also materialized in front of me for a brief encounter just a couple of weeks ago: the mysteries of sidereal archipelagos.

Writing a novel set in the past is extremely difficult for the simple reason that you never lived there -- and with the best of good will, you never will (unless you are a mad professor who invents a time machine). Then, the more you go backward in the past, the more difficult it is. Could you write a novel set in ancient Sumeria, 5000 years ago? Some people do, one day I'll read one of the novels set in Sumeria by Jesse Hudson and report about that to you, but the task is truly nightmarish.

The task that Elide Ceragioli set for herself is gigantic: a novel where the protagonist is Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179), Medieval intellectual, writer, poet, nun, and mystic. Fascinating, but an unbelievably difficult task for someone who is not a Medieval nun.

So, how does Ms. Ceragioli succeed? Well, let's say first of all that the novel has serious problems in style and structure. In terms of style, it illustrates my opinion that the "Omniscient Point of View" (POV) in a novel worked well for Leon Tolstoy, but if one is not Leon Tolstoy it is better not to attempt it. The narrative thread in "Ildegarda" wanders from one character to the other, often providing classic examples of the problem that's called sometimes "head hopping." Omniscient POV is simply tiresome for the reader and that's what happens here.

But, curiously, whereas we know the inner thoughts of every character of the story, we never glimpse what Hildegard herself is thinking. Which is good: it makes Hildegard a little aloft, but it gives focus to the whole story, with all the other characters sort of orbiting around the strong figure of the benevolent abbess.In addition, despite the head-hopping that pervades the text, we do have a "narrative voice" -- unfortunately intermittent, but effective. It is the character of Eunice, the healer nun who "is a little mad, speaks with stones, with plants, and also with bones." I have met Ms. Ceragioli only once and for no more than 10 minutes, but that was sufficient for me to understand that Eunice is her alter-ego in the novel. All novels have an alter-ego of the author, this one is no exception. Whenever Eunice is on stage, the plot gains focus, speed, and interest.

There would be more to be said about the structure of the novel: it has more defects: excessive violence and blood, the slow advancing of the plot, some characters who are just not believable, such as the murderer archer, the attempt of setting a murder-mystery plot in a cultural situation where it wasn't even conceivable, and the plot split into two novels, one following the other.

But all that doesn't detract from the fact that the novel works. That's the miracle of narrative: if an author really feels for what he/she is telling, then even a slow-moving novel can't fail. This is the essential point of Hildegard and the Mystery of the Archer. If you read it, you can't avoid being taken it by the deep fascination of story-telling. Novel writing means to work magic and this novel is an example of it. True magic.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Valerian is a Spoiled Brat, a Son of a Bitch, and a Dirty Racist

The Boulan Bathors (you see  one of them in the lower left of the image above) are an especially ugly feature of Luc Besson's movie "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" For a science fiction lover, as I am, this movie has been a big disappointment despite the attempts of Cara Delevingne (above in the role of Laureline) to do something to improve it.

Movie reviews is not exactly what this blog is about, but I thought that this movie, "Valerian," deserved a little rant for being so bad. Really. Very. Bad.

One thing that bothered me a lot is the racist taint that affects almost every scene of the movie. All the good guys are white, or even pearl-white, such as the sappy alien good guys/gals, whereas the bad guys are almost all dark skinned. Especially ugly and offensive are the brown-skinned "Boulan Bathors," shown as fat, ugly, stupid, and evil people, as well as displaying disgusting eating habits -- they look very much the way black Africans were described in movies up to the 1930s. And since they are so ugly, they can be killed without regret by the protagonists.

Maybe I am exaggerating, but something that bothered me even more is how nobody, nowhere, seems to have noticed this racist scenes of the movie, or at leas wrote on that. Which, I think, tells us something of the current cultural views. We seem to have returned to the time when Walt Disney made movies of funny black people with a bone stuck in the nose and nobody thought there was anything wrong with that.

At this point, I guess you won't be surprised if I tell you that the movie is stupid and uninteresting. It is. You see a lot of noisy explosions, spaceship chases, flashes of laser light, aliens running, and more, but the whole doesn't make much sense. The story rotates around a couple of totally uninteresting characters, Valerian and Laureline, who behave like spoiled children, quarreling with each other for no understandable reason while they keep running we don't know where, occasionally killing other characters or letting them die without showing any sign of regret. (must say that Cara Delevingne in the role of Laureline manages to do a decent job in giving a minimum of interest to her character).

Again, noting how bad a movie can be wouldn't seem to be so interesting to deserve a blog post, but nothing can be so bad that you can't at least learn something from it. In this case, you may learn something if you ask yourself something like "what the hell has happened that has destroyed the concept of 'narrative' from our culture?" Apart from the racism, apart from the nastiness, the real trouble with this movie is that it has no plot, no story, no narrative. It is as sophisticated in terms of plot as a running race: everybody runs, one wins. But, at least, in a race everyone runs in the same direction. In this movie, they seem to be running in all possible different directions and nobody knows where's the finish line.

Now, that's really bothersome: I can't think of any past civilization that made no attempt of telling at least some kind of a story in its cultural manifestations (except, maybe, the late Roman Empire if you happen to read Claudianus). From the time of Gilgamesh, the gist of telling a story was to give a challenge to the hero, see him fulfill is obligation, suffer and learn something in the process, and finally, get a reward. All that has disappeared from our culture. Don't ask me why, because I can't answer that.

I can only note that at the end of the Valerian movie, the hero asks the heroine if she wants to marry him and she answers "maybe." And that's a senseless close for a senseless movie.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Mata Hari Series by Dark Horse Comics: The Reasons of a Failure

Dark Horse Comics published a 5-volume comics series on Mata Hari. Potentially a good idea but, in the end, a failure. What went wrong, exactly? Difficult to say, but clearly the series moved in bumps and jumps like a truck on a Mexican country road: sometimes speedy moving onward, sometimes making you seasick. The problems were equally bad with the story and with the imagery. Considering only the latter, in the first volume we had truly beautiful images, like this one:

Now, THIS is true to the image that Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was trying to project of herself as her alias, the creature named "the light of the day" in Malay, Mata Hari. An exotic, eerie, beautiful, mysterious, and even aggressive creature. In the pictures we have, Mata Hari was often shown dancing while holding swords and lances, sometimes even the kind seen above, the "Kriss".

But, then, as I said, the images in the series are unequal, they change in style and aspect. In the cover of the last volume, you see Mata Hari transformed into a clumsy creature, short-legged, a little fat, and with ridiculous heart-shaped lips. This is not Mata Hari, it is more Minnie Mouse.

And, in the 5th volume, they could do even worse. This image of the execution is truly an insult to Mata Hari's memory.

How could they create such a mess? I think I have an explanation but, first, let me show you an image (Paris 1905):

This is the real Mata Hari: look at the bearing, look at the expression, look at the way she is moving. This is real class: Mata Hari never was anything like a Barbie doll. She was an assertive woman in all her manifestations, in her dance as in life. And everything she did, she did with class. Great class.

So, I think that with the Dark Horse series they simply tried to drag the story too much: Mata Hari's life doesn't contain so much material that you could make five volumes out of it. Apart for her grand finale - the execution - her life story was not so dramatic. She was, mainly, a performer with a strong personality and a keen sense of self-promotion. You can describe her life in just a few sentences: she traveled to an exotic place, she divorced her husband, she came back to Europe, she had several lovers, she made some money, and she squandered most of it -- that's it, more or less.

Then, the story that she was a spy, well, it is more ridiculous than passionating. Poor Margaretha had the misfortune of finding herself as the target of both the German and the French secret services. The Germans tried to make the French look bad by having them kill an innocent woman, the French needed a scapegoat for their military failures. In the end, the enemies in the battlefield collaborated with each other in order to bring Margaretha Zelle in front of the firing squad. Bad luck aplenty for her, but not much of a "story" here.

What makes Mata Hari still remembered today is not what she did, but what she was. For sure not everybody loved her, but her personality was so strong and so powerful that it transcended the limits of the Dutchwoman Margaretha Zelle to turn her into the Goddess of the Sun, Mata Hari. All her glory showed up and faded in the single moment of the execution. And all she had done in her life, good and bad, found a justification when she stood in front of the firing squad, sending a kiss to the soldiers who were shooting her, and telling them, "Thank You."

In doing so, she truly transformed herself into the avatar of the Goddess, the sacrificial victim, and she thanked the mortals who were killing her for allowing her to return to the celestial realms where she came from. Not to everyone it is permitted to transcend their human nature in their last moments of life, but some have this destiny. Perhaps it is a blessing, perhaps it is a curse, but this is what we remember Mata Hari for.