Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ave Marcus Antonius!

I am always on the lookout for new historical novels or novelists that I have not yet had a chance to read. After reading an article on historical fiction in the Historical Novels Review, I had a few names of past writers that I took with me to my local library. The trip was quite successful.

One of the authors I came across was Allan Massie, who writes the rugby column for the Scotsman. As it turns out, Mr. Massie has written several novels of ancient Rome including, Augustus, Tiberius, Antony, Caesar, Caligula and Nero's Heirs. Not all of them were available but of the ones that were, I decided to begin with Antony.

Gore Vidal says of Allan Massie that he is "Master of the long-ago historical novel." Well, you would have to read more to decide that for yourself but I can say, having just finished Antony, that Mr. Massie has taken an exceptionally unique approach. The novel is Antony's memoir, written after the battle of Actium but before Octavian (later Augustus) takes Aegyptus. Most everyone knows the story of Antony and Cleopatra so I won't go into it here. The character that Massie creates of Antony is of the type of man that was able to approach the greatness of an Alexander. Where the latter heralded the beginning of the Hellenistic age, so did Antony prove to be the final hero of that same age. He was victorious in battle, loved by Rome and by his Legions, and known the world over as the possible provider of a golden age and even as Dionysos incarnate. Truly an amazing character that Mr. Massie has managed to portray with humour, bravery, honour and pathos. Godlike and yet vulnerably human as well.

I would certainly recommend this book just for its portrayal of Antony however, the picture painted of Cleopatra is certainly unflattering. This historian in me was cringing whenever Mr. Massie's version of her would appear as she is a spoiled, conniving woman who just comes across as stupid. This flies in the face of what historians such as Michael Grant and writer/historians such as Steven Saylor have been saying which is that Cleopatra was nowhere near stupid but was a highly intelligent woman who spoke countless languages, had a keener political insight that even Caesar himself and had a vision of the future that required an equally great partner such as she had in Caesar or Antony. To balance out Massie's sad adaptation of Cleopatra, one should definitely read Michael Grant's biography of her which is not too long but loaded with helpful information and great research.

Truth is, we all have different perceptions of how things should or should not be, even in hindsight. Unless a personal diary emerged from either Antony or Cleopatra, we will likely never know the true story of their rise and fall, their loves and hates. The reality may not be Shakespeare but it may not be that far off either. Remember, history is almost always written by the victors and in this instance, the victor was Octavian, later Augustus, who had launched a masterful propaganda campaign against Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, one of the greatest Romans of the age. Perhaps this is an example of how fiction can indeed become history?

Despite a couple of little dislikes, I will definitely pick up another of Mr. Massie's Roman novels. The other novelist I picked up at the library was Alfred Duggan who wrote some Roman novels earlier in the 20th century. I now have Mr. Duggan's novel, Family Favourites which is about the Severan Emperor Elagabalus who was one of the successors of Septimius Severus and Caracalla in whose reigns my own novels are set. I'll let you all know how that one turns out.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Clash of the Titans - 1981 vs. 2010

The other night I went to see the new Clash of the Titans movie with Sam Worthington in the lead role as Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae. Now, this is a story that I have really held dear for most of my life, having begged my father to take me back to the theatre to see the original movie four times when I was a kid.
I can still recall quite vividly how I felt seeing the flick in 1981 at the theatre in Devonshire Mall in Windsor so very long ago. From the moment Acrisius casts the coffin (for lack of a better word) into the sea I was bewitched with a sense of something ancient, magical. The Gods, the moon, the weapons of 'divine temper', all of it. Wonderful. I was scared to death of the scenes with Medusa and Calibos, well he was just a nightmarish figure that added to the mystery of it all. Pegasus is still the best - who doesn't want a winged horse?

So, how does Clash of the Titans 2010 stand up to the old one? Well, I'm not one to automatically opt for an older version of something just because it is the original (such as many folks do for something like Star Wars). In fact, these two versions of this ancient tale are quite different from each other but stand well side by side.

Clash of the Titans 2010 has been updated with loads of CGI and a few new characters such as Draco and Io (Goddess of the Dawn) and Hades (God of the Underworld). Things have also been bloodied quite a bit so this will not be a good idea for a six year old kid. On the upside, the female characters are stronger, Sam Worthington does a surprsingly good job as Perseus and the beasts are all amazing, especially Pegasus (still my favourite).

There are some things I did not like, however. Sometimes, the statement that 'less is more' is true and it is just so in this case. In the original movie, the music was not littered and driven throughout the movie as it is in the new one. One scene where I found this particularly annoying is the Medusa scene. The original was terrifying just because your senses were on edge - almost no music and the only sounds were Medusa's rattling tail, Perseus' laboured breathing and a few hissing arrows. That made for a very intense, dramatic scene. In the new film, there is just too much going on with all the action blanketed in non-stop, driving music.

As I have said in my previous post on 'Hollywood Historicals' however, if a movie generates interest in something, even if it is causing one young person to pick up a book of Greek Mythology and read a bit, that is truly a good thing. I'm sure Clash of the Titans 2010 will have achieved this. Sure, things have changed (the Gods wear shiny armour and Argos is a city packed onto a seaside mountain) but if these tales are to remain timeless, they need to be made current for new audiences and I can find no fault in that. Better an updated, different version of a classic than that very classic turning to dust in the wind.

In short, I love the original Clash of the Titans and highly enjoyed the new one. Both are works of art that succeed in transporting the viewer and bringing to life an ancient world of gods, heroes and magnificent creatures. It all fires the imagination. May there be many more such works!

photo: Relief of Pegasus at the Temple of Peace, Thurburbo Majus, Tunisia


In the past few weeks I have received three a few e-mails from folks asking about my own writing and expressing an interest in reading some samples of CHILDREN OF APOLLO which is the first book in the Eagles and Dragons series. I'm flattered by the expressions of interest and thank you. Now, time to deliver! I will be posting occasional excerpts of the book as a sort of amuse bouche for the historically inclined and fiction fans. Interest is certainly up with several new books on ancient themes out as well as movies such as Clash of the Titans. And there is still talk of a Gladiator sequel as well as an adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar's book, Memoirs of Hadrian.
Keep up the e-mails and by all means, make use of the comment boxes within the blog. Perhaps we can get some conversations going?
For the moment, I hope you enjoy this first excerpt. It is the Prologus of CHILDREN OF APOLLO and is sort of where it all begins for the Metellus Anguis family, on the eve of the battle of Zama when Rome defeats Hannibal Barca.

(Warning! Some formatting may have suffered during the posting of these words.)

202 B.C.

She was like a weathered sack of bones, possessed bones. The seeress rocked back and forth, inhaling the pungent smoke of the fire. Her body creaked and a childlike whining emanated from deep within her throat.
What am I doing here? the Roman thought as he knelt uncomfortably on the other side of the flames. I’m a soldier, a man of reason.
The woman was Punic, of Carthage. His first thought was to have her flogged out of camp but he could not, not after seeing the look in her eyes when she clutched his forearm with her gnarled fingers.
“The Gods send me to you with a message,” she had whispered. “You must hear it!”
Reason or not, Punic or not, he could not afford to offend the Gods.
“Come inside,” he remembered saying before she shuffled past his personal guard. And now he sat there, dizzy with smoke on the morning of battle, audience to the ramblings of a decrepit hag.
The wind on the plain was up. It lashed the tent walls, pulled the roof skyward. There was a loud bang, not like thunder or angry gales, but like a distant call or announcement. The Roman clutched his knees, tried to hold back the bile that rose up in his throat.
Pieces of papyrus flew about the tent, a lamp fell over and went out in the sand. The fire was suddenly still. The crone threw her head back as if slapped, gurgled some words in a tongue he did not know. Her eyes rolled and she nodded. The Roman looked around but they were alone. He felt cold, began to sweat where the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
The seeress collapsed and the flames began to move again. The Roman got to his feet and moved to her side. She was breathing. He nudged her gently.
“Woman. Are you all right?” He tried not to let his fear or disgust show.
The bones suddenly jerked to life and her arms clawed at his, pulling him down as she crawled up, something out of the underworld. She was strong.
“I have words…I have words…” Her voice was raspish, her breath fowl. But, he had to listen. It was as though someone were pushing him downward to her, from behind. “It will be a mark of greatness in your line.”
“What will?” His voice shuddered, fear beginning to show as his courage waned. “My line is already great.” He tried to sound defiant but she shook her head, her eyes now open.
“For blood and butchery, maybe. The God has given you this symbol of wisdom and strength. You are chosen to carry it.”
“Which god? What symbol? I don’t understand. Chosen for what? Tell me!” He held her tightly by the shoulders, bones lost in his grip.
Then, her appearance, her features, softened so that she resembled a kindly grandmother. She spoke soothingly to him.
“You are blessed Metellus.” She reached for the filthy satchel she had brought with her, rooted around inside. “I had a dream…” she muttered, “…in it…I saw this.” She drew something out, something no larger than the palm of her wrinkled hand.
“What is it?” he asked.
She held it up to the firelight, turned it around reverently. It was a flat, clay image of a dragon.
“This is the symbol of your line to come.” She handed it to him. He accepted it, still unsure as to the meaning. “It is a symbol of wisdom, of strength.”
“Yes, you said that already,” he responded impatiently.
She raised her arms as if to the heavenly stars. “He has honoured you with it.”
“The God.”
“Which one?”
“You will know when you are ready. He will come to you as he always comes to the chosen.”
The Roman shuddered at the thought. “Visited by a god?” Out in the camp, horns roused the army.
“I must go,” she said abruptly, packing up her things and standing.
“Wait! I have many questions.”
“Men always do.” She turned back to him. “They will be answered in time. For now, keep this symbol with you always.” She closed his hand around it. “Pass it on to the worthiest of your line only.”
She became impatient, as one does with a child who questions without end. “It is sacred, powerful, meant only for those strong enough to bear the burden.” She paused, peered into his eyes one last time. “Remember. You fight for more than yourself this day at Zama, more than Rome’s glory. I must go.”
“Wait, I’ll call you an escort out of camp…”
She was gone.

photo: Temple of Apollo, Ancient Corinth