Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Fall of Numenor

This is, I suppose, the first volume of what will become the Fourth Wave of posthumous Tolkien publications. The Silmarillion was Christopher Tolkien's attempt to produce an accessible version of Tolkien's unfinished legendarium for people who had read Lord of the Rings and wanted access to the lore. The Unfinished Tales was supposed to complete the canon: the sections that didn't fit into the Silmarillion but were too interesting to consign to the waste paper basket.

The long, definitive, twelve volume History of Middle-earth didn't quite amount to a critical edition of Tolkien's extensive literary residue, but it gave keen readers a close fly-by of the raw materials Christopher Tolkien had to work with; his father's extensive, fragmentary, repetitive and frequently inconsistent legacy. It really ought to be called the Complete Works of Tolkien: as close as we are ever going to come to fitting his actual life's work between two covers. (Or twenty-four, to be exact.) We can talk about what he should have written and what we wish he'd written, but these 6,000 pages represent the sum-total of what he actually wrote. The recent Nature of Middle-earth is really the thirteenth and final volume of this magnum opus. There are print-on-demand editions of technical Elvish texts for anyone who want them.

Towards the end of his life, Christopher Tolkien embarked on a third phase of mining Pa's writings. The Children of Hurin, the Fall of Gondolin and Beren & Luthien are slightly less intimidating presentations of material we'd already seen in the History of Middle-earth. You still have to navigate stories which don't come to an end, and multiple variant versions of the same basic narratives, but the intimidating footnotes are gone; the material is no longer scattered across multiple volumes; and the type-face is considerably clearer. It would be cruel to call these books Good Parts Abridgements of the History of Middle-earth, but they are essentially Good Parts Abridgements of the History of Middle-earth.

The Fall of Numenor is the first publication which owns up to being a secondary text. So far as I can tell, Brian Sibley hasn't consulted any primary manuscripts at all. Possibly no-one but Chris could have deciphered Ron's handwriting. But Sibley has studied the Silmarillion, the Book of Lost Tales and the Unfinished Tales a good deal more closely than you or I have. He is also passingly familiar with the BBC Lord of the Rings Radio adaptation, and supplied "Hobbit gibberish" for the Drury Lane musical. He has taken some of Tolkien's writings, re-ordered it, polished it, wiped its nose, and sent it out into the world in a lovely new dust-jacket and only a tiny seasoning of absolutely essential footnotes. The Usual Suspects have complained that Sibley is fraudulently asking £20 for material they have already paid for (in some cases, twice); that he is engaging in literary necrophilia and is, moreover, woke. But for those of us who still enjoy books as opposed to franchises, it's an utter delight. I ploughed through Nature of Middle-earth out of a sense of loyalty. I read Fall of Numenor for fun.

Linguists and philologists are interested, not only in what words mean, but in how words change. A word isn't just what it means today, but what it meant a hundred or even a thousand years ago. It was CS Lewis who taught me that the word "world" originally meant "were-ald", man-age, and passed through phases of meaning epoch, universe, solar-system and ecology before settling down to mean planet. 

But very many people are linguistic fundamentalists. Words have true, fixed meanings, which Bad People deliberately change and distort. Don't pay any attention to what your Comp School English teacher told you the word means: there is always a truer, purer meaning to go back to. Witness the recent kerfuffle about the Oxford English Dictionary's amending the definition of "woman" to reflect current usage; re-read Simon Heffer's comic masterpiece, Strictly English.

Many people feel the same way about literary characters and texts. There is a singular Robin Hood, a true Superman and an unsullied Doctor Who which different texts reflect faithfully or else wilfully distort. But other people feel that the word "Hamlet", or come to that, "Jesus", necessarily refers to a construct that has undergone multiple transformations and will continue to do so as long as intelligent monkeys exist to tell stories to one another. Henry Irving's Hamlet is not Kenneth Branaghs's Hamlet. "Hamlet" encompasses both of them and neither of them. 

And this is, I think, what makes Christopher Tolkien's work threatening to a particular kind of purist. At one level, it is meaningless to say that the Melko who threatens two elves called Beren and Luthien in a 1917 text called the Tale of Tinuviel "is" the Morgoth to whom Sauron offers human sacrifice in the Akallebeth (1958) or that the Necromancer alluded to in the Hobbit (1937) "is" the Lidless Eye from the Return of the King (1955) -- or that either of them "is" sodding Halbrand. Tolkien re-used ideas from old books in the creation of new ones, and the nature of 21st century literary fame means that "other hands" are going to start using those ideas in their own work. 

Hell, it's pushing it to say that the Hal of Henry VI Part 2 "is" the Henry of Henry V, although producers can have great fun pretending that he is.

But it is equally and oppositely true that we wouldn't be ploughing through this stuff to begin with if we didn't think we could enter into "secondary belief" in Middle-earth; if we couldn't think about it and talk about it as if it was the history of a place that happens not to exist. It is very, very interesting to see the process by which Tolkien created it; in the same way that it is very, very interesting to see the process by which Mat Irvine turned an empty washing up liquid bottle and some piano wire into a Sontaran flying saucer; but if every time you watch the old sci-fi show you think "it's only a plastic bottle" and "I can see the wires" then you aren't watching the old sci-fi show. If we can't see Strider without also seeing Trotter, if Bingo always lies behind Frodo and Gandalf is still a little man called Theoden then Middle-earth is no longer "a world more real than any other". It's no longer anything at all.

A man on Twitter today welcomed the second wave of franchised Lord of the Rings TV shows, saying "I just want to be in Middle earth. I don’t care which story or which characters we will see, I just really want to be in the world." 

To which I say, simultaneously "I know exactly what you mean" and "I don't think I understand, in that context, what you mean by 'Middle-earth'. Or, for that matter, 'be'".

So. Pull up that battered old copy of Return of the King.

Page 453, the Tale of Years.

Year 1: Foundation of the Grey Havens.

Year 1700: Tar Minastir sends a great navy from Numenor to Lindon."

Flip over to the Unfinished Tales: page 219, the Line of Elros, King of Numenor, From the Founding of the City of Armenelos to the Downfall.

"Tar-Surion was the third child of Tar-Anarion, his sisters refused the scepter. He ruled for a hundred and fourteen years. He was born in the year 1174"

The Silmarillion, of course, has a saga-like description of the Numenorian empire which feels a lot less like homework.

"And Isildur said no word but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned..."

What Brian Sibley has done is treated each entry in the Tale of Years as a chapter heading, and interleaved everything Tolkien wrote about that particular year in its chronological position -- not only the Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales, but relevant chunks from History of Middle-earth, Tolkien's letters and the narrative material from the Council of Elrond in Fellowship of the Ring. We end up with a more or less linear history of the Second Age, which we can more or less read straight through, as a story.

It's a physically beautiful book: definitely worth getting the hardback as opposed to reading it on kindle. Two colour printing, with the chapter headings in blue and the fire letters in red; Alan Lee line drawings at the top of every chapter and a goodly number of colour plates. The only thing I'd have added is some family trees. It reproduces Christopher Tolkien's maps from the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, but it would have been nice to have some purpose built diagrams to help us keep track of who was where at each point.

The presentation of texts affects how we read them. The Silmarillion feels more definitive than it has any right too: the Unfinished Tales feel, well, unfinished, and in the History of Middle-earth, textual scholarship keeps interrupting the story. Sibley's treatment can feel bitty and fragmented. Some of the chapters are very short indeed. The Akallabeth may not be enhanced by being split into ten or a dozen chapters. But on the whole, Sibley has opened up obscure and dry passages from obscure and dry works. 

The Unfinished Tales included a 40 page story -- unfinished, obviously -- called Aldarion and Erendis, the Tale of the Mariner's wife.

It starts, off-puttingly, like one of the monarch-notes:

"Meneldur was the son of Tar-Eledil, the fourth king of Numenor. He was the king's fourth child, for he had two sisters..."

Even the keenest reader could be forgiven for saying "Who was the son of whom, exactly, and when was this, and why ought I to care?" Sibley splits it up into four sections, entitles them "The Voyages of Aldarion", "Aldarion and Erendis""The Wedding of Aldarion and Erendis" and "The Accession of Tar-Aldarion" and places them in their correct slots between the years 600 and 750 SA. We can now see where it fits into the overall saga -- how the first reigning Queen came about, and why there was a kind of schism between the King and the Queen in the next generation. And, in nice clear print with pictures and hardly any footnotes, we can also recognise it as a pretty good story.

We revere Tolkien for his world-building; we mock him slightly for his genealogies and etymologies; but he was a brilliant, brilliant, storyteller. Even if he wasn't much cop at actually finishing anything. Aldarion and Erendis is a pretty simple tale: the Prince of Numenor wants to sail to Middle-earth and have adventures; his lover wants to stay at home. He goes off for a few years, he comes back, they get married, but he longs for the sea again. She makes him promise to come back after a year; but the years roll by and he doesn't come home. Eventually he returns, but she won't have him back. It's full of Tolkien's understated narrative flourishes:

"You come late, my lord" she said "I had long ceased to expect you. I fear there is no such welcome prepared you as I had made when you were due."

"Mariners are not hard to please" he said.

"That is well", she said, and she turned back into the house and left him.

Did the tale of Aldarion just drift into Tolkien's head while he was working on his Monarch Notes, and get written down almost as a distraction from the main line of thought? Or was one of the purposes of the History of Numenor to provide a context for just such a story? I wonder if there was an original, impossible scheme in which each of the Kings on the list was supposed to be the seed of a story as long as this one; growing eventually into a vast narrative history of Numenor that would have run to double the length of Lord of the Rings. The one thing he definitely didn't do was create an independent story and paste it into the Second Age as a backdrop. Story and history are in a kind of dialectic; the history shaped by the story, the story a close-up view of the history.

The final days of Numenor is a masterpiece of Highe Fantasie. Sauron taken as hostage to Numenor; constructing a great temple to Morgoth; giant clouds in the shape of eagles amassing on the island; Sauron laughing on his fiery throne at the exact moment the island sinks beneath the waves; the Queen trying to reach the top of the highest mountain to survive the deluge...

"And the first fire upon the altar Sauron kindled with the hewn wood of Nimloth, and it cracked and was consumed; but men marvelled at the reek that went up from it, so that the land lay under a cloud for seven days, until slowly it passed into the west."

We've become used to fantasy stories taking the forms of novels: with viewpoint characters, physical descriptions and characters with realistic psychology. Tolkien doesn't write like George R Martin or Stephen Donaldson or even Terry Pratchett: I can see how a certain kind of reader might say "Har-har it sounds like the Bible" and walk away. The normal word order is inverted ("the fire he kindled with wood" as opposed to "he kindled the fire with wood") which might make a different person say "Bah, poetry" and close the book. Some of the language is slightly old fashioned --"kindled" instead of "lit", "hewn" instead of "chopped" and "reek" instead of "stink" -- but no words we don't know the meaning of. You could modernise it, of course, a kind of Good News Silmarillion, but there would be a mismatch between the language and the tone:

"Sauron lit the first fire on the altar with the wood he had chopped from Nimloth; it crackled as it burned away; and everyone was surprised by the bad smell that came from it, which left the country dark for a week, until the smoke slowly drifted westwards."

That's simply not the way this sort of story is told. There are no Hobbits to mediate the narrative, but it's clear from the voice that we are hearing the tale as it was told in days of old by the men of Gondor as they sat round they great log fires.

Could there have been another viewpoint? Could those two words, "men marvelled" have been extended into chapters and paragraphs and entire volumes?

"Call me Isildur. Tomorrow Last Ally Gil Galad and I will go to war with Sauron, and it is entirely possible that he will pass into darkness and I shall encounter some kind of Bane. But I still recall that fateful morning in my youth when I opened the shutter of my father's house and noticed that the suin had not risen and the whole land smelt like...." 

Like what? Do they have public loos and rubbish dumps and tanneries in the blissful realm? And what do we call them to avoid breaking the mood? 

"'It bain't be natural, that be it not'" said the landlord of the Leaky Chalice as he poured foaming nut-brown ale into his artisanal cup 'There ain't been no sun for nigh on a week and I don't know why, unless it be from all that smoke that Master Sauron, gor bless him, 'as been making in that sodding big church, for reasons which I am sure are good...'"

The impact of the paragraph depends on its being embedded in history. We are shocked that Sauron has burned Nimloth; because we know what Nimloth is, and indeed, why the West is important. It's meaning stretches back into the first pages of the Silmarillion, and its story will continue into the final pages of Lord of the Rings: the narrator can only explain it in terms of other stories:

"And a seedling they brought of Celeborn, the White Tree that grew in the midst of Eressëa; and that was in its turn a seedling of Galathilion the Tree of Túna, the image of Telperion that Yavanna gave to the Eldar in the Blessed Realm. And the tree grew and blossomed in the courts of the King in Armenelos; Nimloth it was named, and flowered in the evening, and the shadows of night it filled with its fragrance."

There are other ways of telling a story: Tolkien could have taken the Miltonic or Homeric route, given us the Saga of Isildur and gradually brought us up to speed via epic flashbacks.

And to the white tree Nimloth did
Isildur the reckless son of Elendil boldly creep 
That same tree of whose sire in Valinor
Before the rising of the first sun stood,
When Yavanna, gentle spouse of mighty Aule
Who in defiance of the One first forged the dwarves
Upon the hill in the Far West did stand
And to the serried ranks of Valar pure
Who in the primal music made the world
Did speak....

But he didn't.

But Tolkien did make an attempt to cast part of the story of Numenor into a more naturalistic form. Sibley includes a chapter from Tolkien's unfinished novel the Lost Road, which is related to an earlier, unfinished novel called the Notion Club Papers. He puts it in an Appendix because it doesn't really fit into the chronology. It was going to be part of a sprawling epic about reincarnation, in which a contemporary father and son have a vision quest through history from the contemporary era to Anglo Saxon times and ultimately to Atlantis-Numenor, where they would turn out to be reincarnations of Elendil and Isildur. It was part of the famous literary pact with CS Lewis: Lewis would write a space travel story if Tolkien would write a time travel story. Lewis's entry was straight out of HG Wells; Tolkien's, not so much. Tolkien hasn't finalised the story at this point: indeed the characters are called Elendil and Herendil. The tiny little fragment which survives takes the form of a conversation between father and son. Sauron has been living in Numenor for nearly fifty years; he has corrupted the king and instigated the worship of Morgoth; and promised to make the King lord of the whole world. Herendil/Isildur has grown up with this, and regards it as a normal state of affairs. He's rather shocked that his father doesn't think that lordship of middle-earth and worship of Morgoth is the birthright of Numenorean kings. He fears that his father will be accused of treason. "Even to dispraise Sauron is held rebellious". But Dad is clear where his loyalties lie:

"'I would not break faith with the king, nor do I purpose anything to his hurt. The house of Earendel hath my allegiance while I live. But if I must choose between Sauron and Manwe, then all else must come after. I will not bow unto Sauron, nor to his master.'"

It's a fascinating text in many ways. Elendil's summary of the first age and the fall of Melkor is subtly different from the one in the Silmarillion, and it gives us a sense of how the people of Numenor percieved the old gods. And we get a dramatic description of Sauron's first arrival on the island. It seems that the waves virtually spit his boat out and deposit him on dry land:

"He stood upon a rock and said 'This is done as a sign of my power. For I am Sauron the mighty, servant of the Strong...I have come. Be glad, men of Numenor, for I shall take thy king to be my king and the world shall be given into his hand.'"

But it is easy to see why Tolkien abandoned the book. On the one hand, Sauron the Mighty is a demonic figure; second in command to literal Satan, and Elendil knows it. But at the same time, he is an evil councillor to a mortal king, and the language is that, if not of the House of Commons lobby, then at any rate of Henry V's council chamber. An older dude and a younger dude are talking politics in a nice villa by the sea; but the politics they are talking about involves Voids and Far Wests and Deathless Ones. And this leads to a mismatch of tone, which teeters on the edge of being unintentionally comic. Tolkien has decided they are going to talk in thees-and-thous: I don't know whether to emphasise the familiarity of father and son or just to make it sound old fashioned. 

In places, it comes out sounding clumsy:

"Do not ask. And do not speak so loud. Thou knowest it is dangerous -- to us all. Whatever he be, Sauron is mighty, and hath ears. I fear the dungeons.."

In other places it sounds merely ridiculous:

"How thou dost grow..." 

"Why dost thou mock me? Thou knowest I am dark, and smaller than most others of my year. And that is a trouble to me. I stand barely to the shoulder of Amariel, whose hair is of shining gold, and she is a maiden, and of my own age."

It is as if a perfectly normal conversation, that might have taken place round any 1950s breakfast table, has been translated back into fantasy-speak. Hast thou read the parchments of news upon this morning, my spouse? It seemeth that the cost of fish in the market riseth, and our nation faireth poorly in the ball games at the forum. Please, pass unto to me the orange condiment with the picture of a southron child upon the label. (It doesn't help that Tolkien mentions that Helendil has been bathing, and is naked during the conversation.) Ordinary talk sounds silly in High Speech; but mythology sounds silly in ordinary language. It is ironic that this is precisely the rock which the Rings of Power wrecks itself on. It doesn't work for Isildur to talk like a teenager and Galadriel to talk like a military officer; but it doesn't work for them to talk like anything else. It seems Tolkien himself couldn't get this quite right.

Everything in Tolkien, with the exception of the Lord of the Rings, is unfinished; trapped in the transition between two states, and the Fall of Numenor is necessarily artificial, even synthetic. But the new book does a very good job of making the jumble of material accessible. The First Age stories are much more confused and confusing, but can one hope for a Forging of the Jewels or Flight of the Noldor volume in the not-too-remote future?


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Friday, February 24, 2023

Ant-man and the Wasp: Quantumania

It was nice while it lasted. 

Big, smart, iconic re-inventions of big, mythical, archetypal characters. Medium weight producers who understood and cared who these characters were. Ken Branagh's kid-self was spotted reading Thor #128 in the Belfast semi-biopic. The man in the Guardian compared Thanos with something out of a Greek Tragedy. When Steve Rogers started to pontificate about the price of freedom always being high he melted the hearts of theatres full of British liberals. Steve Rogers got all the good lines, actually. There's only one god, and I don't think he dresses like that. Hulk, smash. Captain America is the moral centre of the Marvel Universe.

I suppose that's the trouble with superheroes. They start out serious. But after a while you have to make a choice. You can tell the same story over and over again: another treatment of the strange visitor from another planet who grew to manhood among salt of the earth white people in Kansas and turned the world backwards and defeated the Klan of the Fiery Cross. Another story where the bug-kid is ready to throw in the towel but realises that God gave him his powers and it his Responsibility to use them. Flying Mammal Guy realises that Evil Clown Guy is his own distorted reflection, for the seventy fifth time.

Or else you let it turn into a soap opera. Emphasise the soap -- oh, if only I dared tell her my secret identity then I could invite her to the junior prom. Or emphasise the opera -- here I stand upon the Moon, illegitimate son of the pirate emperor of Saturn, on trial by the people of the universe for inadvertently channelling the Dark Unicorn Force. Character pieces about characters who just happen for some reason to wear tights and shoot lasers out of their earholes.

Or more likely you just throw in the towel, let things develop under their own momentum and accept that you are only producing a comic strip. With the emphasis on comic. Stupendous Man; Stupendous Boy; Stupendous Girl. Stupendous Girl's stupendous pussy cat. Stupendous Boy's stupendous puppy dog. Stupendous Dog and Stupendous Cat form a club with Stupendous Horse and Stupendous Octopus and call it the Battalion of Stupendous Pets. Everyone decamps to Soudneputs Dlrow where clocks go tok-tick, criminals arrest policemen and Kier Starmer is a socialist. Fifty years later Alan or Grant or someone will pretend it was all incredibly deep.

The tipping point was Guardians of the Galaxy. Guardians of the Galaxy was fun. Guardians of the Galaxy was loads of fun. But no-one outside the discourse knows who the hell the Guardians of the Galaxy are. So they could do what they wanted for as long as it carried on being fun. The film was like an RPG, random overpowered characters who didn't quite know what they were meant to be doing blundering through a universe of cool surfaces. Starlord is a bit of a thug, but he's a very cool thug and Han Solo to the eleventh degree is a lot more fun than the old Chris Claremont "here I am alone in the universe searching for my place within it" Starlord ever was. And then Thor became involved, and Asgardians of the Galaxy became an irresistible pun and the joke about Rocket Racoon and the joke about Groot entirely failed to wear off. God help us all, it became a Romp. We Romped through another Guardians we romped through a couple of Thors and we romped through a Doctor Strange. Even Spider-Man did not entirely refrain from Romping. Modern takes on ancient myths? Not exactly. Superheroes with super-problems? Not so much. Pretend families and groups of mates wisecracking their way through a cartoon universe is the way to go. If you attempt something serious, portentous, Marvelous and indeed Kirbyesque it will get comprehensively slammed. (Exhibit A: The Eternals.) Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- Stan Lee's grand vision reimagined in glorious technicolour -- survives on the TV in things like Hawkeye (which was fun) and Captain America and the Winter Soldier (which actually moved the whole superhero thing forward a couple of notches.) But in actual cinemas, whacky is the order of the day

Black Panther II was pretty good. I liked Black Panther II.

There is a serious danger that 2024 will bring on the fourth attempt at a Fantastic Four movie. (The fifth if you count the Incredibles.) The brilliant but reckless grey-haired scientist Reed Richards. His sensible maternal wife, Sue. Awkward teenaged Johnny. Ben the wise cracking thug with a heart of gold. Together, they will travel to the Negative Zone and discover an exiled Kosmic Kirby Kriminal. 

Come to think of it, there is no need to wait until 2024. It's been made. It's called Ant Man 3. Maybe that's the joke. Maybe we've used Kang's time machine and travelled to the future and plagiarised the FF before it came out?

Ant-Man is not Marvel's most interesting character. There are only so many things you can do with a guy whose main power is being small. Only one thing, in fact, and most baddies have learned to cover up their keyholes. Stan Lee's unique genius spotted that if he could shrink small he could also grow big and that the Ant Man logo could be nicely reconfigured as Gi-Ant Man. When the joke wore off he was reconfigured as Goliath. And then Yellowjacket. I think for a while he held the record for the character with the most identities. But even "being very tall" stops being thrilling after a while. Hank Pym had a nervous break down and became a domestic abuser and it all got unnecessarily heavy. For a while, a reformed burglar named Scott Lang got to borrow the name and the shrinking powers.

The movie series puts a clever little wrinkle on the accumulated Marvel Back Story. Scott Lang became the main protagonist, and a much older Hank Pym became his mentor. And it turns out that Scott can't just shrink to insect size, but right down to subatomic level, where he can interact with what is very carefully not called the Microverse. Scott forms a romantic relationship with Hank's daughter Hope, and together they rescue Janet van Dyne from the sub-atomic universe. This generates a Pretend Family: Hank and Janet as the veteran heroes; Scott and Hope as Ant-Man and the Wasp; and Scott's daughter Cassie. Cassie was young and cute in the first movies but is now all teenaged and feisty. 

The ensemble is genuinely fun: Scott, good hearted, out of his depth, an absent father making up for lost time, unable to believe the turn his life has taken. Cassie, rebellious, concerned with Issues, tentatively reestablishing her relationship with Dad. Hank, clever but naughty, enjoying adventures, demanding strong drink in alien bars. Janet, matriarchal but strong, with a Terrible Secret about what happened to her in her exile. Hope, treading a line in between her dad and her boyfriend. They Fight Crime.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ant Man III. It is quite definitely a Marvel Movie. Scott and the Gang fall down a Science Rabbit hole and find themselves in the Negative Zone...sorry, the Microverse....very well if you absolutely insist, the Quantum Realm. They get split up. They meet increasingly silly aliens, one of whom is played by Chidi from the Good Place and one of whom is played by Venkman from Ghostbusters. Everyone speaks of Janet as a person of great significance. They also speak of He Who Must Not Be Named; the Conquerer. The Dark Lord has turned Hank's evil apprentice, who was shrunk down to quantum level in the first movie, into an Ultimate Weapon. MODOK, the mechanised organism designed only for killing, was originally a 1960s Captain America villain. He's pretty goofy looking, only a rung or two above Pharanx the Fighting Fetus in the Kanon of Krazy Kirby Kreations, but I don't think he quite deserved being reduced to comic relief as he is here. I am quite pleased that the effects team had a good shot at reflecting the original cartoonish design: it gives me renewed hope that any future Galactus will be something other than a cloud of purple gas.

After a lot of talking and a lot of flashbacks, it transpires that the bad guy is (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER)  Kang the Kongkerer, the Avengers Time Travelling opponent, sporting a costume very like the purple and green outfit he wears in the comic books. He's been exiled to the Quantum Realm by persons unknown for doing too much conquering, and Jan, not spotting that he's a bad guy, released him. Whoops. That's the dark secret she forgot to mention in the last two movies. But she did manage to sabotage his space ship so he can't get out of the Microverse and do any large scale naughtiness upstairs. Kang blackmails Scott into retrieving the Doohickey he needs to free himself. He says he will kill and torture Scott's daughter if he doesn't comply. There is only so far you can move away from the DNA of the source material, and damsels are there to be distressed. In fairness she whimpers "don't do it dad" quite feistily. But Hank and Jan come over the hill with some CGI cavalry, and then some more CGI cavalry; and then an end of level guardian and another end of level guardian..and well, in the end it all works out okay. But according to the final credit, Kang, like 007, "will return". The final post-cred goes a bit multiversal and a bit Alan Moore. A whole football stadium full of an infinite number of Kangs, like one of those Idea Realms populated entirely by Superman variants.

Does anyone remember a thing called Phantom Menace? A 2001 space movie. I think I reviewed it at the time. Everyone said that all the newfangled CGI stuff felt weird and a bit unreal. Huge numbers of robots and fish people and space ships, crowding the actors off the screen. One quite annoying character who was entirely computer generated and not a human at all. It felt a little bit too much like the Muppet Show. But then, Return of the Jedi already felt a little bit too much like the Muppet Show. Most people really like the Muppet Show.

It would be interesting to borrow Kang's time machine and show Ant Man III to my old friend who thought Phantom Menace had raped his childhood. It, Ant-Man, is absolutely stuffed to the effing brim with stuff. The pink balloon man who is surprised that humans have holes in their bodies. Kang's minions, who have gold-fish bowls for faces. The guy with the angle-poise lamp in his head. Giant snails, big enough for people to ride like elephants. A semi-organic space-ship that looks like a manta-ray. Walking buildings. A sentient stick of broccoli which is a very good in-joke if you are one of the sixteen people who understand it. (*)

In one very audacious scene Scott meets a copy of himself, and then another, until the whole screen is full of little Scotts. This is the Quantum realm, after all, so every time he makes a choice he generates a new version of himself. Within a few minutes he is at the top of a literal mountain of duplicates. Because what every infinite version of himself has in common with every other version is the wish to rescue his daughter.  Awww.

Look at Star Wars. No, look at Dune: the Lynch version, the TV version, or the recent cinema version. Look, if you utterly insist, at Peter Jackson's Tolkien riff. They definitely create worlds. They definitely use special effects. They are definitely visually audacious. But you never felt that Lucas or Jackson or Lynch were just chucking visual ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck.

Peyton Reed includes the ideas which didn't stick. And several hundred kitchen sinks. Orson Well's described the movies as the best train set any kid ever played with (**): this is the product of a hyperactive genius let loose in the Hornby warehouse. There is no sense of any section of the Quantum world being an actual location. No sense that we are in a secondary world. No feeling of what C.S Lewis called donegality, a consistency of imagery that builds up an emotional flavour. Nothing would be out of place there. It's a pulp magazine cover acid dream that forms a backdrop to a bog standard assault on the Death Star quest narrative, with a chirpy Paul Rudd doing sterling work at giving it some some emotional centre. (I somehow keep mentally substituting Lee Mack in Not Going Out. Now there's a pitch.) It's very pretty.  It's more like one of Ditko's magic dimensions than anything we saw in Doctor Strange. But it's just landscape. Pulp sword and sorcery was often about weird landscape and not very much else. Maybe I would have enjoyed this more if it had been three solid hours of John Carter or Thongor or Elric swinging a sword through encroaching hoards, with maybe a Bo Hansson sound track. (***)

I know that Walt Disney is the very devil incardinate, and I know that El Sandifer would be VERY CROSS with me if she knew I was still highly invested in these corporate products. But Ant Man didn't start out as a corporate product. Stan Lee became immensely rich but Ant-Man and Kang were originally created by a couple of old Jewish guys with cigars in small studios working from home, hammering out ideas which seemed cool to them and would sell to the kids or just to fill in the blank spaces between the Grit adverts. It's ironic that Stan Lee's kid brother Larry gets equal billing with Jack Kirby as "creator" when he basically wrote the speech balloons for comics that Stan had lost interest in. It may very well be that I ought not to care about Ant-Man or Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, but as a matter of fact, I do. To that extent I sympathise deeply with people who grew up with the Evil Wizard Author. You can't rewrite your own history, and you can't tell everyone that Stories Are Important and then turn around and say that stories aren't very important when a particular writer blots her copybook. Ideally I would have spent my childhood in a cave hearing stories and folksongs from a white bearded tribal elder and taken over tribal eldering when he died. Second best would have been to have lived in a castle with walls lined with Walter Scott and back numbers of the Kalevela and regenerated into Professor Kirke or Mr Chips. As a matter of fact I grew up huddled around a black and white television and looking for 5p comic books in Mr McKinnons news agent. The Lord of the Rings remains mostly a text, and comedic corporate neuterings of the Second Age can be happily ignored. The Mouse seems still to take Star Wars fundamentally seriously: you may be watching a cartoon about a Strong Guy, a Techie Guy, a Leader Guy, a Soldier Guy and an Inappropriate Cute Kid, but you still get whole episodes about politicking in the senate. I suppose the Bad Batch caters to the fans, and you probably think that catering to the fans is bad-wrong. (Have you met the fans? Ghastly people.) A multi-trillion dollar movie has clearly got to appeal to the godless bloody heathens who don't know that Rama Tut, Kang, Immortus and possibly Doctor Doom are all the same guy. The stories which matter to me are owned by Marvel and DC and Disney and Warner Brothers, and they don't stop mattering because their corporate owners have made unethical investments. Disney+ is where Luke Skywalker lives. I suppose I could become one of those people that says that Ant-man III has CHANGED and therefore RUINED the wondrous Larry Lieber Don Heck comics I grew up with, and it is irredeemably WOKE for the Wasp to ever do anything apart from faint and go shopping. But I don't want to. 

We only perceive the universe as consisting of discrete objects because we have names for them. Take away language and all you have is a constant stream of undifferentiated stuff. Which is what some people report experiencing after eating the wrong kind of mushroom; and what a Buddhist may experience in the state called enlightenment. There is only one thing but that thing is very big. Douglas Adams talks about the whole general mish-mash. The Cantina on Tatooine is silly and whacky and built out of old magazine covers and cowboy films, but it is still the Cantina on Tatooine and not any other Cantina anywhere else. The pub bar saloon in the Quantumverse is just part of a stream of undifferentiated stuff. CGI lets you do literally everything. The doors of perception are open and the Marvel Universe appears as it really is, infinite. But "literally everything" turns out not to be a very interesting thing to do. It's pretty much indistinguishable from doing absolutely nothing. 

So. Ant-Man III. Fun movie. Go see it. 

(*) In Avengers 6 (the comic in which Captain America was first defrosted) there was a rather uninteresting sub-plot about green skinned aliens called the D'Bari. It became a fan-joke to refer to them as Broccoli heads. Years later, when Chris Claremont needed Phoenix to blow up a planet for comic effect, he showed the entire civilisation of Broccoli Heads being annihilated. So that makes the creature who literally has Broccoli on his head an in-joke about an in-joke. I smiled, very nearly.

(**) That was referenced in the Fablemans, wasn't it?

(***) Music inspired by Lord of the Rings. Swedish prog-rock, I think. A bit too niche?


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Sunday, February 05, 2023

Our Flag Means Death

In the winter of 1716 a Barbados plantation-owner named Stede Bonnet abandoned his wife and family, purchased a ship, hired a crew, and became a pirate. Quite a successful pirate: he robbed six or seven ships before accepting a general amnesty, which effectively changed his status from pirate to mercenary, with a licence from England to harass Spanish shipping. But within a few months he reverted to being a mere sea-faring gangster. He robbed at least twelve more ships before the Royal Navy caught up with him. He put up quite a fight; but was taken and hanged in December 1718.

Captain Charles Johnson's General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates was published only seven years after Bonnet's trial. The facts were already well on their way to becoming a legend. But there is no particular reason to doubt that for about three months at the end of 1717, Stede Bonnet formed a temporary partnership or alliance with Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.

Our Flag Means Death hangs on that slender historical thread.

It's hard to know what to make of the historical Bonnet. Pirates were desperate men -- mutineers and escaped slaves and convicts, who inflicted the most ghoulish tortures on their victims. (The TV Blackbeard forcing enemies to eat their own toes is the least of it.) Most of them were Christians who honestly believed they were going to Hell. Most careers lasted for only a couple of years. A land-owner buying a ship and paying his crew regular wages makes about as much sense as a stockbroker announcing that he's going to go into business as a football hooligan, or a civil servant applying for a transfer to the mafia. People who knew Bonnet thought that he was mad; and Johnson suggests that his sudden career change may have been "occasioned by some discomfort in the married state" (a remark which provides the title for the fourth episode of this series.) He "had no understanding of maritime affairs", although if he'd run a tobacco farm and been a major in the local army he must have had some experience of commanding men. Sad to say, his pirate spoils included tea, sugar, tobacco and "negroes".

If I were going to fictionalise his life, I might imagine him as a kind of nautical Don Quixote, parrot on his shoulder, head stuffed full of pirate folklore, imagining every fisherman to be a gold-stuffed galleon and every lighthouse a sea-serpent. There is some evidence that Bonnet followed the storybooks and literally made his victims walk the plank. Blackbeard himself must have been consciously acting out a fantasy version of a diabolical bad guy. Johnson says he used to burn pistol fuses in his beard to terrify his victims and burned sulphur in his cabin so he'd be used to it when he went to hell. The TV version engages in full-scale stage-conjuring -- "fuckery" -- to convince sea-men that his ship is haunted. I've even wondered if Blackbeard and Bonnet could have been the same person: a millionaire disguised as a notorious psychopath using his plantation to launder ill-gotten gains. I certainly never saw them in the same room.

Our Flag Means Death takes a simpler and more productive narrative route. Stede and Ed became friends; and then more than friends. It's a bromance which turns into a love-story.

My central complaint about the Dreadful Rings of Power -- one of several central complaints, to be honest -- is that it couldn't settle on a consistent tone. It wasn't clear if this was the ancient history of Tolkein's world, or a silly romp someone was playing with Lord of the Rings action figures. People said things like "I have much desireth to speaketh with thee" in one scene and "How's it hangin', elf-buddy" in the next. Our Flag Means Death establishes its register in the opening seconds and sticks with it. Bonnet is a modern office-manager, encouraging his men to talk through their feelings and express themselves through the medium of needlework. During a potential mutiny, he asks the crew to "Reframe that complaint as a suggestion". The crew don't sing shanties so much as modern-sounding pop-songs. "A pirates life, short but nice". (The sound-track is replete with Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed.)

Bonnet's ship (the Revenge) comes complete with a fully stocked library, an open log fire, a dinner service (including escargot forks) and, hidden behind a moving book case, a secret walk-in wardrobe full of fine clothes. It hasn't occurred to him that books would fall off the shelves during a storm. He reads to his crew from Pinocchio, even though it won't be written for another hundred and sixty six years. The famous Monkey Island computer game ended with the poignant revelation that the massively anachronistic yarn was only ever a dream in the young Guybrush's head. There is some suspicion that Bonnet's world might similarly turn out to not be entirely real.

It is far from clear what kind of thing Our Flag Means Death is trying to be, or how we are supposed to treat it. It's been compared with Blackadder: a sit-com set in a broadly-drawn olden days setting. And indeed, many of the individual episodes involve classic sit-com scenarios. One week, Bonnet is a fish out of water in a pirate tavern; the next Blackbeard has to hold his own at a sophisticated society soiree. When an old friend, Calico Jack comes on board, Blackbeard reverts to frat-boy antics and Bonnet is left feeling excluded and jealous. The natives who take them prisoner on an island have modern American accents -- the chief talks like a magistrate and the shaman like a psychotherapist. ("Fucking racists" mutters one under his breath when a pirate wonders if they are cannibals.) But it's never uproariously funny: the Guardian critic complained that it wasted the talents of a lot of very good comedy actors. Until the final moments of the final episode, Blackadder was a series of comic turns and skits: Our Flag Means Death demands to be treated as drama. We believe in Edward Teach as a pirate and a sailor, and we care what happens to him. Tom Baker's Captain Rum was only ever a catch phrase and a silly accent. But Our Flag Means Death has are relatively few jokes and no quotable one-liners.

It's also been compared with an adult version of Horrible Histories; but Horrible Histories, despite the silly songs and lavatorial humour, actually bothers to get its historical facts straight. Our Flag Means Death never lets history get in the way of a good story.

If you go in expecting pirate adventure, you'll be annoyed by the sheer volume of silliness: but many of the buccaneering tropes are played surprisingly straight. The tavern in the Pirate's Commonwealth is as cool and atmospheric as anything in Pirates of the Caribbean, and by episode ten some pretty enjoyable swashes have been buckled. Spanish ships are boarded, Royal Navy ships are evaded. There are hairbreadth escapes from nooses and firing squads. Blackbeard tells the story of the terrible kraken which killed his father. There is a massive revenge sub-plot and some ninja nuns. 

The silly characters are very silly indeed. When Frenchie (the singer) and Wee John (a bit of a pyromaniac) find they have a cabin to themselves, they start arranging it like two pals in their first rented apartment; while first mate Buttons baths naked in the moonlight and communes with seagulls. But the serious characters -- Blackbeard himself, first mate Izzy Hands and the mysterious mute Jim -- are played entirely straight and with a fair amount of piratical panache. The storylines may at times aspire to a Roadrunner cartoonish level of absurdity; but the one thing no-one takes the micky out of is the idea of piracy. People lose teeth, toes and fingers but there are no peg legs. Blackbeard is Bristolian born and bred, but he resists any temptation to Talk Like a Pirate.

It's a cliche to damn your favourite streaming show with faint praise, saying that it only "gets good" on episode five. Our Flag Means Death "gets good" from episode one. But there is no doubt that it assumes you are going to binge-watch the ten half-hour episodes, and takes its time to get to where it is going to go. I've spent eighteen years moaning about the pacing of modern Doctor Who: characters are introduced in one scene and discarded in the next, providing excellent raw material for fan-fic and Big Finish, but very little reason for the ordinary viewer to care about what happens. So it would be fairly hypocritical of me to complain that Our Flag Means Death spends ninety minutes on a slow-burn introduction to the ensemble cast. But it certainly comes into focus in episodes three and four when Blackbeard meets Bonnet and the bromance starts to simmer.

History be damned, it's a splendid set up for a character piece. Bonnet is a gentleman who wants to be a pirate; Blackbeard is a pirate who wants to be a gentleman. Blackbeard is rather bored with pirating: his reputation is such that everyone surrenders to him and it's no challenge any more. Bonnet was bored with his wife and kids and longed to go to sea. Blackbeard was born poor; and envies people with fine things. Bonnet was born rich, and mocked by his parents and school fellows for being a weakling.

But there's the show's problem. If you came expecting history, you'll be disappointed: it's not that historical. If you came expecting comedy you'll be disappointed: it's not that funny. But if you come expecting a rom-com (which is how the Beeb billed it) you may also be disappointed. Ed and Stede are the narrative backbone, but they aren't the be-all and end-all of the show.

Best go in with no expectations at all. Best not read any reviews at all, including this one.

You know what it feels like to me? Like a role-playing game from the Good Old Days. Characters; on a boat, encountering other characters on boats and islands and towns. Sword fights and escapes and scrapes and cool paraphernalia; perils avoided by the copious expenditure of preposterous Luck Points. Death an ever-present threat; but not one to take quite seriously. Coming back every week because we've come to like these characters. A bit silly, a bit camp, and we can never quite forget that these are modern people pretending to be pirates. A game. The group more important than the adventure. What's it about? "Us."

Or maybe a bit like the Princess Bride, book, film and radio show. A story which knows it's a story and knows that you know it's a story. A story which can be twice as much fun as real life, because it's not pretending to be real. 

I'm a sucker for anything piratical; but on its own merits this is the nicest piece of TV since The Good Place, which it has nothing whatsoever in common with. Except, in one respect: it offers a racially and sexually diverse cast; with absolutely no sense of points being scored or axes being ground. This isn't a rum, sodomy and the lash view of life at sea; Seaman Staines, Roger the Cabin Boy and all that that entails. But no-one minds who falls in love with who. Izzy snarls that the great pirate Blackbeard has been reduced to a weakling pining for his boyfriend. Stede's wife is pleased that he has found a lover.

History is intersected with: there certainly was an Act of Grace; and Blackbeard probably did have a first mate named Israel Hands who sustained a gruesome leg-wound. And Bonnet's men were marooned at one point. But one hopes that Series Two is going to find some way to spare the fictional pirates the fates of their historical prototypes. Unless we are heading towards the Blackadder ending.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.