The Body Diverse

In a recent Guardian article, actress Carey Mulligan is reported to take issue with a Variety review of the black comedy Promising Young Woman, which read: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” Mulligan says about this: “We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity.”

“Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as… femme fatale”

In our story, The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, we have Ymke, similarly to Mulligan’s character in Promising Young Woman, set a honey trap for an abusive husband. While Ymke is fairly average looking and disabled, we’ve got no doubt she could pull it off. Of course, she already turned Kaila’s head, and vice versa. And talking of Kaila, she is of course very short but also very muscled. And yes, she’s attractive. Attraction is not the same as beauty, whatever the contemporary idea of beauty may be.

Kaila and Ymke from The Red Man and Others

We’d love to see more ‘non-normative’ body types in our media, and in film and tv in particular. What the reader sees on the page is partially filled in by their own imagination. What we see on the big or the small screen leaves little room to fill in your own blanks. Genre films, superhero films in particular, have not been very diverse. Where you look at the Marvel films, you see some fairly ‘average’ looking guys like Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), the women can all be classed as beautiful – even when they’re shaven-headed, black-eyed and blue, like Nebula (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). Hopping over to ‘the distinguished competitor’, why is Superman super-muscled and Wonder Woman isn’t?

Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill. One is not like the others.

It’s not like Superman needs to go to the gym every day after work to stay super. It all comes down to classic role patterns, right at the dawn of the pulp- and superhero: Superman’s template is the dynamic tension built Charles Atlas. Superman doesn’t get sand kicked in his face! The notes on the first sketch for Wonder Woman (1941) are revealing. Artist H.G. Peters notes that: “The shoes are like a stenographer’s.” Writer William Moulton Marston writes back: “Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute. I like her skirt, legs, hair.”

No more sand shall be kicked in *his* face!

Some artists draw Wonder Woman as fairly buff, but it never seems to stick. Likewise, much was made of Jessica Biel’s fitness regime for Blade: Trinity (2004), yet I also remember the ‘fanboy’ comments of her being “ugly”. I guess they’d rather stick with the female leads of the X-men movies, Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique) and Halle Berry (Storm), who all started their careers as models! You’ve got to wonder how they’ll handle the upcoming She-Hulk series. Will Tatiana Maslany be set on a body building regime to bulk up like Cavill, Affleck, Bale, Helmsworth and Evans (the harmful amount of muscles expected of nowadays Hollywood leading men is another story)? I doubt it.

“Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute.”

There have been some tentative approaches to the diverse bodies in Fantasy franchises, but these have come with an amount of ‘but’. In Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie was imposing as the female knight Brienne of Tarth, but it was made very clear that she was not attractive. The Witcher‘s Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) was disabled but she could only be attractive once that was ‘fixed’. Only Frøya from Norsemen (Silje Torp) comes to mind as being awesome while tall (1.78), past forty and with the muscle mass befitting a warrior woman.

Norsemen‘s Frøya (Silje Torp).

I’m also thinking of’s Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), a straight-to-video Terminator-inspired actioner. Its lead is a young woman (Sue Price) who fights against a cyborg bounty hunter from the future. Think of the film what you will, but writer/director Albert Pyun at least had the thought: “Hey, if it’s good enough for Sly and Arnold, it’s good enough for my ass-kicking heroine to be absolutely ripped!”

Sue Price in Albert Pyun’s Nemesis 2: Nebula

Diversity, also in race, age and ability, is still very much a matter of ‘two hesitant steps forward, a frightened leap back’. It’s about time for the audience, us, to enjoy the rich variety of humanity, and not expect conventional standards of ‘beauty’. While typing this, we’re watching Doom Patrol which has a team of anti-heroes who are each, in one way or another, disabled. Vic (Jovian Wade), whose body is partially replaced by mechanical components, just made love with a woman, Roni (Karen Obilom) whose body is heavily scarred. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and means it. They accept each other’s disabilities, and invite the viewer to do the same. The next morning, he’s all aglow, while she withdraws, saying they’re just “two fucked-up people, who are trying to forget their shit.” This is the conversation between a woman who doesn’t want a relationship and a young man who is looking for romance. Roni asserts herself, and will take intimacy on her terms. She doesn’t need to be grateful.

Vic (Jovian Wade) and Roni (Karen Obilom) in Doom Patrol, s2e3

Unboxing The Hunt

Today the mailman brought a box with our copies of The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, the Air And Nothingness Press anthology in which we have a story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star. It’s a story we’re proud of, and we’re enormously happy that it found a home in such a nice collection! It’s difficult to convey in photographs what a nice feel the cover has, how neatly it lies in the hand, the bookish smell of it (even after a lengthy transatlantic journey…). This is not just a collection of words and stories, it’s a book as an object in itself!

You can get a little taste of our story, set in the grim and cold northern Netherlands, with our story trailer…

Air and Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress, and limited editions. Head over to their catalog to order your own copy of The Wild Hunt, or any of their other publications!

Goals, Wishes and Dreams

Author Lee Brontide created this great meme for Twitter, which lets you talk about your main character’s goals, wishes and dreams, and we decided to make it the basis for a blog post. We’re answering here mainly for Ymke, one of the protagonists of the stories in The Red Man and Others, but also for the stories’ other heroes, Kaila and Sebastien, as the mood strikes us.

1. Do they like to have clear goals and plans? Ymke spent her early life just surviving and going with the flow, but since her experience with Alsigt, the Red Man, crystallised her need to escape, she’s always had some quiet personal goal in mind. She’s always learning something new, often illicitly.

2. Do they wish on stars? Ymke wishes on stars when she thinks Kaila’s not looking. Kaila pretends not to have noticed. Sebastien has a hidden sentimental streak, so we actually wouldn’t rule it out.

3. Any hidden talents? Forgery is the very definition of a hidden talent!

4. Their idea of having “made it”: For Ymke, it’s independence. She knows the world can be a cruel place for disabled people, that sometimes your nearest neighbours are also your biggest threat, and that there will be times when her body lets her down. She’s had to make peace with that, and part of how she’s done that is to find ways to earn her keep. Having grown up feeling tethered to a father who was living in exile and in fear, she wants to go places and be with people out of choice rather than because she has no other option economically. Our ambition for Ymke has always been for her life, even in an analogue of medieval Europe, to reflect the conflicts and ambitions and need for justice of real disabled people in the 21st century.

5. Do they believe in destiny? If you’d ask her, Ymke would hesitate. On one hand, she feels strongly that we make our own luck. On the other, some events and circumstances in life seem to have a very strong gravitational pull. The writer in her respects their symmetry. Was the Red Man meant to end up on her farm? Was he meant to leave again? What would their lives have been otherwise? Ymke tries to make her own luck, and Kaila and Sebastien definitely do, but all three of them also get swept up in the whims of destiny. To borrow a phrase (with thanks to Bernard Cornwell), Wyrd bið ful āræd – Fate is inexorable.

6. Are they sentimental? As above, Sebastien is surprisingly so. There is much about his early life that you don’t know yet (some of it we don’t even know yet!), but through all the turmoil, he has kept with him a small artefact of his childhood. There is also in Sebastien an urge to rescue people. Ymke would deny that she is sentimental or nostalgic. She still has her mother’s book, though, and sometimes she looks through it and remembers teaching Alsigt to read; remembers her father teaching her to read years earlier. Life on the road has made her travel light and focus on what’s next, but for all the places she’s lived in, and as suddenly as she’s sometimes had to leave them, she remembers the people of those places, and some of them she thinks on fondly, and wonders about, years later. And speaking of books: in many ways Kaila is a closed book. There’s much that she’d like to forget, and some things she’ll only tell late at night, when she’s had a few cups of wine.

7. Are they ambitious? Yes, sometimes fiercely and not necessarily always wisely, and we’re really looking forward to being able to share with you a story about that. Sebastien absolutely is ambitious. He wants the best that life has to offer, and he’ll get it. Will it be straightforward? Of course not. It’s Sebastien! We didn’t realise what we were doing, but in writing Ymke this year for one particular Red Man sequel, we accidentally caught ambition ourselves: it turned from a short story into a novella. Then another draft we’re working on did exactly the same, inching towards the 40K mark now. Oops.

8. Are they gracious winners? We wish we could tell you why that’s funny, with regard to one of our characters in particular, in one of the novellas we’re working on. We will say that Ymke is capable of being gracious and conciliatory in both victory and defeat. Sometimes, victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin, though.

9. Do they regret much? Ymke regrets blood spilled on her behalf, even though it’s the reason she’s alive. She regrets that it took the events in The Red Man for her to get out of the rut that was her life. She doesn’t regret the business with Father Folkhert, as dangerous as it got in the end. She meant well. She always means well. It’s just that things have a way of getting out of hand. Especially with Kaila and Sebastien around.

10. Do they keep their dreams secret? For a long time, Ymke was not accustomed to letting herself dream, and when she began to, her father was quick to clip her wings. So, she’s learned to nurture dreams quietly. And some dreams require a little skullduggery to make them happen, of course…

11. Are they prone to envy? Yes. This came as a surprise to Ymke. Living largely apart from others until her mid-teens means she didn’t realise just how much she had been missing out on, until she’d been out in the world a while. Sometimes it takes seeing other people – who are leading more ordinary lives – progress through life stages that were very different for you to fully realise what your life might have been. Encountering the sheltered city sons and daughters of her friends in middle age was strangely bitter for Ymke.

12. What skill are they most proud of? For Ymke, it’s cultivating people, in more than one sense of the word. She’s good at encouraging people and bringing out their potential. She’s also adept at making herself part of a place, so that she is valued and receives support that doesn’t feel like charity; like many disabled people, Ymke has a complicated relationship with that. And, when she has to, she can lie convincingly. These are achievements not taken for granted by someone who came from such an isolated upbringing.

13. What milestones do they care about? The irreversible ones, like “I can’t make it up these stairs any more,” which will inevitably come. When something changes in her body, Ymke waits it out through four seasons, in the hope that it is temporary and contextual. If it proves permanent, her way of life has to change – maybe a little, maybe a lot. Progressive disability is fun that way.

14. Do they procrastinate? No. There’s no procrastinating on a farm. The animals need fed and the seasons move on, so things need doing. This is how Ymke was brought up, and this is what she’s carried with her.

15. Are they good under pressure? All three of them are. They’ve had to be.

16. Do they daydream? Ymke certainly does. She certainly did on the farm, and she still did when the places she visited and the people she met far surpassed those of her imagination.

17. Do they believe in signs or omens? Ymke’s rational adult side is rather at war with the fearful, superstitious side that was cultivated in her childhood. She’ll very quietly feel a certain way about things that have enough symbolic weight. Sebastien, though he’s wise to the tricks of cold reading and the stacked deck of cards, also has seen enough to keep some room for the “What if?…”

18. Do other people believe in them? They believe in each other, though that is sometimes very considerably tested. In The Return of the Uncomplaining Child a great many people believe in Sebastien, and they worked very hard at that. None believe as much as Father Folkhert did: more than they could have hoped.

19. Would they rather be over- or underestimated? It changes. When our trio are up to chicanery, it serves them to be underestimated. Ymke chafed against her father’s underestimation of her in her early life, yet like many women, there have been times when her survival has depended on people underestimating her. She’s learned to leverage that. In the story we’re working on now she feels extremely frustrated and overlooked, though, and she’s coping with it in an unusual way.

20. How do they celebrate their successes? Depends on the nature of the success. Sometimes a quiet night together in front of a good fire is enough. Sometimes it requires a substantial quantity of drink. If they’ve made themselves rich, however temporarily, they’ll share some of it with someone who needs it more.

21. Are they good at accepting help? Sebastien does, though he may be less happy with the assumption of a debt owed. Ymke, only when she can convince herself she’s giving out at least twice as much support as she’s taking. Kaila may accept, but not ask for help.

22. How do they cope with failure? Ruthless self examination, in Ymke’s case; rants to well-chosen confidantes. And ultimately, by finding something to fix, which may take many forms. Sebastien brushes himself off, and turns the page. Kaila will be sore until she feels she’s restored the balance. This is not always the sensible course.

23. Smallest thing they’re proud of: For Ymke, it’s her stitching. For Sebastien it’s his moral compass. Kaila’s got this tattoo, you see…

24. Do they do New Year’s resolutions? Yes, very much so, in Ymke’s case. Sebastien will have many, Kaila none. At least none she’ll share with others.

25. Do they keep them? Ymke usually does.. She’s determined that way, and she sets realistic goals. Sebastien’s resolutions are broken as easy as hastily made promises. Kaila’s resolutions are not made at the start of a year, and may not be resolved within the year.

If you enjoyed this look into the minds and lives of Ymke, Kaila and Sebastien, we’d like – nay, we implore – you to seek out the collection The Red Man and Others on Amazon UK or US. We’ll meanwhile work on their further adventures!

The Oera Linda Book

Let’s start with this: the Oera Linda book is a fake, probably put together as a satire on the Frisian nationalism of the 1870s, orthodox Christians, and the Frisian antiquarians’ zeal to piece together a Great Frisian History that never existed. The joke got out of hand when a prominent Frisian antiquarian took it seriously and had it published as genuine. While by the late 1870s it was generally recognised as a forgery, it was translated into German in 1933, dubbed “the Nordic Bible” and a panel discussion in 1934 inspired Himmler’s Ahnenerbe. It again popped up with the neopagans from the late 1970s onwards, and it’s become a bit of a darling of neo-Nazis too.

“Okke min sun. Tissa boka mot i mit lif and sele waria” – as runes go, they’re not very runey.

As we live in an era in which history is all too easily dismissed as ‘old stuff for the scrapyard,’ we would do well to remember that the study of history is a living thing in itself. Not only do we keep learning about who we are, we also keep placing history in its proper context and finding new angles: a lot of our thinking about history, and indeed history writing, was formed by the 18th and 19th century culture of conquest, empire building and white male supremacy. Only now have we begun to write women back into history, and PoCs and other groups previously omitted. In studying and teaching history, another important role is to fight the misuse and perversion of history, for example by those neo-Nazis.

But let us go back to the earliest mentions of the Oera Linda book in the Dutch papers! The first mention we find is in the Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant of 16th November, 1871.

Jan Gerardus Ottema, publisher of the Oera Linda book

The bookseller H. Kuipers in Leeuwarden has sent a prospectus of the much discussed manuscript: Thet Oera Linda Bok, of which dr. J. G. Ottema has taken on the editing and translating. The prospectus states that under this title a collection of writings is offered, of which the first is called: Thet bok thére Adela Folstar and is written by Adela, the wife of Apol Grêvetman ovir the Linda wrda, the second by Apollonia her daughter, the rest by her later descendants Frêthorik en Wiljow, their son Konerêd and grandson Bêden, who all have the family name Oera Linda. The first two pieces, the prospectus says, give the most important messages about the country, the people, the social position and religion of the Frisians in the earliest centuries. The later pieces contain a history of Friso and his successors. The authors mark themselves as contemporaries of the incidents of which they write, or give an attestation of the source of the messages. The whole is a strange addition to the old Frisian letters…

In the prospectus a page has been printed from the writing by Fréthorik Tobinomath Oera Linda about the arrival of Friso in Staveren. The first page, of which the first words are in the original language goes like this: Twa jêr nêi that Gosa moder wrde, kêm er en flâte to thet Flymare en fala. Thet folk hropte ho-n-sêen; which according to the prospectus should be read as: Two years after Gosa became honorary mother, a fleet came to the Flymeer. The people called ‘Houzee!’ They sailed to Staveren, and there they called again. The banners were in top and at night they shot burning arrows in the sky. When day broke, some of them rowed to the harbour. They again called ‘Houzee!’ When they came to land a young man jumped on the shore. In his hands he carried a shield; on which were laid bread and salt. After him came an old man. He said: we come from the far Krekaland, to preserve our customs; now we wish that you are so friendly as to give us enough land to live on. He told us a whole history, which I will narrate in more detail afterwards. The elder didn’t know what to do. They send messengers round, also to myself. I went to them and said: now we have a Mother, we should ask her counsel. (Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche Courant, 16Nov, 1871)

Friso, first King of Frisia, on his way to Staveren

It goes on like this. You may have noticed that Friso, the founding father of the Frisians according to myths, comes from Krekaland – a hardly disguised Greece, “Griekenland” in Dutch. They have sailed past an island called Kreta, after the shouting (“kreten”) of the inhabitants when they see the ship. This in itself should have been a tip-off for Dr. Ottema that this document was a stinker. Not so. From the same newspaper, on 10th of October 1872, this notice: At H. Kuipers from Leeuwarded rolls off the press: Thet oera linda bok. After a manuscript from the thirteenth century. Edited, translated and published by Dr. J.G. Ottema. Price: Fl 4.

And it was good enough for some! From the Leeuwarder Courant of a week later, a book report. The newspaper only prints part of what apparently was a longer letter.

Finally the manuscript, that last year caused so much ruction amongst men of letters, has been published. Then I’ve always said: we can and must not judge before the whole work has been printed and read by us. And what impression has reading it left us with? Such a thing could one not invent; like this could someone from our century, from the us known practitioners of the Frisian language, not have composed it. The new, and so far unknown and so mathematically formed writing system; – the peculiar spelling of the old-Frisian, older and better than that of the old Frisian laws; – the style and appearance of myths and legends, as pieces from different, from older times remained writings from different people in different times; but especially the contents, the thoughts, the characteristic expressions and original images, – this all contradicts the possibility that it could be an invention from our own time. (…)

It is a miracle book which, however you look at it, praise it or doubt it, will remain a mystery, while for its provenance the honesty of the owner, who won’t sell it for any money, is guaranteed. For him it is an heirloom from his father and forefathers, and he still lives in the area which was the stage of most of what happened: because this is remarkable too, that it contains so many details about the area between the province of Noord-Holland and the islands and Staveren, and mentions countries, forests and places of which we know so little, because they have been swallowed by the South Sea in the 12th and 13th century. Though – read the book yourself and write to me what you think. Your friend, F. (Leeuwarder Courant, 18 Oct 1872)

The ‘standing runes’ of the Oera Linda book.

In 1873 academics were still stroking their learned chins. The Frisian Society for History, Antiquities and Language had their 135th meeting on the 27th of August. Twenty members and two guests heard a lecture from Dr. A.T. Reitsma, a historical-critical investigation of Thet Oera Linda bok. He encapsulated its authenticity in three questions: 1. Was the manuscript really written in 1256 by Hiddo Oera Linda? 2. Is it a copy of another manuscript by Liko Oera Linda, from 803? 3. Are the pieces in that manuscript from the times and hands of the writers whose names they bear, and composed between 558 and mid-1st century before Christ?

Regarding the 1st question we argue for authenticity; aside from the way in which the manuscript has come to the family Over de Linden, a) the language in which it was written, similar to that of the oldest old-Frisian documents, b) the completely original script, differing from the later Roman script, and c) the writing tools that were used. Regarding the 2nd question; a remarkable gap which happened because of turning two pages at the same time proves that it is not an original but a copy. Also, the preface by Liko completely corresponds with the era of Charlemagne, in which it was written, and explains why the manuscript from that time on could no longer be counted as part of the national literature, but only has been saved as a relic in one family. Regarding the 3rd question; the relationship between the various pieces show that Adela has started in 558 with writing down the curious tales from antiquity, and that this work was continued by her offspring in the family of Oera Linda, maybe until the time of Liko, though the last part of the manuscript has been lost. In this manner, each writer is a witness to the authenticity of the previous writings.

Regarding the internal proof of authenticity, the speaker pointed out firstly the general level of culture in which Frya’s people according to these writings lived in the 6th century before Christ, which is not inconsistent with, but with keeping in mind the singularity of this people, completely in correspondence with the cultural situations of other older people. Secondly, that the manner of history writing was in its infancy, not showing any artistry, and can be compared with the histories of the Greek logographs from before Herodotus. On basis of these internal and external facts the speaker concluded that the manuscript was authentic.

François Haverschmidt’s student poetry.

Of course, the ‘evidence’ trotted out could well have been foreseen by the composers of the fake manuscript: for centuries, stories have been told in the form of diaries, and ‘here a page is missing’ is one of the tricks a writer has up their sleeve to give their story a veneer of authenticity. The (likely) main author of the book, François Haverschmidt, was a preacher who had published a collection of poetry in his student days, under a punning title translating as Sobs and Grim Smiles. He did so under the pseudonym of Piet Paaltjens, a student who, according to the collection’s preface, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Leiden “on the 9th October 1853”. We see the same sort of mystification as used in the Oera Linda bok. In the collection, Haverschmidt fights his own lingering depression by ridiculing sentimentalism, and so it is a rare example of cynical romanticism. As a theology student, Haverschmidt lived above an undertaker, which lead to the following lines: When I see the mourner walk / my heart beats in joy / because I think how soon / I shall go out to pray.

“…Nei Atland sunken is…” Yes, it went there!

Haverschmidt, with help, wrote the book as an elaborate parody. As a result, scientists in 19th century Frisia found themselves the horses put behind the wagon, and confirmation bias was a significant factor: they wanted the documents to be real, and found the reasons why it was real; it conformed to their idea of what the Frisian history should be. The Oera Linda joke backfiring shows us why we need to be critical about history as we are being taught and told it, and consider: “How much of this is true? Is this interpretation of the evidence correct?” and, “What has been left out of the history books?”

Solomon Kane (2009) Revisited

Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly. 

Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film,  and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” 

What if…

Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods. 

Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity. 

Puritan family Idyll – William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite) holds court.

Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves. 

A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms. 

Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood), doffing her bonnet

After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”

Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences. 

Masked villain

And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”

Solomon Kane gets righteous

However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again. 

Dwarves

Many years ago I spent a few weeks in Prague, at a friend’s who had a roleplaying and fantasy shop there. Prague, of course, appears in The Red Man and Others as the divided city of Starohrad. My friend introduced me to writer William King, writer of the Gotrek and Felix books, and got me one of the novels to read, which I liked quite a lot. Back home, I did a few drawings of the titular dwarf with the idea that perhaps I ought to do art for White Wolf, though nothing came of that.

William King’s Gotrek Gurnisson, my own drawing from 2000

While getting further into exploring the world of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien, the homemade heroes of The Red Man and Others, we constantly have the push and pull of ‘how much sorcery is there with the swords?’ and ‘are there any monsters?’ too. We’ve still not quite figured these out; there is sorcery, but it’ll not be an easy matter of “here’s a spell to fix it all.” Here be no Harry Potters. In a story that’s currently ‘doing the rounds’ we do however have dwarves. Yet, fun as the Warhammer dwarves are, our ‘Wheelworld’ operates at a more human, realistic level.

So, the dwarves that you sometimes see, as wide as they’re high, and so muscled that they’re hardly should be able to move, are out. Also, where do they come from, in the history of our world which, if anything else, we want to give a ‘lived in’ feeling? There’s a few clues that guide our thinking in the right direction. Firstly, there’s the notion that tales of fairies and ‘the others’ are race memories of encounters with tribes which are like us, but not quite us. The fair folk of myth are often painted as shy and retiring, but also dangerous for ‘us normal people’ to encounter.

Basically, they want to be left alone, yet we cannot seem to do other than fear them. This actually is a known phenomenon: the Uncanny Valley is the point in which the relationship between something’s resemblance to a human and our emotional relationship to it takes a sudden plunge at the point at which it very much resembles us, but is not us. When a robot is a metal thing, we’re fine with it, but when it’s made to resemble us, we feel revulsion. This is something that’s hardwired in us, and I wonder whether it’s something to do with our own evolution: was this how we saw as enemies these people in far distant times who were not like ourselves?

Late-19th century image of a Pict

Robert E. Howard certainly made use of this in his work. His Picts were not as much the Picts of history, as they were a race of smaller, darker people. In this he was possibly influenced by the theory made popular by the Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie, who in his Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893) argues that the belief in ‘the little people’ was rooted in the folk memory of Picts, who he imagined to be the diminutive indigenous population of stone-age Britain, driven to its remote corners by incoming invaders. He quotes John Francis Campbell, from his 1860-62 Popular Tales of the West Highlands: “I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies (…) smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stole children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now remembered as water-bulls and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.

MacRitchie notes that the Lapp-Fairy connection was already made earlier by Sir Walter Scott for whom “there seems reason to conclude that these duergar (in English, dwarfs) were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish and Finnish nations, who, flying before the conquering weapons of the Asae, sought the most retired regions of the north, and there endeavoured to hide themselves from their eastern invaders.” So commonly accepted was this image of the Picts as diminutive, “swarthy” and hunted people that fellow-Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson describes the Picts in his Heather Ale poem of 1890: Rudely plucked from their hiding / Never a word they spoke: / A son and his aged father – / Last of the dwarfish folk.

Robert E Howard’s Bran Mak Morn with his people. Illustration by Gary Gianni

These, then, are the Picts of Robert E Howard, who in Roman times had fallen to a sorry state, with Bran Mak Morn fighting for his doomed people. Jason Ray Carney in his insightful article, Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior quotes Howard, who himself was an outcast, on the Picts: “My interest in these strange Neolithic people was so keen that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stock, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair.

Robert E. Howard describes his childhood image of his grown-up self as a Pict, but it’s closer to the image we have of the old-fashioned ‘caveman’, the Neanderthal man reconstructed in 1911 on basis of the finds at Chapelle-aux-Saints. Now we know that this man was aged and had arthritis, but it formed the popular image of the ape-like, stooped, bent-kneed creature for decades to come. One example of this is in William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors in which a family of early men encounter the newer man, a meeting that inevitably spells their doom. While scientifically outdated, the novel is still a powerful and haunting read.

early illustration of the ‘Man of Chapelle-aux-Saints’ Neanderthal

Years ago we were lucky enough to see Beowulf & Grendel in the cinema, courtesy the Belfast Film Festival. It’s a gorgeous film, and not to mistaken with the Neil Gaiman-scripted CGI thing where you see the Uncanny Valley in action! It starts with the the child Grendel and his father who are hunted by a mob of angry Norsemen. They kill the father but leave the child, figuring it’ll not survive on its own. Grendel, however, does. The adult Grendel is played by the Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, with body prosthesis to bulk him up and make him hairy, but with just enough make-up on his face to keep him human. Almost. When Grendel starts to exact his revenge on the Norse settlement, the truth comes out: the troll was killed for having stolen a fish. The instinctive hatred for the other at work.

Grendel’s father, hunted by the Norsemen. From Beowulf & Grendel, 2005

In Beowulf & Grendel the Norsemen call Grendel a troll. However, what we see is a species of Man. Neanderthal? Perhaps? Not to want to spoil the film (go! See it!), he does have a child with a human woman. We know that there has been interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. On average a few percent of our DNA is made up of Neanderthal DNA. And here’s an uncomfortable one for the ‘race purists’ – if you want to look for the purest Homo Sapiens, you need to go to sub-Saharan Africa! Then you read stories about how the wooly mammoth survived, in isolated pockets, until 4000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was already standing, and you think: ‘Could it be?’

Our dwarves are the last remnants of Neanderthal people, who have retreated to some of the most inhospitable places of Europe, like the Alp mountains. One dwarf in our story uses some Swiss-derived phrases, which also is a nice nod to our friends in Zürich. They are strong, yet cultured, as our understanding of Neanderthal people is now far removed from the brutish cave dweller: they created art, made twine and glue. That said, our own dwarves may have retreated to the caves, as it is the mountains, after all. They are the miners of fairytale, and they make beautiful things of the ores and crystals that they mine.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man by the Kennis brothers

They are a race under a huge amount of pressure, and on the brink of extinction. They know this, and they mourn this. They’ve been pushed back, bit by bit, by the ‘big men’, either by expansion or aggression. They already were smaller than them, and adapting to their harsh existence and scarce food sources, they’ve become somewhat smaller even in size. Few of them have left the mountains, but wherever they go they’re met with distrust and rejection. If you meet a dwarf, most likely a man, you’ll find him sombre and brooding, his attitude an armour against the harsh treatment he expects.

Funny though, we’ve worked our way straight back to Grimm’s dwarves from Snow White!

The Soul Cages

We’ve recently been rewatching Babylon 5, and came across the feature-length episode with the Soul Hunters. Soul Hunters, in J. Michael Straczynski’s universe, well-meaningly capture the souls of the dying for posterity – and in so doing, drive those souls mad. Something about that story was familiar, but tracing its path would take us from the vastness of the universe to the bottom of the sea. And in every form the story takes, one question nags: what do we owe the people around us?

“There is an old British folktale about the souls of the dead being kept under the sea in the lobster cages of a creature who is half man, half fish. Anyone who dares try to free the souls of the dead must go under the sea himself and drink with the creature. If he drinks him under the table, the souls will go free. If, on the other hand, the creature prevails, the challenger will be imprisoned forever in the cages at the bottom of the sea. You need a strong stomach to treat with this creature.” – Sting, Lyrics by Sting (2007)

On this day in 1991, Sting released The Soul Cages – a meditation on bereavement, family and birthplace, with salt in its veins and religion and folklore in its imagery. The album was a personal exorcism that followed three years of writer’s block, and a response to the death of his father. It’s scaffolded on the waning of the Newcastle shipbuilding industry, and the image of a ship recurs, representing both the hope of going out into the world to adventure, and a sealed coffin. The fourth single, the title song, directly references a folk tale that Sting was familiar with.

The boy child is locked in the fisherman’s yard
There’s a bloodless moon where the oceans die
A shoal of night stars hang fire in the nets
And the chaos of cages where the crayfish lie

I’ve loved this album since I was eighteen. It gave me an imaginative route to dealing with my feelings about own late father and my waning faith. Also, the gloom of a declining shipyard is familiar to anyone who grew up around Belfast Lough, with the great cranes of Harland and Wolff as part of our mental landscape. In his 2013 musical The Last Ship, Sting would return to that theme with a focus on the impact on a community of its shipyard closing, but The Soul Cages is mostly about the intuitive, inner response to loss, and that last single dramatises it as a conflict with evil beneath the sea.

He’s the king of the ninth world
The twisted son of the fog bells’ toll
In each and every lobster cage, a tortured human soul

In the song, a boy seeks to reclaim his father’s soul from the sea bed, where men’s souls are the captives of “the Fisherman,” a fiend who functions more like the Devil than an old sea dog. The boy offers the Fisherman a wager, bringing him a cask of magical wine, which he says is wrung from the blood of those sailors. He challenges the Fisherman – in effect challenging the sea itself – to match him drink for drink: “If the drink leaves me standing, a soul shall go free.” But if the Fisherman is the last one standing, the boy will be caged with him forever.

A body lies open in the fisherman’s yard like
The side of a ship where the iceberg rips
One less soul in the soul cages
One last curse on the fisherman’s lips

The boy prevails and the monster is defeated, yet the prize seems so slight: one less soul in the soul cages? Why not bargain for all the dead? Why not open the rest of the cages and let the souls go? Of course, the reasons are making the lyrics fit and the rhyme scheme, and thematically the story is really about just one soul, one dead father. The last verse repeats the bridge and coda of album opener “Island of Souls”, which is the inverse of “The Soul Cages.” In its modern industrial landscape, the boy’s father is simply injured working at the shipyard. The imagery is prosaic compared to that of “The Soul Cages”:

They brought Billy’s father back home in an ambulance
Brass watch, a cheque, maybe three weeks to live

Billy dreads his life inevitably taking the same tack: miserable job, wages drunk away rather than saved, health destroyed. But in the chorus, he dreams of the ship going out into the world, of himself and his father leaving the town behind forever, to sail to the Island of Souls. Sting would also knit that idea into The Last Ship decades later. But while “The Soul Cages” is more heavily folkloric than Sting’s later project, the bridge hints at modern life in a north that, at the time he was writing it, had long been hammered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government:

These are the souls of the broken factories
Subject slaves of the broken crown
The dead accounting of old guilty promises
These are the souls of the broken town

So, “The Soul Cages” and “Island of Souls” are the same story told from realistic and fantastical perspectives. Only in his dreams can Billy win his father’s soul back and save himself from a grim life. In reality, Sting left the city, and he finally transcended his own grief by writing about it, even though the north would eventually pull him back to write about its people and its industry in more direct terms.

I had wondered for years about the folk tale “The Soul Cages” was based on, and finally researched it when Remco and I were writing our own story about the sea and the dead. The northern Dutch history that inspires us is also riven with maritime tragedies, and we’d woven together the fishing disaster of Moddergat with the local belief in divination. Inevitably, I listened to The Soul Cages a lot while working on it, and decided it was finally time to trace the song’s folkloric roots. What emerged was a strange history, with unexpected layers.

“The Soul Cages” was first published in volume 2 of T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825 – 28). In Croker’s collection, “The Soul Cages” is the story of Jack Dogherty, a fisherman and beachcomber living on the coast of Co. Clare on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Jack had always wished to see a Merrow – a creature that (as in Sting’s memory of the story) is somewhat like a man, and somewhat like a fish:

“One tremendous blustering day, before he got to the point whence he had a view of the Merrow’s rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast; and there, to his astonishment, he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig’s eyes. It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something.”

The Merrow, whose name is Coomara, turns out to be a very friendly sort of fellow, and because this is Ireland and someone always knows one of your relations, Jack learns that the Merrow and his grandfather were old friends. Coomara invites Jack to his home under the sea for a slap-up meal, lending him a hat which lets him breathe underwater. Jack is perturbed about entering the briny depths, but finds Coomara’s home perfectly civilised, if a little rustic. Overall, the feeling of the story up to this point is that a Merrow is just another kind of person – odd-looking, but somehow still ‘one of us’.

After a long, elaborate dinner and an impressive amount of alcohol (they’re both in the habit of rescuing bottles from shipwrecks, and the cool under the sea prevents it going to their heads), the Merrow shows Jack around, inviting him to admire his various treasures, and that’s when a cultural gap emerges. Coomara has a collection of lobster pots which he proudly introduces as the Soul Cages:

“Arrah! what souls, sir?” said Jack, in amazement; “sure the fish have no souls in them?”
“Oh! no,” replied Coo, quite coolly, “that they have not; but these are the souls of drowned sailors.”
“The Lord preserve us from all harm!” muttered Jack, “how in the world did you get them?”
“Easily enough: I’ve only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?”

Jack is “thunderstruck” (though not enough to spurn his host’s excellent brandy), and after Coomara sends him home, he devises a plan to release the sailors’ souls. Sending his unknowing wife off on a trip to a holy well for the sake of their own souls, he invites Coomara to dinner and attempts to get him drunk. Adding tension to the story, his first try leaves the Merrow perfectly clear-headed, but luckily Jack’s wife’s journey is a multi-day affair, and Coomara doesn’t question two dinner invitations so close together.

Jack’s secret weapon is poitín – an illicit and very strong drink distilled from potatoes. Apparently his grandfather never introduced the Merrow to that one! While Coomara is insensible, Jack borrows his hat and makes his way back to the Merrow’s home on the seabed. To Jack, the souls are invisible, so as he lifts one lobster pot after another to release them, he has to content himself with “a sort of little whistle or chirp” as each soul leaves its cage. There’s a brief worry over whether he’ll be able to return to the surface without Coomara’s tail to hold onto, which is how he managed it before, but a big fish comes by and all is solved.

Here the story veers into broad comedy. Jack’s wife returns to find the Merrow passed out on her kitchen floor, and assumes her husband has “made a beast of himself with drink” until she runs into Jack outside. Her anger abates when she hears of his saving of the souls, and, rather anticlimactically, we are told that Coomara “never missed” them. Jack’s acquaintance with the Merrow continues for several years, and as Coomara continues collecting souls, every so often Jack repeats the whole procedure, until Coomara is seen no more, and Jack assumes he has died or left that part of the country. So that’s it: this creature, who has behaved monstrously without ever thinking of it that way, is a good pal until he dies or moves house.

Croker collected the stories he anthologised from a number of contacts in Ireland. He also larded them with a literary style, humour and stereotypes, which may be unfortunate given that the collection was to increase the profile of Irish folklore in the wider world. Most significantly, Croker had lost his original manuscript, and the published version is what he could reconstruct with the help of other writers, including Thomas Keightley, a pioneer in the study of folklore. However, when the second volume was published, containing “The Soul Cages”, it bore only Croker’s name. This brought criticism, as on folklore blog Writing in Margins, which calls it a ‘Fake Folktale‘.

Keightley republished “Soul Cages” in The Fairy Mythology (1828), and in a later edition would admit that it was not a piece of folklore collected in the field, but a story of his own devising, based on the German tale “Der Wassermann und der Bauer” (“The Waterman and the Peasant“), no. 52 in the Deutsche Sagen published by the Brothers Grimm. The story’s provenance has been viewed as Keightley hoaxing the other folklorists, but in an 1829 letter to Wilhelm Grimm, Keightley claimed that it had been Croker’s idea to cobble the story together, and that Croker made changes after it left Keightley’s hands.

Keightly’s confession is further complicated by his claim to have afterwards found sources in Ireland, in Cork and Wicklow, who knew the story as Keightley himself had written it, except that the souls were in upturned flowerpots, rather than lobster pots. It’s also possible that in the intervening years, book distribution and people’s memories of the story being read to them in childhood, by way of Grimm even, could have reintroduced it to the oral tradition.

And what of its cultural afterlife? The literary critic Richard Pine has argued that it’s the basis for Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Fisherman and his Soul,” which involves a fisherman, a mermaid, and a detached and wandering soul, though to my mind the resemblance is slight when looking at the story as a whole. Going back to Newcastle, by 1851, the North East of England had the fourth largest Irish population in England and Wales combined, so if the story was being told by Irish people, it might eventually have found its way to Sting through their descendants. Given the Deutsche Sagen route of dissemination, a version of “The Soul Cages” must appear in any number of books.

Whatever the truth of its origins, reading it now, we might ask: what’s the moral of this story? Should we keep inviting our own Watermen and Merrows to our tables, and simply accept that it’s our responsibility, every now and then, to go and release the souls that they just keep on capturing? Or should we tell the Watermen to stop their activities once and for all, and leave other souls at peace?

(aba)

World Building

A confession: we’re not much into world building in what, in our own shorthand, we call our Wheelworld stories, the stories around the sell-sword Kaila, scribe Ymke and teenage rogue Sebastien.

From a thread on Twitter about King Arthur, which is worth reading: ...the popularity of arthur stories is largely a manufacture of british protestants to invent a pre-catholic, post-roman, christian romantic past that could be deployed in the service of social conservatism as articulated through storytelling, architecture, and interior design.

We find this thought very freeing as authors who have lost too much time to find out “which foods are old world and which new world produce” and are reluctant to make their late medieval-ish fantasy conform precisely to the limits of what tech existed in what analog country in our world. It’s detail-focused, rather than processing from generalities upward. It’s never been our ambition for Wheelworld (the clue is in the fact we’ve begun ironically referring to it like that) to be one of those ultra-precise fantasy worlds where we know every linguistic, historical, topographical, flora/fauna detail.

One of the maps of Ricardo Pinto’s Three Lands, from Stone Dance of the Chameleon

We love created worlds like that. There’s an incredible complexity and subtlety that becomes possible when you truly know every inch of your fantasy world. Our friend Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series, surpasses Tolkien in the depth and originality of his conlangs, genealogies and history. His website offers a taste of the background material he created for his magnum opus (and we really recommend the revised, seven-part edition). Our imagination however works the other way round, and we lean into that: broadly, we look at what the story needs, and make the world to fit those needs.

In this approach, we follow in the footsteps of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose Hyborian world is overlaid on the map of Europe as we know it, and whose place and personal names purposely echo cultures we know. His Aquilonian kingdom reminds us of the medieval French Aquitaine; when he mentions the people of Shem, we know roughly where they come from. It’s a shorthand for him, using the general knowledge of the readers, so that he can get on with the story he wants to tell. Likewise, for The Red Man we’ve used a version of the northern Netherlands, Road to Starohrad is set in Prague (sort of) and for The Return of the Uncomplaining Child we looked (literally) at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen. We allow our readers’ associations to construct our world in their minds.

Map of the Hyborian Age by Robert E Howard

If we had made a map of Wheelworld, it would be a bit like that of Europe, though stretched out in certain parts, shrunk to insignificance in others. Our “northern Netherlands” definitely seem to be larger. Our approach has been to unfurl the world under our characters’ feet as we’ve needed new parts of it. None of them had the kind of education, or the kind of things expected of them in life, to give them a king’s or a scholar’s understanding of their world. So that world has… unrendered bits. Their world is like a medieval map, with vague “somewhere over there”s and “here be monsters”.

And things work a bit differently in that world generally. How different depends on what we’d like to do, or sometimes where our trio leads us. We haven’t talked about this before because it always seems like such a cop-out when meticulous world-building is a thing many people adore in fantasy.

Detail of the Hereford Mappa Mundi

Our curiosity lies more in the daily human relations of the world than its full historical record. Oh, bits of its history have emerged and continue to emerge. It’s getting more solid, and parts of it will get very solid as we take you through the rest of our heroes’ adventures. But its life and vigour rely on there being hinterlands; unmapped, unregarded bits. And one theme that keeps coming up is the precarity of civilisation: not even the lofty bits, but the everyday standards, like not murdering your neighbour. In that sense too it’s Howardian.

Granted, at least he did have a map!

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

The prologue of Conan the Barbarian immediately makes clear what sort of hero we must make do with. According to the voice-over it’s ‘between the years that the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas’. On a battlefield we find a woman clutching her belly with one hand and a sword with the other. She’s in labour, but only by being cut from her womb will the baby deign to emerge, as her dying lips whisper his name-to-be.

A teenage Conan pays no heed when his father, the tribe’s blacksmith (Ron Perlman), tries to teach him the riddle of steel whilst forging him his first sword. In Celtic tradition a smith was half village elder, half shaman, but what should be a key scene of the film is understated, the mythological quality lost. This is typical of a film that turns out to be about an obnoxious murderer instead of a hero.

Conan’s father (Ron Perlman) teaches his son the Riddle of Steel.

The torturously unpleasant violence from the movie’s opening continues when the village is invaded. Every bone-crunch of teenage Conan’s counter-attack is amplified, while the powerful character moments between son and soon-to-die father are lost, the filmmakers assuming we’re only interested in seeing Perlman get molten metal full in the face.

This tone persists. The adult Conan does unspeakably nasty things to captive baddies, and frees female sex slaves only to leer at them himself, then get them re-employed as tavern sluts. It’s a far cry from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian, of which the current film is ostentatiously not a remake, despite the many recurring tropes.

Both films are about a man who seeks out and ultimately destroys the wizard-king who wiped out his tribe. But where the old Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had innocence to balance his inherently thuggish life, the sum of his years spent at the Wheel of Pain and in the arena, new Conan is no better than the villains he dispatches in endless sword fights.

Jason Momoa as Conan

Lead actor Jason Momoa definitely shows a certain charisma and would be perfect in the role, particularly after playing the similar, but more nuanced, Drogo in Game of Thrones, were he not let down by the unimaginative direction and the shoddy script. It’s all stuff an adolescent’s dreams are made of: flashy gore and nastiness, grotesque villains and buxom damsels, but the film is light on the truly mythic, interesting character dilemmas and narrative logic.

The action sequences are cut too fast, disorientating rather than immersive, and quickly become repetitive and dull. The script, meanwhile, seems to have been cut to less than the bare minimum to get from one fight to the next. Character motivation is as scarce.

Conan (Jason Momoa) and Tamara (Rachel Nichols)

Indeed, about the women: Tamara (Rachel Nichols), goes from being an implausibly good fighter to a helpless puppet when the script requires it. When Conan claims her as his slave and gags her, it’s played as funny, not as a violation.

‘I live, I love, I slay… I am content,’ Conan mumbles halfway through the movie. As a motto it really holds no candle to his former incarnation’s answer to what’s best in life: ‘to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women’.

The producers have already blamed the failing box office figures on insufficient brand recognition, even though Robert E Howard’s pulp hero is doing well in every other medium, from comic book to video game. More likely, audiences aren’t fooled by ‘product’ slapped together for the lowest common denominator.

(This review appeared on the Culture Northern Ireland website)

On a Secession

In 1834, in the then isolated and remote village of Ulrum, Reverend De Cock was unhappy with the increasingly Enlightenment-influenced ideas that permeated the Dutch Reformed state religion, and with the church board he seceded. Eventually, his secession lead to a split in the Dutch Reformed Church, and reverberated through to the USA. Before that, De Cock was relieved of his function by the government, forbidden to preach, and another pastor, Reverend Smith, was called in. Writer, traveller and local gadfly Marten Douwes Teenstra wrote an anonymous pamphlet (with some italics mine)…

The Dutch Reformed church in Ulrum

(…)Sunday (12 October) morning ships full of hungry souls arrived in Zoutkamp (the next village, a harbour) to come to Ulrum with their dirty linen; more than a hundered carriages and a legion of pedestrians gathered in the streets of Ulrum, of which many went to the Widow Koster (in whose pub the secessionists met), who poured them gin, then left without paying – well, that was for De Cock and the landlady to solve; to pay is worldly and to pray and sigh is heavenly. It was mostly unknown faces who looked at each other in bewilderment. “O, if only these could be the last days of such violence,” others sighed.

At 10 o’clock, Reverend Smith went to the church, which was already full of people, both natural children of Adam as those who (as they felt) were reborn and had seen the light and belonged to the chosen flock. (Here Teenstra’s want of an editor becomes apparent, as the text becomes mired in smug allusions which, 185 years later, become unreadable. Suffice to say: De Cock was busy conspiring with his church council, and sent a friendly preacher, Scholte, to the church to try and preach. As designated preacher, Smith refused to forego his sermon.)

The pub of the widow Koster, meeting place of the Secessionists, early 20th c. photo

Reverend Smith, climbing off the pulpit, was asked again by Scholte to be allowed to preach in the church that afternoon. On being refused again, as Reverend Smith had received a message from the Provincial Church Council in Groningen to not only refuse it but to prevent it with suitable means, De Cock and his Xantippe started lambasting his sermon. Now the plebs started thronging more and more. Reverend Smith, almost 66 years old, was squeezed and punched, especially in the underbelly, so that his supporting girlde broke. The elderly preacher, almost breathless, would have collapsed in the pushing and pinching mass (amongst which Mrs De Cock shouted out: “Now is the time!”) if not for the few men, who also associate our own work and labours with religion, who supported him in getting out. Now the Game Cock put up his feathers (quo quis indoctior eo impudentior – the more stupid, the more brazen) and shouted to the people: “Stay in the church! Stay, people! Anon Reverend Scholte will speak.” Then some verses from Psalm 25 were sung. Later, however, De Cock and his cronies were driven out of the church by police officials, in name of the church elders and the local governors, after which the church was closed.

Reverend Hendrik de Cock, and his Act of Secession

Now we come to the main events of Sunday 19th October.

G.J. Van Polen, police officer from Appingedam, had already arrived early, as well as the constables of the neighbouring villages of Leens, Kloosterburen, Baflo, Warffum, Usquert and Kantens in Ulrum, and, with Ulrum’s constable, guarded the doors of the church. Two of them placed themselves at the pulpit, and two others accompanied J. van der Helm, reverend of Niekerk and Vliedorp, whose turn it was to preach. Coming in the church towards 9:30, it was already filled with participants and onlookers. The constables helped the preacher to get through the crowd and reached the step to the choir, close to the choir fence; here they got so much push-back that they had to retreat a little; while one Klaas Pieters Ritsema (commonly named after his wife, Klaas Wietskes), day labourer in Ulrum, being warned against pushing back by the constable of Leens, called in a loud voice: “Reverend Van der Helm will not get on the pulpit, but De Cock will.” – The constable of Leens called for help from the constables at the pulpit, but they called back that they couldn’t push through: Reverend Van der Helm, while hearing many sniggering comments, had to leave the church.

Interior of the church in Ulrum, 1925

Now De Cock, in full regalia, climbed on a bench within the choir fence, after having tried himself to get to the pulpit, now being stopped by Van Polen, whom he asked: who gave you the right to refuse me; to which Van P. answered: my superior, that is, the Officer of Justice. Upon this, De Cock, who did not want to answer to any worldly powers, read openly the ACT OF SECESSION.

(…) After reading this so-called Act of Secession – of which we could hear little, and so don’t know where De Cock ended, so we have included the whole thing (though I’m not) – Van Polen once more asked with the utmost sweetness, if it were praying and begging, to no longer rebel against the government – quoting once more the Officer of Justice, to which De Cock replied: “that the Officer didn’t have a say, and that he came in name of God, the King of Kings,” after which he called to the crowd: “Shall Van der Helm climb the pulpit? – No! No! Away with that Baal-priest! Away with the papist! Away with the idolator! Away with Satan’s sermon!” and adding: “The church is ours, we have seceded!”

Van Polen letDe Cock know in soft and modest terms that he was rousing the crowd and was heating tempers, to which De Cock replied: “I do nothing except for God, and should you use violence against me, than you will find your death; because I do not fear any worldly power of government.” A new attempt (by De Cock) to reach the pulpit failed, and the crowd started singing from the 118th Psalm, after which De Cock did a very noisy prayer. (…) We felt sorry for the man: his long, straight hair hung over his hollow eyes and pale cheeks, as if he was drowning. (…) We hoped that Van Polen would let him continue, thinking as the father of a madhouse: “leave the mad to do their talking.” But of course! He was again urged to obedience by Van Polen. De Cock said: “God should be obeyed sooner than people. There are no earthly powers who can stand against this,” and he started reading the community something from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Another caution from Van Polen again was fruitless and the gospel exercise lasted until 11:30, closing with an announcement that the service in the church would continue towards 1. Then De Cock left, the crowd thinned, those who remained were driven from the church, the door was closed and the church was surveilled by the constables.

Hotel/village hall of Ulrum, early 20th century

(…) Wednesday evening, 22nd October, De Cock and church elder J. J. Beukema, the first decent in black and wearing a tricorne hat, the other, as a crippled Vulcan, with coloured stockings, knee breeches with the buckles undone, and a blue sleeping cap on his head, appeared in the village hall. Here they immediately (as if to shoot burning soot from a chimney with a two barrel gun) announced officially that they had seceded and now were independent; requesting protection, instead of opposition, from the Council, because they had to follow God’s holy laws instead of the worldly.

(…)”What shall it be tomorrow?” was the question going round on Saturday 25 October. All sorts of rumours spread here: Reverend de Cock, Reverend J. van den Helm, the constable of Ulrum, called Jan Koster, and also the other constables present, as well as the earlier mentioned Klaas Wietskes had been summoned to appear in Appingedam at the courthouse on Friday the 31st; (…) Others said, that in Zoutkamp more than 40 ship’s mates, all big followers of their preacher Du Cloux of Vierhuizen, would appear armed with crankshafts, to help their reverend, whose turn it was, to the pulpit. One of the main Cock-friendlies (sorry, it’s what it says) said (and I have heard this myself): that opposition made matters worse, and if the constables had started anything, then it wouldn’t have stopped with the eight people (who had been summoned to Appingedam), and what would they have done against it? (…) followed by a much-meaning nodding of the head. He meant that a small force was like a drop of water in a coal fire, only stoking the heat. The sailors from Zoutkamp would not help either; because on Sunday the 26th so many people would come from Friesland, from the other side of the canal, from here to Delfzijl, to help De Cock in the pulpit, that nothing would stop them.

So, what did happen? Saturday afternoon, about 2 o’clock, an infantry company of the 10th division, one hundred men strong, not counting the officers (and Captain Vrij), came marching along the towpath from Mensingeweer to Ulrum, having come with three barges from Groningen city. (…) The soldiers were quartered with the villagers, and the night from Saturday to Sunday remained peaceful. (…)

The Ulrum rectory, 1925 postcard

Mr De Cock had not been forgotten in this respect, having aside from twelve men quartered in, also a guard at his house. Further there were no or few exceptions; all villagers, whichever denomination, were tasked with housing soldiers, of which butchers, bakers and pub landlords had the most profit: however much bakers were the main cause of the circumstances (Beukema, main church elder, was a baker and owner of half a dozen properties in the village). The girls too, being pious yet greedy, rejoiced, that Ulrum was enriched with a garison.

(…) Sunday morning, the 26th October, heard aside from the rumbling of clocks also the beating of drums. More than a thousand strangers (many out of sheer curiosity) came to Ulrum. This was the end of the handwringers’ mutiny: Soldiers who had withstood the siege and bombardment of the citadel of Antwerp in 1831, stood in line and received orders to loosen their ammunition belts. (…) The church was occupied and the reverend A.P.A. Du Cloux climbed without any opposition into the pulpit.

(…) De Cock wanted to go outside in the morning, telling his guard that he wanted to preach. (…) The guard simply kept him in the house and De Cock was not allowed to preach or go out. (…) Then came a crowd of Cock-friendlies to the rectory, and twenty were admitted, and now started a service in the presence of an officer, who quickly put an end to it.

To the south of Ulrum some of the pious gathered to hear a certain Roelf Medema, farmer in Adorp, in a field, while others played church on the sides of a ditch – then this crowd was soon disbanded.

(…) The soldiers muttered about the lady who’d have them sleep on straw, though they’d managed to get themselves beds, pillows, etc.

Reenactment soldiers at the 175-year anniversary

De Cock was now inaccessible under house arrest; and the guard at the rectory said: “He (De Cock) is not allowed out and nobody can visit him; if he has to go somewhere, an armed man goes with him, as well as with the missus, and even the maid is followed closely. All his papers have been sealed and moved away, so that he doesn’t even have a napkin left.” It goes without saying, that this was said in an exaggerated tone; only those papers were taken by the constable which had to do with his correspondence.

Everything is peaceful and quiet for now. Many poor villagers, who are not looking towards the coming winter without worry, are concerned that in their poverty they will be eaten out of bread and home, and complain about their guests. And also, these are soldiers from Holland (the west; Ulrum is in the far north), and they are not used to such guests. The soldiers guarding the rectory were also jealous that Mrs De Cock outdid them in swearing and cursing.

(…) Ulrum, 28 October 1834.