From Thundercats to S&S

One of my formative Sword & Sorcery influences is Thundercats, the 1980s cartoon series (and comic, and action figure line, and shampoo bottle, and…) in which a group of anthropomorphic cats flee their dying planet, Thundera, to make new home on Third Earth.

Their leader Lion-O is the hereditary wielder of the mystical Sword of Omens, and finds there a rich array of dangers, both mechanical and magical. He also finds a worthy foe in Mumm-Ra, an ancient sorcerer bent on taking the Sword’s power for himself. To that end, Mumm-Ra often manipulates the barbarian Mutants into doing his dirty work. The observant among you will have spotted that this science-fantasy blend makes Thundercats Sword & Planet rather than pure Sword & Sorcery. That hardly matters, as many of the ingredients that primed me to enjoy S&S later were already there: the Sword of Omens, towers with traps and treasure, a wicked sorcerer, and a threatening world.

I was five when the Rankin Bass cartoon series and the Marvel UK comic arrived, so I didn’t know there was such a thing as Sword & Sorcery, and some of its key elements aren’t present in Thundercats, like the lone wolf protagonist alienated from society. Granted, Lion-O – a ten-year-old accelerated to manhood during space hypersleep – does a fair bit of lone prowling around Third Earth, but he’s got his adopted family to temper his rashness. Mumm-Ra and the Mutants generally thwart the Thundercats by trapping them individually or luring them into isolation, so the ‘cats largely survive through cooperation.

The world they live in is still rich in Sword & Sorcery influences, and that’s hardly surprising: the writers of both the show and the comics were of an age to have enjoyed the S&S revival of the 60s and 70s, and they gleefully funnelled everything else they liked into Thundercats. So, there’s a Viking story, and an Arthurian story, as well as straightforward Sword & Sorcery episodes like The Tower of Traps, in which one of the younger ‘cats gets trapped in the booby-trapped tower of Baron Karnor after foiling a robbery. In rescuing him, Lion-O escapes giant swinging blades and a precarious bridge over a fire pit.

It’s the sort of thing that could happen to Conan – if Conan had a kid sidekick prone to getting into scrapes. When they discover the Baron’s corpse in a treasure room, it looks exactly as we’d seen in Conan the Barbarian. And come to think of it, when Mumm-Ra is in his beefier shape, he wears Thulsa Doom’s double-snaked helmet.

Of course Lion-O is, aesthetically speaking, your classic S&S barbarian, as are the mutants: scantily-clad, muscular avatars of masculinity. If the show is rich in science fiction elements – notably the Thundercats’ own advanced technology, the neighbouring robot bears, and the occasional fugitives and troublemakers who visit Third Earth by spaceship – then it’s arguably the fantasy and occult aspects that lend it its atmosphere.

Nobility in the world they came from, the Thundercats bring an honour code of “justice, truth, honour and loyalty” that many S&S antiheroes would roll their eyes at. On reaching Third Earth, they stop short of conquering ambitions, but in their urge to cultivate their new land and mine its natural resources to power their high-tech fortress and vehicles, they flaunt their power and wealth. In effect, they become the sort of people S&S protagonists typically try to rob. The series often contrasts their scientific and technological expertise with their naive susceptibility to magic, which often threatens to divide and destroy them.

Some Thundercats themselves have uncanny powers, though they’re innate abilities rather than derived from arcane studies, and they play second fiddle to their more obvious learned combat skills. Tygra can telepathically create illusions in his enemies’ minds and become invisible to them, and Cheetarah has a ‘sixth sense’ warning her of danger – though when she forces it, it drains her energy. The stealthy disciplines of the sorcerer are beyond them. Only Jaga, Lion-O’s mentor, offers consistent supernatural aid – and it’s more in the form of hints that drive Lion-O’s moral education than anything else.

Usually, the magic of Third Earth is an uncanny and threatening outside force, whether it’s Mumm-Ra’s machinations, the terrifying Netherwitch, or deadly supernatural phenomena native to the planet. Treasure offers temptations, but often proves not to be worth the risk of acquiring it, and though they make friends, the Thundercats remain threatened by Third Earth. That very name, and Mumm-Ra’s onyx pyramid and Egyptian regalia, suggest it is our world’s far future, after two cataclysms. This is underscored by the explosive fate of Thundera, whose high civilisation could not save it from annihilation.

In the end, the Thundercats are saved from inhabiting a fully S&S world mainly by the fact they live in a 1980s children’s cartoon. In that decade’s atmosphere of moral angst around children’s shows, the production team included a child psychologist tasked with ensuring prosocial values in its storylines, and vetoing elements deemed too violent, scary or adult. We grew up with action cartoons ending with a heavy-handed moral, followed by a cheesy group laugh. In the same spirit, Jaga did not do anything as horrible as dying on their long voyage, but instead “translated himself to the spiritual plane”.

Thundercats, like its Filmation Sword & Planet peers He-Man and She-Ra, still had enough darker elements to feed our imaginations, along with enough S&S tropes to lead the youngest Gen Xers and the eldest Millennials to the genre that we would eventually explore in depth, fed by the glut of 80s S&S movies, video games and tabletop adventures.

And with a string of remakes of each of these shows, revamped and reissued toy lines, not to mention more straightforward Sword & Sorcery action in the pipeline across different media, and the massive groundswell of new D&D players, it seems certain that today’s children are getting their first taste of both Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet. They are the creators of the future, and I can’t wait to find out what they will make.


Mary the Tower

Neither of us are Christians, but living in a Christian culture, and a heavily patriarchal one at that, we can’t avoid having our lives affected by it. Its presence is felt, of course, in The Red Man and Others, in which the Brotherhood of the Wheel is a thinly disguised Christianity, with the cult in Otasring a stand-in for the most extreme and intransigent examples Protestantism – something we both feels needed critiquing, because we both grew up near examples of this.

To us, the Bible isn’t the Word of God but a collection of manuscripts compiled in the past, edited, and translated to fit a certain way of thought. In the process it has been translated, retranslated, mistranslated and, it appears, tampered with.

This blog post by Diana Butler Bass is worth reading in full, as it gives a lot of context. The gist is that when scholar Elizabeth Schrader studied a digital image of what is known as Papyrus 66, the oldest complete text we have for the Gospel of John, dating from around the year 200, she found that it had been edited. Those edits have subsequently made it into our Biblical canon, and have shifted the importance attributed to one of the women in the Bible called Mary.

The Bible, as we know it, has Jesus visiting Martha, from a certain village, and her sister Mary, who sat at his feet and listened to what he was saying (Luke 10:38-42). Then we have John 11, who has Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, who live in Bethany. You’d think that these are the same people. However, Jesus was travelling in the opposite direction from Bethany when he visited that “certain village” of Mary and Martha. So, these are two different stories, about different families.

John 11 opens with a simple sentence: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister, Martha.” This is where Elizabeth Schrader discovered that an alteration had been made in the 4th century: The name ‘Martha’ originally read ‘Maria’ – in Greek a difference of a single letter, changing the sentence into: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, at the village of Mary and his sister, Mary.” It’s a clunky sentence, for sure, but that’s what it says. The change had been carried through the text; Mary was changed into Martha, pronouns were changed and “sister” made plural.

So, it is not Martha, but Mary who tells Jesus: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah. The one who’s come into the world.” This does explain why this Mary was important enough to mention in Lazarus’ story. It is an important confession; one of two. The other? Peter, who tells Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” to which Jesus replies: “You are Peter, the rock upon I will build my church.”

If it was not Martha who recognises Jesus, but then further goes unmentioned, but Mary – could this then be Mary Magdalene? Did Mary see her own brother resurrected, and then was at Jesus’ grave to see himself resurrected? It would make narratively sense. Especially since Mary Magdalene is not “Mary, from Magdala” as long was assumed, as there was no place of that name at the time. Jesus liked his metaphors, and just like he called his disciple Simeon “his rock”, Petrus, so he named Mary Magdalene, “tower”.

Two people, a man and a woman, who recognise him as the Son of God. Two people he gives a title: Peter, “the rock upon which I build my church,” and Mary, “the tower.” Jesus also liked his parables of fish and fishermen – not strange for a preacher around the Sea of Galilee. The image that comes to mind if we take these very important people together, is a rock with a tower: a lighthouse. And perhaps that’s what Jesus had in mind for his church. Not a watchtower, a church wherein to huddle in fear, but a beacon of hope, a light that guides for all at sea. For him, God never lived in the temple, or in a church, but out there, in the world. Even if Jesus wasn’t familiar with lighthouses – they were around in Roman times, but the placid Sea of Galilee may not have needed them – then still Mary, the tower of strength, would be the church built on Peter, the rock.

How different Christianity could have been if Mary Magdalene’s story had not been partially erased: if that important scene of her recognising him as God’s son had been allowed to carry through to her being present at his resurrection. We might have had a more equal church; a kinder church, in which there was really place for everyone – not only as worshippers, but as its leaders.

Looking Back Without Blinking

“It’s okay to look back. Just don’t stare.” This is how a timely article on the excellent Atomic Junkshop blog quoted baseball player Satchell Paige when discussing the challenge of writing retro, to which that blog’s Fraser Sherman adds: “If you’re going to revive something from the past, like a Golden Age comics characters or pulp-style SF adventures, don’t bring their cultural baggage — racism, sexism, whatever — along with them.”

This is pretty much the topic of our latest newsletter. It appears that it’s hard to let go for some people, though, and our newsletter caused consternation. A lengthy ‘rebuttal’ to our newsletter followed on a pulp scholar’s blog, which was in turn reported on as ‘a fine response to a troubling essay’; apparently, we had wanted Sword & Sorcery’s “old works discarded.” This then was discussed in a labyrinthine Facebook thread, including the question: “Are there any women in the group? Are they excluded or just not interested?”

Angeline, one of the few women in that group, did not reply: she’s tired of meeting bad faith where the past – warts and all – is accorded deference, and once again asks: “Who do we want at the table?” The author of the ‘rebuttal’ to our last newsletter also chimed in, re: the Atomic Junkshop post:

Articles like this disorient me. It’s as if their intention is to make us hang dog faced or guilty for enjoying, for example, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fiction. If I … write modern pastiches of his work – al the while avoiding various “-isms” – would this article author define this activity as “starting” or “looking”? Honestly, who “embraces” racist/sexist/homophobic tropes? It seems like a straw man. I dare say most people would defend their tropes/descriptions/art as not racist/sexist/homophobic. There is a secret authority in this article: the elite who feels authorized to arbitrate what is and isn’t sexist/racist/homophobic.

This, to us, sounds like a case of “wanting to have your cake and eat it.” It’s not that difficult. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you know the drill. Yes, we love old films and old pulps, but it’s a qualified love. How you want to define qualified can differ: you may gloss over the racist/sexist bits, you may put your ‘1930s glasses’ on, whatever works for you. But you cannot just cop out with a “well, nobody should arbitrate what’s sexist/racist/homophobic,” because then anything goes, and everything is beyond criticism.

And what then are those harmful tropes we’re so bothered about? Consider this fragment from a short Sword & Sorcery story:

…an imposing figure stood there, an ebon giant dressed in mail shirt and high strapped sandals. He gave pause, for he saw that his visitor was a savage looking specimen carved seemingly from obsidian. (…) The stranger looked up at the greeting and gave a strong toothed smile before setting the blade carefully back down on the counter again. Folding his great arms over his chest, he regarded the smith through dark smoldering eyes.

(…)“How times have changed. Now they let any bare-arsed savage in the army. Why don’t you just run along back to your mud hut in the jungle and leave the organized discipline of fighting to the real men, eh?” (He) set his cup down slowly. “Times have indeed changed. Since when did the men of Agoria, Gallicia and Iber, as I take all you fine men to be, know anything other than sodomizing their children and raping the livestock?”

(…)Not for the first time, (he) found himself incarcerated. Nor for the first time did he find the experience tedious. He sat chained in a hot cell alongside a score of other miserable wretches whose only thought was how to outwit their fellow prisoners when it came to getting the bigger share of gruel at meal times. He took no part in their trivial squabbles. He endured the situation silently, resting back on his heels, eyes smoldering in the gloom like those of a great cat. In him was instilled the instincts of the wild and, with it, the patience of the hunter. Wisely, the other prisoners left him alone.

(…) Stretching like a great hunting lion, the Damballahan rose slowly to his feet until he towered over them. They noted the glower in his eyes, the great thews glistening like black iron in the torch light, and were mindful not to let their spears waver.

You could be mistaken in thinking that this was written in the 1930s, though it is by a fairly prolific modern writer who had an idea, which “stemmed from a conversation I had about racism in sword-&-sorcery. I got to thinking about how REH might have written a black Conan.” (Names removed or changed to make it a bit less googleable).

With his love for the prose of yore, and apparently without making the effort to think about how those tropes read now, the writer saddles us with a heap of racism, no doubt unintended yet still there, with a side dish of homophobia, courtesy of the hero. So much for no modern pulp writer embracing harmful tropes.

There are a fair number of people who genuinely try to push this genre into the 2020s. They aim for a more modern approach to the genre, with a focus on inclusion of minorities. However, there are others for whom ‘inclusivity’ means ‘never excluding anyone, or any idea or way of doing things, even when they do harm’ – top of the list of the Five Geek Social Fallacies. And to be very clear, this isn’t us demanding witch hunts, this is us advocating for a thoughtful evaluation of what we consume and what we in our turn create.

Did we really all follow the news cycle of the past few years to debate whether racism was and is a presence in society, and therefore fantasy fiction? Are commentators who shy away from selectivity and interpretation trying to say that Sword & Sorcery exists in isolation, somehow untouched by the impact of the world and cultures that produce it? Surely not: that would make Sword & Sorcery so much less powerful and meaningful than it could be.

The Lure of the Strongman

Fans of sword and sorcery, though a more diverse lot than often assumed, tend to have one thing in common: at some point in their youth, Conan the Cimmerian, or someone like him, strode into their lives to crush his enemies, to steal jewels of great price, or even take the crown of some troubled land. That hero may have come by way of the Conan films with Arnold Schwarzenegger, or tabletop gaming, or most potently of all, through the muscular prose of Robert E. Howard and those who came after him.

The typical sword and sorcery fan found Conan in his his teenage years, that time of life when he had maximum ambition but little agency to do anything with it. He was constrained by the rule of parents and teachers, but often also by social marginalisation, isolation and bullying.

And whether that bullying took overt or more subtle forms – whichever way the hero came, his appeal lay in his individuality; something which the powerless, weak and oppressed could cling on to and identify with.

And this last point is crucial, as sword and sorcery is often discovered when a teenager’s isolation is at its most damaging. The experience is transformative – this sense of liberation, however vicarious, through the adventures of Conan and his kind. This comes not just through their vanquishing of their enemies, but their grabbing of power and wealth and their magnetic appeal to the opposite sex – all of which they often accomplish both despite and because of an outsider status in society.

At best, this fictional experience inspires the isolated teen in making a mark in the real world. As they grow up, the realisation sets in that there was never going to be some cathartic scene in which their bullies were put to the sword, and their abusive parents banned from the realm. They grasp that school violence is not justice but horror; that they can win no deep, lasting satisfaction from mere shows of physical strength, or from seeing other people brutally punished. The revenge fantasies and strong man heroes are left behind where they belong: in stories, where they can help explain us to ourselves, and to each other.

And having had this experience of needing a stronger figure to look to, a righter of wrongs such as we lacked when the injustices of real life took place, we gain perspective. It can be used to look at other areas of life, at the broader experience of searching for different kinds of heroes (or “heroes”), and the dark turns that search can take. Because of course this is not just about sword and sorcery. It’s not even just about fiction – because not everybody outgrows the desire for a strongman, an avatar on which to project their discontents.

Some people conflate the very real injustices they suffer in society – violence, wage theft, inflation, homelessness, pollution – with any increase of rights and justice for others. And so, in finding their enemy, they must likewise find a strongman to protect them. The stage of reflection, of putting our teenage heroes in their proper place, has not taken place, and arrested development instead informs the thought processes, in particular concerning how the world is, and should be, run.

In politics, the lure of the strongman takes the form of the desire for an authoritarian leader. His sword and his axe are legislation and the security forces, and his muscles are the members of the public who defend him and his misuse of those tools no matter what. And we can actually recognise the tropes that appeal in heroic fantasy being skilfully used by the political strongmen of our time. So Vladimir Putin flexes his muscles in topless photos that depict him as a rugged hero surviving in the Russian mountains. So Donald Trump boasted (“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…”) of his ability to grab women by their genitals.

Even in its most diluted, buffoon form, the strongman archetype compels, as British people know to our cost, having elected a leader whose appeal lies not in his competence but in his extremity: Boris Johnson, that pound shop Trump, need not be skilled in governance or diplomacy when he’s proved his leadership qualities by “getting Brexit done” (making the public poorer in the process); proved his virility by producing more children than we can count (or he will acknowledge); proved his strength by surviving an allegedly severe case of the same disease he refuses to protect the public from. Even in his very absurdity he shows he’s an individualist and an iconoclast: the trademark thatch of hair he musses before being photographed; the burbling incoherence, peppered with Greek and Latin.

Johnson is his own kind of political barbarian, yet he is not merely at the gate – he holds the highest office in the UK. The man who started his career as Prime Minister by illegally proroguing Parliament now has no intention of ending it. His government may be riddled with scandal and corruption, but his reaction has been to announce he’d like to stay on for the maximum term. Because for a strongman there is no defeat, only temporary setback and tactical retreat. A strongman has no concept of shame.

Like King Kull, who took his axe to the ancient laws of Valusia, Johnson placed his friends and cronies in his Cabinet, and uses them to smash any laws that he doesn’t like. And what if the human rights of minorities are eroded, and the poor get ever poorer – it’s no skin off his back.

Generally, the strongman likes his own people – there will be other, stronger strongmen he aspires to. So Johnson, and Theresa May before him, sought favour with Trump, and Trump cozied up to Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (another one with a hairstyle daring anyone to defy him). More recently, Johnson has made trips to Ukraine, when British soil became too heated, to meet its wartime president. Volodymyr Zelensky is unlikely strongman, having started out as a comic actor playing the role of the country’s president, but an undeniable one: he rose in prominence on the populist ticket, the Ukrainian version of “drain the swamp”, and since the start of the war he invariably appears in a green army shirt in a show both of strength and solidarity with the common fighting man.

When ordinary people are ground down by evil systems built and upheld by these strongmen, they are ever reluctant to rebel. They’ve bought into those images of strength and success, and imagine that the strongman is one of them, that he actually cares about them. Having invested so much in a hero, it’s unthinkable that that love might go unrequited. Not if other people can be blamed; not if another strongman can be pointed out: “Fear her instead, the evil sorceress” (and her emails).

To the strongman’s supporters, theirs is the road of righteousness. Their strongman’s enemy – therefore, their enemy – must be cast as a villain, and tarred with the very weakness they sought to escape as teens, whether that supposed weakness takes the form of age (Trump supporters mocking Biden, born only four years before their hero, for being old), disability or Otherness of whatever kind.

Of course, investing your emotions in a real-life strongman makes about as much sense as imagining that Conan, where he to appear in our midst, would see himself as one of us, or have any particular interest in our wellbeing. It’s like believing that he would not turn slowly in our homes, noting our valuables, our vulnerabilities, and start calculating how he might exploit us.

Esmeralda, or Mother and Daughter

Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, better known as The Hunchback of the Notre Dame is one of those books I keep returning to. If you only know the Disney version, then do yourself the favour of reading the book. The real protagonist is the titular cathedral in Paris, around which the lives of the other characters revolve. How it has been received and adapted is as revealing as the book itself: films in particular have shifted the focus to the bellringer Quasimodo, and titling him “The Hunchback” sometimes brings an air of horror and the grotesque, as with Lon Chaney’s silent 1923 version, or of the pathetic, as in the 1939 Charles Laughton version, or Disney’s animation.

Rooting through the Dutch newspaper archive, I found an 1847 theatrical adaptation, and it’s interesting how it was staged and reviewed. First, a notice from the Algemeen Handelsblad, 10 March:

Soon expected: for the benefit of the widow R. Engelsman, Esmeralda, or Mother and Daughter, romantic play from the end of the middle ages, in six scenes, by Ms Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, with free use of the novel (Notre Dame de Paris) by Victor Hugo. Freely translated from High German, by Mr. C.J. Roobol. The music for the songs, the choir and the entr’actes, expressly made for this purpose by Mr. J.B. Van Bree. Decorated with new backdrops and costumes by mr. J.E. de Vries. (Never shown on any Dutch stage).

Specially commissioned music; all-new backdrops and costumes – this is a prestige production for the Amsterdam City Theatre. Mrs Engelman was the widow of Reinier Engelman, who was the co-director of the theatre and died in 1845, 50 years old. This also explains the title of the play, and the shift of focus not only to Esmeralda, but also her mother, the cloistress nun Sister Gudule. The review from the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant of 10 April that year explains:

Both main parts were played by Mrs Engelman-Bia and her adequate daughter. Ms Engelman played the part of Gervaise Sante-Fleurie, the later Sister Gudule admirably; her motherly love was tender and touching; her madness over the loss of her child chilling and horrifying; her bitterness against the heathens perfectly natural; her reunion with her daughter very striking. Ms Marie Engelman, Esmeralda, who daily makes more progress on the road of the arts, did her job admirably; indeed the most difficult the youthful actress has undertaken this far. Her dance and song as Heatheness, on the Place de Grève in Paris, made us think back with pleasure on the last performance of Preciosa by Father Cats, when we so admired her mother, the jewel of our stage.

No doubt Esmeralda was retooled as a vehicle for mother and daughter Engelman. Since 1841, when her husband became a co-director on the Stadsschouwburg, Maria Engelman-Bia got more influence on the programming and casting, which caused unrest among the other players, as she favoured herself and her daughters over the other two lead actresses. The latter pair subsequently resigned in the mid-40s, with the daughters taking their places. The titular role in Esmeralda was played by Wilhelmina Engelman, then 13 years old, and not yet emerged from her mother’s shadow by far. She was quite the child star, and remain on the stage until her death in 1902. It’s interesting to see Esmeralda played by a teenager though, as in Hugo’s book she’d be about 16, but has consistently been cast older in films.

The reviewer of the Rotterdamsche Courant assumes that his readers are familiar with Victor Hugo’s book, so he doesn’t want to outline the plot. If the book indeed was so well-known, then theatre goers wouldn’t be saddened that one of the book’s big reveals, that Esmeralda is Sister Gudule’s daughter, has been spoiled. He gives an overall assessment of the play:

How many – yes, perhaps an incredible number – are there not who were bored with Moliere’s masterpiece? Is it not because of that that a big audience attended all performances of Learned Women? For that audience, we admit, Esmeralda is not suitable, but as folk art, well, je nomme un chat un chat, yes for the lesser ranks of the theatre Esmeralda is wanted, and as such it entertains. It contains many horrifying scenes, though all engaging; it has chills and naughty bits, though the action is set at the end of the 15th century; it’s not free of improbabilities, though the play is “romantic.” Even so, the fruitful dramatic writer Charlotte Birch-Pfeyffer in this new fruit of her pen also shown virtues in a laudable manner. Motherly love is nicely sketched, the madness could have been left out; loyalty and gratefulness shine in full lustre; and should one of the personas be one of the lewd, then opposite his malice stands the nobles, purest love. In one word, the Esmeralda is a play as the Esmeralda could not be otherwise: a comedy, a play as tragedy.

And what then of the other actors?

Mr Roobol is without doubt a highly capable actor; this he has definitely proven in the role of Claude Frollo. A little less speaking loudly, especially in the moments where a high voice is needed, would be recommended. As translator of the Esmeralda Mr Roobol also deserves our praise. As amateur, Mr E. van den Berg filled the part of Quasimodo, the bellringer of the cathedral of Paris. His fine acting, with his appearance and the considerable yet easy use of gesturing, earned him the loud cheers of the audience. We give him our praise, and believe we don’t say too much when we claim that the directors would have found it difficult to find anyone as suitable to the part. Mr Munnich! Mr Munnich! In this paper we have honestly praised you so often when you earned it; we have also pointed out the weaknesses which now and then spoilt your acting; even so our impartial judgment this time too is that we have no reason to be satisfied with the way in which you filled the part of Phoebus. Indeed, Mr Munnich had just a few good moments, no more.In general his acting was too cold or too passionate; furthermore he was inconsistent, something we also noticed in Learned Women and Eduard of Scotland. Aside from these people we need to praise the experienced actor Stoete; Clopis Trouillefou was masterly presented by him.

Mr Münnich had only debuted with the Stadsschouwburg in the 1845/46 season. An earlier appearance got him the qualified praise of “shown to have considerable aptitude, and with application and study could develop into a jewel of our stage.” E. van den Berg is a common Dutch name, and I cannot find any more about the man who played Quasimodo. The review notes his appearance, and the use of gestures. It seems likely that he played the bellringer as a deaf-mute, and put more nuance into the part than might have expected. It’s noteworthy that the role of Quasimodo is played by an amateur, perhaps chosen because of his appearance. Quasimodo and other characters are described in a review from the Algemeen Handelsblad of 27 March:

A mother, who made her only beloved child into an idol, falls into insanity when it’s stolen; a stolen girl who like Preciosa is raised by heathens, retains her childish purity of soul and body, shines through beauty and artistry, and finds herself in the tender and loyal love of a noble young man, then persecuted by the villanous passion of a highly placed man, and cast in a well of disaster; that noble youth in contrast to the highly placed man who, earlier a paragon of virtue and sensibility, is tempted to the cruelest of crimes because of his love for the comely heatheness; A miscast creature, whose blunt soul and neglected heart is pierced by a ray of love, and is spurred on to noble feelings and heroic deeds; a fickle crowd which first cheers on the gifted Esmeralda, then enjoys her undeserved downfall and again her liberation; a band of heathens, such a miraculous appearance in medieval times.

A week earlier, the 22nd, the Algemeen Handelsblad already wrote about Esmeralda:

Next week shall see the debuts of two amateurs, Mrs L.J. Veltman and E. van den Berg, who we hope, if successful, will tie themselves to the theatre. The content of the new drama Esmeralda, by Birch-Pfeiffer, is well known from the much-read novel by Victor Hugo; we just want to add that the author has made substantial changes and additions, mainly in the prologue in which the mother loses her child, and the end, when Esmeralda is condemned to death bt is saved. The translator, Mr Roobol, we understand, has also made some important changes, and removed what could’ve been found to be loathsome for the spiritual dignity.

Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, the original adaptor of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, was a German actress and writer, the director of the Stadttheater in Zurich for six years, and author of over one hundred plays and librettos. She adapted Hugo’s book as Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, The Bellringer of Notre Dame, and further adapted such novels as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Her script for Notre Dame (if you have the wherewithal to read German blackletter) has six acts; the first is set in the farming community of Epernay, northern France, where Gervaise Sante-Fleurie loses her daughter. Then the action shifts to Paris, twelve years later. After being introduced to the lovely child Esmeralda, we meet Quasimodo, dragged in front of the baying masses by the student Gringoire:

Gringoire: My dear lord, that must be our pope of fools! (He grabs Quasimodo by the arm and drags him in the middle of the gathered mass. A rolling laughter ensues).
The Women: (Fall back, some cover their eyes, others cry).
All: (Through another). Oh phooey. Horrible. No, that’s too much. That’s the devil himself. God be with us!
Quasimodo: (Stands with arms folded around him, and looks blankly around himself)
Fleurie: Oh, but that’s Quasimodo.
Clopin: The bellringer of Notre Dame! You know him from his bellringer’s garb from a hundred paces.
A student: That’s Quasimodo the bandy leg.
Another: The one-eye, the beggar man! The creature that was laid in the foundling tray in the Notre Dame twelve years ago

They all agree; Quasimodo should be the Pope of Fools.

Clopin: Well, would you, red head?
Quasimodo (stares angrily around himself, doesn’t seem to understand anything, except that he’s being mocked).

The Stories We Shouldn’t Keep Hearing

On 17 June 1994, when I was twelve and in form one, an ex-pupil with a grudge came to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Northern Ireland. He carried with him an improvised flamethrower, with which he attacked the sixth-form pupils who were sitting their A-Levels in the assembly hall. Six boys were hurt, three of them seriously enough to need skin grafts.

In the last years of the armed conflict known as the Troubles, naturally some of us thought it was a terrorist attack. And as many people observed at the time, it is a painful outcome of the Troubles that we had considerable medical expertise locally in treating burns injuries. Afterwards, the school community raised funds to buy the hospital a new skin grafting device.

Then as now, non-Troubles-related attempts at mass murder were rare in the UK. Two years later, the Dunblane Primary School massacre occurred, in which a former scout leader murdered sixteen children and their teacher, and injured fifteen other people. The standards of media behaviour in the 1990s were such that, when the Dunblane news broke, journalists turned up outside our school and harassed pupils going in for their thoughts on the events in Scotland.

The wider public response was one of horror. Both of these attacks, and the March 1994 knife attack at Hall Garth School in England, in which a twelve-year-old girl was murdered, were regarded as incomprehensible. The pupils at Hall Garth wrote to us all after it happened – then the one other school community in the UK who understood such a thing. Later, the Dunblane incident led to a ban on most private ownership of handguns in the UK, and in the longer term, increased surveillance and security became more standard in schools around the country.

When the Sullivan pupils were attacked, there was a fully operational British army base virtually next-door. The response from the Bomb Squad and emergency services was extremely fast. It says everything about Northern Ireland back then that, within a couple of days, the story was eclipsed in the news cycle by the subsequent Loughinisland massacre, in which six were murdered and five injured. Yet only now, watching the aftermath of yet another horror in America, does it fully settle for me just how many illegal weapons circulated in Northern Ireland back then, and how lethal the attack might have been had the attacker been obsessed not with fire, but with guns.

As it was, his victims suffered life-changing injuries, lifelong scarring. And the more we learned about the attacker and his motivations, the less sense it all made. In the days that followed, the details came through local gossip and news stories. Of course we turned out to know people who knew him – Holywood (and Northern Ireland at large) is like that.

He’d rented 18-certificate videos and then tutted to the video shop owner about their violence. His relationship with his family was typified by an arson attack at his brother’s home. He’d displayed a sticker calling Sullivan “the Skoda of the education system” – on his Skoda. The motive for the attack had been, he claimed, inadequate careers advice. To sum up, he was a man whose motives were incomprehensible even to himself, looking to lethally blame others for his problems.

I remember that a local newspaper at the time made a lot of hay with a mental health diagnosis the attacker might or might not have had, one I won’t further stigmatise by connecting it with his crimes. Reportedly, he’d had treatment, but that’s not some gotcha: an awful lot of us in Northern Ireland, have had, or lacked, mental health treatment. Damned out of his own mouth, not by his mental circuitry but his actions, unable to explain his behaviour or make sense of his plan, he got six life sentences, and died in prison three years later.

And I never ever thought, back then, that we would all become so familiar with boys and men (usually) like him; with seeing our entire social media timelines get into the psychological brace position when the first reports come out for what is always, somehow, the same story. I see that bracing in my American friends who’ve lost people to gun violence, or whose kids have to go to school the day after another atrocity. My friends here who’ve felt sectarian violence. My many friends with psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions that will inevitably get thrown around online as the investigation proceeds, because it’s easier to scapegoat already marginalised people (who are more often victims than perpetrators of violence) than question the public’s access to weapons designed for war zones.

As guns and the politics of fear continue to damage another society, I think about how hard it was for us to get rid of our guns, here. How incomplete that work is. How incomplete peace is. How important it still is to try and build it. Most of all I hate that I’m seeing friends experience that repetitive dread and horror that we grew up with, that we know is not over so much as constantly, conscientiously and imperfectly held back by political process.

I’m old enough to remember that sick feeling of inevitability, the way we never went into town on a Friday, the adjustments and affordances ordinary families made in an unnatural situation, and whose equivalent American communities make now, as small children take part in active shooter drills. I want my friends there not to have to hope for the complicated relief of reading that the latest attacker is not of their ethnicity, their neurotype, their political persuasion. They are not about to witness a trial that debates whether people who share their diagnosis know right from wrong. Community stigma is a thing we know about over here too.

The situations of Northern Ireland, the UK and the USA are not identical, and it’s very important that, in laying these histories side by side, I don’t deny the white supremacist hold the gun lobby has on American powerbrokers. I draw parallels not because I would fatuously prescribe what worked, somewhat, here to a culture on the other side of the world, but because I remember when attacks on schools were rare, bizarre – not yet normalised or politicised. I remember being able to respond to ours as a horrifying one-off, something we didn’t have to fear would happen again. Because enough time has passed, because my classmates and I were unscathed, stories of school shootings don’t automatically bring it back, every time.

But sometimes, like this past week, I do think about it and it doesn’t let go – because I remember the time before this was routine.


Polly, March 2007 – 17 May 2022

We first met Polly in the Cats Protection Dundonald in December 2014. She was friendly and curious, and we didn’t hesitate to adopt her. She immediately decided that our home was a good home for her, and though we had prepared a basket for her to sleep in, she slept between us on the big bed – something she never stopped doing.

We’d chosen Polly because she was a cat who’d otherwise be skipped over: at seven years old she wasn’t the youngest, and she was missing an eye. She’d had a troubled past, and was brought in after a car accident: at the time the vet hadn’t been sure she’d pull through, but she did, though she always had sinus problems. For us, her one eye and her snorting were as much part of her personality as her gentleness.

She didn’t play a lot, but when she did, it was with us: she’d ask us to drag the yellow crocheted mousey or fishy around for her, or play Pollyball – we’d roll the ball to her and she’d bat it back. She had her perch on the back of the chair where she could look out over the street, and see the children go to school or be fetched (and they knew her by sight), yet mostly she’d be where we were – either in the library with Angeline or in the upstairs office with Remco. She had her rituals: a casual yawn and stretched paws to draw our attention became a pokey-paw asking for her biccies – she always got three Dreamies, and she could count. And at a certain time in the evening she’d sit in front of Remco, lead him to her place on the sofa for kisses-on-the-head. She’d purr loudly and nuzzle his beard.

She loved meeting new people, and had a curious charm that worked on most of them, whether they regarded themselves as cat people or not. She never showed much interest in birds, and while she wasn’t too fond of other cats, she was likely not to notice them as they snuck past her in the garden. She didn’t like going to the vet, having her nose treated or having an (occasionally essential) bath, but was very quick to forgive and forget.

We always had the cotton buds ready to clean up her snot, and occasionally Rem disappeared with her under a blanket, over a pan with boiling water and olbas oil, which helped us manage the chronic nose infection resulting from the car accident she’d been in. She was mostly an indoor cat, and only allowed outside while watched. Every now and then she decided to go on an adventure, though her ambition didn’t take her further than our next-door neighbour’s front doorstep. We found out that she was a wobbly cat, and she wasn’t very strong. She could be held with one hand while washing her paws in the bathtub, after she had dug too vigorously in the garden.

A bad nose infection in January that wouldn’t clear brought us to the vet, where they decided to do further tests. Earlswood Veterinary had been very good in the past; their Dr Millar had suggested the olbas oil and, as she’d had had some bowel problems, her diet of chicken instead of wet food. He seemed fond of her: “Och Polly, with her crooked we face,” he’d say in his Scottish accent.

It wasn’t good news this time, and no home-and-garden remedy. She had bowel cancer, and the prognosis: they didn’t know. It could be months, but then it’d go fast. We came home with a new diet, several different pills and, as it was impossible to get pills into Polly, a pill crusher. We knew the signs to look out for, and hoped that she’d still get to spend some time in the sun.

And she did. She loved being outside in the sun with us. Whenever it got warmer, and the sun was out, Polly would take us to the back door, and then she’d sit on that spot in front of the garage, as if to say: “now get the chairs out, and we’ll hang out here!” She’d alternate between the sun and the shadow, often underneath our chairs. Last Sunday she did just that. She’d also looked over the garden, and gazed at the stone lion in it, as she was wont to do, making us wonder what she made of it.

Then, in the evening, she was sick, and it went very quickly. She wasn’t in pain, but bit by bit stopped enjoying what she liked, stopped – being. She spent Tuesday on the sofa, sleeping and dozing, lapping up diluted fruit yoghurt from a spoon a few times. She gave a few cat smiles, and reached out to us with her paw, but she made it clear that she’d had enough. So we let her go.

She’s in the garden now, on a bed of rushes, wrapped in her unicorn blanket with her favourite toys, Dreamies – more than the customary three – and food to tide her over. The stone lion watches over her.

Our first photo of Polly – immediately at home

Kimi (Steven Soderbergh, 2022)

In Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Kimi, voice interpreter Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) is the remote witness to a murder recorded by a Siri-like virtual assistant. Fighting against her trauma and her employer in her demand for justice, Angela is a relatable protagonist, reflective of other women who struggle to be considered reliable narrators, and of Big Tech’s failure to take our safety seriously.

Paranoid tech thrillers only succeed when they give us a relatable human being to care about – someone lost, but seeking the truth in a world of surveillance and lies. Angela Childs is that protagonist in Kimi. Kimi is also the name of the virtual assistant, for which Angela interprets customers’ misunderstood voice commands. This human touch is meant to raise Kimi above competitors, like Siri and Alexa, which merely use voice recognition software. But when Angela overhears a customer being murdered, the company tries to cover it up: they sell “human”, not “humane” – and, unknown to Angela, their CEO is behind the murder.

Siri owes its remote witness conceit to Rear Window, and the film also echoes Upload in its concern for (low paid) customer service staff whose employers do not protect them from the abuse their work exposes them to. It is also part of the lineage of genre classics going back to The Net, in doing so with a distinctive female lead. As with the Sandra Bullock vehicle, it’s the characterisation, its genuine human touch, that makes Kimi come alive.

In a supposedly post-Covid world, we see Angela uneasy in society. On the rare occasions that she ventures outdoors, she is one of the few wearing a mask or using hand sanitiser. Her work-from-home life is not just a lockdown hangover, but the agoraphobic legacy of an assault, as we see when an attempt to meet her boyfriend at a food truck ends in breathless distress. We sense this might go beyond one traumatic incident – the fact that Angela spends her life explaining slang and regionalisms to a language algorithm is a neat inversion of the constant missed connections and harsh interpretations (in both directions) of her personal life.

Angela’s interactions are typically brusque, to the point, and on her own terms. As a result, her boyfriend is left wanting more, and her therapist seems to be used to Angela’s evasions. In one particularly painful scene, her own mother takes her call with a reluctance that points to a strained relationship. There’s a sense, intimately recognisable to many neurodivergent women in particular, that Angela is seen as a problem by those around her, and her boundaries are semi-understood at best by her loved ones, colleagues and healthcare providers. Yet, she reaches out to people even as she pulls away, and many autistic viewers will relate to this ambivalent relationship with the world – I certainly did.

However, the usual formula of setting up a vulnerable outsider, then damaging them further by conspiracy, is transcended by director Steven Soderbergh. The film is subtle enough to go beyond indicting its atypical protagonist for her failure to conform to society. In a pivotal scene, we see that this film understands the larger context of Angela’s life. Freshly triggered by having heard the full footage of the murder, she gets a call from an executive at the corporation, Natalie Chowdhury (Rita Wilson) who actually seems prepared to listen, and engages sensitively with Angela. She offers to bring her in to discuss the incident in the presence of the FBI.

The kicker, and the moment when the audience, if not Angela, becomes suspicious, is when the the woman mentions that Angela can choose for someone else from the company’s staff to be present – a sudden sign that it’s Angela herself who is under scrutiny. Once Angela and Showdhury sit down, the tone rapidly shifts, as does the executive’s former decisiveness about calling the FBI in. Angela’s history of mental health leave is raised, in a tone recognisable to everyone whose psychological history precedes us in contexts where we wish to be taken seriously.

Angela finds herself treated as the kind of person who the world would consider an unreliable narrator – a neuro-atypical woman with mental health issues. When Angela remains insistent on the agreement to get the FBI involved, Showdhury’s veneer of polite concern drops altogether, and men with black gloves appear. Where most films would be content with keeping Angela in the role of victim, Kimi shows us the strength that comes with her personality, and her tenacity and desire to do right even when it is personally devastating – all qualities she needs in the film’s explosive third act.

As a film about perception, communication, seeing and being seen, Kimi knows how to leave us with a powerful, affecting final image – and it doesn’t take more than 90 minutes to get us there.


The Labourer Who Cried Werewolf

I was poking around in the Dutch newspaper archive, and found this contemporary write-up of the Beast of Gévaudan:

Paris, 27 November. The newspapers of this city mention a strange horror-animal, which is said to have killed several people, and has shown itself in the forest of Mercoire, near Langogne (a small city with a castle and a harbour, in the north-east of Gascogne and Bazadois; on the river Garonne); according to the descriptions of it, it can not be counted under any known species of animals: some guessed it a panther or leopard, others a hyena, others yet again the cub of a she-wolf who has played with a dog, and finally others said it to be a werewolf; though some who doubt the veracity of the story guess that it has come from a story about a strange animal, which had shown itself for some years in Germany, and was shot to death there, and from which at some printers the image can still be found. (Middelburgsche Courant 4 December 1764)

The wolf shot by François Antoine on September 21, 1765, displayed at the court of Louis XV

From the same newspaper then, 16 May 1780, this advertisement: A FARM HAND, or so-called WEREWOLF, who can do all sorts, but is unmarried, and also is a BRICK LAYER, if it pleases you, will serve you in these qualities, on a sortable tractement, on a plantation in Rio Essequebo, can be reached via the publisher of this newspaper for more details.

And again, on the 5th March 1801: A BRICKLAYER and a WEREWOLF, both requiring solid employment for 7 or 8 months, with or without board – write urgently to A. Keur in Arnemuiden for information.

On 16 May 1815: A skillful WEREWOLF needed, D. 78.

So, apparently there’d been a tradition to call a labourer a werewolf. This was not something I was familiar with, and seems to have been a very local usage, as this is all in one newspaper, on one of the southern Dutch islands of Zeeland. Looking in modern and older dictionaries, I don’t find any support for it – it only mentions weerwolf as the supernatural being; a person changing themselves into a wolf.

What I did find was a windmill called De Weerwolf, erected in 1878 in Essenbeek, not a huge distance from Middelburg. There’s another one in Leiden, De Weerwolf or De Wolff near Leiden, built in (or before) 1645 and disappeared before 1820. There further are several water mills called Waterwolf, including one close to where I grew up. According to Wikipedia waterwolf refers to the water’s tendency to swallow up land (like a greedy wolf), but I think it works both ways – by naming the mill, you ask it to swallow water, as the windmill would swallow weather (weer).

Water pumping station De Waterwolf, Lauwerzijl in 1927

So, how do we bring that back to our labourer looking for work? Several Dutch werewolf stories I know are about labourers or other people of the lower classes (the upper classes stick to vampirism, I’d say). The Dutch folklore database links lycanthropy with insatiability – when calling a water- or windmill insatiable, it’s saying they swallow up the water, the wind, but also they get the work done. So, perhaps it’s very simple – the labourer calling himself a werewolf says: “I work hard; throw it at me and I’ll get it done!”

The Riddle of Currer Bell: Solved!

From the Dutch newspaper archive comes this article from the Groninger Courant, 16 August 1850.

The Zondagsblad writes in their latest issue:

A literary riddle has been solved. About two years ago the novel Jane Eyre appeared, from one Currer Bell, who astounded the whole of England. People were clamouring to know who this writer may be, as there was no Currer Bell, and they didn’t know whether they were a man or woman; as the tone of the novel betrayed then a man’s and then a woman’s hand. The public guessed one, and then the other, and meanwhile the work got a second edition without the riddle being solved.

Now, finally, a second novel has appeared, Shirley, from the same author, and this was devoured with the same zest, though it was of less value than the first. But the anonymity of the author was maintained. Then, finally, in the autumn of last year the rumour went round, that the mirror image of Jane Eyre, a pale young lady with grey eyes had appeared in London, and became known as the long sought writer. She meanwhile remained invisible.

Again it was said that Currer Bell was in London in June 1850, and this was true; miss Bronte, the real writer, had arrived, be it not for a curious public. She didn’t want to be a lionne des salons; she doesn’t want to let herself be stared at and admired. Miss Bronte is a plain, country child, raised in the north of England in the rectory of her father. That’s why she is enjoying the fame she got in silence.

Self portrait, 1843

We add to this article the following:

Miss Charlotte Bronte is of the 3 sisters, who all in the literary world appeared under the name Bell, the sole survivor. One of her sisters, Emily, called herself Ellis Bell, and published a collection of novellas; the other, who wrote as Acton Bell, has written the novel Wildfell-Hall. Both died young from tuberculosis.

Currer Bell’s famous Jane Eyre has recently appeared in Dutch translation from the publisher of this newspaper, and we think we ought to take this opportunity to draw the attention of our readers to this important writing. (See advertisement.)

JANE EYRE, or the Life of a Governess, by CURRER BELL, AFTER THE ENGLISH. TWO PARTS. Price f 5-80

Of this novel, three editions have been sold out in a short time in London, while a fourth edition is currently appearing. The English magazines have judged this work in the most favourable terms. See here, what they had to say.

“What we have to say about this book, can we but express in a few words; – it is one of the strangest products of the press in the past years. We know no other writer who has so capably developed in those pages, no writer who can keep such a calm tone, instil such urge, without using those tricks that we see used so often nowadays.

“From the first to the last page, this book has the same stamp of liveliness, and a detail and development in every way make this a true view of life, and important an important one above any other in our time.