Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Last Kingdom - a film review

Gentlemen of the Saxon and Viking Reenactment
Society of East Anglia
Sometime in the early 400s, C. E., we can imagine Romans living in places like Londinium, Eboracum or Mancunium (London, York or Manchester) in Provincia Brittania, taking note of the arrival of Saxons and Angles and Jutes from across the Oceanus Germanicus (North Sea). 

Whether these were invaders or simply folks looking for some greener pastures is actually still a contested issue, believe it or not.  In any case, they had come to stay and a Roman-controlled Celtic (Briton) Britain gave way to a Germanic Britain.  To complicate matters, the Britons gave their name to Brittany in France, which some of them fled to.  The Celts retreated to Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland.  Those who didn’t stay and make babies with the new occupiers of Germanic Britain, that is.  From the Angles, we get the name of England and the English language, although at the time, locals pretty much referred to all three groups as “Saxons.”  To this day, the Scottish Gaelic name for England is Sasainn, and the people of England are Sassunach.  In Ireland, it’s Sasana and Sasanach, respectively.*

By the time the Vikings began raiding Britain, a few centuries later, the Saxons had become a distinct race of people.  I’m using “race” in the social-cultural sense, the way Hispanics use “La Raza”.  Genetically, of course, they were still the same people as the Vikings now come to bop them on the head and take their things.  Linguistically, too, the two groups probably had a large degree of mutual intelligibility, kind of like German and Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, or Russian and Polish.

If you grow up with an interest in English history, you know of King Alfred the Great.  Have always loved his name.   If you know German, you know that “Rat” (old spelling: Rath) means council.  Rathaus, I learned as a kid, is not a house for rats, but rather “council house,” the German word for “city hall.”  “Red” is just another Germanic variation on “rath,” and has taken on the meaning of “wise man.”  Alfred was small in stature, evidently (I’m guessing), and probably suffered from Crohn’s disease, and that may have made him a tad bookish.  In any case, he was known as “the wise elf.”

But I digress.  I was getting to the BBC television series known as The Last Kingdom, which I have just finished binge-watching.  The Last Kingdom refers to Alfred’s kingdom.  At some point, the Vikings, or “Danes” (just as Angles and Jutes were subsumed under Saxons, Norwegians were subsumed, as well, this time under “the Danes.”) had landed in East Anglia and pretty much occupied three of the English kingdoms – Northumberland in the North, Mercia in the Center, East Anglia in the East.  Only the West Saxon (i.e., Wessex) kingdom remained in Saxon hands under Alfred.  Map is available here

Now imagine the drama you can squeeze out of this history.  Imagine a boy from up North, in Northumberland, say, in the year 866 and follow his life for ten years or so.   Let’s call the boy Uhtred (he too, please note, can also be “wise”), using a real character from later years, but stick him into this time period and make a hero out of him.  Have his father, the original Uhtred, killed by an invading Dane, an earl named Ragnar, and have Uhtred the younger enslaved and raised by the Danes.  Great material for some pre-modern identity politics – Dane vs. Saxon, fun-loving marauder vs. pious Christian, outsider vs. insider. 

Bernard Cornwell, a prolific writer of historical novels, has written a series he calls The Saxon Stories.  The first couple of these novels was the basis for The Last Kingdom, an eight-part television series produced by BBC and aired in October of last year.  The story I’ve sketched out is the TV version, not Cornwell’s original.  The screenwriters have tinkered with Cornwell’s details, one has to assume, for dramatic effect.  It caught my eye when Netflix announced it was available for streaming in the United States and in Britain.  A second series is in production and expected to air later in this year.  Plot summary is available here

Uhtred develops a strong affectional relationship with Earl Ragnar, his Danish father, despite the fact it was Ragnar who killed his Saxon father, and struggles over whether to define himself as Saxon or Dane.  Uhtred is driven by two overriding desires: the Saxon in him leads him to seek the help of Alfred to regain his rightful place as ealdorman (think “duke” – the Latin translation is “dux”) of Bebbanburg (today’s Bamburgh) in the North.  The Dane in him burns with loyalty to his Danish brother, Ragnar “the fearless”, together with whom he hopes to avenge the death of their Danish father, Ragnar the Elder.  Throw in a bunch of other life companions – Brita, a Saxon girl taken at the same time as Uhtred as a slave by the Danes; Thyra, Earl Ragnar’s daughter (and therefore sister to Ragnar junior and to Uhtred, as well); Kjartan, Ragnar’s shipbuilder, and Kjartan’s son Sven, a thoroughly despicable sort and a couple of Superman-type other Danish kings/generals (there’s no difference in this day and age) like Guthrum and Ubba, and you’ve got yourself a TV series that goes and goes and goes.  I believe the customary adjective for such productions is “rollicking.”  It doesn’t hurt that Uhtred, Ragnar, Guthrum and Ubba are all actual historic figures.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of the characters in this saga.  Uhtred’s love interests are notable.  So too are the efforts of the priests who play a role in stressing the main cultural distinction between the Danes and the Saxons.  The Danes are disparaged as “pagans,” and given to partying hard in the here and now; the Saxons are handicapped by needing to be guided by an external code of behavior including self-denial (mis?)taken for virtue – and no small amount of hypocrisy.  Uhtred, although baptized as a child, rejects Christianity, yet is the model of a man whose word is sacred.  In contrast to Skorpa, for example, the quintessential Viking marauder, a cruel, deceitful and sadistic barbarian.

It’s these contrasts that make the characters so lively.  The endless clashing of swords gets tiresome, and the violence is pretty graphic.  So is the wretchedness of life in the first half of the first millenium at a time of endless war, the mud, the pigs and the chickens who invade your living space when you can get them, the diet of vegetable broth when you cannot.  Apparently there is no way to keep your fingernails clean.

Historically, of course, Alfred was known as “the Great” because he eventually had considerable success in driving out the Danes, and negotiating a peace with those who remained.  Guthrum converted to Christianity, for example, and Alfred is today venerated by the Anglican Church as a Christian hero with his own feast day, October 26.  (The pope wouldn’t canonize him, but this is probably the next-best thing).  It’s not giving the plot away, I hope, to tell you the story of Alfred’s accomplishments are not central – the main character of The Last Kingdom is Uhtred, after all.  And this season stops short of telling you whether Uhtred made it home to achieve his goal of reclaiming Bebbanburg.  Nonetheless, the yearning for home is palpable, and gives the story a driving force.

Inevitable, I suppose, with history-for-television is historical inaccuracy and ambiguity.  What parts of the story correspond to actual historical events – Alfred’s grand stand at the battle of Edington in 878, for example, where the combined forces of the Saxons under Alfred defeat Guthrum and the “Great Heathen Army” – and what parts are fictionalized are not always evident.  Nor do they matter, of course, to most people, I suspect, who will watch the story for its romance and its adventure, and see historical reality as little more than icing on the cake. 

The acting is excellent.  It helps that the series has a whole host of experienced talented actors, many of them familiar faces, including Matthew Macfadyen, who plays a cameo role at the beginning as Uhtred Senior, and the noted Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, who plays Ravn, the father of Earl Ragnar (also a minor role).  The lead role of Uhtred is played by German actor, Alexander Dreymon (born Alexander Doetsch), who grew up in France, Switzerland, Germany and the United States and speaks English with a British accent in real life, for some reason.  Several Swedish actors are involved, including Thomas Gabrielsson, who plays Guthrum and Jonas Malmsjö, who plays a terrifying Skorpa.  Actual Viking actors, in other words.  And let’s not forget Rune Temte, the Norwegian actor who plays the other Viking warlord Ubba.  Brilliant idea, don’t you think, getting modern-day descendants of Saxons to play Saxons and descendants of Vikings to play Vikings? The role of another Saxon-turned-Dane Brida, Uhtred’s fellow slave, and first love, is played by Austrian actress Emily Cox.  Mildrith, Uhtred’s (Saxon) wife, is played by British actress, Amy Wren.  Other notables are the Shakespearean actor David Dawson as Alfred and Adrian Bower, also British, plays Leofric, Uhtred’s loyal friend he is forced to engage in a battle to the death with.


The production was filmed in Hungary, for affordability.  Since there are no structures still standing from those days, entire villages – including the town of Winchester – had to be built from scratch.  Great detail was given to costuming, getting the homespun just right, and other details right down to face-painting.  A minor liberty was taken was with the wooden shields.  They were modified in shape so you can distinguish between the opposing armies.


Jolly good history.  It will send you to Wikipedia to read up on the Danelaw.  Or maybe cause you to reflect on the notion of immigration to Britain.  First Romans moving in on the Celts/Britons, then Saxons, then Danes, then Britons from France in 1066 whose ancestors were Celts. Some sort of cosmic justice, maybe, watching the Celts-turned-French now getting control of their land back. And, of course, in the end, nobody actually displaces anybody.  Mostly they all hop into bed and make new races of folk every so often.

Tell the history by means of giant blonde men with face tattoos busting in and looking for the family silver and you’ve got a rollicking good binge-watch in store.  Keep your Netflix streaming current. Positively rollicking.



*Note that while in Britain “Saxon” (to the Celts) means English, on the continent it means German.  The Finnish word for Germany is Saksa.  In Estonian, it’s Saksamaa.  The Romani (Gypsies) call Germans Ssassitko temm.
**Here it’s the Danes who have tattooed faces and bodies.  It’s worth noting, I think, that the word “Briton” seems to have originated from the Greek Prittanoi, their word for the Celts, from the Celtic word to cut or carve, i.e. tattoo. 

photo credit: Please note that none of the folks in this photo have anything to do with the TV series, The Last Kingdom, as far as I know.  But I'll wager they've stopped frolicking on the beach at Norfolk long enough to rollick with the rest of us.



Monday, July 25, 2016

My friend Jason sent me an e-mail the other day in which he asked me if I knew the character 間.

I did.  It's a very common character, one you see every day.

Here's my response to Jason:

is the Chinese character for “space.”  That's the traditional Chinese character.  The Chinese have simplified it to 间, but I'm concerned with the character as it is used in the Japanese language only. Japanese and Koreans did not follow the Chinese simplification program in 1949. The Japanese did simplify some characters, but it was a Japanese simplification of Chinese, not a Chinese simplification of Chinese.  This was Early Cold War times, remember, and the notion of a single Chinese language writing system to enhance pan-Asian communication was not yet on the horizon.

In the kunyomi (“Japanese” reading), 間 is pronounced “ai” or “aida.”  “Aida” is the word for “between,” as in “kimi (you) to (and) boku (me) to (and, again) the old oak tree no aida (no is the possessive marker, equivalent to ‘s)” it translates “between you and me and the old oak tree.”  Note that Japanese has postpositions, not prepositions.

An additional kunyomi is “ma” which means either a room or a space or a pause or a musical “rest”.   Tokonoma,” for example, that little alcove in a Japanese room where you hang a scroll and put flowers and maybe an altar to the ancestors, is written with this character: 床間。

When combined with the character , tsuyu “dewdrops, flimsiness, tears, mortality” it is pronounced tsuyunoma and may be translated “a fleeting moment.”

If you ever take a train in Japan (and how could you not?), the first word you always hear when a train is about to enter a station is “mamonaku.”  ma = space; mo = even; naku = not.  In the English tongue, this word may be understood to convey something like “in no time at all…”  Note that the distinction here between time and space is of no account; "ma" may be understood to be a generic word for both time and space.

間男, maotoko, “ma” combined with the word for man, , otoko, it translates “secret male lover.”

In the onyomi (“Chinese” reading), it has two pronunciations: KEN and KAN.  Which one you use is a feature of individual words, the same as gender is in European languages.  There is no explaining it; you simply have to know.

“Person” in Japanese is “hito” (nothing to do with Hirohito, which I eventually discovered means "Mr. Abundant Benevolence," and not "Mr. Wide Person" as I thought for the first decade or so I lived in Japan.).  It is written 人。“Hito” is kunyomi -  the corresponding onyomi is “nin.”  When (pronounced nin) is combined with ken (the k becomes g in word compounds for phonological reasons irrelevant here) you get ningen.  “Person-space” is the word for “human being.”

Combine (we’re still talking about the ‘ken’ pronunciation now) with se, “the world,” and you get 世間, seken, which translates “people, ‘the public,’ society, life, rumor or gossip.”

You know that Japanese, like many East Asian languages, uses “counters.”  You combine the numbers, one, two, three, four, five, etc. ichi, ni, san, shi, go, etc. with a counter depending on size, shape, or other characteristic:

-hon/pon/bon – for counting long thin things like pencils, penises, chopsticks and trees.
-mai ­– for flat things, like sheets of paper and solar panels
-hiki/piki  – for four-legged-animals (small ones - there's another counter for larger animals)
So “two pencils, empitsu” would be nihon no empitsu; “two pieces of dried seaweed, nori” would be nimai no nori, and if you asked me how many dogs I had in the car and I had both Bounce and Miki with me, I would answer nihiki.

, pronounced –ken, is the counter for spaces on a go board (I don’t know why you would count the spaces, since in go it’s the intersections that count, not the spaces, but I mention it because go is apparently the only board game in which human beings (人間) can still reliably defeat computers.

ikken, niken, sangen, then, are the counters for spaces.  Note that -ken/gen are counters for spaces and only coincidentally the same word as for spaces itself.  Many people these days, when talking of "lines and spaces" use the English words "line" (ライン), i.e. ra-i-n and "space" (スペス), i.e., su-pe-su.  Go-players of the conservative sort might want to avoid foreign words when speaking of an ancient Japanese traditional board game (which is, of course, Chinese), but more modern youngfolk might be heard to speak of "two spaces" as niken no supesu.  Only if they knew the counter for spaces, of course.  Older people regularly bewail the loss of the language with the present generation, so who knows? Also, this may never have actually happened, of course, but I'm considering the theoretically possible.

One last comment, and then we can break for lunch…

The elements of consist of the outer two parts – – which is mon “gate”, and a sun being observed through the gate.  Think of the character for gate as a pair of swinging saloon doors in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Note that you could just as readily write this character with a moon, , tsuki, instead of a sun being seen through the gate and it would still mean the same thing.  How it is that “sun (or moon) observed through the gate” came to be the Chinese character for “space” is a question that it takes somebody of a higher pay grade than mine to answer.

Some other things that can be seen through the gate are:

kuchi – “mouth” – 問 – as in “to question” or “to accuse”
mizu – “water” ­– – as in “to pan for gold”
–­ kokoro – “heart” ­– 悶える “to be in agony”
mimi – “ear” – 聞こえる“to hear”

and that’s but a small sample.

Forgive the digression.  It was only the sun and moon seen through the gate that you were asking about.  I have much to learn about not going on beyond the pale.











Sunday, July 3, 2016

Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel died at his home in New York yesterday.  He had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and spent his life making sure the memory of the Holocaust remained alive, as well as speaking out for others in places like South Africa, Nicaragua and the Sudan.  He is being remembered by people around the world in the most laudatory language imaginable.   Obama called him the “conscience of the world.”  I think with good reason.

You know it’s your conscience speaking when you get the feeling you know what’s right and you’re feeling uncomfortable at the same time.  I followed Elie Wiesel over the years.  Not all that closely, but when he spoke, I listened.  Only once, when he spoke out in favor of extending Jewish settlements in Jerusalem, did I disagree with him.  On every other occasion, I was persuaded he was on the right side of history.  He was a remarkable man.  Driven.  A dog with a bone.

It was the Bitburg controversy where his voice touched me most directly.  I had a good friend in Berlin named Achim.  He and his wife Margit had experienced the war directly.  Achim had been in the German navy and Margit survived the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945.  When they spoke about war, I always listened.  After the war, Margit and Achim became involved in an organization that managed the graves of fallen soldiers.  Every year, a calendar would arrive in the mail and I would hang it up.  Always a bit self-consciously – as an American, I wasn't going to honor the German war dead without thinking twice.  But I came to understand – and the older I get the more I understand – how good people can get swept up in evil, and I came to see that young men who marched under the symbol of the swastika could be victims too, and came to admire the work of this organization known as the German War Graves Commission, first founded after World War I, but expanded after World War II.

Achim was a delightful friend.  I learned much from him about German politics and political activism generally.  He became Berlin’s representative for the United Nations at some point and when he died condolences came in from all directions. I admired him as a teacher and as a voice of reason. In all the years we knew each other, I remember only one big disagreement.  That was the visit of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States to the war graves at Bitburg.  Achim, along with 87% of the German people, found it appropriate that Reagan should support his friend and ally, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and make a “visit of reconciliation” to Bitburg during his state visit to Germany in 1985.  Elie Wiesel convinced me otherwise.  It was a sad parting of the ways for Achim and me.  Fortunately not a lasting one, but it was painful at the time.

Reagan wanted to station Pershing missiles in Germany against strong German opposition.  Kohl came to his aid, and Reagan wanted to repay the favor.  Unfortunately the administrations of both national leaders failed to do their homework.  Among the dead at Bitburg were 49 members of the Waffen-SS.  And to really muddy the waters, Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes mistakenly told the press that there were Americans buried at Bitburg.  Turns out there were not.

I struggled over this strong difference between Achim's perspective and mine.  On the one hand, I was in total agreement that war victims didn’t stop being victims simply because they were German.  On the other hand, I heard Wiesel’s voice when he lectured Reagan, saying, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.”

Wiesel, according to all reports, suffered mightily over this decision to speak out again the Bitburg visit.  He was grateful to the United States for taking him in after the war, and when Reagan called Wiesel to the White House to award him the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, it felt all wrong to bite the hand that was feeding him, so to speak.  But he did.  White House staff, knowing they had messed up, tried to limit Wiesel to three minutes.  But Wiesel insisted he would get his full time or he would boycott the event. In the end he got to speak his mind.  You are wrong, Mr. President.  You are wrong.

That event is chronicled by Gil Troy writing in The Daily Beast this morning.  Troy describes Elie Wiesel as a “one-man scourge of dictators and a friend to the oppressed.”

Countless thousands will remember Elie Wiesel for speaking truth to power.  Besides Reagan, he also scolded Pope Benedict for reinstating holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.  Williamson’s “I believe there were no gas chambers” got him excommunicated, but Benedict brought him back without bothering to check whether his views had changed.  It was some time after being reinstated that Williamson made the "no gas chambers" remark.  

I remember reading about that and feeling sick to my stomach.  Then I read that Elie Wiesel had called Benedict out on his effort to let bygones be bygones, and I felt better.  There was somebody out there watching and remembering.  As long as somebody's paying attention we would be all right.

That will be Elie Wiesel’s legacy.  I will remember him for the many hours of discussion I had, both with friends and in my head, over how to find the line between reconciliation and remembering, one of the greatest moral dilemmas one is ever faced with.

There is no greater service, I think, than to get others out of complacency and forgetting, to churn the waters now and again, to make you think.  And revisit old certainties.  And think some more.

One of my heroes has died, and I am very sad.


photo credit