Film review: “The Thirteenth Warrior”, reviewed by Jarl Valgard

Film Review: ” The Thirteenth Warrior”

by Valgard Jarl, Ulfhednar, Stiersman of Tribe Rot Mahne, Bundir to Alfrik Favnesbane

from the Sept. 1999 Seahorse

Okay, first the petty SCA nitpicking: I hated the armor, as most other SCA people will hate the armor, and the ships were a bit too Boris Vallejo for me. There is no reason to put Beowulf in fantasy/gothic plate. I also hated it when a couple of characters showed up wearing SCA armor (though it looked better then the other stuff). Normally we get to gripe about how the armorers knew nothing and how we SCA people could do so much better, but since the weapons (and probably some of the armor) were made by SCA people up in Lionsgate, we get to gripe at ourselves for a change. (Of course if Sir Gaston had won the bid it might have been a bit different). For a movie based on a book with such fine anthropological detail, that was gnawing — especially since the rest of the film was very good in that regard.

That being said, the movie is awesome. I’ll probably go see it again this afternoon. They made very few changes in the story to accommodate the filming, adding a small subplot and changing how some of the battles play out to make them more spectacular. If you’ve read the book you won’t be very disappointed. They dropped a few things to make it more palatable, like the fact that before a woman was burnt with a king she had sex with every member of his crew — which is part of Ibn Fadhlan’s development into a warrior when he does the same at Buliwyf’s funeral. And they did not show Buliwyf’s funeral, which would have been a good visual to end the film on. I also really wanted to see the scene about the “Soup Sickness.”

An interesting point: the reason Crichton has a directing credit on this film is because he had a fight with John Mactiernan over how the ending would be edited, and he won. It is good to see an author of a novel maintain that kind of control when his books are made into movies (Crichton and Stephen King are about the only ones who can. Even Tom Clancy couldn’t fight the producers when they wanted to fire Alec Baldwin and hire Harrison Ford — whom Clancy thinks is totally unsuited to the role — to play Jack Ryan). Making the Vendel bear berserks (which I don’t recall from the book) was really cool as far as I was concerned, especially since, even though it was a change from the book, it is one which was not too far off from period Viking culture.

Visually the film is rich in color and scenery. It was shot in the fjords in BC (one film which could not have been made as well in Hollywood), and the landscapes are stunning. Even better are the two CGI scenes which open the film, the one of Buliwyf’s longboat surfing down a fifty foot wave during a storm, the other of 10th Century Baghdad at sunset. Not only are they beautiful, but they open the film with two perfect visual contrasts between Ibn Fadhlan’s old life and his new one.

The casting was superb. They hired Scandinavian and English actors to play the Vikings, which not only gave them a foreign quality but it meant they were being played by people who really looked like Vikings instead of coverboys for Flex magazine.

But the best thing about the film is the way it portrayed the Viking spirit. Their embrace of battle is truly joyous, and when they are sure they are going to die even more so, as they are sure they will reach Valhalla. The scene where the twelve heroes volunteer for the journey is one of the best portrayals of Vikings in American cinema — better even than Kirk Douglas’s film (which had the benefit of the Vikings’ armor being more or less accurate and the English armor only being about 200 years too late). It is clear from everything they do that these are warriors for whom death is a constant companion, whose only fear is to die poorly, and whose greatest hope is that songs will be sung about them when they are gone.

I loved this film. It made my Viking blood boil.

Annal for A.S. XXXIII (5/98 – 4/99)

Crown Tourney was held in Northpass on May 2. Maunches were received by Rufina Cambrensis, Joshua ibn-Eleazar, and Jacqueline Loisel. Silver Crescents were received by Sean de Londres, Andrea MacIntire, Suzanne Neuber de Londres, Ateno of Annun Ridge, and Elizabeth Talbot. Derek von Schwarzwald was named to the Order of Tygers Combattant.

[Added, Aug 2021:] As Lilie Dubh wrote in The East Kingdom Gazette:

Autocrat for the day was Lady Andrea MacIntyre (now Meesteres Annetje van Woerden). The site was in the Canton of Northpass – a lovely old retreat house and grounds, owned by Episcopal nuns. The tourney yielded up Brion Tarragon and Anna Ophelia Holloway as the new Crown Prince and Princess, and court was a flurry of AoA’s for those in Østgarðr who had become part of the fabric of the local SCA through their work, art and skills.

At Southern Region War Camp in Eisental on July 25, Jehan le Batarde was made a Silver Crescent, and Brekke Franksdottir finally received her Laurel (she was supposed to get it many years ago, but her reign caused a postponement of the plans). Henry Kersey of Devon was made a Laurel by Timothy and Gabrielle (later of Æthelmearc) at Pennsic on August 13. On September 19, Elwisia Mouche de Voujeacourt received a Silver Crescent.

In July, several offices changed hands. Brithwen of Bores Hulla became Chatelaine, and Luigi Vascili became the Knight Marshal. The A&S ministry was spilt up, with Brekke Franksdottir and Sean de Londres becoming Ministers of Arts & Sciences, respectively.

The Order of the Sea Dog, for service to the cantons, was founded at Agincourt on October 31. The initial recipients were Brekke Franksdottir and Marion of York from Lions End, Aurora ffolkes and Thomas of Northpass from Northpass, and Brithwen of Bores Hulla and Anabel Ravaya de Guzman from Whyt Whey.

Andrea MacIntire was given a Maunche at Twelfth Night on January 16. At Mudthaw on March 27, Gideanus Tacitus Adamantius received a Silver Crescent and Geoffrey St. Albans of Eastwood received a Maunche.

At the Valentines Revel on February 20, Elwisia Mouche de Voujeacourt was made a Sea Dog and Lazarro became the Provincial Bard. Other events were the Brewers’ Collegium on December 5, and Celtic Silliness on March 20.

Annal for A.S. XXXII (5/97 – 4/98)

At Southern Region War Camp in Eisental on July 26, Gideanus Tacitus Adamantius was made a Laurel for his cooking skills by Hanse and Moruadh. Also in July, Renier Verplanck and Jesca de Deux Roses became the Seneschals of Northpass and Lions End, respectively. That fall, a canton in Brooklyn (Brokenbridge) was organized, with Ben of Brokenbridge as its Seneschal. They became incipient in January. Lucan & Caitlin held their Twelfth Night at the Garden City Cathedral in Lions End on January 3. At the Valentine’s Revel on February 14, Anabel Ravaya de Guzman became the first Provincial Bard. Also in February, Andrea MacIntire became the Provincial Seneschal. Tadg ui Duinn of Isle Magee received a Maunche on April 4.

Annal for A.S. XXXI (5/96 – 4/97)

Bjorn and Morgen made two more Pelicans in the Province: Ygraine of Preston in Northern Outpost on May 4, and Brekke Franksdottir at the Festival of the Pillar in Sterlyng Vayle on September 28. In June, Rufina Cambrensis became the Chronicler. In July Gabriella Verde became the Captain of Archers. Suzanne Neuber de Londres took over as Minister of Lists in October. Joshua ibn-Eleazar became the Province’s first Web Minister in January. In February, Alexander de Pantera became Seneschal of Northpass. In March, Kamilah al-Sudani became the Seneschal of Whyt Whey.

At Lions End’s Lions in the Sun event on June 21, Seahorses were given to Eleanor the Fair and Marion of York. The entire Moose Guard received that honor on September 7 at Barleycorn.

Ygraine of Preston had her Arms Augmented at the Coronation of Lucan and Elspeth on October 6.

The Queens County Fair was held on September 14 and 15.

Book review: How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Book Review
by Richard the Poor of Ely

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe
By Thomas Cahill, pub. Nan A. Talese – Doubleday, New York
Copyright 1995 by the author

Well, here’s a nice bit of nationalist hyperbole.  Cahill so boldly and broadly states his goal in the title that when he doesn’t quite reach it the reader (at least this one) feels cheated and disappointed.  He spends virtually all of the book setting the stage to explain how the monasteries established by Irish missionaries in the sixth and seventh centuries became the centers for the revival of learning in the Carolingian era, and then passes over that subject in at most a few pages.

Mr. Cahill, you’ve shown us how Western Europe lost “civilization”, and how the Celtic catholic church got to be the people who would bring it back.  Can’t you devote the same attention to the subject stated in your main title?

It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just that it’s incomplete.  Much of the historical material is presented through biographices of a few key people (Ausonius and Augustine of Hippo for the Late Roman Empire, for example).  An entire chapter discusses the mindset of pagan Ireland, and another discusses the life and labors of St. Patrick.  When the chance comes to sum up the saving of civilization by Irish missionaries with the life of the ninth century philosopher John Scotus Eriugena (John the Irishman from Ireland), this “most splendid blossom of the continental spring” rates only two pages.

Cahill includes many excerpts from Irish poetry of the era.  While the most relevant may be “The Hermit’s Song” (attributed to a disciple of St. Patrick) as it shows (according to Cahill’s commentary) how the quiet hermitage of a solitary monk became a full-fledged community, my favorite is a ninth-century insert into a miscellany by an anonymous copyist, beginning with the line “I and Pangur Ban my cat”.

If one wants to look for the heroes in “Ireland’s Heroic Role”, the people Cahill nominates for the honor are St. Patrick (of course), Columcille (known outside Ireland as St. Columba), who brought Celtic Christianity to England, and St. Columbanus, who went to Europe and set up monasteries as far south as Italy.

Cahill’s basic premise is that the catholic (i.e. open-minded) character of the Irish allowed them to value knowledge regardless of its source, and thus their monastic scribes copied Classical literature in addition to religious works.  They were then the people that Europe would turn to for scholars when the bits of Europe started to come back together.

Personally, I don’t feel it was their “Irishness” that let the Irish save Civilization, but simply the fact that they were literate when few others were.  The monks at the monasteries founded by Irish missionaries would become the logical choice for administrators as Medieval Europe was beginning.

[from the March 1997 Seahorse]

Book review: The Medieval Garden, Sylvia Landsberg, reviewed by Stephen Bloch

Tending your Garden

by Stephen Bloch

Sylvia Landsberg has a job to die for.  The dust jacket of The Medieval Garden (Thames & Hudson 1996?, ISBN  0-500-01691-7) describes her as “a garden historian and lecturer who has designed several thirteenth- to sixteenth-century gardens.”  In other words, she’s a professional garden recreator, involved in designing reconstructed medieval gardens at Singleton (in Sussex), Hangleton (in Sussex), Crickhowell (in Wales), Winchester Castle, and Shrewsbury (home of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael), all of which she discusses in detail in a chapter entitled “The Medieval Garden Re-Created.”

In this beautifully illustrated and (apparently, to my inexpert eye) carefully researched book, Landsberg distinguishes several types of medieval European garden.  The enclosed “herber”, of under an acre, was often divided in half by a low wall or fence, one side for raised beds of flowers and herbs, the other largely lawn, with turf-covered benches and shade trees for recreation.  The orchard, typically one to four acres, might have trellises and tunnel arbors, between its rows of fruit and nut trees.  The “pleasure park”, typically around ten acres, seems to have been a forest stocked with wildlife, not for hunting but just for spectacle: cleared avenues among the trees radiated from a central pavilion or gazebo, from which nobles and their guests could watch deer, rabbits, hares, goats, porcupines, and in the largest parks lynxes and lions.

Landsberg describes all these, as well as vineyards, peasant and kitchen gardens (essentially an herber without the recreational half) in sufficient detail– measurements, species lists, construction diagrams, gardening tools, crop rotation schedules, etc.– that the reader might join her in reconstructing them.  A whole chapter entitled “Make Your Own Medieval Garden” discusses tradeoffs among authenticity, practicality, and expense, and suggests plans suitable for residential yards as small as a hundred square feet.

Landsberg writes from a decidedly British viewpoint, and the English gardening terminology may send you to your dictionary, but many of the plants she recommends are readily available in the U.S., having immigrated and taken the role of roadside weeds centuries ago.  The book ends with a list of re-created gardens to visit (the one U.S. entry being New York City’s  Cloisters), a list of recommended suppliers for gardening materials, an index of plant species mentioned in the text, and an extensive bibliography.

Missing from Landsberg’s bibliography, but perhaps of interest to local garden re-creators, is Tania Bayard’s Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1985, ISBN 0-87099-422-0 or 0-87923-593-4).

[from the January 1997 Seahorse]

Book review: The Realm of Prester John, Robert Silverberg, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Book Review
by Master Richard the Poor of Ely

The Realm of Prester John
Robert Silverberg
Doubleday & Company, Garden City  NY
Copyright 1972 by the author

Of the many legends of the Middle Ages, one of the most intriguing and enduring was the legend of Prester John.  Said to be a Christian king and high priest of India, he was offering his aid to Manuel Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium, in fighting off the Moslems.  The problem was that no one had ever heard of him or knew where to find him.  The search would last for four centuries and end up in Ethiopia, of all places.

Robert Silverberg has written a comprehensive account of the legend and the searches that it caused.  The entire history of the legend is analyzed, from the first hints of Prester John’s “existence” to the Portuguese mission to Ethiopia in the mid sixteenth century.

Silverberg has to touch on many topics.  Prester John’s being a Christian means a discussion of early Christian sects and the legends of the Apostle Thomas.  He looks at the linguistic analyses that were done to make various titles and honorifics sound like “Prester John.” He discusses how the original letter was built on to become a collection of virtually all the geographic fables to back up the legend and keep people searching.

The earliest searches were in Asia, where missionaries and diplomats looked among the Mongols for Prester John.  To discuss these attempts, Silverberg essentially gives a history of the Mongol Empire.

The strongest part of the book is the last section on the Portuguese explorations of Africa and their “discovery” of the Kingdom of Ethiopia.  Thanks to the Ethiopians’ practice of not letting foreign visitors leave, it took decades for formal relations to be established.  Those decades were filled with bad luck and missed opportunities.  And when it was all over, it was the Europeans (Portuguese) who saved “Prester John” from the Moslems, and not the other way around.

Silverberg closes with the thought that unlike other Great Searches (El Dorado, the Seven Cities of Cibola, etc.), the search was a purely noble one.  Europe was only interested in meeting this great ruler; there was no thought of profit involved.  As such, it stands as a symbol of man’s enduring desire to Know.

NOTE:  The edition that was read for this review is now out of print, but Ohio University Press is releasing both hardcover and trade paperback editions.  Look for them in your local bookstore.

[from the December 1996 Seahorse]

Book review: Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Mark C. Carnes, ed, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies

Mark C. Carnes, General Editor

Henry Holt and Company, New York

Copyright 1995, Agincourt Press

Reviewer: Master Richard the Poor of Ely

I’m sure that for most of us SCAdians, a favorite form of entertainment involves putting a “medieval” movie into the ol’ VCR (then sitting back and looking for errors).  But what do real historians have to say about how the movie industry presents history?

Carnes and the Society of American Historians have asked sixty authors and historians to comment on around one hundred movies related to their fields of expertise.  For example, Stephen E. Ambrose is the Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans and the chairman of the National D-Day Foundation.  Who better, then, to write about The Longest Day (1962)?  And wouldn’t you like to know what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has to say about Jurassic Park (1993)?

The movies are discussed in the order of the history they present, from the Exodus (The Ten Commandments (1956)) to Watergate (All the President’s Men (1976)).  I must say that an appendix listing the films in the order they were made would have been a useful addition, but the editors don’t include one.  Each essay gives suggestions for further reading as well as the major cast and credits for the movie (they are all available on video).  Sidebars accompanying the essays flesh out the historical background.

The movies chosen are a diverse group.  In addition to the more “documentary” movies, some are included for their depiction of an era (Hester Street (1975), The Front Page (1931)), and others for what they tell about when they were made (Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dr. Strangelove (1964)).

The essays in general grapple with the scope of artistic license.  How much accuracy can be sacrificed to make an entertaining movie?  It’s never been an easy question to answer.  For some years before he died in 1929, Wyatt Earp would hang around Hollywood kibbitzing with the cast and crew of Western movies, including a young John Ford.  After Ford released My Darling Clementine (1946), his version of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, a film historian asked him why, if he knew Earp, the movie wasn’t more accurate.  A flustered Ford asked him if he liked the film.  The historian answered sheepishly that it was one of his favorites.  Ford shot back, “What more do you want?”

To succeed as a historical movie, there are three requirements that stand out in all the essays.  First, if the events of the movie occur in a larger context, show that context.  Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) deals with one couple’s struggle to survive in west-central New York during the Revolutionary War.  But it fails to give any indication that the British campaign in the Mohawk valley was one of the most important campaigns of the war.  Second, try to capture the spirit of the era. Despite getting many of its facts completely wrong, 1776 (1972) succeeds because it accurately conveys the sense of the politicking of the Second Continental Congress during that hot, tense summer. Finally, if your major characters are real historical figures, get their true character right.  Capt. William Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty (Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)) was a cruel, almost sadistic tyrant. Right?  Wrong!  The real Bligh was more inept than tyrannical, and it’s likely that the mutiny happened because he was simply incapable of leading his crew.  With a more correct depiction, the story could still have made a good movie.

SCAdians are likely to overlook this book since only a tenth of the movies included are what can be called “Period”.  But as we try to re-create history for entertainment, shouldn’t we give some attention to how others do the same thing?

[from the June 1996 Seahorse]

Annal for A.S. XXX (5/95 – 4/96)

Lions End hosted the Feast of the Sated Sultan on May 13. Elwisia Mouche de Voujeacourt and Gwilliam Trekalong became the Seneschals of Lions End and Whyt Whey, respectively, the former in May and the latter in December.

Suzanne Neuber de Londres received a Maunche on June 17, and Richard the Poor of Ely was made a Pelican as the first official act of Bjorn and Morgen during Their reign. Edward Zifran of Gendy had his Arms Augmented by Balfar and Luna at Their last court on April 13.

At some point during 1996, Brekke Franksdottir was inducted into the Order of the Seahorse.