Color in Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword

[This is a spoiler alert, just in case]

This week Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens and the reviews are beginning to come in. I saw the film at a pre-premiere screening last weekend because I was interested in the part that Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere plays in this adaptation.

Whatever the critical reception (A Variety critic is calling it “a loud, obnoxious parade of flashy set pieces’ ; as I type it has earned 7.1 stars on IMBD), the choice of Hounsou to play Bedivere seemed to demonstrate a determination to include people of color within the Arthurian imaginary. Such casting mirrors what seems to be a perceptible, but still rather slow-moving trend in other fantastic and/or heroic worlds. That this was important for the studio was suggested by early rumors that Idris Elba was sought after for the role of a Merlin-like figure.

In many ways this decision is not an innovation. As Maghan Keita showed us in “Race: What the Bookstore Hid” in Why the Middle Ages Matter (2011) and as has been noted recently in a Public Medievalist piece on race in the Middle Ages, medieval texts presented people of color within the Arthurian story world (Sir Morien, the son of Aglovale and a Saracen princess; Feirefiz, Parzifal’s brother from a different mother; and Palamedes and his brothers). But as far as I know, none of these knights has found a place in contemporary films (I don’t think any of them were in Monty Python’s Grail film, Boorman’s Excalibur or Bruckheimer/Fuqua’s 2004 film).

Additionally, Kathryn Wymer has pointed out (pdf) that Hollywood has cast black knights, such as Whoopi Goldberg (A Knight in Camelot (1998)) and Martin Lawrence (Black Knight (2001)). Yet, in these comedies the blackness of these figures within the Arthurian world is a source of unease, tension (and so the premise for comedy).

But the casting of Hounsou as a knight (without irony) is innovative within the world of contemporary re-imaginings of Arthurian legend. Interestingly in light of previous absences of people of color, Bedivere simply appears without a backstory or explanation regarding his skin color. As far as I recall, there is only one commentary on Bedivere’s skin color (in a facetious comment from Arthur when he is trying to ascertain who Bedivere is and the young man asserts that Bedivere cannot be his father). In this regard, he is mostly seen as unremarkable.

In addition to Hounsou, the movie presents two people of color as part of the young Arthur’s entourage (before he is recognized as king). Tom Wu plays George, who trains the young Arthur in martial skills; and Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Wet Stick, a member of Arthur’s criminal crew in Londinium. While the addition of these characters increases the diversity of the cast, neither significantly challenges or overcomes contemporary stereotypes.

Indeed, George (Wu) and Wet Stick (Ben-Adir) are not characters from the traditional medieval Arthurian world, and the roles seem to fit (in the present film) more the London underworld that characterizes Ritchie’s signature films (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), and also perhaps his two Sherlock Holmes films). Here that world has been transposed to Londinium which with a simple change of name now wears medieval garb. George (Wu) runs a fighting school allied with Arthur’s crew that could be read as a boxing club or gym in a present context, and here takes on a martial arts aura presumably because of George’s ethnicity. Wet Stick plays a member of the crew whose role struck me as more supporting than leading (but prominent enough not to be expended in the fighting). If we remove the medieval setting, these roles essentially fit contemporary Hollywood convention at first glance.

By contrast, Bedivere, then, is the one of these three who does figure in the traditional Arthurian landscape, and therefore asks viewers to read the character with that tradition in mind. In Ritchie’s take, Bedivere is not part of the young Arthur’s Londinium crew, but rather a former knight of Uther (Eric Bana), Arthur’s father. After Uther’s death, he leads a band of resistance against the tyrannical Vortigern (Jude Law). While there isn’t as much popular knowledge and reputation surrounding Bedivere (as there is for Lancelot, Galahad, Gawaine and some others), he is known as one of the earliest members of Arthur’s table and considered a loyal steward/marshal to the extent that he can be seen as the king’s right hand (in this regard, somewhat overlapping the role allotted to Kay).

Based on this general characterization and from the previews and early descriptions, it seemed to me Hounsou’s Bedivere was going to play a Man Friday role to Hunnam’s Arthur, or perhaps a Danny Glover to Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series. But this reaction may have been too quick in its efforts to find Hollywood guilty of stereotyping. While Bedivere is a loyal ally of the Pendragon family, in casting him as a leader of a resistance (during the period when Arthur is unaware of his status) the film appears to endeavor to give the character an independence and individuality (in so much as such things are possible in these types of films). In short, this Bedivere plays a larger and different role from the conventional Hollywood sidekick or mentor.

So the black knights of medieval imaginations—Morien, Feirefiz, Palamedes and others—are still not found in our modern cinematic imaginary of the Middle Ages. Yet, in an important sense their presence is now there: people of color in a space that has been imagined as white for a long time. A welcome and needed development.

I look forward to seeing how these roles are elaborated (Ritchie has indicated an interest or willingness to revisit the world he has directed). As the film winds down and the new king must think about governing, he knights a number of his London friends. One of them already has an Arthurian name; Percival becomes Sir Percival. No surprise there. George, although not a name associated with Arthur’s knights, becomes Sir George. Sensible. And Wet Stick becomes … Sir Tristam! One of the most recognizable figures of the Arthurian world.

Ben-Adir as Tristam in a future installment could be an exciting step in reclaiming (while re-imagining) the place of a black knight in Arthur’s court. And, who knows, we might see the Morien envisioned by a creative designer from Baltimore realized in books and screens.

Morien as imagined by URAEUS (Richard G. Tyler II) from his Behance site.

[Much more can and I hope will be said specifically the way these characters fit pre-conceived notions and challenge those conceptions. For example, Hounsou’s previous roles in action films set in a geographic or temporal distance (Gladiator, Guardians of the Galaxy) help make him seem familiar in the role of Bedivere. And the casting of Angel Coulby as Gwen in BBC’s Merlin series set an important precedent, even as this precedent highlights the paucity of women in Ritchie’s take. Shortcomings kept well in mind, we can (I think) nonetheless see sincere gestures of well-meaning intent in this film and promise that the worlds of fantasy will continue to expand (and endeavor to include). A full and proper analysis would also incorporate Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature (2016) which I am really looking forward to reading after the end-of-semester cram ends (hopefull) this week =)]

Latin Graffiti, Fast News and International Real Estate: Strange Intersections

romanes

Two days ago, news outlets reported that newly built Cambridge houses had been spray painted with Latin graffiti (shared with me by Jonny Grove). The stories followed some predictable narratives. In one bearing the heading ‘Here’s how they do graffiti in Cambridge‘, the vandal(s) had a ‘classical education’. The BBC version led with the quote ‘Only in Cambridge’ and the subsequent Homes daubed in Latin graffiti. The clear implication in both was that Cambridge, home to one of the world’s most renowned and elite universities, produces sui generis hoodlums. After all, perhaps the most famous Latin graffiti scene known was written by former Cambridge (and Oxford) students.

Photo: Richard Taylor From: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-39490537?SThisFB

Photo: Richard Taylor
From: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-39490537?SThisFB

But the graffiti was not the work of the highly educated gentry; it’s the product of google translate. ‘Locus in Domos Loci Populum’ is (as Jonny discovered and a number of BBC readers had suggested to the agency) what you get when you put ‘Local homes for local people’ in the online translation tool. Indeed, a really, living classically educated person quoted in the story, Mary Beard, one of the most prominent faces of publicly engaged classics, told those writing the story as much in rather polite terms: “This is a bit hard to translate, but I think what they’re trying to say is that a lovely place has been turned into houses.” In other words, the graffiti didn’t make much sense.

Although the Latin phrasing was not particularly clear, the overall message was. New homes had been built on a former pub, and, marked at £1.25m and up, are pricing locals (and I reckon many younger people) out of the market. Mirroring and surpassing a trend seen in other sought-after real estate markets around the world, home prices rose 50% between 2010 and 2015 in the university city. And now the average home price is £500.000. Strong economic growth in a tech hub underpins much of the increase. But additional graffiti on the homes, namely euro, dollar and yen symbols followed by the phrase ‘Go away’ suggest that in the vandals’ eyes international buyers (and capital) are the ones driving prices beyond local affordability.

So this is a protest against rising home prices brought about by the international mobility of highly-skilled workers and the policies that enable this trend (The Guardian headline gets it more right: Cambridge homes covered with Latin graffiti in protest at rising prices). So local anger at the international elite. What language should express this protest? Under other circumstances, English, an international lingua franca, might seem like the obvious choice. But it is likely also the language of the protestors. So what better way to protest international buyers driving up local home prices than to use the former international lingua franca, the language of public (private) schools, something so irrelevant that only the elite can afford to know it. A little Latin’ll do the trick. Stick a phrase in the smartphone, and paint the result.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s correct. Like a number of famous tattoos in languages that the bearers don’t understand, importance lies in the foreignness, exoticism, allure, prestige, or in this case the elitist connections that the language suggests to our imaginations.

So the language might be irrelevant, but it still conveys ideological meaning. Here it is used not by a ‘different class of vandal’, but rather vandals targeting that ‘different class.’ That the need for super-fast news has obscured this, and instead left us with a story that more or less conforms to our preconceptions about people who know and/or use Latin–just one of many stories that effectively play to our biases, rather than explain something that might not fit our preconceptions–this, this lack of imagination and curiousity, better reveals the poverty of our education than the poor performance of google translate (although I reckon this will play a part in our self-destruction as well).

Latin in Bergen

contest_announce_imgAlthough things have been relatively quiet on this front, the rest of it all marches on.
Presently, I am interested in contemporary uses of Latin–you might say the ideologies of dead languages–and so have been looking around Bergen for examples of public Latin. Part of this is an instagram contest for people to post photos of Latin in Bergen; see examples here!
The winner gets a 300 kroner gift certificate at the uni bookstore. And a random winner gets the Grinch in Latin. If interested, use #latininbergen #latinibergen
Even if there are no submissions and if none come in the future, it has started a few conversations (overheard and taken part in). And that’s really all it’s about. That and what I can learn from a first attempt. Oh, and the photos that I’ve collected, because there are other learning activities and research that can be done with them!

The Price of a Book in the Middle Ages: Colophons

Bouveret_withtabsA good amount about medieval book prices comes from colophons or notes left by scribes (or owners) in manuscripts they wrote (or acquired). These notes might detail the place and date of writing, offer a prayer on behalf of the scribe or warn future users of the book.

Over several decades in the second half of the 20th century, the Benedictines of Bouveret compiled an impressive number of colophons in six volumes published from 1965 to 1982 in the Colphons de Manuscrits Occidentaux des Origines au XIVeme Siècle. While the shortcomings of the work have been noted in a number of reviews, the corpus nevertheless represents the most extensive of its type and offers a broad view of colophons throughout Western Europe. Continue Reading

Ambrose’s Silent Reading as Zombie Idea

St.-Augustine-Head-Shot

Every field has its ‘zombie ideas’, ideas based on disproved notions (and so are not ‘alive’), but whose influence persists in large part due to their intuitive appeal (and so they aren’t ‘dead’). In the early history of reading, we have the assertion that Augustine’s surprise at seeing Ambrose read silently suggests that silent reading in antiquity was rare. The problems involved in using Augustine’s account in this way have been convincingly argued; indeed it is difficult to read the entire account and reach the conclusion that Augustine is surprised primarily by Ambrose’s silent reading per se. Continue Reading

Last Call…

for papers.

Together with Orietta DaRold and Philip Shaw at Leicester, we will be running a small conference in Bergen in early June entitled Writing Europe before 1450. It builds on the successes of two ‘Writing England’ conferences held in Leicester in 2007 and 2010. In broadening the geography, the scope has perhaps outstripped the allotted days, but I’m quite optimistic that this will be all the more engaging as a result. Because none of us will be expert in the traditions and histories of the various parts of Europe, we all stand to gain a fair amount from other speakers. The hope is that similar dispositions to different areas of study will lead to further and lasting co-operation between medievalists of various national traditions.

I am excited about the speakers who have agreed to come–they promise some great discussions about the nature of pre-modern reading and writing from a range of representative perspectives be it literary, documentary, medievalist, classicist, palaeographic, diplomatic, linguistic, historical and so on–and the abstracts that have already come in! So without further ado, the entire text of the call:

Writing Europe before 1450

The increasingly widespread recognition that print entered a world already characterized by a sophisticated market for the production, exchange and sale of written texts suggests that explorations of this textual culture can fruitfully elucidate the prolonged and varied processes through which Europe and its constituent localities entered into modern reading, writing and communicative practices. Writing Europe: A Colloquium aims to draw on a range of approaches and perspectives to exchange ideas about manuscript studies, material culture, multilingualism in texts and books, book history, readers, audience and scribes across the medieval period and beyond.

How did local writers, compilers and readers use writing to inscribe regional identity within broader conventions or, on the other hand, impress ‘universal’ practices and constructs on local populations? In what way did the spread of sacred writing from the Mediterranean to the northern and eastern edges of Europe contribute to or reflect the creations of (both material and cultural) peripheries and centers? What were the different markets for books; can we characterize their developments and differences? How do the dynamics (e.g. the production, consumption and regulation) of this textual culture in the Latin West compare with those found in other places and periods?  What new or existing methodologies can be employed to map the geographies of written words across Europe? Finally, to what extent does the examination of these issues support or undermine temporal and geographical bifurcations of the world into modern and ‘not’.

Plenary speakers

  • William Johnson (Duke University)
  • Kathryn A. Lowe (University of Glasgow)
  • Marilena Maniaci (Università di Cassino)
  • Call for Papers

    Building on the success of the Writing England conference held at the University of Leicester in 2010, we welcome proposals from scholars working on writers, book production and use, and responses to texts in any language up to 1450. Abstracts (300 words or less) for papers (20 minutes) should be submitted on-line using the form provided. Please follow this link to submit your proposal.

    Places are limited to allow us to subsidise costs, including registration, accommodation and meals. Please send your abstract by 31 January 2012. For further information please contact one of the organisers at the e-mail below.

    Bursaries

    To encourage participation from a range of individuals and institutions, a limited number of bursaries will be available to assist in covering travel expenses for participants with limited institutional support. Those who wish to be considered should include an additional statement in the relevant section of the abstract submission form. Selection will be based on need and on the relevance of the workshop to the participant’s research, and the statement should therefore address these criteria.

    Sponsors

    Writing Europe is a collaboration between the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Bergen and the School of English at the University of Leicester, and is generously subsidised by the Centre for Medieval Studies and by the School of English.

    Organising Committee

    Dr Aidan Conti, University of Bergen, Dr Orietta Da Rold and Dr Philip Shaw , University of Leicester.

    Palaeography Returns

    The news is a bit dated for anyone who subscribes to the relevant lists. Nonetheless, so that silence is not received as…well, whatever it might be seen as, I note that Julia Crick has been appointed Professor of Palaeography and Manuscript Studies at King’s College London. Whatever the circumstances of the controversy that surrounded the previous situation, Julia is (and no one needs me to say this) an outstanding scholar and individual who will undoubtedly serve the position, the field and colleagues well. For the time being, further details can be found on her Exeter profile. I’d just like to add a “Congratulations!” and “Good Luck!”.

    University in search of Latin Motto

    Frans Hals, Young Man holding a Skull (Vanitas) (1626-28)

    Earlier this term, Professor Gudmund Hernes speaking after the awarding of his honorary doctorate, gave the University of Bergen an assignment for the semester: Suggest a motto for UiB (You can make a suggestion here) (Norwegian version of article with submission form at bottom).

    Although I did make one serious submission, I must admit it was much easier to think of Latin phrases that are, erm, unlikely to become the motto for any university anytime soon. So without further ado, the top three motto suggestions (from historical sources) for universities with an acerbic sense of humor or a more-than-healthy penchant for honesty:

    Agamus igitur pingui Minerva
    (‘Let us proceed with our own poor wit,’ Cicero, De Amicitia V, 19)

    Opus opimum casibus
    (‘A work rich in disasters,’ Tacitus, Historiae I, 2)

    Ad nova tendentes semper discrimina
    (‘Always aiming towards new dangers’, Walter of Châtillon, Alexandreis 9. 525)

    Palaeography to Return to King’s College


    As suggested in an earlier post and predicted by the Palaeography Working Group’s final paper, King’s College, London is now advertising for its newly rebranded Chair in Palaeography and Manuscript Studies. Details can be found on the KCL website here, but the general description (summary + details) follows:



    King’s College London wishes to make a distinguished appointment to its new Chair of Palaeography & Manuscript Studies.
    The successful candidate will be expected to conduct and publish research of international quality, to teach, and to supervise research students. The post will be based in a department of the School of Arts & Humanities appropriate to the post-holder’s expertise; the post-holder will take a full and active part in the School’s activities. Applications are welcomed from scholars of international standing in any field of Palaeography & Manuscript Studies, regardless of language or period. The College has strengths in the study of the classical and medieval worlds, philosophy, music and theology & religious studies, as well as in digital humanities. We are looking for a dynamic individual to provide leadership in this important interdisciplinary field and take the subject forward in its next stage of development. The appointment will be made, dependent on relevant qualifications and experience, within the Professorial salary scale.

    The addition ‘and Manuscript Studies’, I suppose, means that it is not the very same job from which the College earlier dismissed, erm, came to a severance agreement with a distinguished appointment. That and the new description adds that applications will be considered ‘regardless of language or period,’ which opens the position not only to scholars of vernacular Western manuscripts, but also possibly those working on non-Western material. It seems the administration felt that widening the perspective of the chair was exigent enough that it had to oust one holder to get someone one else in immediately (at least in academic hiring terms).

    The risk they run of course is that they have already broadcast visibly to the palaeographical world that they will defund and dismiss a chair. In so doing, they will employ unclear (and perhaps disingenuous) reasoning, ignore widespread international protest, avail themselves of media outlets (such as Trainor’s interview with the Times business section), and lean on outside lobbying groups to argue their case for them (remember Miles Templeman, a marketing specialist and Director General of the Institute of Directors arguing for the elimination of the ‘different’, former position on BBC’s Radio 4 programme Today [runs 5:42]).

    Should we expect to see a marketing specialist, perhaps a Director of Directors, a President of Presidents, a new King of Kings!, return to Radio 4 to argue that yes, yes, it was justified and necessary to get rid of a chair of palaeography–austerity, budgets, tough times, financial crisis, you know!—but now we really truly need a new and improved chair in palaeography and manuscript studies?

    In the interval between announcing the cut of the position and the re-establishment of the position, erm rather the establishment of a new position, what was necessary to eliminate a year ago has surely, clearly now become a growth industry, the wave of the future, a dynamic new enterprise demanding excellent leadership, a ground-breaking intiative employing cutting edge technology to preserve the best of (take your pick) our nation’s/ our civilization’s/ the world’s past. At least for the foreseeable future, or, well, until it isn’t.

    ———–
    Apologies in advance to all the people working hard to see that palaeography is represented at King’s and are endeavouring to make the best of the situation. This is not meant to indict well-intentioned work.