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Posts Tagged ‘Hadrian’s Wall’

This volume picks up with Prince Valiant escaping on a ship and trying to get back to Camelot only to have his ship attacked and captured by Angor Wrack, the Sea King, who takes Valiant’s Singing Sword. For the rest of these two years of strips, Valiant is trying to get back the sword, leading him on many adventures throughout the Mediterranean and into Africa before he finally returns to England and Camelot.

The back cover of this volume claims that Hal Foster reached his peak in these years, now that Prince Valiant was into its fourth year, and he never came down from that peak. I don’t know that I would go that far, not yet having read all the strip, but I did find this volume more entertaining than the last two despite it again having very little connection to King Arthur and the Round Table since only a small part takes place in England. The adventures are entertaining enough that, honestly, King Arthur and his other knights’ absence isn’t even noticeable by this point since readers know Camelot is largely marginal to the story.

I won’t go into a full summary of this volume, but the most important part of the adventures have to do with the Singing Sword and Valiant meeting his future wife, Aleta. The story begins with Valiant on a ship that is captured by Angor Wrack, the Sea King, who takes Valiant’s sword. Valiant manages to escape after being a prisoner for a while, but he leaves behind the sword, vowing to reclaim it when he is in a better situation to do so. Valiant manages to obtain a small boat, but he drifts about the Mediterranean, becoming weak from lack of food. At one point, he nears shore and meets Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. She fills his ship with provisions and feeds him and then orders him to sail off. Enchanted by her beauty, Valiant’s search now extends to coming back into contact with Aleta, questioning everyone he meets about how to get back to the Misty Isles.

Valiant’s adventures eventually take him to Jerusalem, as a slave along the Euphrates River, to Athens, up a river with a group of Vikings to find gold, and finally, he reunites with Sir Gawain and they return to England. After a short stint at King Arthur’s court, Val goes north to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall and he also solves the mystery of a haunted castle.

But finding Aleta is the key adventure in this book, and although most readers of the strip know that Valiant will end up marrying her, Foster was not about to make it easy. After Valiant’s first meeting, he finds himself shipwrecked again on the Misty Isles, and this time, he witnesses his crew killed and their bodies hung on stakes by Aleta’s subjects, although he does not understand why—Foster makes it clear they deserved it for their crimes, but this knowledge is withheld from Valiant. When Valiant meets Aleta, he is discouraged and feels she, as the queen, must be the worst of her people for allowing such cruelty. She in turn tells him she warned him not to return before. She has her women again give him provisions and leaves him a note saying, “You merit punishment for speaking harsh words to a queen, impetuous youth, but once again I help you to escape from this troubled land. You will never guess why!” Aleta’s reasons are withheld from both the reader and Valiant, so we must wait for successive volumes to find out how Foster will reunite Valiant and Aleta in love.

But Valiant has plenty of time for love, for he only celebrates his eighteenth birthday in this book in the October 26, 1941 strip—it’s hard to believe he is so young after all the adventures he has already had.

I was expecting some sort of social commentary on World War II in this volume after the assumption that Foster’s depiction of Valiant fighting the Huns in previous volumes related to the war against Germany; however, there is no hinting of World War II in this book that I saw. Even following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nothing changes in the strip. No past and present day parallels exist, although I did find an anachronism. When Valiant is in Jerusalem, he consecrates a pagan sword he acquires to Christian service under the scowls of “Islamites.” Since the strip takes place during the time of Attila the Hun (died 453 A.D.) and King Arthur (died perhaps in 539 A.D.), it would predate by about a hundred years the beginning of Islam (but Foster isn’t the first writer of Arthuriana to ignore historical dates). I did feel Foster was bordering on racism in these scenes (June 1 and June 8, 1941) when after freeing a group of slaves held by Arab merchants, Valiant “leaves behind such hate and desire for vengeance as only an Arab can feel.” Of course, Foster was a product of his time and the prejudices of it, and he did not go overboard to the extent other writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (of whom I am a huge fan regardless, and whose Tarzan strip Foster illustrated before Prince Valiant) did in depicting Muslims or Africans.

While I still feel it would be difficult to stay engaged reading Prince Valiant in its original weekly format, this third volume really drew me in with all the adventures, and I highly recommend it over the first two as an impetus to want to keep reading—if not Foster’s peak, he is nearing it, improving on the story and interest from previous volumes. This volume also contains some interesting commentary on scenes that were considered too violent in the strip that were changed in some printings by various newspapers.

Stay tuned for my review of Vol. 4 in a future post.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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What happened to the Roman Ninth Legion has inspired three films in recent years:

Of these three films, I’m afraid The Centurion is the one I find the least interesting. Like the other films, The Centurion is about what happened to the Ninth Legion that seemingly disappeared – although historians now think they were transferred and later destroyed on the continent. How they were destroyed remains lost to history, but authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which the film The Eagle is based upon, have been writing books about it for many years, surmising what may have occurred. Usually the stories suggest the legion went north of the area where Hadrian’s Wall separated the “uncivilized” Britons from the territory the Romans had conquered.

The problem I have with The Centurion is not the suggestions of what may have happened to the Ninth (an interesting historical mystery) but the film’s lack of character development as well as my difficulty with identifying with the main characters. In this film, the Roman legion is led north with the aid of a Brigantes woman who is apparently going to lead them to where they can attack the Picts. Instead, she tricks the Romans and leads them into an ambush (big surprise). The sad thing is that while I just watched this film a few days ago, I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names and I can barely remember the actors’ faces. I know there was a main character Roman, the deceitful native Briton woman, and a bad guy who caused treachery, and a couple of other survivors. Eventually, the Romans who survive the attack and enslavement manage to escape from the Picts who have captured them, and the rest of the film shows their attempts not to be recaptured or killed and to get back to the Roman outposts. The villainy by a fellow Roman is almost a subplot and the overall plot is loose and not in any way complicated. Perhaps the best part of the film (SPOILER ALERT) is the end when the surviving Roman returns, only to have his fellow Romans try to cover up what happened to the legion so its defeat will not make Rome look bad.

What makes this film additionally difficult for me is that because none of the characters were strong enough for me to identify with one of them, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. When the film started, although I knew the Romans would be “the good guys,” I wanted the Picts to win. Why? Because I know I am descended from the Picts through Scottish royalty, while I do not know of any Roman ancestors in my family tree, though I do not doubt I have them, and also because the Picts and other Britons were conquered people whom Rome just felt it was their job and right to conquer and civilize or eliminate. While I did not agree with this philosophy in either The Eagle or The Centurion, at least in The Eagle, the main character played by Tatum Channing is well portrayed as a very loyal Roman who believes in his Roman traditions and duties. I may not agree with what makes him tick, but I understood his motives. The Eagle also raised interesting questions of right and wrong and Channing’s character has a slave who makes it clear that Rome is not in the right, leaving a world of questions for viewers to consider, even while Channing’s character is left staying staunch to what he believes in, too brainwashed into the Roman way to consider what he may have done wrong as a Roman, although I think the film’s viewers realize the film questions who he really is. The Eagle is still somewhat weak in this respect, but far superior to The Centurion.

By comparison, the native Britons are given almost no sympathy in The Centurion. The Brigantes woman who deceives the Romans is insulted by them as being a “she-wolf.” She seems merciless in her desire to destroy the Romans, but her behavior is completely understandable to me despite the Romans thinking ill of her. We are told that she watched the Romans destroy her family, then rape her and cut out her tongue. Despite this information, she is impossible to identify with because she is unable to speak her pain, and similarly, except for one of the Picts telling the Romans what the other Romans did to her, equally the film is unable to speak about who is right and who wrong in this film. In short, it is unfocused and uncertain if it has any agenda or message to share. I know life isn’t always possible to tie into a neat message but the woman becomes so focused on her mission and so unable to display any emotion or human characteristics we can identify with, that while she is the character I felt most sympathy for in the film, she is unable to make a real connection with the viewer, she is unable to speak her pain, and therefore, unable to make the viewer form a bond with her or anyone in the film. And I think the film itself, or its creators, were unsure themselves what if any point the film was supposed to make.

I don’t want to say this film is a mess, but it is a disappointment. It kept my attention due to some of the action as the Picts chased after the Romans, but I had a hard time knowing what to think at the end. Ultimately, I have to say that if the Roman Ninth was slaughtered by the people it was trying to conquer, well, who can blame the Britons for protecting their homeland? I don’t condone killing, but the Romans started the killing in Briton and they got what they deserved.

The film also raises questions for me about King Arthur himself, often depicted as heir to the Romans and of Roman descent, yet considering himself a Briton–and fighting against the Saxons who would conquer him. If he’s of Roman descent, is Arthur a good guy? If he is of Briton descent, then Arthur must see the Saxons as equal to the earlier Roman invaders. More likely, Arthur’s bloodline would have been a mix of Briton and Roman. In the end, did the two races not blend? Were they not allied at the least in their fight against the incoming Saxon invaders?

Eventually in all cultures, the conquerors and the conquered’s great-grandchildren intermingle and hatreds are put aside and forgotten as time marches on. Too bad the great-grandparents couldn’t learn to do that themselves to save a great deal of bloodshed.

I encourage lovers of Arthurian literature interested in the prehistory of the Arthurian legend to watch both The Eagle and The Centurion to understand what Briton would have been like in the Romans’ early years in Britain and how those events shaped the world a historical King Arthur would have been born into. And I’d welcome comments from other viewers.

And if you are interested in reading more about Roman Britain in novel form, I highly recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel series, including The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset (the first novel to create a historical King Arthur), and especially, I recommend for great reading pleasure Jack Whyte’s novel series The Camulod Chronicles, about Arthur’s Roman ancestors and how they established Camelot as a way to maintain peace in the years when Rome was pulling out of Britain.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The recent film The Eagle raises many interesting questions about how we are to interpret it, and perhaps best of all, it provides a glimpse into Roman Britain and the outlying territories above Hadrian’s Wall that I haven’t seen depicted previously in film. While the film depicts Britain in the mid-second century, about three centuries before the time of King Arthur, it provides a fascinating look into the Britain the Romans would have experienced.

The movie is based upon the book The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) by Rosemary Sutcliff, best known to Arthurian enthusiasts as the author of Sword at Sunset (1963), the first Arthurian novel to have treated King Arthur from a historically accurate perspective. Sword at Sunset is also part of the Eagle of the Ninth book series, all connected by the Aquila Family dolphin ring, although Sword at Sunset is only very loosely connected.

The film and book’s main character, Marcus, is a Roman soldier stationed in Britain who wants to know what became of his father, who led the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The legion was never heard from again, but Marcus hears rumors that the Eagle standard of the legion has been seen north of the wall and is being used in pagan ceremonies.

Of course, Marcus wants to know what became of his father and to reclaim the Eagle. I won’t give away any more of the plot. What interests me is how Marcus is the commander of a fort that is attacked by the local Britons, who yell about how the Romans have raped their daughters and stolen their land. Marcus never for a second considers that Rome is at fault. He simply does his duty as a Roman soldier. Later, on his quest to regain the Eagle, Marcus is accompanied by Esca, a slave and the son to the late King of the Brigantes. Marcus’ uncle warns him that Esca is a Briton so he will betray him on the journey, but Marcus has Esca accompany him anyway and Esca appears loyal, at least at first. Later, the two will encounter the Seal people, a term Sutcliff uses in her novel.

What is fascinating about the film is the depiction of the local Britons. The Seal people are fictional largely because so little is known about the local people of Britain in Roman times, who were mostly Celts and Picts. Wikipedia does a good job of discussing the film and the issues with depicting the native people at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eagle_(2011_film) The confusion and difficulties of pinning down the Celtic peoples of Great Britain is understandable, considering how many different tribes there were as evidenced in the list at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Celtic_tribes#Great_Britain

I admit I haven’t read the novel, which was actually written for children, but the film definitely made me want to read the entire series and reread Sword at Sunset. I was surprised by the film’s lack of a politically correct or multicultural message—I don’t expect a book written in 1954 would have a politically correct tone, however, so perhaps the filmmakers decided to be true to the book. In any case, Marcus never thinks that he or Rome is in the wrong for how they have treated the native peoples of Britain. Although Marcus and Esca become friends of a sort, and Marcus does save Esca’s life early in the film, otherwise he does not show any great tendency to be sympathetic toward those who were conquered, and he is not in any way a dynamic character who has a new understanding about the situation in Britain.

Equally fascinating is the depiction of the native peoples. It is difficult to imagine such a “primitive” way of life as they experience compared to Rome, which we can perhaps more closely relate to. And I know “primitive” is a judgmental term, but their life is so vastly remote from ours today. In truth, my sympathies lay more with the native Britons who have been conquered and even betrayed by their own people. Of course, you don’t want Marcus or Esca to be killed, but I found it difficult to have my sympathies with them.

In the end, I wasn’t sure how to feel. It was more an interesting look into the mind of a Roman than one where I could identify with any character, and in that way, because I had no emotional reaction to the film, I felt like it somewhat failed to do its job.

It would be interesting to read all of Sutcliff’s series and how the stories link to Arthur, who is more Roman than Briton in most versions of the legend. In a film adaptation, one would expect a more politically correct and sympathetic view of the native Britons, but at the same time, perhaps I appreciate the film more for not taking that route which would be a modern twist and not one Marcus or the Romans themselves probably would have considered taking.

The Eagle may not be a perfect film, but the actors do an excellent job; both actors playing Marcus and Esca are completely believable in their roles; whatever faults the film has are due to the screenplay, or perhaps the original novel. The story opens up many questions about right and wrong while creating an imaginative, yet as historical as possible, depiction of what second century Britain may have been like. Altogether I give this film 4 out of 5 stars and remain with mixed feelings about it.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, I’d love to hear your comments.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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