Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Photo Album: Gotthammer at the Zoo

I've been on facebook for the past two months, and thought I'd try out their photo album function. I like how easy it is to set up, and while I'm likely going to get a few comments from folks who want to see everything here at Gotthammer, I thought I'd link to the photo album of us at the Calgary Zoo earlier this month rather than posting the photos here. Saves me some time, and I really can't complain about that.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Magik Beans Episode 19 is up!

Here's the link and the preview:

Episode 19: The Gang's All Here

Andrew looked over his shoulder and blinked twice. Walking around the corner of the house toward the assembled breakfasters was what appeared to be a rabbit well over six feet tall loping alongside Lara, who looked like a cross between a manic survivalist and Morticia Adams.

He leaped up from the table and shouted Lara's name."Andrew!" she called back, a look of surprise on her face.

"What are you doing here?" Andrew asked.

"I'm here to rescue you!" she said with a smile.

"You're a little short for a stormtrooper," Andrew replied.

"And you make a terrible princess in distress," Lara said.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

300: Building a Better Barbarian

Where some find valorous attributes to celebrate in heroic fantasy, “laid in imaginary prehistoric or medieval worlds when (it’s fun to imagine) all men were mighty, all women were beautiful, all problems were simple, and all life was adventurous” (DeCamp in Worley, 162), others find negative ideologies in abundance:

magic-mystic understanding of the world, i.e., mystification of relationships that could be grasped by the intellect; right of the stronger as the principle of societal organization; glorification of violence, particularly killing; oppression of women; emphasis on the racial superiority of the Nordic (Aryan) type; fatalism toward hierarchic structures and their consequences, such as wars; the fueher principle: the greatest butcher of them all shall determine our fate; imperialistic policity; and antiintellectualism. (Alpers in Fredericks 104)

Both DeCamp and Alpers speak about the same elements; one finds them desirable, the other finds them lacking. The question which begs an answer is, which one is right?

Perhaps the answer is both. Ken Gelder surmises that fantasy which “battles an evil without end, offers a form of literary fundamentalism that troubles secular ideals. But it can also trouble the kind of political fundamentalism that relies on Manichean binaries of good and evil” (Gelder 117). If one wants to valorize or vilify the genre, one can find enough secondary sources by reputable scholars to back up their argument. The preceding pages are proof of that much, at least.

300 serves as a fine case study. In his review of the film at nationalreview.com, David Kahane suggests that in the post 9/11 period, the taboo for film scripts has become to “ascribe anything but the purest of motives to Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims”:

“Not even Jim Cameron could get a picture like 1994’s True Lies — in which the current governor of California slaughters hundreds of Arab terrorists single-handedly — made anymore, and he’s the King of the World. Instead, we got things like Kingdom of Heaven, in which the Christian ruler of Jerusalem becomes a hero by surrendering the Holy Land to the noble Saladin” (nationalreview.com).

Kahane notes that it is, however, acceptable for fundamentalist Christians or Nazis to play the role of villains; ostensibly, you can make any Caucasian the villain, and that will be acceptable; “Hollywood became one big Agatha Christie novel in the last chapter — you know, the one where the survivors of the homicidal maniac gather in the drawing room and realize: The killer must be one of us!”. If Zakk Snyder had made a film about the Battle of Maldon, it’s unlikely there would have been any political backlash[1]. It’s also likely that Kahane wouldn’t be asking himself the question of “what it feels like to be the good guy”. People have equated the Spartans and the Persians with the Bush administration, compared Leonidas to both Christ and a member of the Nazi party; if one begins reading review after review, the opinion changes from person to person.

Fantasy’s “ambivalent conception of evil” (Gelder 115) makes it a slippery place to decide who represents whom, however obvious things may appear on the surface[2]. Grixti gives an even assessment of both sides of the concept of heroism, warning that both positive and negative attributes have been “underscored by ideological purposes” (223). Again we are faced with ambivalence; simply put, Grixti is saying that the image can be used for ill or good. More salient to the current discussion is that Grixti identifies the illusory nature of using special effects to represent heroic figures as “impressive and awe-inspiring”, resulting in a beautiful lie; this is not possible—it cannot be emulated, it cannot happen. To both proponents of the hero as a fascist ideal or hero as counter-cultural individual, this is a terrible thing. It is subtly suggesting that ideology does not produce heroic personas, for good or bad. This fiction is a dangerous one, because it either makes blind fools or hopeless dreamers of its audience.

And while one can find a political agenda in heroic fantasy, we must remember that the genre is primarily individualistic in the construction of its heroes and villains. The conception of evil in fantasy is ultimately located “inside and outside simultaneously…it remains…elsewhere and here, simultaneously” (Gelder 115-17). As has already been stated, the question of who represents whom in the fantasy history of 300 is not as clear as one would hope. The question heroic fantasy posits to its reader is a simple and rather idealistic one: do you want to be a hero, or do you want to be a villain?

In his book The Heart Aroused, poet David Whyte recounts the story of a CEO who has called together his top executives, asking “in no uncertain terms, for their opinion of the plan he wants to put through…on a scale of one to ten”. He goes on to tell how the CEO does not want to hear what these executives really think. He wants “everyone to say “ten” and damn whether they mean it or not…He glares at them, he wants compliance” (119). One person in the room “thinks the plan is terrible” and suspects that “everyone in the company will lose by it”. He is certain he is not the only one who thinks so, and yet everyone says “ten” except “one courageous soul” who submits a “nine and a half”. The focalizer of the story, the one person we know thinks the plan is a zero, “reaches his hand toward the flame, opens his palm against the heat, and suddenly falters; against everything he believes, he hears a mouselike, faraway voice, his own, saying “ten”” (119-20). Whyte compares the board room setting to a battle; the picture of one executive against the CEO of a company fits nicely with the picture of Leonidas craning his neck to look into the face of Xerxes, who towers over him, a resplendent giant.

Xerxes does not represent Persia so much as he represents every megalomaniac villain who wants to rule the entire world, and by extension, every monolithic organization or power. The scene in which Xerxes tempts Ephialtes with rewards of riches, sex and prestige shows Xerxes as someone sprung from Milton and Blake, a darkly lit figure smoking of charisma” (Blackmore 340). He tells the tragic Ephialtes that it was cruel for the Spartan king to ask him to stand (to say “zero”), and that all Xerxes requires is that Ephialtes kneel to him (say “ten”).

When Xerxes’ emissary first comes to Sparta, he comes asking for the simple offering of “earth and water”, but does so bearing the skulls of conquered kings. On the surface, a choice is offered, but the subtext is that the correct response will result in an easy road; the wrong response will result in conflict and struggle. The film asks the viewer the question, when faced with such a choice, what would you choose; the easy road, or the one that leads to the Hot Gates?

“The people who hear themselves say zero do not have the same life ahead of them as those who gave the hesitant ten. Saying zero literally means they have guts…they have a stomach for the consequences, a place to which their voice can belong no matter the outward change in circumstances…The executive who is ambitious at all costs finds himself ritually killed by the sharpness of his own voice; the right word, said almost against his will, at the right time. Out of that annihilation arises another person, wilder, less predictable to others but more trustworthy to himself, stepping out on and deciphering a path he could at last call his own” (Whyte 130).

Leonidas effectively says zero when he not only refuses Xerxes’ offer, but brings wrath upon himself by slaying the emissary. The “sharpness of his own voice” is what ultimately leads to his death. But it is the death he has chosen; “The beast approaches,” Dilios intones, “And it was King Leonidas himself who provoked it”.

Men emasculated by the socio-economic changes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, confused by the “historical incompatibility between the American ideal of the self-made man and the more dependent conditions of wage earning fostered by industrialization and bureaucracies” (Holt & Thompson 425), utilize these sorts of highly individualistic heroes as “semiotic raw ingredients…to construct their identities” (427). Leonidas and his 300 Spartan warriors represent the “Man-of Action Hero Model”, who find realization in the lives of “renegade industrialists such as Steve Jobs, Ted Turner and Bill Gates” (428), as well as management gurus “who practice creative destruction in order to create powerful new companies” (428), musicians who “can channel the conviction of the rebel into respectable ends” (429) and professional athletes who are “celebrated for their individual accomplishments, displays of superhuman skill, and inimitable personal style while at the same time acting as team players, expounding the importance of the supporting cast” (429). Holt and Thompson believe that the man-of-action synthesizes two antithetic masculinity models in America, that of the breadwinner and the rebel:

“This ideological contradiction calls for an idealized figure who is rewarded for skills and talents without being compromised or constrained by institutional hierarchies and requirements. He must be adventurous, exciting, potent and untamed, while also contributing to the greater social good. He must be perpetually youthful, dynamic and iconoclastic, while at the same time fulfill the duties of a mature patriarch. He must continually defy the social status quo, while he enjoys a considerable degree of status and respect. He must an unreconstructed risk taker, be dangerous, and yet be utterly dispensable to the integrity and functioning of the social order” (429)

While Holt and Thompson’s study deals with capitalist consumerism, the ideas are cogent for other possible moments where a man-of-action hero might be needed. Carol Pearson defines the task of the warrior as “fighting for what really matters” (94), and W. Paul Jones has suggested that the world of the warrior at his best could result in movements such as liberation theology, where “all that is unjust must be undone” (127). Identity construction of the hero does not necessitate real-world violence or hate, save in the minds of those who ideologies already gravitate toward that spectrum. As has already been shown, the ambivalent nature of heroic fantasy can give way to multiple interpretations, to be used for various ends. However, the same has been said of religion, politics, and power. What must be hoped is that we realize that the hero’s struggle “is the human struggle. His victory is our victory, and in his refusal to admit defeat and lay down his sword, no matter how bleak his prospects, is our hope” (Keyes 62).

[1] I thought it very telling that Pathfinder, an equally violent film in the vein of Heroic Fantasy, received no backlash, despite its depiction of Vikings as massive hulking brutes bent on killing as many First Nations people as they could. The images of the Vikings encased entirely in armor were reminiscent of Mark Bowden’s description of American troops in Black Hawk Down: “The Rangers wore body armor and helmets with goggles. Aden could see no part of them that looked human. They were like futuristic warriors from an American movie” (96).

[2] For example, conflating the Bush administration and the American military machine with a handful of desperate men defending their country against an invading army of vastly superior firepower seems like wishful thinking on either the part of a Republican or a Democrat; the Republican might see it as a power fantasy where the white men with fantastic abdominal muscles represent their military force, and the Democrats might see it as jingoism, or a recruitment strategy. From my own perspective, if I was forced to shape the metaphor over the current US-Iran issues, I’d see the States as the monstrous Persia of 300.


300. Dir. Zakk Snyder. Warner Brothers, 2006.

Blackmore, Tim. “300 and Two: Frank Miller and Daniel Ford Interpret Herodotus’ Thermopylae Myth” International Journal of Comic Art. 6. (2004): 325-349.

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Gelder, Ken. “Epic Fantasy and Global Terrorism” Ernest Mathijs and Murray Pomerance, eds. From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. New York: Rodopi, 2006. 101-118.

Grixti, Joseph. “Consumed Identities: Heroic Fantasies and the Trivialization of Selfhood” Journal of Popular Culture 28. (1994): 207-228.

Holt, Douglas B., and Craig J. Thompson. “Man-of-Action Heroes: The Pursuit if Heroic Masculinity in Everyday Consumption” Journal of Consumer Research 31. (2004): 425-440.

Jones, Paul W. Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

Kahane, David. “300 Shocker: Hollywood takes a detour to reality.” National Review Online April 2007. .

Keyes, Flo. The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today: Connections in Medieval Romance, Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction. Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., 2006.

Pearson, Carol. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform our World. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Whyte, David. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings Jefferson: McFarlan & Company, Inc., 2005.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

300 as case study of Heroic Fantasy

The aesthetic of 300 is about form over content, mise-en-scéne over mimetic. There are two aesthetic elements which require our consideration. Both involve a narrative approach; the first verbal, the second visual: “The story of Thermopylae is a story about stories. It is about the uses of myth, about the way different narrators in different times interpret the same fable for very different purposes; it is about the way we as readers choose to interpret texts now” (Blackmore 326).

Both graphic novel and film contain an aspect of an intertextual storyteller’s narrative; prior to the Spartan defeat, Leonidas sends one of his men away because he has “a talent unlike any other Spartan”, namely that of eloquent tale telling. Leonidas commands him to “deliver my final orders to the council with force and with verve, and you will make every Greek know what happened here”. In the graphic novel, “a high angle shot of Dilios and his listeners, puts us in an omniscient position as we watch a story about a storyteller. The following small panel inserts us into the circle of men, making us subject to Dilios and his listeners” (Blackmore 330). Likewise, the verbal narration opens the film, recounting the ascendance of a young King Leonidas to the throne of Sparta. Having undergone the Spartan trial of the agoge, he is sent into the wilderness for one final test. There, Leonidas comes face to face with a giant wolf, rendered entirely by special effects. The narrator describes its eyes as “jewels from the pit of hell itself”. Clearly it is no ordinary wolf. Leonidas kills the monstrous lupine by luring it into a narrow passage in the rocks, where it becomes stuck, and at the young Spartan’s mercy. This is analogous to Leonidas’ strategy to hold the Persian invasion by forcing them to move through a narrow pass known as ‘The Hot Gates’. The wolf is conflated with the Persian army as the action cuts to Dilios, a Spartan soldier who has been telling this tale to a group of soldiers. “Now, as then a beast approaches” Delios tells his attentive audience, both onscreen and off. “But this beast is made of men and horses and spears and swords.”

Here we come to the core of this aesthetic choice of 300. When Leonidas sends Dilios is not told merely to tell a tale. He is told to tell “a tale of victory”. Unlike the graphic novel, where Dilios tells his tales in vignettes, the film utilizes the storyteller’s voice for all of the narrative exposition. As a result, Dilios’ subjectivity works throughout the narrative, focalizing the action into a highly biased work of propaganda within the secondary world. But this is Greek propaganda, not American. To equate the Persian army of the film with modern-day Iran is inference. The film’s text does not imply it. If the Persians are constructed as monsters, it is because a Greek whose homeland they are invading is the one telling the tale, with the goal of motivating the Greeks to retaliation.

This would be historically consistent, but works of heroic fantasy must also maintain a sense of “race consciousness [as] an essential component of the modern literary construction of “medievalism” (or “romantic primitivism”)” (DiTommaso 151-52). Fantasy literature takes place predominantly in worlds defined by “kingdoms and city-states rather than democracies and nation-states, a pre-industrial and largely pre-scientific technological base…a feudal social and political structure, and parochialism, superstition, race consciousness, and even racism on the part of the population…believable fantastic literature often must be consistent with its medievalist setting” (151-52).

The second is the hyper-stylized fashion the film is presented in; the visual style is obviously the aspect of the film given the greatest attention by its creative team. Only one scene of the film, which takes place largely outside or in open-air courtyards was shot on location. The rest of the film was shot entirely on a soundstage against a blue-screen so that the images could be digitally augmented and adjusted. As a result, details in the backgrounds, chromatic tones, and the way weather affects the action were under the complete control of the filmmakers via digital special effects. This gives the entire film a surreal look, even when the action being filmed is banal. From start to finish, there is something cinematic in the way a Cecil B. Demille epic was considered to be cinematic. Each shot is perfectly placed, the choreography of the fights meticulously thought out, bearing closer resemblance to aggressive ballet than actual combat. The moon is ten times larger than the most gibbous of moons. Even the gore is digital. The real world never looked this good.

From start to finish, with the exception of night shots and a scene in heavy rain, the film is bathed in an ethereal golden light. While Snyder uses Miller’s graphic novel as a blueprint for the action, the digital artists paint it like they’re emulating Boris Vallejo[1]. What we are watching is not an historical film, but a presentation of a golden age of Greek heroism, akin to Homer’s klea andrōn, the “glorious deeds of heroes” (Hainsworth 24). The Spartans are the epitome of the Homeric ethos of the Illiad, “To be the best ever, better than all the rest” (124). Allegations of the fascist nature of these works forget the classical tradition they belong to. In truth, 300 is more evocative of The Illiad with its relentless slow motion battle scenes than Wolfgang Petersen’s ‘historical’ approach to Troy was. In Troy, Achilles is conflicted over being a hero, whereas Leonidas and his 300 Spartans are unwavering in their valor to “never retreat, never surrender”. Despite the overwhelming odds, “that is no excuse for cowardice: the brave man takes up his spear and turns to face the enemy” (Hainsworth 26). The film is also criticized for its stylized gore; again, Homer’s epic has been accused of dwelling “too gloatingly on the deaths of men” (36). Hainsworth dimisses this as “our squeamishness; we are, generally unfamiliar with the Homeric emotion kharme, battle-lust” (36). If 300 achieves anything, it certainly achieves a sense of kharme, and in its delivery, a twenty-first century neo-epic, a recounting of a golden age of heroism.

The film firmly lodges itself as a work of heroic fantasy, though, through the aesthetic choice of the representation of the Spartan warriors as physically perfect and virtually naked. From Mr. Universe Steve Reeves as Hercules in the 1950’s peplum strongman films to Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian the casting of “body beautifuls from the world of pro sports…has remained a practice in heroic fantasy movies” (Worley 166). This is due to the genre’s reliance upon the hero’s physical ability to overcome obstacles. Worley notes that since heroic fantasy setting is in “an age when it was natural to wear next to nothing, these movies have a better excuse than most to showcase the physical attributes of their stars” (171). All of the actors portraying Spartans are in picture perfect physical condition, and the historically inaccurate absence of body armor puts their physical prowess on nearly constant display.

Leonidas is the epitome of the warrior-king in the tradition of the heroic epic, kings who are still war-leaders because of the war-ridden times they inhabit. And not simply a leader who sits back and directs the battle from afar; Leonidas is pictured in the thick of the fight, in opposition to Xerxes, who watches it from a distance, on high. Leonidas, like Beowulf or King Conan, is required to excel in physical prowess “since it is the king himself who leads his war-band into battle, [fighting] in the forefront of his men, and unless he is a highly capable warrior and commander, his men are not likely to gain the victory” (Canitz 117). When Xerxes boasts that he would gladly sacrifice any of his army to secure a Spartan defeat, Leonidas replies, “And I would gladly die for any of mine”.

The Persian army presents the heroes of 300 with a challenge worthy of the fantasy hero. The Persians are portrayed as monstrous to be sure, and while this has been the source of much criticism, I would argue that it is misplaced. The graphic shorthand of both graphic novel and film accepts the classicist binary that the barbarians are the forces of darkness and enslavement, and that the Greeks, especially the Spartans, were the defenders of enlightenment” (Blackmore 327). This is not a commentary on modern Middle Eastern countries, and should not be construed as such. We must remember that the action is subjectively focalized through Dilios, and that in addition, if the hero has no challenge, no monster to defend those weaker than he against, he is reduced from champion to “an adolescent ideal—arrogant and irresponsible” (Alexander 33). Further, the superior physical prowess of the Spartans requires something more than human to present a challenge; in heroic fantasy, “to assert the superiority of the superhero and to win sympathy for him, enemies are made more cruel, no easy task given the protagonist’s own savagery” (Thompson 120). So the Persians boast a goat headed man, the orc-like Immortals, a rampaging giant, and a lobster clawed executioner, since mere human enemies are swept away before the Spartan advance. Only the mythic creatures in the Persian ranks present a challenge to Leonidas’ 300, signaling that we are dealing with mythic heroes, not historical figures. David Salo notes that Peter Jackson’s treatment of Lord of the Rings does much the same thing by emphasizing the monstrous Orcs and Uruk-hai so as to “portray the struggle in the book as primarily an attack by inhuman forces upon “The World of Men”…rather than one than also involves war and diplomacy between human countries and armies” (Salo 26).

In 300, the most horrible monster of all is not the communal identity of the Persian army, but rather Theron, the well-respected and high-ranking member of the Spartan Council who accepts bribes from the invading Persian army, coercively plots against Leonidas’ defense of Greece, rapes the Queen in return for letting her speak before the patriarchal Council, and then makes false accusations of her when she stands before them. The physical monstrosities of Xerxes’ armies pale by comparison. Like Heremod of Beowulf, Theron’s transgressions are the inverse of the heroic ideal; “A man ought not to slay his companions; he ought to keep his promises; he ought to maintain his companions’ loyalty by giving gifts; he ought to avenge his friend” while in complete contrast, “Heremod slew his companions, withheld treasure from his retainers, lived without joy” (O’Keefe 490-91).

[1] Boris Vallejo is a fantasy artist who illustrated a number of the Conan covers for Ballantine books. His work is characterized by a hyper-representational glossy look which looks almost airbrushed despite Vallejo’s use of traditional oil methods.


300. Dir. Zakk Snyder. Warner Brothers, 2006.

Alexander, Michael. trans. Beowulf: a Verse Translation. Harmondsworth Eng.: Penguin, 1973.

Blackmore, Tim. “300 and Two: Frank Miller and Daniel Ford Interpret Herodotus’ Thermopylae Myth” International Journal of Comic Art. 6. (2004): 325-349.

Canitz, A. E. C., “Kingship in Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied” Mankind Quarterly 27. (1986): 97-119.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Tales and the Question of Race in Fantastic Literature” Extrapolation. 37. 1996: 151-170.

Hainsworth, J.B. “Ancient Greek” Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry: Volume One-The Traditions. Ed. A.T. Hatto. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1980. 20-47.

Miller, Frank and Lynn Varley. 300. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, Inc., 1999.

O’Keefe, Katherine O’Brian. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 23. (1981), 484-94.

Salo, David. “Heroism and Alienation through Language in Lord of the Rings”, Eds. Driver Martha W., Sid Ray. The Medieval Hero On Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy Jefferson: McFarland, 2004. 23-37.

Thompson, Raymond H. The Return From Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings Jefferson: McFarlan & Company, Inc., 2005.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Magik Beans: Episodes 17 & 18

Only a day late with Episode 18, which has me all caught up on my backlog from the end of term. Here are the links and previews!

Episode 17: Riding Hareback

"Hold tight," was all Eostre had said, and Lara barely had a moment to wrap her arms around Eostre's neck and shoulders before the giant Leporid was off, bounding along the trail at a speed that blew back Lara's hair.

Episode 18: Guardians of the Tree

"And it's why you're going to help us stop the Redcoats, before they start a fire that could burn the whole tree to ashes," Jean said, his face a grim mask of determined fury.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Heroic Fantasy: An Overview

L. Sprague De Camp characterizes heroic fantasy as a genre where “men are mighty, women are beautiful, problems are simple, and life is adventurous” (De Camp 9). Lin Carter, a colleague of DeCamp’s explains the aficianados’ appellation to the genre as “Sword and Sorcery”, that school of fantastic fiction wherein the heroes are pretty much heroic, the villains thoroughly villainous, and action of the derring-do variety takes the place of sober social commentary or serious psychological introspection” (Carter xi).

Another difference between high fantasy and heroic fantasy is that it does not necessarily have to take place in an entirely magical otherworld; much of the genre is based in a pre, pseudo, or counterfactual historical setting, “in our world, on another planet, or in parallel universes” (Fredericks 99), depicting “full-scale re-creation of battles or military campaigns in some alternate or “legendary” context” (Slusser & Rabkin 2) and in this way. These contexts are largely medieval in a romantically primitive sense; “medievalism as a literary construction does not always mean medieval in the sense of a fixed period in Western history…the liberal use of magic and the existence of fabulous creatures like dragons are the most obvious examples of this” (DiTomasso 152). The writer of heroic fantasy is more concerned with how the setting allows for the heroic elements than for the harsh realities of the historical medieval period:

“In such a world, gleaming city raise their shining spires against the stars, sorcerers cast sinister spells from subterranean thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on the the bloody blades of broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural might and valor” (DeCamp in Worley 162).

It is this romantic-medievalist construction to which the storytellers of heroic fantasy must be true, since it “frequently forms the necessary and logical setting for much of fantastic literature” (DiTommaso 152). To deviate from this constructed world creates anachronistic moments in the text, written or visual. Some might cite the use of modern music in 300 as anachronistic, but it only is if it's purely historical. The presence of the symphonic metal soundtrack again connects the film to this genre, since a number of heroic fantasy artworks by Frank Frazetta were used by 70's metal bands, and many current metal groups align their artwork and sometimes lyrical content with the genre.

The genre is “inexorably linked to warfare” (Slusser & Rabkin 2), and as such characteristically more violent than high fantasy, not only because of the sword's semantic presence in “Sword and Sorcery”, but due to the epic model heroic fantasy is the modern descendant of:

“This heroic school of fantasy dates, of course, from remote antiquity and boasts an illustrious lineage. The prototypes of swordly-sorcerous swashbuckling can be clearly traced back to the voyagings of Odysseus, the adventures of Jason, the labors of Hercules, the wanderings of Aeneas, the explorations of Sinbad, the exploits of Beowulf, Siegfried, and St. George, and the chivalric questings of Amadis and Orlando, of Lancelot and Galahad” (Carter xi).

Each era of heroic epic and legend is concerned largely with physical struggle. As J.B. Hainsworth notes in his article on Ancient Greek traditions of heroic and epic Greek poetry, “The staple was martial exploits” (25). For an army, the greatest exploit was to assault and overwhelm an enemy’s fortifications; for the individual hero, “it was to slay a worthy opponent in single combat” (25). Kingly valor and physical prowess in armed combat were considered cornerstones in the Germanic heroic literature of both Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied (Canitz 100), set as they are during “the age of conquest” (118).

This physical struggle is key to the heroic fantasy; unlike epic fantasy, where personal courage is the heroes greatest asset, “heroic fantasy glorifies the physical” (Worley 171). In most heroic fantasy, this brawn is pitted against the brains of a physically inferior villain whose minions (variably magical beasts or thugs as stupid but not quite as brawny as the hero), a characteristic that makes the works appealing to children since the formula of brawn triumphing over brains “dispels feelings of displacement in a world of adult complexity by relating to the empowerment figure…who overcomes with fist or sword what he cannot overcome with his mind” (167-68). While critics of the genre have argued this makes heroic fantasy childish (168) and even Fritz Leiber, defender and writer of the genre admits that ““…there is an undeniably boyish element in all swordplay and sorcery fiction, even the most sophisticated or wickedly decadent” (4), we must be careful at this juncture to not dismiss the genre as useless:

“One cannot dismiss entire genres so casually, as critics originally did with the hard boiled school and as they now do with Sword-and-Sorcery…Essentially, these critics like elves but do not like barbarians. They applaud the notion of a character such as Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings overcoming great hardships to regain the crown of kingship that is his right by heritage, but they damn the Howardian barbarian such as Conan…for deposing corrupt monarchs and tearing the crown from their heads with their own blood-covered hands” (Knight 129).

The English Journal, rather than dismissing the genre has investigated it as “a metaphor for the human condition—ripe with mythic structures, heroic cycles , and social and religious commentary” (Thomas 60) while Katherine Bucher and Lee Manning applaud heroic fantasy for providing “adolescents with a feeling of overcoming the odds and being triumphant at a time when their own lives are often a series of “battles” that they lose or never even get to fight” (Bucher and Manning 136). And we cannot assume that only adolescent males feel a sense of powerlessness; however misguided the North American men’s movement may be, there is a clear indication of identity confusion and a sense of hunger, loneliness and unhappiness in many North American males (Torgovnick 167).

Heroic fantasy offers an escape into a world where life is written in large, bold strokes. While the real world is complex and dynamic, the world of heroic fantasy is simple and fixed:

“Loyalty, faith, identity are abstract schemas and have their own sense of reality, but in medieval movies we do not experience them in the abstract. They are, after all, real to the hero, in ways that cost him or her enormous pain. But our need to see the hero torn between loyalties, faiths, identities does not arise from sadism but from a need to be torn ourselves, transfixed inescapably by the necessity of doing what we must, believing as we do, being who we are. Medieval films, like most stories, are fables of identity but they are set in a harder world than ours where the demands of loyalty and faith are absolute.” (Woods 49).

Michael Rosenthal has suggested that the construction of identity in the postmodern context is achieved through the accumulation of multiple narratives (91). Postmodern narratives are primarily visual, and so the stories of film become building blocks for identity construction. Blackmore speculates that in 300, Frank Miller (and we can include by association Zakk Snyder once again) “is not so much recounting the story even according to the untrustworthy Herodotus as much as creating a model for heroism” (Blackmore 342) with Leonidas’s sacrifice as “a model of human selflessness and heroism to what he feels is a smug, self-congratulatory, selfish, twenty-first century America” (Blackmore 329). In the next post, we'll turn to an examination of 300 as heroic fantasy.

Works Cited

300. Dir. Zakk Snyder. Warner Brothers, 2006.

Blackmore, Tim. “300 and Two: Frank Miller and Daniel Ford Interpret Herodotus’ Thermopylae Myth” International Journal of Comic Art. 6. (2004): 325-349.

Bucher, Katherine T., and Manning, M. Lee. “A Boy’s Alternative to Bodice-Rippers” The English Journal. 89. (2000): 135-138.

Canitz, A. E. C., “Kingship in Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied” Mankind Quarterly 27. (1986): 97-119.

Carter, Lin: Introduction: Neomythology. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1976. xi-xxix.

DeCamp, L. Sprague. Introduction. Conan of Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter. Bantam Books, 1969. 9-12.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Tales and the Question of Race in Fantastic Literature” Extrapolation. 37. 1996: 151-170.

Herron, Don, Ed. The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard: A Critical Anthology. Gilette: Wildside Press, 1984.

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Knight, George. “Robert E. Howard: Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist” Herron 117-134.

Lieber, Fritz. “Howard’s Fantasy” Herron 3-15.

Rosenthal, Michael, “What was Postmodernism?” Socialist Review, 22. (1992): 83-105.

Slusser, George and Rabkin, Eric S. Eds. Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings Jefferson: McFarlan & Company, Inc., 2005.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

300: It ain't great history, but it's good fantasy (remix)

I posted this once already, but I did it without additions, and there was a bunch of trouble with the footnotes I tried to insert, so I've returned to MLA formatting, as well as inserted some more information.

A while back I promised I wouldn't do anymore serialized academic papers, but this one just begged a blow-by-blow.

Uri Margolin, my World Literature professor from last semester called Politically Correct speech the Inquisition without Religion, or the Inquisition without torture, or something to that effect. He compared it to the Inquisition, effectively saying that Politically Correct speech was stripping literature of everything that made it fun. All the violence, sex and naughty bits censored for the civilized, cultured academic. No Lysistrata with its proliferation of erect penises, no Illiad with gory battle scene after battle scene. I missed Uri a lot this semester.

This past semester I was enlightened by Said's Orientalism and a host of Donna Haraway's new age feminist manifestos (and for the record, I really enjoyed her Companion Species Manifesto), as well as a barrage of discussions about how the West can't represent the East (which effectively means no writing about any culture that isn't your own...Fennimore Cooper is a bad bad man by the standards of this course), and somewhere during a discussion about "representing the other" I finally snapped. In true Perschon style (I am third generation shit disturber) I decided to find a Politically Incorrect topic for my final paper.

When I presented my abstract, there was a disagreement over what my prof deemed the oversimplification of the material I was dealing with, and made a suggestion for a different approach, to which I replied, "No." Saying "No" became the theme of the paper, for better or for worse. I loved writing it, even though I'm not too sure about the ultimate quality of the work. Judge for yourselves. I'll post it all in serial, but I think each part stands of its own. The text you read here is the Director's Cut of the paper. It's the version with all the witticisms, rants, and musings that had no place in an academic paper. Hope you enjoy it, and if you can't agree with it, you will have by rejecting my thesis taken your own stand, said "No", or as the David Whyte would say, "zero."

Introduction – the controversy and the case for 300 as heroic fiction

Both the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Donna Stevens at the online magazine Slate have conflated the highly stylized action film 300 (which is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel recounting the events of the Battle of Thermopylae) with the current conflict in Iraq. Further, “Javad Shamqadri, art advisor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told Fars news agency that the film was an insult to Persian culture and in line with the American "psychological war" against Iran” (jurnalo.com). Dr. Hamed Vahdati Nasab, an archeologist at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, drafted a petition, “seeking an apology from Warner Bros., the studio behind 300” (Iranian.com). Nasab responded to “numerous claims pointing out that this movie is in a science fiction genre” by stating that the film cannot be called fiction when it “shows the actual events, places, and characters with their real names”. Vic Thiessen of the Canadian Mennonite stated that he felt the film was both "a work of art...one of the most visually stunning films ever made" and "a very dangerous film indeed" (10).

Yet in its opening weekend 300 reportedly made 70 million dollars (rottentomatoes.com), making it the first official blockbuster of 2007, and the largest opening box-office draw for a March release. Why is a film like 300 so popular given the current political situation in the Middle East? Is it tenable for someone concerned with conflict or racial issues to enjoy or find meaning or value in such a work? And is there anything valuable to be taken from such testosterone laden fantasies? Thiessen states that he "heard from young male Mennonites in North America (aged 18 to 28) that 300 is extremely popular--even in Mennonite academic settings--for this particular demographic" (10). Unlike Thiessen, I want to explore why this film is attractive to people whose religious beliefs are extremely pacifist, not simply to write the film off as dangerous; saying 300 is not good Mennonite fare is a no-brainer. Publishing an article about why it is seems like redundancy. Instead, like David Kahane at the National Review, I’m beginning to wonder “if a movie that has no stars, the look and feel of a video game, and the moral code of the U.S.M.C. might have something to say, even to audiences in New York and L.A.”, and perhaps to people who would never choose to actualize their resistance in the way Leonidas and his 300 do.

It isn’t good history, but it might be great fantasy

It’s interesting to note the detractors’ usage of language to critique the film. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post states that the film “betrays its comic book origins”, and that the use of slow motion is overdone “until it becomes comic” (C01) Hunter also adroitly notices that the action moves along “for reasons not historical but purely dramatic” (C01). Wesley Morris notes that “nothing seems approachably real. Even the blood is digital” (web). Gary Leupp begins his invective by informing his reader that he always takes in “the Hollywood period dramas set in ancient Greece or Rome” (counterpunch.org) and then launches into a lengthy diatribe regarding the current political outrage surrounding the film before returning to comparisons between Herodotus’ Histories and 300 the film. He states that Leonides is “cartoonish”. As with most of the critic’s historical-aesthetic complaints, the source of Leupp's problem with the film is that he assumed he was going to a historical war film.

The critics have it. And don’t have it. The animosity towards the picture (and by extension the graphic novel) may simply stem from a misappropriation of genre. Frank Miller’s 300 is not a work of historical fiction, nor is its film adaptation. As Greek critic Panayiotis Timoyiannakis[1] commented that “It's an adaptation of a comic to the big screen, and that's only how it should be judged” (iht.com). Frank Miller has stated in an interview that the film is based as much on Rudolph Mate’s 1962 film The 300 Spartans and that as an artist and writer he took “an awful lot of liberty with everything…if you want reality, watch a documentary” (chasingthefrog.com). Like Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation of Miller’s Sin City, Zakk Snyder's goal was to create dynamic, moving versions of the graphic novel’s panels.

It could be assumed that that term ‘comic’ in reference to comic book, is a genre of its own, but I would argue that the graphic novel is a medium of many genres in the same way film is. But Miller’s graphic novel is not a comic book in the traditional sense; the Spartans are not super or preternaturally strong, as in the case of Superman or Spiderman. They are akin to Homeric heroes, who are “normal human beings cast on a very large scale” (Hainsworth 27). Even when dealing with conventional superheroes such as Batman, the hero is ultimately human. A look through Miller’s works reveals that “In Miller’s world, only humans can be superheroes, and Leonidas is one of those beings” (Blackmore 327).

While at the very least, 300 is obviously fiction, “a story about stories...about the uses of myth, about the way different narrators in different times interpret the same fable for very different purposes; it is about the way we as readers choose to interpret texts now” (Blackmore 326), it is arguably a work of a very specific form of fantasy fiction, namely heroic fantasy. In an interview by Dan Vergano, Paul Carledge, author of Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World comments that while the film is rooted in history, “What the movie adds in is a slew of fantasy fiction, including scary monsters”. It was likely fantasy, not science fiction Dr. Nasab meant to reference when he made his statement that the film cannot be seen as a form of fiction, confusing (as many who are unfamiliar with the difference between these genres do) science fiction with fantasy. Nasab argues that a work using historical events and personages cannot be construed as a work of fiction; yet this is simply not the case, given the existence of both historical fiction, and its more fictional science fiction counterpart, the alternate history[2].

Heroic fantasy is neither traditional nor alternate history; though someone might wish to include Robert Howard’s Conan series as alternate history[3], given that it takes place in a prehistoric Europe. In the case of the Hyborian world, the secondary world of the narrative is “made familiar through the author’s use of historical cultures from Earth to lend a degree of reality for the reader, a sense of understanding, and a sense of place” (Stypczynski 453). C.N. Manlove includes this sense of something slightly familiar in his definition of fantasy literature: “A fiction evoking wonder and containing a substantial and irreducible element of supernatural or impossible worlds, beings or objects with which the mortal characters in the story or the readers become on at least partly familiar terms…“…the concern of fantasy is not with the minutely faithful record for the sake of fidelity to fact, but with the strange individuality that comes from making things strange and luminous with independent life in a fantastic setting” (iv).

Heroic fantasy, unlike mythopoetic fantasy or “high fantasy: as it will be referred to for the remainder of this paper, does not involve “a larger supernatural conflict” (Thompson 114) as many assume fantasy must be, based upon the domination of popular understandings of the fantasy genre by works such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In Manlove’s terms, the supernatural elements are toned down. Heroic fantasy is more concerned with “the extent to which the protagonists are prepared to follow the standards of conduct that they hold dear” (Thompson 114). In this, the genre is thoroughly modern, pitting the strength and ability of the individual against their conflict, with their allegiances to personal standards or loyalties; contrary to accusations which type heroic literature as “fascist” (Alpers in Frederickss 104), sword-and-sorcery “offers highly personal philosophies and individualistic points of view and tries to make its readers more exuberant, more intense about life in our real world of the present” (Fredericks 120).

[1] The lone voice of Greek support amidst a group of critics who were equally unimpressed with the presentation of Greece’s ancient battles such as Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy and Oliver Stone’s Alexander. It is interesting to note that the Iranian government was nonplussed by the depiction of Persian defeat in Alexander as well. It would seems neither ancestral side of the Thermopylae event likes the way America portrays their past, however mythic that past might be. One wonders whether the recent cinematic treatment of Xerxes as Fabio-clone in One Night With the King has met with Persian/Iranian approval.

[2] Despite the precedent of a general lack of academic interest, the genre of alternate history has garnered a good deal of attention recently as a popular phenomenon. Gavriel Rosenfeld cites the decentralization of political ideology in the West, the emergence of postmodernism, recent scientific trends such as chaos theory and evolutionary biology, the advent of cyberspace and virtual reality, the “speculative sensibility” of pop culture (where narratives do not simply mirror reality, but “explore alternatives to it”) and the impact of the entertainment revolution on the popular presentation of history as contributing factors to this popularity (8-10). One might even be tempted to say that since “historical representation is dependent in practice on the representability of events and not on their reality as such” (Ryan 3) then all histories could be considered alternate histories. As Mary Gentle observes, we do not recover the past, but represent it using “a collection of fallible memories, inconvenient documents, disconcerting new facts, and solemn cultural bedtime stories” (Turtledove, Stirling, Gentle and Rigney 233). Herodotus himself engaged in a form of alternate history by speculation concerning the “possible consequences of the Persians defeating the Greeks at Marathon in the year 490 B.C.E., while the Roman historian Livy wondered how the Roman empire would have fared against the armies of Alexander the Great” (Rosenfeld 5).

[3] In regards to writing his Conan novels, Howard said, “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction” (Knight 118).


Associated Press. “Greek critics lash Hollywood’s ancient epic ‘300’.” International Herald Tribune March 8, 2007.

Blackmore, Tim. “300 and Two: Frank Miller and Daniel Ford Interpret Herodotus’ Thermopylae Myth” International Journal of Comic Art. 6. (2004): 327.

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982, 104.

Hainsworth, J.B. “Ancient Greek” Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry: Volume One-The Traditions. Ed. A.T. Hatto. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1980. 27.

Herron, Don, Ed. The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard: A Critical Anthology. Gilette: Wildside Press, 1984.

Hunter, Stephen. “’300’: A Losing Battle in More Ways than 1” Washington Post. Friday, March 9, 2007. C01.

Kahane, David. “300 Shocker: Hollywood takes a detour to reality.” National Review Online April 2007.

Knight, George. “Robert E. Howard: Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist” Herron 117-134

Leupp, Gary. “300 vs. Iran (and Herodotus).” Counterpunch. March 31-April 1 2007.

Manlove, C.N. The Impulse of Fantasy Literature. London: Macmillan, 1983, iv.

Morris, Welsey. “300 Movie Review: Sweating it Out at the Hot Gates.” The Boston Globe March 9, 2007 - April 2007.

Nasab, Hamed Vahdati. “Bad History, worse timing” Iranian.com, April 2007.

Rosenthal, Michael, “What was Postmodernism?” Socialist Review, 22. (1992): 83-105.

Stypczynkski, Brent. “No Roads Lead to Rome: Alternate History and Secondary Worlds.” Extrapolation. 46, (2005) 453.

Thompson, Raymond H. The Return From Avalon: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985, 114.

Turtledove, Harry, S.M. Stirling, Mary Gentle, and Walter Jon Williams. Worlds That Weren’t New York: ROC, 2003, 233

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Magik Beans Episodes 15 & 16

Missing the past two weeks of Magik Beans really irked me. So I posted on Monday AND Thursday this week and will do the same next week to get caught up. There's too much story to tell before the summer ends, and this fall starts a new storyline. My apologies to everyone for missing the updates, but finishing the semester was all-consuming.

Here are the previews with links.

Episode 15: Here's the Easter Bunny, Hooray!

Eostre looked down at the thing on her shoulder, and turned into the light. Lara gasped. The creature reminded her of an armadillo, with the series of ivory colored plates all along it's round body, but it was nearly spherical, aside from a bloody bony fin jutting from the top of it's back.

Episode 16: To Grandmother's House We Go

Wherever they were, it wasn't the North Pole. The air was warm, like the best summer's nights when it's just warm enough to be out without a coat, and cool enough that you need to wear something longer than shorts. There was a slight wind blowing, and he could hear leaves and boughs rustling and swaying.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A sigh of relief

I handed in the last paper of my M.A. coursework today. While I was walking through the virtually empty University campus, my thoughts went back four years to my first courses at the University; not the education ones, but the beginning of my journey towards graduate studies. And what a long and arduous journey it has been. This is the first time in four years I haven't been going into a spring session. Four years ago I took the first class toward getting into graduate studies at the University. Each year I took 2-3 classes per semester, every semester excluding summer.

When I finally got into graduate studies last fall, I was required to go full time. This past year has felt like 2 years as a result. I was shocked to think that last year at this time I was going into my last two undergraduate courses in a spring session. And now, a year later, I only have my thesis left to write.

I'm taking May off from working on school, at least actively. I'm sure I'll be thinking about my thesis, but I need to just take a break. I wrote 60 pages of research papers in the past three weeks. All I want to do for a while is read what I really want, watch some movies, go for walks with my family, take Gunnar for bike rides, and lay in the hammock. I want to get yardwork done, update my photo essays here at the blog, and catch up on Magik Beans. I want to finally play the expansion I got for Arkham Horror from Jenica at Christmas. I want to read the Bible, do some meditating, listen for God.

I'm taking a break dammit.

**breathes sigh of relief**