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Michael Livingston

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Medieval Matters: The Great Wall, White Saviors, and Lizard Dogs from Space

Strictly speaking, The Great Wall of China isn’t a single wall. It’s a complex network of walls, barracks, watch-towers, and other fortifications, and construction on early versions of it might’ve begun more than 2500 years ago. Each of these successive works was, for its time, an astonishing feat of engineering—even if none of them were ever, as the myth goes, visible from space. All of them shared a common purpose, which was to help defend the northern states of China against invasions from various peoples of the Eurasian steppes in and around what is today Mongolia.

This is not quite the story told by Zhang Yimou’s 2016 film The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, and Andy Lau—most especially because the real Great Wall has nothing to do with a meteor and rage-fueled lizard dogs from space.

[Read more]

Series: Medieval Matters

The Medieval Origins of Easter

Back in December, I wrote an article about “The Medieval Origins of Xmas.” Among other things, we took aim at the timing of the holiday and that jolly ol’ heretic-puncher, St. Nick.

Today, it’s time to put the Easter Bunny in our cross-hares. (rimshot)

Have you ever wondered just what a rabbit has to do with the resurrection of Jesus? Or what the word “Easter” really means? And, for that matter, what’s with all the eggs? Could it be, as Jon Stewart once wondered, that it’s because Jesus was allergic to eggs?

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Series: Medieval Matters

Getting Medieval on Game of Thrones

As my fellow medievalists around the world will attest, telling people that you specialize in the Middle Ages (roughly dated from 500 to 1500 CE) is a decent way to start up a conversation with strangers. Few people that I meet aren’t fascinated with the medieval period, and they almost always have a question or two they want to ask an expert about the “real” Middle Ages.

These days, that means questions about Game of Thrones, HBO’s stratospherically popular television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s staggeringly popular series of epic fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. Millions of readers anxiously await Martin’s sixth volume in the book series, and millions more viewers recently wrapped up the fifth season of the television series. Combined, the works are now a cultural touchstone, one that is branded—both by its own advertising and by the media and mainstream popular culture—as a “medieval” series. So the question I’m asked more than any other these days is this:

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Five Amazing Women Warriors of the Middle Ages

So I watched Batman v Superman. You don’t need a medievalist wandering through your digital space just to pile on with the many things that went wrong with the film, so instead let me say this:

In a dark world of brooding boys, Wonder Woman’s every moment on screen was like the light of a sun threatening to break through the clouds. There were many reasons for this (number one: Gal Gadot is a terrific actress), but what struck me as I was watching the film was the fact that Wonder Woman seemed to be the only person on screen with a clear sense of purpose. No brooding and self-doubt and angst and what-not for her: Wonder Woman knows exactly who she is.

And who she is, obviously, is a woman who kicks ass.

[Read more]

Series: Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: The 13th Warrior and Language Barriers

I remember excitedly sitting down in the theater to watch The 13th Warrior when it came out in 1999. As a medievalist I get pumped about most big-budget quasi-medieval films (and, yes, a lot of low-budget ones, too!), but this one had me more excited than usual.

First, it was directed by John McTiernan. Despite some occasional career blunders, he’s helmed both Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990). That’s good for something.

Second, the movie was based on Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, a novel that was, in turn, based on both the great Old English epic Beowulf and the very real account of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s embassy to the Volga Bulgars on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad in the year 922. As a Muslim outsider, Ibn Fadlan recorded much of what he saw with what was, at times, a kind of horrified fascination. The resulting book (and thus the other source Crichton used) is called the Risala, and it’s most famous for Ibn Fadlan’s eyewitness account of the ship-burial of a king among the Rus—a band of Vikings who plied their trade along the Volga River and (fun fact alert!) ultimately gave their name to Russia.

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Series: Medieval Matters

Robert Jordan: The American Tolkien

Please enjoy this encore post on Robert Jordan’s legacy, originally published May 2016.

In 2005, Lev Grossman of Time Magazine declared that George R. R. Martin was “the American Tolkien.” Since then, you’ll be able to find the phrase splashed on just about every one of Martin’s wonderful novels.

And for good reason, of course. That’s a really awesome blurb. I’d love it on my own novels. Or how about just “the American Pullman”? I would be totally cool with that, Mr. Grossman!

Unfortunately, I think that my series The Shards of Heaven—while it follows Philip Pullman’s superb His Dark Materials in ultimately positing a new origin story for the gods—would not be the right fit for the comparison. Pullman’s series is a parallel world fantasy fundamentally in dialogue with John Milton, William Blake, and C. S. Lewis; my series is a historical fantasy set during the time of Antony and Cleopatra that dialogues with history, legend, and myth. He and I are really doing different things. And the same kind of differentiation is true, I think, of Martin and Tolkien. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire might exist in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings—I’ve written elsewhere about its quasi-“medieval” setting—but they are tremendously different works in tone, scale, and intent. As terrific as his work is (and, seriously, you can put down the pitchforks if you’re a fan of Westeros), George R. R. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien.

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The Medieval Origins of Xmas

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the medieval origins of Halloween. It was a fun piece that folks seemed to enjoy, and I fully intended on following it up with an article on the origins of Thanksgiving goodies—which aren’t medieval but are pretty darn fascinating nonetheless.

Then my latest novel was published (yay!), a related novella came out (double yay!), I finished the forthcoming last novel in the Shards of Heaven sequence (triple yay!), and then got utterly swamped by the living hell that is the end of the semester for both students and professors (boo!). So Thanksgiving will have to wait another year (double boo!). Now that grades are in, though, I’m smelling mulled cider on the stove, seeing mistletoe in the entryway, and hearing carols carried upon the wind. It’s Christmas time, so let’s talk about some of the origins behind my favorite holiday.
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Series: Medieval Matters

The Medieval Origins of Halloween

We’ve been knee-deep in pumpkin spice for weeks, now, which means (1) Starbucks may be part of a secret cabal intent on world domination through tasty means, and (2) Halloween is nigh. We all know what Halloween is these days—costumes and candy, pumpkins and fright nights—but that doesn’t mean the holiday makes sense. Sure, it’s fun to play dress-up and eat buckets of candy, but how did such a strange tradition start? Why do we do it on the same day every year? In short, where did this whole Halloween thing come from?

Well, like most awesome things (the medievalist said with all the bias), it begins in the Middle Ages.

[How? Let’s start with the word and see…]

Series: Medieval Matters

The Gates of Hell

Alexandria has fallen, and with it the great kingdom of Egypt. Cleopatra is dead. Her children are paraded through the streets in chains wrought of their mother’s golden treasures, and within a year all but one of them will be dead. Only her young daughter, Cleopatra Selene, survives to continue her quest for vengeance against Rome and its emperor, Augustus Caesar.

To show his strength, Augustus Caesar will go to war against the Cantabrians in northern Spain, and it isn’t long before he calls on Juba of Numidia, his adopted half-brother and the man whom Selene has been made to marry—but whom she has grown to love. The young couple journey to the Cantabrian frontier, where they learn that Caesar wants Juba so he can use the Trident of Poseidon to destroy his enemies. Perfidy and treachery abound. Juba’s love of Selene will cost him dearly in the epic fight, and the choices made may change the very fabric of the known world.

The Gates of Hell is the follow up to Michael Livingston’s Shards of Heaven, a historical fantasy that reveals the hidden magic behind the history we know, and commences a war greater than any mere mortal battle. Available November 15th from Tor Books.

[Read an Excerpt]

Parke Godwin and the Historical Fantasy of King Arthur

My first novel has its paperback release in a few weeks, and the hardback release of its sequel comes a couple of weeks after that. It’s an astonishing time, but it’s also humbling: more and more I find myself scanning and rescanning my bookshelves, reading the names of the amazing authors whose words continue to teach me so much about what I do today.

There’s J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, who first exposed me to the glory of a world of imagination steeped in myth.

There’s Robert Jordan, who opened new and enchanting vistas at just the right time in my life.

[But perhaps one author stands out more than any other…]

Series: Medieval Matters

Trollhunter: Fun with Found Footage!

One of the great things about being a professor of matters medieval is being able to enjoy how the Middle Ages pops into our popular culture in a variety of interesting ways. It’s an extra level of entertainment, and helps to explain the happy feeling I got when I watched the 2010 film Trollhunter, which I’ll be introducing to you today.

You may not have heard of this film, and honestly that’s a real shame. In my considered opinion, Trollhunter is, simply put, the finest “found footage” mockumentary about hunting trolls in modern Norway that has ever been made. Period.

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Series: Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: Gods of Egypt

I can’t sleep on planes, okay?

Doesn’t matter how long the flight is, or how much I want to do it, I just can’t manage to sleep on planes. The problem cropped up again for me this summer, as I was flying back and forth from my home here in the sunny United States to the International Medieval Congress in the not-so-sunny United Kingdom.

I point this out not to seek pity, but to seek forgiveness. Because when it was 4am over the middle of an ocean and I hadn’t slept and I’d watched all the in-flight movies that were any good… well, I broke down and watched Gods of Egypt.

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Series: Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: Warcraft

So let’s get this out of the way: Remember those parts of a video game where gameplay pauses and you can’t just skip through the cut scene that follows? You know the ones; the game makers spent a lot of time and money making that scene, and by the CG gods they’re going to make you watch every high-resolution second of it.

That’s pretty much what the Warcraft movie is. For two hours.

And you know what? For what it is, as popcorn fare, it was fantasy fun with a wee dose of unexpected emotional connections. (Unexpected, that is, if I didn’t know going in that the film was directed and co-written by Duncan Jones, known to me for his brilliant Moon.) But this isn’t a movie review. Alasdair Stuart already gave you one of those.

This is, instead, the account of what happens when a medievalist watches a quasi-medieval movie.

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Series: Medieval Matters