content by

Michael Livingston

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Pilgrims and Rocks and the Origins of Thanksgiving

I intended to write an “origins of Thanksgiving” post last year, but the release of The Gates of Hell and day-job matters got in the way. I promised in a subsequent “Origins of Xmas” post that I’d do it next year, which a reader has reminded me is now this year … so here we go!

When we think of the historical origins of Thanksgiving, we tend to get an image like the one above.Praying Pilgrims and helpful Indians, amirite? By now we’ve distilled the images even further into simple symbolism that pre-school kids can craft in construction paper. For the pilgrims: black hats with buckles upon them. For the Indians: loincloths and feathered headbands. Turkey with gravy on the table, and nostalgia about peace amid a religiosity of thankfulness.

It’s all lovely, and I quite like Thanksgiving, but its important to distinguish our modern conceptions from the historical realities. Because as quaint as our images are of that “First Thanksgiving,” they’re pretty much all wrong.

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Series: Medieval Matters

Getting Medieval on Medieval Times

What do you get a medievalist for his (mumble)-second birthday?

A trip to the Middle Ages!


That’s right. My awesome wife—ahem, sorry, my lady—took me to Medieval Times, a dinner and entertainment show with “knights” and “swords” and … well, every noun in this article will probably need to be in quotation marks if I keep this up.

[Booze, rotisserie dragon, and a fight to the death!]

Series: Medieval Matters

History, Fantasy, and Weird Armor: Ladyhawke

I ran a poll a few months ago about which medieval movie folks wanted to see me to take on next, and the answer (by a thin margin) was Ladyhawke (1985), the classic fairy tale reimagining with Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer, and Matthew Broderick. Thank the gods y’all didn’t set me onto Braveheart.

First, you should know that I’m not going to analyze this film’s deeper meanings. That’s not my shtick here. Leah Schnelbach already gave you just such an article, and it’s amazing.

This will stick to historical criticism, and we’ll still have plenty to talk about. Sorry/not sorry.

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Series: Medieval Matters

Better Fiction Through Technology: Reconstructing the Lost City of Petra

I was 13 years old when I first became fascinated by the famous “Lost City” of Petra: about a week after its release, my parents took me to the movie theater and I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Oh man, did I love that movie. Even today it’s in my list of top-ten favorite films. The acting, the direction, the music, the plot, the characterization, and even that meat-slap sound whenever Indy hit a bad guy… dang, I want to punch a Nazi just thinking about it. [Read more]

Jason Momoa Meets Robert E. Howard: Conan the Barbarian (2011 Remake)

So, Justice League is coming out soon. I’m semi-excited since (1) I friggin loved Wonder Woman, and (2) I hated most of the other DC movies. I’ll probably be seeing Justice League, though. Mostly because (1) I have a crush on Gal Gadot, and (2) my wife has a crush on Jason Momoa—though she does want me to note, for the record, that she likes the frontiers-y Momoa more than the clean-cut version. YMMV.

Anyway, in honor of this coming appearance of The Momoa, I sat down to watch 2011’s Conan the Barbarian, a remake of the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film — this time starring Momoa as the titular hero from Robert Howard’s pulp-age novels. It was Momoa’s first big starring movie role, helped him land his fame-making role in Game of Thrones, and is your chance to see Khal Drogo Aquaman Conan shove his finger into a noseless man’s face.

[So let’s head on back to the Hyborian Age…]

Series: Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: Game of Thrones and the Problem with Dragonstone

So “Dragonstone,” this season’s first episode of HBO’s enormously popular series Game of Thrones, was a welcome relief from too many months without our beloved characters. I enjoyed it, as I always do. Good times.

There’s one part, though, that was a bit of a shit show.

And no, I don’t mean Sam’s montage or Ed Sheeran’s cameo.


Series: Medieval Matters

Is Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Based on Cleopatra?

Since I’m not only a passionate fan of both George R.R. Martin’s powerful A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s remarkable Game of Thrones television series, but also a historian of the Middle Ages and of medieval military warfare in particular, I found myself watching with much interest the HBO special The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, which is on the final disc of the Season 5 collection. It’s a terrific special, featuring both Martin and the show’s producers but also a few excellent historians for color commentary.

Anyway, along the way one of the historians made the claim that Daenerys Targaryen is based upon Cleopatra. Since my novel The Shards of Heaven features the Egyptian queen as a character, I confess that the notion of using her in literature resonates with me.

But how well does she fit here? Is the Mother of Dragons the Pharaoh in disguise?

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Medieval Matters: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and Mullets

After my review of the 2003 movie Timeline, I asked Twitter (@medievalguy) what film I should look at next. The winner, by a slim margin, was the 1985 film Ladyhawke.

Alas, I’m having unexpected trouble finding a copy of that flick in my library. So while I get that sorted out, I’m going to go ahead and knock out the runner-up in internet voting: Kevin Costner’s 1991 film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, directed by Kevin Reynolds. (But Ladyhawke will come, y’all. I promise!)

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Series: Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: Timeline is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Film

A reader suggested I review the 2003 movie Timeline. I agreed, mostly because I couldn’t remember anything about the film.

That should have been a clue.

Let me start with the conclusion: Don’t watch this movie. In fact, you’d probably do well not to even bother reading this review. Because it’s bad, people. (The movie, not the review. I hope.)

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Series: Medieval Matters

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.

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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.

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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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