Archive | May, 2013

Legend of the Lionheart

30 May

The myth of the hero king, Richard I of England, is a powerful one. He was known as Richard Cœur de Lion (‘the Lion-hearted), even before his accession to the throne, because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior. By the age of just sixteen, Richard had taken command of his own army, putting down rebellions in Poitou against his father, King Henry II. Richard was a central Christian commander during the Third Crusade, leading the campaign after the departure of Philip II of France and scoring considerable victories against his Muslim counterpart, Saladin, although he did not succeed in re-conquering Jerusalem itself. Although, during his ten year reign, he spent hardly any of his time actually in his own country (he barely spoke English), he remains an iconic figure – one of the few kings of England remembered by his epithet, rather than regnal number. An heroic statue of Richard I was erected outside the Palace of Westminster and his deeds, both real and imagined, are remembered in song, story and folk tale to this day. Just this year, French scientists conducted a study of the mummified heart of Richard I. The relic, rediscovered beneath the choir in Rouen cathedral in the 19th Century, was analysed using the very latest forensic techniques in order to rule out any conspiracy theories that he was poisoned. In fact, the state of this mummified heart revealed that the crusader king had deep concerns for his soul – it was soaked in frankincense, suggesting that the monarch feared that his many acts of treachery and brutality might exclude him from the kingdom of heaven. How much truth is there, therefore, in the legend of the lionheart? Was Richard I truly the greatest warrior in Christendom or simply an absent king?

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Manga: The Enigma of Anime

16 May

‘Manga’ is now officially defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘Japanese genre of cartoons, comic books and science fiction films, typically with a science fiction or fantasy theme (the Japanese definition is slightly different, but more on that anon). Since the days of Akira, quality Japanese animation has been delivered to the West by a company that liked the medium so much it named itself after it. Manga Entertainment saw the future in Akira, snapped up the cinema and video rights to the film, tried it out on Western audiences, and in the process brought a whole new world to the English lexicon. Since then, Manga Entertainment has brought many of Japan’s best cartoons to the rest of the world: as well as Akira, other seminal manga films included Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll. If you’re yet to take the plunge into manga, think big – big robots, big explosions and big future cities. In terms of mood and atmosphere, films like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Kill Bill and Sin City probably best capture the tone of manga on the big screen – typically anything where the old-fashioned themes of westerns and gangster movies are transplanted into a futuristic or ultra-modern setting. As these films illustrate, the impact of manga on global SF and fantasy in recent years has been humungous – Japanese animation now seems almost to be the medium of choice for auteur directors and fantasy/SF fans all over the world.

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Rites of Spring

1 May

In the words of Emily Dickinson: “A little madness in the spring be wholesome even for the king” and, indeed, all over the world this season seems to be perpetually associated with madness, magic and mysticism. In the western world, spring is associated with two festivals in particular: May Day and Beltane. Traditionally an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations, the pagan festival of May Day lost its religious character when much of Europe became Christianized. However, it still remained a national holiday in many countries and in the 20th and 21st centuries many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again. Also revived in recent years was the Celtic festival of Beltane (or ‘Bel’s fire’, named in honour of the deity Belenus), when fires were lit to signal the beginning of summer. However, spring festivals are by no means limited to Europe – in India the season sees the celebration of the raucous festival of colours known as Holi; Akitu was the spring festival in ancient Mesopotamia; and in Vietnam the celebration of Tet in February marks both the New Year and the beginning of spring. After a winter that (at least on this side of the pond) seems to have gone on forever, now seems the perfect time to celebrate the rites of spring.

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