Sunday, August 26, 2012

Things I learned from the Táin.

Of all the texts to which I find myself going back, over and over and over again, the Táin Bó Cualigne is the foremost in my library. It is also the single oldest actual book that I own; well that is expressly Celtic in nature, as I picked in up in my first year when doing a minor in Celtic Studies seemed like a viable option for my then career goals. My copy is a little under 10 years old, and while I am very protective and particular about my books, its age does show. The crease along the spine, the accidentally dog eared corners, the multicoloured flags which protrude at sharp angles, marking my favourite bits. This text was, among other things, my first real introduction to Celtic lit. And the great thing about the text itself, is that no matter how many times I have read it, I still manage to find something new with each turn.

To this day, I still wish that at some point in the future Zach Snyder or Frank Miller will catch a whiff of it and make a 300 style version of it. For Snyder, the book lends itself to cinematic duels or glorious battles; I think of all that was done with 300, the hypermasculinity, the over the top gore, the wholly pointless sex scene and subplots and then look at the Tain and think, the whole thing is ready made for a big screen adaptation. Miller, well he'll finally have a female character he won't have to over sexualize because its difficult to outdo Medb in that regard, and it has an inborn misogyny to boot! I'm still kind of hoping that "Hound" will eventually get made, despite my misgivings about trying to make Cú into a figure who "realizes the futility of war". You can have anti-war narratives, you can have actual epics which very well may have been written specifically as anti-war stories (Caroline Alexander does an admirable job of arguing this point about the Illiad). The Ulster Cycle, however, and the Tain in particular, are not and can not be interpreted as such. Does my desire to see Cú on the big screen outweigh my desire for things to be as they are? Well I know if they released it, I'd see it. Mind, since its got two very big things going for it, the Irish mythic narrative coupled with the fact that it would be animated; it is a combination i would find hard to resist.

Getting back on track though, things I learned from the Tain:

Don't fuck with Dog Boy

Blunt, crude, but none the less true. Regardless of his prowess, which is shown time and time again. Regardless of the fact that Fergus and the other Ulster exiles extol Cú's prowess and skill, men keep challenging him, and end up in the ground. Eventually Aillil and Medb figure this out, and have to resort to getting various warriors sloshed, and then promising them their daughter and a dowry to boot, to get men to fight Cúchulain in single combat. There is of course, outside the single combats, untold slaughter throughout the narrative, and the hyperbole is in fine form, most notably "The sixfold slaughter", where the number killed matches the grains of sand on a beach, or number among the stars. Depopulating the entirety of the country of Ireland not withstanding, Cú is not someone you want to find yourself opposed to on a battlefield.

Brushing off goddesses is a terrible idea

Now, this is a little bit of a cheat, since one of the tales is a "fore tale" (remscéla), but it has such a lasting impact on the events of the Táin, that it is referenced several times. I refer of course to the "pangs of the Ulstermen" or "Macha's curse". Macha, clearly an otherworldly figure, marries a (guy) and settles down. The guy is a twit, and openly brags that his wife could outrun Conchobar's horses. This is of course overheard and he is forced to have his wife, who is heavy with child, to run a race against said horses, or have her husband killed. She begs not to be forced to run, but Choncobar in a shining example of his baser self, forces her to do so. She runs, wins, and then immediately goes into labour. She curses the Ulstermen, that in their darkest hour, their moment of greatest need, they will all be afflicted with the pains of a woman in birth. Macha proceeds to give birth to two horses, and then dies. The message is pretty clear though, and the consequences of Choncobars cruelty is dire. Of course, there is also an argument to be made that given the nature of boasts, and of the honour of the king being sullied by not meeting such a boast, plus the idea of the 'pangs" as a literary device which brings all the more honour to Cú himself (facilitating the need for him to be a one man army), Conchobar can certainly be a more morally complex character than my above critique allows for. Hooray for multifaceted understanding!

The second, and probably more widely known, is Cú's rejection of An Morrigan. The whole scenario appears to be the worse for An Morrigan, as she winds up disfigured, and is only able to be restored by Cúchulain himself, and then only through a ruse. This is true enough, but one must also keep in mind the lesson above, DFWC. It has been established through the tales, and again owing to scribal enhumerization, that humans can overcome and defeat the gods. I am suspicious at this more literal understanding, and doubt to a large degree that this idea was in fact pre-Christian. Now, on the other hand, heroes do fight and defeat otherworldy figures on a regular basis, and Cu is a perfect example of that. That the exemplary tribal hero is able to withstand not only his countrymen, but the gods themselves, is simply the extreme end of his function. The initial set up, however, bears some consideration as well; An Morrigan approaches Cú in the guise of a beautiful woman, proclaims her love for him, offers her assistance, and only when mockingly rejected does she threaten him. The interpretation of this scene I tend to favour, follows that as Cú is in essence the ultimate warrior, and An Morrigan presides over war and slaughter, that she would naturally be drawn to him, seek him out and offer Cú her patronage. Cú rejects this offer, and since there are those wonderful misogynistic overtones, does so in a pretty mocking way. An Morrigan rankles at being spurned, and subsequently causes a lot of difficulty for Cú shortly thereafter.

The overall lessons in both of these narrations, is one which can be gleaned from almost any of the tales where humans interact with the gods; cooperation is mutually beneficial and animosity is mutually destructive. Spurning goddesses is a terrible idea.

Words are powerful

The Tain proper starts off with a narrative usually called "the pillow talk", in which Medb and Aillil compare their fortunes, and results in Medb seeking the loan of the Donn Culaigne. A deal is brokered, everyone on both sides are happy, and then a man too deep into his cups remarks that its just as well that everything worked out, because they would have taken the bull by force. This gets back to (owner of the Donn) and he is understandably pissed; subsequently he rejects the offer, and Medb tries to take the bull by force. Thousands die, because a guy made a stupid (but none the less true) boast. Thousands die because of a few simple words, and the matter of honour and pride.

No one blames the (guy); Medb agrees with the fellow, and does precisely as he said she would. This does not, though, alter the fact that a few words can have dire consequences. The lesson then is that one should speak carefully at all times, lest they say something they can no longer take back.

Men can cry

I've already written on this particular subject, but it bears repeating that the concept of masculinity which is divorced from emotion, let alone openly grieving, is something foreign to Irish mythology. No where is this more apparent than in what could arguably be the climax of the Tain itself, and certainly is of the single combats, Cú's fight with his foster brother Ferdia. Cú, the consummate warrior who has met every challenge with bravado, even gusto, balks at the idea of fighting Ferdia. Not because he is afraid of Ferdia, but because he loves him, and it is only through trickery and the cruelty of fate that these two are now forced to face each other. The battle is bloody, brutal and much noble blood is spilled. Cú comes out on top in the end, but the cost is heavy. He openly weeps for having to have killed Ferdia, curses Aillil and Medb, and laments that such a noble soul is now gone from the world. Yet, despite the tragic nature and open weeping, there is no derision within the narrative, no chiding, snide remarks about how real mean don't cry or Cú should instead of grieving, "grow a pair". The honesty and sincerity with which the greatest ass-kicker in Irish history mourns his fallen brother is something seldom seen in modern fare, and I think is something which is sorely lacking.

Microcosmogony... probably

We, as GRP's unfortunately lack a cosmogenic narrative, and have to settle for the bits scattered through literature or the ones authors have reconstructed. One of the neat things about the Táin, though, is that it provides numerous examples of place name (and often features) origin narratives, in the same tradition which would later be dominated by the dindsenchas. Bruce Lincholn, for example, makes a compelling case for interpreting the battle between the two bulls, Finnbhennach and Donn Cuailnge, as reflective of the primordial sacrifice found in other IE cosmogenic narratives, if in the inverse (Death, War, and Sacrifice, pg. 38.) As such, the dismemberment of Finnbhennach at the horns of Donn, and the casting of his body parts over the landscape, recreates on a microcosmic scale, the original sacrifice in a theoretical cosmogenic myth. Added to this is the remscéla "The Quarrel of the Two Swinherds" (De Chopur in dá Muccida), indicates that both bulls were originally men of the otherworld who had been engaged in a contest with one another, taking mirror forms of one another, again possibly harkening back to the primordial twin motif. As such, and as the text is one of the oldest known, the tantalizing glimpses are primarily conjecture, but certainly supported by a comparison with other stories as well as those from other, but related, cultures.

Divine Intervention, yes it can happen

Considering an eariler point of dicsussion was about goddesses getting involved in the affairs of mortals, this seems redundant, except that in this case divine intervention is a literal occurance. Cúchulain, having not slept between Smahian and Imbolc, is wounded and weary. Lugh appears then, and offers to hold back the armies for three days and nights, in Cú's stead. This is a rather unique situation, as such direct divine support is not something which occurs very often in the texts. I thnk in this case it reinforces the special status of Cúchulain, and so reading too much into the idea of divine intervention as an active force is, I think, unwarranted. Something else to consider is the idea that Cúchulain is a reincarnation of Lugh; sort of difficult to grasp if the deity Cu's is supposed to be an earthly incarnation of, has just shown up to lend a long hand. Sort of encroaching into trinatarianism with this, but something to think about anyway.

This is but a handful of interesting and, for me anyway, relevant concepts explored throughout the Táin. I'm sure that there are many other things to add to this list, like the plethora of puns and one liners which are replete during the single combats. I do realize that some folks simply dislike Cúchulain for a number of legitimate reasons, but I simply can not bring myself to do likewise. Guess in the end I'm simply a fanboy at heart.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

We're here not for a long time, but a good time.

I've come across a lot of stereotypes and falsehoods when it comes to Paganism, both ancient and modern. There is, however, one accusation, or assumption, which tends to come out as often, if not more often, than that of vapidness; hedonism.

There is this idea, that Pagans were (are) only ever concerned with pleasure, and having a "good time", and that ultimately Pagan spirituality/religion is empty. This tends to come out in just about every example of "ex-Pagan" narrative floating out there. 'Drugs, Drinking, (often Sex), and just "having a good time". For the most part, these the people described in these narratives have barely even cracked open a "101" book, let alone actually lived their religion. No, these people consider themselves to have been "pagan", because they abused alcohol, used recreational narcotics, had sex (outside of marriage, for the most part) and were "spiritual" not "religious": In the world of the conversion narratives (so in their authors and audiences minds) Paganism is the same as hedonism.

A few examples:

"From Paganism to Islam" : Looking into Paganism means you were a Pagan?

"In and out of Wicca": This one is typical of the conversion cycle, was a Christian, enjoyed the "high life", got depressed, looked into Paganism, became "obsessed with it", was a High Priestess, then had a revelation and went back to Christianity (a literalist, fundamentalist Christianity)

"Ginger Howell Ex-Witch saved by Jesus Christ": This one is a little more well known, high profile even (as she once had a reality TV series or something), but follows the conversion cycle, except this one has an angry, vengeful coven cajoling and threatening our wayward convert. This tends more towards the seeking power/control over a crappy life, as opposed to seeking pleasure.

There are two problems with this understanding. The first is that hedonism as a philosophy is grossly misunderstood, and is not something which is exclusive to pre-Christian cultures. The second is that contained in these sorts of narratives, is an inherent disdain for joy. I happen to think that life is best when enjoyed, and that while suffering is certainly a reality, it ought not be all there is to life.

Hedonism, as a general philosophical position, holds that the pursuit of pleasure is the greatest good. Even in common parlance, the term hedonism evokes a slovenly, often lounging, laurel wearing Roman eating grapes.

Your typical hedonist.
 Hedonism, as a philosophical position, on the other hand is at least rational, and not an unreasonable approach to living. The philosophical position is of course a rather ancient one, and the most notable proponents of it being Epicurus, founder of Epicureanism. The issue of course is that the actual philosophical perspective has been greatly overshadowed by the common understanding, to the point where referring to someone as a hedonist is almost certainly pejorative. So when I point to these narratives, and their portrayal of Pagans as hedonists, I am using the perspective of the narrative, and the understanding therein of what constitutes hedonism.

For the most part, the accounts of "ex-Pagans" contain some mention of narcotic and alcohol abuse, which has as much to do with the "have a good time" aspect, as it does with the "Born Again" (or in some cases "clean living" religious) obsession with not reverting back to addiction.You may have noticed that in the examples above, the concept of "black siding" or "liberal" religious adherents is trotted out as a sort of midway point between their "pagan" lifestyles and their (re)newed faith. It is as much, and in most cases more of, a diatribe against non-fundamentalist forms of the religions they find themselves joining, than it is against the shallow "paganism" they were members of. This is founded upon the logicall fallacy of the "slippery slope" argument, and there is a real fear, even terror, emanating from these stories about back sliding into their former lives, and this ties back to the idea of addiction. It appears that such people are only able to resist their former addictions/lifestyles/etc. because they have their religion. If not for it, they would revert back to the out of control beasts they were, and by proxy everyone who does not belong to their religion, is.

This is accomplished through a nearly puritanical disdain for joy or fulfillment found outside of the religion. H. L. Mencken said it best when he described Puritanism as "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Of course, as these narrative emphasize the idea that someone can be happy, let alone have a fulfilling spiritual life, outside the strictures of their own religious perspectives, it is not surprising that the narrators life's are fueled by substance abuse and shallow spirituality. That is all that is out there for "the other", and since these people were miserable failures as human beings, obviously everyone else must also be miserable, empty and seeking a more fulfilled life. The desire shown for people to have spiritual or religious lives, is simply a reflection of their intrinsic desire to seek out the deity of the religion they now belong to; so the malevolence which was the meat of such stories in the 80's and 90's, has been replaced with misguided longing for "spiritual truth".

The world view expressed is, of course, necessarily insular. So rooted in the newly adopted perspective that reading the accounts of their former beliefs raises a number of concerns, and outright belies any sincerity on their part. When you read about "pagan" high priestesses who focus on "nature worship" and do not mention any sort of deity at all, well even the most basic 101 Wiccan book will mention The God and The Goddess. It is entirely possible that they were non-theistic and really were only focused on nature worship, but for someone to have every sincerely believed in the things they were doing to look back and utterly renounce them, and speak about them in a way which calls into question the very beliefs they held, it smack of insincerity and dabbling.

Back on track though, there is nothing at all wrong with actually enjoying life. Eudamonia, the good life, or human flourishing are noble endeavours and ends, which contain so much more depth than the shallow depictions illustrated above. The idea that the pursuit of happiness, real, full happiness, could occur not only outside of a given religious perspective, but in a way which sees said perspective as anathema, is soundly rejected by those narratives. Without X religion, there is no means of being truly happy, is necessarily a component of the belief of adherents of religion X. The figures in the conversion stories were only concerned with temporary, shallow self gratification; mostly to cover over psychological problems. So then we are to believe that not only will joining religion X make your life have meaning, it will also become a panacea for any and all psychological issues you may have. Good, if not very credible or realistic, marketing is a key component of proselytizing, and that is after all what these narratives are supposed to exist for. They really exist to reaffirm in the faithfuls eyes their own world view, and to see just how empty and shallow the "other" is.

The disdain for joy is something I find disturbing, if only because I question how one can be said to be flourishing and yet reject or deny joy. The golden mean, that one ought not to wallow in excess, nor cringe in deficiency, is a concept which is simply not understood in said world views. They perceive that there really is no mean at all, and that the preference is deficiency, rather than excess. Chalk it up to an underlying cultural affirmation of the "purity of poverty", if only subconsciously; better to suffer righteously than wallow in ones own crapulance. This is primarily a product of a very binary world view, and so the idea of balance is one of those ideas which lines the slippery slope. I suppose there is also an element of my own perspective where denial as a spiritual virtue is extolled, and that I generally disagree with it. I understand the reasoning behind it, and how it can be a profound and meaningful expression of ones commitment, but it's never something which has struck me as indicative of spiritual maturity. Fasting for justice, a custom and practice which is native to Irish tradition, operates on the idea that people shouldn't be fasting, and that by supporting an unjust decision, you are causing the death of someone through starvation. It takes will power and comitment, but it is understood to be bad to begin with, so to hold it up as a spiritual ideal is not terribly practical or sensible.

The long and short of it, is that I strongly disagree with the world views presented in these stories. There is nothing to indicate that by avoiding pleasure, by holding joy as some great evil, that one will live a full and meaningful life. Rather one will find that in abstaining from joy, they are in fact abstaining from life.

After all, we're here not for a long time, but a good time.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Misneachail (Brave): A Review

Considering how much I wanted to see this film, it did take me quite a while to get around to it. My expectations were met, and in some cases exceeded; so good on you Pixar.

So today I'm going to be examining the Disney-Pixar film, Brave. I will do my best to warn of any spoilers, and try my best to review the film without giving too much away. I plan on discussing the film through a number of different categories, so lets get on with it.


The characters are for the most part decent enough, and stridently at odds with the bulk of Disney parents. Well, that may be taking it a bit too far as this is technically a Pixar film, and there is a more robust selection of parents available. For a Princess story though, the fact that not only are both parents present, but that they are generally developed characters, is unique among Disney fare. Consider how forgettable the Queen's are in say "Sleeping Beauty", or how generally absent Eudora is in "The Princess and the Frog". In the other Princess films, the Queen is absent or dead. Even the supporting cast is used to decent enough effect, and I really wish there was more screen time with some of the characters, especially the Witch... er "Wood Carver". That there is screen time spent to not only develop the characters, but the relationships between the characters, makes this the wonderful film that it is. You actually grow to care for the plight of the characters, and there are some really deep and emotional scenes in the second and especially third act, that get to the heart of why this all matters. So onto the characters themselves.

To put it bluntly, Merida is the sort of Princess that Ariel should have been, had Ariel actually bothered to learn anything during her adventure. Merida is the kind of princess Jasmine could have been, had she been given more agency and not existed for the sole purpose of being the romantic interest. Merida is the Disney Princess who has both agency and actually develops as a character; take note for this alone is worth the price of admission. Yes, there is the "tomboy" issue, but this has more to do with our perceptions and expectations of assigned gender roles that the context the film provides. Merida is presented as a girl, not as a girl wanting to be a boy. She is presented as someone who values her individuality and freedom above all else, and rejects the role and fate her mother already has planned out for her. I stress mother, again because Elinor is the driving force behind the upkeep of societal norms and tradition, something which is made clear by her role throughout the film. Speaking of which...

Elinor is another very well thought out and developed character, if a study in contradictions, sort of. Elinor is in charge, this much is made very clear throughout the film. Elinor is far more concerned with the maintenance of balance (and peace) between the clans, and by proxy the well being of the kingdom. Fergus, on the other hand is more concerned with fighting things that need to be fought, and being a man (but more on him later). The strife between Merida wanting her freedom, and Elinor wanting to uphold tradition drives the plot and also, both her and her daughters development as characters. She is serious and nagging, and a clumsier writer would likely have given into a 'wicked queen" role. But the relationship between the two is far more complex, treated with maturity and shows the love that underlies the surface tensions. More on this later.

So, yeah Fergus is probably one of the weaker points of the film, at least from my perspective. I understand that he acts as the comedic foil to Elinor, but the hen-pecked King is kind of a tired trope. Now the capable ruler who hides behind an oafish facade is well used in Celtic myth, but this is not the sort of impression we get; He is probably the least developed of the main characters, insomuch as he remains very much the same at the end of the film as he did in the beginning. Now, to be fair, a good movie, with good characters does not necessarily mean that every character must be developed, or learn a lesson. Fergus for all intents and purposes is a fully developed character, gently disagreeing with Elinor, but understanding that they are bound by duty to place their daughter in a position she does not necessarily want to be in. When he isn't prat falling or leading merry chases, he is handled well. The opening scenes and climax are the best examples the qualities which exemplify why Fergus is the king, and are handled very well. I suppose overall though, the "men are burly idiots" thing just rubs me the wrong way.

The Triplets
The incarnation of mischief made flesh, they have their own running gags and show up to help Merida out of a few predicaments. Other than that, there isn't much to say; they are cute and funny.

What sort of proper Disney movie doesn't have animal sidekicks? Saigh has far more knowledge about horses than I (so go read her Brave review too), so I'll keep it short. Angus is a more realistic animal companion than we've seen in more recent Disney films; in essence a toned down (less anthropomorphacized) version of Maximus from "Tangled". Brave, sort of dog like, but still a horse.

The Witch
Er ... I mean the woodcarver. She's in the film only briefly, breaks the forth wall (or at least her Crow does), and provides some decent comic relief. I wish there were more scenes with her in it.

He's an evil bear, who took Fergus's leg. He could have been Moby Dick, except he's slightly more complex. He is Fergus's sworn nemesis and reason for his hatred of all things Ursine.


Feminism: Considering a lot of the hype surrounding the film, this is one of the aspects which seem to receive almost unanimous praise: Merida is a strong female character. I've seen a lot of characters be touted as "strong and female", Bella Swan from the Twilight "Saga", Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games Trilogy, Jasmine from "Aladdin", Ariel from "The Little Mermaid", Fa Mulan from "Mulan". All have some degree of agency and strength, but not all female protagonists are created equal. Nor are the environments in which they find themselves. One of the greatest strengths of Brave is that the majority of the story revolves around the tumultuous relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor, and from the vantage point of story telling the film passes the Bechdel/Wallace test, which is no small feat for a Disney "Princess" film. It isn't the most comprehensive means for establishing great female portrayals (after all Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast also pass the test), but it is a start.

What is more to the point is that Merida and Elinor are the main characters, the plot hangs on them. Yes there is the secondary plot point of Fergus's obsession with hunting down Mor'du, but that exists primarily for creating tension in the second and and especially third acts. What's more, the men in the film are basically comic relief, and most of their time is split between yucking it up and pratfalls. There are two specifically telling scenes, one in the last part of the first act, the other just prior to the climax, where Elinor and Merida stop at first a sprawling, and later more serious, fight which is about to erupt between the clans. They speak in a commanding tone, extolling the much needed wisdom they have been groomed to be able to articulate. The function of the Queen/Princess is to act as the scabbard, to the men's sword (please keep your Freudian allusions to yourself, this is a kids film, pervert.) maintaining and directing the aggression to where it will do the most good, as opposed to the most harm.

Certainly, and perhaps specifically the case with Elinor, but the typical "Strong Mom" archetype is clearly visible. Perhaps the comedic "yes dear" routine (albeit it extends beyond Fergus, to the entirety of the clans) is tired and a bit too stereotypical, but considering the intended audience it makes the film, and characters more accessible, as they take on familiar tropes.

As to being a "strong female character", this is often held to be an indicator of empowering or feminist themes, but very often falls totally short. Take for example the only "princess with a body count", Fa Mulan. Mulan is represented as being strong willed, and "kick ass", as she does throughout her self titled film, single-handedly taking out the Huns, and defeating the villain. Even to the point of being offered a position serving the Emperor, basically everything she ever wanted. But does she take it? Nope, she has a man she needs to hook up with and so promptly forgets her hopes and dreams. Mulan also fails as a good example of a martial female character, because she becomes a man to do it. The best song in the entire film (and one of Disney's best of that decade) is "I'll make a man out of you", which is precisely what happens. Mulan learns proves she can hack it with the men, by out manning them. She abandons her femininity to succeed in a patriarchical world, and is even accepted when it is revelaed she is infact a woman. It goes too far though, and when she finally chooses to accept her female side, she abandons what she worked for so she can marry the cute boy. Yes, there is deffinetly agency, but there just seems to be this imbalance with what a female character can do, still be feminine, and yet still be kick ass.

Merida, on the other hand, never really gives up her feminity to succeed, well not really. She does tear her constricting dress so she can more accurately fire her bow, but she never "takes off her dress" either. She bends her conventional roles, but never breaks them; relying on loopholes so to speak. She is martial, without being manly, and so in my view exemplifies a balanced "strong female character".

"Gaelic" Values: This is probably one of the areas that those with younger kids may be more interested, because outside of the film being entertaining, being heavily American, some of the values which could be considered "Gaelic" manage to come through. The most obvious, is the stress which is placed on the idea of duty and personal responsibility. The conclusion of the film, its central theme, is not that someone should be free to marry who they want to. While the promotional material surrounding the film focuses on this theme more than anything else, it is in actuality a Macguffin. The real lesson the film instills that you are responsible for your actions and you have to be prepared to accept and deal with the repercussions.

In the extant tomes and tales the power of words, and the deeds those words reflect is represented over and over again. How often did strife arise, simply because someone was careless with their speech? Take for example, the Tain Bo Culaigne: the cause of the entire war was that one of Medb's messengers made a boast into his cups, insulting the honour of his host and forcing him to reject the offer already made. Words have power, speech leads to action; so be thoughtful of the words you choose, or the actions they engender, because sometimes you can not take them back.

On top of this is the fact that the film refuses to make Elinor a one dimensional antagonist; nor does it reject her opinions and hold them out to be wrong, for all to see. There is nuance in the development of the characters and the perspectives they are arguing for and against. Tradition is so often simply brushed off in modern fiction (and lets be honest, culture in general) as what is done is done because it was done. Shallow, superficial, empty; tradition in these kinds of films remains little more than mimicry for the sake of it. Where Brave differs from this generally modernistic view, is that it shows what the point of the tradition is, why it is done, and how lost the world the characters inhabit is without it. Having said that, there is a challenge, presented by the modern, which confronts tradition and forces it to adapt to a new context. Merida, by the films end, still rejects the idea of being married off like chattel, but she also understands that the marriage itself was ancillary to the reason behind the marriage: duty.

I would have to say that the emphasis of personal responsibility is mirrored by the underlying theme of the film, which is duty. This is a concept which is definitely at odds with the dominant conception of individual freedom, but again the film shines by bridging the two ideals. Elinor being the representative of tradition, is also aware of the responsibility she bears; she has to do what is best, and what is right. What is best may not be what her daughter wants, but what remains at stake is more important than that. Elinor has lived it, understands it, and so becomes the embodiment of duty. Merida, head strong and free willed, begins the film blind to the needs of others and is concerned only with her own desires. With just about every other "Princess" film, the character development basically stops here. Merida, just like her more recent Disney fore bearers, seeks out some means necessary to get what she wants and only afterwards does she realize what her selfishness has cost. She does, however, proceed to do all in her power to make right her mistake and through this experience comes to understand why her mother has spent so much time trying to make her "get it". Elinor too, undergoes her own transformative (no pun intended) experience, and comes to understand her daughter as well. She accepts that what is archaic can be dispensed with, because the reason behind it, duty, is more important than the form it takes.

Spiritual/Religious Bits

This will be short, because there are really only three things which fall under this category, two of which are blatant and at odds with traditional views, and the third is so bang on, but so subtle, that it is invisible unless you are already aware of it.

The Wisps
Will-o'-the wisp, in traditional folklore are generally of a more sinister nature than presented in the film. They're a lot more common in Welsh folklore than strictly speaking, Scottish, and fore the most part are held to be fairy fire, often carried by puca, to lead travelers to misfortune and death (often by drowning). There are however, some tales in which they aid travellers who become lost, so their nature is not strictly speaking all malefic. In the narrative of the film they are said to lead people to their destiny, and in actuality are something a bit more, which I can not really get into without revealing important plot points. They serve a purpose, other than being pretty blue lights though, and so all in all not a bad representation.

The Witch
I mentioned her briefly earlier, but again the term witch, or its associated terms, in Gaelic tradition is all but malefic. Cunning-woman may have been a better term (again not one originating in Scottish lore) but then again the term "witch" has in the popular imagination moved from he sense of dread to female magical worker. She is presented as averse to using magic, and only after being persuaded my Merida, does she create a spell for her. Being the locus of magic in the film, however, she exemplifies the third and final element very well, even using it to comedic effect.

I have spoken about this subject several times, and this is because of its significance in ritual and worldview, but the film really utilizes the idea well. There are basically two liminal areas which are the focus of two central plots, the "Pictish Stones" and the "Witches hut". The Pictish Stones, encompass the broader "standing stone" motifs which liter the Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish countryside (or did before some were relocated), of course those depicted in the film would only date back to the 6th century CE or later, so while they may elicit notions of pre-Christian times, they are in fact post. It does not, however, detract from their function in the film, and are clearly represented as having otherworldly properties (i.e. why Angus hesitates to cross into the circle), and once Merida passes through the stones, she begins to see the Wisps, which in turn lead her to the witches hut. The circle acts as the first of two centres of magic, throughout the film.

The second location is the Witches hut, and plays especially on the symbolism of doorways and thresholds. Merida, as a border crosser, is continually finding herself passing through the same door, only to arrive at unexpected locations. Without giving too much away, the scenes with the Witch are some of my favourite for the banter alone, and to have actually hit upon a concept as central as liminality, given that all but a few would understand the symbolism and how it reflects on something deeper than a sight gag, is certainly appreciated.

I haven't got a copy of the soundtrack, and only having seen the film once can only comment briefly on the music in the film. For the most part it works; the background music is that sort of generic "Celtic" music, coupled with a few pop-ish songs which admirably capture the "Celtic" sound. If there was a single, it would have to be "Touch the Sky", written by Alex Mande and performed by Julie Fowlis. The other would be "Into the open air", both of which are played during the film. The film is not an animated musical, and so the majority of the music is score/overlain; there are two exceptions a song Fergus sings and a flashback of Elinor singing in  Gàidhlig to a young Merida, the song is called "a mhaighdean bhan uasal"(noble fair maiden). There is another song, which was actually featured in one of the trailers and also sung by Julie Fowlis, "tha mo ghaol air aird a'chuain" (my love is on the high seas). It doesn't make it into the film itself, and sadly does not appear on the soundtrack, but is lovely none the less and probably got many folks hopes up that there would be at least some Gàidhlig in the film (well there was, albeit very little), so I suppose a case of take what you can get sort of deal. Overall the music is suitable for the film, is appropriate and adds rather than detracts from the experience.

The animation featured in the film is gorgeous, and very well rendered. The backgrounds are detailed and lush, dripping with atmosphere and crawling with character. they even manage to do a decent job of animating water, which is no small feat. The action sequences and fast paced, but slow enough that it isn't just a mind numbing blur of colour and motion. The modeling of the characters is Pixar's best yet of humans, with the caveat that they are stylized and purposefully cartoony (again, mostly the men). It isn't as evocative as say, "The Secret of Kells", but still does a very good job of incorporating medieval elements into the stylization present throughout the film.

I actually do not have as many criticisms as I thought I would, though I've only watched it once through, if this changes after the DVD release, well I'll mention it somewhere. Again, my major criticism is the use of the majority of the men as clowns. Fergus is a lummox, even though he has a few good lines, he like all the other men basically spend the film running about and making asses of themselves. There are two exceptions, the opening sequence and the climax, which are fantastic, (and the later bordering on actually being "frightening" for children), where we observe Fergus is full out warrior mode, and all slapstick is washed away by the gravity of the situation. I suppose that it could be argued that the capable chieftain/king who plays at being a buffoon to throughoff his enemies is evident in some of the lore, An Dagda being the best example. I'm just not sure that the intent was there, and it was more a case of having these popinjay, muscle flexing men strut about with their "Ayes" and "Grrr's" and "Thems fightin' werds!", and making light of a warrior culture in general: "Scottish people are a contentious lot". I can appreciate a character like Groundskeeper Willie on "The Simpsons", because he is a single parody in a world of parody, but watching dozens of them all at once is a bit off putting.

I would have liked to have had more use of Scottish folklore, and not just some general folktale/legend (which again works int he film) being the crux of the sort of mythic elements present in the movie. Gaelic folklore and myth is so robust and full that there were literally hundreds of different tales or stories which could have been used, and instead we get something that is so generic it could find itself having taken place in any given culture around the world. For a story which takes place in a specific geograhpy, period and culture, it can come across as generically medieval. Drop the accents and kilts and it could as well have been England, Wales, France or Germany. I suppose the film makers wanted to broaden the target audience and so made it more generic, but I honestly think it could have been more Scottish without losing audience members.

The film is a quality film, and one I am sure to watch over and over (and maybe this will change my feelings towards it) when it comes out in November. The plot is simple with some interesting (if predictable) twists. The chacarters for the most part are real enough that you get caught up in their plights and want them to come out okay in the end. They grow and develop, taking on a number of issues like parenting, tradition v. modernity, duty v. freedom. The relationship between Elinor and Merida is one of the best mother-daugther relationships put on screen in a long, long time, and this alone is worth the price of admission. The film has a lot of heart and for a Disney-Pixar film, a lot of depth. Sure it isn't as cinematic as Wall-E (but really what is?), or as emotional as Up (which is itself borderline manic-depressive), but it presents an excellent balance, two amazing female leads, good animation and a lot of heart. If you like animation or things Gaelic ("Celtic even"), this film comes highly recommended.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The gods abide

Today I want to write about the gods. Today I want to express the things which are difficult to articulate: the awe and the grandeur, the "wooshy-ness" (to use a phrase coined by Dreyfus and Kelly), the totality of the ineffable reality that is the dé ochus andé. I want to scream from the bottom of my being, to the apex of the tallest hilltop. I want to do all of this, but I withdraw. I repress. I remain at a loss for words.

For someone who is so accustomed to scholarship and discourse, who has a carefully sculpted demeanor of being calm and measured, of having an outwardly limited range of expression; the notion is not paralyzing, but only just.

How can I even begin to explain just how good the gods are? Just how magnificent the shining ones appear? How much unabashed joy I experience simply by reading of their exploits? How complete and full my life is because they are a part of it? Why I look forward to every new moon, if only to share with others who may just feel the same way, if at a distance?

It is why I leap at every and any chance I get to have a conversation with whoever will listen, about the topic of religion, or myth, or even culture. It is why I type my meandering thoughts out, for others to see. It is why I am probably the only person at my place of buisness who, aside from my employer, understands that our job has a component of the sacred in it. It is why my book shelves groan under the weight of books few would find interesting, but are none the less a source of pride and fascinaion.

All this and more, so much more I wish to express; but here I type, befuddled.

If I know anything, I know the gods abide.

And that is enough.


P.S. So I have a review of "Brave" in the works, look for it soon.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

La Lunasa

Lughnasadh, the summer ends, the harvest begins. We light the fires, bring in the first fruits, and gather to celebrate with games and sport.

What some may not know, is the origins of the festival. While the day is named after Lugh, of the long hand; Lugh, the master of all arts; Lugh, sword shouter, it is not in actuality his day. The reason it is so named is because he began the first games, in honour of she who is the true reason for the season, Lugh's foster mother, Tailtiu. So Lughnasadh, a day punctuated by sport and merriment, the last ceilidh before the somber approach of Samhain, and winter, began its life only after the death of another. For Lugh began the first games in honour of Tailtiu, as funeral games.

The Irish have always been a bit off when it comes to things like how folks ought to behave at funerals, and their gods are no exception. Funeral games were a significant aspect of the funeral process in ancient times, and survived through the ages as parlour games, pranks, tricks and other merriment's which were commonplace during wakes of the 18th and 19th centuries. The funeral games of Tailtiu, however, maintained such a prominent place that an annual festival became common practice. But why Tailtiu? Why is this goddess who few remember, who was not even a member of the Tuatha De Danann, but rather a queen of the Fir Bolg, honoured so?

The idea of sacrifice, that things are made sacred through loss or the price paid, is of course an ancient concept. Among many of our ancestral cultures, tales are told of gods and goddesses both, who gave up much, even their very lives, to make better the world they found themselves in. The tales speak of such sacrifices, and more often than not it is the goddesses who offer themselves up, that their children may reap their hard won rewards. Tailtiu poured out her sweat, blood and ultimately life, clearing the great plains of Ireland, giving us the ability to farm and sustain ourselves through agriculture. Her exhaustion overwhelmed her, and she fell. A mound was raised, the proper rites performed, and funeral games were held. Eventually a settlement was established; Telltown it was named, after the eponymous goddess upon whose bones the town was built.

Tailtiu was fortunate to have such a noble and powerful foster son, and because of him her name and her games continue to this day. More important than that, though, through her sacrifice we are made better, and life is made just a little easier. So on this day, when we dance and sing around the fires, while the tables groan under the weight of the first harvest, while we boast and cavort, and not yet contemplate the winter, we offer our first fruits to Tailtiu, to Lugh, to the de ochus ande all. That everything has a price, and we are fortunate indeed when someone else is willing to pay it for us.