Friday Essay: Viking Helmets Art of History

This past Tuesday being Leif Erikson Day, I was reminded of a movie I saw some years ago, a silent film called simply The Viking. Released in 1928,  The Viking is the first full-length Technicolor movie. This movie is mostly remembered for pioneering color-film technology, but in the process has received some good-natured ridicule for its portrayal of horn-helmed Vikings. Of course, this is a valid point – Vikings or Norsemen never wore such headgear – but I challenge whether it is a meaningful one.

Scene from "The Viking" (1928)

A scene from “The Viking” that displays the historically inaccurate horned-helmets.

Modern audiences seem extremely keen on having historically accurate movies and TV shows. It’s an admirable craving for authentic art and I personally love a good historical movie that seeks to be accurate. But I have two objections. First, it’s silly to believe movies today are somehow more historically accurate because they are darker and grittier. The History Channel’s Vikings may have more blood and gore and swearing than this old silent movie but it’s laughably inaccurate (especially in regards to the Christian Saxons). A dark color palette and a little dirt may give a movie an authentic feel but that is not the same as being historically accurate.

Second, not every film with a historical setting is striving for the same goal. The Viking is not an attempt at portraying historical events accurately or with authentic detail. It is fundamentally an opera and the opera in any genre has a different objective than what we typically consider historical fiction.  This is also seen in the difference between a Space Opera (Star Wars) and science fiction (The Martian). I would argue the Western genre died the day artists tried to blur the lines between “Horse Operas” and historical fiction in their grittier atmospheres.

Operas – Space, Horse or otherwise – are not gritty. They are highly stylized with tropes and high drama. Horned helmets like Stormtrooper armor exist not because they make sense but because quite frankly they provide a dramatic visual image and give an order to the elements in the production. You see a suit of white armor, you have a stormtrooper. You see a horned-helmet, you have a Viking. Besides being an easy visual reference, it employs the language of common perception. Yes, the horned helmets are inaccurate but guess what, the item is attached firmly to the Viking mythos since the 1800s.

Historical accuracy is a good thing, but let’s keep in mind that different genres have different purposes. And The Viking does not pretend to be historically accurate, it is a vivid adventure that just wants to have fun. I’m more disturbed by Vikings’ emasculation of Christian England and glorification of Viking barbarity than I am by The Viking‘s use of horned helmets because the former is made a channel literally called “The History Channel” and presents itself as an authentic depiction while the latter is simply an opera.

History and art have an important relationship, with art preserving much of history. But not all stories in a historic setting are intended as historical fiction, and in those cases, it’s best to let authenticity take a backseat to ones imagination.

SpaceWard Update #3

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t posted anything this week.  I’ve been dealing with a bug for most of the week and just now getting back to regular eating patterns and trying to restore my energy. Which means I did no work this week.

I moving the release date of SpaceWard: First Voyage to October 1st to give me time to recover and complete the editing and revising. Thank you so much for your patience.

Write Reasons: In Defense of the Useless Profession

 

“Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for Introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye-contact while doing it.” ~ John Green

When I was a little kid, I saw a movie that changed my life, in most ways for the better and, in some ways, for the worst. In Search of the Castaways is a 1962 live-action Disney movie adaptation of a work by Jules Verne, The Children of Captain Grant and tells the exciting adventure of two children – with the help of an English sea-captain and an eccentric French professor – searching for their father, the titular Captain Grant who is presumed dead.

I believe this may be the first feature-length movie I ever saw, and it resulted in two personal developments: First, my preference for adventure stories over all others and second, my intention to become a writer. This movie introduced me to the French writer Jules Verne and for the rest of my childhood, I read every Verne title available to me. But my decision came from reading Verne’s biographies. More than any other writer’s life I read about, with the exception of Hans Christian Anderson, I connected to the story of Jules Verne: pushed to be anything but a writer by the pragmatic world he lived in, and pursuing that dream at all costs, even to the point of near-starvation in a single cheap room in Paris. He had a dream, he stuck to it against all odds and because of his perseverance, he gifted the modern world with the first wave of science fiction.

Telling people “I’m a writer” is a tricky business. Usually, I sense an eye-roll, an internal “uh-huh” from the other person; as if to say “right, but what do want to do for a living?”. On a technical level, anything you do that generates honest money is a living. The value of a product is determined solely by the seller and the buyer.

You may see someone giving me, a writer, $2.99 on Amazon for a story a complete waste of time and money on both ends: “What good does that story do you?” you may ask the buyer of his purchase, “that’s $2.99 you could have spent on something practical or simply saved for a future purpose.” But your hasty judgment of value ignores how many “non-practical” items you and every American spends more than mere pocket-change on every single day.  Do you have internet? Cable? A house with more rooms than you need? Have you ever purchased a movie ticket? Bought and played with a deck of cards? Bought a snack at the grocery store or bought any unneeded food item at the grocery store for that matter? Yes. And these luxuries cost far more than the paltry sum an Amazon writer receives for his work.

When I write a book, I’m recording my imagination. And it may seem frivolous to buy and sell the records of another person’s imagination. We all have an imagination, after all – at least, I believe we do. But our imaginations are not the same in intensity, in form or in clarity. In a typical business, imagination is used to create a new business strategy, find ways to cut costs and beat the competition. The businessman does not focus his imagination on creating a world of wizards and knights, or Jedi and smugglers. But he may enjoy seeing the imagination of others who do focus their energies here. This is why people who work a “normal” job go to the movies, to rest their imagination and enjoy someone else’s creativity in another area.

And the relationship is mutual. I use my creativity to write books. But I need to rest my imagination sometimes and enjoy what other people create, both for relaxation and for eventual re-invigoration of my own creativity.  And I don’t just mean other books or movies. I find joy in the creativity of business strategy, of science projects and design. As one of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his work “On Fairy Stories”, we are all makers because we are made by a Maker. Whether we make stories or furniture or discoveries or YouTube videos or ice-cream or businesses we are reflecting the vast and inconceivable creativity of the Master Creator.

 

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