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Noah (2014)

In 2010, a group of Turkish and Chinese evangelicals found Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The liberal NPR once aired a program titled Walking the Bible based on Bruce Feiler’s book. In the program Feiler climbs the same Mt. Ararat in Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark since Bible literalists believe that an actual Ark came to rest on top of this mountain. What these literalists fail to acknowledge is that the Ark story is basically an adaptation of an earlier tradition present in the region. The Hebrew Bible did not exist in a vacuum; it was influenced by the culture and traditions of the Ancient Near East. The flood story of the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 6-9 is simply an Israelite version of the Mesopotamian Epic of Atrahasis and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh

However, it isn’t just the similarity between the biblical materials and the Ancient Near Eastern sources that is important to us. In fact, in some ways it’s the dissimilarity that is remarkably important to us, the biblical transformation of a common Near Eastern heritage in light of its radically new conceptions of God and the world and humankind. We’ll be dealing with this in some depth, but I’ll give you one quick example. We have a Sumerian story about the third millennium BCE, going back 3000 — third millennium, 3000 BCE. It’s the story of Ziusudra, and it’s very similar to the Genesis flood story of Noah. In both of these stories, the Sumerian and the Israelite story, you have a flood that is the result of a deliberate divine decision; one individual is chosen to be rescued; that individual is given very specific instructions on building a boat; he is given instructions about who to bring on board; the flood comes and exterminates all living things; the boat comes to rest on a mountaintop; the hero sends out birds to reconnoiter the land; when he comes out of the ark he offers a sacrifice to the god — the same narrative elements are in these two stories. It’s just wonderful when you read them side by side. So what is of great significance though is not simply that the biblical writer is retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views.[Lecture 1 – The Parts of the Whole]

Thus even though the stories look similar, the rationale for the flood in the Hebrew Bible was written to spread a different theology. In the new movie, Noah gets dreams of the flood and after consuming some hallucinogens at his grandfather Methuselah’s place, finds the answer: build an ark. He builds the ark and along with his family — wife  Naameh, sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, Shem’s wife  Ila — and his nemesis Tubal-cain, take off as the floods hit the earth. Oh, before that there are some scenes involving rocks which also shape shift like Optimus Prime who protect Noah and help him escape.

While the animals lie sedated, there is lot of drama on board the ark. There is Tubal-cain tempting Ham to murder his father because Noah did not get a woman for Ham. Then there is Ila, who springs a surprise on Noah, when he thought that she was barren. Finally there is the psychopathic Noah, who eagerly waits the birth of his grandchildren so that he can murder them. Finally, all ends well. Tubal-cain is murdered by Ham. Ila delivers twin girls and as Noah goes to murder them, he has a change of heart and unlike Abraham who was willing to kill his son, he spares his grandchildren. The flood stops as well and the human race is saved.

While the director claims that he has stayed true to the Bible, the Christian conservatives have found numerous issues with the film based on the Hebrew Bible. According to a creationist, “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” One of the issues is that Noah has a problem with carnivores. It is Tubal-cain, who argues to the contrary that God had given dominion over the entire planet to humans.  The suggestion that the movie is pro-environment, pro-vegetarian had many in knots. But then in Genesis 1, God had commanded humans to eat plants and it was only after the flood that they were permitted to eat meat. As Prof. James Tabor suggests, if only people read the Bible.

For example, the film never mentions God and referrers to him as the Creator.

I have heard this objection repeatedly this weekend, particularly on FOX news and Talk Radio outlets, and it is blatantly false and ridiculous. The very word translated “God” in Genesis is not a name but a generic reference that might be translated as “The Powers” (Elohim). One can only imagine the uproar had Aronofsky chosen to call the Creator “The Powers”–which would have been quite biblical. In the Noah film this nameless One is constantly referred to as “the Creator,” but used in a very personal way by all the characters in the film–good and bad. According to Exodus 6:3 God did not make Himself known by His personal name Yahweh (YHVH) or “the LORD” until the time of Moses. The references to God as “the LORD” in Genesis 6-9 in the Flood story are accordingly anachronistic—so it turns out, ironically, that Aronofsky’s designation of God as “the Creator,” is more biblical than his critics have imagined.[Bashers of the Noah Film Should Re-Read Their Bibles]

What is not depicted in the film is that some of the animals who hitched a ride on the ark did not have a good life. After he got on land, “then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.”

For the Turkish, Chinese and American evangelists, this movie may have been offensive, but for people interested in the history of how the Hebrew Bible was written, this is good time to watch or read the transcript of this lecture which talks about the contradictions within the Bible as well as within the flood story. Did the Creator ask Noah to bring two pairs of each living being or seven pairs of pure animals and one pair of impure animals and seven pairs of birds? In some  places the flood was for 40 days and few lines later, it was for 150 days. All of this, for a historian, leads to the documentary hypothesis, with multiple authors and revisions.

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In the Reading List: Pope And Mussolini

So far it was believed that the Catholic Church was against fascism during the 20s and 30s, when Mussolini came to power in Italy.  Newly revealed documents state otherwise. NPR had an interview with David Kertzer, the author of the new book  The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europeand here are some interesting points from the transcript.

On the pope’s interest in allying with Mussolini

The popes had seen the Italian government as enemies, basically. They had rejected the notion of the separation of church and state, they had lost their privileged position in society, and they had always called that system illegitimate. Pius XI at least began to see the possibility that Mussolini might be the person sent by God — the man of providence — as he would later refer to him … who would reverse all of that, who would end the separation of church and state, restore many of the prerogatives of the church and at the same time, as the Pope was very worried about the rising socialist movement … saw Mussolini as the man who was the best bet, perhaps, to prevent a socialist takeover of Italy.

On what the church got out of this alliance

The church got financial benefits, considerable payments by the state to the Catholic clergy. … They got, for example, as the fascists were forming fascist youth groups, which millions of youth in Italy were a part of in those years, the church was given chaplains to all the local chapters of the fascist youth groups so that they were able to influence the youth, which was very important to them. They also got as part of the Concordat, the fascist imposition of teaching religion in elementary schools, which was one of the first things Mussolini did to ingratiate himself when he came to power — to extend that to secondary schools as well so that all the school children in Italy were taught Catholic religion in their school.

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Kon-Tiki (2012)

Painting of the Kon-Tiki raft

Painting of the Kon-Tiki raft

One of the most dreadful accounts of people stranded helplessly in the ocean that I have read is in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. In this true story, Louis Zamperini, whose performance in the 1936 Olympics caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, crashes into the Pacific on a search mission during WWII in a B-4. While the crash killed eight of the eleven men on board, Zamperini and two of his colleagues float in the open ocean on a life raft. For 47 days, they caught fish, evaded sharks and Japanese bombers and miraculously survived (One of them, Francis McNamara, died after 33 days) to wash up into a Japanese POW camp in Marshall Islands.

Five years after Zamperini’s unplanned voyage across the Pacific, a Norwegian explorer and writer named Thor Heyerdahl, set off on a voyage from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl had a theory that Polynesia was populated not from Asia, but from South America. The early explorers to Polynesia had found pineapple, which was indigenous to South America. Also, certain sculptures found in Polynesia resembled the ones in pre-Columbian Peru. Though his theory was dismissed by academics and the National Geographic Society, because people at that time did not have boats required for such long distance travel, Heyerdahl believed that the rafts they had were sufficient and the ocean current would have favored such a travel; he believed that ancient Peruvians did not see water as a barrier.

To prove this, he decided to travel 5000 miles in the Pacific, on raft made of balsa wood and assembled using the same materials the ancient explorers would have used. With private funding, supplies from the United States Navy, and with a crew of six people, he set off to prove this theory. This Norwegian movie is about that voyage and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. Heyerdahl did not go full commando on this voyage; the crew carried radio equipment, watches, charts and sextants, but that did nothing to minimize the dangers of the voyage.

There was the possibility that a storm would wash them back into South America or taken them into Galapagos. They survive few storms and soon encounter giant sharks which swim below the raft; there is some stunning photography at his point as the camera goes below the waves. They survive the shark attacks, even going as far as harpooning one and bringing it on board. While there were concerns that the wood was absorbing water and becoming heavy, they eventually figure that they are along the right path. Soon they spot land, and just few days before India got independence, they land at Raroia.

Though Heyerdahl proved that you could travel 5000 miles in the open ocean in a balsa wood raft the his theory that Polynesia was populated by South Americans never found acceptance. The dominant theory seems to be that Polynesia was populated from South-East Asia.

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Interview: Steven A. McKay, Author of Wolf’s Head

The Wolf’s Head is a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. The first book in the series is the story of how Robin Hood, a normal man, becomes an outlaw to save himself and in the process gets entangled in national politics. The book was self-published and is a bestseller in UK.  Here is my interview with Steven A. McKay.

JK: The legend of Robin Hood has been around for centuries. Countless books have been written and numerous movies have been made. In fact I found that there was a movie made as recent as 2013. So what made you decide that this is a subject you want to tackle?

I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell’s King Arthur books, and I wanted to do something similar, with a similar kind of hero. I’m from Great Britain, so I wanted to base my book here. I had these ideas but couldn’t think of a good character to base my series around. I was in my car thinking about it, and I drove into a street and saw a house that had the name “Sherwood” which is where most Robin Hood stories are set. It was really like a message from God, I instantly thought of Robin and realised he would be the perfect guy to write about.

JK: Before reading your book, the only knowledge I had about Robin Hood was that he stole from the rich and gave it to the poor and your book stays truthful to that. But it goes to his backstory and explains how he became an outlaw. Is there a different perspective that you are bringing to the folklore?

Well, there are lots of different variations of the legend, but the majority of them, including the 2013 film, suggest Robin was a nobleman – an Earl or a returning Templar knight or something like that. But when I looked back at the very first stories ever told about Robin, he was just a regular guy. He wasn’t rich, or a Lord, or anything like that, he was just like the rest of us. So I decided to go with that and make my version of the character a normal man who gets on the wrong side of the law, which was very corrupt anyway.

The idea that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor makes sense, which is why I mostly stuck to that – the rich were the only people it was WORTH stealing from – why steal a few coins from a poor man when you could steal a lot of coins from a rich man? And, since the outlaws would need a lot of help from the local villagers, they would have had to have kept them on their side. Giving the local people food and money would have made them much more likely to help Robin and his friends.

JK: Your book is  a retelling of the Robin Hood legend set in 1321 in Yorkshire, rather than the usual 12 century in Nottingham. Why is this important?

It’s important in terms of how I approached the story. England in 1321 was going through a lot of political upheaval and strife, so I thought it would make an interesting backdrop for the outlaws’ adventures. It’s also important because, as you say, there are a lot of movies, books, TV shows etc about Robin Hood already, and they’re all set in the 12th century so I felt I had to offer something fresh to the legend. Ultimately, it all goes back to those very first stories: to me, the “real” Robin, the guy that all these tales were told about, would have actually lived in the 14th century, not the 12th, and the stories also placed him and his men in Barnsdale, in Yorkshire. I wanted to make the novel as historically accurate as I could, so it was a simple choice to write about Yorkshire in 1321.

JK: The folks who appear in the story, Matilda, Will Scarlet, Little John…is there any historical basis to these characters?

It’s very hard – impossible! – to say with any certainty whether any of these people really lived in the form the legends speak about. Certainly, a man called Robert Hood lived around the time and was married to a girl called Matilda (Maid Marion is a much later addition to the original legend). There is also some evidence that a man that could well have been Little John came from the village of Hathersage and the sheriff, Henry de Faucumberg lived, and was the sheriff of both Nottingham and Yorkshire. In my opinion, those old stories must have been based around real people – people who fought against the corrupt lawmen and were loved by the peasants because of it. Over time, of course, their deeds were exaggerated, names subtly changed and so on, but that’s what makes the Robin Hood legend so interesting – everyone can have their own interpretation of it, because no one knows for sure what the truth is. 

JK: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you? What are some of your favorite historical fiction books which you have read in the past few years?

Bernard Cornwell is my biggest hero in historical fiction, but I also love to read about the Romans. Douglas Jackson is great, I love his books, and he’s a Scotsman like me! Glyn Iliffe writes fantastic books about Odysseus, and he was a big influence, since he also took a well-loved legend and tried (very successfully in my opinion) to make it fresh and new. Outwith the historical stuff, I love the way David Gemmell wrote his heroes, that guy really knew how to describe a fight scene!

JK: Writing historical fiction is hard because you have to get not just the plot and characterization right, but the period detail as well. What was your preparation like? Did you spend a lot of time reading about that period to get the food, clothing and weapons right or did you focus on the plot and fill the details later?

Yes, when I first decided to write about the 14th century I read as much about the period as I could, and about the Robin Hood legend, before I even started to think about writing my novel. Graham Phillips and Professor JC Holt’s books were essential reading for the whole background. For specific things though, like maybe a character’s favourite meal, I would leave it until I’d finished the first draft then do some more in-depth research on what kind of thing they would have eaten back then. You really have to be careful, because people pick up on little things and it can ruin their enjoyment of the story. For example, in my first draft of the book, I had one of the men making a stew with potatoes – potatoes hadn’t been introduced in England at that time, and I knew that, but I’d let that slip in and only noticed as I proof-read it. It’s a minor point, but like you say, these period details are very important in creating a powerful, believable setting.

JK: At the end of the book you mention that you had collapsed various Sheriffs into one. How accurate should historical fiction be? Can the writer deliberately omit information or enhance it?

In my opinion, the most important thing is telling a great story. As you say, I decided to have just one sheriff, who will feature throughout the series, rather than having a variety of different men that readers would have to get to know. Since no one knows for sure who the REAL Sheriff in the Robin Hood legend was, I didn’t see a problem with that. I did try to have real names for the characters where I could – I spent a lot of time on that and, to be honest, probably only a tiny fraction of readers would even notice. How many readers know, or care, who the Archbishop was in 1321? Ultimately, I do think the history should be as accurate as possible, but if it makes the story better and it’s something minor then I have no problem with things being omitted or enhanced. No potatoes in stews though!

JK: Adding too much historical detail can make the book look like a history book. Adding less will not transport the reader to the right period. How do you come up with the right mix of spices? Do you have any guidelines?

As I say, I steeped myself in medieval history books for a while so I got into the right frame of mind to write about the period, but in general I just write scenes as they come out then I might go back and add in something like the correct design for a coat-of-arms or a description of a medieval manor house. I’m not the type to put in too much history, because I’m not a historian. In fact, I probably know a lot more about the Romans and the Greeks than I do about medieval Britain since my Bachelor of Arts degree was built mostly on those eras. I think each writer, and indeed reader, has their own idea of how much history should be in a novel. I don’t have any guidelines other than “less is more”!

JK: Sue Grafton said this about self-published writers, “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. “ As a successful self-published author, what do you think about it?

I don’t know who Sue Grafton is, but she’s a lucky lady if she managed to find a publisher. The problem is, publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on a new writer very often these days – as everyone points out, Stephen King and JK Rowling were rejected countless times. Publishers want someone who is going to sell tens of thousands of books for them without them having to put in much effort in marketing or promotion. What does Sue Grafton suggest new writers do if they can’t find an agent or a publisher? Give up? Why should we? I don’t know, I haven’t read the interview where she said that, so I don’t know the context, but it’s the same with music. Bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica couldn’t get record deals at first, so they put their music out themselves – self-publishing basically – and now millions of people all over the world, including me, enjoy their music.

I don’t really care what Sue Grafton thinks to be honest, I’ve never heard of her until now. Does she listen to Iron Maiden?

JK: Based on your experience, what are some of the tips that you would give to someone who would like to write historical fiction other than the obvious ones like “read a lot” and “write daily” :-)

Well I don’t suggest people write daily anyway – I only write when I feel like it! I don’t see much point in forcing myself to write every day, when much of it will end up being scrapped, so I would say you should only write when you are in the mood and have a good idea of what you’re going to be doing with the characters in that particular session. Writing is an art, not a science, so everyone can approach it however they like – just do what works and what feels right. The most important thing is that YOU enjoy what you’re writing – that’s why I don’t need to force myself to write every day. I know I’ll get it done eventually because it’s FUN! It’s a hobby, like playing Xbox, or playing guitar or playing football you know?

And don’t give up. Yes, everyone dreams of finding a publisher and becoming the next Tolkien, Dickens or Sue Grafton, but it’s so easy these days to self-publish that you CAN take your stories to people all around the world. I’ve done it, and plenty of other people have too, so take heart and get writing (when you feel like it)!

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Writing Historical Fiction (11): Hilary Mantel

Over the past year I read books in the mythology retelling genre and almost all of them used modern words and idioms whichobviously does not make for a great reading experience. As you read works of writers like Iain Pears (Stone’s Fall, An Instance of the Fingerpost) or David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), you realize that there is tremendous effort involved in recreating that era. In this interview, Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel explains how she uses language to make the story authentic to the period.

I know language is said to be one of the great problems for historical novelists. It’s vital because it sets the tone, the register of the novel, and if you misjudge, your reader will flinch. But I can’t pretend I’ve ever agonised over it; the idiom seems to arrive along with the characters and the first line. I’m aware, of course, that much unconscious preparation goes on, below the line, before the first words register on the screen or the page. I think most of us working today are keen to avoid pastiche, and we privilege clarity. But if your language is totally modern, it implants the false suggestion that your characters have modern thoughts. So what you want is a flavour, a twist, like a hint of perfume or spice, which animates your plain prose and gives it a slight otherness. If you understand your characters’ world view, all the images and metaphors they might use in speech, or in the thoughts they share with the reader, will be of a piece, and all their expressions will be congruent. So I think you can’t separate the issue of language from the general effort to find out as much as you can about how their world was different from ours.[Hilary Mantel ‘like some inky clerk with a quill, scratching to keep up’]

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