mythical history

December 26, 2014

So I’ve finally started watching Penny Dreadful.  I’m only a couple of episodes in, but I’m already simultaneously amused and frustrated, because it’s such the standard Mythic Victorian London.  With a little more horror, maybe — but even then, it’s bouncing up against From Hell and various Wolfman and Jekyll and Hyde retellings.  Look, everybody:  Grubby slums!  Garish prostitutes!  Jack the Ripper!  Upperclass gents in cravats with deep dark secrets!  I’m going to keep going with the show, because this is an excellent take on the Frankenstein story so far.  I love Proteus.  He’s broken my heart three times in two episodes, and I want to see more.  (I’d been drinking the rest of the champagne from what was leftover after making cheese fondu — in other words, a lot of champagne — and I turned to my friends and said, “You know why this story’s going to break my heart?  Because in every version of Frankenstein, Victor’s always such a shit!”  Yeah, I got a bit emotional.)

But it’s got me thinking about mythic settings.  Especially mythic historical settings.  Because it seems to me at this point most of the shows/stories I see set in Victorian London have very little to do with Victorian London, and are instead amalgams of all the stories about Victorian London that have been handed down to us.  This setting got its start with Dickens and Conan Doyle, but it’s now taken entirely for granted that a story set in Victorian London will have grubby slums and garish prostitutes and upperclass gents with deep dark secrets.

World War II is another space where this is happening, and it’s really come to a head over the last few years.  We don’t see too many stories about Vietnam anymore, but darn it if we haven’t had half a dozen World War II stories — Monuments Men, Fury, Unbroken, Defiance, Enemy at the Gates — even Captain America counts.  Heroic men, impossible odds, triumph over evil and adversity, etc.  The mythologization of World War II really comes clear for me when I watch movies about that war that were made in the few years after — because the war in those stories isn’t the mythologized one we’ve grown familiar with.  Even the frame story in White Christmas (released 1954, I think) deals with issues we don’t see told about that particular war anymore — coming home, the way war experiences continue to affect the people who fought.  But since then, we don’t really tell stories about World War II — we tell stories set in this backdrop that’s been handed down, with a certain expected set of tropes, whole cloth.

Not sure where I’m going with all this.  Except maybe that it reinforces my feeling that if you’re going to write about a familiar historical setting, it’s very useful to research that setting, rather than to take for granted the familiar — perhaps overly familiar — tropes of that setting that have been packaged up and handed down to us over and over again.  This is not to say using those tropes is automatically bad, but it’s important to recognize which details are perhaps overused tropes, and which are details that will actually seem fresh and interesting.



6 Responses to “mythical history”

  1. Kyle Says:

    To me that is can make well-researched history very interesting. When something is shown that is very different from my standard beliefs, the “fun” is in the re-wiring of my understandings. Which is another way of saying learning more about how things actually were, is stimulating, not merely educational. I think there are almost endless “trope”-ical assumptions ripe for “re-imagining” with well-researched history.

    Since you mention Fury — it gathered lots of interesting raw materials and even performances. However IMO to a sensitive eyes-wide-open viewing, absorbing the characterizations, plot and especially camera time — a truly bizarre movie hiding in plain sight. I left the theater slightly aghast.

  2. EdinburghEye Says:

    There is actual-Scotland, and there is Celtic Fantasy / Brigadoon Scotland, and there is also Taggart / Trainspotting Scotland which many English mistake for actual-Scotland. (Closer, but still a trope unless you’re actually Irvine Welsh.)

  3. slhuang Says:

    To me that is can make well-researched history very interesting. When something is shown that is very different from my standard beliefs, the “fun” is in the re-wiring of my understandings.

    Totally agreed.

  4. Kate Elliott Says:

    Here via Twitter. This is a really great point.

    Apropos the WWII comment:

    The Phyrne Fisher murder mystery series (from Australian television) take place about 10 years after the end of World War One. I’m much struck at how the characters are still affected by their experiences in the war even though it’s ten years later. Feels very realistic and — as you say — something that gets lost in the mythologizing (and ignoring what happens after).

  5. carriev Says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    The movie that really had an impact on me is “The Best Years of Our Lives,” made I think in 1949, and it deals with so many issues we normally associate with the Vietnam conflict — post-traumatic stress, trouble re-integrating, adapting to injuries (one of the actors is a double amputee). It’s just great and really eye opening if you’re used to the “mythic” version of WWII.

  6. juliefore Says:

    I’ve read enough different primary source material about WWI and WWII to be rather upset at the sanitized versions of WWII shown in recent movies. Certain movies totally ignore the fact that people on both sides of the wars engaged in the same [bad] behavior that the movies like to attribute solely to the German troops. The Allied Troops weren’t angels. But apparently, we are now meant to believe they were.

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