Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 9

Here’s our ratings for season 9 of the Canadian early-twentieth-century detective series Murdoch Mysteries:

  1. “Nolo Contendere” – 6.5
  2. “Marked Twain” – 4
  3. “Double Life” – 4
  4. “Barenaked Ladies” – 5
  5. “24 Hours ’til Doomsday” – 8.5
  6. “The Local Option” – 6
  7. “Summer of ’75” – 4
  8. “Pipe Dreamzzz” – 6
  9. “Raised on Robbery” – 8
  10. “The Big Chill” – 6
  11. “A Case of the Yips” – 4
  12. “Unlucky in Love” – 6.5
  13. “Colour Blinded” – 8
  14. “Wild Child” – 4
  15. “House of Industry” – 4.5
  16. “Bl**dy H*ll” – 7.5
  17. “From Buffalo with Love” – 4
  18. “Cometh the Archer” – 0

The average rating for this season is 5.4, which puts this season right about the middle with some seasons averaging higher and some lower.

There’s some cast shakeups and character development under way. Dr. Grace departs the series and her place as Dr. Ogden’s science sister is taken by Miss James, the first main character of color. We miss Dr. Grace, who was a favorite, but it’s nice to see the series continue to improve on acknowledging the diversity of turn-of-the-century Toronto. Constable Crabtree and Inspector Brackenried both get some good character development this season, as Crabtree’s romantic adventures drag him into some odd and dangerous places (“Nolo Contendere,” “From Buffalo with Love”) and Brackenried gets mixed up in a political scandal (“Bl**dy H*ll”).

Most of this season’s episodes rate in the 4-6 range, which is okay but not great. The season average is brought up, though, by a handful of better episodes, while only one really bad one drags it down. The bottom of the barrel comes at the end of the season with “Cometh the Archer,” a peculiar and tedious episode bringing back master criminal Eva Green and turning her into an unstable Murdoch fangirl. It’s a strange episode which seems to exist for little reason other than showing Dr. Ogden on a leather-clad, bow-wielding rampage of revenge—which is not a bad goal in itself, but it deserves a better treatment than this episode gives it.

Our highest-rated episode of the season, at 8.5, is “24 Hours ’til Doomsday,” a rollicking adventure with a steampunk edge about an ambitious experiment in rocketry. This episode brings back favorite returning characters James Pendrick and Terrence Myers, and ends with Myers taking an unexpected ride into the upper atmosphere. Two more episodes come in at 8, “Raised on Robbery,” a bank heist story which makes for a nice change of pace from the usual murders, and “Colour Blinded,” which gives Miss James some development and explores some of the complexities of race relations in early twentieth-century Canada.

Feel free to share your own favorites from season 9!

Image: Pendrick showing Murdoch his wingsuit design, from “24 Hours ’til Doomsday,” Murdoch Mysteries via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Endgame, Time Travel, and Cinderella

Note: some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead.

Avengers: Endgame is a time travel story, and like many a pop culture time travel story, it has led to head-scratching and nit-picking among fans about the precise mechanics. Are there now multiple universes? Can characters cross between them? Can you change the past or not? Is Evil Nebula actually dead? Did Old Man Steve live out his life with Peggy in another timeline, or has he been living in secret in our universe for the last seventy years?

Since time travel is not, as far as we know, actually possible, we can’t invoke real-world physics to resolve these problems. We have to work with the rules as established by the story. The trouble is that the story’s rules don’t seem consistent. This is a common problem with time travel stories—Endgame even takes a few pot shots at the temporal mechanics of earlier movies.

The fundamental problem with time travel stories is that it is almost impossible to construct a set of rules for time travel that are internally consistent but also allow for change. (Consider the classic paradox: can you go back in time and kill your younger self?) Yet change is what stories are about: if everything is the same at the end of the story as at the beginning, why tell it?

Some stories edge around this problem by making the story be about making sure that things happen as they should, like Back to the Future or Star Trek‘s “City on the Edge of Forever,” but even these stories start from a premise that the past can be changed, which leads to the same problems.

Time travel may be a new concept, but these sorts of internal contradictions have been part of storytelling forever. Consider the story of Cinderella. This fairy tale is so familiar to most of us that we don’t often think about what’s wrong with it. Let’s review:

Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters who treat her like a servant. One day, Cinderella’s fairy godmother gives her a magical gift so that she can go to the prince’s ball: she changes Cinderella’s rags into a wonderful gown and glass slippers, and turns a pumpkin into a fancy coach and field mice into footmen so that she can arrive with a splash. There’s a catch, though: at the stroke of midnight, the spell will end and everything will turn back into what it was before. Cinderella is a hit at the ball and dances with the prince, who falls for her, but once the clock begins to strike midnight she suddenly runs for the door. She is in such a rush that she looses one of her glass slippers on the steps and can’t go back for it. The prince finds the glass slipper and, determined to find the lady he was dancing with, searches the kingdom for the maiden whose foot fits the slipper. He finds Cinderella, marries her, and they live happily ever after.

Do you see the problem?

Why didn’t the glass slipper change back to a ragged old shoe along with everything else?

The magic in the story is not internally consistent. Without the midnight expiration date, Cinderella has no reason to rush from the ball and leave a slipper behind so that the prince can find her, but if the slipper she leaves changes back like all the rest of her magic gear, the prince has no way to know that it’s hers and go looking for her. Even though we’re talking about magic, not time travel, Cinderella runs into the same internal contradictions that pop up in Back to the Future or Endgame.

Generations upon generations of children have grown up with this story, very few of them ever troubled by its inconsistencies. Now, you could argue that that’s because children don’t have well-developed logical faculties, but I prefer a simpler explanation: it doesn’t matter.

Folklore and fairy tales are the most economical form of storytelling. Oral tradition strips tales down to their most important elements, and the most important thing in a story is what happens to the characters. All that matters in the end is that Cinderella and her prince get their happily ever after. Everything else in the story exists to serve that purpose, and can be bent, broken, twisted, or turned however it needs to be in order to get there.

Magic exists in stories to serve the human narrative. Often, serving this purpose requires consistency, to present our heroes with challenges to overcome and rules that can’t be broken (but which a clever hero can circumvent or turn to their own advantage), but when it gets in the way of the story, magic just steps aside so that the thing that should happen can happen. The same applies to time travel (which is really just magic for a technological age).

So Steve and Peggy get to have their happily ever after, and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how or why.

Image: Steve Rogers looking at Peggy Carter’s picture via Giphy

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Four Years of Co-Geeking

We’ve been keeping Co-Geeking going for four years now, and it’s still as much fun as when we started back in 2015. Here’s a quick look back at the past year.

 

Our favorite posts

Eppu:

My favorite post from the past year is not a major one, but it was delightful to write: the comparison of Dalaran cupola library in World of Warcraft to real-world libraries. I’m so used to libraries with regular ranks of shelves and perpendicular walkways that doing a search on rounded shapes made for a very nice departure.

Erik:

It may be self-serving of me, but my favorite post from the past year is still the preview of my book, Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World. That project was a big part of my life for several years. It took a lot of work and I can’t help being proud of the result.

 

Our favorite geeky thing that happened in the past year

Erik:

Battle for Azeroth. The latest expansion to World of Warcraft has had its ups and downs, but on the whole I’ve found it very enjoyable. Gorgeous landscape design, new and different gear for transmogging, and chatty turtle people have all enlivened my gaming time this past year.

Eppu:

Of the things I’ve talked about here, my favorite thing is the release of two Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero movies with women up and front: Ant-Man and the Wasp plus Captain Marvel. Mind you, both movies do have their problems, but they nevertheless have the most successful treatment of female characters Marvel has put out to date. (Outside of Black Panther, of course.)

Pandemic Breaking Out New Boardgame

Also, we were introduced to the cooperative board game Pandemic. If you haven’t tried it, it’s about a team of various scientists and experts (2 to 4 players, with 5 possible specialist roles) racing to find a cure to 4 virulent diseases that have broken out throughout the world. It’s challenging but fun. (And apprently there’s a computer version of Pandemic on Steam!)

 

We hope you’ll be with us for another year of Co-Geeking.

Image by Eppu Jensen

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Building a Castle From the Ground Up

An unusual and ambitious project in experimental archaeology has been under way in France since 1997 and will soon reach completion: the construction of a castle entirely using the technology and techniques available in the thirteenth century.

Castle Guédelon is an attempt to recreate the work of medieval castle construction from the quarrying of stone and cutting of timber to the finishing of the completed structure. The construction materials come from local sources and are brought to the site using only the technology available in the thirteenth century where they are assembled according to plans for a typical small French castle of the period. Laborers on the site even wear recreations of period clothes for a fuller immersion in the historical realities of building.

A full fictional backstory has been created for this castle, conceiving it as the home of a local minor noble. Work is imagined to have begun in 1229, and this imaginary timeline helps guide the details of the plan and its construction. The project is expected to be complete in 2020 (or 1252, in the castle’s imaginary timeline).

The site is open to the public. Revenue from visitors helps finance the construction project. This is an extraordinary piece of experimental archaeology with the potential to provide valuable insights into the practical realities of large building projects in the pre-modern world.

Images: Towers and wall under construction, photograph by Christophe.Finot via Wikimedia. Great hall near completion, photograph by Paul Hermans via Wikimedia. Blacksmith at work, photograph by Francois de Dijon via Wikimedia.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Random Thoughts on Avengers: Endgame

It took us a while to get to see Avengers: Endgame a second time, but here we finally are. As usual, thoughts in no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

 

Eppu’s random thoughts

What worked:

  • It was partly what I expected, but only partly. Mostly it was really not at all what I thought it would be. That’s great.
  • So many smaller Marvel characters we’ve glimpsed over the years got brief moments, if not a line or two.
  • A Stan Lee cameo for one more (last?) time.
  • The pacing was quite good; the movie did not feel three hours long. While Avengers: Infinity War felt stuffed to the gills, parts of A:E felt almost meditative. The slow lead down to the final fight (because of course there has to be a big final fight) was especially welcome. I might have wanted to see the post-snap world (not just USA) get more development, but what can you do—the movie is already so long.
  • Jeremy Renner got some very emotional stuff to perform, and he was especially great. Kudos.
  • So much of the dialogue is so funny, especially Ant-Man’s!
  • Captain America’s second elevator scene at the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters with H.Y.D.R.A. agents. Thih!
  • At the big final fight, it was great to see several characters—pun fully intended—running the gauntlet with the gauntlet. Teamwork!
  • The women of Marvel got to assemble, too (albeit in one token moment).
  • It was interesting that they kept Thor’s beer belly all the way to the end and specifically didn’t clean him up with Asgardian magic or whatever.

What I absolutely LOVED:

  • How BEAUTIFUL everything looked. I know new special effects have been developed along these 22 movies, and Marvel’s really got them down now. Also, the cinematographer Trent Opaloch did an awesome job again, and the special effects teams seemed to have had more time to work (compared to A:IW).
  • Tony Stark with his daughter—LOVED him in those scenes.
  • Captain America vs. Captain America. *snicker*
  • Professor Hulk’s tete-a-tete with the Ancient One remained verbal after the initial yoinking-out-of-physical-body.
  • Nat and Clint were clearly shown to be good friends, not romantic partners. Same for Nat and Cap.
  • Director Carter. 🙂
  • So many of the men cried at many different points in the story. Because men are not monsters.
  • When Clint came back alone from Vormir, there was literally no dialogue while the rest were trying to come to grips with Nat’s death. Amazing scene, amazing acting!
  • When Professor Hulk first attempted to undo the snap and the rest were wondering whether it worked, Scott Lang went to the window and looked at the birds, absolutely delighted. Great stuff.
  • All of the snap-ashed supers and super groups showing up to stand by Captain America’s side for the final fight. YIBAMBE!
  • Captain America wielding Mjölnir! Aaaaah! I knew he could!
  • Avengers: assemble!
  • Okoye and Shuri! And Pepper Potts in an Iron Suit!
  • Yes, Peter Parker, genuine hugs are really nice.
  • Sam as the new Captain America.
  • That the best, most touching moments weren’t about fisticuffs but people and the relationships between people. Supers are still people, at least in these stories, as are the rest of us.

What I thought wasn’t optimal:

  • The beginning of the movie could have included Captain Marvel’s arrival to the compound.
  • Considering how little time Nebula had in the previous movies, it was odd how much time she had in A:E.
  • As great as it was to see side characters pop up here and there, I miss Maria Hill; she was barely there. (Like Nick Fury, only at Tony’s funeral.) We didn’t see Luis from Ant-Man, either.
  • Hawkeye’s vigilante storyline felt like it was copypasted straight from comics. (I’ve no idea; haven’t read any of those.) As interesting as that might have been, it felt disconnected from everything else tonally and emotionally. I get that that the intent was to have Nat poetically give Clint a chance just like he gave her one, but the integration of the story should’ve been handled better.
  • For such an ensemble movie, it was oddly low in actual team stuff. The main focus and space were on Tony Stark, Captain America, and Thor. Too many moments on those three for an Avengers story, especially when they picked the dudes who already have their own franchises.
  • Speaking of Thor: satisfying hammer-axe action, disappointingly little thunder and lightning.
  • The time-travel plot gimmick felt exactly like that, a gimmick instead of A Rational Plot. Besides, how was Steve able to marry Peggy if doodling with time wasn’t supposed to work that way?
  • What’s this rubbish about barely having Black Panther there?
  • At Stark’s funeral, there was one young dude I didn’t recognize. Apparently he was the young kid from Iron Man 3. O-kay; he wasn’t well integrated at all.
  • Captain Marvel was MASSIVELY underused. What’s the point of having a star player and building up her impact in stingers and trailers if you’re going to bench her for most of the film? Absurd. (I did read a comment online saying that the basic edit of A:E was locked down before Captain Marvel even finished filming. If so, it still doesn’t justify the bad balancing act in the stingers and trailers.)
  • The same also applies to Thor, Doctor Strange, and Scarlet Witch. Doctor Strange had nothing plot-related to do in this film? Really?! You could perhaps argue that acquiring the beer belly might’ve affected Thor’s ability to control lightning; then again, he wasn’t affectected at all by losing an eye in Thor: Ragnarok, so not really. And what on earth was stopping Wanda from either mind controlling Thanos or snapping a bunch of capillaries in his brain!? Marvel really must get its act together and start actually using powerful characters, including the women, as long as they keep insisting on incorporating them into the MCU.
  • Peter Quill got what was coming to him—getting kneed into his privates—for touching someone out of the blue like that, but it didn’t feel satisfactory at all. He needs to have some sense written into him, but this wasn’t the way and I doubt he learned anything.
  • At the very end, Steve’s Old Man Beige(TM) jacket gave me the creeps. Where is it writ that Upon Attaining a Venerable Age, Men Must Wear Beige?!?

What I hated:

  • Thor’s PTSD was a plausible story arc, but done clumsily—too much focus (literally!) was placed on his beer belly, which was played for laughs.
  • Tony Stark may be great with his daughter, but otherwise he’s sill a jerk: asking Pepper a question, then interrupting her in the next breath; all of his needs and wants overriding hers. So, basically, the only time Tony thinks a woman is worthy of respectful treatment is when she’s literally sprung from his own DNA? FFS.
  • If Nebula knew, for her not to have told the Avengers what getting the soulstone requires was nigh on sadistic and not in line with the Nebula the movie spent its beginning establishing. If she merely suspected, it still isn’t in line with the new Nebula. At least she did mention Gamora died on Vormir.
  • You can argue back and forth whether it should’ve been Nat or Clint who got to sacrifice themselves. Since they went the way they did, the fact remains that the writers have now killed two characters for the soulstone, and both are women. It was tiresome already in A:IW (as we see so many dead women in American entertainment which MCU stories are part of—nothing is created in a vacuum). Now they’ve stepped it up (remember how both broken bodies were on display on screen?). The most spot-on comment on this I’ve seen: “’Vormir’ means ‘refrigerator’, right?” Or, in a longer take: “I don’t think anyone involved in making Infinity War understood how viscerally disturbing Gamora’s death was, especially for women in the audience—to be murdered by your abuser in what he claims to be proof of his love, and to have the universe itself validate that proof by giving him what he wants in exchange.” Disgusting.
  • Where was Natasha’s funeral? Why were the men allowed to wallow after losing people, but Pepper got, what, 15 seconds? This stinks of fridging: women die for men to Have Feels.
  • When the women of Marvel got to assemble (albeit in a way that felt forced), they were pretty much stopped there; not even 60 seconds. A:IW had a better all-women fight scene.

What questions I was left with:

  • Um, wasn’t the whole point with Laura and their kids that Clint explicitly wanted to keep ’em off S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar? (It was mentioned in Avengers: Age of Ultron.) We see him wearing an ankle monitor, which means they’re exposed to at least one agency, possibly many. And he was fine with it??
  • What about phase 4??? Seems like whichever way you look, there’s a lot (a lot!) to explain after A:E, and that doesn’t sound like an easy task.

 

Erik’s random thoughts

My random thoughts come in two varieties: gripes and cheers.

The gripes:

  • This is a movie trying to do too much. It has too many characters to serve, too many plots to ravel up, too many nostalgia beats to hit, too much narrative debt to pay off. As with Infinity War before it, it is a tribute to the writers and directors that this movie works at all, but it still feels like twenty pounds of story in a ten-pound bag.
  • Given that the movie is overstuffed, it is no surprise that most of my problems with it concern the things it doesn’t have time for. It is perhaps unfair to complain that a movie with several dozen heroes doesn’t spend enough time with some of them, but there a few cases that feel particularly galling. Chief among those is Captain Marvel. After a movie and two stingers building up her potential as a game-changing hero, she barely appears in Endgame. Her most significant contribution to the plot is delivering Tony Stark back to Earth, after which she disappears for most of the rest of the runtime. The movie practically spends more time making excuses for Carol Danvers’s absence than it does explaining the central time heist.
  • The movie’s handling of women in general is pretty awful. They mostly appear as emotional supports to men or in roles so small as to be effectively meaningless. When the female heroes assemble in the midst of the final battle, all they really get to do is pose together before the general melee resumes. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a problem with is female characters for the whole decade, yet the fact that the filmmakers evidently thought a quick photo-op in a three-hour movie was good enough is somehow even more enraging than the usual neglect.
  • In a similar vein, it is not nothing that this movie includes the first openly, explicitly gay character in the MCU, and the fact that he is taken seriously as a person, without comment or surprise—and by Captain America, no less—is unequivocally good. At the same time, an unnamed throwaway character in a scene that does not advance the plot and will be easy to edit out in less tolerant markets is about as close to nothing as you can get.
  • There is a reason why the original Avengers movie worked so brilliantly: not only did the movie as a whole have a clear narrative line, but all of the major characters had their own arcs. You could watch it as an Iron Man movie, a Captain America movie, a Hulk movie, a Thor movie, a Black Widow movie, even a Hawkeye movie, and it worked. If Avengers proved that there can be room for six main characters in a movie, Infinty War and Endgame have proved that there isn’t room for several dozen. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are the only characters who really have narrative throughlines in the movie. Thor and Bruce Banner each get a couple of good scenes, but not enough for a real story. Natasha and Clint have the suggestion of a story without really getting time to develop.
  • Another thing that made Avengers so successful is that, of all the movies Tony Stark has appeared in, Avengers is the one least dominated by his emotional issues. Endgame sadly falls right into line, devoting more screen time to Tony Stark’s feelings than to anything else.

The cheers:

  • While the whole of this movie may be less than the sum of its parts, some of those parts are pretty good. The scene between Nat and Clint on Vormir sticks out in my mind. For the two poor relations of the Avengers, it was a haunting, beautifully-acted performance that showed the depths of their friendship in a way that has only been hinted at before. I could not guess which of them was going to fall, but it was clear that it would be heartbreaking either way.
  • I appreciated that this movie took the time to show us a post-snap world, even if only in a fragmentary way.
  • A lovely, tiny detail of character development: Tony and Pepper’s daughter tells Tony “I love you 3,000.” When recording a message for her, he says: “I love you 3,000.” Not 3,001 or 4,000, but the same number. For once, he doesn’t feel the need to one-up someone.
  • The final battle is a gloriously overloaded superhero rampage. I usually like cinematic fights to have a clear narrative progression, but there is something to be said for the joy of sheer chaos.
  • Many of the callbacks to previous movies were ingeniously done, but I think my favorite is Falcon announcing the arrival of the un-snapped on the battlefield with: “On your left.”
  • Even though it was far too brief and inconsequential, the assembly of the Marvel women was glorious as long as it lasted, and it made the point that the MCU has lots of powerful female characters. Now they just need movies.
  • There were also nice moments sprinkled through the film of women doing things: Nat running the reduced Avengers, Okoye managing the Wakanda branch (and perhaps the whole African division?) of same, Carol Danvers punching through a spaceship (as she is wont to do), and Nebula reconnecting with a previous version of Gamora. They are not enough, but they are good for what they are.
  • On Nebula and Gamora: in one of the few exceptions to women acting primarily as emotional supports to men, the most important relationship that Gamora develops when brought back from the past is with Nebula, not Peter Quill. The movie in fact gives Nebula, a secondary character from a second-string franchise, a surprising amount of screen time and development. At the end of the movie, Gamora and Nebula’s sisterhood is poised to take over as the most important relationship among the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Thor is in position to replace Quill as leader. If this leads to Quill being sidelined from the group or developing as a character into something more than a petulant overgrown child, I support either change.
  • Steve gets to have a life with Peggy. I’ll let other people worry about the time-travel implications—it is the ending they both deserve, and I’m happy with it.
  • Also: we know that Peggy Carter went on to be someone important in S.H.I.E.L.D. (her office door says Director), while Steve Rogers was a national hero whose face had been all over the newsreels. If he wanted to stay out of history’s way in his life with Peggy, he’d have to keep out of the public eye. Conclusion: Peggy Carter was working a high-powered job in the 1950s while Steve Rogers was a stay-at-home husband. I support this idea, and I believe Captain America would support it, too.

Image: Avengers: Endgame poster via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Behind the Name: Erebor

Erebor, also known as the Lonely Mountain, is a lost kingdom of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s Hobbit, reclaimed from the dragon Smaug by Thorin Oakenshield and his companions, including Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, at the end of the story. Since Professor Tolkien was a linguist, and his Middle Earth was first inspired by his desire to create a world and history around his invented languages, it makes sense to ask what inspired him to name this important place Erebor.

The Hobbit itself does not make much use of Tolkien’s linguistic experiments. Most of the places named in the novel have descriptions more than names—the Misty Mountains, the Long Lake, Lake Town. Even the few places with proper names are fairly transparent in their meaning: the town that sits in a dale by the Lonely Mountain is called Dale, and Mirkwood is not too hard to understand as a murky wood. The term Erebor did not appear until The Lord of the Rings. By that point, Tolkien’s constructed languages were well developed and he provided a suitable internal etymology for Erebor as an Elvish translation of Lonely Mountain. Nevertheless, there are some clear real-world referents that we cannot ignore.

The obvious place to start is Erebos, a name from Greek Mythology for both a region of the underworld and a primordial god representing darkness. (Erebos is the original Greek spelling; it is often seen Latinized as Erebus.) To name an underground city cut out of the rock of a mountain, this makes sense as a starting point, but Erebos has an interesting etymology of its own.

Erebos derives from a Proto-Indo-European root *hregwos. (In linguistics, the asterisk indicates words that are not recorded anywhere but have been reconstructed based on related words or other forms.) The Proto-Indo-European language had several different consonants corresponding to the letter h, and the exact pronunciation of them all is a matter of debate, but before an r at the beginning of a word, this h regularly became an e in Greek. The gw sound became a b in Greek (for example, the Greek word basileus, meaning “king” comes from an earlier form gwasireu). Thus *hregwos became the ancient Greek Erebos.

In other branches of the Indo-European family, the same root took different paths. In Sanskrit, it became rájas, which means “dark sky.” In Armenian, it became erek, meaning “evening.” In Gothic, it became rikwis, “darkness.” And in Old Norse, it produced the verb røkkva, which means “to become dark.” Clearly, while Ancient Greek adapted the word to a new meaning, the original meaning had to do with darkness in the sky, not under the earth. The name of Erebor captures a suggestion not just of a place under the earth but also its fate to be assailed by the sky-darkening dragon Smaug.

There is one step further we can go, although it is a tentative one. It involves the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the doom of the gods and the destruction of the world. The word Ragnarök is a compound whose first part, ragna, means the power of the gods (congate with the English word reign). The second element is less certain. Linguists today prefer rök, meaning “fate,” but the early twentieth century when Tolkien was studying, some argued for røkkr, the noun for “twilight” derived from the verb røkkva and ultimately going back to the Proto-Indo-European *hregwos. Tolkien may well have been amused to hint at the chaotic, destructive final battle between the Norse gods in naming the site of the chaotic Battle of the Five Armies which brings Bilbo’s adventure to an end.

Image: Erebor as visualized in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, via IMDb

On, of, and about languages.

Blue and White Transmogs for 120

I’m slowly getting all my alts up to 120 and often celebrating with brand new transmogs. My holy priest and outlaw rogue recently made it and, without any particular plan, I ended up giving both of them blue and white transmogs. Here they are for your enjoyment.

My holy priest in his Stargazer’s Perfection outfit.

My outlaw rogue decked out in her Storm-Angel’s Descent look.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Guest-Friendship

Small-scale societies have ways of dealing with problems that arise within the community, but dealing with the outside world is often a more serious challenge. Small, subsistence-level communities are rarely entirely self-sufficient. Some level of contact with the outside world is useful for trade and joint self-defense, but leaving your home community is risky when you cannot be sure of being safe elsewhere. Within your own village, you may be surrounded by family, neighbors, and people bound to you by mutual bonds of obligation whom you can count on to stand up for your safety and your rights, but once you head out into the wider world, you are alone. If someone attacks you, steals from you, or tries to cheat you in a bargain, who can you look to for help? Different societies have different ways of dealing with this problem, but one useful strategy is known as guest-friendship.

Aspects of guest-friendship are documented in practice in ancient Greece, where the custom was known as xenia, based on the word xenos, which could mean foreigner, stranger, or friend. In the early archaic society described in the Homeric epics, wealthy warrior-nobles—the sort of people represented in the epics by heroes like Odysseus and Menelaus—had faithful retainers to protect them while at home, but traveling with a large retinue was difficult. Since the two major reasons for leaving home were to trade with neighboring communities or to raid them for supplies and slaves, it is understandable that travelers did not always find a warm welcome, even when they came in peace.

To keep themselves safe when away from home, aristocratic families from different communities made agreements of guest-friendship among themselves. These families would provide lodging and food to visiting guest-friends and expect the same when they went traveling themselves, but more importantly guest-friends protected one another. In essence, a guest-friendship was a promise to treat your visitors as if they were members of your own family. That could mean more than just hosting them for a few days. It could also mean standing up for them if they were mistreated or cheated while doing business in your town, even fighting in their defense if they were attacked. In a world without police, courts, or enforceable contracts, where your rights ended at the borders of your home town, these relationships were essential to keeping trade routes and lines of communication open.

In ancient Greece, as in many other places, these relationships were personal, but also hereditary. They could be passed down from generation to generation, sometimes even being revived after lying dormant for many years. Between individuals, guest-friendship could even take precedence over inter-communal hostilities. The Iliad records a battlefield encounter between two heroes, Diomedes and Glaucus, one fighting on the Greek side, the other on the Trojan side. Approaching each other on the field, they shout out challenges and boast about their ancestry and accomplishments, but in doing so, they discover that their grandfathers were guest-friends. Once they realize their connection, Diomedes and Glaucus agree that it would be wrong for them to fight one another. Instead, they exchange armor as a token of friendship and agree to go find other people to fight. (Homer, Iliad 6.119-191)

As a means of ensuring safety for travelers, guest-friendship was unreliable. It depended on mutual personal obligations which could not be enforced on the unwilling. There was no way to prevent the abuse or neglect of the relationship, other than the threat of ending it. As much as Homer’s epics celebrate the uses of guest-friendship among honorable people of good will, they also reflect how precarious such codes of behavior could be when there wasn’t force behind them. While the fairy-tale wanderings of Odysseus are a fantasy version of the dangers of traveling without the protection of familiar customs and norms, the greedy Ithacan suitors eating up Odysseus’ wealth in his absence bring the problems closer to home. Indeed, in Greek myth, the institution of guest-friendship fails at least as often as it succeeds.

Nevertheless, even in later periods of ancient Greek history when legal and diplomatic institutions were better developed, the idea of guest-friendship still had a place. Some aspects of guest-friendship, in a less personal and more formalized way, continued in the role of proxenoi (singular proxenos), who acted as representatives and advocates for outside communities. The Athenian aristocrat and politician Cimon, for example, acted as Sparta’s proxenos in Athens. He hosted Spartan emissaries when they came to Athens and used his influence in Athenian politics to try to make peace between the two cities in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. Like guest-friendship, this role was also often hereditary, passed down through aristocratic family lines from father to son. Guest-friendship itself was even revived as a way of forging relationships across political lines between Greek aristocrats and representatives of the Persian Empire.

The details of ancient Greek guest-friendship are particular to one culture and one time period, but similar relationships—with all their attendant possibilities and problems—existed in many other places and times among small societies lacking strong institutions to keep order. We can find similar patterns of mutual obligation among historical peoples from places as diverse as the Scottish highlands, the Arabian peninsula, and the Pacific islands. Many customs still surviving in the modern industrialized world, such as exchanges of gifts between guests and hosts or the maintaining of multi-generational family friendships, preserve vestiges of practices that were once vital to making it safe tor travel beyond the boundaries of our own homelands.

Image: detail from “Helen Recognizing Telemachus, Son of Odysseus” via Wikimedia (Hermitage Museum; 1795; oil on panel; Jean-Jacques Largenée)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 8

Our favorite soft-spoken Toronto detective / inventor returns for another season of mysteries. Here’s what we thought of season 8.

  1. “On the Waterfront, Part 1” – 4.5
  2. “On the Waterfront, Part 2” – 6
  3. “Glory Days” – 2.5
  4. “Holy Matrimony, Murdoch!” – 8
  5. “Murdoch Takes Manhattan” – 7
  6. “The Murdoch Appreciation Society” – 9
  7. “What Lies Buried” – 8
  8. “High Voltage” – 4
  9. “The Keystone Constables” – 4
  10. “Murdoch and the Temple of Death” – 7
  11. “All that Glitters” – 6
  12. “The Devil Wears Whalebone” – 8
  13. “The Incurables” – 5.5
  14. “Toronto’s Girl Problem” – 4
  15. “Shipwreck” – 2
  16. “Crabtreemania” – 6
  17. “Election Day” – 7
  18. “Artful Detective” – 5.5

This season’s average rating is a 5.8, which is not the best Murdoch Mysteries has done, but is a very strong showing for a series in its eighth year and with no signs of faltering.

This season has the distinction of seeing Detective Murdoch and Dr. Ogden finally tie the knot. Of course, neither their wedding nor their honeymoon can go off without a murder to brilliantly solve together, giving us a delightful pair of episodes in “Holy Matrimony, Murdoch!” and “Murdoch Takes Manhattan.” The latter episode also features a spirited B-story back in Toronto which allows Dr. Grace to take the wheel for a high(-ish)-speed car chase.

The lowest episode of this season is “Shipwreck,” at 2, in which Murdoch finds his beloved childhood priest fallen from his pedestal. There are good parts to the episode, but it is dragged down by slow pacing and uninspired acting. “Glory Days,” a 2.5 in which a legendary lawman of the US old west thinks he’s hunting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Toronto is not much better, as it wallows in the unappealing tropes of male resentment.

But these low points are more than outweighed by a number of fine episodes. The best of the season is “The Murdoch Appreciation Society,” at 9, in which Murdoch’s in-universe fans stage a fake mystery for the chance to watch him work, which becomes tangled up with a real murder plot. Also notable are “The Devil Wears Whalebone,” an 8, which features one of the series’ more inventive murder weapons, and “What Lies Buried,” also an 8, a tense and claustrophobic drama in which Murdoch seeks a killer within the police force itself. Along the way, we get the usual Murdoch hijinks with vaudeville theatre, staged wrestling matches, the early days of the women’s suffrage movement, and an Indiana Jones pastiche.

All told, it’s another fun go around with Detective Murdoch and company.

Image: Dr. Grace at the wheel, from Murdoch Mysteries via IMDb

Post edited to correct grammatical errors

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Quotes: Cribbage Boards Are as Common as Wooden Spoons

Cribbage boards are as common as wooden spoons in the kitchens of this island. Children raised in this part of Maine often learn to play cribbage before the can tie their own shoes.

Linda Greenlaw writes about Isle Au Haut, Maine, not far from where one part of my family has its roots in the rocky coastal soil. This was one of many parts of the book that had me nodding in recognition. I can’t honestly say whether I learned to play cribbage (a curious card game for which you keep score on a wooden board) or tie my shoes first, but I can say that I don’t clearly remember a time in my life when I couldn’t do both.

Greenlaw, Linda. The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island. New York: Hyperion, 2002, p. 111.

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