Know Your Barbarians

The word “barbarian” today conjures a fairly specific image: a large, muscular man or woman wearing leather or furs hefting an enormous weapon. They are ragged and dirty and if they have any kind of organization, it is as a rabble of warriors following whoever happens to be the strongest. This image has its roots in classical Greek and Roman literature, but Greco-Roman ideas about barbarians were broader and more complicated than this.

Greeks and Romans both had complicated relationships with the outside world. The economy of ancient Greece depended on foreign trade, especially with Egypt, but Greece was also on the northwestern frontier of the Persian empire, which often threatened Greek cities or interfered in their internal politics. Rome was an expansionist empire with ambitions of conquering the whole world, but the strength and stability of the empire depended on integrating conquered peoples into Roman culture.

Out of these historical experiences, Greek and Roman writers, artists, and philosophers developed a wide repertoire of narrative models for describing other peoples. These narratives ranged from the nuanced and admiring to the stereotyping and pejorative. “Barbarian” could mean many different things in different times and contexts. Among this repertoire, there were conventional archetypes that authors and artists could draw on and expect that their audience would recognize them.

These archetypes were nebulous conglomerations of tropes and stereotypes, not always consistent and liable to be manipulated, tweaked, and subverted in individual works of art or literature. They could be reduced to caricature or filled out with individual details. They functioned much like modern national and ethnic stereotypes. Imagine the caricature version of a British gentleman, replete with bowler hat and umbrella. We might expect such a character to have certain typical qualities, both positive (unflappable, chivalrous, witty) and negative (stodgy, proud, insensitive) and engage in typical behaviors (sipping tea, playing polo, driving a Jaguar). Of course, stereotypes don’t have to be followed. A Brit in a bowler hat with an umbrella may also turn out to be a tongue-tied chocoholic who raises miniature goats and likes to watch telenovelas, but the author who creates such a character and the audience that encounters them will recognize how the standard tropes have been played with.

Greeks and Romans had two principal archetypes for barbarians. One was based on small, materially poor, less well organized cultures mostly found to the west or north, such as Scythians, Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Iberians, Britons, and Dacians. The other was based on large, wealthy, sophisticated cultures mostly found to the east or south, such as Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans.

The northwestern barbarians are the ancestors of the modern “barbarian” image. They were portrayed as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. They had no idea how to behave in a civilized society and were almost like wild animals. They lived in poverty and with barely any kind of government except the ability of the strong to impose their will on others. They could also be shown with good qualities, such as generosity and honesty. The were the original “noble savages,” ignorant of the benefits of civilization but also uncorrupted by its temptations.

The southeastern barbarians were the opposite. They were portrayed as weak, decadent, devious, overwhelmed by luxury and tangled in arcane social hierarchies. They had given in to the corrupting effects of civilization and overindulged in every kind of physical pleasure. They lived like slaves under the rule of despotic tyrants, but they were so accustomed to the comforts of luxury that they lacked the will to resist. They could have positive qualities as well. Their cultures were ancient and sophisticated, rich in accumulated knowledge. We don’t have a good term for the opposite of “noble savages,” but we might call them “depraved sophisticates.”

Central to both of these archetypes is one of the key values of Greco-Roman society: self-control. The southeastern barbarians displayed too little of it, giving in every kind of indulgence and unable to resist the rule of a tyrant. The northwestern barbarians, by contrast, were too willful, unable to subordinate themselves to the structures of law and social order. By creating these archetypes, Greeks and Romans positioned themselves in the middle—sophisticated enough to enjoy the benefits of civilization, but strong enough to resist its corrupting effects.

Both of these archetypes have come down into modern literature. The northwestern barbarian has become the standard modern “barbarian,” but aspects of it can also be seen in modern Western stereotypes of Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans. “Darkest Africa” stories about wild cannibal tribes dumbfounded by modern technology and scientific knowledge play upon the same images of violence, savagery, and technological ignorance that Romans applied to the Gauls and Germans. The southeastern barbarian formed the basis for romanticized Western depictions of the Islamic world, China, and India. “Arabian Nights” fantasies of scandalous harems and treacherous palace politics, ancient secrets and fabulous treasures hidden in the twisting back streets behind markets filled with spices and gems evoke Greek tales about Egypt and Persia.

These archetypes have also found their way into fantasy and science fiction. Tolkien’s Elves reflect some of the more positive southeastern qualities of wisdom and sophistication while his Orcs display the violent, fractious, bestial traits of the northwest. Star Trek‘s Klingons and Romulans represent the tropes of warlike honor and treacherous sophistication. The people of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones face the rugged, wild, disorderly peoples of the north and the rich, old, devious kingdoms of the east.

Once you know your barbarians, you’ll recognize them everywhere.

Images: Hyboria, by Yan R. via Flickr. Sultan from the Arabian Nights, by Rene Bull via Wikimedia.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which 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.

Quotes: Women’s Emotional Lives Do Not Revolve around Men

“It strikes me as unusual and as noteworthy that we should see two such dissimilar films [Moana and Arrival] foreground so strongly connection between women across generations within a family. To acknowledge that women’s emotional lives do not revolve around men, and also acknowledge a strong family component, without reducing the female characters to people who have no emotional lives outside their family concerns.

“These films are also really good speculative fiction. So I recommend them.”

– Liz Bourke

ALL. OF. THIS!

SO. MUCH!

Bourke, Liz. “Sleeps with Monsters: Intergenerational Female Influences in Arrival and Moana.” Tor.com, May 23, 2017.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Hugo Awards 2017 Voter Packet Is out

Since last Wednesday, I’ve been like:

Twitter Adam Holisky Picard Full of Win

And:

Kermit Flail

And:

Lady Fancifull reading-film-gif

As members of Worldcon75, we are participating in this year’s Hugo Awards voting. Last week, the con released a packet of reading and visual works to help voters access materials on the finalists list. (Note to self: We have until July 15, 2017, 2:59 am EST to get our votes in.)

Apparently this year’s packet is larger than ever before in the 10 years it’s existed. While definitely not the reason for our memberships, it’s an invaluable bonus.

In addition to the official packet, JJ at File 770 did a huge favor for readers and collected a comprehensive list of finalist works published free online.

With all of this reading, I definitely will have no problems with how to fill my days in the foreseeable future!

Thank you, various creatives and rightsholders, thank you, Worldcon75 Hugo Awards staff, and thank you, JJ and Mike Glyer / File770.

Images: Kermit flail via Walker—Bait on Tumblr; Captain Picard Full of Win via Adam Holisky on Twitter; Reading film: radicktv via Lady Fancifull

Ending of Rogue One Seamlessly Connected to A New Hope

This nine-minute video by Barre Fong combines the very ending of Rogue One seamlessly to A New Hope:

“Rogue One” Spliced with “A New Hope” by Barre Fong

Nice job! It was pretty clear from just seeing Rogue One in the theaters how well the team not only wrote but propped, set-dressed, and costumed their movie to match the George Lucas -led original. This merger makes it very explicit, though. A hat-tip to all involved.

In general, I really enjoy comparing originals and recreations (or originals and adaptations), and the pleasure is multiplied when the successor is expertly and thoughtfully made. That’s one reason why Peter Jackson et al.’s making-of documentaries for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies are still the gold standard for movie extras—hearing about the design process is fascinating.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Quotes: In the Hopes that They Will Be Able to Pass for One of the Glintelligentsia

“The Merita hotel chain offers rooms at a steep discount to people whose Information shows that they are interesting: as cocktail-chatter counterparts, as connections for enterpreneurs, as potential romantic partners. It’s a strategy to convince wealthier, duller clientele to pay a premium in order to share some sparkling conversation, or in the hopes that they will be able to pass for one of the glintelligentsia themselves.”

– Malka Older, Infomocracy

I just love the word glintelligentsia! It should be in mainstream use already. 🙂

Older, Malka. Infomocracy. New York, NY: Tor.com, 2016, p. 77.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Western Asian Science Fictional Art

Omar Gilani is an illustrator, designer, and concept artist currently based in Pakistan. Not all of his art has sci-fi elements, but the pieces that do are amazing. Take a look:

Omar Gilani 2
Omar Gilani
Omar Gilani 5
Omar Gilani

The engineer-turned-artist takes inspiration from everyday life and combines traditional drawing with digitally created elements.

Omar Gilani sits4
Omar Gilani
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Omar Gilani

I am very sorry I found out about his work only a day(!) after the Hugo nomination period closed. Well, hopefully he’ll continue producing genre art so I can nominate him next year.

Found via Islam and Science Fiction.

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

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

Tips Needed: Years-Long Story Arcs on Screen?

Recently I’ve been thinking of Babylon 5 quite a bit from the storytelling point of view. When it first aired (1994-1998 in the U.S.), it was unique in my experience (which was, at the time, still quite limited) for a few things.

The Catholic Geeks babylon52

Firstly, I loved B5 for its complex, detailed, and consistent world. I hadn’t seen that level of commitment to worldbuilding on tv before. Also, the plot moved on several levels, from individual concerns to multi-species war, and involved political struggles, religious prophesies, racial tensions, social pressures, and personal rivalries of many kinds. At times it was heavy-handed, for instance in its discussion of authoritarianism vs. free will (“Who are you?” “What do you want?”), but not consistently across every plotline, if memory serves. (Note to self: It’s clearly time for a rewatch!)

What really sets B5 apart from other attempts, however, is that it’s carrying essentially one huge story arc over years of tv programming, not just one season’s worth. The creator, J. Michael Straczynski, conceived of the whole plotline before the series was written for tv. Apparently, it was specifically supposed to be a “novel for television,” with the core plot points figured out beforehand. (That’s my biggest beef with the current Doctor Who, for example: the writers are struggling to fold in new storylines into the existing canon—even very recently created canon—and it shows.)

Game of Thrones and The Expanse feel very similar to B5, being tv adaptations of stories already in existence, and I’ve really enjoyed those aspects of both. Before them, though, I can’t really remember seeing that many quality series that incorporate truly extended story arcs. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot all tried, even though none of them really implement as overarching a story as B5 does.

I’ve been wanting to see (and not just read) long plots lately, so I’d really appreciate your input. I still haven’t looked into Straczynski’s new series sense8—does anyone know whether it has a similar structure? Or can you recommend any other genre shows with long-term payoff?

Image via The Catholic Geeks

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

 

Han Solo: A Smuggler’s Trade – A Fan Film par Excellence

More fan projects from the Star Wars universe! This short, unofficial, non-profit Han Solo fan film really nails the mood and attitude:

Han Solo: A Smuggler’s Trade – A Star Wars Fan Film by Jamie Costa

The story is by Nathaniel Nauert, and the screenplay is by Nauert plus Jared Bell and Keith Allen. Allen also directed the short.

The production did a fantastic job with propping, lighting, sounds, music, and effects. Nice work!

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Quotes: She Tried to Take It All in

“She tried to take it all in, to memorize every detail of the amazing historical event she was witnessing: The young woman splashing in the fountain with three officers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. The stout woman passing out poppies to two rough-looking soldiers, who each kissed her on the cheek. The bobby trying to drag a girl down off the Nelson monument and the girl leaning down and blowing a curled-paper party favor in his face. And the bobby laughing.”

– Connie Willis: All Clear; London, 7 May 1945

Just a part of the World War II Victory in Europe Day celebration in Trafalgar Square, London, according to author Connie Willis. What a delightful image, especially the bit about the bobby and the girl with the party favor!

Willis, Connie: All Clear. New York, NY: Spectra, 2010, p. 14.

(This quote comes from my 21 new-to-me SFF authors reading project.)

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.