Aroldus Figulus et amici (Harry Potter and Friends)
Over the holidays I had reason to watch the Harry Potter films which a local cable station was showing sequentially each night. I've looked at the odd Potter book before, but a more thorough exposure revealed how much Latin and classical lore is woven into the stories. Not only are some of the magical creatures straight out of ancient mythology (for example there's the hell-hound Cerberus hiding under the whimsical alias of 'Fluffy'), but several of the characters take their names from the ancient world as well. There's Hermione, who was originally one of the daughters of Helen of Troy – and who complained of being the victim of magic rather than being a perpetrator of it. Then there's Severus (Snape in the books/Septimius in reality) and Regulus (Black in the books, Atilius in reality, though another Regulus did well under Nero – and 'nero' means 'black' in Latin.)
Then there's the spells, which are often Latin, or something approximate to it. Consider, for example 'Cave Inimicum' which wards off enemies and means 'beware of the foe'; and 'Colloportus' which means – and does - 'lock the door'. 'Expecto Patronum' is a spell which plays a major part in the later plots. It means 'I expect a protector' and a protector is what the caster of the spell usually gets. 'Expelliarmus' is interesting. The spell violently wrenches a wand from a rival wizard's hand. But is it dog Latin for 'we expel' (and if so why, 'we'?) or is it 'expellio armorum' ('expulsion of weapons')? Since circumstances would demand that the words be said rapidly, the shorter form of 'expelliarmus' is understandable. In fact, as a quick Google search will reveal there's a whole sub-genre devoted to translating or figuring out Potter spells.
And this is just one of an increasing number of 'teen gothic' shows out there, many of which mix Latin and classical themes with vampires, werewolves and other denizens of myth. (There's also a fun book called 'De bello Lemures' which goes the other way and has a Roman legionary unit standing off zombies in a deserted Gallic farmhouse.) Personally I think there's nothing wrong with introducing characters from classical history and myth in this way. Hopefully this leads both readers and viewers to follow up these modern interpretations to explore the original stories which inspired them. And judging from the fact that British readers have recently been buying my 'Greek and Roman Mythology' in large quantities, that's exactly what's happening.
Almost there ...
This past month has seen an unusual experience for me – I've been writing to a deadline. This is not to say that most of my projects are open-ended, but the deadline is not usually an issue. This is because once I get into a project, the thing tends to take over my life and I find myself researching or writing enthusiastically into the small hours of the morning. As a result most books are finished months ahead of schedule, and I then start tentative enquiries to see if my cat, friends and wife remember who I am. That's the usual procedure.
This year has been different, because it's been a good year for me. Firstly, as readers of this blog will be aware, I tried my hand at writing fiction and produced a novel. I also tried my hand at writing a course for online teaching and produced that too. Then there was the third book in my contract with Pen & Sword, on the events of 91-81 BC, which is a fascinating period and one of those decades on which the entire future of the world hinges. (Read the book to find out why.) The problem was that some key texts were in Greek and Latin for which there was no translation, or the translations were so unreliable that I had to wrap a wet towel around my head and attempt it for myself.
All these things took time. Then a book project – a history of the Roman empire - was scheduled by the publishers for early release next year, so final edits suddenly moved from a leisurely pace to turbo-charged. Once that was done, I suddenly had a month left of 2013 and a good chunk of book still to write. Not really a problem because the research was all done, and it was just a matter of changing a mare's nest of scribbled notes and time-lines into legible prose. It helped that I was able to say 'I've a deadline to meet' to everything from prospective book reviews to social engagements. Fortunately it's been snowing hard and it's unreasonable to expect anyone to go far in half a meter of snow, which is what we have had in the last week. So I've written over 10,000 words in that time. At this rate I'll be finished well before Xmas.
Too hectic for Hecate?
Ah … here comes December, and this year it's rolling down on me like an avalanche. I'm really going to have to get better at saying 'no', but each of the different projects that has come up this year has been too attractive to resist. With the result that I'm occasionally sitting at the keyboard or deep in research while other things (meals, sleep, social interactions) pass me by.
A general rule established by years of trial and error is to never accept a deadline later than the end of November, because that way my loved ones have a sporting chance of my being present at Christmas. This means 'present' in mind as well as body, and not being silent through the festivities, only to remark 'you know, I'm not sure about Pliny's definition of res mancipi' just as everyone is settling down over the turkey.
The trouble is that it took longer than expected to get the novel up and out the door. (Where it is doing rather well for itself in the big, wide world - so thanks to all those who purchased a copy, and even more thanks to those who have reviewed it, especially as no-one has yet reviewed it unfavourably.) This had a knock-on effect with other projects, so I was preparing one end of an academic course even as the students started at the other, and the latest book will be delivered to the publishers merely on time instead of three months ahead; which usually happens because I get really into writing once started on a project.
You'd think that I'd learn from this, but here's this invitation to do a piece on Hecate, that most fascinating of goddesses, and another book idea on a mythological theme. And they're already talking about a sequel to the novel and whether we can adapt my book on the Roman Empire into a course using the book as a set text. (The book is due out next year, and I'm currently going through the galleys instead of watching ice hockey on the big screen down at the pub.)
So it's pretty much non-stop right now from dawn past dusk, which means I'm having the time of my life. Any time that I'm not buried in my work, you can bury me for real.
Rome and the American politician
Every now and then someone asks me 'Is the United States the new Rome?' Generally those asking the question want to know if the USA resembles the Roman empire. My standard reply is no, the USA is nothing like the Roman empire, socially, demographically, economically or militarily. However, politically the US government is a lot like the Roman Republic. Consider this -
'Many were willing to grant the request, but Ted Cruz opposed it. When he saw that the senators were ready to gratify Obama, he spent the whole day speaking and so frustrated their intentions.'
This reference to a recent attempt to prevent congressional legislation comes not from a modern newspaper, but verbatim from Plutarch's 'Life of Cato the Younger' with only Ted Cruz swapped for Cato and Obama for Caesar. This sort of similarity is why I've been watching congressional politics with interest lately. The US government is in partial shut-down because Messers Obama and Boehner can't agree on necessary legislation. This may be followed by a funding crisis if the pair can't agree on financing the government. It all sounds a bit like 133 BC.
'But Octavius would not consent to this, and therefore Tiberius issued an edict forbidding all the other magistrates to transact any public business until such time as the vote should be cast. … He also put his private seal upon the temple of Saturn [Rome's treasury], in order that the quaestors might not take nor pay any money into it.'
(Life of Tiberius Gracchus 10)
Sound familiar? This is neither selective quoting nor co-incidence. The founding fathers of the United States deliberately set up a state which embodied the principles of the Roman Republic as described by the ancient writer Polybius. Hence the USA's separation of powers, checks and balances, and a legislative body called the senate. The current gridlock in congress is due to the Roman belief that a veto over-rode an initiative, and if the organs of government couldn't work together, they shouldn't work at all.
However, it remains open to question whether the government of the USA now resembles the ideal republic of Polybius or the political mess of the Late Republic. And it's not merely academic, since the Late Republic ended badly and messily for all concerned. Personally I don't think we are there yet. However, the tomfoolery surrounding Obamacare brings to mind another quote from the Life of Tiberius Gracchus:
'But the senate in its session accomplished nothing, owing to the prevailing influence of the wealthy.'
A novel idea becomes real
Some time this week I'm hoping to be holding the pre-production copy of my latest book. This is always exciting; in fact so exciting that by family tradition I take the book and my wife to a good restaurant to celebrate the occasion. However, this time will be even more exciting than most. The book is 'The Gold of Tolosa' and it's my very first published novel.
The idea that I should write a novel has been suggested before. The first time was by an agent who was proposing to represent me with my non-fiction. The events described in the novel – the largest bullion theft in history followed by one of Rome's greatest military defeats – had always struck me as desperately needing a fictional treatment, so I happily agreed to supply one. To the factual scaffold of actual events I attached a dispossessed brothel-owner, a slave priestess and a gang of Gallic thugs and sent them on a wild adventure across Italy and Gaul.
Then the person I was dealing with at the agency left, and we never agreed terms for the non-fiction. By then I was having so much fun writing the novel that I broke one of my own rules and kept writing even when the finished product did not have a publisher. In fact I've started on a sequel.
Since the novel has been an experiment on my part, it seemed in the spirit of things to keep being experimental. So when a small local start-up began looking for a recognized name to launch their first publication, I knew my book had found a home.
So Ladieees and Genelmen, Monashee Mountain Press proudly presents their first publication, and Philip Matyszak's maiden novel. We give you 'The Gold of Tolosa' available on Amazon in paperback and e-book. Stop reading now and order your copy!