Tolkien, new film, a critical review


This March 2019 film trailer video from the USA says about itself:

TOLKIEN | Trailer 2 | FOX Searchlight

TOLKIEN explores the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school. Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up and weather love and loss together, including Tolkien’s tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Bratt, until the outbreak of the First World War which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-earth novels.

The film is produced by Fox, part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. Not a good omen.

By Sandy English in the USA:

Tolkien: Biopic of author J.R.R. Tolkien rings false

5 October 2019

Directed by Dome Karukoski. Screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford.

Tolkien is a fictionalized biography of the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit (1936) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1947-55).

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) is the most significant figure in the field of heroic fantasy, one of the most popular genres of fiction, film and television today. Fantasy, closely related to science fiction as a type of imaginative writing, emerged in the 19th century from the study of folklore, northern European epic poetry and medieval romance. The understanding of these sources was making great strides in the second half of that century, and helped to inspire fantasy, which was influenced by the romanticism of the earlier 19th century.

It is generally agreed today that Tolkien’s stature as an important English-language novelist—whether one agrees with this characterization or not—should not be diminished by the fact that he wrote about imaginary worlds with fictitious mythologies in which magic is used and which he populated both with humans and with a variety of human-like creatures.

After an initial success of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, the trilogy, and its prequel The Hobbit, steadily grew in popularity and are today a defining influence on the fantasy genre, which includes many bestselling novels and popular television dramas, such as Game of Thrones.

Tolkien was born in South Africa, where his father died in 1896. His mother relocated the family to Birmingham, England, and raised him and his brother in poverty until she, too, died in 1904. He spent the rest of his youth under the stewardship of a Catholic priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan (played in the film by Colm Meaney), who sought to prevent his attachment to a fellow orphan, Edith Bratt.

Tolkien shows the author as a young man in the period preceding, during and immediately following the First World War of 1914 to 1918, in which Tolkien served as a junior officer in the British army on the western front. The film more or less stops there, however.

On this basis alone, the film must be judged wanting. It cannot possibly give a serious depiction of the times and experiences that produced Tolkien and his work while omitting the impact of the rest of the first third of the 20th century on Tolkien’s work. Even more seriously, it gives a simplistic and linear view of artistic development in general.

The film lavishes attention on Tolkien’s childhood and youth as an orphan, his association with a group of young friends, first at King Edward’s school in Birmingham, and after 1913—while he was at Oxford University—the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). The TCBS scenes are given far too much emphasis in the film. Another focus is Tolkien’s courtship of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Both of these elements only add to a misleading impression of Tolkien as simply a typical middle-class youth of the pre-war period, with an interest in ancient languages.

This was the period of Tolkien’s life during which he formed an interest in the study of Germanic languages, ancient and modern. His love of linguistics and ancient Germanic literature (the Old Norse Eddas or the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, for example) and his play with word-origins became the focus of his academic career after the war, but also a significant source of his own fictional mythology of Middle Earth, the world of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other works.

To its credit, Tolkien does show this interest—in one scene, John Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) approaches the famous Oxford Germanic linguist Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) to ask to be transferred to his course of study.

The acting in the film is generally good. Jacobi is a scholar obsessed by his field, and Hoult has the right proportions of enthusiasm before and discouragement after the war.

Tolkien’s induction into the military, and the depictions of battle on the Somme in 1916, are vivid and affecting scenes. The nightmare visions of thousands of soldiers are here: the piles of corpses, the maddening artillery barrages. One gets a sense of the suffering and carnage that Tolkien saw in that battle, one of the worst in human history.

But the film makes completely misguided attempts to locate these experiences in the development of Tolkien’s art. At one point on the Somme, feverish, he goes on a journey through the trenches to find his TCBS friend Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). He is accompanied by a soldier conveniently named Sam (the name one of the characters Tolkien uses in an epic journey in The Lord of the Rings 20 years later). Clouds of shell smoke form themselves into the shape of wraiths that resemble those of the Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings.

The rest of the film also indulges is this kind of oversimplification of the sources of Tolkien’s artistic work. When Edith asks John Ronald to tell her a story, he begins by saying, “It’s about journeys, the journeys we take to prove ourselves,” leading the viewer to assume that Tolkien already had in mind the kind of journeys that form the basis of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

While Tolkien was a flop at the box-office, it is true that anything associated with Tolkien is potentially worth millions. In this case, the film was disavowed by the Tolkien Estate, which announced before the film was released that it wished “to make clear that they did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film.” The estate has taken authors and business to court several times, and it sold rights for a television series based on his works to Amazon for $250 million in 2017. The company is said to be investing over a billion dollars in the production of this series.

Tolkien is loosely based on a biography by John Garth that covers the same period in Tolkien’s life, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth (2003). Garth has also raised doubts about the accuracy of the film.

Garth’s biography is a better effort. Overall it sticks to the facts of Tolkien’s life. it makes some interesting observations about the work that Tolkien began writing when he was convalescing from trench fever and was associated with the mythology that later became the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings.

Garth, however, uses the same method as the film does when he fails to identify the place of World War I in history, to trace the conceptions that formed Tolkien’s sensibility or to compare his time on the Somme in any detail with those of other writers who experienced the war. There is little in his book about the immediate postwar period and the enormous impact of the war on European society and politics.

While the war unquestionably had a profound effect on Tolkien—years later he called it an “utter stupid waste” and “an animal horror”—the real question is, what impact did World War I and the next 20–25 years, which saw the rise of fascism, the depression and the coming of a second world war, have on him and his creative work.

Any assessment of the effect of the war itself would have to be weighed in that context, especially since his work about Middle Earth did not appear for nearly two decades. The complexity and richness of a whole historical period during which Tolkien worked out his languages, mythologies and fiction is missing from the book as well as the film.

The immediacy of the war came full force and gave expression to the feelings and thoughts of millions of active-duty soldiers, in works such as Henri Barbusse’s novel Under Fire (1916) and the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, which were also published during the war.

But other works by soldiers took time to develop. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was not published until 1928, for example, and William March’s Company K not until 1930.

In fact, few authors had a less immediate response to the world around them than J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, who invented his own mythology and even whole languages, passed through a prolonged development, 19 years between the end of the war and the production of The Hobbit.

Understanding Tolkien’s life is an entirely legitimate project, especially for what it can reveal about the social, artistic and personal influences on his work, but the film unfortunately fails to give a broader sense of the times in which he lived.

Tolkien is not in any way critical of British society before the war. The viewer is as surprised as the characters when war is declared and when it turns into a disaster. The film offers few insights into the character of the war, aside from its bloody violence, and it does not show a world transformed by the war. At best we get a sense of what it did to Tolkien, but not to European society. This method does not help us understand the 20th century, the artists that it produced, or Tolkien’s own work.

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German theatres against neo-nazism


This German video shows the film, based on the play by Ödön von Horváth: Italienische Nacht (Italian night). 1965, Regie: Michael Kehlmann.

By Verena Nees in Germany:

Theatres in Germany take a stand against the far right

4 October 2019

A number of plays by the Austrian-Hungarian dramatist and novelist Ödön von Horváth (1901-1938) are currently being staged in leading German theatres. His down-to-earth and socially critical plays and novels, which took a clear stand against the rise of the Nazis and had success in the 1930s, assume new relevance today.

Horváth’s works (including Sladek, Italian Night, Tales from the Vienna Wood, Faith, Hope and Charity, Youth Without God) were banned in 1933 despite the author’s own efforts to adapt to the Nazis. He was expelled from Germany in 1936 and died aged just 37 following a tragic accident during his exile in Paris. Only later, during the period of student revolt in the 1960s, did his plays return to German stages.

In Berlin, two theatres, the Schaubühne and the Maxim Gorki Theatre, are currently staging pieces by Horváth. Italian Night, directed by Thomas Ostermeier at the Schaubühne, premiered last November. This summer, and in collaboration with the Salzburg Festival, Ostermeier also staged Horváth’s 1937 novel Youth Without God. It received its premiere at the Berlin Schaubühne on September 7.

Already last spring, director Nurkan Erpulat staged Youth Without God at the Maxim Gorki Theatre. Additional theatrical productions of the novel have been held in Münster, Dusseldorf and Bochum. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Horváth’s untimely death, the Theatre Museum in Vienna honoured the writer with an exhibition, “I’m not thinking, I’m only saying it, Ödön von Horváth and the Theatre,” which ended in February 2019 and is now on show (until November 17, 2019) at the Deutsches Theatermuseum in Munich.

The staging of these plays and exhibitions is clearly a reaction by leading directors and dramatists to the current political situation, characterised by the renewed rise to prominence of ultra-right organisations, wars and social inequality. Countless German cultural institutions, including many theatres, have declared their support for the “Declaration of the Many” and made clear they oppose the provocations launched by the far-right and racist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The Maxim Gorki Theatre and the Schaubühne are both signatories to the statement, which begins with the words: “As creators of arts and culture in Germany we do not stand above things. Rather we have both feet firmly on the ground—the very ground upon which one of the worst state crimes against humanity was committed.”

The years in which German theatre was dominated by subjective navel-gazing, the complete distortion of classical works and postmodern gimmickry may be over.

Italian night

Italian Night, which premiered in Berlin in 1931, deals with the failure and divisions in the parties of the working class when confronted with the rise of the Nazis. When fascists march in front of a tavern in a southern German town and the situation becomes more threatening, a complacent social-democratic city councillor (in the original Horváth version a republican) goes ahead with a long-planned celebration, the Italian Night. The local bureaucrat excludes a young worker who regards himself as a Marxist and wants to physically take on the fascists with his friends. The fascists then surround the tavern and force the social-democratic bureaucrat to sign a statement declaring that he is “just an ordinary bastard.”

The accompanying brochure to the play includes a section from “A Letter to a Social Democratic Worker” penned by Leon Trotsky, in which he advocates a united front for defence between the SPD and the German Communist Party (KPD) to oppose the impending Hitler dictatorship. …

Notwithstanding … objections, Ostermeier’s staging of Italian Night is a very relevant appeal for a struggle against the return of fascism and at the same time a biting satire about the political bankruptcy of the SPD.

Youth Without God

In Youth Without God, Horváth deals with the opportunism of middle-class intellectuals. In 1935, the Nazis had already been in power for two years and were striving to inoculate German youth with militarism and racism—Goebbels’s propaganda machine was up and running. A teacher (excellently played in the Schaubühne by Jörg Hartmann) tries to come to terms with the Nazis in order not to lose his job and thus his civil servant’s pension. His opposition to the Nazis initially takes place only in the form of internal dialogue.

He corrects school essays in which openly racist thinking is propagated, such as “All negroes are deceitful, cowardly and lazy.” In Ostermeier’s production, the text reads, “All Africans…” and immediately we are in the present, in today’s world of fascist propaganda directed against refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

The teacher leaves the statement of student N in the essay, although he would prefer to cross it out. After all, one cannot correct something that has been aired on radio as being correct. When returning the essay, however, he cannot prevent himself from stating that Africans are human, too. N’s father, a master baker and ardent Nazi, complains to the school director. She also does not want to openly oppose the Nazis, although she had signed a peace appeal prior to 1933.

In an internal dialogue, the teacher gives vent to his contempt for the Nazis: “They hate all types of thought. They have only contempt for humankind! They want to be machines, screws, wheels, pistons, belts—preferably as ammunition rather than machines: as bombs, shrapnel, grenades. How dearly they desire to die on some field! Their dream from puberty is their name on a war memorial.”

At a military education camp, the murder of a student takes place in which the teacher is indirectly involved. When another student is falsely accused, the teacher plucks up his courage and tells the truth in court—he admits his complicity, loses his job and encourages others to resist as well.

This character bears a significant resemblance to Horváth himself and his own, unsuccessful, efforts to appease the Nazi Reich Chamber of Culture. Horváth withdrew his signature from a protest telegram to the P.E.N. Congress and his commitment to participate in the exile journal Die Sammlung. He was subsequently the subject of much criticism from anti-fascist writers.

The staging of Youth Without God at the Schaubühne adheres to the historical text. In an interview, Ostermeier said that his aim was not to transfer events to the present “one to one”, but rather to see them as a “parable” for “how to pluck up the courage to tell the truth and how this can have an exemplary effect on the spirit of resistance of others.”

In this context, the question of religion is raised, as Horváth’s title suggests. “God is truth”, the teacher explains at the end. Previously, in a splendid conversation with a pastor, he asked why the church is always on the side of the rich. “Because the rich always win,” the pastor says. “The rich will always win because they are more brutal, more deceitful, more ruthless.”

The piece ends with the journey of the African (in Horváth’s text, the Negro, as the teacher was secretly called by his students) to “Africa”—a synonym for solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed, be it the poor, Jews, other minorities or refugees from Africa.

Postmodern falsification

The version of Youth Without God shown at the Maxim Gorki Theatre takes an opposite direction. The postmodernist playwright Nurkan Erpulat and the screenwriter Tina Müller, who are highly praised in theatre circles, leave almost nothing left of Horváth’s analysis of petty-bourgeois cowardice faced with fascism.

Horváth’s text has been mutilated, cut down and rewritten. The protagonist is no longer a teacher, and the focus is no longer his inner dialogues, his turmoil and vacillation. Instead, the protagonists are his students who turn the tables on their peers and accuse the older generation of their parents and teachers of being hypocritical representatives of political correctness.

Horváth’s anti-capitalist and socially critical passages have been excised. The alleged language of the young people, alternating between insults and rage, in part seemingly naive but repeatedly just outright cynical, has less to do with reality and reflects much more the ideas of an upper middle class …

The ensemble of seven young actors play the school class, committed and full of verve. But one is left with the impression that the director seeks to counter Horváth’s own approach and presume that for young people today the question of left and right is no longer relevant and that everything can be reduced to man’s innate tendency towards egoism and violence.

In fact, we are experiencing a situation in which young people in particular protest against the far-right AfD and are increasingly expressing support for anti-capitalist, socialist policies.

In the version by Nurkan Erpulat, however, the adolescents shout slogans such as everyone has a “shitty part”, they all just think of themselves, and we must learn “that humans are also animals,” or in the spirit of Nietzsche, “In this system, will counts for nothing, against this system will is everything.”

The blame for racist opinions lies with opportunist adults who believe they have to teach young people social behaviour. The worst example, according to the student N, is a lecture by the teacher about the AfD in which the teacher claims that the AfD is “very, very dangerous. But nobody understands why.” Pupil Z responds that the teacher just wants to liberate himself from the “collective guilt” of all Germans in a “pseudo-left, I know everything better” tone.

This reflects the cynical attitude which is so admired in some media circles. For example, RBB24 radio editor Fabian Wall Meier described the Maxim Gorki staging as “powerful”, while denouncing the Schaubühne version as “boring, predictable and staid.” In the taz newspaper, Jürgen Berger accused Ostermeier of “conventional historicisation”.

Such claims are completely unfounded. On the contrary, Ostermeier’s production is much more authentic and penetrating, because it raises the historical parallels.

However, it also points to another weakness. Ostermeier’s version tends to explain the rise to prominence of the AfD on the basis of the alleged reactionary thinking of workers. Why does Ostermeier, as opposed to Horváth, cite at the beginning of the play a letter from a Nazi party supporter from Braunschweig in 1935, who thanks Hitler for eliminating unemployment? Jörg Hartmann appears in front of the audience in modern clothing and reads this letter as if it were his own opinion. He then changes his clothes and puts on the brown uniform of the Nazi era for his role as a teacher.

It is also no coincidence that Ostermeier and his writer Florian Borchmeyer have also cut the excellent point in the dialogue between the teacher and school director, which shows the relationship between capitalism and fascism. Commenting on the remark by the director, “We live in a plebeian world”, the young teacher says: “As far as I know, we are not ruled by poor plebeians, only money rules.” The director corrects him by declaring that in ancient Rome there were also rich plebeians.

The teacher ponders: “Of course! The rich plebeians left the people and together with the already somewhat decadent patricians formed the new official nobility, the so-called optimates.” And later he states: “When the rich plebeians in ancient Rome feared that the people could push through their demand to lower taxes, they retreated into the tower of dictatorship.”

Here, Horváth is clearly a step ahead of the Schaubühne production, making clear that dictatorships develop in response to the radicalisation of the population.

In reality, the political ascent of the AfD does not flow from any turn to the right on the part of the working class, but is rather a reaction by the ruling elite to a shift to the left and increasing social resistance.

British poet Shelley and the Peterloo massacre


This 29 May 2019 video from Britain says about itself:

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Songs for Peterloo

News of the Peterloo Massacre, when it reached Shelley in Italy, sparked off a six month-long writing surge that saw the poet respond from a variety of angles. Four songs by John Webster with Brindaband, taking lyrics from key poems, chart his reaction to the massacre. His fiery initial poems and later works with a more measured philosophical response bear witness to his ‘tremendous commitment’ (as Paul Foot put it) to bringing positive change.

By Paul Bond in Britain:

The Peterloo massacre and Shelley

Part 1: The aftermath of the massacre and the responses

30 September 2019

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, a critical event in British history. On August 16, 1819, a crowd of 60,000 to 100,000 protestors gathered peacefully on Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field. They came to appeal for adult suffrage and the reform of parliamentary representation.

The disenfranchised working class—cotton workers, many of them women, with a large contingent of Irish workers—who made up the crowd were struggling with the increasingly dire economic conditions following the end of the Napoleonic Wars four years earlier.

Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest the speakers and sent cavalry of Yeomanry and a regular army regiment to attack the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn. Eighteen people were killed and up to 700 injured.

On August 16 of this year the WSWS published an appraisal of the massacre.

The following is the first part of a two-part article focusing on the response to the massacre by the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Peterloo Massacre elicited an immediate and furious response from the working class and sections of middle-class radicals.

The escalation of repression by the ruling class that followed, resulting in a greater suppression of civil liberties, was met with meetings of thousands and the widespread circulation of accounts of the massacre. There was a determination to learn from the massacre and not allow it to be forgotten or misrepresented. Poetic responses played an important part in memorialising Peterloo.

The Peterloo Massacre

Violent class conflict erupted across north western England. Yeomen and hussars continued attacks on workers across Manchester, and the ruling class launched an intensive campaign of disinformation and retribution.

At the trial of Rochdale workers charged with rioting on the night after Peterloo, Attorney General Sir Robert Gifford made clear that the ruling class would stop at nothing to crush the development of radical and revolutionary sentiment in the masses. He declared: “Men deluded themselves if they thought their condition would be bettered by such kind of Reform as Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, and Vote by Ballot; or that it was just that the property of the country ought to be equally divided among its inhabitants, or that such a daring innovation would ever take place.”

Samuel BamfordSamuel Bamford, a reformer and weaver who led a contingent of several thousand marchers to Manchester from the town of Middleton, said he spent the evening of the massacre “brooding over a spirit of vengeance towards the authors of our humiliation.” Bamford told the judge at his trial for sedition that he would not recommend non-violent protest again.

Workers took a more direct response, even as the military were being deployed widely against the population. Despite the military presence, and press claims that the city had been subdued, riots continued across Manchester.

Two women were shot by hussars on August 20. A fortnight after Peterloo, the most affected area, Manchester’s New Cross district, was described in the London press as a by-word for trouble and a risky area for the wealthy to pass through. Soldiers were shooting in the area to disperse rioters. On August 18, a special constable fired a loaded pistol in the New Cross streets and was attacked by an angry crowd, who beat him to death with a poker and stoned him.

There was a similar response elsewhere locally, with riots in Oldham and Rochdale and what has been described by one historian as “a pitched battle” in Macclesfield on the night of August 17.

Crowds in their thousands welcomed the coach carrying Henry Hunt and the other arrested Peterloo speakers to court in Salford, the city across the River Irwell from Manchester. Salford’s magistrates reportedly feared a “tendency to tumult”, while in Bolton the Hussars had trouble keeping the public from other prisoners. The crowd shouted, “Down with the tyrants!”

While the courts meted out sharper punishment to the arrested rioters, mass meetings and protests continued across Britain. Meetings to condemn the massacre took place in Wakefield, Glasgow, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Nottingham. In Leeds, the crowd was asked if they would support physical force to achieve radical reform. They unanimously raised their hands.

These were meetings attended by tens of thousands and they did not end despite the escalating repression. The Twitter account Peterloo 1819 News (@Live1819) is providing a useful daily update on historical responses until the end of this year.

A protest meeting at London’s Smithfield on August 25 drew crowds estimated at 15,000-40,000. At least 20,000 demonstrated in Newcastle on October 11. The mayor wrote dishonestly to the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, of this teetotal and entirely orderly peaceful demonstration that 700 of the participants “were prepared with arms (concealed) to resist the civil power.”

The response was felt across the whole of the British Isles. In Belfast, the Irishman newspaper wrote, “The spirit of Reform rises from the blood of the Manchester Martyrs with a giant strength!”

A meeting of 10,000 was held in Dundee in November that collected funds “for obtaining justice for the Manchester sufferers.” That same month saw a meeting of 10,000 in Leicester and one of 12,000 near Burnley. In Wigan, just a few miles north of the site of Peterloo, around 20,000 assembled to discuss “parliamentary reform and the massacre at Manchester.” The yeomanry were standing ready at many of these meetings.

The state was determined to suppress criticism. Commenting on the events, it published false statements about the massacre and individual deaths. Radical MP Sir Francis Burdett was fined £2,000 and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for “seditious libel” in response to his denunciation of the Peterloo massacre. On September 2, he addressed 30,000 at a meeting in London’s Palace Yard, demanding the prosecution of the Manchester magistrates.

Richard Carlile

Radical publisher Richard Carlile, who had been at Peterloo, was arrested late in August. He was told that proceedings against him would be dropped if he stopped circulating his accounts of the massacre. He did not and was subsequently tried and convicted of seditious libel and blasphemy.

The main indictment against him was his publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Like Bamford, Carlile also concluded that armed defence was now necessary: He wrote, “Every man in Manchester who avows his opinions on the necessity of reform should never go unarmed—retaliation has become a duty, and revenge an act of justice.”

In Chudleigh, Devon, John Jenkins was arrested for owning a crude but accurate print of the yeomanry charging the Peterloo crowd when Henry Hunt was arrested. A local vicar, a magistrate, informed on Jenkins, whose major “crime” was that he was sharing information about Peterloo. Jenkins was showing the print to people, using a magnifying glass in a viewing box. The charge against Jenkins argued that the print was “intended to inflame the minds of His Majesty’s Subjects and to bring His Majesty’s Soldiery into hatred and contempt.”

Against this attempt to suppress the historical record there was a wide range of efforts to preserve the memory of Peterloo. Verses, poems and songs appeared widely. In October, a banner in Halifax bore the lines:

With heartfelt grief we mourn for those
Who fell a victim to our cause
While we with indignation view
The bloody field of Peterloo.

Anonymous verses were published on cheap broadsides, while others were credited to local radical workers. Many recounted the day’s events, often with a subversive undercurrent. The broadside ballad, “A New Song on the Peterloo Meeting,” for example, was written to the tune “Parker’s Widow,” a song about the widow of 1797 naval mutineer Richard Parker.

Weaver poet John Stafford, who regularly sang at radical meetings, wrote a longer, more detailed account of the day’s events in a song titled “Peterloo.”

The shoemaker poet Allen Davenport satirised in song the Reverend Charles Wicksteed Ethelston of Cheetham Hill—a magistrate who had organised spies against the radical movement and, as the leader of the Manchester magistrates who authorised the massacre, claimed to have read the Riot Act at Peterloo.

Ethelston played a vital role in the repression by the authorities after Peterloo. At a September hearing of two men who were accused of military drilling on a moor in the north of Manchester the day before Peterloo, he told one of them, James Kaye, “I believe that you are a downright blackguard reformer. Some of you reformers ought to be hanged; and some of you are sure to be hanged—the rope is already round your necks; the law has been a great deal too lenient with you.”

Ethelston was also attacked in verse by Bamford, who called him “the Plotting Parson.” Davenport’s “St. Ethelstone’s Day” portrays Peterloo as Ethelston‘s attempt at self-sanctification. Its content is pointed— “In every direction they slaughtered away, Drunken with blood on St. Ethelstone’s Day”—but Davenport sharpens the satire even further by specifying the tune “Gee Ho Dobbin,” the prince regent’s favourite. (These songs are included on the recent Road to Peterloo album by three singers and musicians from North West England—Pete Coe, Brian Peters and Laura Smyth.)

The poetic response was not confined to social reformers and radical workers. The most astonishing outpouring of work came from isolated radical bourgeois elements in exile.

Portrait of Shelley_by Alfred Clint (1829)

On September 5, news of the massacre reached the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in Italy. He recognised its significance and responded immediately. Shelley’s reaction to Peterloo, what one biographer has called “the most intensely creative eight weeks of his whole life,” embodies and elevates what is greatest about his work. It underscores his importance to us now.

Even among the radical Romantics, Shelley is distinctive. He has long been championed by Marxists for that very reason. Franz Mehring famously noted: “Referring to Byron and Shelley, however, [Karl Marx] declared that those who loved and understood these two poets must consider it fortunate that Byron died at the age of 36, for had he lived out his full span he would undoubtedly have become a reactionary bourgeois, whilst regretting on the other hand that Shelley died at the age of 29, for Shelley was a thorough revolutionary and would have remained in the van of socialism all his life.” (Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, Harvester Press, New Jersey, 1966, p.504)

Franz Mehring around 1900

Shelley came from an affluent landowning family, his father a Whig MP. Byron’s continued pride in his title and his recognition of the distance separating himself, a peer of the realm, from his friend, a son of the landed gentry, brings home the pressures against Shelley and the fact that he was able to transcend his background.

To be continued.

Honduran scholar Lety Elvir Lazo, anti-dictatorship refugee


This Spanish language video says about itself (translated):

Interview with Vida Luz Meneses, Lety Elvir and Laura Zavaleta, participants in the Voces de mujer [Voices of women] cycle in Central American literature, which was held in Casa de América on November 15-17, 2011.

From Leiden University in the Netherlands, 23 September 2019:

Scholar at Risk Lety Elvir Lazo: ‘My university intimidated me too’

The proceeds of the Leiden University Science Run on 28 September will go to Scholars at Risk, a section of the UAF that assists refugee scholars. One such scholar is Leiden PhD candidate Lety Elvir Lazo from Honduras.

Lety Elvir Lazo spent 20 years working as a lecturer and author in Honduras. She now has a PhD scholarship from Scholars at Risk (SAR) and works at the Leiden University Centre for Arts in Society. She is conducting research into Central-American literature written by women in the period 1992-2002. That is one of the many post-war periods that Honduras has known; in Honduras, democracy and dictatorship have been following each other in succession for a long time already. Elvir also looks at how women are depicted in the context of failed revolutions and uprisings and increasing neoliberalism and globalisation in Central America.

Why did you flee Honduras?

‘There was a coup in June 2009, which resulted in a dictatorship. This dictatorship is involved in corruption, drug trafficking, election fraud and giving away natural resources to multinationals. I left Honduras because I was threatened, persecuted and monitored by groups and people who were part of the repressive state apparatus and/or paramilitaries.

‘In Honduras, there are death squads that abduct, torture and murder people if they are suspected of belonging to the opposition. The same is true for environmental and human rights activists. Even more painful was that I also fell victim to political persecution at the university where I had worked for 20 years. A few months before I left Honduras, my colleague Héctor Martínez Motiño, who like me was harassed and intimidated by the university administration, was killed with 12 bullets at the entrance to the university.’

How did you come into contact with SAR and how did you end up in the Netherlands and then Leiden?

‘I came to the Netherlands at the end of 2015, as writer in residence at the invitation of the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch Foundation for Literature. I write stories, poems and literary essays.

Then somebody told me about the UAF programme that helps threatened university lecturers and academics: SAR. SAR protects researchers whose life, freedom and wellbeing are under severe threat. It is a place of refuge for threatened academics, and an international network of higher education institutions that arrange for temporary research and teaching positions within this network as well as offering advice.

‘Later on, the UAF-SAR provided me with a scholarship, and Leiden University gave me the opportunity to do PhD research at the Faculty of Humanities. To be closer to the University, I moved to Leiden in 2019.

‘I have now experienced what the UAF-SAR can mean. You feel solidarity within the network of supporting universities – such as Leiden University, which opens its doors to people who need space to work, write, think and express ourselves in freedom. Space in which we can keep in touch with our subject and can continue to be of use by sharing our experience and above all living out our passion for free scholarship.’

Do you hold out any hope of returning to your own country?

‘At the moment it’s really dangerous. There’s no guarantee that you’ll survive under the present dictatorship, which, unfortunately, is supported by governments such as that of Trump. They prefer to see my country being governed by politicians who are involved in drug trafficking than by governments that are truly democratic. Of course I, like birds, turtles and most refugees, want to return to my homeland: I miss my family; I miss everything, except the violence. Luckily, I can develop in peace here, in freedom and without fear. That’s a real relief. I wish it were like that in my homeland.’

What is it like doing research in Leiden in comparison with in your homeland? And how do you find the Dutch?

‘The main difference is that can devote myself almost fulltime to my research in an environment in which there is no bullying. In Honduras, it was difficult to obtain a research budget if you didn’t say what the university administration wanted to hear. In practice, there is no freedom of education in Honduras, no freedom of expression and no freedom of research.

‘Having lived in the Netherlands for a number of years, I still can’t say with any certainty what the people are really like here. I have the general impression that they are open and very sociable, although they sometimes face the dilemma of whether they should be open to immigration. After all, we stand for the other, and that is often seen as something different, disruptive and even threatening.

‘However, there are two things that I know without a shadow of a doubt: first, you don’t leave your homeland if you are being treated decently and your human rights are being respected. Second, there is a complicit silence among governments and international organisations about the neocolonial genocide against the population of Honduras. And also about how Hondurans, who, under threat of violence, flee to survive only to come up against walls of stone, water and documents. They often have to take perilous routes that are controlled by criminals or they end up in the immense prisons and cemeteries that the countries in the funnel of Central to North America have become. If you invest money or have economic interests in the area, from an ethical, moral and humanitarian perspective you bear a big responsibility to contribute to a solution and to end the war, the foreign interventions plundering our assets and the suffering of our courageous peoples who continue to fight for their health and happiness.’

Why should people take part in the Leiden Science Run or donate to the Scholars at Risk programme?

‘Because people who are critical thinkers and democratically minded are entitled to express their thoughts everywhere, not just on campus, without being intimidated, persecuted, vilified, imprisoned or murdered. If the academic world says nothing, if universities are not a place for free speech, research and solutions to national and international problems, universities don’t serve a single purpose. Then they are neglecting their duty. And if we allow voices of protest to be stifled or punished, we allow hope to fade and democracy to die. Then the world, of which we only have one, becomes a hell instead of our home. And happiness is possible for no one. That is why we need to rise up for the freedom of expression and freedom of thought of everyone.’

Roman poet Ovid, owls, superstition and love


Ascalaphus is turned into an owl. Engraving by Johann Ulrich Krauß, 1690

This picture is a 1690 engraving by Johann Ulrich Krauß. It shows a story much older than 1690. It is an illustration to the long poem Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid.

In book V of Metamorphoses, Ovid writes about a minor god in Greek polytheism, Ascalaphus. He was the custodian of the orchard of Hades, the god of the underworld. Hades had abducted Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. The supreme god Zeus decided that Persephone had the right to return to her mother, if she had not eaten anything in the underworld. Persephone had just eaten a few pomegranate anils. The only one who has seen that was Ascalaphus. He told the other gods. That meant that Persephone had to stay in the underworld, at least for six months of the year.

Persephone was so angry that she changed Ascalaphus into an owl by sprinkling him with water of the underworld river Phlegethon. The Johann Ulrich Krauß engraving depicts this metamorphosis from humanish divine form to owl.

The engraving caption says that Ascalaphus becomes a ‘Stein-Eule’. The modern German name for this owl species is Steinkauz. The English name is little owl. Ovid does not specify which owl species Ascalaphus became.

K. Sara Myers wrote in the American Journal of Philology that he became a screech owl. However, these American owls were unknown to Ovid and other Roman empire age Europeans.

Ovid writes in Metamorphoses, book V, lines 549-550 (translated):

So he became the vilest bird; a messenger of grief; the lazy owl; sad omen to mankind.

Deane Lewis writes:

Introduction

Throughout history and across many cultures, people have regarded Owls with fascination and awe. Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed down by word of mouth over generations.

In early Indian folklore, Owls represent wisdom and helpfulness, and have powers of prophecy. This theme recurs in Aesop‘s fables and in Greek myths and beliefs. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the Owl had become the associate of witches and the inhabitant of dark, lonely and profane places, a foolish but feared spectre.

Unfortunately, at some times and places in human history, including India and Zimbabwe, superstitious prejudices have arisen against owls. These prejudices can be overcome by education about these interesting and useful birds. Apparently also in ancient Rome, when we read Ovid’s lines, there was anti-owl prejudice.

Deane Lewis mentions differences between Greek and Roman mythology on owls:

In the mythology of ancient Greece, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, was so impressed by the great eyes and solemn appearance of the Owl that, having banished the mischievous crow, she honoured the night bird by making him her favourite among feathered creatures. Athena’s bird was a Little Owl (Athene noctua). This Owl was protected and inhabited the Acropolis in great numbers. It was believed that a magical “inner light” gave Owls night vision. As the symbol of Athene, the Owl was a protector, accompanying Greek armies to war, and providing ornamental inspiration for their daily lives. If an Owl flew over Greek Soldiers before a battle, they took it as a sign of victory. The Little Owl also kept a watchful eye on Athenian trade and commerce from the reverse side of their coins.

Athenian tetradrachm from after 499 BCE

This photo shows a tetradrachm coin from ancient Athens, after 499 BCE. On one side, Athena, the protector goddess of the city. On the other side, the little owl, the goddess’ bird.

Greek 1 Euro coin with little owl, 2002

This photo shows a Greek 1 euro coin with a little owl, from 2002.

‘While the owl was seen by the Greeks as a protector, the Romans saw it more as a harbinger of doom’, this blog says. So says Paul D. Frost; and the British Bird Lovers site.

Diana Lewis also mentions ideas about owls in Ovid’s Roman empire, different from ancient Greece:

The Roman army was warned of impending disaster by an owl before its defeat at Carrhae, on the plains between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

According to Artemidorus, a second century soothsayer, to dream of an owl meant that a traveller would be shipwrecked or robbed.

Another Roman superstition was that witches transformed into owls, and sucked the blood of babies.