Eleven as E.T.: What Brave New World Is Stranger Things?

It’s Fall, readers!

So I’m going to weigh in today on one of the Netflix hits of the summer, which I watched in the (sigh) waning days of it. It’s Stranger Things.

Now, readers, I’m no particular fan of either science fiction or horror, the two main genres. But I also respect the abilities of both genres to be wonderfully, well, deep about what they are saying as they deliver time travel and monsters on the unbelievable side. By way of defining my fandom or lack thereof: I don’t relish Stephen King books, exactly, but I’ve read It. It is a profound look at the problem of human evil dished up with a narrative about scary and otherworldly clowns. It’s about the problem of human evil. The clown often appears — and is seemingly activated by — human evil: family abuse, racially motivated murder, and the like.

So, one of the things I liked about Stranger Things was its grounding of sci-fi/horror mysteries in a quotidian suburban world that in many ways is represented as the opposite of human evil. It’s a type of paradise. The birds chirping on the soundtrack are full of prelapsarian promise. it’s a world of calm and beauty, good friendships (among the four middle school boys), attentive and kindly teachers, and concerned parents. It’s also menaced with evil (a sinister government lab and eventually, an actual monster). Then there are the in-between characters who either let evil in or don’t fight it: family dysfunction (broken families; inattentive fathers, especially; drunk sheriff). It’s a war between good and evil. Sheriffs who can come back from the bottle and handle the weirdness choose the right side.

In that, it is (as many commentators have noted, see here and here) an homage to films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the novels of Stephen King, and the films that were made from them in the 1980s. E.T. was also a movie that represented suburban life as a type of paradise, even given parents who were either absent or without a clue to the goings-on.

So, when the character Eleven came on in Stranger Things, the first thing I thought was “she’s the E.T. of the movie.”  eleven

Eleven is a girl who arrives seemingly out of nowhere. She has a shaved head (visually close to bald) and huge eyes. Those are the initial “visually reminiscent of E.T.” clues. (She’s named Eleven because of a mysterious tattoo on her arm.)

So it is that I take issue with an interesting paean to Stranger Things, published by Ashley Reed in Avidly . Reed posits that Stranger Things is about a feminist re-envisioning of the 1980s films like E.T. to better represent girls’ inner lives and “to create female characters who are not just props in boys’ stories.”

I think in many ways Stranger Things is a retelling that doesn’t particularly recuperate the women’s stories in a more feminist direction.eleven-on-bike

One of the reasons is that Eleven’s story may be one of an unusual girl, but her affinities with E.T. (the character) are multiple. They frame her more as an interesting alien than as an independent girl. It’s not exactly a big step up for portrayals of women that Eleven is (metaphorically) an alien.  et-swathed-in-towel

Like E.T., Eleven finds a home in the room of one of the boys on bikes. Like E.T., she conceals her distinctive head in a covering (towel for him; blond wig for her). Like E.T., she is a passenger on those bicycles, rather than an independent rider.

If she were an independent rider on those bikes, then we’d be talkin’ new roles for girls.

More strikingly, Eleven is the E.T. in Stranger Things because she has a pressing need to get “home.” In what the audience sees, she has been removed from an (unseen) mother to live in the sinister government lab. She has been used as something of a lab experiment on telekinesis in the sinister government lab. There is an appropriately sinister father figure, the lab director. It is implied that her mother was part of similar experiments. Further, the lab director might be her actual father.

Next: more on Stranger Things.

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What Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap Has To Do With Terrorism

Last weekend, I went to a local theater to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. This is not ordinarily a play I would have gone to see. Despite my great affection for mysteries (which I have discussed before on this blog), I have never been a Dame Agatha fan. Too c-r-e-a-k-y.

However, I was inspired to go and see it by reading an observation about the play. Now, reader, a confession. I am no longer sure where I read this observation. I believe it was in the program handed out in the previous play, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. I also believe it was said by The Mousetrap’s director, Adam Immerwahr.

But alas, programs were made to be thrown away…and I did throw it away. But the observation kept growing in my mind. Here’s what it was, recalled by me and rolled into a nutshell by my memory and my computer.

The Mousetrap is very germane to an age concerned with terrorism. Why? Because Christie was writing in the World War II period, which was very concerned with where death and injury were going to come from. There was no way of predicting where bombs, for example, would hit. There was no way of predicting what they would do. There was no way of fully knowing when death or injury would strike. There was no way to fully shield from them.

That applies clearly to the bombing of London during WWII, for example. But it also applies to recent terrorist activity. And by recent we can go to the Brussels bombings of last week or 9-11 fifteen years ago.

So The Mousetrap, which (as many people know), is a classic murder mystery. It is set in an English country house. Everyone is trapped inside by a snowstorm. One person is murdered. Someone in the house must be guilty. But no one knows who. They all suspect each other, by the end.

As always in a Dame Agatha mystery, the end is wrapped up neatly. Order is restored.

Yet it does fascinate me that associations with a concern as recent as terrorism can be made in a work so associated with the English idea of order and so old. (It’s the longest running play in the world. A stage production has been running in London since 1952.) One of the qualities I love about art, though, is its ability to stand apart from the truisms of the age. The Age of Terrorism, if we are in it, is nothing new.

Some of the interest of mysteries is not only the working toward order, but the continuous possibility that it be ripped. And that is not as new as yesterday’s terrorism, but literally as old as the hills.

Language Fun, Canadian Style

Greetings, readers! I had a very wild June and it’s so good to be back in this blog, conversing as I will.

Today, I’m just going to focus on things I find very cool about language. As readers of this blog know, I am very fond of mystery novels, never more so than in the summer. My text is a mystery novel, Old City Hall, by the Canadian writer Robert Rotenberg. (Part of the great NPR “Crime in the City” series.)

Perhaps I should say things he finds very cool, because a character in this novel (a lawyer named Albert Fernandez) is the occasion for extremely interesting observations made about the English language. Fernandez is from South America, emigrated as a child to Toronto, and though outwardly fluent, has worked very hard to not let his struggles with English show. As a kid, falling into a Canadian snowbank, he shouted “aid me” to the other students. And was mercilessly teased by those same kids, for not knowing the proper idiomatic form of “help me.”

So here is Albert, musing about the English language by recalling a college linguistics lecture: “the professor…drew a line down the middle of the blackboard, and wrote…’Anglo-Saxon’ on one side and ‘Norman’ on the other.’” Words with the same meaning face each other across the divide: “go in/enter; meet/rendezvous.” The pairing that previously gave him trouble, “help/aid,” is accounted for: “Thanks to the French invasion of England in 1066, the two main [contributors to the current language] ran parallel throughout.”

Then Albert Fernandez muses on English political speeches: “That’s where Churchill came in…Churchill understood the power of the simple Anglo-Saxon words. He preferred them to the flowery, foreign Norman words. His most famous speech, ‘We will fight them on the beaches…,’ was the greatest example. Every word was Anglo-Saxon, except for the very last one: ‘…and we will never surrender.’ ‘Surrender,’ the only three-syllable word in the whole speech, was a flowery French word instead of the simpler, Anglo-Saxon ‘give up.’ In this way, Churchill underscored how the very idea of surrender was a foreign concept to his British audience.”

Ok, I’ve quoted at some length here. Why? Well, first, this passage exemplifies the kind of close reading that makes study of English so much fun—and so meaningful. It’s what students and teachers in English departments get to do, and this is a very nice example (and done by lawyers, which just underscores how important language is to understanding and analysis). Albert applies this to his experience in courts, observing that a client’s tone changed in a way that caused Albert to believe he was lying; only later, when he reads the transcript and begins to circle the Norman words, does he begin to understand why. When the accused uses Anglo-Saxon words (“I walked into the kitchen”) he is telling the truth; the shift occurs when he begins using Norman words instead (“to the best of my recollection”; “she maneuvered”).

The other pleasure of this is that it’s a clever commentary on the background of the book itself. The maple leaf flagnovel is set in a profoundly multicultural Canada, with a backdrop of many languages, but of course the two official are English and French. Highlighting English and Norman this way implicitly makes a plea that Canada, not Britain or the U.S., is the inheritor and paradigm of the polyglot tongues that underlie contemporary English. (I know the quoted passage about the accused is kind of a swipe at French. Still, the hero of the series—a detective named Ari Greene—drives around listening to the French language stations on his car radio. So there is that.)

And here’s a fun fact I’ve never been able to work in anywhere else: since I referred to the Norman invasion earlier, at least there’s an opening. Early in graduate school, I had to buy The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. To draw a distinction between it and British histories written to assume a proto-empire and English triumphalism already apparent in the medieval period, the introduction implies that the England of this time was more colonized (earlier, by the Danes; by the French) and multivocal than earlier understood. Guess what the last numbered page is? 1066. No accident, think I. A wonderful example, I’ve always thought, of using the physicality of the book to comment on its contents.

Another fun fact:  the picture here is from a great post on the early designs for Canada’s Maple Leaf flag. Click on the link here to read.

And happy July!

More Master and Man in Masterpiece

Today’s post is going to revisit two posts from several months ago (here and here). In them, I opined that the characters in the PBS series Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis (detective series, set in Oxford, England) were contemporary re-imaginings of the three orders of the medieval period: 1) those who fought (knights, of whom Inspector Morse was the contemporary incarnation); 2) those who worked (squires, peasants, of whom Inspector Lewis is a modern-day version); and 3) those who prayed (Inspector Lewis’s sidekick, Detective Sergeant James Hathaway, who has religious leanings and a background as a seminary scholar).Masterpiece-Mystery-Inspector-Lewis and Hathaway

Well, I’m quite excited to report that a new season finished recently on PBS and gives further evidence that I was right to notice the echoes of the medieval period in the characters! Because Hathaway has taken, for his vacation, a “walk” which we learn half-way through the first episode is a trip to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The reference is somewhat elided: Lewis says that his neighbor has gone to that cathedral, but its significance is not fully fleshed out for the viewers.

Well, let me do that here. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain was a major pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages. People throughout Europe walked to the cathedral from their homes as an act of religious faith. It was the third most popular site, after Jerusalem and Rome. (The Way of St James, mapCathedral is traditionally thought to be the resting place of St. James, one of the 12 apostles.) To give you a sense of how many routes there are, I’m posting this handy map from the Wikipedia entry.

So in making this walk, James Hathaway is acting as a contemporary religious pilgrim, even if he disavows the action by saying that he “wasn’t on pilgrimage” and “didn’t go in.” He is a religious seeker, if a conflicted one. The action and destination is enough to mark him as a kind of contemporary monk.

This makes me very happy not only because my initial musings on Inspector Lewis have been proved right, but because the pilgrimage phenomenon is very interesting, whether you have religious leanings or not. Because the pilgrims exist not only in days of yore (as Hathaway’s trip indicates): the pilgrimage site is incredibly popular now.

Indeed, the church office keeps statistics on how many people make the trek as pilgrims, and in 2013, nearly 216,000 did. That’s a steep rise from 5 years earlier, when the number was 125,000. It’s a whole cultural event, with special passports, clearly marked routes, dedicated hostels, and (I am not making this up) vacation packages.

I find this incredibly touching. It’s as if Europe, rather than losing the traditions of the Age of Faith, simply…brought (at least some of) them back. Many people, according to the church’s site, go for religious reasons, but many more go as a nonreligious retreat, as a break from contemporary life (the walking can take months; you have to walk the last 100 kilometers to be certified as a pilgrim). It is also a cultural locus where one can see how pan-European—indeed, how worldwide—some of these customs are, as evidenced by the map and the fact that the cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The pilgrimage has figured not only in Inspector Lewis, but in a number of books and films. I plan to talk about some of the latter here shortly.

Me ‘n’ Mysteries

Here’s the thing about being in transition from graduate school, for me: I just can’t get enough of mystery novels.

I’ve always liked mystery novels. But in the past, they formed a minor part of any reading pie I was in the middle of. I’ve always read pretty voraciously, but pre-graduate school I was a great aficionado of what bookstores call literary fiction and nonfiction. I was never a huge fan of genre fiction—not, at that point, mysteries or, then or now, any other genre form—fantasy, science fiction (and certainly not horror). From the early 2000s until about a year or so ago, once I began re-entry and then fully being in graduate school, I was seldom outside the realm of required-and-if-not-officially-required-then-you-need-to-know-about-this academic reading.

Then, a halcyon moment arrived: while still paying attention to the field and academic writing, I could once more make an opening for plain old reading. (I find both academic reading and plain old reading pleasurable, mind you. But few things are as wonderful as realizing that I could once again wander through the library stacks unimpeded and pick whatever I wanted to read.  For a similar moment in the postac blog Walking Ledges, see here.)  For me, it was a gigantic moment of feeling knit together: the old pleasures with the enlargement of the new.Book Review Ghost Hero

But what I want to read are mysteries, mysteries, and more mysteries. In the past year, I have finished catching up with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (both old favorites) and gone on to find S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin-Bill Smith dually narrated series, Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan (and Lippman’s really good realist non-mystery novels as well), Laurie R. King in Britain and San Francisco, Susan Dunlap’s series in Berkeley, and Harry Dolan’s in Ann Arbor. (I’m fond of university towns and regionalism, and both if I can get them.) Plus I’ve recently discovered Tana French in Dublin and Rachel Howzell Hall in Los Angeles. (Some of these I’ve found through word of mouth, but others are discoveries made in National Public Radio’s cool “Crime in the City” series.) In fact, I’m feeling very sad that I’ve finished most of these, although the discoveries of French and Hall make me believe that great series in the genre come on a-comin’.  the likeness

Moreover, while I keep trying to pursue my old habits, they basically refuse to be captured. An example? My bedside table is occupied by Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. In the old days, that would have represented an incredibly nice cup of tea: a fascinating person, an intriguing social world, and a wonderfully written biography. Yet when I picked it up recently, I literally thought “…but I know what happens and how this ends.” !!

So why is the burning desire to read at least an hour of mystery a day upon me now when it was pretty dormant before? Well, I think because the transition out of graduate school is a mystery. It’s an arc when what happens and how it ends isn’t fully known. I’m working part-time jobs until I arrive at the ultimate place I will be post-PhD (and still completing a PhD). So whatever the ultimate dénouement of the graduate school scene is for me…I don’t know it yet.

As a genre, mystery novels start with one of the journalistic w’s (what…happened), and the plot is the unfolding of every other journalistic w (why, when, where, and who. And we also usually get the journalistic h, how). Now, I have been holding off on this blog because…hey, mystery novels are kicked off by a bad thing (murder, theft, kidnapping, rape…something not good). So I was a bit hesitant to make the analogy: while yes, the job market post grad experience kind of sucks, for me, the experience of learning more in an environment dedicated to it was the opposite of murder, theft, and kidnapping. It felt like being restored to treasures I considered the most valuable. My inner self made also outer. It was a setting right, not a going wrong.

And then I realized two simple facts. First, the plot device that kicks off mysteries is a change in the given order. For them, the change is the wrong thing. But there is no law against the change being a right thing. (Hmmm…quite an idea for a novel itself!) It can be just a change, which graduate school certainly represented for me.

The second is…in strongly written series like these, one identifies with the investigator(s), not the person to whom X has happened. Indeed, writers on mysteries posit an ethical role for the PI: s/he is the one who sets right the rending of the social fabric. In some sense, being involved in the midst of the completion of PhD and what comes after is the investigator role of your own life.

So, all those mystery series out there…bring ‘em on!

The Kindle, Part III: Love Song and After

Hello, readers! For the last two posts, I’ve discussed how I feel about one e-reader, the Kindle: my love and its diminishment. Well, today, I’ve going to discuss a category I hinted at in Part II: the role of book covers in how we feel about what we read. In a way, I feel like I’m betraying the text in doing this—I think of myself as a person to whom content matters, not image. Yet that is part of why I was somewhat surprised by my feeling that books seemed more generic in e-form than enclosed in covers dedicated to them. Analyzing the reasons for my surprise is, hey, part of the meta this blog is dedicated to.

Often, Kindle covers mirror those of the paper book. See for example, the two pictures snapped-from-my-own-Kindle covers of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Seeing Through Race.   (They are ghostly given Kindle’s limited palette, so I show the printed book cover image as well.)  Covers, of course, often give a nice visual symbol of the inside. Baker’s retelling of the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of the servants—a telling of their story, rather than that of Elizabeth and Darcy—is well represented by the stilted, partial view of a serving woman pictured just at the moment of walking into our view.

Longbourn

 

longbourn cover

 

 

 

Mitchell’s idea of race as a medium seen through, and his larger discussion of the role of media and frames in determining what we see, is nicely captured by a photograph that causes viewers to, well, use intervening media to see what might not be seen without it.

WJT kindle

Seeing through Race cover

 

 

 

 

But my re-picking up a Kindle has also led me to realize that an increasing number of e-books are opting for generic covers. See, for example, the cover of Laura Lippman’s mystery novel In Big Trouble, which seems to have been chosen to get across the idea that this is a, well, generic book.

Lippman

A cover like this doesn’t do justice to Lippman’s nicely individuated detective series, which is replete with vivid cultural detail about Baltimore and a feisty heroine who lives in the upper level of a bookstore (how’s that for symbolism!), and sculls on the Patapsco (http://www.lauralippman.com/).

Even so, In Big Trouble’s here-I-am-a-generic-book-cover has nothing on my download of Mary Seacole’s 19th-century autobiography The Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which is almost horrifyingly generic.

secole

Indeed, I find the obliteration of Mrs. Seacole herself in favor of a mobile phone almost shocking. (Probably because in my dissertation life I work a lot with nineteenth-century slavery in the Caribbean and its related ideas of the circulation of people-as-commodities, as slaves were. When I first saw this cover I nearly fell over at what seemed to be an inadvertent symbolism—the mixed-race Mrs. Seacole as part of the circuits of exchange, just as a telephone would be.) To be fair, this is from the bibliophile and student’s friend, Project Gutenberg, (http://www.gutenberg.org), which allows downloads of many a free e-book. The cover is probably intended to represent the circulation of an e-book, not Mrs. Seacole. Mary_Seacole_Drawing

Still. Wouldn’t the drawing of her been a nice cover?

Where am I now with my Kindle? A fondness, not a love. It is convenient and wonderfully so. But it doesn’t contain the whole reading experience. For that, I still want physical pages, discrete objects, and covers.

I think my love, its cooling, and its partial reinstatement are representative of where we are now with the history of the book and digital humanities. No question that the digital humanities are a wonderful resource for many things: keeping vulnerable treasures intact in virtual form (old books, old scrolls and so forth) and enabling unprecedented access come to mind. But remember, physical books are also a technology for carrying knowledge. One that has worked for a very long time. The power of the physical book is not going away any time soon. Its younger sibling, the e-book, stands with it in a row of empowering technologies for spreading the word.

The Kindle, Part II: Why the Bloom Went Off the Rose

So readers, in Part I of this post, there I was, downloading books to my Kindle and loving it.

And then came a period in which most of my reading wasn’t available on e-books. (Although a lot of stuff is on Kindle, a lot also isn’t. So for a long time, my Kindle languished.)

Recently, I went back to it. To my shock…it no longer seemed like a Big Bright Book of Life. It seemed gray and nondescript. Even unworthy of holding so many multifaceted stories.

Why? I was anguished to think of something that had once given so much pleasure suddenly turning so…unappealing.

Well, several reasons, I think. And all of them very related to how we experience books, text, and book jackets. First, in the intervening period (about a year), I saw enough iPads to see what Genuinely Bright e-readers looked like. The bargain Kindle screen is a kind of grayish brown, rather than white.

Second, and more importantly, the text is undifferentiated in one container. Although each book downloads separately, of course, you as a (human) reader pick up just one object to access any number of books. In a new print book, by contrast, there is an anticipatory buzz in picking up a special object, neatly enclosed within covers designed specifically for it, that really doesn’t occur with a Kindle. I had just been in an extended period of reading books where every separate readable object I picked up was a separate narrative enclosed in covers specifically designed for it.

Covers, although secondary to the text, are highly important in giving a sense of the text—another level of anticipation. Covers exist as part of the download of an e-book, of course, but they are pictures on a screen rather than protective, encompassing borders between the book’s contents and the world.

Also, e-books often open to the first lines of text, bypassing the cover entirely. I have to specifically press buttons to go to the cover, rather than seeing it automatically, which makes the book less specifically identified.

And the third reason, the big reason, is related to the second. The all-together, undifferentiated container suddenly made all e-books within the Kindle look generic. I felt like I was engaged in some reading equivalent of buying generic paper towels at the Acme: reduced to an ugly package, a bare bones contract, and ultimately, contents that weren’t…quite…as…good.

And part of that was fed by the nature of the books I’ve been reading in the transition period between graduate school and new position. I have dealt with this period by reading an incredible amount of mystery novels. (I think the sense that there are clues and ultimately a satisfying ending comports well with the search for a job, actually—all tantalizing clues until the final piece of the puzzle—an offer—occurs.)

Mysteries are a kind of generic fiction, of course. A bad deed, investigators dedicated to seeing it punished, and a number of clues and strong plot (and good characterization, if you’re lucky). In that, they are like paper towels; you can buy very good ones or a bare minimum to meet the genre requirements. In book form, mysteries feel solid and have an exciting a new one quality, to me. In a Kindle, less so.

So I had a period of feeling trapped in the land of the generic paper towel, book division.

For more on book covers and their role in the e-book reading experience, see Part III, coming soon!

Master and Man in Masterpiece, Part II

Yesterday, I wrote about the ongoing PBS mysteries Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour, analyzing how the series seems to be playing with the medieval concepts of three orders:  the knights, the peasants, and the religious orders.  Mostly, it focused on the differences between Inspector Morse and Lewis in Inspector Morse.  Today, I look at the sequel, Lewis, and the prequel, Endeavour.

Although Lewis was a figurative peasant in Inspector Morse—a man to Morse’s master–once Lewis became the titular character in his own series he unified the concepts of master and man in one person.  As an inspector, of course, he gave the orders and saw them carried out. Yet his private life, when shown, was often centered around a figurative field that he plowed:  his kitchen; his family; his cooking.

But it’s his sidekick that connected the series with the three orders for me.  James Hathaway is from the third order:  those who prayed. He is a religious young man once drawn to the priesthood whose crises—of faith, sexuality, or both—caused him to seek a career as, in his own terms, a “copper.”  Hathaway is a Cambridge graduate, and thus continues, in a minor key, the Inspector Morse concept that Lewis is part of a duo in which he is intellectually subordinate.

The permeability of the inspectors is the point at which I think the show is having fun with the idea of masters, men, monks, and their permutations. Lewis in Lewis is a master; he’s the guy giving the orders. But he’s also a man; with his focus on suburban family life and his cookery, he is a tiller of fields, just domestic and contemporary versions rather than a lord’s parcel.

Hathaway is similarly dual rather than unitary: he’s a man, taking orders, but also a (figural) monk, with religious leanings and sensibility. Indeed, Hathaway, who was raised on an estate and (at some points) treated as an equal of the lord’s children, raises the possibility of unifying all the medieval estates in one person:  he is a member of those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed.

The idea of dual or unitary figures is continued in Endeavour, which takes us to early 1960s England and a youthful Morse.  He is a man here, with some trappings of a master (the Oxford education, primarily).  His master is a lower-middle to middle-class Britisher who is one of those who have fought—in World War II, very specifically. Arguably both master and man. (Indeed, many of the characters of the older generation in Endeavour are knights–those who fought, indelibly marked by WWII.)

Contemporary retellings of master and man, once I start to think about it, abound.  In the 2003 film Love Actually, Billy Mack—the aging rock star played by Bill Nighy—is, because of his celebrity, a type of master to his loyal roadie and manager, Joe. Mack’s giving up a Christmas party hosted by Sir Elton John to spend the day with Joe recasts the custom of giving the servants presents around the holiday season to celebrate their loyal service (think Boxing Day).  Yet Joe, the manager, is also the putative master.

Indeed, one could argue that sans the middle-aged Morse, all these characters represent the contemporary world as embodied versions two or three of the medieval orders, at different times and in different contexts.

Master and Man in Masterpiece, Part I

I am very fond of narratives set in academe.  So today’s post is going to focus on peri-ac in popular culture:  the dreaming spires of Oxford and a television show set there, the PBS Mystery series called, in various incarnations, Inspector Morse, Lewis, and the latest, Endeavour (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/endeavour/).  Detectives in Oxford, often called to the university, pursuing murders in the town and among the gown.

I was late coming to the first of these, Inspector Morse.  A detective show featuring a college is right up my alley, but I was unenthusiastic about some other sleuths on Masterpiece Mystery—I find Miss Marple a bit tedious and Inspector Foyle a study in grey—and simply didn’t tune in enough to know that Morse was my cup of tea.  So I only became a fan once he was gone and had been replaced by his sidekick, one-time Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis, promoted to the rank of inspector and then to the title of his own TV show.

So I love this series, now, and have steadfastly watched as it returned every summer, morphing to a different duo (Robbie Lewis and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant James Hathaway), and then to a different era (the early 1960s of Endeavour, a prequel showcasing the young Morse).

My initial focus on Lewis, though, led me notice motifs in the show that may have gone unnoticed had I started with Morse. The interlinked series seems to be knowingly playing with the medieval concepts of the three orders–concepts of master and man and their mutability in contemporary life.

And what is the three orders, you ask?  Lucky for you I’ve got my meta on. I am indebted to Peter Speed’s sturdy trilogy, among the first books I was assigned in graduate school. Their titles serve as a handy recap of the three orders: 1) Those Who Fought (knights and squires; kings and masters were a subset), 2) Those Who Worked (peasants, usually tilling the land of those who fought; the yeomen, as it were), and 3) Those Who Prayed (the religious orders). The idea of triple status, Speed cheerfully tells us ended only with the revolutions of the Enlightenment.

In the original Inspector Morse the titular character was the master—those who fought. Why?  The class distinction between Morse and Lewis in the original Inspector Morse was marked:  Morse has an upper class education and accent; Lewis is a relatively uneducated lad with a Geordie accent; Morse is an aesthete who loves opera; Lewis’s information on cultural or historical subjects is often lacking or comes from television.  Morse gives the orders, often condescendingly and in haste; Lewis carries them out.

Morse’s transport is also distinctive, just like a knight’s steed would be. In righting wrongs on the streets of Oxford, he drove a bright red Jaguar.  The international provenance of the operas he listens to links him with a cultivated elite—those who ruled. Lewis was a dogsbody, often on foot.  Master. And man.  Yet I think as the series morphed into Lewis, Lewis became a type of dual-order character.

Part II, explaining more about this, comes soon.