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.


Growing Up with the Muppets: The Medium and the Message

Yesterday, I discussed why audiences accepted the blend of fantasy and reality in Sesame Street from the beginning, despite 1960s psychologists warning its creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, that children would be harmed by blending fantasy and reality. (For a look at the Pioneers of Thirteen documentary in which she says this, see

Their belief is puzzling, since many children’s narratives blend fantasy and reality—presumably, the experts were concerned with television and its verisimilitude in representing reality; to contain fantasy characters as part of the brownstone, street world of early Sesame Street would be to blend genre boundaries in an unsettling way.  Yet certainly Muppets with brownstoneone of the charms of Sesame Street is the blend of fantasy and reality: Kermit and friends aren’t real, but their charm suspends belief easily, for children and adults alike. All the Muppets interact with children and adults easily. They’re, hey, part of the neighborhood.

In cogitating on this, though, I have to admit that the experts are right to some extent. Isn’t the pairing of fantasy and reality characters kind of a clunker in some notable media forays? The cartoon Jessica Rabbit talking to the real actor Bob Hoskins in the film Who Killed Roger Rabbit? seems more a director’s whimsy than a vital part of the film. The comedy stemmed from the audience’s familiarity with genre conventions: Cartoons over here (usually); live actors over there. Genre rules were being bent and broken, by people who were hyperaware of them—that was what we were asked to applaud.

But watching the Muppets, we never feel that we are being asked to respond primarily to the fact that Kermit talking to people bends some boundaries–that he and his ilk ought to exist only in the studio talking to other puppets. Kermit and wolf blitzerWhy didn’t they look arch? And why were kids (and parents, and nearly every form of media from mainstream through alternative) charmed by them?

I think because their placement in the evolving medium of television mirrored the placement of their audience—kids getting their arms around the mysteries of the adult world. The Muppets in the world—whether the stoop or the garbage can—seemed gleeful and surprised at their actions. Like they were surprised that they could do the actions, but doing them all the same. Just like kids moving into the world: gleeful and surprised that they can, from a 2-year-old realizing that they can locomote down a strip of carpet to a 5-year-old realizing that, well, that word with the one s and the two ee’s after it is pronounced “see.”

Indeed, the Children’s Television Workshop, the organization behind Sesame Street, published Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs (written by David Borgenicht), in which the psychological age of some of the Muppets is discussed, and they are children. (Big Bird, for example, is six.) But even without that background knowledge, the Muppets read easily as stand-ins for children in their glee and curiosity.

So Cooney and company—maybe knowingly, maybe inadvertently—fused the media and the message. It seems like a children’s genre whose conventions in previous generations might have held the Muppets bound in a studio had developed technology that actually did change the conventions of the genre. The rise of the hand-held camera? The contemporary fascination with cinéma vérité? The technology of the Muppets, driven by Jim Henson’s syncretism in creating puppets who seemed to stand-alone? The rise of child-centered parenting? What is clear is that those conventions actually did bend, or expand enough, that, for first time, puppets were paired with the cityscape and the backyard. For a child audience that had been cocooned in relatively small spaces—the bedroom, the living room—and was, well, starting to look at a bigger world, the Muppets represented them, and the glee and joy to be found in that larger world. Why was Sesame Street a runaway success? And why is it now an institution? A lot of the answer is in the fusion of the development of a medium and its audience.

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 (  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.