Friday, May 13, 2011

Adventure classics -- When in Rome, heed the omens

I, Claudius
by Robert Graves
Robert Graves wasn’t just writing historical fiction in I, Claudius.  He was writing prophecy.  If he’d based his scenario in the future instead of the past – a stammering misfit who is also ruler of Britain succeeds to a world empire – he’d have been writing science fiction.  As it was, within two years of publishing his fictional autobiography of a first century Roman emperor, another unlikely stammering misfit, George VI of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, gained a throne of his own.

Maybe it was the recent Academy award for the film version of George VI’s story, The King’s Speech, that brought this to mind.  But I’m also a believer, as someone who dabbles in writing historical fiction, in the dictums of film consultant Robert McKee.   This one’s from page 83 of McKee’s Story, one of the few pages in my copy, amazingly, without a Post-It note stuck to it:  “Many contemporary antagonisms are so distressing or loaded with controversy that it’s difficult to dramatize them in a present-day setting without alienating the audience.  Such dilemmas are often best viewed at a safe distance in time. . . historical drama polishes the past into a mirror of the present, making clear and bearable the painful problems. . . .”

Once the equation Claudius equals George VI becomes inevitable, so much more about Graves’s choice of subject matter for his 1934 novel makes sense.  The tragedy of the deterioration of the Roman Empire built by Claudius’s grandfather by marriage, Augustus Caesar, becomes the tragedy of the Europe that George VI’s ancestor Queen Victoria built through alliances on paper and the royal marriages of her many children and grandchildren.  And what contemporary problem could be more unbearable to the British public in 1934 than the possibility of a second World War through the accession of Adolph Hitler as German Fuhrer that same year?

Granted, in 1934, there was no George VI.  There was only a stammering middle-aged great-grandson of Victoria named Albert Frederick Arthur George, whose older brother would soon succeed to the throne as Edward VIII.  But it didn’t take a Roman sibyl to see that Edward – unmarried at nearly forty and childless despite numerous liaisons -- wasn’t likely to be a permanent obstacle on his younger brother’s way to the throne.  Or to see in their cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II – the moving force behind the First World War – the equivalent of Claudius’s murderous predecessor Caligula.  Or in Claudius’s adopted son and successor Nero the equivalent of Hitler.

Graves is reported to have disliked his ominous recreations of ancient Rome in I, Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God, despite their great popularity.  Perhaps he felt like a father of sibyls who feared his children spoke only too truly.

(Next week:  From Albert Frederick Arthur George to a revisionist King Arthur, in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset.)

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