Sunday, September 19, 2010

Piratical Vexillology

Yarr, mateys, welcome aboard! Now settle back with yer mug o' grog, and we'll -

You know what, stop. International Talk Like a Pirate Day or no, I don't think I can keep that up for an entire post.

Moving on, then, to vexillology, or the study of flags. Everybody is, I presume, familiar with the standard "Skull-and-Crossbones", or "Jolly Roger" flag, of which the above is a pretty standard example. Individual pirate crews, of course, would modify the flag in various ways, each one being more or less unique (though some would simply use solid black) - the example shown above happens to have been used by the Irish-born Edward England.

As any book on Golden Age Piracy will tell you, many ships also had a solid red flag, which they would fly when their target offered resistance, signifying that "No Quarter" would be given - i.e., the attached crew would be killed. It is thought that the term "Jolly Roger" actually comes from a French phrase referring to this flag, joli rouge - "Pretty Red".

Recently, I was reading a book almost completely uninvolved with pirates - The Great Crown Jewel Robbery of 1303, by Paul Doherty, and came across the following passage, presented as an aside:

" . . . Norman pirates, displaying 'Beaussons, streamers of red sandal' sent a message, well known amongst mariners, that it would mean 'death without quarter and war to the knife' for the English sailors." (Doherty 15)

Doherty's source is given as F.M.Powicke's The Thirteenth Century, a volume which I am currently trying to track down. Some poking around on the Internet has revealed a citation of "a document of about 1300" which would appear to be the original source for the 'Beaussons, streamers of red sandal' quote, but no further information seems readily obtainable.

It is very, very tempting to jump to the obvious conclusion, that there is some kind of continuity between the Norman pirates and the later Caribbean ones. More study is obviously needed - 400 years is a very long time - but if it ends up being mostly true, there's an even more distant connection to be made: who were the Normans descended from again?

That's right - the Vikings, who were after all, the most famous medieval pirates of all. Though at this time tenuous, the possibility of continuity we have here just astounds me.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Other Timetales

As someone who has a keen interest in both history and storytelling, I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea of the alternate history - theorizing about what the world might look like "if things had happened otherwise", as one famous compilation of such theories is named.

The most well-known and popular alternate histories, perhaps not unsurprisingly, have revolved around war and politics - "What if the Nazis won World War II?" being a particularly wide-spread example (in fact, I have two novel on my shelf right this moment of this very idea - Robert Harris' Fatherland and Leigh Deighton's SS-GB). There is, however, a particular joy to be found in the obscure, and so it is with my recent rediscovery of the idea of alternate philological history - that is to say, alternate histories of languages.

This particular idea I had come across a few years ago, and recently looked back up on a whim. It's an essay by author Poul Anderson entitled "Uncleftish Beholding" - or, "Atomic Theory", in a universe where English never got its huge influx of Romantic loan-words:

"For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life."

It's a fascinating piece of writing, particularly as the science involved gets more and more complex. It also begs an interesting question as to what kind of history could produce such a language - presumably the 1066 Norman Invasion of England is eliminated or defeated somehow. Perhaps Harold Hardrada's practically simultaneous invasion is somehow delayed, switching his position with that of William the Conquerer?

Anyway, whether alt-history inspired or not, there's evidently some interest in creating (or re-creating, as the case might be) the "Anglish" language (or, as it has been called when dealing with scientific topics, "Ander-Saxon"), replacing as many Latinate words as possible with Germanic ones. It's harder than it looks - the title of this post, for example, is meant to be the equivalent of "Alternate History", but to do anything more complex than that would probably require a great deal more knowledge of the history of English than I currently possess.* Anderson was certainly skilled at it - he managed to describe an atomic explosion with the vocabulary of a Viking:

" . . . when a neitherbit strikes the kernel of one, as for a showdeal ymirstuff-235, it bursts into lesser kernels and free neitherbits; the latter can then split more ymirstuff-235. When this happens, weight shifts into work. It is not much of the whole, but nevertheless it is awesome."

Indeed it is.

*Tolkien, I'm sure, would have had a field day with the idea, but Anderson's essay unfortunately wasn't written until after Tolkien's death, and I've never heard whether he knew of the project's precursors.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Some Proposed Additions to the Crossover Universe Timeline

As I mentioned a few months ago, Win Scott Eckert, the driving mind behind the Wold Newton Universe website, has published a portion of the site as the extremely fascinating Crossovers: A Secret Chronology of the World. Now that Volume Two of that work has been out for a while, I figure now would be a good time to comment on it. But, instead of just reiterating all the gushing I did over Volume One*, I decided to join in the game, and share some things that I think fit nicely into the timeline Mr. Eckert has given us.

  • 22 May 1855: A gang of thieves lead by the enigmatic Edward Pierce steal £12,000 worth of gold bullion from a railway train en route to the Crimea. It is noted that Sherlock Holmes was the only Londoner to ever memorize the entire railway schedule. From Michael Crichton's historical novel The Great Train Robbery. It's an odd thing to note about a fictional character in an unrelated novel, isn't it? Too bad Holmes was only about seventeen months old at the time of the crime.

  • 5 November 1955: Marty McFly, a time traveler from 1985, is upon his arrival mistaken for a space alien, due to his unfortunate resemblance to the cover illustration of Tales From Space, a comic book owned by one of the witnesses to his arrival, one Sherman Peabody. From the 1985 film Back to the Future. This particular issue of Tales From Space was apparently quite popular, as it was reprinted at least once during the next half-century.

  • 25 August 1967: A little girl is kidnapped from Innsmouth by (as it transpires) an inhabitant of the underwater city of Rapture. From There's Something In The Sea, the online background for the video game BioShock 2. Curiously, the reports from this event put Innsmouth in Rhode Island instead of Massachusetts, but as there's no actual town by that name in Rhode Island either, I'm chalking it up to either a subtle misdirection by the game developers or a transcription error by Mark Meltzer.

  • November 1986: The Notion Club, a literary society from Oxford, discusses the fictionalized account of Dr. Elwin Ransom's 1938 journey to Mars. From J.R.R. Tolkien's unfinished Notion Club Papers. In addition to mentioning Ransom's book Out of the Silent Planet, the Papers also discuss the Club member's psychic encounters with Numenor, strengthening the connection with the Cosmic Trilogy.

  • 1998: Visiting extraterrestrial Harry Solomon reads a familiar-looking Tales From Space comic. From the "3rd Rock From the Sun" episode "The House That Dick Built". This appearance establishes a link among that TV show, Back to the Future, and Heroes.

  • Autumn 2005: While fighting some vampires, Chicago-based wizard Harry Dresden tells Inari Raith to "make like Buffy". Later in the fight he tries to stab a vampire with his broken blasting rod, "Buffy-like". From Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" novel Blood Rites. The connection to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is somewhat tenuous, since the reference is immediately followed by Harry thinking that staking vampires with broken sticks "works better on television". Still, Harry never does come out and say that Buffy Summers is only a TV character, and while later in the series Thomas does wear a Buffy T-Shirt . . . so has Buffy.

  • 7 - 10 October 2006: Several people read the Tales From Space comic first seen in 1955, including technopath Micah Sanders and an unnamed student at Union Wells High School. From the television show "Heroes", which provides the major link to the Back to the Future series.

  • Summer 2011: Harry Dresden muses that the universe contains "terrors that the Black-Goat-with-a-Thousand-Young wouldn't dare use for its kids' bedtime stories." From the Dresden Files novel Turn Coat. "The Black-Goat-with-a-Thousand-Young" is, of course, one of the titles of the Lovecraftian entity Shub-Niggurath. This reference also serves to strengthen the admittedly weak connection with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", since that series has many Lovecraft overtones.

  • 2370: A graveyard on the Federation colony world of Caldos II contains a marker inscribed "McFly". From the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Sub Rosa". Given the manufactured Scottish culture present in the colony, it's not impossible that some descendants of the Irish-derived McFly family of Hill Valley might choose to settle there. And we already know that Marty's descendants take to the stars fairly early on . . .

* OK, I have a bit of gushing. I was seriously pleased that a couple of fairly obscure works I happen to be familiar with made it in - namely, the Gabriel Hunt book Hunt at the Well of Eternity (which obliquely mentions Indiana Jones) and the Burn Notice novel The Fix (which mentions Crockett and Tubbs of Miami Vice). What can I say, I enjoy this kind of thing.