By DAVID MYTON
A fascinating article this week by Edith Cowan University fashion historian Lydia Edwards on the accuracy or otherwise of costumes in television and film period dramas got me thinking: the movie-television industry is hugely reliant on the work of traditional historians and those such as Lydia Edwards who possess a specialised focus.
Countless films are based on historic real people and events, or otherwise set in a particular era.
Movie-makers take a lot of liberties with the facts but for a film to have any sense of credibility it must have some relationship, no matter how tangential, to actual events.
To get the costumes right or at least plausible they would go to people like Lydia Edwards for advice.
History books and academic advisors would be consulted so that the era in which the film is set is properly represented.
Films centred on Homeric myth, eg, Troy, must also plausibly simulate the ancient world. This means for example a study of the relevant Graeco-Roman classics or, say, the sixth century milieu of the Beowulf epic.
It’s something of a two-way street though: history on film is a relatively new subject area for universities, its intention being to introduce students to the critical study of history on film (see here for example).
In my view films’ relationship to history is similar to that of Skaldic and Eddaic poetry: rattling good yarns loosely based on actual events.
Anyway, these relatively new creative industries do lean a lot on the older disciplines, some of which now appear to be monumentally archaic.
Appearances, however, can be deceptive.
What do the following have in common?
They have the rare gift of making the unbelievable believable. They have set the benchmarks for High and Epic Fantasy.
Literary snobs will bridle, but in the end the numbers do not lie. Combined sales of their books and viewers of spin-off movies and TV series accumulate into the fabulously stratospheric millions.
Obviously both are superb story-tellers and gifted writers. But there is much more to it than that.
Their work is grounded in deep knowledge of academic disciplines such as philology and history.
Tolkien was the very model of the dusty Oxford professor, an expert in the arcana of ancient languages and linguistics, of Old and Middle English and Old Norse, of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
All this knowledge fed into the creation of Middle Earth, and The Lord of the Rings could never have been imagined into print had he not been a scholar of the highest order. Very likely there would be no Game of Thrones and countless other fantasy works had Tolkien not written TLOTR.
George RR Martin, a university graduate in journalism, is a wonderful writer and, although not a “scholar” in the traditional Tolkien mould, he brings to his craft the legacy of wide and deep reading and research across many areas, including historical fiction and history, especially of the English Medieval period.
No doubt his research skills (and the understanding of the importance of research) were honed during his university days. However, had it had not been for the labours of academic scholars in documenting such histories, there would have been nothing for him to research.
None of this is to say that a university education makes a great writer – nothing could be further from the truth (note, for example, the extraordinary success of fellow fantasy writer Tad Williams among many, many others).
Rather, it is to put the onus on universities to think differently about how they deliver their courses – to demonstrate that history, literature, languages, linguistics, philology and the like, actually serve a real-world purpose alongside their intrinsic worth.
This is not crude instrumentalism, but a necessary condition of our age.
Scholarly, accessible, innovative and compelling, Big History breaks all the old rules when it comes to delivery, content and format.
Imagine medieval history being taught via an exploration of Game of Thrones.
It may very well be R-rated history, but you’d certainly grab the attention of the average university undergrad.