Monday, May 29, 2006

Spectacular, transient art

On Saturday I was in Ottawa, looking across the Rideau Canal at a group of big top tents where the remarkable circus troupe Cirque de Soleil was performing.

Hearing the music wafting across the canal was as close to a Cirque performance as I've ever been, but I have seen them on TV, and that's been enough to spark some deep thought about history. The first time I watched a Cirque show, I was struck by the fact that every amazing thing they were doing was independent of modern technology. See the picture above for acrobatics accomplished using cloth hangings suspended from a high place; beautiful, skillful, but not high tech. The lighting and amplification of the music was done with electricity, of course, but it could have been done, much less easily, without the modern machinery.

This led me to think -- this could have all been done in the Bronze Age, and who would know? The big difference is that, then, such a show would have bankrupted an entire culture, while our culture can easily afford Cirque de Soleil and much, much else.

Of course, I am not the first person to have such a thought. The highly respected author of historical novels of the classical period, Mary Renault, has written two books about Theseus, legendary king of Athens, and the man who defeated the Minotaur in the Labyrinth: The King Must Die and Bull from the Sea. In the first book, which I have not read, Theseus is shown as a bull-jumper at Minoan Knossos; in the second, he's king of Athens, doing kingly things. At a couple of points in Bull from the Sea, King Theseus runs across another former bull-jumper and as narrator says, roughly, "No one who was not there will ever know what it was like to be a bull-jumper in the court of Minos."

And of course that is true: we don't know what that Bronze Age art at Knossos really represents. Maybe the fact that it absolutely fascinates us is a clue that they did something amazing there, and our legends and stories about Minos and the Minotaur are a pale shadow of an astonishing, shocking, thrilling, if not necessarily admirable reality.

There is some connection to my scholarly work. I've written two books on chivalric deeds of arms, and one thing that is quite remarkable is that jousts, tournaments, trials by combat and chivalric challenges were really important to those who took part. For centuries they were a key part of social life, and a symbol of noble status, both for individuals who took part and for communities which sponsored and witnessed them. However, if you want to know exactly what it was like to take part, it's not so easy to find out. Factual accounts of deeds of arms (as opposed to fictional ones) are pretty rare.

No one who was not there will ever know what it was like to be a jouster at the court of King Arthur -- or, rather, Edward III.

More relevant material in my books Jousts and Tournaments and Deeds of Arms, and at my website Deeds of Arms.

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