Feet in Ancient Time

July 28, 2012 - 7:42pm

Trying to write about the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics from a medievalist's perspective proved rather frustrating. NBC ensured that it was impossible to watch again the parts of the ceremony that I most wanted to see, not only taking down YouTube videos but also putting only the sparsest excerpts—James Bond, Bedtime Story—of the ceremony's sprawling content on its own website. So, let me begin by ceremonially intoning: Boo to NBC. Very annoying. Since one generally wouldn't want to write about a spectacle after only one viewing any more than one would want to write about a poem after only one reading, I am a little hesitant (and, did I mention, annoyed?) as I compose this post. You might be surmising that my larger point here is that this neglect of the early English history scene, in favor of Her Majesty the Bond Girl (don't get me wrong; that was pretty funny), is simply more evidence of the marginalization of the Middle Ages. And in a way it is, but I feel we're all tired of that point so I want to look at the question of the medieval from a slightly different angle. What I think, from my admittedly hazy and limited consideration of the ceremony, is that we have a formal problem. The Middle Ages were actually alive and well during much of the rest of the ceremony, as I'll try to show. What was submerged, though, was any explicit recognition that the medieval period might have formal qualities that are interesting in themselves and constitutive of later cultural moments. This had to emerge in a stealthy way.

It's again, sadly, my own imperfect memory that might be creating this impression, because, honestly, all I can really recall of the opening pre-industrial scene was a kind of hot mess of maypole dancing that seemed incredibly formless. Choosing to represent the premodern as agrarian meant people in bulky costumes dotting a lumpy field. And once Victorian-Kenneth-Branagh-as-Unlikely-Caliban showed up to talk about an island that isn't Britain, you knew the Middle Ages were already over. Even though the depictions of later English history were full of structures and architecture, from the smokestacks to the media house in the Frankie and June section (which…you know, I can't even talk about that; why was the dancing so bad?), we didn't get to see any stained glass windows or cathedral buttresses or anything that would have given premodern England a formal or aesthetic identity worth considering and admiring. What about Sutton Hoo or a nicely dressed marcher lord? You could argue that Danny Boyle seemed to be narrating an economic, rather than cultural, history, but those are for sure part of the former as well. The first thousand years of all English history seemed to go by in a brief, amorphous, pastoral flash. Actually, this makes me realize that I do have something to say about the Frankie and June scene, which seemed to play one song for each year of an entire couple of decades: it was just like the structure of many survey courses, where one is expected to cover a thousand years of early literary tradition in the same amount of time given to a mere few decades of more contemporary literature. How can one possibly focus on the details of early form with the temporal deck stacked so?

Anyhoo, what was interesting to me was how what I would consider to be the medieval continued to insist upon its cultural—and particularly formal—impact throughout this ceremony despite its being quickly rolled up and dispatched like those alarming carpets of sod. Most obvious, of course, was Glastonbury Tor, whose physical shape invokes a powerful Celtic and Arthurian romance of the Middle Ages, a romance structure that literally underlay the entire proceedings. I think there were other, more subtle moments as well. One was the singing of "Jerusalem" at the opening. The Miltonists also have a fair claim on this scene, one reinforced by the "Pandemonium" scene of the forging of the rings, but I don't think I'm the only medievalist who would call Blake the most medieval of the Romantics, with his crazy obsession with systems and structures, his use of saturated iconography, and his dynamic integration of visual and verbal signs on the page. The poem's Biblical substructure, in phrases like "chariot of fire," as well as its evocative oscillation between a heavenly and earthly Jerusalem are examples of important formal components that owe their existence to medieval traditions. And speaking of chariots of fire, one of my favorite parts of the ceremony was Mr. Bean's dream vision, again, in part, because it gestured toward a medieval formal foundation for the Olympic tradition it was celebrating. I kind of love the idea of the unlucky musician in Vangelis's orchestra who is assigned to tap the same synthesizer key over and over for the entire piece—hilarious. But then, when the dream began and we were taken back to the opening scene of the movie, pretty much everyone watching knew that the scene ends with the runners gorgeously leaping over hurdles, like Ricardian white harts, as they bound toward the fourteenth-century Caius College, where Olympic medalist Harold Abrahams lived. And while the site of the Trinity College Great Court Run, to which we all remember that Harry proceeds later in the film, is a seventeenth-century structure, that scene was filmed in the Eton College School Yard, a largely fifteenth-century space. I digress a little here, and perhaps not everyone watching the Mr. Bean skit remembered all this stuff about the movie, but it is a pretty striking scene, and one that is probably reproduced in the theatre production of Chariots of Fire that is now running in London. And it is a scene in which a particularly medieval form—the cloister—plays a memorable role in lending beauty, shape, excitement, and even poetry to Olympic mythology. Which is, arguably, exactly what Danny Boyle wanted to do.

I think everyone acknowledges that the Olympics' connection to very old traditions is compelling; this is most often expressed through appreciation for the torch-bearing device. I'm sure some people like to imagine that final athlete running on feet of ancient time, sprinting all the way from classical Greece. But there's a difference between blurry, shapeless, forgettable gestures to the past and those that acknowledge its specific formal contributions. The opening ceremony tried to get away with the former but ultimately couldn't put itself together without the latter.