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The growth of a legend

April 23, 2013

Before I get going, what does “Four nine nine” mean to you?

To me, “four nine nine” is just how you say (and spell) the digits 4, 9 and 9 again. But to TV advertising copywriters it is apparently how you say the number 499: “this solid oak table: just four nine nine”, while the caption on the screen reads £499. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Obviously: that would be “four hundred and ninety-nine pounds”.

999, however, can be said as “nine nine nine” when referring to the punk band from the mid 1970s – still recording and touring, I understand – who were fairly successful over a long period, but never gigantic. This was rather unfortunate, as they were no less talented than many of their contemporaries who fared considerably better. During the time that I had much interest in them they did not deviate much from the format and standard they set themselves, though they did seem to be more concerned with the notes in the songs on the later of the two albums I owned. The earlier one – 999 – featured the single Emergency, the title of which I thought was rather clever: how easily impressed I was. It was an angry record that Dad would have described as “shouty”. But by the time they got round to Concrete not only were there more tunes, but the band were actually singing them without losing the capacity to snarl. Try this one: Mercy Mercy, with a good twangy rhythm guitar sound supporting understated but effective lyrics. 

And now I have delivered myself of that burning pedantry, let’s change the subject.

Thanks (yet again) to Dad, I have recently discovered Hippolyte et Aricie, the first of Rameau’s many operas, though not actually written until he was about 50. Quite simply, I am bowled over by its beauty. You can link to an entire performance, and if you have three hours’ leisure at any point I recommend it, though that is a disingenuous recommendation unsupported by personal experience: a series of car journeys over a couple of days have enabled me to hear the whole thing. If, however, you can’t rustle up that sort of spare time, just try this excerpt – Cruelle mère des amours – sung by Jessye Norman: melody, harmony, orchestration and performance combining to present a heart-stopping picture of melancholy.

Disappointingly, a list of Rameau’s operas on the internet’s sacred scrolls contains a number described as “lost”. How you can lose an opera is a mystery to me. They aren’t exactly small, are they? Not the sort of thing that might slip between the cushions – even if you happened to come from the sort of French baroque family rich enough to be able to afford cushions. Certainly there would be no inter-cushional gaps large enough to have lost any operas by Wagner, though I note that there are several on his list of stage works which are mentioned as “unperformed”, usually because no music had been written. I think they may be my favourites.

Hipployte et Aricie has a complicated plot – life, love, death and destiny involving the Greek hero Theseus and his son Hippolytus. (Most operas of that age, like much visual art, took classical or biblical themes: the skilled exponents used them to reveal ideas which on their own would have been preclusively vulgar and secular.) I haven’t checked whether it tallies with the ancient sources in its narrative, and I don’t suppose, anyway, that you could find two such sources that agreed in every detail. Not that I would know. (If you want to learn more about Theseus, I strongly recommend this marvellous stuff by The Dancing Professor. If you didn’t want to, read it anyway and you soon will.)

But actually, isn’t part of the point of myths and legends that they evolve – whether to make a better story, or to work better in a particular medium, or to serve a wider moral purpose? Take the golden fleece, for example: you know, the one that Jason recovered. As far as I can make out, the only detail on which sources seem to agree is that it came from a ram. I hold myself open to correction, but they seem to disagree even on where the ram came from. I bet there were people lined up in two camps, arguing on the one hand that its mother was Theophane, or on the other that it was Themisto, with probably a few more claiming that they are one and the same anyway. (My principal source – Jason and the Argonauts  – is silent on the subject.)

In much the same way the release of the dreadful movie Troy (with its all-star miscast) had all sorts of people in high dudgeon telling anyone who would listen that it didn’t happen that way: Achilles never entered Troy, Agamemnon wasn’t killed there, and anyway what on earth did Brad Pitt think he was doing? (There’s an awful moment near the beginning when Achilles, having killed some great warrior or other, shouts out “Is there no one else?” And then, for dramatic effect – and I could feel it coming – he repeats it. I have a strong suspicion that the screenwriter had just seen Gladiator, and the moment where Maximus, having made short work of a series of opponents, asks the crowd “Are you not entertained?” And then, for dramatic effect, he repeats it. Like I did there.)

helen of troyBut Troy is just another re-telling, so I grit my teeth and allow its place in the evolution of legend, along with the TV movie that people didn’t notice at the same time – Helen of Troy*. The two movies are different in detail and characterisation (Achilles in the latter is less hero, more roughneck), but equally valid. After all, where is the rule that says that legends are fixed in the eras to which they refer? Even a fictional character whose invention we can be certain of can make the leap into legend at any time. Which brings me to – never far from my thoughts – Sherlock Holmes.

Some of the things that people “know” about Holmes owe little to Arthur Conan Doyle. The deerstalker, for example, and the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” cannot be found in the stories, but they have become part of his persona as he outgrew the pages in which he appeared. Even his “arch-enemy” Professor Moriarty was really a cameo created by Doyle in order to kill Holmes off, and then hardly referred to outside the two short stories in which his death and resurrection are dealt with. And yet Moriarty stands as a study in evil whose impact is out all proportion to the space he occupies in the Holmes canon. Macavity, T.S. Eliot’s mystery cat, is described in terms directly borrowed from Doyle – including the phrase “the Napoleon of Crime”.

One of the more out of the way things that I possess is a boxed set of a series of Russian-made movies – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson – given to me by a Russian friend. They are as much true developments of Holmes as anything with Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett; atmospheric and witty while still making the adjustments that writers feel they need to make in order to communicate best with their audience.

Sobaka_dvdTwo or three stories are conflated, settings changed and so on – details which are entirely acceptable but go on to get bedded down in how the stories will be retold in future. The subtitles might have been better researched, though. My Russian is 30 years unpractised, and was never up to much anyway, so I’m not able to judge how literally accurate the subtitles were. But someone should perhaps have checked the original story to avoid “speckled band” being rendered as “motley ribbon.” There is a tremendous and perfectly apt theme tune, though…

I haven’t watched them all yet, and although none of the original stories feature the supervillain, I hope that there will be an encounter with Professor Moriarsky.

*  (Here is where I point out that Helen of Troy is also a track from the new album by Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, the recently reformed new romantic legends, whom I am going to see in concert next week. That’s serendipity for you).

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