Sky Atlantic’s new show Britannia promises Games of Thrones intrigue and excitement, but instead delivers a meditative and inter-textual re-imagination of British history.
At times the show appears to be a weak competitor for Games of Thrones with its graphic scenes of torture and Druidic orgies. Set at the onset of the Claudian invasion of Britian, led by Aulus Plautius, the show begins with scenes of death and preparations for war. The relationship between Cait and the outsider is lifted almost verbatim from the relationship between the Hound and Arya. Almost every other accent is Northern. Yet Britannia aims at something higher than the “tits and dragons” which has entranced a generation of TV viewers. There are traces of a more complex show.
The show is not really about the Roman invasion of Britain at all. This is the history of Britain and the stories we tell about this history. The invading Romans could just as well be Nazis. Early scenes of the Romans marching at night with torches draw allusions to Nuremberg Rallies (and sadly the recent neo-nazi-Trump rallies in America). This is an ahistorical historical drama. Everything is anachronistic and slightly unreal. For example, a British character speaks to a Gaulish warrior in pigeon French. At times it is thematically reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s early historical poetry.
The show is not a realistic portrayal of the period. It is not meant to be. This is mythic history in its broadest sense. Seemingly two versions of Celtic Britain struggle against each other, the Regni, hill fort dwelling noble savages, face the more cultivated Athurian Cantii from a Camelot-esque castle, in a landscape dotted with stone circles and dramatic caves.
Phelan, played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, displays this anachronism best. At times he resembles a posher version of a male character from a Carry On film. He moans about the Druids, as if they were inhabitants of another (less British) country. Then he demands of the chief Druid “We would know your heart, sir” seemingly straight from an Eighteenth Century novel. Yet his character, cheated on by his wife, also suits an Arthurian poem by Chretien de Troyes. He is everything except a Briton of the first century.
The tone is set by the sound track, which is Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy man. An unfair view of Donovan has always been that he was a watered down and derivative Dylan, copying but never quite transcending the original. Yet Donovan’s song alludes to the druggy newage movement, which drawing from one area of the Hippie movement, reinvented the celts for themselves. Although the celts have been reinvented several times, this spiritual version is currently the most accessible one and the one that most audiences would draw upon.
The island is as strange to the Romans as the jungles of Vietnam were to the Americans. This is an island of ghosts and of unknown presences beyond the camp. Britian is a numinous space.
No where is this influence clearer than in the portrayal of the Druids. The Druids are a religious order in Britannia. They revere their high druid Veran (MacKenzie Crook) as the second born, an immortal being. The perform religious rituals in stonehenge like structures and take a lot of drugs. Although they hate written words, in their rituals they speak in a liturgical language. This is possibly a Celtic language. It is different to the language used elsewhere.
Much of this can be found in the ancient texts. The druids believed in the immortality of the soul. They believed that people were reborn in a continous cycle. Caesar reports how the druids rejected written texts, although Celts in Gaul did write texts, first using a Greek script and then a Latin script.
Yet the historical reality of druids are hard to construct. Many of our main literary sources are limited. Caesar who describes the Druids in his Gaulish War may have based much of his account on Posidonius. Posidonius saw the druids as a class of philosophers. Even in antiquity flights of fancy were taken with the druids. Some ancient authors saw them as descendants of Pythagoros.
It is hard to constuct how powerful they were as class. Several ancient authors describe them as disabled from bearing military weapon, which has led Stuart Piggot to class them as a Celtic Brahmin class. The druids in Britannia are the king makers. They possess political power to replace monarchs and negiotiate with the Romans. They are a separate power to the nations of Celts.
Yet throughout characters struggle with the modern concerns between aethesim or dobt and faith. The last words of this series are a bereaved mother shouting “the gods are dead”.
Perhaps not a historical drama but a histographical drama.
This is the early Britain of our imagination and by “our imagination” I mean Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the great genius of British history. Through him we don’t just understand the past, the hunchbacked Richard III, but we place the “present” in the mythic imagination. Lawrence Olivier’s St Crispin’s speech for Henry V spoke to the soldiers about to embark for Normandy, just as Danny Boyle’s reimagination of Caliban’s speech spoke to this latter generation of Britons.
The show’s allusions to Shakespeare are strong. This is the landscape and language of Lear, the blind fathers and dutiful daughters, the heroes haunted by Thanatos and fatalism come straight from this play. At the same time the comic characters Brutus and Philo come straight from Hamlet. These are Rosencrantx and Guidenstern somehow accidentally discovering the wisdom of druggy newage celticism. My favourite scene takes place at a breakfast meeting with Queen Antilla where a roasted boar is offered to the Romans. Not quite the nine roasted boars of Egypt but a knowing allusion nonetheless.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Shakespeare drew his “sources” from Holinshed. Holinshed drew it from Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed to draw his history from an ancient book in the British language although no one believes this now. Not everyone believed it back then.
Geoffrey wrote of the long history of Britains and how they were founded by refugees from Troy. Geoffrey found evidence for this in the name of the Celtic tribe whom Caesar reported lived around the region of London and Essex were called the Trinobanti, or Trinovante as Geoffrey preffered. Trinovante coming from Troia Nova or New Troy. New Troy is better known to us today as London.
At the heart of the British experience lies an intertextual tradition of interperation and imaginative leaps. Of course other texts circulated about “dark age Britain”, including Gildas, Nennius and Bede in Latin, and in Y Gododdin and Taliesin’s poetry in Welsh literature, but these could not compete with Geoffrey for excitement.
Britiannia is not an Arthurian story, but the mists of Avalon hang heavy on it. Geoffrey inspired a raft of later medieval authors. The greatestest of the high medieval authors who worked in the Arhturian tradtion was Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien was interested in the psychology of his characters. He added the Lancelot subplot. He also wrote the first story about the holy grail, although he died before completing the story. Several poets continued that story including Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose Parzifal inspired Wagner. The Holy Grail myth brought to the fore the reimagined spiritualism of the celts which has not since disappeared.
John Cowper Powys
More than Shakespeare however, the presiding influence of the piece is surely John Cowper Powys. Powys was the great novelist of the early twentieth century who understood the power of myth and of a mythic understanding of history.
One of his greatest novels Porius describes a few days in the life of a prince in the days of Arthur and Merlin. The setting of Porius is curiously historical and ahistorical. The characters are a subsection of the late Roman imperial melting pot and includes an Mithraic initiaite, doctors from Alexandria and Saxon raiders. Yet it is in their inner worlds which characters develop however. Although even in his historical novels the characters somehow still a contemporary bourgeois attitude, even as they react against it.
In his earlier “Wessex novels” place possesses a mythic quality, endowed with its own power and intangible inner life. A scene straight out of Glastonbury Romance or Wolf Solent takes place towards the end of the series. Several groups of characters converge on the abandoned village. An entire episode is taken up in this space in which literal ghosts and the more intangible ghosts of empty space converge but fail to coalesce. They leave take separate paths (some literal and some more spiritual). This almost-set-scene is straight from Glastonbury Romance or Wolf Solent. It just needed some tea and bread and butter to make it complete.
The playing of national myths can be problematic. It is easy to find justification for the worse political excesses in them. The success of Britannia is hard to judge. It aims at a klediscopic vision of our early history but offers instead a lurid reinvention.