How Soon is ‘Too Soon’?

My apologies for the lack of a post last week; a combination of dispiritment at the state of the world and a lot to do on the Monday that wasn’t possible to get ready except at the weekend are my excuses. Let me make up for it somewhat with something hopefully a bit more thought-provoking, which I stubbed to think about in April 2017 but still seems worth exploring a bit. It sort of starts here.

LEGO Vikings rowing the LEGO Viking ship

LEGO Vikings rowing the LEGO Viking ship that you can buy and assemble

I come not to criticise LEGO‘s historicity, you understand; we could go a long way into the difference between the mythic and the historical image of the Viking before we got to a conclusion about whether it is OK that those helmets are horned. But they exemplify something that came to my mind after, in April 2017, my department had an external review, during which one of the reviewers talked about using LEGO as a teaching aid.1 At the time, I confess to thinking this a bit infantile; since then, I must say, I have seen it done well and been converted. A class of first-years in groups each given a small bundle of LEGO pieces and told to build something in ten minutes that expressed chivalry brought out a good few knights on horseback, yes, but also, because of people wanting to use all the pieces or acknowledge that not everyone in the age of chivalry actually was a knight, some quite multi-layered symbolism piled up on those models. In general, it got them putting stuff they’d read into action in a way I don’t think talking would have done by itself, and I only wish I’d had the idea myself.2 So I’m not against the technique, just to make that clear, but a colleague who works on much more modern violence, racism and atrocity felt then that it would be really tasteless and impolitic to try and model anything they taught in LEGO, and it got me thinking.

The thought was, is there a line in history on one side of which this kind of modelling becomes inappropriate or insensitive? When I was a child, this wasn’t a question one would have had to ask, because LEGO basically didn’t do violence: I, a Star Wars fan of early vintage, was always a bit disappointed that their various spaceships and moon exploration sets, fancy or functional, did not feature laser guns. But even then, they did knights and castles sets (though right now they do not, as the last range apparently didn’t sell…), and as we see above it wasn’t long before they embarked on pirates. Again, I am not out to critique LEGO’s choices here, not even the fact that since then they have also done ninja and Viking ranges. But I wonder if we have a cut-off? As far as I can see, pirates is about as modern as they get with anything that’s not current film or TV properties like superheroes, and pirates are almost timeless in the popular imagination anyway, though very much a live concern that happens to people in some seas even so. Obviously there are some non-LEGO toy ranges that come closer to the modern violent than this: Action Man is the most obvious survivor from my childhood, but when I was a child I had (in fact, have recently had to reclaim from my mother’s attic, so now have again, I admit) a lot of farm toys made by a company called Britains who also did toy soldiers. The two aspects of the company now seem to have diverged and split across the Atlantic, but I notice that neither is doing one thing they used to do, cowboys and Indians. So perhaps that has become unacceptable (though somewhat to my horror, the toy soldier section of the company now also has a Vikings range…).

Advertising diorama from the W. Britain toy range Wrath of the Northmen

Advertising diorama from the W. Britain toy range Wrath of the Northmen

So OK, pirates in popular culture are basically ahistorical, fine, and I suppose one could make the same kind of argument for Vikings, and at least with the Vikings we have contemporary literature of that culture which suggests that many Vikings would have been more or less fine with the idea that their exploits of seafaring, skulduggery (and skull-drinkery) and superviolence would be re-enacted by children with a variety of toys nine to eleven centuries after they were committed.3 Perhaps that’s even true of Western European knights to an extent: the Chanson de Roland and Bertran de Born could be enlisted to support it.4 But I don’t imagine any of these companies are going to start making toys of seventh-century Arab soldiers just because there’s some really powerful early Arabic war poetry; that would be a bit too close to the bone still somehow, wouldn’t it? Likewise, discussions here long past suggest that the fact that New Zealand’s rugby team still do a haka before their matches would not make it OK, or even successful, to produce a range of figures from the Maori wars for children to play with.5

So where’s the threshold? It’s evidently not about time: it’s about relevance. But to whom? Lindesfarne was sacked in 793, as long-term readers of this blog will remember all too well, and apparently England is over that. But we’ve had angry comments on this blog before now about the Battle of Yarmuk a century and a half before, Battle of Manzikert, only three centuries later, and about Byzantine campaigns against the Bulgars and the attitude of the historiography surrounding them to the Bulgarians, and I almost don’t like to remember what else. A lot of this stuff still matters to people in relevant places. How do the average Kalinago person, or any of the people who haven’t made it on a voyage through the Gulf of Aden in recent years, feel about LEGO pirate sets? Slaughters of the past still matter in many peoples’ presents, and I wonder what it says about the European West that it has managed so cheerfully to internalise its medieval ones. Perhaps it’s another case of Kathleen Davis’s arguments in Periodization and Sovereignty, in which we have set such a big barrier between ‘We, the Moderns’, and the past we drag round with us, that everyone on the other side can be reduced to caricatures and mini-figures.6

But they weren’t, you know; for some people that still matters, and I’m not sure the reasons it doesn’t for others are good ones.

1. I should explain that in the UK English I know LEGO is a brand name and the bits they make are LEGO bricks or pieces. LEGOs meaning the bricks is perhaps an Americanism? and has spread, but I, stuck in my childish ways, resist it, so it won’t be appearing elsewhere in this post.

2. Given the which, I should give credit where it is due and it is due to Dr Claudia Rogers, of my current local parish, and from watching whose teaching I have evidently learnt something for my own.

3. Try, for example, the Saga of Burnt Njal, which you can get in Penguin as Robert Cook (transl.), Njal’s Saga (London 2001) or online in an older translation here. It is not shy about bloodshed!

4. Glyn Burgess (transl.), The Song of Roland (London 1990), in Penguin, or again an older translation online, John O’Hagan (transl.), The Song of Roland, translated into English verse (London 1880), online here. There doesn’t seem to be a current English translation of Bertran de Born’s works, but you can find a couple, including the most relevant, on De Re Militari here.

5. I admit that I am rather horrified to find that W. Britain, the original and continuing model soldier side of the Britains business, still make an Anglo-Zulu war range, including a set called ‘Clearing the Yard’ including redcoats carrying away dead Zulu warriors. There are matching ones of redcoats falling under Zulu attack, Zulus looting British bodies and indeed of Zulus attacking a field ambulance, so it’s not as if the violence or indeed the victory is all one way, though the balance of depiction could be interrogated, but aside from that and a smaller range from the Anglo-Egyptian Wars, they seem to have given up on colonial-era figures. Anyway, I digress but I am very surprised to see this still on sale at the same time as we are being so urgently reminded that black lives matter, and it makes me feel a bit queasy about my old toy tractors.7

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008), which every time I cite I am stuck afresh with regret about the lousy review I gave it a decade ago.

7. Addendum: it turns out that hiding under the name ‘Clash of Empires’ is in fact a range that includes Native Americans and settlers, though more eighteenth-century than nineteenth- and not featuring cowboys. “The historical appearance of European soldiers and settlers and the native people are accurately rendered in every detail.” Now, at $72 a pop, these are not children’s toys any more. People are presumably modelling this stuff, at really quite considerable cost. What leads one to do that, do you suppose?

17 responses to “How Soon is ‘Too Soon’?

  1. Allan McKinley

    To take this into more dangerous ground, it’s all about identity isn’t it? Western identities are generally not particularly fixed, due to constant physical and social mobility and a lack of strong institutions to confirm to. In particular our nationalisms tend to focus on recent events that were commonly experienced: the world wars in particular (notably these are beginning to recede as we become nations of grandchildren of the participants). Beyond this and the tacit acceptance of a system of government and laws there isn’t really much to western identitiex. Where there is a more vigorous common identity active in the West, say Scotland which definitely has a nationalistic identity available to those who want it, this tends to be defined in opposition to the wider identities that might otherwise apply, such as a British identity.

    So if you want to release a range of lego commentating the Battle of Flodden Field, you may find a lot more interest forthcoming, especially on internet fora, than say the Battle of Crécy or even Bannockburn. Where an identity is grounded in defining itself against another identity rather than by commonality then symbols and perceived meaning are far more important, so an innocent set of toys is more easily perceived as an attempt to indoctrinate children into accepting an assumed English superiority (I always wonder at which point my Scottish emigrée ancestors acquired that superiority having moved to London…).

    So I’d suggest that there’s two answers here to the question of when is too soon depending on your perspective: either it’s too soon if those upset and complaining are likely to create problems for you; or it’s too soon if (to simplify to the point of caricature) what is being produced is deliberately offensive and designed to help eradicate your identity. As might be seen in our current rather stupid media climate, this is a difficult pair of imperatives to balance. It might be safer not to produce toy versions of any major English victories over the Scots just to be on the safe side.

    Now, if only I could locate my sons’ Battle of Buranburh playset!

    • I didn’t answer this straight away because I was sure there was something in it that tripped up my train of thought, and now on a second look I’ve found it. I sort of have to agree that there are few fixed points in English identity, but I am often reminded by my secessionista friends in Catalonia that I am nonetheless granted the luxury of complete security in my national identity all the same. And your comment about assumed English superiority is what catches me on the read-through. I know you’re joking but it’s funny because we recognise it, isn’t it? I think of Oxford having been forced to admit Wales and Scotland into their English History papers and then slowly pushing them back out again simply by not recruiting anyone who can teach them. How are those English maintaining that cultural superiority despite the lack of fixed points? Or is national smugness just itself a fixity?

      • Allan McKinley

        Ah, here my biases will start to show!

        Anyway, if you want a fairly unsubstantiated argument I have a nice one for you, that can manage to upset a lot of people (so my definition of a good argument…), I can suggest this: there seems to be a link between a confident identity with few fixed points defining it and a feeling of superiority over other identities that are more attached to particular ideas. The English are a case in point; likewise consider the prevailing learned Protestant attitude to Catholicism or the wonderful contemporary example of the liberal cosmopolitan “anywheres” contempt for the “somewheres” with their identity tied to place and community. You could argue that the same applied for the attitudes of the Carolingian court towards populations such as the Basques or the relatively-European court of the early Kingdom of England to their Celtic-speaking neighbours. Indeed you could argue a similar logic underlies the tendency of urbanised civilisations to label other groups as barbarian: a contempt for others who do not show the markets of civilised or enlightened society, which oddly is always defined as the society of the person making the definition.

        • I quite like that. The superior position would then be the one of being able to go anywhere and have status as opposed to the person whose status only exists in a certain space? I wonder, though, how that plays out in these cases between the super-aristocracy of these kingdoms who do have such status and the middling sort who are important only because of their local positions. Couldn’t there be internal ‘somewheres’?

          • Allan McKinley

            Interesting question and one to which I have no easy answer! I suspect that it is a matter of perspective as to who is a somewhere or anywhere. The best way to illustrate this might be by thinking about early-medieval bishops, who were undoubtedly both somewheres in their occupation of a defined and bounded territory and anywheres in their participation in a transnational intellectual organisation. There were also some whose somewhere as a bishop was far from their actual origins (my obvious candidate here being Theodore of Tarsus, bishop of Canterbury).

            We can still differentiate between bishops who were pretty well local leaders, whose historical record is probably limited to episcopal lists, maybe synodal and conciliar attestations and if they were really lucky later (creative) hagiography, and charters and inscriptions in certain situations, and the Wilfrids and Hincmars, and their less argumentative but equally intellectually or physically mobile comparators. But the role of bishop was certainly full of potential to mix being somewhere and anywhere.

            • The number of places Wilfrid was bishop almost precludes him being a ‘somewhere’, doesn’t it? But I agree there’s a gap, the bishops who are usually at court and those who don’t usually go, the difference presumably being partly choice but also the resource they can throw at their local base to ensure they don’t lose support while they’re away… I wonder how much time Hincmar actually spent at Rheims? My impression is quite a lot, and that he was largely present elsewhere in writing, but with Wilfrid it almost has to be the other way around, everywhere but his notional centre in person and there only by report. I wonder if it would be possible to reverse-engineer something like Simon Keynes’s book on Æthelred and pay attention not to the people who were there but the ones who mostly weren’t… A project for someone else if so, though!

  2. Why not play with figures who may be fiction anyway? King Arthur, perhaps. Or one or two religious personages.

  3. Steve Joyce

    King Arthur and religious personages fiction? Thems fighting words ;)
    “1113 – Lest We Forget”

  4. My dear sir, you give me the excuse to air my latest theory about King Arthur.

    There were two, neither kings. One was a general who led a confederate British Army against the Romans in Southern Scotland and Northern England in the 180s. He became immortalised in song and poetry (and somehow picked up the Roman name by which we know him).

    A later Romano-British warlord led another confederate army against the German invaders. He was accorded the honorary title Arthur (much as the name Caesar became a title). Eventually tales of the two became muddled.

    It certainly explains that famous remark about someone lesser “He was no Arthur”. That hints at Arthur having become a title.

    As for the obvious objection, I point out that Clio doesn’t shave with Occam’s Razor.

    • I have been known to argue that the biggest problem with the historical Arthur is that there were probably at least five of him. I didn’t, I admit, suppose that they shared a name…

      • Allan McKinley

        You could argue Arthur shares a name with Beowulf (‘bee wolf’: a kenning for bear) though. Who is likely equally historical.

        Actually, has anyone checked the same stories don’t underlie Arrhurian literature and Beowulf and the related Norse tales?

    • I should also apologise, Dearieme, if I haven’t before, for the fact that WordPress’s spam filters always holds your comments for moderation. I don’t know why this is, but it means I actually have to log in and approve them before they appear. I’m conscious that this holds up conversation, but other than getting onto it fast when the notification mail reaches me there seems to be little I can do. The software learns what is spam, but apparently not what isn’t! Allan McK also gets bitten by this. So, sorry…

  5. Um, I probably spout too much anyway, so I’m not too huffy.

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