A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin (1998)

31 December 2012

A Clash of Kings (1998) is the second volume in the epic 7-volume fantasy series by George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. It follows seamlessly on from the end of the first volume, A Game of Thrones, with numerous plotlines continuing to unfold:

  • from the 700 foot-high Ice Wall which defends the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings and strange powers lurking in the frozen north, Jon Snow, aged 15, bastard son of the great Lord Eddard Stark, accompanies a reconnaissance mission of the Night’s Watch into the frozen waste.
Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • the terrifying and cunning Lord Tywin Lannister despatches his dwarf son, Tyrion Lannister, to the capital, King’s Landing, to take power from the incompetent, spoilt boy, Joffrey, aged 13, who is reigning as king and alienating everyone except his evil mother, Cersei Lannister, she who conspired in the death of her hated husband Robert Baratheon to enable her son to succeed to the throne.
  • Tywin himself hunkers his army in the haunted ruins of ancient Harrenhal, built by Harren the Black to be impregnable but then melted by dragonfire back in the legendary days.
  • It is to this gloomy ruin that little Arya Stark, aged 10, tough tomboy daughter of the executed Lord Eddard Stark, arrives through a series of accidents, fights and massacres, a witness to and survivor of the brutality and sadism all around her.
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • meanwhile Robb Stark, 15, heir to his father’s house, is declared King of the North and leads his armies to victory against Lannister forces at Whispering Wood and Oxcross
  • and also meanwhile, the brothers of the late king Robert Baratheon – young courtly Renly, and hard old Stannis – both declare themselves King in the South and raise armies from different sets of bannermen and subjects to fight each other, Stannis leading his army to besiege his brother in the ancient citadel of Storm’s End on the east coast of Westeros…
  • while an eerie sub-plot unfolds concerning Stannis’s conversion to the new religion, the way of the Lord of Light, which is replacing the old religion of the Seven gods. The old way was administered by septons in their temples, called septs. In a haunting chapter Lady Catelyn, distraught widow of the executed Eddard Stark of Winterfell, prays in a smallfolks’ septon en route back from trying to broker a peace between the brothers Baratheon – and the outlines of the crudely drawn seven gods dance and mock before her eyes…
Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Michelle Fairley as Lady Catelyn Stark in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • …but just as war between the brothers seems inevitable, King Renly is struck down in mid-sentence in the safety of his own tent by a shadow which seemed to slide into the tent and raise its sword and cut wide his throat with no physical presence. Is this new black magic controlled by the Red Lady, the priestess Melisandre, devotee of the Lord of Light, who has found favour at grim King Stannis’s court?
  • And while Lord Eddard Stark’s heir, Robb continues his successful drive in the west against Lannister forces, sneaky Theon Greyjoy, who spent 10 years as a ward in Winterfell, the seat of House Stark, and desperate to impress his harsh father Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands,  returns to capture Winterfell with a small handful of fighters. But the lad finds keeping a castle can be harder than winning it…
Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • And meanwhile, a thousand miles away on a different continent (Essos), Queen Daenerys (aged 14), sole survivor of the overthrown House Targaryen follows her lonely destiny. She was betrothed to the savage Dothraki Khal Drogo by her brother, Viserys, as part of a deal whereby Viserys hoped to use the savage’s soldiers to reclaim his throne, both Viserys and Daenerys being children of the mad king Aerys Targaryen of Westeros whose overthrow and murder by Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark is the mainspring of all the plots. But Viserys went mad with impatience and was killed by Khal Drogo, who himself was turned into a lifeless zombie by a captured witch – leaving Daenerys to fend for herself.
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • In a bizarre twist at the end of the first book Daenerys walked into the funeral pyre of her husband with three fossilised dragon eggs she had been given as curious wedding gifts, and not only survived the flames but the eggs cracked to hatch three baby dragons thus, apparently, starting a new Age of Dragons when magic will once again work in the world – but to what end…?
  • This book sees Daenerys venturing across the arid deserts of Essos accompanied by her loyal knight, Ser Jorah Mormont, a small band of Khal Drogo’s surviving followers and her three baby dragons, seeking help in the slave cities of the south to return to Westeros and reclaim her rightful throne, unaware of the complex machinations and battles going on back in Westeros for that very throne..

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of ‘A Clash of Kings’ which aired in the States – and in the UK on Sky Atlantic – last year, and is now out on DVD.

Series 3, based on the third novel, ‘A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow’, starts airing on Sky Atlantic, also in March 2013.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)

27 December 2012

‘How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear queen’,’ one is tempted to comment about the shenanigans at the court of King Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, who led a victorious rebellion to overthrow the mad king Aerys and his House of Targaryan, and now rules the continent of Westeros. (Numerous maps of Westeros are available on the web, including a colourful one defining the regions ruled by each House; the ones included in the books are usefully collected on this page.)

Game of Thrones is the first in the epic seven-novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, by American fantasy writer George RR Martin, set in the mythical medieval land of Westeros. The novel follows the fortunes of the powerful noble families or Houses who divide up the land, interweaving the stories of countless kings and queens, knights and concubines, servants and maesters, as they scheme, poison and fight each other for power.

Genre Swords and dragons. Fantasy.

Style The style is Tolkien meets Michael Crichton. Tolkien because, although he wasn’t the first to write stories set in medieval times, far from it, I think he was the first to combine elements of legend, the supernatural, and previously disparate folklore entities – elves, dwarves, giants – into one coherent imaginary world, created with such enormous attention to detail, to the backstory, the languages, the geography of that world – that the Middle Earth he created is a universe which fans can still immerse themselves and get lost in to this day.

Suspense Michael Crichton because the chapters are short and punchy with a clear narrative focus, moving the story on at pace like a modern thriller. Something happens in each chapter, often shocking and unexpected events. Each chapter is named after a character and tells the developments in the complicated plotlines from their point of view. So a shocking surprising event happens in a chapter devoted to the dwarf Tyrion. But instead of the next chapter following on, it will jump to the adventures of Jon Snow on the Great Ice wall a thousand miles to the North. This leaping between about ten different characters, so that you don’t find out what happened next to Tyrion, creates a permanent sense of suspense which is very gripping.

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style Similarly, although he throws in the odd token medievalism (‘oft’, ‘elsewise’, ‘near’ used as an adverb, inversions – “he was a man full grown”) essentially the tale is told in tough modern prose. A disconcerting symptom of the modernity of thought and style is the swearing. The characters quite often say ‘f***’ and sometimes the c word, something I don’t think we find in the genteel narratives of Dr Tolkien. If nothing else does, the swearing alerts you to the harsh, cynical, contemporary mindset underpinning the books. Maybe it’s more Tolkien meets Tarantino.

Paratext is the term is used by literary theorists to refer to the font, layout, pagination, prefaces etc which hedge round the text of a published book and which to some extent qualify and mediate our experience of the text. The book ‘Game of Thrones’ comes with five pages of maps, preparing you for a narrative which involves travel, and in an unknown fantasy land. It ends with 30 pages of Appendix featuring a couple of pages listing all the members of the major Houses, and a timeline of Westeros history, alerting the reader to the scope and complexity of the story. When my son was persuading me to read it, this long appendix put me off – I though, God, do I have to learn all this? In the event, it’s vital and addictive: and I kept referring to it to understand who was who and why they were plotting against each other.

With a bit of license we can extend the meaning of ‘paratext’ to include the cloud of associated products and merchandising which so often surround the modern text. First, there is the network of websites, beginning with George RR Martin’s website, his blog, A Song of Ice and Fire wiki and numerous others. Each of the characters has their own facebook page!

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Meanwhile, you can buy Ice and Fire hats, t-shirts, card games, board games, models, scarves, pendants, mugs, magnets and cook books (see the selection available at Forbidden Planet!) ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ isn’t in the Harry Potter league yet but it’s trying.

And there is now a TV series. This first book, ‘Game of Thrones’, came out in 1996. In 2011 the American channel HBO broadcast ‘Game of Thrones’ converted into ten pacey, violent and quite pornographic hour-long TV shows. (Beware of showing them to your children!)

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Series two covers the events of book two (‘Clash of Kings’) and was broadcast last year (2012).  Series three has completed production and will be broadcast in March this year (2013). It transmits in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

HBO trailer for Game of Thrones on YouTube

Delay The novels themselves, originally intended to form a trilogy, were extended to a set of five, and now seven. ‘Game of Thrones’ was published in 1996. The fifth installment, ‘A Dance with Dragons’, took over five years to write and was published in 2011. The sixth book, ‘The Winds of Winter’, is being written. The waits between volumes have become notorious: see, for example, this page summarising the reasons fans are anxious GRRM may never complete his epic task.

Going by precedent, the sixth book should come out in 2014 and the last one in 2017, 21 years after the first one! And there’s a possibility the T series might overtake – or have to pause to wait for – the books. Assuming a new season every year, the seventh season will air in 2017, so production would have to start in 2016 – a year before the book it’s based on is published.

So there’s not just suspense about the plotlines and narratives and characters in the text – there’s a higher level metasuspense about the resolution of the entire series, and its interdependency with the TV series. And the unspoken anxiety behind all this – what happens if – God forbid – GRRM (born 1948) dies before finishing the last books? Will it become the greatest unfinished novel since Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’? Would any one of the thousands of other fantasy writers publishing today be invited to complete it? Or if GRRM does complete the series, what’s to stop his publisher commissioning other authors to extend the stories, to write sequels in the way James Bond novels continue to be published to this day, 50 years after Ian Fleming’s death?

Not just the novels – but the status, feasibility, long term future of the stories and characters they contain – will continue to be the subject of feverish speculation for the next four or five years, at least… for a humorous example, check out this video of a song written by US comedy duo Paul and Storn encouraging GRRM to hurry up and finish the series and “Write like the wind”:

The MUSIC and LYRICS of “Write like the wind” copyright Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo and Paul Sabourin

Check out George RR Martin’s blog and his website.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and will be out on dvd in March 2013. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

The Debacle by Emile Zola (1892)

9 December 2012

Published in 1892, this is a long, harsh, gruelling novel, full of stomach-churning scenes of bloodshed and horror.

The Debacle’ (in French; in English) is the 19th in Zola’s sequence of 20 novels – the Rougon-Macquart sequence – about life in France’s Second Empire (the period between the coup which brought Louis-Napoleon to power in 1852 and his fall from power after the disastrous French defeat at the battle of Sedan in September 1870). It’s only roughly a sequence ie individual novels such as ‘Germinal’ or ‘Nana’ or ‘L’Assommoir’ pick up on characters established in earlier novels (eg Nana appears at the end of  L’Assommoir) so the books can still be read in order, out of order or singly.

‘The Debacle’ is long at 500 pages in the Penguin edition. It is in three parts. Part One plunges you right into the lives of a squadron of soldiers in the 106th foot of the 7th Army Corps as they arrive near the German border. Chaos and confusion reign. Already tired, with food and equipment not properly supplied, they are abruptly shunted back towards Rheims, then are sent back towards the enemy again, before being sent north towards Sedan on the Belgian border. The novel grimly portrays the confusion, the chaos and mismanagement of the French army, lack of food, fuel, ammunition or training, lack of direction or leadership, all the elements which conspire to create a terrible atmosphere of defeatism.

these early pages also introduce the two male leads, Jean Macquart, a sturdy sensible uneducated peasant and Maurice Levasseur, slight, metropolitan, well-educated but guiltily given to manic alternations between frenzied enthusiasm and hysterical collapse.  Each have friends or relations living in the east of France who they come across or discuss in their marches, a lawyer and his wife, an old miser and his son’s fiancee, a factory owner and his family. In between soldier episodes we get to know all these other characters better and slowly a web of characters is created in north-east France whose lives will be terribly shattered by the war.

Part Two concentrates in great detail on the 24 hours of the battle of Sedan, detailing how the French army is surrounded and crushed on the hills and woods to the north of the town, leading to panic stricken retreat into the overcrowded streets. The descriptions of specific engagements in hills and valleys leave no holds barred and there are as many bodies eviscerated, cut in two, with eyes, mouths, arms, fingers, tongues blown off as in any Great War memoir.

Part Three describes the aftermath of the battle in and around Sedan, once the French army has been forced to surrender, and describes in gut-wrenching detail the indignities and humiliations the defeated soldiers are subject to before being marched off to Germany.  For a nightmare week over 100,000 men are trapped in a spit of land formed by a bend in the river Meuse with no food or water. Again Zola’s realism depicts everything unsparingly, the starving men eating grass or bark or rotten meat and drinking water from a river clogged with rotting corpses.

Only in the last 50 pages does the scene switch to Paris, for the bloody, fiery nemesis which is the Commune. Zola engineers the plot so that Jean and Maurice, who have come through so many scrapes together, find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades – solid sensible peasant Jean symbolising the values of France, fighting for the Versailles army – febrile Maurice caught up in the hysteria which seizes Paris, symbolising the futile infatuation of all France’s failed revolutions, fighting from barricade to barricade for the Commune.

Realism Zola started life as a journalist and his research for this book was impeccable. He retraced the steps of the opposing armies, enabling him to describe every dip, slope and vista his characters pass over. He interviewed eyewitnesses, allowing him to fill the book with the kind of surreal or gruesome details and events which modern warfare so often throws up. All the different ways a human body can be damaged and violated by modern technology.

A cast of thousands Although Jean and Maurice emerge as the leading characters of the novel, the narrative often abandons them to follow the stories of the other characters:

  • Maurice’s sister, Henriette, is married to the factory overseer Weiss
  • Weiss is swept up in the Prussian advance and dies defending his house in the street fighting which engulfs his village of Bazeilles
  • later Henriette cares for Jean in an outhouse at old Uncle Fouchard’s farm as he recovers from a bullet wound
  • Old Fouchard is a miserly traveling butcher who is brother to Henriette and Maurice’s mother
  • Silvine the maid-of-all-work at Fouchard’s undertakes a nightmareish odyssey across the battlefield to find the corpse of her dashing fiance, Honore, an artillery sergeant
  • the kindly Delaherche, owner of one of the biggest cloth factories in Sedan, turns his factory into a massive open air hospital for the thousands of wounded
  • while his skittish young wife Gilberte carries on an affair with a handsome doomed soldier
  • and his aged mother cares for a mortally wounded colonel in a curtained room
  • the surgeon, major Bouroche, bases himself at the factory and for a week operates up to his elbows in blood and guts, trying to heal the horrifically shattered bodies of the French soldiers. Eventually amputated body parts – arms, legs, hands, fingers, tongues, jaws – clog every inch of the grounds.

The overall effect of this network of characters is to diminish the power or importance of any one individual so that the events themselves feel like the protagonists. History, or whatever we call the concatenation of incidents which sweeps all of us along, is the lead character, and all the other personae become like corks bobbing, swept, rushed along by the relentless cascade of mistakes and misfortunes. If Zola’s aim is to show how ‘laws’ of history, how heredity and environment, act on different individuals in challenging circumstances, ‘The Debacle’ does it in spades.

Translation I think this is the worst translation I’ve ever read. I supervise my son’s French schoolwork and his teachers advise a simple two-step technique: first, make a literal translation of the original French; second, come back reread those words in the cold light of day, and put them into colloquial or appropriate English. Unfortunately Leonard Tancock, in this 1972 translation, doesn’t appear to have done the latter, with the result that the prose is full of gallicisms, French turns of phrase, French word orders and, most tell-tale, the awkward squeezing in of all those little French filler phrases which have no comfortable equivalent in English – en effet, quand meme, enfin, deja.

The book is full of not-quite-English sentences. After the first page you have the unnerving sense of reading a new, familiar but disconcertingly undermined language. For example, French uses ‘y’ to mean ‘there’, much more liberally than English, which tends to be more precise about locations. Upstairs, in the fields, in the other room, on the other side of the river or valley – all of these are easily said in English but tend to be covered by the blanket ‘y’ in French, a habit Tancock slavishly translates so that the text is sprinkled with the maddeningly vague word ‘there’. This quote exemplifies some of these issues:

“Henriette hurried back home to the rue des Voyards. She was certain she would find her husband back, and she even thought that if he didn’t find her at home he would be very worried, and that made her quicken her step still more. As she approached the house she looked up, thinking she could see him up there leaning out of  the window, watching for her return. But the window was still wide open and empty. When she got up there and had glanced around the three rooms she was sick at heart at finding nothing but the icy fog and the continual rumbling of cannon. The firing out there never stopped. She went back to the window for a moment. Now that she knew what was happening, even though the wall of morning mist was still impenetrable, she could follow out the battle going on at Bazeilles, with the crackling of machine-guns and shattering volleys of the French batteries replying to the distant volleys of the German ones. One had the impression that the detonations were getting closer together and that the battle was getting fiercer every minute.”  (Page 221, Part Two, Chapter 3)

Swearing The novel is about soldiers in war. They swear all the time. What makes Frederick Manning’s novel about the Great War, Her Privates We, so fabulous is its unashamed and accurate portrayal of the continual swearing of the soldiers. Manning served as a private and, unlike all the other English Great War writers – public schoolboys to a man – he was in a position to describe the real life and speech of the infantry, miles from the censored, prim speech of the jolly public school officers. And the privates, English working men, swore all the time. And similarly, the soldiers in Zola’s novel swear all the time.

Translating the swearing of one culture and language into the swearing of another culture and language may be the hardest challenge for any translator. It has to take into account not only the literal meaning, but the class context in which it occurs (especially in class-ridden English), the historical moment (as swearwords gained or lost potency) and dialect and regional variations. Sadly, Tancock fails this demanding test. On the one hand he is bold enough to use piss and fuck and, occasionally, cunt in what sound like the appropriate settings. But, public schoolboy that he is himself, he mixes them alongside the  much tamer phraseology from boys own adventure stories. You get the impression the original French is a no-holds-barred swearfest, designed to convey the sweaty, filthy, terrified atmosphere of war and rough men in extremis, but this effect is ruined by Tancock’s uneven tone:

“Some whispering behind their backs just then made them look around. It was Choubert and Loubet, who had got away from Iges that morning at the same time as themselves, and whom they had so far avoided. Now these two gentry were treading on their heels. Chouteau must have overheard Maurice’s words, with his plan to escape through the wood, for he took it up himself and murmured in their ears:

“‘Look here, we’re in on this. It’s a grand idea to fuck off. Some of the blokes have got away already, and we’re certainly not going to let ourselves be dragged like a lot of dogs to the country of those bastards… So what about it for the four of us – O.K. to go for a stroll and take some air?’

“Maurice was getting excited again, and Jean had to turn around and say to the tempter:

“‘If you’re in a hurry, run along… What hopes do you think you’ve got?’

“Chouteau was a bit put out by the straight look Jean gave him. He let out the real reason for his insistence.

“‘Well, if there were four of us it would be easier… Then one or two would be sure to get away.”

One minute Reservoir Dogs, the next Five Go Mad In Dorset – “It’s a grand idea to fuck off“. Prissy turns of phrase – “whom they had so far avoided”; of all the words in English why on earth choose “gentry” – presumably this is some sarcasm about the two soldiers in question who we’ve seen to be complete brutes; but “gentry”? Add in the continual uncertainty created by sentences with French word order, or a French cluttering of subordinate clauses, and you have a real mare’s nest of a style which becomes very hard going over a long, detailed 500 pages. I’m planning to read Germinal, L’Assommoir and Nana by Zola. I will go out of my way to avoid Tancock’s translations of any of them.

Horror Horses are blown to pieces, men have their guts torn out, eyes, faces, fingers are blown off, this is an astonishingly graphic book. Many chapters describe nothing but the bodily mutilation of war – as when Jean and Maurice’s company are pinned down by enemy fire on an exposed hilltop and watch comrades being mown down by rifle fire and an entire artillery company wiped out, blown to pieces; or create an atmosphere of horrified awe as when Silvine and the peasant Prosper roam over the abandoned battlefield the day after the battle searching for her fiance Honore, an infernoesque pilgrimage across the nightmare ground strewn with dismembered corpses and dying horses. Throw in scenes like the three coarsest squaddies in Jean’s unit chasing down and murdering one of their own comrades for the sake of the bread he’s hoarded; or the franc-tireur guerillas ambushing, tying up, and then deliberately bleeding to death the Prussian spy Goliath – this novel compares with Quentin Tarantino at his most sadistic, with the horrible proviso that so much of it is true, based on eyewitness accounts. Quelle horreur!

And of course, much of the educated class must have read it and registered its atmosphere of degradation, defeat, misery, mutilation and despair – and yet 20 years later thronged the streets and thrown their hats in the air as their brave boys marched off for another, earth-shatteringly catastrophic encounter with the same enemy. Zola, who died in 1902, was spared the sight.

Bronze @ the Royal Academy

9 December 2012

‘Bronze’ is a major exhibition at the Royal Academy which sets out to show how bronze has been used to make religious and cultural artefacts in cultures all over the world for nearly 5,000 years. The show brings together some 150 of the finest bronze works from Africa, Asia and Europe in a really massive, overwhelming exhibition.

From the exhibition we learn that bronze has been employed as an artistic medium for over five millennia. It’s an alloy made by blending copper with small amounts of tin, zinc or lead. Due to its strength and resistance, copper has been subjected to an extraordinary variety of uses over the centuries.

The exhibits range from the ancient to the modern, from the large to the tiny. If the exhibition was just about European bronze it would be impressive enough with ancient works such as the severed head of King Seuthes III dating from the early Hellenistic period, through loads of medieval saints, to masterpieces of the Renaissance from Florence made by Bellini, Cellini and Donatello. There’s a sequence of pompous kings from the 17th to 19th centuries, and then ‘modern’ works from Rodin, Brancusi, Matisse, Giacommetti.

But interspersed with the familiar European works are bronze pieces from Asia and Africa, from India, China, Cambodia and many from Nigeria.

This intermingling is because the exhibition isn’t sorted by area but by them, each room focusing on a topic such as the Human Figure, Animals, Groups, Objects, Reliefs, Gods, Heads and Busts. In any one room there’ll be work from all areas and all ages. Plus one whole room dedicated to explaining the manufacturing process. Here you learn about the methods for casting bronze, how models are made, cast and finished – with models, videos, and – the end result – a foot-high slender statue which you can handle. It is heavy. Shiny and heavy. You can see why even small statuettes are used as murder weapons in some thrillers.

One of the earliest exhibits is the wonderful Trundholm sun chariot, one of Denmark’s biggest national treasures. It was found in one of Denmark’s many peat bogs in 1902. It’s thought to date from 1800 to 1600 BCE. A large bronze disk is being pulled by a bronze horse on wheels. One side of the disk is gilded and the common interpretation is that the ensemble represents the sun being drawn across the heavens from East to West during the day, presenting its bright side to the Earth and then returning from West to East during the night, when the dark side is being presented to the Earth.

Images of the Trundholm sun chariot

The Chimera of Arezzo is one of the best known examples of Etruscan art. The Etruscans inhabited the area of Italy now known as Tuscany before the rise of the Romans. This bronze was found in 1553 and was one of a hoard of bronzes that had been carefully buried for safety some time in antiquity. In Greek mythology the monstrous Chimera ravaged its homeland, Lycia, until it was slain by Bellerophon. This statue may have been part of a set including Bellorophon. The present bronze tail is an 18th-century restoration. An inscription on the right foreleg is agreed to be TINSCVIL indicating that the bronze was a votive object dedicated to the supreme Etruscan god of day, Tin or Tinia.

The Chimera of Arezzo

One evening in March 1998 fishermen off the southwestern coast of Sicily caught in their nets one of the most spectacular ancient finds of recent times, a more than life size bronze statue of a dancing satyr. Dating varies widely from the 4th century BCE by scholars who say it might be the handiwork of the legendary ancient sculptor Praxiteles, to others who date it to the Hellenistic period of the 3rd or the 2nd centuries BCE. It’s dancing writhing body is a masterpiece of action and movement captured in hard cold metal.

Dancing satyr , 4th century BCE

There’s an amazingly detailed and characterful head of King Seuthes III, a Thracian king contemporary with Alexander the Great, which was only discovered in a tomb in central Bulgaria eight years ago.

Head of King Seuthes III

The wealth, the variety of traditions, of religions and histories and cultures o display is quite overwhelming and exhausting but I found myself consistently liking the non-European works. Although obviously ‘masterpieces’ I found the famous and often huge works of the European tradition – like Bellini’s Perseus and Medusa – too familiar, to easily assimilated. It was the works from Asia and Africa which struck me, excited me, haunted me and above all the pieces form Africa, from Nigeria. For example this wonderful masterful ‘Head with crown’ from 15th century Ife in Nigeria. In terms of composition, finish, realism and yet something haunting and transcendental, this piece is head and shoulders above sculpture produced in England in the 15th century, all those slender wooden Marys and bleeding christs.

Head with crown, 15th century, Ife, Nigeria

‘Perseus and Medusa’ by Benvenuto Cellini was unveiled in 1545 on a square base with bronze relief panels and still stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. Its heroic super-realistic depiction of the human body in wonderful anatomical precision is hailed as a peak of Renaissance knowledge and craftmanship.

‘Perseus and Medusa’ by Benvenuto Cellini

Another very striking Renaissance piece is this ‘Damned soul’ by Gianlorenzo Bernini made around 1619. The original is in marble but a bronze copy was made in the early 1700s by Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi. He looks pretty unhappy at being consigned to an eternity of torment. A very European idea which we successfully exported to countless more peaceful and relaxed cultures around the globe.

‘Damned soul’ by Gianlorenzo Bernini

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than 3000 brass plaques from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (located in present day Nigeria). They seem to have been cast in Benin between the thirteenth and 16th century. They were seized by a British force in a “punitive (ie plundering) expedition” in 1897 and passed along that great lumberhouse of loot, the British Museum. It’s worth visiting the Museum to go to the underground gallery where several hundred are displayed. They make an overwhelming impression.

Benin bronze

The early 20th century is well-represented by some massive slabs by Matisse, spindly figures by Giacommetti, figures by Rodin. But surely the most striking is this wonderful piece from 1918, ‘Danaïde’ by Constantin Brancusi, apparently based on a famous flapper from the era. It reminds me of art deco and the round caps worn by flappers in the Jazz Age.

‘Danaïde’ by Constantin Brancusi

Post-war there are some jokey beer cans cast in bronze by Jasper Johns, a bronze basketball by Jeff Koons, a blodgy swamp monster by Willem de Kooning, a praying mantis by Germaine Richier, a big spooky spider by Louise Bourgeois and a typically bric-a-brac Baboon and Young by Picasso.

Amid bronze Indian votive bulls and Chinese treasure chests and medieval altars, I was struck by this modern Arte Povera-style work by Richard Deacon, titled simply ‘Nails’.

‘Nails’ by Richard Deacon

Not a great photo, but it was one of the few pieces which struck me as ‘artistic’ in the sense of wonderfully capturing the world, the materials and artefacts of the world we live in, as opposed to religious offerings, Renaissance supermen or African cult figures. Industrial length nails. Stark, evocative beauty of the observed, the chosen-from-detritus, the taken-from-here and made-to-last-forever.

Guardian review of Bronze

London Review of Books review of Bronze

Telegraph review of Bronze

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