what i’ve been reading & watching lately: eleanor of aquitane, the aeneid, and man on wire

eleanor of aquitane alison weirEleanor of Aquitane: A Life by Alison Weir

Alison Weir moves a little outside of her Tudor specialty to examine the most famous medieval queen in western history. (Although previously she’d written about Queen Isabella, the 14th century queen of Britian and wife of Edward II, so it’s not unknown territory.) I expected to like this book, and I did. I’ve read most of Weir’s biographies by now, and I’ve liked them all. She neither tries to demonize nor beatify her subjects; and when history is too sparse to be certain of events, she admits it and makes educated guesses to fill in the cracks. (The exception being her rather surprising conclusion in her biography of Queen Isabella that Edward II wasn’t executed, but rather escaped to France and lived out his days in anonymity. I’m still not sure I buy that.)

Eleanor is famous not just for herself, but for the fact that she was married to two kings: Louis VII of France and Henry II of England  (to whom she proposed!); and the mother of three more: Young King Henry — who was crowned during his father’s reign, in the French tradition (but died during his reign, so he doesn’t get a Roman numeral), Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart), and King John (they can’t all be winners!). She also had five daughters, most of whom married various kings of Europe. So there are whole passages of the book where she doesn’t often appear, but Weir always brings it back to her, and it’s never distracting or boring.

the aeneid richard faglesThe Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles

I loved Fagles’ translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey (especially the latter — Odysseus is my homeboy), I felt like finally I really understood why classis professors are so passionate about them. It’s not that I don’t love epic poetry — I have four different translation of Beowulf — but the translations I’d tried to read before (I say “tried” because I never finished any of them) just never grabbed me. His translation of The Aeneid completes a triad that will probably be assigned in high school and college for decades. Fagles makes that fusty old Latin come alive, while never making the narrative feel anachronistic.

I always knew this was the founding myth of the Roman Empire, but I see now it also functioned as a sort of after-the-fact propaganda for the Punic Wars. At least it seems that way to me; am I way off here?

Man on Wire, 2008 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, plus a buttload of film festival and other awards.

GUYS, THIS MOVIE IS AMAZING. It’s almost crafted as a heist film, and what Petit did was definately illegal. It’s funny how people were like OMG WHY when it happened (a “very American question”, as Petit puts it). I never understood those kinds of questions. Why climb Mt. Everest? Because it’s there! Why wire-walk between the two tallest buildings in the world? Because Petit was a wirewalker and that what he does. Because we’re human and we’re curious and stubborn and sometimes crazy, but in a good way. It’s funny, I’m not like that at all, myself — I’m perfectly content to stay home and read about it (or watch a documentary), but I totally Get It.

9/11 is never mentioned in the film, which some people objected to, but I think it was the right decision. I mean, we all know what happened, and it’s poignant enough without the film yelling ISN’T IT A TRAGEDY?! and rubbing our noses in it.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Dana
    May 09, 2009 @ 09:55:46

    I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Allison Weir. I’m still working my way through her catalog, but she’s great!

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