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Today, as we continue through “princess week”, Ferrebeekeeper introduces a whole new feature: movie reviews!  For our inaugural cinematic post, we are writing about a mediocre fairy-tale movie made thirteen years ago for little girls. “Ella Enchanted” stars Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes (as the evil prince!), Eric Idol, and a whole bunch of people I have never heard of.

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Featuring jarring joke anachronisms, weird pacing, strange scenery, and some pretty hammy acting, “Ella Enchanted” is not “Citizen Kane”.  Yet the protagonist Ella is played by a young Anne Hathaway who brings her full emotive talents to the role and gives real poignancy to the nightmarish plight of central character.  And, even though this a children’s movie, the central problem is horrifying.

The movie’s magical fairy godmother is a mercurial entity who uses her magic capriciously. When presented with infant Ella, this fay sorceress is revolted by the chaotic nature of babies. She uses her power to endow Ella with a terrible gift: absolute obedience.  Ella must promptly do whatever she is told by anyone. Ella’s loving family shields her throughout childhood by home-schooling her, keeping her away from outsiders, and avoiding idioms & imperatives as much as possible, yet adulthood and the world inevitably intervene.

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In the wider world, obedience is a terrible curse.  Malicious and malevolent forces abuse Ella and make her into a pawn. Any stranger can kill her with a careless word or cause her to do the most terrible things imaginable.  At one point, she gets in a cooking pot while ogres light the fire.

Ella falls in love with the handsome prince (who seems quite taken with her beauty, wit, and seemingly impulsive character, however the realm’s other political players swiftly recognize and exploit her curse. Acting under the direction of the wicked regent, she must kill the handsome prince at midnight… Does she murder her true love, or can she find a way to break the compulsion of obedience laid upon her in her infancy?

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Now I don’t want to ruin Ella Enchanted for you…so I won’t.  You can go watch this thing if you want to find out the ending (if you can’t already guess how it turns out). I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it.  The malevolent fascination of ineluctable obedience gives the movie far deeper resonance than it perhaps merits.  Watching someone trapped under a terrible compulsion do what others desire is enthralling.  There is fear and horror shining in Ella’s eyes as she goes around hurting people and destroying herself at the whim of others.  And yet, dare I say it, it all seems…familiar.

Society is built like “Ella Enchanted” and most people are acting under compulsion to do things they don’t care to do.  A great many of these things are self-evidently stupid and pernicious.  We live in a world where you have to drive or else be run over. If you answer your mail wrong you could go to jail. Social compulsion makes even the most powerful people into puppets.  And if you balk very much at all, you go out on the street to freeze and starve.

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And there is an even darker other half to “Ella Enchanted’ which we could think of as ‘Everyone Else, Entitled.”  In the movie, most people are perfectly happy to take advantage of Ella (just as most of us don’t care how we get out iphones and chicken dinners). People very quickly come to think “Now you work for me.  I own you and control you and tell you how you must feel and must act.”  Such ideas apparently just come naturally.  Exploitation seems to be a built-in price for society—fore REAL society, not just this stupid movie.

Yet, to leave the real world and return to Ella and princesses. The entities who control Ella never control how she feels about things.  A princess has autonomy even if, sometimes under duress, she can only use it in the smallest ways.

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Ella figures out the secret to breaking her enchantment and winds up a princess (oops, did I spoil the movie?).   In fact, she was always the hero (that handsome prince was a bit of a stuffed-shirt, if you ask me).  The real question is whether we can learn this lesson?  Can we find the right touch to make use of use little moments and fleeing opportunities in a life filled with compulsion?  Is there a way to escape, or at least partially master society’s oppressive burden of obedience?  Can we ever really be autonomous and star for a moment as the hero in our own life?  It is a big question, and the answers are not as certain as a princess’ storybook ending.

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As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim.  In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures.  This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes.  Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).

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The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math).  At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).

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Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together.  The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission.  It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up).  The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).

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 Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries.  It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent.  Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet?  Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!

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The most fell of undead warriors was the mighty draugr from Scandinavian epics (the singular is “draugr” and the plural is “draugar”).   Draugar were the reanimated corpses of warriors, chieftains, and other people of great strength.  Unlike many other undead beings, draugar remained in possession of human intelligence, emotions, and memory–albeit horribly distorted and corrupted by the grave.  Simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the living world, draugar lusted for treasure and hungered for flesh–but they did so in perverse and alien ways.  The draugr will seem familiar to anyone who has read fantasy literature:  Tolkien based wholesale swaths of his universe on Scandinavian and Germanic (and Anglo Saxon) epics.  Subsequent books, films, and games are filled with lichs, deathknights, wights, and wraiths which ultimately descend from the original medieval sources.

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In Scandinavian epic literature, the various undead beings manifest in slightly different ways but they share common powers such as the ability to shapeshift into monstrous animals, to turn into smoke, to see dark parts of the future, and to greatly increase in size, heaviness, and strength.  Draugar seem to delight in causing suffering to the world of the living.  They are able to curse lesser animals to death and they cause fear, despair, and madness to larger creatures (and, indeed, to humans).   Sometimes they would eat or otherwise ravage living things. They are connected with winter darkness. Most tales concerning the monsters take place at Yuletide, Christmas, or the winter solstice when Scandinavian nights lasted almost an entire 24 hours. Disturbingly, some draugar were said to be able to enter the dreams of their victims.

Grettir’s Saga, which recounts the tragic life of Iceland’s greatest outlaw, contains two draugar, Kar the Old and Glam. The saga gives us limited background concerning Kar, a dead Norwegian nobleman who came back to life to guard his lands and his barrow filled with treasure.  A minor character describes the situation thus, “On the headland stands a grave mound.  In it was laid Kar the old…after Kar died he returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in the end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here.”  When Grettir breaks into the mound he finds a huge cold warrior sitting dead upon a throne with treasure at his feet and horse skeletons scattered around him.  As Grettir begins to remove the treasure, a cold & inhumanly powerful hand grabs his foot and the fight begins in earnest.  When Grettir finally triumphs, he despoils Kar’s hoard (which includes the fiersome sax that Grettir always wore thereafter).

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We learn even more about the second draugr in the epic. While working as a shepherd, Glam, a giant surly Swedish slave was killed in a battle with an unknown monster on Christmas Eve.  Glam’s body is described as “Black as Hel and swollen as fat as a bull.” Ominously the corpse had become so heavy as to be immoveable–so the locals built a cairn over it without moving the body.  After this mysterious death, Glam returned every winter to haunt the farm.  The draugr is described riding the roof of the longhouse as though it was a steed, damaging the walls by driving his feet into them.  More ominously, Glam killed the sheep, the workmen, and eventually molested the farmer’s daughter to death (she seems to have been his favorite target).  After dispatching several lesser heroes, Glam inevitably fights with Grettir.  In the moral and emotional climax of the epic, Grettir outwrestles the horrible corpse but is transfixed by Glam’s otherworldly dead eyes.  In this moment of truth, the draugr lays a curse of doom upon Grettir saying,

 “I will not take from you the strength you have already acquired.  But it is in my power to decide you will never become stronger than you are now—yet you are strong enough as many will find out.  You have become famous because of your accomplishments, but from now on you will fall into outlawry and killings.  Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy.  You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone.  And further I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone.  This will drag you to your death.”

Today in Iceland there is still a word for this curse “Glẚmsskyggn”—Glam’s sight –which is to walk always alone and unhappy with dead eyes staring at you.

There were different ways that heroes or ordinary folk could deal with draugar.  Although not explicitly stated, the draugar always avoid Christian churches and sanctified things.  Observing the proper burial practices was also helpful.  When circumstances permitted, dead bodies were carried out of houses and into tombs through doors which were then built over or bricked in (since the walking dead had to return through the same doors they originally used).

The real way to cope with this problem however was Grettir’s way—by means of physical violence.   To defeat a draugr, a hero had to wrestle it into submission through sheer physical strength and then cut off its head (which was then placed on top of the corpse’s backside).   The corpse could then be burned into ash and thrown into the sea.

As the heroic age passed from Scandinavia, draugar changed somewhat and became more associated with drowned sailors than with barrow dwelling Vikings.  Then even these undead sailors began to fade away.  Occasionally in modern Iceland, Norway, and Denmark there are wild reports of strange walking dead (which come from wholly unreliable sources) but the monsters have largely faded from legend.   Even in the movies, draugar are scarce. The undead Nazis of the Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” behave like draugar–which is a problem for the human protagonists who have been raised on American zombie films and don’t know how to fight traditional Norse undead.  However it is in computer games and fantasy books where the draugar from epic tradition have the greatest following today.  The internet and online games are filled with accursed giants in dark armor with corpse-blue skin and glowing eyes.   These guys are always mumbling runic curses, piling up digital treasure, or harassing virtual villagers.   More than any other undead, draugar have seamlessly made the jump to the digital world:  in fact they have done a better job transitioning to the web than many living people and contemporary industries. Glam’s eyes still shine brightly through the halls of countless internet dungeons and software modules of damned cities.

The Restless Draugr from “Skyrim” (Bethesda Softworks)

The Crown of Saint Wenceslas

A large number of the medieval crowns from Central Europe have gone missing over the years. These objects get snatched up and melted down by Prussians–like the crown of Bolesław–or they surreptitiously vanish from history forever like the beautiful crown of Zvonimir. Even the pieces that survive, such as the famous crown of St. Stephen, tend to go on strange adventures and end up in the hands of Jimmy Carter.

Not so the ancient crown of Saint Wenceslas, which was used in the coronation ceremonies for the kings of Bohemia.  That crown is locked up tight in a secret chamber in a secret chapel in the huge cathedral of Saint Vitus.  Seven Czech high officials possess keys—all of which must be used together.  Perhaps it is well that the crown is locked up so tightly—it is said to lie under a magic curse.

The Crown of Saint Wenceslas (a different angle)

The crown was made in 1347 for the eleventh king of Bohemia (and Holy Roman Emperor) Charles IV.  It is wrought of extremely pure gold and decorated with 19 sapphires, 44 spinels, 1 ruby, 30 emeralds and 20 pearls.  Charles dedicated the crown to Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and it is believed the Saint cannot abide any usurper to wear the crown (Saint Wenceslas was presumed to harbor a grudge about usurpers, having been murdered for a crown by his own brother).  Allegedly the Saint will smite down any unworthy soul who dons the crown within a year after he puts it on (the usurper that is—not Saint Wenceslas).It is rumored that Reinhard Heydrich, AKA “The Hangman”, the ruthless Nazi official in charge of the annexed portions of Czechoslovakia (which included St. Vitus Cathedral) could not risk the allure of the crown and secretly placed it on his head during a conqueror’s tour of St. Wenceslas Chapel. Heydrich was a favorite of Hitler’s who was heard to remark “We will Germanize the Czech vermin.” But he didn’t have much of a chance for Germanizing anyone–he was mortally wounded by British-trained Czech commandos in the awesomely named “Operation Anthropoid” less than a year after his tour of St. Vitus—a colorful and lurid tale for a colorful and lurid treasure.

The Skull of Saint Wenceslas wearing a Premyslid Eagle Circlet--Patron Saint of Bohemia, Brewing, Fuel-giving, & Nazi-killing

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