The Vinciolo Journal turns 1 year old January 5th, two days after J.R.R. Tolkien’s Birthday, so in celebration of both events, I am making a series of Tolkien-related posts. This is the first of several … 7 ways Saruman resembles Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer and geographer John Dee.
In comparing these two figures (the visual similarities are themselves suggestive), I am in no way trying to slander John Dee or imply that he was a maniacal, power-crazed wizard. He was a humble, lonely man–as lonely as any man favoured of the Queen could possibly be, although his intellectual influence had enormous implications, not least with regard to the colonization of the New World. However, there are so many similarities between these two magicians that it cannot be easily ignored.
So, without further ado, here is my list:
1. Physical resemblance to Christopher Lee
Not only is John Dee a magician, but he looks like a wizard himself–and Christophe Lee portrayed the wizard Saruman with exquisite tact in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The flat gaze and the white beard are the chief forms of resemblance between the actor and wizard. Although Dee’s hair is not as long Lee’s Saruman, his hair may still be white, provided he is not bald beneath the black bonnet he’s wearing in his portrait. Set Saruman in black robes and attach a starched ruff around his throat and, after a haircut, you basically have John Dee.
2. Crystal balls
Saruman has his palantír while John Dee has his shewstone. Both are crystal balls they use for magically surveying the land. Made by Fëanor, greatest of the Noldor and maker of the Silmarils, the palantír stones were mostly lost in Middle Earth, except for a few. The stone seen in the film is at Orthanc in Isengard, the same stone Saruman uses to communicate with Sauron and keep track of the progress of the Fellowship of the Ring. There is another stone in that the steward of Gondor controls at Minas Tirith. As for the shewstone, or “seeing stone,” of John Dee, it is displayed currently at the British Museum. You can see it if you like. Rumour has it that it is a sacred Aztec polished obsidian stone taken from Mexico during the Spanish conquest.
3. Spoke with ‘angels’
The warning Gandalf gave Saruman about the palantír, that “you never know who else might be watching,” is also applicable to Dee’s shewstone. Both crystal balls give you the power to speak with spirits–but also for the spirits to talk to you. Dee and Edward Kelley used the shewstone to communicate with angels, who gave Dee revelations from the world of the dead. Supposedly, the angelic language Dee developed called Enochian came as a result from such spiritual meetings.
In a similar way, Saruman uses his palantír to speak with a fallen ‘angel,’ Sauron. Indeed, The Silmarillion reveals that Sauron is a god-like or at least angelic being. He is one of the Maiar, the spirits who serve the Valar, though one who became corrupted by evil in his service to the Great Enemy Morgoth. When Saruman begins to peer into his palantír in search of knowledge, he discovers the Ring of Power, which he comes to desire for himself. However, he becomes twisted, desiring power above all else. In the end, he betrays the forces of the West and captures Gandalf in his tower, committing “the treason of Isengard.”
4. Consorted with a necromancer
This one was implied in #3. Edward Kelley was a necromancer who communed with angels and the dead. On the other hand, Saruman communicates with “the Necromancer,” which is a name given to the vague, evil presence that lurks in the shadows of Mirkwood in The Hobbit and later is revealed to be Sauron himself. Supposedly, Sauron was into demon summoning and raising the dead back to life at this time, instead of leading orcs to war against Gondor.
5. Polymath Wizards
Saruman and John Dee were both wizards of great learning and were capable (or thought they were capable) of using magic. Furthermore, both wizards possessed plenty of non-magical knowledge. Dee was a mathematician, cartographer, and mechanic, once in his younger years designing a bird with artificial wings that could fly. Saruman was something of a chemist as well, designing the gunpowder which his uruk-hai use to demolish the walls of Helm’s Deep.
6. Spy Network
Astonishingly, both John Dee and Saruman had spy networks. Frodo and company must worry about spies from the White Wizard as much as they worry about Sauron’s own Black Riders. In addition to the ruffians Sauron employs to infiltrate and scourge the Shire in The Return of the King, he has a swarm of crows called Crebain, which he uses to spy on the Fellowship. John Dee’s spy network consisted of a network of foreign agents abroad, many probably on the lookout for Catholics plotting in France to return to England and kill the Queen. He may also have used spirits and the magic of his shewstone to spy on enemies abroad.
7. Similarity to John Faust
At last, Saruman and John Dee are both so attracted by mysterious power that they make deals with the devil they later severely regret. They have what I call a Faust complex. Doctor John Faust was a historical scholar in Germany who is said to have made a deal with the devil, whom he summons at a crossroads at midnight in a necromantic ritual, in order to attain forbidden knowledge of magic. In the end, after squandering his time, Faust is dragged to hell by demons. His story has been adopted innumerable times: Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Faust Parts I and II by Goethe being the two chief examples. The Godfather is another takeoff on this archetypical story: Michael Corleone makes a “deal with the devil” to enter the mob and then remains locked in, becoming supremely powerful at the price of his soul.
Saruman’s deal with Sauron is a similar complex. “There is only one Lord of the Rings,” warns Gandalf, “and he does not share power.” Saruman learns how to breed uruk-hai from Sauron and plans to ravage Middle-Earth for his new master, planning to find the One Ring for himself and become master of all. But in the end, his designs fall flat. When nature rebels and the Ents take over Isengard, a powerless Saruman is force to flee to the Shire, where he avenges himself by desolating the land. Finally (spoilers here), his longtime servant Gríma Wormtongue stabs him in the back, frustrated by his own master’s cruelty.
John Dee’s Faustian narrative is a little less extreme. Of course, his story is not fantasy, but historical. Nonetheless, Dee makes a deal with Edward Kelley to speak with angels and becomes mystified. Actually, scholars now believe Kelley created an elaborate hoax: Dee never spoke to angels directly, but through Kelley, who they supposedly possessed. Kelley may well have faked the whole thing, however. Upon his return to England, he became unable to acquire aristocratic patronage, probably because many could not see the value in his knowledge, or because they were frightened by his connections to the occult. When he died, it was of natural causes and in poverty. Real life often doesn’t follow the contours of archetypical plots. Nonetheless, Dee’s gradual isolation and loneliness as a result of his ties to the occult might have seemed damnation enough to him.
“But as a nation—continued he in his reveries—these Spaniards are all an odd set; the very word Spaniard has a curious, conspirator, Guy-Fawkish twang to it.” -Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno.”
“The imaginary is part of history.” -Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun.
“[A] good case could be made that the last unchallenged and most perniciously pervasive element in the whig view of modern English history is an unacknowledged tendency to privilege all things protestant while sedulously marginalizing all things catholic.” -Peter Locke with Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat.
It is finally November 5! Celebrate this day with your friends. Or if you want to stay indoors reading blogs…
The final part of the “Behind Guy Fawkes” series opens with the three epigraphs above. The first one, by Melville, is one I find humorous and relateable. It reveals that Protestant paranoia had a way of infusing itself even into nineteenth-century American culture.
Due to Jesuitophobia, the fear of Jesuit-led conspiracies that hit England after the Gunpowder Plot and inspired a literary genre of Jesuit slander, the English associated the Jesuits with Fawkes’ conspiracy. Since the English also associated any threat to their Protestant nation with the Spanish, it becomes intuitive for Herman Melville to associate the word “Spaniard” with Guy Fawkes–even though he was neither Spanish nor a Jesuit.
I have long imagined the word “Spaniard” to have exactly the kind of ‘twang’ Melville describes, although I may not have been always fully conscious of it. When I think of Guy Fawkes, Inigo Montoya is never far behind in my thoughts…
The other two epigraphs, the more serious ones, are also epigraphs to a fascinating book, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England, by Arthur F. Marotti. Marotti challenges how history is received and created in England. He examines the “process in which real and fabricated historical ‘evidence’ and events are translated into a developing set of rhetorical codes and ideological fantasies” (2). What is striking is how Marotti avoids discussing fact in his book and focuses on how historical events are imagined or embellished, in order to serve ideological ends.
The unofficial motto of this blog is that “history is fantasy.” As a result, I thought Marotti’s insights quite fascinating. History is what we imagine, after all. The past only exists in our memory, and our imagination inevitably colours even that.
We pick up the story from last time: the Gunpowder Treason had fallen apart. England was in an uproar. But another battle was beginning: the war of the press.
Pamphlets, books, and sermons formed the blogosphere of early modern England. Then as now, political and religious factions battled it out to win the hearts and opinion of the population. Remember the terror that suffused the media after 9/11? That was what was happening in England, give or take, except instead of watching CNN or Fox, you would most likely hear a sermon from a preacher. England’s Most Wanted was the Pope—the Osama bin Laden of the day. And, if we continue this problematic analogy, the Jesuits were the Al-Qaeda.
Of course the world is not so simple, and I mean no slander on Jesuits of the time, much less the Jesuits of the present day. But black and white morality tends to appear whenever people are afraid of the “other.” When action is necessary to protect a nation, you don’t want to talk about your enemy in terms of “shades of grey.” You don’t want to let remorse slow you down, in doing what you believe must be done. Extreme fear in the state results in a superfluous amount of hatred that stimulates the masses—and produces an ideal moment for the king to step in and look good clearing up the situation. Morals become black and white when we think it is convenient for them to appear that way.
The Jesuits first came under suspicion in connection to the Gunpowder Plot when Thomas Bates, a servant to one of the conspirators, confessed that Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit, was in on the conspiracy. Garnet became one of the most loathed figures in England, and an example for many Protestants of why Jesuits should never be trusted.
Sir Edward Coke and the earl of Northampton wrote the propaganda masterpiece A True and Perfect Relation of the Proceedings at the several Arraignments of the Late Most barbarous Traitors in 1606. Right away, you can tell it is not true and perfect, since they say that it is true and perfect, instead of letting the evidence stand on its own. In this Relation, the Gunpowder Plot is called the “Jesuit treason,” reminding readers that Fawkes’ conspiracy was only the most recent in a long string of Jesuit-centred regicide attempts.
Throughout, Coke focuses on the ecclesiastical plotters, not those with secular motivations. He claims that Jesuits formed an international society of conspirators. For example, they were supposedly responsible for James Clement’s assassination of Henry III and, through the involvement of the Jesuit William Holt, Edmund of York’s plot to kill the Queen in 1594. Later, Juan de Mariam would say Jesuits were behind the deaths of Protestant leaders William of Orange and Henry IV, who was killed by radical Catholic François Ravaillac. Jesuits were also blamed for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Protestants in Paris, sparked by the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. (The massacre is more traditionally pinned on Catherine de’ Medici.)
Robert Cecil called the Jesuits “that generation of vipers” (47-48). The stereotype of a Jesuit ran as follows: he had the Pope in his belly, Machiavelli in his head, and Mercury’s wings on his feet. Not only could they think deviously in the Pope’s service, but they could be anywhere and travel from country to country with speed. This fear, spurred on by paranoia, turned the Jesuit into an evil supervillain.
In one colourful piece of libel, Thomas Dekker, playwright of the world-famous Shoemaker’s Holiday, says that Jacques Clement, a Jesuit, used black magic to conjure a devil in the likeness of a friar. One can only suppose that Dekker suffered from an unhealthy over-familiarity with Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, in which the titular blasphemer does just that.
But why all this hate against the Jesuits? To begin with, Jesuits understood themselves to be soldiers not only of God, but the Pope himself. Their presence in England was seen as a threatening encroachment of foreign power. The intellectual disciplines of the Jesuit priesthood were also seen as unsavoury. They moved in secret among the underground Catholics, masters of disguise and rhetoric, which they used to persuade Catholics to commit treason and even sacrifice their lives suicide-bomber style, for the sake of God. They were said to seal such pacts with the “superstitious” ritual of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Fact is difficult to separate from fantasy here, but it seems fair to assume that Jesuits were not half so Satanic as they were depicted as being.
What’s worse, from a Protestant standpoint, was the Jesuit practice of mental reservation and their doctrine of equivocation. Essentially, the doctrine of equivocation said, that it was not a sin to break or swear an oath that would force you to betray the cause of Catholicism. It also freed the conscience of Jesuits to give false confessions while under torture, if it meant saving the lives of their friends. Equivocation threatened the integrity of the oral bonds and oaths that held society together.
Henry Garnet defended himself by defending the doctrine of equivocation, papal disposition of power, the general innocence of Catholic recusants, and the innocence of Jesuits who played no part in conspiracies.
Northampton rebutted, claiming the Gunpowder Plot was devilry, that “the cursed snake who eats the dust of powder, now eats gunpowder with them [the conspirators]” (141). The Papacy’s temporal claims and its claiming of the right to depose kings corrupted the institution of the holy church and removed its legitimacy. So ran the Protestant argument.
A series of plates and engravings also served a widespread, if crude, propaganda. A typical plate shows Guy Fawkes holding his infamous lantern, about to ignite the powder, when the eye of God turns on him and casts him in a spotlight. The letter that detailed the conspiracy could also be seen being given to state authorities by an angel (or an eagle, in honour of Mounteagle).
John Milton’s In Quintus Novembris frames the Gunpowder Plot as a hellish conspiracy, following this rich tradition of writings. His poem depicts Satan, the hero of Paradise Lost, in envy of England, bothered by how it does not accept the yoke of Roman Catholicism (144). The Church at this time was called Babylon, or the Romish Babylonians, or even the Synagogue of Satan.
From a twenty-first century standpoint, of course, these epithets sound pathetically hilarious, “Romish Babylonians” sounding more like a sports team than anything else. However, the Church was much more powerful in the early seventeenth century, a force to contend with that had temporal interests.
The main tension point on the Protestant side came from its demand for liberty of conscience in all things, against the general opinion of Catholicism’s intolerability. The foreign authority of the Pope simply did not mix with the absolute authority of the English monarchy after the Restoration. The defence of the ‘ancient liberties’ of the English frequently trumped any desire for toleration through ‘liberty of conscience’—even though liberty of conscience was what Protestants had traditionally fought for, since the beginning of the Reformation. Robert Southwell and Robert Parsons both wrote directly about this irony.
In human psychology, to arrive at an individual identity, one must be able to separate the “self” from the “other.” When we can tell the difference between the outside and our interior, then we have an identity. The same is true in the growth of nationhood. It might be said, that England had to find a group to exclude, in order to create their identity as a Protestant nation.
The same phenomenon occurred in Spain in 1492: nationalism surged after the Reconquest was complete, Muslims forced from Catholic lands. Likewise, German nationalism soared under Hitler, when Jews were excluded from participating in the country. If you create and “in” group, you must exclude those who are “out”: observe this phenomenon on any high school lunch table. This does not mean, however, that the process of exclusion is unproblematic. The example of the Nazis is an obvious warning.
Catholics were excluded from the running of English society, for the longest time unable to hold public office or become heirs to the throne. That is now changing. Marotti seems to imply that it is also time to rethink how we frame the history of England. Finding voices that have been forced underground can be a subversive way to open up the questions history poses us.
No doubt if someone should tell Guy Fawkes’ story, and the general story of Catholicism in England, it would run much differently from what Protestant historians have written. History, as we understand it, depends much more on who writes history, than it does on what actually happened. Simply because we have received a historical tradition does not mean there is only one way to understand events. Take V for Vendetta, as an example. Questioning the claims of the fascistic government’s legitimacy, V was able to unmask the conspiracy that got it into power. For these, and many other reasons, Gunpowder Treason really should never be forgot.
How will you remember the fifth of November?
Buchanan, Brenda, David Cannadine, and Justin Champion, et al. Gunpowder Plots. London: Penguin, 2005.
Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994.
Marotti, Arthur F. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.
“But ‘The Gunpowder Plot’–there was a get-penny! I have presented that to an eighteen- or twenty-pence audience nine times in an afternoon. Your home-born projects prover ever the best; they are so easy and familiar. They put too much learning i’their things nowadays, and that, I fear, will be the spoil o’ this.”
-Leatherhead, Bartholomew Fair by Ben Johnson, Act 5 Scene 1
A get-penny was a bestselling performance–in this case a puppet show of the Gunpowder Plot, so as Johnson attests through this quote, the drama of the 5 November was as popular today as it was in the seventeenth century.
When James I took the throne, Catholics flocked across the channel from France to return to England, hoping for toleration in the form of a law similar to the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which granted toleration to French Huguenots. However, several things were to go wrong.
First, there was the Bye Plot, in which William Watson, a priest, planned to kidnap the king and hold him for ransom until he declared toleration law. Then the Main Plot, which followed, was led by certain high-ranking courtiers like Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Raleigh. It aimed to get rid of the Scottish King James and replace him with Lady Arabella Stewart. In 1604, due to Puritan Scottish advisers, the king began to harden in his stance towards Catholic toleration. 19 March 1604 marked the passing of recusancy laws that formed a continuation of Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic policies.
Robert Catesby was a main ringleader among the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. He belonged to a wealthy Catholic family from Warwickshire. His cousin, Francis Tresham, was also prepared to use physical violence to achieve his aim of initiating a regime change. Jack and Kit Wright were notable swordsmen who fought during Essex’s failed rebellion of 1601, which saw the disgruntled earl beheaded. These two men would have known Guy Fawkes from school at St. Peter’s,York. Fawkes himself was a veteran of the wars against the Dutch in the Netherlands. Thomas and Robert Wintour, relatives of Catesby, also owned Huddington Court, a priest refuge. Thomas’ uncle had been a priest. He’d been hanged, drawn, and quartered—presumably for treason—a gesture I doubt Thomas appreciated.
Wintour and Fawkes are both known to have travelled to Spain in order to seek support. The Spanish under King Philip III was making a peace treaty with the English. Sceptical that the treaty would force the English king to tolerate Catholics, the conspirators prepared for another, more violent means of having their way.
In winter 1604, Wintour met Catesby and Jack Wright in their house in Lambeth, which was a stone’s throw across the Thames from Westminster—their target. The Gunpowder plot was Catesby’s idea, and hardening their resolve, once Fawkes had crossed the Channel, they met at a house behind St. Clements in the Strand. There, Father John Gerard, a Jesuit, celebrated Mass. Jesuits in England at this time were not allowed to enter England as “secular” priests: Elizabeth I had banished them from England by decree 5 November 1602. After the Mass, the conspirators swore an oath. The John Gerard was most likely not present for the oath, although Protestants would associate the conspiracy with the Jesuit order for a long time.
Parliament opened 19 March 1604. On 24 May, Thomas Percy acquired a lease on a small house near the House of Lords, where they were to excavate a shaft from the cellars to the foundations of the House of Lords’ chamber, and then lay the powder in a stack of concealed barrels. The peace treaty with Spain was signed, and it included no mention of Catholic toleration. The situation worsened when the king appointed a committee to prevent Jesuits from subverting the king’s authority.
The plotters encountered many setbacks. Their house was requisitioned while they were digging the mine, which risked the exposure of the plot. A plague outbreak forced Parliament to prorogue until 3 October 1605. They hoped for Princess Elizabeth to survive the explosion—a female monarch, they felt, would be more easily manipulable. Apparently, they had forgotten how much they suffered under the last female monarch, the last Elizabeth.
Robert Wintour, Kit Wright, and John Grant (a notorious participant in the Essex rebellion and the brother-in-law of Robert Wintour), entered the conspiracy in March 1605. Soon, they discovered coal in storage in the Lords’ meeting house. This meant they could place powder directly under the House of Lords. Presumably, the coal would help the fires burn afterwards. On 3 October, Parliament was prorogued once more, until the fateful day of 5 November.
On 27 October, Catesby had reason to suspect the plot had been betrayed. He suspected Francis Tresham, for his connections to Mounteagle, but he denied it enough to convince the conspirators he was innocent. They pushed forward with their resolution. Thomas Percy met lord Northumberland in an attempt to see if he had heard about the conspiracy, but found that he was ignorant of it. The gunpowder was undisturbed, reported Fawkes.
Nonetheless, on Friday 1 November, the king read Mounteagle’s letter at Whitehall Palace. The next day, the Lord Chamberlain was ordered to search the palace at Westminster …
Fawkes enters the chamber with a slow match on 4 November. He comes face-to-face with the Lord Chamberlain. Imagine Guy’s surprise when the Chamberlain takes him to be a servant of the house. They are standing right in front of a pile of gunpowder barrels concealed only beneath a pile of brushwood and wooden sticks. Fawkes sighs in relief when the Chamberlain, satisfied, resumes his inspection of the rest of House of Lords.
The lie Fawkes uses to get out of that tight spot is not really a lie at all, but an omission of the truth: he said the sticks belonged to the tenant of the house, Thomas Percy, a respectable gentleman pensioner. However, Monteagle finds this suspicious. Why would Percy, a known Catholic, own a second house near Parliament when he has his own house in nearby London? The king has Sir Thomas Knyvet, a Justice of the Peace, an old friend of Robert Cecil, and one of the king’s privy chambermen, perform a more thorough search.
At midnight, they found Fawkes with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, red-handed. Fawkes claimed he was actually “John Johnson,” Percy’s servant, but I doubt it took much of a genius to know he was lying and thought of that name on the spot.
Fawkes had intended to light the fuse after hearing the king enter Parliament above, then escape across the Thames before the whole thing blew. Sir Everard Digby and his men were stationed in an inn called the Red Lion in Dunchurch, posing as hunters, awaiting Step 2, which Catsby would have initiated after arriving from London with the intent of initiating a Catholic uprising. However, when news of the arrest reached them, the assemble huntsmen lost heart, losing all sense of guidance and momentum.
Catesby, Ambrose Rockwood, and John Grant fled from Catholic safehouse to safehouse, avoiding the law. Once, they were wounded in an accidental gunpowder explosion, when they left damp powder too close to a fireplace. So grim was their situation that “Jack White suggested to Catesby that they should blow themselves up with the remaining powder” (Cannadine 28).
What followed at Holbeach was like a showdown in the Wild West. The sheriff of Worcestershire arrived with two hundred men and exchanged fire with the conspirators. The Wright brothers (not the inventors of the airplane, but the Catholics Jack and Kit Wright), were killed. Tom Percy and Rob Catesby were brought down by a single bullet. Catesby died after crawling back to his house and hugging onto a statue of the Virgin Mary. The survivors were rounded up and brought to the Tower.
Under torture, Fawkes confessed to the crime. He hated the Scots, many of whom were Puritans, and he hated the Scottish king James for assuming the English throne. The earl of Northumberland, whom the plotters were suspected of planning to use as a lord protector after Princess Elizabeth took the throne, was thrown in the Tower. On 27 January 1606 the surviving plotters were tried: Guy Fawkes, Tom and Robert Wintour, Sir Everard Digby, John Grant, Robery Keyes, Ambrose Rockwood, and Thomas Bates. They were executed over the course of several days.
Thomas Bates was the one who spoke of the involvements of three Catholic priests: Father John Gerard, Father Oswald Tesimond, and Father Henry Garnet, who was the only one in England at the time. Garnet was hanged, drawn, and quartered 28 March 1606.
On 5 November 1605, Londoners rang bells and lit bonfires in celebration of the deliverance of the kingdom from unthinkable treachery. In 1606, the day became a religious occasion and later in the century, effigies of the Pope were burned in public every 5 November. The tradition of burning effigies of “the guy,” meaning Guy Fawkes, would only arrive in the next century.
We can only imagine what would have happened had the plot succeeded. Chances are that the explosion would have set Westminister ablaze, inflicting destruction over a wide area. Hundreds or even thousands of people, including the bulk of the power structure of England, would have been annihilated spectacularly. Perhaps it was the consciousness of this conspiracy in history that inspired the string of similar conspiracies in twenty-first century popular culture: for example, the anti-mater bomb placed under St. Peter’s Basilica during the papal conclave in Angels and Demons, and the Nazi theatre explosion in Inglourious Basterds. Nothing like the Gunpowder Plot happened before 1605. And since then, nothing else has happened quite like it (except perhaps the failed attempt to crash a plane in the White House on 9/11).
Just as people today imagine what might have happened had the conspiracy succeeded, people back then tried, and imagined horrors. The paranoia stirred by the failed plot led to worse persecutions for Catholics. Collective fears also helped shape how the history of the plot was understood in posterity.
Next week: Jesuitophobia and the History of Catholic Conspiracies
Buchanan, Brenda, David Cannadine, and Justin Champion, et al. Gunpowder Plots. London: Penguin, 2005.
Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994.
Marotti, Arthur F. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.
Over the summer, I was debating what kind of new short story I should write, when I found myself gravitating towards the technical challenges and experimentalism that the Assassin’s Creed franchise might inspire in fiction. What really got me thinking was how to represent the experience of entering an Animus in fiction.
The Animus machine in Assassin’s Creed splices two consciousnesses. Tracing ancestral memories through a subject’s DNA–an intriguing bit of pseudoscience–an animus can make you re-experience the memories of distant ancestors. In the game, the modern-era protagonist Desmond Miles revisits worlds of Crusade-era Jerusalem as his distant ancestor Altair, then sees Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Ezio Auditore, before experiencing the American Revolution through the eyes of Connor, a Mohawk.
There are certain rules to the Animus. For example, the bleeding effect: too much time spent in the Animus can cause your visions of the past to appear, ghostlike, in the present. This can lead to madness, as it does with Subject 16 in the game. Also, it is (or should be) impossible to view later memories of an ancestor, if he or she conceives or bears the next child in the subject’s bloodline. The child’s DNA would contain the ancestral memories of both parents, but later memories of his or her parents would be lost, since chromosomes are obviously not given to children after conception. The possible conflicts inherent in this conundrum are not explored in the game. In fact, they are outright ignored in Revelations.
Thirdly, there is the entire concept of “synchronization.” In the game, Desmond’s DNA grants him access to certain early memories, but only through completing memory sequences can he uncover later, or even repressed, memories. Synchronization is an organic way to explain why Desmond must progress through a series of “levels” in the game. But is Desmond passive to Ezio’s memories, or does he engage actively with them? Most of the time, it seems that Desmond is only seeing through Ezio’s eyes what happens. However, if you kill a civilian, fail to complete a level, or die in the game, you “de-synchronize” with Ezio’s consciousness. Desmond has to repeat all the actions Ezio performed in real life. But he does them in a kind of liminal space between history and the player’s failures to “synchronize” perfectly. For example, when you die in the game, especially by doing something stupid like falling off the top of a church steeple, a common reaction is to sarcastically groan, “And so that’s how Ezio died…” and slam the controller on the ground. The skill of players–and Desmond himself–must coincide with Ezio, or all is lost.
All this to say, there is a nonlinear nexus where Ezio’s actions can coincide with Desmond’s or not, a kind of free, Matrix-like world created in the universe of artificial experience that the animus creates. This space not only causes us to ask, “Is this the real world, or just an illusion?” but even makes us ponder, “Is Ezio’s history real, or is the world created by the Animus itself, only an illusion, like a computer game?” (Perhaps Abstergo Industries, the all-powerful organization that invented the Animus, controls perceptions of the past in this way. THAT would make waves. A dilemma never addressed in the game.)
Now that those who may be unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed have an idea of how the Animus is supposed to work, let me address my initial question: how can literature represent the unique consciousness of a subject like Desmond in the Animus? Two minds vying for the same stream of consciousness make it a challenge to write well–even omitting the whole paradox of synchronization.
Before I get into my analysis, I must clarify that the challenge of the Animus POV extends much, much farther than the world of Assassin’s Creed and its novelizations (none of which use experimental language). One common science fiction and fantasy trope, to cite one example, involves aliens and other creatures who are able to share memories instantly with other organisms, at touch. I believe Vulcans and Na’vi fall under this category, neither of which are limited by the paradoxes of the Animus technology. Furthermore, a fantasist can imagine an infinite number of other ways in which memories can be stored inside inanimate objects and reproduced in the character’s consciousness when activated. I recall Harry Potter’s adventures in the pensieve, for example–not to mention Kimberly Ford’s flashes of Seer insight in Fionavar Tapestry. The great virtue of revisiting memories is that you can make characters re-experience backstory and elide much of the drawl of re-telling history.
My method of representing the Animus viewpoint is as follows: I wrote a story where I began with one consciousness that exists in normal circumstances, made it pass through a transitional phase through the Animus, and then found some way to represent the nexus of consciousnesses within the Animus itself. First person “I” and third person “he/she/it”: these pronouns each create a certain effect when used with either the present or past tense (I left out ‘you’ because the second person is too experimental and thus an unstable ground on which to test this already-experimental strategy). Perhaps it is best for Desmond’s consciousness to be distinct and separate from Ezio’s, which would be a clean, clear reading experience. If we want to experiment with synchronization, however, we might try to keep Desmond’s mind somehow in dialogue with Ezio’s viewpoint, like some kind of self-conscious narrator in Ezio’s story. A happy in-between may also be possible…
If you try to combine the first person with the third person perspective, then make both either present or past tense–and then repeat them again, to form the total number of possible combinations–then you end up with 16 possibilities. These combinations do not employ the synchronization paradox (that, later), but some have the benefit of clarity. I have included the list of aesthetic effects I observed below:
Desmond – Ezio
I am – I was: This combination causes Desmond’s viewpoint to become lost in an ancestor’s voice, who retells his story in the past tense, as though it has already happened. The voices are distinct, but the perspectives do not synchronize.
I am- I am: Smooth transition from POVs. Immediacy, in-the-moment. Subjective, so close to a direct experience. Desmond is perfectly synchronized to the second POV to the point where he seems to transform into Ezio and acquire his sense perceptions.
I am- He was : I found that this combination distanced Desmond from Ezio. Desmond ends up describing Ezio’s viewpoint after-the-fact, as though he left the animus and is now explaining what he saw. Or perhaps the narrative’s camera follows the ancestor over his shoulder.
I am- He is: Really postmodern effect. The character loses control of his own narrative, stops telling us his direct experience, and another unknown, possibly non-participant narrator begins telling his story from above.
I was-I was: This effect is like ‘normal’ literature. Desmond is simply revisiting a memory in his own past, in a flashback where he imagines himself revisiting his past experiences.
I was -I am: Decent synchronization effect, and a reasonably smooth transition. To my ears, at least, it did not feel so much that Desmond’s POV became Ezio’s or that Desmond’s POV was replaced by Ezio’s, but that Desmond was wearing the skin of Ezio for a while, as though he was playing his part, a bit like an actor. Not perfect synchronization, but does present an interesting effect that can absolutely work.
I was -He was: There is no direct synchronization, Desmond watching Ezio from a detached, almost God-like or narrative standpoint. Unless explained in the text, we do not necessarily understand their minds to be melded in one; he could simply be watching a video of Ezio moving.
I was – He is: Like ‘I am-he is,” the character loses control of the narration of his own story. However, the transition between past tense to present, which is a bit arbitrary, threw me off and sounded clunky. Not recommended.
He was – I was: Ezio ends up speaking about himself, but it runs a bit clunky. Not immersive: there are two viewpoints being juxtaposed.
He was – I am: Tense difference can be choppy, but it requires the ancestor to have a distinct, immediate voice.
He was – He was: Like normal literature. Desmond is simply reliving his past.
He was – He is: An interesting effect. The synchronization is such that it feels like though Desmond is playing Ezio’s role, (as in “I was-I am”) only it is told with more distance, so the effect of role-playing is reduced. Also, since the Ezio POV is so immediate, it is not necessarily true that it is presenting a linear narrative–only a series of immediate sensations and experiences. This can enable you to scramble the order of the ancestor’s story.
He is – I was: The effect of this is like a retelling in Ezio’s journal. It is strange to use to create the illusion of synchronization, but still viable as a technique. Desmond’s experience of Ezio seems second-hand.
He is – I am: Feels more synchronized than if past tense was used. Ezio ends up speaking about himself in a separate viewpoint, but a clever person might be able to make it clear Desmond is somehow integrated into Ezio’s consciousness, since the experience is in the present-tense with both characters.
He is – He was: Feels like Desmond is visiting his own memory. But the difference in tense makes it awkward, like a failed transition into a normal flashback.
He is – He is: Perhaps the easier, most viable, though one of the least experimental, of these options. The present tense makes it immediate and the consistent third person makes the transition smooth. It is almost as if Desmond has physically turned into Ezio. In fact, this point of view might be effective for metamorphosis stories. Unless we are reminded that Desmond’s own body is still lying in the animus, it will seem to be a complete transformation.
When Desmond and Ezio’s scenes are told from either the same tense or same person, it is generally more effective–although there are some interesting effects that can work where there is a difference. Now, there is one last problem: accurately describing the synchronization process–how Desmond’s mind might occasionally conflict with Ezio’s memory. One solution is to elide this dilemma entirely. After all, losing synchronization does not have to be a danger in a fictional world in the way it must be in the Assassin’s Creed video game. Your readers cannot “lose” a story, unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. However, if I were to encounter this dilemma head-on, I might write something like this:
“Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. Connor felt angry today and Desmond could see why: the man in the blue coat standing near the bench on the other side was Haytham. I don’t have to see him yet, thought Desmond, and walked into an alleyway. His body was not sore, refreshed from Connor’s last fight, so he climbed onto the roof of the print shop when he spotted a piece of Ben Franklin’s almanac flying in the wind.”
Chasing the almanac page is literally a side-quest in the game, translated directly to the page, and threatens only to be a distraction, however. For a tighter narrative, either Desmond would have to search for something important that he would have motivation to find in 1781 New York, or he would go right towards activating the next memory, by speaking with Haytham.
“”Connor,” said Haytham. “You’re late.”
“I came as quickly as I could,” said Connor.
“Follow me. We have a matter at the brewery.”
Desmond remembered Rebecca and Shawn had found something in the Abstergo database about the Old Brewery. He followed Haytham, keeping an eye out as Connor made an angsty sound in his throat, at his father who cared nothing for him. Perhaps he and Connor had more in common than he’d thought–he’d been riled up against his own father, William Miles, earlier.”
If this style of writing satisfies, then my job is done. In conclusion, I have isolated five types of perspectives that can be written, which have resulted from this experiment:
-Split Synchronization (as above)
–Straightforward Transformation of Consciousness: “I am/I am, “he is/ he is,” and “I was/I was,” “he was, he was.”
–Remembrance of things past: “I was /I was” and “he was/ he was.”
–Non-linear/Timeless animus effect: “He was / He is,” “I was / I am.”
–Journal memories: “He is/ I was,” “I am/ he was” “He was / I was” “I was/ I was”
The following are some examples of these last four types, made essentially by taking the first paragraph of Desmond’s above story and changing the tense and person accordingly. Taste the effects like a subtle wine.
Transformation of Consciousness: “I am sitting down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clack over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surges up my spine. I close my eyes. When I open them, I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I am angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.”
Remembrance of things past: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes.
He was in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. He felt angry today: Haytham Kenway, his father, was standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looked restless, expectant.”
Non-linear, timeless Animus effect: “I sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up my spine as I closed my eyes.
I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I feel angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.
Rebecca’s voice in my ear tells me to prepare for step back in time. The cityscape vanishes into blue squares and formless shapes while the Animus knits the world back together. Suddenly it is 1776. I’m younger, staring at my father as he waits below the State House, whispering to Charles Lee. The Boston Massacre is about to begin.”
Journal memories: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes…
I was angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, was standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side of the market. He looked restless, expectant. What could I do, if the Templars have a chance of winning this war? Benjamin Church must pay for his crimes.”
Which passage most pleases the ear? I leave that up to you decide…
Being forced through the automatic doors of a Walmart one evening last winter with my family, I decided to deconstruct the experience of the torture that is globalized shopping by paying close attention to the most potent, yet misunderstood of the five senses.
I hope you enjoy this post, as a break from my usual three- or four page-long ruminations on books and history. Sorry, if you find that the sterile colour scheme in the above photo clashes with my parchment paper background, which suggests the wonderful vanilla smell of old books … but I do this for the sake of poetry. After all, a few verses can help you notice things you’ve ignored before. All good art should renew one’s perspective of the mundane.
“What Walmart Smells Like” appeared in a McGill University campus journal The Veg last April. I am very proud of it, my first published poem.
I wrote most of the images, including others that did not make the cut, on a piece of packing cardboard I found lying in an aisle under a shelf at a Walmart store. I loved playing with the conflict inherent in trying to actually smell anything distinct in the vacuous space of the warehouse that Walmart really is. Vacuous in many senses, though here I focus on smell. Scents triggers memories and memories are our identity. What that could imply, I leave for you to figure out.
“What Walmart Smells Like”
A lonely coldness,
an empty chill.
Your aunt’s strawberry scented candles. Your mom’s cookie dough.
“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”
Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.
One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?
“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).
Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.
The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).
The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabelby Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s vendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.
Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.
Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.
Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.
Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.
Imagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.
Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.
One of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.
Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”
Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.
So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.
Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.
Some fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.
Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.
Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”
In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.
In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?
The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.
A white-robed hooded rider spurs his stallion to the castle of Masyaf to receive an assassination contract from his master Rashid al-Din, the infamous leader of the Assassin Brotherhood. The rider’s name is Altaïr ibn la-Ahad. They meet in a library, and the assassin receives his instructions: Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, a Templar crusader, must die.
If this sounds like a video game you’ve played, then you might be aware of how the creators of Assassin’s Creed conduct thorough historical research. Although they take liberties in inventing a fanciful storyline, there are historical realities behind the famous video game.
The fida’is, brave soldiers of the Ismaili sect of Islam, are the real-world historical source for the Assassin myth. In Crusader-era Syria and Iran, they would infiltrate the social circle of political targets and wait, keeping up appearances, before threatening them by thrusting a dagger beside into their pillow at night.
Often, the threat would be enough to deter the enemies of the Ismailis, but occasionally they used real violence against targets, as a last resort. One such a target was Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, assassinated in 1192 in a courtyard at the port-city of Tyre just before his coronation as King of Jerusalem—by figures disguised as Christian monks. Wearing robes reminiscent of these assassins, Altaïr is the character that players of Assassin’s Creed guide through multiple levels, conducting similar assassinations. However, the names of the real assassins are lost to history.
As for the castle of Masyaf, it actually does stand in Syria, though not in the location specified in the game. Sinan Rashid al-Din, Altaïr’s master, was the actual legendary Ismaili leader who once called it home. Called “The Old Man of the Mountain,” he was lame in one leg, a learned alchemist, and was said to have had telepathy, clairvoyance, and the ability to communicate with spirits. Perhaps the Apple of Eden, Assassin’s Creed‘s illusion-creating artefact, had had something to do with that .. but once again, these stories are lost to history.
The truth of the Ismaili Assassins is often difficult to separate from myth.
One of the first myths is from Marco Polo’s account of the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins in his Travels. Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations has sequences that play off Niccolo Polo’s supposed encounter with the Brotherhood.
Supposedly, the Old Man of the Mountain had command of a fortress called Alamut (in Polo’s account not Masyaf), where he had an exceptionally beautiful garden. Milk and honey flowed in rivers through his garden, which was filled with fragrant fruits and flowers, appearing as the Qur’an’s vision of Paradise. The Old Man would bring men into the garden and have young virgins entertain them, before serving them wine laced with hashish. He would then bring them into his presence.
There, mission briefing would occur, and a promise. Since an assassination was essentially a suicidal job—it was assumed that the guards protecting the target would inevitably kill or capture an assassin—the Old Man offered Paradise itself to his minions. Since the drugged assassins thought they had truly found Paradise at Alamut, they believed the Old Man could offer that.
Through this method, the Old Man of the Mountain supposedly eliminated his political rivals and advanced his own interests.
Marco Polo’s account is a juicy myth. Essentially a result of Western fascination with the East, Europeans found in the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins a way to explore fantasies forbidden within their moralistic society. The myth gained popularity throughout the ages. According to Wikipedia, Friedrich Nietzsche in his Geneology of Morals considered the Assassins free spirits not bound by Western strictures of morality, operating according to the creed—now made famous by the video game—that states, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”
However, the historical reality behind the Brotherhood demolishes these Orientalist fantasies.
To begin with, there could never really have been a garden at Alamut. Peter Willey, in his book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, to which I am indebted in this article, describes the castle’s physical details at great length. Alamut, which means “Eagle’s Nest,” is perched above a steep and rocky ridge. It is a very narrow castle and is said to have once contained a great library. However, it is simply impossible to imagine a luxurious garden growing in such a narrow courtyard.
Marco Polo clearly had never seen Alamut, which leads scholars to suppose that his famous journey to the Orient never actually happened. He may never have left Constantinople, composing his Travels from hearsay and the stories of other travelers.
To debunk the myth that the Assassins took hashish before carrying out their murders, Peter Willey draws attention to how it is impossible to aim a blade with any accuracy while high. Dexterity takes a serious hit when the mind is clouded, and a successful assassination would require presence of mind to quickly slide a blade between a target’s plate armour or through chain mail—and sometimes the target would be on horseback.
It also must be emphasized that the fida’is did not always kill. Often, the mere threat of a dagger thrust in a target’s pillow would make him withdraw a siege from a castle, or pull back his troops from a strategic region. The fear caused by the fida’is had a real affect on the enemies of the Ismailis, who were much more powerful and numerous. It kept them away from strongholds and villages—and added to the paranoia that would launch the Assassin myth.
The Ismailis were considered heretics by many Muslim religious groups. Hunted like witches by enemies seeking to weed out the fida’is from their ranks, they became blamed for assassinations that they did not commit. Innocent people were accused of being Ismaili assassins. For these, the punishment could be severe: al-Ghazali suggested the death penalty for any Ismailis who remained apostates of the Islamic faith. Meanwhile, the political situation in the Middle East—so little has changed since—was volatile and paranoid, filled with many rival political groups, most of whom employed assassination as a tactic.
In such an environment of fear, myths can easily arise. The Ismailis were blamed for more assassinations than it would have been prudent to commit. Those who blamed them were either reacting out of paranoia, or seizing an appropriate scapegoat, to better mask their own political and military stratagems.
It is precisely through such times of paranoia that fantasies take root. The historical record today can only give us glimpses into the past, and those records may be contaminated with hearsay at best, if not a deliberate falsification of information. Today, you can immerse yourself in the myths that history has passed down to you, playing a part in them through your PS3 controller.
What the the Assassin myth tells us is that human beings prefer to indulge in great stories rather than seek the truth of history. Fiction and reality: these are opposed modes and people enjoy fiction more than reality. For a writer of historical fantasy such as myself, what an insight! “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”: the creed of the historical fantasist!