Sanctuary or Troy Cycle? (2017-12-10)
The question of cultural appropriation can be a difficult one to face up to, especially in the case of greek mythology, which, as Athena Andreadis has so aptly noted, tends to be treated in mainstream western culture as Being Part of Everyone's Furniture. It seems like there should be a way around this, a way to interact with elements of other peoples' cultures, and preferably them as well, in a way that is respectful, that does not pretend to take over the story or regalia or be "more authentic" than the peoples who actually live the cultures. This can be a tough remit for people who think they are white, who have effectively been trained to treat whatever they see, let alone whatever they may find in any way pleasing, as something that they can do whatever they like with. An interesting question then, is whether the creators and writers for the television programme Sanctuary managed this, by trying to work with what looks suspiciously like one way we could characterize the plot of the Troy Cycle: what happens when a powerful, marriageable woman in a hyper-patriarchal culture has too many suitors?
Not that a tie between Helen Magnus, the central character of Sanctuary and Helen of Troy/Sparta, whose centrality to the Troy Cycle is contested, is immediately obvious. At first I thought the idea rather silly, and that I was having a bout of pattern matching on random or relatively random data, which we humans are incredibly good at. A quick websearch on the term pareidolia will turn up at minimum thousands of other examples, often hilariously mundane and associated with religious imagery. However, there is actually real evidence for Helen Magnus being a reflex of her ancient greek counterpart in the story sense, though I have never heard or read anything by the show creators that suggests this was their intention. There are eight major things that jumped out at me when I thought about the possible parallels a bit more.
- Besides the bald partial sameness of their names, Helen Magnus is in effect "Helen the Great" and the original Helen was officially the daughter of Zeus, king of the olympian pantheon, and Leda, a mortal queen of Sparta. Well, that's one version of Leda, anyway.
- Helen Magnus has a suitor problem. She has too many of them, courtesy of the group of brilliant but daft men she hangs out with once she makes her way to Oxford University during her original time period, the ever useful victorian-edwardian era, which constantly haunts most mainstream canadian written and visual media. On the flip side, she has only four suitors, versus Helen of Sparta who had considerably more than four.
- The suitor Helen Magnus eventually ends up with becomes a relentless persecutor, and this comes very close to hijacking the entire storyline of the show.
- Magnus' eventual second suitor/husband figure is relatively weak, and betrays the original husband not in this case via breaking the laws of hospitality, but by being the best friend of the original husband and stepping in in his best friend's absence.
- The Sanctuary Network and the facility Magnus runs within it constitute a fortress that apparently the show writers determined must eventually fall, as indeed they do by the end of the fourth season. This was apparently a writerly principle for the Sanctuary universe, as they also blew up the Hollow Earth fortress city Praxis.
- Magnus has one child by the original successful suitor, a daughter. The fate of the daughter diverges from that of Helen of Sparta's daughter Hermione, however, not least in having considerable agency of her own and actual story arc. Of course, this contrast exists in part because the number of variant versions of the Troy Cycle and associated stories that have survived to the present is small.
- Her father is a distant, overshadowing presence who is no real help much of the time, yet seems to have put together pretty much everything in Helen's world. Gregory Magnus seems to be a brilliant and kindly guy. Except that his initial appearance on the show reveals that he was busy at one point in his career making superpowered frankenstein's monster-like abnormals (better known in comic book universes as mutants).
- Her mother's name is barely remembered, and she is apparently long dead.
Of course, there are many more contrasts than the ones that crept into this quick list, such as:
- Helen Magnus is a clear and present agent in the story, as opposed to her ancient counterpart whose agency is a major area of contention among classicists and quite a few others to this day. Most importantly, Magnus determines directly when and how her fortress falls.
- When she suffers a temporal displacement that forces her to relive 113 years, a parallel to the siege of Troy, Magnus doesn't merely wait quietly. Instead, she uses the time and her greater knowledge to enable a more independent future both for the Sanctuary Network and herself.
- Originally Magnus is still a victorian era woman living out and defending her "liberal" father's legacy, since she manages to manoeuvre him into allowing her to train as a doctor and take part in his study of abnormals.
- In her relived time, she takes on her mother's name, and forges her own life, including a complete revisioning of the Sanctuary Network applying principles she gathers from the many great minds she meets with again.
It seems to me that this is a much better way to engage with someone else's culture in principle, even if the result was mainly accidental. It is not impossible that this engagement is more deliberate, considering the settler state of canada has been dealing with an unavoidable and growing resistance movement to appropriation of Indigenous cultures, and a growing discomfort with the federal attempts to render any "foreign" culture into food and weird clothes for the entertainment of anglo-saxons. (Keen and curious readers may want to read Franca Iacocetta's Gatekeepers, especially chapter 4.) The tough part of course, is in the application. (Top)