Cats and Zombies

Cats and Zombies: Byzantium for Children of all Ages

av Ingela Nilsson

There is nothing new about the use of Byzantium as a literary setting or Byzantine elements as a way of exoticizing the story. In the 13thcentury, the Old French romance Partonopeus de Blois has the hero fall in love with Melior, empress of Constantinople, and a similar love story appears in the Catalan Tirant lo Blanc, written in the 15th century. A whole series of works known as romans byzantins were written in 19th-century France, more recently followed by Julia Kristeva’s curious thriller Meurtre à Byzance (2004). And in the last few years it seems that more and more authors are intrigued by the Byzantine setting, resulting in quite a number of historical novels and detective stories. Here I will take a look at three very different literary depictions of Byzantium, aimed primarily at younger readers.

Byzantium is most often seen as an either brutal or decadent environment, a setting for soldiers and vampires rather than children and teenagers. A recent children’s book therefore deserves some special attention, since it presents a brightly coloured and charming Byzantium for an audience much younger than the average Byzantinist. Bertha in Byzanz (2012), written by Mabi Angar and illustrated by Friedrich Witlake, is indeed described as a Kinderbuch, but it is a book for all ages, telling the story of how Bertha, a girl from the Bavarian Sulzbach, became empress of Byzantium. It is thus a true story that is depicted here, though slightly revised in order to suit a young audience.

Nilsson Zombies 02 [s 12]

The rather complex and relatively sad story of the historical Bertha – the first wife of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-80), renamed Irene – has been turned into a playful tale of a young girl who is amazed at the idea of marrying a Byzantine prince – “Heiraten! Manuel! Konstantinopel! Kaiserin von Byzanz! Bertha war schwindelig.” (p. 8) and who worries more about her cat Alois than about her own situation. With good reason, because it is Alois that is affected by severe homesickness: “Er mochte nichts trinken, er mochte nichts fressen, er sprang auch nicht auf Berthas Schoß und sträubte sich, als sie ihm das Fell bürsten wollte. Alois was krank. Krank vor Heimweh.” (p. 16). Bertha desperately tries to find a cure, which takes her to various corners of Constantinople. The jovial text by Angar is complemented by Witlake’s witty images and together they present us with an enchanting tour of the imperial city. I will not disclose the details of the drama’s resolution; let me just say that the cure of Alois’ homesickness involves a very cute little cat girl from Van.

Nilsson Zombies 03 [s 15]

Reading this book I came to think of another ‘Byzantine’ children’s book sitting on my shelf, The Emperor’s Winding Sheet by Jill Paton Walsh (1974). This award-winning book was intended for teenagers rather than children, but just like Bertha in Byzanz it is fully capable of entertaining also adult readers. The story is set in 15th-century Byzantium, in the very last months before the Fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The protagonist is a young boy from England who has been shipwrecked in the Mediterranean and ends up at the court of Constantine XI Palailologos, the last emperor of Byzantium. The boy is named Vrethiki (‘lucky find’) and is kept close to the emperor as a sort of lucky charm, travelling with him from Mistra to Constantinople and thus witnessing from the inside the long siege of Constantinople. The depictions of Constantinople are meticulous in their detail, drawing on both the ‘foreign’ perspective of the boy and potentially learded readers. Thus the first visit to Hagia Sophia is described as follows:

“From that first blinkered glance of a long forward view, Vrethiki unconsciouly expected a long church, a marching avenue of columns like the nave of the cathedral at Bristow. Stepping through, on the threshold of the door, he was quite unprepared for the vast width of it – far to his left and right  rose the great complex walls – and yet he had seen rightly when he saw that it was very long. Then, when looking upward, he was dazzled by the hight of it, for the eye of a worshipper on the threshold soared straight to the apex of a vast flattened dome, all pierced with a ring of windows, and shedding angled light – a golden arch, hovering overhead like a dawn; so immense, so brilliantly light, so sky-shaped a building could not seem like inside anywhere to Vrethiki; and yet it did not seem like outside either, with its dance of encircling columns, cool green, dark porphyry, with its enclosing, billowing, cloudy golden domes and half-domes. It was like some paradisal pavilion – the majestic tent of the Almighty, pitched across the sky.” (p. 94-95)

The forthcoming Fall is mirrored in the crumbling state of the capital: the old palace with its broken mosaics, the golden but dusty ceremonial clothes of the emperor, the overgrown hippodrome:

“Up the slummy lanes to the Hippodrome, and in under one of its arches, across the great cursus lying grassy and flowering among its tumbled terraces, and empty, save for two boys who were riding on horseback, and playing some strange game Vrethiki had never seen before, hitting a ball with a long-handled mallet that they could wield from the saddle. Along the spine of the huge oval space they were crossing stood columns and obeslisks, and one tall twisted column made of snakes entwined, finishing with their three heads.” (p. 148).

The end of the framing story is given, but it is narrated with both literary Geist and historical commitment. As for the story of young Vrethiki, please turn to the book if this short review made you curious.

As I’m writing this up, I have just finished the very recent Zombies in Byzantium by Sean Munger (2013) and I cannot help but bringing it into this discussion. I’m not saying that zombie novels are children’s books, but they certainly cater to a relatively young audience and thus to readers who may be interested in Byzantium more as an adventurous setting than as an historical period. In fiction we’ve had vampires in Byzantium for quite some time, but as far as I know this is the first time that the empire is invaded by zombies.

The plot is set in the 8th century and focuses on the Arab siege of Constantinople. The narrator is a monk and iconographer who is called to the Stoudios monastary to help them catch up with the many orders for new icons; it’s just that the new emperor is the iconoclast Leo III (717-741), and he does not want any icons in his capital. This kind of ironic twist characterizes the intrigue throughout the novel, and the young monk Stephen ends up in various uncomfortable situations (ranging from being seduced by the empress to smelling the emperor’s farts), not to mention that he constantly has to fight off zombies trying to eat him. At the same time, the historical setting is accurate, which results in a rather entertaining representation of a Byzantium concerned with both iconoclasm and zombies. One of the funniest characters is emperor Leo, who is depicted as a sly and ill-mannered brute (in some accordance with the iconodule tradition), speaking like a figure of a modern zombie novel with expression such as “Okay, I’m confused” and “How wicked am I?”. The familiar elements of Constantinople are there, but the traditional way of seeing and describing them is often undermined by the unenthusiastic tone of the narrator:

I could see the domes of St. Sophia – the Church of the Holy Wisdom, which I had not yet visited – and the vast white horseshoe-shaped edifice with four glittering gold specks on its front that was the Hippodrome. Constantinople was dazzling, vibrant, opulent and lavish. It was also, as I was to discover, intensely boring.” (p. 50)

But perhaps not all that boring, what with all the zombies to kill and imperial schemes to work out. Stephen certainly keeps himself busy until the very end of the story.

So do these three books have anything in common except for their literary setting being Byzantine Constantinople? Well, I actually think they do, in the sense that they all focus on Otherness – something I believe to be a rather common function of the Byzantine in literary fiction. In Bertha in Byzanz, a young girl travels to a foreign country to marry an unknown man. Any possibly fears are represented as mere curiosity and Bertha’s potential homesickness is sublimated into the illness of her cat – soon to be cured by another cat. Aimed at young children, the otherness of the foreign setting is thus turned into something funny (note e.g. the pillar saints in the panorama of the City) and familiar: making new friends who make you feel at home, as if you belong. A similar situation is described in The Emperor’s Winding Sheet: a young boy finds himself in a foreign land, not being able to speak the language and with no means to affect his own situation. Aimed at older readers, this book is more open about the fears of the boy and explores to some extent the mechanisms of loneliness and homesickness. Vrethiki becomes ‘one of them’ as he begins to understand the system into which he has stumbled by chance; it is understanding and tolerance that leads to a sense of belonging.

The situation in Zombies of Byzantium is different, since the protagonist is a Byzantine. The zombies my thus seem as the obviously Other element, but Stephen the monk is in fact an outsider in at least two senses: he’s a monk from a minor monastery in the province and he’s an iconographer in the time of iconoclasm. Moreover, he’s a bad monk, not exactly behaving the way he’s expected to. In spite of this, he manages to play a crucial role in saving Byzantium; or perhaps rather thanks to it, because his position as an outsider makes him more receptive to the Other, such as the Arabs surrounding the city. By contrast, the Byzantine setting – traditionally decadent and ‘dark’, especially the 7th and 8th centuries – is depicted as familiar and ‘normal’, since the narrator is, after all, Byzantine. The anachronistic tone of the characters, including the narrator, thus becomes a way of familiarizing rather than exoticizing Byzantium. The aim is thus, in fact, rather similar to that of the other two books.

One thing is sure: Byzantium does no longer belong to students and scholars! It is out there and who knows what will come up next? Recent developments in fashion indicates that the Byzantine will no longer restrict itself to literature. When will Sweden discover this? I for one eagerly await the IKEAchair “Theodosius” and the H&M collection “Theodora”.

On Sean Munger and his Zombies of Byzantium, see http://seanmunger.com/zombies-of-byzantium/

My warmest thanks to Mabi Angar for kindly giving me a copy of her book and for allowing me to reproduce images here from Bertha in Byzanz. Ein Kinderbuch über Bertha von Sulzbach, Kaiserin in Konstantinopel (pp. 12, 15 and 16).

Nilsson Zombies 05 [s 22]

(Originally published on May 10, 2013)

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