09 August 2011

Indiana Jones and the Monasteries of the Air

Chatting the other day to a philhellenic friend of an archaeological persuasion, I was pointed in the direction of an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles set in 1910 in which our youthful hero visits Athens, and indeed travels rather further north. I was advised that, although funny, the film is something of a qualified success in terms of its aim to be an educational show.

It's hard not to be impressed by the ship's amphibious capabilities

Their ship sails from Odessa to Constantinople, on to Thessaloniki, and from there makes its way south, apparently cutting across Euboea and overland to Athens, rather than following the traditional route around Cape Sounion and into Pireaus. As their ship approaches Athens, Henry Jones Senior summons his son, points, and says 'See the minarets over there--' just as the camera cuts, rather inexplicably, to a nice shot of the Tholos at Delphi, followed by an even nicer one of Delphi's Athenian Treasury, which had -- interestingly enough -- been reconstructed only a few years before this episode supposedly took place.

You'd need impressive eyesight to see this from Athens

Given that it's two hundred miles from Athens to Delphi, and no part of this story is set there, I'm not quite sure why we're treated to sights none of the Joneses get to revel in, but still, onwards with the tale.

Ascending the Acropolis, Jones Snr starts upon a description of the Parthenon, at which point young Indiana bolts up through the steps of the Propylaea and past the Temple of Athena Nike until he stands looking at the Parthenon itself. They don't stay long, with Mrs Jones needing to hurry back to their hotel, and while there the plot kicks in: Jones Snr and Jnr shall be going north, to Meteora, there to spend a Spartan weekend translating Byzantine transcripts of Aristotle.

As you do.

And no, contrary to too many websites, this is NOT an amphitheatre

Anyway, once they've packed, Indiana and his father head of by horsedrawn carriage to the theatre of Herodes Atticus, where Jones Snr proceeds to give his bemused driver incomprehensible instructions in ancient Greek, delivered with a Conneryesque burr, before trotting off to show the theatre to his son.
'I bet there were lions and gladiators,' exclaims Indiana, swishing his stick.
'Junior,' says his father, 'lions and gladiators were Roman, not Greek,' apparently oblivious to the theatre having been built by a Roman senator.
'Oh, well I'll bet Alexander the Great cut off some poor fool's head right here,' says Indiana, slashing downwards.
'Junior, this was not a barbaric slaughterhouse,' corrects Jones Snr, neglecting to mention that Alexander died almost five centuries before the theatre was built, 'we are standing in a theatre, a temple of great poetry, drama, and philosophy.'
Onwards he warbles about Socrates and Aristotle, somehow winning over his sceptical son, who doesn't seem to realise that his father, the great scholar, is in fact a charlatan who believes a second-century AD theatre had been the site of numerous fifth- and fourth-century BC philosophical debates.

Off they head, then, back to the wrong carriage and off to travel -- it would seem -- by horse and cart to Meteora, burbling about syllogisms in a manner that'd cause Aristotle's corpse to turn like a gyros spit. Even if things had gone smoothly, I can't think this would have worked out for them, given that it's just over 200 miles from Athens to Kalambaka, the main town in Meteora. For what it's worth, it'd be just south of the 'O' in 'Thessalonike' on the map above.

For what it's worth, they could have got the train, as a shiny new line had been built only the previous year.

Well, soon tossed out of their cart -- and they can't have gone more than a mile or so from Athens at this point -- they start to walk, wittering about Cynicism as they stroll through a desolate landscape in the vague hope that a bus might appear. As the day wears on, they sit resting under a tree until they cadge a lift in a passing cart, laden with peasants and chickens, with Jones Snr taking the opportunity to teach his son about Stoicism.

At some unidentifiable spot they have to get off and Indiana suggests they go back to the hotel; his father refuses, saying that they weren't to know that the cart wouldn't go the whole way -- two hundred miles, remember -- and they'd just get another ride. Feeling that as dusty as they are they're unlikely to get a lift, so they resolve to wash their clothes, bathe, and continue.

Next we see them swimming, nakedly, in the sea, having presumably washed their clothes in sea water and left them to dry, salt-encrusted, on bushes along the shore. Given that they should be heading inland, in a generally north-westerly way, this seems to be rather off-course for them, but such geographical inconvenience is as nothing compared to what happens next, with a flock of sheep stealing their clothes.

This whole episode looks plotted by someone with too many Joseph Campbell books, and no maps

With nothing but a slight briefcase -- itself containing pens, paper, and it would seem everything young Henry had been told to pack back at the hotel -- and some branches to hide their nudity, they approach an ancient yaya, whose startled shrieks summon her daughter and granddaughter, thus creating a wonderfully archetypal scene whereby our heroes are transformed into Cretan shepherds by a Classic representation of the three-fold Goddess, maiden, mother, and hag.

Off they trot in their new clothes, being shunned by passing tourists in a car but soon being given a third lift since leaving Athens, this time by a man called Aristotle with a donkey called Plato. Cue much comic misunderstanding and a discussion of Plato's Republic. In the course of the confusion, Jones Snr gets out in a huff and Jones Jnr stays in the cart, as they continue their journey to Kalambaka and what Patrick Leigh Fermor, in Roumeli, calls the Monasteries of the Air.

Pictures really don't do justice to how astonishing Meteora is. You have to go there.

Approaching a monk as he comes out of an elaborate cage, Jones Snr addresses him in contemporary -- rather than ancient -- Greek. Like Odysseus, I suspect he'd learned a lot from the three women he'd met, though rather peculiarly he begins his conversation with 'Kalispera,' meaning 'Good evening,' and then bids the gentleman farewell by saying 'Kalimera,' which means 'Good morning.' I think we can take this as further evidence of his deep mastery of an esoteric pseudo-Hellenism.

Still, up they're winched to the monastery, where the monks greet them, with one -- presumably the abbot -- saying 'We waited for you all morning.'

'We got delayed,' replies Jones Snr, looking embarrassed as he adds, 'It's a long story'. My guess is that he just that moment remembered that there was a train he could have caught, but I really don't think he had any reason to feel sheepish. After all, the two of them had covered more than two hundred miles by donkey and on foot in just one day, even finding time to swim, wash their clothes, chase some sheep, and get transformed into authentic Greeks by a mysteriously iconic trio of Greek women.

Why, Sean Connery himself, first and greatest avatar of Henry Jones Snr, could tell of just how valuable eventful Greek journeys can be.

Dinner follows and a night's rest, and then, after morning prayer, they settle in the library, where Jones Snr sends young Indiana off to banish his boredom by immersing himself in a study of Aristotelian causality; he's helped in this by Nikos Kazantzakis, who makes some good teleological points about oranges but doesn't give any real indication of what he's doing in the monastery.

Further shenanigans of decreasing probabilty follow when the lads try to leave, but I don't want to spoil the story for you. You should seek it out. It's a rather better introduction to Greek philosophy than it is to Greek geography or to how time and space relate to each other in the Mediterranean world.

No comments: