Saturday, May 11, 2013

When Giants Walked the Earth: Jurassic Park, The Legend of Albina, and Inherited Topography

Having recently been to see Jurassic Park in 3D, I have felt a renewed enthusiasm for dinosaurs. Kate's delightful post on "Deadline Anxiety and Dinosaurs" further reminded me of the wonders of the classic film. At the same time, I was working on a paper about the legend of Albina for Plymouth's 34th Annual Medieval and Renaissance Forum, which led me to connect the two in my mind. Let me start with a recap of each story:

Jurassic Park is a tale about scientists who figure out how to bring dinosaurs back through the magic of DNA. Chaos ensues.

The legend of Albina (or, sometimes in Middle English, Albin) gives an origin story for the name Albion. Albina is a princess from Greece (or perhaps Syria) who plots with her many sisters to murder their husbands and is thus exiled on a rudderless ship. Fate intervenes, and the women land safely on an unnamed, uninhabited island at the edge of the world. Albina calls the mysterious land Albion after herself and goes about setting up a home there. Mating with incubi, Albina and her sisters produce giant offspring and populate the island with their monstrous progeny. The giants rule the island for 800 years, and then Brutus shows up from the wreckage of Troy. He kills the giants and renames the island Britain for himself. He tames the wilderness and cultivates the land. From the wood and stones of the island, he fashions a New Troy that we call London.

On the surface, I will admit that these two stories have little in common. A modern warning story about the dangers of unexamined scientific exploration and a medieval mytho-historic explanation for the name Albion might seem, quite literally, worlds apart. And yet fortune has thrown them together in my mind, and I'd like to humor myself by thinking about possible connections.

The edge of the world seems like a good place to stop
Like dinosaurs, the giants of the Albina story walk the same land that we inhabit. The only thing that separates us from these frightening and yet fascinating forebears is time. Though we're not descended from them -- both dinosaurs and giants have been extinct since prehistory -- we have inherited their realm. As Jurassic Park opens, paleontologists in Montana are digging up fossils. The ease with which they dig up these fossils has been making paleontologists chuckle and children look optimistically at their toy shovels ever since the film opened. The image of these fossils, hidden away by the sands of time and yet still just below the surface of our landscape, connects these ancient bird-lizards to our own countryside. Time may separate us from the dinosaurs, the movie seems to indicate, but only by a couple feet of dust. Their bones lie under our feet, and our land was theirs first.

Similarly, the Albin story imagines British history beginning with monstrous creatures: a murderous woman, a mother of monsters. The image of a man called Brutus pulling himself from the carnage of his fallen city and making his way to an island on the edge of the world was widely recited in medieval England. The story usually begins with Brutus landing on the island, finding it populated with barely-human giants, and conquering the land by dispatching of these unpleasant natives. Surely this is a colonial fantasy, in which the colonizer need not feel guilt for taking over a new land because the inhabitants can be discounted as less than human. The versions of this story that insert the Albina legend in the beginning, however, shift the reader's perspective. In these texts, we follow not Brutus but Albina to the island; we sit with the giants on the shore as Brutus sails up to claim the land and rename it for himself. Brutus may kill these giants, Brutus may remake the landscape into his own version of civilization, but the story still begins with Albina and her larger-than-life children. They stomp around, and their movements undoubtedly shift and mold the topography, carving out lakes and valleys and mountains with their rumbling steps. The wilderness that Brutus discovers when he arrives on the island still lurks beneath and beyond the streets and buildings he commissions. The people who live in the London of the 14th century (or today) may not be able to trace their ancestry back to Albin or her outsized offspring, but the chronological and topographical link is nonetheless inherent in the narrative. In The Short English Metrical Chronicle, readers are told that Albina landed "here" and on "this land" (307, 306). There is never any doubt in the text that her location, even before it has a name, is the reader's location as well. We can kill off the monsters, the legend seems to tell us, but we can't escape their influence. The island may be Britain, but it is Albion as well. As with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, only time stands between us and the monsters from whom we inherited our earth.

What is this strange, four-wheeled creature?
Jurassic Park increases this uneasy sense of chronology with a particularly 1990s fable in which technology can bridge the gap between past and present. Dinosaur DNA, with a little frog DNA thrown in for good measure, initiates a shocking confrontation with the past. As with the story of Saint Erkenwald speaking to a long-dead judge (see my Titanic post for more on that), our paleontologists can see the bones they've studied come to vibrant life. I was speaking with some fellow medievalists recently about how Jurassic Park is a fantasy for anyone who studies the past. We can collect our evidence, we can imagine how it must have been, but we know that there's always a little bit of guesswork, a little bit of our own time and place getting in our way. The centuries are, despite our best efforts, an unpassable obstacle to full engagement with past people and places and events. When Doctors Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler (played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern, respectively) gaze in wonder at the living versions of the fossils they have studied for so many years, it's hard not to feel a sympathetic twinge. When Alan Grant murmurs gleefully "They do move in herds," I can't help but think that I would make similar comments if I got to view a performance of the medieval York Cycle or a production of Shakespeare at the original Globe. And when the doctors pet and hug a living triceratops, the tactile interaction means that they are literally touching a creature of the past. The new 3D version enhances these interactions and confrontations by making the dinosaurs appear to pop out of the screen toward us as we watch. The years have been kind to these dinosaurs, and they appear more real than ever. Yet these dinosaurs, made from prehistoric DNA, are still born here and now. They're still in a contemporary landscape, no matter the efforts put into recreating a proper habitat (maybe this is why that triceratops is so ill). The bit of modern frog DNA making up each one means that, even on a genetic level, they are modern creatures even as they are ancient ones. The closest we can come is still imperfect. Still, ultimately, dangerous in its imperfections.

Even as time in Jurassic Park is both then and now, place is both real and imagined. We may recognize the Montana badlands, but Snakewater is a fictional Montana city. The backstory of this fossil paradise is that it was originally an island. In other words, a fictional place was once a fictional island, subsumed into the middle of the modern-day United States. The park itself is built upon a fictional island as well, Isla Nublar (meaning something like "clouded island" or even "obscure island"), just off the coast of Costa Rica. As with Snakewater, Isla Nublar is given a specific location in relation to real geography (and, of course, was filmed in a real place that we may visit if we wish), and yet it is imaginary. Off the coast of the known lies the land of the film, connected to the world we know and yet always separate from it.

Albina is given a much more specific location in that she lands where the reader now stands. Her time at sea may exist in a geotemporal shadow realm, but before and after she travels we can point to her on a map. As I mentioned above, she lands "here." And when Brutus comes to the island, the city he builds is the city we now call London. Her island is not ours -- it is a mythic wilderness ruled by overly-ambition women and their overly-corporeal descendants. They are vanished into the past. Their imaginary bones are dust, and we cannot simply dig them up in our backyards. Yet if their bones are dust, even the dust of legend, then that dust makes up the story of the modern island. Albion both is and isn't Britain.

Not as cuddly as you might think
The monsters of our past (the monstrosity of the past?) is both frightening and fascinating. (For a detailed examination of this paradox, see Monster Theory, especially Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's sixth thesis: "Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire" (16).) Albina may create giants from her lust, forging progeny with an incubus to populate the island, but her desire isn't totally disconnected from our own readerly desire. Albin and her giants and her alien-familiar wilderness are tantalizing fictions of British chronology. Similarly, dinosaurs maintain the capacity to terrify and attract us. When I was four or five, I received a blow-up Tyrannosaurus Rex for Christmas. Obsessed with T-Rex, I was delighted with this gift. I couldn't wait for my father to blow up the toy so I could exist in an imaginary dinosaur world with my T-Rex friend. Yet when night came, I was suddenly panicked because I knew that a T-Rex prowled in my house. I begged my father to deflate it for the safety of everyone involved. For the next several days, we repeated this pattern. By day, I loved my T-Rex; by night, I wanted him annihilated. Finally, my dad, exhausted from blowing up a four-foot-tall dinosaur day after day, said I could choose special days to play with my T-Rex, but that it couldn't be everyday. The terror induced by the T-Rex and velociraptors in the film is not the only reason it has been so popular. Yes, we love to be afraid of dinosaurs, but we also just love dinosaurs. The tender moments of the film in which characters lovingly pet peacefully plant-eating dinosaurs are there for a reason. Whether we would hide from T-Rex in a bathroom or wave a flare at her to distract her from the children, we know that she is deadly. The way that Dr. Grant revels in frightening an obnoxious child with a description of the velociraptor's hunting style at the beginning of the film gets echoed in the famous last words of Robert Muldoon (played by Bob Peck) as a velociraptor leaps toward him: "Clever Girl!" He admires her for outsmarting him even in his last breath.

An aspect of the monsters of the past that makes us love and fear them is that they can't really be controlled. Albina's father sends her away on a rudderless ship, a punishment which is surely a death sentence. A punishment which robs her of narrative control as she floats powerlessly around the world. Yet she manages to claim a land for herself, to attach her name to that land and to become a part of a nation's history. Even as she and her sisters consider their position as an island full of women, they find a way to reproduce, monstrous and unnatural as that way is, producing as it does children who are both more and less than humans. Brutus may tame the land by killing Albina's monster-children, but they haunt British chronicles nonetheless.

In Jurassic Park, modern science and technology may seem to contain and control the past even as they resurrect it, but the monsters of the past defy such efforts. The opening scene, in which a velociraptor manages to kill a worker even in the most carefully planned situation, indicates for us from the first moments of the film that modern knowledge has met its match. When we are told later that the velociraptors methodically test each section of their fence for weakness, it's clear that they do not take well to their high-tech cage. Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) sums up the dangers of such attempts at containment when he states that "the kind of control you're attempting simply is... it's not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is." In this speech, monstrous vitality is life itself, that which breaks free of control and simply finds a way. Everything on Isla Nublar is an attempt at control, down to the jeeps which can't be steered (am I going too far to compare these to medieval rudderless ships, outside of their riders' control and yet firmly on the track of fate?). The designers of the park may have automated the vehicles, but it never occurred to them that riders could (or would) simply open the jeep doors and step outside. Given all of these hints, we're not terribly surprised when we see a dinosaur egg in the wild. Despite the careful breeding of only female dinosaurs, we learn that these dinosaurs, made partly with frog DNA, can switch sexes in order to reproduce. Like Albin and her sisters, the dinosaurs manage to procreate even when denied the normal means of doing so. They can neither be kept in cages nor kept from expanding their population.

At least Skull Island had King Kong
We might say that the real monster of the film is human greed, but this very greed is predicated on human desire to encounter dinosaurs. The monsters can only menace us because we bring them back in order to do so. John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough) speaks with wonder of creating a park in which people can see and touch real dinosaurs, and he says plainly that "this park was not built to cater only for the super-rich. Everyone in the world has the right to enjoy these animals." But his wonder at scientific possibility, in the real world, translates into the chaos that characterizes the film from the opening scene. We never believe that things are going to go well, even as we also to want to see and touch the dinosaurs.

I am not saying that Jurassic Park is a modern-day Albina myth, nor that either Michael Chrichton or Steven Spielberg had considered or even read the obscure medieval tale when they created first book and then movie of this modern story. Rather, I suggest that attempts to engage with the past, or to imagine how that engagement might take place, may partake of the larger-than-life. The past is monstrous in that it is both wholly other and wholly familiar, in that it is distant and yet part of us, in that the here and now will inevitably become the past. The past, whether we understand it or not, will always swallow the present. The giant lurks just beneath the surface of our modern world, unattainable and yet tempting us with possible proximity. Albina, giants, dinosaurs, titans -- all are creatures of the past both consumed and consuming. And, yes, I would probably visit Jurassic Park, even knowing what I know. Who could resist?