Thursday, 16 October 2014

Review of From Runes to Ruins

By David Parry



Let me start with a confession. While writing this review, I suddenly had the disconcerting sensation that rather like the film-maker Thomas Rowsell, I too had been walking in the footsteps of Odin for most of my life. From my early admiration of the Crucified Man seen in every rural Anglican Church, to more recent intuitions regarding the vital significance of intentional suffering in our spiritual lives. Indeed, I sense both Rowsell and myself have actually been following an ancestral path first trodden by our earliest Anglo-Saxon forebears. Esoteric step by aesthetic footfall! In my case, a journey customarily described through experimental poetry and stagecraft, although in my young colleagues, through film and artefacts. Undoubtedly, a parallel form of cultural witness enlivening Rowsell’s highly expressive and deeply stirring documentary From Runes to Ruins.

So observed, there is genuine lyricism in his stylish reportage. Not to mention authentic magic in this biopic account of ancient treasures lost. Yet, the sorcery I am referring to is not discovered in Rowsell’s study of these charmed “shamanic” alphabets, or the stunning panoramic shots of our viridescent native countryside. Nor for that matter, his clearly commanding presence as narrator. Instead, such enchantments are found within Rowsell’s masterly evocations of our specifically English Consciousness: a unique northern European “soul-perspective” depicted through anecdotal tales, historical records, and bewitching cultural oddments. Thus, haunted burial mounds, Weyland’s Smithy, the London Long Sword Academy, historical re-enactors, Viking stores in Walthamstow, replicas of the Jelling Stones near Regent’s Park, and even the majestic Ruthwell Cross itself, are used to unfold Rowsell’s undeniably vibrant vision. Accompanied, as these items are, by his occasional recitations of Old English and Latin verse, delightfully eccentric animations, and a plaintive, atmospheric, soundtrack.

For my part however, the last ten minutes energized Rowsell’s entire enterprise, since shared notions of Romantic Primitivism (Anglo-Saxon and otherwise) are eloquently addressed. After all, claims Rowsell, it was Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert that revived recent interest in everything wildly Germanic across these lands. A contention possibly contextualizing earlier elucidations wherein he states: “England was founded under the tyranny of Teutonic invaders, who brought with them their language, their culture, and their Heathen gods”. All healthy reminders, of course, not to throw away the virile strengths of our own tribe as we step into uncertain destinies; whilst honouring those who went before us for bequeathing their gifts of fortitude and valour to future generations. Admittedly, there were a few times towards the end when these admonitions felt a little drawn out, but the majestic statues, lovely architectural follies, and Rowsell’s impressive sense of historical continuity, easily outweighed any perceived artistic imbalance.

If I had a criticism of Rowsell’s sterling documentary, it would be his shameless dismissal of modernist progressivism. Truly, such notions don’t sit easily amongst the ethnocentric stories he outlines, even though it would be generally encouraging to think we human beings may learn to co-operate on a global level at some point. Nevertheless, these comments are quickly dwarfed by Rowsell’s overview of our ethical heritage. The moral force of which developed through centuries of literary inquiry and scientific exploration into our present English character. And, as a consequence, has allowed us Englishmen to escape from an unnecessary slavery to previous precedent, along with an often bewildering resistance to cross-fertilized innovation, typical of our Continental kinsfolk. Traits boding extremely well for us Brits because, when all said and done, we don’t simply have a past behind us, but unknown conquests ahead of us.

To my mind, therefore, From Runes to Ruins is a minor masterpiece of cultural narration. All achieved, in an engaging, approachable, and entertaining, manner. Reminiscent, arguably, of John Dryden in his heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672) - as another innovative English creative who comparably introduced idealized pictures of "nature's gentlemen" into English discourse - as well as coining the phrase “noble savage” as a reminder of virtues lost. In like manner, Rowsell’s documentary is bound to conjure an equally compelling recapitulation of subtle historical processes inside our indigenous hearts and minds. A feat few film-makers will be able to emulate in these socially atomized times and marking this beautiful pageant of images and lore as an authentic celebration of everything pagan in the best sense of the word.