Nonviolent Pacifists (source)

The History Cinematic Universe: a massive narrative continuity project you never even knew existed

The Grain of the Voice in Vikings and The Last Kingdom Opening Titles

This post has two titles to reflect its two but related topics. The idea of a ‘cinematic universe’ is usually associated with comic book movie franchises, where a bunch of superhero films produced over many years intersect at various plot points with the same actors who you can see age much faster than in the comics. Teenage Peter Parker stays a teenager over a 60-year period whereas in the span of just a few years, you can see Thor gain wait or Robert Downey Jr. add a few wrinkles to his Stark face.

But there’s a vaster and potentially more interesting and even intellectually stimulating Cinematic Universe that has unintentionally been created by our streaming services, which I call the History Cinematic Universe which to be fair, has its share of heroes, too! It takes a bit of research to roll your own history crossover epic series, but you can start with any historical timeline you might find on Google Images, something like this:

(source)

Or maybe something like this, because all those illustrations above seem a bit unscholarly:

(source)

These timelines will give you a rigorous conceptual framework. Next, just find a bunch of historical drama series on your streaming devices and plot them chronologically along your timeline! Maybe start with Ancient Aliens, which proves that it makes no sense that aliens would only start coming to Earth after we invent video technology. Then, why not?, jump to The Roman Empire (Netflix) which has nudity, violence and bad words like Game of Thrones but mixes in a lot of academic talking heads. If you like this hybrid docudrama talking head approach but want to see something more futuristic and politically correct, National Geographic’s Mars series will hit those notes for you.

But the real narrative core of the History Cinematic Universe, where you can find the heroic backbone for the thousands-year span of streamable human historical narrative, are Vikings and The Last Kingdom, which really do feel like part of the same unified production (and which can be watched in either order!). These series are set one generation apart, and if you feel sad when sickly gruel-eating King Alfred the Great dies in The Last Kingdom — btw there are ZERO spoiler alerts in the History Cinematic Universe, because all the source material has long been published in books you’ve never read — you can watch Alfred come into existence in Vikings as the bastard baby Alfred born of adultery because God willed it apparently. At least, I think this is the same Alfred.

It can be hard to keep the names straight, though. You’ll learn that “Aethel” was a very popular name root, and it will take many episodes to cognize who Aethelflaed is relative to Aethelwold, Aethelhelm, Aethelstan, Aethelred, Aelfweard, Aelfwynn not to mention similar names like Aelflaed, Aelfric and Aelswith. There’s also a Guthred who is neither Guthrum nor Guthlac. Not getting these names right means not understanding the story because it’s amazing how often people refer to other people by their names!

If you jump ahead on your timeline to Knightfall hoping to continue the cinematic thrill of Vikings+The Last Kingdom, you will be let down by the poorer acting even though it does move you forward to ~1300 A.D. and the Knights Templar. Given the thousands of streamable episodes already produced in the History Cinematic Universe, you can’t expect them all to be great. Also, you need to keep checking back to see if new series have been added, or if other underwater cities were also built with alien help.

Besides feeling like part of the same 80-hour-long movie, Vikings and The Last Kingdom have some beautiful vocal textures in their opening credits (which, recall, is this essay’s second topic and subtitle). Since Roland Barthes’ The Grain of the Voice is not available free online to copy/paste from, I will cite someone citing him to convey the gist of his concept:

In his 1972 essay “The Grain of the Voice,” Roland Barthes theorizes the “grain” inherent in spoken or sung vocalizations: “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” The “grain” is more than timbre: it is the language of sound supplementing the language of sense; the summoning not only of a body but of some sort of ineffable essence bound to the effability of language. The grain would explain why hearing this answering machine recording, in itself a string of mundane sentiments, seems to carry so much more: in addition to the semantic content, the grain of my mother’s voice accompanies the words she spoke over a decade ago. (source)

The preceding paragraphs have now set you up to dive right in (rather literally in fact!) into the opening credits for the heroic core of the History Cinematic Universe. Hopefully I have tuned your ears to tease out the vocal grains that make these montages so nice to listen to.

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