Carnival Row: Literary Value Worth the Unsavory Package?

Image result for carnival row

This week, I had one of those wonderful moments that reminds me why I teach. In my ENG 112 class, we were having a great literary conversation, starting to unpack W.B. Yeats’s fantastic poem “The Stolen Child,” which describes the fae and their efforts to lure a human child away from the human world. The students had already asked great questions about the geographical references and some of the vocabulary, but I could see they were trying to really grasp the poem. I explained about the amorality of the fae, their differences from cutesy fairies and their connections in literature and Irish mythology, and then, one of my students exclaimed, “They’re kidnappers!” I wish I could have captured the look on his face, an a-ha expression that combined both his delight at making his connection and his discomfort with the unsavory undertones of the poem. His combined reaction is very similar to my own in response to the new Amazon Original series Carnival Row, starring Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevinge, and an impressible ensemble cast in a tale of good and evil, of fae and of men.

The steamnoir series is set in a world where the fae world is not a myth or fantasy, but a very real geographical location that has been torn asunder by warfare between competing armies of men. It is visually stunning as well as thought provoking, making some fascinating allusions to history, mythology, and literature, but it is definitely not family viewing, with language and scenes that would make Cormoron Strike blush.

“For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”Image result for the stolen child yeats

As we all know from the lessons of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, one of the most interesting ways speculative fiction—in any media—can be effective is in its ability to reflect real history and issues. The most enduring television series are those that share this ability, from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek. The first television show to incorporate an interracial kiss was Star Trek, which also featured episodes that alluded to both contemporary themes like racism and counterculture cults as well as historical events ranging from World War II to the Salem Witch Trials to the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  Carnival Row clearly takes on some of the same issues as its predecessors. In the world of the series, The Republic of the Burgue, the often-corrupt, Victorian empire, is ruled by men, many of whom resent the presence of “mythical” creatures like fairies, fauns, and centaurs (all of whom are pretty gritty, just like everyone else in this world). Their political tirades against the “critch” (the ugly slur for all fae creatures), include familiar themes of xenophobia and intolerance that have been present throughout history in all cultures. The second-class treatment of the fae creatures reflects the historic treatment of variety of groups. It might be tempting to only see the connections to the shameful treatment of African Americans in the United States; for example, a “puck” who has gained success and moved to an affluent all-human neighborhood faces shocked reactions including curiosity and resentment that clearly reflect racial prejudices. However, there are many other historical events alluded to in the series. The devastation of Tirnanoc, the home of the fae, as a result of the war between the Burgue and the Pact, evokes echoes of everything from the encroachment of Roman forces throughout Britain to nineteenth-century European expansionism to the devastation of Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.  A group of satyr religious extremists commit acts of violence that spring from their rage at being marginalized, but which ultimately hurt no one except innocent fae and humans, including allies, leading to further hardships for all fae people, similar to the results of terrorism throughout the world. The treatment of the fae immigrants in the Burgue connects to that of Irish and other immigrant populations, as they work off their indenture contracts, sometimes in employment far beneath their abilities or training: a doctor from Tirnanoc cannot practice in the Burgue, while a once-celebrated poet works in a brothel. While the fae seem to be fairly equal opportunity, human women in the Burgue experience many of the same restrictions as their sisters in Victorian Europe, struggling for academic, economic, and personal freedoms afforded only to men.

The series is at its best when, like previous series, it is subtle in these allusions. The best episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek were those that delivered thought-provoking allegory without whacking the viewer over the head with a message. Sometimes, Carnival Row forgets that, getting rather preachy for a show with so much swearing and fornication. When the social commentary and historical allusions are subtle, they are effective and fascinating. When they are overt, they come across as pushyImage result for carnival row and heavy-handed.  The very essence of the world of the fae: a world parallel to ours and not always reachable, should remind the showrunners that things are often more real and more powerful when they are not obvious and easy to find.


“With a Fairy hand in hand”

The treatment of the Fae, as a real people, is the core of the series, and the nods to the mythos behind the fae are some of the best aspects of the series. The different types of fae are all familiar to those of us who have spent any time in Narnia, Neverland, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. There are “Trow” (trolls), who have gotten fairly little screen time as yet, along with werewolves, centaurs, fairies (though all the creatures are called “fae,” the fairies are their own species), and fauns (although they are really more like satyrs, per the distinction C.S. Lewis makes, with both and male and females sporting big ram’s horns rather than the demure little horns of Mr. Tumnus). The different races have characteristics that line up with their mythological heritage: the centaurs serve as almost literal workhorses, the werewolves are men changed by the moon, the fairies are beautiful and able to fly, and the satyr/fauns have a connection with the physical that makes them both excellent doctors and cooks as well as manual laborers. While the series certainly has its own take on each of these creatures, its connection with their mythic roots keeps the series tied in with the familiar even as it takes us to unfamiliar places.

The fae’s homeland, which looks like war-torn Bosnia or a WWI Western Front, is Tirnanoc, alluding to  the name of the homeland of the fae, or Sidhe, in Celtic myth: Tir nan og. It was a place sometimes depicted as a land of eternal youth and beauty, but which has a time system that runs differently than that in the corporeal world, so that Celtic Image result for tam lin jane yolenheroes who ventured to the land of the fae may come back the same day to find years have passed, or stay seven years in Tir nan og, only to return to world in which a century has elapsed (Seven years is a common theme in stories involving Tir nan og, so it is fitting that the Burgue pulled out of Tirnanoc seven years before the events of the series).  Tam Lin, of the Scottish song/tale that has been so beautifully retold by Jane Yolen, is one such figure, having been carried off by the beguiling fairy queen until she tires of him and plans to kill him before his rescue by Janet McKenzie, a girl to whom his vanishing is a legend from the time of her ancestors, as his few yews in the fae Image result for carnival rowkingdom have been centuries in Scotland.

Interestingly, the series has, of yet, made little of the negative side of the fae in their traditional role as kidnappers.  Fortunately, many of my students are familiar with the 1980s Jim Henson film Labyrinth (technically, David Bowie’s awesome Goblin King is a Related imagegoblin, of course, but he really is a fae) and thus are already on the way to understanding the fae tendency to snatch children that they will need to understand as we plow into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I sometimes have to help students grasp the changeling concept.  The fae in Carnival Row seem to be getting a pass, at least so far, on this part of the mythology, and they are certainly coming off better than the Sidhe of Peadar O’Guilin’s brutal YA novel The Call, who are some of literature’s most terrifying child-predators not created by Stephen King.  Some of the mythology has only received a passing glance, but as the series is already renewed for another season, it will be intriguing to see how the mythic core elements are re-worked and woven into the story.


“Olden songs and olden dances”

The best thing about Carnival Row, and the thing that kept me going through some pretty nasty bits in this first season, is its literary undercurrent. The entire series is shot through with references to literature as diverse as Lovecraft and Shakespeare, often with wonderful, surprising, twists.

Oedipus Rex supplies some great textual material, from messy families to misunderstood prophecies and scarred foundling boys. There is also a creepy “haruspex” who, like a Roman auger, inspects the entrails of animals to see both the past and the future, but, as in Oedipus’ story, things are seldom what they seem for those who dabble in trying to control the destinies of themselves or others.

With a monster highly reminiscent of Cthulhu, crimes evocative of those solved by both Poe’s Dupin and Doyle’s Holmes, and a whole raft of characters who would be quite at home in a Dickens novel, Carnival Row relies on elements of Victorian and early twentieth-century literature. Actual books play pivotal roles in the series, with a “scientific romance,” much loved by the protagonist, forming an important plot point, but the sharp-eyed reader will often catch literary references throughout the show. In addition to the Dickensian flavor of much of the series, many of the characters have wonderful “portmanteau” names that could have been crafted by the man who invented Ebenezer Scrooge, primarily because he liked the way the name conveyed the “screw” sound. From human Imogen Spurnrose, whose name foreshadows her society-defying choices, to fairy Vignette Stonemoss whose name harks back to her home in the mystical forests of Tirnanoc, many of the characters’ names are both appropriate and great literary allusions. (I’m also rather amused by a cad named Leslie Boythorn, a cad name if there ever was one.)

Actual literary names are often tossed about: there is the obnoxious police chief named Dombey, in homage to Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Since one of the most important elements in one of the plot lines involves shipping disasters and investments, as well as mishandling of family investments by a fool whose only qualification for running the family business is his gender, the allusion is a fitting one. Imogen, who really would be good at running the family’s affairs, is often overruled by her brother Ezra Spurnrose, and her name, alluding to the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, promises her eventual success. However, it seems likely she will encounter worse hardships than she has already this season, which may, like those of Shakespeare’s heroine, include false accusations of infidelity and assumptions of her own death and well as that of her beloved.

Four fairies dance in a circle beside another fairy who faces a human king and queenThe major scaffolding is, unsurprisingly, Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has been quite the popular allusion source these days, with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald pulling heavily from Shakespeare’s fantastic fae tale.  In Carnival Row, the unflattering term for the fauns is “puck,” a play on the name of their region of origin, Puyan, and also a reference to the henchman of Oberon whose antics lead to many of the play’s comic hijinks. Interestingly, the fauns we have seen so far seem very grounded, pragmatic sorts, hardly what one would call “puckish,” with the exception of Mr. Agreus’s  often razor-sharp deadpan humor and that same gentleman’s fascination with the “new” technology of electric lights. Titania, Shakespeare’s Queen of the Fairies, is often evoked as a saint who intercedes for fae in times of need, like a patron.

Since the series is, at least on one level, a crime drama, the characters include a grumpy and small-minded police chief named Flute. I am sincerely hoping he will turn out to be a crossdresser, in homage to the MND character, one of the “mechanicals” who plan to put on a play of Pyramus and Thisbe for the nobility despite their shocking lack of ability. Flute is the one assigned to play Thisbe, the ingenue of the unintentionally hilarious tragic love story. His horror at his casting (“Let me not play a woman! I have a beard coming!”) is almost as iconic as the stock character of the police chief who makes a whole series of wrong decisions by believing the wrong people in a case that defies his assumptions about the world.

The most important MND reference comes in the person of the protagonist, police inspector Rycroft Philostrate, who is often referred to as Philo by his few friends and the fae residents on his beat who know him to be more trustworthy than most humans, especially ones in law enforcement. Philo, Greek for “love,” is an appropriate moniker, as the story’s major backstory concerns his his forbidden affair with fairy Vignette Stonemoss seven years ago during the war. Since he was an officer in the military unit assigned to her town, “strate,” meaning “army,” completes the Carnival Row Orlando Bloomappropriate name, but “Philostrate” is, most importantly, a referral to Theseus’s Master of Revels in MND, the fellow who rounds up Bottom and his friends for their performance of “tragical mirth,” and is, thus, a bridge, a conduit between the very different classes of people in the play. Philo is also just such a liminal figure, an “in-between” person whose story is one that straddles two worlds. Although the first season appears to be about the dreadful murders taking place in the seemy underworld of Carnival Row, where most of the fae live and the humans visit for titillation and entertainment, it is really Philo’s story. Orlando Bloom, an actor who has adeptly played pirates and elves, is quite good at the role, and is a much more interesting Philostrate than Shakespeare’s Master of Revels ever hoped to be.

“Give them Unquiet Dreams”

Alas, just like the beautiful and enchanting world of the fae has that nasty time-lapse issue, this series has some blemishes, for certain. The language is appalling, and often unnecessary. I’m no prude when it comes to swears, but I also appreciate their being used for effect, not as a substitute for every part of speech, and the “f-word,” so beloved by the script-writers, is really only one part of speech, a verb.

Obviously they know that, as the characters both say and do that every single episode. The sex scenes are frequent, graphic, and often unexpected. Thankfully, the sex is consensual, even if is sometimes weird. The violence is graphic, too, and the only thing that allowed me to watch the entire series was watching it on my phone, so that the graphic scenes were small and easy for me to cover up or flip over. Alas, the same cannot be said for the gutter vocabulary blasting through my headphones.

I am hopeful that the series will not succumb what I call “the Westeros Virus,” a disease that kills otherwise promising stories by becoming obsessed with nihilism and shock value at the expense of interesting characters and deeper meaning. I am hopeful that Carnival Row  will fulfill its early promise and stick to the very promising elements of literary, mythic, and social allusion that can make it thought-provoking and worthwhile in spite of its gritty setting and darker elements, not because of them.Image result for carnival row

Thoughts? Comments? If you’ve waded through this series as well, I’d love your observations to add to these!


  1. Prof. Hardy,

    What I have to say is a bit awkward. Not because there is anything intrinsically embarrassing or out of court. It’s just that this is the first time I’ve shared info on this site that makes me wonder if I’m violating some form of terms of conditions or trust. The reason for that is because the source is something I’ve blogged about.

    You mention shows like that had an allegorical bent like “Trek” and “the Zone”. The irony is I’ve been able to do some excavating into, not the shows themselves, but rather style of type of writing that went into them. You see, one of the interesting things I’ve discovered as a book nerd who likes to read about the process of creative writing, as well as the finished product, is that in some ways the Inklings are not an isolated phenomena. This is something Diana Glyer mentions in her book, “The Company They Keep”. While she mentions other literary groups, her study is focused where she wants it, on the Oxford

    The interesting part is that when you go and look at a lot of other popular authors, you discover that they too were part of similar group oriented creative efforts. It seems almost (if perhaps not quite) like a natural recurring phenomenon. You see it with the Romantics, the Modernists, and then there is a collection of writers who have left their mark on the shape of modern urban fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. They called themselves the Group. However, I think the better term for them is the California Sorcerer’s.

    The similarities this group has to the Inklings is somewhat astounding, while also managing to be almost its own sort of thing. Like the Inklings, the Sorcerer’s was collective made up of writers. Like their earlier English counterparts, the Sorcerer’s would often meet up together to discuss and critique each other’s work, and discuss the state of literature in general. The most remarkable resemblance is that, like the Inklings, the Sorcerer’s centered around two individuals who made an informal core for the group of authors. I suppose the closest the Sorcerer’s had to a CSL was a now forgotten scribbler named Charles Beaumont. He seems to have been the informal head of the Group. The collective’s inspiration, however, came from Ray Bradbury. He was the writer everyone else in the Sorcerer’s wanted to be, and kind of willingly acted as their standard, of sorts.

    The Sorcerer’s are responsible for a lot of the short stories that are now touted as the modern exemplars of popular genre fiction. You have stuff like “I Am Legend”, “Logan’s Run”, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, and “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, “The Howling Man”, and “The Halloween Tree”. It is efforts like this that stand as the markers and template setters for how current popular genre fiction is told and presented. The irony is everyone seems to have forgotten it.

    Here’s the real interesting part. A lot of the allegories of these short stories and novels treads remarkably close to the themes and ideas of the Inklings. Prof. Harold Lee Prosser in his study of Beaumont, “Running from the Hunter”, even labels his subject as an “Existentialist Christian”. While C.S. Lewis has hinted at the mythopoeic strains in Bradbury’s work. There’s more to tell, though a lot of it is best found here:

    My point is that a lot of the forgotten lineage touched on by Carnival Row had its start in works by the California Sorcerer’s. In sense, I think a case can be made that there are a lot of shared text interests at work in this show which go back a long way. My favorite product from this Group still remains Peter Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn”.

    I hope this wasn’t out of bounds. It’s just that your article seemed relevant enough to make it worth sharing. At the very least, it does offer a bit of a history lesson in how the popular genres got their modern forms, and how those forms can have a touch of, or else border on the shores of mythopoeia.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Wow! Thank you for this – quite new to me – and all reflective detail with which you present it! And thanks to ChrisC for light on what sounds very likely background – for those like me who have read too little science fiction and wonder what backgrounds there might be ‘out there’. (E.g., I just read and thoroughly enjoyed, Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes’s Encounter with Tiber, without a sense of how much its fascinating reflections on things racial, generational, scientific, martial (etc.) via an ancient space-faring people, may be working and playing with a literary tradition.)

    You give me a lot to think about, with respect to Narnia. (As I read the article, it sounded like an introduction of what you call “Westros virus” there, but in its totality, gives a lot more food for thought about how Lewis – and Tolkien – variously play and work with ‘faerie’.)

    I wonder if Yeats is consciously interacting with Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’ in particular – about the most hair-raising human-child-abduction-themed account I know (especially as set by Schubert and sung by Gerard Souzay)? E.g., is Yeats’s speaker an ‘unreliable narrator’ about ‘what really happens in faerie’?

  3. D.L. Dodds,

    No problem.

    For my part, it’s all about making sure a lot of important legacies don’t fall off the map.

  4. Brian Basore says

    Oh, I see. Like my reactions the first time I read Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market.

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