Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tony, meet Chuck

Tony Soprano, please meet Charles -- also known as Charlemagne (or Karl der Grosse, if you're German).
Tony looks unimpressed...

If you live in the US, and unless you've been living under a rock lately, you know that the last episode of HBO's The Sopranos recently aired. And there has been great controversy among fans and critics as to what actually happened at the end of the episode. A brief summary can be found here, but that doesn't really do the ending justice. Tony is waiting in the restaurant with his family, then just as Meadow walks in, with Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" caught mid-refrain (at "don't stop..."), the screen cuts to black. If you had Tivo (like I do), you thought it cut the end of the show off. But it didn't. That was the point. Cut to black. The end. Or is it? (Actually, I just found this article, which does the ending justice and you can see critical responses and even watch the final moments).

The controversy, as it were, is whether Tony is now dead or whether he still lives. My goodness, just use "the google" and you'll see how much is out there. Nevertheless, we're never going to know. Because, really, no one is sure. The writer and creator, David Chase, doesn't tell us and isn't going to tell us.

But what does any of this have to do with Charlemagne?

Well, 2 things. The first (and most superficial) similarity is that both are/were cold-blooded thugs, at their very core. Both were willing to go to any lengths to increase, or simply maintain their grip on power. For Tony, that meant stepping over his uncle, his colleagues in Brooklyn, whoever. For Charles, that meant stepping on the Lombards, the Saxons, the Avars, his own brother's family, whoever.

But the much more interesting similarity has to do with this whole controversy over whether the king (of North Jersey) is alive or dead. So too with Charlemagne. Now, don't get me wrong, I know that Charlemagne is dead. But, during the Middle Ages and most especially during the early Middle Ages, was he dead, not dead, mostly dead? People weren't so sure. Paul Dutton wrote convincingly about the birth of the "sleeping emperor" legend in the decades after Charlemagne's death in 814. Then, that legend merged with another, Christian legend that was simultaneously gaining currency in the medieval West -- that of the Christian Last Emperor. (An example of this synthesis can be found in the mid-10th century treatise on the antichrist by Abbot of Adso of Montier-en-Der. The paragraph on the Last Christian/ Frankish Emperor comes about half-way down the page. I also have an article on this synthesis in the Oxford Song of Roland and I'm working on a book that deal with this conjunction of ideas before the 1st Crusade.)

The point to all this uncertainty really, I think, comes down to an unwillingness on the part of the audience (either Tony's or Chuck's) to accept the fact that their gone. After Charlemagne's death, especially in his grandsons' generation, the world seemed to fall apart. Thereafter, people looked back with starry eyes at the "Golden Age" that they had lost. Like a fish tale, Charlemagne's deeds grew greater with every telling. People wished, prayed that he would come back to rescue them and restore the world to its "proper" state.

So too with Tony Soprano. The Sopranos has often been called the greatest TV show of a generation. So, now what? What will life be like without Tony? Please, the masses cry, bring him back! Maybe for a movie! Come back, Tony. Arouse from your slumber and blaze forth against your enemies just one more time to rescue us and our TVs from mediocrity and drivel.


Eileen Joy said...

Matthew--first, welcome to the medieval blogosphere; I love what you are doing here and we'll add you to our blogroll at In The Middle. As to The Sopranos, I have always been a big fan, and whenever I am teaching "Beowulf" or other medieval so-called "heroic" poetry, I always use portions of episodes from The Sopranos to illustrate the war-band ethos. Cheers, Eileen

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks, Eileen. I enjoy reading "In the Middle" as well. That's a great suggestion about using The Sopranos for Beowulf.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hey, a Frank's gotta do what a Frank's gotta do.