Star Wars and Henry

April 7, 2011
It began with Star Wars and finished with an airplane. How perfectly fitting. Even though the airplane was a regular metal one, equipped with those thick seats that were nice for half an hour or so until you realized that the dark blue material with its small geometric patterns was rather scratchy after a while, made especially so by the knowledge that you were belted to it with the only reprieve being a solitary sojourn in the tiny bathroom that was hardly a bathroom at all. And even though it wasn’t really over, because I was there, alive, straining to look out the window and not blink as the sleek machine rode faster across the tarmac, faster and faster, until it was no longer bumping along on anything but rushing - hurtling - through space and time and molecules, all bumping together and jostling to evade the metal nose. So it began with Star Wars but it didn’t end with the airplane. It didn’t end when the airplane descended again on the other side of the Atlantic or even when a new airplane escorted me back across the ocean a week later to resume life in the same house that had started me on the journey. It kept going.

When you really got down to it, Star Wars wasn’t the beginning either. But the beginning was something that stretched back, to the 1500s, to before the 1500s… Star Wars was chosen as the beginning because it was a vertical point in the road, something to look at from afar and say, aha! I know that landmark. That’s where it began…

And what began was a biting fascination, something not to be sated by tens of novels all reciting the same words, but with an “and” here instead of a “but” like the last novel residing placidly on the bookshelf. And not to be reduced by films - Shakespeare’s Henry V or Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The hunger continued on and on and on.

But it began with Star Wars. It took years for my parents to decide that we three kids were ready for the fantasy that was the trilogy. We had chili and cornbread for dinner. We haven’t had cornbread since and chili only occasionally, but whenever I hear the words, I’m brought back to that night, curled up on the couch, watching Luke Skywalker set out on his famous adventures, CPO3 and R2D2 trailing obnoxiously behind. We watched all six of the movies in succession, and that was how I came to be introduced to Natalie Portman.

It all stopped there for a few months. It might never have gone on. The Star Wars era was complete and we had gone on to other movies. But those other movies were the next phase. I found myself walking the aisles of a video rental on a weekend evening, trailing my mother, looking for the right video. And there in a spot of honor, presiding regally above all the other films, stood the movie. The Other Boleyn Girl. I’d heard of the Boleyn girl before, somewhere, at some point. I didn’t remember anything about her, or whether she was still alive - perhaps she’d been in the media lately? - but she happened to be Natalie Portman. That is, Natalie Portman was on the cover, and she imagined herself to be the Boleyn girl, at list within the realms of the disc. I saw Natalie Portman and I watched the movie.

And I was entranced. Mesmerized by the king who had turned the Christian religion on its head, made himself the utter leader of the church of England, produced enemies for this and for discarding his lawful wife on a flimsy claim that is still being disputed among historians, and then saw fit to take off the head of the woman that he had gone through all that trouble for. How terrible could she have been? And who was he? Who was this king who ruled his domain so completely that his very will was law?

The Other Boleyn Girl was a book. A book, as well. The movie had been based off it, and, I thought, if I had been that enamored by the actions, surely I’d be even more captivated by the emotions that went along with the actions. I sought out Philippa Gregory’s novel - and I loved it, of course.

By now I knew who the formidable Henry VIII was, who his ministers and clergymen and wives and family were. I could name them, rattle them off. Where weeks earlier I hadn’t known Henry VIII existed, much less that he had had six wives, I could now recited Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katheryn Howard, and Katherine Parr without pausing for breath.

The next episode in these coincidental events happened at the bookstore Barnes and Noble. I was intent on purchasing a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl for my personal collection, but to this day I still do not own it. Walking through the aisle of P authors, my eyes happened to stumble on a book by Margaret George that seemed to be the very thing I desired: The Autobiography of Henry VIII itself. I didn’t even bother looking for the earlier book. I wanted that one. A few hundred pages all devoted to his story from age 3 or so up until death. It wasn’t his autobiography but it was close enough and it offered me details of the story that I’d been lacking.

From there, I was a captive audience. I sought out as many books and movies about him as I could find and moved on to his children, his wives, his ancestors… King Egbert, William the Conqueror.

It hasn’t stopped. I have not been on that plane ride yet, but I will be this summer. I will touch down in Heathrow, England, and then I will tread across Hampton Court Palace and Westminster Abbey. I will see the Tower of London and recall Henry’s gruesome executions.

It began with Star Wars and the familiarity of Natalie Portman’s face, and then it spread out to a whole network of English history. My friends eye me skeptically when I retrieve yet another book, yet another theory. But I can’t stop and I don’t want to. There is something exciting about seeing a progression. About knowing that stepping foot in London will be the result of an entire chain of events that were at the time intensely ordinary. History is a part of the future and the present is a part of the past. In the end, it’s all connected, and this time it was plain for me to see.

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