Mysterious Cities of Gold Episode Recap: History, Enchantment and Tolkien

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We arrive at Episode 2 – the long voyage across the Atlantic officially begins.  These early episodes journeying across the ocean are integral to the story.  As often happens with long stories, people tend to overlook the early episodes/chapters: sometimes they are seen to be superfluous to the main story.

I’ve discussed the importance of the early chapters in the Lord of the Rings, early chapters which tend to receive similar complaints!  And the Mysterious Cities of Gold, an example of visual storytelling, elicits similar treatment – even ardent fans have commented that things don’t really get going until the protagonists reach the New World.  Perhaps that’s true in terms of the plot, after all it’s hard to move that on since they’re stuck on a ship for months and months;  but in terms of characterisation, and the development of relationships, these episodes are critical – without them you would lose a great deal of context and meaning in the rest of the tale.  There is a lot to say with this episode so I decided to go for another 2-parter. This post is about the creation of a believable self-consistent universe, (what Tolkien described as the ‘Secondary World’), and the role of Enchantment in story-telling. The next part on episode 2 will look at the meaty stuff on plot, character development and character relationships.

Historical and Geographical Realism – the Believable Universe

As an example of storytelling, these early episodes serve to create depth and an internal consistency, so that a) you believe in the story, and b) feel you are in it. If you don’t achieve that at the start, it can’t magically happen halfway through. The sense of belief is achieved in this story with a high degree of historical and geographical accuracy.  We are introduced to each episode with a reminder of the historical era – the 16th century – and indeed just as it is in the cartoon, that was a period in which European exploration (basically, colonisation) was at a frenzy; 1532 was indeed the year that Governor Pizzaro travelled to the New World, slaughtered the Inca and captured their King Atahualpa. In the cartoon, the fleet that Esteban and Zia are travelling with, and which Mendoza is navigating, is the fleet carrying men and arms to the very same Governor Pizzaro.

Moreover, we learn that Mendoza holds the responsibility of navigating the fleet because he has already crossed these seas with the Portuguese explorer Magellan, almost ten years Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 02.34.50before. Again, this matches the historical figure who travelled to the New World in 1519 and whom the dangerous ‘Straits of Magellan’ are named after. The Straits form an important part of the journey and narrative in these few episodes.  The consistency and accuracy of the historical universe is a sheer joy for those who, like me, are deeply fascinated by Early Modern history and the roots of colonialism.

Many people who grew up watching Mysterious Cities of Gold have said they learnt about the history and cultures of South America through watching the cartoon, which in turn influenced their educational and professional pursuits in later life – I’m not surprised!

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 01.46.36Again, geographically the cartoon is also consistent, this will become particularly apparent later on in the series as the protagonists journey up north through South America to Central America, encounter important landmarks and landforms, and meet indigenous peoples who actually inhabited those specific areas in historical reality.

In these early episodes, maps are used on-screen to create a sense of burgeoning adventure and distance traveled – we see the charting of the Esperanza’s route through the Mediterranean, as it turns south across the Atlantic, and enters the Straights of Magellan off the coast of Argentina.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 02.02.14The sheer distance covered is supported by the sense of passing time. It is not easy to
convince the viewer that 5 months have passed on screen, but the cartoon succeeds – firstly by dedicating an unusually long amount of time to the voyage (3 full episodes – compare that with the so-called season 2 of MCoG, in which the journey across 2 continents is covered in a couple of seconds within one episode); secondly a sense of time is achieved by conveying the challenges of ‘long-haul’ travel on board a ship without having to jazz it up or pretend it is a part of the main plot. It is what it is – sea sickness, disgusting food, measly rationing, rats, antagonism between the crew, the eternal fear of bad weather, plenty of real discoveries – from various aquatic animals to ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ – and of course the challenge of simple boredom for those on board. There are plenty of quiet moments, when we get to hear the ship creak, and can observe the deck swaying and tilting on the waves the whole time – it all feels very real and believable.  We ‘live’ these scenarios mainly through the eyes of Esteban, for whom this is an entirely new experience.

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I particularly like the documentary at the end of this episode. It discussed the historical rivalry among Europeans seeking access to the spice trade, and the accidental route taken by Christopher Columbus which he at the time saw as a failure – it didn’t lead him to the East and those spices that were valued more than money, but to the ‘New World’ (New to Europe of course, not to the ancient civilisations living there..).  The documentaries really add to the spirit of adventure and a sense of the past – brilliantly conceived and put together. If you’re interested in this stuff, well worth a visit to the Maritime Museum in Greewich, London – it’s superb.

“Let us be Enchanted”

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 01.35.50This episode contains some scenes of magic and awe.  The wonderful thing about these scenes are that they are so simple. The episode’s success lies in getting us to see the nobility and beauty in the apparently mundane. It is absolutely not just about finding the Cities of Gold, it is not just about an adventure, it is not just about the action. This is precisely where many of the gold-seekers in the series get it wrong – the greedy pursuit of the material causes them to lose sight of the real riches we have in life, riches that we all have access to if we but pause to reflect and appreciate: joy in Nature, curiosity in the mysteries of the world around us, peace in extending human kindness.
Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 01.37.45The first case of ‘enchantment’ occurs with a surreal dream, accompanied by a mystical and haunting score.  The usually cheerful Esteban is in pain and nauseous with sea-sickness; meanwhile Zia is trying to find words to comfort him and make him feel better – but he feels so put out that he (very uncharacteristically) chides Zia for speaking. It’s one of the rare times they fall out in the series.

Esteban leaves the cabin, drops to his knees holding his stomach, and seems to black out.

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We are then transported into a vision in which Esteban floats up into the air; he is twisted and carried by some force to a strange, far away place against a multicoloured sky, until he reaches a series of abandoned pyramids. His mouth opens as if to scream, but we hear no sound…until he awakens, back to normal, lying on his back under the peaceful starry sky having somehow ended up on the main deck.

It’s a short scene, left unexplained, and feels just a bit spooky and unsettling; we’re left to wonder what Esteban is getting himself into – what dangers and uncertainties await him? We also get a sense of destiny, a sense that he is being called or drawn onwards by forces that are beyond his or anyone else’s control…

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This dream sets an important tone for the whole series, that we are entering a universe in which things are no longer familiar, not everything can be explained by our usual norms, and there will be some things that we simply are left to guess about – it creates a backdrop of other-wordliness that hints at a separate reality, previously unknown, that challenges our existing parochial views and narrow principles.  You can see it just as a cartoon, or something containing deeper themes that weren’t necessarily even intended by the writers.  Here I see one of the key themes of this story coming to light: theScreen Shot 2015-05-20 at 01.37.13
uncomfortability but necessity of embracing that which is unfamiliar, and to appreciate its worth without seeking to control it; to honestly confront our own previously unrecognised limitations and vulnerabilities; to have the humility to realise we don’t have the answers to everything, and we are only a tiny part of a greater universe that doesn’t revolve around us and our own cultures.

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, I would say Enchantment in any story helps to encourage this subtle consciousness.

* * *

We find two other scenes of Enchantment in this episode; they captivate and create that sense of wonder and humility explained above.  They seem to do nothing for the plot – or rather, that is what one might think from a shallow perspective; but its scenes such as these that in fact make the story special and memorable, and support the notion of discovery – both discovery of a new world, but also discovery of one’s self.

In the first of these scenes, we see Esteban attempting to conquer his vertigo by walking bare-footed along the ship’s bowsprit.

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All we can hear is the peaceful sound of the waves and the creak of the ship as he precariously pigeon-steps forward, deep in concentration – Zia passes by on deck and shouts out for him to be careful, just as Esteban slips and finds himself clinging to the spar. He manages to steady himself, but a strange dark shadow emerges under him in the water…

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…Suddenly, there is a great whooshing sound, and a huge spray of water from nowhere catches him unawares.

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The fact Esteban is now hanging on for dear life passes us by, and Zia too: instead, she is spell-bound by the sight around her: “Whales, Esteban! So many!”  She is no longer worried about Esteban falling, and nor it seems is he – both are mesmerised by what must be a tremendous experience – surrounded by these majestic, gigantic creatures in the middle of the vast ocean.

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We are left to admire these whales, accompanied by a look of wonderment on Esteban’s face.

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* * *

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 02.04.10The second of these scenes is my favourite. Again, against the simple sound of the waves and the long creaks of the ship, Esteban is finding ways to ‘amuse’ himself just as Mendoza advised. He is walking upside down on his hands along the ship’s rail (his daring adventurousness is a recurring theme)… Sancho warns him to be careful or he might topple overboard.

Esteban laughs it off, but just then his upside-down view is suddenly arrested by a curious sight. Fascinated, he tumbles back on deck, crouched on the ground and clutching at the rail while he stares at this phenomenon.

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‘The water…the water is all yellow!…Oh, it’s fantastic!’

For a moment we’re left wondering – really? what is so fantastic? But then, cue the music, beautiful and utterly mesmerising, and we are transported to a magical scene. Esteban imagines gold clouds rising up, forming vast wings which then reshape into golden pyramids, hovering on the water (we are learning that he is quite the day-dreamer). An authoritative voice enters into Esteban’s vision: “That means we are approaching the New World…”; in fact, the voice is that of Mendoza, who likewise notices the ‘yellow water’ and, on a side-note, notices Esteban’s curiosity too – not the first or last time.

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As we come out of Esteban’s reverie, we soon realise that the yellow water is in fact a vast gathering of gorgeous golden butterflies sitting delicately on the ocean surface; they suddenly all take flight and flutter above the heads of everyone on board the ship, seemingly sprinkling the sky with gold glitter.

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For a full couple of minutes, we just watch, admire and take it all in. Nothing else is required, just be captivated by the moment.

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The fact the characters in the story are doing exactly the same makes us feel we are on the journey with them, rather than simply observing them as objects. We see Esteban’s infectious expression of excitement, while Zia back on the main deck is also in awe, her face upturned in sheer delight.

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But it’s not just the kids: even Mendoza watches on, in silence and clearly impressed, a big smile on his face as he stands alongside Esteban; the usually macho sailors can be seen in the crow’s nest with arms outstretched trying to touch the butterflies; while even cynical ‘baddies’ Gomez, Perez and Gaspard are pictured staring up, mesmerised at the beautiful view. It is, indeed, fantastic!

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Enchantment as Escapism and belief in Goodness

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 01.52.43Both scenes are even more powerful since they are presented to us through the eyes of children – after all, children retain the humility of knowing the limits of their knowledge; they are most receptive to new discoveries, and can enjoy simple beauty for its own sake without searching for its wider utility. They can experience in the present, appreciate and absorb. There are of course parallels here with other story-tellers: take C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, where the person who was first able to move beyond a bounded rationality to discover the hidden secret of the Wardrobe, had to be Lucy, the youngest child in the group.

Or we can draw connections with Tolkien’s more unique narrators: Hobbits, who, though not children, embody many child-like (not immature, but in fact honest) characteristics that make them more appreciative of what is good.  Moreover their subtle awareness, and their newness to the rest of Middle-earth outside the Shire, helps to turn what might be considered banal by more worldly characters, into objects of fascination, fear or delight. And so we the reader feel the same emotions that they feel, about things as apparently unremarkable as a tree, or falling rain, or a meal of bread and butter and honey.  Tolkien says in his essay ‘On Faerie Stories’, which he presented at the University of St Andrews in 1939:

“Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”

Perhaps as adults, surrounded by a multitude of anxieties and responsibilities, we might forget what it means to feel joy – these stories help us to reconnect with that feeling through a reacquaintance with simple things we might have become accustomed to overlook.

Enchantment is of course the opposite of disenchantment with the world, which could also be translated as cynicism, even irony – traits that are typical of and particular to adults; a world weariness that produces a semi-mocking rendering of every event, which ultimately produces a futility about life. This was most prevalent in poetry, story-telling and art after the horrors of the First World War (think of the cutting sarcasm of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or the frankly depressing harshness of Futurist paintings in the early 20th century). Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and their fellow ‘Inklings’ were therefore unique in their rejection of cynicism and the return to romance via their stories, which were like a revelation at the time, and very much going against the grain in literature. It explains why their books received such snooty and condescending reviews among the fashionable literati of the time.

When I looked into it, I was not surprised then to read that the 1970s have similarly been dubbed as the era of ‘disenchantment, rebellion and cynicism’. The decade carried forth disillusionment, here in the UK (the 3-day working week, endless labour strikes, and electricity black-outs) but also abroad – the travesty of the Vietnam war, back-to-back Arab-Israeli conflicts, the OPEC boycott, and the spectre of nuclear war produced a sense of crisis in modernity. It is really interesting to note, therefore, that this children’s cartoon, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, aired in 1982 just on the back of this tumultuous and cynical decade; as it was with Tolkien’s work, it reflected a turning away from the disillusionment of the real world, and a renewed search for Enchantment. Tolkien stated:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

The Lord of the Rings is a reflection of this, and I would argue The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a similar attempt to transport us to a historical era, seen through the eyes of children, and giving us the viewer something to discover and find joy in again.

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Episode 2, plot and character analysis, continued here …

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22 Responses to Mysterious Cities of Gold Episode Recap: History, Enchantment and Tolkien

  1. Rose F says:

    Oh, I thought I was the only one left who remembered this show!

  2. Alex Hurst says:

    Your analysis of this is mind-boggingly awesome (the last post as well). You’re making me want to watch this whole series, as I’m writing an MS about colonialism (and the uprising as a result)… Where can I get access to this?

    Fantastic job! Love the essay quality.

    • earthoak says:

      Thanks so much Alex, wow what a kind thing to say! I appreciate it! 🙂 . Yes, the whole series is available to buy on DVD on Amazon (for decades it seemed to have disappeared, until a few years ago, fans set up a campaign to get it released and finally succeeded). I felt a bit sheepish buying it for the sake of nostalgia, but I’m so glad I did. Comes with fantastic short, educational documentaries at the end of each episode – these weren’t originally aired by the BBC back in the 80s (probably felt some of the content was too frightening for kids), so it was good to see those for the first time. Your MS sounds really interesting, would love to hear more about it!

  3. Diana says:

    Oh awesome! I had forgotten all about this!

  4. Gene'O says:

    This looks cool, and I don’t remember it. I am a believer in geographic realism in worldbuilding (I blog about worldbuilding occasionally). Also in social realism. I think those two elements are important to keeping fantastical stories believable enough to keep readers involved.

    Thanks for joining the #geekpastiche geek and greet! I am happy to see you met my lovely sis. I’m trying to visit everyone this weekend and snag links for sharing later.


    Instigator-in-Chief at Sourcererblog

    • earthoak says:

      Thanks for dropping by Gene’O, and for the follow! Really appreciate your comments – yes you’re right, worldbuilding (that’s a good word!) plays such a key role in fantasy stories – I was struck by how much skill must have taken for the writers (and animators) to pull it off. Your blogs on worldbuilding, can I find them at sourcererblog? sounds right up my street. Was very nice to meet your sis, and thanks for the geek and greet! 🙂

  5. As I was reading this I tried to work out why it was that I never saw this. Then you gave the date, 1982, and I knew that I was teaching in Zambia during that year in a school where there was only one TV & that was in the Headmaster’s house. The rest of us were occasionally allowed to watch an occasional programme such as the matches of the 1982 Football World Cup in Spain. Embassies would buy satellite time so that their country’s matches could be seen.
    This was great stuff and I enjoyed being introduced to the story. Your comments on the early chapters of books set in a Secondary World were also just right.

    • earthoak says:

      Thanks so much for your kind comment, glad you enjoyed it! Watching the World Cup in Zambia must have been very atmospheric. Yes, I think the cartoon series is one of those that is a bit obscure, but has a loyal following.

  6. shawn says:

    Great article! I’ve never seen the show, but now I need to 🙂 Thanks for posting a very compelling story about this part of history.

    • earthoak says:

      Thanks for dropping by and for your kind comment! Yes, I find this part of history fascinating – a great bonus to have a cartoon series based on the period 🙂

  7. Orchid says:

    I foresee myself reading through these posts huddled up with a mug of hot choc.
    The depth and insight you’ve given lends itself to a wonderful read and takes me back to the delightful moments watching this excellent series. Thank you for bringing back such magical memories.

    • earthoak says:

      Ah Orchid! Nice to see you here 😉 glad you found the blog and thanks for your lovely comments. I endorse mug of hot choc, although there’s a heatwave in Uk right now, so maybe save that for the winter, phew. Did you get to watch the documentaries at the end of the episodes? they’re very good!

  8. T says:

    I enjoyed this immensely! Thank you so much for helping me learn new words and improving my vocabulary. I think you know who I am now:)

    Can you think of good comprehension questions for me to do from this please?

    • earthoak says:

      I believe a young man whom I am fond of very much has just discovered my blog 🙂 Hello nephew! So glad you came by this – you see how often I talk about you and your siblings here. let me think of some questions and I’ll send them to you.

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