Literature in the 2012 Olympic Ceremony

After all the premature doubts surrounding the Olympic Opening Ceremony – whether it will be anywhere as good as Beijing, whether it will be an international embarrassment – I was pleasantly surprised with it. The English countryside theme really seemed to work, and a lot of our national history was appreciated. The moment of remembrance was thoughtful, but Danny Boyle also worked hard to include comedy and energy in the ceremony. The Queen sketch took everybody in my house by surprise; my brother was convinced that it couldn’t have been the real Queen speaking to Daniel Craig (that is not what one does), but then he thought that it most definitely must have been her parachuting out of the helicopter. Ah, the logic of young male minds.


I wasn’t sure if Mr Bean was confined to British humour, but the commentator thankfully validated that he also made people laugh outside of our rather eccentric isle. The music was exclusively British, but songs were chosen that everyone knew (or at least should know!) I didn’t like the modern technology elements as much as the early countryside/development part, but it was still enjoyable.

What I enjoyed most – quite typically considering my bookish nature – was the reference to literature both subtly and explicitly. I think the earliest inclusion was Blake’s Jerusalem, a poem (probably most often called a song) connected tightly to the minds of Britons during the Industrial Revolution. Here are the first two verses in which the contrast between “pleasant pastures” and “Satanic Mills” is made, something Boyle successfully replicated in the performance:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Then there was the Shakespeare to make all of the book nerds jump out of their seats. Here is the section of Taliban’s dream recited by Kenneth Branaugh, as taken from The Tempest:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

At this moment, China had nothing on us. How can you compete with Shakespeare? The performance went on to link Peter Pan with the NHS, aided by a mass of children and nurses. J.K. Rowling reciting a passage from the children’s novel was probably one of my favourite parts of the production: it was so thoughtfully done.

The atmosphere changed tone with the entrance of a 100-foot tall Voldermort among other literary villains – if I were a child I would have been terrified! However, Mary Poppins came to the rescue, and this hopefully saved the younger audience from nightmares.

All in all, I thought it was fantastic. The New York Times have called it a “dizzying” production that was “weirdly British”, but that seems like a success to me. We never could have toned down an Olympic ceremony in order to avoid seeming a little odd.

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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