February 5, 2016

Mythical F

        Today’s selection of fantasy creatures of F span the continent of Europe, and have in common that they’re all somewhat ambivalent in whether or not they’re “good” to humans.  Of course it’s terribly anthropocentric that we always define creatures’ moral value in relation to ourselves, but then, perhaps the only purpose of fantasy creatures anyway is to help us define ourselves.  Still, I like to imagine their existence independent of humans.

fairy - Are fairies cute and sparkly, or powerful and perilous?  I went through a long, deep fairy phase in my childhood during which I was constantly drawing pictures of fairy families, usually fairy royalty, and constantly flitting around the yard dressed in gauzy fairy gowns.  I still find fairies interesting, despite all the clichés associated with them, and I featured them in the Kate and Sam Adventures at the request of my daughter, who was also fairly fairy-obsessed for a few years.  One of my works in progress, inspired by the Tam Lin ballads, explores the darker side of the fairies and their unpleasant changeling habit.  Here are some previous posts on these beings: Fairy vs Faerie, Midsummer Fairies, Come Away…,  (mostly Celtic and British Isles)

faun - a humanoid who is a goat from the waist down, with goat horns.  They’re often half-human, half-bestial in personality, too.  The ancient Greeks recognized them as being different from satyrs (whom they pictured as more equine, and much more about the sex), but the Romans often conflated the two species.  Fauns are creatures of the wilderness and sometimes strike panic (derived from Pan) in travelers. (ancient Greek)

firebird - a beautiful glowing bird resembling a peacock with flame-colored feathers that continue to glow brightly even after they’re shed.  Young heroes who find one feather inevitably end up going in search of the whole bird, suffering assorted hardships along the way.  The firebird’s favorite food is golden apples.  (Slavic)

Frankenstein’s monster - previous post here.

[Picture: Among the Violets, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013.]

February 2, 2016

Mythical E

        Time for another edition of Mythical Alphabet!

elf - this might seem like a straightforward humanoid mythical being that everybody knows, but in fact elves are pretty complicated.  Throughout northern Europe and throughout the centuries there have been a wide variety of ideas about exactly what sort of being elves are, ranging from pagan gods to Christian demons, nymphs, or succubi, who might be malevolent, beneficial, or neutral, and so on.  Today’s English mythology has two primary versions of elves.  There are the small people, including Santa Claus’s helpers, akin to gnomes or brownies, often being woodland creatures, and often with little pointed hats.  Then there are the high fantasy elves, developed and popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien, taller than human, with supernatural wisdom and beauty. (northern European)

echeneis - a tiny fish that can latch itself to the hull of a moving ship and stop it dead in the water.  There’s a picture, and a bit more about the possible natural basis of the echeneis here.  (medieval European)

elemental - an archetypal being belonging to a classical element: earth, water, air, fire.  Popularized by the renaissance alchemists, there have been various theories regarding the state of such beings’ souls, mortality, powers, and characteristics.  Paracelsus called them pygmies or gnomes (earth), nymphs or undines (water), sylphs (air), and salamanders (fire). (European)

enenra - a monster composed of smoke.  When it emerges from a fire it takes human form, but can be seen only by the pure of heart.  Unfortunately it’s unclear to me how malevolent they may be; there don’t seem to be a lot of stories about what they actually do.  (Japanese)




[Pictures: Untitled woodcut by Josef Váchal, from The Wanderings of the Little Elf by Josef Simanka, 1911 (Image from Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco);
Enenra, wood block print by Toriyama Sekien from Kojaku Hyakki Shui, 1780 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Erlkönig, woodcut by Hans Knipert, before 1950 (Image from Dallas Museum of Art).]

January 29, 2016

Words of the Month - Do You Even Know How to Vocab?

        I am in the midst of five days of guest teaching 20 classes worth of eighth graders about why Shakespeare’s language is the way it is, and how they can get the gist of it - and the fun of it - more easily.  I get very excited about this stuff, although oddly enough, your average eighth grader doesn’t get as fired up about historical grammar as I do!  But one of the things I realized as I was putting together my program, is that in some ways today’s middle schoolers have more in common with Shakespeare than just about any generation in between.  Shakespeare lived at a time when English was being exuberantly manipulated in all sorts of new and eloquent ways, and so it is for today’s generation.
        One of the ways Shakespeare loved to manipulate language was to shift around what parts of speech a word could be used as.  Here are some of his examples.
        In Cymbeline he writes, “to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again,” in which a noun is used as the verb you might do with that noun.
        In Sonnet XVIII he writes, “And every fair from fair sometimes declines… nor lose possession of that fair though ow’st,” in which the same adjective “fair” is used first to mean a fair person, then a nice normal adjective, and then the noun fairness.
        In Sonnet CXXX he writes, “any she belied with false compare,” in which a pronoun is used as a noun.
        In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he writes, “I do estate unto Demetrius,” in which a noun is used a verb that might be done to that noun.
        In Macbeth he writes, “this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine,” in which an adjective is used as a verb.
        When we got a new vacuum cleaner for Christmas, I noticed that it said on the box, “A vacuum for every breed of dirty,” in which an adjective is used as a noun.  Is this bad grammar?  Well, yes, it is… And interestingly, the French and Spanish tag lines also printed on the box used the correct nouns, not adjectival forms.  But Shakespeare wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with this.  For one thing, there was no one to tell him it was wrong.  English grammar wasn’t taught in English schools until 1650 (and even then it was taught only as a base from which to teach Latin, not out of any idea of fixing the way people spoke their own tongue.)  For another thing, Shakespeare lived at a period when speakers of English were flexing their linguistic muscles and feeling that anything was possible.
        So why are we suddenly seeing many of these same characteristics in the English language today?  Imagine a new technology that allows more people than ever before to share their words with more people, over a wider area than ever before, breaking down many barriers of wealth and education…  I could be talking about the internet and social media revolution, but I could just as well be talking about the invention of the printing press which had contributed to the revolution in language that came to its tipping point quite abruptly when Shakespeare was just about exactly the age these eighth graders are now.
        Here are some recent manipulations of language that I’ve collected in the past couple of months.
     Think different.  (One of the first of the trend?  In which an adjective is used for an adverb.)
     Because reasons.  (In which a noun stands in for an entire phrase with subject, verb, and all.)
     I’ll science the heck out of you!  (In which a noun is used for a verb.)
     You can’t handle the crazy.  (In which an adjective is used for a noun.)
     Do you even know how to Christmas?  (In which a noun is used for a verb.)
        Yes, they’re grammatically incorrect, and as a language user it’s always better to know the rules before you break them, to manipulate deliberately instead of messing up accidentally.  But in these examples, people have broken the rules because it catches our attention, because it seems to have a slightly different connotation than the correct version would, because it’s funny, because it makes us think about the words in a new way.  And those are all reasons that Shakespeare did the same thing.

[Pictures: Burning the Midnight Oil, steel engraving by Steven Noble (Image from stevennoble.com);
Shakespeare in winter, illustration in a woodcut style by Michael Custode (Image from custode.com).]

January 26, 2016

The Town of Bookby-upon-Shelf

        My most recent piece is a blending of several of my favorite themes: books, little towns, magic…  This has actually been in the works for an unusually long time.  In fact, I think it was nearly a year ago that I came up with the idea and started sketching.  It is the biggest piece I’ve ever done, about the full size of the sheets of rubber that I order and usually cut into smaller blocks.  The size meant it wasn’t conducive to bringing to art shows for demonstration, which meant that I ended up setting it aside for the spring show season, and then didn’t get back to it again until the winter.  In November I ran out of work at Roslindale Open Studios and decided that I wouldn’t need to worry about running out of carving again if I had this to work on in December!  And it did keep me very satisfactorily busy, too, (although it really was too big for the TV table which was all the space I had for carving at one of my shows).
        Anyway, after the carving came the printing, and the first attempt was an utter failure.  It was so big that it took multiple rollings to ink, and by the time I got ink over everything, the ink I’d rolled on first was already too dry to print well.  You can’t use oil-based ink with rubber blocks, because the solvents destroy the rubber.  But then I discovered some oil-based ink that can be cleaned up with soap and water, eliminating the need for solvents, so I ordered a tube, and tried printing again.  I was delighted with how well it worked!  The ink is Caligo brand Safe Wash and I definitely give it a 5-star review.  It does smell bad (though nothing like as bad as the solvents would have), and my studio continued to smell for the several days the ink took to dry thoroughly before I could stack the prints up and put them away.  Also, it doesn’t wash away quite as cleanly as regular water-based ink.  Still, it printed beautifully, rich and black, and with very little difficulty.  This piece simply wouldn’t have been possible without it.  I look forward to trying it with a few other blocks that I’ve never been able to print satisfactorily - but perhaps not until the weather’s warm enough to open the windows.
        So much for the technical side.  As for the image, I had a lot of fun figuring out what books to put on my bookshelf and there are quite a few references represented.  Some are pretty straightforward: Poetry, Fairy Tales.  But in case you’re curious about the others…
Ev - a country neighboring Oz, and the setting of Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Scurveylegs - Roger Scurveylegs is the eminent historian of Euralia Past and Present frequently mentioned by A.A. Milne in Once on a Time.
Mandeville - the author of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a popular memoir of marvels in the second half of the fourteenth century.  (At least, he’s the reputed author - those parts that are not wholly fictional are plagiarised.)
Livre extra. - Livre extraordinaire de Architecture, the book of sixteenth century architectural designs by Sebastiano Serlio, or perhaps The Extraordinary Book of Doors by Anne E.G. Nydam.  More about Serlio here.
S. Morgenstern - the great Florentine author of The Princess Bride.  William Goldman only abridged the “good parts” version.
Compleat History of the Otherworld - my high fantasy series, of course (“compleat” just to be pretentiously ye olde).
arabic title - This was a cool medieval or renaissance-era Arabic natural history book I came across while looking for other stuff.  To my intense frustration, I can no longer find my notes about it, and nor is my attempt to copy the Arabic script sufficient to find it again on the internet.  So I can’t tell you anything else about it - but trust me, it was interesting.  (If anyone thinks they recognize what the heck it’s supposed to be, do let me know!  Or perhaps some day my notes will turn up.)
Kircher - Athanasius Kircher, awesome seventeenth century German polymath and one of the last serious scholars to study dragons.  You can read more about Kircher here, and about his dragon studies here.
Topsell - Edward Topsell, English author of a 1607-8 bestiary in two volumes (later compiled into one), famous for its woodcut illustrations, as well as for sitting on the transition between medieval and modern views of natural history.
Monstrorum Historia - a work by Ulisse Aldrovandi, one of the fathers of natural history and collector of one of the greatest cabinets of curiosities in Europe in the sixteenth century.
Historiae Animalium - the magnum opus of sixteenth century Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner, considered a bridge between ancient, medieval, and modern science (and the basis of Topsell’s bestiary, too).
Scamander - Newt Scamander, author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a popular textbook used at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
die Brüder Grimm, Andrew Lang - famous nineteenth century collectors of folk and fairy tales
History of the Five Kingdoms - The Five Kingdoms, setting of the series by Vivian French, are Waddingburn, Gorebreath, Dreghorn, Cockenzie Rood, and Niven’s Knowe.  More on these books here.  (Apparently there’s a "Five Kingdoms" series by Brandon Mull, as well.  However, having been deeply unimpressed with the first of his Fablehaven books, I haven’t read anything else of his.)
History of the Lands Beyond - The lands beyond the tollbooth are primarily the Kingdom of Wisdom and the Mountains of Ignorance, visited by Milo as reported by Norton Juster in The Phantom Tollbooth.

[Picture: Bookby-upon-Shelf, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016.]

January 22, 2016

Mythical D

        Mythical creatures beginning with D are a little sparser, but on the other hand, any letter that has dragons doesn’t need much else.

dwarf - a short humanoid who usually lives underground as a miner, especially in mountains.  Cultures all around the world have myths of small humanoids, but classic dwarves are stocky, bearded, skilled craftsmen, prone to greed for precious metals and gems.  One of the odd things about dwarfs (or “dwarves,” if you’re Tolkien) is that they never seem to be female.  This has given rise to the fact that in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld male and female dwarfs look indistinguishable, beards and all.  I’ve written about dwarfs of various races in my Otherworld series, including the more traditional mountain dwarfs, rufous dwarfs, and sky dwarfs. (European)



djinni - a powerful magic being, capable of changing shape, traveling vast distances instantly, and performing other magical feats.  In Islamic tradition the djinn, along with humans and angels, are one of three types of wise beings, and have free will and can be either good or evil.  In English we also get the variant genies, which seem to be more narrowly defined and evoke something like The Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin” or “I Dream of Jeannie.”  Either way, lamps or bottles, fezzes, and little vests seem to be required.  For a previous post on djinn/jinn/genies, go here.  I’ve written about a fire genie and a water genie in my Kate and Sam Adventures.  (Islamic)







dragon - the pinnacle of all fantasy creatures, I’ve already posted on dragons multiple times, and I’m sure I will again.  For now, here are the most relevant:
     Asian Dragons
I’ve written about dragons every chance I get - in the Otherworld books, in the Kate and Sam books, and there will be a dragon in the next Book of Doors!



[Pictures: Dwarf, woodcut by hinatyraia (Image from DragonsTrace on Deviant Art);
The Genius and the Merchants, illustration by Henry Justice Ford from The Arabian Nights Entertainments edited by Andrew Lang, 1898;
The Slave of the Ring appears to Aladdin, illustration by H.J. Ford from The Arabian Nights Entertainments edited by Lang, 1898 (Images from Sacred Texts);
Snow White and some dwarfs, illustration by John Batten from European Folk and Fairy Tales edited by Joseph Jacobs, 1916 (Image from SurLaLune).]

January 19, 2016

Relief Block Prints of Poe

        Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday (207 years ago), and to celebrate I’ve got a few wood engravings illustrating some of his work.  First are a couple of appropriately creepy images by John Buckland Wright (UK 1897-1954).  Wright’s engraving style, with lots of black areas, warped and awkward figures, blank eyes, and looming shapes, capture well the claustrophobic horror of Poe’s tales.  Not being a fan of horror, I confess that these are not my favorite works of Poe, and nor do I actually enjoy these wood engravings.  I can, however, admire how well suited they are to their purpose.  They are ugly and nightmarish in exactly the way Poe’s tales are ugly and nightmarish.




        Poe illustrations by another artist, Douglas Percy Bliss (Scottish, 1900-1984), have a very different look to them, even though the artists were contemporaries, and the editions of Poe they illustrated were only six years apart.  Compare Bliss’s “Cask of Amontillado,” which is a straightforward scene from the story, as opposed to Wright’s evocation of the grisly result.  Bliss’s illustration isn’t as dark and horrifying, but it nevertheless still conveys the oppression and looming danger of the story, with its billowing smoke and crooked path.
        Finally, my favorite of today’s pieces, the House of Usher by Bliss.  Not horrible at all, but definitely very Gothic, this is simply a dramatic depiction of a very cool building.  I particularly like the strong vertical accents contrasted with the wind-blasted trees.


[Pictures: The Man in the Crowd, wood engraving by John Buckland Wright from The Masque of the Red Death and Other Tales by Edgar Allan Poe, 1932 edition;
The Cask of Amontillado, wood engraving by Wright from The Masque of the Red Death and Other Tales by Poe, 1932 edition (Images from 50 Watts);
The Cask of Amontillado, wood engraving by Douglas Percy Bliss from Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Poe, 1938 edition (Image from Pictures from an Old Book);
The House of Usher, wood engraving by Bliss from Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Poe, 1938 edition (Image from Pictures from an Old Book).]

January 15, 2016

Mythical C

        Oh, say can you C…

chimera - a lion-like beast with a snake’s head at the tip of its tail and a goat’s head growing out of its back.  You can see an earlier post on chimeras here. (Greek)

cockatrice - looking like a dragonoid with rooster head and legs, born of a cock’s egg hatched by a toad or snake, and consistently confused and blended with the basilisk since the thirteenth century. (medieval European)

chupacabra - a leathery, scaly-skinned creature with spines down its back, that hops like a kangaroo and drinks the blood of livestock, especially goats.  This creature was first attested in 1995, and for me it will always be as depicted in the 1997 episode “Got Your Goat” of “Dexter’s Laboratory,” with every mention of the name followed by the sounds of terrified goats bleating.  (Latin American)

cyclops - a giant with a single eye in the middle of his forehead.  I’ve got two Renaissance wood block prints, very different and neither exactly classical.  I love the contrast between Aldrovandi’s civilized and mild-mannered one-eyed man and Deserps’s bizarre and hideous monster.  (Greek) 

centaur - a being with the top half of a human and the bottom half of a horse.  In earliest Greek depictions centaurs had only the hind legs of the horse, but later versions have all four legs of the horse.  They are usually wild and untamed, but occasionally wise and mystic.  (Greek)
        I'm really not sure why, but I tend not to be as interested in the more humanoid creatures, such as cyclopes and centaurs. Maybe it's just me being misanthropic!


[Pictures: Bellerophon Battles the Chimera, linocut by SeeWoods, 2013 (Image from GreekMythology.com);
Charlie la Chupacabra, from “Dexter’s Laboratory,” 1997 (Watch the episode at Daily Motion);
Cyclops, wood block print by Jean-Baptiste Coriolan from Monstrorum Historia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1642 (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France);
Le Ciclope, wood block print from Recueil de la diversité des habits by Francois Deserps, 1567 (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France);
Centaur, wood block print by Jean-Baptiste Coriolan from Monstrorum Historia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1642 (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France);
Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, woodcut by Geronima Cagnaccia Parasole after Antonio Tempesta, c 1600 (Image from Art Institute Chicago).]

January 12, 2016

Ariel's Poetry

        Tomorrow I start my workshop on Shakespeare’s language with our town’s eighth grade as they begin their A Midsummer Night’s Dream unit.  So to be perfectly honest, Shakespeare is all I can think about right now.  Shakespeare isn’t big on fantasy, but he does have Midsummer Night’s Dream’s fairies, Macbeth’s witches, and The Tempest, which is full of magic.  So here’s some of Shakespeare’s fantasy poetry: two songs sung by the spirit Ariel in The Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.

Where the bee sucks. there suck I:
In a cowslip's bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat's back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

        The first is full of gorgeous imagery, melancholy but also wonderful.  The second is cuter, and I really don’t picture Ariel lying in a flower or riding on a bat.  Ariel can fly without benefit of bat, so what would be the point?  I suppose it might be interesting just for variety.  Still, even if I’m not sure the poem describes Ariel, it does make a nice picture of some sort of wee imp or elflet.  Shakespeare may not have been big on fantasy, but he certainly was huge on rich imagery that evokes all manner of worlds, moods, emotions, and visions.
        One of the most interesting things about Ariel, from an illustration standpoint, is not only are there all those images to evoke all sorts of possibilities for Ariel - angel, fairy, genie, nymph, breeze? - but Ariel is one of the few characters in literature who is portrayed sometimes as male and sometimes as female, about equally.  It certainly makes it fun to see what artists have done with the character, and to think about how I picture the character myself.


[Pictures: Engraving by uncredited artist from The Tempest edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709 (Image from rightreading.com);
Ariel’s Song, illustration by Charles Ricketts, 1895 (Image from feuilleton);
On the bat’s back I do fly, engraving by Louis Rhead from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, 1918 (Image from Internet Archive);
On the bat’s back I do fly, illustration from An Illustrated Shakespeare Birthday Book, 1883 (inspired by a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1800-10) (Image from 4umi);
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough, copperplate engraving by Charles William Sharpe from Imperial Edition of the Works of Shakespeare, 1873 (Image from Emory).]

January 8, 2016

Mythical B

        For some reason the letter B is particularly richly endowed with mythical creatures.  As I said before, today’s list is in no way intended to be comprehensive; it’s just a handful of the creatures that appealed the most to me.  So, B IS FOR…

baku - a tapir-ish-looking spirit that eats dreams.  You can see a previous post with picture here.  (Japanese)

basilisk - the king of snakes, originally described as being a small snake with a crown-like spot or crest, and so poisonous that if a man on horseback kills it with a spear, the poison runs up the spear and kills the man.  Later the basilisk became increasingly muddled with the cockatrice and acquired legs, and sometimes wings and/or a beak.  It also gained the ability to kill with a stare, and sometimes with the sound of its voice or by breathing fire.  (European)

bunyip - a fearsome water spirit or creature with a terrifying cry and a very wide variety of features.  It has been variously described as being like an enormous starfish, having a head like a dog or crocodile, dark fur, horse tail, flippers, tusks or horns, and a duckbill.  (Australian Aboriginal)

brownie - a small humanoid household spirit or fairy who does jobs around the house and yard in exchange for small gifts of food, especially dairy products, porridge, and honey.  They are seldom seen, preferring to do their chores at night or in secret, and can become offended if spied upon.  A happy brownie is a helpful creature, but an offended brownie can be mischievous or, in worst cases, downright malevolent.  Then it becomes part of a whole tribe of evil sprites, including boggarts, bogles, bogeymen, bugganes, puca, and goblins. (English, with many Celtic variants)

balrog, borogove, and bandersnatch - I’ve put these three together because they were all discovered by modern writers, having been unknown in traditional folklore.  The balrog is a demon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, huge, composed of fiery smoke and shadow, and often armed with a many-thonged whip.  The borogove and bandersnatch were both discovered by Lewis Carroll in the land through the looking-glass.  The borogove is “a thin, shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round, something like a live mop.”  All we know about the bandersnatch is that it’s frumious.  (English)
        The question with these modern mythological creatures is to what extent they must remain tied to their home territory, and at what point in time or popularity do they become free to wander off into other worlds.  When do they cease being the specific creation of a single author and become common cultural property?  And is it good or bad that they should do so?

        There are also banshee (Irish), basan (Japanese), bigfoot (American), and barnacle goose (European), to mention a few more interesting members of this veritable swarm of B’s!
        I have not yet made my own depiction of a mythical B creature.  Which one do you think would be the most fun to do?

[Pictures: Two species of basilisk (snakier, and just plain goofier), wood block prints from Serpentum, et draconum historiae by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1640 (Images from Linda Hall Library);
The Murray River Bunyip, drawing by Kurruk, 1848 (Image from Scientific American);
The animals came in one by one (basilisk), wood block print by Ed Emberly from One Wide River to Cross, 1967;
The basilisk and the weasel, copper engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, mid-seventeenth century (Image from University of Toronto).]