March 18, 2019

C is for Cherufe

        If you came here looking for the A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal, you’d better start here!
        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which I hope will be released by the end of the year.

        “There dwell in the heart of the tall and jagged mountains of Chile in the south, creatures roughly human in form, but with scaly skin of stone, and core of fiery magma.  Cherufes are known for their fierce and angry nature, and they rattle the very mountains from within, and hurl hot rocks from their molten cores.  Their tantrums cause the mountains to smoke and flame, and their discontent shakes the earth.”

        My illustration of the cherufe is a reduction print, meaning that I first carved my block only for the areas that are white, and printed with orange.  (In this case I tried to blend a little yellow near the cherufe’s face for extra glow, although it wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped.)  I then carved the same block further, carving out the areas that would remain orange, and then I printed again with black ink atop the previous first-layer prints.  I had a lot of fun imagining the monster throwing a tantrum in the core of the mountain, personifying rage.
        But the alphabet of mythical creatures doesn’t stop there.  The other animal representing C is the capybureau.  And, as always, you have to click the link to read 

[Picture: Angry Mountain, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2018.]

March 15, 2019

B is for Bunyip

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which I hope will be released by the end of the year.

        The two creatures representing B in my bestiary are the bunyip and the baku, both of which you can learn more about by clicking the link to read 
(And clicking through again from there for a little more on the baku!)
        Today, rather than include an excerpt from the book, I want to direct you to another previous post, on the issue of Inclusivity vs Appropriation.  Both of today’s creatures belong to cultures that are not from my own background, and it’s worth giving a little thought to what that means for artists and writers.  Please feel free to add your own thoughts about this in the comments below today’s post, or the post I’ve linked.
        As for today’s block print, I was inspired by the idea of how Aboriginal art is often about diagramming stories and mythologies.  To be clear, those stories being illustrated are not necessarily intended to be shared with people like me, who are outsiders to that culture.  Indeed, it may be that a lot of the visual vocabulary that has become characteristic of Australian Aboriginal art was devised precisely to obscure the deeper meanings from outsiders.  That said, I liked the idea of placing the bunyip in its mythological context and I wanted to show it as being connected with the land and water.  So I placed my bunyip on a shape of the continent of Australia (very abstracted, admittedly), and marked the continent’s larger lakes with circles.  I was not trying to make my illustration “look Australian,” but
rather trying to let my own creativity be sparked by some of the same ideas that inspire Aboriginal Australian artists.  Modern European-Australian adaptations of the bunyip legend are reflected in my making the beast look rather less monstrous and more appealingly quirky, although descriptions of the bunyip are so numerous and widely varied that I was going to have to imagine my own version in any case.

[Picture: Bunyip’s Land, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]

March 13, 2019

A is for Amphiptere

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which I hope will be released by the end of the year.

        “The amphiptere is a winged serpent.  The ancient writer says: The trees which bear frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size, and of varied colours, a great number round each tree.  There is nothing but the smoke of bitter wood that will drive them away from the trees.
        So say ancient writers, describing how merchants of Arabia obtain the highly valued frankincense, for their chief interest is in the use humans may make of the natural world.  But what shall I say of the amphiptere, for it is the purpose of this work not only to describe the strange and wondrous creatures of the Realms of Imagination, but also to learn from them such lessons as may guide and nourish our own spirits.  The amphiptere, then, is a creature about which learned men have little to say except how to eradicate it, and yet is it not marvelous that a creature can be possessed of deadly venom yet also possessed of protecting wings?  Like the snake it sheds its skin to be born anew, and like the bird it flies free of earth in image of the soul.  Surely there must be more to understand and celebrate in a creature so remarkable.”

        Thus begins the entry for the amphiptere, the first creature in my bestiary.  (The “ancient writer” quoted is Herodotus, in his History from about 440 BCE.)  My illustration of the amphiptere doesn’t have a particular story associated with it because, to tell the truth, I made the image more as a doodle while I was running a printmaking workshop and had a bit of time while all my students were happily carving their own blocks and didn’t need me!  The other creature for the letter A has much more of a story behind it, but to read about it you’ll have to click the link to see
(And in fact, from there you’ll have to click through again to read more about the aspidochelone.  Here’s a shortcut, but I hope to lead you down some interesting and entertaining wormholes during the A to Z Challenge this year!)

[Picture: Amphiptere, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

March 11, 2019


        I will once again be participating in the April A to Z Blog Challenge this year, and it’s time for the Theme Revelation.  *Cue the fanfare*  For 2019 I will be featuring fantastical creatures from my upcoming bestiary, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  I’ve featured lots of these wonderful animals before, plus lots of other alphabetical mythical creatures, too.  On the one hand, it would be no fun merely to copy previous posts, but on the other, I want to make sure interested readers get the maximum alphabetical creature goodness,  so this year’s A-Z posts will be heavy on the links.  If you want to get the full content for each letter, you will have to click through to additional posts.  Of course I hope to entice you by including lots of new content, as well.
        So, what exactly is a bestiary, and what is my book all about?  From the explanation in the book:  Especially popular around the twelfth century, bestiaries were best-sellers of Medieval Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  Bestiaries are, of course, collections of beasts, but the medieval ones that the word "bestiary" usually implies include not only natural history, but also all sorts of symbolism, moral lessons, and what we now believe to be sheer fairy tale.

        My take on it for this project is a beast for every letter of the alphabet (plus half the letters ended up with two), which are all fantastical creatures from mythologies and folklore all around the world.  Each animal is illustrated with an original relief block print, a description and a little vignette or story, and a moral lesson.  The whole thing is written in a deliberately old-fashioned style, but with stories and morals that I hope will resonate with modern readers.  It’s a bit quirky and doesn’t necessarily fit into any easy marketing category — it’s a picture book but it’s not really for children; it’s fantasy, but not really a story; it's an alphabetized collection of mythical creatures, but not really an encyclopedia or reference work; it’s got moralizing, but it’s not really a sermon, or a religious book, or self-help… — but nevertheless I hope it will catch your fancy!
        “Okay,” you say, “Nice Theme Reveal, but I can’t help but notice that the banner above says ‘March 18’, and this happens to be March 11.”  My, aren’t you observant!  I hope you read all my other posts so carefully.  Yes, I am officially Revealing my Theme early because, as always, I’m tweaking the official schedule the better to suit my own blogging habits.  Once again I’ll be starting the challenge early, and this year the hard-working and innovative A-Z Challenge Team have announced that there will not be a separate daily list for each letter.  That means that if you’re coming from the Challenge you’ll be using the Master List, and that means that for every day except Y and Z you will find the wrong letter when you land here.  I’ll provide yet more links to help you find your way, and I trust you can roll with it.  So, welcome back to the A to Z Challenge.  Enjoy!

[Picture: draft cover design for On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, by AEGN, 2019.]

March 8, 2019

Poetry for Worldbuilding

        At Boskone I presented a workshop on how poetry is a great tool for worldbuilding, both in the sense of helping the creator create the world and in the sense of helping the reader be more immersed in the world.  I thought I’d post my main points here today.  Let’s start with a reminder about how pervasive poetry actually is in the real world, something people often don’t seem to notice.  You can check out previous posts Poetry is Everywhere Part I and II.  Think about all the different forms poetry can take: songs (including lullabies, hymns, love songs, ballads, drinking songs, work songs), riddles, epics and historical lays, casual snippets, advertising jingles, laments, children’s games, prophesies, mnemonic lists, psalms, satires, proverbs, challenges/taunts/trash-talking…
        Now consider how all those different forms of poetic language can gives clues about culture
- by referring to gods, historical or legendary figures, or pop figures
- by showing what metaphors are meaningful
            what images are striking
- by hinting at what’s an insult, what’s a compliment, what’s amusing
- by highlighting what’s important
            what everyone recognizes and knows
            proverbs, idioms, clich├ęs, wisdom
        Poetry is a great place to use “archaic” or untranslated words such as names of people (gods, historical or legendary figures, or pop figures, as mentioned above), strange creatures, plants, tools, etc.  Generally in writing fantasy if you lard your prose with too many of these words, it gets in the way of the story, makes things hard to understand, and seems jarring because, after all, your story may be set in another world but it’s all supposed to be “translated” into English.  On the other hand, fantasy words can be a fantastic tool for helping the reader feel that they really are in a different place and not just the everyday, ordinary world; too few strange creatures or mythic characters and the world you’ve created just doesn’t seem very magical or marvelous or different.  Poetry to the rescue, because it is a perfect place to refer to things with which the reader won’t already be familiar.  Firstly, it works because within the created world of the story, poetry is a place where archaic words and unexplained allusions really would turn up, so it doesn’t seem jarring or artificial to encounter them there.  Secondly , it works because in the meta sense it doesn’t matter if a reader doesn’t understand everything in a song or poem within the story.  The gist and purpose of the poem can be clear without understanding every word.
        Poetry can also be a great way to help establish the differences between different cultures within a world.  All the elements of poetry:
   structure – form, line length and meter, stanzas, refrains
   sound patterns – rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition, parallel structure
   meaning – simile, metaphor, allegory, symbol
   image – description, senses, emotions
   register - the varieties of language that a speaker uses in a particular social context
can vary from culture to culture or from era to era.  Of course these elements can also vary widely within a single culture, but think, for example, of how Old English poetry tends to use alliteration across two halves of each line, while Japanese poetry tends to be built around stress patterns, classic English poetry loves rhyme, while modern English poetry tends to favor blank verse.  Considering how your different invented cultures might use poetry is a great discipline to help the creator to think about what’s important in each culture, what metaphors or images will be meaningful to them (and what won’t), what gods or historical figures will people allude to, and so on.  It’s also a great way to show  these things to the reader, which gives cultures much more feeling of depth.
        And finally, poetry can be used to give clues about individual characters.
What sorts of verse would this character know?
How learned are they in the history, religion, pop culture, or literature of their own culture?
How seriously do they take it?
What’s meaningful to them?
        Ultimately, what poetry requires of you is that you truly observe the world, both the physical world and the internal landscapes of people - and that’s also exactly what you need to be doing to create new worlds and the characters within them.

[Pictures: Sibyl Reading, chiaroscuro woodcut by Ugo da Carpi, between 1500-1530 (Image from the Library of Congress);
Girl Reading a Book, woodcut by Weaver Hawkins, c.1926-8 (Image from Centre for Australian Art);
Ovid, woodcut from Metamorphoses by Ovid, probably 1549, although seriously, Penn Libraries, you didn’t think to give a proper source for your own picture??? (Image from Penn Libraries).]

March 5, 2019

Creature Collections: Dracopedia

        As work continues apace on my own creature collection, it’s time for another review of some of the cool books already available.  Today I’m looking at three books by the same author/illustrator.  The premise of the Dracopedia books by William O’Connor is a blend between the genres of “how to draw” guides and “field guides” to mythical creatures.  In some ways these two genres are contradictory because instructions for drawing have to mention that you’re making things up, while field guides claim that you’re reporting what has really been seen in the world.  I think O’Connor does a surprisingly good job at the uneasy balance between the two ways of presenting mythical creatures.  All the Dracopedia books follow the format of presenting a creature and the “facts” about it, followed by a break-down of the process O’Connor used to create his illustration.  Most of his illustrations are done with a pencil sketch scanned into the computer and then painted digitally.
        The first Dracopedia book is subtitled A Guide to Drawing the Dragons of the World, and is organized as thirteen families of dragon, each with its biology, habitat, history, and different species, followed by the drawing lesson.  O’Connor’s illustration are beautifully detailed and lifelike, although they tend to be a little too monochromatic for my idea of perfection.  His natural history is well thought out and includes lots of good information, and it would have pleased my mythical-field-guide-loving children very much back in the day.  My one caveat is that O’Connor does indulge in a bit of mythical revisionism, reinterpreting as dragons all sorts of creatures that, in my opinion, are their own separate families.  This includes quetzalcoatl (which has now become somewhat standard as a dragon species in field guides), sea serpent, and hydra, but also the claim that the kilin is an Arctic dragon, the salamander is a species of basilisk (which in turn is a type of dragon), and tales of fairies and will-o’-the-wisps are really based on sightings of dragons.  This irked my purist heart a bit!  On the other hand, I really enjoyed O’Connor’s inclusion of the tiny feydragons, as well as riding dragons, which he calls dragonettes.
        The second book appears to be Dracopedia: The Great Dragons, but my library system doesn’t have it, so I can’t tell you about it and we move on to…
        The third book is subtitled The Bestiary and broadens its scope to 26 mythical creatures selected, after my own heart, as one for each letter of the alphabet.  Each creature has a section on history, followed by the art demonstration.  This time the art demos include a fair amount about concept sketches, and it’s interesting to see how the artist tried out a few different ideas for the creature and the composition of the piece, before selecting one to complete.  O’Connor selects creatures from around the world, including several of the oddities from European heraldry, but he definitely gives them his own spin and interpretations.  He has a tendency to stick wings on everything, including the chimera, enfield, and manticore.  I get it - everything’s cooler with wings - and I certainly
can’t complain about his wanting to reimagine things, as I’m busily reimagining things in my own bestiary, but some of his reinterpretations go a little too far for me.  They also end up with a number of the creatures looking a little samey, with no fewer than seven winged lion-and/or-horse things.  These criticisms should not be taken as too damning, though; on the whole this is an excellent book, with loads of wonderful content to satisfy the lover of mythical creatures.  I especially love the way he’s done the questing beast and the xenobeast.  (Fun note: out of the entire alphabet, O’Connor and I share only four creatures!  Although a few of his others were on my short list.)
        The fourth book is Dracopedia: Legends, and is organized around thirteen famous dragon legends from Europe and Asia.  Each story is retold, followed by the art demonstration, which includes a nice section on “Research and Concept Design.”  O’Connor assigns each of these legendary dragons to one of the families he defined in the first Dracopedia book.  Again, don’t look to this book for faithful retellings to satisfy the scholarly purist, but take it as a rip-roaring collection of monster adventures and illustrations, and enjoy.

[Pictures: Fronstispiece from Dracopedia: Legends by William O’Connor, 2018;
Feydragon Biology, from Dracopedia by O’Connor, 2009;
Questing Beast, from Dracopedia: The Bestiary by O’Connor, 2013;
Xenobeast, from Dracopedia: The Bestiary by O’Connor, 2013.]

March 1, 2019

Stories by Rebuffo

        Here are two wood block prints by Victor Rebuffo (Italy-Argentina, 1903-1983).  Rebuffo was very interested in the use of art and printmaking specifically to offer narratives and social commentary, and his pieces often seem to tell a story.  This first piece looks almost surreal, but when combined with the title, “Music of the Village” it suggests a whole scenario of character and plot.  I imagine that people are boarding the ship to emigrate, and are listening to the song that reminds them of their home, sung to them in farewell.  The side of the ship is like a wall separating the people, but the image evoked by the song cuts right through the steel wall with its vision of the village.  Rebuffo’s style is bold and somewhat rough, but at the same time it’s quite detailed and carefully shaded.
        I can’t tell quite as clear a story about the second piece.  It’s set in a city, under looming smokestacks, but the buildings in the foreground suggest more traditional village homes.  It’s hard to see in this small version, but at the end of the little street a whole crowd of men are gathered.  Are they simply the bustle of people living life in the city, or are they an unruly, frightening mob?  Are they looking for the woman?  And then what is the connection between the woman on the street and the indistinct figure inside the building?  The image of people holding out their hands to one another is always evocative, and I imagine the woman being invited inside to take refuge.  Unlike the first piece, where the title seems to clarify the story, in this piece the title “The Comment” doesn’t offer me much explanation.
        I find Rebuffo’s work interesting and thought-provoking, and I appreciate that he seems to be offering social commentary by telling stories and evoking ideas rather than by shouting out the rather bombastic imagery so common in political art.  I’ll be looking out for more by Rebuffo.

[Pictures: Musica de la Aldea (Music of the Village), woodcut by Victor Rebuffo, 1943;
El Comentario (The Comment), woodcut by Rebuffo, 1947 (Images from the Davis Museum at Wellesley College).]

February 26, 2019

Words of the Month - Undisobeyable?

        Obviously there are times during writing when I can’t think of exactly the right word.  Rather than stop and break the flow by trying too hard to come up with the perfect word in that moment, I use the nearest approximation and keep on writing.  However, my system is that I put that not-quite-right word in brackets to remind myself that it does need fixing.  A few weeks ago I was toying with my changeling story, in a section in which the human boy has been taken on the Faeries’ hunt.  There is a line: The king’s voice was [undisobeyable].  “Kill it.”
        I reached for my thesaurus to figure out the right word to replace that not-quite-right “undisobeyable,” and was dismayed to find no such word for exactly what I meant.  What I am trying to express is a sense that the boy felt that disobeying was simply not a physically, emotionally, humanly possible option.  He was not capable of refusing the king’s order, no matter how much he wanted to.

You’d think that the double negative “undis-“could be simplified to give us the positive obeyable.  But obeyable, besides being clunky, means you can obey, but not that you must obey.  Obeying is wholly optional.

The words that should mean you have to obey include mandatory, obligatory, and compulsory.  But these really just mean that the law says you must obey, but not that you are actually unable to break the law.  Plus, they would apply more to the action than the order, as in the killing being mandatory, rather than the king’s voice being mandatory.

The king’s voice might be commanding, authoritative, imperative, imperious, peremptory.  But these tell more about the attitude of the speaker than the effect that his voice has on the hearer.  We already know the king of the Faeries is issuing a command, and these adjectives don’t really explain the additional power of his voice that I’m trying to express.

Irresistible and compelling have the right sense of being unable to be resisted, but they make it sound like the boy is convinced rather than forced, and irresistible is much too positive, anyway.

Overpowering and inescapable, when describing a voice, just sound loud or penetrating.

Relentless and inexorable are close, but I already used them both in the preceding lines!

Of course I could just leave undisobeyable - other authors have used it.  But it sounds awfully clunky, and if my readers get thrown out of the flow to wonder whether that’s even a real word, that defeats my purpose altogether.

        I think what I’ll have to do is rewrite the sentence completely, or simply leave it out.  But I feel quite aggrieved that in a language with insane numbers of synonyms, we don’t seem to have a word for just this particular usage.  English doesn’t fail me often, but it’s interesting (if frustrating!) to examine those cases when it does.  Of course, if anyone does think of the perfect word I’m missing, please let me know!

[Picture: Richard I, woodcut from The Pastyme of people by John Rastell, 1530 (Image from University of Glasgow).]

February 22, 2019

Brown's Alphabet

        Here’s another block printed alphabet, and this time of a very different style.  James Brown’s alphabet doesn’t depict animals or people or anything starting with each letter, as my other featured alphabet books and collections have done.  Rather it’s simply a graphic representation of each letter itself.  Each of Brown’s letters is a linoleum block print in two colors, and the interesting thing is that they are actually the same block printed twice in different colors and at different orientations.  The way the letters are designed almost to tesselate, as the F, or to set up interesting secondary patterns, as the A, is clever and fun.  In some, such as the K, the letter would probably be clearer (if less graphically interesting) if it were printed only once, but in others, such as the Z, the double printing helps make the letter pop.  Still others, including the U, require both orientations of printing to be combined in order to form the letter completely.  In many cases I’m not crazy about the color combinations, but in some, such as the H, the layering of the two inks adds an interestingly different third color to the image.
        Another interesting feature of Brown’s printing is its imperfection.  There are areas of lighter ink, lines where the edge of the brayer isn’t smoothly blended, and even little bits and blotches where scraps of linoleum or dust got caught in the ink.  Normally these would be considered to have ruined the print, but Brown obviously embraces them as part of the graphic quality of hand-printed pieces.
        Naturally I don’t love these as much as my favorite black and white animal alphabets, but I do think they’re very cleverly designed.  I also think they must have been fun to play around with!  And of course they certainly make for some interesting variety, and variety, as we all know, is the spice of life.

[Pictures: Alpha, linocut by James Brown;
Foxtrot, linocut by Brown;
Hotel, linocut by Brown;
Zulu, linocut by Brown;
Kilo, linocut by Brown;
Uniform, linocut by Brown (Images from James Brown).]