May 31, 2011

Words of the Month - Far From Gruntled

        This post takes its title from a famous line in The Code of the Woosters (1938) by P.G. Wodehouse: "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."  This is funny because as speakers of English we know that the prefix dis- means "not," so "disgruntled" clearly means "not gruntled," yet we also know that "gruntled" isn't really a word.  But why not?  And what about all the other funny non-words that English provides for our amusement… words like couth, sheveled, peccable, and turb?  Why do we have negative words that seem to be built from nonexistent positives?
        In fact there are several things going on here.  The first, and most straightforward, is that sometimes the positive word did exist, but has simply becomes obsolete, while the negative version survives.  This is the case with feckless, from feck, (an archaic Scots form of effect.)  Another example is ruth, meaning compassion, which we still see in ruthless, but seldom anywhere else.  We hear about inclement weather much more often than clement weather, which is mild, but may be on its way out of the language.
        A second factor that contributes to the confusion is that sometimes the same prefix or suffix has had different meanings over the history of the language.  Even though the vast majority of dis-s in English mean "not," the dis- in disgruntled was different.   It's an intensifier, as in disannul (not that that's a word I ever use anyway.)  The Latin prefix meant "apart, asunder," so sticking it in front of most words negates them, but sticking it in front of a word that's already negative can simply make it stronger.  In this case the prefix also seems to have something to do with the fact that disgruntled has only ever been used as an adjective: "The workers were disgruntled about the new vacation policy" or "Disgruntled workers are not very productive;" but never as a verb: "The new vacation
The princess was far from gruntled when her back was
bruised by a hard, green back-formation.
policy disgruntled everyone."  But in any case, the original root gruntle was already negative, meaning "grumble, grouse," and did not mean "cheerful, content," as Wodehouse would have it.
        The creation of a word gruntled that means the opposite of disgruntled is a process called back-formation.  That's when speakers of a language use a word thinking that it must be the root of an existing word, when in fact it's a brand new creation.  It can be used deliberately for comic effect, as Wodehouse does, but it has happened unconsciously more often than you probably realize.  In each of the following cases, the word that looks like the root actually entered the language much later than the word that looks like the derivative.
                diagnose is a back-formation from diagnosis
                edit from editor
                execute from execution
                injure from injury
                kidnap from kidnapper (or at least, that's the hypothesis)
                pea from pease
                self-destruct from self-destruction
                        (instead of destroy, which is the original verb)
                statistic from statistics
                televise from television
        But just for fun, let's try out a few silly back-formations…
     "Excuse me, am I disturbing you?"  "Not at all.  In fact, I'm quite turbed to see you."
     "I know you'll be discreet, but I have to remind you that we really can't afford any cretion."  (So much more sensible than that ridiculous double negative in indiscretion!)
     "He walked into the meeting whistling nonchalantly, but when he came out he was wringing his hands and looking utterly chalant."
     "When I saw the dress rehearsal I thought the play was going to be a complete disaster, but opening night turned out to be an aster!"

[Picture: The Princess and the Pea, rubber block print (with watercolor detail) by AEGN, 2008.]

May 27, 2011

Block Prints by Carroll Thayer Berry



        Carroll Thayer Berry (1886 - 1978) made many wood and linoleum block prints with an emphasis on the sights of Maine, where he spent most of his life.  He did spend some time at the Panama Canal, and was one of the first artists assigned to the Camouflage Corps during World War I.  For the most part, though, his pieces depict the land- and seascapes of New England.
        Above is one of my favorites, with a lovely balance of black and white.  It's a linoleum block print.   By comparison, here's another representative piece.  In this one, a wood engraving, the carving is much finer and works as shading.  It makes the waves look nice and dramatic.
        Berry developed a particular method of prints made with two blocks.  One block was the primary picture, with all its outlines, details and texture.  This was printed in black.  But he also printed a second block in an accent color.  This block had less detail and provided shading and highlights to the image.  I tend not to like these two-toned blocks as much as the plain black and white ones.  Partly, of course, its my standard preference for black and white.  (Although I do admit to toying with the idea of doing some two-block prints myself (or reduction prints) in which I could add some grey to my palette.)  But it seems to me that Berry's prints don't need this extra tone, and are not improved by it.  Perhaps its Berry's choice of accent colors, which tend to look very dated to me.  Frankly, I think his two-block pieces tend to look a little cheesy.

        Berry's plain black and white pieces, on the other hand, I like very much.  I like the scenes of pretty houses and idyllic villages and boats at harbor.  I like how he captures water with such an unwatery medium as block printing.  I like that Berry seemed to be sticking to what he liked despite the tides of artistic fashion.


[Pictures: Studios at Ogunquit - Maine, linocut by Carroll Thayer Berry, c. 1936;
     Pemaquid Light - Maine Coast, wood engraving by C.T. Berry, c. 1947;
     Port Clyde - Maine Coast, wood engraving with two blocks by C.T. Berry, c. 1966 (See the Liros Gallery for lots more.);
     Brig Sally of Wiscasset, linocut by C.T. Berry, c. 1935;
     Booth Tarkington's Schooner - Kennebunkport, linocut by C.T. Berry, c. 1938;
Wiscasset Home of Mrs. Metcalf, linocut by C.T. Berry, c. 1939.]

May 24, 2011

The End of the World

        As you may have noticed, on Saturday the world failed to end again.  But while the "Rapture" has, in my opinion, no basis in true spirituality, my brother pointed out that the End of the World is a great topic for fantasy (as is understood very well by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the authors of the Left Behind fantasy series.)  If you want to depict the depths of villainy and the heights of heroism which people can reach, the End of the World is surely the ultimate stage on which to see how they act.
        One of the more popular End of the World fantasies these days is the Mayan Long Count.  According to the ancient Mayan calendar, thirteen B'ak'tuns, each of which is approximately 394 years long, makes the Long Count (about 5125 years), which will be coming to an end on December 21, 2012.  This has given Hollywood and other fantasists a wonderful time imagining end-of-the-world scenarios, from earthquakes, to asteroids, to floods, to zombies.  It's all good stuff for exciting action and heart-wrenching emotion.  But even if you want to hedge your bets about the ancient Mayan belief system and prepare a little, just in case it turns out they were right about the end of the thirteenth B'ak'tun, you still don't have to worry.  The Mayans didn't actually expect any apocalypse to come in 2012.  At the end of the Long Count their calendar, just like ours, simply rolls over to day one of the next B'ak'tun.  But where's the fantasy fun in making a few resolutions about getting more exercise?  (Today, by the way, is 12 Ak'b'al' 11 Zip, according to this nifty Mayan calendar site.)
        So let's check out the Nibiru fantasy.  That has extra-terrestrials from the elliptically-orbiting "twelfth planet" Nibiru creating the ancient Sumerian culture… and due for another fly-by.  Presumed catastrophe to ensue.  It's rather sad when people try to claim that it's anything other than fiction, but you have to admit that it's classic sci fi.
        The Aztec myth of Five Suns has some nice features.  There's the usual arguing, incest, and murder that most gods seem to get up to, and which generally just annoys me (see my thoughts on Heroic Heroes.)  The interesting idea, however, is that there have been five ages, or five earths, each presided over by a different god taking a turn at being the sun.  Each of these ages concluded with the destruction of the world, after which the gods made a new earth, presided over by a new sun.  Wikipedia summarizes the history thus:
  • Nahui-Ocelotl (Jaguar Sun) - Inhabitants were giants who were devoured by jaguars. The world was destroyed.
  • Nahui-Ehécatl (Wind Sun) - Inhabitants were transformed into monkeys. This world was destroyed by hurricanes.
  • Nahui-Quiahuitl (Rain Sun) - Inhabitants were destroyed by rain of fire. Only birds survived (or inhabitants survived by becoming birds).
  • Nahui-Atl (Water Sun) - This world was flooded turning the inhabitants into fish. A couple escaped but were transformed into dogs.
  • Nahui-Ollin (Earthquake Sun) - We are the inhabitants of this world. This world will be destroyed by earthquakes (or one large earthquake).
I kind of like the thought of the entire world being destroyed by jaguars.  As for the fifth sun, when this age ends, that's it.  There won't be any more ages.  Or at least, the Aztecs didn't predict one.  But maybe they were merely sticking to history, and since five is all there had been so far, five is all they wrote about.  To get the fifth sun a god had to sacrifice himself in a great bonfire.  In the end, two gods went into the fire, becoming the sun and the moon, but you can see why there might not be any volunteers for the next round.  There are also some myths in which all the gods (except the wind) had to be sacrificed to keep the sun moving, so maybe there are simply none left.  End of the world.  (And of course those who equate the Aztec Suns with the Mayan calendar tell us that this age will end in  2012.  Too bad we get earthquakes instead of jaguars this round.)
        Any discussion of fantasy apocalypse has to include Ragnarök, the ancient Norse End of the World.  First come three winters without any summer between them.  Then Bad Stuff happens: fighting, slaughter, a lack of all human mercy…  Earthquakes set free the monster wolf Fenrir, who, along with the monster serpent Jörmungandr, destroys the earth.  The gods ride forth to battle, during which most of them kill each other.  The entire world is engulfed in flame and/or flood.  It's all pretty miserable, which is certainly consistent with the rest of Norse mythology.  But some versions do allow that a man and woman and a few gods might survive, and the earth could be renewed and enter an age of sweetness and light.  Hah.  Fat chance.  The Norse didn't know beans about sweetness or light.
        And then there's Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy version of apocalypse, in which Earth is destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.
        Pick your poison.  The End of the World comes in many forms, all full of possibilities for interesting speculative fiction.  As for serious views about the end of the world, I'm with Robert Frost.
     Some say the world will end in fire,
     Some say in ice.
     From what I’ve tasted of desire
     I hold with those who favor fire.
     But if it had to perish twice,
     I think I know enough of hate
     To say that for destruction ice
     Is also great,
     And would suffice.

[Pictures:  "The Revelation of St John: The Seven Trumpets are Given to the Angels," wood block print by Albrecht Dürer, 1497-8;
"Aztec Sun Stone" c. 1480, from the National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City (photo by El Comandante on Wikimedia Commons);
"The god Vidarr stands in the jaws of Fenrir and swings his sword," by W.G. Collingwood, from The Elder or Poetic Edda, 1908.]
Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost, 1920.

May 20, 2011

Käthe Kollwitz, Superprintmaker

        Speaking of making the world a better place, Käthe Kollwitz was an artist who tried to do just that…  And unfortunately, her world was in need of an awful lot of bettering.  Born in Germany in 1867, one of Kollwitz's sons was killed in World War I and a grandson was killed in World War II.  Her husband was a doctor who worked with the poor, providing her with a constant view of the suffering caused by social injustice, as well as a respect for the beauty and bravery of these hard-working people.  In 1920 she became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts, but she
was forced to resign by the Nazis when they came to power.  She died in 1945 just before the end of World War II.


        Kollwitz's radical father encouraged his daughter's drawing talent and arranged for her to have art lessons.  When she went to an art school for women in Berlin she decided that painting was not her strength, and began doing etchings and other printmaking techniques.  A little later, looking for more strength and power in her images, she also took up woodcuts.  Her prints were widely acclaimed, and her international fame and popularity were such that although the Nazis threatened her, they did not arrest her.
        Although so much of her work focusses on tragic themes, Kollwitz's art is not unrelieved doom and gloom.  Here is a lovely one showing Elizabeth and Mary from the gospel of Luke, two pregnant woman greeting each other and sharing their profound awe and joy.  (Of course, both these mothers lost their sons, a theme Kollwitz knew all too well.)
        Kollwitz also made self-portraits throughout her life, so that we can see her in different moods and as she ages.  Sometimes she looks beautiful, sometimes bleak.  I particularly like this one, done in 1924 when she was around 57.

        Although Kollwitz suffered from periodic bouts of depression and had so much cause for despair in the world she saw around her, she never stopped trying to use her art to wake people up to the tragedies of injustice and cruelty.



[Pictures: Woman in the Lap of Death, woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz, 1921;
Hunger, woodcut by Kollwitz, 1925;
Mary and Elisabeth, woodcut by Kollwitz, 1928;
Self-Portrait, woodcut by Kollwitz, 1924.]

May 17, 2011

"Author Visit Makes World Better Place"

        I have a couple of school and library visits coming up, and I've been thinking a lot about the message I want to give kids.  I don't mean what the talks will be about - that's perfectly straightforward.  At the most basic level, I'll read a bit, show a bit of art, explain the process, and answer questions.  But mixed in with all that, what messages will I be giving?
        Actually, there are a lot of messages I'd like to give my audiences, including getting them excited about my books specifically, and simply having some fun with reading, writing, and making pictures.  But I think the deeper message that I'm always hoping will come through is that art can - and should - leave our world a better place.
        I don't mean to be pompous here, because just plain and simple fun does count as making the world a better place.  In fact, I think that's really a big part of my message: that reading and writing and making and viewing art are fun, and that everyone can partake of this fun.  But there's something else to this, too.  Quaker sociologist Elise Boulding talked about imagination as a crucial tool for developing peace.  People who envision what peaceful resolutions might look like are better able to work toward those visions.  In a broader sense I believe in the power of art and fiction to envision potentially new ways of relating to the world.
        So what does this mean for children?  It doesn't mean a lecture on sociology and global politics!  But it does mean an invitation to let loose the imagination.  World peace is a great idea, and so is soccer on the moon, or a flying zebra-turtle, or solving a mysterious crime, or a school where everyone learns stilt-walking, or people who love each other coming together after great difficulties, or a plant that grows miniature volcanoes, or inventing a way to adjust the speed of time according to your activities, or…
        Now, I'm not a Pollyanna, and it's undoubtedly true that humans can also use their imaginations to hurt each other and destroy the world.  Nevertheless, I do believe in the power of creativity to solve problems, large and small.  I do believe that children who are encouraged to use their imaginations are better able to weather setbacks, overcome barriers, and envision a better world.  And every time I talk to children about books and art, I hope that my own joy and enthusiasm can help convey that message of hope.

[Picture: Holy Mountain, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007.]

May 13, 2011

Haiku Fantasy

         Haiku has never been my favorite style of poetry, as evidenced by one of my own flippant contributions to the genre:
   What can you say in
   A poem with only three
   Lines, seventeen syll-
However, I thought we needed a little variety from all the Romantic poets (of whom there will be plenty more to come, too.)  So I've gathered a little bit of haiku on sci fi/ fantasy themes.
        Actually, haiku is a natural fit with fantasy, since an important part of the style is not just the stress count but the pithy turnaround, the twist that invites you to think about something ordinary in a new way.  Often haiku evoke feelings of wonder and mystery.  Some traditional haiku, while not explicitly intended as fantasy, still seem fantastical.

    I called to the wind,
   "Who's there?"… Whoever it was
    still knocks at my gate.
          (Kyorai (1651-1704), translated from the Japanese by Harry Behn)

    That duck, bobbing up
   from the green deeps of a pond,
    has seen something strange…
          (Joso (1662-1704), translated from the Japanese by Harry Behn)

    Deep in a windless
   wood, not one leaf dares to move…
    something is afraid.
          (Buson (1716-1783), translated from the Japanese by Harry Behn)

        I've also discovered that there's a "thing" called SciFaiku.  According to "The SciFaiku Manifesto" of 1995, "SciFaiku is a distinctive and powerful form of expression for science fiction. It packs all the human insight, technology, and vision of the future into a few poignant lines… SciFaiku takes its form from contemporary international haiku. A usual poem is 3 lines and contains about 17 syllables. The topic is science fiction. It strives for a directness of expression and beauty in its simplicity."

    desiccated mind slug                                               removed 2 planets
   clings to a hamster brain                                     for the view
    in a yellow jar                                                          it's okay, we'll plant more
          (Tom Brinck)                                                            (Todd Hoff)

(Apparently the future has no need for punctuation or capital letters.)

        My favorite use of haiku in fantasy, however, comes from the "Tales of Ba Sing Se" episode of the animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender."  In this episode, Sokka (a brash teenager) accidentally stumbles into a classroom of the 5-7-5 Society and engages in an impromptu haiku slam with strict teacher Madame Macmu-Ling.  She says to him meaningfully
    Chittering monkey
   In spring he climbs treetops
    and thinks himself tall.

To which Sokka blithely replies in perfect haiku syllable-count
    You think you're so smart
   with your fancy little words…
    this is not so hard.

Madame Macmu-Ling warns angrily
    There's nuts and there's fruits.
   In fall the clinging plum drops
    always to be…  squashed.

Sokka, getting cocky, retorts
    Squish-squash, sling that slang…
   I'm always right back at ya
    like my boomerang!

The showdown ends, though, when Sokka accidently puts too many syllables in a line and gets thrown out ignominiously by an outraged bouncer.
        Someone pointed out that in this exchange Sokka and Madame Macmu-Ling are wordbenders, and that idea really struck me.  After all, what is poetry, or any kind of writing, but the ability to use the "element" of language to teach, to touch, to attack, to protect, to heal, to entertain… all the ways the benders of "Avatar" have the ability to manipulate their own elements of water, earth, fire, and air.
        So I'm going to keep on practicing my wordbending in the hope that someday I will be a true master.

[Pictures: Mallard among lilies, rubber block print by AEGN, 2006.]
[Cricket Songs: Japanese Haiku, translated by Harry Behn, 1964;
More Cricket Songs: Japanese Haiku, translated by Harry Behn, 1971, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.]

May 10, 2011

Z is for Zebra

        In my collection of block printed animal alphabets, Z is pretty much always for zebra.  That's partly because there aren't a lot of options, of course - zebu and zorilla being all that spring to mind.  But it's also because zebras, with their graphic pattern of black and white, are practically block prints on the hoof.  Here are four interpretations from alphabet books, plus a bonus zebra.  This bonus (the first one here) is by Jacques Hnizdovsky, among my all-time favorite block print artists.  He'll get a post of his own at some point, but for now just enjoy the boldness and humor of his wonderful portrait of a zebra.





        Next comes the zebra by Christopher Wormell from 
An Alphabet of Animals.  This handsome creature's black and white are set off by the strong sunlight and deep blue sky of his background.


        Third, a friendly zebra from David Frampton's My Beastie Book of ABC.  Refusing to be bound by either convention or reality, Frampton gives us a cheerful citrus-colored zebra.  He's also opted to show the head only, instead of the whole beast like everyone else.  (I like the verse, too!)
        I've chosen to show not only a bunch of zebras, but to double them, too, with the reflections of their stripes in the water hole.  These zebras come from my Amazing, Beguiling, Curious: 26 Fascinating Creatures, although I actually made this print long before I had any intention of doing a book… or even any expectation of completing an animal for every letter of the alphabet.

        And finally, here's the heraldic zebra from C.B. Falls's ABC Book.  With its bold solidly colored background and ramping pose, it's a zebra any knight could be proud to show on his standard.


        Five interpretations of Z is for Zebra, and each one unique!  I love how different artists can interpret the same straightforward subject in such wonderfully different ways.  There are black and white renditions, black and white with colored backgrounds, and fully technicolor.  There's zebra in profile, zebra from the front, zebra cropped, and zebras multiplied.  There are realistic zebras, stylized zebras, and totally imaginary zebras.  Five ways of looking at a zebra.  Never again think of "Z is for zebra" as just a boring old cliché!


    (For more about the alphabet books, look here,
and another post here.)



[Pictures: Zebra, wood block print by Jacques Hnizdovsky, 1970;
   Zebra, linoleum block print with multiple blocks by Christopher Wormell, from An Alphabet of Animals, 1990;
   Zebra, wood block print with multiple blocks by David Frampton, from My Beastie Book of ABC, 2002;
   Three at the Water Hole, rubber block print by AEGN, from Amazing, Beguiling, Curious, 2010;
   Zebra, wood block print with multiple blocks by C.B. Falls, from ABC Book, 1923.]

May 6, 2011

Fantasy Mothers

        With Mother's Day coming up it seems a good time to think about the role of mothers in fantasy… except that the most notable feature of mothers in fantasy is their absence.  Orphans and motherless children abound in fantasy, and there are some very good reasons why.  Missing parents simultaneously give a hero trouble to overcome and the freedom to have adventures, both of which are necessary ingredients for a good fantasy tale.  But while absent mothers are often dreams of lost perfection, the mothers that manage to stick around in a story are all too often problematic.
        We can start with Cinderella by way of illustration.  Cinderella's mother is a paragon of love and virtue, and (in some versions) leaves her daughter with certain protections even after she dies.  Then there's the stepmother.  Let's talk about wicked stepmothers.  I read somewhere a theory that all those wicked witches were originally birth mothers, but were changed to stepmothers to make the stories one step less horrifying.  Whether or not that's true, the death of mothers of young children has certainly been all too common throughout most of history, and when marriage was primarily an economic arrangement it doesn't seem too hard to believe that there would have been plenty of stepmothers with no particular affection for their stepchildren.  Of course, the same would have been true of stepfathers, so why the stepmothers always get the bad rap is a rant I won't go into right now.  Suffice it to say that wicked stepmothers - and wicked aunts and uncles and other wicked legal guardians - are a staple of fantasy from Grimm's fairy tales to James and the Giant Peach to Harry Potter.
        In my mind I'm going down my list of fantasy I've read and noticing how few active mothers there are of any sort, and still fewer who are sympathetic.…

• The boy's mother in The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame
• Moominmamma in the Moominland books by Tove Jansson
• Tommy Stubbin's mother in the Doctor Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting
(All three of these are very stereotypically mothers, existing merely to care for others.  But at least they love and are loved by their children, so I'm not complaining!)
• Cimorene in Talking with Dragons by Patricia Wrede (although Cimorene's own mother is portrayed as unsympathetic, boring, and repressive in the first book of the series.)
• Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (although of course Harry's mother is one of those lost paragons.)
…ummmm… 
        …errrrr…  Really, I'm stumped already…  Can anyone think of any other good mothers?  Any at all?

        I admitted that absent and unkind mothers make an easy set-up for a fantasy adventure, but even so, the more I notice the genre's motherlessness, the more I begin to wonder why all writers seem to hate their mothers - or assume that all readers hate theirs!  I've made a point of putting some smart, interesting, sympathetic mothers into my books.  Kate and Sam's parents, although they are carried off by a dragon, do not disappear from the story to passively await rescue by their heroic children.  No; they both display courage, creativity and knowledge along with their concern for and confidence in their children.  I knew that my own children, for whom Kate and Sam to the Rescue was originally written, would relate at least as much to active, loving parents as they would to cruel or absent parents.  And I remain convinced that my kids aren't the only ones who do!
        Naturally I like to think that I'm a pretty good mother myself - according to the criterion of one advice columnist, I've never hit P or T over the head with a frying pan, so I'm doing fine.  And I certainly know that my mother was and continues to be perfectly Splendid.  So I'd like to see some more fantastic fantasy mothers: more smart, loving, interesting, active, sympathetic mothers, raising smart, loving, interesting, active, sympathetic heroes…  And perhaps a little more recognition that being a good mother can be a pretty heroic adventure in itself.

[Picture: Bed Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2005.]