June 19, 2024

Block-Printed Familiars

         Today I have for you two pieces that feature magical women with magical companions.  Both pieces were featured in the Annual Exhibition of the UK Society of Wood Engravers (2022, I think).  The on-line gallery includes only minimal information about each piece, which is too bad, because I’d love to learn the stories behind them, especially for this first one by India Rose Bird.  Entitled “Conversation with a Familiar,” does this refer to a specific story or a specific character?  Or has the artist made up this scenario entirely?  There are all kinds of magical touches in this night scene.  In addition to the woman and the bird, there’s the cauldron with its mysterious vapors, there are two dryads for protection and companionship, and there are symbols making borders along the top and bottom.  It’s the familiar who seems to be doing the talking in this moment, and of course I’d love to know what they’re saying!
        The second piece is less mysterious in that it’s clearly showing Baba Yaga with her chicken-legged house.  I like the touches of mushrooms growing out of the house as well as the ground, and I love that she’s reading a book (as befits an Ex Libris).  As for familiars, this magical woman has plenty.  She seems to be communing not only with a black bird, as in our first block print, but also an owl, a black cat, and a frog down below.
        This is a theme that’s pretty well guaranteed to strike my fancy, which is why it’s interesting that, now that I think of it, I haven’t done exactly this myself.  I have done a fair handful of pieces that include people and creatures in some sort of magical relationship, and I’m always mulling more ideas in this vein.  Although the mood and tone of these two pieces today are quite different, I like them both very much, and they get me thinking once again about what I might imagine next.

[Pictures: Conversation with a Familiar, wood engraving by India Rose Bird, c. 2022;

Ex Libris M. Gashi-Butler, wood engraving by Vladimir Kortovich, c. 2022 (Images from Society of Wood Engravers).]

June 14, 2024

The Brown Dwarf of Rügen

        It’s been quite a while since I featured a fantasy poem, so today we have “The Brown Dwarf of Rügen” by John Greenleaf Whittier.  It was first published in 1888 with a note that the “hint” of the tale came from a German collection of fairy tales in 1816.  I don’t know how much of the detail Whittier made up, but it’s a fairly straightforward theme.  As with many narrative poems of the era, it’s a bit long to include the whole thing, but here’s most of it.

And in the town of Rambin a little boy and maid
Plucked the meadow-flowers together and in the sea-surf played.

Alike were they in beauty if not in their degree:
He was the Amptman’s first-born, the miller’s child was she.

Now of old the isle of Rügen was full of Dwarfs and Trolls,
The brown-faced little Earth-men, the people without souls;

And for every man and woman in Rügen’s island found
Walking in air and sunshine, a Troll was underground.

It chanced the little maiden, one morning, strolled away
Among the haunted Nine Hills, where the elves and goblins play.

She came not back; the search for her in field and wood was vain:
They cried her east, they cried her west, but she came not again.

“She’s down among the Brown Dwarfs,” said the dream-wives wise and old,
And prayers were made, and masses said, and Rambin’s church bell tolled.

Five years her father mourned her; and then John Deitrich said:
“I will find my little playmate, be she alive or dead.”

He watched among the Nine Hills, he heard the Brown Dwarfs sing,
And saw them dance by moonlight merrily in a ring.

And when their gay-robed leader tossed up his cap of red,
Young Deitrich caught it as it fell, and thrust it on his head.

The Troll came crouching at his feet and wept for lack of it.
“Oh, give me back my magic cap, for your great head unfit!”

“Nay,” Deitrich said; “the Dwarf who throws his charmëd cap away,
Must serve its finder at his will, and for his folly pay.

“You stole my pretty Lisbeth, and hid her in the earth;
And you shall ope the door of glass and let me lead her forth.”

“She will not come; she’s one of us; she’s mine!” the Brown Dwarf said;
The day is set, the cake is baked, to-morrow we shall wed.”

The Dwarf obeyed; and youth and Troll down the long stairway passed,
And saw in dim and sunless light a country strange and vast.

Weird, rich, and wonderful, he saw the elfin under-land, —
Its palaces of precious stones, its streets of golden sand.

He came unto a banquet-hall with tables richly spread,
Where a young maiden served to him the red wine and the bread.

He looked; he clasped her in his arms; he knew the long-lost one;
“O Lisbeth! See thy playmate — I am the Amptman’s son!”

She leaned her fair head on his breast, and through her sobs she spoke:
“Oh, take me from this evil place, and from the elfin folk!

But Deitrich said: “For five long years this tender Christian maid
Has served you in your evil world and well must she be paid!

“Haste! — hither bring me precious gems, the richest in your store;
Then when we pass the gate of glass, you’ll take your cap once more.”

No choice was left the baffled Troll, and, murmuring, he obeyed,
And filled the pockets of the youth and apron of the maid.

They left the dreadful under-land and passed the gate of glass;
They felt the sunshine’s warm caress, they trod the soft, green grass.

And when, beneath, they saw the Dwarf stretch up to them his brown
And crooked claw-like fingers, they tossed his red cap down.

And soon from Rambin’s holy church the twain came forth as one,

The Amptman kissed a daughter, the miller blest a son.

        In trying to cut out unnecessary bits for length, I omitted a few of the bits I don’t like as much, such as an unsettling vagueness about age… are these little children or young adults?  (If Lisbeth is to be 16 when she emerges, she must have been 11 when she was stolen, but some of the descriptions make her sound much younger.)  But the elements I like a lot are the descriptions of the magical underground world with its long stairway, dim sunless light, and streets of golden sand.  My favorite image is that the door to this world is made of glass, which seems both odd and improbable, and clearly quite enchanted.  I also cut out the lines where our hero set a cross of stone by that glass door so that the trolls could no longer go in and out through the Nine Hills.
        I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, either in content or execution, but it is a serviceable entry in the grand encyclopedia of fairy lore, illustrating a number of common elements in mythology and folklore, including the catching of the dwarf's cap, which is a trope I enjoy.
        (Also, a fun note is that at its original publication in children’s magazine St. Nicholas, this poem appeared right next to one of the installments of a serialized story by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a little girl named Sara Crewe!)

[Pictures: A dwarf king seducing a human woman, wood block print from Straßburger Heldenbuch, c. 1480 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Illustrations of “The Brown Dwarf of Rügen” from St. Nicholas, January 1888 (Images from Internet Archive).]

June 10, 2024

The Magic of Trains

       I’m currently working on a short story set on a train, so I’m getting in the mood with some block prints of trains.  First is my own Steam Locomotive, which has always been one of my favorites.  Modern trains are great, but the steam engines are especially magical.  Of course, in my story the magic isn’t just hyperbole, but provides a clean, safe, high-speed power instead of wood, coal, or deisel.  But more on that later…
        My story is set in 1890, but I enjoy this image of “The First Steam Railroad Passenger Train in America.”  This wood block print dates to 1870, but reproduces a painting from 1831.  The development of  trains moved very quickly from when the carriages were designed just like stagecoaches, to larger enclosed cars, to dining and sleeper cars.  But more on that later…
        While that 1831 train is too early for my story, the next train is too late - all the way up to 1936.  No longer a steam train at all, there’s still no shortage of smoke from the industrial buildings towering in the background.  I like the contrast between very bold shapes and very fine textures.  Also, you can see the engineer looking out of the cab, and in my story the engineer plays a key role (though not an enviable one).  But I’m not going to reveal that secret yet.
        I mentioned the dining and sleeping cars above, and my story takes place in something like a Pullman car: a first class luxury carriage which can convert from open seating, to dining tables, to berths.  Here’s a wood engraving showing such a Pullman car, with seats on the right, converted to curtained sleeping compartments on the left.  I’ve always had a fascination with the clever ways people devise to fit all different amenities into restricted spaces.  I have had the experience of travelling on an overnight train with berths, but it was not first class and certainly looked nothing like this!
Next up is a dramatic view of two locomotives by Rockwell Kent.  I love the geometry of it all, with so many bold, straight lines making a dramatic scene of powerful-looking locomotives beneath powerful-looking clouds.  Oddly, there are no tracks visible for the trains in this piece — which
actually serves as a teaser for the magic in my story, in which the train doesn’t run on steel tracks.  But for now I’m keeping my secrets and not telling how it works!
        This next piece is actually the closest to the setting of my story in date, but definitely not in location.  It looks like a rather older train for 1879, but I have no idea about the relative history of trains in Japan compared with America, and that’s a research rabbit hole I really don’t need to jump down right now!  But I do enjoy adding a little variety to today’s collection of train art.  It’s always fun to compare how Japanese-style artists depict things just a little differently from European-style artists.
        Today’s final pieces are two very rough small wood block prints by Lyonel Feininger.  With rough gouges, lack of details, and the whole trains built of mere suggestions of wheels and smokestacks, the characters in my story wouldn’t even know what to make of this modern art!  I think they’re fun, though, and perhaps they appeal to that same fascination as with Pullman cars: how to make a lot out of a little.
        This story of mine is quite long for a modern short story - but not long at all by 1890 standards!  I’m having a lot of fun doing far more research and far more world building than is really justified for a more short story, and I’m very close to pulling the threads all together for a finished first draft.  After that I’ll have to get serious about seeing how well my train is really running!
        And meanwhile, you can revisit a few other block prints of trains that have been featured on this blog in the past:  The Broomstick Train

        The Hogwarts Express

        Railway Alphabets

        Railway Depots

[Pictures: Steam Locomotive, rubber block print by AEGNydam, 2010 (Originals sold out);

The First Steam Railroad Passenger Train in America, wood block print published by Antique Publishing Co, 1870 (Image from Library of Congress);

Locomotive, wood engraving by Salvatore Pinto, c. 1936 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);

Pullman Sleeper Car of the Union Pacific Railway, wood engraving, 1869 (Image from Posterazzi);

Two Locomotives, woodcut by Rockwell Kent, 1930 (Image from Fort Wayne Museum of Art);

Tokyo/Takanawa Steam Railway, triptych of woodblock prints by Utagawa Kuniteru, 1879 (Image from The Met);

Locomotive on the Bridge, woodcut by Lyonel Feininger, (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);

Letterhead: Little Locomotive, woodcut by Feininger, 1919 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art).]

June 5, 2024

Schön's Anamorphosis

      Anamorphic art is an image that is distorted so that it looks correct only if viewed from a specific unusual angle, or using a mirror set to reflect in a particular way.  There are many variants and in some sense you could argue that any image with very sharp perspective could be considered anamorphic.  However, the real spirit of it is that the distortion should be extreme enough that the subject is unrecognizable to anyone looking at the picture in a normal way, and only when you view it in the one special way is the secret revealed.  Possibly the most famous example of anamorphic art in the renaissance is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, but it enjoyed quite a bit of popularity for including secret images in art, such as sexual, satirical, or dangerous political themes.
        Today I have for you three anamorphic wood block prints by Erhard Schön (Germany, c. 1491-1542), who was one of the earliest German artists to make anamorphic art.  Not surprisingly, these pictures tend to look a little weird, because it isn’t so easy to make a picture that works in both views.  Schön’s strategy tends to be adding a lot of little details in the “straight” view, while the parts of the picture that will resolve into something in the acute view are to be written off as swaths of landscape or sky in the straight view.  The top picture shows Jonah stepping out of the whale’s mouth, by the shore of a rather odd sea.  Sailors in a ship look at an avian sort of sea monster at the upper right, and a goat stands at the lower left.  However, if you look at it from a very acute angle from the lower left, you find yourself treated to the sight of a man squatting and relieving himself.  The words across the bottom say “What do you see?”  I’ve tried to distort these pictures back into shape so that you can see the hidden views, and I’ve posted those at the bottom.  (Definitely imperfect, but at least you get the idea.)
        While the first picture is naughty, the others are presumably political.  They show the heads of various rulers.  The second picture is one large head, while the third picture combines four heads into a series of panels.  The little “straight” pictures seem to show travellers of various sorts: towns, someone on a horse and another walking, a ship, and so on.  I do like the way the anamorphic man’s beard makes a sort of waterfall next to the straight ship, but for the most part it’s quite clear that this is not a normal picture!  I don’t know why these faces were turned into anamorphic pictures: is it satirical or celebratory, or did it just seem cool?
        I’ve shared a couple of other wood block prints by Erhard Schön in previous posts.  His interest in proportion and perspective is clearly on display in this funny view of Five Figures in a Building, while his satirical sensibilities are given free reign in his illustration of topsy-turvy Cockaigne.  As for the anamorphic art, I definitely enjoy it as a novelty and appreciate it as a technical tour de force, but I can’t say these pictures are actually very pleasing!  What do you think?

[Pictures: Jonah and the Whale (and more), woodcut by Erhard Schön, 1538 (Image from the British Museum);

Landscape with the head of King Ferdinand I, woodcut by Schön, c. 1532 (Image from the British Museum);

Landscapes and heads of Charles V, Ferdinand I, Clement VII, and Francis I, 1531-4 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

May 31, 2024

Words of the Month - Let There Be Light

         Last night lying in bed I had a little idea for a short story that involves ley lines (working title “Murder on the Leyline Express”), and this morning as I started jotting down notes I got curious about the etymology of the word ley.  Not entirely surprisingly, it was made up by Alfred Watkins in 1922 when he made up the entire concept of ley lines.  However, Watkins apparently came up with the word by varying from the word lea, so what’s the etymology of that?
        lea - “open field or meadow” goes all the way back to Old English, and variants of it show up in lots of names (Lee, Leigh, and even the loo in Waterloo).  But if we look back even farther, lea comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *leuk-.
        Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is essentially English’s great-great-great-great…-grandparent language, and you can get a very quick refresher about it here (or here).  The word that linguists refer to as *leuk-, (because that’s all the information they’ve reconstructed about it based on its various descendent languages), meant “light, brightness,” which then came to apply to a whole host of words not only for literal light, but also for metaphorical concepts like “understanding” and related concepts like “clearing, open area, meadow” as in lea.  English, in its charmingly acquisitive way, has collected a number of words that derive from the PIE root *leuk-.  There are so many of them partly because we’ve gained them by way of a number of different languages that descended from PIE, and partly because different forms of the word in PIE (such as verb forms versus noun forms, or forms with different suffixes) gave rise to different words in PIE’s grandchildren.  Let’s take a look!

From Latin some examples are lucid, translucent, Lucifer, and illustrate

          luminous, luminary, and illuminate

          lunar, lunatic, and lunette


From Old English we get light itself - but only in the sense of “brightness.”  Light meaning “not heavy” actually comes from a completely different PIE root.

          lightning and of course all sorts of other related words with light in them

          lea, plus Leigh and ley that started this off

From Greek (probably) we get link, a now-archaic word for a torch, which you can see in my prior post on Past Professions.  (Links of a chain are unrelated.)

        I’ve chosen a couple of relief block prints to go along with the theme, and the first is a cartoonish piece made as an advertisement.  However, the artist shares the name of the electric company being advertised, and I’m assuming it’s a family business, although I don’t know the actual connection.    There’s something fun about this handmade linocut ad so different from today’s slick commercial pieces.
        The second piece, however, is far more than a bit of fun.  I find the light in this piece absolutely sublime.  The stairs and decorative bannister are suggested with just the slightest threads of light, leaving the leaded glass window to get all the attention.  And yet instead of being centered, the intricate panels become even more dramatic, drawing your eye in and up.
        I’m looking forward to playing around with my story idea and its ley lines, but in real life it’s worth looking for the lines of light that might actually illuminate us.

[Pictures: Marshall Electric Company ad, linocut by Charles Leroy Marshall Sr, ca. 1933 (Image from Kansas State Beach Museum);

The Staircase Window, linocut by Ethel Spowers (1890-1947), (Image from Art Gallery New South Wales).]

May 27, 2024

Cunningham's Cuts

         Mary Phillips Cunningham (USA, 1903-1980) spent the latter part of her life living in my old home town of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where she participated in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s juried May Show, and the Print Club of Cleveland.  I have very little biographical information on her, and I suspect that her biography, at least as far as being an artist is concerned, isn’t particularly remarkable.  She achieved some moderate success as a printmaker without becoming either famous or infamous, and she made some block prints that I think deserve to be shared.  So that’s what I’m doing today.  (I will note the one possibly strange element in her life: there's another minor printmaker named W. Phelps Cunningham who, according to the biographies I could find, was also born in Kansas in 1903 and also died in Cleveland in 1980.  Are the various galleries confusing and conflating the two artists when they go looking for biographical information, or is this actually a spectacular coincidence?  If you want to compare Mary P. Cunningham's twin, I shared a print by W. Phelps Cunningham back at Finding Balance.)
        Now, to put the spotlight back on Mary, first up is the one likely to be voted the prettiest and most universally appealing: Wild Strawberries and Blue Star Grass.  It looks to me like it was made with about 7 separate color blocks, which are relatively subtle rather than 
using intense, bold colors, and even the darkest is not fully black.  The layers build up to form a delicate little detail of natural bounty and delight.
        The Patchwork Quilt is very different, most obviously in being black and white instead of color.  But that means that areas are delineated by lines rather than shapes, differentiated by patterns rather than colors.  Value (light and dark), too, is created by patterns of fine white marks rather than by different colors, and black shadows are the absence of the white details.  The over-all impression is of cozy darkness rather than fresh spring brightness.  All the different fabrics in the crazy quilt are fun, and the potted geranium makes a nice contrast to the geometry of the quilt.
        Different again is Cunningham’s scene of Shacks in Tiptonville.  This is looser and less precise than either of the others, with the sky composed of larger gauges and the lines of texture and shading less carefully even.  I always love it when artists use relatively few, simple strokes to call an entire scene into being.  Fruit Shop, Villefranche is another view of buildings and small people, but it looks as if it was planned more carefully and executed with more control.
        Printmakers pretty much never get the same level of attention and acclaim as painters and such flashier media, and there are hundreds of printmakers whose work deserves more attention than it gets.  It looks like Cunningham did steady, excellent work, mastering a range of relief block printmaking styles and techniques, while keeping an eye open for the small glimpses of beauty and resonance.

[Pictures: Wild Strawberries and Blue Star Grass, linoleum cut by Mary Phillips Cunningham, 1945 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);

The Patchwork Quilt, linoleum cut by Cunningham, 1937 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);

Shacks in Tiptonville, 1937, linoleum cut by Cunningham, 1937 (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art).]

May 22, 2024

The Sorcerer’s Tower

         This post is for Wyrd And Wonder’s prompt “The Sorcerer’s Tower: Magic Users,” and I thought I’d come at the prompt from the angle of world creation.  If you’re writing a story in which there will be magic users, what do you need to think about as you devise your universe?  The very first question is how much thought you’re really planning to lavish on your magical systems.  If you’re writing flash fiction about a stereotypical wicked witch, you won’t necessarily need much original world creation, as opposed to a six-novel series in which you’re coming up with an entirely new secondary world.  But just for the fun of it, let’s say you’re making up a whole new world, and this world has magic users in it.  Keeping the focus on the magic users themselves for purposes of this post, here are some of the things to think about…

      • How does one get magical power?

            Only some are born with it?  If so, who?

            Anyone can learn?  If so, how?  And who gets access to this education?

            It comes from wielding magical items?  If so, where do magical items come from?

      • What is the cost of doing magic?

            Costs can be economic, physical, emotional, moral, psychological, social…  What are the trade-offs or sacrifices that it takes to gain and use magical power?

      •  What types of magic are there?

            Potions, rituals, necromancy, magic wands, incantations, hand motions, spirits, familiars, tools, special language…

      • What factors contribute to a magic user’s powerfulness?

            Training, innate power, quality of wand or materials or familiars, time of day or year…

      • What are magic users called?

            Are there different meanings for different words?  So a “wizard” does one kind of magic while a “magician” works in a different way, and a “sorcerer” is something else again?

      • How are magic and magicians viewed by society?

            Do different types of magic users have different status?

            How do different types of magic users view each other?

      • What is magic users’ role in daily life?  Or are they called upon only on special occasions?  And if so, when?

            Do they intermingle with everyone else, or live apart?

      • Does society in general know about magic?

            How accurate is their understanding of magic?

      • Are there civic laws regarding the use of magic?

            Are magic users above or below the law?

      • What is the relationship between magic and the adjacent fields of technology and religion?

            How do users of technology or adherents of religion view magic users, and vice versa?

        Of course that’s barely a toe-dip in the ocean of world-creation, but hopefully it’s enough to get the creative blood pumping and the ideas flowing!

As for me, I’ve built magic users into a few of my books.
      The Otherworld Series is a high fantasy in which immortal cumarún are like magical guardians who are seldom seen and often misunderstood.  Their magic is not flashy, as their role is to guide people rather than doing things for them.  But one of them, at least, does indeed live in an excellent Sorcerer’s Tower, which you get to see in Song Against Shadow, book 1 of the series!
      The Kate and Sam Adventures is a three-book fantasy series for elementary-age kids, in which the magic users are fairies.  They have all kinds of powers of illusion, transformation, and more.  There are also genies, who are another kind of magic user, capable of granting wishes, among other things.
      The Extraordinary Book of Doors is a middle grade fantasy in which the magic is provided by magical books.  Theoretically anyone with one of the Books can wield the magic, although it does take a certain amount of observation and imagination to realize that the books are magic and find the keys that make them work.
        I’ve also written short stories with a whole variety of different magic users, including a vengeful nature sorceress, a recovering wicked witch with a very unusual familiar, farmers who raise magical creatures, a trickster shapeshifter, a siren, and a reimagining of Rumplestiltskin.  So  many intriguing possibilities!
        Finally, I couldn’t do a #WyrdAndWonder post without extra links.  Be sure to check out my previous posts that include lots of excellent art featuring

Wicked Witches

Gandalf and Dumbledore

Plus a whole post on how to make your own Philosopher’s Stone, and

the back story on my own relief block print The Philosophers at Home  which just might be the scene inside a Sorcerers' Tower!

        Who are your favorite magic users in fiction?  Favorite types or specific favorite characters?

The Tower, Phillip Hagreen, 1922 (Image from Pallant House Gallery);
The Witch, illustration by John D. Batten from Hansel and Gretel, 1916 (Image from Monster Brains);
Wood block illustration from The Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr Faustus, c. 1700 (Image from Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton);
The Druids, engraving by S.F. Ravenet after F. Haymen, 1752 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Sorceress, woodcut by Oh Yoon, 1985 (Image from MutualArt);
The Astronomer, wood block print by Jost Amman, 1568 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bee-faced Mushroom Shaman, rubbing or drawing of cave art from Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, Neolithic period (Image from Food of the Gods by Terrence McKenna, from Open Culture);

Caillee the Fairy, illustration by AEGNydam from Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom, 2009 (Image from NydamPrints);

The Philosophers at Home, rubber block print by AEGNydam, 2018 (originals sold out, image from NydamPrints) ;

Tower of Donauworth, 1926 (from The Woodcut Art of J.J. Lankes by Welford Dunaway Taylor, 1999);

Wyrd & Wonder orange dragon by Elena Zakharchuk.]