January 20, 2021

Animal Companions

         On Sunday I was at the virtual Arisia convention, on a panel of writers talking about animal companions in writing.  Yes, everyone shared pictures of their dearly beloved pets and how they inspire us, but we also discussed a bit about the roles that animal companions play in a story, and how they can perform functions that humanoid characters may not be able to fulfil.  This is the part that was most interesting to me, and I’ve put together a list of the different roles I think these animal characters can have.  Since we’re talking about speculative fiction, the range of roles is even wider than it would be in “realistic” fiction, which makes everything so much more fun!
        • Companionship when a character is “alone,” providing them with someone to talk with and interact with, which allows the author to  show the character’s actions and thoughts in a more interesting and dynamic way.  One example might be Tock joining Milo in Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
        • Marking or rewarding a character as having special qualities, such as wisdom, gentleness,  or bravery.  Examples are the birds and woodland animals that are tame to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, or Toothless befriending Hiccup in Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon (or the DreamWorks movie).  Oru’s companion Tibul in my Sleeping Legends Lie falls under this category, as well as Svarnil’s companion Fethilis  in Vision Revealed.
        • Symbolizing or embodying certain characteristics.  This is similar to the previous, but even more so.  Where above a character may earn the companionship of an animal through certain traits, here the animals themselves represent those traits.  Examples are Ursula’s nasty sidekick eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, or Aunt Marge’s dog Ripper in Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, as well as the daemons in Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
        • The familiar, which provides its human with additional abilities, such as seeing or getting into impossible areas, fetching or manipulating things, and so on.  Examples abound in video games, such as the bird companions in “Assassin’s Creed.”  Another possibility might be R2-D2’s role in “Star Wars.”
        • A subcategory of the familiar role is those pets/companions that specifically provide their humans with extra knowledge or wisdom.  There are many examples of this in fairy tales, including Puss-in-Boots, plus Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, and the cat Dream-of-Jade by Lloyd Alexander.
        • From there it’s a quick step to the role that animal companions can play in offering another perspective or second opinion on what our characters see and experience.  How “other” we want this perspective to be can run the whole gamut from “just a little quirky” to “totally alien being.”  Dorothy’s companion Billina in Baum’s Ozma of Oz often offers a dissenting opinion, while Dug in Pixar’s “Up” clearly thinks like a dog, not a dog-shaped human.
        • The quirkier perspectives of companions can then be one way to exemplify the role of pets as Comic Relief.  Of course, comic relief can also be provided by general mischievousness or straight-up slapstick.  A classic example of a comic pet is Old Mother Hubbard’s dog, and then there’s Sophie’s imp Iggy in Keeper of the Lost Cities by Messenger, not to mention a lot of classic Disney sidekicks.
        • On the opposite end of the writing spectrum is pet as Victim.  An author can kill a beloved companion animal as a way of demonstrating just how high the stakes are, just short of killing the human protagonists.  (Indeed, sometimes readers are even more upset about the deaths of the pets!)  I won’t give any examples in this category, lest I give spoilers!
        • Inciting Subject: on a purely practical level, companion animals are terrific at precipitating plot twists and action.  Toto serves this function on multiple occasions in Baum’s The (Wonderful) Wizard of Oz, as well as the classic movie.  There are also a number of books, including Arabel’s Raven by Aiken and the Clifford books by Bridwell, in which the shenanigans of the pets are the entire plot.  Polly’s cat Uber drives the plot on a couple of occasions in my Extraordinary Book of Doors.
        • Fauna generally are an important part of world-building in SFF, and the companion animals give us a chance to see even more clearly what sort of world it must be to have such creatures in it.  For example, the sulchym in my Return to Tchrkkusk help illustrate the special environment and forgotten powers of the Tchrkym.
        • Last but not least, there’s Wish-Fulfillment.  We love the companion animals in books because who could possibly not wish they had pet fire lizards of their own as in McCaffrey’s Pern books, or a witty tin spider like Astrophil in Rutkoski’s Kronos Chronicles, or a noble steed like Tsornin in McKinley’s The Blue Sword?  Or simply a dog or cat that can speak, as in many many stories, including my Kate and Sam Adventures?
        Of course any decent animal companion will play multiple roles throughout a story - perhaps even all of them.  In addition to marking Svarnil’s open-hearted wisdom, Fethilis also gives her someone non-humanoid to talk to, provides her with the ability to see events at a distance like a familiar, communicates non-verbally in an exploration of the “otherness” of a different mode of thought, and occasionally turns the direction of the plot by affecting the way others view each other because of her.  And for me, at least, it’s certainly wish-fulfillment to imagine having a wonderful companion like that!

[Pictures: Princess Aurora with birds, still from “Sleeping Beauty,” animation by Disney Studios, 1959;

“Why, Billina!” cried Dorothy; “Have you been fighting?” illustration by John R. Neill for Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Menolly and fire lizards, cover art by Rowena Morrill for Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, 1986 edition (Image from A Pilgrim in Narnia).]

January 15, 2021

Guess that Medieval Beast 6

         For those of you who are just joining us, feel free to get caught up with prior episodes of everyone’s favorite game: Guess that Medieval Beast 1; 2; 3; 4; and 5.
        Now here’s number 6, another adorable medieval illustration for you to identify.  This one comes from a martyrology made in France between 1250-1290.  You can see that the illuminator was a skilled artist who put excellent craftsmanship into the work: detailed border, intricate background, smatterings of gold leaf, and the fine details depicting our mystery beast itself.  It’s furry, from the charming tuft on its head, down its hairy spinal crest, to the feathery tip of its delightfully long, sinuous tail.  It’s got large expressive eyes, cute yoda-like ears, and six legs.  It’s also blue.  It’s hard to tell how big it’s meant to be since it appears to dwarf the trees between which it lies.  So, what furry, blue, six-legged, long-tailed, tree-sized creatures do you know of?  Make your guess as to what this thing could be!

January 11, 2021

Summer in Winter

         Here’s a new piece that I hope will bring you a little brightness!  It is a reduction print in two layers.  The first layer was printed with a mix of yellow and orange, with the green dabbed on at the tip of the stem.  The second layer is black.  After printing I was a little dissatisfied with the colors and decided to go back over and hand-paint green on the whole length of all the stems, as well as a little extra wash of yellow on the petals.
        So that’s how I made it — but what is it?  As you may be able to identify, it’s a mix between an American goldfinch and a monarch butterfly.  Why?  No particular reason at all; it just came to me that it might be fun.  The hard part, however, was what to call it.  My son P was quite taken with this piece when he saw me printing, so I asked him what I should call it.  He replied immediately that he likes it when non-humanoid creatures are called fairies, and this was clearly some sort of non-humanoid fairy.  That hadn’t occurred to me at all, but when I began thinking about it that way, I began to see this bright, flitting creature as more than just an animal feeding on seeds and nectar.  Perhaps it was more of a guardian, or almost an elemental — in which case it clearly must be a summer fairy.  After all, goldfinches, monarchs, and rudbeckia are all forms of summer sun incarnate.
        Well, that made me think about making “fairies” for the other seasons, as well.  For spring I thought at once about the winged frog hybrid of my malacorana.  The only question is how to make an image sufficiently different to be interesting.  (No snail shell, for one thing.  A spring flower, perhaps, for another…)  Autumn, too, seems pretty straightforward to me, but I’m struggling with winter.  I’m thinking of a nuthatch or junco or downy woodpecker - one of the birds that I see much more during the winter - but what can I combine it with to turn it from an ordinary bird to a whimsical fairy creature of the season?  Feel free to share your ideas for winter, or for any of the months: what little critters would you combine?  How would you make a magical symbol of a season?

[Picture: Summer Fairy (Monarch Finch), rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2021.]

January 6, 2021

In the Landscape

         Here is a wood block print by Sui Cheng (China, b. 1965).  It uses bold arcs and swooshes to suggest a mountainous setting, perhaps a bit of a cave, and two figures sitting, apparently in contemplation.  To me, all those rounded shapes seem happy, and the puffy clouds and rainbow-patterned plants evoke a relatively warm, pleasant day.  The artist himself says that he is trying to distort and reorganize traditional subject matter “in order to experiment with the icon’s polysemy and the possibility of reinterpreting traditional imagery.”  I think all that must be over my head.  I look at this and enjoy the abstract pattern of shapes, with a little extra satisfaction from seeing the figures.  I find it cheerful and peaceful, which we all need more of as this year gets underway in continued stress, and I share it with you in that spirit.  If you enjoy any additional polysemy, all the better.
        Happy New Year!

[Picture: In the Landscape No. 4, woodcut by Sui Cheng, 2003 (Image from the Ashmolean Museum).]

December 28, 2020

Words of the Month - Contrastive Reduplication

         Surely everyone has had the conversation in which your friend says they like the new kid, and you ask, “Do you like him, or do you LIKE like him?”  I think of this as the original and most iconic example of contrastive reduplication (aka contrastive focus reduplication), but of course there are all kinds of ways it can be used.  What’s going on here is that the speaker is trying to clarify an ambiguity.  Compare with another classic familiar to all speakers of English, “Do you mean funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?”  The meaning of the word funny is ambiguous, and the speaker is trying to focus on the correct interpretation by doubling the word with a synonym that will clarify the meaning: “funny peculiar” or “funny ha-ha.”  Contrastive reduplication is doing the same thing, except that instead of clarifying with a synonym, a speaker doubles the ambiguous word with the same word, emphasized.  It doesn’t seem like this would gain us much clarity, but in fact it’s a very commonly used strategy.
        The most common instances are when we’re indicating that the word in question is to be interpreted as the most prototypical definition possible.  As in

   No, I don’t want a safety pin; I need a PIN pin.

   He’s bringing tuna salad, so I’ll make a SALAD salad.

   Is that turkey bacon or BACON bacon?

   Is Dr Smith a PhD doctor or a DOCTOR doctor?

        Sometimes contrastive reduplication is used to clarify that a word is meant literally, rather than merely figuratively or as an exaggeration.

   It’s not really a CRIME crime.

   Wait, you mean he’s actually DEAD dead?

   Are you FINE fine, or just I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-my-problems-right-now fine?

        Some words have an ambiguity between a relatively non-specific literal meaning and a particular connotation of more depth or significance.

   Well, we didn’t really TALK talk.

   I am up.  I’m just not UP up.

   I do housework every day when I’m at home, but I have WORK work three days a week.

        Sometimes it’s really just a matter of emphasis, clarifying between a moderate interpretation of the word and a more extreme one.

   We’re rich, but we’re not RICH rich.

   Sure I’m nervous, but not NERVOUS nervous.

   Sometimes they get snow there, but not SNOW snow.

        To circle back to my initial example, LIKE like, contrastive reduplication is often used for euphemistic words to signify whether or not we mean the particular sense with the innuendo.

   But did you KISS kiss?

   Were they TOGETHER together?  or just, you know, they happened to be together?

   When he says a drink, he means a DRINK drink.

   Are you suggesting we GO OUT go out?

        You can see from these examples (or think up your own) that we use contrastive reduplication with pretty much every part of speech, as well as entire phrases, so the structure is quite flexible.  Sometimes the reduplicated version is contrasted with the word by itself, while other times it’s contrasted with the word paired with a different synonym.  In all cases, the reduplication indicates the interpretation of the word that is stronger, more prototypical, and/or more significant.
        However, the interpretation is very context-dependent, so that to hear reduplication in a vacuum, such as, “Do you think Bert is HOT hot?” may not actually give you a specific meaning.  Is Bert heatstroke hot, or gorgeous hot, or warmer-than-lukewarm hot, or horny hot, or having-a-string-of-successes hot, or something else?  Unlike my use of synonyms to specify different definitions of hot, reduplication doesn’t actually tell us anything.  So what the structure really does is to alert others that there is ambiguity here, and that we are trying to pinpoint which shade of meaning is intended.  Those shades of meaning then have to be inferred from context.  It’s an interesting linguistic phenomenon, in the spirit of which, I hope you all had a happy holiday season in which you could get together with friends and family… but not TOGETHER together, of course.  Stay safe as we make our way out of 2020 and into the new year!

[Pictures: Cabbage, Celery, Lettuce, relief-block print by Stephen Alcorn, 2003 (Image from The Alcorn Studio & Gallery);

The Kiss I, woodcut by Edvard Munch, 1897 (Image from Munch Museum).]

December 21, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 5

         Today’s beast for you to guess is not from a manuscript, but from a stone carving at the Rock of Cashel in Ireland.  I don’t have information on this carving in particular, but it probably dates from the 12th or 13th century, along with the majority of structures at the site.  It represents a creature that medieval artists loved to portray, some reasonably accurately, and others quite wildly off-base.  To be fair, it is a hard beast to get your head around if you’ve never seen one in real life.  So, make your guess and then…

December 17, 2020

Winter Games

         Today we are enjoying our first proper snowstorm of the season.  It would be a Snow Day, but with kids remote-learning anyway, school has not been cancelled.  (On the other hand, remote learning is never such a full schedule, and my ten-year-old neighbor is outside my window now, fooling around with a snow shovel.)  My daughter hopes to join a friend for snowpeople once the roads are cleared.  So today seems a good day to celebrate playing in the snow — with block prints, of course.
         First is a scene by Werner Drewes (Germany/USA, 1899-1985 - previous post here).  It’s almost reminiscent of something by Breughel in its busyness and humor.  There is sledding, a snowman, and a snowball fight, plus the person who has fallen down; I can’t tell whether he has skis, or whether the snowman is holding a bundle of twigs or something.  One of the more interesting effects is the black sky.  Are all these activities taking place at night?  Or even during an eclipse?
        By contrast, the lone sledder by Wharton Esherick (USA, 1887-1970) is a clean black and white with few details.  The footprints in the snow imply that the person has trudged up that whole distant slope for the pleasure of one long, smooth, uninterrupted swoop.
        Thomas Morrison Marker (USA, 1901-1978) has depicted more social sledders, although this hill, too, is fairly pristine.  All the good sledding hills in our neighborhood quickly become completely criss-crossed and packed to a shine.  One thing I really like about this print is the choice of a textured paper.  The texture of the paper works perfectly as the texture of the snow, adding nuance to all that carved-away whiteness.
        Next up is a snow sport that I have never seen: ski-joring by Lil Tschudi (Switzerland, 1911-2004).  In fact, I’d never heard of it before finding this block print, but it’s basically the snow equivalent of water skiing, in which the skier is pulled, in this print by a horse.  
I love the unusual use of a round composition for an activity that emphasizes speed and would be spread out quite horizontal in the more obvious view.  It’s very dynamic, with its curved lines and energetic poses.
        I conclude with an adorable piece by Boris Artzybasheff (Russia/USA, 1899-1965 - previous post here).  It’s an illustration of “The Story of a Bold Rabbit,” but as I have not yet read the story, I’m taking the image as a simple picture of rabbits gathering on a snowy night.  They look quite frolicsome, and the snowflakes make beautifully detailed stars.  Perhaps the rabbits will soon go sliding down the hill like the people in the other block prints.

[Pictures: Winter, woodcut by Werner Drewes, 1933 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);

Winter Play, wood engraving by Wharton Esherick, 1928 (Image from Wharton Esherick Museum);

Coasters, block print by Thomas Morrison Marker, 1935 (Image from The Annex Galleries);

Ski-Joring, linocut by Lil Tschudi, 1937 (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);

The Story of a Bold Rabbit with Cock Eyes and a Short Tail, block print by Boris Artzybasheff from Verotchka’s Tales by M. Siberiak, 1922 (Image from Internet Archive).]

December 11, 2020

Hanukkah Greetings

         I thought I’d celebrate Hanukkah by looking through the wood block prints from a couple of seventeenth-century Jewish prayer books.  Of course, since I can’t read Hebrew, I don’t really know what I’m looking at in most cases, but I wanted to share a few that seemed appropriate.
        First is a man lighting a menorah.  I have two illustrations for you, one from 1611 and the other from 1669.  You can see that the iconography is very consistent, and that becomes even clearer if you check back and compare with another menorah-lighting man I shared a couple of years ago.  It’s entirely possible that the second was directly copied from the first, or that they were both copied from an earlier model.  It’s particularly interesting that the man is dressed the same in both, since presumably fashions would have changed in the fifty-eight years between the two illustrations.  On the other hand, there are two differences.  In the first, the man uses two spills, while in the second he uses a single long spill to light the flames.  Also, the second version decides to include a pitcher.  Why?
        Next I have another set of corresponding illustrations from the same two prayer books.  I don’t know what this is actually illustrating, but I imagined perhaps if the woman were cooking oily food, it would be appropriate for Hanukkah!  However, what it really looks like is that a bowl is hanging (or magically floating?) below a lamp, and this must be significant because the woman has interrupted her cooking to raise her hands to it.  Once again the two pictures are extremely similar, except in being reversed, but once again the second artist has decided to include a pitcher.  Perhaps he (or she) just really enjoyed doing pitchers!
        I include one more illustration from the earlier book, depicting God handing the Ten Commandments to Moses on the top of the mountain.  No, it has nothing in particular to do with Hanukkah, but I liked it.  I especially enjoy the touches of beautifully curly smoke(?) rising up from the mountaintop, and the bell of the trumpet poking down from the clouds to herald this divine visitation.
        I wish a very Happy Hanukkah to all who are celebrating, and may all of us find that the Light in our lives exceeds our fears.

[Pictures: Three wood block prints from Minhagim, 1611 (Images from Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg);

Two wood block prints from Birkat ham-mazon, 1669 (Images from Bayerische StaatsBibliothek).]

December 7, 2020

Guess that Medieval Beast 4

         It’s time for Round 4 of everyone’s favorite game, and this time it’s a creature I’ve discussed in this blog before.  This illumination appears in a bestiary from 1270, from the J. Paul Getty Museum.  It certainly is a beautiful illustration, with its patterned borders and background, multicolored feathers, and touches of gold…  But what is it?  It has the basic body of a dog, wings like a bird, and it’s placed in something that looks more like a sculpture by Dale Chihuly than anything else (but I’ll give you a hint, in case you haven’t guessed: it’s a fire).  This is one of the creatures that is depicted in quite a broad variety of ways in different bestiaries, but this is nevertheless one of the standard visions.  So, what creature do you think this thirteenth century artist was trying to depict?