May 27, 2022

Portal Fantasy

         Here’s another post for #WyrdAndWonder, where the prompt is to celebrate the subgenre Portal Fantasy.
        When it comes right down to it, there are two options in fantasy: either there’s magic in the world, or there isn’t.  If the world of our characters includes magic, either it’s a secondary world (ie, a completely different world, such as Middle Earth or Berk or the Five Kingdoms or Khelathra-Ven) or it’s our world that happens to have magic which may or may not be known to the general public (such as the settings of Artemis Fowl, Sorcery & Cecilia, Mary Poppins, or lots of fairy tales and urban fantasy.)  But what if you cross the two possibilities (no-magic in our world with secondary worlds containing magic)?  What if we know that our world doesn’t have magic, and yet we want to tell a story about ordinary-world characters who find their way to magical worlds?  That’s portal fantasy.
        Probably the most iconic portal fantasy is that of C.S. Lewis, wherein our characters go through a portal in the back of a wardrobe and come out in the world of NarniaThe Phantom Tollbooth, too, includes a very clear, literal portal: drive through the cardboard tollbooth and come out in the magical Lands Beyond.  In The Secrets of Droon series by Tony Abbott (deservedly less famous) the portal is a stairway in the basement of one of the characters.  In Jane’s Adventures In and Out of the Book by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy the portal is, as the name suggests, a book.  A rabbit hole is Alice’s portal to Wonderland.
        If you take a slightly broader look, however, you can include more stories in this category.  Ordinary-world characters always require some sort of special event to transport them from, say, Kansas to Oz.  Famously a cyclone does the trick in L. Frank Baum’s first book, but it’s a storm at sea in another, and an earthquake in another.  In many a classic fairy tale the role of portal is played by the enchanted forest.  Leave the known path and you cross into a world where wicked witches and fairies have power, animals can speak, and curses, blessings, and transformations change all the rules.
        Harry Potter’s Wizarding World is somewhat superimposed upon the Muggle world and not wholly separate as in a true portal fantasy, but in J.K. Rowling’s books the Hogwarts Express often serves as a sort of portal, marking the point at which Harry transitions between the ordinary world and the world of magic.  The bottom line is that there always has to be some moment of transition or discovery where people just like us are suddenly confronted with a world of magic.
        As for myself, I like secondary world fantasy where I’m immersed in a place where magic is part of the fabric of people’s lives, and I like portal fantasy where people living without magic are suddenly transported into a whole ‘nother world.  And I like that other variant, too, where our world does happen to have magic or other fantastical elements.  They all appeal to slightly different ideas for me, and they can all be good!  Do you have a preference?  Or what’s your favorite portal fantasy?


[Pictures: Through the wardrobe, illustration by Marco Soma for The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (Image from Marco Soma illustrator);

Jane entering the book, illustration by Nicolas Hill for Jane’s Adventures In and Out of the Book by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, 1972;

The Cyclone, illustration by W.W. Denslow for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900 (Image from Internet Archive);

Tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com.]


May 23, 2022

Hard at Work

         I got a lot of carving done during my shows over the past two weekends, and I now have one block complete, five more ready for a test print and then tweaking, and one that’s probably about three quarters of the way finished.  That’s a lot of printing coming up -- but I won’t be able to get to it this week.  No, instead this week I am hard at work catching up with all the tasks that got postponed while I was hard at work on art shows.  Today I mowed the lawn and did laundry, took care of a whole list of emails, updated my web site and my mailing list, sent off my giveaways from last week’s Strong Women-Strange Worlds author reading, carried most of my boxes of art show stuff back down to the basement, and still need to finish applications for a couple of shows, etc etc…  Blah blah blah.  So today I have for you a couple of cool relief block prints of people working much harder than me.
        First is The Builders by Gustave Baumann (USA, 1881-1971).  I’ve shared some of his work in previous posts, so I don’t need to rehash his biography or discuss his ouevre.  Suffice it to say that this seems a little simpler than most of his work, although it’s still got three layers of ink plus the white paper.  I love the layering and how the black makes the foreground pop against the silhouetted construction in the background in the lower left.  The bold simplicity of the clouds and sky also makes a great contrast behind the more detailed men.
        The second piece is by Lill Tschudi (Switzerland, 1911-2004), about whom you can also refresh your memory in previous posts.  Her dynamic style features diagonals where Baumann’s composition is on the square, geometry where Baumann is more naturalistic, a bold blue sky where Bauman has only greys and browns…  But both artists are celebrating the hard work, daring, and drama of the men whose work takes them right up into the sky to make our modern world possible.
        I really enjoy both these pieces, with their differences and similarities, and they can serve to represent my work this week (and the fact that my work is really not too tough!) until I get caught up and can play with all my new blocks.


[Pictures: The Builders (From My Studio Window), color woodcut by Gustave Baumann, 1909 (Image from Art Institute Chicago);

Fixing the Wires, color linocut by Lill Tschudi, 1932 (Image from The British Museum).]

May 18, 2022

Books Within a Book

         This post is for one of the prompts from #WyrdAndWonder, May’s celebration of all things fantastic.  There are actually two books within The Extraordinary Book of Doors, the middle grade fantasy adventure I published in 2014.  I thought it would be fun to write a little bit about these books within the book, and the roles they play in the story.
        We’ll start with the obvious one: Extraordinaire livre portes, the Extraordinary Book of Doors itself: the fictional book (inspired by a real book) for which my real book is named.  This Extraordinary Book of Doors was created in 1549 by Sebastian Serlio, renaissance architect and wizard.  The book is basically a collection of wood block prints of doors, each of which functions (to one who has the key) as a portal to its real-life location.  In the outer book Tobal Salceda explains the history of the inner book thus, “The story really begins before the Books themselves, in the winter of 1525 when French King Francis I was captured by his bitter rival Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain.  Francis’s sister Marguerite Queen of Navarre set off bravely on horseback through the snowy forests, desperately riding twelve hours a day for days on end in order to meet a critical deadline in the negotiations for her brother’s release.  She barely made it, but she saved him.  After that Francis was on the lookout for an easier, less perilous way to ensure his escape should he ever be captured again.  It wasn’t until 1540 that he saw his opportunity.  He hired Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio to help design his new palace at Fontainebleau.  You see, Serlio was not just an architect but a wizard.  Francis and Marguerite commissioned him to construct a magical doorway at Fontainebleau that would be capable of transporting Francis back to his own palace from any other location.  This Serlio did.  However, Marguerite, who was a poet and a great lover of books, came up with a further idea.  Some time after the original doorway, she set Serlio to work making an extraordinary Book of doors, each page of which would contain a portal.  Serlio was to make two copies of the Book, one for Marguerite and one for her brother Francis.  While he was at it, he made one for himself, too.”
        Within the story, these three copies of the magical book of portals are the entire driving force.  Finding them is what sets the adventures in motion for our characters, makes the adventures possible, and motivates the antagonist, who wants to get his hands on the books for his own nefarious purposes.  So basically, these books within the book are what drive the entire plot.
        Meanwhile, there’s another book, or series of books within the book.  The Laundry Basket Chronicles are a fantasy trilogy that all three of the main protagonists enjoy.  Their ability to talk about these fictional books together is part of what draws the characters together, while their different reactions to the books is part of how we see their differences.  We don’t actually know a ton about these books, except that the three main characters in them are Anneke the clever, sensible scullery maid,  Morrik the more impetuous wizard’s apprentice, and Basket, the friendly flying laundry basket.  These inner books are purely incidental within the outer book, serving only as a mirror to help reflect how our heroes react to them.  Any incidents within the Laundry Basket Chronicles are related almost more as throw-away lines than any actual plot summary.  We know that the three characters outwit Morrik’s master and reverse his evil spell.  And I did write the following exchange about the Laundry Basket Chronicles in a draft of a sequel (which may never be completed, although you never know):
            Matias grinned.  “What can I say?  I’m a sucker for romance.  Like the part in the Laundry Basket Trilogy when Morrik and Anneke finally realize they’re in love.”  Matias fluttered his hand against his chest and batted his eyelashes as if he were blinking back tears.  “That’s my favorite part.”

            “You like that better than the big showdown with Baron Skellgrim in the first book?”

            “Okay, it’s my second favorite part.”

            “And what about when Laundry Basket gets its flying back from the Gloaming at the end of the second book.”

            “Yeah, that’s pretty triumphant.  So maybe the romance is my third favorite part.”

            “And nothing can compare to Anneke and Morrik’s escape through the catacombs with the orb.”

            “Aha!  That’s the point, isn’t it?  They would never have been able to do all that if they hadn’t realized they loved each other!  So maybe it’s my favorite part after all!”

        I must say I had a lot of fun throwing these references into my book, and they were enticing enough to my daughter, at least, that she begged me to write the actual Laundry Basket Chronicles.  I will state right now that I have no intention of doing so, although I suppose there’s always the chance that inspiration could strike.  As for the other book within the book, however, I did actually have to make some portion of Serlio’s Extraordinary Book of Doors in the form of the illustrations of 21 of the doors which appear in the outer book.  I regret to say, however, that without Serlio’s magic, my illustrations do not become portals.
        It should come as no surprise that writers tend to love books and that therefore writers tend to write books about books, and books about characters who love books.  I very much enjoyed making books such an integral part of my own story The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  (If you’re curious about this book, you can, of course, always go to Amazon and check the “Look Inside” feature for a bit of a preview, plus you can see my quick presentation on The Extraordinary Book of Doors for Strong Women-Strange Worlds’s “Speed-Date a Book” event, plus a reading of an excerpt, below.)

        What’s your favorite book within a book?


[Pictures: Title Page of the outer Extraordinary Book of Doors, in the style of the inner Extraordinaire livre portes, by AEGN, 2014;

Tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com.]

May 13, 2022

#WyrdAndWonder

         Today’s hashtag and post are a celebration of the fantastic which is supposed to last the whole month of May.  You can find out more at There’s Always Room for One More.  Well, I’m always keen to celebrate the fantastic, but with so many other things going on in May, I certainly can’t devote all my blogging and Instagram and everything to this particular theme all month, (for goodness sake, Needham Open Studios starts tomorrow!  I just spent all afternoon setting up my display!)  
        But then, I’ve already got a whole lot of content that fits with the daily themes.  So my plan is to use this post to put all the links in one place to celebrate the daily Wyrd & Wonder prompts that are most enticing to me.  I will continue to update this post throughout the month to add links for the topics as they come up.  Here's what we've got so far...
     May 3 - Enchanted Wood: Feathers to Light the Way
     May 4 - Woodland Creatures: How to pick just one?  But I’m going to go with
                  Baba Yaga Village
     May 7 - Say What? Fictional Languages: Character Names in Fantasy
     May 8 - Undergods: Outlaws by Robert Graves
     May 9 - #MapMonday: Cartography and Mapping the Fantastic
     May 10 - Don’t Leave the Path: Trap Door
     May 11 - Weapon of Choice: Magic Swords
     May 14 - A Book within a Book: Books Within a Book
     May 16 - Current Read: The King of Next Week by E.C. Ambrose
     May 17 - Spirit of Nature: N is for Nature
     May 18 - Fantasy Landscapes: Basically the entire A to Z Challenge 2021
     May 19 - More Than Meets the Eye: T is for Transforming

     May 24 - Forest Guardian: quite a few mentioned back at N is for Nature again


        Remember, I will continue to add new links through the rest of the month, corresponding to the days’ prompts.  Not to mention that there are now 264 posts on this blog tagged “Fantasy” in the Labels section over in the sidebar, so feel free to poke around and see whether you discover anything else of interest!


[Picture: Beyond the Thorns, rubber block print (two blocks) by AEGN, 2017;

Tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.com.]

May 7, 2022

#PrintDayInMay

         Today is Print Day in May, when printmakers around the world celebrate and share the joy of printmaking.  It’s always the first Saturday in May, which means that most years I spend it at Needham Open Studios, which is certainly appropriate, but it means I never get a chance to do any actual social media stuff for it.  This year, however, NOS is next weekend, so I am doing a blog post today instead of Monday, in order to observe this international holiday.
        So, what printmaking am I up to today?  Well, actually, not as much printing and more preparing - see Needham Open Studios, above.  Next weekend I will be carving blocks from pretty much 11:00-4:00 on both Saturday and Sunday, so I need to have a lot of carving to work on.  That means I’m saving up all my blocks for carving next weekend and don’t want to use up any work this weekend!  However, I am preparing those blocks.  I have three things in progress.
        1.  This is a block I have been carving, shown along with the sketch, and a progress test print.  I actually very seldom do progress tests until I’m basically done and have nothing left but a little tweaking.  This is because I really enjoy the surprise of seeing how the whole thing comes out, all at once.  But I was a little dubious about this particular piece, feeling very unsure how it would read, and whether the main focus (a minor building at Chichen Itza, based on a photograph I took back in 2004) would emerge from its very busy surroundings.  You can see in the sketch that I scanned it and then filled in some areas in grey just to give myself a sense of where the whites and blacks would be dominant, something else I seldom need to do.  So anyway, I did print the unfinished block to see how it was going, and I must say I’m very pleasantly surprised - and all excited to get back to work carving the rest of it next weekend.
        2. I finished another design and transferred it to rubber, ready to carve.  This one is going to be ambitious because each of the different mountain areas needs to have a different texture for a different value of dark and light.  It’s also on Speedball brand rubber #SpeedbalPD2022 (whereas the first piece is Dick Blick brand rubber #blickPD2022).  The difference between the two brands is primarily that the Speedball is more crumbly and the Dick Blick is more rubbery.  I thought the friable Speedball consistency might make some of those textures easier to carve - but I’ll have to be careful, since I’m more used to the Dick Blick consistency.
        3.  The next design is not yet transferred to rubber.  It will probably end up being carved at Newton Open Studios, which is the very next weekend after Needham Open Studios, May 21-22.  (Both these designs are illustrations for a fairy tale retelling by a friend of mine.)
        I’ll be posting a number of pieces on Instagram today, as well, as part of the Print Day in May festivities.  So get out your carving tools and brayers, and get printing!


[Pictures: Photos of pieces in progress, AEGN, 2022]

May 4, 2022

#AtoZChallenge 2022 Reflections

         My A to Z Challenge theme this year was How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explored 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.  I learned about a lot of new creatures myself in the course of putting together my posts, and I hope you were entertained and learned something new, as well.  I certainly appreciate everyone who came by, left comments, shared your responses, and helped make this month feel like a community endeavor.  In this Reflection post, I’ll share some bonus material that I hope may be of interest to anyone who enjoyed my theme throughout April.
        First, I would like to present an award.  My point with all the “flashbacks” and “foreshadowings” in all the posts was to show just how many of these mythical creatures involve multiple magical traits.  Without bothering to go through and confirm, my guess is that the winner of Most A-Z Traits is the dragon.  “Dragon” can sometimes be a broad 
category, but even confining ourselves to a pretty standard western dragon, we’ve got Anthropophagus, Breathing Fire, Chimeric, Demonic (especially in medieval lore), Extremes, Flight, Glowing, Hoarding, Jewelled, Knowledge, Language, Magic, Gigantism, Sentience, Transforming, and X variables.
  That’s a pretty darn magical beast!  But there were certainly plenty of other creatures who exemplified 3 or 4, or even more traits.
        Second, this blog is usually about both fantasy and block printing, but of course this year’s theme gave the block printing short shrift.  I also didn’t feature very much of my own work.  So for anyone who’s curious about my work as an artist, here’s a guide to where you can find some of my block prints of magical creatures through the course of this year’s alphabet.

     B - dragon

     C - yali, (plus links to malacomorphs, ypotryll, umbrellaphant)

     E - (links to xana, isnashi)

     F - Pegasus, (plus link to malacorana)

     G - will o’ the wisp, (plus link to hercinia, qilin)

     J - unicorn

     K - (link to ouroboros)

     N - season fairies, (plus link to cherufe)

     P - fairy village, (plus links to pussy willows, ziz, aspidochelone)

     S - gargoyles

     Y - yale

     Z - wapaloosie, capybureau (plus links to fur-bearing trout, ypotryll, musical beasts)

        As for my author hat, I’ve written stories featuring lots of these wonderful creatures.
On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination has more than 45 magical beasts, and you can see most of them here, or revisit my 2019 A to Z Challenge to find out much more.
The Kate and Sam Adventures is a read-aloud or elementary-age trilogy that features sentient/talking animals, fairies, dragons, jinn, a griffin, a shape-shifting rabbit, a will o’ the wisp, a golem, plus bit parts for giant spiders, a skunk ape, a weewilmek, and a descendent of Grendel.
The Otherworld Series is a 6-book high fantasy series (high school through adult) involving dragons, wizards, sulchym, and a lylit.
• I’ve also had a couple of short stories published: one about the wild ape-leprechauns of Borneo and another featuring a slimy, tentacled Old One.  In addition, my recent spate of short stories (a number of which are currently out on submission - fingers crossed!) includes a siren, a unicorn, a ghost, a gigantic underground beast called the Horn, and some small 
feathered spirits.  I hope someday to be able to share some of these with you, as well.  In the meantime, you can always find all my art and books at my web site NydamPrints.com.
        Third, I would like to direct you to some prior posts that include fun creature-themed interactive games that may amuse you:
     • Explore the wonderful world of mythical millinery with Monsters in Hats
     • Pit your wits against the odd artistic visions of medieval illuminators with Guess that Medieval Beast  (These creatures are all 100% real animals, but definitely not as you know them!)
        The moral of all this is: the magical creature fun never ends around here!  My Pro Tip for everyone is always to keep your eyes (and heart) open for magic and wonder - broadly defined and encompassing our own real world as well as the worlds of the imagination.  Feel free to visit my Instagram for a dose of Daily Delight, in the form of one picture a day of something that brings me joy.  (Mostly it’s nature, but some other Interesting Stuff, as well.)
        I will end with the words of G.K. Chesterton: "Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."


[Pictures: Portrait of the Artist, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Dragon, wood block print by Jost Amman from Thierbuch, 1592 (Image from Library of Congress);
Assorted books by AEGN, featuring magical creatures;
Dracula in a Mae West hat, photoshop adaptation from movie posters, by AEGN, 2011;
The Dragon of Wantley, engraving by John June from the comic opera of the same name by Henry Carey, 1770 (Image from Google Books).]

April 30, 2022

Z is for Zany

         (This is it: we’ve reached the end of the alphabet!  But you can still check out all the other A to Z Bloggers here.  My A to Z Challenge theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.)
        Although many magical creatures have their birth in our nightmares, and others evolve with our solemn mythological, theological, and philosophical beliefs, some strange and magical creatures are really just for fun.  Today I’ve got some of the silliest, zaniest beasties for you to enjoy.  (Plus a whole lot of links to prior posts, since I do tend to like to feature zany critters!)
        One whole class of zany monsters is called Fearsome Critters, and these are found in tales told by the lumberjacks and outdoorsmen of the American wilderness around the turn of the 19-20th century.  They often have their origins as jokes and hoaxes.  The jackalope is one of the more famous, and we encountered the hidebehind way back at A.
        The wapaloosie was featured in my bestiary, and it hails from the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest, where its inchworm physique, zygodactyl claws, and spike-tipped tail allow it to climb the tallest trees with ease.  It has soft, rich fur, but don’t bother trying to make mittens or coats or anything from it, because even when removed from the critter, the fur will compulsively continue to climb as high as it can into any tree nearby.  Oops, there goes another pair of mittens!
        Then there’s the whirling whimpus of Tennessee, which looks a bit like a gorilla with tiny feet and huge, heavy hands.  It stands at a bend in a forest trail and spins so quickly that it becomes invisible (flashback to I).  If a hiker should walk into its orbit, they will be pureed by the whirling hands.  The only way to avoid this is to listen for the sound of a whirling whimpus whirling: a strange droning noise.
        The tripodero inhabits brush around construction and engineering sites.  Its two telescopic legs, balanced by a tail like a kangaroo, allow it to raise and lower itself in the scrub.  When it sights prey, it aims, and blows a ball of sun-dried clay (which it stores in its left cheek pouch) through its snout with the force of a bullet.
        The roperite from the foothills of the Sierras can run extremely fast so that nothing can outrun it, and its most distinctive feature is its strangely elongated and flexible beak, which it uses like a lasso to rope its prey.
        These sorts of zany creatures abound in other places around the world, as well.  The fur-bearing trout is a Fearsome Critter, but very similar furred fish inhabit the lakes and rivers of Scandinavia.  In Australia can be found the vain and silly oozlum bird, and throughout Europe there are a variety of strange bird-rabbit-type hybrids, including the wolpertinger, the skvader, and the dilldapp.  You can find out more about them (and others) here.
        I can’t help suspecting that the bonnacon, which we met at B, was medieval comic relief, setting the monks to sniggering in their scriptoria.  But of course those illuminators also indulged in all manner of unnamed marginal monsters that were as zany as it gets.  We saw a few grylluses at X, and a funny winged thing at F, and here are a few more.  There are no stories about marginalia, so we can only speculate about their life cycles, dispositions, and possible magical traits.
        The hippogryph (mentioned at C and F) was originally introduced to the world as a zany creature, since it is the offspring of a griffin and a horse, two species that were considered to be utterly opposed and thus impossible to combine.  There are also some 
heraldic beasts that seem to have been intended to be a bit zany, including the
ypotryll.

        The welwa from a Romanian fairy tale is also pretty bizarre.

        During the Edo period when there was a great craze in Japan for collections of yōkai (strange supernatural creatures and spirits), a number were made up for sheer entertainment.  However, one of the yōkai I find particularly zany may not have been intended as a joke.  The kamikiri is a sort of insectoid critter with razor teeth and scissor-hands, with which it sneaks up behind people and cuts off locks of hair.
        In the western mountains of China you might encounter the dijiang (aka hundun), a very strange headless, faceless creature with six legs and four wings.  Despite its odd anatomy, this critter can dance and sing.  Recently it got its chance to star in a major motion picture, being featured in the 2021 Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” under the name of Morris.
        Many modern fantasy authors have indulged their zany sides with strange creatures from Lewis Carroll’s toves, borogoves, and jubjub bird, to Douglas Adams’s mattresses and  ravenous bugblatter beast of Traal, and Terry Pratchett’s definitely zany take on dragons.  
Dr. Seuss offered entire books of zany beasts, of which I have previously mentioned the spotted atrocious and the foon (introduced at E), and will add today the yop which likes to hop (and is small enough it could have been featured at P).
        Gustave Verbeek and Jack Prelutsky revelled in mythical mashups such as porcupineapples and umbrellaphants, to which class one of my own contributions is the capybureau.  You can also learn about my discovery of the musical critters double-belled euphonibun, calliopine, harp-finned walkingcod, and more.
        And check out another prior post to revisit such modern discoveries as flying penguins, hotheaded naked ice borers, and 
Tasmanian mock walruses.  And find a whole host of unnamed zany Welsh creatures here, described by Robert Graves.
        For the moral of this post I will quote Dr. Seuss: From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!  A Pro Tip for explorers of the Realms of the Imagination is never to be surprised by anything - but by all means take delight in everything.
        What’s your favorite zany creature?  Or, if you really want to make Z earn its keep as the final letter in the A to Z Challenge, what’s your 
                                                                                  favorite creature of them all?


[Pictures: Wapaloosie (Ever Climbing), rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Tripodero, and Roperite, illustrations by Coert Du Bois from Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by Cox, 1910 (Images from Lumberwoods);
Marginalia, illuminations from Luttrell Psalter, 1325-40 (Images from British Library),
and “Maastricht Hours,” 1300-1325 (Image from British Library);
Kamikiri, painting from Bakemonozukushie (scroll version), before 1868 (Image from Internet Archive);
Dijiang, detail of wood block print by Jiang from Shan hai jing, 1628-44 (Image from Harvard Library);
Yop, illustration from One fish two fish red fish blue fish by Dr. Seuss, 1960;
Capybureau, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018 (sold out).]

April 29, 2022

Y is for Yonder

         (My A to Z Challenge theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.)
        One characteristic shared by many magical, mythical creatures is that they don’t live around here.  Rather, they tend to live yonder, in some far-away, strange and exotic country where most of us have never been.  Of course, what counts as “yonder” is entirely dependent on where you are, so for medieval Europeans most of the craziest creatures lived in Africa or India, with some in the far north, or central and eastern Asia.  Meanwhile, however, the Chinese were placing many of their magical creatures far to the west in central Asia or even Europe, or to the south in India.  In tropical South America and Africa, yonder might be deep in the jungles, or at the tops of mountains.
        Among the faraway creatures described in medieval European bestiaries and travellers’ tales you can revisit the yale (Ethiopia), and the vegetable lamb (Central Asia).  The barnacle goose (from far-away Ireland) is a goose that begins its life cycle growing from a tree.  When it's ready, its shell cracks open and the bird drops out into the water below and can swim or fly away.  Plus, in this year’s A to Z we’ve already seen the manticore (India) at A, the gold-digging ant (India or Ethiopia) at H, the parandrus (Arctic, Central Eurasia, or Ethiopia!) at I, and the griffin (northern Eurasia or India) at C, F, H, and J!  All of these strange and exotic creatures were believed to live yonder.
        Persian bestiaries describe the sanajah, which is to be found away yonder in Tibet.  The sanajah has a deadly gaze, except that if you come up to the fierce beast with your eyes shut so that it sees you first, it will be the one to drop dead!
        They also tell of the anqa, a bird known to live in remote, strange, desolate lands far to the west.  She is sometimes described as having a long neck, human face, and eight wings (making her eligible for both C and X), and she eats nothing but elephants and large fish.  However, she was so often conflated with the simurgh (see C and K) that it’s become a little hard to tease out what other characteristics might be her own.
        The almiraj is a one-horned golden hare that lives on an island in the Indian ocean, which is far yonder from the courts of Iran, where the accounts were written.  It has a trait suitable to M, that all creatures who look upon it instantly flee.  (By the way, for a little taste of Words of the Month, almiraj is of course an Anglicization of the Arabic name, and a redundant one at that, since the al- prefix just means “the.”  However, this is not uncommon in translation  and borrowing of words, so that’s what we call it.  The same thing has occurred in the English words alcoholalgebra (flashback to X), and alchemy, all borrowed from Arabic.)
        The Han Dynasty Classic of Mountains and Seas describes creatures that can be found in all directions, away yonder beyond the seas and the Great Wastelands.  These include a number of creatures that have already appeared in this alphabet, such as the Jingren (at P), the jiutou niao (at V), and the bingfeng (at X).  In the Western Lands Beyond the Seas lives the chenghuang, like a long-tailed white fox with spikes on its back.  Anyone who succeeds in riding this beast will live at least a thousand years.
        Beyond the Southern Wastelands is the chuti, which looks like a two-headed yak (flashback to X) with long spiralling horns - at least that’s according to the translation I have, but the pictures of it don’t seem to have horns at all, so I don’t know what to tell you.
        All manner of creatures are encountered by heroes who leave home, from the firebird (introduced at G), the sirens (introduced at E), and Sinbad’s roc (introduced at P),  to all the creatures of Oz (introduced at S) and the Himmapan Forest (at C and E).
        The moral of these stories is that the creatures are always greener - I mean, more magical - on the other side of the fence.  But a Pro Tip for explorers is that you cannot assume there will never be any monsters or magic nearby.  Bogies, for example, are always local monsters, to be found right there in your nearest river, lake, or swamp.  All manner of shapeshifting trickster beasts (seen at T) can tease and torment you on your road home, and will o’ the wisps (introduced at G) may lead you astray even when you think you know the way.  Besides, never forget that your back yard is someone else’s yonder (and vice versa)!  Still, if you really want to encounter amazing magical creatures, your best course of action is to set off to seek your fortune in faraway lands… yonder.
        Which magical faraway creature do you most wish lived nearby?


[Pictures: Yale, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
Barnacle Goose, illumination from bestiary, 1175-1225 (Image from British Library);
Sanajah
, illumination from Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini, early 15th c (Image from Smithsonian);
Almiraj, illumination from Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini, 1565 (Image from Bibliotheque Bordeaux);
Chenhuang, 2 versions - wood block print from Shan Hai Jing, 1667-1722 (Image from Smithsonian),

- detail of wood block print from  Shan Hai Jing, 1628-1644 (Image from Harvard Library);

Roc (Great Bird), illumination from Wonders of Creation by al-Qazwini, c1760 (Image from Library of Congress).]

April 28, 2022

X is for Variables

         (My A to Z Challenge theme this year is How to Make a Fantastical Creature, in which I explore 26 traits that are widely shared among the monsters and marvels of fantasy and folklore.)
        In the grand tradition of the A to Z Challenge, I have had to get a little creative with X, but this year I am using it in its role as a mathematic variable, and it represents the idea that mythical creatures can have variable numbers of body parts.  Monsters may have X heads, where X can equal not only the standard 1 that is usual among most animals on Earth, but 2 or 7 or 100, or just about any other number.  Changing X is one of the quickest, easiest ways to make a creature magical, and creatures with unusual numbers of body parts are so common in myth that this is another trait for which I couldn’t possibly list them all.  So I’ll just give you a sampling with a bit of variety to it.
        In the classical world there are the 1-eyed cyclops giants, and the all-seeing giant Argus with 100 eyes.  You can revisit the 3-headed guard dog Cerberus and his brother the 2-headed Orthrus (both suitable for O), and we’ve also just seen the X-headed hydra at R, where X may equal 7 or 9, or something else depending on who’s telling the tale.
        Medieval bestiaries feature the 2-headed amphisbaena, which is a sort of 2-legged serpent that carries its two heads not next to each other like Orthrus or a run-of-the-mill 2-headed giant, but one at each end.  China also knew of the bingfeng, a boar with a head on each end amphisbaena-style.  A more recent beast with the same trait is Hugh Lofting’s pushmi-pullyu from 1920, which is of gazelle/chamois/unicorn stock.
        In classical and medieval art you may also encounter the gryllus, which is not so much a single species as a whole variable class of grotesques.  Sometimes X=2 for the gryllus’s faces: one on its head, but the other on its stomach.  Sometimes X=0 for its body: it has none when it takes the form of a head set directly atop a pair of legs.  Although the gryllus may represent the beastly vices, it is also a comic figure (and also often quite chimeric - flashback to C).
        The 3-legged crow called sanzuwu in China and samjogo in Korea lives in the sun (flashback to N) and is often golden or red instead of black.
        In parts of Serbia and Croatia you may encounter the 6-legged bukavac, a demonic monster (flashback to D) with gnarled horns.  It lives in lakes, makes loud noises, and strangles people.
        Another 6-legged monster is the păl-raí-yûk of Alaska.  It behaves like an alligator, lying in wait in the rivers to grab its prey (often human, flashback to A), but it’s covered in fine, dark fur, which grows longest on its feet.  It’s got horns, and the hind legs are longer than the middle and front pairs.
        Sleipnir is the 8-legged horse of the Norse god Odin.  Danish folklore also mentions the helhest, a 3-legged horse.  But whereas Sleipnir is the best horse (and one of a kind - another flashback to O), the helhest is associated with sickness and death.
        In Romanian folklore the role of the villain is often played by a balaur, an X-headed dragon or serpent, where X = 3, or 7, or 12.  Eastern Europe is inhabited by quite a few dragons of various sorts whose heads often number either 7 or multiples of 3.
        Kitsune, the Japanese fox spirits introduced at T, grow more tails the older and more powerful they are.  Some say they can gain extra tails every 100 years, but in any case, the most powerful have 9.  In stories it is most common that X=1, 5, 7, or 9.
        The nasnas of Arab folklore is only half a person: 1 arm, 1 leg, .5 head…  A very similar half-creature is the palesmurt of Russian folklore, which has a tendency to choke people, which seems like it wouldn’t be that easy to do with only one hand.  (At least, I assume.  Not that I’ve ever tried.)
        X can also equal 0 in creatures such as the headless Blemmyes (humanoids with faces in their chests), the faceless noppera-b
ō (a Japanese yōkai, or ghost), and the headless yohualtepoztli introduced at J.
        But perhaps the winner is Kuyuthan, a bull created to hold up the rock that supports the angel that supports the Earth, according to early Islamic mythology.  This monstrous beast has 40,000 eyes, 40,000 noses, 40,000 ears, 40,000 mouths, 40,000 tongues, and 40,000 legs!
        You can see prior posts to learn about the 4-legged calanchi goose, the 1-legged monopod, the 5-legged quintaped, the 4-winged 4-headed beast of Daniel, the 6-legged tarasque, and the jian, a bird which has only 1 eye and 1 wing, so that it takes two to fly.  Plus, already in this alphabet we’ve seen the 9-tailed boyi (introduced at J), 1-eyed Mi-ni-wa-tu (introduced at M), the 6-legged 4-winged feiwei (introduced at N), the 8-headed 8-tailed Yamata no Orochi (introduced at O), and the 9-headed jiutou niao (introduced at V).
        The moral of these creatures is that it’s important to be open-minded and flexible in your judgement of how other beings should look!  A Pro Tip for mathematicians is that a little basic algebra will be of great assistance in your study of unnatural history.
        What do you think: are two heads really better than one?


[Pictures: Cerberus, detail from engraving by Sebald Beham, 1545 (Image from The British Museum);
Amphisbaena, illumination from bestiary, 14th century (Image from Bibliotheque nationale de France);
Bingfeng, wood block print from Shan Hai Jing, 1667-1722 (Image from Smithsonian);
Pushmi-pullyu, illustration from The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, 1920 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Sanzuwu, detail from mural in Henan province, c 200 BCE-200CE (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Sleipnir, carved and painted on the Tjängvide image stone, 9-10th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Kitsune, color wood block print by Ryūkansai from Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari, 1853;
Noppera-bō, color wood block print by Ryūkansai from Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari, 1853 (Images from The Met);
Gryllus, marginalia from “Luttrell Psalter,” 1325-40,  (Images from British Library),

and “Maastricht Hours,” 1300-1325 (Image from British Library).]