February 25, 2011

Words of the Month - Threesomes

        English is a language uniquely rich in synonyms, a fact that comes primarily from our history of absorbing other languages' words.  One category of borrowings are a particularly fun place to see synonyms in action: these are the places where English retains words from its Anglo-Saxon roots, its Norman French influence, and its love affair with Latin.  In these threesomes of words that ought to have the same meaning, we can see some interesting sociolinguistic echoes of history.
        After Anglo-Saxon England was conquered by the French-speaking William of Normandy in 1066, three languages were in use in England.  The common people continued to speak their English, French was spoken in the courts, and Latin was the language of the church and scholarship.
        Let's start with a simple threesome.
rise - Old English root        mount - French root        ascend - Latin root
        Consider these three words, and notice that the French word is the one used to climb onto your horse (which you wouldn't have unless you were of the nobility - i.e. French-speaking), while the Latin word is the one used to describe going up to heaven (which you'd be more likely to discuss if you were in the clergy - i.e. schooled in Latin).

        Nine hundred and fifty years after the Norman Conquest, six hundred years since English is once again a native tongue at all levels of society, our words still retain connotations from their origins.  We tend to accept our synonyms with Old English roots as being the most basic, while our synonyms from French and Latin roots are perceived as sounding more elegant or educated.
I think this one is a text.

book - a good, basic English word
        from Old English roots
volume - the French synonym is
        fancier and probably more
text - the synonym from Latin roots is
        the scholarly one that might also
        refer to a religious work

help - OE - This is what you scream
        when you're being run over by a
        cart horse.
aid - Fr - This is what your servants
        provide you.
assistance - L - This is what the librarian offers when you need help with your

kingly - OE        royal - Fr         regal - L
        The French synonym is the one applied to anything belonging to or pertaining to the king, such as a Royal Society.  This is the word that 300 years of French-speaking kings of England used when setting up official titles.  The Latinate synonym means pretty much the same as the Anglo-Saxon word, but is generally taken as more learned-sounding.

goodness - OE         virtue - Fr            probity - L
holy - OE                    sacred - Fr          consecrated - L

And a couple of bonus foursomes…
time - OE                  age - Fr                   epoch, era - L
ask - OE                    question - Fr        interrogate, query - L

        I find it wonderful and fascinating that our words capture and retain so much of their own history, and wonderful also that English makes room for so many of them.  I love that even with all these synonyms very few of our words are truly redundant, because each word has its own unique connotations.  Being fluent in English is like being the proverbial kid in a candy store, surrounded by a dazzling and enticing array of wonderful treats of all descriptions.  You can select every word according to nuances of flavor and mood, and they're all delicious!

[Picture: Book and candle, wood block print by AEGN, 2000.  (This piece appears as an illustration in Resistance and Obedience to God: Memoirs of David Ferris, edited by M. P. Grundy, and an adapted version illustrates Vision Revealed, by me.)]

February 22, 2011

Hokusai and Fantasy

        The famous Japanese artist we normally call Hokusai went by about 30 different names over the course of his lifetime, but I'll stick with "Hokusai" to keep things simpler.  He was born in 1760 and died in 1849, just four years before Admiral Perry opened up Japan to the west.  When artists in Europe and the US saw Japanese art, and Hokusai's work in particular, it was quite influential.  He's famous for his series of color wood-block prints "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," of which the most famous of all is The Great Wave off Kanagawa.  However, coming as no surprise in someone with a prolific 75-year career, his works span all variety of subject matter.  I was tickled to discover that he illustrated a variety of Japanese stories involving fantasy creatures.  Therefore, coming as no surprise in a blog about block prints and fantasy, I feature here some of Hokusai's wood block prints of a fantastical nature.
        I had never before seen the variant (above) of his Great Wave and I love how the spray at the crest is turning into birds.  This piece is delicate and subtle.  By contrast the mermaid (to the left) appears a bit clumsy and silly.  I'm rather more curious about the hairy giant newt-thing accompanying her.
        No fantasy collection would be complete without a dragon, so here is one with Mount Fuji.  It comes from a volume of "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji."  (I don't know how much overlap there was between these and the original "Thirty-Six Views.")
        For those who prefer their fantasy down-and-dirty, you might enjoy this battle with a monster rat…
        And here are a couple of oni, Japanese demons.
        Finally, don't forget the baku.  I love this guy!

        Hokusai's color wood block prints of landscapes are justifiably his best-known and best-loved work, but isn't it fun to see a different side to an artist you thought you knew?

[Pictures: The Big Wave, wood block print by Hokusai,
   from "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji," Vol. 2, 1834;
Mermaid, wood block print by Hokusai, 1808;
Dragon ascending Mount Fuji, wood block print by Hokusai, from "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji," 1834;
Monster Rat, wood block print by Hokusai, 1808;
Two oni, detail from a wood block print by Hokusai;
Baku, wood block print by Hokusai.]

(Once again, thanks to Wikimedia Commons and the users who have made all these great images available!)

February 18, 2011

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan...

        Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed his famous poem "Kubla Khan" somewhere around 1797-1799, although the final stanza may have been added later.  The story that the poem came to him in an opium-induced sleep was written up as a preface to the poem to be included when it was first published in 1816.  Also famous is the "person from Porlock" who allegedly interrupted the poet at work, thus depriving the world of another 200 lines of genius.  Literary analysis sees the poem as thoughts on the nature of creativity and poetry itself, but I prefer to take it at face value: it describes a pretty cool fantasy world location.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
     Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm
          which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was
By woman wailing for her demon-
And from this chasm, with ceaseless
          turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were
A mighty fountain momently was
Amid whose swift half-intermitted
Huge fragments vaulted like
          rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
   A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid,
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
        If you haven't read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, it's a ridiculous fantasy riff on this poem and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," once again proving the relevance of poetry to modern life not only on this planet but on others, as well.
        As for "Kubla Khan," my favorite part is the first 16 lines, although the final 6 lines are also pretty fantastic (in both senses of the word.)  However I want to point out one particular feature of this poem that surely marks Coleridge as a visionary before his time:  the first eleven lines make a most excellent rap in the style of Run-D.M.C. or other hip-hop artists from the 1980's.  Imagine rapping it golden age style, with the second voice coming in on the emphasized words at the ends of the lines…
                In Xanadu did Kubla KHAN
                A stately pleasure dome de-CREE
                Where ALPH the sacred river RAN
                Through caverns measureless to MAN
               Down to a sunless SEA.

       Yeah, that's how we roll!
        (My A-to-Z post on Xanadu, with history and lots of pictures, here.)

        [Picture: "…woman wailing for her demon lover…"  rubber block print by AEGN, 1998 (sold out).]

February 15, 2011

Woodcuts by Lyonel Feininger

        My parents have had this woodcut by Lyonel Feininger hanging in their living room since they were hip young newlyweds.  As a child I never liked it much, but as I got older I found that it grew on me.  From disliking the harsh lines and the abstractions that weren't, in my opinion, pretty, I've come to enjoy Feininger's angles and lighting.

        Feininger was born in New York in 1871, but moved to Berlin when he was 16.  He started his artistic career as a caricaturist and cartoonist before he turned to fine art.  He associated with the Expressionist art movements Die Brücke, and Blaue Reiter, and for a while taught printmaking at the Bauhaus, with its emphasis on modernism, craftsmanship, and art for the masses.  Feininger moved back to the US after his work was labelled "Degenerate" by the Nazis in 1936.  (Plus, his wife was partly Jewish.)  He died in 1956.
        You can see lots of elements of expressionism and modernism in his work, and aspects of Cubism.  But, perhaps unexpectedly, you can also see his love of Gothic architecture.  The woodcuts of Feininger's that I like best are those with the architecture, and those with sailing ships, which he clearly also loved.  Some of his woodcuts remind me of patchwork quilts in the way that the image is built up out of geometric shapes added together like blocks.
        I'm very grateful to my parents for exposing me to some first class original art as a child - even if I didn't appreciate all of it at the time.  (But I'm afraid I still can't stand their engraving by Ensor!)
[Pictures: Village Church, woodcut by Feininger, 1931;
Ships at Harbor, woodcut by Feininger, 1937 (MoMA collection);
Lighthouse, woodcut by Feininger, 1918 (published 1941) (MoMA collection);
Gelmeroda Village and Church, woodcut by Feininger, 1920;
Church, woodcut by Feininger, 1918 (MoMA collection).]

(Thanks to the MoMA Collection web site, with tons of great images.)

February 11, 2011

A Sunny Morning In First Grade

        I just got back from visits to three classes of first graders, and it was a blast!  I started out by asking the children how many of them enjoy reading books or having books read with them, and in all three classes just about every hand went up immediately and enthusiastically.  Then I asked how many like making pictures and looking at pictures - all hands rose.  This is such a simple point, and yet it bears emphasis: kids love books.  Many of them love television or movies or computer games, too, of course, but there's something special about books.  Part of it is the pictures.  Part of it is the sense of power and control when you first learn that you can get at a good story just about any time you want.  Part of it is the encompassing warmth when someone you love is snuggled up reading to you.  Part of it is the new characters, places and ideas you encounter, and part of it is the time spent with familiar and beloved stories.  But all those factors and more combine to make the simple fact:  Kids love books.  As parents, teachers, writers, uncles and aunts and friends, we need to do whatever it takes to keep children loving books for the rest of their lives.  It really shouldn't be too hard - just keep that joy coming!
        This was a general talk about "Being a writer and an illustrator," so I showed the children Amazing, Beguiling, Curious first, and explained how I made my block prints.  I showed them my carving tool and my brayer, and the blocks for the iguana and the nautilus.  We talked about some of the animals, especially the yapok, whom I consider to be a bit of a protegé, since not too many people have ever heard of a yapok before.  I certainly had never heard of it before I started researching Y animals, and goodness knows I watched enough nature programs in my youth that it isn't too often that I learn of an animal I've never even heard of before.  There were a few kids with iguana stories, and a few kids who knew that kitten starts with K even though cat doesn't, and a few kids who told me about the wonderful stories they've written…
        Next I brought out the Kate and Sam books.  I told the children how I wrote Kate and Sam to the Rescue for my children, and they seemed to agree with P and T in the list of elements that a good book needs: children who can talk with animals, a dragon, a tiger, fairies, adventure, puzzles and mysteries to solve…  There's no doubt that's good stuff, all right!  Then I read some excerpts from the books, and the children laughed in all the right places, and asked all the right questions.  And then it was time for me to go.  (Too bad my car got sideswiped by a truck on a narrow, icy road on the drive home.  Oh well.  It was still worth it.)
        If I dare to think big, my dream would be that three things might come out of the classroom visits this morning.
     1.  I want all those kids to go straight to the library and check out one of my books and read it or get it read to them!
     2.  I want those children to think about how books are made - that no matter how magical a book is, it's created because someone wrote down a story and someone made a picture.  And I want them to consider the fact that maybe they can be a someone who does that.
     3.  I want to have planted a few small seeds in the back of their minds, so that some of those seeds, someday, may sprout in some of those minds and maybe remind a few children when they need the reminder… that you can do what you love and love what you do, that you can write the stories you want to read and make the beauty you want to see, and that loving art and books is something that people of every age can share.

[Pictures: Story Time, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003 (sold out);
Yapok, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
King Doom was stuck to the sap-worm, photoshopped colored pencil on paper by AEGN,  2009, from Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom, p 43.]