July 31, 2012

Words of the Month - Broad and Narrow

        One of the ways words can change meaning over time is by broadening (also called widening) or narrowing what they refer to.  Often such meaning changes reflect interesting social changes that affected the way speakers used words.  Here is a selection of English words whose meanings have broadened or narrowed over time.

Verb originally meant simply "word," as in verbal or verbose.  Around the fourteenth century it narrowed to mean only those words indicating action.

• Old English deor, which developed into our modern word deer, originally meant "animal" (just like its German cognate Tier).  Apparently it was with the rise of the hunt in feudal society that people started meaning just the one specific animal when they said the word deer.

• In the same way the meaning of hound narrowed from any dog to dogs used in the hunt.  (Again, compare with German, where Hund remains the general term for all kinds of dogs.)

• But here's a funny thing.  Dogge has gone in the opposite direction, broadening its meaning by around 1000 from a specific English breed to replace hound as the general term for domestic canines.  What caused hound and dog to switch their level of specificity?

• A number of words that began as specific words for the young of animals have over time broadened their meanings to become the general term for the entire species or group.  Is this because people have a tendency to talk baby talk about animals?  Some examples include bird, chicken, and pig.  The language seems to be mid-change with kitty and bunny, which are often used to refer to adult animals as well as young.

• Another narrowing occurred with the word starve, which once meant "to die."  After a shift to mean a long, drawn-out death it came (around the fifteenth century) to refer primarily to suffering from extreme cold or lack of food.  Chaucer refers to someone in peril of "starving for hunger," a common construction for centuries.  But if that sounds redundant, just remember that now people specify when someone "starves to death," which would have seemed terribly redundant in older English. 

• Speaking of food, that's the original meaning of the word meat: any kind of food.  You can see that meaning in a number of places in the King James Bible, such as "I have given every green herb for meat" or "Bring a meat offering of a tenth deal of flour mingled with the fourth part of an hin of oil."  Not until the fifteenth century does meat start referring to flesh specifically, and the older, more general meaning still survives in a few words, such as mincemeat pie, which is sometimes flesh but more often nuts or fruit.  But just how narrow is the meaning of meat?  What about the idea that Catholics shouldn't eat meat on Fridays… but that flesh of fish doesn't count?  Is meat only mammal flesh?  Any flesh but seafood?  Or the flesh of anything in the animal kingdom?  Like many words, meat manages to keep various levels of meaning for different situations.

[Pictures: The Stag Hunt, woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c 1506  (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Detail from Hunting Party in the Lörs Forest, woodcut by Michael Ostendorfer, 1543  (Image from the National Gallery of Denmark).]

July 27, 2012

Hiroshige's Birds and Branches

        I'm in the mood for something pretty, and here are some lovely images by the artist known as Utagawa, Ando, and Ichiyusai Hiroshige (1797-1858).  Fun biographical fact: Hiroshige was a fireman, a hereditary job that apparently gave him ample leisure time as a sort of minor samurai.  He did, however, take his firefighting duties seriously and was commended for his heroism in 1818.  But he passed the position to his brother in 1823 in order to concentrate more fully on his art. 
        In traditional Japanese printmaking, like early wood block printing in Europe, the artist is the one who painted the original design, while anonymous craftsmen are responsible for carving, inking, and so on.  Also, this style of printmaking is intended to reproduce the look of traditional brush painting, so it's usually characterized by the sinuous shapes and tapered strokes you get with a brush.  For this reason I tend to feel that it doesn't really take advantage of the woodblock medium in its own right -- but that doesn't mean it isn't beautiful!
        Japanese printmaking is especially famous for its incredible gradations of full color, applied in washes of watercolor ink.  But as usual, I'm concentrating today on prints that aren't full-color.  Most of them aren't pure black-and-white, either, since they almost always have at least one mid-tone block in addition to the black (or dark blue, in some.)
        One interesting thing about these is that many of them include a haiku or some other lines of poetry.  Unfortunately I can't read it, and while some of them had a transcription given, none had a translation.  I'm curious to know what poem was paired with each image, but alas, I'm afraid I'm out of luck.
        Hiroshige is most famous for his landscapes, including his Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.  Even in his so-called landscapes, however, Hiroshige often put the focus on a single object in the foreground, with the landscape visible beyond.  He also made lots of simpler images with animals, especially birds, and plants.  These simpler images are also more likely to be simpler prints, without the full-color treatment.  I assume they were cheaper and available to a wider audience (maybe Hiroshige considered them to be potboilers), but I don't really know that.
        In any case, I like these pretty pieces, even if they are a little formulaic.  I had trouble limiting myself to only five to include in this post.  Precisely because they all do have so much in common, the more of them I look at, the more I start noticing subtler differences.  I started thinking, "Well, I have to include the bats, because they're so different, and bats never get enough love…  and I couldn't possibly leave out the begonia, with such graceful curves and that sweet sparrow…  and that nandina branch with such interesting leaves and wonderful full moon background…  and, and, and…  So the next thing I know my blog overfloweth.
        I hope you enjoy them, too!

[Pictures: Sparrow and Begonia, wood block print by Hiroshige, (image from Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA));
Descending Geese, wood block print by Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1830 (image from the Art Institute of Chicago);
Bird on Nandina Branch under Full Moon, wood block print by Hiroshige, (image from MFA);
Bats and Branch, wood block print by Hiroshige, (image from MFA);
Plum Blossom and Bush Warbler, wood block print by Hiroshige, c. 1835 (image from WikiPaintings).]

July 24, 2012

Kircher's Dragons

        "There is a great deal of debate among writers with regards to dragons: do animals of this sort actually exist in nature, or, as is often the case in many other things, can they only be found in fables and fairy tales? And we also were stubbornly undecided for a long time as to whether these animals have ever in fact existed. At last, however, it was necessary for us to set aside our doubts… Because monstrous animals of this kind (i.e., dragons) quite often make their nests and rear their young in underground caverns, we assert with a solid basis that they are a verifiable kind of subterranean species, in accordance with the worthy topic of this book."  The book in which this assertion was made was 1664's Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher.  Back in April I introduced you to Athanasius Kircher, and promised you a post on his stories and prints describing dragons.  Well, here it is at last.
        Kircher brought plenty of evidence to support his belief in dragons, ranging from the testimony of the Bible and lives of assorted saints, up to contemporary accounts, including the following:  "In 1660, in the month of November, a Roman named Lanio was in the coastal marshes trapping birds. Instead of finding birds ran into a dragon about the size of a very large vulture…  When the hunter realized that he had used up his supply of ammunition, he cut its throat, and it died. After he had returned home on
that same evening, he died himself, either from the toxicity of the creature's blood, or from the virulence of its breath…  It occurred to a certain very curious person, who had been informed of the incident by a relative of the deceased hunter, to go to the location where the struggle had taken place. There he found the rotting body of the dragon. So that he could in all truthfulness bear witness to the matter, he brought back the dragon's head to the city…  This head was very carefully examined and I received the report that it was indeed a true dragon, with a double row of teeth just as one can find in a snake's mouth. The dragon itself was bipedal; and it had the bizarre feature of webbed feet, like those of a duck."
        Kircher includes verbatim another account which he received personally from the Swiss prefect Christopher Schorer, who wrote, "During the year 1619, as I was contemplating the serenity of the nighttime sky, to my great astonishment I saw a brightly glowing dragon fly from a large mountain cliff (which is commonly called Mount Pilate), to another cave on the opposite cliffside (commonly called the Flue Cave) with a swift flapping of its wings. Its body was quite large; it had a long tail and an extended neck, while its head displayed the toothsome mouth of a snake. As the creature was in the midst of flight, it spewed out sparks from its body, not unlike the embers which fly when smiths beat glowing iron. It was after I had observed all of the details that I knew it rightly to be a dragon from its bodily motions, by which I could discern the arrangement of its limbs. I write this to Your Reverence, lest you doubt that dragons truly exist in Nature."
        Switzerland, it seems, was a hotbed of draconic activity for centuries.  Kircher mentioned several incidents there, including a dragon who swallowed a knight whole, a dragon whose dripping blood killed the knight who had just killed it, and The Astounding Story of Victor, the Man Who Lived with Two Dragons for Six Months.  This one is a lot of fun.  Victor, a man of Lucerne, became lost in the wilderness and after nightfall fell into a pit from which it was impossible to climb.  Instead he followed a passageway into the mountain and was horrified to enter a chamber occupied by two hideous dragons.  The dragons wrapped their tails and long necks around him, but did him no harm.  So Victor remained with the dragons "from the
sixth of November all the way to the tenth of April. And how do you suppose that he was able to eat during this time? Listen, and be astounded. He observed that the dragons ate no other food throughout the winter season except a salty liquid exuded from the walls of the pit. And so, inasmuch as he was bereft of everything necessary to survive, he followed the example of the dragons. He set about licking and lapping up the liquid himself, and thus revived by this sort of food, he was able to live for half a year. During the equinoctial sun, from which he felt the air to grow a little warmer, the monsters also seemed to feel that the time was at hand for them to come out of their underground lairs to look for food. One of them swiftly flew upward from the muddy pit ahead of the other with a great flapping of his wings; and when the second dragon began the same ascent, Victor, seeing that this was his best chance for freedom, seized the tail of the beast, and was carried away from the pit."  Needless to say, his family and friends were quite astounded by his account when he found his way back to Lucerne.  (Alas, the salty liquid of the cave had made his stomach unfit for ordinary food, and he died two months later.)
        And of course adding greatly to the charm of Kircher's accounts of dragons are the illustrations.  Alas, as is all too often the case, I can find no artist's name to whom I can give credit for these wonderfully detailed depictions.  Mundus Subterraneus was illustrated with both woodcuts and copper engravings, but these are engravings, which enables finer detail, but has more of a look of drawing than carving.  I'd love to know how much direction the artist got in these pictures, whether he was working from someone else's sketches, and how strictly Kircher was overseeing the designs.  I would think they'd have been fun, but perhaps this artist didn't care about dragons as I do!
[Pictures: Dragon of the Isle of Rhodes;
This little dragon… was caught… by Pope Gregory XIII;
Victor escaping from the pit on a dragon's tail, all copper engravings from Mundus Subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher, 1665 edition.
The English translation of Kircher I've quoted here was done by Darius Matthias Klein, and I found it at the Christian Latin blog.  Many thanks!  You can read Kircher's entire chapter on dragons there.

July 20, 2012

Happy Endings

        One of the recurring themes of my Otherworld Series is that history is never-ending.  Events scroll onward forever, one leading to another to another, continuously.  Therefore, what defines a story is simply the framing.  For example, look at the history dealt with in the fairy tale "Snow White."  You'd have a very different story if you chose to start it with the king and queen's desire for a baby, through the ups and downs of their disappointments, and finally end it happily ever after with the birth of their perfect baby.  Or what would the story look like if you chose to end it with the queen's death?  Tragic!  Perhaps you could focus the entire story on Snow White's time in the woods - start with the stepmother's order to take the princess away, and conclude with the seven dwarves taking her in to live happily ever after with them.  You get a different story again when you end the traditional way with Snow White marrying the prince and wreaking hideous punishment on the stepmother.  And of course you could just as easily start the story with Snow White's marriage and end it some time later, with her own children, or with the prince's coronation as king, or perhaps ending at the close of some epic battle the prince will no doubt fight, making a happy ending if the prince's army is victorious, a tragic ending if he's killed, perhaps a bittersweet ending if the country is saved but the prince dies…  The point here is that all beginnings and endings are in a sense arbitrary and it's the job of the storyteller to choose how she wishes to frame the tale.  It doesn't make sense to argue about whether happy endings or sad endings are more "realistic," because both happy and sad things do undeniably occur and it's purely up to the storyteller to decide whether to end a story at a happy point or a sad point in the continuously unfolding history.
        When I tell stories, I insist on happy endings, or at least endings that leave me with a sense of satisfaction and a sense that things have turned out right.  (I'm happy with the ending of the movie "Casablanca," for example, despite its not being a typical happy ending.)  I refuse to end my own stories at tragic points, quite simply because I don't enjoy reading stories with sad endings, so why would I write them that way?
        There are a number of reasons why I don't like sad endings.  First of all, if I want to hear about bad stuff happening, I can read the newspaper.  The news is full of disasters and tragedies.  (Does that mean bad stuff is more realistic?  No; it means that newspapers end their stories at the terrible climax and don't continue the story beyond, to the overcoming or the redemption or the solution to the problem.)  Newspapers function under the belief that what's interesting is the disaster, but to me, what's ultimately interesting about a story isn't really the disaster itself, but how a hero might react, respond, and overcome.  So any story that stops at the bad stuff is, in my opinion, leaving out the interesting part of the plot.
        Secondly, there's what I always think of as the "Jesus, Grandpa!" phenomenon, with reference to the point in The Princess Bride by Goldman, where the grandfather reads that Buttercup marries the wrong man.  The boy listening exclaims (in the movie version) in outrage, "Jesus, Grandpa!  What'd you read me this thing for?"  We read stories because we derive satisfaction from seeing things connect in logical ways, from seeing loose ends tied up, from seeing problems worked out after fearing that there was no hope, from immersing ourselves in a vision of a world that is more than merely random.  Is this a realistic vision of the world?  Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but it is certainly real and true that humans need such a vision, and one of the jobs of art and literature is to provide it for us.
        And finally, there's a moral dimension to every telling of every story, whether it's meant to be explicitly moralistic or not.  That is, the storyteller's choices about how to frame the story give the readers or listeners a message about the world.  Do I show characters struck helpless by evil fate or do I show them struggling to overcome?  Do I show events having consequences, and if so, do I focus on short-term or long-term consequences?  Do I show tragedies as endings, middles, or beginnings?  Personally, I believe it's better to give the message that life can go on beyond bad things.
         Whenever I talk with children about writing, I always encourage them to think about what sort of endings they like, and try their hand at various different ways to craft a satisfying ending for themselves.  But I always pledge to them that all my endings are happy, because I love Happy Endings!

[Pictures:  The poisoned apple, illustration by Jennie Harbour from My Book of Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Eric Vredenburg, 1921;
The magic mirror, illustration by Lancelot Speed from The Red Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang, 1890.
Given their dates, both these illustrations were probably originally done with pen and ink, and then reproduced as wood blocks for printing in the books.  But I haven't confirmed that on either.
(Both images are from the wonderful collection of fairy tale illustrations at SurLaLune.)]

July 17, 2012

Josef Albers in Black and White

        Variety being the spice of life and all, today's block prints are outside my usual focus.  They're by Josef Albers (1888-1976), the abstract painter most famous for his "Homage to the Square" series, in which he experimented with color interactions.  There are no color interactions here, though -- just black and white.
        I've picked representatives of two basic styles of wood block prints Albers did.  The rounder ones are earlier, and the more angular one later.  (He also did a lot of later ones that have only a few white lines, but I liked those even less, so I'm not even posting them.)
        I have to say I'm not thrilled with any of these, for a variety of reasons.  And the last looks to me like some sort of silly muppet frogmonster.  Not that I have anything against silly frogmonsters in general - indeed, that's the sort of thing you might expect I'd enjoy.  But what it really looks like is an accidental silly frogmonster, as if Albers wasn't intending anything of the sort and was doodling, no doubt taking himself very seriously with thoughts of abstract this and that.  So maybe it's kind of in the uncanny valley of silly frogmonsters.
        The first print shown above is a little more pleasing to me, but… and I know I'm betraying my lack of artistic sophistication here… it isn't very interesting, in composition, in technical skill, or in overall impact.  It just isn't my thing.
        The composition and shapes of the middle one aren't very appealing to me either, but the one thing I do like about it is the wood grain.  I like how carefully it's been inked in order to show the grain so clearly and uniformly.  I also like the contrast between the organic waves of the grain and the very sharp, straight lines and shapes.
        So on the whole I'm not a fan, but I still like to look at a few different things from time to time.  What do you think?  Do Albers's wood block prints sing to you?

[Pictures: Nach Hause (Homeward), woodcut by Albers, 1933 (image from the Tate collection);
Astatic, woodcut from plywood by Albers, 1944 (image from the New York Public Library);
Ründe (Circle), woodcut by Josef Albers, 1933 (image from the Tate).]

July 13, 2012

Creature Collections: a Touch of Science

        Imaginary creatures aren't always pure fantasy.  Sometimes the imagination can be grounded in science to come up with some interesting new ways to think about the amazing possibilities of life.  Here are a few books and videos that do just that.

        Myths and Monsters: Secrets Revealed, by Katie Edwards, illustrated by Simon Mendez - Each mythical creature featured in this book is paired with a real animal that may have spawned or contributed to the myth.  The "realistic" illustrations of both imagined and actual creatures are colorful and quite beautiful.  T really liked the animal pairings, some of which were new and surprising to her. P also gave this book a thumbs-up.

        After Man, by Dougal Dixon - This book is written and illustrated in the style of an old-fashioned naturalist's notebook - picture Audubon, for example - but set on Earth 50 million years into the future when humans are gone from the scene and other animals have evolved in new and different directions.  Extensive notes explain the underpinnings of evolution with which Dixon worked, keeping all his fantastic creatures firmly founded on actual scientific principles.  (P liked the hornheads best.  I like the rabbucks - after all, they look a lot like my favorite llamas and vicunas.)

        Inspired by Dixon's book, there is a thirteen-part television documentary miniseries called The Future is Wild that imagines how life on Earth could evolve over 200 million years after the disappearance of humans.  Each 25-minute episode focuses on a particular ecosystem at a particular time period, and profiles a few species and their interrelations within that ecosystem.  It's based on science, but imagines entirely new creatures.  We enjoyed it a lot, although P tended to take it a little personally when some member of his favorite species came to an untimely end.  (And can I just say… octopuses taking the primates' place as most intelligent life on Earth is awesome!)

        Expedition, by Wayne D. Barlowe - Another naturalist's notebook, this time from an A.D.2358 expedition to a planet called Darwin IV.  Notable for making its alien species truly alien (no humanoids-with-funny-head-ridges here!), this book is a tour-de-force of imagination operating within the rules of science as we understand them.  But it's not particularly intended for children, and P and T found it much too dense to be enjoyable.  And I found that many of the creatures looked more like a Surrealist's nightmare than functioning life forms, which made it hard to get my head around.  (It just goes to show that when you want to tell a story sometimes it doesn't pay to get too creative!)

        However, inspired by Barlowe's book, there is a 94-minute television program called Alien Planet that shows a pair of robot probes exploring the life forms of Darwin IV.  Perhaps because it had to reach a more general audience, this version focusses on the more accessible of Barlowe's creations, and also has a plot of sorts, in the journey and challenges faced by the two probes.  P and T got quite attached to the probes as characters, but perhaps not so attached to the various hypothetical life forms.  Still, it's a neat way to get sci-fi with a solid grounding in the way real scientists think.

[Pictures: Reedstilt and pfrit
Wakka and strick, both illustrations by Dougal Dixon from After Man, 1981.]

July 10, 2012

Industrial Strength

        In their role as pre-photographic method of reproduction, relief block prints were often used for technical diagrams and other images having more to do with industry than art.  All the same, some of these images are really beautiful, perhaps because those who drew and carved them really were artists and made their work beautiful despite its utilitarian nature.  Or perhaps its simply because I have a taste for this sort
of thing and it pleases me.  Either way, I feature today three cool relief prints that were made for industrial purposes.
        First up is a wood engraving by John William Orr showing the details of the Great Eastern iron sailing steamship.  When she was launched in 1858 the Great Eastern was by far the largest ship ever built, but this image was made in about 1855 for a broadside distributed to investors.  I suppose as an advertising piece it's no surprise that Orr tried to make it attractive.  He had to balance technical detail with glamour shot.
        Next is a diagram of a treadwheel for raising ore, which appears in De re metallica, a 1556 treatise about mining and refining minerals.  It was the definitive work on the subject for nearly two centuries.  In his preface, author Georgius Agricola says "I have hired illustrators to delineate their forms [of tools and machines], lest descriptions which are conveyed by words should either not be understood by men of our own times, or should cause difficulty to posterity."  The illustrations were so important to the whole book that even though Agricola apparently finished the manuscript in 1550 - and died in 1555 - publication was delayed until the woodcuts could be completed.  Despite their importance, however, we don't know for sure who carved them, and although one writer attributes the drawings to someone called Basilius Wefring, no credit is given in the book.  But whoever made this great woodcut, I like it.  I find the composition pleasing, with its curves balanced by angles.  I also love that the artist included the entirely gratuitous dog lying in the foreground gnawing a stick.  Although some other illustrations show dogs involved in mining work, such as carrying packs or pulling sledges, bonus dogs appear in a lot of other pictures in which they're clearly there just because the artist had fun depicting
them.  I always appreciate someone who puts a little extra effort into his work, as this artist clearly did.
        And finally, my favorite, the Milan Cathedral from Vitruvius's Architectura.  It's a perfect illustration of the idea that geometry sings the glory of God.  The artist, Cesar Cesariano, has managed to show both the incredibly detailed fiddliness of the decorations, and at the same time the pure simplicity of the underlying proportions.  I love that the image looks almost abstract, and yet still retains a sense of purpose so that it's more than mere doodlings of circles and lines.
        It's not easy bringing artistry to a technical commission, but I think these three relief prints prove that it is definitely possible!

[Pictures:  The Great Eastern, wood engraving by John William Orr, c.1855 (image from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971);
Figure 197, woodcut by Basilius Wefring (?) from De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola, 1556  (image from Project Gutenberg);
Facade and section of Milan Cathedral, woodcut by Cesar Cesariano from Architectura by Vitruvius, 1521 (image from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971).]

July 7, 2012

Come Away...

        I had been working on a book about a changeling - a somewhat darker story for somewhat older readers - and I'm planning to have a few lines of poetry about fairies at the head of each chapter.  These are not to be nice fairies, not cute fairies, not pretty fairies, but rather they are beings of a world that is beautiful, terrifying, seductive, and cruel.
        I say I had been working on it, because T kept asking me about it and what I'd written and when she could read it, and I knew that it would be a few years before she'd be old enough for this book.  That's when I realized that, rather than fight the battle of refusing to let her read it, it might just be better to work on my other current idea instead, since that will be appropriate for kids P and T's age.  So I've turned my focus away from the fairies for now… But in honor of them, here's an excerpt from a poem that I've always found deeply evocative.
        Written by William Butler Yeats in 1886, it presents fairies somewhat ambiguously.  As described by the verses they seem mischievous, but small - Little People.  As implied by the refrain they appear almost more in the role of angels calling the innocent child beyond the pain of this mortal realm.  But in the last verse Yeats gives us the poignant reminder that there is sorrow in the loss of the world, even when it is a world full of weeping, and that home, with all its tears, may be better than exile in a land without sorrow.
        I give you only the last two verses.  To read the whole thing you can look here.

     from The Stolen Child

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a
We seek for slumbering
And whispering in their
Give them unquiet
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed -
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.

[Picture: woodcut by Stephen Bone, first half of the 2oth century.
(Sorry to have so little info on this piece.  I found it, along with a small amount of information on the artist, here.)]

July 3, 2012

The Old Bridge

        Here's a lovely woodcut by an artist I know nothing about except his name and dates: Wynand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp (1874-1950).
        I'd love to know more about the scene - what is that city we see under the arches of the bridge?  What river's waters swirl so seductively past?  Is this a real place that the artist knew and loved, or a view sketched quickly on the way past while travelling, or a fantasy place representing an archetypal bridge?

[Picture: The Old Bridge, woodcut by Wynand Otto Jan Niewenkamp, 1920.
(Image from The Annex Galleries.)