February 26, 2013

Words of the Month - O Frabjous Words!

        January 27 was Lewis Carroll's birthday - or at least the birthday of his alter ego Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.  Unfortunately, I misread my note to myself and thought it was February 27, so today's installment of "Words of the Month" is dedicated (a month late) to the words he made up.  Carroll made up a lot of words, many of them familiar to readers of Alice's adventures.  Lots of people will recall hearing of brillig, slithy toves, and the bandersnatch.  But the words I'm featuring today are the ones that have moved out of Wonderland and find at least occasional usage in everyday conversation.

mimsy - (1855) blend of miserable and flimsy.  This word is on the edge of mainstream, used every once in a while, but probably only with consciousness of quoting Carroll.

vorpal - (1871) heroically powerful, used with blade or sword.  This word is a staple in those portions of the populace that have occasion to discuss heroically powerful swords, especially the D&D and fantasy role-playing community.

snicker-snack - (1871) the sound made by a vorpal blade slicing.  Useful for swashbucklers, rogues, duellists, knights in shining armor, hedge pruners, chefs, and anyone else with a sharp blade and a certain sense of verve.

snark - Lewis Carroll introduced this imaginary creature in The Hunting of the Snark in 1876.  Snarky meaning snide derives from a verb "to snort" from 1866.  The two may be unrelated, but I can't help suspecting that Carroll might have been influenced by the verb when he was coming up with nonsense for his writing, while it seems even more likely that the popularity of the adjective was enhanced by the existence of Carroll's noun.

galumph - (1872) blend of gallop and triumph.  I mentioned this one in an earlier post on made-up words.

chortle - (1871) blend of chuckle and snort.  This is probably the most mainstream of all Carroll's coinings.  Plenty of people know this word without having read Through the Looking Glass or having any idea of its origin.  That's the sign of a word having truly arrived.

portmanteau word - (1882) In addition to all the new word blends Carroll introduced, he also gave us a word for the kind of words he was making up.  His explanation was that these words have "two meanings packed up into one word" like in a suitcase.

        So why not use some of these excellent words and make today a frabjous day.  Callooh!  Callay!

[Pictures: +5 Keen Vorpal Greatsword, Magic the Gathering card designed by Greg Rava, 2007 (Image from kobold 144);
The beaver brought paper, portfolio, pens, illustration by Henry Holiday from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 1874 (Image from the University of Adelaide).]

February 22, 2013

Intelligent Underground Trees

Holberg's Journey into the Earth

        I've been spending a fair bit of time underground recently, what with Kircher and Verne, and today I've been on another subterranean adventure.  This time I discovered Niels Klim's journey under the ground, being a narrative of his wonderful descent to the subterranean lands; together with an account of the sensible animals and trees inhabiting the planet Nazar and the firmament, written by Danish author Ludvig Holberg in 1741.
        Actually, I didn't read the whole thing, but it seems that Holberg gets credit as being one of the first proto-sci-fi authors to depict a hollow Earth.  In Holberg's imagination the core of the Earth functions as a sun around which orbits a small planet, and the interior of the Earth's crust supports sentient life, as well.  This is a much grander and more ambitious conception than Vernes's mere caverns, and while dinosaurs are always excellent, you have to admit that it's more creative to populate the interior of the Earth with wholly imaginary beings than simply to allow a few prehistoric beasts to have survived down there.
        Of course I'm interested in the early illustrations, too, and found engravings from a number of different editions collected on Flickr by Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek.  Here I've posted the diagram of the interior of the Earth with its internal planet.   It reminds me of when you cut open a bell pepper and discover another mini pepperlet rattling around inside.  Also, here are two views of the intelligent tree people.  (Ents, anyone?)  According to the explorer Klim, those trees with the most limbs are especially honored as being able to do the most things.  But their one real shortcoming is that they have very short legs, so that Klim is always able to outrun them.
        If anyone's interested in reading the whole thing, you can find it here.  Have fun, and have a safe journey!

[Pictures: Klim's journey below, engraving from Niels Klim's Underground Travels by Ludvig Holberg, 1767 edition;
A citizen of Potu, engraving from 1767 edition;
Klim presented to the King of Potu, engraving from 1834 edition (Images from Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek Flickr collection).]
(And thanks to The Public Domain Review for introducing me to this work.)

February 19, 2013

Faux Woodcuts

        I'm sorry to say that I haven't carved any new blocks recently.  This is partly because I've been saving up my ideas for the next open studio show when I'll need lots to work on, but mainly it's because I've been busy making fake wood block prints instead.  The story I'm currently writing is to be illustrated with numerous Renaissance-style woodcuts of doorways.  I plan to carve several of them and make actual prints (in fact I've already done two), but most of them don't seem to warrant the full treatment.  So instead I'm making digital illustrations that are supposed to look like woodcuts.
        My method for copying the look of carving starts, like real carving, with a guide sketch or picture.  But then it all goes virtual.  With my guide picture on photoshop, I cover it with a layer of solid black, lowered to about 50% opacity so that I can see my guide through it.  Then, using white, I "carve away" the black where appropriate.  Working backwards or subtractively, just like the
process of an actual relief printing block, helps make these illustrations look less like they were drawn, and more like they were carved.
        I have a tablet with a pressure-sensitive stylus, so each stroke, like the carved lines done in real wood or rubber, tends to taper at the beginning and end.  When I'm filling a larger area, I take away the black in lots of small strokes, just as when I carve.  For really large areas, I do fill them all at once, which is a lot quicker, but is also more accurate to the Renaissance woodcuts, which, unlike my block prints, tend not to show any stray ink in their backgrounds.  Another concession to laziness and accuracy is that in places I use selection to define more precisely where my "carving" can and can't go.  And when I'm finished, I "ink" it up by turning the opacity back to 100% to see what I've got.

        The end result, I hope, has enough of a woodcut look to convey the mood and mystery of the sixteenth century book described in my story.  In any case, I'm having a lot of fun with it.  But I do look forward to getting my hands on some real carving again soon!

[Pictures: Three doors, digital illustrations by AEGN from The Extraordinary Book of Doors by AEGN, 2013
(The first and last of these are based on designs from The Extraordinary Book of Doors by Sebastiano Serlio, 1551.)]

February 15, 2013

Mechanical Treasures (I)

        I haven't yet decided what to make with the collection of little clockwork bits I bought for crafting.  I'm enjoying just having all those gorgeous little cogs and gears as I mull the myriad wonderful possibilities.  In the meantime, here's inspiration in the form of some really amazing things others have made - tiny clockworky things, whimsical robotoid beasts, magical creatures with charm and personality -  these are steampunkish masterpieces.  Some are disarmingly simple, some incredibly detailed, but they all tweak my sense of wonder.
        (Authors have introduced many a mechanical character who's more than just a machine.  Baum's Tik-tok from Oz, Rutkoski's Astrophil from The Kronos Chronicles, Whitehouse's Angus from The Island of Mad Scientists, and Juster's Tock from The Phantom Tollbooth spring to mind, but I'm sure there are others.  I'm not sure why living clockwork would seem so lovable.  I'd expect it always to be portrayed as creepy, but often it's not.)

        In any case, I think these sculptures are all a lot of fun.  I hope you enjoy them!  (And if your steampunk-tooth is still not satisfied, I've made an Etsy treasury with even more clockwork creations.)

[Pictures: Eupatrous gracilicornis, sculpture from watch parts and real beetle by Mike Libby (Insect Lab);
Valor - the Steampunk Dragon Prince, assemblage sculpture by Will Wagenaar (Reclaim2fame);
Large Lightbulb Fly, brooch by Denise Humphrey, (spankyspanglerdesign);
Robotic Bug 208, sculpture by Whitney Dirks-Schuster (MollCutpurse);
Chomper, sculpture from recycled watch parts by Justin Gershenson-Gates (A Mechanical Mind);

Steampunk Scorpion, sculpture by Daniel Proulx (CatherinetteRings);
Clockwork Rabbit, sculpture by Sue Beatrice (All Natural Arts).]

February 12, 2013

Seller of Cupids

        Here's a pair of funny block prints in honor of Valentine's Day.  Apparently the idea of buying and selling cupids as a symbol of procuring love was a popular one in ancient Rome.  When the classical world became wildly fashionable in the eighteenth century, the concept of the Cupid Seller became a popular motif once again.  I find it a bit disturbing from a philosophical or moral standpoint, but endearingly goofy from an artistic point of view.
        Are those little cupids-by-the-bushel sentient like toddlers with wings?  Are they more like human-shaped birds or some mythical humanoid animal?  Or are they actually divine, like Cupid or cherubim?  Are they slaves, pets, or familiars?  And how does one build up a stock to sell?  Can you breed them or only collect them from the wild?  Do the sellers go door to door, or do they hold Tupperware parties and invite all their friends to get together and chat while admiring the wares?  And how do the buyers know what cupid they'll get?  Do they select the one that seems most adorable, like choosing a puppy from a litter?  Does the seller merely grab the one on top of the heap?  Or do you fill out a questionnaire like with a matchmaking service so that you'll be provided with the most compatible cupid?
        In the first of these prints, the seller is grabbing the cupid rather roughly by the wings, which may explain why he's reaching out supplicatingly to the potential buyer.  But it looks as if she may already have made her choice with the cupid on her lap.  In the second image, which is much more detailed and is a reproduction of a painting, the seller demonstrates what I suspect is the proper way to hold a cupid's wings - like a butterfly's, to minimize damage.  Even so, the cupid in question is making an obscene gesture, which seems to be intended for the seller, or possibly his brethren in the basket.  It's unclear to me from the buyer's expression whether this rude cupid is to her taste.  Truth to tell she looks a little bored.  Maybe she's wondering whether he'll be any more interesting than the perfume, flowers, and box of chocolates already on her table.  (Okay, I don't know that it's chocolate in the box.  Maybe it's jewelry.  Maybe it's Kupid Kibbles.)
        In any case, this Valentine's Day the advertisers of a million heart-shaped wares want to convince you that you can buy love… but clearly their goods are pretty weak substitutes for True Love, when you consider that 250 years ago you could have been buying a real live love-god in the flesh.

[Pictures: Seller of Loves, engraving by Carlo Nolli, from Le Pitture Antiche d'Ercolano e Contorni, 1762 (Image from An Introduction to Ninteenth Century Art);
Cupid Seller, etching and engraving by Jacques Firmin Beauvarlet, 1778, after a painting by Joseph-Marie Vien (Image from The Philadelphia Museum of Art).]

February 8, 2013

Verne's Journey into the Earth

        Today is Jules Verne's birthday (he'd be 185), and in preparation for it I felt that I really ought to read one of his books.  I chose Journey to the Interior of the Earth.  Apparently that's the title of the more accurate translation.  Journey to the Center of the Earth, the better known translation, is allegedly only a rough approximation of Verne's book.  And "Interior" is definitely a better choice for the title, since (Spoiler Alert!) they never even reach the center!  In any case, this is an odd sort of proto-science-fiction.  It's fiction, of course, and it's the account of scientists engaged in a scientific journey of exploration, but it's a funny sort of sci-fi, and I can really see how it's pointing toward a genre that didn't exist yet.  The genre it really fits into is actually the Traveller's Tale.  Like the tales of Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo, the point of the story is not really to explore how new technologies and discoveries might affect humankind, but rather to entertain the reader with amazing sights and oddities.  The science is included more to create a veneer of verisimilitude than because it's important to the story in its own right.  That was okay with me, since I'm not especially into hard sci-fi anyway, but I think it's an interesting distinction.
        As for the story itself, I find it somewhat unsatisfying.  I feel as if there is no real plot arc.  The incidents are simply strung together, and the final surge is somewhat anticlimactic as it seems like simply the next incident.  The characters are not particularly engaging, although I had to like Hans, the utterly unemotional Icelandic guide.
        My son P has seen the 2008 movie "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and recommended that the rest of us should see it some time.  It looks like rather than trying to recreate the book, they've made a story about modern characters who discover that Liedenbrock (or Lidenbrock, in the more common translation) was an actual person, and follow in his trail.  I don't know whether the movie's any good, but it seems like a promising way to frame the story, in any case.  That way they can use some of Verne's concepts (not to mention his name recognition) without being tied to his old-fashioned characters and plot progression.
        All in all, Journey to the Interior of the Earth was a quick read and it was interesting to see how it fit into the development of a new genre, but I don't think it's a book that would grab and hold the attention of most modern readers, whether juvenile or adult.  But if you'd like, you can read it yourself at Project Gutenberg.

[Pictures: Subterranean crystals;
Underground sea, engravings from illustrations by Édouard Riou, from Voyage au centre de la Terre by Jules Verne, 1864 (Images from Wikimedia Commons).]

February 5, 2013

Kircher's Journey into the Earth

        I've been reading Vernes's Journey to the Interior of the Earth (blog post here), and couldn't help but think that this is the perfect time to share a couple more cool prints from Athanasius Kircher.  (If you don't remember Kircher, check out my introduction to him here.)  In Journey to the Interior of the Earth, the intrepid and obsessed Professor Liedenbrock is inspired by the discovery of a three hundred year old account of an underground expedition.  Kircher's Mundus subterraneus would have been only two hundred years old at the time when Professor Liedenbrock was looking for inspiration, but it's just about 350 years old now, and would be just the sort of mysterious ancient tome where you might expect to read about a fabulous expedition into the depths of the terrestrial globe.
        Kircher has two illustrations of the interior of the Earth that I find especially pleasing both as art and as fantasy inspiration.  The first represents the system of water and heat within the Earth, while the second illustrates the system of underground fire (with the largest chamber in the center being Hell).  As art I think they look almost abstract, with their different patterns of shapes and lines, and their rich layers of texture.  I also love the tiny sailing ships poking out along the surface of the ocean.  As fantasy I can see these images as maps that might inspire someone like Verne or Professor Liedenbrock.  I don't know whether Verne would have seen these illustrations, but I can imagine him picturing his underground sea in much this way (even if Liedenbrock didn't believe in a fiery core for the Earth).  But I can also see these images as magical diagrams, illustrating how to harness elemental powers.  Good stuff!

[Pictures: System of underground water;
System of underground fire, copper engravings from Mundus subterraneus by Athanasius Kircher, 1665 edition (Images from OU History of Science Collections).]

February 1, 2013

Gwen Raverat's Wood Engravings

        Gwen Raverat is another relief print artist I didn't know about until one of my helpful readers brought her to my attention - in this case, her grandson.  So I looked up her beautiful work, and I hope you'll enjoy it, too.
        Raverat (British, 1895-1957) was associated with many of the writers and artists of the Bloomsbury Group, and later with feminist writers.  She was determined to make her way as a serious professional artist, and she succeeded, becoming one of the founders of The Society of Wood Engravers.  Perhaps that's what gives such exuberance to her illustration of a high-spirited girl from one of her own favorite childhood books!

        I love that Raverat's work is detailed enough for realism, but without ever becoming so perfectly detailed as to lose the look of carved wood.  She experiments with both ends of the spectrum: finely shaded accuracy, and starker, more stylized black and white.  Some of her work is almost sketchy, like this wonderful
woman depicted with just a few cuts so that she's defined by her shadow as much as her light.  Other blocks, by contrast, have a more Victorian style of shading.

        Raverat has a deft touch with light in almost all her blocks.  I only wish I could capture light like she does!  Certainly the engraving technique is a little more conducive to subtlety than woodcuts on the grain, but unlike some wood engravings, Raverat's are very seldom a washed-out all-over midtone.  She always uses enough solid black and solid white to keep some drama.
        You can see lots more information about Raverat, along with plenty of pictures of her work at the website maintained by her grandson.  (Alas, many of the pictures there are awfully small, but then wood engravings tend to be small in person, too.)  If you like the samples I've show here, go check out The Raverat Archive.

[Pictures: London Snow, wood engraving by Raverat from the Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children, 1932;
Olga Climbing Down the Wall, wood engraving by Raverat from The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart, 1936
Weaving, wood engraving by Raverat from the Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children, 1932;
Horse Chestnuts at Granchester, wood engraving by Raverat, 1937;
Village Street, Escures, wood engraving by Raverat, 1920.
(All images from The Raverat Archive.)]