July 31, 2020

Words of the Month - From Fantasy Fiction

        Fantasy fiction has obviously given us words for fantasy subjects, such as orc and jedi, but it has also given us plenty of words for ordinary, everyday usage.  You may be tickled to learn the fantastical origins of some of these words.
        Not surprisingly, classical mythology gives us quite a lot of words.  (It’s always a little questionable whether mythology counts as fantasy fiction in our modern sense — To what extent did people in ancient Greece and Rome consider the stories factual truth? — but I’m counting it today.  At the very least it's fair to say that the speakers of modern English who adopted these words considered the tales to be fiction.)
        protean - changing frequently or easily, from shape-changing Greek sea god Proteus (entered English in the 1590s)
        tantalize - to torment by keeping something desirable just out of someone’s reach, from Tantalus, mythical king of Phrygia punished in this way in Tartarus (entered English in the 1590s)
        atlas - a book of maps, from Atlas, a giant (often considered a Titan, see below) forced to hold up Earth or the pillars of heaven.  He was often depicted holding up the globe on the frontispiece of early books of maps, and his name seems to have been applied to the book itself for the first time in 1636.
        panic - sudden terror, from Pan, Greek god of woods and fields, said to inspire such fear in lonely and desolate places (entered English first as an adjective around 1600, and as a noun around 1708)
        titanic - huge, from the Titans, the giants who were overthrown by Zeus and the Greek gods (entered English c. 1709)
        Jonathan Swift gives us two words with their origins in Gulliver’s Travels, his 1726 best-selling satire of fantastical travellers’ tales and human nature.
        lilliputian - small and delicate, from Lilliput, the land of tiny people.  (Variants of this word have actually entered several European languages.)
        yahoo - vicious humanoid brute.  Gulliver ends up claiming that all humans are in fact yahoos, but the usage of the word in English now refers to rude, noisy, or uncivilized people, as opposed to the rest of us, who are obviously cultivated, reasonable, and refined.
        There are actually several more words from Gulliver’s Travels that you may occasionally encounter, but I haven’t included them today because I considered them more obscure and/or very consciously referential, rather than truly integrated into English.

        The rest of today’s words come from a variety of fantasy tales, and I offer them in chronological order of their original sources (which is not in all cases the same as the order of their adoption into the English language).
        serendipity - the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way, coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole in reference to a Persian fairy tale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip.”  The tale dates back at least to 1302, and Serendip was the Persian word for Sri Lanka.  Sources say the English translation came by way of a French translation of an Italian version from Indian sources, but I can’t find a date for a first appearance in English.  As for the word serendipity, it didn’t really catch on until the 20th century.
        gargantuan - enormous, from Gargantua, a giant in the mid-16th-century series The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais (in English by the 1590s)
        quixotic - impractically romantic, holding impossible ideals, from Miguel Cervantes’s 1605 Don Quixote de la Mancha, a satirical novel that is not really fantasy, but certainly somewhere in the vein of high epic.  (It entered English around 1790.)
        muckracker - a journalist who looks for scandal, from the “man… with a Muckrake in his hand” in John Bunyan’s 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory with various fantastical episodes.  The word had already existed in English with its literal meaning “someone who rakes through muck searching for valuables,” but its more figurative sense of hunting scandal dates to 1872, and its application to journalists was popularized by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
        scrooge - miser or curmudgeon, from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843.  Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to have been used as an ordinary word until the 1940s.
        chortle - a sort of pleased laugh, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in 1871.
        grinch - a mean-spirited killjoy, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss, 1957.

[Pictures: Pan, engraving from Le Imagini de gli Dei de gli Antichi by Vincenzo Cartari, 1664 (Image from Soul Spelunker);
Lilliputians Examining the Man-Mountain’s Possessions, clearly copied from illustration by Thomas Morten, 1865 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Gargantua, wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1873 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

July 27, 2020

Summer Vacation: French Edition

        Today’s block print vacation takes us to France, but more specifically to Paris.  All three of my own pieces come from Paris (which is pretty much the only place I’ve had a chance to explore in France), and most of the other art I’ve posted previously is from Paris, as well.
        Let’s start with the requisite Eiffel Tower.  Although I made a block print of this most stereotypical of French icons, I did want to do a less obvious view of it.  This is the view from beneath, looking up along one of the legs.  You can see a bit about my process here, as well as comparing three other artists’ views of the Eiffel Tower.  (You can also see the photo on which the print is based here.)

        This second piece is my most recent, just completed a couple of weeks ago.  It shows some of the gargoyles on the Church of Saint-Séverin.  They probably date to the fifteenth century, and being genuine gargoyles and not mere decorative grotesques, they stretch out long and straight to channel rainwater well away from the church’s masonry.  I am tickled by their goofy expressions and cartoonish hairstyles.  Unlike a lot of gargoyles that perch sky-high on their soaring gothic structures, Saint-Séverin has a wonderful double row of beautiful gargoyles along the edge of a lower roof, so that you can actually admire them from the ground.
        For more block print views of Paris you can see a collection of pieces here
        My final piece posted today is not a real block print but one of the digital faux woodcuts I made to illustrate The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  It is a door in the Louvre, specifically in the Salle des Caryatides in a sixteenth century wing dating back to its days as a palace.
        Before we leave, I’ll give you a chance to get out of the city and visit Monet’s garden at Giverny.
        And a final jaunt to Dinan in Brittany.

[Pictures: Eiffel Tower, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015 (sold out);
Gargoyles of Saint-Séverin, rubber block print by AEGN, 2020;
Plate IV: Louvre, digital image by AEGN from The Extraordinary Books of Doors, 2014.]

July 22, 2020

Glass Sandals?

        Once upon a time there was a young woman who had been brought far from her home in Greece and forced to serve as a slave in Egypt.  One day as she was bathing, an eagle snatched up one of her sandals and flew away with it to Memphis, where the pharaoh was seated in his courtyard hearing the cases of his people.  The eagle dropped the sandal directly into the pharaoh’s lap, where he was so taken with its beauty and its marvelous arrival that he determined to find its owner.  He sent his men in all directions across the entire kingdom to find the woman who had worn this remarkable sandal, and when they found her, she was brought to Memphis.  There she married the pharaoh and lived happily ever after as queen.
        Sound familiar?  This tale is considered to be the oldest known variant of the “Cinderella” folk tale.  It was first reported by the Greek writer Strabo some time between about 7 BCE - 24 CE.  Strabo gives this Cinderella the name Rhodopis, which means “rosy-cheeked.”  About 200 years later a Roman writer gives Prince Charming, aka the pharaoh, the name Psammetichus.  The story was apparently a popular one right from the get-go, and got conflated with several other semi-historical tales.  First off, there was a 6th century BCE hetaera or courtesan called Rhodopis, whom some writers considered to be the same woman, while others thought she was unrelated.  This second Rhodopis was supposedly a fellow slave of Aesop, and a lover of the brother of the poet Sappho.  She in turn was conflated with legendary Egyptian queen Nitocris, and said to have had the third pyramid of Giza built by her lovers to be her tomb.  I don’t remember that part from my familiar version of “Cinderella!”
        I’m inclined to think of the sandal story as independent of the other bits, and consider it by itself.  At its most basic: a young woman working as a slave is eventually married to royalty after being matched to footwear that came into the royal bachelor’s possession.  This ancient Greek version obviously lacks all the other details we know so well, from the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, to the ball.  I think its most important defect is that our couple don’t actually meet or fall in love, however at-first-sight-ly.  At least in “Cinderella” they have a chance to get to know each other over 1-3 evenings, according to the version.  If they’ve actually had a chance to meet it makes more sense that the prince wants to find the maiden he’s grown to love, and that the maiden is delighted to marry the prince she’s grown to love.  I’m sure the eagle in this ancient Greek version was sent by the gods or fated in some way to unite Rhodopis and Psammetichus, but it all seems very random!  However, it is true that some versions of “Cinderella” have an important role played by a white bird that throws down to our hero whatever she needs.  Could there be a connection between Aschenputtel’s white bird and Rhodopis’s eagle?
        What do you think?  How useful are shoes as a matchmaking device?  How many balls would you want before choosing a life partner?  And how many times has a bird thrown something useful into your lap?

[Pictures: Greek Slave Girls at the Fountain, engraving, drawn by E. Klimsch;
detail from Egyptian Dancer, engraving after painting by H. Makartboth, from Ridpath’s Universal History, 1894.]

July 17, 2020

Summer Vacation: Irish Edition

        Today we’re heading to Ireland, by way of relief block prints.  I have two of my own to share with you, and the first is technically new; I only got around to completing and printing it a couple of weeks ago, although I had started carving some time ago.  It doesn’t depict any particular tourist destination, but is rather one of those little glimpses along the way.  I spotted this observant dog in the upper window of an old (but not ancient) building in a scenic sort of mews in Kilkenny.  I spent just about forever making the pattern on the rough, lichen-covered walls with a million tiny pin-pricks with a tack.  
        My second destination takes us across the country to a more famous spot: Dunguaire Castle, a restored sixteenth-century tower house on Galway Bay.  Ireland is liberally sprinkled with tower houses - over 2000 remain, some in ruins, others still (or again) inhabited - and the fact that you can hardly get anywhere without running into one is a significant factor in my love of Ireland.  Tower houses are quite simple as castles go, and usually feature a single large ground floor hall, and a spiral staircase leading to upper floors that in most cases are now missing.  As Dunguaire is restored, however, you can go up to the top and walk around the battlements for a spectacular view.  When I took the photos on which my block print is based, the scenic wonders of the place were increased by white swans swimming in the bay.
        Despite several more photographs in my folder of possible print inspiration, that’s all I’ve done so far.  I have, however, featured plenty of block print views of Ireland by other artists in the past.
    Others views of the western side of Ireland are here,
    and you can head east for views of Dublin here.
    Plus two views of Cork, here
        Have you been to Ireland?  What sorts of scenery are your favorites?  And how do you feel about grey skies and rain?

[Pictures: Watching the World, rubber block print by AEGN, 2020 (Sold out);
Castle on a Bay, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015.]

July 13, 2020

Who Has Seen the Wind?

        Invisibility is a staple of both fantasy and sci fi, from Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak (or that of the soldier in “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), to the cloaking devices of Romulan spaceships.  It’s easy enough to include it in a story, but what about the illustrators and filmmakers then called upon to show viewers what invisibility looks like?  In a previous post Picturing the Unseen, I talked about how artists illustrate those things that supposedly no human has ever seen.  But portraying invisibility is a whole ‘nother issue.  It isn’t that we have to imagine what it would look like; it’s that we have to depict the non-appearance of it.
        One option filmmakers often use is to show the very faint shimmer, especially as something transitions between visibility and invisibility.  That’s what various shows do with cloaked spaceships, and we can also see a slight hint of wrinkles as someone throws on the cloak of invisibility in the Harry Potter movies.  But what about outside that brief moment of transition?  How to show something not becoming invisible, but already invisible?
The answer is in the poem by Christina Rossetti:
Who has seen the wind? 
Neither I nor you: 
But when the leaves hang trembling, 
The wind is passing through. 
   Who has seen the wind? 
   Neither you nor I: 
   But when the trees bow down their heads, 
   The wind is passing by.
        You show the invisible by the effect it has on the world around it: footprints appearing in snow, mud, or grass; curtains or bushes moving as something unseen goes past; items knocked over…  Those effects can give away a person who is trying to remain unseen, but there can be even clearer effects when the invisible agent is trying to act on the world, such as picking up and carrying items.
        That brings us to a big question that writers need to wrestle with as they figure out the parameters of this invisibility in their universe.  To what extent does the invisibility of the agent extend to the items with which they interact?  An invisibility cloak is fairly straightforward: anything covered by the cloak is covered by invisibility, while anything out from under the cloak is seen.  I can pick up and carry invisibly anything that can fit under my cloak with me.
        Now what about Bilbo’s ring of power?  The ring isn’t working by the physical act of covering, rather it is extending some force of magic.  The first question is always: clothes or no clothes?  In Bilbo’s case, clothes also become invisible, as do accoutrements such as hats, swords, and backpacks.  Does his invisibility extend to anything he might pick up, such as a loaf of bread or a golden goblet?  If not, all he has to do is put it on his head and call it a hat.  What about if he gave young Frodo a piggy-back ride?  Surely Frodo is then not much different from Bilbo’s cloak?  And yet we know also that the invisibility does not extend to everything Bilbo touches: doors, rocks, bar tables…  What about his blanket when he sleeps?  Is it visible because the edges are grounded?  But would it become invisible if it were all bundled up atop him so that no part of it touched the ground?  But then, of course, if he’s lying down his clothes would be touching the ground as well as himself, and yet they remain invisible.
        I’m obviously looking for the grey areas here, but usually we don’t really have too much difficulty drawing what seems to be a logical line between which objects count as part of a person’s person, and which objects are extras they may happen to be touching or holding.  And magic can work by rules of human “reasonableness”.  In the world of sci-fi, however, invisibility works not by magic but by science, and thus cannot afford to be as vague as what seems reasonable to a human.  Think about The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, in which the man has been made invisible by a procedure that is specific to his own body.  Thus nothing else around him becomes invisible because of mere touch or proximity.  When he puts on clothes and covers his face with bandages, everything appears perfectly visible again.  1992’s movie “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” goes one further and proposes that even the food he eats is visible, visibly turning to mush in his transparent mouth, and visibly gurgling down his transparent gullet, at least until it digests sufficiently to count as being part of his invisible body.  Presumably many of these same questions apply to creatures such as jinn that are naturally invisible as part of their nature.
        How you catch an invisible creature is a question that really requires us to grapple with the parameters of our system of invisibility.  If you throw flour over the creature, does the flour reveal the invisible shape upon which it lands?  Or does it, like clothing, also turn invisible?  Can you see an invisible shape in the rain?  What about if an invisible creature is stabbed, or steps on a tack?  Clearly the blood inside its body is invisible, but does it become visible when it drips to the ground?  Being speculative, any answer is possible, but when you imagine how invisibility works, you want to come up with a coherent and consistent system.  In any case, thermal imaging and dogs are probably always a good bet for invisible humans, although I’m not sure how they work on jinn.  (It would presumably be no help at all with ghosts, but then, incorporeality is a completely different issue from invisibility.)
        All of these decisions are difficult enough to work with as the writer, but potentially even harder for the illustrator.  Telling you an invisible cat crept up the stairs is a lot easier than showing you the invisible cat going up the stairs.  In still pictures as opposed to moving images, it’s even more difficult to get across the idea of footprints appearing, loaves of bread disappearing, and the presence of something not depicted in any way.  Probably the most common method is to depict a semi-transparent figure to show the viewer what’s going on but indicate that the other characters in the scene cannot see it.  I haven’t attempted any pictures of the invisible myself.

[Pictures: Cloaking spaceship from The Clone Wars: Shipyards of Doom, by Fillbach Brothers and Ronda Pattison, 2008 (Image from Star Wars Fandom);
The Cloak of Invisibility, by Mary GrandPré (Image from Pulse.Gallery);
Invisible man smoking, still from “Memoirs of an Invisible Man”, 1992 (Image from House of Geekery);
The Invisible Man cover illustration by Gerald Gregg, 1948 (Image from Flickr).]

July 8, 2020

Stay-at-Home Activities 5: Etcetera

        I’ll conclude my series on stay-at-home activities with a digest of some of the activities I’ve featured in the past.  You can click on the label “step-by-step” in the sidebar for all kinds of posts on different printmaking projects, but here are some that should be doable without having to go out and procure specialized supplies.

        Exquisite Corpse - weird name for a fun activity.  The directions in my post are for a printmaking version, but the same principle can be used when drawing with pencil or markers, or whatever you have on hand.
1. Fold a paper into thirds for each person participating.  (It works best with 3 or more.)
2. Each person draws a head in the first folded section.  Make the neck extend just slightly into the second section, and fold the paper so that the head is now hidden, but the edge of the neck is visible.
3.  Everyone passes their paper to the next person.  Draw a body and arms or front limbs in the middle section of the paper, making sure that you connect properly to the neck.  The very edge of the waist or hips should extend into the third section.  Fold the paper so that both the head and middle are hidden.
4.  Everyone passes their paper to the next person, who draws the bottom or hind part of the body, making sure to connect with the edge that the previous person left visible.
5.  When everyone is finished, unfold the papers and revel in the silly masterpieces!
        Telephone Variation (also better with more people):
A. Cut pieces of paper vertically so that you have relatively long, skinny sheets.  Each person draws a scene of any sort on the first inch or two of the paper.  Be sure to include a couple of interesting details.
B. Each person passes on their sheet with the picture still showing.  The second person to receive each sheet writes a sentence or two beneath the picture telling the story of what might be happening in the picture.  They then fold over the top of the sheet so that the picture is hidden.
C.  Passing on the paper, the third person can now see the story but not the original scene.  They then draw an illustration of what they think the story describes (taking up another inch or two of paper).  Fold over the story above so that now only their picture is visible.
D.  Pass it on.  The fourth person writes the story suggested by that second illustration… and so on.  You can keep going, words to pictures to words to pictures, until you run out of paper.  When you compare the final installment with the first, much hilarity ensues, and it’s always fun to see how changes were introduced.
        Variations are also possible in which stories are written one paragraph or one sentence at a time, or pictures are drawn that don’t have to be people or animals, but I find that it works best when there is just enough structure to keep it from going completely random.

        Styrofoam Prints - a basic printmaking technique that can be done with readily-available materials
        Potato Prints - ditto

        Playing Cards - another project that is about printmaking in my post, but doesn’t have to be.  You probably aren’t going to go into full production mode and make complete, playable decks, but coming up with interesting designs for playing cards (using any medium of your choice) is a fun project in itself.  If you google “playing card art” or something along those lines, or look here, you’ll see some really interesting stuff.  You can get especially creative when you don’t have to be able to actually play with them.

        Read a Book - Okay, I know; this is hardly an original idea.  However, if you want some ideas of what to read next, click on the label “list of books” in the sidebar.  That category includes a lot of fantasy, and some printmaking books, and a lot of books that are “field guides’ to fantasy creatures.  However, here are some posts that particularly feature long-form fantasy fiction that you and/or any children in your life may wish to consider reading.
Three Read-Alouds (can also be read independently, of course)

        And here are some lists of picture books, mostly fantasy:

        And let me put in a plug that you should consider reading any of my books!  You can see all of my books here.
        I hope these ideas help keep your brain, heart, and sense of wonder engaged during these difficult times!

[Pictures: Six of Spades, linocut by Christine Koch, 1995 (Image from ChristineKoch.com);
Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, James VI, Mary Queen of Scots, linocuts by Willie Rodgers, 1975 (Image from WorthPoint);
Face cards by an anonymous student at the Werkkunstschule in Hannover, c 1930 (image from Peter Endebrock’s Playing-card Pages).]

July 3, 2020

Summer Vacation: USA Edition

        Since I live in one of the reality-based states, we won’t be having our usual beloved 4th of July Celebrations with music and fireworks, and everyone together at the park by the high school.  Instead we’ll be socially distancing and trying not to make each other sick.  So I’ll do my best to celebrate the USA through block prints instead.
        I’ve made hundreds of prints that are in some way set in the USA, since that’s what’s around me all the time, and I’ve posted hundreds and hundreds more by other artists.  However, I’ll narrow this post down to the sorts of places people might actually go for vacation or as tourists.  So we’ll start in New York City, many people’s introduction to the USA.  My piece is a small scene from a sidewalk market in Chinatown.  You can also see
More views of NYC’s roofs and streets by Whitman and Trueblood.
Night views of NYC and Cleveland by Jacquette
Day views of NYC, Chicago, and Boston here
Views of Boston by Naoko
        As we move up the East Coast toward Boston, I’ll share my second piece: the Jenney Grist Mill in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  This is near the Mayflower landing place “Plymouth Rock” and Plimoth Plantation, and it is a reproduction of the mill built in 1636 by the colonists.  The Mayflower actually first landed at Provincetown, however, and there is a monument there, which you can see in a piece by Zorach, here.
        Still farther north we come to the Portland Head Light in Maine.  You can read more about my process in making this block in a previous post here.  For those of you imagining this vacation from your armchairs, by the way, the ocean off Maine is COLD!  If you want to frolic on a beach, you’ll have to head south.  But first…
see some more views of Maine by Berry
        I’m afraid my representation of the rest of the United States is quite weak.  The last piece of my own that I’ll share with you is a stairway in the formal garden of Dumbarton Oaks, the historic estate in Georgetown (Washington, DC) where the groundwork was laid for the United Nations.  You can see a little of my process (as well as for the Chinatown market above) in a previous post on Working from Photographs.
        Although I’ve made plenty of other pieces that happen to have been inspired by other places in the USA (cows in South Dakota; gazelles and piping plover in California; architectural detail in Rhode Island; college building in New Hampshire; industrial scenes in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Arizona; view from an airplane somewhere over the midwest…) they really don’t show much of distinctive place.  So you’ll have to go with other artists for the rest of your journey.
South Carolina with Taylor
Chicago with Turzak
The Southwest with Morris and Cook
Alaska with DeArmond
Hawai’i with Varez
        And finally, to circle back to the Fourth of July celebrations that will have to be virtual this year, you can revisit a previous post on fireworks.  I hope you enjoy your trip!

[Pictures: Market, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018;
Grist Mill, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015;
Portland Head Light, rubber block print by AEGN, 2014;
Stairway in the Garden, wood block print by AEGN, 1998.]