April 20, 2021

S is for Shangri-La

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Be sure to find out more about #AtoZchallenge here!  I started early, so although everyone else is just about caught up to me, if you’re looking to follow the proper schedule, find the letter Q here!)
        Shangri-La, eternal mystical paradise amidst the frozen peaks.  Where did it come from?  How can you get there?  To find out more, read 
the post about Shangri-La.  Seriously, just click through and read it, because otherwise you're not going to learn anything today, or get much more than these pictures.
        All right, so you’ve crashed your plane in the mountains of Tibet, you’ve been taken in by the ageless, utopian inhabitants of a mysterious lamasery, and they even have all the comforts of home, including central heating, bathtubs from Akron, Ohio, and a grand piano.  Now what?  As with a trip to Faerie, returning to the normal world is problematic, so you essentially have to choose between the family, friends, and other attractions of your old life, and an almost immortal perfection cut off forever from all you once knew and loved.  Presumably the people who were unhappy to begin with have an easier choice, although possibly they may be the sort of people who will be unhappy anywhere.  Let us hope that warm baths and piano music will soothe away their crankiness and dissatisfaction.
        Today’s first illustration is digital art created with a digital art kit, something I didn’t even know existed until I found this picture.  This is none other than the “Shangri-La” themed kit, in which, for $199, you receive a collection of digital building blocks including various structures, textures, and architectural elements to help you design the art for your game, movie backgrounds, or whatever.  This post could probably be called “Shangri-La Goes Commercial,” because my second image is also from the world of trying to sell you something.  In this case, it’s a fantastic ad for Mitsubishi cars.  I’ve never imagined Shangri-La with the chasm all around it, but I like that even in an advertisement for a pick-up truck, you have to park on this side, and walk across a footbridge to reach the hidden world.  I think that’s important, since being cut off from the outside world is an essential element of this myth.  (By the way, Mitsubishi had a series of three of these ads, and you may also enjoy those for two more of this April’s mythical places: Atlantis and El Dorado.)
        The MORAL of Shangri-La:  Paradise is all the more precious when it doesn’t come easily.
              OR:  Never underestimate the importance of central heating and good plumbing in utopia.
        So, have you ever found a wonderful community where you didn’t expect it?


[Pictures: A Kingdom Above the Clouds, digital art by Pablo Carpio using KitBash3D, 2020 (Image from KitBash3D);
Mitsubishi Shangri-La Secret ad campaign, created by MSTF, art director Tico Moraes, 2008 (Image from Ads of the World).]

April 19, 2021

R is for Ruritania

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Before World War I, Ruritania was a small German kingdom, reached by train from Dresden.  Its capital was Strelsau, and Strelsau Cathedral is known for the finest oak doors in Europe.  Otherwise there is not much to notice here; it is utterly typical of its area.  Ruritania represents a particular and unusual sort of place in this alphabet of Mythical and Imaginary Places, and that is because it contains no magic whatsoever.  Indeed, these sorts of places pride themselves on being as “realistic” as possible.  Of course, theoretically every fictional place ever invented could fit into this category, from St. Mary Mead and Middlemarch in England to Avonlea, Prince Edward Island;  Mayberry, North Carolina; and numerous Springfields throughout the USA.  Any time an author wants a fictional setting they slip something plausible-sounding into the map of the world.  Ruritania, however, despite its lack of magic, is a little something more.  Although it aims to sound plausibly realistic, it turns out to hold more-than-usual romance and adventure.
        Ruritania is the setting of The Prisoner of Zenda written by Anthony Hope in 1894, and in this small kingdom there is political intrigue, mistaken identity, a dashing villain, a beautiful princess, imprisonment and rescue, swordfighting, sacrifices, and much melodrama.  Hope was certainly not the first to invent such a country, but so popular was his book that it spawned an entire genre of romances and adventures set in small, fictional European countries, often placed in Eastern Europe or the Balkans where your average English or western-European reader knew there were lots of little, sometimes-unstable states, but was a little hazy about the exact geography and genealogy anyway.
        Enid Blyton brought a prince from Baronia to her books, while Warner Bros. indulged in mistaken identity with the king of Carpania in “The Great Race.”  Marilyn Monroe wins the heart of the prince of Carpathia in “The Prince and the Showgirl,” and Groucho Marx rules Freedonia in “Duck Soup.”  Alfred Hitchcock found intrigue in Bandrika in “The Lady Vanishes,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is located in Zubrowka.  Ruritania also inspired “Get Smart”s Coronia, The Mouse that Roared’s Grand Fenwick, Lutha from Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Laurania in a novel by Winston Churchhill, among dozens (if not hundreds) of others.
        The influence of Ruritania is far from over, and a recent crop of these pocket kingdoms has proliferated in, among other things, YA novels and movies The Princess Diaries featuring Genovia, and quite a few silly made-for-streaming movies, including two I watched on Netflix with my daughter: “A Christmas Prince” featuring Aldovia, and “The Princess Switch” featuring Belgravia.
        There is sometimes an element of condescension in how these countries have been imagined and portrayed.  They are small and obscure, and they tend to be old-fashioned.  That old-fashioned quality sometimes equals ignorance and backwardness.  On the other hand, sometimes these “chocolate box” kingdoms are more like dreams-come-true, where the old-fashioned-ness is charming, and the country is a wonderland where you leave behind your boring, mundane, modern life and find adventure, romance, and wish-fulfillment.
        The MORAL of Ruritania:  Whether you’re a person or a nation, there are advantages to flying under the radar of the superpowers.
              OR:  Never be deterred by the odds.
        So, next time you’re on vacation and are unexpectedly discovered to be the look-alike of a prince or princess, will you take the challenge and play the role?


[Pictures: Cover of “The Prisoner of Zenda” board game by Parker Brothers, 1896 (Image from History Today);
The Castle of Zenda, and Strelsau as seen from the train, illustrations by Donald Spencer, 1966 (Images from The Prisoner of Zenda, Heritage Press edition);
Map of Ruritania, by James Cook from The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by A. Manguel and G. Guadalupi, 1987;
Netflix Holiday Map (Image from Netflix Family).]

April 16, 2021

Q is for Quentulus Quazgar

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        The Quentulus Quazgar Mountains dominate the southern edge of the Great Red Plain of Rars, in the land of Sevorbeupstry, on the Planet Preliumtarn, which orbits the star Zarss, in the Grey Binding Fiefdoms of Saxaquine, beyond what used to be known as the Limitless Lightfields of Flanux, until the Grey Binding Fiefdoms of Saxaquine were discovered lying behind them.  And on the far side of the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains can be found God’s Final Message to His Creation, written along the crest of the mountain in thirty-foot high letters of fire, guarded by the Lajestic Vantrashell of Lob.
        God’s Final Message to His Creation is a popular tourist destination, and the Lajestic Vantrashell of Lob is a little man in a strange hat who will sell you a ticket.  I could tell you what God’s Final Message to His Creation says, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise should you ever make it to the Quentulus Quazgar Moutains yourself.  For better or worse, today’s illustrations don’t include any spoilers either, because I couldn’t find any pictures of the scene.  The first is simply a photograph of the surface of Mars that I photoshopped a bit for more exotic space-pizzazz, and while the second does show Arthur Dent and Marvin the Paranoid Android, famous visitors to the area, it doesn’t include the Message.
        This place appears in my A to Z Challenge because I needed a Q, of course, but if it hadn’t been Q I would certainly have picked another of Douglas Adams’s locations (perhaps Magrathea, because what could be more appropriate for an alphabet of Fantasy Places than a planet devoted to building Fantasy Places?)  However, the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains are representative of the particular way that Adams imagined and used places in his Galaxy: they are not required to be logical or consistent, because there are hundreds of locations that are little more than throwaway lines, invented and tossed off for comic effect.  Adams’s galaxy is a “universe” in which a quirky concept or funny turn of phrase is all the justification needed, and such delightful and often ridiculous places abound in positively effervescent abundance.  Adams regales us with references to Arkintoofle Minor where the Hingefreel people built spaceships powered by bad news; beautiful Bethselamin where erosion is so bad that you have to get a receipt every time you go to the bathroom; evil Frogstar B which was entirely overrun by shoe shops; and Kria, the home of the second worst poetry in the Universe (jumping to first place after Earth is destroyed).  The swamps of Sqornshellous Zeta are where the best mattresses in the galaxy grow and flollop, and Viltvodle VI is the home world of small blue fifty-armed beings who live in perpetual fear of “The Coming of the Great White Handkerchief”… and so on.  This is a wholly different approach to world-creation, where instead of creating the world that best supports the story, the world is created every-which-way as the spirit moves, and if later it ends up being useful to the story, all the better.  That isn’t to say that Adams didn’t devise some of his locations more deliberately, such as the above-mentioned Magrathea, but it does represent a very different view of world-creation than the terribly serious and scholarly methods of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth.
        The MORAL of Quentulus Quazgar:  Never let geographical improbability get in the way of a good story.
              OR:  We apologize for the inconvenience.
        So, how would you like to go hitchhiking around the galaxy for thirty Altarian dollars a day?

[Pictures: Tweaked Mars landscape, anonymous photo (Image from Vaisala);
I think this illustration is by Jonathan Burton for The Folio Society’s edition of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams, but I’m not 100% sure, thank you Pinterest, scientifically designed to discourage any sort of credit or attribution being given to artists for their work (Image not from The Folio Society).]
Almost-quotations from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams, 1984.

April 15, 2021

P is for Plurimiregia #AtoZChallenge

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  You can visit the Master List here to see all the other bloggers who are on this A to Z journey with me.)
        Plurimiregia is one of a pair of neighboring island kingdoms, the other being Allexanassa, somewhere far away from England.  The country is attractive, with fresh clear air, rolling wooded hills, and a charming, small capitol with a wall around it on which oranges grow.  One of its special properties is that the kings of this nation are allowed to know everything without having to learn it.  It’s all most idyllic.  Unfortunately, once a month the seawater runs away and great waves of thick treacle come sweeping around the islands so that no boat can sail through it.  Then a two-headed dragon swims up - he’s so hot inside that as he swims the treacle melts before him, creating a swimmable path - and arrives at the quay, where he is fed the king.  The dragon’s pig-shaped head eats the king of Plurimiregia, while the lizard-shaped head then eats the queen of Allexanassa.  This is why these kingdoms must constantly advertise for new rulers at the employment office.
        At least, so it was for many years, until one of the queens of Allexanassa found out about the tradition in time to warn the current king of Plurimiregia, and the two of them devised a plan, defeated the dragon, and lived happily ever after.  Upon the death of the dragon, however, the treacle remained and cooled into toffee.  It now stands up in cliffs two hundred feet tall above the borders with the real sea, and the great toffee-mines of Plurimiregia are the source of all the toffee sold in the rest of the world.
        Unfortunately, I can’t show you a good picture of this place because there aren’t a lot of illustrations and such as they are, they all focus on the characters rather than the setting.  However, I do have a scene from the garden of the palace of Plurimiregia, and a scene on the shore of the island as the two-headed dragon approaches in the distance.
        This short history of the Kingdom of Plurimiregia can be found recorded in a story by E. Nesbit, and shows us that kings and queens and prime ministers are much like other people, although of course much smarter and more talented once they’re able to know everything without learning.  We also see that people everywhere are inclined to let others suffer in order to keep themselves comfortable, although luckily the present king and queen are forgiving of this sad facet of human nature, and model better behavior for their people.  Which shows how nations thrive when their leaders are the best among them, rather than the worst.  (Just sayin'.)
        The MORAL of Plurimiregia:  When something goes wrong, best to be honest about the problem and ask for help, instead of lying to people.
              OR:  Know your Latin and Greek.
        So, if you could master any skill without having to learn it, what would you pick?


[Pictures: He came upon a little person in a large white cap, illustration by H.R. Millar from “Billy the King” by E. Nesbit, The Strand Magazine, July 1904 (Image from Internet Archive);
The arrival of the dragon, illustration by Brian Robb, 1977.]

April 13, 2021

O is for Oz

         (My #AtoZChallenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        The Land of Oz is a Fairy Country, located possibly somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but hidden from the non-magical parts of the world.  It is further protected on all sides by an impassable desert of deadly sand, and then beyond the sandy wastes are further fairy kingdoms, including Ev, Ix, and the underground Dominions of the Nome King.  Oz itself is divided into four main quadrants, the lands of the Munchkins in the east, the Quadlings in the south, the Winkies in the west, and the Gillikins in the north, as shown on the map.  Each of these regions has a ruler, as well as multiple smaller kingdoms, countries, and more-or-less autonomous areas within it.  This map is actually a game board, which includes lots of extra details of people and places from the whole series of books.  At the center is the Emerald City, capitol of Oz and home to the ruler.  Each of the four provinces has a color scheme, although it is not entirely clear how pervasive that color is.  It 
ranges, throughout descriptions of the country, from merely being a popular color for clothes and flowers, to permeating everything in the entire country so that a traveller can tell when he crosses from Gillikin Country to, say, Munchkinland, because the grass changes from purple 
to blue.  Author L. Frank Baum was not much concerned with continuity, and the consistency was further eroded in later books by other authors.  This lack of definitive canon is reflected in illustrations of Oz.  You can see in my four views of Munchkin Country that the one by original Oz illustrator W.W. Denslow shows everything blue, while a recent illustration by Charles Santore shows natural objects in their natural colors with all houses and fences in blue, while the MGM movie set is so busy being fully technicolor that it doesn’t show any particular preference for blue.  And of course if you illustrate in black and white, like Barry Moser, you don’t have to worry about it at all.
        Yellow brick roads lead from at least two, possibly each of these provinces toward the Emerald City at the center.  A note on the directions of the four quadrants: maps of Oz are often shown with the east, and therefore the Munchkin Country, on the left, and the Winkies in the west to the right.  Some say this is because of an error in copying the map (see one of those maps here); others attribute it to good witch Glinda’s spell to hide Oz from the outside world, which perhaps may confuse our compasses.
        Most people are familiar with Oz primarily through the MGM musical “The Wizard of Oz,” released in 1939, although in fact there are 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum, plus another 26 that are considered “official” Oz books by other authors (plus many further books and movies that are not official.)  The first Oz book, on which the movie is based, opens with the Munchkins ruled by the Wicked Witch of the East, the Winkies by the Wicked Witch of the West, the Gillikins by the Good Witch of the North, the Quadlings by Glinda the Good Witch of the South, and the Emerald City (and thus the entire country) by the Wizard of Oz.  By the end of that chapter of history, the Wizard and both Wicked Witches have been deposed.  (In the movie, the two Good Witches are blended into a single character, and Glinda is called the good witch of the North.)  Today’s final illustrations include views of the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle, which is yellow in the Land of the Winkies, and Glinda and her castle, which is in Quadling Country and therefore red.
        Ozma, the subsequent queen of all Oz, bans the working of magic by anyone without a permit (and these permits are seldom awarded), but illicit magic turns up frequently in the Land of Oz nevertheless.  Another aspect of magic is that all animals can talk in Oz, although some choose not to.  A wide variety of magical people and creatures can be found there, including winged monkeys, kalidahs, people made of china, living paper dolls, Flatheads (who carry their brains in cans), Hammerheads, and many others.  There are also a number of people who are given magical life and sentience, such as the Scarecrow, Jack Pumpkin-head, the Sawhorse, and Scraps the Patchwork Girl.  (By the way, Ozma also has a magic picture that can show her what’s happening anywhere in her kingdom — much like Prester John’s magic mirror.)
        Baum originally invented Oz with the idea of creating a uniquely American fairy tale for modern children of the twentieth century, that emphasized wonder and joy while leaving out the darker elements of older fairy tales.  In some ways Oz is indeed a modern land, ruled by a young woman with a progressive philosophy of kindness and equality for all, and highly tolerant of eccentricity and even iconoclasm.  (Read more about Ozma here.)  In other ways, of course, it’s very much a product of its time.
        As I mentioned, the first illustrator of Oz was W.W. Denslow, who worked so closely with Baum that he was a co-copyright holder of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900.  However, Denslow and Baum had a falling out, and subsequent Oz books were illustrated by John R. Neill.  As I child I preferred Neill’s Art Nouveau style to Denslow’s cartoonish one; however, Neill’s illustrations are mostly black and white and focus almost exclusively on characters rather than places, so I have fewer pieces by him (including, however, my only view of Gillikin Country).  As soon as Oz entered the public domain in 1956 there were a huge number of versions and adaptations with illustrations by other authors, from which I have selected a sampling based on what I could find on-line or in my library.  I have represented no fewer than ten different illustrators, so in order to keep my footnotes from getting completely out of hand, I’ve organized them by author, rather than by listing each picture individually.  The six blocks of images are organized by region:
Image 1 - Map
Image 2 - Views of Munchkin Country
Image 3 - The Field of Poppies and First View of the Emerald City
Image 4 - Scenes inside the Emerald City
Image 5 - Views of Winkie Country (and one scene from Gillikin Country)
Image 6 - Views of Quadling Country
        Why does Gillikin Country get short shrift?  Because it’s the only province we never see in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and no one ever bothers to illustrate new editions of any of the other Oz books.  You can see that Neill has made it look just the same as his view of Winkie Country beside it, differing only in color.  (And by the way, since I’ve squished so many pictures into this post, don’t forget to click on them to see them all bigger.)
        Because of Judy Garland’s song in the musical, Oz is often seen as being “Somewhere over the rainbow… where troubles melt like lemon drops…” as if it were a land of eternal happiness.  Of course this is not true, and Dorothy finds it at times lonely, terrifying, and sad.  A more accurate reflection of Oz is reflected in another famous quotation from the movie: I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.  Perhaps the most important thing about Oz is that it is more magical, beautiful, strange, and unpredictable than the “normal” world.
        The MORAL of Oz:  We long for a world in which anything is possible.
              OR:  There’s no place like home.  Which may be why you wanted to leave.
        So, which artist’s versions of Oz do you like best?


[Pictures: Map board for “The Wonderful Game of Oz” by Parker Brothers, 1921 (Image from PBA Galleries);
Illustrations by W.W. Denslow from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900 - Image 2c, 3a, 4a (Images from Internet Archive);
Illustrations by John R. Neill from The Marvelous Land of Oz by Baum, 1904 - Image 5a, 5b, 6d (Images from Project Gutenberg);
Scenes from “The Wizard of Oz” film by MGM, 1939  Images 2d, 3c (Image from The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Isackes and Maness, and IMDb);
Illustrations by Charles Santore from The Wizard of Oz Random House condensed, 1991 - Images 2a, 4b, 5e, 6b;
Wood engravings by Barry Moser from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Pennyroyal Press, 1986 - Images 2b, 5c (Images from R. Michelson Galleries);
Illustrations by Lorena Alvarez Gómez from Usborne Illustrated Originals The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 2014 - Images 3b, 4d;
Illustrations by Greg Hildebrandt, 1985 - Images 3d, 4f (Images from Book Graphics);
Illustration by Júlia Sarda, 2013 - Image 3e (Image from Julia Sarda);
Illustrations by Evan Dahm, 2013-4 - Images 4c, 5c, 6c (Images from Baum by Dahm);
Illustrations by Mauro Evangelista from Usborne Young Reading The Wizard of Oz, 2006 - Images 3e, 6a.]

April 12, 2021

N is for Neverwinter and Northrend

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Neverwinter is a major city on the Sword Coast of Faerûn, the primary setting of the Dungeons & Dragons world of Forgotten Realms (and setting of an eponymous video game).  It is a cosmopolitan and civilized city of skilled craftspeople, famed for its beautiful buildings, magnificent gardens, and emblematic bridges — until the city was destroyed in a volcanic eruption.
        Northrend is a continent in the north of the world Azeroth, setting of the on-line multiplayer computer game World of Warcraft.  Since it lies so far north, the geography of its ten zones ranges from steppes and fjords to frozen wasteland (plus one thermally heated tropical basin).  Over time it has been the home of titans, trolls, vrykul, tuskarr, dragons, and undead, among others, and is best known as the seat of the dreaded Lich King.
        I use these two places (somewhat arbitrarily picked and assigned to the letter N) as representatives of fantasy worlds created to be the settings of role-playing games, both tabletop and computer-based.  D&D and video games both appeared on the popular scene around 45 years ago, in the early 1970’s.  They represented a new way to explore and experience fantasy realms, in which players were to create their own stories as they made their own choices about where to go and what to do.  (If you want to know more, there are several A to Z Bloggers writing about D&D and gaming topics this year.  You can look for them in the Master List.)
        Computer games especially have come a long way since Pong or Space Invaders.  Early games had little to no world-creation, but that began to change with games such as The Legend of Zelda in 1986, which made use of a certain amount of plot, and eventually back-story.  Through all the changes in technology, gaming platforms, and proliferation of game genres, there are games that revolve around following quest lines that reveal a story, and that type of game is often built on an astonishing depth and breadth of world creation.  World of Warcraft has had, in addition to the stories uncovered while playing the various games set in that world, a series of books and a movie, and all of these are rooted in a vast mythology and geography.  D&D’s world, too, has spawned novels, movies, and even an animated television series.
        Imaginary worlds conceived as settings for games do have some interesting differences from worlds imagined for books or movies, however.  For one thing, an author writing a book doesn’t really have to invent anything that won’t show up in the book (despite the example of Middle-earth).  A game that allows players to explore under their own steam, on the other hand, will require the entire area to be mapped out and/or depicted.  Games like World of Warcraft may not give players total free will in terms of story line, but both they and D&D allow players to explore anywhere they want to go, so they can’t have blank areas in the map.
        Secondly, worlds created for open-ended gameplay can’t have a beginning middle and end… at least, they can’t have an end if the game franchise is to continue!  So some games have a very static setting in which you can continue to play over and over for all eternity on a single set stage, while there are other games in which the world is completely different every time, depending on what a player chooses to do, so that it has no consistent borders at all.  D&D provides players with a “present day” map, and all manner of history explaining how it’s reached the point where it now rests, ready for you to explore.  World of Warcraft has several times introduced massive changes to its world to give it a sense of progressing history.
        Of course, for an ongoing game, the more things change, the more they stay the same — conflicts can never be entirely resolved, villains can never truly be defeated, and every quest has to be greater than the one before.  My personal pet peeve about the World of Warcraft is that it sometimes seems there isn’t a single character in the mythology who doesn’t go insane and turn evil at least once.  Of course, we’re not here to talk about the characters, but the places.  Well, a lot of the places in that world, too, essentially go insane and turn evil, including parts of Northrend infected by a hideous plague — but nevertheless, the variety and scope of the world is amazing.  (You can see a previous post about World of Warcraft here, wherein I mention some of my favorite zones at the time, including my favorite N zone: Nagrand.)
        Why bother building these worlds for a mere game?  What does it tell us that such worlds are important to us?  They reveal the importance of story.  Hunting for 15 basilisk scales may be an interesting entertainment, but it’s so much more engaging if we have a reason for needing those scales… and that reason is more compelling when it’s tied to a story…  And the story is more immersive when it’s set in a beautiful, detailed world.
        The MORAL of Neverwinter and Northrend: It’s always more fun to travel when the scenery is good.
              OR:  Ponder the limits of free will with your favorite role-playing game.
        So, what are your favorite games, computer or tabletop?  Or out on the field, court, or rink?

[Pictures: Map of Neverwinter;

View of Neverwinter from the harbor;

Neverwinter in the afternoon;

The Protector’s Enclave district of Neverwinter, unfortunately I can’t find any information about the artists, designers, or original sources for these images, but the computer game is by Arc Games, released 2013 (Images from Forgotten Realms Fandom here and here);

Map of Northrend;

Howling Fjord zone of Northrend, screen shot, 2018 (Image from WoWHead);

Icecrown Citadel in Northrend, login screen art, 2005 (Image from WoWHead);

Sholazar Basin zone of Northrend, screen shot, 2008 (Image from WoWHead), all screen shots from World of Warcraft computer game by Blizzard Entertainment, Northrend expansion released 2008.]

April 9, 2021

M is for Middle-Earth

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Middle-earth is probably the most famous and influential fantasy world created by a modern author.  It practically defines high fantasy: humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, dragons…  brave warriors, powerful wizards, beautiful queens, charming thieves, Dark Lords intent on conquering the world…  The setting is inspired by a pre-industrial European culture, with swords and catapults rather than guns and tanks, kings and nobility rather than modern democracy, messengers on horseback rather than telephones and cars.  For many people, myself included, J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the key authors who enchanted us with fantasy, and Middle-earth was one of the magical places that inspired our dreams.
        Middle-earth is often thought of as a “secondary world,” meaning that it is not our world with magic.  However, that’s not accurate, because in Tolkien’s larger mythology, Middle-earth eventually turned into our modern world when its magic had faded away.  So Middle-earth does bear a lot of similarities to the continent of Europe: in the general shape of the landmass, in the 
climate and ecosystems, in the social structures, and so on.  The Shire where the Hobbits live is very much modelled on a pastoral vision of the British Midlands.  However, although Tolkien did not make many innovations for the physical world of Middle-earth, several of his sentient creatures have escaped Middle-earth to go on to inhabit many other fantasy worlds.  Tolkien invented Hobbits, also called Halflings.  He invented Ents, the tree-like tree-herds.  He turned goblins into Orcs, which have taken on a life of their own in many different fantasy settings, especially various role-playing games.  It is his versions of elves and dwarves that set the standard for modern fantasy.  For years this exerted an unhealthy influence on the development of the fantasy genre, with a lot of derivative copy-cat worlds.  Then the pendulum began to swing the other way, with authors bending over backwards to prove that they weren’t unduly influenced.  I’ve set my own high fantasy 
Otherworld series in a very Tolkien-esque world, partly because that is the kind of magical world that made me fall in love with fantasy in the first place, but also partly because it’s the sort of world we all already think we know — and that means I can then play with those expectations.  Because the base is well-established, I can build on it and even sometimes subvert it.
        Middle-earth is also famous because Tolkien put so much work into behind-the-scenes world creation, particularly the history, mythology, and languages of all the different peoples and cultures of the area.  Although all this back-story and world-creation was eventually published by Tolkien’s estate, vast amounts of it never explicitly show up in Tolkien’s primary works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  For writers it’s a fabulous model of how, on the one hand, detailed world creation can enrich a story, but how at the same time, just because the author has invented something doesn’t mean they have to include it in the book.  World-building is one of my favorite parts of fantasy, and perhaps my two greatest influences in world-creation are Tolkien and LeGuin, creator of Gont.
        Probably for most people the best-known depictions of Middle-earth are those in the movies directed by Peter Jackson.  I will omit those in favor of illustrators, as there are more than enough of those to keep us busy today!  I begin with Tolkien himself, who illustrated many scenes of his own imagined world, including this view of the Shire in all its idyllic charm.  The map shown here is not the more famous version made by Tolkien’s son Christopher (which you can see here), but a version drawn by Pauline Baynes in consultation with Tolkien, with a few small illustrations adorning it.
        Next I have four paintings by Alan Lee, one of the most famous and popular Middle-earth illustrators.  I confess that his work tends to be a little too faded and washy for my taste, but there’s no denying its evocative dream-like quality.  I’ve selected “The King Under the Mountain” (dwarves of the Lonely Mountain), Laketown (humans), Edoras (the capitol of the human Rohirrim), and Fangorn (ancient forest inhabited by Ents) as a representative sampling of geographical vistas.
        Another very popular artist of Middle-earth is Ted Nasmith, and I have his view of the Valley of Rivendell, and of the border of Lothlorien (both homes of elves).  Then for comparison, I have scenes of Minas Tirith (capitol of the human kingdom of Gondor), by each of these two artists.  In this case I like Lee’s version better as a view of a wonderful, magical place, but Nasmith’s version shows more accurately the unique situation and architecture of the city as a whole.
        Of course we couldn’t show Middle-earth without including Mordor, so I have two views of the dark and blighted realm of Sauron.  The plain of Gorgoroth is once again by Nasmith, and the Dark Tower Barad-dûr, Sauron’s chief fortress, is depicted in a more expressionistic style by Roger Garland.  In some ways I really like all of these depictions of Middle-earth, but in another way, none of them quite captures how I imagine this world myself, so that you really can’t beat getting immersed in the reading and letting your own inner eye do the work.
        The MORAL of Middle-earth:  It’s good to have an epic stage on which to set epic deeds.
              OR:  It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door.  You step into the road and there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
        So, how much magic do you think still remains in our world from the time of Middle-earth?


[Pictures: The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, painting by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937 (Image from Museoteca);
Map of Middle-earth, drawn by Pauline Baynes, 1969 (Image from Middle-earth Blog);

The King Under the Mountain, Lake-town, Edoras, The Forest of Fangorn, all paintings by Alan Lee, can’t find dates (Images from Tolkien Gateway here and here);

The Valley of Rivendell, Leaving Lothlorien, paintings by Ted Nasmith, can’t find dates (Images from The One Ring);
Dawn at Minas Tirith, painting by Nasmith (Image from The One Ring);
Minas Tirith, painting by Lee (Image from Tolkien Gateway);
Across Gorgoroth, painting by Nasmith (Image from The One Ring);
Barad-dûr, painting by Roger Garland (Image from The One Ring).]

April 8, 2021

L is for Luilekkerland

         (My #AtoZChallenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Luilekkerland is the Flemish/Belgian/Dutch name for a place also called Schlaraffenland in German.  Its most common name, however is Cockaigne.  Whatever you call it, it’s a land of glorious excess.  Click through to find out more (and see more pictures) in 

the post about Cockaigne.

        Luilekkerland translates as “lazy delicious land,” and that pretty well covers the main activities here: not working, and eating.  It leaves out sex, but maybe that’s too much work!  However, artists and writers who don’t want to leave out anything have created maps of Cockaigne, with different areas of indulgence and excess laid out in loving (or satirical) detail.  This Italian map from 1575-90 is entitled “Description of the Great Land of Cockaigne Where He Who Sleeps the Most Earns the Most.”  It includes a Sea of Good Greek Wine, a countryside where marzipan and every sort of confection grows, and a great mountain of grated cheese, topped by a caldera of macaroni.  The bridges are made of melon slices, the trees grow pancakes beneath clouds that rain honey, people are arrested for working, and oddest of all, there are owls that lay fur coats if you beat them with sticks!  However, there is also a Fountain of Evil.
        The second map includes hundreds and hundreds of labelled places.  You could pore over it for hours - especially as it’s in a mix of Latin and German.  However, I can make out The Foolish Sea and The Drunken Lake, The Empire of Great Stomachs, Tipplers’ Kingdom, an island of tobacco, and more.  This mapmaker also sounds a warning, though, with the Hellish Realm to the south.
        The MORAL of Luilekkerland/Cockaigne: Imagine a land where everyone could do whatever they wanted… no masks, no gun control, no environmental regulations… What could possibly go wrong?
              OR:  Beware of what you wish for.  But ALSO: If they don’t have a mountain of dark chocolate, I’m not going.
        So, what would you demand the Land of Cockaigne provide, before you’d really consider it perfect?  And where do you see the intersection between free will and self-control?

[Pictures: A selection of fanciful scenes describing the land, sites, and customs of Cockaigne, etching, Italy, 1575-1590 (Image from The British Museum);

Accurate Utopian Map of the Newly Discovered Fool’s World, the Often Mentioned but Never Discovered Land of Cockaigne, engraving by an Anonymous Author, c 1730-40 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

April 6, 2021

K is for Kitezh

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Be sure to visit the Master List to see what all my fellow A-Z Bloggers are up to this year.)
        Kitezh was a city on the shore of Lake Svetloyar in central Russia.  Why is Kitezh sometimes called “the Russian Atlantis,” and why is that a dumb thing to call it?  Why is it always important to have a wise and virtuous nature maiden on your side?  And what does this city sound like?  To find out all this and more, you can 

read the post about Kitezh here.

        In an interesting historical note, apparently the entire lake is quite geologically recent, forming as the result of some sort of natural cave-ins… right around the same time that the Mongol Golden Horde of Batu Khan was conquering the area.  Coincidence?  Moreover, some evidence was found of artificial structures on the lake 
bottom.  Of course, none of these sorts of expeditions is ever conclusive, and really there would be no mystery about it at all if you could still see the dome of the church as advertised!  Still, I do get a kick out of whatever little clues may be found.
        I have some fun illustrations for you today, the first being an absolutely magnificent lacquer box in the traditional Russian style.  You can see the Russians and Mongols fighting in the foreground, some other scenes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera around the edges, and the sunken city under the waters of the lake in the middle.  Today’s second illustration is also based on the opera, being another stage-set design.  (It’s another design from the same production as the second picture in the main Kitezh post, I believe.)
        This third picture is a different take on the whole legend.  It’s an in-game shot from the video game “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” featuring Lara Croft having adventures in her search for some sort of magical artifact hidden in Kitezh.  The plot of the game has nothing to do with the traditional legend, but I’m sure they had fun adapting it.
        And finally, a painting clearly inspired by the legend but without specifics from either the opera or the video game.  A single woman in the foreground simply looks out at the waters of the lake, seeing the perfect city preserved below in all its sparkling glory.
        The MORAL of Kitezh: Perfect faith and virtue will protect you.
              OR:  Better to have loved and been lost than never to have loved at all.
        So, which of Kitezh’s variant preservation options would you choose: turn invisible, or sink to the bottom of a cold Russian lake?  Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I do know some crazy cold-water swimming enthusiasts, so let’s hear your take.



[Pictures: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, painted lacquer box by Ivanovo Oblast Kholuy, 1973 (Image from The Virtual Russian Museum);

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, watercolor by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, 1928 (Image from Sotheby’s/akg-images);

The City of Kitezh, screen shot from “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” 2015 (Image from Steam Community);

The Drowned City, painting by Konstantin Gorbatov, 1933 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

April 5, 2021

J is for John

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        The Kingdom of Prester John was a legendary place that appeared in European stories in the twelfth through seventeenth centuries.  Prester comes from Greek presbuteros and means “elder.”  It was a title for high-ranking priests.  (In fact, the etymology of priest is from the same root, as is presbyterian.)  So, Prester John was a Christian king, descended from one of the Three Wise Kings of the Christmas story, of fabulous wealth and power.  The important thing about Prester John, however, was that his kingdom was not in Europe along with all the other Christian nations.
        Where was the Kingdom of Prester John?  About the only thing Europeans were sure of was that it was somewhere exotic, to the east.  Originally Prester John’s Kingdom was reported as being in India, but stretching as far as western Iran, as Prester John was on his way to conquer Jerusalem for the Christians.  The idea that help against the Muslims was coming from the East was an extremely appealing one to Europeans, and inspired continuing crusades.
        In the thirteenth century the story got mixed in with tales of the Mongols.  Prester John was conflated with Genghis Khan’s Christian foster father, and his Kingdom was then supposed to be in Central Asia.  While the Mongol Empire was stable during the thirteenth century, Europeans were able to travel in relative safety to areas they hadn’t been able to reach before, and the idea that they might be able to connect with the Kingdom of Prester John somewhere in or beyond the Mongol territories helped fuel this new flood (relatively speaking) of ambassadors, missionaries, and merchants.  When the Mongol Empire collapsed, however, and travel became more difficult again, the Kingdom of Prester John shifted back to its original location somewhere in India.
        By the fourteenth century Europeans began to connect Prester John with Ethiopia.  Ethiopia was known to be a powerful Christian nation on the other side of lands controlled by Muslim powers, and Europeans had only the vaguest notions of a distinction between India and Africa anyway.  My first picture above shows John on his throne in a map of Africa, but you can see that his kingdom is labelled as “India Major Ethiopia,” so there’s still quite a bit of confusion.  In the mid-fifteenth century, Ethiopian ambassadors to Florence were confused by the insistence of Europeans on calling their emperor Prester John.  His name was Zar’a Ya’eqob.
        Wherever the Kingdom of Prester John might be found, what’s so great about it anyway?  It is full of precious stones so large that people make them into platters and cups, and the entire palace and everything in it is built of gold and precious stones.  The Kingdom of Prester John contains something called the Gravelly Sea, which is not water but sand and gravel (and more of the precious stones).  Despite that, it ebbs and flows in waves and tides just like water, and moreover people catch in it large numbers of fish that are excellent for eating.  In the actual seas around various islands in the realm there are great magnetic rocks, so that if a ship sails too near, all the iron nails get sucked out of the hull, and the ship falls to pieces into the ocean.  There is a plain where each morning at sunrise trees sprout, which grow until at noon they are full-sized and covered with fruit.  Then all afternoon they shrink back down until by evening they disappear back into the earth.  Living in the Kingdom are not only elephants, crocodiles, and tigers, but also griffins, lamias, centaurs, satyrs, pygmies, giants, and the phoenix.  However, there are no scorpions, serpents, or poisonous animals.  Contradicting that statement is the fact that salamanders are raised there, and their cocoons are gathered for fiber, which is fireproof.  (Prester John himself wears robes of salamander cloth.)  Prester John also possesses a magic mirror which allows him to see all that is happening across the whole of his marvelous kingdom.  His Kingdom is really an empire, as 72 kings pay him tribute, and they are not all Christian, but a whole variety of different religions and cultures.
        These descriptions of the Kingdom of Prester John circulated in published accounts of traveller’s tales, including Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, as well as a famous letter that spread across Europe starting in the mid-twelfth century, that claimed to be from Prester John himself to the emperor of Byzantium.  There really weren’t any pictures of the lands, since any illustrations tended to focus on the king Prester John rather than his kingdom.  Map-making didn’t really advance until the sixteenth century, by which time mapmakers were placing the Kingdom of Prester John in Africa.  The second map here also shows John on his throne.  He’s looking a little smudgy, but there are some other fun things, too.  You can see an excellent dragon to the east and a more wyvern-ish dragon in a cave to the north.  There’s a unicorn to the northeast, and to John’s west is the Garden of Eden, source of multiple rivers and with the serpent coiled around the treetrunk.  I include also an illustration of two of the wonders to be found in the Kingdom of Prester John according to Mandeville: feathered men, and an orchard of fruit that confers long life.  Next I have a nice woodcut frontispiece from another book about the Kingdom of Prester John, although I suspect it may simply be showing the author setting off on his journey, rather than showing the Kingdom of Prester John.  I’m really not sure.  Finally, I have a picture of Prester John greeting some Europeans.  You can see some amount of landscape in the background, including a unicorn.
        There were tales of marvelous lands all over the world, so why did the Kingdom of Prester John have such a hold upon the European imagination?  Because it was ruled by a Christian king and therefore it was seen as an ally.  To the beleaguered European Christians, watching the advancing threats of Islam and the Mongol hordes from all land directions, the idea that a powerful kingdom was out there somewhere, ready to join them if they could only make contact…  That was not a hope anyone wanted to give up on.  It’s like a hundred sci fi stories about aliens invading Earth intent on our annexation or destruction, and then finding one wise and powerful advanced alien civilization that is actually on our side, ready to save us from all the hostile invaders.
        The MORAL of the Kingdom of Prester John:  Surely we must have friends out there somewhere!
              OR:  My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble (hey-la,hey-la)…
        So, alien first contact: invaders or allies?


[Pictures: Detail from portolan map by Diogo Homem, c 1555-59 (Image from British Library);

Portolan chart by Vesconte Maggiolo, 1516 (Image from The Huntington);

Feathered men and Orchards with fruit that brings long life, from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, c 1425-1450 (Image from British Library);

Frontispiece from The Lands of Prester John by Francisco Alvarez, 1540 (Image from rowan);

Decoration from a Map of North-East Africa and Arabia by H. Lobo and M. Almeida, 1707 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

April 2, 2021

I is for Isles

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Find out more about the April #AtoZchallenge here.)
        There’s something intrinsically magical about islands.  Mythology and fantasy are full of magical islands, and as for sci fi, space travel is essentially nothing but sailing a vast ocean from isle to isle, especially when planets are very homogenous, as they often are in older sci fi.  Part of the appeal of islands is that each one can be separate and self-contained, with its own inhabitants and properties that can be utterly unlike any other.  Secondly, islands are hard to get to, so that contact between us and them is minimized, and it’s easy to imagine discovering new ones that no one else from our world has ever encountered.  Add to that the possibility of hiding islands with mist or storms or shoals, or endowing them with the ability to float (in water or air) so that they won’t always be at the same geographical coordinates, and you have an ideal place for magic and adventure.
        The classical Greeks had the Fortunate Isles or Isles of the Blessed, where the temperature was always perfect, there was only dew instead of rain, fruit and birds of every kind thrived, and the heroes of legend lived there forever.  Avalon, aka The Isle of Apples, is the magical place where Excalibur was forged and where Arthur was taken to be healed and to rest until his eventual return.  Penglai, aka Horai, off the east coast of China, is the mountain island where the Eight Immortals have their ceremonial meals.  Everything is white, with palaces of gold and platinum, and jewel-bearing trees.  Buyan is an island in the Baltic Sea that can appear or 
disappear behind magical tides.  It is inhabited by the Sun and three Winds (not South) and the Morning and Evening Stars, and it’s also the place where Koschei the Deathless keeps his soul.  West of Portugal can be found Antillia with its seven cities founded by seven bishops escaping from Umayyad conquerors.  The sand of its beaches is rich in gold, which is all the more reason for its inhabitants to keep it hidden.
        Irish myths know of numerous islands to the west.  Hy-Brasil, southwest of Galway Bay, is shrouded in mist except for one day every seven years.  Saint Brendan’s Island, discovered by that monk on his epic voyage, is west of Northern Africa and also concealed by mist.  Despite that, it is always day there, and the 15 days that Brendan and his crew stayed there turned out to be a year in the rest of the world.  And then of course there’s Tír na nÓg, or the Land of Youth, an island realm of everlasting youth, beauty, good health, and abundance.  It takes three days to sail there following the path of the sunset across the ocean.  There is an enormous tree growing at the center of the island, and the singing birds on its branches are the souls of the dead.  One of my favorite details is that the buildings there are thatched with feathers.
        Then there are all the islands of more recent fantasy.  Just to name a few…
Asteroid B612, the home planet (aka island) of the Little Prince, a rose, and three volcanoes (one extinct).  (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
Berk, the home island of the Viking tribe of the Hairy Hooligans and their dragons.  (Cressida Cowell, and Dreamworks)
Caprona or Caspak, near Antarctica, but ringed by cliffs concealing a tropical Lost World within.  (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
Dinotopia, an isolated island on which humans and dinosaurs have developed a peaceful joint society.  (James Gurney)
Infant Island, the home of the queen of kaiju Mothra and her priestesses, often the place where eggs are laid and larvae hatch.  (various movies)
The Island of Dr. Moreau, in the southern Pacific, where Moreau experimented with turning animals into humans.  (H.G. Wells)
Lilliput, an island of people only six inches tall, visited by Lemuel Gulliver.  Gulliver also visited the flying island Laputa, the island Glubbdubrib where he met many famous ghosts, and the island of Luggnagg where the people grow old but never die.  (Jonathan Swift)
Muir Island, off the northwest coast of Scotland, the location of the world’s largest mutant research lab.  (Marvel Universe)
Myst, reached through a magical book, and the site of an ancient puzzle that must be solved.  (Myst video game)
Neverland, near the Milky Way, or also possibly in the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens, it has many suns and moons, a forest, and a lagoon.  (J.M. Barrie)
Skull Island, in the Indian Ocean, home to all manner of oversized dinosaurians, as well as the monstrous gorilla King Kong.  (Merian C. Cooper and RKO Pictures)
Spidermonkey Island, a floating island that was heading too far south.  If it got too cold everything would die, so Doctor Dolittle got a a pod of whales to push the island back up to its proper latitude near South America.  (Hugh Lofting)
Utopia, somewhere in the New World, deliberately separated from its mainland by digging a 15 mile wide channel in order to keep its perfect society apart from its imperfect neighbors.  (Thomas More)
Wild Island, connected to Tangerina by a long string of rocks, and inhabited by all manner of very wild animals, and a young dragon.  (Ruth Stiles Gannet)
        Of course we’ve already seen Gont, and will visit a few more islands before we’re through the alphabet, but that barely scratches the surface of all the magical islands in the world (or, indeed, not in the world).
        The MORAL of Isles: If you want a lost world, an unspoiled paradise, or a bite-sized individually packaged adventure, look for an island.
              OR:  Everyone loves an island!
        So, what fantastical isle would you most like to visit?  (And if you’re playing A to Z Scavenger Hunt this year, I just gave you something to check off!)


[Pictures: The Immortal Island of Penglai, painting by Yuan Jiang, 1708 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Oisín and Niamh arrive at Tír na nÓg, illustration by Stephen Rein from The High Deeds of Finn by T.W. Rolleston, 1910 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Asteroid B612, illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from The Little Prince, 1943;

Skybax Rider over Dinotopia, painting by James Gurney, c 1992 (Image from Heritage Auctions);

Utopia, woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein from Utopia by Thomas More, 1518 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Map of Wild Island by Ruth Chrisman Gannet from My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, 1948 (Image from Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center).]