January 20, 2021

Animal Companions

         On Sunday I was at the virtual Arisia convention, on a panel of writers talking about animal companions in writing.  Yes, everyone shared pictures of their dearly beloved pets and how they inspire us, but we also discussed a bit about the roles that animal companions play in a story, and how they can perform functions that humanoid characters may not be able to fulfil.  This is the part that was most interesting to me, and I’ve put together a list of the different roles I think these animal characters can have.  Since we’re talking about speculative fiction, the range of roles is even wider than it would be in “realistic” fiction, which makes everything so much more fun!
        • Companionship when a character is “alone,” providing them with someone to talk with and interact with, which allows the author to  show the character’s actions and thoughts in a more interesting and dynamic way.  One example might be Tock joining Milo in Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
        • Marking or rewarding a character as having special qualities, such as wisdom, gentleness,  or bravery.  Examples are the birds and woodland animals that are tame to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, or Toothless befriending Hiccup in Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon (or the DreamWorks movie).  Oru’s companion Tibul in my Sleeping Legends Lie falls under this category, as well as Svarnil’s companion Fethilis  in Vision Revealed.
        • Symbolizing or embodying certain characteristics.  This is similar to the previous, but even more so.  Where above a character may earn the companionship of an animal through certain traits, here the animals themselves represent those traits.  Examples are Ursula’s nasty sidekick eels in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, or Aunt Marge’s dog Ripper in Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, as well as the daemons in Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
        • The familiar, which provides its human with additional abilities, such as seeing or getting into impossible areas, fetching or manipulating things, and so on.  Examples abound in video games, such as the bird companions in “Assassin’s Creed.”  Another possibility might be R2-D2’s role in “Star Wars.”
        • A subcategory of the familiar role is those pets/companions that specifically provide their humans with extra knowledge or wisdom.  There are many examples of this in fairy tales, including Puss-in-Boots, plus Odin’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, and the cat Dream-of-Jade by Lloyd Alexander.
        • From there it’s a quick step to the role that animal companions can play in offering another perspective or second opinion on what our characters see and experience.  How “other” we want this perspective to be can run the whole gamut from “just a little quirky” to “totally alien being.”  Dorothy’s companion Billina in Baum’s Ozma of Oz often offers a dissenting opinion, while Dug in Pixar’s “Up” clearly thinks like a dog, not a dog-shaped human.
        • The quirkier perspectives of companions can then be one way to exemplify the role of pets as Comic Relief.  Of course, comic relief can also be provided by general mischievousness or straight-up slapstick.  A classic example of a comic pet is Old Mother Hubbard’s dog, and then there’s Sophie’s imp Iggy in Keeper of the Lost Cities by Messenger, not to mention a lot of classic Disney sidekicks.
        • On the opposite end of the writing spectrum is pet as Victim.  An author can kill a beloved companion animal as a way of demonstrating just how high the stakes are, just short of killing the human protagonists.  (Indeed, sometimes readers are even more upset about the deaths of the pets!)  I won’t give any examples in this category, lest I give spoilers!
        • Inciting Subject: on a purely practical level, companion animals are terrific at precipitating plot twists and action.  Toto serves this function on multiple occasions in Baum’s The (Wonderful) Wizard of Oz, as well as the classic movie.  There are also a number of books, including Arabel’s Raven by Aiken and the Clifford books by Bridwell, in which the shenanigans of the pets are the entire plot.  Polly’s cat Uber drives the plot on a couple of occasions in my Extraordinary Book of Doors.
        • Fauna generally are an important part of world-building in SFF, and the companion animals give us a chance to see even more clearly what sort of world it must be to have such creatures in it.  For example, the sulchym in my Return to Tchrkkusk help illustrate the special environment and forgotten powers of the Tchrkym.
        • Last but not least, there’s Wish-Fulfillment.  We love the companion animals in books because who could possibly not wish they had pet fire lizards of their own as in McCaffrey’s Pern books, or a witty tin spider like Astrophil in Rutkoski’s Kronos Chronicles, or a noble steed like Tsornin in McKinley’s The Blue Sword?  Or simply a dog or cat that can speak, as in many many stories, including my Kate and Sam Adventures?
        Of course any decent animal companion will play multiple roles throughout a story - perhaps even all of them.  In addition to marking Svarnil’s open-hearted wisdom, Fethilis also gives her someone non-humanoid to talk to, provides her with the ability to see events at a distance like a familiar, communicates non-verbally in an exploration of the “otherness” of a different mode of thought, and occasionally turns the direction of the plot by affecting the way others view each other because of her.  And for me, at least, it’s certainly wish-fulfillment to imagine having a wonderful companion like that!

[Pictures: Princess Aurora with birds, still from “Sleeping Beauty,” animation by Disney Studios, 1959;

“Why, Billina!” cried Dorothy; “Have you been fighting?” illustration by John R. Neill for Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Menolly and fire lizards, cover art by Rowena Morrill for Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, 1986 edition (Image from A Pilgrim in Narnia).]

January 15, 2021

Guess that Medieval Beast 6

         For those of you who are just joining us, feel free to get caught up with prior episodes of everyone’s favorite game: Guess that Medieval Beast 1; 2; 3; 4; and 5.
        Now here’s number 6, another adorable medieval illustration for you to identify.  This one comes from a martyrology made in France between 1250-1290.  You can see that the illuminator was a skilled artist who put excellent craftsmanship into the work: detailed border, intricate background, smatterings of gold leaf, and the fine details depicting our mystery beast itself.  It’s furry, from the charming tuft on its head, down its hairy spinal crest, to the feathery tip of its delightfully long, sinuous tail.  It’s got large expressive eyes, cute yoda-like ears, and six legs.  It’s also blue.  It’s hard to tell how big it’s meant to be since it appears to dwarf the trees between which it lies.  So, what furry, blue, six-legged, long-tailed, tree-sized creatures do you know of?  Make your guess as to what this thing could be!

January 11, 2021

Summer in Winter

         Here’s a new piece that I hope will bring you a little brightness!  It is a reduction print in two layers.  The first layer was printed with a mix of yellow and orange, with the green dabbed on at the tip of the stem.  The second layer is black.  After printing I was a little dissatisfied with the colors and decided to go back over and hand-paint green on the whole length of all the stems, as well as a little extra wash of yellow on the petals.
        So that’s how I made it — but what is it?  As you may be able to identify, it’s a mix between an American goldfinch and a monarch butterfly.  Why?  No particular reason at all; it just came to me that it might be fun.  The hard part, however, was what to call it.  My son P was quite taken with this piece when he saw me printing, so I asked him what I should call it.  He replied immediately that he likes it when non-humanoid creatures are called fairies, and this was clearly some sort of non-humanoid fairy.  That hadn’t occurred to me at all, but when I began thinking about it that way, I began to see this bright, flitting creature as more than just an animal feeding on seeds and nectar.  Perhaps it was more of a guardian, or almost an elemental — in which case it clearly must be a summer fairy.  After all, goldfinches, monarchs, and rudbeckia are all forms of summer sun incarnate.
        Well, that made me think about making “fairies” for the other seasons, as well.  For spring I thought at once about the winged frog hybrid of my malacorana.  The only question is how to make an image sufficiently different to be interesting.  (No snail shell, for one thing.  A spring flower, perhaps, for another…)  Autumn, too, seems pretty straightforward to me, but I’m struggling with winter.  I’m thinking of a nuthatch or junco or downy woodpecker - one of the birds that I see much more during the winter - but what can I combine it with to turn it from an ordinary bird to a whimsical fairy creature of the season?  Feel free to share your ideas for winter, or for any of the months: what little critters would you combine?  How would you make a magical symbol of a season?

[Picture: Summer Fairy (Monarch Finch), rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2021.]

January 6, 2021

In the Landscape

         Here is a wood block print by Sui Cheng (China, b. 1965).  It uses bold arcs and swooshes to suggest a mountainous setting, perhaps a bit of a cave, and two figures sitting, apparently in contemplation.  To me, all those rounded shapes seem happy, and the puffy clouds and rainbow-patterned plants evoke a relatively warm, pleasant day.  The artist himself says that he is trying to distort and reorganize traditional subject matter “in order to experiment with the icon’s polysemy and the possibility of reinterpreting traditional imagery.”  I think all that must be over my head.  I look at this and enjoy the abstract pattern of shapes, with a little extra satisfaction from seeing the figures.  I find it cheerful and peaceful, which we all need more of as this year gets underway in continued stress, and I share it with you in that spirit.  If you enjoy any additional polysemy, all the better.
        Happy New Year!

[Picture: In the Landscape No. 4, woodcut by Sui Cheng, 2003 (Image from the Ashmolean Museum).]