March 31, 2021

G is for Gont

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Be sure to visit the Master List of participants to find enough blogs to keep you busy all day all month!)
        The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.  From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea.
        So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, first book in the Earthsea series by Ursula K. LeGuin, and with this we have our first imaginary place in this A to Z Challenge that is the creation of a single author rather than the shifting, morphing work of thousands of nameless storytellers over hundreds of years of folklore.  Unlike the mythical places of folklore, a single author’s geography is expected not to have contradictions or bits that don’t make sense.  It is generally much more detailed, more concretely imagined, and more deliberately crafted to support a specific story.
        Gont is something of a backwater in Earthsea, and the Gontish boy Sparrowhawk arrives at the school of wizardry on Roke in the center of the Archipelago with an enormous chip on his shoulder.  The geography helps drive the characters, and the character-interactions drive the plot and the themes.  Gont is then the setting of the fourth book in the series, where Sparrowhawk retreats in his perceived fall from grace, and former-priestess Tenar of the second book has also retreated to try to live the “normal” life of an “ordinary” person.  Gont, in other words, represents the ordinary world far from the court of the king and the school of the mages that are so often the settings of high fantasy tales.  And yet Gont is where wizards come from, and where ordinary people, too, perform deeds of great courage, wisdom, and yes, magic.
        The MORAL of Gont: Never underestimate a hero from humble beginnings.
              OR:  Seriously, I don’t care how much the other kids goad you; it is never a good idea to  perform black magic.
        So, what’s the place that gives you the roots you’d want to return to when you need to reset?

[Pictures: Gont, illustration by Ruth Robbins from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, 1968;

Map of Gont by Margaret Chodos-Irvine from Tehanu by LeGuin, 1990.]

March 29, 2021

F is for Faerie

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        The Realm of Faerie is the place inhabited by fairies, of course, but that can mean different things to different people in different times and places.  There is the modern fantasy aimed at children which sees Fairyland as a sort of magical paradise, where everything is sweet and pretty — but let’s set that aside and look deeper.  Many cultures have a concept of a world inhabited by supernatural beings, but the archetypal version of Faerie is that of Celtic mythology, where it is a realm both everywhere and nowhere, both beautiful and perilous.
        Although Faerie is sometimes thought of as existing over there somewhere, where its borders could possibly be drawn on a map, more often it is seen as superimposed on our own geography.  It could be encountered anywhere, although there are usually specific liminal places where the realms come close and the borders are more permeable.  Caves, the wilderness, and the ocean are all possible places for encounters with Faerie, as well as mysterious places such as prehistoric mounds and megaliths, and mushroom rings.  Sleep, too, is often a time when a person can move between the mortal world and Faerie.  Faerie is often imagined as being underground, although once you get there it certainly doesn’t seem dark or enclosed like it’s inside a cave.
        In addition to that amorphous geography, time is also different in Faerie, so that a day spent there can be a year in the mortal world, and a person can spend a few years in Faerie, only to return to their own home and discover that a hundred years have passed and all their friends and family are dead and gone.  Moreover, a visit to Faerie can be perilous not only because of the dangers of time travel, but also because of the dangers of the fairies themselves.  These beings were traditionally viewed not as the cute and sparkly little things of much children’s media today, but as powerful, soulless beings who might be benevolent, but were more often amoral, and could be downright malicious.  However, their realm was usually seen as beautiful, eternally fertile and summery, and dazzling to the ordinary human.  Occasionally all this beauty was attributed to glamours which turn out to be cruel illusion, but often there is a tension between the allure of the perfect Faerie paradise, and the love of home and family with all their flaws.  My current work in progress, inspired by the legend of Tam Lin, explores many of these themes.
        Like Eden, most of the earlier visual illustrations of Faerie are merely the setting in which famous characters are placed, such as Titania and Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As such, they don’t always show any particular sense of magic in the place.  Today’s first illustration is an illustration of Titania, but includes weird and wonderful arches of bats and imps to mark this scene as somewhere clearly magical and not normal.  The second piece illustrates the idea of fairies as diminutive, so that the Realm of Faerie is hidden from view because it’s small and therefore easily overlooked.  Fairies retain their connection with wilderness, however, in being found primarily in nature, even though in the modern imagination that nature may be a cultivated garden.
        The third piece is an unusual one by Turner, who’s usually a terribly serious landscape artist.  To be honest, I’m not usually much of a Turner fan because I dislike the smudgy lack of detail he cultivated as his trademark.  However, I think it actually works in this piece, which depicts “Queen Mab’s Cave,” Mab being another famous fairy.  Turner’s style evokes the disorienting brilliance, hazy mystery, and almost hallucinogenic light of Faerie.  It’s impossible to get a grasp on these fairies, or pin down this strange, ethereal place.  I still don’t really like it, but it makes sense to feel uncomfortable with the otherness of Faerie.
        That association of mist and disorientation with Faerie is also present in the next piece, in which we see only a human man looking lost and puzzled.  The title of the piece tells us that he’s just seen a fairy (specifically a Norwegian huldra).  So this illustrates the quality of Faerie that it is here and not here, glimpsed and then lost again, leaving the one who sees it forever changed.
        Because northern European ideas of Faerie associate it so closely with nature and wilderness, I thought it was interesting to include this Persian miniature that illustrates a fairy’s palace garden, meticulously groomed and maintained with artificial pavilions and water features amid the architecture.  On the other hand, I’ve also included a painting that isn’t supposed to depict Faerie at all; it’s simply a landscape picture of a stone arch on Mackinac Island, Michigan.  This place was called Fairy Arch, and I think it counts as a good illustration of Faerie because of the way the painter has composed his view so that the arch becomes a natural, mysterious portal to a bright world glimpsed beyond.  (Alas, the arch was destroyed in the mid-2oth century, so you can no longer get to Faerie that way.)
        And my final illustration for you today is a map of Fairyland imagined as the place where all magical, mythical, and imaginary stories take place: a sort of "Land of Make-Believe."  It includes locations associated with Greek myths, traditional fairy tales, Arthurian legend, and such modern (at the time) children’s stories as Peter Pan and The Water Babies.  This also brings us to the idea of Fairyland as a fit place for children, despite the sex and violence that were so much a part of the original myths of Faerie.
        I have a number of previous posts that might be of interest: if you’re curious about the etymology and the different connotations of different spelling variants (and are looking for a little more Words of the Month action), check out Fairy vs Faerie.  If you want some poetry about Faerie, look at my posts on La Belle Dame Sans Merci and The Stolen Child.
        The MORAL of Faerie: Eternal happiness can really be kind of sad when you’re alone. 
              OR:  If you believe in fairies, wave your handkerchief and clap your hands… and carry cold iron at all times.
        So, if you were invited to visit Faerie, would you go?

[Pictures: Titania Sleeping, painting by Richard Dadd, mid-19th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Under the Dock Leaves, drawing by Richard Doyle, 1878 (Image from The British Museum);

Queen Mab’s Cave, painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1846 (Image from Tate);

Huldra Forsvant (The Fairy that Disappeared), painting by Theodor Kittelsen, c.1900-1910 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Youth of Rum is Entertained in a Garden by a Fairy and her Maidens, illustration from Amir Khusrau, 1597-98 (Image from The Met);

Fairy Arch, Mackinac Island, painting by Henry Chapman Ford, 1874 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

An anciente mappe of Fairyland, by Bernard Sleigh, 1917 (Image from Leventhal Map & Education Center).]

March 26, 2021

E is for Eden

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        For E we’re back to the Bible, and where it all began for us humans.  First, the physical characteristics: Eden is the source of a river which splits and becomes the source of four rivers called Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Phirat, the last two of which are names for the Tigris and the Euphrates.  In Eden grows every kind of tree that is pleasant to sight and good for food, as well as the infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  After the humans were cast out of the garden for disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit of that tree, cherubim were set on guard duty, along with a flaming sword that whirled around to keep everyone out.  Early depictions of Eden usually place a wall around it, although that isn’t specified in the Bible.
        Like so many of our mythical places in this year’s A to Z Challenge, many scholars have spent much time trying to prove the real-world location of a real-world Garden of Eden.  The proposals are generally in current Iraq, Iran, Turkey, or the Armenian Highlands.  And, like so many of our mythical places in this year’s challenge, I think the attempts to assign a real location to a mythological place are missing the point.  So what is the point of Eden?  It is perfect - Paradise - and it is the way things began and the way they are supposed to be.  People never have to work because everything they need is ready and waiting for them.  And yet, we’re still not satisfied.  We want the one thing we can’t have, and so spoil perfection.  And of course once we leave Eden, life is nothing but toil and suffering.
        Many cultures have stories of paradises, and we’ll see more of them as we proceed through the alphabet.  This story can also be seen as an etiological myth of why we have to work and why life is hard, and there are other cultures with myths of this sort, too.  There are also myths about how humanity will return to the Garden of Eden once more at the end of the world (or at least the righteous will.)
        And speaking of Paradise, (for an early Words of the Month feature) Hebrew borrowed the word from Persian, and it meant initially a royal garden, park, or orchard.  The Bible itself never calls Eden “Paradise,” even though it uses the word in other contexts more similar to the Persian root.  Not until the Common Era did the word come to apply to a more perfect, heavenly place.
        Lots of artists have depicted the Garden of Eden.  Most commonly it’s illustrated merely as the setting of episodes from the story of Adam and Eve, but sometimes it becomes more of a subject in its own right.  I began above with one of the most famous depictions of the Garden of Eden, which is also one of the weirdest.  Hieronymus Bosch brings his signature unsettling trippyness to the Garden, with surreal landscape in the background, some rather odd creatures, and a slightly disturbing focus on predation.  You’ll notice that most of our Edens depict creatures living in peace, but for Bosch this painting is all about sin.  The early Edens also usually include a fountain giving rise to the four rivers, but why does Bosch’s fountain look as if it was built from lobster parts?
        Regarding the issue of where Eden might be located on Earth, medieval people believed it to be in the east of the known world, and you can see Adam and Eve there on this eleventh century map.  (Don't forget that you can click on all these pictures to see them bigger.)  If you’re looking to the right, though, you won’t see Eden.  Medieval maps placed Jerusalem in the center, and East at the top.  (Another Word of the Month: that’s why we orient ourselves with maps.  The orient is the east (from Latin), and even though now we use north to figure out how to arrange the map in relation to ourselves and the world, originally we used the east.)
        Next up, two renaissance wood block prints, both frontispieces of books, and both with a similar composition.  I give you both, however, because they do include a couple of interesting differences and fun details.  The first garden is only plants, uninhabited by any animals except the humans.  The humans are shown happily picking legal plants, rather than committing their original sin, as depicted in the second, which is the more common iconography.  The plants are very specific, recognizable species, including Turk’s cap lily and prickly pear, Dutch tulip, banana, and my favorite, the vegetable lamb (just to the left of the apple tree).  The second woodcut, by contrast, is almost entirely animals, without any plants except the apple tree and some sparse grass.  The animals include a delightful variety, ranging from snails and frogs to cats and horses and elephants.  And don’t forget the unicorns, just to the right of Adam.  Unicorns are another common feature of Eden in art.
        In fact, you can find the unicorn in the next illustration, although this painting has a much smaller variety of creatures.  It does, however, play the early renaissance trick of including all the various episodes of the story in the picture: the creation of Eve on the right, the eating of the apple on the left, God spying out the hiding couple back on the right, and the expulsion from the Garden back on the left.  Right in the middle is God pointing out the one forbidden tree.
        I’ve included one last painting because it illustrates a more recent development in our interpretation of the Garden of Eden.  This is by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting known for the romantic portrayal of the American wilderness in the nineteenth century.  Here he has painted Eden as if it were one of those vast American landscapes, thus drawing a comparison between the beautiful, precious natural areas of our own modern times, and the Paradise of mythology.  Such artistic messages were an important part of the development of the National Parks system in the USA, as well as the beginnings of the modern environmental movement.  It tells us that we have Gardens of Eden right here, right now, while reminding us at the same time that paradises can be lost.
        The MORAL of the Garden of Eden:  You had one job, but you had to mess it up for everybody.
              OR:  An apple a day… oh, wait.  Apparently that doesn’t always work.
        So, what’s the one food you just wouldn’t be able to resist despite divine orders?

[Pictures: Left panel of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, painting by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500 (Image from Museo del Prado);
Mappe Mundi from Beatus de Liebana, c 1060 (Image from Biblitheque nationale de France);
Frontispiece of Paradisi in Sole by John Parkinson, 1629 (Image from The Met);
Detail from frontispiece of 16th century New Testament (Image from The British Museum);
The Garden of Eden, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530 (Image from Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden);
The Garden of Eden, painting by Thomas Cole, 1828 (Image from Amon Carter Museum of American Art).]

March 24, 2021

D is for Dorado

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        El Dorado, City of Gold, next best thing to the Midas Touch as a symbol of limitless greed… Where did the legend come from?  What fragments of truth may have led to the fantasy?  To find out, read 
        As for depictions of the city, the legend isn’t old enough to have any older illustrations, and the treasure hunters themselves were far too busy digging and slaughtering to moon about, painting enticing pictures.  Only when the idea of El Dorado became firmly relegated to modern fantasy have modern fantasy artists started to put their imaginations to work on visual representations of a fantastical golden city.  So here are two pieces of digital art with two different takes on the idea.  First is a more traditional Central-American-inspired version.  It includes a faint overlay of the Aztec sun disk, with Mayan-style architecture.  As befits a lost city, it is overgrown, and the path to it is broken and uneven.  
The second depiction is interesting for evoking a futuristic city instead, all sharp-angled skyscrapers lighting up the night.  I like the thought of El Dorado existing for all this time, never discovered and despoiled by conquistadors, entering the twenty-first -- or thirty-first -- century in all its splendor.
        The MORAL of El Dorado: The belief that money is the most precious thing destroys all the most precious things.
              OR:  Gold is really not the best construction material.
        So, how do you picture El Dorado?  Or if you had all that gold, perhaps you’d use it for something other than paving the streets and blinging out the architecture?

[Pictures: El Dorado - The Lost City of Gold, digital art by Brian Giberson (Image from Indigo Light);

El Dorado, digital art by Gonzalo Golpe (Image from GolpeArt).]

March 22, 2021

C is for Camelot

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Be sure to check out all my fellow A-Z Bloggers at the Master List.)
        Camelot is King Arthur’s castle and court in the famous medieval romances about that noble king and his knights.  Although it was certainly supposed to be in Great Britain, its precise location is usually mysteriously vague, as befitted tales of chivalric romance.  However, people have naturally tried since the fifteenth century to identify it with some real historical place.  Despite the popularity of this game of hide and seek, I’m going to ignore all those theories today, because in my opinion they are missing the point.  The point of Camelot is its symbolism, evoking all the chivalry, romance, adventure, and nobility of King Arthur’s realm.
        King Arthur didn’t always live in Camelot.  In the early versions of Arthurian legend he travels around from court to court, his principal seat being at Caerleon, which is an actual city in southeast Wales.  Geoffrey of Monmouth placed Arthur here in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136).  Camelot is first mentioned by Chrétien de Troyes in the 1170s, but not until the thirteenth century French romances does Camelot begin to gain importance - and even then it’s only one of a number of cities and palaces associated with Arthur and his court.  It was Thomas Malory in his fifteenth century Le Morte d’Arthur who gave us the image of Camelot that we have now.
        So, what can we say about Camelot?  It’s located on a river downstream from Astolat/Shalott, surrounded by beautiful forests and meadows suitable for jousts.  It has many magnificent churches, including the spectacular St Stephen’s cathedral, and the architecture of the city and palace are particularly impressive.  Nowadays we picture this architecture in the wholly anachronistic High Gothic style of the Middle Ages, despite the fact that any historical Arthur lived around 600 years earlier.
        Camelot is usually depicted as the very essence of a fairy tale castle, though perhaps with a little extra fortress thrown in, as in the wood engraving by Gustave Doré.  Here Camelot sprouts from the sheer cliffs, towering over the many-spired city you can just see in the valley below.  However, these travellers approaching Camelot seem to be in a wilder wasteland than I would consider quite as idyllic as Camelot’s setting should be.  This does not look conducive to jousting tournaments.
        For my second illustration, I have a view from the first quarter of the fourteenth century.  It was standard procedure at the time to illustrate everything with contemporary clothing, architecture, etc, which works out just about right in this case.  Even though the illuminator of this manuscript would have thought of Camelot as ancient history, he (or she) nevertheless illustrated it with the medieval architecture of his own time, making it fit our twenty-first century notions of how Camelot should look.
        This anachronism is just fine, because after all, trying to make Camelot fit into real-life history is missing the point as much as trying to place it in real-life geography.  As a symbol of all our rosiest, most romantic notions about chivalrous knights of the Round Table and the courtly ladies to whom they dedicated their quests, it is perfectly appropriate that it should be grander, more beautiful - and cleaner and more comfortable - than any historical place could have been.  It stands for Arthur’s ideals of justice and honor, Lancelot’s prowess and heroism, Guinevere’s beauty, and Merlin’s magic.  It stands for a brief and shining period when chivalry and romance were supreme, before it all fell apart.
        The MORAL of Camelot: The grass always seems goldener if we call it a Golden Age.
              OR:  Might doesn’t make right… but surely a little jousting never hurt anyone.
        So, what do you think is the most romantic place in the world?

[Pictures: Journey to Arthur’s Court, wood engraving by Gustave Doré from The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1867 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Arthur bidding farewell to his knights, illumination from Estoire del Saint Graal, Morte Artu, 1300-1325 (Image from British Library).]

March 19, 2021

B is for Babel

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Once upon a time all the humans in the world were united.  They were also ambitious, and decided to build a tower tall enough to reach Heaven.  God, seeing their progress, felt threatened, and confounded their speech so that now they spoke the whole variety of the world’s languages, making them unable to communicate and continue their building project.  Thus the people scattered all around the world, and the Tower of Babel was abandoned.
        Theologically, I find the idea that God would deliberately sow division among happy, cooperating people to be downright blasphemous!  (Especially since any details about their hubris and attacks on God do not appear in the Bible and were later additions by writers who, presumably like me, felt that God’s actions in the story needed a little more justification.)  Better to understand this simply as an etiological myth explaining why people speak different languages.  Sumerian, Greek, several different Native American peoples, and some African peoples all have various myths about people trying to build as high as heaven, and being thwarted by the gods, sometimes with a confusion of languages, and sometimes just with grievous bodily harm.  As for the Biblical story in Genesis 11, it never says that the incomplete tower is destroyed, but later tradition generally holds that God did destroy it.
        The Tower of Babel was built on the plain of Shinar, of fired bricks held together with mortar, and its association with Babylon means that most people nowadays picture it in the style of a ziggurat, a sort of terraced pyramid-shaped structure, rather than what we now think of as a proper tower.  Clearly the base of the structure would have had to cover quite a few square miles in order to support a dwindling series of levels tall enough to reach the sky.  One nice detail appears in a text from around the second century, which suggests that the tower did actually make it all the way to Heaven, whereupon the people tried to drill into Heaven with a gimlet to see what it was made of.  It’s understandable that God would be irritated by this petty vandalism, although it might also be possible to admire the spirit of scientific inquiry.
        Culturally, although the Tower of Babel gets only a few verses in the Bible, it has resonated so strongly through history that it’s one of the better-known Biblical references today.  We seem fascinated by numerous aspects of the story:

- the ambition that strives to make the biggest, tallest, best…

- the confusion of languages and the difficulty of understanding others

- the thin line between our capacity to accomplish great things when we cooperate, and our capacity to let our individuality be subsumed as mere cogs in the machines of tyrants

        So great is the popularity of this subject with artists through the ages that I had a tough time narrowing down to a manageable number to share with you today.  In keeping with my usual predilections, I decided to give preference to relief block prints, but I’m starting with a medieval illumination.  I wanted to be sure to include this because medieval depictions of the story are a fantastic source of information for historians, since they usually show contemporary building techniques.  In this one you can see mortar being mixed on the ground and sent up to the top in a bucket on one side of the tower, while a block is winched up on the other side.  Skilled laborers work on the fine stonework off to the side.  (A nice little detail is the worker on the top looking up at Heaven to find God looking back.  Uh oh!)  Next is a wood block print from the seventeenth century showing similar building techniques, but now with scaffolding, too.  (In my selection of relief prints I had to leave out the world’s most famous painting of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1563.  If you’re not familiar with it you should definitely take a moment and check it out.  It’s epic.)
        Next up are two etchings from Athanasius Kircher’s 1679 book about the Tower, in which he attempted to reconcile modern science and the Biblical story.  He calculated whether there would be enough people in the world, post-flood, to take on such a monumental building project, and he discussed the linguistic issues of how the languages had been confounded and then dispersed, to explain his understanding of current language families.  He also explained that such a tower could never have been physically possible to complete as a) there wouldn’t be enough building materials on Earth to reach the heavens (defined as the distance to the moon), and b) even if you could build it that high, it would throw the earth completely out of equilibrium and cause total devastation.  I love Kircher so much!
        As for my own favorite depiction, I never tire of Escher, and here he has worked his magic by showing us a Gods-eye view.  The people have stopped work to expostulate with each other, gesticulating as they suddenly discover that they can no longer understand or make themselves understood.  And finally an Expressionistic illustration that focusses on the people fleeing the unfinished Tower in horror and dismay.  I find it interesting that they all seem to be fleeing off in one direction together, rather than dispersing in all different directions.
        The MORAL of the Tower of Babel: If you can’t convince them, confuse them.
              OR:  Why can’t all those gol-durn furriners just speak proper American?
        So, what do you think of the idea of a universal language spoken by everyone in the world?  Good, bad, or ambivalent?

[Pictures: The building of the Tower of Babel, illumination from Weltchronik, c 1370 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bouw van de toren van Babel (Building of the Tower of Babel), woodcut by Christoffel van Sichem from a design by Hans Holbein, 1645 (Image from Rijksmuseum);

Two engravings by Coenraet Decker from Turris Babel by Athanasius Kircher, 1679 (Images from Internet Archive);

The Tower of Babel, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1928 (Image from ArtHive);

Tower of Babel, linocut by Stanislaw Kubicki, 1917 (Image from Wejman Gallery).]

March 17, 2021

A is for Atlantis

         Welcome to the A-Z Blog Challenge, where my theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Yes, I started early, but I promise that I’ll end with Z on April 30, just like everyone else.
        I’m starting off easy by featuring a place that I’ve already written about.  In case it seems like that one extra click to my previous post is too much work, let me entice you with speculation about possible real-life locations from the North Sea to the Azores, with various interpretations of Atlantis from military juggernaut to New Age Utopia, and with Atlantis-inspired fiction from Disney to my own high fantasy series.  There’s lots of good stuff, so go ahead and click straight through to read the post about Atlantis.
        Meanwhile, to add a little extra content for 2021, here are three different depictions of Atlantis, ranging from the early seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century.  The first painting is by an artist who specialized in illustrating complicated cities in the throes of destruction.  He clearly enjoyed (and presumably had some market for) coming up with ever more elaborate architecture and ever more threatening skies.
        In the second painting you can clearly see the influence of the popularity at the time of conflating Atlantis with the Mayans or some other “lost” New World people.  Instead of 
looking Roman-inspired, like the first (and third) illustrations, this artist has made Atlantis’s architecture look Mayan.  I especially like the waves galloping through the city.
        And my final illustration for you comes from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, in which the submariners visit the ruins of Atlantis at the bottom of the ocean.  I’m not sure whether the volcanic eruption is supposed to be happening at the bottom of the sea floor now, or in the somber viewer’s imagination as he recalls Atlantis’s tragic fate.
        And now for The MORAL of Atlantis: Even the rich and powerful can’t withstand an Act of Gods.
              OR:  Don’t build your city on a major fault line.
        Now, having read the post and enjoyed the apocalyptic art, be sure to let me know in the comments: Do you think there might really be any historical truth behind the legend of Atlantis?

[Pictures: The Fall of Atlantis, painting by François de Nomé, early 17th century (Image from The Public Domain Review);

Gibel Atlantidy (The Last of Atlantis), painting by Nikolai Roerich, 1928-9 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The ruins of Atlantis, illustration by Alphonse de Neuville from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, 1870 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

March 15, 2021

#AtoZChallenge Theme Reveal

         I will be participating in the April A to Z Blog Challenge once again this year, in which we post for every letter of the alphabet through the month of April.  As has become my usual custom, I’ll be beginning right away in March so as to give myself a few more breaks during the month of April.  So you can either join me now to get in the alphabetic mood for a couple of extra weeks early, or you can wait for April and then come back and read each letter’s post on its officially designated day.  (I’ll put lots of links to direct you easily around.)  Either way, I’m delighted to have you joining.  And as for what you’ll find when you join me…
        This year’s theme is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  
Pack light, but don’t forget your towel: we’ll be visiting strange, mysterious, and magical places throughout time and space.  The distinction I’m making between “mythical” and “imaginary” is that while the latter are straight fiction, the former may be understood by believers in various times and places to be real in either a spiritual or physical sense.  What the two categories have in common is that they won’t be found on a standard map of Earth, and they’re all magical and full of wonders.  Another thing they all have in common is that they tell us as much about ourselves as about their own exotic topography and denizens.  As T.S. Eliot wrote, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  (Having spent the last two years of A-Z giving you morals, why should I stop now?)  Of course, self-awareness is great, but seeing magical new landscapes is pretty awesome, too, so join me in my alphabetical travels this year!
        And don’t forget to travel around to all my fellow A to Z Bloggers, as well.  You can find the Master List here.  (There are still a few more days to join, too.)

[Picture: Footbridge between worlds, lithograph by J.J. Grandville from Un Autre Monde, 1844 (Image from blacque_jacque);

Sky City, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012 (sold out).]

March 12, 2021

Spring Forward with Cheffetz

         I’m about to start the A-Z Blog Challenge, which will put the usual block printmaking posts on hold for a month and a half.  So I wanted to leave you with one last little block print celebration of spring before I get wholly immersed in my A-Z theme.  (Tune in next week for the “Theme Reveal.”)  I say I’m giving you “a little celebration,” and I do mean little: each image is only one inch by three quarters of an inch, the size of a postage stamp.  Asa Cheffetz (USA, 1897-1965) made these tiny pieces as part of a miniature “A New England Calendar,” and these are the images for March and April.  These are wood engravings.  As I’ve explained before, wood engraving is done with engraving tools rather than gouges, and is done on the hard end-grain of the wood which shows no grain.  But because end-grain can be no larger than the diameter of a tree trunk or branch, wood engravings tend to be quite small.  These are small even by wood engraving standards.
        The level of detail is just astonishing when you remember the size.  Each piece really has only a few tiny lines in it, but they’re placed with such precision and perfection that the whole scene springs into life.  March’s scene is entitled “Sugar Bush” and depicts sap buckets hung on sugar maples while the world is still covered in snow.  Cheffetz was based in Springfield MA.  Here outside Boston we have no more snow left right now, although we may get a little next week.  Certainly it’s pretty common for early March to look like Cheffetz’s depiction.  Most years I take delight in seeing the sap buckets appear, but in this time of covid I haven’t been out in that direction in months, even though there are usually a lot of buckets hung not three miles away.
        The second piece is “April Shower,” and by this time in Cheffetz’s calendar the snow is gone, but the leaves are not yet out.  The way the varied widths of the carved lines across the sky suggests heavy clouds is masterful.  I also like the simplicity of the composition, something that really uses the tiny size of the piece as an advantage, rather than a drawback.  I’m particularly appreciating that while my own world remains especially small as I await the continued rollout of vaccinations.

[Pictures: Sugar Bush;

April Shower, both from A New England Calendar (in minature), wood engravings by Asa Cheffetz, c 1934 (Images from The Clark and Artsy).]

March 8, 2021

Autumn in... almost Spring!

         Here is the last of my season fairies, finished.  The autumn fairy is busy with harvesting and preparing for winter, while glorying in the warmth and color of fall (while I am most certainly not ready to skip straight over spring and summer!).  All of my other critters in the series have been based on local flora and fauna for which I have particular seasonal affections, but I indulged in a little more creative license for this one.  Although red squirrels are common not three miles away from my house, I have only ever seen a couple in my yard.  My neighbors are the ordinary, larger, Eastern gray squirrels (and the chipmunks).  A red squirrel seemed more appropriate than the gray, however, as being smaller and a more autumnal color suitable for printing in the same ink as the other ruddy browns I wanted for the first layer of this reduction print.  Moreover, this fairy is actually based not on the American red squirrel, but the Eurasian red squirrel, which of course is not a personal acquaintance of mine at all.  The Eurasian species is even more petite, and has the wonderful tufted ears, making it yet more elfin.  The wings are white oak, as is the acorn, and I had hoped to include some birch leaves on the branch, but couldn’t get them to fit into the composition.  Like “spring,” the top layer of ink is dark brown rather than pure black.  Unlike “spring,” however, the printing of this piece went relatively smoothly, I’m happy to report.
        The set of four seasons will be shown, along with several other pieces, in the next group show at Gallery Twist in Lexington.  Impressions VI is their annual show focussing on printmaking, and will be open from April 16-May 12, both on-line and in-person.
        While I’m on the topic of upcoming events, having had reasonable success with the unprecedented on-line Rapid-Fire Reading last month, we’ve decided to try some more.  Coming up through the month of March will be 5 events, scheduled for different days and times, and with different line-ups of readers.  This is a data-gathering month, so we’d love to have not only your company, but also your feedback on what seems best to you.  The first reading is THIS THURSDAY, March 11, at 7:00pm EST.

[Pictures: Autumn Fairy (Oaky Nutkin), rubber reduction print, AEGN 2021;

Details of carving and printing the first layer, AEGN, 2021.]

March 3, 2021

Guess that Medieval Beast 7

         This is a beast that is not featured in the true bestiaries, but does regularly show up in the various encyclopedias of natural history that are closely related.  This particular depiction comes from the hand of an artist we’ve seen before in Medieval Beast Number 2.  It’s a copy made around 1450-1500 of Der Naturen Bloeme, which was originally written about two centuries earlier, and it has an attractive blending of color and rich gold background.  This creature clearly lives in the water, where it has the tusks and trunk of an elephant, the tail of, perhaps, a lizard, dorsal and pelvic fins of a fish, and hind feet with cloven hoofs like a goat.  Like many of this artist’s subjects, it looks fairly friendly and I find it charming…  But what do you suppose it could possibly be?