April 30, 2021

Z is for Zerzura

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        For the final location in the A to Z Challenge we’ll stay in the desert and join the search for the mysterious lost oasis of Zerzura.  Zerzura comes from Arabic lore of the Great Sand Sea, one of the driest and least populated regions of the Sahara, where even to this day few people explore.  It straddles the area from Libya to Egypt, and is a vast expanse of sand dunes with few oases.  Tales of this region have abounded in Arabic lore for centuries, and Zerzura is first mentioned in an Egyptian document from the mid-thirteenth century.  The first detailed description comes from the fifteenth century Book of Treasure (Kitab al-Kanuz).  With a title like this, you know you’re going to have a fabulous story.  It is unclear whether any copies of this book currently exist, but it was apparently a collection of stories, spells, and incantations listing over 400 sites in Egypt where one could find hidden treasure.  One of those sites was Zerzura.
        Five days west of any track, the wanderer might find a road that follows a long wadi, or ravine.  At the end of the road is a city white as a dove, on whose gate is carved a bird.  You will find in the beak of this sculpted bird a key, and if you take the key you can enter the city.  The buildings all are white and beautiful, with springs and pools and an abundance of vines and palm trees, but the king and queen of this city are deep in an enchanted sleep.  You are advised not to go near them, but to take the treasure and leave.  However, there is also some mention of black giants guarding the city, so you may also want to watch out for them.
        The first that Europeans heard of Zerzura was in 1835, and was based on a report from an Arab who claimed to have found Zerzura while looking for a lost camel.  He said he had found an oasis with ruins, but I’m not sure the ruins prove that an enchanted king and queen couldn’t still be there, sleeping their magical sleep as their city falls ever farther into decay.  At any rate, it was not until the dawn of the twentieth century that exploration of the area took off.  A number of expeditions by both Egyptians and Europeans began explorations of 
the Libyan Desert (which stretches from the middle of Libya to the banks of the Nile in Egypt).  Automobiles and finally airplanes slowly began to make greater and greater expeditions possible, and a number of oases and other new features were discovered, as well as great advances in the scientific study of sand dunes — but nothing was discovered that could be identified as Zerzura.  And so we end the A to Z Challenge as we began it: with an ancient lost city of great treasure and splendor, that has disappeared into the unknown.
        I would love to have some medieval Arabic illustrations of Zerzura, but all I can find are modern digital works.  The first one has influences of Petra, while the second looks more Egyptian, and also shows the carved bird over the gate.  This one comes from an adventure puzzle game for the computer.  Next is a city with minarets and domes, and the final picture looks almost futuristic with its skyscrapers more than 25 stories tall.  Only the first two illustrations are really intended to depict Zerzura.  The other two are simply billed as fantasy desert cities.  I think this would be a fun one to try to illustrate myself, and I’d definitely take a little inspiration from Petra just because Petra is so cool, but also from some of the amazing desert ruins found in Egypt, Iran, and other areas.
        As a concluding place for this year’s theme, Zerzura echoes a number of the motifs we’ve seen throughout the previous 25 mythical and imaginary places: the lost or hidden city (Atlantis, El Dorado, Kitezh, Shangri-La), the city of incredible luxury, power, or beauty now fallen to naught (Atlantis, Babel, Eden, Xanadu), the city wherein the intrepid explorer can help himself to oodles of loot (El Dorado, Luilekkerland, Northrend, Santa’s Workshop?), the enchantment and presence of magic beyond our mundane lives (Camelot, Faerie, Middle-Earth, Neverwinter, Oz), the oasis in the midst of inhospitable territory (Isles, Shangri-La)…  What I like best about the story of Zerzura, however, is the mystery: we’re given so many intriguing and beautiful details, but no explanation about any of them.  In fact, the ancient stories of this place don’t seem to draw any lessons or conclusion at all, which is actually quite unusual.  But it won’t stop me from offering you
        The MORAL of Zerzura:  Sometimes mystery is its own reward.
              OR:  Lost camels may be the number one indicator of lost cities.
        So, what would you carve over the gate of your enchanted kingdom?

[Pictures: Zerzura, digital art by Prospero0404, 2020 (Image from Deviant Art);
Screenshot from "Lost Chronicles of Zerzura" by Viva Media, 2012 (Image from Adventure Gamers);
Desert City, digital art by J.J. Peabody, 2015 (Image from Deviant Art);
City in the desert, digital art by Mark Tarrisse, (Image from Mark Tarrisse).]

April 29, 2021

Y is for Yuwara Ul Sahd

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Yuwara Ul Sahd was, some 200 years ago, an empire that claimed the Central Desert, from the elvish forests around the River Tiarnath in the north to the Border Plateau above Minar in the south, and from the Sinbal Tribal Lands in the west to the Crest Mountains in the east.  For roughly a century, however, the empire has been eroded, leaving nothing more than the great crossroads city of Sisoa at its center, the small towns along the River Kazaarid, and the few trading posts on the southwestern border.  Or at least, that was until Queen Kahan Atar took the throne, and she is nothing if not ambitious.  She calls herself Empress, and has posted guards to reopen several of the border forts, claiming to rule the whole of the former territory of Yuwara Ul Sahd, including the lands of the nomads and the mesas of the sky dwarves in the eastern desert.  Of course, as they say in Sisoa, “My dog calls himself Emperor Wag…”
        Yuwara Ul Sahd is one nation of my own high fantasy world, invented for my Otherworld Series.  As hinted in previous posts, I started imagining this world when I was in middle school and high school, so it’s been in the works for more than 30 years, and although of course there has been a massive amount of revision in that time, many of the broad outlines remain the same.  Sisoa is geographically the center of the region of the Otherworld in which my stories are set, and culturally it is something like a hinge, connecting the various races and cultures all around it.  It is the most culturally diverse city in the region, and its most popular hobbies seem to be politics and haggling over commerce.
        The first picture shows Sisoa from the north, which was a bit of a cop-out as it meant I didn’t need to draw the large, messy, sprawling tent city that has sprung up around its gate in the southwest.  You can see on the map that the River Kazaarid flows away from Sisoa into the desert, supporting a few towns before it sinks into the sand.  The last picture shows a sketch and section of notes from my notebook, but this info has never really entered into the books.  I have also included a picture of two coins of Yuwara Ul Sahd, one recent coin featuring Empress Kahan Atar, and one old coin featuring Emperor Oru, whose legacy is an important plot point in the second book of my series, Sleeping Legends Lie.
        One of my favorite things in world-building is to think about proverbs.  What proverbs people use tells us a lot about them: the physical attributes of their world, the plants and animals and people they are familiar with; the attitudes they have toward various sorts of people or behaviors; the wisdom and morality they consider important to share; the things “everyone knows”…  In the proverb I quoted above, the never-spoken part is “… but that doesn’t mean he’s an emperor.”  In other words, just because you claim something doesn’t make it true, a proverb dear to the hearts of a people who love to make outrageous claims as they haggle over trade.  Another saying with a similar but less jocular implication is “Say the scorpion’s sting is impossible, but the scorpion won’t believe it.”
Here are some other Sisoan proverbs.  Can you guess what they mean?
   Even the watchful caravan master can’t count the sand he crosses.
   The merchant who peddled curiosity bought lamentation.
   He can smell fire when his robe burns.
   Where’s the merchant who tried to cross the desert on an expectation?
   You can tell a scorpion by its tail.
   You’re about to meet Error Haste-azh.  (The -azh suffix denotes a family name, so this is saying “Error of the Haste family.”)
        If you’d like a few more tidbits, here are some other posts related to Yuwara Ul Sahd:
Snippet about Jiriya, a young woman from Sisoa
Snippet about Lubun-Blue, a man from the eastern desert
Snippet about Yunib, a man from Sisoa
Ruin of Ancient Powers, sixth book of the series, set entirely within the borders of Yuwara Ul Sahd
        And of course I’d be delighted if you wanted to check out my Otherworld Series, about which you can always learn more here.
        The MORAL of Yuwara Ul Sahd:  You don’t need to travel when the world comes to you.
              OR:  There’s a special satisfaction to having the right proverb for every situation.
        So, all you other fantasy and sci fi writers, speak up.  Tell us something about the wondrous worlds you’ve created!  (Or if you're not a writer, 
what worlds are your favorites?)

[Pictures: Sisoa from the north, drawing by AEGN, 1995;
Map of Yuwara Ul Sahd, drawn by AEGN, c 2008;
Two coins of Yuwara Ul Sahd, depicting Empress Kahan Atar and Emperor Oru, drawings by AEGN, 2008;
Notes and sketch of temple in Sisoa, drawing by AEGN, probably early 1990s.]

April 28, 2021

X is for Xanadu #AtoZChallenge

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        I know Xanadu first and foremost from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem describing this wonderland, its underground river Alph, its stately pleasure-dome, and its deep romantic chasm.  You can read my prior post specifically 
about the poem here.  Plus, that’s where you can see my own illustration of one small section of Xanadu that is mentioned in the poem.
        Now let’s look a little more closely at the history of Xanadu before Coleridge made it a mythical location.  The name is an early Anglicization of Shangdu in northeast China, in Inner Mongolia.  It was the summer capital of Kublai Khan in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, until it was burned down by the Ming army in 1369.  The ruins were named a World Heritage Site in 2012, making this the only place in my list of 26 that is historically verified and placed in an actual, known location.  There is a real Xanadu that is neither mythical nor imaginary.  Europeans first heard of Shangdu from Marco Polo, who travelled there in about 1275 and described its wonders, from twice eight miles of fertile ground with walls and towers girdled round, to gardens full of wild animals, fountains, and various pleasure palaces.  Polo was particularly impressed with a palace built of huge canes of bamboo, carved with dragons and gilded all over, and collapsible so that it could be taken down, moved, and put back up wherever the Khan desired.  It was all very opulent and luxurious, and descriptions of Xanadu (spelled in a variety of ways) appeared in many books about China, generally all derived from Polo’s account, as well as a few other travellers’ accounts.  I had to open with some fantasy pictures of Xanadu, but the second set of pictures today reflects Xanadu’s non-mythical origins.  They show a scene of the current ruins at the World Heritage site, a carved stone from the site, and an artist’s impression of what the city might actually have looked like in its heyday.  There’s also an illustration of the “pleasure dome,” revealing its real origins as a lavish Mongol yurt (called ger in Mongolian).
        Fun Mythical Place trivia connections: 1. Batu Khan, who was magically thwarted in his attempt to attack Kitezh, was a cousin of Kublai Khan who built Xanadu.  They were both grandsons of Genghis Khan.  
2. Kublai Khan’s mother, just like her father-in-law Genghis’s foster father, was a Keraite, the Mongolian tribal confederation that had converted to Christianity and was conflated for a while with the legend of Prester John.  (Plus there’s Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid, inexplicably playing her dulcimer so far from home.  Perhaps she knew Prester John, too.)
         And that brings us back now to Coleridge’s poem, which was responsible for launching Xanadu in the European imagination beyond a magnificent, exotic, but real historical city into a mythical symbol of fantastically lavish splendor.  With this new mythical status, Xanadu’s name was given to (among other things) the over-the-top mansion of mogul Citizen Kane in 1941, the high-tech lairs of superhero Mandrake the Magician (1934) and super-villain Xanatos (1994), a series of futuristic dream-houses built in the early 1980s, and a magical night club of neon and roller disco in the 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John.
        A place where nobody dared to go, the love that we came to know, they call it Xanadu…  And now, open your eyes and see, what we have made is real.  We are in Xanadu (a dream of it we offer you).  A million lights are dancing, and there you are, a shooting star, an everlasting world.  And you’re here with me, eternally, Xanadu, Xanaduu-uu-uu…  Don’t miss the classic song in all its glorious cheesiness here!  (Seriously, roller disco, zoot suits, tight-rope dancers, an aerialist, a glimpse of Gene Kelly, those 80’s fashions… three and a half minutes of sheer, magnificent whaaat?  Enjoy!)
        The fantasy illustrations of Xanadu, on the other hand, are interesting for just how non-Mongol, non-Chinese they look.  Most of them have a middle Eastern or Mughal inspiration, more reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in India than anything in China.  I suspect this is because Coleridge’s poem, published in 1816, was all mixed in with the onset of British colonialism in India, the Egyptomania spurred by Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign, and English translations of The Arabian Nights.  Europeans tended to lump it all together as "eastern exoticism."  I suspect it also has a lot to do with Coleridge’s term “pleasure dome,” since traditional Chinese architecture is not known for domes, but Islamic and Mughal architecture are.  So, imaginings of Xanadu are heavy on the domes, plus walls and towers, as specified by Coleridge.  Today’s first two illustrations both try to imagine the caves of ice where Alph the sacred river ran.  The first picture in the third grouping is probably the oddest, imagining 
Xanadu in a European renaissance style, and up on a huge cliff, rather than down near a cave or an underground river.  Personally I think I’ve always had a sort of impression that the whole place was under a transparent dome, perhaps because it may be made of ice, as per Coleridge.  There’s no doubt, however, that all of these versions of Xanadu are splendid, opulent, and magical.
        The MORAL of Xanadu:  The right marketing can take your ordinary earthly palace to the giddy heights of mythology.
              OR:  Beware!  Beware those who have fed on honey-dew and drunk the milk of Paradise 
(… particularly if that’s a euphemism for opium.)
        So, how do you imagine Xanadu?  Mongolian ger, Taj Mahal-style domes and turrets, 80’s roller disco nightclub, or something else altogether?

[Pictures: Kubla Khan, frontispiece by Dugald Walker from Rainbow Gold by Sara Teasdale, 1922 (Image from carlylehold flickr);
The River Alph in Xanadu, illustration by Graham Greenfield from The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Manguel and Guadalupi, 1980;
Unesco World Heritage Site of Xanadu, East wall of Imperial City and excavated dragon-patterned pillar (Images from Unesco);
Shangdu, digital painting by Sarel Theron, 2012 (Image from Sarel Theron);
Pleasure dome at Xanadu, illustration by Robert Byrd from Kubla Khan, The Emperor of Everything by Kathleen Krull, 2010;
A Fantasy of Kubla Khan’s Palace, ink and watercolor by Albert E. Richardson, 1915 (Image from Christie’s);
The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, watercolor by Ebenezer Wake Cook, undated c 1875-1925 (Image from artnet);
In Xanadu, illustration by Patten Wilson from Coleridge by Andrew Lang, 1898 (Image from Hathi Trust).]

April 27, 2021

W is for Workshop (Santa's)

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        For the third post in a row, we’ll be spending time in the far, frozen north.  However, today’s place is an interesting sort of modern folklore.  Its appearance in our mythology is quite modern, yet it is the product not of a single author’s vision, but of the blending of ideas from many many people, some identifiable individuals, some corporate committees, and many anonymous.  To find out a bit of history and who some of these contributors were, read

the post about Santa’s Workshop.

        I have to confess that while I absolutely love Christmas, I’ve never really been much of a fan of Santa Claus.  I mean, I don’t really see the point: whether from a religious or a secular standpoint, there are so many more important and wonderful things to celebrate about the Christmas season that it seems like a waste to bother with this bloke, however jolly.  On the other hand, if I imagine a truly steampunk-style toy factory and fantastical creatures in the stables, all hidden far away in a magical land, I could start to get a lot more interested.  But let’s have a look at some of the depictions of the North Pole that have gotten other artists excited.
        I shared one of the older depictions of Santa’s Workshop in the original post, so I begin today’s selection with a confection by Eric Dowdle, an artist I was unaware of before covid-19.  He is best known for his designs on jigsaw puzzles, of which I have assembled a few myself in the past year.  His stock-in-trade is nostalgia, which is why he is well-paired with the scene of the interior of the workshop by George Hinke, whose Christmas scenes were enormously popular in the 40’s and 50’s.  Both artists emphasize humorous detail and feel-good charm.  This style seems perfect for Santa’s Workshop, which should be both enormously busy and full of happy cheer.
        Next I have exterior and interior scenes from a Disney “Silly Symphony” cartoon short from 1932.  The elves working outdoors at the reindeer sheds seem pretty traditional, but the indoor elves painting toys are clearly artistes, complete with smocks and berets.  They also buck the tradition of red and green outfits for bright magenta.  Nevertheless, this vision of Santa’s Workshop is wholly in keeping with expectations.  Apparently, however, while US versions tend to place the Workshop and other buildings on the snowy surface of the earth, as Dowdle and Disney have done, UK versions are more likely to imagine them as being built in grottoes beneath the ice.
        I end with two depictions from recent (relatively speaking) movies: an exterior shot of a very attractive art deco Workshop from 2002, and an icy futuristic Workshop command center from 2011.  There are dozens of Christmas movies in the past few decades, with Workshops ranging from cheap back-lot sets to CGI extravaganzas, and Workshop concepts ranging from minimalist workbenches to frenetic casts of thousands doing a hundred chaotic things at once.  You may well have your own favorite depictions of the North Pole, but I have actually never seen any of these movies (see my Santa Claus complaints above), so I can’t give any opinions as to which are best.  I will say that my lack of strongly-held convictions frees me up to embrace innovations and imagining new things.  Santa’s Workshop as a spaceship?  
Why not.  Mrs Claus - or maybe a reindeer - as the inventor behind the new toys?  Why not.  The elves as yetis?  Why not.  Santa actually based at the South Pole with that whole North Pole myth as misdirection?  Why not.  Rudolph as a flying motorcycle?  Why not.  The elves as gingerbread people baked by Mrs Claus and brought to life by magic?  Why not.  The Workshop as an aircraft-carrier sized ship afloat among the icebergs?  Why not.  The naughty-and-nice list fully automated using advanced AI?  Why not; it’s creepy anyway.  (But I still like steampunk best.)
        The MORAL of Santa’s Workshop:  Everyone ends up moving with the times, even the magnetic North Pole itself.
              OR:  Better be good for goodness sake.
        So, how do you feel about Santa Claus: beloved jolly old elf, or annoying bloke in the mall?

[Pictures: Santa’s Workshop painting by Eric Dowdle (Image from Dowdle Folk Art);
Santa’s Kitchen, painting by George Hinke, as reprinted by Ideals Magazine, 1961 (Image from Wurlington Bros);
Stills from “Santa’s Workshop” animated short directed by Wilfred Jackson, 1932, Disney (Image from Fandom);
Scene from “The Santa Clause 2,” Walt Disney Pictures, 2002;
Scene from “Arthur Christmas,” Sony and Aardman Animations, 2011 (Images from Wurlington Bros).]

April 26, 2021

V is for Valhalla and Vaikuntha

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.  Be sure to check out the Master List for a plethora of other A to Z blogs with myriad other themes.)
        While we’re in the dark and frozen north, let’s have a look at Valhalla, the great hall of Asgard, home of the Norse gods.  I think you can tell a lot about gods by where they choose to live.  As befits a warlike culture, Asgard is fully fortified, and Valhalla is one big celebration of all warriors all the time.  It is a huge, magnificent hall, shining gold, with spear-shafts for rafters, shields for a roof, coats of mail strewn over its benches, and light provided by glowing swords.  Although I tend to picture it as one great dining hall, Valhalla actually has 540 rooms within it, including the apartment of Thor and his family.  Valhalla is chiefly inhabited by those slain honorably in battle, brought to Valhalla by the Valkyries, and permitted to spend the rest of eternity (or at least until Ragnarök) drinking mead and wine, feasting, playing games, and of course fighting, all while being served hand and foot by beautiful battlemaids.  This heavenly home was dreamed up by gods who knew what they liked, and what they liked was getting drunk and fighting.
        By contrast, Vaikuntha, the home of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Lakshmi, is full of gardens of fragrant fruit and flowers, singing birds and humming bees, as well as the golden palaces without which no home of gods seems to be complete.  The beautiful residents (both male and female) are peaceful and smiling, and travel about in aerial vehicles made of jewels, which is an excellent amenity.  To me, this sounds far more appealing altogether than Valhalla.
        Let’s look at some other homes of gods — with the caveat that as this is a survey post, I have done only superficial research on any of this!  I will also note that my theme is both imaginary and mythical places, so I am not saying that these places must be purely imaginary.  Although it is my belief that none of these places is literally, physically true, other people have different beliefs and it is not my intention here to state that they’re wrong.
        Many traditions place the homes of gods on the tops of mountains.  Mount Meru appears in the mythology of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, and is the center of the universe, as well as being the home of gods such as Sakra, ruler of heaven.  Many temples in India, Bali, Thailand, and more are shaped like mountains to symbolize the importance of Mount Meru.  In Manipuri mythology in the northeast of India, the God Lainingthou Koubru and Goddess Kounu live on Mount Koubru.  In Chinese mythology the Kunlun Mountain is the home of gods and goddesses including the Supreme Deity and Xi Wangmu the Queen Mother goddess, as well as other immortals and lots of interesting magical plants and animals.  It is also a pillar of the sky, and is associated with reaching immortality.  Ol Doinyo Lengai is a volcano in Tanzania, and its name means “Mountain of God” in the Maasai language, but I don’t have any information about its mythology.
        Olympus, the home of the Greek gods, is a bit vague.  It was originally seen as a physical mountain peak, but it is high enough to be above the clouds, and later seemed to be more heavenly.  There is certainly an implication of beauty and ambrosia, but few stories actually take place in Olympus.  Generally speaking, the Greek gods are out and about pursuing their various hobbies and vendettas, and mortals almost never come to Olympus, even after death.
        Mesopotamian and older Hebrew myths place their gods as living in Heaven, but also living physically in the temples dedicated to them on Earth.  The Mesopotamian Heaven was a dome made of stone, sandwiched between the dome of the stars below and the ultimate dome of the god of the sky above.  Unlike these Near Eastern views, early Christian myths began to describe Heaven in much more detail as the home of God and a whole array of different ranks of angels, and also, like Valhalla and Vaikuntha, as a place where the virtuous dead 
might live, as well.  It is often i
magined as being  up in the sky among the clouds, reached through a pearly gate.  Takamagahara“High Plain of Heaven” in Japanese mythology is also located in the sky, a world of pure and radiant light.  It is connected to Earth by a floating bridge, which I think is a lovely concept.  (To be fair, Valhalla in Asgard is also connected to the mortal world by a rainbow bridge, which is possibly the only element of sweetness and light in all of Norse mythology.)
        Aztec mythology has no fewer than thirteen heavens, the highest of which is Ōmeyōcān, the home of the supreme Dual God, while Maori mythology generally also has multiple heavens in which various gods dwell in the different levels.  However, I have not seen any descriptions of what these heavens look like.
        It does seem extremely common that gods like to live in high places, either mountain-tops or right up in the sky.  They also very commonly like their bling: golden palaces, jewelled accessories, and the like.  Compared with the light and leisure of many gods’ homes, Valhalla seems rather dark, noisy, smelly, macho, and altogether not my scene.  Luckily, however, as I very much hope not to die in battle, I am unlikely to end up there.
        The MORAL of Valhalla:  One bonus of being a god is getting a home that caters to all your favorite things.
              OR:  If heaven is like a frat party, I don’t want to go.
        So, how would you like a job as architect and interior designer to the gods?  Do you have any fresh ideas you could suggest to Odin?

[Pictures: Heimdall at the gate of Valhalla, illustration from Icelandic Edda, 1680 (Image from handrit.is);

Walhalla design by Hermann Burghart for “Das Rheingold” by Richard Wagner, 1878 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Detail of Valhalla, illustration from Melsteds-Edda, 1765 (image from handrit.is);

Krishna unveils Vaikuntha to the Gopas, illustration from Bhagavata Purana, Pahari school, c 1775-1799 (Image from Scroll.in);

Vishnu outside his Vaikuntha Palace with the seven Kumaras, attributed to Ranjha at Chamba, c 1790-1800 (Image from Francesca Galloway);

Vaikuntha: The Abode of the Supreme God Vishnu, illustration from Bhagavata Purana, Rajasthan, mid 19th century (Image from eye burfi);

Mount Meru, illustration from Thai Buddhist manuscript, 1894 (Image from British Library);

Lamp Representing Kunlun the Realm of Xiwangmu, sculpture from Eastern Han dynasty, 1st-2nd century CE (Image from Yale University Art Gallery);
Olympus, illustration by Steele Savage from Mythology by Edith Hamilton, 1940;
Heavenly Host, wood engraving by Gustave Doré from Dante’s Paradiso, c 1868 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
Christ the Redeemer in Glory with the Heavenly Host, fresco by Niccolo Circignani in the Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Rome, 1588 (Image from Basilica SS Giovanni e Paolo);
Detail from The Assumption of the Virgin, painting by Francesco Botticini, c 1475-6 (Image from The National Gallery);
Izanami and Izanagi on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige I, c 1849-50 (Image from Museum of Fine Arts);
Detail from Welcome… to Valhalla!!! panel from DC Action Comics #761, artists Garcia, Rubinstein, Whitmore, 2000 (Image from Random Thoughts).]

April 23, 2021

U is for Ultima Thule

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        What is the common thread between the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas, the New Horizons space probe, Edgar Allen Poe, frozen surfaces the squidgy consistency of jellyfish, and Nazi occultists?  To find out, read 
        Thule is another place for which people keep trying to identify real geographical locations, but this time it isn’t entirely unreasonable.  (I’ve mentioned some of the theories in the original post.)  The Greek explorer Pytheas included descriptions of Thule in his voyage around northwestern Europe around 325 BCE, and is generally believed to have been making a good-faith description of an actual place, rather than simply making up a tale of foreign marvels.  Thule appears on many renaissance maps, although not always in the same place.  However, if Thule may be based on a real, if unidentified place, what earns Ultima Thule a spot in this month’s A to Z Challenge theme of mythical and imaginary places is the connotations that the name took on in the minds of classical writers, and medieval scholars after them.  Wherever Thule may have started out, Ultima Thule soon became a land beyond the very edge of the known world, “the back of beyond,” and a symbol of all the undiscovered territory that we don’t yet know.
        This resonance was picked up on by many writers.  In 1774 Goethe wrote a poem called “The King in Thule,” in which the setting really could have been anywhere.  Indeed, the poem was originally inspired by a castle on the river Lahn, but Goethe changed his setting to Thule to evoke an exotic mythical vibe.  The painting above illustrates Goethe’s poem, and Schubert - among no fewer than 15 composers - set the poem to music as one of his Lieder.  You can listen to a performance here, or read both the original and a translation of the poem here.
        In 1880 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entitled a collection of poetry Ultima Thule, after the dedicatory poem about it.  You can read that poem here, but the final stanza is

     Ultima Thule!  Utmost Isle!

     Here in thy harbors for a while

     We lower our sails; a while we rest

     From the unending, endless quest.

      Even comic strip hero Prince Valiant (created in 1937) comes from Thule, although in creator Hal Foster’s mythology, Thule is simply somewhere in Norway.  At one point our hero has to help his father regain the throne of Thule from a usurper.  In these comics Thule is portrayed as a generally Arthurian-vibe place with a touch of Viking.
        And by the way, the Kuiper Belt object that was temporarily nicknamed “Ultima Thule” now has its official name: Arrokoth.  Arrokoth is a Powhatan/Algonquian word meaning “sky” or “cloud.”  This official name still reflects the idea of looking to the farthest distances, and wondering what discoveries lie beyond.
        The MORAL of Ultima Thule:  One of the defining human traits is our curiosity and spirit of exploration — although sometimes we like it best if someone else explores the unpleasantly frigid places.
              OR:  No matter how far you go, the horizon is still in the distance… so don’t forget to pack your winter coat, just in case.
        So, would you rather be an explorer, or read the explorer’s reports from the comfort of your armchair?

[Pictures: De konig van Thule (The King of Thule), painting by Pierre Jean van der Ouderaa, 1896 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
View of the Castle of Thule, and Approaching the usurper’s throne, panels from Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, 1943 and 1939 (Images from Heritage Auctions and Read All Comics).]

April 22, 2021

T is for Tatooine

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Tatooine is a desert planet in the Outer Rim Territories of the galaxy.  It has three moons and two suns, keeping things hot and dry, and its native peoples are Jawas and Tusken Raiders.  It is now also inhabited by many other people, notably the Hutts, and humans including first Anakin and later Luke Skywalker.  The largest city is Mos Espa, known for its pod-racing, but perhaps the most famous (or infamous) town is Mos Eisley, that most wretched hive of scum and villainy.  Despite Tatooine’s insignificance by any normal measure, a surprising number of events of great historical significance have happened here.  But perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all, when those events are interrelated.  After all, one thing leads to another.
        I first encountered Tatooine in the theater seeing “A New Hope” as a child, and it was pure magic to be transported to that place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.  I’ve mentioned Tolkien as a great influence in my love of fantasy and world creation, but “Star 
Wars” came first.  After seeing the movie I immediately set to work devising a space opera of my own (not that I knew that genre designation at the time, being 7 years old).  So what is it that was so amazing about these new worlds that George Lucas showed us?  It was the way the world seemed truly inhabitated, a place where real people of all races and species lived their lives.  You can find a longer, more detailed post about this here: Fantasy Worlds Need Depth.  The Mos Eisley cantina was possibly the most magical place in the whole galaxy, and this was because it looked like the people pursuing their business in that insalubrious dive didn’t actually care about the story I was there to watch.  They didn’t care about Luke’s little problems, and they didn’t even care about the Empire or the Rebellion.  They just wanted to make a quick buck, spend it on some cheap booze, listen to some most excellent music, and then head on their way, wherever that happened to be.  I didn’t care about their stories any more than they cared about mine, but the fact that they clearly had stories was  key in making the world seem deep, and round, and believable, and magical.
        Actually, it turns out that a number of these people’s stories were later added to canon in various other Star Wars movies, books, series, and so on.  For example, the bartender of Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina (for so it is called) is named Wuher and is an orphan whose parents were killed by battle droids; the disfigured man who threatens Luke is named Cornelius Evazan and is a mad torture doctor; and the band is called Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, and their hit single is “Mad About Me.”  (Listen to it here!)  I honestly still don’t care about their stories, and really prefer not to know.  When they make up a story about everyone, it stops seeming so much like a real world, and, paradoxically, starts seeming more shallow again.  After all, when you walk into a bar on Earth, you don’t know the entire history of every person sitting in there.  That would just be weird.  The exception to my indifference, however, is the band.  I seriously think they should be the subjects of their own spin-off series, now that we’re doing that.
        The MORAL of Tatooine:  Every person is the hero of their own story.
              OR:  The Force will be with you.  Always.
        So, what Star Wars character or place would you like to learn more about — or meet over drinks?  (Make mine blue milk, please.)

[Pictures: Mos Espa in the distance, and at closer view, from “Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones”;
The Lars Family moisture farm, and Jabba the Hutt’s palace, from “Star Wars IV: A New Hope”;
Mos Eisley, from “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” (All images from Star Wars and Fandom).]

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!)
        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.