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 X
anadu 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).]


Deborah Weber said...

I love your illustration best. I definitely have my own clear vision of glorious fragrant nature overlaid with a bit of opium haze and vibrant colors. I'm not sure however if I can ever forgive you for sending me to that video. I pretty much feel like I have to poke my eyes out now. :-)

JadeLi said...

I imagine it like your 3rd illustration shows. I saw the film Xanadu and loved it!

“X” selection of the day:

Olga Godim said...

Fantasy castle/palace for me, definitely, with a dome and towers.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I remember when the film came out, I saw it at the cinema. Gene Kelly’s last film, I believe, and there he was on roller skates! Olivia Newton John as Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance. A bit silly, but fun.

Have you ever seen that episode of Beauty And The Beast in which Ron Perlman recites the poem in that deep, velvet voice of his?

A pity the poem was never finished, but I doubt he could have written it without having “drunk the milk of Paradise”! It keeps going over and over in my head.

Y Is For Youth on my blog today, about what the young gods got up to!


Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Deborah, you can't say I didn't warn you about that video! lol. Please don't poke out your eyes; you know you love seeing all the beautiful things too much. =)

Jade and Sue, I've actually never seen the movie and knew pretty much nothing about it until researching this post. I'm amused to hear that you're giving it positive reviews. Maybe I will have to watch it. (Sue, I've never seen Beauty and the Beast, either. Clearly my experience is paltry!)

Olga, I'm of the opinion that pretty much everything is better with dome and towers!

Frédérique - Quilting Patchwork Appliqué said...

Xanadu for me is the house in Citizen Kane, a movie by Orson Welles ;))

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

The song was the first thing that came to mind when I saw this post's title. LOL. Great info!

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: Iron and Fae