October 17, 2017

Mackie's Birds

        D. Helen Mackie (Canada, b. 1926) was a scientist before she became an artist, and her interest in nature is evident in all her work.  Birds are especially prevalent in her art, and all the pieces I have for you today include birds.  In this first piece the chickadees are the close focus, and I like their energy.  The background also appeals to me with its semi-abstract patterns evoking forest.  I think the stars in the upper left must be autumn leaves; our leaves are changing here now, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a great year for color for us.














        In the second piece the birds are just part of the landscape, and indeed almost camouflaged against the sweep of the sky.  How many birds are there in this piece?  Just the two large ones, or are some of the more abstract Vs birds, as well?  The flowers in the foreground are quite detailed, but the rest of the elements are simplified.  I admire the efficiency of line and pattern depicting trees and mountains.
        And finally an entire population of birds.  These birds are rough enough that I’m not sure how many different species are represented.  We’ve got a wonderful owl, and a few smaller birds, but the rest may all be crows.  (For that matter, perhaps the smaller birds are just farther in the distance?  But don’t forget the rabbit!)  This piece doesn’t have a focal point, which I think is hard to pull off, but it’s nevertheless a pleasing tapestry of branches and birds.


[Pictures: Chickadees, two-colour linocut by D. Helen Mackie, 1988 (Image from galleries west);
At Leighton Centre, block print by Mackie (Image from shepaintsred);
In Aspen Woods, woodblock print by Mackie, 2001 (Image from willock & sax gallery).]

October 13, 2017

Of Mountains and Monsters

        The true measure of a mountain’s greatness is not its height but whether it is charming enough to attract dragons.

        This line appears in Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (2013) as a quotation “from a Chinese poem.”  As no other citation for it appears, I have to wonder whether Henderson didn’t make it up himself.  No matter - whether the words of Henderson or some anonymous Chinese poet, I love the sentiment.  After all, it’s true of so many things in this world that we tend to value them as they can be measured and given numerical status when we should be valuing them for their beauty, or their spiritual significance, or other intangible, unquantifiable attributes.
        This wood block print of a dragon that has found its home is rather charming in itself.  The dragon looks more sly and roguish than downright fierce, and the sheep seem fairly unconcerned, although the poor shepherd boy is certainly terrified.  Not everyone is in agreement as to whether the presence of a dragon improves a mountain or not.  The print is the dragon of Wawel Castle from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis and I think the artist must have had a little fun with this dragon.

[Picture: The dragon of Kraków, wood block print from Cosmographia Universalis by Sebastian Münster, 1544 (Image from Arte Lisa).]

October 10, 2017

Beanstalk!

        Jack and The Beanstalk is one of those “problematic” tales, in which the hero is far from admirable and his quest is nothing nobler than greed.  Jack’s a quick thinker, but no one who knows him wants to hire him, which is understandable given his light fingers and general dishonesty.  The ogre’s wife is probably the nicest character, and she just gets taken advantage of.  (You can refresh your memory of the story by reading it here.)  So what is there to like about this story?  The beanstalk, of course!  What a wonderful image it gives us, starting with magic beans, representing infinite magical possibilities.  Then there’s the beanstalk itself, growing overnight until it reaches the sky.  It’s especially pleasing that it grows right up past Jack’s bedroom window so that he can climb straight out of his bedroom and up to the sky.
        And then there’s the sky at the top of the beanstalk: a solid sky country.  This is no cloudy, heavenly realm of air and wind.  It’s got a broad road and a great, tall house.  It’s also got magical things in it: magical hen, magical harp, ogre...  I presume it’s got all manner of other magical things in it, too, which we might have heard about if Jack had been more inclined to gathering knowledge rather than gold.
        Here are a few fun depictions of that wonderful beanstalk.  In the first one, the oldest, it looks as if Jack’s climbing the vine to escape his mother’s wrath.  In any case, the perspective is charmingly topsy-turvey so that Jack’s cottage looks huge and the ogre’s castle looks tiny, and Jack himself looks quite shrunk, too.  It also makes it look as though the ogre’s house is the flower blooming at the top of the vine, rather than being built in the sky on its own, with the vine simply reaching up toward it.  This wood block print has some really nice textures, especially the thatch and the tree in the background.  A very different version of the sky is imagined by George Cruikshank.  Although his vine looks much taller - even reaching above the clouds - his rocky sky looks as if it’s actually attached to the earth after all.





        Walter Crane shows us the lower portions of the beanstalk, with Jack’s cottage and angry mother in the background again, but no view of skyland or ogre’s castle at all.  And finally, a modern imagining in scratchboard.  This also gives us no view of what the skyland might look like, but does give us the dizzying perspective of a beanstalk that really has reached as high as the sky.  The town way down there on earth has telephone poles, but no sign of cars or other people about.  As for this climber, I’m holding out hope that, unlike Jack, he’s actually interested in exploring and mapping the world he finds. After all, it must be an amazing place!





[Pictures: Jack and the Beanstalk, woodcut from Round about our Coal-Fire, 1734 (Image from The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie);
Jack Climbing the Bean Stalk, illustration by George Cruikshank from The History of Jack & the Bean-Stalk, 1854;
Jack climbing, color wood block print by Walter Crane from Jack and the Beanstalk, 1875 (Images from SurLaLune);
Beanstalk, scratchboard by Doug Smith (Image from RonSusser.com).]

October 6, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Mystery Manuscript

        I love a good historical and linguistic mystery and this is one of the best.  The Voynich Manuscript is a 15th century codex handwritten in an undeciphered writing system and illustrated with unidentified figures.  Its 240 or so pages are divided into six sections based on the illustrations and format, and these include unidentified plants, astrology, rather symbolic biological images, “circular diagrams of an obscure nature,” and vaguely apothecary-ish themes.  The pictures are fairly crude, but the alphabet is really quite beautiful.  It seems as if it might have something to do with herbology, women’s medicine, and astrology, but of course nobody knows, what with it being undeciphered and all.
        Wilfrid Voynich was the book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912, but it has quite a long and fascinating provenance.  In 1637 Georg Baresch, an alchemist from Prague, sent my man Athanasius Kircher a sample of the text asking for his help deciphering it, since Kircher had claimed to have decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Baresch called the book a Sphynx “taking up space uselessly” in his library, but nevertheless refused to send Kircher the whole thing.  The next owner, however, gave Kircher the book, noting that he had been told it was bought by Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612) for 600 gold ducats.  There is some evidence that Rudolph could have bought it from English astrologer John Dee, although this is speculation.  At any
rate, we don’t know what Kircher made of the mysterious language, and the book presumably went with all the rest of his papers into the library of the Collegio Romano, where it lay until 1870.  At that point we catch a glimpse of it being spirited into the personal library of the university’s rector in order to preserve it from confiscation by Victor Immanuel II of Italy when he captured the city, and then returned to the college in a new location.  Forty years later the college sold it to Voynich, and eventually it was given to Yale University by book dealer Hans Kraus in 1969 after he failed to sell it.
        So, what is this mysterious thing and why has no one made any progress decoding its mysterious language?  If indeed it even has any meaning?  Among those who have tried to decipher the manuscript are (possibly) Dee, whose son reported that Dee had owned “a booke… containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon;” and Baresch, who “devoted unflagging toil” to the task; and Kircher, whose thoughts we have no record of.  Moreover, the manuscript was examined and hypothesized over by several distinguished professors in the early 20th century, and by
codebreakers from World War I and World War II.  William Friedman, most  famous for breaking Japan’s PURPLE cipher during World War II, spent much of his free time over four decades trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, before finally admitting defeat.  Recent computer analyses suggest that the language shares many characteristics with natural languages (as opposed to artificial language), and that its writing flows more smoothly than is consistent with encryption.
        What do we know?  Its origin is most likely Central Europe.  Analysis of the vellum tells us not only the date (1404-1438) but also that the vellum was not previously used and that it all comes from a single area.  This rules out all possibility of modern forgery as it would be impossible to collect that much unused ancient vellum from a single source.  All the inks and paints are also consistent with the same date.  This date of origin contradicts the early and popular claims of authorship by English polymath and possibly wizard Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who would be much too early.  It also casts some doubt on claims that the manuscript was made in the seventeenth century as a hoax intended to fool Baresch and/or Kirscher.
        So we don’t know much, but what have we speculated?  Almost everything.  Some of the more intriguing possibilities include glossolalia or similarities to Asian languages.  Some of the less possible possibilities include an author from ancient Egypt or outer space.  At any rate, I think it’s something cool!  As the author of the letter to Kircher wrote in 1665/6, “such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master.”
        You can see the whole weird thing here, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Library.



[Pictures: pages from the Voynich Manuscript, early 15th century (Images from Yale University).]

October 3, 2017

Tsoka's Happenings

        Here’s a cool linoleum block print I saw at the Davis Museum (Wellesley College) last week as part of a small exhibit on recent South African printmaking.  David Tsoka (South Africa, b. 1992) is a member of Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg and this piece, unlike the others in the exhibition, echoes and carries on the long tradition of South African linocuts.  However, Tsoka definitely brings his own, modern vibe to it.  For one thing, this piece is quite large, about 3x2 feet.  But even more so, its imagery borrows not so much from a consciously African aesthetic, as many of the South African block printmakers did in the mid twentieth century, but from large-scale sculpture, comic book illustrations, sci fi movies, and even Transformers.  Also, while the title All Things Began to Happen seems from the explosion of imagery in the piece like it might be a reference to the Big Bang, in fact Tsoka says it also refers to his own birth, and the beginning of his own life.  The piece is, in fact, about “the journey of life.”  Tsoka says that the gear-like shapes evoke the idea of the passage of time because the rusting of metal shows time.  I would think that gears also evoke time because of their reference to clockwork.
        I certainly don’t know what all the little scenes and elements of the piece refer to, but I really like the texture and vibrancy of it.  The wide variety of blade marks create a pleasing balance of shades, and the mostly abstract shapes evoke a variety of possible images.  It seems as if it’s about to resolve itself into recognizable scenes, but it never quite does.  Does it depict chaos in an orderly way, or order in a chaotic way?  And maybe that’s about right for life: all those little random moments simultaneously scattered and connected, coming together into a cohesive big picture despite there being no single obvious path or focal point.

[Picture: All Things Began to Happen, linocut by David Tsoka, 2013 (Photo by AEGN, Davis Museum).]

September 29, 2017

Words of the Month - Naming the Needful

        Not surprisingly, the English language has a plethora of words for money, especially slang words.  After all, the more we talk about something, the more words we come up with to spice up the conversation.  Here are a few of our words for that filthy lucre (which is from the King James translation of the Bible).

money - from Old French from Latin, in which moneta was the mint, so called from a title of the goddess Juno Moneta, in whose temple coins were minted.  (By the way, mint itself comes from the same root.)  Not until the early 19th century did money apply to paper bills as well as coins.

currency - used in 1699 by John Locke to refer to the flow or current of money in the economy.

cash - originally a money box in the 16th century, the secondary sense of the coins inside the money box took over as the sole meaning in the 18th century.

coin - from Old French for “wedge” because the die for stamping the coins was wedge-shaped.  (Yes, it’s related to quoin, “an external corner of a building.”)

bill - from the 166os, with a long history tracing back to Latin, of referring to receipts, formal documents, and official notices.

quid - 1680s, British pound, probably from Latin “that which is, what, something.”

bread - As mentioned back in May, bread is short for bread and honey, which rhymes with money.  However, a century before money was called “bread” it was already
dough - This slang usage appeared in the mid 19th century.  One source claims it’s a variant of bread, from the idea of the daily necessary basics of life, but since dough comes first by a full century, I don’t think that holds up.  Nevertheless, clearly the idea of conflating money with food is a popular one, as in
gravy, potatoes, chicken feed, peanuts, cabbage, kale, lettuce - (The last three, of course, are not just about food, but referring to the green leaves of US bills, like greenback.)

spondulicks - mid 19th c, possibly from Greek spondylos, a seashell used as neolithic currency.
buck - mid 19th c, a US dollar, possibly from buckskin as a unit of trade between Europeans and Native American Indians.
simoleon - 1895, a US dollar, unknown, but possibly from Napoleon, a late 19th century French gold coin, or semodius, a Roman coin
Clearly another recurring theme is calling money by the names of foreign currencies or money, including
shekels, gelt, wampum, dinero, ducats

boodle - mid 19th, usually graft money, possibly from Dutch boedel, “property, riches.”
pelf -  1500, originally stolen goods, then booty or loot (now distinctly archaic).
The underworld is a rich source of words for money, including the grand or G for a thousand dollars (1915).  The most popular letter indicating 1000 bucks has now shifted from G to
K - from kilo-, originally from the 1970s, but I suspect it really took off with all the talk about Y2K in the very late 20th c.

Another theme in money slang is references to the metals of which coins are made (or at least metals that seem jocularly similar), including
brass, nickel, tin

This is far from a comprehensive list of money words, but there were a handful that I hated to leave out because they’re such fun, but which, like so much slang, have unknown etymologies...

smacker - c. 1918 (maybe from being smacked into a palm?)
moolah - c. 1920
lolly - mid 20th c

        All these words clearly indicate a serious and abiding obsession with money, which is understandable, if perhaps not our noblest focus.  On the other hand, many of these words are purposely a bit silly and probably serve to lighten money talk so that the speaker sounds more off-hand or less seriously concerned with money.

[Pictures: Master of the Mint, wood block print by Jost Amman from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
The Rich Man, wood block print by Hans Holbein, before 1538 (Image from dodedans.com).]

September 26, 2017

This Holy Day

        News flash!  Great glad tidings!  My book of hours is now published and available on amazon!
        This Holy Day is just a little book, something that could be slipped in a purse or a desk drawer, or left in the car for some calm and beauty in times of rush and irritation.  It includes a selection of short verses for each of my “canonical hours” through the day, although unlike a traditional book of hours, I expect these short devotional pieces will be dipped into and sampled a little more casually, rather than being assigned to a specific rule.  (Previous post on medieval books of hours here.)  The verses I chose range from bits of psalms and hymns to excerpts from secular poetry that seem to me to celebrate that same joy in the awesome beauty around us.  I’ve also included a number of pieces I wrote myself over the years.  Although of course the psalms come from the Hebrew Bible and the hymns are Christian, it is my hope that these words will resonate with people from a wide range of religious backgrounds and spiritual experiences.  I believe that we’re all capable of connecting with that Spirit that is so much greater than any human understanding of it.
        For the illuminations, the primary pieces are my series of rubber block prints representing the “hours” of the day.  (Previous posts on the block prints here and here.)  In addition to these I created a different border pattern for each hour, and a final double page scene inspired by the metaphor of being held by Love, or “the whole world in God’s hands.”  I also used lots of my previous prints to illustrate and illuminate the pages throughout.  I think it’s turned out really pleasing!
        And so now it’s freshly available on amazon.   (I must say, I never imagined that I would be responsible for creating a book labelled “Self Help,” but that’s where amazon files it, since it’s the same category as “Personal Inspiration”.  It kind of cracks me up.)  As of now, the “Look Inside” feature is not active, but I hope it will be available before too long, and in the meantime, here are a couple of sample spreads so you can see how the pages are laid out.
        Finally, when you rush off to purchase copies for all your friends and family, please do so through Amazon Smile, to make sure that a fraction of your purchase price goes to the worthy cause of your choice (at no additional cost to you).  After all, although my book focusses primarily on the natural world for inspiration, it is in human interactions that our inspiration should be playing out.

[Pictures: cover and two interior spreads from This Holy Day, by AEGN, 2017.]

September 22, 2017

Poems of Middle Earth

        Today is Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, in honor of which let’s talk about the poetry that is such an important part of Middle Earth.  J.R.R. Tolkien loved poetry and wrote dozens and dozens of poems related to Middle Earth, and one of the things that he did particularly well was explore a whole range of registers and types of poetry.  He was, after all, a scholar and was familiar with the importance of poetry in pre-literate societies, when giving words rhyme and rhythm made it easier to remember and pass on everything from riddles to epic history.  Tolkien’s own poetry included casual snippets and entire long lays, elegant hymns, rollicking drinking songs, and somber laments.  He wrote marching songs, humorous ditties, prophesies, mnemonic lists, love songs, ballads, reimaginings of nursery rhymes, praises, elegies, trash-talking challenges, and more.  His characters knew and used poetry in all aspects of their lives, as  real people really do. (If you don’t believe me, revisit my previous posts Poetry is Everywhere.)  This idea of the wide variety of poetry in culture was extremely influential to me and inspired me to try writing many different types of poetry for my own fantasy Otherworld.  It’s a fun and challenging exercise that ensures you don’t end up making all your poems sound the same!
        As for Tolkien, here are a few samples of his poetry that I especially like.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? 
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing? 
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? 
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing? 
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow; 
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. 
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, 
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
  This Lament for the Rohirrim is an elegy of a historical figure, and involves no actual magic, but I find it quite moving.  (From The Two Towers.)

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
        This one is more fun for its content than its actual poetry, but it’s a touchstone for all things Lord of the Rings, and fun to adapt and play off of, too.

        And I can’t fail to include my favorite Middle Earth poem of all (from The Hobbit):
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The bells were ringing in the dale
And men they looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

[Pictures: The Knight, wood block print from Caxton edition of Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, c1485 (Image from Luminarium);
One Ring scarf, design by Lyle Stafford, made by dhglenn (Image from Ravelry);
Untitled (Alpine Landscape), color woodcut by Oscar Droege, 20th century, probably 1920s-30s (Image from Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).]

September 19, 2017

Block Prints by Murphy

        Today, as promised, I have some work by the husband of the previous artist featured.  John J.A. Murphy (USA, 1888-1967) was married to Cecil Buller, and both were active printmakers.  They shared a somewhat similar style in portraying the human body, stylized, with different areas modeled and shaded boldly.  They both made series with Biblical themes, Murphy illustrating the Stations of the Cross, among other things.  But as with Buller, Murphy’s bodies aren’t my favorites, and I’ve chosen pieces I like more.
        First, “The Morning Gossip,” which looks like a simple gathering of women chatting pleasantly, until you notice the figure on the outskirts in a black shawl, staring at the group of which she is not a part.  And the woman nearest her turns and looks over her shoulder.  Is it a warning to stay away?  Is it guilt?  Some of the other women have interesting expressions, as well, considering how simple their faces are.  I also like the variety of stripes on the women’s skirts, giving them interesting texture and an almost Cubist angularity.  This piece is pretty intense.
        The other pieces I have here today are from a series illustrating the Aberthaw Construction Company.  I don’t know the story behind them; I can only assume that Murphy was commissioned to celebrate/promote the company.  The second one suggests at first glance the Parthenon or some classical temple on an Olympus, perhaps reminding the viewer of the Aberthaw Construction Company’s noble work in building the grand cities of our golden future.  These have a very different sort of style from the first piece.  The people are small and quite simply silhouetted.  The buildings and construction projects are huge and magnificent, soaring to the skies.  And the cloudy skies are especially exuberant with their bold, curling, swooping lines.  These prints are listed
as wood engravings, and although their carving style does not look at all like engraving to me, they are quite small, only about 3 inches square.  I like how bold they are and how grand their views for such small images.
        (By the way, it turns out that Aberthaw Construction is still around, at 123 years old, and still constructing in the greater Boston area, including a few buildings I drive past on occasion.  It's fun to find a connection.)

[Pictures: The Morning Gossip, wood block print by John J.A. Murphy, first half of twentieth century (Image from Thomas Shahan);
Aberthaw Construction Company, wood engraving(?) by Murphy, 1919;
Aberthaw Construction Company, wood engraving(?) by Murphy, 1919 (Images from Art Institute of Chicago).]

September 15, 2017

Block Prints by Buller

        Cecil Buller (Canada, 1886-1973) is half of another block printing couple, and I’ll feature her husband next post.  As with my previous couple, the Zorachs, Buller and her husband have many similarities in their styles, but for now we’ll just look at her on her own.  One of her most famous projects was a series of illustrations for Song of Solomon, which naturally features lots and lots of embracing nudes.  In fact, Buller loves her nudes altogether, and her nudes are very characteristic of their time as well as her style.  They are very stylized, with lots of musculature and almost lumpiness of anatomy, as their bodies are composed of many areas, each formed and shaded with many strokes.  I confess to not being a huge fan, so the pieces I offer you today are those that stood out to me as being a little different and more appealing.
        First up is representative of some of Buller’s more expressionistic work.  It seems very symbolic, with its white-gowned maiden and black-robed crone.  I like the way the maiden’s garland is composed of such simple strokes with the multi-line tool, which yet so clearly resolve themselves into flowers.  I like the chandelier floating above like a celestial constellation instead of a light fixture.  I like the variety of marks and textures forming the different areas, especially the wall along the right, with all its doorways for entrances and exits.
        I also have two of the illustrations from Song of Solomon.  The first is what you might expect: the lovers in a beautiful garden in some secluded paradise.  They take pleasure in each other’s company among the palm trees beside a fountain.  It all looks very plausibly Biblical, despite the presence of that wonderful tropical traveller’s tree (ravenala) which is native to Madagascar and therefore presumably unknown to King Solomon.


On the other hand, perhaps Buller was very consciously placing her lovers in a non-Biblical setting as she did in this second illustration set in a city.  I really like this one (despite the danger of arrest for indecent exposure.)  I love the perspective of the skyscrapers towering over the viewer, the different facets of the buildings, the bright night sky, and the lovers glowing together in the darkness.



[Pictures: Theatre, wood engraving by Cecil Buller, 1950;
Song of Solomon, Chapter I, Verse 1, wood engraving by Buller, 1929;
Song of Solomon, Chapter III, Verse 2, wood engraving by Buller, 1929 (Images from National Gallery of Canada).]

September 12, 2017

Magic Swords

        A classic motif in mythology and fantasy is the magical sword.  This is hardly surprising, given the importance of swords to so many cultures, and the incredible skill required to craft a good sword.  Any high-quality blade must have seemed pretty magical in the early days of metallurgy, and when might makes right it is not unusual for that might to be given mythologies to justify it further.  Magic swords sometimes have magic powers of their own, sometimes confer magic powers on those who wield them, and sometimes have sentience so that they almost wield their warriors.  In many cases the swords have names to further enhance their special identity.  Let’s take a look at a few of the world’s famous magic swords.

Excalibur - In some versions of Arthurian legend, Excalibur is both the Sword in the Stone and the sword given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake, while in other versions these are two different swords.  In any case, Excalibur itself didn’t have any remarkable magical power except being unbreakable, but its scabbard granted protection.  Unless you look into the present, wherein it can fight independently and fly to its wielder.  (“The Librarian” movies and TV series) 

Tyrfing - In Norse mythology this sword would never rust, never miss a stroke, cut through iron and stone, and shine like fire.  It was also cursed so that it would kill a man every time it was unsheathed, and cause three great evils.  Similar Norse swords Dáinslief gave wounds that never healed, but had the same sort of curse, and Mistilteinn that could never be blunted.

Hrunting - Beowulf’s sword was annealed in blood and was said never to fail a blow.  Of course, it did fail when Beowulf confronted Grendel, much to everyone’s surprise (except possibly Unferth, the sword’s previous owner.  Some scholars contend that he gave it to Beowulf knowing it would fail.)  In any case, I guess that doesn’t leave Hrunting looking very magical after all.

Asi - In the Mahabharata, Asi was created by Brahma for the destruction of evil.  He made first a terrible monster, deep-blue, tall and skinny, with sharp teeth and incredible energy and power.  That creature then assumed the form of a blazing sword.

Nandaka - Vishnu’s sword is a flaming sword of knowledge, destroyer of ignorance.

Durendal - Roland’s sword, which contained a variety of saintly relics worked into it, was the sharpest sword in existence, could cut through boulders, and could single-bladedly hold off an army of a hundred thousand Saracens.  It was also indestructible, which turned out to be a problem when Roland wanted to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.  In the end he threw it into a cliff in Rocamadour, France, which it sliced right into, leaving it poking out of the rock to this day.

Kusanagi - In Japanese legend, Kusanagi was found in the tail of an eight-headed monster, and turned out to have the ability to control wind.  It is officially part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, although it has not been seen since about the fourteenth century, except by some priests in the Edo period (1603-1868) who all subsequently died of strange diseases, except one who  survived to tell the tale.

Tizona - One of El Cid’s two magical swords, Tizona was said to have a personality, though what sort of personality I don’t know.  On the other hand, its strength varied according to who wielded it, which seems to me the very opposite of magical.  After all, isn’t the most ordinary kitchen knife more powerful in the hands of a more powerful warrior?

Thuận Thiên - The sword of Vietnamese King Lê Lợi made him grow super tall and gave him the strength of a thousand men.  Lê Lợi was leading a guerrilla campaign against occupying Chinese rule when he saw first the blade and later the hilt glowing from the locations where they had long been hidden, thus justifying his right to reunite the sword and rule Vietnam.  After he became king, he encountered a giant golden turtle who told him to return the sword, which had only been lent to him.  He threw it to the turtle, who caught it in its mouth and sank back beneath the water.  (Could the Lady of the Lake really be a turtle?)

Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegar - In Persian legend this sword originally belonged to King Solomon.  It was later in the possession of a horned demon named Falud-zereh partly because wearing it was a charm against magic, partly because a wound from its blade could be cured only by a special, complicated potion, and partly because Falud-zereh’s witch mother had charmed him so that he was invulnerable to all weapons except this one.  Presumably this is a case of keeping your enemies close.  It sounds a little chancy to me, and I don’t know exactly how the story ends, but I can only assume Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegar did its job.

Glamdring of Gandalf and Frodo’s Sting glowed blue when orcs were nearby.  Aragorn’s Narsil/Andúril was of great significance, but I’m not sure that symbolism of the right of kingship really counts as a magical power.  (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)

Singing Sword - The comic strip Prince Valiant’s sword made its wielder unconquerable - but only if he was fighting for a righteous cause.  (Hal Foster, Prince Valiant)

Gonturan - The eponymous Blue Sword intensified magic, had a will of its own, and could be wielded only by a woman.  (Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword)

Sword of Shannara - This blade revealed the truth of anyone who wielded it, or was touched by it.  Whether or not someone could handle the truth of themselves determined whether they could wield it.  (Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara)

Sword of Gryffindor - Made by goblin artisans, the Sword of Gryffindor could apparently teleport or magically appear to one who had need, and could absorb into itself deadly basilisk venom.  (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)

Video games include a vast array of magical swords, which are so common as to be taken for granted by every player at every level.  Some of the more famous in their respective mythologies, however, include “The Legend of Zelda”s Blade of Evil’s Bane which had all sorts of powers, “Prince of Persia”s Dagger of Time which had a variety of timey-wimey powers, “Ultima”s Black Sword which contained the power of a demon, and “World of Warcraft”s Frostmourne which could steal souls.

        While it’s easy to see why long ago the weapons of special heroes were credited with special powers,  we clearly continue to have a fascination with magical swords, long past the days of practical sword use.  (You’ll note that there are far fewer named, magical firearms in our modern mythologies.)  I think it’s because the trope allows us to explore ideas of where power comes from and how we can choose to use it - or be used by it, what it might be like to have supernatural abilities and the implications thereof, and, ultimately, what makes a hero a hero.  What powers would you most like to see in your vorpal blade?  What kind of sword would you wield?  Would you use it for slaughter, or give it other magical abilities instead?  Personally I’m pretty intrigued by the possibilities of the power to slice through ignorance.

[Pictures: Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, illustration by Alfred Kappes from The Boy’s King Arthur by Sidney Lanier, 1880 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Kabuki Actors, wood block print by Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1806-7 (Image from the British Museum);
On Single Combat, wood block print from Book 5, Chapter 25 of Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from avrosys.nu).]

September 8, 2017

Squirrels

        Here’s a charming wood block print by Li Qun (China, 1912-2012).  Li Qun was one of the foremost block print artists in China for nearly a century, and over that time he demonstrated a variety of styles and techniques.  As a good communist, much of his work focused on the workers and soldiers, but this one with a simple nature theme is especially delightful.  The carving looks a little rough, with the wiggly edges to the squirrels and tree trunks, but that’s a bit deceptive.  All the tiny white spaces among the incredibly detailed branches must have been quite time-consuming and difficult to carve.  There’s also something quite interesting about the white twigs on a black background: they’re carved with individual little disconnected strokes instead of being continuous lines.
        Another interesting discontinuity about Li Qun's art is that it appears that much of his work was not printed until long after it was designed.  This piece, for example, was designed in 1980 and printed in 1999.  I’m not sure what to make of this information.  First of all, is the carving defined as part of "designing" or part of "printing"?  Because I think of designing as drawing the design on paper, and printing as inking the block and pressing, while carving is its own thing in the middle.  And secondly, does it mean Li Qun began pulling impressions immediately, but kept going for twenty years?  It isn’t an open edition, but he could have printed new impressions only as the older ones sold.  Or did he for some reason set his blocks aside for years before printing them at all?  It’s very strange.
        At any rate, this seems like a good late autumnal scene, with its leafless tree and scampering squirrels, and it makes me happy on this lovely early autumn day.

[Picture: In the Trees, woodcut by Li Qun, designed 1980, printed 1999 (Image from Ashmolean).]

September 5, 2017

Non-Violet Prose

        I’ve just been reading some advice on editing one’s own work, and as editing my own work is something I do a lot of, I’m always happy to see tips from anyone who has some wisdom to share on the topic.  This particular article, however, hit one of my buttons so hard that I simply can’t help myself from gnashing my teeth and making this post a rant.
        Editing tip number one is “trim the fat,” which is certainly good advice, because it’s pretty much a truism: you should trim that which should be trimmed.  The question, obviously, is not whether one should trim fat, but how to know the fat from the meat.  In answer, the article’s author uses an example attributed to George Saunders.  Imagine I’ve written the line “Jack came into the room in a huff and sat heavily upon the old green recliner.” What are we trying to say with this line? The only information relevant to the plot is that Jack is now in the room, and possibly that he is sitting (unless of course the recliner is somehow important). So we can’t trim the entire sentence, because Jack’s arrival might be important. But do we care how he came into the room? Or how he sat on the chair? Or the details surrounding the chair?  How much better is this sentence: “Jack entered the room.”
        That’s a question: How much better is this sentence?  And the answer the author provides is: Clean and simple. Saunders refers to his hypothetical as “Hemingwayesque” in its brevity and simplicity.  But my answer is emphatically the opposite.  “Jack entered the room” is a stupid, useless sentence.  If that’s all the author’s going to give me, the entire novel may as well read “Jack entered the room.  Jack shot Jill.  Jack felt bad.  Jack developed an alcohol dependency.  The End”  Clean and simple!  Such brevity!  Such complete lack of interest or engagement.  Of course I care if Jack was in a huff!  Of course I want to know about the old green recliner.  That old green recliner tells us an enormous amount about where Jack is and what world he lives in, and if we happen to know that the recliner is Jack’s own chair, it begins to tell us quite a bit about Jack himself, too.
        It’s true that in our hypothetical single sentence example, we don’t know what else the author has already told us.  If I can learn about Jack’s mood through his actions or what he says, then perhaps the huff is trimmable fat.  If I’ve already heard the description of the room and its furniture so that I can picture Jack there in my imagination, then perhaps the old green recliner is trimmable fat.  But in the absence of the rest of the hypothetical story, this advice, like so much other writing advice, assures us that all description is fat, that readers don’t want to picture a world or know a character, and that of all the elements of story (character, setting, conflict, plot, and theme) plot is the only one that isn’t fat.
        Again and again we’re told that to write descriptively is heinous sin.  (For more on this you can revisit my previous rant In Defense of Purple Prose.)  I presume that description is supposed to be bad because readers are supposed not to like it, but that is certainly not true in my experience as a reader of books I love, nor as someone who has spoken with many people, especially children, about the books they love.  It is, indeed, so far from being true that it makes me wonder whether this writing advice is even intended to make books for actual readers.  I begin to suspect that the idea is simply for all the Hemingwayesque writers to be able to sit around congratulating themselves on their Hemingwayesquity, while sneering down upon all the poor, stupid readers who simply wanted to be able to immerse themselves in a story with well-rounded characters in a deep, vivid world.
[Picture: Self Portrait in a Chair, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1920 (Image from MCEscher.com);
Man in a Chair, woodcut by Ted Faiers, 1976 (Image from TedFaiers.com).]

September 1, 2017

Varez's Hawai'i

        Dietrich Varez makes wood and linoleum block prints celebrating the history, nature, and mythology of Hawai’i.  When I came across his work this morning I immediately recognized it from a trip to Hawai’i some 10 or 15 years ago.  He has a very distinctive style: always printing in brown, filling backgrounds with stylized patterns, often incorporating borders and motifs inspired by traditional Polynesian designs, especially Hawai’ian two-color quilts.  In all of the examples I have here I like the wavy rays of the sun filling the sky.  Together with the sun being dark instead of light, it’s almost a physical presence.  Clearly this is a handling of the sky that Varez returns to, but in other examples he uses other patterns, and more rarely plain white.
        The jellyfish in today's first piece are especially fun, and if you look closely you can see that the large jellyfish is wafting the baby Maui along the ocean like a cherub on clouds.
        I particularly like the self portrait, which seems a little more personal than many of Varez’s other images.  It’s also an illustration of printmaking process, as Varez shows himself with brayer, blades, and ink, pulling a new impression from a block.  In the background, flowers fill the sky above the fuming volcanoes.
        The last piece may be my favorite, though: a pleasing composition and patterns for a simple but pleasing subject of nature.
       Varez is one of the best known Hawai’ian artists, but at the same time he makes a point of remaining an art “outsider.”  In some ways his attitude is quite similar to mine.  He says “Some people have told me that until I start charging more, I'm never going to become a 'known artist.' I think that's nonsense. You either like the print or you don't, and that shouldn't have anything to do with the price. My goal is to make art -- at least my art -- available to 
common people.”  On the other hand, unlike me, Varez doesn’t limit his editions, but just keeps printing and printing, often until the block wears out!  He also seems to be a bit of a recluse.  At any rate, he’s found his niche and stuck with it, and it seems to be a very popular niche, too.

[Pictures: Keiki Maui, block print by Dietrich Varez;
Self Portrait, block print by Varez;
Hulu Ula, block print by Varez (Images from Art Prints Hawaii).]

August 29, 2017

Words of the Month - The Fault in Our Salmon

        In the sixteenth century as the Renaissance crashed over England it seems to have hit grammarians especially hard.  In particular, they decided that what the English language really needed was to be more like Latin, the “perfect” language.  To that end they went about tinkering with all sorts of elements of the language, including spellings, which were just beginning to become somewhat standardized with the explosion of thousands of printed texts in English.  The scholars’ primary motivation in adjusting spellings was, again, to make them more like Latin.  Certainly lots of English words have Latin roots, and certainly those Latin roots are more easily discerned in the words the sixteenth century scholars “fixed,” but in pinning the words back to their Latin roots, the spellings were hacked loose from pronunciation.  The Latinization movement is one of the larger causes of English’s crazy spelling.  Consider some of the victims of re-Latinization:

debt, doubt, and subtle got b added in defiance of pronunciation, giving us an infamous “silent b”

receipt was saddled with a silent p

indict got served with an unnecessary c

salmon and solder received their Latin l

February got its silent r

fault had an l stuck in willy-nilly… But now in many dialects the l, which ought to be silent, can be heard after all, as pronunciation has obediently shifted to match the spelling.  Why has fault’s l gained a voice while receipt’s p continues to be silent?  I really don’t know.  It’s not that fault is a rarer word to say than indict, or that the l in fault is intrinsically easier to pronounce than the l in salmon.  It’s just a mystery.

island was given a wholly gratuitous s.  The funny thing about this one is that island is not a Latinate word; it comes right down from Old English.  But some of those same over-zealous sixteenth century scholars got it confused with isle, which is derived from Latin insulaIsle had been ile, until the -s- was “restored” first in French, then in English.  Island was just an innocent bystander caught in the pedantic Latinate crossfire.

[Picture: Salmon, woodcut by Tim Stampton (Image from TimStampton.com).]