Monday, March 31, 2008

Titania: The First Shoot!

Titania, the first film in Lisa Stock's Medisaga, just had its first shoot this last week! And Lisa Stock has been kind enough to share photos from the shoot and a brief statement about the scene and the mood of the piece (to read our earlier announcement about the upcoming Titania, which includes a plot synopsis and other information, go here):

Landscapes figure prominently in fairy tales, if not as separate characters themselves. We shot one scene this week on location where we'll shoot the rest of the film in September, giving us the effect of season changes for the film. This scene is a dream sequence in which Titania suddenly sees the landscape of her estate winter laden and stripped bare.

The metaphor is that of clarity - no leaves on the trees to block her view into the forest that haunts her, the sun vibrant and blinding when it comes out from behind the clouds. In the beginning of this scene she lifts a veil as though unveiling the truth - she is starting to put together the pieces of the puzzle, and when she wakes from the dream in the film has strength and insight she didn't have before.
--Lisa Stock

Titania, grounded on this estate after her wings are brutally torn from her body, must soon venture into the dark forest - which sounds like the premise of a great fairy tale or myth in the making. Equal parts poet, visual artist, and storyteller, Lisa Stock is one of the artists who brought us Through the Cobweb Forest and several compelling short films foregrounding the fairy tale as an ideal medium for addressing the issues of the woman's journey through an often hostile world. We are excited to see what happens with Lisa Stock behind the camera with a full cast of actors, her very precise instinct for lighting, music, and mood, and the determination of an artist in whose visions we sense that she has already fought her way through her own forest, to emerge on the other side with wisdom to share. Visit Lisa Stock's Medisaga site for more photographs from the first shoot, as well as other updates and backstory on the making of the film.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Robert Fagles is no longer with us

Dear readers, I bear ill news. Robert Fagles, classicist, scholar, and prolific translator (best known for his compulsively readable yet erudite translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey) died this last week, on Wednesday, at age 74. There is a beautiful obituary for him here at the Denver Post. This is a great loss to all who are interested in myth and the classics. It was Fagles who introduced me to The Odyssey, and to a love for Greek. Read this passage aloud, and you will see what this poet and scholar of ancient languages achieved in English:

Cables cast off, the crew swung to the oarlocks.
Bright-eyed Athena sent them a stiff following wind
rippling out of the west, ruffling over the wine-dark sea
as Telemachus shouted out commands to all his shipmates:
"All hands to tackle!" They sprang to orders,
hoisting the pinewood mast, they stepped it firm
in its block amidships, lashed it fast with stays
and with braided rawhide halyards hauled the white sail high.
Suddenly wind hit full and the canvas bellied out
and a dark blue wave, foaming up at the bow,
sang out loud and strong as the ship made way,
skimming the whitecaps, cutting toward her goal.
All running gear secure in the swift black craft,
they set up bowls and brimmed them high with wine
and poured libations out to the everlasting gods
who never die--to Athena first of all,
the daughter of Zeus with flashing sea-gray eyes--
and the ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn.

Ah, what a sea-sway rocking of poetry that is! The best obituary I think for any writer is to read from his or her work. Fagles showed English readers that Homer was meant to be read on a hill, the listeners swept up in the foaming of the waves.

Over the past decades Fagles had also published a translation of the Aeneid and of many of the Greek tragedies. He retired from the faculty at Princeton only a few years ago, in 2002, and last year was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters; the faculty of Princeton awarded it to him for "four decades of feats on behalf of Princeton, as the founding father of comparative literature, as a gracious and wise colleague and as an inspiring mentor and teacher." To his credit had gone also the PEN/Ralph Manheim prize for lifetime achievement, the National Humanities Medal, and many other prestigious awards. The Denver Post article even reports that a reader once wrote to Robert Fagles asking him to suggest a name for his new cat. The classicist replied not "Aristotle" or "Pericles" but "Bobcat." Which is fitting: while a human being may look up to Aristotle or Pericles, I suspect a cat will probably look up to such an intimidating and athletic animal as a bobcat. We all have our own heroes.

I mourn the passing of one of mine.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Prehistoric Scenes in Fantasy

The "fantasy novel" as we know it deals most often either with a present or near-future urban landscape or with a mythical and heroic past - but it is a mythical past that extends back only as far as the invention of ironworking. I am curious how many storytellers who are serious about myth-making weave a picture of earth's prehistory into the mythic histories of their works.

Is the fascination our culture once had for dinosaurs and mammoths now forgotten? Jurassic Park would indicate otherwise - as would this story from the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Research Center, a few years ago:

The Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center offered a reward for information leading to the return of the Albertosaurus head, stolen from the Monument Hill billboard on I-25 between Feb. 4-10. The head piece is 9 foot by 4 foot, really ferocious looking and weighs close to 100 pounds. Tire marks near the billboard site indicate it was probably disconnected from the billboard with power tools -- a lot of effort on the thieves' part and was removed from the scene after a weekend snow.

These are specialists among thieves! The story made me grin.

But back to the question - what fantasy writers find inspiration in the giants of the ancient world? (And I mean besides the obvious examples of Clan of the Cave Bear and its genre, and the Lost World / Land That Time Forgot genre of the nineteenth century.) I'll offer a few examples, in hopes that our readers may suggest a few more.

First, from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, describing the wars between the gods while the world was being made:

Now Melkor began the delving and building of a vast fortress, deep under Earth, beneath dark mountains where the beams of Illuin were cold and dim. The stronghold was named Utumno. ...And the blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred. Green things fell sick and rotted, and rivers were choked with weeds and slime, and fens were made, rank and poisonous, the breeding place of flies; and forests grew dark and perilous, the haunts of fear; and beasts became monsters of horn and ivory and dyed the earth with blood.

Tolkien paints the prehistory of Middle-Earth with as much wonder and subtlety as he does the more recent history of Elves and wizards. Tolkien peoples the story with characters such as Orome, who hunts the monstrous beasts of prehistory with spear and bow, and sounds his horn, the Valaroma, in the dark forests - and Yavanna, who awakens the wild and ancient plants:

But already the oldest living things had arisen: in the seas the great weeds, and on earth the shadow of great trees; and in the valleys of the night-clad hills there were dark creatures old and strong.

No book I read as a child about the immense animals that preceded the tigers and deer that we know ever spoke of them with such poetry.

A second example: Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet -- Alvin Maker has climbed with the Prophet into the heart of a tornado to watch a vision of the earth's history:

He saw fish leaping in the sea, crawly life on the shore where the tide came in, and then bugs and other small critters, hopping and nibbling and catching each other and eating each other up. Them animals kept getting bigger and bigger, so fast Alvin couldn't follow the changes, just the earth spinning and him watching, huge monstrous creatures like he never heard of, with long snakey necks some of them, and teeth and jaws to tear down trees with a single bite, it looked like. And then they were gone, and there were elephants and antelopes and tigers and horses, all the life of the earth, getting more and more like what Alvin thought animals ought to look like.

And one more example - this one from one of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, Beyond the Black River. I know it is customary to look down on Howard for his often turgid prose and for his pulp extravagancy, but his fiction remains my guilty pleasure. So I inflict this scene on you:

But suddenly the gate was no longer empty. A shuddering gasp swept over the village and men crowded hastily back, jamming each other between the huts. Balthus felt the short hair stir on his scalp. The creature that stood in the gate was like the embodiment of a nightmare legend. Its color was of a curious pale quality which made it seem ghostly and unreal in the dim light. But there was nothing unreal about the low-hung savage head, and the great curved fangs that glistened in the firelight. On noiseless padded feet it approached like a phantom out of the past. It was a survival of an older, grimmer age, the ogre of many an ancient legend -- a saber-tooth tiger.

What each of these tales offers is a recognition of the ferocity and vivid wonder (or horror) that fossils have held for us, a recognition of fossils as a wellspring of new myth -- whether that myth is centered around the conflict of the civilized and the primitive (as in Howard), the heedless rush of history (as in Card), or the theodicy of suffering (as in Tolkien) -- or indeed the triumph of the survivor and of the individual spirit (as in Auel). Is there not something that calls to us when we look upon the ruins of wonders that even our ancestors never got to see?

Gene Wolfe, in The Book of the New Sun, describes a man riding a baluchitherium through the wood -- the largest of all living mammals, a hornless rhinoceros that might have stepped over a small house -- and the beast squeezing itself between the trunks of two old cedars as a mouse might squeeze though a crack in the wall.

I also think of Gurney's Dinotopia series, which began as a series of paintings -- of a lost world where dinosaurs and humans live together -- and quickly became a series of bestselling (and very good) children's books.

Scientific discoveries about the prehistoric world are coming upon us fast and thick: the discovery of remnants of that world that still live, like the coelacanth; the discovery of a race of humans of hobbit height that once lived on an island in the Pacific; the discovery of dinosaurs that lived in Antarctica (Antarctica!), warm-blooded and large-eyed and able to survive through dark, sunless eight-month winters; the discovery of many new and strange species. Amid such wonders, what fresh myths will emerge in our new century?

Marco Polo and his caravan, on the eastern road to China, passed massive bones exposed by the wind in the Gobi Desert, and thought them the bones of dragons.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Morla, the Aged One

Here is a deliciously random picture and a delicious and random memory - Morla, the Aged One, in Wolfgang Petersen's adaptation of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story. While I have run into few stories or scenes of giant turtles or tortoises since this one, it has never left my memory. Does anyone else remember Atreyu climbing this "mountain" in the swamp, precariously pulling himself up by the branches and brush growing on Morla's shell? Or Morla's terrible sneezes, that would knock the young hero off his tree?

"Do you have a cold?"

"No...I'm you...."

Why aren't there more giant and terrifically aged turtles in our stories? (Let's make some.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Painted Feathers

Update 4/2:
Go here for another post featuring Julie Thompson's art.

Update 3/26
: See below for several updates -- we now know the source of these feathers.

These have finally made their way to my Inbox - they have been making the rounds via e-mail and blogs for a little while, and they are far more beautiful and unusual than most of the things that make the rounds.

They appeared under the heading Ispeshul Painted Feathers. Aren't they beautiful? They represent some extremely deft work, either with a brush on the delicate feathers or with a digital brush on a digital canvas - I am not sure which. I have been Googling "painted feathers" aggressively, and am (so far) no closer to learning where these come from. Instead, I find only a cyber trail of where these have been before - different blogs and forums, mostly.

Does anyone know:

* Where these come from? Update 3/26: We now know. Check out Featherlady Studio -- the link is provided by an anonymous reader.

* Whether they indeed exist outside of the digital world? Are they a graphic arts hoax (though they are so beautiful that I would not mind if they were), or is some talented artist actually painting feathers? Update 3/26: these feathers, it turns out, are no hoax. They are the hand-crafted and careful work of Julie Thompson, an Alaskan artist.

* The meaning of the word or name "ispeshul"?

Update 3/26:
In fact, it would seem that there are a number of artists doing handpainted feathers - a craft that we knew nothing about until just now but that delights and astonishes us. For example, visit Painted Feather for a gallery of feathers painted in a quite different style. That web gallery offers a quotation from an Apache holy woman, which leaves us with much need for thought and pondering --

"To look through the eye of the feather would take me to that place of vision where I can see what's real and what's not."

Comments, anyone, on that quote -- either on its meaning or on applying such a quote to hand-painted feathers?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Lord of the Sea

I'm afraid I'm ill and pressed for time, but did not want to leave the blog unattended, so here is a featured painting for the evening. A lord of the sea:

The painting is Ulmo, Lord of Waters, by Roger Garland (you can visit his gallery here), who is probably one of the most innovative and unusual of modern fantasy artists, a crafter of dreamscenes. The figure depicted is from J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion:

At times he will come unseen to the shores of Middle-earth, or pass far inland up firths of the sea, and there make music upon his great horns, the Ulumuri, that are wrought of white shell; and those to whom that music comes hear it ever after in their hearts, and longing for the sea never leaves them again.

I feature Garland's art here because his painting does justice to Tolkien's poetry, speaking to it as one sister to another - it is more than just an illustration. It is potent, evocative. It is also one of the few art pieces I know that does justice to the concept of a sea-god.

Ah! the Ulumuri. There is an echo of Wordsworth in that - or rather, Wordsworth is hearing the same echo that Tolkien is.

So might I, standing in this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses, that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
And hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Readers! Out of poetry, art, or song, what is your most memorable image of a lord of the sea?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tu'i Malila

Here is a wonder out of the past: in 1965, a certain tortoise died in Tonga, 193 years old. While sailing the globe, Captain Cook had given it to the queen of the island in 1773; the tortoise was reportedly given a state burial.

The tortoise had a name: Tu'i Malila. It is a beautiful name, like singing in a forest. Tu'i Malila. There are photographs of the tortoise being visited by Queen Elizabeth (II):

When I first heard of Tu'i Malila, I wrote this, some time ago (and I unearthed it tonight in my notes):

I think all tortoises are philosophers. Ponderous as the living earth, they spend their first two hundred years thinking deep thoughts. They address, one after another, the mysteries of this and other worlds, watching each with keen eyes. At last, they are ready to act, but have grown too old and too tired from thinking of the world's pain, and they die of loneliness and sorrow.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Star Wars Rhapsodes?

While we are on the subject of mythic films from the 70s and nostalgia, I am trying to figure out whether to laugh or cheer at some recent low-budget remakes of Star Wars (or, as their makers may attend, do both). Of especial note is the ongoing saga Star Wars: Macbeth, a strangely poetic if decidedly loony conflation of George Lucas and William Shakespeare that was pioneered in the late 90s as a high-school project. Take a look at this recent chapter:

Yes, the scrolling letters at the beginning tell it all: Episode V. Revenge of the Scots. Silly but very compelling! What strikes me here is that these students and burgeoning film-makers with their camcorders and costumes are actually millennial rhapsodes: they are in touch with the emotional wellsprings of myth, and are driven by the impulse to tell and retell the stories that have captured their spirits. As we are not a culture of poets but a culture of movie theaters, they get behind the camera rather than stand and recite.

Here is the geeky but really fun Low Budget Star Wars:

I really love the cardboard X-wings and TIE fighters (remember The Flintstones?). This also reminds me of countless playground plays in which I performed in elementary school - nearly all of them dramatized versions of mythic books or films.

We have an editor on our staff who reveres Star Wars and Umberto Eco in equal measure, and who may have a heart attack when he encounters this post.

What about it, though - in what unexpected places can we find the modern rhapsode? The reciter and reteller of old myths? The immediacy of our myths and folk heroes - whether they have their source in Jacobean drama or twentieth-century cinema - depends not on our watching of the stories again and again, but on our making of the stories again and again.

Think of that scene in Reign of Fire when the beleaguered citizens of a post-apocalypse fortress set two of their number to give a nightly performance on a stage for the entertainment of children who never knew television. The two actors put on their fire helmets and some dark clothes and pick up some painted sticks. Then they play the lightsaber duel and the moment of revelation for Luke Skywalker. (The children gasp.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Animated Fantasy from the 70s

This generation is growing up with a unique mixture of Schrek on the one side and Princess Mononoke on the other (and, for the very lucky, Spirited Away - a beautiful film). I have been feeling the sting of nostalgia lately. The animated films I remember - I mean the ones that left images in my mind that I could not shake free - were often quite dark, lyrical, equal parts weird and haunting. Weirdest of all, probably, was Ralph Bakshi's Wizards - for years I blocked out the bizarreness of the film (in which a wizard in a radioactive world resurrects the Third Reich for a war of conquest, resulting in a cinematic blend of hallucinatory fairy scenes and raw images of genocide) and remembered only the final scene, the anticlimactic duel between two brother wizards:

See what I mean?

I remain uncertain to this day whether that film was travesty or masterpiece.

I'm less divided in mind about these next clips. The first is from The Last Unicorn, that 70s adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's novel, here depicting the scene at which the aging spinster Molly encounters the unicorn and flies into a rage, demanding to know why the unicorn has come to her in her age when she has no time for unicorns or for nostalgia for lost dreams: "Damn you!" she cries:

Beagle is a remarkable storyteller. What a moment. What would it be like to awaken from the dreariness of life and cooking and struggling to pay the bills and fighting to evict your drunk tenant to glance out the window and see elves dancing in the garden, and to weep because the bills and the tenant leave you no time to dance with them?

This third scene is from Watership Down, based on Richard Adams' novel. This is the closing of the film, with Hazel's beautiful death scene:

I thank you readers for your patience with this vlogging jog down the graylit paths of nostalgia. I have even spared you the very strangest moments - such as the Orcs singing Where There's a Whip, There's a Way! during their march through Mordor in the Rankin/Bass animated musical Return of the King. (Long before I ever read Tolkien's books, I watched that on the television in my father's appliance repair shop, and was haunted for years in my dreams by the red eyes of the stampeding mumakil and by the long fall of Gollum into the burning magma.)

I wish I could define wherein lies the appeal and the uniqueness of the animated fantasy features of the 1970s. Perhaps it is the way that each of these films takes itself deathly seriously and yet not seriously, at the same time. Or maybe it is their bewildering soundtracks. Or the way that in each of these films fantasy and the starkness of what we label the real or the mundane clash in abrupt and sometimes menacing ways. For all their stranger moments, the films and stories of this generation are compelling in their refusal to allow you to take the mundane at face value. And each of them looks at evil without flinching: the evils of genocide and human brutality in Wizards, the evils of obsession and possession in The Last Unicorn, the evils of callousness toward one's neighbors and of the choice of security over liberty in Watership Down. Think of the grandiose failures of several recent and extensively computer-animated fantasy blockbusters (say, The Golden Compass and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) which try to glance at evil and then quickly flinch away. It may be my horror at the timidity of these films that makes me a touch nostalgic for darker work.

But then, unlike the film adaptations of Compass and Narnia, the films I have clipped above were not family features. Possibly I am unfairly comparing apples to oranges, dolls to marionettes. I will cheer up and turn to Pan's Labyrinth.

Fangs: The Science of Puncture Wounds

Being an equal opportunity editor and having just posted on werewolves, I now turn to vampires - of a sort. Here is a brief passage from Gene Wolfe's In Green's Jungles that has me pondering:

So much of her food had been taken from your grandmother while she slept. Foolish people think that they will see the marks of the fangs, and there will be blood on the sheets. The truth is that the marks are small and white, and do not bleed. An inhumu's fangs are round, you see, and the wounds made by all such round things close themselves, unless they are very large. In addition, I imagine that she was wise enough to bite your grandmother in a place where she couldn't see her wounds -- on her back, perhaps, or on the backs of her legs.

What I am pondering is both Wolfe's subverting of vampire tale tropes and the medical science of vampire wounds. In the first place, Wolfe has replaced the recognizable images of vampire lore (blood on the sheets, for instance) with something more disturbing and more chilling. Gone, the vampire's dramatic love of flair, its centrality to any scene it occupies: in place of this, the creeping invisibility and inevitability of the vampire. They walk around us and may prey on us, and even the victim may never realize there has been either hunt or loss of blood. Wolfe has emphasized the parasitical nature of the vampire in a new way. (Check out the book, starting with the first volume, On Blue's Waters - this is not his only innovation. For another blog post on this series, see here.)

In the second place, do small, round wounds heal almost immediately? I am at a loss. And are a vampire's wounds deep or shallow? In the absence of such a notable medical authority as Van Helsing (surely long dead), I will have to surprise my doctor with the question during my next physical.

"What Big Teeth You Have, Grandma!"

I found this quite by accident and had to share it with you - the piece is Werewolf by Martin McKenna. Look at those long canines; at the lean, starved musculature - in this creature that could embody the word feral.

Oddly enough, I don't really see a wolf when I look at the piece - it makes me think either of a jaguar about to pounce, or of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky - the jaws are gaping in the same way, and the bony hock of that foreleg is almost like a vestigial wing, if glanced at from the right angle. I would not want to meet this one in the dark. At least, not unless I had a vorpal blade handy so that I could come happily gallumphing back.

Don't forget to join in our discussion of wolf folklore. Or post a comment or a link here to let us know of a werewolf portrait you find particularly vital, chilling, or poignant.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Foodlore: Call for Submissions

I just heard of an intriguing project. Writer Jennifer Heath is seeking contributions to a new anthology, Foodlore, "wherein writers invent origin myths for their favorite foods." The deadline is April 15, 2008.

Here are the details:

2,000 minimum. 5,000 words tops. So far, fifteen writers have done foods from lamb stew to fish and mudpies to artichokes and primordial soup to the vanilla bean to gooseberries to oysters to peanut butter to matzoh to Oreos, Starlight Mints and burritos.

We’re open to all kinds of interpretations, experimental and traditional, not necessarily fairy tales, fantasy or sci-fi, unless they strike your creative fancy.

The book is still being shaped, but at this point may be divided into the three main meals and under those the various foods we associate with them (cereal...breakfast...the mythic origins of Cheerios? Were Frosted Flakes really a product of Demeter smiting the ground with her staff?) Likely add snacks and tea time, too, and a category for forbidden or taboo foods.

For submissions or to learn more about the Foodlore project, contact Jennifer Heath at

Folklore Resource

Topix has an ongoing news feed that draws articles from newspapers around the globe pertaining to the study or the practice of folklore. For example, recent articles highlight upcoming books, the founding of centers for the study of folklore, new graduate degrees and research projects, and the touring of traditional Serbian dances. Having found this resource, I plan on checking it frequently. The feed is also searchable. Just click on Wire. The feed updates many times a day, and of course is available as an RSS. It's an efficient and tantalizing way to get a quick daily or weekly view of the richness of folklore and folkloric study currently happening in our world.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"The Best Introduction to the Mountains"

Take a look at this tribute that renowned fantasy and science fiction writer Gene Wolfe (author of The Book of the New Sun and Soldier in the Mist) has provided as an anecdotal introduction to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I stumbled into the piece recently by accident and had some excitement reading it - a brief essay by one of my favorite writers about one of my other favorite writers. A man of eclectic reading tastes and even more eclectic writing, Wolfe gives air time to his own interpretation of Tolkien's world through the eyes of a former and quite successful engineer, but the main body of his essay is a deeply personal meditation. The tribute is written on the occasion of plucking down from a glass case three often-read old editions of The Lord of the Rings and reflecting upon the bits of verse and brief annotations Wolfe had penciled into the front leaf of each volume. As an example:

Surely I need not tell you that I read and reread these books. I married in November of that wonder-filled 1956; and Rosemary and I read them to each other, most often while driving. A note in The Return of the King indicates that my older son Roy and I read them together, reading the final page on April 20, 1967. (Roy was born in 1958.)

There is a field of study now developing devoted to the marginalia of great writers - their quick sketches and desperate little doodles and quotations inked into the margins of their favorite books. There is a voyeuristic fascination to this sort of thing. What would Coleridge have written in the margins of Milton, or Anne Sexton in the margins of Emily Dickinson? It's the literary arts' world's version of catching up on the latest celebrity gossip, but there's more to it than that: often, great, iconoclastic writers come up with observations about other great writers that just floor us. There is also a sort of literary archaeology involved: delving up the traces and remnants of a reading experience, fragments that allow us to interpret the aesthetic and emotional experience of reading a great work, fragments that invite tentative speculations on the question: Why does a great story so effect us?

Definitely worth taking a look. Wolfe's tribute also includes the text of a letter written to him by J.R.R. Tolkien, for those avid letter-readers among you.

The painting above is Redhorn Gate, by Alan Lee, long-time illustrator of Tolkien's work and one of the two conceptual artists for Peter Jackson's recent film adaptation.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream Sculpture - A Fountain by Charles Vess

Charles Vess, that artist who knows Faerie so well - illustrator for Stardust and some of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, among many other wonderful projects - is together with artist David Spence in the late stages of a truly massive sculpting project - a fountain commissioned by the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia featuring figures from A Midsummer Night's Dream - Titania the Queen of Faery; Robin Goodfellow, that merry wanderer of the night (see his form taking shape above); an assortment of woodland creatures and wild faeries leaping, like this one below, out of the marble with wild abandon:

Like a shrewd and knavish sprite myself, I am thieving this story shamelessly from the Endicott Mythic Arts blog, in case some of my readers do not know of the project or read the blog. (If you don't, you should!) Longtime readers of this blog may remember my passion for fairy tale statues.

The best news is that Charles Vess has offered a generous article at the Green Man Review chronicling the way that the project has taken shape - conception, design, and all the beautiful work and merry mishaps that then ensue. Of the making of Titania, Vess writes in jocular, if rueful, good humor:

We were, perhaps, a little more than a week away from completion when the faeries began to laugh at us mere mortals. I was working below the face you see above and heard a series of small cracks. I looked up and Queen Titania slowly leaned forward, bending over as if to kiss me perhaps? But that’s 300 or so pounds of clay we’re talking about. A central steel pipe had snapped and down she came, to rest gently on a scaffolding that I quickly swung under her form.

She has an air of having just stepped out of a mist or out of the hollow hills - of being only barely present in our world. Titania rises 16 feet high in the center of the fountain, as befits a Queen. 16 feet - think Michelangelo's David, and then consider that five centuries have not made the sculptor's task much easier than it was then. I encourage all our readers to visit Vess's article. It makes for an exciting read, and the photos of the sculptures are breathtaking. They are Charles Vess drawings sprung into three-dimensional life - something I had not even dreamed of when reading Stardust or other works. Now, seeing the sculptures, I wonder how I couldn't have dreamed of them. They are beautiful - though photos do sculptures no justice. Is anyone with me on wanting to check their spare change for a trip to this Virginia theater in a few months?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Drowned Giantesses

Dear readers, I stumbled into this eldritch passage in Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson's Celtic Miscellany this weekend, and had to share it with you:

A woman, whose breasts had not grown, was cast up on a sea shore in Europe. She was fifty feet tall, that is from her shoulders to her feet, and her chest was seven feet across. There was a purple cloak on her. Her hands were tied behind her back, and her head had been cut off; and it was in this way that the wave cast her up on land.

Another woman was cast up from the sea in Scotland, and she was a hundred and ninety-two feet long; there were seventeen feet between her breasts, and sixteen was the length of her hair. and seven the length of the finger of her hand. Her nose was seven feet long, and there were two feet between her eyebrows. Every limb of her was as white as the swan or the foam of the wave

Translated from the medieval Irish.

Ah, what do you make of that?

I love the combination of mathematical precision and poetic fervor: we are made to see the second of the drowned giantesses first as an engineer would - in measurements; but second, as a poet would - every limb of her was as white as the swan or the foam of the wave.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Bambi and Thumper

Dear readers,

While we're on the topic of folklore, a friend forwarded these to me, and I could not resist sharing them. These photographs were taken by German photographer Tanja Askani of Alberta, Canada, and more in the series can be viewed over at the Dark Roasted Blend blog. Here is something for the enjoyment of Disney lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, and those who can be interested or startled by the way photography creates folklore:


Over at the Dutch artist Isabella's gallery, Land of the Dreamers, I ran into this depiction today - of Stromkarl, the Scandinavian water spirit, "riverman." Isabella says this of him:

It is said he knows how to play eleven different musical compositions, ten of them he plays often and anyone is free to listen. The eleventh he only plays at night as it could be dangerous for any living soul to hear it. It's said that when he plays the tune all things start to move from their places....

In fact, according to Brewer's Dictionary of folklore and fable, if anyone hears or plays the eleventh melody, "tables and benches, cups and cans, old men and women, blind and lame, babies in their cradles, and the sick in their beds, begin to dance."

What a beautiful and perilous folk figure Stromkarl must be! As wild as Orpheus with his lute. This is actually my first encounter with Stromkarl, and information on him is surprisingly scarce. Is he not well known in the West? Finding material on him is proving as tricky as carrying water in one's hands up a hill. I intend to begin raiding several local libraries and universities to learn more. I know a top-notch scholar of Scandinavian folklore whom I will have to interview shortly. I have located references both to Stromkarl as a character and to stromkarl as a plural of water spirits, a term analogous to naiad or selkie, rather than a name for an individual. Of depictions in art, so far I have only found Isabella's - even deviantart, that massive online catalogue of contemporary photos, paintings, and sketches, has no Stromkarl. If not for Brewer and a few other references, I might almost think Isabella had made him up. (I would be delighted by that.)

I have found one folktale that refers to stromkarl, actually while I was writing this very post. The written variant is very brief, and to be found in a truly ancient little piece of anthropology, a volume from 1841 entitled Fragments from German Prose Writers, translated in the UK by one Sarah Austin. As the fragment is brief, I will offer it in its entirety here:

Norwegian Legend:
Two little boys were playing by the side of the river, and they saw the Stromkarl, or water-spirit sitting on the shore and playing his harp. Then the children called out to him and said, "Stromkarl, why are you playing? There is no salvation for you." Thereupon the Stromkarl fell to weeping bitterly, threw his harp away, and sank in the deep waters. When the boys returned home they related to their father, who was a godly man, what had befallen them. The father said, "You have sinned against the Stromkarl,--go back and comfort him, and tell him that he too shall be saved." When they went back to the river, the Stromkarl sat on the shore weeping and lamenting. And the children said, "Weep not so, Stromkarl, our father says that thy Redeemer also liveth." Then the Stromkarl joyfully took his harp and played sweetly till the sunset.

Jacob Grimm. (Deutsche Mythologie.)

This is a curious version of the Norwegian, made the more so because it has been translated at least twice - once into German, again into English, and probably many more times as it circulated through German villages - and so this version probably suffers from outrageous replica failure - like the Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a print of some painting. And where does this odd tale find its theme and its origin? In the conflict between Christianity and paganism? In the nostalgia of a people for forgotten tales and old rites? Or in the joy of finding compatibility in two traditions? A very curious tale.

I wish I could find more on this stromkarl and his history. If anyone knows anything of him, drop us a comment here!

Dante's Heart Newsletter

As we hope Dante's Heart will continue to grow as a venue for artists, writers, and readers to connect, admire and contribute exciting work, and converse, we are going to launch a biweekly e-newsletter, Wunderkammern, beginning March 17. Here's what it's going to have:

* Calls for submissions
* Links to exciting projects and websites (new in each issue)
* News updates on Dante's Heart (example: new features and upcoming special issues of the journal)
* A few memorable or otherwise provocative passages & quotations from fantasy or folklore
* A list of the recent highlights from the blog

You can sign up for this biweekly newsletter by sending an e-mail to us at:

Subject Line: Wunder

In the body of the e-mail: include your name and best e-mail address.

We'll do the rest! Also e-mail us if there is something you're interested in seeing included in the newsletter or on the blog. We're quite serious about that - this newsletter will become what its readership wants it to become.

We'd love to hear from you - and we hope you're excited to hear from us. Until then, enjoy the blog!


Daniel Fusch
Editor, Dante's Heart

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Book-cut Sculpture of Su Blackwell

Here is an artist to watch, if you haven't encountered her work already - Su Blackwell, whose gallery includes sculptures in which fairy tale images explode out of open books into active silhouettes of paper and ink - like 12 Dancing Princesses, above, or Alice: Through the Looking Glass, below.

There is something haunting and terribly ephemeral about Blackwell's work - and therefore, beautiful. These are dreamscapes, but stark ones. The dancing princesses are almost alive, almost dancing - yet they remain harshly cut thin paper figures in black and white. See how the princess on the left longs -- longs -- to be free of the pages, straining, much as the princesses in the fairy tale long to be free of their confiningly conventional royal world, longing for that liberty so badly that they spring from their beds each midnight and dance and dance until their shoes are destroyed.

Here is what Su Blackwell has to say about her own work:

Paper has been used for communication since its invention; either between humans or in an attempt to communicate with the spirit world. I employ this delicate, accessible medium and use irreversible, destructive processes to reflect on the precariousness of the world we inhabit and the fragility of our life, dreams and ambitions.

It is the delicacy, the slight feeling of claustrophobia, as if these characters, the landscape have been trapped inside the book all this time and are now suddenly released. A number of the compositions have an urgency about them, the choices made for the cut-out people from the illustrations seem to lean towards people on their way somewhere, about to discover something, or perhaps escaping from something. And the landscapes speak of a bleak mystery, a rising, an awareness of the air.

...which shows that Blackwell is poet as well as sculptor. And indeed poetry is probably the best word for the making that she has done. Visit her gallery and let us know what you think!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Kumari and the innocence of children

I post the news frequently here because myth and fantasy is not about escape. The study of myth, fairy tale, folklore, and fantasy has several very practical aims. One is to learn to recognize the wonder of the moment, the daily wonders that we overlook because we get caught up in a fast-car cubicle world, or because we spend too much time tripping over the cluttered furniture of our own minds. Seeing a dragon snuggled on a violently red autumn leaf, we might be reminded to glance outside and see the autumn beauty that we have been ignoring.

The other practical aim is to become more aware of the stories – the underlying myths as well as the folktales of the moment – that we hear or tell to explain what is going on around and inside us. Myth is the language through which we interpret the world. 9/11 has become a mythic moment for us, complete with iconic and immediately recognizable images, its villains and its cellphone-equipped heroes. Columbine as well. If we allow ourselves to be defined by our myths without thinking about them and without retelling them in more deliberate ways, then we become twigs hurled down the river that is made up of our stories. We lose the chance to tell new stories that will transform and renew us. We lose the chance to change our world by changing how we look at it and how we talk about it.

Folklorists and fantasists are called to be fully engaged in the current scene, and Dante’s Heart is a venue for gathering to discuss the fantasy of the everyday, not the fantasy of escape. For this reason I keep posting news.

Here is today’s clipping.

Recent news of the retirement of Nepal’s current kumari (or “living goddess”) has brought a lot of international discussion and much protest to the tradition of kumari-puja, or virgin worship. Human rights activists within Nepal are petitioning to end the tradition, which requires the deification of a young girl as kumari until the age of puberty. The current kumari is retiring at eleven years of age, during which eleven years she has been worshipped by supplicants in Nepal as a goddess, an incarnation of Kali. As kumari, she becomes a focus for devotion and hope for an entire people; critics of kumari-puja point out that the creation of a child goddess denies that child a normal life and the chance for a full adulthood – effectively crippling the child psychologically.

The Nepalese kumari is not the world’s only example of the sacred child. Consider another extreme – the Vestal Virgins of Rome, revered by the people but buried alive if, upon reaching puberty, they were caught pregnant or in flagrante delicto.

How do we balance the beauty of a myth and tradition that heals and renews an impoverished people with the future suffering of a human being who must learn that she is not divine? And how do we, if angered at such traditions, manage to ignore our own? Do we do a lesser kind of this same thing in our sheltering of our own children, in mainstream American culture? Is the celebration of innocence a kind of deifying of the child at the expense of a normal life? We do not practice such extremes as the nineteenth century (consider the numbers of young Victorian girls who went to their marriage beds knowing nothing about sex), but how many youths in our culture are thrown into the world bereft of either a rite of passage or preparatory training for adulthood? How much do we attempt to hide from our children, and for how long? After all, ours is the culture that wrote Peter Pan, the celebration of the boy who never grows up, the boy who lives as a semi-divine and eternally innocent Pan amid a world of dangerous adults. A thing worth thinking about.

We act shocked at another culture’s kumari prevented from growing up on time (and I know that it is an equally terrible thing when one grows up too fast), but do we stop to think about our own culture’s kumari traditions and conventions, which are often invisible to us because they are of lesser degree and because they are ours? Think about the anguish of prolonged adolescence (the very concept of adolescence is unknown in many cultures) over the course of years, because we hold stubbornly to the idea that the innocence of the child is sacred. Think of the difficulty parents face in our culture in letting children go – think of the long struggle between parents and teenagers, think of the teen pregnancies, deaths by DUI, and torn families created by our culture’s inability to define the line of demarcation between innocent child and adult man- or woman-of-the-world, and its frequent inability to train future adults or to allow children to grow and develop. In our culture’s way of thinking, there is something divine and sacred in the innocence of the child, and in so many ways we define ourselves by our myth of the loss of innocence, and the guilts and nostalgias that myth demands. In what cases do we, too, no less than another culture in the Himalayas, carry this myth too far?

If there were a way to quantify the cost of such a myth, the cost of protecting children from the pain of growing up, what would we see? If we could count the dollars spent on therapy, or on divorce lawyers, or on varied means of self-medication?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Titania: A New Project

Dear readers,

I'm in the final stages of my move from one beautifully-sculpted snail shell of a home to another, and I want to drop in with news of an independent film project dealing with myth, which is currently in production. You may recognize the artist & director, Lisa Stock, as one of the authors of The Cobweb Forest - if you had the great fortune to be following that multimedia project last year. If this is your first introduction to Lisa's work, I recommend visiting her site at

Titania is the first of three films collectively titled Medisaga, to be followed by Purgatory and Neptune. The first film is a beautiful conflation of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the story of the Armless Maiden. I copy Lisa's description of Titania here:

After having her wings violently torn from her body Titania is confined to the grounds of her estate. Natural law dictates that if she were ever to leave the grounds of her home and venture into the forest she would die -- hunted and slain by the harpies who inhabit the woods. When her son is kidnapped by his father, and no one is able to help, she has no choice but to face her greatest fear and defy the edict that binds her, and keeps her alive.

The stuff of great fairy tales, yes? Lyrical and edgy, the series promises a weaving together of threads of folktale and fairytale and Dante and lived experience. Lisa Stock has generously made a series of screen test video clips available on youtube and (as higher resolution downloads) from her site. Take a look at this visual poetry:

The beauty of the screen test is that we get to see the artist in the midst of her work, her hands still wet from her paint - and the glimpses we catch as those colors come together are beautiful and tantalizing - yet also demanding: both a seduction of and a partnership with the viewer.

The promise of Medisaga is that through the three films, the protagonist "will learn what it takes to finally be whole again," as a woman who has passed through grief, suffering, captivity, loss. It is a project thematically in vein with the earlier Cobweb Forest. Lisa Stock's work recurrently addresses the questions of the woman's journey, recognizing in the heritage of fairy tales, with their feminine protagonists and their examination of the crises of a woman's life, a vehicle for exploring and celebrating the growth of a woman (even as much of modern fantasy fiction and cinema, with its frequent focus on male protagonists and quest narratives, has offered a vehicle for writers to explore the man's coming of age and discovery of masculinity).

I am excited to see the completed films. The work Lisa Stock and her actors and colleagues are doing on this project is all the more considerable when one knows that the woman whose life and thoughts were the key inspiration for the series died during the fall, and the work continues in tribute. For more screen tests, go here, and to support the filming of the Medisaga (no small project) either financially or with eager expressions of interest, go here.