Archive for July, 2011

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Here are some interesting fantasy-related posts that have piqued my interest lately – may they pique yours also.

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Wednesday Word of the Week: veronica

I had an appendectomy a few days ago, so there was no Monday Masterclass this week. But I can bring you another interesting lexeme today.

ve·ron·i·ca 1
/vəˈrɒnɪkə/

–noun ( sometimes initial capital letter ) Ecclesiastical .
1. the image of the face of Christ, said in legend to have been miraculously impressed on the handkerchief or veil that St. Veronica gave to Him to wipe His face on the way to Calvary.
2. the handkerchief or veil itself.
3. Also called sudarium. any handkerchief, veil, or cloth bearing a representation of the face of Christ.

Also called vernicle.

Origin:
1690–1700; < Medieval Latin veronica, alleged to be an alteration of vēra īconica true image ( see very, icon), subsequently also taken as the name of the woman who gave Christ the cloth

Source: Dictionary.com.

Consider our most real and tender pleasures – in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture-bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions, in voyeurism and self-disgust, in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game, and in our ever greater powers of abstraction.

Source: The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Herewith another selection of links to interesting fantasy-related articles I’ve read this week.

Monday Masterclass: trees in fantasy

Although rarely at the forefront of fantasy novels, trees, forests and tree-like beings are a feature of many works of the fantastic. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at trees in particular (as distinct from forests), with some mention of creatures that have tree-like characteristics.

Introduction

Trees have been a feature of mythology for thousands of years. They are powerful symbols and represent life, strength, nature, endurance, wisdom, rebirth, protection; they symbolise the axis mundi, the link between heaven and earth.

The ancient Greeks imagined trees were inhabited by wood nymphs or dryads (which latter actually signifies ‘oak’). Norse mythology has Yggdrasil (‘Odin’s horse’) or world tree, an ash tree that supports the nine worlds (and with which the modern Christmas tree is identified). Trees of life such as Yggdrasil are common in many traditions. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is another famous mythological tree, the eating of the fruit of which caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of the garden of Eden.

Sacred groves feature in many religions, such as the grove of olive trees outside the Academy in Athens. India has thousands of sacred groves associated with Hindu gods. Celtic druids tended groves, called nemeton, and they were the site of religious rites such as animal sacrifices; some oak trees were thought to be oracular and could be consulted by druids.

Trees and forests have also been associated with mythical beings such as the Green Man and the woodwose, or wild man of the woods.

Middle Earth

In the history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the first sources of light were destroyed by Melkor, the evil Vala, another of the Valar, Yavanna, made the two trees of Valinor, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. These trees shed light across the land until they too were destroyed by Melkor. A flower from Telperion and a fruit from Laurelin were saved and these became the moon and the sun. A reproduction of Telperion spawned the White Tree of Gondor.

One of the most well-liked characters in The Lord of the Rings is Treebeard, or Fangorn, who is an Ent. Ents are giant humanoid creatures that resemble trees (the word ‘ent’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘giant’). Along with the passing of the elves from the world of Middle Earth and the final journey of Frodo and Bilbo to the western lands, the situation of the Ents forms part of the major theme of The Lord of the Rings: the end of an era and the rise of Men.

In the trilogy, the Ents are a doomed race. They are guardians of the forests, but they are entirely male. Their womenfolk, the Entwives, lived a different life and were the progenitors of agriculture. They have been lost for many years since being attacked by Sauron. Thus, in Frodo’s time, there are no more Entings, young Ents.

Ents were created at the behest of Yavanna to protect the forests from Dwarves and other dangers. They are extremely long-lived, but not immortal. Ents are subject to diminishing into treeishness – if they cease moving for long periods they grow roots and essentially revert back to being trees.

Ents are a popular feature of roleplaying and other games, where, for copyright reasons, they are often known as Treants or Treefolk.

The Land

In the world of Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, trees also play an important role. Woodhelven are tree villages – villages housed in or on the branches of an enormous tree and occupied by woodhelvenin, who are skilled in lillianrill lore – wood magic. Here is a description of Soaring Woodhelven from Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series:

Their approach gave Covenant a good view of the tree village from some distance away across a wide glade. He judged the tree to be nearly four hundred feet high, and a good thirty broad at the base. There were no branches on the trunk until forty or fifty feet above the ground, then abruptly huge limbs spread out horizontally from the stem, forming in outline a half-oval with a flattened tip. The whole tree was so thickly branched and leaved that most of the village was hidden; but Covenant could see a few ladders between the branches and along the trunk; and in some tight knots on the limbs he thought he could make out the shapes of dwellings. If any people were moving through the foliage, they were -so well camouflaged that he could not discern them.

The Land, the setting for much of the Chronicles used to have vast forests, which have dwindled over time (much like the forests in Middle Earth). These forests are protected by forestals, immortals who appear human and are capable of powerful magic.

In the Second Chronicles, the characters – having lost the Staff of Law – decide they must travel to the One Tree, from which the wood that made the original Staff was taken, to make a new Staff of Law. The One Tree grows on an island that is protected by a guardian. Once the characters arrive there, their efforts to secure a limb from the tree temporarily rouse the Worm of the World’s End, causing the island to sink into the sea.

Others

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time features its own Tree of Life, also called Avendesora. Like the White Tree of Gondor, a sapling of the tree is cut down by a king, prompting a large war. In the first book, The Eye of the World, the heroes are helped by the Green Man, the last of the Nym, a giant humanoid made of vines, leaves and other tree elements. The Ogier live in Stedding, magical forests, and when they stay in cities prefer to live in Ogier groves.

Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle is set in what appears to be a small area of woodland from the outside, but inside is a near infinite realm where mythical beings are real. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, one of the main characters, Digory, must plant an apple in Narnia, which grows into a tree that protects Narnia from the White Witch. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, Ygg is a talking tree that guards the border between Order and Chaos. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin has weirwoods, trees with blood red leaves and sap that were once worshipped all over Westeros in godswoods, groves sacred to the religion of the old gods.

Conclusion

Magic trees are emblems of the reverence in which people hold nature in general, and forests and trees in particular. Many of the fantasy trees mentioned above are set in a melancholy context of the advance of civilisation bringing an end to an old order dominated by the natural world. Fantasy writers can draw on this trope to evoke great sympathy with a dying way of life; it seems to me, though, that no one has done this as well as J R R Tolkien.

While Ents are a favourite denizen of Middle Earth, it’s a little surprising that subsequent writers haven’t incorporated similar beings into their works in the same way that Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Goblins have been embraced and adapted.

What are your favourite trees in fantasy fiction? What other magical trees do you know of? What other authors have used them in their work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Wednesday Word of the Week: Tyrian/Tyrian purple

Tyr·i·an
/ˈtɪriən/

–adjective
1. of or pertaining to ancient Tyre or its people.
2. of the color of Tyrian purple.

Origin:
1505–15; < Latin Tyri ( us ) (< Greek Týrios, derivative of Týros Tyre) + -an

Tyrian purple

–noun
1. Also called Tyrian dye . a highly prized crimson or purple dye of classical antiquity, originally obtained at great expense from a certain shellfish: later shown to be an indigo derivative and synthetically produced, and now replaced by other synthetic dyes.
2. a vivid, purplish red.

Origin:
1575–85

Source: Dictionary.com.

A new mood was on her … no longer icily terrible as in the judgment-hall, no longer rich, and sombre, and splendid, like a Tyrian cloth, as in the dwellings of the dead.

Source: She by H Rider Haggard.

Monday Masterclass: Mervyn Peake

Saturday was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast trilogy. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the man, his life and his most famous work.

Biography

Mervyn Laurence Peak was born on 9th July, 1911 in the hill town of Lushan (also known as Kuling; the town was a colonial resort frequented by British and American travellers) in Jiangxi province, China. Peake’s parents worked in China as missionaries; Mervyn went to school in Tianjin. Peake’s experiences of China, of relations between westerners and native, between rich and poor, have been cited as a major influence on his work – the Forbidden City is supposedly a model for Gormenghast castle.

They left the country in 1922 and settled in England. Peake studied art at Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. As a young man, Peake worked as an artist, exhibiting work at various shows, including work as part of the Sark Group. Sark is one of the Channel Islands, off the coast of northern France, and Peake lived there for a time during the 1930s as well as later on.

He started teaching art at Westminster School of Art in 1935, and met his future wife, Maeve Gilmore the following year on her fist day as a student at the school. They married in 1937 and went on to have three children: Sebastian (1940), Fabian (1942) and Clare (1949).

Peake applied to be a war artist at the outbreak of the Second World War, but was rejected. He was enlisted and served with the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. After more requests to be a war artist and more rejections, Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942. Shortly after, he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committe, and later left the army. Shortly after the war, working as a war artist, he was one of the first outsiders to see the inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had a profound effect on him.

In the 1940s, Peake wrote Titus Groan and  Gormenghast and illustrated many books – including works by Lewis Carroll, Coleridge, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Louis Stevenson – and also designed the Pan Books logo (he had a choice of receiving either a flat fee of £10 or a farthing (¼ penny) per book sold; on the advice of his friend Graham Greene, who thought that paperbacks were a fad, he chose the £10). He started teaching art, and met his future wife through his job.

The Peake family moved back to Sark in the 1940s for a few years, before returning to England in 1950. He continued to teach, paint and write, producing Mr Pye (his only non-Gormenghast novel) about a man who goes to Sark to evangelise the native, only to start growing wings; when he starts to do bad deeds to compensate, he grows horns.

In the 1950s Peake’s health began to decline – he developed Parkinson’s disease and progressively lost his ability to draw and write. He finally died on 17th November 1968 at a nursing home near Oxford. In addition to his novels and art, he also produced several short stories and six books of poetry during his life. It is the Gormenghast books, however, for which he is most remembered and admired.

Gormenghast

The three novels of this series that were written by Peake are Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The first two are widely acknowledge as masterpieces of gothic fantasy. In the first, the hidebound world of Gormenghast – a sprawling, crumbling castle inhabited by Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan and a whole cast of grotesque characters – is disturbed by the birth of Titus, a long-awaited heir, and by the rise of Steerpike, a ruthlessly ambitious kitchen boy. In the second, Titus, now Lord Groan, is older and Steerpike’s plans are becoming increasingly murderous; the book ends with a confrontation between the two, and with Titus abandoning his home.

The third book is much shorter, and was much affected by Peake’s waning health and, in the first edition, by some clumsy editing. In it, Titus wanders the land and finds himself caught up in the affairs of a city with high technology. It doesn’t have the same gothic resonance or lush prose of its predecessors, but is not without merit.

Peake also wrote a novella entitled Boy in Darkness, about a young Titus Groan escaping Gormenghast for a terrifying adventure.

In addition, Peake planned at least two more novels in the Gormenghast saga, apparently to be called Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited. Peake’s wife, Maeve, using a few pages written by her husband for the former novel, completed a manuscript entitled Search Without End in the 1970s. She never published it, but now, to commemorate the centenary of Peake’s death, his family are releasing it under its original title.

Miscellaneous

With this 100th anniversary, there has been a lot of media coverage of Peake and Gormenghast recently. Here is a selection: