Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010

ramble: I am busy, so have a King Arthur comic

Too busy to ramble this weekend. Instead I share this comic from the brilliant Married to the Sea (which you ought to read daily, because it's always this hilarious):

marriedtothesea.com
marriedtothesea.com

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

recommendation: "Drawing the Head and Figure" (1963 book)

Drawing the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm is my favourite art how-to and reference book. Though it's relatively old, it's the only such book I've found that best satisfies the art questions I encounter when drawing/painting. Whenever I'm stuck on something, this is where I turn first.

Its cover (I have the 1983 paperback reprint) says it's "A how-to handbook that makes drawing easy. ... Offers simplified techniques and scores of brand-new hints and helps. ... Step-by-step procedures. Hundreds of illustrations."

Yes, hundreds. And while it hardly makes drawing "easy" (drawing is never easy, c'mon now), it certainly does help when you can't figure out how a shoulder attaches from that angle or how lips look from that other angle. It's pretty retro/vintage/choose-your-dated-but-still-hip-term, with its chiseled menfolk and coiffed ladyfolk--but since we're not using this as a fashion reference, it's really quite charming.

The sections are (so you can see just how in-depth and fantastic this book truly is): Introduction to the Head, The Facial Features, The Hair, Head Patterns and Comparisons, Youth and Age, Fundamentals of the Figure, The Torso and the Figure, Principles of Figure Drawing, The Neck and Shoulders, The Arm, The Hand, The Leg, The Feet, and Clothing. In each, Hamm doesn't just go over the basics--he illustrates a lot of tricky things and describes how to tackle frequently problematic areas. The hundreds of illustrations are truly great: some are sketches, some focus on perspective or action, some show muscles or bones, and some are fully finished illustrations for comparison. His captions and explanations are clear and friendly.

So thanks, Mr Hamm. Saving the world from weirdly garbled proportions and unfortunate limb alignment disasters for almost fifty years!

Monday, July 19, 2010

inspiration: "Knight, Death and the Devil" by Albrecht Durer

KNIGHT, DEATH AND THE DEVIL


-- Albrecht Dürer (1513)
[image via Wikimedia]
[see more works at the Art Renewal Center here]

ramble: I love Robin Hood, film edition

I love Robin Hood. I love the hazy green bliss of Sherwood, the sounding of the hunting horn, the camaraderie and adventure and starry-eyed idealism. I love sly Will Scarlett and loyal Little John and brilliant Maid Marian and witty Alan-a-Dale and wicked Guy of Gisbourne and all the side-characters unique to one version of the tale or another. And most of all, I love wry, brave Robin himself. I love the man and I love the legend and I love the retellings.

I've loved it all since I was little. I collect Robin Hood books (up to nearly thirty now), from picture books to scholarly works to novels (a post for another time). I've attended academic sessions and panels on the history and myth of the dashing outlaw. I've learned archery because of my love of the hooded man (and though I've never split an arrow myself, I've seen friends accomplish the feat!).

Oh, Robin, you scoundrel. The things you've made me do!

And, unsurprisingly, I'll watch any and every Robin Hood movie and TV version. While I certainly haven't seen them all (or even close to all; just search for Robin Hood on IMDb! good god!), I've seen a respectable number. Here's a brief overview of the standouts, both good and bad. Oo-de-lally! Let's go to Sherwood!

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)


One of the classics, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Dashing and charming. This portrayal really shaped my vision of Robin.

Robin Hood (1973)


Everyone's seen this Disney animated version, even those who don't know anything about Robin Hood. And surely everyone loves it. It's perfectly wonderful. Foxy little Robin and Marian! The anthropomorphic characters could not suit the tale better. And who could forget Sir Hiss? And the songs--especially "Oo-de-lally"?

Robin and Marian (1976)


This movie is such a disappointment. Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as Robin and Marian sounds absolutely wonderful, but it's wretched. It's not that I mind seeing older, jaded, tired versions of our heroes--it's that Sean Connery's portrayal is simply not Robin Hood. Too brusque, too thoughtless, too presumptuous, and treats Marian with no respect. None of that is Robin at any age. I would like to forget this exists.

Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986)


This three-season TV series is my favourite portrayal of the Robin Hood story. Nothing will ever supersede it in my heart. We get two versions of the hooded man, following the two major threads of the legend: the yeoman outlaw (Michael Praed as Robin of Loxley) and the noble outlaw (Jason Connery as Robert of Huntingdon). They're both breathtakingly gorgeous and absolutely marvellous. The whole show is enchanting, from its blending of Celtic mythology with medieval Christian magic to its powerful and moving storylines. Nothing is forgotten.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)


Another disappointment. Kevin Costner's portrayal is another that is not Robin. Even the awesome cast (Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Christian Slater!) can't rescue this for me. There are moments I enjoy, but overall this movie's got far too much empty action and not enough mystique or depth to the worldbuilding to be a true retelling of the legend. Leaves me cold.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)


I love this movie (and Cary Elwes!) so much. Anyone who enjoys weird humour in the Monty Python vein [full disclosure: I laugh so hard at Monty Python that I make myself ill] loves this, Hood-fans or not. There is so much hilarity: the praying mantis! the portcullis with the garage-door opener! the chastity belt! So tasteless. So hilarious.

The Princess of Thieves (2001)


In this movie is another washed-up, worn-out Robin, but this one I love and want to root for. And this is the movie that made me a Keira Knightley fan! She had the spunky heroine thing down even at sixteen years old, here playing Robin's daughter, Gwyn. And Stephen Moyer [sigh] is in this! Yes, perhaps I am more charmed by the cast than by the story, but they absolutely nailed a light-hearted take on the legend and made daydreaming teenagers like me very very happy.

Robin Hood (2006-2009)


This three-season BBC series is a very close second to Robin of Sherwood. Very close. The two aren't really comparable, though; this one is a total rollicking romp that plays with the story in delightful ways. The cast is stellar (in particular, Richard Armitage as Guy [sigh] and Lucy Griffiths as Marian) and the characters are magnetic, each one eliciting love and hatred sometimes within the same episode. Strong and emotional--the most vibrant Robin Hood I've ever seen, and I adore it.

Robin Hood (2010)


And I haven't seen this yet! Though I like Russell Crowe and love Cate Blanchett, they don't fit my Hood-vision right off. But I am super excited to see it anyway: there's always room in my heart for more Robin.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

recommendation: "Labyrinth" (1986 movie)

You remind me of the babe. (What babe?) The babe with the power. (What power?) The power of voodoo. (Who do?) You do!

What happens when dreams come true?

This is the question at the heart of Labyrinth, a funny, creepy, lovely story of temptation, trust, and self-discovery. Sarah wants a different life, a fantasy. "It's not fair!" she cries. Reality is miserable. It's wretched. It sucks. But as Jareth, the Goblin King, replies: "You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is."

What is better than reality? Labyrinth is one of the few movies I would dare to call magical, and no doubt--it was made by a very literal dream team, including Jim Henson, Brian Froud, Terry Jones, George Lucas, David Bowie, and Jennifer Connelly, all vastly talented.

And every scene is a wonder. My imagination can't even keep up. Each creature, from the Worm ("'allo!") to dear monstrous rock-caller Ludo is a self-contained marvel, a fully-developed person, thoughtful and strange and devious and gentle. The labyrinth itself has countless depths, countless worlds, countless symbols.

Where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.

In the labyrinth, who do we trust? Jareth is wickedly beautiful. (David Bowie reaches jaw-popping, heart-killing aesthetic nirvana.) The masquerade ball is just the same, and breaks my heart every time. It's the scene that encapsulates the movie: a ball within a ball, a bubble of loveliness within a bubble of sly forgetfulness, layers upon layers, just like the Goblin King. The masks and the costumes are gorgeous beyond belief--and they're only so gorgeous because they hide malice underneath. Such unbearable beauty can only be dashed.

The world comes down. But, like Sarah, we forget, and begin again....

Labyrinth is a story about finding love (of someone, of something, of things tangible and intangible and things hoped for and things longed for), a story about learning what you'll surrender for your desire. Both Sarah and Jareth are in pursuit, but neither realizes what they're truly chasing until the last moment. Sarah thought she wanted her baby brother back, but in fact, she discovers herself. Jareth thought he could rule everything, including himself, but he discovers that no one can walk through the world untouched. Their hearts lead them in different directions, and to be together means one must submit to the other.

Look what I'm offering you--your dreams. I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.

There is nothing equal about the relationship between creator and created. And how can one be both? Even dreams have realities, and they too can be harsh. When we struggle through the labyrinth to discover what is in our hearts--that's when the bubble breaks. We learn that to dream is to think in paradox. Nothing is what it seems: whose world is whose? To imagine is to live, but to imagine is to hurt.

I have been generous up until now, but I can be cruel.

Dreams give, but dreams take. If we fall for our dreams, we're in their power; we belong to them as much as they do to us. Can we risk falling?

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city; for my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me.

Sarah is strong. She learns how to open the right door. She accepts weakness, and in doing so, finds balance. She says to her dreams, "I don't know why, but every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you." She is the one with the power.

It's so hard to be strong.

Monday, July 12, 2010

inspiration: "Our Lady of the Twilight" by Alfred Noyes

OUR LADY OF THE TWILIGHT

Our Lady of the Twilight
    From out the sunset-lands
Comes gently stealing o'er the world
    And stretches out her hands,
Over the blotched and broken wall,
    The blind and fœtid lane,
She stretches out her hands and all
    Is beautiful again.

No factory chimneys can defile
    The beauty of her dress:
She stoops down with her heavenly smile
    To heal and love and bless:
All tortured things, all evil powers,
    All shapes of dark distress
Are turned to fragrance and to flowers
    Beneath her kind caress.

Our Lady of the Twilight,
    She melts our prison-bars!
She makes the sea forget the shore,
    She fills the sky with stars,
And stooping over wharf and mill,
    Chimney and shed and dome,
Turns them to fairy palaces,
    Then calls her children home.

She stoops to bless the stunted tree,
    And from the furrowed plain,
And from the wrinkled brow she smooths
    The lines of care and pain:
Hers are the gentle hands and eyes
    And hers the peaceful breath
That ope, in sunset-softened skies,
    The quiet gates of death.

Our Lady of the Twilight,
    She hath such gentle hands,
So lovely are the gifts she brings
    From out the sunset-lands,
So bountiful, so merciful
    So sweet of soul is she;
And over all the world she draws
    Her cloak of charity.


-- Alfred Noyes, in Collected Poems, Vol. II (1913)
[read this book online here]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

ramble: Sophia Baddeley, 18th-century courtesan

Sophia Baddeley (1745-1786) was a terrible actress.

This, however, hardly held her back. She became one of the wealthiest and most popular of the notorious women of mid-eighteenth-century London.

But though she is a vibrant character and we may wish to see her life as self-determined, we should remember, as Katie Hickman writes (in her book Courtesans), that "[f]or all the power which her beauty and desirability conferred, a courtesan, even the most fashionable one at the very height of her career, was still negotiating in a man's world" (p. 53). Sophia shone brightly, but she played a dangerous game in order to do so.

Sophia came from a middlingly well-to-do family, but her elopement with actor Robert Baddeley (when she was nineteen) meant she'd chosen her course (though the pair hardly got along and soon separated). Though her acting was apparently wretched, she was a lovely singer, and her popularity skyrocketed. As her friend Elizabeth Steele, who wrote her memoirs, said:
"Such persons as have moved in a conspicuous line of life naturally excite the curiosity of the world. The public has always had it's [sic] favourites, and since the Drama has been known on the English stage, merit in that line has been the best road to acquire it's [sic] favour" (The Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley, Vol. I, pp. 2-3).
After all, fame need not necessarily grow from talent. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, actress was still nearly synonymous with courtesan, though respectability was becoming more and more possible (Hickman, pp. 40-3). Sophia, however, was not respectable. She went through an extravagantly long string of men (including Lord Melbourne and the Duke of Northumberland), living with some, teasing others. "A pattern was already emerging in her life: a pattern of love affairs and unscrupulous admirers, of reckless extravagance, debt--and laudanum" (Hickman, p. 38).

Nothing in Sophia's world was stable, and her lovers always fluctuated as wildly as did her expenditures. Her only constant companion was Elizabeth, who stayed with her and tried to protect her from the men around her and from herself. As Amy Culley writes in her article on the Memoirs,
"[T]hroughout the Memoirs their connection remains highly ambiguous: perhaps a sentimental friendship, a lesbian relationship, or a business arrangement in which Steele acted as Baddeley’s procuress" (p. 679).
But Elizabeth could not, ultimately, keep Sophia safe.

As the entry for Robert Baddeley in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, "[Sophia's] beauty and her extravagance rendered her celebrated, but the money which she made in all sorts of ways was so freely squandered that she was obliged to take refuge from her creditors in Edinburgh." There she became very ill, and took more and more laudanum in order to cope.

She died when she was only forty-one. But she acted (still terribly? perhaps!) until the very end.

"Sophia Baddeley had neither moral strength nor level-headedness. She was vain, spoilt, impetuous, lazy, spendthrift, only moderately intelligent, and possessed of a great deal of sexual energy. She was also warm-hearted, affectionate, funny, mercurial, and generous to a fault" (Hickman, p. 33). She sounds like she would have been fascinating to spend time with--and indeed, her vast popularity proves that she was.

Image:
- Sophia Baddeley as Joan of Arc [via link]

Sources:
- Culley, Amy. "The Sentimental Satire of Sophia Baddeley." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer 2008): pp. 677-692. [via Project Muse]
- Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. London: Harper Perennial, 2003.
- Steele, Elizabeth. The Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley, Late of Drury Lane Theatre. 6 vols. London: 1787. [read online: vols 1-2, vols 3-4, vols 5-6]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Baddeley, Robert." 1911. [via Wikisource]
- Wikipedia [link]

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

recommendation: "Doctor Who Series 5" (2010 TV series)

I've loved Doctor Who for several years now, but have I ever loved Doctor Who this much?

My Doctor is the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant's Doctor. The first episode I saw was Series 3's "Blink" (ah, terror). Then I watched Series 1 with the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, and adored it, especially "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances."* But the conclusion to Series 3 is right up there with my most beloved episodes. The Tenth Doctor is simply unspeakably fabulous.

Companions are a trickier matter. Though I haven't seen all of Series 2, Rose is my favourite. I also love Martha, for very separate reasons. If I could be any companion, I'd be Martha. But then there was Series 4, and Donna. Oh, Donna. I wanted to like Donna. But I didn't really like Donna. I liked that Donna had opinions, and that she wasn't unnecessarily gaga over the Doctor, but I did not like that Donna always had to be right, could never be quiet for a second, and had to tell everyone all the time that she really definitely wasn't in love with the Doctor.

So, Series 5. New Doctor, new companion. I was hesitant about Matt Smith because I am still extremely attached to David Tennant. I really liked the first episode, especially the fishsticks. And then I really liked the second episode (those Smilers? dear god). I liked the revisited Weeping Angels, at least until they started contradicting their own rules.** I liked the dinosaur people (I like anything with dinosaurs, so this may not be a useful judgement) and I loved both "Vincent and the Doctor"*** and "The Lodger"+ in two entirely different ways.

And then I really liked Amy, the new companion, who's Rose/Martha/Donna blended with kooky, so that's awesome, even if she did inherit a bit of Donna's annoyance factor. I liked the purpose River Song serves in the narrative, even though I found her by turns badass and grating (River, you cad, stop toying with me!). And then I absolutely loved Rory, companion number two, with a fiery blazing passion. OH RORY. OH RORY. ♥

I was clearly teetering on the brink. Then, in episode eight, the Doctor said, "Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense. You're just not keeping up," and I was done for. I was all Eleven's. He's so young and sprightly and so old and curmudgeonly; he's weird, but it's not a Tennantesque wacky. He's entirely new and yet entirely familiar and I love him. He speaks to me: "Never underestimate a Celt!"++

So after some reflection, soul-searching, and salving of my guilty conscience: I'm sorry, Ten, you're still my Doctor, but my tent is now firmly pitched in Eleven's camp. And Series 5, with its excellent use of the funny, the emotional, the strange, the wondrous, and the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff (the finale! I did not know true glory until I watched that finale!), might just be my favourite, too.

* Due, of course, to Captain Jack Harkness. I need say no more.
** I don't want to spoil anything, but seriously. You close your eyes, they attack you. That is incontrovertible.
*** I haven't cried that hard at the TV for a while, and I cry at the TV with alarming regularity. I'd start a New Who newcomer with this episode. Crazy adventure, fascinating historical personage, ooky-looking alien, heartbreak, and quiet truth: yes to all. Beautiful.
+ The Doctor trying to be "normal." I need say no more here, either.
++ Cue me squealing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

ramble: damask, the aristocratic, immortal textile

Damask is a figured, reversible textile, usually silk satin or velvet, historically used to make tablecloths, napkins, curtains, wall coverings, furniture coverings, gowns, waistcoats, robes, etc. The most familiar damask patterns are stylized florals or are otherwise organic in appearance--acanthus leaves, scrolls, pinecones, pomegranates, and shells are all common--but the motifs may also be of animals or even detailed scenes.

Damasks could be any colour dyes allowed. Most damasks are monochrome, with a shiny pattern against a dull background (vice versa when flipped over), but polychromes, including those with metallics, are also possible.*

The name "damask" supposedly refers to the city of Damascus, but this, of course, may be apocryphal. Technically, the term refers to a particular weaving technique, one of five traditional types in the early medieval Middle East. However, some early damasks (simple checkerboard patterns) date from the Roman era and the technique itself may have truly originated in eastern Asia.

Damask weaving fell out of fashion in Europe in the high medieval period, but by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the textiles were being produced in Italy. Thereafter damasks became fashionable throughout Europe. In England, for example, King Richard II wore silk damask, and in the mid-fifteenth century, one of King Edward IV's sumptuary laws decreed that no one below the rank of knight could wear the fabric. Damasks became especially popular in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, damask motifs conjure up images of the boudoirs of doomed queens and languishing courtesans.

I compulsively buy damask fabrics when I come across them and turn them into curtains, pillowcovers and tablerunners. I also own damask plates, mugs, candles and heaven knows what else. The recent interior design trend, which involves putting the pattern on everything, is hardly new! For damask inspiration, try a search of the Victoria & Albert Museum; you'll turn up all manner of textiles displaying various permutations of the motif. Take a look at this glorious Chippendale chair from 1772, covered in green damask. Ah, to dream of luxury.

* The pictured crimson-and-black damask is a modern damask from my fabric stash. It's really a false damask--it's faux-satin printed with faux-velvet, and it is not at all reversible. I don't think a real damask could even be stark black-on-red like this; reversible weaving just doesn't work that way (though I am not entirely sure, not being a weaver myself).

Here instead are two examples of lovely authentic monochrome damasks: crimson silk (1680-90, Italian) and yellow silk (1710, Chinese or English).

And (you may have noticed!) my blog's background is a damask-inspired motif designed and drawn by yours truly.

Sources:
- Morgan, Krystal. "Satin Damasks of Renaissance Europe." Complex Weavers' Medieval Textiles 37 (Sept. 2003): 1-6. [available as a .pdf at link]
- V&A Collections [link]
- Wikipedia [link]

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

recommendation: "Fables: Legends in Exile" (2002 graphic novel)

Fables is an ongoing urban fantasy comic book series written by Bill Willingham. Legends in Exile is volume one (the collected issues one to five), with art pencilled by Lan Medina.

The stories follow the lives of refugee Fables who settle in modern-day New York City after the mysterious Adversary drives them from their Homelands. Fables are fairytale people and creatures of every sort, and as you might imagine, they find life in New York isn't easy. It's especially hard for Snow White, who's acting as mayor of the Fable community. She says,

"We barely have enough money and manpower to run the most basic of underground government services. ... The Mundanes may look to their government to solve their problems, but in the Fable community, we expect you to be able to run your own lives.

"Our only concern is that ... no fable shall, by action or inaction, cause our magical nature to become known to the Mundane world. If you can't maintain a normal human appearance or purchase a concealing glamour from one of our witches--our rules mandate that you be relocated upstate to the Farm, where all the other nonhuman Fables live." (p. 9)

This law certainly poses difficulties for the shapeshifting sorts--like the Beast, who's having trouble maintaining human form due to marital difficulties with Beauty. The others aren't doing particularly well in their personal lives, either: Snow White and Prince Charming have divorced, thanks to Charming's womanizing. The characters are all written this way--fondly and cleverly, with a lot of wicked sarcasm.

Things go even more sour when Snow White's hard-partying sister, Rose Red, disappears. The Big Bad Wolf ("Bigby," please, who's not bad; he lets the Three Little Pigs crash at his place) investigates, and the clues point to murder. Suspicion falls on Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Rose's hapless boyfriend, and Mister Bluebeard, who's somehow managed to remain fantastically wealthy.

And there's the matter of the phrase "No More Happily Ever After" written in blood on Rose Red's living room wall....

The art is just as fantastic as the story. It's a very sharp-and-clean American-superhero style--no manga influence (and though I love manga, the art absolutely suits this tale). The Mundane world is harsh and dirty, whereas scenes in Fabletown and memories of the Homelands overflow with fantastical detail. Flashbacks bear baroque frames, and lovely, ornate scrolls open each chapter/issue. The original cover of each issue is reprinted in this collection, and each one is beautiful, done in dreamy pastels (my favourites are chapters two and four).

Legends in Exile is the only volume I've yet read, but I can't wait to read more (the series is up to twelve volumes now). The Fables are adaptable folk, but not so smart that they can stay out of trouble for long.

Says the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: "Fables is a must-read for any aficionado of fantasy in a contemporary setting." Indeed!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

inspiration: "Phaethon" by Gustave Moreau

PHAETHON

see high-res image here at the Art Renewal Center

-- Gustave Moreau (1878)
[see more works at the Art Renewal Center here]

Friday, June 25, 2010

ramble: the Mabinogi, or the beautiful maze of Welsh myth


The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (in Middle Welsh, Pedeir Keinc Y Mabinogi) are the four classic tales of medieval Welsh mythology, more commonly known as the Mabinogion (which is actually a scribal misspelling in one of the sources [image above], but has become basically accepted). They are recorded in two main manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both dating to mid/late-thirteenth-century Wales. However, the tales themselves are much older, having been preserved piecemeal in various other earlier manuscripts (and no doubt passed down orally long before even that).

The Mabinogi were first translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid-nineteenth century. In her edition she included eight other related mythological tales from the manuscripts (Arthurian stories and romances whose plots also show up in the works of Chrétien de Troyes), but the Mabinogi proper are only the Four Branches. Lady Guest's translation leaves out all the good (naughty and gory) parts, so if you're inclined to read the tales for yourself, do choose another version. I highly recommend the online translation by Will Parker linked at the bottom of this post; it's the one we used for study in my (badass) Celtic literature class.

The Four Branches are an interconnected series of stories in which the pseudo-hero Pryderi is the recurring character (though not always the main character). I don't want to totally spoil the tales, but I will try to whet your appetite.

The First Branch: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

We meet Pryderi's parents (his father Pwyll, exchanges places with Arawn, the Lord of the Otherworld, for a year, then meets the mysterious Rhiannon on her unearthly-fast horse) and are given the story of his birth and baby-napping. Affairs include a magic bag, a monster, and a case of mistaken identity including the giving of the fabulous pseudonym Gwri Golden-Hair. [read the First Branch here]

The Second Branch: Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr

This story is barely Pryderi-related, but rather a story of British-Irish conflict. British Branwen is mistreated by her Irish husband Matholwch, partly because her brother Efnisien was a poor sport and took out his displeasure over the marriage on Matholwch's horses. The giant Bendigeidfrân, king of Britain, takes vengeance for Branwen. Pryderi fights with the British in the battle, which involves a revivifying cauldron and a lot of head-crushing. Bendigeidfrân's enormous head, however, lives on in Britain, which is gross and awesome. [read the Second Branch here]

The Third Branch: Manawydan, Son of Llŷr

Back in a curiously depopulated and mist-beset Dyfed, we follow Pryderi, his wife Cigfa, his mother Rhiannon, and his stepfather Manawydan on a quest to restore the realm. Pryderi and Rhiannon both act like fools and fall for a trap; Manawydan and Cigfa have to solve riddles to save them (which is a pretty sweet reversal, and also why it's hard to see Pryderi as a hero). [read the Third Branch here]

The Fourth Branch: Math, Son of Mathonwy

The fourth branch is my favourite, so I'll go into a little more detail. It takes place during Pryderi's reign in Dyfed (southern Wales) but is set in Gwynedd (northern Wales), where Math is king. Math has issues: he requires his feet to be held by a virgin at all times. His nephews, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, rape the current footholder. Math is furious, marries the girl, and curses the brothers with the best punishment ever. They become a male/female pair of deer in the first year, a pair of pigs in the second, and a pair of wolves in the third--and they breed with each other. Twisted and fantastic! This branch is a long and convoluted one. After Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are thoroughly schooled, the story goes on to tell of the search for a new virgin footholder, the testing of the brothers' clever sister Aranrhod, the birth of a new hero called Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and the creation of Blodeuwedd, Lady of the Flowers. [read the Fourth Branch here]

As is no doubt obvious, there are fascinating things happening in the Mabinogi with regard to family dynamics, sexual relationships, and gender roles. The magic items and curses are woven seamlessly into the tales. This is a medieval Wales heaving with wonders so rich they're almost banal again; strange events are everyday, and the everyday, in our terms, is nonexistent. The characters are vivid and changeable, passing in and out of hero/villain status. The Mabinogi are incredibly rewarding to study, but they're also purely vibrant storytelling, beautiful in their labyrinthine twists, made to tell around a bright fire.

Image:
- The illustration at the beginning of the First Branch in the 1877 edition of Lady Guest's translation [via Sacred Texts at link]

Sources:
- The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, trans. Will Parker [full text available at link]
- The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, trans. Patrick K. Ford [Amazon link]
- The Mabinogion, trans. Lady Charlotte Guest [full text available at Sacred Texts: link]
- What is the Mabinogion? (an introduction plus recommended editions) [link]
- A brief introduction to medieval Welsh prose via UBC [link]
- mabinogistudy.co.uk [link]
- Wikipedia [link] and [link]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

recommendation: "The Assassin's Cloak" (2001 book)

"A diary is an assassin's cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen." -- William Soutar

I've never kept a diary. I'm not sure why, but I'm more interested in writing about things I've learned, enjoy, or dream about than about my life directly (as this blog no doubt indicates).* But I love reading others' journals. I'm shamelessly seduced by the voyeuristic thrill of reading something personal and private--or even something meant for publication that only plays at secrecy (or those that don't even pretend, like blogs!). Whether it's hidden with the author's knickers or aired out for all to see, there isn't anything closer to brain-on-paper than a diary.

The Assassin's Cloak, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor (the edition I have is the giant, wrist-snapping hardcover published by Canongate Books in 2001), is a day-by-day anthology of the diaries of writers, artists, politicians, and other famous folks--admirable, reprehensible, most just in between. We are given glimpses into the lives of people like Lord Byron, Beatrix Potter, Franz Kafka, Noël Coward, Virginia Woolf, and Evelyn Waugh (to name just a few of the 170 writers whom I found most fascinating). The entries are generally post-seventeenth-century and mostly English-language, but some are in translation. From the jacket:
"Along the way we meet cads and charmers, sailors and psychopaths, rock stars and prima ballerinas, gossips, drunks, snobs, lechers and lovers. There is humour and tragedy, history and the humdrum, often recorded on the same day or in the same entry."
This emotional clash is what makes the anthology so attractive: the switchbacking path it takes you down is weird and conflicting, yet never jarring, and always enthralling.

There are several excerpts per day, so that you can see what was happening in the minds and worlds of people centuries and countries apart. You can't really follow the day-to-day activities of any one person, as his or her journal might be excerpted only a handful of times over the course of the year. But it's amazing when a familiar pen does crop up again and you get a look at the author's life in a different year, a different place, a wholly different emotional state. The author's name isn't given until the end of the entry, which adds to the fun: you become familiar with the voices, friends (or enemies), and events belonging to each person and can often identify who's writing before you reach the end.

The Assassin's Cloak is an inspiring daily journey, one that provides introductions to people you never thought you'd meet.

"No doubt diary-keeping is also a kind of vanity. One has the sauce to believe that every thought which comes into one's head merits recording."** -- James Lees-Milne (June 23, 1973)

* However, I love Twitter. There's something about as-it-happens commentary, rather than end-of-day recapping, that totally seduces me into participation. You will pry my Twitter from me only if you wish to contend with my bared fangs. How I wish all of these diarists had had Twitter!
** Which--unsurprisingly, considering my affection for Twitter--I absolutely agree with. Writing is the alchemical process that turns raw thoughts into precious things; we don't know what is precious until we've created it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

ramble: the art of a good book cover

I'm a visual person. My initial attraction to something (or, romantically speaking, someone*) is based on its exterior. I love beautiful things (and I don't mean beautiful by objective or traditional standards, but personal ones). Beautiful music turns into visuals in my head. So do beautiful words--they run past me like a film. This visuality does not make me shallow** or biologically male***--it's just part of who I am as an artist and a writer, someone heavily reliant on sight not just for daily functioning, but for inspiration, for emotion, for connection.

This applies to my book purchasing, of course. I like to browse in bookstores, and what makes me pick something up? A pretty cover combined with specific keywords (demon! vampire! queen! masquerade! dandy! magic! courtesan! poison! any overly wordy phrase! etc). I want a book that appeals to me visually, and then delivers on that visual promise when read. I often buy knowing nothing of the book beyond its cover, its title, and its back cover copy. Most of the time, I don't even read the first page.

Here are four books I bought without any knowledge of the author, purely because their covers seduced me into the reading the back. Those blurbs lived up to the covers' promise, so now the books are sitting on my shelves.+ I haven't read any of them yet, but based on what I've seen so far, I have high hopes.

Misfortune
by Wesley Stace
cover design by Susan Koski Zucker & illustration by Kathleen Bartoletti

I love this juxtaposition of romantic painting with stark, graphic layout. I love the painting itself: according to the cover flap, it's Lady Caroline Ponsonby Lamb--one of Lord Byron's lovers--by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845). I adore the delicate little drawn-on mustache. It's so graceful and almost textual, like the little flourish you might see in ink below someone's signature. I don't even like yellow, but this deep mustard colour suits the title perfectly--ironically happy? Or jaundiced?

Maledicte
by Lane Robins
cover design by David Stevenson, based on photographs by Nigel Silcock & Peter Mason

I love masks. This is a photograph that looks like a painting. The white skin and red lips are an aesthetic I adore. The mass of feathers makes me think of fairy-creatures or plumage to go with some fantastical costume just out of sight. The blank, empty eyes are both frightening and serene. Is this a person or just a mannequin?

Whitechapel Gods
by S. M. Peters
no cover artist credited++

Jack the Ripper back from Hell, I presume? Love the evil steampunk vibe, the blazing fires behind his stark ribs, the gears crawling up over them. Is he being consumed or just running on his usual fuel? The tip of his hat is probably not a good sign. And the spider is just nasty. Awesome.

Gossamer Axe
by Gael Baudino
no cover artist credited+++

I like this kind of clearly-defined semi-stylized semi-realistic business. And, um, rockstar sidhe. I could stop right there. Her robes are gorgeous--her cloak even has a Celtic pin. Her long, red hair is glorious. And her electric guitar is incredible. The warped wood looks almost alive. Look at her raised brow, her milky eyes, her little smirk! I want to be her.



* This has been and continues to be problematic.
** I require substance to follow, or I will be off fawning over the next pretty thing.
*** As numerous bullshit studies would have us believe.
+ Interestingly, these titles don't contain any of my pickituprightnow keywords. But I also like non sequiturs and words that start with M.
++ This is maddening. Credit your artists!
+++ Likewise.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

recommendation: "True Blood" (2008-present TV series)

I was thrilled two years ago when I heard True Blood was to become an HBO series--not because I'd read the books, but because I adore vampires, the bloodier and lustier the better. And True Blood promised to the bloodiest and lustiest of all. I still haven't read the books (by Charlaine Harris; I've bought the first few, and still haven't gotten around to reading them*), but I've been watching the show with glee. Because that gory, delicious, cravingly hawt glory it promised? It delivered. Splat.

My love for vampires started in high school, as it (so I hear...) frequently does, thanks to my wicked-badass friend (HELLO!) encouraging me to read Anne Rice. My obsession has only grown since, and I doubt I'll ever outgrow it; indeed, I want even messier, swampier, sexier versions of beautiful Louis and smirking Lestat. Is such a thing even possible? True Blood, set in the modern-day American South, fulfills my every wish and is set to continue fulfilling--the third season has just started, and its popularity only seems to be growing, making me very relieved. I need my V!

The story follows Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress at a bar owned by Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell). In this altered-reality Louisiana (and indeed, world) vampires have come out of the coffin, as they say, and live among humankind. Sookie falls for 160-year-old vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer)--but this is no happily-forever-after, especially once 1000-year-old Eric (Alexander Skarsgård), owner of the club Fangtasia, swaggers in. Sookie is no whimpering damsel, Bill is no flawless saviour, and Eric is... really hot** (I shut down and start gibbering when confronted by Eric). Disasters ensue. Mess follows mess. Our hazy-grey, tenuously-admirable anti-heroes and anti-villains take every opportunity to feed on, savage, murder, double-cross, lie to, and, most often, seduce each other, leading to ever more tangled plots, disgusting bloodsplosions, and violently sexy encounters.

True Blood is also clever. Its commentary on fundamentalist religion, homophobia, and racial prejudice is delightfully unsubtle. It rubs its message, like everything else, in your face. The mocking jabs at bigots and hypocrites always have me hissing hell yes, tell 'em, bitches! at the screen. True Blood has no inhibitions--not about exploring the dirtier, grittier, sweatier, juicier side of life, nor about calling out those who would hide their own dirt behind fake moral veneers.

This show is exactly the kind of thing I love: it lays itself bare, isn't afraid to go there, and then sasses you behind your back. Leave your conscience in the dirt, because True Blood will suck your heart out, turn your stomach, and casually maul whatever delicate sensibilities you might still be clinging to.

Have my favourite song from the soundtrack; it perfectly sums up the show--



* But even if I had, I'd be recommending the TV show on its own merits anyhow. As I've said before, I don't mind when a version of a story told in a different medium departs from its source material as long as it's executed with style and sincerity.
** "Is there blood in my hair?"

Saturday, June 12, 2010

ramble: the Lady of Shalott in literature, art, and music

I am half-sick of shadows...

The Lady of Shalott and her longing for Sir Lancelot summon up images of Arthurian legend, of Victorian romance, of tragic fantasy. She is a paradoxical figure of love unrequited, beauty idolized, innocent voyeurism, thankless sacrifice, forced passivity, and fate confronted. Who is the victim, who the pursuer? Who is the beloved, who the lover? The Lady's femininity and elusive power is perplexing and enthralling.

The Lady is Elaine of Astolat (or Elaine the Fair), part of medieval Italian and French Arthurian legend cycles of the 13th-15th centuries, including Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Elaine loved Lancelot from afar; in Malory's version (an episode in Book 18 of Caxton's 1485 edition), she persuades him to carry her token in a jousting tournament, but he refuses to engage further with her, and she dies broken-hearted.

She is best known, however, in her altered Victorian form--she made frequent appearances in 19th-century literature. She is known especially via Alfred Tennyson's 1833 poem (revised in 1842); she also appears in Tennyson's 1859 The Idylls of the King.

In the poem, she does not meet Lancelot while she lives, for she is cursed to remain in an island-castle prison, viewing the world only through a mirror. It is in this mirror that she sees Lancelot. Pierced by his beauty, she defies the curse, dares to venture into the world, and so discovers her end before her love.

The three paintings here are all versions of her by John William Waterhouse (1888, 1915, and 1894, respectively), but Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Sidney Harold Meteyard, Arthur Hughes, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, and many other Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist artists drew and painted their impressions of her.

She has also been referenced in song. Emilie Autumn tells the story in her own words, accompanied by a harpsichord that captures an aching mix of hope, anger, and despair:



And Loreena McKennitt's beautiful adaptation of Tennyson's poem has never yet failed to break my heart and bring me to tears. Here is a live version:



I first discovered the Lady through Anne of Green Gables: Anne, in love with the poem, attempts to recreate the Lady's dying journey down the river, an adventure which of course goes terribly awry. Oh, how I longed to have a suitable river and boat in which to try it for myself! The Lady will always fascinate me, for as she watched piecemeal reflections of the world and spun them into dreams, I, dreaming, see parts of myself reflected in her.

Lancelot mused a little space; / He said, "She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott."

Images:
- All via Wikisource [link] [link] [link]
- Some further images can be found at the Camelot Project [link]

Sources:
- Elaine of Astolat/The Lady of Shalott at the Camelot Project [link]
- Summary of Book 18 of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur [link]
- Full text of Caxton's edition of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (link starts you at the Astolat episode of Book 18) [link]
- Full text of both versions of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" [link] or [link]
- Full text of "Lancelot and Elaine" in Tennyson's The Idylls of the King [link]
- Wikipedia [link] and [link]

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

recommendation: "Quills" (2000 movie)

Quills is the story of the Marquis de Sade, scandalous author of erotica (or pornography? that is another debate altogether) in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century France. He is confined to an insane asylum, but continues to write, to the dismay and delight of his public.

"You're not the Antichrist. You're nothing but a malcontent who knows how to spell!"

At least, this is the tale the movie promises us, but much like the Marquis' own work, it delivers something entirely different underneath the lewd veneer. Just as de Sade explored philosophy through perversion (or normalcy? that, too, is another debate), Quills explores philosophy through the man himself. The movie is a meditation on writing, reading, and the power inherent in both.

"It's not even a proper novel! It's nothing but an encyclopedia of perversions!"

Quills' exquisite cast plays out a four-part character dynamic in all its painful nuance. De Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is the writer, Maddy (Kate Winslet) the reader, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) the healer, Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) the corrector. Who are our heroes and who are our villains? The Abbé is the hero--or is he? Is naivety and goodwill enough to form a hero, or are they seeds that will blossom into unspeakable maturity? Maddy is our heroine, is she not? But is she so desperate for personal realization that she will walk over others to attain it?

"The price, my coquette, is every bit as firm as I am."

The Doctor is a bleak villain, convinced of his principles: in his mind, he is the hero, and our reactions to him depend on this. "I had no time to write," he says to his prepubescent bride. In the context of the movie, his failure to touch the quill signals to us the depth of his malignancy, but once we have seen the horrors other quills have wrought, can we be entirely comfortable with our own judgement? Yet his bride's chance to lift his cruel hand comes through de Sade's words, the very words that precipitate others' fall.

And the Marquis himself--ah.

"I'll die of loneliness. I've no company but the characters I create."

De Sade is perhaps the most complicated figure of all, and yet his desire is so simple: to write the world that is in his head. It is only because he himself is so aware of his mighty contradictions and the turmoil that thrusts his hand to the quill and the quill to the page that he appears to us with such bleak force and engages both our revulsion and our compassion.

"And then they started burning it!" "That's the peril of composing such incendiary prose."

Quills shows us just how much agency rests in the apparently inert object of the book. Books are nothing without their writers and their readers, and yet they harbor ideas just like the humans that cradle them. Books are born, persist, survive, remain, perish. Books burn. Books set fires. Books are flammable beings, just like we are.

"My writing LIVES!"

Through the course of the movie, we see it happen. Words grow from ink on paper to wine on bedsheets to blood on clothing to sounds passed from lips to ears to, finally, shit smeared on prison walls. Words are images, sustenance, coverings, conversation, excrescence. Words flourish and words die. What do their makers and their recipients do? And how greatly do they influence each other?

"I've all the demons of Hell in my head. My only salvation is to vent them on paper."

The Marquis believes his salvation lies in writing, but is he saved? And Maddy says, "Reading's my salvation," and yet her voracious desire for stories leads her, too, into destruction. Is writing ever more than a breath away from someone's destruction--do we destroy in the very act of creation? What do we destroy when we create? Can one put words in, yet take only words out, or do words become actions the moment they pass our lips, our pens, our keyboards? Quills begins with wit and fun, sex and sly glances, but devolves into pure, choking horror. Such a perfect descent does not assure us of anything.

"How easily, dear reader, does one turn from predator to prey."

Quills is one of my favourite movies. It asks us to read between the lines as we consider pleasure and pain, truth and fiction, morality and immorality, gift and curse, grace and annihilation. These things thrive in symbiosis, and our words can make all the difference. Do we, too, swallow the rosary, or do we continue to scrawl through feverish despair in the hope that someone out there is listening?

What do we do if someone is?

Monday, June 7, 2010

inspiration: "Flirt" by Alphonse Mucha

FLIRT

see high-res image here at the Art Renewal Center

-- Alphonse Maria Mucha (1899)
[see more works at the Art Renewal Center here]

Friday, June 4, 2010

ramble: absinthe, or that accursed green fairy

"The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things." -- Oscar Wilde (as told to John Fothergill, and quoted in Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III, pp. viii-ix)

Absinthe: the spirit that was the darling of the nineteenth-century bohemian world, from France to America, she who was la fée verte, the "green fairy" (memorably personified in Moulin Rouge! by an adorable Kylie Minogue). Many fell under its spell, for a spell it seemed to them to be: just read Ernest Dowson's 1899 poem "Absinthia Taetra" [link] or Raoul Ponchon's 1886 poem "Sonnet de l'Absinthe" [via link]. Absinthe is one of the, if not the most, romantic and deliciously forbidden drinks--even today, it retains its mystique and the misconception that it is hallucinogenic, poisonous, and possibly fatal lingers.

Absinthe is a pale green spirit that tastes of anise (licorice), first created in 1792 by a Frenchman in Switzerland. It is distilled from a variety of herbs, including hyssop, mint, coriander, and chamomile.

The most notable ingredient is, however, wormwood: a psychoactive chemical, thujone, comes from this plant. However, there is relatively very little thujone present in absinthe, certainly not enough to cause the kind of hallucinations and mental disturbances attributed to it. Rather, it is likely absinthe's high alcohol content (up to 72-74%) that is the foremost danger; one would be dead of alcohol poisoning before one had consumed enough wormwood to poison oneself (Conrad, p. 154).

However, this, too, is no danger for the casual absinthe-drinker: the spirit is traditionally "louched," that is, taken diluted with water poured over a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon across the lip of the glass (the sugar provides a counterpoint to the bitter anise flavour).*

But not all absintheurs were casual. Despite its logically innocent composition, abinsthe inspired, enraged, maddened, and destroyed a great many men and women on both sides of the year 1900 (it was eventually banned in 1914).** It was both a mark of bohemian society and its curse, each magnifying the other's supposed corruption to onlookers only too ready to condemn them both.

Artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Monticelli, and poets Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and, of course, Wilde, are some of the notable bohemians who were partial to absinthe. Partial might not be the word to describe Verlaine and Rimbaud's allegiance to the spirit:
"By most accounts, Verlaine and Rimbaud were besotted on a nearly full-time basis. For Rimbaud, drinking was not a pleasure but a necessary form of flagellation to make the nerves sing like harp wires. Verlaine had a different temperament. When absinthe percolated through his system, he behaved with loathsome brutality, taking out a deep-seated anger on his passive wife Mathilde. He beat her, set fire to her hair and clothes, and even slashed her with a knife. Rimbaud urged Verlaine on...." (Conrad, p. 26)
Absinthe: the symptom and the excuse, not the cause, of the behaviour of young bohemians like this pair--who were the ones to give all the rest, and their drink of choice, such a bad name. Absinthe: the outlet of frustrated dreamers whose wickedness and promise of sweet transport came from the drinker, not the drink. The green fairy holds up a mirror, and the reflection can be lovely--or terrible.

* I confess, I have never tried absinthe. I would love to, but it's hard to find--especially a good, faithfully crafted variety, not one of the many imitators.
** Production resumed in fits and starts in the late twentieth century. Today, in most countries the drink is, finally, legal once more.

Images:
- 1896 poster advertising Absinthe Robette, by T. Privat-Livemont [via link] (I have this on my wall)
- The preparation of absinthe [via link]
- La Muse Verte by Albert Maignan (1895) [via link]

Sources:
- Raoul Ponchon, "Sonnet de l'Absinthe" [via link]
- Ernest Dowson, "Absinthia Taetra" [link]
- Conrad, Barnaby III. Absinthe: History in a Bottle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.
- Wikipedia [link]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

recommendation: "The Golden Age of Erotica" (1965 book)

The Golden Age of Erotica by Bernhardt J. Hurwood (1965; though I am here using and quoting from the 1969 paperback reprint by Tandem) is still my favourite sourcebook for the rowdy and raunchy side of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries*--though I suppose it is considered rather dated (to which I say pshaw). From the back:

Painstakingly culled from yellowed manuscripts and the vaults of collectors, the erotic excerpts presented in this unique volume reveal a ribald, bawdy and lusty era that connoisseurs of more up-to-date erotic literature will relish. THE GOLDEN AGE OF EROTICA so vividly brought to light by this book includes the 17th and 18th centuries--the age of FANNY HILL,** TOM JONES, rakish monks and dissolute royalty. In England, France and the new world of America, sin, corruption and immorality ran rampant, making this period one of the most delightfully garish, joyously gaudy and outrageously sexual epochs in history.***

Hurwood tackles this vast subject (and as he notes in his preface, "[p]aradoxically, there was so much erotica produced between the 1660s and the 1890s, that most of it passed into obscurity") from both historical and literary perspectives. He examines a wide variety of erotic art--novels, poetry, drama, paintings--and real-life sexual practices like flagellation and the fad (really) of adultery. He begins with "Poets, Pranksters and Rakehells," which is, I feel, the way one could approach anything and have it immediately become ten times better. Here are some choice quotations from the following chapters (I will not quote from the sources directly, to spare your blushes).

On satire: the infamous Lord Rochester's play Sodom, or, The Quintessence of Debauchery--"[I]n its own peculiar way Sodom contains a reverse morality-in-profanity, for it illustrates with sickening clarity the consequences of perversion, anarchy, and unbridled licentiousness" (p. 23).

On periodicals: the notorious Rambler--"Interested parties could find informative do-it-yourself articles on sexual techniques, health, and flagellation, as well as intimate memoirs, the latest, hottest, Crim. Con. [adultery] cases, and spicy fiction galore" (p. 61).

On flagellation: "Indeed, [though] there is much to be said for those who assert that de Sade's influence accelerated the growth of flagellant literature ... it is beyond doubt that the predilection for flogging long ante-dated the arch-sadist of letters. ... [And] there is no question that the greatest quantity of this specialized erotica is peculiar to the English language ... Perhaps it was the cold climate which originally aroused in Englishmen a desire for whipping" (p. 105).

On hermaphroditism (a subject I'm very interested in): "It greatly appealed to jaded individuals who were uncertain about their own sexual inclinations. By delving into the recondite lore of the hermaphrodite, these indecisive fence-straddlers found all the erotic stimulation they desired without any conflict at all. It simply became unnecessary for them to worry about which sex they found more appealing. Both were embodied in a single entity, thus eliminating the need for troublesome decisions" (pp. 159-60).

On female same-sex relationships: "Women with a fondness for their own sex were either not recognized as sexual deviates, or merely regarded as indulging in a passing fancy. Egotistical males invariably looked upon lesbianism as a second-rate substitute activity practiced by man-starved females" (p. 160).

On aphrodisiacs: "One popular seventeenth century formula included ants, wine, and cinnamon. Others not only included ants, but woodlice, bees, semen, blood, not to mention the genitals of every creature from the rooster to the stag" (p. 185).

Hurwood's tone is always this frank and playful; his discussion never shies prudishly away. He describes this lush and dirty fare from start to finish (ha [sorry]) with a coy tongue in his cheek, nicely shooing away those with incompatible moralities. From the preface:
"Most of the books, plays, anecdotes, and bawdy songs quoted here have been attacked at one time or another as 'indecent,' 'blasphemous,' and worse. In all probability there are still those among us who would delight in pinning similar labels on these works today ... [but] to read excerpts from them is a memorable experience. ... Lurid, fantastic, and wild are the best terms to use in describing these clandestine books of an earlier era. One thing is certain. The word dull can never be applied to them."
Wink-wink-nudge-nudge, indeed. I cannot recommend The Golden Age of Erotica enough, whether you're researching the period--erotica was such a huge part (ha [I'm so sorry]) of the period that in all conscience (look! I worked conscience into this!) you can't ignore it, and Hurwood provides a thorough bibliography--or just fascinated by its sexier angles.

* That is, their best side!
** One of my favourite novels. According to Wikipedia, it's "one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history." I'll give it its own post, trust.
*** Is this final sentence not pure blazing glory?+
+  I was born so far out of my time.

Monday, May 31, 2010

inspiration: "Sonnet" by Rupert Brooke

SONNET

I said I splendidly loved you; it's not true.
Such long swift tides stir not a land-locked sea.
On gods or fools the high risk falls — on you —
The clean clear bitter-sweet that's not for me.
Love soars from earth to ecstasies unwist.
Love is flung Lucifer-like from Heaven to Hell.
But — there are wanderers in the middle mist,
Who cry for shadows, clutch, and cannot tell
Whether they love at all, or, loving, whom:
An old song's lady, a fool in fancy dress,
Or phantoms, or their own face on the gloom;
For love of Love, or from heart's loneliness.
Pleasure's not theirs, nor pain. They doubt, and sigh,
And do not love at all. Of these am I.

-- Rupert Brooke, in Collected Poems (1915)
[read this book online here]

Saturday, May 29, 2010

ramble: the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, or necromantics

I've studied a great deal of medieval necromancy--ritual magic that is not just the tired old reanimation of the dead. Folks well into the 17th century* generally considered "necromancy" to be a kind of ceremonial divination primarily (though not solely) involved with conjuring demons and/or other spirits.** A necromancer might conjure a demon to serve him (almost always him) domestically, bodily,*** by giving him a magical object,+ or by bestowing extraworldly knowledge on him.

Necromancy and exorcism were thus closely related, but the Church was not exactly cool with the former. However, clerics interested in necromancy did not usually think they were acting counter to Christian belief; the ceremonial systems are very much embedded in Christianity, and from the perspective of a practitioner, there is little difference between "religion" and "magic."

There are hundreds of extant necromantic manuscripts. Some are wedged in among other things in miscellanies while some are standalone codices. Such ritual textbooks are often called grimoires: two well-known examples are the 15th/16th-century Key of Solomon and the 17th-century Lesser Key of Solomon. Johann Weyer's late-16th-century book De Praestigiis Daemonum is not quite in the same vein; he was responding to the growing trend of brutal witch-hunting handbooks.++ His book, especially its appendix, the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, has prevailed as a fascinating record of demonology and the necromantic practices that relied on it.

The Pseudomonarchia Daemonum is a major source for the first book of the Lesser Key of Solomon, the Ars Goetia, and itself draws on the grimoires that came before it. It lists and describes sixty-nine demons with their "ranks" or "titles" as well as the appropriate times for conjuring them. The following are three of my favourites--note how they're not necessarily intrinsically evil.+++

- Marbas, who appears as a lion, inflicts and cures illness and can shapeshift the conjurer [link to full description]
- Astaroth, who appears as a "foul angel" riding a dragon, teaches liberal arts and sciences and has bad breath [link to full description]
- Gomory, who is male but appears as a lady riding a camel, finds treasure and can get women (especially virgins) into the conjurer's bed [link to full description]

Requisite safety disclaimer: don't try conjurations at home. At least not without proper preparation and preferably an expert on hand. I'm still not responsible for what happens, mind.

* And even into the 18th and 19th centuries; the Victorian interest in spirits didn't come out of nowhere.
** As opposed to natural magic, wherein one uses animals, plants, and minerals in conjunction with the zodiacal and lunar cycles, sometimes incorporating written charms, for generally more practical ends.
*** Sexy. I mean it; some of them are hot fairy-women.
+ Like a ring of invisibility (hot fairy-women bring one in a manuscript I've studied; the conjurer then gets it on with them. Double score).
++ I haven't read the whole thing, however, so I can't say if he seems to have fully believed in the validity of ritual magic; I get different impressions from different secondary sources (however, he did at least believe in the existence of demons). Probably the fellow was (wisely) being cagey.
+++ Like any sort of technology, necromancy's a tool; it's all in how you use it.

Images:
- A "great pentacle" from the Key of Solomon [via link]
- A depiction of Astaroth from the Dictionnaire Infernal, an 1818 work on demonology [via link]

Sources:
- Biography of Johann Weyer [link]
- Full text of the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum in both Latin and English at Esoteric Archives [link]
- Full text of the Lesser Key of Solomon at EA [link]
- Full text of the Key of Solomon at EA [link]
- List of demons in the Ars Goetia (slightly different from the PD) [link]
- The Dictionnaire Infernal [link] (I'll blog about this one in detail someday)

Friday, May 28, 2010

recommendation: "Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles" (2009 video game)

Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles is a follow-up to 2007's Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, both on-rails shooters for the Nintendo Wii. I played RE:UC with my best gamer buddy and it rocked, so clearly we had to play this one. I'm also quite the fan of rail shooters. I've heard them derided as archaic, arcade-style, outmoded games, but I find them to be a very particular and very enjoyable blend of movie-like storytelling with gaming. Sometimes, I really enjoy having control of the camera and world taken out of my hands--letting the director guide me, yet still asking for my input in order to progress. It's a particularly effective mixture of relaxation and tension. And it trains you damn well for the headshot.

RE:DC is, in fact, a serious improvement over its predecessor. Lots of shaky cam and jostling about, meaning you're frequently confronted by oozing, rotting zombies RIGHT IN YOUR FACE and you'd better be damn good already at the ol' headshot. There are plenty of opportunities to upgrade your weaponry. The bowgun is silly but rad, the grenade and rocket launchers are badass, and the shotgun is still trusty (though you can't upgrade its reload speed. Realism. Sigh.) The inventory (I love a good inventory) is easy to manage; you never have quite enough ammo, of course, and rightly so. The co-op mode is fantastic. Your health and your partner's health decrease separately, and you've got to decide whose state is the critical one if you've only got one restorative herb. Sometimes, the camera will cut away to show you your partner in the third person, and you'll be unable to shoot (this happens equally for player 1 and player 2). It's massively frustrating, but in a good way, as it adds to the tension--"BEHIND YOU! I CAN'T SHOOT IT! YOU HAVE TO!"--and it allows you to ogle your exquisitely hot partner.*

You get to play as five characters from Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil Code Veronica: Leon Kennedy, Jack Krauser, Claire Redfield, Steve Burnside, and Chris Redfield. There are three scenarios: Operation Javier (South America), Memories of a Lost City (Raccoon City), and Game of Oblivion (Rockfort Island). The adversaries are nicely varied between the scenarios. The only real disappointment is that the scenarios are pretty short. It took us about seven hours to finish the whole thing, and this even with getting stuck on one of the bosses.** The graphics, pacing, and overall story are just so bloody*** good that it is a Major Bummer when it's over.

You can certainly have a grand old time with RE:DC without being a Resident Evil fan (though I am a wild-eyed one of both the games and the movies). You might not understand everything that's happening, but just remember: T-virus bad. T-Veronica virus bad. G-virus bad. All make BOWs (Bio-Organic Weapons)--gross mutated zombie monster things--giant toad monsters! giant plant monsters! giant turkey monsters! They're all bad. Kill them. KILL THEM ALL.

* By which I really just mean Leon Kennedy. SMOKIN' HOT, right there. Of course, your tastes may vary, but if so: you're weird. Leon is the man. He's perfect. End of. Don't argue with me on this one.
** A minor flaw: the occasional cheap trick is involved in order to off certain bosses. Relying on blind luck is no fun.
*** Seriously.

Friday, May 21, 2010

ramble: patches, or the history of the beauty mark uncovered

Her patches are of every cut,
For pimples and for scars;
Here’s all the wandering planets’ signs,
And some of the fixed stars.
Already gummed to make them stick,

They need no other sky.
-- Anonymous [via link]

In eighteenth-century Europe, beauty spots or marks were much in fashion. Marks both real (moles) and false (patches) had started to come en vogue in sixteenth-century England, first a fad among the trendy and foppish male courtiers. (Patches may initially have been used to disguise pockmarks left by disease.) Both genders began to patch themselves with fervor in the seventeenth century, and in the eighteenth, delicate facial marks were all the rage or--ahem--as we might say, widespread.

As few folk are graced with perfectly placed, aesthetically-pleasing moles (heaven forbid your facial mole be too prominent or, indeed, hairy), false patches were usually quite necessary. Called mouches (French for "flies"), they were made from silk, velvet, taffeta, or leather and affixed with gum. They could be of any colour and certainly did not conform in shape to a simple dot. Patches in the shape of hearts, stars, moons and yet more outrageous forms were common. A particularly elaborate--and popular!--patch design was an intricate (and no doubt sizeable) coach-and-horse!

Such extravagant facial adornments were, of course, much despised by the moralizing set, and while some infatuated souls admired their patched lovers' faces, others felt a patch (or too many patches) marred, not enhanced, beauty. In many modern films, beauty marks become a joke, a sign of neither loveliness nor dire moral corruption, but rather a marker for airheaded vanity (see: the hardly-period-appropriate-but-hilariously-awesome Prince John in Robin Hood: Men in Tights).

The popularity of beauty marks waned in the latter half of the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth, but the trend continues today, though (like so many things) it seems to be more acceptable for women than for men (Enrique Iglesias had his facial mole removed in 2003; however, take note of Prince!). Famed beauties Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Cindy Crawford all flaunt(ed) their pretty moles. The gorgeous and talented Dita von Teese has an artificial-but-permanent beauty mark on her left cheek. And, speaking of tattoos, the lovely Kat von D's smattering of stars on her left temple can be read as another manifestation of the urge to patch.

Then there's my own pale imitation: little girls' stick-on earrings make excellent, cheap-and-easy beauty marks. Or, when one is feeling a little bit more posh and moneyed, this darling little packet with its hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds would be absolutely perfect.

Image:
- The exquisite Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette in the eponymous 1938 film

Sources:
- The Costumer's Manifesto: 18th Century Makeup [link]
- Chambers' Book of Days (1869) [link]
- The Faces Behind the Masks: The "Toilette" in 18th Century England [link]
- Wikipedia [link]
- TVTropes [link]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

recommendation: "North & South" (2004 miniseries)

Historical drama is what keeps me breathing, by God. And I ought to be writing the BBC an annual thank-you letter for single-handedly rejuvenating my will to live.

North & South is a four-part series based on Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel (which was originally a twenty-two-part serial). I haven't read the book, but--tangent--I am not much of a stickler for accuracy. I don't really mind if a film adaptation is unfaithful to either the history or the literature on which it is based (though it's delightful when it is bang on) as long as it works on its own as a cohesive tale within a cohesive world and doesn't pretend to be a documentary or The TRUE Story. Good storytelling is good; therein my concerns end. (The key, as ever, is sincerity.) So, I haven't the faintest sense of true-to-the-bookness here, but, to be semi-appropriately referential, I don't give a damn, because it is a damn good series.

Damn good. It's the mid-nineteenth century. Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) is from the southern English countryside, modern-yet-spoiled daughter of a dissenting minister who uproots his family to the north to stay true to his principles. John Thornton (Richard Armitage*) is the owner of a cotton mill in the northern industrial town of Milton: a strict and severe yet equally principled businessman. It is the perfect clash. Milton might as well be an alien planet for Miss Hale, a fact she realizes while trying to accept, if not enjoy, her new life. Mr Thornton is also struggling with acceptance: of his social position--a master, yet hardly aristocratic; supposedly wealthy, yet in fact in danger of losing his business--and of his developing affections for Miss Hale.

There are clashes at all levels: between masters and workers, men and women, families of differing status, the charitable and the prideful. Mr Thornton may declare his love for Miss Hale before either of them is able to deal with it, and Miss Hale may be trying to settle everyone else's problems before realizing she must first remove her own blinkers, but each is trying to do what he or she believes to be best. North & South is all about principles: not right and wrong, but rather the unique personal morality of every individual and how we must mediate it in order to live with each other.

And yet, Milton is somehow not a morally grey place. "I have seen Hell," Miss Hale says, "and it is white." The pale fairylike fluff of the cotton kills those who work in the mill and dictates the lives of everyone in Milton. It is the master, the sole livelihood for Mr Thornton and his employees alike. It is no abstracted evil; it is real. Miss Hale and Mr Thornton must learn how to cope with it when roles are reversed, responsibility must take the place of charity, and white will somehow have to meet black without either losing its purpose and clarity.

Also, there are trains. And kissing on trains. Crossings of paths and revelations in transit; where do we meet? How can we meet halfway? The emotional brilliance of North & South is positively feverish. Perfect.

* Shallow meter: savagely broken. Richard Armitage always shatters all records of SMOKIN' HOTNESS. For reference: the innumerable scenes of lurking, stalking, gazing-through-windows, pining-through-windows, brooding, angsting, and principled passion. Principled passion. Just look at the principles emanating from him in that photo. I take it back about the will-to-live thing. I AM SLAIN.