"Call me Bathsheba." Thus opens Patrick Ness's novel, The Ocean Was Our Sky. (I giggled, remembering the opening to James Thurber's The Wonderful O: "Call me Littlejack,' he roared. And the taverners called him Littlejack.") An obsessed captain hunting a villainous Toby Wick? Surely this must be a joke, a parody of Moby Dick. It works by inversion: ocean for sky, whales who hunt whalers. A female narrator, Bathsheba, against Melville's Ishmael. But the book isn't funny: it's heartbreaking and weird, and Rovina Cai's illustrations are as important as the text.
Picturing a World
Yesterday, my copy of this British 25th Anniversary edition of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights arrived, with Chris Wormell's stunning illustrations. The landscapes are breathtaking, especially those of icy mountains and the aurora borealis.
As it happened, I've been reading Peter Davidson's wide-ranging Idea of North, a study of how the concept of "north" has figured into art, culture, folklore, etc. Last night, I came across a passage about how certain magnetized stones retain their orientation in spite of geological shifts. Davidson remarks on "this fundamental marvel of the earth itself having an idea of north, a northern memory" (p. 56). The idea of intelligence as information rather than consciousness is certainly coming into focus these days, including in the observation of how plants respond without a centralized brain. But think of it, the mineral world with memory, too!
For my library book club, I am reading Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, which is set in a near future when mass extinctions have wiped out almost all wildlife. What I'd love to see is a speculative fiction that embodies the life—the activity, and change, and slow responses—of the inorganic as well as organic world in sentient characters. We need to feel within us the tides and flow of the more-than-human world. A fantasy might be devised so that such awareness is part of everyone's experience, or a special set of a population; or it could be that in a more conventional realistic story there is at least one character grappling with the implications of just what non-human, non-animal intelligence entails.
So as a jumping off point (a là Natasha Pulley)—if it were true that people could slow their rhythms down to the sound waves sent by elephants through the ground or perceive with their own senses the changes wrought by water on a cliff, what else would have to be true? What would follow?
NB: The 25th anniversary illustrated edition of Northern Lights will be published in America in May 2021 under the title The Golden Compass.
Last night, tired of political news, I surfed the 'net and found an astonishing collection of dragon images at Tor.com. It goes on and on. I scrolled and scrolled. Most are 20th and 21st C illustrations for fantasy fiction, which vary from cheesy to brilliant. Even the cheesy ones are so professionally executed that if you love dragon pictures, you'll get a kick out of them. Scattered throughout, moreover, are older images from Renaissance Italy to Chinese scrolls to William Blake—and this one by Thomas Cooper Gotch. It stopped me and held me; and this morning it sent me into a variation of Natasha Pulley's writing exercise.
Blog post alert: Dollhouse miniatures and The Lord of the Rings? Two of my pleasures, unexpectedly combined in Maddie Chambers-Brindley's astonishing and delightful My Hand Made Hobbit Hole. Nearly forty photographs of a spectacular craft project. In these last days of the election campaign amid a pandemic, it's a welcome little escape—and it comes with a link to How I made the Hobbit Hole.
In tidying up some computer files, I came across this whiz-bang drawing of a moving house by Albert Robida. It made me laugh all over again. Look at the lass pointing an umbrella on the lower porch balcony—she could be Myrtle in Philip Reeve's very funny steampunk novel, Larklight! In fact, David Wyatt may well have been partially inspired by Robida for his wonderful period-flavor, Larklight illustrations.
A terrific post, Mapping the 16th century garden, at The Gardens Trust's blog, pointed out the trees on the 1588 map of Luca in Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Trees planted along the ramparts of a walled city—like a boulevard! Characters could stroll in peacetime. Could soldiers take cover during hand-to-hand fighting if the wall were overtopped by an invading army? For historical fiction, further investigation is called for; for fantasy, imagination. Meanwhile, a little moment of research rapture.
For those of us who love Tolkien's Middlearth, September 22nd is a red-letter day not only as the first day of fall but as the shared birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. In a recent Myth and Moor post on The Mythic Art of Alan Lee, the illustrator is quoted as saying "I don't think I've ever seen a drawing of a hobbit which quite convinces me." All I can say is, this 15th C bas-de-page detail is a good place to start! And if you can, sit out under a tree and have a little something in honor of Bilbo and Frodo.
This picture of a mythological subject by Katsushika Hokusai is one of 103 drawings recently acquired by the British Museum. They were preparatory sketches for a book that was never published. In a way, they fit into Jeanette's Parisian art world, because the set was acquired by Henri Verver (1854–1942), a jeweler and early collector of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. What struck me immediately, though, was how the image relates to a Japanese word, komorebi for those dawn sunbeams radiating through trees on a misty morning. Or, for that matter, to comic books—ka-pow!
Blog post alert: Author-illustrator James Gurney has posted a Q&A on his world of Dinotopia well worth reading. He makes the point, for instance, that fully illustrated books are immersive and provide triggers to deepen the reader's involvement in imagining that world. One answer to a question, however, startled me.