Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Column On Gollum: Portraits Of A Fallen Hobbit

While the way that Gollum (the tormented fallen hobbit in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien) is imagined will probably be influenced for some time to come by his portrayal by Andy Serkis (and CGI) in Peter Jacksons' movies, it was not always so. When The Hobbit was first published in 1937, details of his size, shape, and even species were so mysteriously ominous that various forms of monstrous size and shape were presented as representations of him. Even when much more was known about Gollum with the publication of The Lord of the Rings, descriptions of his aquatic nature and webby hands would have him appearing like "a rotten evil swamp frog," and his skin has been every imaginable shade from green to grey to corpse-like. The pictures above are tagged with the artists last names, when known, and are in no particular order.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On The Trail Of Another Old Book

In a sense, this story starts almost forty years ago. In another sense, it started last week with pirates and mermaids.

Last week, when I began seeing commercials for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, with its images of sea-faring folk and mermaids, a picture was brought up from the old files in the back of my mind. It was of a small cabin (garishly lit) inside the belly of a whale. The captain had just opened the door, and inside was revealed the Devil and a mermaid, playing cards for his soul. Two equally vivid illustrations I also remembered from the book this picture was in: a young man finding the Devil's cat in a woodpile, and the three drunk friends and old man from Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale." Over forty years ago I had read this book in my aunt's house; I believe it was some Reader's Digest compilation for Young Readers. I have been on the look-out for this book ever since, not only for the stories within, but especially for the impressive illustrations.

When I was in college in the early Eighties I ran across the picture of the Devil's cat in a book, one in a yearly series of commercial art and illustration. I made a Xerox of the picture; like a fool I made no note of the artist or where it was published. I dug that picture out of my archives and made a new scan of it; the name is down there in the grass, but I can't make it out.

Anyway, I went looking around on the Web and using elements from what I recalled of the pictures. I was able to identify the story with the captain, the Devil, and the mermaid as that of Ichabod Paddock (a whaler), who is trapped in the belly of Crookjaw the whale, where the mermaid (a sea-witch) wins his soul. He is only saved when his wife forges a silver harpoon and spears the whale, overcoming the mermaid's magic and turning her into wood (a figurehead, naturally). The story of the Devil's cat in a woodpile is "Erkki and the Devil's Hide," sometimes just called "The Devil's Hide." It is a Finnish tale, the story of a young fellow named Errki, who goes to work for the Devil. They make a bargain; whichever of them loses their temper first will be skinned by the other to make a coat. The Devil does all in his power to upset Errki, but for every trick the Devil pulls, Errki does him one better; when the Devil puts his cat in the woodpile to prevent Errki from cutting wood, Errki simply cuts its head off. The Devil eventually loses his temper and has his hide stripped, after which he vows to leave the Finns alone. "The Pardoner's Tale" of course I knew from high school.

So much for the stories. I haven't been able to find the book. I'm not even positive (at this distant date) if it was a Reader's Digest book. I've looked for anything that even has a couple of the stories together. There are two "juvenile" books of the whale story: "Ichabod Paddock: Whaler" (1970) and "Crookjaw" (1994). I found "The Devil's Hide" in both an old collection of Finnish folk tales and in an anthology edited by Jane Yolen. I found a fellow named Frank Patton who seems to be dimly recalling (as I have) the same book; he remembers the name Ichabod Paddock but is apparently looking for the story "The Devil's Hide." This assures me at least that my memory is not simply a crazy imagination.

So perhaps my best lead could be the artist--if I could only find out who that is. My one clue there is that the style of the picture of Erkki is very similar to the style of an artist who did cover illustrations for Dell/Laurel leaf books, such as Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye, or the covers in the 80's of the five Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander. Which could be helpful, except I can't find any indication anywhere of who that artist is!

So there my quest stands. If anyone, anywhere, can help me--the name of the book, the name of the artist--please, please do, so I can pin down this teasing memory at last.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mismatched Quote And Picture--Or Is It?

"Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered broken bones,
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Koschei the Deathless

Koschei the Deathless (or 'the Immortal') is a figure in Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish) folklore. He is an extremely powerful sorcerer, sometimes referred to as a 'Tsar,' or king. His power seems to derive from two sources: one is his talented talking horse, which steed he received for serving the old witch Baba Yaga in her stables; the other is his detachable soul. This soul is described as being in a needle, inside an egg, inside a duck, inside a hare, inside an iron box buried underneath a green oak tree on a small island in the middle of a sea on the other side of the world. While his soul remains hidden, he cannot be killed and is physically invulnerable. One way to restrict his power seems to have been to imprison him; at the beginning of one tale the hero finds the emaciated Koschei in a secret room, bound with twelve chains and given neither food nor drink. The compassionate hero gives the sorcerer three barrels of water, after which Koschei recovers his strength, bursts his chains, and promptly abducts the hero's wife. It is only with the help of animal companions (including a superior horse that the hero also gains from Baba Yaga's stable) that he is able to overcome Koschei and recover his wife. In other tales the hero finds the egg with the sorcerer's life, and either snaps the needle or smashes the egg on Koschei's forehead, causing 'the Deathless' to die. Although never explicitly described in the tales, Koschei's name may derive from the word for 'bones,' and he is usually depicted as bony, even skeletal, with a long rough beard. From this it would appear that although his powers give him immortality, he does not have eternal youth into the bargain.

Koschei the Deathless appears in James Branch Cabell's Biography of Manuel, but there he is a demiurgic creator who appears in various guises. Koschei is the villain in the Soyuzmultfilm animation of The Frog Princess, and also appears as a character in the Hellboy stories.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"The Challenge of Thor": Favorite Poems


I am the God Thor,
I am the War God,
I am the Thunderer!
Here in my Northland,
My fastness and fortress,
Rule I forever!

Here amid icebergs
Rule I the nations;
This is my hammer,
Miolner the mighty;
Giants and sorcerers
Cannot withstand it!

These are the gauntlets
Wherewith I wield it,
And hurl it afar off;
This is my girdle;
Whenever I brace it,
Strength is redoubled!

The light thou beholdest
Stream through the heavens,
In flashes of crimson,
Is but my red beard
Blown by the night-wind,
Affrighting the nations!

Jove is my brother;
Mine eyes are the lightning;
The wheels of my chariot
Roll in the thunder,
The blows of my hammer
Ring in the earthquake!

Force rules the war still,
Has ruled it, shall rule it;
Meekness is weakness,
Strength is triumphant,
Over the whole earth
Still it is Thor's-Day!

Thou art a God too,
O Galilean!
And thus single-handed
Unto the combat,
Gauntlet or Gospel,
Here I defy thee!

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I first read this poem back in middle school, without the controversial last stanza, of course. Longfellow wrote in in his famous "Hiawatha" meter, which was of course modelled on the meter of The Kalevala, the national Finnish epic collected and edited by Elias Lonnrot. Longfellow threw in just enough alliteration to give it that Anglo-Saxon/Icelandic flavor.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The May Day Carol

It was of old a tradition to go to the woods on a May Eve, and through the night gather greenery for the adornment of the celebration of May Day. The opportunity of being out in the woods at night was taken advantage of by the young , and many a maid left home that came back never a maid again, having gotten her "green gown" rolling in the grass. But in the morning the May would be brought in and used to decorate the celebration: May poles, of course, and the carrying of the May Queen (in older times a fabulously bedecked doll, and later a pretty girl). For singing the carol, showing the May Queen, and leaving a branch of green, the singers expected a little reward, like carollers at Christmas. Dew gathered on a May morning was said to be good for eye troubles, especially dew obtained at dawn in a churchyard from the newest grave. The May Carol has many versions; Loreena Mckennitt adapted it for her song "The Mummer's Dance."