Saturday, July 16, 2011

On Being A Wizard

"[Rincewind] objected to the fact that you had to be good at magic to be a wizard. He knew he was a wizard, deep in his head. Being good at magic didn't have anything to do with it. That was just an extra, it didn't actually define somebody."


" 'I don't think you understand. A wizard isn't what you do, it's what you are. If I wasn't a wizard, I wouldn't be anything.' "

--from Sourcery (1989), by Terry Pratchett.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Stuffed Crocodile (or Alligator)

"And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuffed and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes..."
--from Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, describing an apothecary's shop.

"There the wizard sat in all his state. A stuffed crocodile canopied his head, a serpent's skin of large dimensions was spread under his feet..."
--from Anastasius (1836), by Thomas Hope.

The Century Magazine in 1914 lists the stage properties of a wizard as "his gown and wand, the stuffed crocodile, and the skeleton in the corner."

"There were tables strewn with archaic instruments of doubtful use, with astrological charts, with skulls and alembics and crystals, with censers such as are used in the Catholic Church, and volumes bound in worm-eaten leather with verdigris-mottled clasps. In one corner stood the skeleton of a large ape; in another, a human skeleton; and overhead a stuffed crocodile was suspended."
--from "The Return of the Sorcerer" (1931), by Clark Ashton Smith.

"There was a real Corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tale stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed."
--from The Sword in the Stone (1938), by T. H. White.

"Gradually, the children discovered other treasures; a chart on which the signs of the zodiac were nicely touched up by Miss Price in water colour; a sheep's skull; a chocolate box full of dried mice; herbs in bunches; a pot of growing hemlock and one of witch's bane; a small stuffed alligator, which hung by two wires from the ceiling.

'What are alligators used for, Miss Price?' asked Paul.

Again Miss Price's training in truthfulness overcame her longing to impress. 'Nothing much,' she said. 'They're out of date now. I like to have it there for the look of it.' "
--from Bedknob and Broomstick (1943, 1957), by Mary Norton.

"The marquis took in the room, eyes sliding from detail to detail. The stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling, the leather-bound books, an astrolabe, convex and concave mirrors, odd scientific instruments; there were maps on the walls, of lands and cities de Carabas had never heard of; a desk, covered in hand-written correspondence."
--from Neverwhere (1996), by Niel Gaiman.

"Like all wizards' workshops, the place looked as though a taxidermist had dropped his stock in a foundry and then had a fight with a maddened glassblower, braining a passing crocodile in the process (it hung from the rafters, and smelt strongly of camphor)."
--from The Light Fantastic (1986), by Terry Pratchett.

"There was a large crystal ball with a crack in it, an astrolabe with several bits missing, a rather scuffed octogram on the floor, and a stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling. A stuffed alligator is absolutely standard equipment in any properly-run magical establishment. This one looked like it hadn't enjoyed it much."
--from Mort (1987), by Terry Pratchett.

"Because a raven sitting on a skull and going 'caw' is as much part of your actual wizarding modus operandi as the big dribbling candles and and the old stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling. Don't you know anything? I should have thought anyone knows that who knows anything about anything. Why, a proper wizard might as well not even have bubbling green stuff in bottles as be without his raven sitting on a skull and going 'caw'--"
--from Soul Music (1995), by Terry Pratchett.

"It was a wizard's study, so of course it had the skull with a candle in it and a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. No one, least of all wizards, know why this is, but you have to have them."
--from Going Postal (2004), by Terry Pratchett.

So, why do you have to have stuffed crocodiles?

There are two answers, the long one and the short one.

The short one is that they are cool and unusual, rather wicked looking, and give the impression that something out of the ordinary is going on where it is. This is why they are in bars and souvenir shops to this day.

The long answer is historical, convoluted, and a little speculative, and it goes back to the Middle Ages.

In those days, the main type of private travel was the religious pilgrimage, where citizens of Christian European countries would travel to the Holy Land in the Middle East to accrue spiritual merit. Like folks travelling in any age, they would bring back mementos of their journey, the more peculiar and exotic the better. Stuffed crocodiles were very popular, being unfamiliar in the cold northern climes; private citizens would bring back smaller specimens, whereas kings and other potentates could receive or import quite large examples. The impressive size of these could give rise to tales of dragons as their true origins receded into the past. Sometimes living examples would be taken home, and if they escaped in the warmer countries (like Spain or Italy) might have survived in a wild state, gone rogue, and have to be hunted down. There was one king who kept a crocodile in his moat, which may have given rise to the whole idea of moat monsters.

In any case, stuffed crocodiles became associated with the studies of theologians, natural philosophers, alchemists, apothecaries, and other studious sorts, in the days when these disciplines where not greatly distinguished from each other. Even surgeon-barbers might have a specimen hanging around to advertise their expertise: the beast's toothy grin could well have a customer rubbing his own jaw. Crocodiles would be figured prominently in Cabinets of Curiosities, chests or even whole rooms filled with peculiar objects and interesting specimens. With the discovery of the New World, alligators joined the crocodile among the curios.

But with the progress of travel, trade, and discovery, the big lizards became less and less unusual, fell out of fashion, and became relegated to second-hand shops and less progressive establishments. The memories of their association with more mystical, less scientific times persisted, however, and their use as props in magic shows kept this memory alive long enough to become part of the wizard's tradition in popular literature.

Pictures: 1) A Cabinet of Curiosities; 2) The Alchemist At Work by David Teniers; 3) John Dee and Edward Kelly; 4) Merlin's House, by Alan Lee, from The Sword in the Stone; 5) and 6) from Bedknob and Broomstick; 7) Sokurah's Workshop from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 8) A Discworld Wizard by Dan Pence.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Kitsune: Japanese Fox Spirits

Kitsune is the Japanese word for fox, and all foxes are magical, and belong to the Yokai (supernatural) world. Their main talent is the ability to change shape; they can look like anyone, regardless of age or gender. This power (according to legend) manifests when they are one hundred years old; with every hundred years they acquire a new tail as a sign of their age and power. The wisest, strongest, most magical members of the race are the kyubi no kitsune, or nine-tailed foxes; when they reach this exalted level their fur turns white or gold. Some of these are called zenko (good foxes), and serve the Shinto kami Inari, the God of Rice. In contrast to these are the yako (field foxes), who are wild, mischievous, and occasionally malevolent.

Kitsune have many powers: They can generate fox-fire (kitsune-bi) in their tails to mislead travellers, can fly, become invisible, appear at will in dreams, create illusions, and drain the life-force from humans. But they are most famous for their ability to change into human shape, and the stories of men marrying foxes are many. There are several ways to spot a fox in human form: often a tail or paw showing will give them away; they hate and fear dogs and will flee them; they may be 'fox-faced,' with close-set eyes, high cheekbones, and thin eyebrows. They can also possess humans, usually women.

Kitsune are also accompanied by hoshi no tama, or star balls; these are pearl- or onion-shaped orbs of fire that either float around them or are carried in their tails or jaws. Much of their power depends on these items, and they are, in a sense, their removable souls. If a human captures the hoshi no tama of a kitsune, the fox has to do what the human commands.

This is just one attribute that kitsune share with the Western 'faerie' tradition. Their morality is inhuman; their physical gifts of money or wealth are often worthless items transformed by illusion; their marriages to mortals often have unhappy endings, but may produce magically precocious offspring (Abbe no Seimei in Japan is almost an exact counterpart to Merlin in Britain). The kitsuni no yemeiri (fox wedding) is said to occur during a sun shower (rain while the sun is shining--in the West this is held to be when the Devil is beating his wife), and foxes resent uninvited guests who see these affairs, as the fairies resent those who spy on their dances.

Some anime and movies in which kitsune or people with kitsune ancestry appear are Inuyasha, Naruto, YuYu Hakusho, Pom Poko, and Onmyoji.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Samuel Johnson On The American Revolution

"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"--Samuel Johnson, 1775.

But mark you, in the original Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson had put in an anti-slavery clause, that was removed at the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia; their support was deemed essential. Samuel Adams said to Ben Franklin, "Mark me, Franklin, if we give in on this issue, there will be trouble a hundred years hence; posterity will never forgive us." In slightly less that those hundred years, we had the Civil War.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Benjamin Franklin: Quotation

"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." --Benjamin Franklin.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Secret of...Alchemy!

Percy: I intend to discover, this very afternoon, the secret of alchemy! The hidden art of turning base things...into gold!

Blackadder: I see. And the fact that this secret has eluded the most intelligent people since the dawn of time doesn't dampen your spirits?

Percy: Oh, no. I like a challenge!

Friday, July 1, 2011


Ole-Luk-Oie is the Danish version of the Sandman, most famously described by Hans Christian Anderson in a story by the same name. His name is in two parts: Ole is a common Danish name, and Luk-Oie means "eye-shutter." He carries two umbrellas. One is covered with wonderful pictures inside, and this he holds over good children and gives them good dreams. The other is black, and this he holds over bad children, who then have no dreams and sleep heavily, and wake unrefreshed. He has a brother, also called Ole-Luk-Oie, whose other name is Death; he also shuts peoples' eyes.

The first three pictures here are from illustrations of Anderson's story; the fourth is from the Soyuzmultfilm feature The Snow Queen, where Ole-Luk-Oie (played by Mickey Rooney in the English dub) is narrator; and the fifth is from a proposed Disney feature that never got made. The story has influenced both James Branch Cabell (with Miramom Lluagor, the Lord of Dreams, and his half-brother Death) and Neil Gaiman (with Morpheus the Sandman and his sister Death).

For a really grotesque vision of the Sandman, look up E. T. A. Hoffman's version.