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July 2019

August 2019

The mystery of stories

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"I find it so difficult to talk about how I write. There are those who are unnervingly articulate about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it....I am not particularly articulate, unnervingly or otherwise. I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril. The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it. There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht. No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed, or inconsolable longing. There’s a word in Welsh, hwyl, for which we also have no match. Again, it is longing, a longing of the spirit. I just think many of my figures seek something that cannot be found."

- Joy Williams

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.' "

 - Philip Pullman

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev, page design, pages 14-15

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.' For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

The Wild Swans by Anton Lomaev"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

- Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The beautiful fairy tale paintings in this post are by the Belarusian artist Anton Lomaev. He was born in Vitebsk in 1971, studied at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and has been illustrating children's books and designing book cover art since the 1990s.

The paintings above come from Lomaev's edition of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen.  Below is his cover art for the Russian edition of East by Edith Pattou (a wonderful novel based on the Scandinavian fairy tale"East of the Sun, West of the Moon"), and a painting of his desk. Please visit Anton Lomaev's website to see more of his magical art.

Anton Lomaev's cover art for East by Edith Pattou

"And telling a story, I suppose, is like winding a skein of spun yarn -- you sometimes lose track of the beginning."  - Edith Pattou

Anton Lomaev's desk

The Joy Williams quote is from "The Art of Fiction No. 223" (Paris Review, Summer 2014). The Philip Pullman quote is from his introduction to Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm (Viking, 2012). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is from her essay "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From," publishing in The World Split Open: A Literary Arts Reader (Tin House Books, 2014). The Edith Pattou quote is from her novel East (Harcourt Children's Books, 2003). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.

Further reading (related to The Wild Swans fairy tale): Swan's Wing, Swan Maiden & Crane Wives, and When Stories Take Flight: The Folklore of Birds.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Leaves of the wood

Many of our friends and colleagues in the fantasy publishing field have been in Dublin over the last several days for the World SFF Convention, and so music and poetry from Ireland seems an appropriate way to start off the week. All the videos here were shot by filmmaker Myles O'Reilly, who specializes in documenting the work of Irish musicians at home and abroad. I love his work, which beautifully captures this moment in time in the Irish music scene.

Above: O'Reilly's short film Backwards to Go Forwards (2019), which he describes as "a little snapshot" of contemporary Irish folk music. The film features This is How we Fly, Cormac Begley, Saileog & Muireann Ní Cheannabháin, Radie Peat, Cormac Mac Diarmada & Brian Flanagan, Ye Vagabonds, Slow Moving Clouds, The Bonny Men, Zoe Conway and John McIntyre, along with interviews conducted by O'Reilly, Martin Mackie, and Donal Dineen.

Below: "Rí Rua" by This is How We Fly, fusing traditional music of Ireland and Sweden with jazz improvisation and clog dancing. The performance was filmed at Fumbally Stables in Dublin, 2017.

Above: "I Courted a Wee Girl" performed by Ye Vagabonds (brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), who grew up in rural Carlow but are now based in Dublin.

"In the summer of 2018," says O'Reilly, "I was invited to document a tour with Ye Vagabonds who were performing on six islands off the coast of Ireland. The result is Seven Songs On Six Islands, a musical and visual odyssey through some of the most remote and beautiful edges of the country."  The full film can be viewed O'Reilly's Patreon page, where, if you make a pledge, your funds will help him to make one similar music documentary per month. 

Below: "Willie O Winsbury" (Child Ballad #100) performed by Ye Vagabonds in Dublin, 2014.

Above: "Factory Girl" performed by two stalwarts of Irish music: Lisa O'Neill (from Cavan) and Radie Peat (of the band Lankum, from Dublin). The video was filmed for O'Reilly's This Ain't No Disco series showcasing Irish music and spoken word.

Below: "Morning," a gentle song by the folk duo LemonCello (Laura Quirke and Claire Kinsella), who started performing together at university in County Kildare. Cello, harmonies, scones, adorable dogs...there's a lot to like here.

And one more to end with:  "iomramh" by Dublin poet and playwright Stephen James Smith, filmed for the Ain't No Disco series. "The poem," says Smith, "was written at Cill Rialaig in County Kerry. An iomramh is a class of old Irish tale concerning a hero’s sea journey to the otherworld. Each of these journeys ostensibly takes place in the physical world, but in parallel with this they are, on a deeper level, also journeys to oneself."

The Cill Rialaig artists' retreat in County KerryThe Cill Rialaig Artists' Retreat, Co. Kerry, Ireland.


A day out at Chagford Show

Chagford Show 1

Chagford Show 2

Chagford Show 11

Yesterday I went to our village's agricultural show, now in its 119th year, celebrating the skills, crafts, and lore of the local farming community, and its central place in life on the moor. Reflecting on the nature of community, I was reminded of this passage from "The Common Life" by essayist Scott Russell Sanders:

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common, and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, touch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents.

"After twenty-five years with [my wife] Ruth, that is how I have come to understand marriage, as a constant exchange of labor and love. We do not calculate who gives how much; if we had to, the marriage would be in trouble. Looking outward from this community of two, I see my life embedded in ever-larger exchanges -- those of family and friendship, neighborhood and city, countryside and county -- and on every scale there is giving and receiving, calling and answering.

Chagford Show 4

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Chagford Show 3

"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious; and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive. A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant battering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us.

Chagford Show 6

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"The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid. Such a community arises not from duty or money but from the free interchange of people who share a place, share work and food, sorrows and hopes. Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

Chagford Show 9

Prize-winning sheep

In an interview in 2004, writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams also spoke of the value of putting down roots in an increasingly peripatetic world:

"It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community? It doesn't mean it's easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you're not going to go away.

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"It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in 'casserole diplomacy' by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.

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"That way we begin to know the predictability of a place. We anticipate a species long before we see them. We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons; we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the stregnth within ourselves and each other to hold these lines. That's my definition of family. And that's my definition of love."

Chagford Show 21

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Chagford Show 22

Words: The passage above is from "The Common Life" by Scott Russell Sanders,  published in his essay collection Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995). The passage by Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview by Derrick Jensen in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Ethos (Chelsea Green, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Chagford Show, 2019. I've blurred the faces of the children displaying their sheep for privacy's sake.


Old stones, old gods, and silence

Tintern Abbey, eastern columns

 From Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden:

"It seems to me that a materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all.  It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.

"Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of Tintern Abbey by Chriss Gunnspresences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away. William Wordsworth gives voice to this imaginative faculty in this excerpt from his poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey':

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things."

 

Tintern Abbey by Marion Haworth

Tintern Abbey by Wici Rhuthun

The beautiful bones of Tintern Abbey (pictured here) rise from the banks of the River Wye on Welsh side of the English-Welsh border. The abbey was founded in 1131 for the White Monks of the Cistercian Order, followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, whose silent and austere way of life was devoted to prayer, scholarship, agricultural labor and self-sufficiency.

"Why does the soul love silence?" asks Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer is a Quaker, a group for whom silence is also an important part of communal prayer. "The deepest answer I know invokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from the Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.

Inside Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"Our culture is so fearful of the silence of death," writes Parker, "that it worships noise nonstop. In the midst of all that noise, small silences can help us become more comfortable with the Great Silence toward which we are all headed. Small silences bring us 'little deaths,' which, to our surprise, turn out to be deeply fulfilling. For example, as we settle into silence, where our posturing and pushing must cease, we may experience a temporary death of the ego, of that separate sense of self we spend so much time cultivating. But this 'little death,' instead of frightening us, makes us feel more at peace and more at home.

Tintern Abbey by Saffron Blaze2

"The Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to 'keep death before one's eyes daily.' As a young man I found this advice a bit morbid. But the older I get, the more I understand how life-giving this practice can be. As I settle into silence, I draw closer to my own soul, touching a place within me that knows no fear of dying. And the little deaths I experience in silence deepen my appreciation for life -- for the light suffusing the room as I write, for the breeze coming in through the window.

"So silence brings not only little deaths but also little births -- small awakenings to beauty, to vitality, to hope, to life. In silence we may start to intuit that birth and death have much in common. We came from the Great Silence without fear into this world of noise. Perhaps we can return without fear as well, crossing back over knowing that the Great Silence is our first and final home."

Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

Words: The passages quoted above are from Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden (Sounds True Publishing, 2014) and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer (Josey-Bass Publishing, 2009). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


On art and silence

River 1

River 2

"Why is silence important to writers?" Lorraine Berry asked Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in 2013. "Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?"

River 3

"Silence is where we locate our voice," Williams answered, "both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.

River 4

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"You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.

River 7

"Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude.

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"It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion."

River 9

River

Words: The passage above is from "Terry Tempest Williams: Silence is Where We Locate Our Voice" by Lorraine Berry (Talking Writing, June 17, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from The Continuous Life: Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Down by the River Teign on a hot summer day.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Wingspan

This week, I am feeling the need for quiet, focus, and to find my creative centre again --  so I'm turning to the music of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, for whom a love of simplicity and silence inspired the musical style he calls tintinabulli.

"On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed," the composer explains. "On the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe. And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak. Silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn't even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve."

Above, Pärt's exquisite "Spiegel im spiegel," performed by Sally Maer (cello) and Sally Whitwell (piano), accompanied by the very beautiful art of American painter Jeanie Tomanek.

Below, Pärt's "Summa," performed by The Carducci Quartet: Matthew Denton (violin), Michelle Fleming (violin),  Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), and Emma Denton (cello).

Below, an English-language piece by Pärt: "My Heart's in the Highlands," performed by Danish soprano Elsa Torp and English organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, recorded for Pärt’s Triodion CD (2003). The lyrics come a Robert Burns poem written in 1789.

Allt a' Mhuilinn in the Scottish Highlands

"Is it possible to make a living by simply watching light?" asks American writer Terry Tempest Williams. "Monet did. Vermeer did. I believe Vincent did too. They painted light in order to witness the dance between revelation and concealment, exposure and darkness. Perhaps this is what I desire most, to sit and watch the shifting shadows cross the cliff face of sandstone or simply to walk parallel with a path of liquid light called the Colorado River....This living would include becoming a caretaker of silence, a connoisseur of stillness, a listener of wind where each dialect is not only heard but understood."

In the Wild Country by Jeanie Tomanek

For more Arvo Pärt this morning, I recommend Even if I Lose Everything, a short film on the composer by Dorian Supine. The art above is: "Wingspan" and "Wild Country" by Jeanie Tomanek. The Terry Tempest Williams quote is from her excellent essay collection Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001).


Wild stories

Wild companion

Winged deer tapestry

The Bumblehill studio

While the world of human affairs goes on its noisy, alarming way, I return again and again to the woods and hills behind my studio. To moss. To mud. To the dark, damp mulch of leaves carpeting the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the prickly beauty of holly and gorse, and the slow, silent patience of seed and bulb. To the resurrection of bracken, grown so tall that the trails are half-hidden beneath it.

I keep leaving my desk, Tilly close at my heels, crossing from the imaginary landscapes of writing or reading to a world I can touch, and smell, and taste: to the old stone wall at the edge of the treeline, and pathways trodden by wild ponies and sheep. To streams filled with rain, bogs thick with mud, brambles that snag my skirts and scratch my shins. To discomfort. To pain. To surprise. To joy. To the things that are real.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings -- and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, "magic" is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with natural world, and our nonhuman neighhbors. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

Wild words

"I have a sense," writes Kate Bernheimer "that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing human awareness of separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that 'might live forever.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinction."

Edmund Dulac illustration

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"Writing," says Sylvia Linsteadt, "is my way into the heart of the world -- its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms -- the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.

Kay Nielsen illustration

HJ Owen illustration

"Also, I have always been an avid reader," Sylvia continues; "especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today -- as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Our task, as David Abram sees is, "is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps."

 "Storytellers ought not to be too tame," Ben Okri agrees. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Jay Griffiths adds: "What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

Adrienne Segur illustration

Illustration by Adrienne Segur

Wild stories

Words: The passage by Sylvia Linsteadt is from an interview by Asia Sular (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting, Sept. 2014), which I recommend reading in full. Kate Bernheimer's quote is from the Introduction to her anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010); Ben Okri's quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (W&N, 1997);  Jay Griffith's quote is from Wild: An Elemental Journey (Penguin, 2007). All three books are recommded. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: My quiet hillside studio on a rainy day -- with the hound, works-in-progress, old fairy tale books, and bits of the wild slipping in from the woods.


For International Cat Day: Feline Folklore

Cat and Mouse in Partnership by Arthur Rackham

According to one old legend, cats were the only creatures on earth who were not made by God at the time of Creation. When God covered the world with water, and Noah set his ark afloat, the ark became infested with rats eating up the stores of food. Noah prayed for a miracle, and a pair of cats sprang to life from the mouths of the lion and lioness. They set to work, and quickly dispatched all the rats -- but for the original two. As their reward, when the boat reached dry land the cats walked at the head of the great procession of Noah's animals. Which is why, the legend concludes, all cats are proud, to this very day.

In the earliest The Key Marco Cat carvingfeline images found on cave walls and carved out of stone, wildcats are companions and guardians to the Great Goddess -- often flanking a mother goddess figure in the act of giving birth. Such imagery has been found in ancient sites across Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East. In China the lion, Shih, is one of the four principal animal protectors -- associated with rain, guardian of the dead and their living descendants. In the New World, evidence of wildcat cults is found across Central and South America, where the jaguar was the familiar of shamans and a powerful totemic animal. Ai apaec of the Mochica people of Peru was a much-revered feline god, pictured in the shape of a wrinkle-faced old man with long fangs and cat whiskers. A hauntingly beautiful wood carving of a kneeling figure with the head of a cat (pictured on the right) was found just off the Florida coast -- remarkably well preserved, the image dates back over three thousand years.

Seeking the Eye of Ra by Virginia Lee

We find the first evidence of the wildcat's small cousin, Felis catus, in ancient Egypt -- where the beasts were so sacred that any man who killed one was condemned to death. When a house cat died, the entire family shaved its eyebrows as a sign of grief; and mummified cats (along with tiny mummified mice) have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus reported the fate of a hapless Roman who'd caused the death of a cat:

Bastet"The populace crowded to the house of the Roman who had committed the 'murder'; and neither the efforts of the magistrates sent by the King to protect him nor the universal fear inspired by the might of Rome could avail to save the man's life, though what he had done was admitted to be accidental. This is not an incident which I report from hearsay, but something I saw myself during my sojourn in Egypt."

Mau was the Egyptian word for cat -- both an imitation of its speech, and a mother-syllable. Bast, the Cat-mother, was a goddess whose cult began in the delta city of Bubastis and eventually covered all of Egypt with the rise of the XXII Dynasty. Unlike the fierce lion-headed Sekmet from earlier Egyptian myth, Bast embodied the benevolent aspects of cats: fertility, sexuality, love and life-giving heat. Bronzes from the period show the goddess in her feline form (seated and wearing earrings), as well as in human form with the head of a cat, kittens at her feet. The twice-annual Festivals of Bast, as described by Herodotus, were carnivals of music, dancing, wine-drinking, love-making and religious ecstasy -- dedicated to Bast in her aspect as Mistress of love and the sensual pleasures.

Young Woman Holding a Black Cat by Gwen JohnNumerous legends tell of human beings who transform into the shape of a cat. Although some male wizards, magicians and shamans were gifted with this power, more commonly the shapeshifter was a woman, and a witch. Cats (along with bats, owls and toads) were believed to be witches' companions who aided in spells and carried messages to the Devil. During the tragically widespread witch trials of 16th and 17th century Europe, feline "familiars" were burned, hung, and drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, could shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep, lest witches compel them to join in their revels.

When we turn from folklore to fairy tales, shape-shifting cats are viewed as less sinister creatures. In "The White Cat," a popular French fairy tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, the three sons of a king are sent upon a series of quests. The youngest son meets a lovely white cat, the queen of an enchanted castle filled with cat-servants and courtiers. She helps the prince with his tasks, and over time he falls in love with her. In the end, she asks him to cut off her head; sadly, the young prince obeys her command. This breaks the spell, and the cat assumes her true shape as a human princess. (For a thoroughly modern rendition of the tale, I recommend Holly Black's YA novel The White Cat.)

The White Cat by Gennady Spirin

In "Kip the Enchanted Cat," from Russia, a mother cat and her kitten are actually human beings under a fairy's curse. The kitten is raised with a human princess and eventually aids her with several magical tasks, leading to the spell's undoing and a double wedding with two suitable princes. (This tale, about women's friendships, was a particular favorite of mine as a child.)

Kip the Enchanted Cat by Adrienne Ségur

"The Cat Bride" is a story of animal-transformation in reverse: a house cat becomes the human bride of a good and gentle man who allows the gossip of neighbors to undermine his marital contentment. (I recommend Jane Yolen's lovely retelling in her story collection Dream Weaver.)

The Russian fairy tale "Silvershod"  is the story of a poor man, a child, her beloved cat Moura, and a mysterious stag who sheds jewels in the snow. The fairy tale ends oddly, for the jewels bring prosperity but the dear little cat vanishes with the stag. In a bittersweet poem inspired by the fairy tale, Ellen Steiber writes: Drawing by Arthur Rackham

        In the north country
        a child wakes in a soft feather bed
        and remembers
        a red-brown cat
        whose nose was cold against her neck.

        In the north country
        a child sits in a tall, gabled house
        and remembers a pale gray stag
        with a silver hoof
        who gave and took
        what was most precious.


Silvershod, Puss-in-Boots, and The Three Who Spun by Adrienne Ségur

Papa Gatton by Ruth Sanderson

The best known fairy tale cat of them all, of course, is that clever, bold rascal called "Puss-in-Boots." The story as we know it now comes from the French version penned by Charles Perrault in the 17th century; in earlier versions -- such as those of Straparola and Basile in Italy -- Puss is just as wily, but hasn't yet taken to wearing his famous boots. In a Scandinavian version, "Lord Peter," our plotting Puss is female, and is really a princess under a troll's evil curse -- but in most tales, Puss is a cat, nothing more, albeit a very magical cat. (The bawdiest and best retelling, in my opinion, is Angela Carter's, in The Bloody Chamber.)

Puss-in-Boots by Omar Rayyan

In additional to Puss-in-Boots and other memorable rogues from folklore and fairy tales, cats stalk through the pages of books beloved by children and adults alike. Who could forget the grinning Cheshire Cat met by Alice in Wonderland, or poor hungry Simpkin in Beatrix Potter's The Tailer of Gloucester?

The Cheshire Cat by Sir John Tenniel

Simpkin by Beatrix Potter

Or Rudyard Kipling's The Cat Who Walks by Himself, padding his way through the Just So Stories? Or Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat, setting to sea in their pea-green boat?

The Owl and the Pussy-cat by Chris Dunn

Or T.S. Eliot's dashing Growltiger in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? Or Mehitabel, friend to Archy the cockroach, in the poems of Don Marquis? Or the wily cats in Nicholas Stuart Gray's classic children's stories: Grimbold's Other World, The Stone Cage and Mainly in Moonlight? Or, more recently, the fabulous felines in A Circle of Cats and The Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess?

A Circle of Cats by Charles Vess

In 1817, the American author Washington Irving paid a visit to Scottish author and folklorist Sir Walter Scott. The following comes from Irving's account of that meeting, published in 1835:

Grey cat by Lisbeth Zwerger"The evening passed delightfully in a quaint-looking apartment, half-study, half-drawing room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of Arthur, with a fine deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to me to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture. While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin [Scott's cat] had taken his seat in a chair by the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

"'Ah,' said he, 'these cats are very mysterious kind of folk. There is always more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with witches and warlocks.' He went on to tell a little story about a gude man who was returning to his cottage one night, when, in a lonely out-of-the-way place, he met with a funeral coffin covered with a black velvet pall. The worthy man, astonished and half frightened at so strange a pageant, hastened home and told what he had seen to his wife and children. Scarce had he finished, when a great black cat that sat by the fire raised himself up, exclaimed, 'Then I am king of the cats!' and vanished up the chimney. The funeral seen by the gude man was one of the cat dynasty. "'Our grimalkin here,' added Scott, 'sometimes reminds me of the story, by the airs of sovereignty which he assumes; and I am apt to treat him with respect from the idea he may be a great prince incognito, and may some time or other come to the throne."

Magic cats by David Wyatt and Omar Rayyan

Captain Cat by Inga Moore

Any one of the cats padding through our lives each day may be a future King or Queen of the Cats, just waiting for the call to claim their crown. They certainly seem to think so themselves. They know they are creatures of magic.

Cat Princess by Ruth Sanderson

The paintings and drawings above are by Arthur Rackham, Virginia Lee, Gwen John, Adrienne Ségur, Ruth Sanderson, Omar Rayyan, Sir John Tenniel, Beatrix Potter, Chris Dunn, Charles Vess, Lisbeth Zwerger, David Wyatt, and Iga Moore. The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and authors.


Following the deer

The White Deer by  Adrienne Ségur

White-tail deer

I'm out of the studio today due to health care issues, but will be back tomorrow (Thursday). In the meantime, I recommend this for your morning reading: "The Supple Deer" by the brilliant American poet Jane Hirschfield.

The illustration above, for Madame D'Aulnoy's classic fairy tale "The White Deer," is by the French book artist Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981) -- best known to English-language readers as the illustrator of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales.

Books illustrated by Adrienne Ségur

Young Fallow Deer by Joshua Smythe copy