Coming up this week...

Tilly and Ellen

Here's one last reminder that Ellen Kushner is giving a talk (on fantasy lit and her own creative practice) to mark the opening of the new Centre for Fantasy & the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. It's online, it's free, and it's going to be fab, so if you're a fantasy reader (or fantasy-curious), please don't miss it. 

Drawing by Helen StrattonThere will also be information about the Centre (what it is and who it's for). And a panel discussion on the future of fantasy with two brilliant scholars of the field: Rob Maslen and Brian Attebery....and, umm, me.

The Zoom webinar tickets have sold out -- but don't worry, you can also view the whole event live on YouTube, and you don't need a ticket for that. Just follow this link on Wed. night (from 6 pm onward) to The Centre for Fantasy YouTube Channel. For more info, see my previous post about this event. 

I'm sorry to say that Howard and I are down with post-viral syptoms, yet again, from the nasty bug he caught in Spain in February -- which might have been Covid-19, or something else similarly persistent; the antibody tests were inconclusive. I am saving my strength for the Fantasy Centre launch -- which means there will be no new Myth & Moor posts until the launch has passed and I'm back on my feet. I pray that won't be long, and thank you all for your kindness and patience.

Perhaps I'll see some of you at the launch on Wednesday night...?

Bedtime Story by Jeanie Tomanek

Images above: A photograph of Ellen with Tilly by the Fairy Spring here in Chagford, during one of her many visits. A drawing by British book artist Helen Stratton (1867-1961). "Bedtime Story," a gorgeous painting by American artist Jeanie Tomanek. You can see more of her work here.


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 mulch of leaves on the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the hawthorn berries brightening the hedgerows, and blackberries ripening among the thorns. To acorns and apples dropping from the trees as the seasons turn.

Illustration by Helen StrattonI 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 through bracken by ponies and sheep. To the riverside, the commons, the crossroads. To the chilly mornings and the night-times drawing in. To discomfort. To loss. To pain. To joy. To acceptance. 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 (author & editor of The Fairy Tale Review) "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.


Dipping from the Cauldron of Story

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was the author of The Chronicles of Prydain, The Westmark Trilogy and other myth-laced novels for readers young and old, widely acknowledged as classics of our field. In this passage from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance," he looks at the roots of fantasy literature, gives advice to writers today, and talks about his own experience of writing The Black Cauldron and The Book of Three:

"While its full meaning remains tantalizingly unknown, we can trace mythology's historical growth into an art form: through epic poetry, the chansons de geste, the Icelandic sagas, the medi­eval romances and works of prose in the Romance languages. Its family tree includes Beowulf, the Eddas, The Song of Roland, Amadís de Gaule, the Perceval of Chretien de Troyes, and The Faerie Queene. In modern literature, one form that draws most directly from the fountainhead of mythology, and does it consciously and deliberately, is the heroic romance, which is a form of high fantasy. The world of heroic romance is, as Professor Northrop Frye defines the whole world of literature in The Educated Imagination, 'the world of heroes and gods and titans..., a world of powers and passions and moments of ecstasy far greater than anything we meet outside the imagination.'

"If anyone can be credited with inventing the heroic romance as we know it today -- that is, in the form of a novel using epic, saga, and chanson de geste as some of its raw materials -- it must be William Morris, in such books as The Wood Beyond the World and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Certainly Morris showed the tremendous strength and potential of the heroic romance as an artistic vehicle, which was later to be used by Lord Dunsany, Eric Eddison, James Branch Cabell; by C. S. Lewis and T. H. White. Of course, heroic romance is the basis of the superb achievements of J. R.R. Tolkien.

The Mabionogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"Writers of heroic romance, who work directly in the tradition and within the conventions of an earlier body of literature and legend, draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tol­kien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced­ and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee"Among the most nourishing bits and pieces we can scoop out of the pot are whole assortments of characters, events, and situa­tions that occur again and again in one form or another through­ out much of the world's mythology: heroes and villains, fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers, princesses and pig-keepers, prisoners and rescuers; ordeals and temptations, the quest for the magical object, the set of tasks to be accomplished. And a whole arsenal of cognominal swords, enchanted weapons; a wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility, seven-league boots; a whole zoo of dragons, helpful animals, birds, and fish.

"But -- in accordance with one of fantasy's own conventions -- nothing is given for nothing. Although we are free and welcome to ladle up whatever suits our taste, and fill ourselves with any mixture we please, nevertheless, we have to digest it, assimilate it as thoroughly as we assimilate the objective experiences of real life. As conscious artists, we have to process it on the most per­sonal levels; let it work on our personalities and, above all, let our personalities work on it. Otherwise we have what the com­puter people delicately call GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Because these conventional characters -- these personae of myth and fairy tale, though gorgeously costumed and capari­soned -- are faceless, the writer must fill in their expressions. Colorful figures in a pantomime, the writer must give them a voice.

The Mabionogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"Since I have been talking about the 'Cauldron of Story,' I am now reminded of the Crochan, the Black Cauldron that figured in one of the books of Prydain. Now, cauldrons of one sort or another are common household appliances in the realm of fan­tasy. Sometimes they appear, very practically, as inexhaustible sources of food, or, on a more symbolic level, as a lifegiving source or as a means of regeneration. Some cauldrons bestow wisdom on the one who tastes their brew. In Celtic mythology, there is a cauldron of poetic knowledge guarded by nine maidens, counterparts of the nine Greek muses.

"There is also a cauldron to bring slain warriors back to life. The scholarly interpretation --  the mythographic meaning --  is a fascinating one that links together all the other meanings. Im­mersion in the cauldron represented initiation into certain re­ligious mysteries involving death and rebirth. The initiates, being figuratively -- and perhaps literally -- steeped in the cult mys­teries, emerged reborn as adepts. In legend, those who came out of the cauldron had gained new life but had lost the power of speech. Scholars interpret this loss of speech as representing an oath of secrecy.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"One branch of The Mabinogion, the basic collection of Welsh mythology, and one of my own prime research sources, tells of such a cauldron of regeneration, and how it ended up in the hands of the Irish. And, in the tale of Branwen, the Welsh princess rescued from the Irish by King Bran, a great number of slain Irish warriors came back to life. Naturally, this cauldron posed an uncomfortable problem for the Welshmen, who were constantly finding themselves outnumbered; until one of the Welsh soldiers sacrificed his life by leaping into the cauldron and shattering it. This incident gave me the external shape of the climax of The Black Cauldron. Though changed and manipulated con­siderably, the nub of the story is located in the myth -- except for one detail of characterization: the essential internal nature of the cauldron, its inner meaning and significance beyond its being an unbeatable item of weaponry.

An illustration for the Mabiongion by Alan Lee

"And so I tried to develop my own conception of the cauldron. Despite its regenerative powers, it seemed to me more sinister than otherwise. The muteness of the warriors created the horror I associated with the cauldron. Somehow, I felt that these voice­less men, already slain, revived only to fight again, deprived even of the oblivion of the grave, were less beneficiaries than victims. As the idea grew, I began to sense the cauldron as a kind of ultimately evil device. My 'Cauldron-Born,' then, were not only mute but enslaved to another's will. If they had lost their power of speech, they had also lost their memory of themselves as living beings -- without recollection of joy or sorrow, tears or laughter. They had, in effect, been deprived of their humanity: a fate, in my opinion, considerably worse than death. The risk of dehumanization -- of individuals being manipulated as objects in­ stead of being valued as living people -- is, unfortunately, not confined to the realm of fantasy.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

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"Another example of the same kind of creative invention on the part of a writer has to do with the birth of a character; and in this case a most difficult delivery. Writing The Book of Three, the first of the Prydain chronicles, I was groping my way through the early chapters with that queasy sensation of desper­ate insecurity that comes when you do not know what is going to happen next. I knew vaguely what should happen, but I could not figure out how to get at it. The story, at this point, needed another character: Whether friend or foe, minor or major, comic or sinister, I could not decide. I only knew that I needed him, and he refused to appear.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee"The work came to a screaming halt: the screams being those of the author. Day after day, for better than a week, I stumbled into my work room and sat there, feeling my brain turn to con­crete. I had been reading a very curious book, an eighteenth-cen­tury account of the various characters in Celtic mythology. One of them stuck in my mind -- a one-line description of a creature half-human, half-animal. The account was interesting, but it was not doing much to solve my problem. I was convinced, by now, that I had suffered severe brain damage; that I would never write again; the mortgage would be foreclosed; my wife carried off to the Drexel Hill poor-farm; and I -- quivering and gibbering, moaning and groaning -- I did not even dare to imagine what would become of me. The would-be author of a hero-tale had begun to show his innate cowardice, and I was feeling tremendously sorry for myself.

"At four o'clock one morning, I had gone to my work room for what had become a routine session of sniveling and hand-wring­ing. I had decided, one way or another, to use this hint of a half­ animal, half-human creature. The eighteenth-century text had given him a name -- Gurgi. It seemed to fit, but he still refused to enter the scene. I could see him, a little; but I could not hear him. If I could only make him talk, half the battle would be over. But he would not talk. And so I sat there, expecting to pass the morning as usual, crying and sighing. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason what­ ever, I heard a voice in the back of my mind, plaintive, whining, self-pitying. It said: 'Crunchings and munchings?' And there, right at that moment, there he was. Part of him, certainly, came from research. The rest of him -- I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"My point, in these examples, is simply this: A writer of fan­tasy, like any writer, must find the essential content of his work within himself, in his own personality, in his own attitude and commitment to real life. Whatever form we work in -- fantasy or realism, books for children or for adults -- I believe that the fundamental creative process is the same. In his work, the author may be very heavily disguised, or altogether anonymous. I do not think he is ever totally absent.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"On the contrary, his presence is required; not as a stage man­ager who can be seen busily shifting the cardboard scenery, but as the primary source of tonality and viewpoint. Without this viewpoint, the work becomes more and more abstract, a play of the intellect that can move us only intellectually. It may be tech­nically brilliant, but it becomes sleight of hand instead of true magic. If art -- as Plato defined it -- is a dream for awakened minds, it should be, at the same time, a dream that quickens the heart.

"High fantasy indeed quickens the heart and reaches levels of emotion, areas of feeling that no other form touches in quite the same way. Some books we can enjoy, some we can admire, and some we can love. And among those books that we love as chil­dren, that we remember best as adults, fantasy is by no means least."

***

The Mabiongion illustrated by Alan Lee

The art today is from The Mabinogion, magnificently illustrated by Alan Lee. The paintings first appeared in an edition published by Dragon's Dream in 1982 (translated by Gwyn Thomas and Thomas Jones, 1949), and can now be found in a volume published by HarperVoyager in 2000 (translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1838-1845). The Easton Press published a sumptuous limited edition (with the Guest translation) in 2015.

More of Alan's artwork, including other Mabinogion paintings, can be found in this post from last week.

An illustration for the Mabiongion by Alan Lee

The passage above is from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Books, Dec. 16, 1971). You can read the full essay here. All rights reserved by the author's estate. The paintings above first appeared in The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones, illustrated by Alan Lee (Dragon's Dream/JM Dent & Sons Ltd, 1982). All rights reserved by the artist.


Stepping into story

Bear Friend by Alexandra Dvornikova

"Step across the boundary and the trespass of story will begin. The forest takes a deep breath and through its whispering leaves an incipient adventure unfurls. The quest. In the lull -- not the drowsy lull of a lullaby but the sotto voce of a woodland clearing, scented with story as it is with with wild garlic -- this is the moment of beginning, the pause on the threshold before the journey. So many tales begin here, hard by a great forest...."

- Jay Griffiths

Lost Forest by Alexandra Dvornikova

"Humans are storytelling creatures. We need story, we need deep mythic happenings, as much as we need food and sun: to set us in our place in the family of things, in a world that lives and breathes and throws us wild tests, to show us the wildernesses and the lakes, the transforming swans, of our own minds. These minds of ours, after all, are themselves wild, shaped directly by our long legacy as hunters, as readers of wind, fir-tip, animal trail, paw-mark in mud. We are made for narrative, because narrative is what once led us to food, be it elk, salmonberry or hare; to that sacred communion of one body being eaten by another, literally transformed, and afterward sung to."

- Sylvia Linsteadt

Crane Dance and Hey Mama Wolf by Alexandra Dvornikova

"When we are at ease in our animal flesh, we will sometimes feel we are being listened to, or sensed, by the earthly surroundings. And so we take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than a merely human meaning and resonance. This care -- this full-bodied alertness -- is the ancient, ancestral source of all word magic. It is the practice of attention to the uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world's unfolding."

- David Abram

Ritual by Alexandra Dvornikova

"The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans. They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight."

- Ben Okri

Lost Land amd Treehouse by Alexandra Dvornikova

"For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are: Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth."

- Jane Yolen

Svatba (The Wedding) by Alexandra Dvornikova

"Current cant equates fantasy with escapism, and current fashion would have it that fantasy is both easy to read and to write. It isn't. When it is done honestly, by a skillful writer, fantasy takes us far enough beyond our daily perceptions to open us to the essential realities beneath it."

- Ellen Kushner

Forest magic by Alexandra Dvornikova

"Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words."

- Erin Morgenstern

Somnabulist's Tale by Alexandra Dvornikova

"To me, fantasy has the emotional strength of a dream, it works directly on our nerve endings, whatever age we happen to be, touching heights and depths not always accessible through realism. In fantasy, my concern is how we learn to be real human beings. It's a continuing process."

Lloyd Alexander

Dark Fairy Tales by Alexandra Dvornikova

Domestic magic by Alexandra Dvornikova

The imagery today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a contemporary folk artist and illustrator from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She studied print-making, graphics, and art therapy at Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and now creates books, cards and prints, fabric designs, animations, and more.  She finds inspiration in the Russian fairy tales she heard as a child, as well as masks, music, ritual, nature and ecology, the folklore of animals, mosses and mushrooms, venomous plants, and lonely cabins deep in the woods. To see more of her art, please visit Dvornikova's website and Instagram page.

Commet by Alexandra Dvornikova

Family Portrait by Alexandra Dvornikova

All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the authors, or their estates. Painting titles can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Oak and stone

Oak and stone

"How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul."

- Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess)


We are storytelling animals

Beauty and the Beast by PJ Lynch

"For me, the literature of the fantastic began with storytelling. After all, humans are storytelling animals. Only we now do most of our storytelling on the page. I am obsessed with stories -- my own and other people's. I want my music and art to tell stories as well. What happened next? is probably the first sentence I ever spoke. And even if it isn't, I can certainly pretend it is since both of my parents are no longer around to contradict me.

"Everyone in the family was a storyteller. Some people called them liars. But the Yolen gene is a storytelling gene. And so it goes. My daughter writes, one son is a musician whose songs tells stories, the other a photographer who captures stories in his lens. When I die, I want my tombstone to read: She wrote many good books and one great one. I will let the readers of that argue over which book I mean. That will force them to read the stories -- and tell their own."

- Jane Yolen

The Wild Swans by PJ Lynch

The Frog Prince and Catkin by PJ Lynch

"My family finds me a nuisance when I'm writing a book. It isn't just that I get absent-minded and forget meals. I laugh. In the early days, when I was writing The Ogre The Frog Prince by PJ LynchDownstairs, I sat by myself and laughed so much that my children kept coming and asking if I was alright. Later, they got used to it and simply tested me to make sure I'd heard what they said. I became very good at replaying a conversation I hadn't actually known I'd had.

"Now, when the children have long ago grown up, my husband still gets astonished when I laugh as I write.  When I was writing Howl's Moving Castle and nearly fell off the sofa in my mirth, he said, 'You can't be making yourself laugh!' I said, 'No, it's this book that's making me laugh.' That is because, when a book is going as it should, it doesn't feel as if I'm doing it. It takes its own way, and people in it do things I don't expect. This is true however a book comes to me. Charmed Life arrived in my head almost as a complete book, but it was still unexpected. With Archer's Goon, on the other hand, I had almost no idea what was going to happen from one page to the next -- which made it very unexpected.

"But I don't always laugh. Some books, like the Dalemark Quartet, have kept me on the edge of my seat, barely able to breathe. Others, like Fire and Hemlock and Dogsbody, have wrung my heart as I wrote them and taught me things I never thought I knew about people and their feelings.

"I learn things as I write, you see. This is why I enjoy it so much."

- Diana Wynne Jones  

Snow White and Rapunzel by PJ Lynch

"If I wanted to know where my ideas came from I wouldn't be an imaginative writer, I'd be a scientist. My whole life has been spent daydreaming and out of those ideas and daydreams come stories. It doesn't interest me where daydreams come from, what interests me is helping them grow and blossom into something different, some strange and wonderful tale of mystery and magic. Then again, if you ask a few scientists where they got their ideas from they might tell you they spent most of their life daydreaming and out of those daydreams came something different, some strange and wonderful discovery or invention." 

 -  Garry Kilworth 

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by PJ Lynch

"There were always tales passed from mother to daughter, father to son. Down through the generations they came, so that we would never forget that place, that magic, that elemental and awesome power that abided in our forbears. In each generation the power of the tales rests with us, the storytellers. I weep, I cry with joy, I exult in the God-power of the words.

"And so I have tried to pass them on to another generation, to keep alive the mortal power of our earlier selves, even as the world changes and dies, sleeps and awakes anew to the force that gives life to our souls. So that some child can hear the tales and find them awakened in herself to pass on to yet another generation. "

Evangeline Walton  

The Names upon the Harp - Niamh and Oisin by PJ Lynch

The Snow Queen and East of the Sun  West of the Moon by PJ Lynch

The paintings here are by Irish book artist P.J. Lynch. Born and raised in Belfast, he used drawing and reading, he says, "as a way of escaping from the horrors that were happening around me in the real world." After studying at the Brighton College of Art, he became an illustrator in 1984 -- going on to win two Kate Greenaway Medals for excellence in children's illustration. His many books include Fairy Tales of Ireland, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, The Candlewick Book of Fairy Tales, The Snow Queen, Catkin, The King of Ireland's Son, The Bee-Man of Orn, A Christmas Carol, and The Gift of the Magi.

"My first book, A Bag Of Moonshine by Alan Garner, was probably the thing that decided my career," he recalls. "I was lucky enough to win the Mother Goose Award for my illustration work on that book. That led to other book commissions and I’m still at it thirty years later. Maybe if I hadn’t won that prize I might have specialised in a different type of painting, but I am very glad that I did. I can’t think of a nicer career than making illustrated books."

To see more his enchanting work, please visit his website and blog.

The Children of Lir by PJ Lynch

All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the authors, or their estates. Painting titles can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Garden gathering

Here in Devon, apples cluster on mossy old trees and blackberries are ripening as the summer eases into autumn. The morning air is crisp with change ... yet the pandemic goes drearily on and on. With each new season we learn new ways to live with it, but it takes a heavy toll.

Working from an isolated cabin by the woods, my daily routines (long hours of solitary desk work, broken by rambles through the hills with Tilly) have changed less than most. But Chagford, our village, is a sociable place, and it is very strange to have gone so long without meeting up with friends and neighbours for meals, music, community events, shared celebrations. The summer went by in the blink of an eye and seems to have barely happened at all. The Dartmoor countryside was as beautiful as always, the air even clearer, the birdsong more vivid ... but without friends gathered at an outdoor table, or sprawled around a picnic blanket, or playing music by a campfire while the kids and dogs tumble through the tall grass, it didn't actually feel like summer. I usually love the turning of the seaon, but this year it is tinged with melachology for all we've missed.

In honour of convivial summers past, and in the hope that there will be many more to come, I'm starting the week with songs of feasts and friendships, and of weathering hard times together....

Above: "Rang Tang Ring Toon" by Moutain Man, an American vocal harmony trio (Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath) from the mountains of Vermont. The song appeared on their second album, Magic Ship (2018).

Below: "Nest" by Ruth Moody, from Winnipeg, Canada -- best known as a member of the Wailin' Jennys trio. The song appeared on her first solo album, The Garden (2010).

Above: "Stand Like an Oak," a new single fom Rising Appalachia (sisters Leah and Chloe Smith), who divide their time between Georgia and New Orleans. Their most recent album is Leylines (2019).

Below: "Old Pine," by Ben Howard, who hails from the other side of the moor. This one, set on the Devon/Cornwall coast, is an old favourite of mine from Ben's first album, Every Kingdom (2011).

Above: "Old Ties and Companions" by Mandolin Orange (Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz), from North Carolina. The song appeared on their fourth album, Such Jubilee (2015).

Below: An ode to the "Company of Friends" by Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt, from Austin, Texas. The song appeared on Elkin's solo album For Keeps (2012).

Candles in the courtyard

But let's not end on that somber note.

Below, "Typhoon" by Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards reminds us that after the wreckage of life's storms there's a time for building up again, preferably surrounded by our friends. The song is from their new album, Bitter Better (July 2020).

Around the table in Elizabeth-Jane's cottage

Top photograph: Preparing for a gathering of friends in my mother-in-law's garden here in Chagford, pre-pandemic.
Bottom photograph: Feasting with a group of women friends: Wendy Froud, me, Carol Amos, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, Marja Lee and Hazel Brown (holding the camera), in Elizabeth-Jane's cottage kitchen. We'd been meeting monthly like this for over 25 years until the pandemic struck. I long for the day when we'll meet so freely again. I know it will come.


The Visionary Art of Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja Lee Kruÿt was born and raised in the Netherlands in the province of Drenthe: a beautiful, dolmen-studded region in the northeast of the country, near the German border. She spent five years studying fashion illustration design in Amsterdam, and at the age of twenty she embarked on a professional career as a fashion illustrator. In 1964, Marja moved to London, where she created fashion drawings for major stores in England and abroad, as well as for newspapers and magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. She was also involved in the ballet — both as a dancer and as a costumer for various productions -- and she made clothes for a Plimlico boutique that catered to the likes of Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger, Pete Townsend, and Brian Jones. (Faithful was often photographed during those years in a cape Marja designed for her.)

Marja Lee KruÿtWhile she was living in London, in a flat above Quentin Crisp's, Marja met her future husband, Alan Lee, a talented book illustrator. In 1975, the couple moved to a rural village at the edge of Dartmoor, sharing a house with their friend and fellow-artist, Brian Froud.

Brian Sanders described the house in 1977 (in the book The Land of Froud):  "From the outside the house is a modest Victorian cottage set back from the street in a tangled garden. From the moment that one crosses the threshold, guarded by a moss and lichen jewelled hand pointing skywards, from amid a welter of muddy wellington boots, a different land begins. Two families, the Lees and the Frouds, live here: the real Lee children side-by-side with Brian's family, the Troll King, his brother, and their mother. The mother has a hand in her back, and when Brian holds her they become one. The puppet fits to him and there is a deep affection between them: Brian the wizard surrounded by his animate creations, discussing them with a child who believes in them as much as he does. Walls, shelves and floors are crowded with books, toys, found objects and constructions. Ghosts, faeries and pictures of goblins abound." (It was during these years that Alan and Brian produced their now-classic art book, Faeries.)

Meanwhile, Marja continued to pursue her London-based illustration career until her children were born, but afterwards (like so many other women artists of her generation) her fashion work was set aside while she raised her children, and provided admin support for her husband's busy career. Yet even during those years focused on running a household, her creative powers did not lie dormant. She created costumes for local theatrical productions, and for figures sculpted by doll-artist Wendy Froud; she drew portraits, designed hats and clothes, and studied the Celtic harp...all while excelling in the area Grace Nuth has dubbed domythic art: bringing myth, magic, and romantism into every aspect of domestic life.

 Marja Lee Kruÿt

In 1998, her children grown, a new chapter in her life began when Marja returned to the studio. The work she produced was astonishing: drawings and paintings with a rich maturity of vision that had been quietly brewing over all those years, emerging like dreams, straight from the subconscious, each one a treasure of mythic art.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"I've always been interested in dreams," she says. "And in myth, mysticism, and symbolism. Through the use of color, of line, of the symbolic nature of garments, objects, patterns, and flowers, I attempt to create pictures that work on many different levels: marrying our everyday reality with other planes of dream and intuition. Painting, to me, is soul work, healing work. It's a kind of meditation."

Marja Lee Kruyt

Her creative practice is a spiritual one, craft and technique in service to spiritual intent.

"I begin each picture with a ceremony," she explains, "opening myself to the picture's theme and asking to be given the symbols with which to represent that theme. It's important to stay wide open as I work, to let the images come through me, unforced, shapes and colors emerging intuitively. It's a slow, deep, painstaking process, and a single picture can take me several months -- working out the composition and colors by doing many drawings and watercolor sketches first. Each part of the picture must be right; each element has an individual meaning, yet must also be woven into the rest of the design. I often use Celtic patterns, for instance, which represent the way things weave together in life -- and the way that our lives in the here-and-now are woven with other dimensions of consciousness.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

 "Flowers, animals, stones -- all these pictorial elements must work as part of the painting's composition, but have symbolic meanings as well. The specific flow and movement of a garment, for instance, can represent different aspects of spiritual awareness. I draw upon Celtic symbols ... Eastern symbols ... Steiner colour theory ... Perelandra essences ... mandalas ... whatever the picture calls for. Watercolor is a fluid medium and I strive to work with, not against, the flow. That may sound airy-fairy but it's not, really; watercolor is a medium that requires technical precision too. In art, as in life, we must be grounded and free-flowing, intuitive, all at once. I suppose making pictures in this way, like any spiritual practice, is really all about balance."

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"My background in fashion illustration is probably evident in my paintings, as well as my love of music and harps. I also like painting children, representing that childlike part within each of us. And fairies. Living here on Dartmoor, fairies were bound to turn up in my pictures!

"I have always loved the Victorian 'fairy painters' and book illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, as well as the Pre-Raphaelites: William Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti. But the artists who have influenced me the most are Gustav Klimt, Sulamith Wülfing, and the Renaissance painters Sandro Botticelli and Benezzo Gozzoli -- particularly the angels. Wülfing's influence is probably the most apparent. I feel an affinity with her. She drew angels even as a little girl, often talking about her angels and guides, and was influenced by Krishnamurti, the White Brotherhood, and the Theosophical Society. She was a mystic, really, and expressed her mysticism through her art. There are things that we can portray through pictures and symbols that we can't convey as easily through words. Art can speak directly to the soul. Wülfing's best pictures do this -- as do some of the great religious pictures from the Renaissance.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

"I think art can be healing, moving, enlightening. It can also be puzzling, disturbing, or even upsetting...and sometimes that is necessary. It wakes you up. When you live with a picture, when you keep looking at it and taking it into yourself over a period of time, it can change you: moving you from one way of thinking to another, from one level of consciousness to the next. I like pictures that make you keep on looking, that reveal themselves and their meanings slowly. Art that keeps on giving you more, and a little more, every time you look."

Painting studio

Marja works from an exquisite painting studio at the back of a "secret garden," tucked away at the end of a path behind the old stone building where she lives. It is from here she does her "soul work," weaving painting and spiritual practices into a life lived on many levels at once. She creates magic on each one of those levels, and trails beauty behind wherever she goes.

Marja Lee Kruÿt

Marja at Kelmscott Manor

Photograph: Marja Lee Kruÿt at Kelmscott Manor (William Morris' country house in the Cotswolds), 2017. For a post about our trip up to Kelmscott, go here. For folklore of the harp, go here.

The paintings and drawings above are under copright by Marja Lee Kruyt, and may not be reproduced without her permission; all rights are reserved by the artist. The title of each artwork can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The Brian Sanders quote is from The Land of Froud (Peacock Press/Bantam Books, 1977).


The Mythic Art of Alan Lee

Young Arthur and Merlin by Alan Lee

"I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with myth," Alan Lee recalls, "sitting in a mobile library and travelling, at the same time, with Theseus on the road to Athens. By the time we'd met and disposed of the pine-bending giant Sinis, I'd become completely entranced. Within a few months I'd read every book on myths, legends, and folklore in our two nearest libraries."

The young boy entranced by ancient tales never lost his taste for magic and myth, and grew up to become one of the finest book illustrators of our time. His distinctively elegant watercolor paintings -- adorning Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and other magical  tales -- have earned him a world-wide following, the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award, museum and gallery exhibitions around the globe, and the deep respect of fellow artists and writers in the publishing field. Like Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac from Britain's Golden Age of illustration, Alan's work imbues imaginary landscapes with such startling reality one can almost step inside the paintings to travel beyond the visible horizon. Walking into his Devon studio, filled to the brim with paintings and books, is to cross a portal into the Otherworld of a master artist's vision, a place where stories come to life in pencil strokes and washes of color.

Merlin Dreams by Alan Lee

Alan was born in Middlesex in 1947, and decided at a young age that art would be his life's vocation. After training at Ealing School of Art he became a freelance illustrator, working in the fields of book publishing, advertising, and film. During these early years, his London work space was shared with a number of other artists -- including Brian Froud, a painter also drawn to myths and legends. These two friends teamed up to create Faeries, a book exploring the rich tradition of faery lore in the British isles, reaching past the modern image of the creatures (sweet little sprites with butterfly wings) to capture the faeries of the old oral tales: earthy, wild, mysterious, and capricious as a force of nature. Published in 1978, this ground-breaking book became an international bestseller, and an influential text for a whole generation of artists, writers, and film-makers to come.

The Faery Ring by Alan Lee

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee

Just prior to the creation of Faeries, Alan, his family, and Brian moved from London to rural Devon, settling in a small village at the edge of Dartmoor. The mossy woods, wild hedgerows, and mythic grandeur of the moor had a strong effect on Alan's work: he is, in truth, a landscape artist as much as he is an illustrator, creating imagery born from the lines, textures, colors, and forms of the natural world. Dartmoor proved to be the perfect setting for an artist of Alan's temperament: a land of great and varied beauty, rich in history and myth, full of Bronze Age ruins, clapper bridges, and standing stones on the wind-swept hills.

Merlin by Alan Lee

In Arthurian lore, Merlin (the great magician of Arthur's court) retreats to the Forest of Celydonn after the Battle of Arderydd, living an elemental existence alongside the wolves and the deer. It is only after this retreat into nature that he comes fully into his magical powers -- an initiatory process echoed in myth cycles throughout the world. For Alan, the move to Devon was his own retreat into Celydonn. Wandering over the moor, through Wistman's Wood, and up winding paths by the River Teign, he came into his full powers as an artist, a magician upon the page.

The success of Faeries allowed him the time to pursue a project dear to his heart: paintings inspired by The Mabinogion, the great myth cycle of Wales. These magnificent tales are firmly rooted in the soil of the Welsh countryside, so he followed the threads of the stories to Dyfed and Snowdonia, soaking in the colors, forms, and spirit of these myth-haunted landscapes. Returning to his Devon studio with reference photos and sketchbook notes, Alan created a body of extraordinary paintings to accompany the Jones & Jones translation of the text. This edition of The Mabinogion, published in 1982, remains one of the artist's finest accomplishments to date.

From the Mabinogion, illustrated by Alan Lee

The Mabinogion by Alan Lee

Over the next several years, he continued to chose book projects with mythic resonance, such as Castles: a book of imagery drawn from myth, romance, and magical literature, with text by David Day; Merlin's Dream: Arthurian tales beautifully retold by Peter Dickinson; and two children's picture books: The Mirrorstone, with text by Michel Palin, and The Moon's Revenge, with text by Joan Aiken.

During these years he also pursued his second career as a concept artist and designer for feature films, working on such fantasy classics as Legend, directed by Ridley Scott, and Erik the Viking, directed by Terry Jones.*

From the Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

In 1988, Alan was approached by J.R.R. Tolkien's publisher to create fifty new paintings for The Lord of the Rings, to be published in a handsome edition celebrating the centenary of Tolkien's birth. He immersed himself in this work for two years, resulting in illustrations so perfect, and so universally acclaimed, that they are now ineluctably bound with Tolkien's great story for readers all over the world.

"I first encountered  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was eighteen," he remembers. "It felt as though Tolkien had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative. And, even more important for me, he had created a place -- a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape -- which lingered in the mind long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways."

The Hobbit, Alan Lee

How, I ask, does an artist even begin to approach a project like this? Particularly when illustrating a text that has meant so much to so many.

"Humbly," Alan says promptly. Then he pauses to give the question more thought. "Every artist works differently, of course, but my own approach to The Lord of the Rings was to allow the landscapes to predominate. In some of my scenes, the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This helped me to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures in the reader's mind, which tend to focus on the characters and their inter-relationships. My task lay in shadowing the heroes as they traveled on their epic quest -- often at something of a distance, coming closer at times of heightened emotion -- rather than simply re-creating the dramatic highpoints of the story. Later, when I illustrated The Hobbit, it no longer seemed appropriate to keep such a distance, particularly from the hero himself. I don't think I've ever seen a drawing of a hobbit which quite convinces me -- and I don't know whether I've gotten any closer to Tolkien's vision myself with my depiction of Bilbo. I'm fairly happy with my picture of him standing outside his home, Bag End, before Gandalf arrives and turns his world upside-down -- but I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Hobbits are so quiet and elusive is to avoid the prying eyes of illustrators."

Bilbo Outside Bag End by Alan Lee

In 1992, Alan began a journey into a very different kind of landscape when he agreed to illustrate The Illiad and The Odyssey, re-told for young readers by Rosemary Sutcliff. He'd loved these stories since childhood, and yet he hesitated before taking on the books.

"I was apprehensive," he explains, "about spending so much time on the battle plains of Troy when my natural home, and main source of inspiration, was the woods and sodden hills of Dartmoor. I'd rarely attempted to paint a landscape that wasn't at least as wet as the watercolors I worked in. I travelled to Greece, for the first time, with a copy of Pausanias as a guide, weighed down by paints, sketchpads, and camera. Most of the action takes place in Turkey, not Greece, but I'd heard that there wasn't a lot to see at the site of Troy itself, so I thought Mycenae would be a good substitute. I visited all the sites and museums I could, drawing artifacts and large crowds of Greek school children. I fell in love with all the Korai at the Acropolis; and, best of all, I went to Delphi. It had nothing to do with the story I was illustrating, but it's set in one of the most remarkable and beautiful landscapes I've ever seen."

Alan Lee

Alan describes his research process as a way of "priming the pump," filling himself with ideas and images before he actually sits down to work. Though his painting process is an intuitive one, it is nonethless grounded in the real. Armed with hundreds of reference photos, sketchbooks filled with notes, and the visual impressions of his travels through Greece, he returned to his Devon studio to create a magical Greece that never was: half-way between myth and history, between Homer's world and the realm of the gods. The landscape, as always, came first -- and then he recruited family, friends, and neighbors to model for the extended dramatis personae of the tales. (I recall coming into his courtyard at the time to find a dying Odysseus laid out on the picnic table, Penelope swooning above him.)

Sadly, Rosemary Sutcliff died before the art was completed, and never saw her words brought so vividly to life in The Black Ships of Troy (winner of the Kate Greenaway Gold Medal) and The Wanderings of Oysseus.

The Wanderings of Odysseus

At the end of the 1990s, Alan traveled to Wellington, New Zealand to begin work as Conceptual Designer of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy; and in 2004, he won an Academy Award for his role in translating Middle-earth to the big screen. For many years we didn't see much of him as labour on the films went on and on, followed by Jackson's two Hobbit films. But when they were done, and he finally came home, our small village felt suddenly 'right' again. His quietly presence had been deeply missed.

The Wanderer  illustrated by Alan LeeOther film jobs followed, but Alan managed to keep up with the book world too -- illustrating Tolkien's posthumous publications (The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, etc.), as well as Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses (retold by Adrian Mitchell) and The Wanderer (a splendid Folio Society edition of Old-English poetry). In between book and film projects, you'd often find him rambling the moor or sketching trees in the local woods: rendering the land he loved best in paintings, drawings, and etchings. 

"I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he explains. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape -- as many boulders, foaming rivers, and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime painting that river, from source to sea, and nothing else."

A Dartmoor river by Alan Lee

Alan works from a two-floor studio in an old stone barn half-smothered in ivy and roses. It's a magical place, with a silvery light and a sense of calm and tranquility -- despite an overflow of papers and books, and perpetual deadlines looming. In the large upstairs room, the walls are covered with etchings, drawings, and printers' proofs; the shelves hold rows of black sketchbooks filled with drawings, whimsical doodles, and notes; and the drawers are packed with paintings created through decades of steady work. Downstairs, an etching press sits among paintings boxed-up to ship to exhibitions. Across a courtyard is a second barn, newly renovated and largely empty -- a space adaptable for music, or dance, or solitary contemplation, whatever the moment might call for.

An illustration from The Hobbit by Alan Lee

Sketchbook drawings by Alan Lee

We sit in the cobbled courtyard now, tea, scones, and jam on the table before us. The white roses are in bloom, and music drifts down from an upper window.

"I like working in watercolor," Alan tells me," with as little under-drawing as I can get away with. I like the unpredictability of a medium which is affected as much by humidity, gravity, the way that heavier particles in the wash settle into the undulations of the paper surface, as by whatever I wish to do with it. In other mediums you are more in control, responsible for every mark on the page -- but with watercolor you are in a dialogue with the paint. It responds to you, and you respond to it in turn. It's a conversation. Printmaking also has this quality, this unpredictable element -- requiring an intuitive response, encouraging a spontaneity that allows the magic to happen.

"When I begin an illustration, I usually work up from small sketches -- which indicate, in a simple way, something of the atmosphere or the dynamics of the picture. Then I do drawings on a larger scale, supported by life studies from models if figures play a large part in the composition. When I've reached the stage where the drawing looks good enough, I'll transfer it to watercolor paper -- but the drawing is still fairly loosely rendered. I like to leave as much unresolved as possible before starting to put on washes of color. This allows for an interaction with the medium itself, a dialogue between me and the paint. Otherwise it's too much like painting by number, or a one-sided conversation."

An illustration for The Hobbit by Alan Lee

I know so many young artists who look up to Alan, so I ask him which artists he looked up to himself in his youth. He answers readily:

"I was strongly influenced, in technique as well as subject matter, by the early 20th century book illustrators -- Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in particular. And by Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites. Also by the various artists of the Arts-&-Crafts movement in England and Scotland. Going further back, I'm continually inspired by Rembrandt, Breughel (I've often wondered whether his brilliant "Tower of Babel" inspired Tolkien's description of Minas Tyrith), Hieronymous Bosch, and Albrecht Durer. It's not that these earlier artists have influenced my pictures in any obvious way, but that their example raises my spirits, and re-affirms my belief in the power of images to move and delight us. They show me how much further I have to go, and how much is possible."

We'd been in Florence and Venice together with a group of friends, so I bring up the Italian Renaissance painters and Alan's face lights up.

"I'd always liked the Italian masters," he says, "but now I'm completely besotted with Botticelli, Bellini, da Vinci, and the rest. To see their work in its natural landscape and light is a revelation. The paintings are calm, controlled, and yet each face, each form, each hill or flower or tree contains such passion. In Botticelli's paintings, every pebble and every leaf is rendered with a religious devotion. There's a reverence inherent in paying such close attention to every stone...turning painting itself into a form of worship, an act of prayer. I'm still thinking about it, still working through what effect this may have on my own approach to drawing and painting."

From the Mabinogion

I ask whether he, too, sees painting as an act of communication with something beyond our human ken: God, Mystery, call it what you will.

"Yes," he answers slowly, "but perhaps in a more mythological sense than the religious orientation of the Renaissance. To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is indeed an act of reverence -- not only toward the tree, but toward our human connection to the tree, and to nature. It is one of the magical things about drawing: it gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness. Every element (hair, wind, rocks, water) is portrayed with one material (graphite, ink, paint) which binds it all together, bringing out the harmony that we know, and science confirms, exists in nature -- created as it is, as we all are, by particles that have existed since the dawn of the universe.

'This is the power of myth as well: it binds to the natural world. There have always been mythic tales of figures whose function is to act as an intermediary between humanity and nature: the shaman, the shape-shifter, the trickster, the embodiments of creative power,  appearing in myths, fairy tales, and medieval legends all around the world. Often they have a touch of 'divine madness' -- like Merlin, or Shuibhne in Ireland, during their years of exile and madness in the woods, through which they gained their divinatory powers. It's interesting to me that in our century it is often artists who fulfill this function. And who, in popular stereotype, are given the license to be a bit mad. Look at Picasso, a classic trickster figure if there ever was one.

Detail from a drawing by Alan Lee

"The power of both myth and art," he continues, "is this magical ability to open doors and to make connections -- not only between us and the natural world, but between us and the rest of humanity. Myths show us what we have in common with every other human being, no matter what culture we come from, no matter what century we live in. And at the same time, mythic stories and art celebrate our essential differences.

"When I first encountered Greek myths as a child, the stories provoked a degree of excitement that can't be explained by their value as adventures, however great that may be. Although the stories were new to me, I felt a sense of recognition.  My response to them, in particular to the otherworldly elements, suggests they were meeting a spiritual need that had not been touched by dull lectures at school, or the church services I regularly dozed through. I'm not suggesting that I wanted to sacrifice a bull to Zeus or consult a Sybil -- I didn't known any Sybils -- but that I'd found, unconsciously, a wider and deeper context for my hopes and fears. Myth gave me a sense of continuity and communion with the people of different times and cultures, and an enhanced and more imaginative relationship with the natural world."

The Tower of Annowre by Alan Lee

The intersection of myth and art can indeed produce a form of magic connecting us to the numinous world -- and this is evident in the timeless beauty of Alan's illustrations of classic tales. The wandering paths of Middle Earth, the great green valleys of ancient Wales, the vistas over the plains of Troy, and twisted trees of the Devon woods all create a spell as potent and lasting as any conjured by Merlin himself.

Yet the quiet magician behind the paintings seems unaware of the power of the magic he creates with pencil, pen and brush.

"I keep drawing the trees, the rocks, the river," he says. "I'm still learning how to see them. I'm still discovering how to render their forms. I will spend a lifetime doing that. Maybe someday I'll get it right."

Alan Lee in his studio

Gormenghast by Alan Lee

Drawing by Alan Lee

The paintings, drawings, sculptures, & photographs above are under copright by Alan Lee, and may not be reproduced without his permission; all rights are reserved by the artist. The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The Faerie Art of Brian & Wendy Froud

Twilight by Brian Froud

For those here and on social media who mentioned how much they loved Brian Froud's art in yesterday's post, here's a closer look at his work, which is deeply entwined with that of his wife Wendy Froud, a sculptor, puppet designer, and doll artist. They live close by here on Dartmoor, are old friends and colleagues, and I love them dearly.

The Froud family's thatch-roof farmhouse sits buried in ivy down a quiet country lane in England's West Country. Its old front door, with a goblin door-knocker, is a doorway into Faerieland. Inside is the kind of enchanted house one usually finds only in fantasy books: full of carved medieval furniture and tapestries, costumes, masks, old books, puppets and magical props from films. Faeries, goblins, trolls and sprites stare down from Brian's paintings on the walls, and cavort in the shape of magical dolls and sculptures created by Wendy.

The Faery & the Troll by Wendy Froud

Brian was born in Hampshire, raised Kent, and studied at the Maidstone College of Art. His deep involvement with folklore and myth began during his student days, he says, when he came across a book illustrated by Arthur Rackham in his college library. Rackham's goblins, faeries, undines, and tree folk re-awakening Brian's interest in the myths and legends he'd loved in childhood. He began to study the folklore of Britain, and then the tales of other lands, fascinated by the ways the magical traditions in all cultures shared common roots. When he left collage, Brian spent five years in London working in the field of commercial illustration, but he continued to paint mythic images and to develop a distinctive style of his own. (This early work was published in Once Upon a Time and The Land of Froud, both from David Larkin's Peacock Press.)

In 1975, Brian moved from London to Dartmoor, sharing a house with fellow-illustrator Alan Lee and his family. Inspired by the woods and hedgerows of Devon, and the ancient, myth-steeped landscape of the moor, the two collaborated on Faeries, an illustrated book of British faery lore. This marvelous, ground-breaking volume quickly became an international bestseller, and has influenced artists, writers, and folklorists all around the world in the decades since.

Two paintings from ''The Land of Froud''

Faery sketches by Brian Froud

Brian's faeries and magical vision of the world so impressed the American filmmaker Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets) that he asked Brian to come to New York to design two feature films: The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Like Faeries, the films were ground-breaking -- pioneering new puppet design and performance techniques. It was on the set of The Dark Crystal that Brian met Wendy, who created the "gelflings" and other creatures for the film. (In the photo below the two of them are at work in the Dark Crystal workshop.)

Brian & Wendy in the Henson workshop

Wise Woman and Gelfling by Wendy Froud

Wendy was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. "Both of my parents were artists," she says. "I've been a doll-maker all of my life. At about age five, as soon as I could bend a pipe-cleaner and bits of fabric together, I started to make the kind of dolls I couldn't find in stores: centaurs, satyrs, fauns, unicorns, and faeries. I wanted to be part of a magical realm, and so I created one for myself." 

Faeries by Wendy Froud

Wendy studied music and drama at Interlochen Arts Academy, then fabric design, jewelry, and ceramics at The Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. After graduation, she moved to New York City and landed a job which drew all her training together: working as a sculptor and puppet fabricator in Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Wendy worked on a number of different Henson projects, making puppets for The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie, and the original prototype for Yoda in Star Wars. It was on the set of The Dark Crystal, however, with its imagery rooted in folklore and myth, that she found her greatest satisfaction, working with the shy-but-brilliant English faery artist at the heart of the film.

She married Brian during the filming of The Dark Crystal, was pregnant when work on Labyrinth began, and soon after gave birth to Toby, their son. The timing was co-incidental, but perfect. Toby ended up with a role in the film: playing the baby stolen by the Goblin King (David Bowie) and rescued by his sister (Jennifer Connelly).

David Bowie & Toby Froud in Labyrinth

After the films were done, the Froud family returned to Brian's village on Dartmoor. Rather than squeezing into his old cottage, a tiny place in the center of the village, they renovated a rambling Devon "longhouse" out in the countryside: a thatched granite building dating from medieval times, built over older Saxon foundations. In this atmospheric place, they set about creating a thoroughly magical environment filled with faeries, goblins, trolls, William Morris fabrics, antique toys, and shelves crowded with folklore texts. Brian set up a painting studio in a large room to one side of the house's central hall, while Wendy created two work spaces: a doll workshop in the eaves of the house, and a sculpting studio in the garden.

Come Here by Brian Froud

Although the Frouds never left film work altogether, during the years when Toby was young they chose to live more quietly in Devon, concentrating on creating art inspired by myths, legends, and fairy tales.

While Brian painted faeries and goblins, Wendy brought these same creatures to life in three-dimensional form, made of fimo, plaster, resin, cloth, feathers, leaves, and numerous other things -- mixing traditional art materials with found objects from the Devon woods. Some of Wendy's art is based on, or in dialogue with, Brian's paintings and sketches, while the rest explores a rich visual vocabulary that is uniquely her own.

Woodland faery by Wendy Froud

Pan by Wendy Froud

Brian has largely concentrated on what could be called "faery portraiture," building a large, wide-ranging body of work informed by the colors, shapes, and textures of the land around him. "I've been actively engaged with mythic imagery ever since I picked up that Rackham book," he says, "but it really came into focus for me when I moved from London to Dartmoor. As I walked through the woods and over the moor, I looked at the trees and the rocks and the hills and I could see the personality in those forms, metamorphosing into faeries, goblins, trolls, and other nature spirits.

"After Alan and I published Faeries, he moved on from folklore to illustrate Tolkien and other literary works -- but I discovered that my own exploration of the Faerie Realm had only just begun. The faeries kept insisting on taking form under my pencil, emerging on the page before me, cloaked in archetypal shapes drawn from nature and myth. I'd attracted their attention, and they hadn't finished with me yet.

The Faery Who Was Kissed by the Piskies by Brian Froud

"I'm often called a 'fantasy' painter, " Brian notes, "but that's not quite accurate. My imagery comes from myth, folklore and the old oral story-telling tradition, not from fantasy literature; and although I did some commercial illustration in my youth, I don't see myself as an illustrator now. I publish books, but the paintings in them are personal visions and expressions, not illustrations of someone else's story. The pictures come first, and the text responds to the pictures, not the other way around. I have to confess that, unlike Wendy, I rarely read fiction at all. Most of my reading is nonfiction: history, mythology, archetypal psychology, and the like. I prefer the enchantment of a story told to one that is written down. In the oral tradition, where stories are told around the fireplace in semi-darkness, the words are alive: they leave the lips, enter into the air, and before they fall onto your ear they transform themselves into magic. They're not fixed; they change from telling to telling, and from listener to listener.

The Lady & the Unicorn and The King's Knight by Brian Froud

"I want my pictures to have that same quality of mutability. I don't like things to be fixed too solidly or explained too fully; I want each viewing to be like a re-telling of a tale, full of new possibilities. Back in my illustration days, I worked on a book called The Wind Between the Stars, and that was an interesting technical challenge, for how does one draw the wind? The work I do today still has that sort of challenge: drawing things that are normally beyond human perception, turning the invisible world of Faerie into visible form. Myth surrounds us every day, particularly in a landscape as soaked in history and old stories as Dartmoor. If I do my job well, not only does myth become visible within a painting, but that painting becomes a doorway into a new way of looking at the world. You turn and look at the land around you, and you begin to see the faces in the trees and faeries flitting through the shadows."

Faeries and piskies by Brian Froud

It is clear that his work gives Brian great satisfaction, but I've also seen him struggle with his art. What, I ask, is the most difficult thing about rendering his vision of the world and its magical spirit in paint?

Brian ponders the question, then answers slowly, "The hardest part -- or one of the hardest parts, because there are many hard parts -- is convincing the viewer that what I've depicted is true; that I've got it right. When Cocteau was making his classic film Beauty & the Beast, he was reaching for what he called 'the supernatural within realism' -- in other words, grounding fantastical elements with ordinary imagery, which gives plausibility to the first and enchantment to the second. I think this is important to mythic art no matter what the medium: painting, writing, filmmaking. You need realism as an underpinning, an anchor, for the magic.

The Owl Faery by Brian Froud

"In order to obtain the 'supernatural within realism,' I usually start my larger, complex paintings with a human image," he explains. "The familiarity of the human form provides a touchstone and a reference; and then as we continue on in our journey around the picture, encountering stranger and stranger imagery, we have confidence that these faeries look just as they're supposed to look. We know that the distortions in their forms or faces are deliberate, not just a stylistic aberration or bad drawing. Every distortion in my paintings actually has a precise meaning behind it. In traditional lore, one often finds that faeries have some striking defect of form: some are hollow-backed or elongated, others have goat- or lion-feet. Heads, hands, and feet are often large in proportion to the rest of the body. This is due to the plastic nature of faery forms, which are often glimpsed in states of transition from one shape to the next.

Sketchbook drawings Brian Froud

"I start each painting by drawing a geometrical grid based on the Golden Section, a system of proportions and perspective developed by the ancient Greeks. The grid is overlaid with circles, triangles and the like, and where these things cross over is where I place the major figures. This gives the 'chaos' of a crowded painting an underlying structure of order. The central human figure is generally based on a photograph -- again, this provides an  Woodling by Brian Froudunderpinning of reality for the more fantastical aspects. I take my own photographs of models: friends and neighbors generally. The imagery surrounding the central figure is always in relationship to it. These secondary creatures are often drawn from earlier sketches -- I have many, many sketchbooks filled with such things.

"I always try to keep the drawing fairly loose; I don't like to get tight at this stage, which closes down possibilities. And even in the final stages of a painting I strive to maintain a looseness and a sense of...mystery. I find that in the fantasy genre, too many young painters over-paint their pictures; they're a bit too...over-wrought for my taste. They're much too bright and shiny. The artist has finished every detail, and every edge is hard and bright -- which doesn't allow me into their world, my eye slides right off that shiny surface. I prefer to keep my rendering as loose as possible, just on the edge of being finished. I want a painting to give just enough information for the picture to make sense; there should always be a little bit kept back, a few pieces missing, which the viewer must supply himself. In doing that, the picture comes to life. It becomes part of a reciprocal process, a communication. The painting allows you inside, where it can grow, and you can grow."

Wood Woman by Brian Froud

Despite the world-wide success of Faeries, and the huge acclaim he received for the Henson films, it often astonishes Brian's fans to know that it took him over ten years to find a publisher for his subsequent work.

"There were times when I thought I was mad to continue painting faeries," he recalls. "But I was driven to do it. I had a vision and I couldn't seem to let it go. So I said to myself: What do I have to do to convince a publisher that there's an audience for this art? I decided a humorous approach might open the door; it might perhaps be less intimidating. That's when the idea for Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book came to mind."

A ''pressed fairy'' by Brian Froud

This volume tells the story a Victorian young lady who "presses" fairies between book pages, much as her compatriots pressed and collected flowers. With art by Brian and text by Terry Jones (of Monthy Python fame), the book is utterly hilarious...and, like Faeries, it was a best-seller. To Brian's relief he had finally proved there was indeed an audience for his art.

More books in the Cottington series followed: Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Letters, Lady Cottington's Fairy Album, Strange Staines & Mysterious Smells, and, most recently, The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington. The latest volume was written by Wendy, as fine an author as she is a sculptor, telling the story of this mad, faery-hunting family from Victorian times to the present. (Go here to see the book trailer video, by Toby Froud. Artist Virginia Lee plays Angelica Cottington, the original fairy hunter in the family, and my husband, Howard, plays her twin brother Quentin, a mad inventor.)

Angelica & Madeline Cottington

The success of the "pressed fairies" allowed Brian to publish his other paintings of the Faerie Realm, collected in books such as Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Elfland, and Brian Froud's World of Faerie, a sumptuous overview of his art. Although less whimsical than the Cottington series, these volumes also have their humorous side. "Just like the old faery lore," he notes, "moving back and forth between between light and shadow."

Meanwhile, Wendy was creating art for exhibition, teaching, writing, and publishing magical books of her own: the Old Oak Wood series for children  (A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale, The Winter, The Faeries of Spring Cottage), and The Art of Wendy Froud.

Behind the scenes, she was also involved with Brian's publications, sometimes editing or ghost-writing the text. This evolved into full collaboration between the two artists in Trolls and Faeries' Tales, gorgeous editions designed by Brian, written by Wendy, and featuring art by both.

Trolls by Brian Froud

Three sculptures by Wendy Froud

Troll by Wendy Froud

More recently,  the two of them had a busy year going back and forth to a film studio near Windsor to work on The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, a tour-de-force of the puppetry art. Their son Toby, all grown up and a film puppeteer and director himself, was the Design Supervisor for The Age of Resistance, making sure the aesthetic vision of the original film was faithfully translated to the new series.

Since then, other television and stage projects have been afoot, slowed down by the Covid-19 pandemic but still moving forward. Brian and Wendy spent the months of lockdown at home on Dartmoor, enjoying a rare pause in their lives and engaged, as always, with the land, its spirits, and the stories in the world around them.

The Dark Crystal television series

As our discussion ends, Brian sits back and reflects on his long journey with the faeries:

"After all these years of drawing, painting, and sculpting them, Wendy and I are often asked if we 'believe' in faeries. The best answer I can give is that I don't have much of a choice in whether I believe in them or not, for they seem to insist on my painting them. I paint by intuition, and faeries keep appearing on the page before me. Mind you, it's not that I lie around on a chaise longue waiting for inspiration to strike -- painting is a discipline and I'm in my studio working a regular work day from 9 to 5. But on a Monday morning I'm often not sure what exactly I'm going to be doing next. I'll get out my tools, I'll get to work, and something will demand to come through -- some creature will form on the page before me, demanding to say: Hello!"

Light Faery by Brian Froud

"Faeries are spirits of nature," notes Wendy. "They embody the wild, mysterious and spiritual forces to be found in nature, and help us to reconnect with wonder and mystery inside our own souls. Our ancestors passed these stories and images down for hundreds, thousands of years. As artists, Brian and I are merely part of a long tradition -- giving old tales new life and passing them on to the generations to come. I look at my sculptures as signposts or gateways into the realm of Faerie. I like to think that they can help people find their own way into that realm."

Faery by Wendy Froud

"Traditional cultures have always recognized and honored the animate spirits of the earth," Brian adds, "but in western culture we've rather left that behind...to our spiritual cost, and ecological peril. Now we're beginning to recognize how important it is to have a vibrant relationship with the land beneath our feet...and that the old stories and mythic imagery can aid this process."

"In other words," says Wendy with a smile, "we need the faeries, especially now. So Brian and I will keep telling their stories, for as long as they want us to."

Wendy & Brian Froud

Green Woman by Brian Froud

The paintings, drawings, sculptures, & photographs above are under copright by Brian & Wendy Froud, and may not be reproduced without their permission; all rights are reserved by the artists. The title of each artwork can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)