Secret Threads

Fabric Toadstools by Mr Finch

"You may have noticed," wrote  C.S. Lewis, "that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.

"Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw -- but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported.

Moth Pulling a Tiny Coach by Mr Finch

Moth collection by Mr. Finch

"Even in your hobbies," asks Lewis, "has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of -- something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat's side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

"You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' "

Hares with sprouting bulbs by Mr. Finch

Mice and Dark Grey Mushrooms by Mr Finch

This, to me, is what fantasy literature (and mythic arts) does best: it tugs on those secret threads, evokes bright worlds half-glimpsed at the corner of our eyes...where the heart's desire lies just ahead, but always just ahead, beyond the next turn of the page.

Dream Fox by Mr Finch

Owls by Mr. Finch

The gorgeous soft sculpturers here are by Mr. Finch, a textile artist in Leeds, near the Yorkshire Dales, with a name straight out of a fairy tale.

Rabbits by Mr. Finch

"My main inspirations come from nature," he writes. "Flowers, insects and birds really fascinate me with their amazing life cycles and extraordinary nests and behaviour. British folklore is also so beautifully rich in fabulous stories and warnings and never ceases to be at the heart of what I make. Shape shifting witches, moon gazing hares and a smartly dressed devil ready to invite you to stray from the path. Humanizing animals with shoes and clothes is something I’ve always done and I imagine them to come alive at night. Getting dressed and helping an elderly shoemaker or the tired housewife.

Kneeling hare and small weeping wolf by Mr. Finch

Textile Hares by Mr Finch

Magical creatures by Mr. Finch

"Most of my pieces use recycled materials, not only as an ethical statement, but I believe they add more authenticity and charm. A story sewn in, woven in. Velvet curtains from an old hotel, a threadbare wedding dress and a vintage apron become birds and beasts, looking for new owners and adventures to have. Storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten…."

Visit Mr. Finch's website see his wondrous work. I love it deeply, and we'll be looking more tomorrow.

Soft Sculpture Snails by Mr Finch

Mole Army by Mr. Finch

Botany Badger and Foxes by Mr. Finch

Spider by Mr. Finch

The passage by C.S. Lewis quoted above is from The Problem of Pain, published in The Centenary Press' "Christian Challenge" series in 1940. I first read it for a class on Lewis  way back in my university days (as a non-Christian, it's not a book I would have been likely to pick up myself), and though it is indeed quite theological, it contains interesting passages on a number of other subjects too. In class, we read it in conjunction with Lewis' Grief Observed, about the death of his wife, which was a fascinating pairing. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the C.S. Lewis estate and Mr. Finch.


Telling stories back to the land

White Horse Hill by Danielle Barlow

Hedgehog, Deer, and Salmon by Danielle Barlow

Devon landscape  summer  by Danielle Barlow

I was delighted to learn that Sharon Blackie (author of If Women Rose Rooted, etc.) also uses the term "re-storying" the land to describe the role that mythic artists can play to help restore our imaginative and physical connection to the beautiful, ailing planet we live on. Re-wilding, re-storying, re-engaging with the natural world in whatever place that we live -- urban, suburban, or rural -- is creative work, restoration work, justice and healing work all in one.

In an essay for the Center for Humans and Nature, Sharon writes:

"There are two key elements to this work of re-storying the Earth: first, coming to know the stories which are already existent in the land, and second, weaving our own stories into the fabric of the land, by engaging with it in ongoing acts of co-creation.

"When the places and features of the landscape are tied to its old stories, knowing and remembering those stories as we walk through the land can help to weave us into its history, connecting us to ancestral voices and raising our awareness of the continuity of human relationship with the place -- so helping us to establish meaningful and enduring bonds with the land in which we live."

You can read the full essay here.

Weasel and Wood Mouse by Daniel Barlow

Kestor Row by Danielle Barlow

I can't think of an artist whose life and work embodies this more than my friend and village neighbour Danielle Barlow. Painter, illustrator, herbalist, incense maker, pony keeper, moor woman, myth spinner and hedgewitch, she is constantly listening to the whispered stories of Dartmoor, and weaving tales of her own into the land's Dreaming.

"I trained in textiles, and then in horticulture," she writes, "before returning to painting, my first love. These days I work primarily in ink and watercolour. I still juggle all three elements - painting, stitching and herbalism. Deeply rooted in this ancient landscape of ours, my work draws heavily on folklore and mythology, and explores the deep connection, both physical and spiritual, between people and the land they inhabit. The spirit of this land has sunk deep into my heart, and as I wander its ancient tracks, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the shifting relationships between human, animal, plants and land. My  paintings above all attempt to capture the elusive ‘Genius Loci - Spirit of Place’."

Otters by Danielle Barlow

Selkie by Danielle Barlow

Visit Danielle's website to see more of her work, including her beautiful, Dartmoor-inspired oracle deck. Visit her Facebook page to see new pieces, works-in-progress, and sumptuous photographs of the green world around her; and to learn more about her process as she works with paints, textiles, and plants. You'll also find her on Instagram and Etsy. She has recently finished the enormous labour of creating a new tarot deck, The Witches' Wisdom Tarot (Hay House Publishers), in collaboration with writer Phyllis Curot. Many Chagford friends and neighbours posed for the artwork in this one (including me). It comes out at the end of October, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon UK here, and Amazon US here.

Between Times by Danielle Barlow

Wolves and a Beltane hare by Danielle Barlow

Drawing by Danielle Barlow

Danielle Barlow

All rights to the quoted text and imagery above reserved by Sharon Blackie and Danielle Barlow.


The only real story

Ducks by Lieke van der Vorst

From "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver:

"In the summer of 1996 human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now live in the cities. The natural habitat of our species, then, officially, is steel, pavements, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise -- the hominid agenda.

"With all due respect to the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant's way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in....

Campfire by Lieke van der Vorst

"Barry Lopez writes that if we hope to succeed in the endeavor of protecting natures other than our own, 'it will require that we reimagine our lives....It will require of many of us a humanity that we've not yet mustered, and a grace we were not yet aware we desired until we had tasted it.'

Starry Nights by Lieke van der Vorst

"And yet no endeavor could be more crucial at this moment. Protecting the land that once provided us with our genesis may turn out to be the only real story there is for us. The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy earth, and that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we pick up...is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives. What you hold in your hands [when you hold a book] is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, place. Whether we are leaving it or coming into it, it's here that matters, it is place. Whether we understand where we are or don't, that is the story: To be here or not to be.

Birth by Lieke van der  Vorst

Two illustrations by Lieke  van der  Vorst

"Storytelling is as old as our need to remember where the water is, where the best food grows, where we find our courage for the hunt. It's as persistent as our desire to teach our children how to live in this place that we have known longer than they have. Our greatest and smallest explanations for ourselves grow from place, as surely as carrots grow from dirt. I'm presuming to tell you something that I could not prove rationally but instead feel as a religious faith. I can't believe otherwise.

"A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wise or safer than its habitat and its food chain. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place."

Bison by Lieke van der Vorst

I agree with Barbara that telling tales of the land and of the more-than-human world is crucial in these increasingly urbanized times ... and yet, there is nature to be found in the city too, and folklore, and magic, and animal life, and numinous stories worth the telling.

Go here for a previous post on the magic of cities (and the early Urban Fantasy genre).

Illustration by Lieke van der Vorst

The imagery today is by Lieke van der Vorst, an illustrator based in the Netherlands. She studied graphic design at Sint Lucas, illustration at the Sint Joost Art Academy, and now creates dreamlike imagery inspired by her love of animals, plants, gardens, cookery, and the wild world. 

"I grew up in Kaatsheuvel, a little village in the southern part of the Netherlands," she says. "Every summer my parents would pack up our De Waard tent and we would drive thirteen hours to Provence, France to camp among the lavender fields. These times spent in nature have had a strong influence on my life and work; and being kind to animals and the environment is an important part of my vision. I use my illustrations to try to make a positive impact on the world, while practicing green living as much as possible."

Please visit the artist's website or Instagram page to see more of her work.

Lieke van der Vorst's studio

Cat Woman by Lieke van der Vorst

The passage quoted above is from "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver, published in Small Wonder: Essays (HarperCollins, 2002). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


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

2

"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.)


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.)


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.)


Tell all the truth but tell it slant

Heard II by Adrian Arleo

From "The Value of Fantasy and Mythical Thinking" by Katherine Langrish:

"Karen Armstrong claims that religion is an art, and I agree with her. In her book A Short History of Myth she examines the modern expectation that all truths shall be factually based. This is what religious fundamentalists and scientists like Richard Dawkins have, oddly, in common. A religious fundamentalist refuses to accept the theory of evolution because it appears to him or her to disprove the truth of Genesis, when what Genesis actually offers is not a factual but an emotional truth: a way of accounting for the existence of the world and the place of people in it with all their griefs and joys and sorrows. It’s – in other words – a story, a fantasy, a myth. It’s not trying to explain the world, like a scientist. It’s trying to reconcile us with the world. Early people were not naïve. The truth that you get from a story is different from the truth of a proven scientific fact.

Heard I by Adrian Arleo

Sirens of Rutino & Artemis/Diana II by Adrian Arleo

"Any work of art is a symbolic act. Any work of fiction is per se, a fantasy. In the broadest sense, you can see this must be so. They are all make-belief. Tolstoy’s Prince André and Tolkien’s Aragorn are equal in their non-existence. Realism in fiction is an illusion -- just as representational art is a sleight of hand (and of the mind) that tricks us into believing lines and splashes of colour are ‘really’ horses or people or landscapes.

"The question shouldn’t be ‘Is it true?’, because no story provides truth in the narrow factual sense. The questions to ask about any work of art should be like these: ‘Does it move me? Does it express something I always felt but didn’t know how to say? Has it given me something I never even knew I needed?’ As Karen Armstrong says, 'Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever.' If that happens, you will know it. It makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Is it true?’

Night by Adrian Arleo

Apparition by Adrian Arleo"Fantasy still deserves to be taken seriously -- read and written seriously -- because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols. Here’s the last verse of Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Gates of Eden’ (from Bringing it All Back Home):

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true:
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.

Consider by Adrian Arleo

The mythic imagery today is by Adrian Arleo, an American ceramic artist who lives and works outside Missoula, Montana. She studied Art and Anthropology at Pitzer College, received an M.F.A. in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has been Artist in Residence at Oregon College of Art and Craft and the Sitka Center For Art and Ecology. Her work is exhibited and collected around the world. 

"For over thirty years, my sculpture has combined human, animal and natural imagery to create a kind of emotional and poetic power," she writes. "Often there's a suggestion of a vital interconnection between the human and non-human realms; the imagery arises from associations, concerns and obsessions that are at once intimate and universal. The work frequently references mythology and archetypes in addressing our vulnerability amid changing personal, environmental and political realities. By focussing on older, more mysterious ways of seeing the world, edges of consciousness and deeper levels of awareness suggest themselves."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her wonderful work.

Earth/Horse Teapot with Dog Lid by Adrian Arleo

Glade and Dormant Honey Comb Woman by Adrian Arleo

Matrimony by Adrian Arleo

Words: The Katherine Langrish passage quoted above is from"The Value of Fantasy and Mythical Thinking" (An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, October 17, 2009); all rights reserved by the author. You can read the full piece here. I also recommend Kath's excellent essays on folklore, fairy tales, and fantasy literature, which you can find on her blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, and in her book of the same name. The title of today's post, of course, is from an Emily Dickinson poem.

Pictures: Adrian Arleo's ceramic works above are Heard II, Heard I, Sirens of Rutino & Artemis/Diana II, Night, Apparition, Consider, Earth/Horse Teapot with Dog Lid, Glade & Dormant Honey Comb Woman, and Matrimony. All rights reserved by the artist.


The language of whales

Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

Marine biologist Eva Saulitis studied killer whales (or orca whales) in the coastal waters of Alaska for over thirty years, while also writing poetry and nonfiction blending nature writing and memoir.  The following passage is from her first collection of essays, Leaving Resurrection:

Standing Raven by Preston Singletary"During my first summer out in Prince William Sound as a volunteer, one of my tasks was to decide on a project for my master's thesis. Initially, I felt drawn to the quieter ways of humpback whales, who stayed in protective areas near Whale Camp to feed. But small groups of killer whales kept passing by camp, hugging the shoreline. They were AT1 transients, mammal-eaters about which little was known except that they were mostly silent and difficult to follow....

"One day, my friend and I followed two AT1 transients from a small inflatable as they hunted harbor seals along an island shore. We lost them for several minutes, and then spotted silver mist above a rock. We let the boat drift near. Clinging tightly to the rock, its head craned back, eyes huge and black, a seal pup crouched above the water line. A transient nudged the rock, but couldn't reach the seal, at least not yet; the tide was rising. Abruptly, the whale turned, joined the second whale, and swam rapidly across an open passage. We left the lucky seal and raced to catch the transients, but they'd vanished. Cutting the outboard in mid-passage so we might hear their blows, we stood up, scanning with binoculars.

"I felt something through the bottom of my feet before I heard it. From the inflatable's wooden floorboards, a wail rose, and another, and another. My friend and I stared at each other.

"'It's the whales. They must be right under us. Let's drop the hydrophone,' I said.

"I scrambled for the tape recorder, and we huddled over the small speaker adjusting knobs as long, descending, siren-like cries reverberated against underwater island walls. In the distance, other whales answered, faintly. I'd never heard transients call before. It was like a stone had sung. I knew then. I wanted to learn the language of the whales that were mostly silent.

Side view of the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

"In grad school, I learned the art of detachment, learned to watch how I said things, to listen for anthropomorphism, like applying the word language to non-humans. As scientists, we distinguish ourselves from whale huggers, lovers, groupies, and gurus, from those who think of whales as spiritual beings. We learn the evolutionary, biological basis for an animal's behavior. We study the various theories and counter-theories and debate their merits: reciprocal altruism, game theory, optimality theory, cost-benefit analysis.

Raven by Preston Singletary"At scientific meetings, in animal behavior seminars, we don't debate whether animals have feelings. It's terra incognita. But on the research boat, or at the breakfast table, before the meeting begins, some of us talk about these things. One non-scientist friend, puzzled by the ways of science, asked, 'Isn't it strange to assume that humans are the only creatures with feelings, that we are so different from other animals?' Is it 'animapomorphic' to ascribe animal behaviors to humans? If it's wrong to suppose animals might share qualities with humans, then how do we see ourselves? Alone at the tip of some renegade branch of the tree of life?

"Out in the field, summer after summer, we search for knowledge, employing the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, data collection, analysis, discussion, conclusion. Poet and biologist Forrest Gander says that this method 'has endured as a scientific model, and a very successful one, for it predicts that when we do something, we will obtain certain results. But if we approach with a different model, we will ask different questions.' To create a new model: that prospect challenges all of the questions I've learned to ask -- and not to ask."

Detail from the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

As the book goes on, Saulitis returns to this subject again and again. Is the language of science the only way, or even the best way, to understand the whales she is studying? What about the language of poetry, song, and story? What about the tales told about the whales by indigenous peoples whose lives have long been entwined with them?

In the book's final essay she reflects on local stories about the whales, such as this one:

"Very long ago, when someone died, the killer whales would come take them to a certain cove, dress them like killer whales, and release them into their new form. According to this story, the only difference between whales and humans is our skins. Zipping and unzipping this skin is like lifting up the cloth of the sea to go under, to effortlessly enter the killer whale realm. It seems magical, this lifting of cloth, this zipping on of skin. But it's much like the evolution story, in which killer whales shed body shapes to become what they've been now for five million years. Killer whales know some things about living here. Maybe we have to shed the skins we're wearing, find our way back into the weave, rejoin the ecosystem, put back on our animal skins....

Kéet by Preston Singletary

"A woman from Dolovan, near Nome, told me of a time that killer whales helped her people to find food. When she was a baby, her family was moved from Elim to Dolovan. Some people went overland. Her grandmother and others went by rowboat around Cape Darby, in the Bering Sea. She herself was in the boat, wrapped in a rabbit-skin parka. The people were hungry and cold, so someone called to the killer whales and asked them for food. The next day, big pieces of muktuk washed up on the beach. The people ate it raw, they were so hungry, and the oil stained their clothes, which had to be burned.

" 'You never play with or harm or hunt or harass a killer whale,' she said, 'because they are so close to people.' She told me that a woman in Dolovan married a white man who didn't know all of the traditional rituals or rules, and one day he shot a baby killer whale. 'A person who harms a killer whale will die,' she said. An adult killer whale showed up and started swimming through the bay back and forth. The white man finally confessed to his wife what he'd done. She blamed herself for failing to teach him properly, so she went to a point far out in the water and apologized to the killer whale, saying that her husband didn't know, that it was her fault. The whale eventually forgave them and left.

Family Story Totem by Preston Singletary

"Inupiaq people say that killer whales drove seals onto the ice for hunters to catch. Tobacco was thrown into the whales' open mouths, in thanks. Those stories from many places in coastal Alaska, of killer whales opened mouthed, lips pulled back, revealing their teeth to hunters in boats, remind me of Matushka. We first saw her in Prince William Sound in 1987 with some of her relatives on my first day volunteering on a research project with Craig. While some of the whales swam rapidly around us, Matushka breached and tail-slapped repeatedly within a few meters of the skiff, dousing us with water. I was twenty-three and naive, didn't know this wasn't ordinary killer whale behavior, so I screamed and jumped around and tried to touch her. Finally, I looked at Craig, salt water dripping from his beard, and saw his unease. It was weird, he said, for transients to interact with a boat this way. We couldn't even take identification photos for fear of ruining the camera, but more so, because the whales were too close. We finally had to back away from them, but they charged after.

Killer Whale by Preston Singletary"That was my initiation into killer whale research, and I see it now as both a welcoming and a warning, a warning that my stories would have to change. My imagination would have to expand to include Matushka as she glided along the hull of the boat, her mouth wide open, showing me her teeth. I would have to look into my own animal nature.

"It's not impossible to imagine killer whales and humans having once spoken the same language, interchanged body forms. We are still dependent on each other, and the stories tell us that we must act that way, unless we want killer whales to exist only as mythical creatures, like the thunderbird, who, in one story, did battle with a killer whale, driving it into the sea, where it's lived to this day. Our big, imaginative brains define us. Deprived of the creatures who inspire our stories, will we be human? Or will we be proto-something else?

"Just as language shapes our thoughts, the way we tell stories shapes the way we see, and the way we see -- what we look at, the amount of time we spend on the water, in the woods -- shapes our imaginations. Jurgen Kremer asks, 'What if we have established a big thought system at the foundation of which is one giant rationalization? What if we need to turn things upside-down?' Is that the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Is wisdom knowledge turned upside-down? 

"I write poetry these days, a craft that encourages the holding of opposing truths in the mind at the same time. While my logical mind grapples to reconcile the Tlingit story of the origin of the killer whale with the paleontological story, in my other mind, they coexist. Both are essential."

Killer Whales photographed by Eva Saulitis

Killer Whale Canoe by Preston Singletary

Eva Saulitis died of breast cancer four years ago, at the age of 52. She wrote about her illness as she wrote about her whales: with the clear observations of a scientist and the emotional depth and language of a poet. (For example, see her gorgeous piece on nature and dying, "Wild Darkness," in Orion magazine.)  

I highly recommend Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist; Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discover and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas; and her last essay collection, Becoming Earth -- as well as her poetry, published in Many Ways to Say It and Prayer in the Wind.

X'aat by Preston Singletary

The imagery today is by Preston Singletary, a Tlingit artist based in Seattle who primarily works glass. His creations often feature killer whales because of the whale's significance as one of the crests of his clan.

"When I began working with glass," he says, "I had no idea that I'd be so connected to the material in the way that I am. It was only when I began to experiment with using designs from my Tlingit cultural heritage that my work began to take on a new purpose and direction. Over time, my skill with the material of glass and traditional form line design has strengthened and evolved, allowing me to explore more fully my own relationship to both my culture and chosen medium. This evolution, and subsequent commercial success, has positioned me as an influence on contemporary indigenous art. Through teaching and collaborating in glass with other Native American, Maori, Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal artists, I've come to see that glass brings another dimension to indigenous art. The artistic perspective of indigenous people reflects a unique and vital visual language which has connections to the ancient codes and symbols of the land. My work with glass transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used. It has helped advocate on the behalf of all indigenous people -- affirming that we are still here -- that that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to
our culture."

To see more of Singletary's beautiful, deeply spirited work, go here.

The Air World by Preston Singletary

Words: The passages quoted above are from Leaving Resurrection by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2008); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The Jurgen Kremer quote is from Indigenous Science: Introduction (ReVision 18, no, 3, Winter 1996).

Pictures: The art above is by Preston Singletary; all rights reserved by the artist. The name of each piece is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)