The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Many fantasy stories contain creatures of the very odd to the strangely familiar. Writers seeking to do something different from the norm or even put a new spin on the usual will find this compendium to be useful.

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: the ultimate a-z of fantastic beings from myth and magic by John and Caitlin Matthews is the place to begin your creature research. Discover creatures from South American traditions, Chinese folklore, Greek/Roman myths, and more. Some entries, like Boroka, are brief paragraphs, while others, such as Baba Yaga, are more detailed.

So far, I've only flipped around, stopping to read what catches my eye. Sometimes I find an unexpected origin to a creature or character in one of the books I've read. Such as right now. I have the page open to where Banshee/Beansidhe is listed. "The very first being to set up a keening cry was the Irish Goddess Brighid, one of the Tuatha de Danaan; she wailed for the death of her only son, Ruadan, and that was the first keening ever heard in Ireland."

In The Wandering Fire, book two of the Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavril Kay utilized a variant of this into his culture. Every Midsummer's Eve, the priestesses perform a ceremony honoring the death of the Beloved Son, Liadon. Dana's power holds sway on this sacred night, and this plays an important role in the events of the second half of the story.

Nor was that the only myth utilized in the Fionavar Tapestry. He also wrote about beings called the lios alfar and svart alfar. These are based on the two tribes of Alfa, or elves. Many of the Celtic gods and goddesses play nearly identical roles in Fionavar, some with slight twists to their names. Cernunnos/Herne is Cernan of the Beasts. Nemain is one of the goddesses of war.

Now there are many mythical figures left out. Apollo and Artemis have no entries of their own other than brief mentions in the entry for Cerynean Hind and Lords and Ladies of the Animals. I haven't been able to find a mention of Dana, the Great Mother, in some form at all. But over all, you will find many deities, larger than life characters, and creatures of all kinds you will likely be discovering for the first time.

If you are looking for a source of inspiration or just a bit of something to spice up your world, whether it be fantasy or science fiction, start with this book.

The Dark Is Rising sequence

Saturday, November 21, 2009

When I start thinking about what hooked me into fantasy, the first books that come to mind include Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series. My sixth grade teacher choose book two, The Dark Is Rising, as one of our reading books for the year. Our whole class read it, but I almost feel like she chose it just for me. Not a far-fetched idea, considering that she loaned me books from her personal library once she saw how much I loved to read, though the reason was probably more because it's a Newbery Honor Book. Once I finished The Dark Is Rising, I sought out the other four books.

Not only were the main characters the same age I was, but they were involved in events outside the knowledge and experience of ordinary humans: the conflict between the Dark and the Light over the issue of human free will. Not exactly a lightweight theme for an Intermediate level read, but it resonated with me. This deeper view into the human psyche through the use of fantasy played a pivotal role in broadening my understanding of real world issues and human behavior. More on this topic to come in a future post.

In The Dark Is Rising sequence, the Dark is preparing for one final push for dominance over the world. Those of the Light must prepare for that battle by gathering their allies and Items of Power in order to protect humanity's free will for all time.

The sequence begins with Over Sea, Under Stone. While on holiday in Cornwall, the Drew children explore the old house their family is renting. In the attic, they find an ancient map which turns out to be the key to finding an artifact needed by the Light. Though Simon, Jane, and Barney know little of the great conflict or the full identity of their mysterious relative, they know in their hearts that Great Uncle Merry is of the Light and that they want to be part of the quest to find the lost grail before the servants of the Dark despite the danger to themselves.

The Dark Is Rising explains more about the growing threat posed by the Dark. On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers that he is more than the youngest son of a large family but the youngest and last of the Old Ones, Lords of Light devoted to protecting mankind against the forces of evil known as the Dark. Though guided by Merriman Lyon, oldest of the Old Ones, Will is given no time to learn all he needs before he is thrust into the quest for the Six Signs. He must seek them across time in order to complete an Item of Power needed both for the future and to thwart the current rising of the Dark.

Simon, Jane, and Barney return to Cornwall with Great Uncle Merry in Greenwitch to help recover the grail of their previous adventure which had been stolen by an agent of the Dark. They are joined by an odd boy whose American aunt and uncle are renting the other half of the house. Jane is the only one to sense that Will may be more than he seems, and her impulsive wish at the Greenwitch ceremony may bring an unexpected result.

Sent to Wales to recover from a serious illness, Will struggles to remember something very important, something he has to do. Scraps of phrases tantalize his mind until he meets Bran and his white dog Cafall, whose silver eyes bring the verses and his quest back to Will's mind. Together, the three of them race to find the harp of gold and awaken the six Sleepers before The Grey King and his allies can prevent them from completing their quest.

In Silver On the Tree, warnings portend the coming battle, the Dark's rise for its last and most powerful bid to dominate the world. Will must return to Wales to join forces with Merriman, Bran, and the three Drews to complete their final quests through time and space for their chance to cast the Lords of the Dark out of Time forever.

Susan Cooper uses two sets of verses that serve both as prophesy and as clues to guide the characters on their quests to stop the Dark from rising. One set of three verses is revealed in sections in The Dark Is Rising, with the third one having references to Greenwitch and The Grey King. The other set of verses is revealed at the end of Greenwitch which play a role in both The Grey King and Silver On the Tree. Rather than the verses leading the characters from plot point to plot point, they are interpreted in snippets over the course of the story arc. They fit into the context. For more about these books, take a look here.

I still enjoy these books twenty years later. The stories are well written. What makes me mad is how badly the movie version bungled the plot. The preview didn't appeal to me, and the Wiki article on The Seeker just confirmed my impressions. I don't think I can stomach watching it.

For one thing, the producers decided that eleven was too young, so they made Will turn fourteen. Uh, wrooong. They also decided that Will's family was from America, recently moved to England and tried to make the story modern. Wrong again. They changed the location of the six Signs, in a bad way. And they really buggered over much of the plot and family relationships.

Over all, they tried to turn the story into a bad Harry Potter knockoff, with making The Rider into a Voldemort clone and Will into a Harry clone. *Growls* Though there are a few similarities between The Dark Is Rising and Harry Potter, they are not that parallel. Dark Is Rising has more parallels to Lords of the Rings than to HP. When this series came out, Psychology Today had this to say:

"Susan Cooper is one of the few contemporary writers who has the vivid imagination, the narrative powers, and the moral vision that permit her to create the kind of sweeping conflict between good and evil that lies at the heart of all great fantasy. Tolkien had it. So did C.S. Lewis. And Cooper writes in the same tradition."

I completely agree.

At least the producers of The Seeker had the courtesy to give their movie a different name, as it no longer has much in common with the original story. My husband said that if I hate it that much, I should write my own screenplay. Well maybe I will. I may not be an accomplished writer, but I'm sure mine would be truer to the essence of the story.

Crafting with dragons and other fantasy creatures

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I have a dragon snorting over my shoulder about how long it's been since my last post. I have no excuses, won't even pretend to have one. My poor Dragon Month went half empty. So to do a bit more with dragons and open things up to the wider realm of fantasy, I give you a few books for fantasy needlework and other craft projects.

First up is Needlework Dragons and Other Mythical Creatures by Carol Gault. This book contains a range of projects incorporating needlework, cross-stitch, and quilting, though don't limit yourself to using the designs only as shown. The quilt design could be worked in satin stitch on a pillowcase, for example. It's all a matter of viewing the possibilities and scaling the pattern for the project in mind.

Some of the patterns in this book include: Dragon in the Sea needlepoint wall hanging, Taiyun needlepoint pillow, Dragon blackwork framed picture, and a Mythical Character Cross-stitch alphabet project. In addition to the directions for the projects, Carol Gault has chapters on choosing materials, helpful techniques, and finishing hints. This book was published in 1983, so it may be hard to find now. But if you enjoy needlework and fantasy, this would make a great addition to your library.

Next up is the Great Book of Dragon Patterns by Lora S. Irish. While this book has some instruction to drawing your own dragons, it is not to the level of the DragonArt book I reviewed last month. What makes this a great book is the multitude of patterns that can be traced for an assortment of projects. Carve the patterns in leather or wood, paint them on paper or clothing, or embroider them into a multitude of gifts. Patterns range from mean and scaly to cute and whimsical. A few dragons are arranged around a block of space, perfect for use on a plaque. This book should be easier to find as it was revised and rereleased in 2004. We bought our copy at The Leather Factory.

Another designer of fantasy patterns for cross-stitch is Tereza Wentzler. I have two of her books: Tereza Wentzler's Celestial Dragon and The Best of Tereza Wentzler Fantasy Collection. These are patterns for the experienced stitcher, being highly detailed. The Celestial Dragon takes 11 pages for a single pattern due to its intricacy. The fantasy collection includes patterns for Castle Sampler, Stroke of Midnight (Cinderella fleeing the ball), and Unicorn.

The patterns come with clear instructions, though I have not yet attempted any of them. They are beautiful, though. Before working any of these patterns, I recommend making a photocopy of the design in order to mark the stitches you've completed. I've been doing that with another cross stitch pattern. It really helps keep track of all the detail which leads to fewer errors and less need for unpicking stitches to fix a miscount.

Have fun exploring the options of crafting with fantasy creatures. Regardless of your skill level, these books should get you started on combining crafts with fantasy. Take a look through your local craft stores for patterns, kits, and more that incorporate fantastical elements. Perhaps you can design your own. Happy crafting.