John Howe CHRONICLES of an illustrator Wed, 10 Aug 2016 20:46:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 27162260 THE END OF THE WORLD: THE FAIRY TALE APPROACH Sun, 31 Jul 2016 18:39:37 +0000 wend2Warwick Goble (22 November 1862 – 22 January 1943) is undeniably one of the foremost figures of the Golden Age of illustration. Fairy tale, myth and legend, the grand classics of children’s literature, he seems to have turned his hand to most of them, from MacKenzie’s Indian Myth and Legend to Stevenson’s Treasure Island. He ...]]> wend2

Warwick Goble (22 November 1862 – 22 January 1943) is undeniably one of the foremost figures of the Golden Age of illustration. Fairy tale, myth and legend, the grand classics of children’s literature, he seems to have turned his hand to most of them, from MacKenzie’s Indian Myth and Legend to Stevenson’s Treasure Island. He was a regular contributor to The London Illustrated news, Pall Mall Gazette and Boy’s Own, amongst others. In 1909, he occupied the enviable position of resident gift book illustrator for MacMillan Publishers in London, for whom he illustrated The Water Babies, Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales, The Complete Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Stories from the Pentamerone, Folk Tales of Bengal, The Fairy Book, and The Book of Fairy Poetry. He even ventured into science fiction, illustrating H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in 1898.

Nonetheless, it was a bit of a surprise to find his illustrations depicting the end of the world. [1]




Left: Bound edition of Pearson’s Magazine, January to June, 1899. Centre: Cover of Pearson’s magazine July 1900 issue. Right: The contents page from the same issue.

Few things go out of date faster than the future. Admittedly over a century of water under the bridge does put a certain perspective on things, although the adamant affirmations, the less-than-solidly based speculation and the difficulties in dealing with the future remain largely unchanged.

Herbert C. Fyfe (sometime librarian of the Royal Institution, London) wrote books and articles with such fascinating and now moderately obscure titles as Submarine Warfare, Past and Present (1907), The Ivel Agricultural Motor (1903), The Pedrail, A new Type of Road Locomotive (1903), Ore Finding by Electricity (1903) and The Finsen Light-Cure in England (1903), to name a few. In 1901 he proposed building a rail bridge from Dover to Calais (as well as across the Straits of Gibraltar, preferring a bridge to a tunnel, which would have needed chimneys to evacuate fumes from the oil lamps that would light it, as the French Engineer A. M. Mathieu had proposed in 1802, before electricity solved that particular problem.) Fyfe also interviewed famous figures, publishing To the Poles by ice-breaking steamer: an interview with Vice- Admiral Makaroff in 1900. In sum, he was very much an archetypical turn-of-the-century progressive, writing enthusiastically about progress, exploration and revolutionary techniques and discoveries.

Where he reaches his stride, though, is in the realm of speculative science and dire prediction, evoking the end of oxygen, a frozen planet, loathsome creatures from the deeps (my personal favourite) and dozens of other ways by which the earth will meet its demise. Read the article, it is truly fascinating (as is the list of articles in the same issue, particularly the one entitled A Machine That Almost Thinks.) Perhaps asking a fairy tale illustrator to produce the images wasn’t so odd after all.


How Will the World End?

by Herbert C. Fyfe

From Pearson’s Magazine, July 1900

Illustrated by Warwick Goble

MANY of us are apt, not without some reason, to regard the world we live in as the centre of the universe, and to look upon the sun, the moon, and the stars as objects placed in the heavens for the special benefit of the human race. That the earth is but a minute object in the Cosmos; that it forms one of a number of bodies, many of them larger than itself, revolving around their central luminary, the sun; that there exist in the realms of space myriads of similar suns, centres themselves of other solar systems; that millions of planets, which we cannot see, are inhabited with races of intelligent beings — these are facts of which almost everybody must be cognisant, but on which few bestow much time or thought.

Astronomy teaches that, just as our solar system had a beginning, so it must have an end, and that, as at one time life was impossible upon the earth, so there will come a time when man will no longer be able to exist.

Science, cold and calculating, has foretold the physical end of the world — has prophesied the destruction of the globe and all its contents.

Birth, life, death — it has been well been said –appear to be the rule of the universe at large, as well as in our own little corner of it. Suns and planets are evolved, they flourish, and at length decay; and new suns and systems will arise to take their places.

The “End of the World” may be taken in two different senses, as meaning either the annihilation of our planet by sudden catastrophe, or by gradual decay, or else the disappearance of human life from the face of the globe, owing to some state of circumstances, possible, at any rate, if not probable.

It is our purpose in this article briefly to consider some of the opinions held by men of learning and repute regarding the end of the world, and to emphasise the lesson taught by Nature that the individual counts for nothing in the history of the race, the race for nothing in the life of the planet, and the planet for nothing in the duration of the Universe.


Title illustration for “How Will the World End?”

Very many derive their inspiration on this absorbing subject from the Bible, where we read: “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heal, the earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burned up.”

Every child knows that water was the agency of destruction in the ancient world, and that the rainbow was placed in the sky as a token that life should never be destroyed by this cause again. All through the Bible we may trace the prophecy that the world would come to an end by being consumed with fire.

It is out of our province here to touch on the signs given in the Bible whereby the arrival of the last day may be predicted. Certain preachers have brought great ridicule on themselves by their very certain statements on this point, but they seem little abashed when their prophecies do not come true, and merely alter dates and times to suit the next occasion.

Many readers will call to mind a rhyme which at the time terrorised the minds of hundreds of thousands of young and ignorant people —

“The world unto an end shall come

In Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-One.”

The date has been often changed and will (it may safely be said) continue to be changed for the benefit of future generations. It is curious to notice that hardly two philosophers agree as to the manner in which the end of the world may be expected to arrive. Some put their faith in a celestial catastrophe so terrible as literally to wipe our earth out of existence, while others prefer to believe that though man may no longer be able to exist, the world will still continue its appointed motions.

Lord Kelvin startled us not long ago by affirming that there was only oxygen in the atmosphere sufficient to last mankind for some 300 years, and that the world was doomed to die of suffocation. Everyone knows that in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen no animal being can live for long. Put a mouse under an air-tight glass containing some burning substance that exhausts the oxygen, and it will be speedily suffocated. Thus will it be (so says Lord Kelvin) with man, who is himself lighting the fires for the suffocation of his progeny.

On an average it requires three tons of oxygen to consume one ton of fuel, and the oxygen that exists in our atmosphere is practically all the supply available for the purpose. As shown by the barometer the average weight of the air is 14.9 pounds to the square inch, which gives a total weight for the earth of 1,020,000,000,000 tons of oxygen. At the rate of three tons of oxygen to one ton of fuel, the weight of fuel which can be consumed by this oxygen is 340,000,000,000 tons.

Now to see how the oxygen can keep pace with the fuel. The whole world consumes about 600,000,000 tons of coal a year, and to this must be added the consumption of oxygen by wood and other vegetable substances which raises the equivalent coal consumption of the world to not less than 1,000,000,000 tons a year.

Thus, even at the present rate of fuel consumption there is only oxygen to last 340 years, and long before this time the atmosphere would have become so vitiated with carbonic acid gas, and so weakened in oxygen, that either we should have to emigrate to some other sphere, or else give up the habit of breathing altogether.

Following in Lord Kelvin’s footsteps, Professor Rees, a prominent American scientist, has been going further into the question of the exhaustion of the air supply of the world. He gives definite warning of the coming “failure” of the air.

“‘Free as the air we breathe,'” he writes, will, in the distant future, become an out-of-date, misleading expression. Air will no longer be free, for it will be manufactured and sold like any other necessary. Those who will not work for their daily air supply, and who cannot afford to buy it, will perish, for Nature will have exhausted her supply. The artificial air will be stored up in enormous reservoirs, and to these receptacles applicants will come for their daily supply of oxygen. This will then be carried home and doled out to the family as part of the day’s means to support life. The manufactured oxygen will be breathed in as a diver inhales the air supplied him when he sinks beneath the waves.

“‘Died from air starvation’ will be a common verdict in the coroners’ courts of the future, for ‘no money, no air,’ will be the rule of life. The wealthy will gain a reputation for charity by free gifts of air to the aged poor at Christmas time. Men and women will no longer be able to look at each other with eyes of love, for everyone will be clothed in a great air helmet, like a diver of to-day.”

There is, however, a silver lining of hope fringing these gloomy clouds of speculation. Lord Kelvin himself is not wholly a prophet of evil, neither are his views of an entirely pessimistic nature. He looks to the agriculturist to improve his methods, so that the plant life on the globe may be able to absorb the surplus carbonic acid gas and to release sufficient new oxygen to cope with the growing consumption of fuel.

Those sources of Nature at present allowed (except in a few instances) to run to waste — the tides, the ceaseless movement of the waves, waterfalls, solar energy, the wind, the ether, atmospheric electricity — all these in times to come will be made to supply the energy that we require for daily needs. If this be the case, we shall not die of suffocation after all.

But though we may escape suffocation, there is yet the chance that some day there will be no air for poor humanity to breathe. Mr. Nikola Tesla, of world-wide fame, announces that if we are not cautious we may set light to the atmosphere with our electric discharges of a “few million volts.”

He suggests that “periodical cessations of organic life on the globe ” might have been caused through the ignition of the air by flashes of lightning. Electricity is, indeed, a mysterious force, and Mr. Tesla’s warning certainly appeals to the imagination. It would be interesting to know if the distinguished American electrician has a remedy to propose.


“According to Mr. H. G. Well, the world will eventually be frozen over.” Warwick Goble’s frost maiden contemplates a deep-frozen earth.

Mr. H. G. Wells has drawn in his romance, “The Time Machine,” a strangely impressive picture of the end of the world as he conceives it. The last man, according to his conception, freezes to death, and life becomes unsupportable on our planet, not because of great heat, but rather from intense cold.

Mr. Wells has the testimony of science on his side, and has indeed based his assumptions on the learned treatises of Professor J.H. Darwin.

By dint of laborious calculation it has been shown that the sun’s heat is by slow degrees becoming less and less, and that some day, long years hence, the sun will no longer give out the warmth necessary for human existence. Mounting his “time machine,” Mr. Wells plunges off into the future, and, when he has journeyed millions of years hence, he finds a slowly freezing world in which man and beast fail to find the means of subduing the pangs of hunger or of protecting themselves from the cold. The sun hangs in a grey sky — a pale, weird, ash-coloured ball, incapable of supplying light and warmth. Loathsome animals of huge size, brought into existence by the altered condition of affairs, creep over the masses of ice and crawl over the frozen seas and lakes. Little by little all trace of vegetation disappears — a steady snowstorm settles down over the earth, and our planet revolves in space for a short time only to fall a frozen mass into the bosom of the dying sun.

That the solar temperature is declining is, I think, universally conceded by astronomers, who also admit the steady contraction of our great luminary. The sun is now apparently contracting at the rate of 220 feet per annum, and if we look forward through a vista of many thousands of years we see the sun ever diminishing in dimensions. There is, however no cause for immediate alarm, and millions of years must elapse before our sun will have vanished from the heavens.

Looking back at the past history of the earth the astronomer pictures a time when the earth was a sun. Coming down the ages he shows us a globe whose condition resembles that of Jupiter and Saturn, planets at the present time with dense atmospheres still loaded with the waters which are to form their future oceans. Peering into the future he recognises in the moon’s actual condition a stage through which our planet will assuredly have to pass.

The earth’s inherent heat must pass away, the life on her surface slowly disappear, until she becomes made up, as we believe the moon to be, of desert continents and frost bound oceans, lifeless as at the beginning of her history, but no longer — as Mr. Proctor put it — “possessing that potentiality of life which existed in her substance before life appeared upon her surface. Long as has been, and doubtless will be, the duration of life upon the earth, it seems less than a second of time compared with those two awful time-intervals, one past, when as yet life had not begun; the other still to come, when all life shall have passed away.”


“Loathsome animals of huge size will creep over the masses of ice.”

There are writers who combat the theory that all orbs in space tend towards death and declare that this seeming tendency will be counterbalanced by some restorative forces.

Scientific men, however, reply that they are at present unaware of any such forces, and that in the light of their present knowledge every sun and every planet must be slowly yet surely wasting away.

Reference has been made to the possible annihilation of our planet by some dire catastrophe. One of the supporters of this theory is Professor Falb, a well-known astronomer, who prophesied the destruction of the world on November 13th, 1899, through collision with a comet known as Biela’s. On the 29th of October, 1899, came a telegram from Santiago, Chili, announcing that Biela’s comet had been observed from there and was visible to the naked eye. This announcement following on Prof. Falb’s prophecy actually caused no little dismay among the poorer classes of the Continental peasantry, though in England and America little alarm was felt. Needless to state, the 13th of November came and went without the occurrence of any untoward event.

This is not the first time that this particular comet has been credited with being the instrument by which the Creator was to bring to a conclusion the existence of mankind on earth.

Between 1828 and 1832 it was generally prophesied that Biela’s comet would come into collision with the earth during the latter year (the year of its first return after discovery), and there is reason to believe that a good deal of alarm was caused by such assertions.

The history of this comet may be told in a few words. On February 27th, 1826, M. Biela, in Bohemia, discovered a faint comet whose orbit — or path round the sun — was traversed, he calculated, in about six and three-quarter years. It was found that in 1832 this comet would pass within 20,000 miles of the earth’s orbit; but, as the earth would not reach that particular point till one month after the comet had passed it, no danger to the world need have been apprehended. The assurances of the astronomer failed, however, to satisfy the minds of many ignorant and unscientific persons who pretended to be greatly alarmed at the imminent destruction of our planet.

Astronomers predicted that Biela’s comet would be visible at intervals of six and three-quarter years. It returned regularly up to 1846, when it appeared divided into two distinct comets. Such a celestial apparition had never been observed before, and astronomers viewed it with the keenest interest and excitement. On January 14th the distance between the two bodies was 177,000 miles, and this was increased on February 23rd to 191,000. On the 22nd of April the comets had disappeared.

In 1852 they returned, and the distance between them now was 1,624,000 miles, and, as neither contained a proper “nucleus,” it was decided that they were in process of disintegration. Since 1852 the two comets have never been seen again, and since 187 Biela’s comet has not been seen, and astronomers conclude that it must have undergone the fate of all comets which approach the sun frequently and nearly — they either fall into its vast mass and are consumed like moths around a candle, or else they waste their substance in forming tails of such extreme length that they become so attenuated as to be no longer visible.

But, the reader may ask, are there not other comets against which the earth is likely to collide with disastrous consequence to herself and to her inhabitants ? It is estimated that there are about 17,500,000 comets in connection with the solar system alone. Is it not possible that any of these may come into contact with the earth?

In 1832, our planet is known to have actually passed through the tails of comets, hut nothing came of it. What would happen if we unfortunately encountered the actual nucleus of one is a question more easily asked than answered.

Such a catastrophe, though possible, is exceedingly remote, however. Another question now arises: may not the extinction of the human race be brought about by some lower order usurping dominion over and finally destroying mankind ?

At first sight the idea seems absurd. Man, the lord of creation, to be driven off the globe by the creatures over whom he has so long held dominion! Preposterous! Let us see what science has to say to this.

Countless ages ago in the world’s past history there was a time when huge monsters, both on land and sea, were common. These reigned supreme for a time, only to succumb at length and disappear. Many species even within our own time have become extinct; can man then always hope to have the preeminence?

“When once a type is gone,” said the late Mr. J. F. Nesbit, “Nature never renews it. So infinite are her resources that no pattern, no number of patterns, matters. And it may be that man, a late arrival, is destined to a far shorter use of the earth than the cockroach or the lobster.”

Not over flattering to human vanity, but nevertheless true!

It is conceivable that changes of climate, and gradual developments and modifications of which we know little, might concur in bringing some land species into dangerous prominence.

The vivid imagination of Mr. H. G. Wells, ever ready — like the fat boy in Pickwick – to make our flesh creep, once pictured a world devoured by ants! We have all read of the migratory ants of Central Africa, against which no man can stand. On the march they swiftly clear out whole villages, drive men and animals before them in headlong rout, and kill and eat every living creature they can capture.

At present they are kept under by animals which prey on them, but supposing these checks to be removed!

We know how easy it is to disturb Nature’s balance; rabbits introduced thoughtlessly into Australia and Californlia rapidly became a serious pest; sparrows have in many cases brought ruin to the farmers; hyacinths, planted in Florida rivers, so multiplied that navigation soon became impossible.

Nature, again unassisted by man, sometimes produces what we call plagues of certain species. Must we then not allow the possibility of the extinction of man by the enormous increase and spread of a lower order?

If the reader be still unconvinced let him turn to Mr. Wells’ picture of the sudden appearance out of the sea of a race of amphibious monsters, capable of sweeping man and all his contrivances out of existence.

Fossil remains of crabs, 6ft. in length, have been discovered, and such enormous creatures might — owing to some cause or other — multiply exceedingly.

If we imagine a shark that could raid out upon the land, or a tiger that could take refuge in the sea, we should have a fair suggestion of what a terrible monster a large predatory crab might prove. And, so far as zoological science goes, we must, at least, admit that such a creation is an evolutionary possibility.


“The sudden appearance out of the sea by a race of amphibious monster, capable of sweeping man out of existence.” What a shame Goble never had the opportunity to illustrate H. P. Lovecraft!

Then there are the cuttlefish, the octopus, and other denizens of the deep, any of which might conceivably grow in numbers, and extinguish man. And even if we escape death from monsters, there is the chance of our falling victims to those invisible enemies. the insidious microbes.

At present, it is true, conditions do not favour their rapid spread, but some radical change in the climate might flood the world with death-dealing micro-organisms. The fact is, we know little about the origin of diseases, and why at certain seasons certain epidemics arise.

The bacillus of plague, of influenza, of cholera, of typhoid, or any other disease propagated by germs, finds that the climatic or atmospheric conditions are favourable, and promptly proceeds to multiply, and, once it had a free run, it could destroy the entire human race in a month.

Turning now to another side of the question, we may consider the condition of man in the event of some radical change in the constitution of our planet. Suppose another glacial epoch should occur, would man survive ? He might retreat into the tropics where ice has never been; but so would also all the animal life, and one shudders to contemplate the entire animal kingdom huddled together in a circumscribed area in the centre of the earth.

A famous savant has imagined that the force of the earth’s gravitation might be doubled by some cause hitherto undreamt of, and that marked changes in the structure of human beings would take place. Men and women would appear in these altered circumstances stunted, thick-limbed, flat-footed, with enormous jaws underlying diminutive skulls. Along with the change in man’s structure would come a change in the animal kingdom, so that four-footed, six-footed, and eight-footed monsters would arise, and if these increased rapidly, they would soon rid the world of their two- footed adversaries. Or, if on the other hand, through some cause, the force of gravity were to diminish, we might find ourselves flying into the unknown regions of space!

An alarmist correspondent recently wrote to a daily paper foretelling the collapse of the earth by reason of the constant drawing out of her vital fluid in the shape of — oil! This theory is a novel one, and deserves a word of explanation here. According to the writer, the interior of the earth is liquid oil, and if this is drawn out the outside crust must give way. Each country, urges the terror-stricken individual, should pass a law constituting it a criminal offence to draw a drop of liquid oil out of the earth.

In his imagination he sees cities and towns engulfed in vast chasms, and mountains shifted from their bases, while millions of human beings, old, young, rich, and poor, each with their different lamps, are marching on to destruction, sitting by their funeral pyre, the burning lamp, while smoke, fire, darkness, horror, confusion, cover the face of all things. Truly, a dire disaster, but one which we cannot take quite seriously.

According to a French savant, M. de Lapparent, man will finally disappear from the globe because, in 4,000,000 years, the rivers and seas will have completely washed away all solid land. Man, however, is an adaptive creature, and may escape extinction by assuming the shape and nature of a fish.


“The collapse of the earth by reason of the extraction of its minerals.”

Lastly, the extinction of the human race by starvation or by thirst may be considered. Sir William Crookes recently startled civilised nations by affirming that in 1931–just thirty-one years from this present year of grace 1900–there will not be enough wheat to supply the needs of the bread eaters of the world. The failure of our food supply is a calamity too awful to contemplate, and the prospect of mankind slowly dying from starvation is calculated to plunge into the depths of despair the cheeriest optimist that ever lived.

It may be interesting to mention the reasons which led Sir William Crookes to prophesy that in thirty-one years from now the world will not be able to produce enough bread for man’s needs.

He argued thus:

In 1871 the bread-eaters of the world mumbered … 371,000,000

In 1881 the bread-eaters of the world numbered … 416,000,000

In 1891 the bread-eaters of the world numbered … 472,600,000

In 1898 the bread-eaters of the world numbered … 516,500,000

In 1931 the bread-eaters of thc world will number . 746,500,000

The augumentation of the world’s bread-eating population in a geometrical ratio is evinced by the fact that the yearly aggregates grow progressively larger. In the early seventies they rose 4,300,000 per annum. In the eighties they increased by more than 6,000,000 per annum, necessitating annual additions to the bread supply nearly one half greater than sufficed twenty-five years ago.

To supply 516,500,000 bread-eaters in 1898 required 2,324,000,000 bushels of wheat; to supply 746,600,000 in 1931 will require 3,357,000,000 bushels.

Should all the wheat-growing countries add to their area to the utmost capacity, on the most careful calculation the yield would give us only an addition of some 100,000,000 acres, supplying at the average world-yield of 12.7 bushels to the acre, 1,270,000,000 bushels. Adding 2,324,000,000 to 1,270,000,000 we get 3,594,000,000 bushels, or just enough to supply the increase of population among bread-eaters till the year 1931.

While these lines were being written, the writer chanced upon a paper in a German magazine, by Dr. Albert Battandier, on the absorbing topic: “Is the world nearing starvation?”

The raison d’etre of this article was a statement by a Belgian statistician, General Brialmont, that in less than 180 years the population of the globe would be so dense that the earth could no longer nourish its inhabitants, and that hundreds of millions of human beings must die yearly of hunger.

General Brialmont, though he postpones the evil day, agrees with Sir William Crookes as to the failure of the world’s food supply sooner or later, if things go on as they are doing at present.

“It is the chemist,” says Sir Wiiliam Crookes, “who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities. It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.”

Since by the year 1931 the area of cultivation can be no further extended, the farmer must endeavour to raise the average yield per acre. If atmospheric nitrogen could only be made generally available as manure in accordance with Nikola Tesla’s great scheme, then the ground might be made to bear twice as large crops as it does at present.

Then there is the view, held by many eminent natural philosophers, that in the near future the chemist will produce food artificially in his laboratory, thus rendering the tilling of the soil no longer a necessary labour.

  1. Berthelot, the great French chemist, is an ardent supporter of this theory. According to him bread, meat, vegetables, etc., will some years hence be only a distant memory, and a dinner menu will be made up as follows:–

A small tablet of nitrogenous matter.

Pastilles of fatty material.

A little sugar.

A little seasoning.

“And then,” exclaims the enthusiast,” when the nourishment of man is no longer a daily problem, when we are no longer forced to ask humbly of God our daily bread, the earth will become a vast garden, natural subterranean streams will rise to the surface, and the human race will live in the legendary abundance of the Golden Age.”

Others might be apt to view a world like this as a very dull place for mortals. Still, one might get used to tablets and pastilles in time.

As to the death of man from thirst a word must be said. The originator of this theory is M. X. Stanier, Professor of Geology at the Agricultural Institute of Gembloux.

  1. Stanier allows that the idea of mankind dying from thirst seems paradoxical when we consider the seemingly inexhaustible supplies man possesses in the oceans and seas which cover three-quarters of the surface of the globe. Still, there is some danger of this vast quantity disappearing. In the past the terrestrial crust, says M. Stanier, has absorbed large quantities of water; this action is always going on, and is likely to assume greater proportions in the future. On account of its weight water tends to descend into deep holes; while the centre of the globe remains in a fiery condition this absorption is slow, but as the cooling of the interior goes on, the surface water will penetrate more and more, and will enter into combination with the recently solidified rocks in the heart of the earth, which are specially absorptive by reason of their metallic composition.

“The oceans,” prophesies M. Stanier, ” will grow smaller and smaller; the rains which nourish the continents will become rarer and rarer, while the deserts will enlarge their boundaries and gradually absorb the fertile plains.”

In order the better to point his moral, M. Stanier asks us to consider the planet Mars, the inhabitants of which are slowly dying from want of water. What were formerly supposed to be Martian seas are, on the contrary (so M. Stanier would have us believe), nothing but immense arid plains.

“One stage more, and all life will have disappeared on the planet Mars.”

These, then, are some of the predictions as to the end of the world. Whichever of these may come true, man seems doomed to destruction. Fortunately the evil is a long way off yet. In the meantime let us take for our motto these fine lines:

“Like the star

Which shines afar,

Without haste,

Without rest;

Let each man wheel,

With steady sway,

Round the task

Which rules the day,

And do his best.”



[1] On the other hand, it was a reminder that a newsletter on the life and work of Warwick Goble is long overdue – along with dozens of other Golden Age illustrators.

A FEW WORDS ABOUT DRAGONS Wed, 15 Jun 2016 16:27:56 +0000 J.R.R. Tolkien - Conversation with SmaugThe Dragons of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth   “I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, from ...]]> J.R.R. Tolkien - Conversation with Smaug

The Dragons of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth


“I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, from his journals


Smaug the Golden occupies a place unique in the history of dragons. While J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smaug is in most respects a traditional dragon, direct descendant of Fafnír and Beowulf’s bane, he is also the first dragon to take center stage in modern heroic fantasy, single-handedly establishing the literary genre. Last of the ancient wyrms, he is the archetype of the modern fantasy dragon.

When Bilbo, armed with little more than his considerable courage, descends into the dark depths of Erebor, and finally arrives in the dwarven treasure chamber, he meets a dragon that sums up not only the fairy-tale dragon, but also the darker nid-draca.

“There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light. Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed.”[1]

Smaug’s priceless waistcoat of jewels, besides being an appealing plot device, is a disguise. Most of the characters of the Hobbit are of a like nature – myth masquerading as a children’s story, but with none of the eager bowdlerization that removed so much of the substance of Grimm and older tales. It is also an inversion of the tale of Siegfried, where the hero’s vulnerable spot, the linden leaf that lands on his shoulder blade when he is bathed by the dragon’s blood, is transferred to the dragon. (Tolkien never explains Smaug’s greed, he does not need to; Bilbo is like Phaedrus’ fox, meeting the dragon in his hole full of treasure. It is simply in Smaug’s nature to love gold.) During their conversation, the glamour of Smaug’s voice draws much information Bilbo never intended to reveal – the same power that Fafnír’s voice possesses – the insidious poison of canny wisdom and suave persuasion. Tolkien noted, (speaking of Beowulf’s Bane) “Fafnir in the late Norse versions of the Sigurd-story is better; and Smaug and his conversation obviously is in debt there.”[2] Tolkien did steal a jeweled cup from Beowulf, though.

But Tolkien adds a touch of his own to Smaug’s character: the fire-drake of the North is curious, almost inquisitive, and clearly he enjoys the company of the diminutive thief. In many ways, this is a poignant revelation; Smaug is the last of his kind: opportunities for conversations are rare. Once the cup is stolen, though, his draconic nature reasserts itself, his fiery attack on Laketown setting the stage for the final fatal encounter with the descendant of Girion of Dale. Bard may seem an odd and distant character in the Hobbit, but he is a hero of dark times and ancient sagas who strides, almost unannounced, into a children’s story. He has no choice; there is a dragon to slay.

Even after death, Smaug retains something of the fear that is also one of Fafnír’s weapons. When he crashes into the Long Lake, destroying Esgaroth, his bones may later be seen through the water, but none dare dive to retrieve the gems that once studded his belly.

J.R.R. Tolkien - Conversation with Smaug

Conversation With Smaug, by J. R. R. Tolkien

This image was not used in the first edition of The Hobbit in 1937 but appeared in the second English impression of the same year and in the first American edition in 1938. The painting was reproduced in The J. R. R. Tolkien Calendars for 1973 and 1974 and in The Hobbit Calendar in 1976.

Tolkien imagined a Middle-Earth filled with dragons in the earlier Ages. His dragons fall into several categories, notably the Urulóki or fire-drakes, winged or wingless fire-breathers. There are also the “cold-drakes”, who are flightless and do not breathe fire. He also makes an intriguing mention of “were-worms” in The Hobbit, though their precise nature is not explained.

Additionally, Tolkien hints at creatures made and animated by Melkor (in this version Melko), resembling dragons and spouting flame, but not alive. Melko makes “dragons of fire” and “serpents of bronze” in preparation for his attack on the great city of Gondolin. “…from the greatness of his wealth of metals and the powers of fire (Meglin, betrayer of Gondolin) bid (Melko, Lord of Iron) make beasts like snakes and dragons of irresistible might that should overcreep the Encircling Hills and lap that plain and its fair city in flame and death.” He “…assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End.” [3]

Besides Smaug, mightiest of calamities, Tolkien gave names to only three other dragons: Scatha, Ancalagon and Glaurung.

Scatha, whose name Tolkien may have derived from the Old Norse skaða, meaning “to harm, damage or injure,” inhabited the Grey Mountains, to the north of Mirkwood. Fram, son of Frumgar, killed the dread “long-worm” in the early days of the Éothéod, the horse-people of Rohan. The dwarves of Ered Mithrin claimed Scatha’s treasure, but Fram sent them the creature’s teeth, saying “Jewels such as these you will not match in your treasuries, for they are hard to come by.”[4] Fram apparently lost his life in the troubles that followed. Although the dispute was later settled, distrust long remained between dwarves and riders.[5]

There were still dragons in the Grey Mountains centuries later. Nearly four hundred years before Smaug’s death, dragons attacked the dwarf kingdoms of the Grey Mountains, the Ered Mithrin. The War of Dragons and Dwarves raged for nearly two decades, ending with the death of King Daín the First, and his second son Frór. Daín’s eldest son Thrór led many survivors to Erebor, under the Lonely Mountain, while his younger brother Grór led others to the Iron Hills. Ered Mithrin was abandoned. The cold-drake who slew Daín is unnamed.

J. R. R. Tolkien - The Death of Smaug

The Death of Smaug, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Colour sketch of the death of Smaug. A note to the left side of the picture reads: “The moon should be a crescent: it was only a few nights after the New Moon on Durin’s Day”; in the left-hand bottom corner: “Dragon should have a white naked spot where the arrow enters”; and at the bottom: “Bard the Bowman should be standing after release of arrow at extreme left point of the piles.” It was published in The J. R. R. Tolkien Calendars 1973 and 1974 as well as The Unwin Books edition of The Hobbit in the same year.

The greatest dragons, though, belong to the First Age of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Ancalagon the Black was one of the first dragons bred by Morgoth. In Sindarin, the name means “Rushing Jaws” or “Biting Storm”. Ancalagon is described in mythological terms; his wings could block out the sun, he is the personification of the destroying dark.

During the War of Wrath, the final battle of the First Age, when the Valar had pushed Morgoth’s forces back to the very gate of his mountain fortress of Angband in triple-peaked Thangorodrim , he unleashed the last weapon he had been holding back: a mighty cohort of dragons, with the firedrake Ancalagon at their head. So formidable was their assault that the Valar were driven back into the ash-covered plain of Anfauglith, where they might well have perished if not for the arrival of Eärendil. The half-Elven Eärendil appeared from the West at the helm of his ship, the silver-sailed, swan-prowed Vingilot, which could navigate both the waves and the heavens. A Silmaril shone brightly on his brow, piercing the despairing gloom. With him came the great Eagles, led by their king Thorondor. The sky-battle lasted an entire day, until Eärendil broke Ancalagon’s might and threw him down. The great dragon crashed full on the tower-peaks of Thangorodrim, reducing them to rubble. The Eagles destroyed all the other dragons, although clearly some fled to nurse their wounds in the dark places of Middle-Earth. Some at least must have found refuge in the Northern Wastes and the Withered Heath, to the far north of the Grey Mountains, which became their spawning ground. It is possibly from there that Smaug descended on Erebor and Dale “like a hurricane coming from the North” in the year 2770 of the Third Age.

Ancalagon is said to be the greatest dragon ever seen in Middle-Earth, but the first was Glaurung. Glaurung, “the Worm of Morgoth”, is one of the deadliest, and of all Tolkien’s wyrms, the one most closely resembling his Norse ancestor Fafnír. Morgoth bred the dragons in the First Age, and of these, Glaurung is the first of the Urulokí. Wingless, he is considered the sire of his race, and the first dragon to come forth from Angband. (Tolkien does not explain how Morgoth creates dragons, we assume he is able to conjure them as evil spirits and clothe them in flesh.)


Glaurung brings disaster and sorrow to his enemies during the major battles of the First Age. He first appears at the Glorious Battle, which sees the defeat of Morgoth’s forces and his first and bitter taste of Elvish bravery. “Then Fingon Prince of Hithlum rode against him with archers on horseback, and hemmed him round with a ring of swift riders; and Glaurung could not endure their darts, being not yet come to his full armoury, and he fled back to Angband, and came not forth again for many years.”[6]

In 455, he defeats the Noldorin Elves and their allies, breaking the centuries-old siege of Angband in the Battle of the Sudden Flame. “In the front of that fire came Glaurung the golden, father of dragons, in his full might; and in his train were Balrogs, and behind them came the black armies of the Orcs in multitudes….”[7]

Seventeen years later, he breaks the Elven armies in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, though he is wounded in the belly by the dwarf king Azaghâl, and limps back to Angband. Glaurung leads an orc-host of his own to the Battle of Tumhalad in 495, defeating the Noldor of Nargothrond, led by Túrin Turambar. The dragon then turned his attention to the underground fortress of Nargothrond itself. Túrin came too late to save his people, and, held immobile by dragon-spell, was forced to watch them led away to slavery in the North. Glaurung occupied the fortress, making it his own lair, where he laid, a dragon-king upon his bed of treasure, sending his orc-bands forth to ravage the kingdom.


1927 J.R.R. Tolkien - Glaurung sets forth to seek Turin

Glaurung sets forth to seek Turin, by J. R. R. Tolkien, dated 1927

Painting by J. R. R. Tolkien, dated 1927, published in The Silmarillion Calendar in 1978. At the time of the painting, the dragon was still called Glórund – the caption was subsequently rewritten to match the finally published name of Glaurung

Nevertheless, his doom was near. Turin, released by Glaurung so that he might suffer the defeat of his people, later destroyed a force of orcs sent against him, rousing Glaurung from his dark lair. Making his way to seek his foes, Glaurung threw his vast bulk across the narrow river gorge of Cabed-en-Aras. “Then Turambar summoned all his will and courage and climbed the cliff alone, and came beneath the dragon. Then he drew Gurthang, and with all the might of his arm, and of his hate, he thrust it into the soft belly of the Worm, even up to its hilts. But when Glaurung felt his death-pang, he screamed, and in his dreadful throe he heaved up his bulk and hurled himself across the chasm, and there lay lashing and coiling in his agony. And he set all in a blaze about him, and beat all to ruin, until at last his fires died, and he lay still.”

There are many similarities between the tale of Túrin by Tolkien and Sigurd of Norse myth. Both slay dragons with swords re-forged, by stabbing the monsters from beneath. Fafnír and Glaurung display the same hypnotic power; their words are poison, and their gaze can stupefy. The tragic twist of fate that results in the suicides of Turin and his wife Níniel sees the dragon’s curse fulfilled.

Tolkien even makes a striking parallel with Fafnír’s Helm of Terror. The Helm of Hador, given into the hands of Thingol, was wrought by Telchar, smith of Nogrod. “Upon its crest was set in defiance a gilded image of the head of Glaurung the dragon, for it had been made soon after he first issued from the gates of Morgoth. Hador and Galdor after him had borne it in war; and the hearts of the host of Hithlum were uplifted when they saw it towering high amid the battle, and they cried: ‘Of more worth is the Dragon of Dor-lómin than the gold-worm of Angband!’” Named as “the Dragonhead of the North”, it was later offered to Túrin Turambar.

Glaurung evolved under Tolkien’s pen, first appearing in the Tale of Turambar and the Foalókë, in one of the stories later published in the Book of Lost Tales. Here the dragon is referred to as “Glorund, the Foalókë……….the serpent of wrath.” Glorund appears with a party of wolf-mounted Orcs, let loose by the diabolical Melko: “And a great worm was with them whose scales were polished bronze and whose breath was mingled fire and smoke, and his name was Glorund.” (“Lókë” is the name the Eldar gave to “the worms of Melko”.)

Tolkien echoes the story of Sigurd & Fafnír, recounting the result of eating a dragon’s heart, or tasting its blood, but apart from being henceforth endowed with the knowledge of “all tongues of Gods or Men, of birds or beasts”, the taster would also “catch whispers of the Valar or of Melko such as never had he heard before.” However, there is a warning: “Few have there been that ever achieved a deed of such prowess as the slaying of a drake, nor might any even of such doughty ones taste their blood and live, for it is as a poison of fires that slays all save the most godlike in strength.” Tolkien also reflects the fable of Phaedrus, in describing Melko’s dragons in these terms: “even as their lord these foul beasts love lies and lust after gold and precious things with a great fierceness of desire, albeit they may not use or enjoy them.”


Tolkien created two more notable dragons. Chrysophylax Dives, in the comic tale Farmer Giles of Ham, published in 1949, is midway between Kenneth Graham’s Reluctant Dragon and Smaug. Indeed Farmer Giles is a reluctant hero himself, but, armed with a trusty blunderbuss (which he never fires), a magical sword called Caudimorax (“Tail-biter”, which proves most useful against dragons) and a largely undeserved reputation as a hero, he nevertheless manages to rid the kingdom of the dragon and become rich besides.

The other is to be found in Roverandom, the escapades of a little dog named Rover, who “was very small, and very young, or he would have known better.” After several adventures and an encounter with a wizard, Rover is graced with a pair of wings and a new name, Roverandom, and a new friend, a seagull named Mew. Together, they decide to fly to the Moon. Unfortunately, there is a dragon dwelling there: “All the white dragons originally come from the moon, as you probably know; but this one had been to the world and back, so he had learned a thing or two. He fought the Red Dragon in Caerdragon in Merlin’s time, as you will find in all the more up-to-date history books; after which the other dragon was Very Red. Later he did lots more damage in the Three Islands, and went to live on the top of Snowdon for a time.” After that, the creature flew to Gwynfa, “not so far from the world’s edge, and it is an easy flight from there to the moon for a dragon so titanic and so enormously bad as this one had become.” He was even responsible for turning the whole moon red, or even putting it out altogether, with his smoky breathing.

Mew the seagull prudently decides to return to Earth, but the wayward canine hero encounters the Man-in-the-Moon and his winged moon-dog. Roverandom and his new companion find themselves hotly pursued by the dragon, “leaking green fire at every joint, and snorting black smoke like a steamer.” The dragon nearly catches them when they find refuge in the very nick of time in an enchanted tower belonging to the Man-in-the-Moon, who wallops the dragon with an indelible spell. As for the dragon, he smacks full into the mountainside and wobbles off to nurse his nose in his cave. “The next eclipse was a failure, for the dragon was too busy licking his tummy to attend to it. And he never got the black sploshes off where the spell hit him. I am afraid they will last for ever. They call him the Mottled Monster now.”

The grandfatherly tone of both tales masks the erudition hidden in the texts; Tolkien, while clearly amusing himself, was nevertheless already weaving threads from many tales into his own, playing etymological games and falling under the spell of dragons.

J. R. R.Tolkien - Dragon

Dragon, by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1927

Dragon by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1927. Written beneath the dragon are the following words from Beowulf: hringbogan heorte gefysed, which Tolkien translated as “…the heart of the coiling beast stirred” The drawing was published in the 1979 Tolkien calendar and was reproduced in J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (plate nr. 48).

Tolkien’s friend and colleague C. S. Lewis used the theme of powerful greed transforming not only heart but also body. Eustace Scrubb finds an abandoned dragon hoard in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth book[8] in the Chronicles of Narnia. He curls up on the pile of gold and jewels and drops off to sleep, receiving a particularly nasty surprise when he awakes. “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” Eustace, in his dragon-shape, undergoes several humiliating trials, and is eventually transformed by Aslan into a (much-chastened) boy again. Lewis further links his tale to ancient hoard-wyrms by hinting that the original dragon was possibly once human himself, metamorphosed by greed into a miserable beast lurking in his gloomy, treasure-laden lair until his unmourned demise.


It is tempting to qualify Tolkien’s dragons as the first to re-emerge from nursery rhyme to adult book. He is certainly the first to treat dragons seriously, without any distance afforded by humour or satire, revealing and reveling in a world that can accommodate them. In Tolkien’s own words: “I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamental to the underlying ideas of the poem (Beowulf), which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.”[9]


Tolkien’s stories evolved almost independently of his will; in a sense he was writing myth. Speaking of The Silmarillion, he said that the stories “arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour …yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”[10] His biographer Humphrey Carpenter explains that Tolkien wanted his mythology “…to be remote and strange, and yet at the same time not to be a lie. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe………When he wrote The Silmarillion Tolkien believed that in one sense he was writing the truth …he did feel, or hope, that his stories were in some sense an embodiment of a profound truth.”[11] Humphrey adds: “As the years went by he came more and more to regard his own invented languages and stories as ‘real’ languages and historical chronicles that needed to be elucidated.“[12]

Through his fiction, Tolkien provides a lesson on the nature of legend and myth. In The Lord of the Rings, essentially an ethical quest, and not an epic such as The Silmarillion or an adventure story like The Hobbit, there is no more need for dragons. They belong to another Age.

They will certainly appear elsewhere, though, and in unprecedented numbers, becoming, as descendants of Smaug, some of the most popular creatures in modern fantasy fiction. Smaug the Golden may be the last dragon in Middle-Earth, he is certainly no longer alone.


A German version of this text is visible at the web site of official Tolkien publisher Klett-Cotta.



Speaking of Tolkien, my good friend Stephen Hickman has a painting up for sale. If you are interested, please contact him directly: Stephen Hickman <>. He will be more than happy to provide more detailed information on the piece.

Stephen Hickman - Escape from Orthanc



A little over a year ago, I did a short newsletter about the illustrator Ruth Hambidge. It was almost entirely focused on her marvelous illustrations for one book: The Coasts of Illusion, written by Clark B. Firestone and published by Harper Brothers Publishers, New York & London, in 1924. Of Ruth Hambidge’s life, I was unable to find much information, thus was surprised and delighted to be recently contacted by a member of her family. I’m very excited, and hope more details of her life and art will help complete the portrait of this remarkable artist. More soon.



[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, published by George Allen & Unwin, London, 1937

[2] From The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, published in 1981 by George Allen & Unwin, London. Letter 122 (dated 18 December, 1949)

[3] From The Book of Lost Tales. Volume II. Part II. J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. First published in Great Britain by George Allen and Unwin. 1984.

[4] This may be a metaphor for a feud or a declaration of war, as armed warriors sprang up from the dragon’s teeth sewn by Cadmus and Jason.

[5] The death of Scatha is not dated, but may be situated in the early days of the Éothéod, possibly around the year 2000 of the Third Age. The War of the Dragons and Dwarves ended with Daín’s death in T.A. 2589. Bard killed Smaug in T.A. 2941. “Long-worm” should not be considered part of Tolkien’s taxonomy, it is simply a kenning.

[6] The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, published by George Allne & Unwin, 1977

[7] ibid.

[8] In reading order, that is: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the third book published of the seven of the Chronicles of Narnia, after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. The Magician’s Nephew, originally published second to last, recounts events in Narnia preceding the others, so is now considered by many to be the first in the series. The Horse and his Boy, published fifth, is considered to be the third book chronologically. The remaining two are The Silver Chair (published in 4th position) and The Last Battle.

[9] “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” 1936 lecture given by J. R. R. Tolkien, published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien.

[10] J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography. By Humphrey Carpenter. First published by George Allen and Unwin. 1977


[12] ibid.

All images are from the Tolkien Gateway web site.

JOURNEY INTO WILDERLAND Sun, 15 May 2016 07:48:56 +0000 04b TOURIST IN MIRKWOODIt seems like ages ago that I wrote a short text for the introduction of The Hobbit Chronicles: The Battle of the Five Armies, and then lost track of the finished version.[1] Having run short of time recently to create original newsletters, I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing it here. I also took upwards ...]]> 04b TOURIST IN MIRKWOOD

It seems like ages ago that I wrote a short text for the introduction of The Hobbit Chronicles: The Battle of the Five Armies, and then lost track of the finished version.[1] Having run short of time recently to create original newsletters, I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing it here. I also took upwards of 300,000 photos in those six years in New Zealand. Here are a few. Oh, and we never did quite manage to get those Team Smaug t-shirts.


Even the longest journeys, it seems, start with a single sketch. Five years ago, Alan Lee and I began putting pencils to paper, letting them wander over the white page until scenes appeared, not unlike a lifting of fog, when the sun of a sudden lends clarity to both thoughts and vistas. Five years on, we are not quite back again; where on earth have we been in the meantime?

We started in familiar country: round doors and windows, a pleasant inn, the familiar sight of Bag End, though last time we had not visited the cellar or the dining room, and discovered five new hobbit dwellings further down the lane from Bilbo’s house.

We made a detour through deep Greenwood to see ramshackle Rhosgobel, belonging to the ragtag Istari Radagast, a house split in half by an awkwardly placed sapling become venerable forest giant: askew, propped up and slowly returning to the wildwood.



Left: A brand new Bag End, dwarf scale this time. Centre: Out of mothballs, the original Bag End. Right: Goblin business (up to no good, of course.)

Then on (with an interlude involving a trio of trolls, and with orcs & wargs in pursuit) to take refuge in another familiar spot: Rivendell, though we drew much we had not yet seen that other time through. Then from there, the first steps into territories unknown, towards the mountains, taking shelter from rock giants in a slightly-too-handy cavern. A moment’s pause, then a tumble, a capture, a confrontation and a rescue, followed by a madcap dash along teetering bridges over unsavoury depths – hastily sketching rickety walkways, impossible precipices, the whole in a sidewise cavern eroded through the mountains, followed by the collapse of the final bridge and ending in a jumble of rubble at the chasm bottom. All this drawn, or at least it felt like it, at a breakneck pace. Then out of the frying pan, and of course, wargs hot on our heels (again), fire in the pine trees and… saved. Eagles. Pencils stilled, we contemplated the mountains and valleys of Middle-Earth float underneath as the sun rose, before quickly drawing a Carrock on which to land.

From that outcrop, Mirkwood is still but a smudge on the horizon, but closer to hand, behind a thick and thorny hedge, the house of the shape-shifter Beorn, built of huge squared logs, every inch carved with knotwork and creatures, all reminiscent of the Nine Worlds and the Perilous Wood, a reminder we are at last truly in Wilderland. Well rested, we set out again, draw the edge of Mirkwood, then the path inwards, but the road is quickly lost in a twisted host of trunks concealing a Styx-like stream flowing with Lethe’s black waters. Then the dwarves are captured, first nabbed and trussed up and cruelly pinched by spiders, and an instant after Bilbo saves their bacon, recaptured by Elves.




Left: No Black Riders, but red copters… scouring the Shire looking for likely locations to film traveling dwarves. Centre: Alan Lee searching for his lens cap, an operation with a certain predictability around the country. Right: No lens cap here. (Searching for Alan’s lens caps took us over most of New Zealand.)

And away we go again in their wake, towards the Woodland Realm. We soon find out what it resembles: an elegant bridge across a raging torrent, columns fashioned in the likeness of trees, framing three bronze doors. We have arrived in Thranduil’s realm. We race across the bridge as the great door swing to. We barely squeeze inside as they shut.

Inside, it looks like nothing we expected: the grand halls but cavern walls, no marble floors polished and wide, only great sinuous roots; it is like walking in the nave of a cathedral, but in mid-air. Amber lamps pool the light. We get a glimpse of the throne, huge-antlered, enclosed in gothic tracery, but are soon locked away deep underground, crammed into cubbyhole cells hollowed from a subterranean ravine and fitted with sturdy bronze bars. But escape is at hand, we draw keys for Bilbo to steal, bottles of deep wine poured into cups of amber and wood to inebriate the gaolers. Doors are unlocked, and we steal off, first to cellars stacked with bottles and barrels, past our slumbering guardians, then to plunge into another madcap rollercoaster escape, furiously drawing our way downriver through waterfalls, fortified gates and precipitous canals carved from cliff faces, until the calmer waters of the river are reached.

From there, a voyage by boat with a surly boatman, through looming and mysterious stone ruins on a fogbound lake, and the mist lifts again. Laketown. It is a Renaissance Kiev built on an alpine lake, a Venice all of wood, once prosperous, now askew and slowly sinking into the depths. It reminds us of stave churches, or the villages of the mythical Swiss lake dwellers, but with a hint of farther north and farther east. (We are, after all, deep in Wilderland.)


03c HANGING OUT AT BEORN'S03b Beorn's place


Left: Hanging out at Beorn’s. Centre: “I’ll never be able to drink all this.”It was quite a challenge actually clambering into that chair, or into the rocking chair on his back porch. Right: Michael Pellerin, the Behind-the-Scenes director, who slowly transformed from clean-shaven Hollywood producer to mountain man over the course of the shoot. The back porch. The oddest thing would happen around that set, since everything was nearly twice as big as human scale, a person walking towards the set would seem to diminish swiftly in size the nearer he got.

There is not much time to pause, we make directly for the mountain, though all this time we have made detours: far south through Mirkwood, to Dul Guldur, the hill of Sorcery. It is a horrid place, full of uncomfortable angles and unseemly proportions, littered with machines of torture and iron maidens suspended on rusty chain. We do not see the Necromancer, but everything we draw tells us who he really is. We follow Gandalf to the High Fells, in a hanging valley in Hithlaegir, where kings were buried deep under hard stone, so as never to return from death. But the sarcophagi are broken and abandoned, the entombed have risen.

But there isn’t time to waste, the ghostly ruins of Dale are a tragic and burnt shadow of the bright city we drew two years before. There is nothing here now, all burnt, all dust. We have drawn near to the Desolation of Smaug.





Left: Orientalism in Dale; extras who could have stepped out of a painting by Jean-Léon Gérome. Centre: Dale streets. I spent a lot of time on the set waiting for the sun to come up, trying to catch the rising daylight. Right: Tourist in Dale, pre-Smaug. Many people told us that Dale reminded them of some exotic place they had visited, but for each it was somewhere different.

Erebor. The front door is shut by the fear of the lurking hordeswyrm, but we drew a key to the back door, and the back door as well, hidden in plain sight behind a colossal statue of Thror. We imagine other statues, like a dwarven Valley of the Kings, but there is no time to draw them. The sun is almost down on Durin’s day, we must hurry.

Then we are inside the mountain, and down, down to the dragon’s lair. Erebor too is silent, and dark, and damp as a tomb, no trace of the splendid kingdom we drew years ago, it is shadowed halls and carelessly broken statues.

Below, Smaug, Greatest of Calamities. He emerges little by little from the page. He is huge, and old, his eyes burn yellow, though his red-gold scales are dulled by time. We draw a veritable mountain of gold through which he slithers like some vast snake. We draw the great red-gold firedrake, thinking all the while of Fafnír and Beowulf’s bane: acres of scales, vast webbed wings, teeth like swords and claws like iron. A dedicated and informal interdepartmental team builds, textures, rigs, animates and finally breathes life in the Smaug the Terrible. (Yes, we will get t-Team Smaug t-shirts.)






Left: A cloak of concealment and a few wandering illustrators. Alan and I would occasionally wander about the (considerable) set of Dol Guldur, likely wishing we could have built the whole thing for real. Centre: When the king’s away… Thranduil’s throne. Right: The Laketown Wind Quartet. My short-lived musical career, from obscurity to local hero and back to obscurity in just three days… We could only do make-believe noise, although the two on the right, Stephen Roche and David Donaldson of Plan 9, are real honest-to-goodness (and very talented) musicians.

Then Bilbo taunts the wyrm, and steals the cup. The battle is on, seemingly one-sided until the dwarves light the great fires of Erebor’s furnaces, and we find ourselves drawing a labyrinthine foundry Piranesi might have appreciated, with gushing waterspouts, hammers and bellows the size of houses, until Smaug, singed by a cascade of molten gold, bursts from the mountain.

Bilbo let slip too many clues, Smaug is bound for Laketown. And that’s where we are: as I write this, I’m deep in Erebor and exploring the ruins of Dale, Alan is on the left-hand spur of the Lonely Mountain, plotting out Ravenhill. We are busily fortifying Erebor, preparing to burn Laketown, the Black Arrow is drawn and ready; war is approaching. The dwarves have just found the armoury, the Elves are coming, and the refugees of Laketown are pouring into Dale. From Gundabad, a rust-red iron fortress shaped like a gigantic blade, an orc army is streaming forth. We need to return as well to Dol Guldur, for unfinished business there… We would eagerly go farther, to the Withered Heath where dragon bones are strewn, or to the Iron Hills, to see Daín’s stronghold, but the story is nearing an end. Finally, when the adventure is over, and the mourners have left the Deep Tombs, we can stow away pencils and sketchbooks and retrace our steps to Bag End, to watch Bilbo wrest his silver spoons from Lobelia, and we’ll be Back Again.

Naturally, we’ve never been alone in this adventure: in front of the camera and behind, an army of several thousand: designers and decorators, painters, carpenters and construction crews, sculptors in all media, fabricators, film crews, costumiers and craftspeople of all sorts, the seldom-sung administrative wizards who keep the entire operation in motion, and the thousand-strong army whose considerable talents are brought to bear in post-production. Sketches become set designs, then sets, limned in green, decorated and lit, brief stops for the actors on their own journey. We have several chances to draw it all, often years apart; a portion of things imagined in pre-production, built of wood and poly and paint during production, then the rest of pixels in post. What we cannot see built for real, we can build in thin air, the real and the virtual end up so intertwined it’s difficult to tell where one stops and the other starts.





Left: You just know you’ve made it to the top when you get a designated parking spot! Post-production is hard to make glamorous in the DVD extras, as it is basically a lot of people staring at a lot of computers (for a long time). Centre: The kind of message that makes your day first thing in the morning… At one point we were working such long hours I took to heading in at 4 a.m. but only because if I arrived before that time, the time clock hadn’t yet switched to the right day. Right: Gandalf on the Road, heading to the Embassy for one of the premieres.

And in a sense, they are the same; the ideas remain, only their realization differs. Looking back, it seems an impressive – or at least a lengthy – list of places imagined, but it is really only a minuscule part of the whole. We could never have imagined a land like New Zealand, so hauntingly familiar and so stunningly exotic. Nor re-invent or dream of bettering the thousands of years of human history, art and architecture upon which we built our flights of fancy. We could never imagine the people we would have the privilege to meet, creators and artists of all kinds from Weta Workshop, 3 Foot 7 and Weta Digital. Nor imagine the vital life brought to the sets by the actors (no, they don’t have an easy job, and yes, they do possess something very special). Or do anything but envy the steadfast endurance and ever-fresh enthusiasm of the core production team, headed by Peter, Fran & Philippa. Nor of course can we imagine our own world without a book, written 77 years ago by an Oxford professor, and the millions upon millions of people who have made it a part of their imaginations.

All of those things, focused through a sharp pencil tip, wandering over a page, while the mind wanders through lands only imagined.

There. Back Again. It all begins with a sketch.


[1] Actually, it WAS ages ago: Wednesday, 11 June 2014 at 10:36 AM to be exact. The book itself was published in December of the same year and is available from the Weta Cave: The Hobbit Chronicles: The Battle of the Five Armies

IF LOOKS COULD KILL Fri, 15 Apr 2016 06:22:37 +0000 GORGONThe Deadly Draconic Gaze: A closer look at Gorgons, Cockatrices & Basilisks “Man is a mis-shapen monster with his feet set for-ward and his face set back. He can make the future luxuriant and gigantic so long as he is thinking about the past… to-morrow is the gorgon; a man must only see it mirrored ...]]> GORGON

The Deadly Draconic Gaze: A closer look at Gorgons, Cockatrices & Basilisks

“Man is a mis-shapen monster with his feet set for-ward and his face set back. He can make the future luxuriant and gigantic so long as he is thinking about the pastto-morrow is the gorgon; a man must only see it mirrored in the shining shield of yesterday.

If he sees it directly he is turned to stone.” — Chesterton.

“ The basilisk has since the fourteenth century been confused with the Cockatrice, and the subject is now a complicated one.”

T.H. White, “The Bestiary. A Book of Beasts,” 1954


I’ve often thought Medusa deserved a closer look. Prudently, though; one doesn’t gaze at the Gorgons on a whim…

Gorgons to gaze on, though, were many in a recent tour of the museums in Rome, especially the National Etruscan Museum in the Villa Guilia. They brought back memories of dozens of others from trips in Italy and Greece, from Cellini’s famous statue in Florence to the most primitive leering faces on Archaic gorgoneions. Since no other visitors had turned to stone, I took a good close look.

In a way, Medusa symbolizes our troubled relationship with the other, with the very nature of the monstrous, our fascination and repulsion. After all, we are the ones who make monsters what they are. I often wonder if Medusa is not the true quicksilver reflection of ourselves, of what we’d prefer not to see. A vision that has the power to turn our souls to stone.

But first, let’s step back a bit. Medusa has two sisters: Stheno & Euryale. Stheno is the eldest and fiercest, Euryale, the second oldest; both are immortal, unlike their younger sister Medusa. Along with the Graeae, “from their birth-hour grey”[1] who shared one eye and one tooth between them, they are triplet daughters of Phorkys and his sister-wife Keto. They were also popular amongst the artists of ancient Greece.



Apotropaic uses of the grimacing Gorgon. From left to right:

Archaic (Etruscan) fanged goggle-eyed Gorgon flanked by standing winged lionesses or sphinxes on a hydria from Vulci, 540–530 BC.

Etruscan roof tile decoration, National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome.

Winged goddess with a Gorgon’s head, orientalizing plate from Kameiros, Rhodes, c. 600 BC.

Perseus averts his gaze as he kills Medusa, figured here as a female centaur. He is wearing his winged boots and the kibisis is slung over his shoulder. Detail from an orientalizing relief pithos, Thebes, circa 660 BC.


The earliest images are grimacing disembodied goggle-eyed masks with beards and bared fangs, hardly the snake-locked and sultry Medusa we have come to expect. These images were likely apotropaic, adorning shields, meant to distract or give pause, perhaps to petrify the opponent for a split-second’s fatal hesitation. They also adorned roof tiles, grimacing guardian spirits to protect against ill fortune and the evil eye. Gradually, though, Medusa began to appear in scenes with Perseus, as did her sisters, brazen taloned hands outstretched to grasp and rend the fleeing hero, who is tucking their cadet’s head into his kibisis as he speeds away. These archaic Gorgons are squat and ugly creatures still, with wings and grimacing faces. From the late fifth to the late second centuries B.C., the gorgon’s head shrinks to a more human size. Then the leering face disappears, the beard vanishes, and by the fourth century B.C. Medusa is a lovely-faced woman with writhing snakes for hair.

It’s by no means a simple progression of course – myth never is – and there are even gorgon-centaurs and gorgon-faced birds along the way. Also, there is a crucial stage when full-face apotropaic magic gives way to a face in profile that fulfills only a narrative function – I did say it was complicated. Full-face figures are as rare in Greek art as they are in Egyptian; the Gorgons share this trait with the Egyptian trickster and household god Bes, who also served to ward off evil, although dwarfish Bes was a far more playful and good-natured deity. Their wings and serpentine locks may indeed have been borrowed from emblems in the temples of Egypt. (Gorgon was a title of Minerva at Cyrene in Libya.) I like to imagine the gorgons boarding Phoenician vessels and eventually disembarking in Greece, adorning coins, houses, shields, until Medusa’s story slowly makes her human, seals her fate and takes her from the realm of symbol to that of story.

It is an odd evolution, clearly a fusing of archaic popular art and classical literature, the original leering visage slowly coloured by the pathos of the evolving tale, from good luck charm to mute tragedienne, the doleful lot of Medusa, her once-beautiful locks transformed by a jealous goddess into a tangle of writhing and wakeful serpents, her head severed in her sleep. Perhaps it is her mortality, as opposed to the different destiny of her sisters, which aided her transformation. Medusa is mortal; creatures too monstrous are beyond time, their hideousness solicits little pity. Medusa emerges as a tragic figure, no longer a disembodied gorgoneion, she is a double victim of fate: first cursed, then killed, although the circumstances of that fate secure her immortality of a sort, as the power of her deadly gaze is preserved.[2]

By the time Roman authors re-told the tale, Medusa was sultry and snake-locked, her wings a thing of the past. Her face, though beautiful, retained its devastating power to petrify. (I confess that every time I come across a statue of Perseus, whether it be Greek or Symbolist, Roman or Victorian, I have little use for the falchion-toting hero, my gaze is always captivated by Medusa’s head.)



The origins and the exact nature of the aegis, commonly worn by Athena and Zeus, are obscured by time and contradiction. Euripides tells us that it is the skin of a Gorgon, or perhaps only a Gorgon’s face, bestowed on Athena by a grateful Perseus. Virgil tell us the aegis Athena wears in her angry moods (is) a fearsome thing with a surface of gold like scaly snake-skin, and the linked serpents and the Gorgon herself upon the goddess’s breast—a severed head rolling its eyes.” From left to right:

Attic black figure calyx krater, c. 520-515 B.C. featuring Athena wearing her aegis, with its snake-fringe and gorgon head, photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art; An early Athena Polias. (Athena retired from her warrior role to a more urban existence, transforming from Athena Promachos or Athena the fighter, as depicted in the Gigantomachy, to Athena Polias, protector of civilization, keeping her gorgon aegis as an apotropaic souvenir.)

Athena’s Aegis with gorgon head from the west pediment of the archaic temple of Apollo at Eretria. Parian marble, circa 520-500 BC.

Statue of Athena found in 1627 in fragments at the Campus Martius, which may have represented Hygieia but was restored as an Athena by Alessandro Algardi to oblige his patron, Cardinal Ludovisi.

Athena of the Parthenos Athena type. Pentelic marble, Greek copy from the 1st century BC after the original from the 5th century BC

First century BC mosaic of Alexander the Great bearing on his armor an image of the Gorgon as an aegis, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Headless imperial statue, Hadrianic Age, 117-118 AD, featuring the distinctive features of “Aegis-bearing” Zeus. The figure is naked and carries a large shield with a gorgon and snakes bound in a knot below its chin. The statue probably formed a ritual composition together with the statue of the goddess Roma.

Striking representation of Athena by German Symbolist Franz Stassen for a portfolio entitled “Gods”, printed in 1901 by Verlag Fischer & Franz, Berlin.


There may be another side to it as well. Perseus is a solar figure, and must proceed to the realm of night – the Gorgons live west of the horizon, in a lifeless land of darkness[3] – to seek them out. Hades’ helmet effectively masks his solar radiance. He steals the solar eye and the lunar tooth of the Graeae (they must pass eye and tooth among the three: day to night, night to day) effectively stopping time until they reveal the whereabouts of the Gorgons. The Gorgons represent the ambiguous and terrifying primeval night – with or without the moon – the devouring darkness with the lunar visage. The Gorgotomy accomplished (it is hardly a hero’s gesture; Medusa is asleep when he severs her head with his sickle-moon harpê – the same that Kronos used on Ouranos) he must nevertheless flee the two immortal sisters, because whatever punctual exploits the Sun may accomplish, he is nevertheless fated to race ahead of the Night. Possibly this archaic symbolism – the leering face of night – was slowly diluted and lost, the story told and retold under the softer light of Diana’s moon in a more familiar sky, and Medusa gained the traits of a beautiful woman, although she kept her serpent locks and baleful deadly stare.

In short, when Perseus dispatched Medusa, and fled with the remaining Gorgons at his wingèd heels; he had been given a sickle-shaped adamantine sword (the harpe, a gift from Zeus), a helm of invisibility (on loan from Hades), winged sandals (thanks to the Nymphs), a magical pouch (the kibisis) and, by many accounts, a mirror-bright shield to avoid Medusa’s deadly gaze. Rather than a list of equipment, it is a powerful symbolic chant; composed of symbols we no longer really know how to read. Even the dramatis personae of the tale contains only names of unknown or pre-Greek origin: Medusa, Perseus, gorgon…[4]



From the Renaissance to the Victorian Era, Medusa remained largely the unfortunate player in the drama of her death and above all of Perseus’ subsequent use of her petrifying gaze. From left to right:

Perseus holds aloft the severed head of Medusa, whose corpse lays at his feet. Bronze by Benvenuto Cellini, 1554, displayed in Florence, Piazza della Signoria.

The Head of Medusa, by Caravaggio. He painted two versions of Medusa, the first in 1596 and the other a year later. Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 60 c 55 cm, Uffizi, Florence.

Medusa’s head, a macabre still life by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1617-1618. The snakes in the painting have been attributed to collaborator and animal painter Frans Snyders, who may also have included the amphisbeana in the middle foreground.

Prudently regarding over his shoulder, Perseus beheads Medusa, Francesco Maffei, 1650, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy.

Perseus flies down to rescue Andromeda, painting by academic painter Henri-Pierre Picou, dated 1874.

Perseus the Conqueror, by French painter Eugène Thirion, 1867, Senlis, au musée de l’hôtel de Vermandois.

Medusa, by Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck, 1892.

Perseus and the Gorgons, illustration by Walter Crane, from the Wonder Book For Girls & Boys by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1892.

Perseus rescues Andromeda, illustration by Henry Justice Ford, from Tales of Troy and Greece, by Andrew Lang, 1907


Or perhaps the origin is deeper still, when the Sun and Moon were yet to be born. The Gorgons are the children of Earth; when the proto-Hellenic religion (or Pelasgic, though we know little about it) was matriarchal, the mother-goddess supreme and the serpent emblem of life. Medusa embodied this vital and productive force, with strong ties to water, the moisture of the life-giving earth. Then along came a newcomer, a male deity was substituted for the female as leader of the ever more populous Pantheon, bringing the duality of the masculine sun into a position of power over the passive female earth. Medusa’s two children, born of the blood from her severed neck, are the children of this “union”: Chrysaor is Apollo in his role as sun god; Pegasus is sacred to Neptune the god of waters. So, by her seemingly senseless death, Medusa presides over the creative evolution of the re-ordering of the world.

That’s why I so adore myth: it’s always complicated. We tell and re-tell stories until we lose ourselves in the succession of events, and ignore the meaning. Even our understanding of the characters is shallow; we know the names, but we no longer know what they mean.



Pre-Raphaelite, Symbolist and Decadent painters paid particular attention to Medusa, to the ambiguity of her persona, to her tragic destiny and finally to the sensuous beauty of her serpentine locks. For the first time, artists took Medusa’s side. From left to right:

The Blood of Medusa, by Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff, 1898,

Medusa, by Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

The Head of Medusa, by English Pre-Raphaelite Simeon Solomon, 1884

Medusa or The Wild Waves, by French Symbolist Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer. Pastel, 1897

Study for a Gorgon, by Italian Symbolist Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1895

Finis (The End of All Things) by Czech Symbolist Maximilian Pirner, 1887

Aspecta Medusa, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, circa 1878. A portrait of Medusa before the envious Athena transformed her hair into snakes. Rossetti wrote a poem to accompany the drawing:

Andromeda, by Perseus sav’d and wed,

Hanker’d each day to see the Gorgon’s head:

Till o’er a fount he held it, bade her lean,

And mirror’d in the wave was safely seen

That death she liv’d by.

Let not thine eyes know

Any forbidden thing itself, although

It once should save as well as kill: but be

Its shadow upon life enough for thee.

Head of Medusa, late 19th Century Czechoslovakian brooch, gold, jasper, and crystal

Medusa by Edoardo Rubino, from the monument dedicated to Umberto I in Villa Borghese, Rome, 1914.


There existed an earlier version of the Gorgon: a monster birthed by Gaia to assist the Gigantes in their ill-fates struggle against the Olympian gods. That Gorgon was slain by Athene, who buried the decapitated head under the agora. They myth was later absorbed into the classical tale of Perseus.

Whatever the origins, Medusa’s head remained the most powerful of Athene’s weapons: on her aegis, “a breastplate armed with the wreathings of a viper”[5], the Gorgonian power of petrifying with a glance. Pausanias mentions a priestess named lodamia, who, coming into the temple of Athene near Coronea at night was confronted by the goddess herself armed with Medusa’s head, and was turned into stone.

As the luckless Titan Atlas himself discovered, the victim’s size was not an issue either. Irked by a prophecy that a son of Zeus would one day steal the golden Apples of the Hesperides, Atlas refused to offer Perseus hospitality when the latter passed by. It was a most unfortunate fit of pique, as Perseus promptly pulled out Medusa’s head and turned him to stone. (Of course, it’s a legend, because Perseus’ grandson, Herakles, found Atlas very much alive when he passed by on his way to steal those same apples.)


The other serpent-locked trio of Greek myth is the coal-black, bat-winged and swiftly stalking Erinyes, or Furiae.[6] Born of Gaia when the blood of Ouranos, emasculated by Kronos, flowed into the Earth, they have venomous snakes rearing up from their hair, and entwined about their arms and waists. With their flaming eyes and fiery breath, torches and whips of vipers, they embodied the thunderclouds and lightning, their home is Erebus, “”place of darkness between earth and Hades”. The Night-Born Sisters constitute, along with the Graeae and the Gorgô, a triple triumvirate of death, fate and retribution. (The Furies oversee the tormenting of the souls of the damned in the dungeons of Tartaros. Like the other two trios, they are not to be lightly meddled with.)

“The three infernal Furies stained with blood,

Who had the limbs of women and their mein;,

And with the greenest Hydras were begirt;

Small serpents and cerastes were their tresses,

Wherewith their horrid temples were entwined.”[7]

Nevertheless, like the Gorgons, the Furies retain, despite their leering effigies and the lurid tales, an eerie beauty exemplified by their true role: daughters of the Night, whose gaze can arrest Time itself.

” What time the Daughters of Tartarean Night

Rose sable-stoled, their eyes with Gorgon glare.”[8]

 That potent blood of Ouranos was passed on to the Titans as well. Like Medusa, whose blood fell in drops on the desert and spawned vipers, Nicander of Colophon reminds us that “reptiles and other plagues sprung from the blood of the Titans.” Further on, he adds: “Now I would have you know, men say that noxious spiders, together with the grievous reptiles and vipers of the earth’s countless burdens, are of the Titans’ blood….”[9]

Naturally, the deadliest poison is also the finest antidote. According to Euripides, Pallas gave Erichthonius two drops of the Gorgon’s blood, one of them a deadly poison, the other a powerful medicine for the healing of diseases. Aesculapius received from Athena blood that flowed from Medusa’s veins, using that which flowed from the left side “for the bane of mankind” and that from the veins on the right for healing.


Other legends, other lands: A deathly stare has also been ascribed by Classical authors to the women of a certain Scythian tribe. Iroquois legend tells of a certain Tododaho, an Onondaga chief, whose head was covered in tangled snakes, and whose angry look could strike unfortunate offenders dead. He eventually agreed to see his powers subdued, and the serpents were combed out of his locks.

A Japanese tale tells of a young maiden who married the son of a daimyo of high rank. Their happiness was spoilt by malicious rumours; the husband grew suspicious of her honour, and she conceived a terrible hatred for him. Unfortunately for the man, she was a child of dragon ancestry, and one night her hair transformed into a writhing nest of poisonous serpents which stung the man to death. Neighbours witnessed a sound of wings, and saw – or imagined they saw – a dragon fly from the house. It is also believed that the the jealousy of legitimate wives and concubines would transform their hair: at night it would writhe and reach out, seeking to strangle a rival. One story tells of a man who witnessed the hair of his wife and one of his concubines engaged in a deadly struggle. He was so struck by the vision that he became a monk. (A decision he might have made much earlier, and saved everyone a good deal of grief.)

Nevertheless, gorgons were also considered to be real creatures. Alexander of Myndus, writing around the 1st century AD, believes it to be a four-legged creature found in Libya, with a downcast stare covered by a mane. Should it raise its eyes, whoever it looks upon is killed instantaneously. Pliny echoes this description, but calls the creature a Catoblepas, or “downward-looker”, but held that it killed with its breath, acquired by eating poisonous roots.


The snakelike Basilisk and the chimerical Cockatrice also share that deadly stare.

Keep mead sealed in a barrel for twenty years, and you risk getting a surprise when you open it: a basilisk. A Danish story tells of a barrel forgotten in a cellar in Randers, which produced a basilisk. The creature had drunken all the mead, and began to growl when it ran out, alerting the household. A wise man counseled them to quickly bury the cask deep in the ground, which they did. The basilisk was heard no more.

The unavoidable Pliny describes the basilisk in these terms: “…It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass, too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well. To this dreadful monster the crow of a rooster is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success…”[10]

The diadem gives the name to the basilisk. The Greek word “basilikos” may be translated as “little king”[11], designating the basilisk as the king of reptiles, despite its diminutive size. It was deadly in all respects, able to kill flying birds by spitting at them. Its gaze was equally fatal and its mere presence so destructive, it was said to have created the deserts of Libya and the Levant.

The basilisk grew in the telling, and by the Middle Ages, it could breathe fire and upon occasion, bellow loudly enough to kill. There were three ways to dispatch a basilisk: to kill the creature with its own stare by presenting it with a crystal globe or a mirror (death by reflected stare) or with a weasel or a cockerel, the first reputed to have an equally venomous bite, and the latter’s cry said to drive the creature into a fit that resulted in its demise. According to Isidore of Seville: “The basilisk is also called sibilus, the hissing snake, because it kills with a hiss.”[12]

But, the basilisk was not without its uses. Assuming one survived obtaining it, the skin could be used to ward off snakes and spiders.  It was also said that silver rubbed with the ashes of a dead basilisk would make the silver take on the appearance of gold. According again to Pliny: Its blood the magi praise to the skies, telling how it thickens as does pitch, and resembles pitch in color, but becomes brighter red than cinnabar when diluted.” For Bartholomaeus Anglicus “His ashes be accounted good and profitable in working of Alchemy, and namely in turning and changing of metals.”[13] 

As for the hybrid and chimerical Cockatrice, it was equally deadly. With the head, chest and legs of a rooster, the tail of a serpent complete with poisoned barb and wings of a dragon. Covered in feathers or scales, it was the product of a seven-year-old rooster’s egg (recognizable by its spherical shape and membrane in place of the normal shell) hatched by a toad.

By the twelfth century, medieval imagination had largely transformed the basilisk into a cockatrice, keeping the deadly stare and venomous presence, and enhancing its hybrid allure, making it a favourite in medieval bestiaries. No longer an inhabitant of faraway deserts, the cockatrice was potentially in any nearby farmyard.



Dame Juliana Barnes would certainly have coined a distinctive collective noun for basilisks and cockatrices, but in absence of that, from left to right:

Cockatrice, crocodile, dragon with human head in mouth and a crayfish from The Tudor Pattern Book, circa 1520. Bodleian, MS. Ashmole 1504 f.038v.

Sun, Moon, and a Basilisk, by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1512, pen and ink on paper. British Museum, London.

The basilisk, from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium. (The “Historiae animalium (“Histories of the Animals”) published in Zurich between 1551 and 1587, is a late Renaissance encyclopedia of zoology by Conrad Gesner, a doctor and professor at the Carolinum, which would become the University of Zurich. Gesner prudently included a large number of mythical creatures.

Basilisk, according to Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi. (Università di Bologna. Ulisse Aldrovandi [1522-1605], Tavole vol. 001-2 Animali.)

Basilisk from the Recueil de Noël (1644) Laval, Bibliothèque municipale, detail of folio 0031.

A weasel frightening off a basilisk, by Bohemian engraver Wenceslas Hollar, 17th century

Basilisk supporting the arms of Basel, by Monogrammist DS, 1511


Basilisks and cockatrices were witnessed throughout Europe. In the fifteenth century, an aged rooster was condemned for laying an egg in Basel. (Luckily, no toad managed to incubate the egg, or it might have been a very different story.) In one story, a man walked the whole length and breadth of England, clad in a suit covered in mirrors, until not a single cockatrice or basilisk remained in the land. (For his sake, I hope he received plenty of tips, as he clearly did a thorough job.) Another was killed in Rome during the reign of Pope Leo X, but not before his flaming and venomous breath had devastated the countryside for miles around.

The basilisk is even discussed in the pages of the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, or “Witches’ Hammer”, a book regarded for centuries as the ultimate authority on witch-hunting, penned in 1486 by to Dominican monks Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Kramer and Sprenger explain that it is a question of who sees who first. If the basilisk espies the man before he sees it, “owing to its anger a certain terrible poison is set in motion throughout its body, and this it can dart from its eyes, thus infecting the atmosphere with deadly venom. And thus the man breathes the air which it has infected and is stupefied and dies.” Should the man be fortunate enough to see the creature first, he can use a mirror to send the poisonous glare back at the basilisk, which it kills with equal efficacy.

The last recorded killing of a basilisk was in Warsaw in 1587, where a condemned criminal agreed to descend into an abandoned cellar garbed in mirrors and armed with an iron rake and a torch, to confront the creature. He eventually emerged, the basilisk, struck dead by its own mirrored stare, on his rake. It was the size of an ordinary fowl. In its head it had somewhat the appearance of an Indian cock. Its crest was like a crown, partly covered with a bluish colour. Its back was covered with several excrescent spots, and its eyes were those of the toad. It was covered all over with the hues of venomous animals, which gave it a general tawny tinge. Its tail was curved back, and bent over its body, of a yellowish hue beneath, and of the same colour as the toad at its extremity.”[14]

By the early 17th century, Edward Topsell sums up the “gorgon”, a hybrid creature taken from many sources, as follows:

“Among the manifold and divers sorts of Beasts which are bred in Affricke, it is thought that the Gorgon is brought foorth in that countrey. It is a feareful and terrible beast to beholdd, it hath high and thicke eie lids, eies not very great, but much like an Oxe or Bulls, but all fiery-bloudy, which neyther looke directly forwarde, nor yet upwards, but continuallye downe to the earth, and therefore are called in Greeke Catobleponta. From the crowne of their head downe to their nose they have a long hanging mane, which maketh them to looke fearefully. It eateth deadly and poysonfull hearbs, and if at any time he see a Bull or other creature whereof he is afraid, he presently causeth his mane to stand upright, and being so lifted up, opening his lips, and gaping wide, sendeth forth of his throat a certaine sharpe and horrible breath, which infecteth and poysoneth the air above his head, so that all living creatures which draw in the breath of that aire are greevously afflicted thereby, loosing both voyce and sight, they fall into leathall and deadly convulsions. It is bred in Hesperia and Lybia.”

“…It is a beast all set over with scales like a Dragon, having no haire except on his head, great teeth like Swine, having wings to flie, and hands to handle, in stature betwixt and Bull and a Calfe.” [15]

Topsell dismisses the legendary Medusa and her fell sisters as a “Poet’s fiction” and goes on the speculate whether it is the gorgon’s gaze or exceptionally bad breath that kill. (For him, Medusa was an Amazon captain that Perseus slew on a particularly bad hair day – hence the snaky locks.) He decides that, like the Cockatrice, it is probably the eyes. God in his wisdom has made the creature’s head so heavy, and its shaggy mane so thick, that the creature is loathe to raise them, thereby “burying his poison from the hurt of men.” He concludes:” And thus much may serve for a discription of this beast, untill by gods providence, more can be knowne thereof.”

Sir Thomas Browne, in his voluminous “Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths”, first published in 1648, scoffs at many of the supposed traits of the basilisk, but holds that “…eyes receive offensive impressions from their objects, and may have influences destructive to each other. For the visible species of things strike not our senses immaterially, but streaming in corporal rays, do carry with them the qualities of the object from whence they flow, and the medium through which they pass.           

…and thus also it is not impossible, what is affirmed of this animal, the visible rays of their eyes carrying forth the subtilest portion of their poison, which received by the eye of man or beast, infecteth first the brain, and is from thence communicated unto the heart.” More soberly, Browne goes on to say As for the generation of the basilisk, that it proceedeth from a cock’s egg, hatched under a toad or serpent, it is a conceit as monstrous as the brood itself.”

Charles Owen, author of “On Serpents”, published in London in 1742, says this of the Basilisk: “But ’tis most probable, that the royal Stile is given to this Serpent, because of its Majestic Pace, which seems to be attended with an Air of Grandeur and Authority. It does not, like other Serpents, creep on the Earth; which if it did, the sight of it would not be frightful, but moving about, in a sort of an erect posture, it looks like a Creature of another Species, therefore they conclude ’tis an Enemy. Serpents are for Uniformity, therfore can’t endure those that differ from them in the Mode of Motion. ‘Tis said of this Creature, that its Poison infects the Air to that Degree, that no other Animal can live near it, according to the Tradition of the Elders famous for magnificent Tales. These little Furioso’s are bred in the Solitudes of Africa, and are also found in some other Places, and every where are terrible neighbours.” (The text accompanies an engraving of a beaked, lumpen eight-legged creature with a crest resembling a crown, clearly a vision to put off any self-respecting serpent!)

The cockatrice and basilisk lived on, if only on coats of arms. One odd creature, the amphysian cockatrice, has a serpent’s head on its tail. (This one, though, while fearsome enough, does not appear to have been the death of anyone.)


The stare of the Icelandic Skoffin was also deadly. In appearance, it resembled the cockatrice. (When two skoffins met, they both killed each other instantly; one wonders how on earth they reproduced – perhaps with eyelids prudently and tightly shut.) Iceland was rid of the creatures by shooting them with silver musketballs engraved with a cross.

A legend from Brazil tells of an indigenous bird whose looks could kill. A hunter, having succeeded in slaying one, cut off its head, and used it to kill game. Unfortunately, his curious and imprudent wife discovered the head and turned it towards her husband and killed him, and died when she gazed on it herself.

The legend I prefer, though, is told by the Ts’ets’aut, an Athabascan people of central British Columbia. It tells of a man who acquired the power of killing with his glance by donning the skin of a mountain-goat and assuming its shape. First dispatching his tribe, who had decided to kill him, he then wandered all over the world, his path marked by remarkable rocks, each one a creature or a human turned to stone.



[1] The Remains of Hesiod the Ascræan, including the Shield of Hercules. Translated by Sir Charles Abraham Elton (1778-1853). Published in London, 1815.

[2] Medusa’s gaze could also turn plants to stone, as Ovid explains in his Metamorphoses. We owe the beauty of coral to Medusa. After Perseus kills the ketos, The hero washes his victorious hands in water newly taken from the sea: but lest the sand upon the shore might harm the viper-covered head, he first prepared a bed of springy leaves, on which he threw weeds of the sea, produced beneath the waves. On them he laid Medusa’s awful face, daughter of Phorcys;—and the living weeds, fresh taken from the boundless deep, imbibed the monster’s poison in their spongy pith: they hardened at the touch, and felt in branch and leaf unwonted stiffness. Sea-Nymphs, too, attempted to perform that prodigy on numerous other weeds, with like result: so pleased at their success, they raised new seeds, from plants wide-scattered on the salt expanse. Even from that day the coral has retained such wondrous nature, that exposed to air it hardens.—Thus, a plant beneath the waves becomes a stone when taken from the sea.”

[3] “The Gorgons, dwelling on the brink of night

Beyond the sounding main…”

From The Remains of Hesiod the Ascræan, including the Shield of Hercules. Translated by Sir Charles Abraham Elton (1778-1853). Published in London, 1815.

[4] Another explanation may be the dimly remembered violation of pagan temples by the Archaic Greeks, where the invaders stripped the priestesses therein of their apotropaic masks.

[5] Taken from “Ion”, one of the tragedies of Euripides (Volume 2), translated by Gilbert Murray (1866-1957). Published by George Allen, London 1904.

[6] According to Virgil, their names are Alecto (“unnameable”), Megaera (“grudging”), and Tisiphone (“vengeful destruction”).

[7] Dante, The Divine Comedy. Inferno, Book IX.

[8] from Lycophron’s Cassandra, lines 511-12, The Remains of the late Lord Viscount Royston: with a memoir of his life by the Rev. Henry Pepys. Published in London by Murray. 1838.

[9] The Theriaca, Nicander of Colophon, (active c. 130 B. C.)

[10] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History. (8. xxxiii) Translated by John Bostock, H.T. Riley, 1855.

[11] The full etymology is as follows: from Latin basiliscus, from Greek basiliskos “little king,” diminutive of basileus “king”, c. 1300.

[12] Isidore of Seville (7th century) Etymologies, Book 12, 4:6-9

[13] Bartholomaeus Anglicus (13th century) De proprietatibus rerum, book 18)

[14] From Un-natural history, or Myths of ancient science; being a collection of curious tracts on the basilisk, unicorn, phoenix, behemoth or leviathan, dragon, giant spider, tarantula, chameleons, satyrs, homines caudati, &c., now first tr. from the Latin, and ed., with notes and illustrations by Edmund Goldsmid, Edinburgh, 1886

[15] From Edward Topsell (1607) The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, pp. 262-263: Of the Gorgon, or strange Lybian Beast.

THE SPELL OF DISENCHANTMENT Tue, 15 Mar 2016 14:06:27 +0000 Lars_Hertervig_-_The_TarnI HAVE desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them. I have therefore written down ...]]> Lars_Hertervig_-_The_Tarn

I HAVE desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them. I have therefore written down accurately and candidly much that I have heard and seen, and, except by way of commentary, nothing that I have merely imagined. I have, however, been at no pains to separate my own beliefs from those of the peasantry, but have rather let my men and women, dhouls and faeries, go their way unoffended or defended by any argument of mine. The things a man has heard and seen are threads of life, and if he pull them carefully from the confused distaff of memory, any who will can weave them into whatever garments of belief please them best. I too have woven my garment like another, but I shall try to keep warm in it, and shall be well content if it do not unbecome me.

Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art, and she has built her dwelling far from the desperate field where men hang out their garments upon forked boughs to be banners of battle. O beloved daughter of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.

William Butler Yeats, preface to The Celtic Twilight, 1893


The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.

Max Weber, 1904-05


Someone had to put a name on it. “The disenchantment of the world” was borrowed by Max Weber from Friedrich von Schiller, a contemporary of Goethe. While Schiller’s disenchantment had more to do with the failings of the French Revolution than anything else, Weber had us post-moderns in mind.

What he meant was that he saw mankind going from having a place in the world to becoming the world. We have inevitably placed ourselves in the centre of the universe by our preoccupations with our own interior universe (and, paradoxically, via science, with the infinite universe which we can only experience as an abstract). We may no longer think the Earth is at the centre of the heavens, but we are certainly, by the burden we impose upon it, the centre of the Earth.

But the disenchantment casts a spell of its own, the spell of the tangible and the scientific, abetting the illusion that a solution can be found by either commercial interest or realpolitik for every problem. This dogma of rationalism and practicality is applied throughout the educational system, and rightly enough, but all too rarely counterbalanced with less structured disciplines, especially the arts.

Human need for enchantment is amply proven by the flourishing of astrology, fairy or dragon-themed self-help books, and any number of modern drives for spirituality to winning the lottery. Superstition, at which we so readily scoff as an avatar of primitive society, is little more than hedging one’s bets, courting luck, scrying the future. Horseshoes, in the words of one philosopher, are wonderful; they work even if you don’t believe in them. Modern enchantment ranges across the spectrum in an incredibly variety of forms.

This diversity, for all that it has in eclectic appeal, exists because we are at the center of it all, no longer part of a system; we create a system around us. A good friend once mused how piquant a situation a fantasy convention could be: all-expenses-paid guests of honour lodged in a luxury air-conditioned hotel, eating takeaway and earnestly discussing the mythical journey. (Only the 20th century is so adept at mixing hermitics and hedonics.)

Our fascination with science inclines us to think that solutions must come from within science, which they doubtlessly will do, in part, but only in part. The essential ingredient revolves around our acknowledgement of the permanent interaction with nature that we have forgotten. Superstition, fairy tale, creation myth, all of these stories, if we take the time to read them between the lines (as we are largely incapable of reading them or hearing them as the first tellers and listeners did) contain clues to that interweaving, from a time when man was part of nature and considered himself so.

Our failings are our strengths; this yearning for something other, which can lead to all manner of excess, can also lead to a recognition of those connections long neglected. How could humans have ever believed witches were real? How was it possible that well-intentioned men of profound and sincere belief actively pursue the condemnation of tens of thousands of women, all individuals with no recourse to justice and no defense? How the order of the world can possibly have appeared to be threatened by these disenfranchised humans on society’s margins seems beyond comprehension today, but the burning of witches stems from the need for superstition coupled with a profound disconnect from the roots of that same superstition. The conjuring up of witches happened when the framework of folklore no longer held its structure, and the elements of folklore were placed at the mercy of the clergy, transforming pious men (it’s unlikely, had women been ordained priests instead of the clergy remaining a strictly masculine province, the witch hunts would never have happened) into well-meaning torturers, judges and executioners. Disequilibrium is always a source of strife, even in realms so ill defined as the fantastical and the irrational.

Progress, as we now know, is a mixed blessing at best, but it is not so much the natural desire and tendency to wish for something better,[1] which needs continual and vigilant readjustment, but our definition of progress. Goodness knows we haven’t been defining it in the sense we understand for very long. Attested in the 14th century, but meaning simply to walk or move forward, by and large reserved for the stately advance of the royal court through the kingdom in England, until the 16th century added notion of progress in the sense of growth or development. (You’ll have to forgive my mild obsession with etymology, but I see each word we use as an entity always moving and changing, crossing cultures, adding meanings like so many stickers on a steamer trunk; to ignore the origin and travels of a word is like imagining a person with no personal history.) The OED reminds us that the word was obsolete in 18th century England, but found fertile ground in the Americas, and was long regarded in Britain as a rough-hewed Americanism, only finding its voice with the social movements of the 1890’s.

The problem with progress is always the same we have with any concept on which we pin our hopes: orthodoxy. Once something is defined, by default all else is placed outside that definition, to degrees varying. Progress is also ethnocentric; no global definition exists, and perhaps the time has come to redefine the term before the spells of disenchantment, to which we have surrendered for so long, leave us lost with no path to follow. What is clear is that there is no going back, (whatever that means) only forward. The signposts are no longer anywhere near; we might need to crane our necks and gaze a little harder between the lines.

This is where writers like Yeats become the spokespeople of the undefined, of the mystical, the sense of connection devoid of focus, the opening of the mind and spirit that is not dogmatized, channeled, authorized or conversely anathematized. When Yeats is telling us curious stories picked up under the thatched eaves of Irish teach ceann tuí,[2] he is helping us explore his soul.

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Nonetheless, magic returning to the past might be symbolized by most two unlikely coincidences, continents apart. Sturm und Drang was already the reaction to the Cartesian rationalism of Neoclassicists extolled by the French intelligentsia, and another almost exact contemporary of Goethe, Grimur Jónsson Thorkelín was booking passage to England. Thorkelín, an Icelandic–Danish scholar, who became the National Archivist of Denmark, had accepted a mission from the Danish government to unearth proof of the origins of the Danes. The new European nation states were all eager to confirm, in history and above all, in fable their ancient, noble and legitimate origins; national storytelling and nation building always advance hand in hand. Thorkelín had been granted a handsome commission by Christian VII of Denmark “to travel through Great Britain, Ireland, and the Isles, for two years in order to collect and record all the extant Danish and Norwegian Monuments, Deeds, and Documents … on his promise to deliver on his homecoming to Our National Archive and the great Library all the Collections he in such manner may procure.” Thorkelín was poking about (apologies for such a casual term to qualify a mission of historical research, but his chances, given the philological precepts of the time, were hazardous and uncertain at best) in the British Museum Reading Room when the word “Danes” caught his eye. The date was October 3rd, 1786, about 2 months into his mission. He went back for another look on the 16th, ordered a transcription made, and did another one himself at a later date. Many years later, back in Denmark, he prepared Beowulf for publication, but his house was burned during The Battle of Copenhagen[3] and twenty years of research went up in smoke. Two transcripts survived, and Thorkelín went back to work, publishing the first full translation of Beowulf in 1815. While rarely mentioned in light of more recent research, (Thorkelín has a bit of a reputation as a fraud as well as a scholar, and his transcription is far from perfect) his work preserves many details that were lost in the 19th and 20th centuries, before the deterioration of the margins of the manuscript was halted.


The Siege of Copenhagen, 1813, by Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek, Dutch maritime history artist, 1778-1851. Government Art Collection of England





Left: Beowulf, the first page in Cotton Vitelius A.XV or Nowell Codex. The poem exists in only a single manuscript by an anonymous author, dated around AD 1000, bound into a codex with other manuscripts by antiquarian Lawrence Nowell in the 1560’s. The codex was damaged by fire in 1731, and further deteriorated after Thorkelin made his copy in 1786.

Right: The Siege of Copenhagen, 1813, by Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek, Dutch maritime history artist, 1778-1851. The British battered Copenhagen for over two weeks, from August 16th to September 5th, 1807, destroying the Danish navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, British officials in the far-flung outposts of Empire building were coming to realize that there was an ancient language in the Indian sub-continent that nobody spoke. Dutifully, they took notes, sent reports and very quickly it became clear that this ancient language held the key to the origins of most of the languages in Europe.

In the words of Sir William Jones in a speech entitled The Third Anniversary Discourse, on the Hindus delivered before the Asiatic Society in Calcutta on February 2, 1786, the exact same year Thorkelín was peering at dusty manuscripts in London, The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia..”[4]

You can imagine the excitement in philological circles. (The term “Indo-European” was coined by English polymath[5] Thomas Young in 1813.[6]) Much energy had been spent to discover the “primordial” or first language spoken by humans (a worrying number of English theologians thought it had to be English), now suddenly the focus shifted from Genesis to the Indus; it was as if 18th-century Europe suddenly discovered Ancient Greek.

˜ ˜ ˜

Many things were brewing. An eager horde of philologists was about to be let loose on language’s obscure past, still considered by the likes of Casaubon to have its origins buried in the rubble of the Tower of Babel. As Darwin did for evolution, philologists would do for the origin of species, but for creatures far more marvelous than finches; they would discover the origins and evolution of trolls, giants, monsters, elves and fairies.

The opening of horizons offered by the discovery of Sanskrit and old texts such as Beowulf, the expanded universe of linguistics[7] and philology led directly, through language, to a clearer identification, of those beings found in so much ancient literature – the creatures of fantasy. In a sense, the Enlightenment had largely relegated them to the wings, now they came back in force in their various vernaculars, bearers of the meaning in their etymological genes. The first serious modern scholars of myth, following Schiller’s faded trail, some following dead ends of their own making, such as E. B. Tylor (who, to his credit, did coin the helpful word “animism”), Lucien Lévy-Bruhl or Max Müller[8], all still prisoners of teleological thinking. Others left a more lasting mark: James Frazer, more through his ambitious collation than his conclusions, Carl Jung, who had more patience with myth than Freud, Joseph Campbell, Andrew Lang (yes, he of the Coloured Fairy Books), F. Edward Hulme, Lewis Spence (despite his slightly worrying preoccupation with Atlantis) and many more.

˜ ˜ ˜

The origins of dwarves[9] are lost in time, giants in Norse myth owe a good deal to their Biblical and Classical cousins[10]. Trolls, on the other hand, seem to be homegrown in the boreal woods. Elves, both light and dark, also seem to be Germanic and Norse, despite their shifting nature, and dragons, as we well know, show their scaly snouts everywhere. Teratology applied to literature, the study of monsters or marvels, is a discipline born of our long-standing fascination with the other, with those beings who dwelt on the margins of the ancient world, and now dwell on the margins of our psyche.

Giants are in many ways kin to the Aesir, but they are excluded from Asgard. Nonetheless, between the two peoples there is much contact, competition and even romance, the desirability of giantesses precluding any of the grossness of features associated with later giants. Giants possess skills and magic items, and are capable of magical feats themselves. Journeying to Jotunheim, the land of the giants, is a perilous exercise, even in times of uneasy truce. At ragnarok, the giants will attack and destroy Asgard; when the lines are drawn, they are on the side of chaos and destruction. Legendary giants are a mixed lot, always dangerous but occasionally noble, like the Green Knight[11] in the14th century tale of Gawain. By the time they reach folk tales, they range from cannibals (fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman[12]) to relatively benevolent beings, often alone, removed from society because of their size and clumsiness, often designated as inadvertent creators of geographical features.[13]


To see image galleries in their full size, right click and open in new tab

A shortlist of giants. From left to right: Búri, the first giant god, grandfather of Odin, licked free of the ice by the cow Auðumbla, from Ólafur Brynjúlfsson’s Sæmundar og Snorra Edda, 1760; Thor, in his goat-drawn chariot, gives the jötnar a taste of Mjölnir: Tors strid med jättarna (Thor’s Fight With the Giants) by Swedish artist Marten Eskil Winge, 1872; Fafner and Fasolt abduct Freya: illustration for “Der Ring Des Nibelungen – Das Rheingold” by Franz Stassen, 1914; There’s a hole here: the gods make good the ransom for Freya, illustration by Arthur Rackham for The Ring of the Niblung: The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner, William Henemann, 1910; “I am the giant Skrymir,” illustration by Elmer Boyd Smith from In the Days of Giants – A Book of Norse Tales by Abbie Farwell Brown, 1902; Equal work opportunities: giantesses Fenja and Menja beside the mill Grótti, engraving by Gunnar Forssell, 1893 after a drawing by Carl Larsson, 1886; Trouble in Muspelheim: The Devil Giant with the Flaming Sword by John Charles Dollman, from Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas by Hélène Adeline Guerber, published in London, bu George G. Harrap and Company Limited, 1909; Trouble in Camelot: the Green Knight holds up his own head after Gawain has lopped it off, illustration from the original Gawain manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x, painted by an unknown artist in the late 14th-century. The Green Knight is one of the few mounted (and cephalophoric) giants in legend and folktale; King Arthur battles a clumsy giant: illustration by Walter Crane for The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, published in London by George Allen, 1897; The good giant: “The Giant gives magic gifts to Jack,” illustration by Margaret W. Tarrant, from Mother Goose Nursery Tales, published in London by J. Coker & Company in the 1930’s. The volume contains Jack the Giant Killer, The Three Bears, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Tom THumb, The House that Jack built, Cock Robin and others.

Dwarves are skilled smiths, living underground or in remote locations, the entrances to their dwellings cleverly concealed as boulders, behind which they can so swiftly disappear as to seem to have themselves turned to stone (a trait they may have passed along to trolls). Their legendary toughness seems to have rendered them immune to change; dwarves in the eddas have much in common with their descendants of folk tale. Dwarves as we think of them now owe as much to mining as they do to myth, the tunics worn by the 16th century miners in Heinrich Groff’s illustrations for La Rouge Myne de Sainct Nicolas de la Croix in the early 16th century might well be straight out of Snow White. Gnomes, with whom dwarves are often associated, or even confused, are much later arrivals on the scene. The first mention of “gnome” is found in Switzerland, in the writings of Swiss alchemist Paracelsus[14], for whom they are a cthonic symbol, representing the earth in alchemical formulae. Paracelsus, who gave the name pigmaei or gnomi to these elemental earth beings, deriving the name from the 16th-century French gnome, itself descended from Medieval Latin gnomus, possibly from Greek genomos “earth-dweller” or “dwarf-like earth-dwelling spirit.” He said they stood two spans in height.


A delving of dwarves. From left to right: The Dwarf Regin (Sigurd’s foster father) and his helper forging the sword on the anvil. Twelfth-century wood panel from a church in Setesdal, Norway; Dwarves in Greenland, fighting with humans and making war on cranes, from Swedish ecclesiast Olaus Magnus’ Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples), printed in Rome in 1555; Dwarves making Mjölnir for Thor. “The Third Gift – an Enormous Hammer”, illustration by Elmer Boyd Smithfrom In the Days of Giants – A Book of Norse Tales by Abbie Farwell Brown, 1902; Clearly, the dwarves were soundly rewarded for their toil, for Thor drives the dwarfs out of Scandinavia by throwing the same hammer at them. Watercolor on paper Richard Doyle, 1878; Mime labours to reforge Siegfried’s sword, illustration by Arthur Rackham for The Ring of the Niblung: The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner, William Henemann, 1910; The Knight of Sayn and the Gnomes, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1849; Snowdrop and the dwarfs, by John Dickson Batten, 1897; Heigh ho, heigh ho: mining in the Alsace in the early 16th century.

Trolls in the eddas seem to be creatures from beyond society, aggressive predatory females; they may be demonized survivors of a ancient matriarchate, or the expression of all that threatens a highly patriarchal society. They can only be dealt as best as possible with when encountered, they live in the savage part of the ungovernable world and the repressed psyche. In the sagas, they are closer to humans; legends tell for half-trolls, one foot in each world. Still while they have a society of their own, there is little contact between trolls and men. The trolls of folktale have inherited from dwarves their heliophoby; turning to stone with the rising sun seems a relatively late trollish characteristic. Still, traces of elder notions may remain in unlikely circumstances. The tale of Three Billy Goats Gruff, which tells of the defeat of a troll by clever goats, reminds us that the chariot of Thor, who distinguished himself as a fearsome foe of trolls, was drawn by a team of goats. The last word on trolls is the first mention we know of them. When Bragi the skaldic god of poetry[15] encounters a troll-woman in a forest, a telling-game ensues. The troll describes herself in these words: “Trolls call me moon of the dwelling-Rungnir, giant’s wealth-sucker, storm-sun’s bale, seeress’s friendly companion, guardian of corpse-fjord, swallower of heaven wheel, what is a troll other than that?”[16]


Thrice-told trolls. From left to right, a century and a half of trolls: Troll country: The Tarn and Old Pine Trees, paintings by Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, 1865; Skogtroll by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittlesen, 1906; The Princess and the Troll by Kittelsen; Swedish artist John Bauer “with his old friend, the great troll Dunseklamp”; Trolls by John Bauer, 1915; Trollhunter, the movie, Norway, 2010.

Elves seem to have changed the most. Both Dökkálfar and Ljósálfar are described in the Poetic Edda, the dark elves live in the earth, and the light elves, “fairer than the sun to look at”, dwell in Álfheimr, or “Elf Home.” The Prose Edda mentions only svartálfar, or “black elves”, whom Snorri calls “pitch-black.” The light elves seem to have been largely absorbed into Christian myth as angels, and disappear from legend, their swarthy kin becoming associated with dwarves and other dwellers in realms under the ground. Grimm has trouble with elves, deciding not to decide, and postulating three types: light, dark and black. Later  mythographers are, on the whole, still trying to make up their minds. What is certain is that elves are rare in legends but common in folklore, they are the cradle-snatchers, switching elf-infants for the human babies they so desire to steal; they are the beings met on lonely roads or near howes and fairy mounds, or who dwell in granges, spiteful or helpful, depending on the respect paid them by their chosen landlords. Their realm is adjacent to ours, but hidden; time is not the same there, and elves and other denizens of faërie are commingled. To venture into their realm, and above all to eat or drink what is proffered there, is to remain imprisoned, though there are enterprising and brave individuals who marry elven or fairy princesses[17]. Elves of folklore are the Icelandic Huldufólk, who inhabit the volcanic landscape and who it is unwise to irritate. A later version is Der Erlkönig of Faust; poem that inspired the Romantic concept of the Erlking, not the first time a mistranslation has inflamed imaginations. Elves are never far away; they are just shifting shape all the time. By Shakespeare’s time, elves were diminutive winged creatures that playfully flitted about and lived in flowers. They retained that guise until the Victorian era, and their “rehabilitation” by Tolkien and later fantasy authors. Their immortality, as an exclusive elven trait, is the sign of their co-habitation with humans in a coherent fictional universe; before modern fantasy, time flowed differently for each.[18]


A glimpse of elves. From left to right: Prickly elves from Olaus Magnus’ Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, 1555; Perilous elves: Engraving of a man jumping after a female elf into a precipice, illustration to the Icelandic legend of Hildur, the Queen of the Elves; Dancing at dawn: Ängsälvor (Meadow Elves) by Swedish painter Nils Johan Olsson Blommér, 1850; Dancing in the moonlight: Älvalek (Dancing Fairies) by Swedish artist Johan August Malmström, 1866; Study for Älvalek; Trouble in the Elf-King’s realm: two depictions of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig, by Baltic artist Julius Sergius von Klever (1887), and by Moritz Von Schwind (1917); The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke by troubled Victorian artist Richard Dadd. He worked on this painting from 1855 to 1864 during his internment at Bedlam. Dadd considered the painting to be unfinished; Victoriana: Oberon and Titania, illustration for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream by Arthur Rackham, 1908.

Our world is so much richer for all this non-practical information. It may not help us find a parking spot, decent takeaway or a good plumber, but it opens our horizons, both faraway and inside the mind. Mutatis mutandis, everything changes, everything stays the same.

No matter how hard you rationalize, no matter how diligently you apply level-headed rationalism, no matter how doubting your Thomases; no matter how thoroughly you impose practicality; no matter how alluring you make progress; no matter how enlightened your Enlightenment, how industrious your post-Industrialism or scientific your sciences; no matter your download speed, the fantastical refuses to take a last bow and exit the stage. You can’t keep a good troll down.

˜ ˜ ˜

We have thoroughly forgotten how to read myth, legend and folk lore, even though much of what we know, or think we know, was coaxed into coherence by the earliest mythographers, who travelled, listened, took notes and collated and arranged until it made some sense – to them.

Take elf-shot, for instance. It’s a charming enough fancy, the idea the malicious edge-of-vision beings shoot arrows into the napes of our necks or the back of our knees, poisoning us with some ill, so we must take to bed, and even wither and die, unless some potion is sought from a witch or a wise woman. The stuff of folk tale and superstition, right? Well, not entirely. We never see the illnesses we catch, no more than the invisible elf-arrow. We seek medical help with a person whose lore is beyond our understanding, who gives us a medicine concocted out of our sight with ingredients we do not necessarily know, to be taken in strict ritual (twice, three times a week; if symptoms persist…). When we catch a cold, we know our defenses are down, our resistance to infection weak. Who is the god of fertility, well-being and health, who keeps us “hale and hearty”? Frey, the elf-god. Of course; the difference is not so much in the substance, but in the storytelling.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we go mix herbs and possibly more unsavoury things for old Anglos-Saxon “salves against the race of elves”, it’s just a reminder that we think we understand our superstitious and primitive ancestors, but it’s likely we don’t. Metaphors are mortal, perhaps nowhere more than in myth and legend.

1760 Edda Manuscript Ólafur Brynjúlfsson; Sæmundar og Snorra Edda

Grimm Brothers

Sanskrit inscription

Left: The Brothers Grimm, Jacob & Wilhelm. Drawing by their younger brother Ludwig Emil Grimm, 1843.

Centre: Banteay Srei Temple, Angkor. Sanskrit Carving c.967

Right: Ólafur Brynjúlfsson’s Sæmundar og Snorra Edda, 1760. The Ólafur Brynjúlfsson manuscript contains material from both the Eddas, Elder and Younger (or Poetic and Prose, as you prefer), as well as the most extraordinary illustrations. The original is in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen.

You can read Red Riding Hood as a circadian myth.[19] As a sun symbol, she is eaten by the wolf (but only enveloped, eaten means hidden from sight, arrested in her course, held in darkness) and released by the huntsman (cutting her out brings the dawn; the huntsman (or woodcutter) is a solar figure, who has all the attributes). But would it have been understood as such? Or was it a simple cautionary tale or a metaphor of puberty by the time the Grimms got to it, with the multiple questions answered by the wolf a typical story-teller’s building of suspense? The truth is, we don’t know. But, we are still, as children and as adults telling it to children, enchanted.

It is almost as though, as we drag our suitcases of knowledge towards the destinations of our aspirations, boarding the Progress (direct, we hope; not too many stops), so many eager voyagers, we tend to lighten our luggage of the things we think we no longer need (unless we’ve simply forgotten it on the quay in our haste to board.)

Of course, this is an illusion; allegory, metaphor, fable, apologue, and mythos weigh nothing, in fact, they lighten our steps. Myth always contains a measure of truth. That measure of truth has a name: Enchantment.

I would throw my lot in with Kleist[20]; we must eat again of the tree of knowledge to regain innocence, but I can’t subscribe to the inherent eschatology. It’s not a sub-chapter of the last chapter of the Earth, but a personal footnote of abandonment of the self-consciousness imposed by psychoanalysis and science to rediscover the grace offered by enchantment. Enchantment is not an exterior force, it is the conjunction of shamanism, Platonism[21] and a walk in the woods. Enchantment is in our perception, interior and intangible, not hidden under moss or behind the trunk of a tree. The consequences, though, are real and measured by the damage done.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the romantic rediscovery of folk and fairy tales, fueled by changing attitudes toward history and national identity, propelled forward by philology and archaeology. War and the advent of modernism put an end – temporarily – to that particular Golden Age. Magic, though, is resilient.

It seems the need for enchantment far outweighs any movement to replace it with the rational and the reasoned. Discussing the pros and cons of enchantment is an empty exercise, which has been conducted many times; the campaigns against enchantment throughout history are too many to count, but the result is clear enough. Enchantment escapes all attempts to organize and dogmatize, it is as ever-changing and fleeting as a will-o’-the-wisp, eluding convenient defining, when diligently stamped out, always arising elsewhere. The only way to enchantment is the path less traveled; the well-trod roads do not lead there.

And where is all this wandering going? Well, mainly nowhere, because that’s what wandering is all about. Somewhere along the way, though, signs and clues, like so many fallen leaves, odd pebbles or broken shells accumulate, and you arrive wherever it is on the road that you feel you have enough of them – or you never do, and keep walking.

What is clear, though is that we need enchantment, and if we cannot find it where we used to, in the meaningful irrationality of myth, then we look for it where we shouldn’t: in science, in progress, in Barnum effect on the horoscope page, and gather clues that lead us away from nature and humans, not toward them. We are geared to read meaning into things, it’s the way we are, and personally, while a stock market graph might resemble the silhouette of a mountain range, I prefer to read the weather in the latter.

It’s a pirouette, I know, and an unfair comparison, but we tell stories because we need stories. Enchantment and disenchantment are the two sides of a coin spinning in the air. The richness – or paucity – of these stories depends on us; we need to keep our wits about us.

So where have the storytellers gone, the ones who ensure that we continue to intuitively understand the language of myth? They are no longer telling thrice-told tales around the fireside, they have migrated to fiction and fantasy, pulling up their tents planted in the land of folklore a few centuries ago, and moving off into new country, whose horizons they define as they go. That’s why I wanted to ask an author to share in this exercise in parallax, from a different point of view, gazing out over the same landscape.

To my delight, the author accepted. Here are her thoughts.




Robin HOBB

This is a topic that demands a rainy night, a table, and coffee mugs and friends huddled around it. Maybe some good ginger cookies with that. Well, tonight I have all that, with the exception of friends present. It’s just me and the computer screen and the rain on the office window. If John and I had a table and two cups of coffee between us, this is a discussion that would go far into the night!

Ah, would that it could.

I’ve written this essay about twelve times now. Twice I’ve written an email to John to tell him that I can’t write this essay, that when we talk about enchantment or disenchantment, my thoughts fragment into a snowstorm of ideas, and arguments, and contradictions.

But I’m willing to give it one more try.

So. In no particular order. No five paragraph essay this.

First of all, here’s a question that I love to ask children. Eight or nine year olds are the best, but sometimes I can ask a fourteen year old and get an intriguing answer.

“Have you found your magic yet?”

Some of the children, unfortunately, will already have been disenchanted. Disenfranchised. They are certain that magic is as imaginary and unreal as Santa Claus or the Green Man. If you leave one of those kids with me long enough, I can sometimes revive them. But it takes some work. It doesn’t happen inside a house or in front of a computer screen. It doesn’t even happen with a book and a cup of tea in front of a fireplace, though that is a different and altogether lovely sort of enchantment.

It happens out in the world. It doesn’t have to be the forest primeval. You can find the magic in a farm or a rooftop garden. John, I believe, finds it in mossy old stones touched and purposed by humans and on wild beaches and in the trunks of very old trees. There is enchantment in rusty tractors, and magic in a bird’s nest with empty shells in it. Magic in a row of radishes sprouting in dark wet earth. There is magic in puppy breath. There is magic in my mother’s old sewing machine and in my dad’s carved meerschaum pipes.

No. I’m not talking in metaphors or similes or other literary devices. I’m telling you something that is true.

And you know it’s true, on some level that makes you uncomfortable to admit it. But it’s dark outside and rainy and I have a hot cup of tea and a cat on my lap between me and my keyboard. So just this once, let’s talk about it.

Have you found your magic yet?

I have.

No. I’m not going to prove it to you. I’m not even going to tell you what it is. It’s mine. And I feel no need to justify it.

Because just as all fantasy and SF writers know that ‘Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’, ‘Any magic that can be proven turns into science.’

Demanding that magic ‘prove’ itself by the scientific method is as unreasonable as proving the power of love or psychology. Claiming that enchantment and science are mutually exclusive is a peculiar restriction that, to me, has no logical basis. It rather reminds me of people who insist that e-books will make paper books vanish!

So, there’s the rub that I encounter in my daily life. There’s a terrible restriction in the flow of what we are allowed to have. There is a strong tendency, at least here in the US, to believe that you have to choose. Science. Religion. Enchantment. Take your pick.

Divesting youth of enchantment is seen as a necessary step in their growth. At what age were you told that there was no Santa Claus? And why was it so essential that you be told this? When did the tooth fairy stop leaving some silver coins under your pillow? When was your four-leaf- clover dismissed as ‘silly superstition’?

And above all, why?

You don’t have to give any of it away. I can solder an electronic circuit, go to Mass on Sunday, and cure your wart by buying it from you for a piece of silver. My parents gave me all those things, and never asked that I surrender any of them for the sake of another.

Here’s a true story. I lived for a time near a satellite tracking station called Chiniak on the Island of Kodiak, Alaska. One year I was there, they began to have problems with the equipment. Unexplained glitches that happened. A number of the men working there were of Hawaiian ancestry, and they actually brought in a sort of shaman (I apologize that I don’t know the correct term) who advised them to pour a circle of salt around the facility. They began to do this, but of course, that takes a lot of salt and time.

In the meanwhile, another expert was brought his. His scientific analysis was that the electrical grounds, the earths for the facility, were inadequate. His advice? Salt the earth around the grounds for better conductivity.

And so the problem was solved by a convergence of science and magic. Very tidy, I’ve always thought. No one had to be wrong. No one had to surrender power.

Go back to the question I love to ask kids. “Have you found your magic yet?”

There are kids who come to a complete halt when I ask them, “Have you found your magic yet?” The question implies that if they haven’t yet, they will. They can. That I expect them to. It gives permission. And some will tell me, immediately, what their magic is. “Birds pay attention to me.” “I can make the wind blow.”

And some children almost immediately become testy if not angry. “There’s no such thing as magic!” they assert, as if I’ve insulted them. As if I’ve stolen some piece of adulthood they’ve gained, simply by asking such a thing. And if I’ve asked it in the hearing of adults, some will immediately step forward to correct me before I corrupt their child. “What are you talking about?” one step-mother asked me. “Magic isn’t real!”

(‘What fairy tale did you step out of?” I wanted to ask her.)

A number of essays back, John made a point about children and drawing. All kids can draw. Until someone tells them they can’t, that it’s done wrong or not good enough. At that point, lots of them stop drawing and never begin again.

And so it is with our enchantment. It exists for us, unless someone tells us that it can’t, or it’s wrong, or it can’t be proven.

What if you gave yourself permission, for one day, to believe that you have magic? What if you allowed that gift to exist alongside science, religion and the internet, without constructing conflicts and contradictions?

So, while I don’t require you to admit that I have found my magic, I invite you to think, “Perhaps that means it’s not too late for me to find my magic.”

I’ve wandered very far from the essay I thought of was writing.

But in the limits of time between the chapters that I should be writing, I would like to follow especially one of the very intriguing statements that John made: “We have inevitably placed ourselves in the centre of the universe by our preoccupations with our own interior universe.”

Wow, have we ever. The internet is, of course, the first thing that leaps into my mind.
But let me back up a little bit before I dive into that.

Each of us creates our own reality. When I was a kid, I used to spend time wondering about how each of us really sees the world. As in, literally, ‘sees’.  Is my ‘green’ the same as yours? There are no words that would let us know, for every word that relates to ‘green’ is also subjective. Perhaps if I wired my brain to yours, I would discover that your lawn is my scarlet and your evergreens are actually evermaroons. (I’m not talking rods and cones in your eyeballs here, but your subjective experience, of course.) I’d wonder if time passes the same way for each of us. Is your subjective minute the same as mine? Sometimes my minutes go really fast, and somehow I become out of sync with everyone else’s world, and I’m late for an appointment. (This often happens to me when I go into a forest. Time moves differently. I think I’ve gone for an hour’s walk, and come back to find that dinner is over and people have moved into their evening of television. Or, stranger, I hurry home, only to discover that while I’ve been gone for hours, only an hour has passed for the people I left in the house. Did I cross a border into that fey land where time moves differently? Should I care if I have?)

I digress.

I’m already wandering away from what I thought I was going to say.

Our personal universes include our private codes of right and wrong, our acknowledgement or denial of a divine presence, an assumption of where we fall in the social hierarchy and all the pieces that form our identity. We create that ‘normal’ like a suit of armor that we live within. For some of us, it includes racial, ethnic, gender or national identity. We are, each of us, a little castle on the hill and some of us have very narrow drawbridges regulating who we allow in and what we accept as the way it ‘ought to be.’ Some of us deny science. Some of us deny spirituality. Most of us fall somewhere in between on that spectrum. Some of us admit enchantment. Some few of us not only admit it, we court it and cherish it and nourish it.

But it saddens me to say that I’ve met a number of people who admit no enchantment at all in their personal world. No magic, no mysticism, no spirituality. No God, no Satan, no djinn, no faeries at the bottoms of their gardens. Elves, dwarves, unicorns, trolls, little gods who live by springs. Don’t be silly! They’ve never thrown spilled salt over their shoulders.

Who lives in their world? Only people and those lesser moving sacks of meat, animals. Trees are only alive to them in that they need water and grow. It is very strange to me that some of them are readers of fantasy. They do not allow the possibility of enchantment to enter into their day to day lives, and if I mention it in mine, I am gently (or sometimes scoffinlgy) corrected. How can an adult, rational human being with a Western education believe such silly things?

Yet they all fall victim to the largest enchantment of our time. In the armor of what they believe the world to be, they venture out, to do battle with those who do not admit their reality.

You know I’m talking about the internet.

We now live in a time when we are communally creating an electronic world where we humans live and play and work and humans are the centre of that creation. It’s not just the multiple-player on line games that are human centered worlds. It’s not just Second Life, which ten years on, is still going strong for some people. It’s ALL of it.

And that world is entirely human.

No dogs allowed. No deer, no grass, no mosquitoes, no cold germs. Only people. Only human thought and only human interaction. Nature is carefully framed and bounded as jpgs, gifs and tifs.. Cats wear hats and say funny things. The natural world is admitted only through a human-centric filter. It’s a place where if something goes wrong, the only possible culprit is a human being.

Every day I venture out into that human centered world. And every day I think that we’ve done a rather poor job of creating a new reality.

And there is no enchantment there.

How I want to be able to say that.

But it’s not true.

The enchantment of that world is more enthralling (think of what that word really means!) than even Forest. More engulfing than Story. Made by humans, tailored to humans, it calls us back, over and over, the Sirens on the rocks. I’ve seen marriages founder because a person forsook home and family to join comrades on a World of Warcraft foray. “I have to go. They won’t survive without me.”  Parents game on while a child starves in a crib..

More than once.

In a world made by humans for humans, the enchantment is so powerful.

All the social media and blogs that we create imply that by posting about a situation, something is changed. Writing it down makes it important and posting becomes an important incantation. We joke about it, but how many of us can ignore a statement we disagree with on the internet? Or refrain from ‘liking’ one that resonates with us? At the end of the day, how many of us go back to our Facebook to gauge the reactions we’ve received, or wander back to that discussion on Reddit or Twitter to add a final comment? We get that tiny feeling of accomplishment from doing so. Earn a new badge on this site, become a Top reviewer on Amazon, pass that milepost of having 1000 followers on Twitter! Such magical achievements.

It’s the magic mirror from which we cannot look away. We can command our own reflection there, to be whoever or whatever we wish to project. The pool into which Narcissus looked has nothing on the internet. Choose your avatar. Become.

I am as guilty as anyone. Thirty years ago, I spent virtually no time online. Dial-up was plenty fast enough for me, and the wading pool of AOL offered me all the on line interaction I wanted or had time for.

Now, in addition to my real world of family, farm, pets and household tasks, I belong to a virtual world that is just as demanding. Nay, more so. My family knows better than to charge into my office and tug at my sleeve when I’m writing. Well, at least the members who walk on two legs and have been around me more than ten years know that! But email, twitter, and Instagram know no such boundaries. If I do not silence them, they intrude, and they intrude twenty-four hours a day, for some of my virtual world is based in Europe and some in Asia and some in Australia. Literally at any hour of the day or night, if I permit it, my phone and computer emit nagging little chimes that alert me that someone in my electronic universe wants a portion of my attention. Facebook. Two websites. Instagram. Twitter. Tumblr. Vine. Yes, all of those, and probably a few more I can’t conjure up just now.

How real is that enchantment?

There is no denying that it’s a mesmerizing creation. Cell phones in laps under the table’s edge in restaurants enchant us. Imaginary friends that exist as avatars on a screen beckon us away from family dinners and conversations in cars.   Here are John’s trolls, come to life and power and threatening the pixel bridges that people try to build. “Don’t feed the trolls!” we are cautioned, and we all know what happens when we break that cardinal commandment.   Imagine a world where trolls can work voodoo. You can call it online bullying if you wish. The trolls can attack a teenager in a chewing, biting horde. Others gather, just as crows come to a calling of a murder that wishes to mob an owl. The pecking and the biting are ceaseless until it ends in a suicide. All accomplished with an intangible electronic touch.

Minor gods thunder their blogs across the firmament. The powerful are fully as cruel and callous as the old gods of Olympus. Disagree and you may be held up to lashing mockery. Hellhounds and Harpys cannot compare to the wrath of thousands of posts and emails raining upon you and cascading off the screen into your ‘real’ life. Offend badly, and you can be banished into the netherworld, ‘unfriended’ or banned from your ISP. Venture into the sites forbidden to good people, sites where you think you will get something for nothing, and the dwarves of greed will plunder your identity and infiltrate the machine on your desk with spyware or a virus.

Witch hunts? Salem can’t begin to compete.

Are there light elves here? Posting pictures of kittens or sharing their photographs and art and stories, perhaps there are. They are like brownies, doing good work without being noticed. They are funding causes by asking all to contribute a little to equal up to a lot. They are reposting pleas for help to find stray dogs and runaway children. They click a little smiley face under a comment you’ve made. It’s not all bad out there, as long as you stay on the paths that wind through those groves of data and users. Remember the old magic. Never tell a stranger your true name, for it can give him great power over you.

John writes “Enchantment escapes all attempts to organize and dogmatize, it is as ever-changing and fleeting as a will-o’-the-wisp, eluding convenient defining, when diligently stamped out, always arising elsewhere.”

He’s absolutely correct.

© Robin Hobb, February, 2016


[1] Comfort and convenience were the leitmotiv of the economic surge in 1950’s America, invested in products that shortly after conquered the modern world through vigorous export and glamorous advertising, defining modernity as well as our aspirations for the future.

[2] (pronounced choh-kee-un-tee)

[3] It is one of those ironies of history that it be the British who destroyed the first modern translation of Beowulf; had it not been for Thorkelín’s dogged abnegation, much of our knowledge of the original would have been lost.

[4] From Winfred P. Lehmann, A Reader in Nineteenth Century Historical Indo-European Linguistics,1967.

[5] “polymath”, now there’s a terms we don’t see much any more. An opsimath is someone who acquires learning late in life, and a philomath just likes studying.

[6] Considering that Sanskrit had been patiently waiting to be “discovered” for well over 2000 years, the word does feel very recent. Persians considered themselves to be Aryans, or Indo-Iranians. Darius the Great stated that he was of Aryan descent. According to many Indian historians, there was never a division between Aryans and Dravidians; the word ‘Arya’ simply meant noble in Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s roots may be even older than previously estimated. The site of Dwarka, dated from approximately 7000 years ago (there is much controversy over the date), has been excavated under the sea beside the Great Rann of Kuchh where the ancient Sarasvati River (mentioned in the Vedas and long thought to be mythical, but which may have actually existed) emptied into the Arabian Sea. The Harappan Civilization may be the last of the Indus Valley Civilizations. If so, the Vedas depict a far more ancient history than the migration of Aryans in 1500 BC. Trade existed between Mesopotamia and Harappa, as well as with Africa. The “Aryan vs. Dravidian” notion was also a handy tool used by the British to divide and rule India during Colonial times; archaeology and Empire often go hand in hand, and myth and history have much in common. In other words, it’s complicated.

[7] The world has some 5000 languages, fruit of 200 or so unrelated groups. Somewhere between 60 and 80% of the world’s population speaks only one.

[8] Müller, who caught a philological flu of his own, qualifying myth as a “disease of language.” In his view, primitive peoples were incapable of allegory and understood all myth in a literal sense. He coined theories with such imaginative names as the Bow-wow theory (early language based on the sounds made by animals), the Pooh-pooh theory (emotional onomatopoeia), the Ding-dong and Yo-he-ho theories. Mercifully, they have been forgotten.

[9] I have decided to definitively adopt Tolkien’s spelling. (I still recall getting the word wrong in a spelling test in elementary school – the fault of Thorin & Co.)

[10] The Younger Edda is the work of a proto-Grimm scholar, who collated, organized and welded disparate material into a whole. Studying Snorri’s Edda engages the reader in the near-impossible task of separating the euhemerist reflections of the educated Christian lawyer and historian from the material he was dealing with.

[11] The Green Knight’s verdant countenance has caused much head-scratching in scholarly circles, even Tolkien called him “a most difficult character.” He may be a knightly version of the wose or wildman, but his exact origins steadfastly remain a subject of conjecture.

[12] No ne knows exactly where the phrase is from. Even in 1596 English dramatist Thomas Nashe wrote, “O, tis a precious apothegmaticall Pedant, who will finde matter inough to dilate a whole daye of the first inuention of Fy, fa, fum, I smell the bloud of an
Englishman …”

[13] The Anglo-Saxon word for giant is “ent”, a term Tolkien put to good use.

[14] It would be tempting to blame the disproportionately high number of garden gnomes in Switzerland on Paracelsus, or search for covert alchemical symbolism in Swiss gardens… Gnomes owe their popularity to 19th and early 20th-century retelling of folk and fairy tales.

[15] Snorri’s description of Bragi the Old, from the Skáldskaparmál, the second part of the Prose Edda: How should one periphrase Bragi? By calling him husband of Iðunn, first maker of poetry, and the long-bearded god (after his name, a man who has a great beard is called Beard-Bragi), and son of Odin.”

[16] The exact translation of the troll-woman’s speech is much debated. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur’s translation (1916) is as follows: ‘Trolls do call me Moon’s . . .
. . . of the giant, Storm-sun’s (?) bale, Fellow-in-misery of the sibyl, Warder of the circled ring-earth, Wheel-devourer of the heaven. What is the troll but that?”

[17] Invariably, there is a time of reckoning in these tales; the worlds of faerie and human can exist in proximity to each other, but the two cannot truly mix.

[18] Immortality and its practical implications has been a theme much neglected by Tolkien scholars.

[19] No one ever questions why the unnamed heroine wears a red “riding” hood; though this may be an alliterative addition in English; in the first recorded version by Charles Perrault in 1697, “chaperon” means simply a hooded cloak. Grimm entitled the tale Rotkäppchen in 1812. A fascinating version is retold by Andrew Lang in the red fairy Book. In this tale, called The Story of Little Goldenhood, which Lang borrowed from Affenschwanz Et Cetera: Variantes Orales de Contes Populaires Francais Et Etrangers (1888) by folklorist Charles-Marie Marelle, the wolf’s jaws are burned by the heroine’s enchanted golden hood.

[20] Heinrich von Kleist: On the Marionette Theatre, 1810

[21] Shamanism very likely influenced Platonism via Orphic myth. Orpheus certainly did get around.


I am now deeply in debt to Robin Hobb for her wonderful and insightful text, and besides being honoured that she considered my request. I also hope that it may one day find its way into posterity. Authors of fiction are so busy exploring the secret paths of the worlds they have created that they rarely seem to have the time to write about the road travelled.

The illustration of the Sanskrit inscription is used without permission, I am happy to replace it with another image or credit the photographer (if he or she can be located).

JUST BECAUSE… Mon, 15 Feb 2016 10:46:19 +0000 JUST SO STORIESA legend is a fairy tale told to men when men were sane.  – G. K. Chesterton When I was small, I owned a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, illustrated by the author. I recall an oddly tense relationship with that book, due in large part to the illustrations, especially the gigantic crab ...]]> JUST SO STORIES

A legend is a fairy tale told to men when men were sane.

 – G. K. Chesterton

When I was small, I owned a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, illustrated by the author. I recall an oddly tense relationship with that book, due in large part to the illustrations, especially the gigantic crab and the tremendous Animal that came out of the sea, which frightened me, and the elephant’s child, in his painful tug-o’-war with the crocodile, which made me feel very sorry for him. In fact, I recall all the images clearly. I remember nothing of the text except the chapter titles. (Dismayingly, the cover I recall corresponds to the 1902 edition published in London… I hope my book was a relatively recent reprint, and not a first edition, as it of course disappeared at some point.)

Recently, half a century later, I have read the book again, no longer frightened by the drawings, and enchanted by the odd exercise in which Kipling engaged, illustrating his own stories, but above all, providing extended captions in a style that has never been repeated or successfully imitated.

I confess I was intending to write something about the tone of Kipling’s writing, which is, as is usual with him, gruff and uncompromising, and in this case, where he re-invents creation and origin tales, told in a style more reminiscent of the way stories would have been told before they were meant exclusively for children. Then I stumbled on a review by none other than G. K. Chesterton, who managed to pre-empt my modest ambition’s every vaguely exploitable thought by eleven decades, and thought the better of sharing them. Here is his review:


Mr Kipling’s “Just-So Stories”.

Mr Rudyard Kipling is a most extraordinary and bewildering genius. Some of us have recently had reason to protest against certain phases of his later development, and we protested because they were pert and cockney and cruel, and full of that precocious old age which is the worst thing in this difficult cosmos, a thing which combines the brutality of youth with the disillusionment of antiquity, which is old age without its charity and youth without its hope. This rapidly aging, rapidly cheapening force of modernity is everywhere and in all things, a veritable spiritual evil: it looks out of the starved faces of a million gutter-boys, and its name is Ortheris. And just as we are in the afterglow of a certain indignation against this stale, bitter modernity which had begun to appear in Mr Kipling’s work, we come upon this superb thing, the Just-So Stories; a great chronicle of primal fables, which might have been told by Adam to Cain before murder (that artistic and decadent pastime) was known in the world.

 For the character of the Just-So Stories is really unique. They are not fairy tales; they are legends. A fairy tale is a tale told in a morbid age to the only remaining sane person, a child. A legend is a fairy tale told to men when men were sane. We grant a child a fairy tale just as some savage king might grant a missionary permission to wear clothes, not understanding what we give, not knowing that it would be infinitely valuable if we kept it to ourselves, but simply because we are too kind to refuse. The true man will not buy fairy tales because he is kind; he will buy them because he is selfish. If Uncle John, who has just bought the Just-So Stories for his niece, were truly human (which, of course, Uncle John is not), it is doubtful whether the niece would ever see the book. One of the most lurid and awful marks of human degeneration that the mind can conceive is the fact that it is considered kind to play with children.

But the peculiar splendour, as I say, of these new Kipling stories is the fact that they do not read like fairy tales told to children by the modern fireside, so much as like fairy tales told to men in the morning of the world. They see animals, for instance, as primeval men saw them; not as types and numbers in an elaborate biological scheme of knowledge, but as walking portents, things marked by extravagant and peculiar features. An elephant is a monstrosity with his tail between his eyes; a rhinoceros is a monstrosity with his horn balanced on his nose; a camel, a zebra, a tortoise are fragments of a fantastic dream, to see which is not seeing a scientific species, but like seeing a man with three legs or a bird with three wings, or men as trees walking. The whole opens a very deep question, the question of the relations between the old wonder and the new wonder, between knowledge and science. The hump of a camel is very likely not so much his characteristic from a scientific point of view as the third bone in the joint of his hind leg, but to the eyes of the child and the poet it remains his feature. And it is more important in this sense that it is more direct and certain: there is a relation between the human soul and the hump of a camel, which there is not between the human soul and the bone in his hind leg. The hump still remains and the bone vanishes, if all these physical phenomena are nothing but a grotesque shadow-show, constructed by a paternal deity to amuse an universe of children.

This is the admirable achievement of Kipling, that he has written new legends. We hear in these days of continual worship of old legends, but not of the making of new; which would be the real worship of legends. Just in the same way we hear of the worship of old ceremonies, but never of the making of new ones. If men decided that Mr Gladstone’s hat was to be carried three times around the House of Commons, they would have offered the best tribute to the Eleusinian mysteries. That is the tribute which “How the Whale Got His Throat” offers to the story of Sigurd and Hercules.

G. K. Chesterton.


Of course, Just So Stories was widely reviewed and praised when it was first published. In the same issue of The Bookman, a regular feature, “The Book Mart”, included this mention dated New York, November 1st, 1902.

Just-So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling, easily leads the juvenile publications of the month, and is even entitled to a place in the list of best selling books….”

Robert Thurston Hopkins, in Rudyard Kipling; a literary appreciation, published in 1915 by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd. London added:

“The countless little phrases Kipling uses in these fables show his point of view—his attitude to the world. They do not come to one in solid chunks of inconsequential description, but in innocent-looking little passages hidden in the practical wisdom of the animal. “The Cat that walked by Himself” in “Just So Stories” is a fine study.

“Cats are always interesting, because nobody has understood how much affection they are capable of feeling for their human possessors, but in this story the author has put forth a very faithful study. It is an old subject, but remarkably well treated, in spite of Kipling’s fun and twaddle, entertaining or not, according to the disposition of the reader.”…

“If you watch any cat closely, you will see that from time to time he will turn deliberately round and laugh at you. He is chuckling in remembrance of the joke of jokes in the cat world; you can almost read Kipling’s words on the lips:

‘Still I am the cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.’”

Nevertheless, if the Just So Stories are fables in disguise for adults-who-were-children-once, the illustrations and the captions are destined for children; the captions could almost have been written by a clever child. They sum up Kipling’s intense empathy for his material, a chameleon-like capacity to take on the language of his audience; there is always something of the gruff yet affable uncle in Kipling. He disguises his elegance in simple formulae, deftly inserting folk wisdom into a more ambitious format; in short, Kipling is never short of short words.

01 JUST SO STORIES FOR LITTLE CHILDREN Kipling Rudyard Published by London Macmillan and Co. 1926



Just So Stories. Left: The cover that I so clearly recall. Centre: Title page. Right: Table of contents.

Additionally, “children’s literature” at the turn of the 20th century was a world divided between moralizing and saintly examples and sugarwater and lollipops; in this sense, as a writer for children, Kipling poses a milestone in literature that has yet to be properly appreciated. The first two volumes of Frazer’s Golden Bough had only been published a decade or so before, along with the work of the likes of Andrew Lang, Lewis Spence or Edward Hulme. The rehabilitation of folklore and the eradication of the inevitable comparison of primitive cultures to childhood in an adult (read Western European) world had only just begun. In this sense, Kipling’s novels are almost subversive in their artful artlessness. Kipling is chidingly reminding us that we had hitherto forgotten how to understand myth, legend and folklore, and lost the keys to the truths therein. It is almost as if he is saying we cannot expect to understand because we are no longer childrenand have drawn a line between intuition and intellect. Kipling’s captions, especially, are a tour de force on par with “The Green Book” from Arthur Machen’s eerie novel “The White People”.[2]

More has probably been written on Kipling than he wrote himself, much of it, I suspect, out of frustration, as he is an impossible person to pin down or shoehorn into any convenient category. Variously labelled imperialist, apologist, colonialist in wallah’s clothing, jingoist and more, Kipling turned down a knighthood, Poet Laureate and the Order of Merit, but in 1907 accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had an enchanted infancy in India, where he was born, followed by a miserable childhood straight out of Dickens in England from 1871 to 1887, where regular beatings punctuated extraordinary encounters, notably with artists such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, about whom he wrote “Once he descended in broad daylight with a tube of ‘Mummy Brown’ [paint] in his hand, saying that he had discovered it was made of dead Pharaohs and we must bury it accordingly. So we all went out and helped—according to the rites of Mizraim and Memphis, I hope—and—to this day I could drive a spade within a foot of where that tube lies.”

His family was unable to afford a prestigious university in England, so Kipling returned to India, and found himself the youthful assistant editor of the Civil and Military Gazette at Lahore. He wrote. He returned to England in 1890, determined to pursue a literary career. His stories, and his budding fame, had preceded him. He secretly wooed, then married Caroline Ballister in 1892, and the young family moved to the United States[3], returning to England in 1896, and again to the Americas several times, until his eldest daughter Josephine died of pneumonia contracted in a trans-Atlantic trip. (Tragedy pursued the Kiplings; their son Joseph was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.) They finally settled in England in 1902, in a seventeenth century house in East Sussex, where the Just So Stories took shape.[4] Kipling, like Tolkien, entertained his own children and those of his friends by inventing the tales of such enigmas as ‘How the Camel Got His Hump’ and ‘How the Leopard Got his Spots’. One of those early listeners was Angela Thirkill, first cousin once removed of Kipling and close friend of his daughter Josephine.[5] In her words: “The Just So Stories are a poor thing in print compared with the fun of hearing them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice. There was a ritual about them, each phrase having its special intonation which had to be exactly the same each time and without which the stories are dried husks. There was an inimitable cadence, an emphasis of certain words, an exaggeration of certain phrases, a kind of intoning here and there which made his telling unforgettable.”[6] In 1902, the tales were published as Just So Stories by Doubleday, Page in New York and MacMillan and Company in London.

John Lockwood Kipling and Rudyard Kipling, c.1890.

Rudyard Kipling and his father, around 1890

I’ve not been able to find any mention anywhere of the pictures themselves, or Kipling’s reason for drawing them himself, though his father, John Lockwood Kipling (6 July 1837 – 26 January 1911) was an illustrator himself, lending his talents to illustrated editions of several of his son’s books. Perhaps his audience of children spurred him on; they would certainly have relished original drawings. I wonder where the originals are today.

Any attempt to determine Kipling’s influences and visual sources seems a futile exercise at best, without the author’s own words on the subject. There may indeed be a hint of Beardsley in The Cat That walked Alone, but it is as easy to see the influences of William Strang, Herbert Cole or any number of their contemporaries who flourished at that time on both sides of the Atlantic. Kipling is decidedly as hard to pin down as an illustrator as he is a writer. The ark signature on some of the illustrations is a phonetic visualization of “RK”.

I realized that besides the pictures that I found frightening, I recall them all very clearly, as well as the edition itself. Just So Stories, along with a small dozen of other books, must have comprised my entire childhood library; the Poky Little Puppy by Gustav Tenggren,[7] Kenneth Graeme’s The Wind in the Willows, The Adventures of Grandfather Frog by Thornton W. Burgess, along with a number of companion volumes, and a few inevitable volumes from Disney. (I still vividly remember an image of Ferdinand the Bull, reclining under a cork oak, its branches laden with corks like so many apples; I’ve never been able to decide whether the illustrator had a sense of humour or was singularly little-travelled.) There were likely a few more books, I’m sure they will reappear at some point.

Never underestimate your childhood books: long after they have been torn and tattered, unhinged and discarded, the images remain with you, patiently waiting until some clue brings them to vivid clarity once again.

Here are Kipling’s conspiratorial and avuncular captions, with the illustrations. For the stories themselves, I would honestly recommend buying an illustrated edition of the book; it should be every library.



THIS is the picture of the Whale swallowing the Mariner with his infinite-resource-and-sagacity, and the raft and the jack-knife and his suspenders, which you must not forget. The buttony-things are the Mariner’s suspenders, and you can see the knife close by them. He is sitting on the raft, but it has tilted up sideways, so you don’t see much of it. The whity thing by the Mariner’s left hand is a piece of wood that he was trying to row the raft with when the Whale came along. The piece of wood is called the jaws-of-a-gaff. The Mariner left it outside when he went in. The Whale’s name was Smiler, and the Mariner was called Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens, A.B. The little ‘Stute Fish is hiding under the Whale’s tummy, or else I would have drawn him. The reason that the sea looks so ooshy-skooshy is because the Whale is sucking it all into his mouth so as to suck in Mr. Henry Albert Bivvens and the raft and the jack-knife and the suspenders. You must never forget the suspenders.


HERE is the Whale looking for the little ‘Stute Fish, who is hiding under the Door-sills of the Equator. The little ‘Stute Fish’s name was Pingle. He is hiding among the roots of the big seaweed that grows in front of the Doors of the Equator. I have drawn the Doors of the Equator. They are shut. They are always kept shut, because a door aught always to be kept shut. The ropy-thing right across it is the Equator itself; and the things that look like rocks are the two giants Moar and Koar, that keep the Equator in order. They drew the shadow-pictures on the doors of the Equator, and they carved all those twisty fishes under the Doors. The beaky-fish are called beaked Dolphins, and the other fish with the queer heads are called Hammer-headed Sharks. The Whale never found the little ‘Stute Fish till he got over his temper, and then they became good friends again.




THIS is the picture of the Djinn making the beginnings of the Magic that brought the Humph to the Camel. First he drew a line in the air with his finger, and it became solid: and then he made a cloud, and then he made an egg–you can see them both at the bottom of the picture– and then there was a magic pumpkin that turned into a big white flame. Then the Djinn took his magic fan and fanned that flame till the flame turned into a magic by itself. It was a good Magic and a very kind Magic really, though it had to give the Camel a Humph because the Camel was lazy. The Djinn in charge of All Deserts was one of the nicest of the Djinns, so he would never do anything really unkind.


HERE is the picture of the Djinn in charge of All Deserts guiding the Magic with his magic fan. The camel is eating a twig of acacia, and he has just finished saying “humph” once too often (the Djinn told him he would), and so the Humph is coming. The long towelly-thing growing out of the thing like an onion is the Magic, and you can see the Humph on its shoulder. The Humph fits on the flat part of the Camel’s back. The Camel is too busy looking at his own beautiful self in the pool of water to know what is going to happen to him.

Underneath the truly picture is a picture of the World-so-new-and-all. There are two smoky volcanoes in it, some other mountains and some stones and a lake and a black island and a twisty river and a lot of other things, as well as a Noah’s Ark. I couldn’t draw all the deserts that the Djinn was in charge of, so I only drew one, but it is a most deserty desert.




THIS is the picture of the Parsee beginning to eat his cake on the Uninhabited Island in the Red Sea on a very hot day; and of the Rhinoceros coming down from the Altogether Uninhabited Interior, which, as you can truthfully see, is all rocky. The Rhinoceros’s skin is quite smooth, and the three buttons that button it up are underneath, so you can’t see them. The squiggly things on the Parsee’s hat are the rays of the sun reflected in more-than-oriental splendour, because if I had drawn real rays they would have filled up all the picture. The cake has currants in it; and the wheel-thing lying on the sand in front belonged to one of Pharaoh’s chariots when he tried to cross the Red Sea. The Parsee found it, and kept it to play with. The Parsee’s name was Pestonjee Bomonjee, and the Rhinoceros was called Strorks, because he breathed through his mouth instead of his nose. I wouldn’t ask anything about the cooking-stove if I were you.


THIS is the Parsee Pestonjee Bomonjee sitting in his palm-tree and watching the Rhinoceros Strorks bathing near the beach of the Altogether Uninhabited Island after Strorks had taken off his skin. The Parsee has put the cake-crumbs into the skin, and he is smiling to think how they will tickle Strorks when Strorks puts it on again. The skin is just under the rocks below the palm-tree in a cool place; that is why you can’t see it. The Parsee is wearing a new more-than-oriental-splendour hat of the sort that Parsees wear; and he has a knife in his hand to cut his name on palm-trees. The black things on the islands out at sea are bits of ships that got wrecked going down the Red Sea; but all the passengers were saved and went home.

The black thing in the water close to the shore is not a wreck at all. It is Strorks the Rhinoceros bathing without his skin. He was just as black underneath his skin as he was outside. I wouldn’t ask anything about the cooking-stove if I were you.




THIS is Wise Baviaan, the dog-headed Baboon, Who is Quite the Wisest Animal in All South Africa. I have drawn him from a statue that I made up out of my own head, and I have written his name on his belt and on his shoulder and on the thing he is sitting on. I have written it in what is not called Coptic and Hierogliphic and Cuneiformic and Bengalic and Burmic and Hebric, all because he is so wise. He is not beautiful, but he is very wise; and I should like to paint him with paint-box colours, but I am not allowed. The umbrella-ish thing about his head is his Conventional Mane.


THIS is the picture of the Leopard and the Ethiopian after they had taken Wise Baviaan’s advice and the Leopard had gone into other spots and the Ethiopian had changed his skin. The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo. The Leopard was called Spots, and he has been called Spots ever since. They are out hunting in the spickly-speckly forest, and they are looking for Mr. One-Two-Three-Where’s-your-Breakfast. If you look a little you will see Mr. One-Two-Three not far away. The Ethiopian has hidden behind a splotchy blotchy tree because it matches his skin, and the Leopard is lying beside a spickly-speckly bank of stones because it matches his spots. Mr. One-Two-Three-Where’s-your-Breakfast is standing up eating leaves from a tall tree. This is really a puzzle-picture like ‘Find the Cat.’




THIS is the Elephant’s Child having his nose pulled by the Crocodile. He is much surprised and astonished and hurt, and he is talking through his nose and saying, ‘Led go! You are hurtig be!’ He is pulling very hard, and so is the Crocodile: but the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake is hurrying through the water to help the Elephant’s Child. All that black stuff is the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River (but I am not allowed to paint these pictures), and the bottly-tree with the twisty roots and the eight leaves is one of the fever-trees that grow there.

Underneath the truly picture are shadows of African animals walking into an African ark. There are two lions, two ostriches, two oxen, two camels, two sheep, and two other things that look like rats, but I think they are rock-rabbits. They don’t mean anything. I put them in because I thought they looked pretty. They would look very fine if I were allowed to paint them.


THIS is just a picture of the Elephant’s Child going to pull bananas off a banana-tree after he had got his fine new long trunk. I don’t think it is a very nice picture; but I couldn’t make it any better, because elephants and bananas are hard to draw. The streaky things behind the Elephant’s Child mean squoggy marshy country somewhere in Africa. The Elephant’s Child made most of his mud-cakes out of the mud that he found there. I think it would look better if you painted the banana-tree green and the Elephant’s Child red.




THIS is a picture of Old Man Kangaroo when he was the Different Animal with four short legs. I have drawn him grey and woolly, and you can see that he is very proud because he has a wreath of flowers in his hair. He is dancing on an outcrop (that means a ledge of rock) in the middle of Australia at six o’clock before breakfast. You can see that it is six o’clock, because the sun is just getting up. The thing with the ears and the open mouth is Little God Nqa. Nqa is very much surprised, because he has never seen a Kangaroo dance like that before. Little God Nqa is just saying, ‘Go away,’ but the Kangaroo is so busy dancing that he has not heard him yet.

The Kangaroo hasn’t any real name except Boomer. He lost it because he was so proud.


THIS is the picture of Old Man Kangaroo at five in the afternoon, when he had got his beautiful hind legs just as Big God Nqong had promised. You can see that it is five o’clock, because Big God Nqong’s pet tame clock says so. That is Nqong, in his bath, sticking his feet out. Old Man Kangaroo is being rude to Yellow-Dog Dingo. Yellow-Dog Dingo has been trying to catch Kangaroo all across Australia. You can see the marks of Kangaroo’s big new feet running ever so far back over the bare hills. Yellow-Dog Dingo is drawn black, because I am not allowed to paint these pictures with real colours out of the paint-box; and besides, Yellow Dog Dingo got dreadfully black and dusty after running through the Flinders and the Cinders.

I don’t know the names of the flowers growing round Nqong’s bath. The two little squatty things out in the desert are the other two gods that Old Man Kangaroo spoke to early in the morning. That thing with the letters on it is Old Man Kangaroo’s pouch. He had to have a pouch just as he had to have legs.




THIS is an inciting map of the Turbid Amazon. It hasn’t anything to do with the story except that there are two Armadillos in it up by the top. The inciting part are the adventures that happened to the men who went along the road marked by the double line. I meant to draw Armadillos when I began the map, and I meant to draw manatees and spider-tailed monkeys and big snakes and lots of Jaguars, but it was more inciting to do the map and the venturesome adventures. You begin at the bottom lefthand corner and follow the little arrows all about, and then you come quite round again to where the adventuresome people went home in a ship called the Royal Tiger. This is a most adventuresome picture, and all the adventures are told about in writing, so you can be quite sure which is an adventure and which is a tree or a boat.


THIS is a picture of the whole story of the Jaguar and the Hedgehog and the Tortoise and the Armadillo all in a heap. It looks rather the same any way you turn it. The Tortoise is in the middle, learning how to bend, and that is why the shelly plates on his back are so spread apart. He is standing on the Hedgehog, who is waiting to learn how to swim. The Hedgehog is a Japanesy Hedgehog, because I couldn’t find our own Hedgehogs in the garden when I wanted to draw them. (It was daytime, and they had gone to bed under the dahlias.) Speckly Jaguar is looking over the edge, with his paddy-paw carefully tied up by his mother, because he pricked himself scooping the Hedgehog. He is much surprised to see what the Tortoise is doing, and his paw is hurting him. The snouty thing with the little eye that Speckly Jaguar is trying to climb over is the Armadillo that the Tortoise and the Hedgehog are going to turn into when they have finished bending and swimming. It is all a magic picture, and that is one of the reasons why I haven’t drawn the Jaguar’s whiskers. The other reason was that he was so young that his whiskers had not grown. The Jaguar’s pet name with his Mummy was Doffles.




THIS is the story of Taffimai Metallumai carved on an old tusk a very long time ago by the Ancient Peoples. If you read my story, or have it read to you, you can see how it is all told out on the tusk. The tusk was part of an old tribal trumpet that belonged to the Tribe of Tegumai. The pictures were scratched on it with a nail or something, and then the scratches were filled up with black wax, but all the dividing lines and the five little rounds at the bottom were filled with red wax. When it was new there was a sort of network of beads and shells and precious stones at one end of it; but now that has been broken and lost–all except the little bit that you see. The letters round the tusk are magic–Runic magic,–and if you can read them you will find out something rather new. The tusk is of ivory–very yellow and scratched. It is two feet long and two feet round, and weighs eleven pounds nine ounces.


ONE of the first things that Tegumai Bopsulai did after Taffy and he had made the Alphabet was to make a magic Alphabet-necklace of all the letters, so that it could be put in the Temple of Tegumai and kept for ever and ever. All the Tribe of Tegumai brought their most precious beads and beautiful things, and Taffy and Tegumai spent five whole years getting the necklace in order. This is a picture of the magic Alphabet-necklace. The string was made of the finest and strongest reindeer-sinew, bound round with thin copper wire.

Beginning at the top, the first bead is an old silver one that belonged to the Head Priest of the Tribe of Tegumai; then came three black mussel-pearls; next is a clay bead (blue and gray); next a nubbly gold bead sent as a present by a tribe who got it from Africa (but it must have been Indian really); the next is a long flat-sided glass bead from Africa (the Tribe of Tegumai took it in a fight); then come two clay beads (white and green), with dots on one, and dots and bands on the other; next are three rather chipped amber beads; then three clay beads (red and white), two with dots, and the big one in the middle with a toothed pattern. Then the letters begin, and between each letter is a little whitish clay bead with the letter repeated small. Here are the letters–

A is scratched an a tooth–an elk-tusk I think.

B is the Sacred Beaver of Tegumai on a bit of old glory.

C is a pearly oyster-shell–inside front.

D must be a sort of mussel shell–outside front.

E is a twist of silver wire.

F is broken, but what remains of it is a bit of stag’s horn.

G is painted black on a piece of wood. (The bead after G is a small shell, and not a clay bead. I don’t know why they did that.)

H is a kind of a big brown cowie-shell.

I is the inside part of a long shell ground down by hand. (It took Tegumai three months to grind it down.)

J is a fish hook in mother-of-pearl.

L is the broken spear in silver. (K aught to follow J of course, but the necklace was broken once and they mended it wrong.)

K is a thin slice of bone scratched and rubbed in black.

M is on a pale gray shell.

N is a piece of what is called porphyry with a nose scratched on it. (Tegumai spent five months polishing this stone.)

O is a piece of oyster-shell with a hole in the middle.

P and Q are missing. They were lost, a long time ago, in a great war, and the tribe mended the necklace with the dried rattles of a rattlesnake, but no one ever found P and Q. That is how the saying began, ‘You must mind your P’s. and Q’s.’

R is, of course, just a shark’s tooth.

S is a little silver snake.

T is the end of a small bone, polished brown and shiny.

U is another piece of oyster-shell.

W is a twisty piece of mother-of-pearl that they found inside a big mother-of-pearl shell, and sawed off with a wire dipped in sand and water. It took Taffy a month and a half to polish it and drill the holes.

X is silver wire joined in the middle with a raw garnet. (Taffy found the garnet.)

Y is the carp’s tail in ivory.

Z is a bell-shaped piece of agate marked with Z-shaped stripes. They made the Z-snake out of one of the stripes by picking out the soft stone and rubbing in red sand and bee’s-wax. Just in the mouth of the bell you see the clay bead repeating the Z-letter.

These are all the letters.

The next bead is a small round greeny lump of copper ore; the next is a lump of rough turquoise; the next is a rough gold nuggct (what they call water-gold); the next is a melon-shaped clay bead (white with green spots). Then come four flat ivory pieces, with dots on them rather like dominoes; then come three stone beads, very badly worn; then two soft iron beads with rust-holes at the edges (they must have been magic, because they look very common); and last is a very very old African bead, like glass–blue, red, white, black, and yellow. Then comes the loop to slip over the big silver button at the other end, and that is all.

I have copied the necklace very carefully. It weighs one pound seven and a half ounces. The black squiggle behind is only put in to make the beads and things look better.




THIS is a picture of Pau Amma the Crab running away while the Eldest Magician was talking to the Man and his Little Girl Daughter. The Eldest Magician is sitting on his magic throne, wrapped up in his Magic Cloud. The three flowers in front of him are the three Magic Flowers. On the top of the hill you can see All-the-Elephant-there-was, and All-the-Cow-there-was, and All-the-Turtle-there-was going off to play as the Eldest Magician told them. The Cow has a hump, because she was All-the-Cow-there-was; so she had to have all there was for all the cows that were made afterwards. Under the hill there are Animals who have been taught the game they were to play. You can see All-the-Tiger-there-was smiling at All-the-Bones-there-were. and you can see All-the-Elk-there-was, and All-the-Parrot-there-was, and All-the-Bunnies-there-were on the hill. The other Animals are on the other side of the hill, so I haven’t drawn them. The little house up the hill is All-the-House-there-was. The Eldest Magician made it to show the Man how to make houses when he wanted to. The Snake round that spiky hill is All-the-Snake-there-was, and he is talking to All-the-Monkey-there-was, and the Monkey is being rude to the Snake, and the Snake is being rude to the Monkey. The Man is very busy talking to the Eldest Magician. The Little Girl Daughter is looking at Pau Amma as he runs away. That humpy thing in the water in front is Pan Amma. He wasn’t a common Crab in those days. He was a King Crab. That is why he looks different. The thing that looks like bricks that the Man is standing in, is the Big Miz-Maze. When the Man has done talking with the Eldest Magician he will walk in the Big Miz-Maze, because he has to. The mark on the stone under the Man’s foot is a magic mark: and down underneath I have drawn the three Magic Flowers all mixed up with the Magic Cloud. All this picture is Big Medicine and Strong Magic.


THIS is the picture of Pau Amma the Crab rising out of the sea as tall as the smoke of three volcanoes. I haven’t drawn the three volcanoes, because Pau Amma was so big. Pau Amma is trying to make a Magic, but he is only a silly old King Crab, and so he can’t do anything. You can see he is all legs and claws and empty hollow shell. The canoe is the canoe that the Man and the Girl Daughter and the Eldest Magician sailed from the Perak river in. The sea is all black and bobbly, because Pan Amma has just risen up out of Pusat Tasek. Pusat Tasek is underneath, so I haven’t drawn it. The Man is waving his curvy kris-knife at Pau Amma. The Little Girl Daughter is sitting quietly in the middle of the canoe. She knows she is quite safe with her Daddy. The Eldest Magician is standing up at the other end of the canoe beginning to make a Magic. He has left his magic throne on the beach, and he has taken off his clothes so as not to get wet, and he has left the Magic Cloud behind too, so as not to tip the boat over. The thing that looks like another little canoe outside the real canoe is called an outrigger. It is a piece of wood tied to sticks, and it prevents the canoe from being tipped over. The canoe is made out of one piece of wood, and there is a paddle at one end of it.




THIS is the picture of the Cave where the Man and the Woman lived first of all. It was really a very nice Cave, and much warmer than it ]ooks. The Man had a canoe. It is on the edge of the river, being soaked in the water to make it swell up. The tattery-looking thing across the river is the Man’s salmon-net to catch salmon with. There are nice clean stones leading up from the river to the mouth of the Cave, so that the Man and the Woman could go down for water without getting sand between their toes. The things like black-beetles far down the beach are really trunks of dead trees that floated down the river from the Wet Wild Woods on the other bank. The Man and the Woman used to drag them out and dry them and cut them up for firewood. I haven’t drawn the horse-hide curtain at the mouth of the Cave, because the Woman has just taken it down to be cleaned. All those little smudges on the sand between the Cave and the river are the marks of the Woman’s feet and the Man’s feet.

The Man and the Woman are both inside the Cave eating their dinner. They went to another cosier Cave when the Baby came, because the Baby used to crawl down to the river and fall in, and the Dog had to pull him out.


THIS is the picture of the Cat that Walked by Himself, walking by his wild lone through the Wet Wild Woods and waving his wild tail. There is nothing else in the picture except some toadstools. They had to grow there because the woods were so wet. The lumpy thing on the low branch isn’t a bird. It is moss that grew there because the Wild Woods were so wet.

Underneath the truly picture is a picture of the cozy Cave that the Man and the Woman went to after the Baby came. It was their summer Cave, and they planted wheat in front of it. The Man is riding on the Horse to find the Cow and bring her back to the Cave to be milked. He is holding up his hand to call the Dog, who has swum across to the other side of the river, looking for rabbits.




THIS is the picture of the Animal that came out of the sea and ate up all the food that Suleiman-bin-Daoud had made ready for all the animals, in all the world. He was really quite a nice Animal, and his Mummy was very fond of him and of his twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine other brothers that lived at the bottom of the sea. You know that he was the smallest of them all, and so his name was Small Porgies. He ate up all those boxes and packets and bales and things that had been got ready for all the animals, without ever once taking off the lids or untying the strings, and it did not hurt him at all. The sticky-up masts behind the boxes of food belong to Suleiman-bin-Daoud’s ships. They were busy bringing more food when Small Porgies came ashore. He did not eat the ships. They stopped unloading the foods and instantly sailed away to sea till Small Porgies had quite finished eating. You can see some of the ships beginning to sail away by Small Porgies’ shoulder. I have not drawn Suleiman-bin-Daoud, but he is just outside the picture, very much astonished. The bundle hanging from the mast of the ship in the corner is really a package of wet dates for parrots to eat. I don’t know the names of the ships. That is all there is in that picture.


THIS is the picture of the four gull-winged Djinns lifting up Suleiman-bin-Daoud’s Palace the very minute after the Butterfly had stamped. The Palace and the gardens and everything came up in one piece like a board, and they left a big hole in the ground all full of dust and smoke. If you look in the corner, close to the thing that looks like a lion, you will see Suleiman-bin-Daoud with his magic stick and the two Butterflies behind him. The thing that looks like a lion is really a lion carved in stone, and the thing that looks like a milt-can is really a piece of a temple or a house or something. Suleiman-bin-Daoud stood there so as to be out of the way of the dust and the smote when the Djinns lifted up the Palace. I don’t know the Djinns’ names. They were servants of Suleiman-bin-Daoud’s magic ring, and they changed about every day. They were just common gull-winged Djinns.

The thing at the bottom is a picture of a very friendly Djinn called Akraig. He used to feed the little fishes in the sea three times a day, and his wings were made of pure copper. I put him in to show you what a nice Djinn is like. He did not help to lift the Palace. He was busy feeding little fishes in the Arabian Sea when it happened.



[1] From a review of the “Just So Stories” by English writer and critic G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) from the American periodical “The Bookman, An Illustrated Magazine of Literature and Life”, December 1902.

[2] About which, more another time.

[3] The two Jungle Books were written in the United States.

[4] For a concise biography and an exhaustive bibliography of Kipling, see:

[5] Angela was also a privileged first listener to many of the fairy tales of Mary de Morgan, along with a certain… Rudyard Kipling. De Morgan’s three volumes of fairy tales On a Pincushion (1877); The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (1880); and The Windfairies (1900) were more recentlt republished together in the collection The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde – The Complete Fairy Stories of Mary de Morgan by Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1963. Mary de Morgan’s brother was the famous Pre-Raphaelite ceramist and tile designer William de Morgan. William’s wife was the remarkable Evelyn de Morgan, one of England’s greatest turn-of-the-century painters. What a world in which to listen to children’s stories!

[6] From “Rudyard Kipling: A Life” by Harry Ricketts, Carroll & Graff Publishers, New York, 1999

[7] A newsletter on the remarkable life of Tenggren is in the works.



So what’s talent? Here are a couple of pages from an attempt to define it a century ago from “Talent in drawing; an experimental study of the use of tests to discover special ability” by T. Manuel Herschel, head of the Department of Education, Colorado State Normal School. Bloomington, Ill., Public school publishing Company, 1919 – pages 132 & 133.

(The same text was also published as a thesis (Ph. D.) at the University of Illinois, 1917, under the title: A study of talent in drawing.)

Talent in drawing 133

Talent in drawing 133






Whatever it may be worth as a study, (it is admittedly, as well, designed to identify and supply talent to all the trades that have since been replaced first by photography and subsequently by the digital revolution) you’d be hard-pressed today to actually find any real interest in discerning and promoting drawing talent in today’s public education system. Drawing at school age is not a skill that can be easily quantified, and to actually evaluate and promote it seems far removed from today’s focus on making sure kids can get jobs when they get graduate. Ignoring the fact that talent in all domains is to be encouraged at all levels, independently of the practical application, is an unfortunate error. Just a thought.

THE ROAD MUCH TRAVELED Thu, 14 Jan 2016 14:14:35 +0000 test-banner-newsletterI had no idea. Like most people, I only thought I knew the Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the book, the musicals, the films, both old and recent… I had no idea that L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz, had trod the Yellow Brick Road so many times, or that he had dutifully done so ...]]> test-banner-newsletter

I had no idea.

Like most people, I only thought I knew the Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the book, the musicals, the films, both old and recent… I had no idea that L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz, had trod the Yellow Brick Road so many times, or that he had dutifully done so in the company of one illustrator: John R. Neill.

All in all, there are fourteen Oz books by Baum and dozens more besides. In the decades following Baum’s death in 1919, publisher Reilly & Lee[1] produced an additional 26 Oz books: 19 by avid Oz reader and children’s author Ruth Plumly Thompson between 1921 and 1939, all illustrated by John R. Neill, three written and illustrated by Neill himself, two by writer and L. Frank Baum scholar Jack Snow[2] and one each by Rachel Cosgrove Payes[3] and by children’s author Eloise Jarvis McGraw & her daughter Lauren Lynn Wagner.[4] These are known to Oz aficionados as the Famous Forty.

There are more: those that are part of the official “canon” approved by Baum’s inheritors: seven published by the International Wizard of Oz Club after 1972, three recognized Oz sequels by Sherwood Smith (recognized by The L. Frank Baum Family Trust), three orthodox Oz sequels and a good twenty more, labeled “Alternate Oz”, that go beyond what is officially approved or include only references to the land of Oz… [5]

I may have left out a few; Oz scholarship is clearly a serious discipline and the world of Oz all-inclusive. One thing is certain; we are definitely not in Kansas any more.

Lyman Frank Baum was a fascinating and contradictory man. In turns poultry enthusiast, playwright, publisher, storekeeper, lubricant factory boss, newspaper editor, film producer, door-to-door salesman, he seems to be the epitome of turn-of-the century America: a restless, mobile, enthusiastic, self-made man, often on the brink of success, always on the way up or down. Two activities, though, remain a constant throughout: a life-long love of theatre, and repeated wanderings down the Yellow Brick Road. He was an astonishingly prolific writer, publishing under his own name and no less than half a dozen pseudonyms. He wrote a total of fifty-five novels (plus four more known to exist, but for which the manuscripts were lost), over eighty short stories, more than two hundred poems, an unknown number of scripts, editorials and other writings. He even claimed to have purchased an island off the coast of California to create an Oz theme park, though the island he spoke of seems to be as hard to situate as Oz itself…

Tracing L. Frank Baum’s life has already been done in great detail elsewhere and need not be recapitulated far less well here.[6] After the Baum family moved to Chicago in 1891, at his mother-in-law’s urging, Baum had written down the nursery rhymes he had improvised for his children over the years. In 1897, the stories were published in book form, entitled Mother Goose in Prose, with pictures by a young illustrator named Maxfield Parrish.

Two years later, following the success of his first book, Baum collaborated with Chicago cartoonist and poster artist W. W. Denslow on Father Goose: His Book. They approached publisher George M. Hill, who agreed to do samples and publish the book if Baum and Denslow paid for the colour plates. The first edition of 5700 sold out rapidly and successive reprints quickly followed. At 175,000 copies, it was the best-selling children’s book of 1899.

Naturally, such success begged to be repeated. Baum’s ever-irrepressible enthusiasm had already led to many ups and downs in his life; one of his latest jobs was travelling salesman, hardly an enviable occupation for a man with a family of four boys. He was in his mid-forties when he began to toy with a story he called The Emerald City. Like many children’s authors, his young entourage provided a ready audience. He reputedly pulled the name Oz out of the air when one of the children demanded the name of the extraordinary country where Dorothy and her companions found themselves and his eyes fell on a filing cabinet with three drawers, labeled A-G, H-N, and O-Z.[7] Baum finished writing the story down in 1889. (He framed the stub of the pencil he wrote it with and hung it on the wall of his study. Under the pencil he wrote, “With this pencil I wrote the manuscript of The Emerald City.”)

The pencil that wrote The Emerald City

The most famous pencil stub in Oz, framed with the annotation “With this pencil I wrote the Ms, for “The Emerald City.”

Baum collaborated again with Denslow. When the publisher was reluctant to pay for colour printing, they paid for the plates themselves, as they had done with their previous book. The book came off the press in May 1900 and by August distribution was fully under way. With a cover price of $1.50, a little higher than the then-average price of $1.25, but amply justified by the production quality, with 24 tipped-in colour plates and colour used throughout the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an instant bestseller. The first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in two weeks, followed by a second printing of 15,000 and a third printing of 10,000. In November, there was a fourth printing of 30,000 and in January 1901, a fifth printing of 25,000. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had sold 90,000 copies in six months and remained a bestseller for two years. Baum and Denslow received nine cents each for every book sold (they had accepted an advance of $1000.00 to be shared equally) and accorded to the publisher “the exclusive right of publication of any books or literary works which they may jointly produce, write or illustrate, during a period of five years from the date of the agreement.”

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

To see images in original size, right click and open in new tab

Meet the Wizard: Various book covers and promotional posters for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Far right: The Wizard of Oz: Songs Sung in Hamlin and Mitchell’s Musical Extravaganza, published by M. Witmark, New York, 1905. The score was composed by Paul Tietjins.

In 1901, George M. Hill published Baum and Denslow’s latest – and doomed to be last – collaboration, Dot and Tot in Merryland.[8] It was not successful, and is considered one of Baum’s weaker books. Shortly afterward, Hill went bankrupt and the contract binding Baum and Denslow was terminated. Hundreds of illustrations were sold at auction, including works by Denslow and material belonging to Baum.

The rights to Baum’s Father Goose: His Book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Dot and Tot of Merryland were acquired by Indianapolis publisher Bobbs-Merrill. With them, Baum published The Master Key in 1901, (illustrated by Fanny Y. Cory), The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in1902, (illustrated by Mary Cowles Clark), and The Enchanted Island of Yew in 1903, also illustrated by Fanny Y. Cory.[9] All three books are classic children’s tales, with the possible exception of The Master Key, (the full title is The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees) which introduces the Demon of Electricity, an odd idea at best.[10]

Advertisement for the Oz books from Rab & His Friends from The Children's Red Book series

Advertising in Oz: promotional page for the Oz books from another of Baum’s books, Rab & His Friends from The Children’s Red Book series

In 1902, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was adapted as a Broadway musical, and Baum turned to writing full-time. Nevertheless, writer and illustrator had a falling out, quarrelling over royalty percentages from the stage adaptation, for which Baum wrote the script and Denslow designed the sets and costumes. According to Baum’s wife Maud, “Denslow got a swelled head, hence the change.[11] Baum vowed never to work with Denslow again. Nor was he entirely happy with his relationship with publisher Bobbs-Merril.

A new publisher, Chicago-based Reilly & Britton, intent on associating a well-known author, solicited L. Frank Baum, and persuaded him to sign an exclusive agreement on January 16, 1904. Author and partners agreed that the best course was a sequel to Baum’s best-selling Oz book.

Initially, Baum’s working title for the sequel was His Majesty the Scarecrow. Reilly and Britton suggested Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. Baum demurred; his former partner’s Denslow’s Scarecrow and the Tin-Man, only just published by G. W. Dillingham in New York, had beat them to it. Together, author and publisher decided on The Marvelous Land of Oz, with Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman becoming the subtitle. They of course needed a new illustrator, and the choice settled on John R. Neill. The sequel, entitled The Marvelous Land of Oz, speedily written and as speedily illustrated, came off the press later in 1904, in time for the Christmas season.[12] It would be the first step of a long journey for John R. Neill on the Yellow Brick Road.

Trouble in Oz: W. W. Denslow's Scarecrow and the Tin Man

Trouble in Oz: W. W. Denslow’s Scarecrow and the Tin Man, published in 1904 by W. Dillingham Company, New York, in 1904. The back cover reads: The twelve books by Mr. Denslow, published in 1903, were so well received by children all over the world, that we take great pleasure in putting before them six new titles by the same author and illustrator, whose watchword is action, color, expression and clean wholesome FUN for the little ones. There were two editions: one at 20 cents, and one “Indestructible, Mounted on Linen” at 50 cents. Also in 1904, Denslow produced a comic page called Denslow’s Scarecrow and the Tinman, which ran for 14 weeks, made up of two episodes taken from the book, and an additional 12 new adventures. Another edition, Denslow’s Scarecrow and the Tin Man and Other Stories, also published in 1904, included six of Denslow’s picture books in one besides the title story: Barnyard Circus, Animal Fair, Mother Goose ABC, Simple Simon and Three Little Kittens.

˜ ˜ ˜ ˜

John Rea Neill was born in Philadelphia on November 12, 1877, the fifth of eight children. His father, Robert Rea Neill, who had emigrated to America from Ireland in 1863, died when John was ten. His mother, Mary G. Neill, who must have been strong-willed and energetic, managed to keep the large family together and run the family laundry business until John’s older brother Harmon took it over in 1889.

In June 1895, young John graduated from Philadelphia Central High School. As a youngster, he drew incessantly. His older brother Harry recalled “Mother discovered that a supply of drawing paper and pencils diverted him from annoying his sisters and brothers and kept him content for long periods of time.” Artistically inclined, (he had decorated school newspaper and/or yearbooks)[13] he enrolled that fall in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where, academically disinclined, he quit after one semester, afterwards stating the school had “nothing to teach him.” He found work as a “cub reporter,” doing sketches in Police Court for a local newspaper, providing advertising art for the Wanamaker department store and soon after integrating The Philadelphia Inquirer where he remained for 3 years, producing features like Life Among the Macaronis and the Sunday page The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck, on verses by W. R. Bradford (1909–10). In 1900, he left for New York, finding work at The New York Evening Journal.[14] A year later, he was back in Philadelphia, where he rented an art studio at 1020 Chestnut Street and on October 2nd, 1902, he married a young local lady named Bessie Barrows.[15]

In 1904, after a brief stint at the Public Ledger, he began working for The North American, a popular Philadelphia daily to whom a certain L. Frank Baum was a regular contributor, with a Sunday coloured comics section feature called Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz. Originally created as part of the promotion for the sequel to The Wizard of Oz, and illustrated by political cartoonist Walt McDougall, the feature ran for 26 weeks in the North American, the Chicago Record-Herald and other newspapers from 28 August 1904 to 26 February 1905 and starred the characters from Oz as visitors in the strange land of the USA.[16] Denslow ran a competing Oz Sunday feature of his own entitled Scarecrow and the Tinman. The first episode, Dorothy’s Christmas Tree appeared in early December 1904, the series lasted for 14 episodes, ending in March 1905. The end of the Yellow Brick Road was drawing near for Denslow. [17]

John R. Neill must have been a busy man. Oz publishers Reilly & Britton were obliged to arrange three interviews before he could be persuaded to take on the commission. He set up his studio at “Devil’s Half Acre,” a reconstructed colonial house in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, where he illustrated most of the early Oz books. The Marvelous Land of Oz was published on July 5, 1904. The publishers were delighted. Neill had “caught the author’s grotesque imaginings in admirable fashion; and in both humour and technique his work takes equal rank with W. W. Denslow,” even going “a step beyond Denslow as an illustrator of children’s tales, having added a sketch here and there whose dainty charm and poetry of feeling will quickly appeal to the sentiment of the young reader, as much as the other fantastic creations will arouse his sense of the humorous and the miraculous.” While this is clearly copy written for a press release (they were hardly going to say they were disappointed with their new Oz artist), Reilly & Britton must have breathed a sigh of relief. Baum’s manuscript had only been delivered in March; Neill had dithered before reading it and reluctantly accepting the commission, and then had finished all the illustrations in time for fall publication and a release before Christmas. Somehow, he managed to keep up his work as staff artist, producing a comic strip called Toyland, illustrations for a book by Baum called The Fate of a Crown[18], a feature called Children’s Stories that Never Grow Old (later released as a series of twenty-four volumes by Reilly & Britton) and a Sunday page with verses by W. R. Bradford (from 1909 to 1910). Neill maintained his studio in Philadelphia and continued to work for The North American until 1911, when he left the newspaper to freelance full time.

 Children’s Stories That Never Grow Old, 1908

Children’s Stories That Never Grow Old, 1908

In 1908, Reilly & Britton published Children’s Stories That Never Grow Old, a series of twenty-four small volumes illustrated in colour and black and white by John R. Neill: The Story of Peter Rabbit, Dick Whittington, Little Black Sambo, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Night Before Christmas, Mother Goose Rhymes, Black Beauty, The Little Lame Prince, Rab and His Friends, J. Cole, The Adventures of a Brownie, Swiss Family Robinson, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk, Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Ugly Duckling, Rip Van Winkle, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White and Rose Red. Each volume has a stamped pictorial cover on orange cloth boards, red endpapers, pictorial advertising in the back lists the latest of Baum’s Oz books among other titles being offered by the publisher.

Also in 1908, The Children’s Red Books Series reissued twelve volumes from Children’s Stories That Never Grow Old. Nineteen of the original series were collected in a one volume under the same title, edited by Mary Stone. Three “reversible” volumes, each containing two of the Children’s Stories titles: Peter Rabbit and Little Black Sambo, The Night Before Christmas and Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Bears as The Turnover Series in 1910.

Of his beginnings with Oz, Neill later said ”The stage was blazing with the success of L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” at this time and for some reason the publishers hit on me to illustrate a sequel to “The Wizard.” From that day I have made pictures for “Oz” every year. We have a pile of “Oz” books higher than my oldest girl’s head and they come in very handy now to entertain my own children with.[19]

Full page feature on John R. Neill The Men Who Make the Argosy, Argosy Magazine, November 8th, 1930

Full page feature on John R. Neill The Men Who Make the Argosy, Argosy Magazine, November 8th, 1930

In 1906, Reilly & Britton published John Dough and the Cherub, written by Baum and illustrated by Neill. Sales were solid, but the adventures of John Dough, a living gingerbread man, never attained the popularity of the Oz books or merited a sequel. Neill also worked for other authors, illustrating books in The Magic Wand Series by Tudor Jenks in 1905 and Altemus’ Illustrated Fairy Tale Series the year after.

In 1913, Neill left his wife, who subsequently obtained a divorce in 1915 on the grounds of desertion. Fortunately, they had no children. He moved back to New York, where he lived with his elderly mother. He found freelance work for many national magazines, amongst them The Delineator, The Designer, Everybody’s. Boy’s Life, St. Nicholas, Vogue, Woman’s World, Collier’s, McClure’s, The Modern Priscilla, Vanity Fair, The Ladies Home Journal, The Country Gentleman, McCall’s and The Saturday Evening Post. Neill serialized Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs in the Ladies Home Journal in 1912. He worked steadily and extensively for the scouting magazine Boy’s Life; many of his illustrations were later reprinted in The Boy Scouts Year Book. In 1916, he wrote and illustrated a children’s page for The Housewife, a short-lived monthly. Of the brief interlude, he said, in his typical tongue-in-cheek fashion when speaking of himself, “It is lots of fun. I get $2.50 for the literature and $45 for the pictures. So I guess I’m not much of a writer.” He struck up a personal friendship with Arthur T. Vance, the editor of the Pictorial Review, who provided him with many of his most profitable commissions.

In 1919, he married again. Neill’s second spouse was Margaret Carroll, a stage actress born in 1889 in Kansas. Margaret Carroll was her stage name; she was born Margaret Lavinia Slattery in 1889 in Lyons, Rice County, Kansas. When she met Neill, she was appearing as “Moy Fah Loy” (Plum Blossom) in the Broadway drama The Yellow Jacket, at the Cort Theatre on 48th Street, in late 1916. (She died on December 28th, 1984, survived by three daughters: Natalie Mather, Annrea Sutton and Joan Farnsworth, 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.) They had three girls: Nathalie in 1921, Ann Rea two years later and Joan in 1929. Neill designed and built a house in Great Neck on Long Island in 1925. By all accounts it was the perfect artist’s house, with the studio the focus of the household. As one of Neill’s daughters remembered, the studio was “a large quiet room on the third floor of the house with wonderful light, many glorious colored pencils, jars of paint and glue, and marvelous scraps of very important papers all over the floor and everywhere you looked.” Neill qualified himself as “the highest-paid nursemaid in Kensington;” children were more than welcome. “I get up at seven in the morning and work seventeen or eighteen hours doing nothing,” he explained, “Oh, sometimes I plan a lot of work. But, then you know the children upset one’s plans… They storm the studio, grab pencils, crayons and paper, and then we get down to real work.”

Despite the regular Oz books, work was not always abundant. Publishing suffered during the early 30’s; many long-standing, reputable periodicals disappeared or turned to photography to illustrate articles. Neill found work for the pulps, such as All-Story Weekly, The People’s, Romance, Everybody’s, Adventure, and The Argosy, often providing single-handed the headers for an entire issue of the latter. While he seemed to keep the worst effects of the Depression at bay by dint of hard work, (in 1929, Neill received 600 dollars advance for an Oz book, and 1 cent per copy sold) between 1933 and 1935, in a move to save on expenses, the Neills rented their house at Great Neck and moved several times, first to Palm Island, near Miami, then to Townsend, Vermont, back to New York, then to Scotland, Connecticut. Nothing really suited. Finally, they settled on a 136-acre property in Flanders, New Jersey in 1936, which they renamed “Endolane Farm.” During this whole time, Neill had continued to illustrate Oz books, writing and illustrating the last three in 1940, 1941 and 1942. He died of heart failure on September 19, 1943, at the age of sixty-five.

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After the best-selling sequel in 1904, Baum continued to write Oz books. He invested heavily in the musical, supported in part by his royalties from the books. When these began to decline, he took up his writer’s tools again. Ozma of Oz appeared in 1907, the third of the fourteen Oz books Baum would write. The last book, Glinda of Oz, was published in 1920, after his death.[20] John R. Neill continued faithfully illustrating them.

Despite being named imperial Illustrator of Oz (or Royal Painter; there is a distinct tendency to confer titles on individuals associated with Oz), Neill and Baum apparently did not have a close relationship. It took three meetings with the publishers at Reilly & Lee to convince Neill to accept the initial commission and author and illustrator met only a handful of times, all before Baum relocated to California in 1910. Baum occasionally wished Neill’s illustrations would contain more humour. Baum even wrote to Reilly asking for a new illustrator, one “who could infuse new life and a spirit of fun into the Oz characters, which in Mr. Neill’s hands are now perfunctory and listless.” Baum even suggested replacing Neill with Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, or George McManus of the comic strip Bringing Up Father. Reilly & Lee, however, had a good working relationship with Neill and must have been reluctant to pursue. When Baum did not insist, they let the issue drop. Baum himself had second thoughts, admitting that “perhaps no author is ever satisfied with his illustrator, and I see my characters and incidents so differently from the artist that I fail to appreciate his talent.”[21]

Correspondence in Oz

Correspondence in Oz: Signed letter from L. Frank Baum to John Neill. Clearly, Baum and Neill were on cordial terms despite Baum’s occasional peevishness. The letter, undated, typed on Oz Film Manufacturing stationary, reads, “Dear Johnny Neill: Sharpen your pencil, sip an absinthe frappe and try to imagine this character in “The Scarecrow of Oz.” It is an Ork, quite a prominent actor in the story, and I quote this introduction from the text: (here follows an excerpt from the manuscript) You will observe the Ork is not a water creature, although it first appeared in a cavern, where it had escaped from the clutches of a whirlpool, as had Trot and Cap’n Bill. During the story it flies thru the air with Trot upon its back. There is also the “Bumpy Man” in the story: a fellow with little bumps all over him…. The principal character (sic) are Trot, Cap’n Bill, Dorothy, Ozma, Glinda, Wizard, Ork, Bumpy Man, Scarecrow, Button Bright, King Krawl, of Jinxland; Princess Gloria, his niece; Googly Gee, a wealthy old courtier; Pen, a gardener’s boy; a Wicked Witch named Blinkie. Warm regards; congratulations; affection; admiration–to our Johnny from (signed) L. Frank Baum

He was vexed by Neill’s publication in 1915, without consulting him, of The Oz Toy Book: Cut-outs for the Kiddies, but clearly not enough to end their collaboration. Sales for Tik-Tok of Oz, published in 1914, were considered disappointing by Reilly & Britton, who were determined to make a greater effort to promote the 1915 successor, The Scarecrow of Oz. As part of the advertising, they produced The Oz Toy Book, which consisted of 16 full-colour pages of cut-out paper dolls of Oz characters, with 54 figures drawn by John R. Neill. The publisher decided to sell it, rather than simply giving it away as a promotional item. It seems no one thought to consult Baum, who stumbled on it in the publisher’s catalogue. He complained loudly, finally accepting the publisher’s apologies and reassurances it would not happen again.

The Oz Toy Book: Cut-outs for the Kiddies, 1915

Error in Oz: The contentious Oz Toy Book, which provoked Baum’s ire. While it is obviously a shame he was not informed, the book itself is artfully drawn and well produced; it is now a rare and much sought-after item.

Baum’s petulance in regard to Neill is perhaps a sign of his own fluctuating fortunes and occasional dashed hopes in regards to Oz. The stage adaptations, while often successful, demanded much energy and investment, both in terms of time and finance. The Hollywood adventures were not nearly as bankable, the cinematic adaptation of the Wizard of Oz would only be made in 1939, two decades after Baum’s death. Even then the movie, which is now considered a milestone in American movie history, did not to well when it was released, earning only just over 3 million dollars on a production budget of $2,777,000.00. (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer would only see a profit with the theatrical re-releases, debuting in 1949.)

Still, with Baum in Hollywood and Neill in New York, the distance, while logistically inconvenient, might have been beneficial to both, with the publisher providing a cushion between the two. In one instance, there are penciled notes signed by Baum on an original pen and ink drawing of the Woozy (the cubic pet cat of the Patchwork Girl) done by Neill for The Patchwork Girl of Oz. They read, “The Woozy is not made of wood. He is an animal – square or squarish in build – alive but not brought to life by any magical means. Skin like a hippopotamus and while carrying out the square idea in build, give him more of an animal appearance – less woodlike. Especially his mouth is unlikely. Please try again – take more liberties with the idea conveyed in text.” Woozy went to press unchanged. (Neill did sometimes comply, scraping off the Patchwork Girl’s mouth and redoing it when Baum remarked that it was “too stiff – not as jolly at the other sketches.”)

The Woozy of discontent

Not quite right in Oz: An original drawing of Woozy by Neill, with a terse note added by Baum, “The Woozy is not made of wood. He is an animal – square or squarish in build – alive but not brought to life by any magical means. Skin like a hippopotamus and while carrying out the square idea in build, give him more of an animal appearance – less woodlike. Especially his mouth is unlikely. Please try again – take more liberties with the idea conveyed in text.”

Over time, Baum seemed to come to terms with Neill’s work. After a bad stretch in 1914 and 1915 (culminating with The Oz Toy Book) when Baum remarked tersely, “It seems to me that Mr. Neill reached the climax of his good work in The Patchwork Girl and has fallen down in Tik-Tok and the Scarecrow,” Baum’s spirits had followed sales and had much improved by 1916. “Mr. Neill is good, and perhaps we could find no better,” he wrote to his publishers, adding that Rinkitink in Oz was “an enticing book.” He admitted, “Mr. Neill seems to have been at his best in the illustrations,” and that the book was “so attractive it should be called Baum’s Boom Book for 1916.” When The Lost Princess of Oz was published in 1917, Baum wrote to Neill in these words, “The pictures are exceptionally clever and attractive, … I’m so sorry not to have met you personally for so many recent years, as I remember our former foregatherings with real pleasure and think we would harmonize if we were jailed together in the same cell.” He invited Neill to visit him in Hollywood, but Neill was never able to make the trip. Baum’s emotional stake in Neill’s interpretation of his words is revealing as to the intense importance Baum attributed to the visualization of the books. This would ably explain his mercurial evaluation of the artwork, each frustrated bout of criticism stemming from a sense of proprietorship coupled with the knowledge that he had to leave the artist to find his own vision. His remonstrance was often followed with compliments. “I like Johnny Neill, and some of my books he has illustrated splendidly,” he admitted in 1913, “perhaps I unjustly disparage his present work through my eagerness to improve the books.” Naturally, the two worlds, word and image, are so intertwined over time that they become almost indistinguishable, the author unable to completely realize his vision without a second pair of hands; nonetheless, they remain the product of two creators a continent apart. Baum almost certainly must have regretted not being able to perch on Neill’s shoulder while he worked.

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While soldiering on with the Oz books, Baum was also busily writing well away from the Yellow Brick Road. In 1904, Baum published Queen Zixi of Ix, with pictures by well-known Chicago illustrator Frederick Richardson, initially serialized from November 1904 to October 1905 in St. Nicholas, a national children’s magazine and published in book form by The Century Company. Besides his ever-renewed forays beyond Oz as “the author of the Oz books”, the stories he wrote under his various pseudonyms would fill a respectable shelf of their own. Writing as Edith Van Dyne, the adventures of Aunt Jane’s Nieces Louise, Beth and Patsy totaled 10 volumes between 1906 and 1918. Mary Louise Burrows, a crime-solving 15-year old, appeared in five books recounting her adventures. As Floyd Akers, Baum wrote six volumes of the adventures of The Boy Treasure Hunters. Under four other pseudonyms, Baum wrote another seven books for children. He wrote a good number of plays, invested heavily in stage productions, and set up The Oz Film Manufacturing Company in 1914. The studio made only five features and five short films, of which four features (in part) and no shorts survive. It folded in 1915.

Baum and Neill also collaborated on Little Wizard Stories of Oz, a set of six short stories Baum wrote for young children to build interest in the series with younger readers. The six tales were published in 1913, as separate small booklets, sold at 15 cents each. Each booklet was 29 pages long and was printed in blue ink rather than black.[22] (A collected edition was published in 1914, which many consider to be the 15th of Baum’s Oz books.)

Little Wizard Series

Baum's Snuggle Tales

Laura Bancroft’s Twinkle Tales, 1906

To see images in original size, right click and open in new tab

Left:The six books of The Little Wizard Series

Centre: A Baum by any other name: Laura Bancroft’s six Twinkle Tales, published in 1906

Right: The anthology L. Frank Baum’s Juvenile Speaker: Readings and Recitations in Prose and Verse, Humorous and Otherwise was published by Reilly & Britton in 1910, illustrated by Maginal Wright Enright and John R. Neill. Republished in 1912 as Baum’s Own Book for Children, it was later split up into a series of six smaller volumes, called Baum’s Snuggle Tales, with black and white illustrations by Neill. The titles are: Little Bun Rabbit and Other Stories (1916), Once Upon a Time and Other Stories (1916), The Yellow Hen and Other Stories (1916), The Magic Cloak and Other Stories (1916), The Gingerbread Man (1917) and Jack Pumpkinhead (1917). In turn, they were republished, with added colour plates, as the Oz-Man Tales in 1920.

Reilly & Britton also published collections of Baum’s stories. Baum’s Own Book For Children appeared in 1910, with “Stories and Verses from the Famous ‘Oz Books’, Father Goose: His Book, Etc. With Many Hitherto Unpublished Selections.”[23] The material from this book was split into a series of six short books called the Snuggle Tales, four made up of material from Baum’s Own Book and two of other abridged stories. (They were yet again reprinted as the Oz-Man Tales by Reilly & Lee.) L. Frank Baum’s Juvenile Speaker: Readings and Recitations in Prose and Verse, Humorous and Otherwise was also published in 1910, with illustrations by John R. Neill and Maginal Wright Enright.[24] The material is from Baum’s other books, and intended for use in schools. Clearly, the Reilly and Britton did not let potential material sleep in filing cabinets.

The Oz books, Junior Edition

A selection of covers from the Junior Edition of the Oz books. Most of the covers are based on artwork by Neill, with occasional exceptions. The back covers feature the main characters of each book with the Oz logo.

Nonetheless, they did not always manage their literary empire as well as they might have. Baum’s 8th Oz book, Tik-Tok of Oz, published in 1914, sold 3000 fewer copies than the previous year’s offering, The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Sales declined in the face of cheap editions of several of the early Oz books, published by the reprint house M. A, Donahue and Co., who had purchased rights from Bobbs-Merrill. A new Oz book sold for $1.25, against a reprint at 35 cents. Baum’s own previous books were competing with the new ones. Reilly & Lee’s response was to limit costs, creating new editions that even more closely resembled the reprints.. Tik-Tok of Oz was more modestly produced, with only twelve colour plates instead of sixteen. This reduction in quality seems counter-intuitive, and would not have helped sales.[25]

All was not always entirely rosy in Oz. Baum had attempted to close the Oz series in 1910. In the brief concluding chapter of The Emerald City of Oz, Dorothy Gale writes to the author to say, “You will never hear anything more about Oz, because we are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world.” Baum was weary of Oz, and wished to develop new stories.

Books by L. Frank BaumBooks by L. Frank Baum

Books by L. Frank Baum

Not in Oz any more: other books by L. Frank Baum.

Left: Mother Goose in Prose, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, 1897; By The Candelabra’s Glare, a book of poetry, 1898; Father Goose: His Book, 1899; The Magical Monarch of Mo, 1900, and the re-edition of the same book as A New Wonderland in 1903; The Navy Alphabet, 1900 (The Army Alphabet was also published the same year); Dot and Tot of Merryland, published in 1901, and illustrated by W. W. Denslow; American Fairy Tales, 1901.

Centre: The Master Key, illustrated by Fanny Y. Cory, 1901; The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, illustrated by Mary Cowles Clark, 1902; The Enchanted Island of Yew, illustrated by Fanny Y. Cory, 1903; Cover and three illustrations from Queen Zixi of Ix, illustrated by Frederick Richardson, 1905; John Dough and the Cherub, cover and endpapers, illustrated by John R. Neill published in 1906.

Right: Father Goose’s Year Book, illustrated by Walter J. Enright, 1907; The Daring Twins, 1911; Phoebe Daring, 1912; The Wizard of Oz Waddle Book, a book of cut-out figures that could progress down a ramp; The Woggle-Bug Book, 1905; two books from the Boy Treasure Hunters series, written as Floyd Ackers (there were 6 in the series, published between 1908 and 1911); Aunt Jane’s Nieces Abroad, 1907, part of a series of 10 volumes, The Flying Girl, 1911, The Flying Girl and her Chum, 1912, all written as Edith Van Dyne; The Last Egyptian, published anonymously in 1908.

Neill was also keeping himself busy elsewhere. During 1909 and 1910 he illustrated The Neill Gift Book Series for Reilly & Britton. Four titles were published: Hiawatha and Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Snow-Bound by John Greenleaf Whittier and The Raven and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe. These cloth-bound gilt-edged volumes were illustrated with pictorial endpapers, embellished borders, in-text images as well as full-page illustrations.

A fifth volume was planned. Thanatopsis and Other Poems by American poet William Cullen Bryant was never published. Neill created a cover and a title page, but the series was discontinued. All four books are now expensive much sought-after examples of Neill’s non-Oz work.

Sea Fairies and Sky Island

Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: A small selection of John R. Neill's non-Oz work

The Neill Gift Book Series

Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: other books and illustrations by John R. Neill.

Left: Covers, endpapers, illustrations and dust jackets from The Sea Fairies and Sky Island, by L. Frank Baum and John R. Neill.

Centre: Covers and a selection of interior artwork for The Neill Gift Book Series, published in 1909 and 1910 by Reilly & Britton. From left to right: Hiawatha, Snowbound, Evangeline and The Raven, as well as the cover art and title page for the unpublished Thanatopsis.

Right: An illustration from Life Among the Macaronis, an early newspaper feature in The Philadelphia Inquirer; cover, endpapers and two illustrations from Peter and the Princess, 1920; undated illustration of Davy Jones’ Locker; cover of Boy’s Life, May, 1930; Beyond the Dark Nebula, illustration for Argosy magazine, May 1904; illustration from The Uncrowned King by Harold Bell Wright, published in Chicago by The Book Supply Company, 1910; the ambiguous Cherub (Baum refused to say whether the character was a boy or a girl) from John Dough and the Cherub, 1906; rabbits making cider, undated; The Boy From Treasure Island, 1914; a most unusual illustration for Neill: the cover of Jan of the Jungle, by Otis Adelbert Kline (this edition is a paperback from 1966, the original book was published in 1932)

Baum was unable to avoid a bankruptcy in 1911; his reaction was to write harder.[26] That year, he produced five books. He launched two other series for young readers, with The Daring Twins, under his own name, and The Flying Girl, under the pseudonym Edith Van Dyne. Baum and Neill also published The Sea Fairies in 1911. Designed as the first volume in a new children’s series, it did not do well.[27] The sequel, entitled Sky Island, appeared in 1912, also illustrated by Neill. It met with a lacklustre response from the public, selling only 11,750 copies in 1912, even less than the 12,400 of The Sea Fairies, and far below the previous sales figures of the Oz books. It is a grand shame, not only would success have lifted Baum’s spirits, the illustrations by Neill make for very attractive books. Baum would once again set out on the Yellow Brick Road with The Scarecrow of Oz in 1915, continuing on with the Oz books even when ill and bed-ridden during the last year of his life.

After Baum’s death, the Yellow Brick Road went on; Reilly & Lee found his replacement in the person of Ruth Plumly Thompson. Thompson was an avid reader of the Oz books and a young author of 19, her first book, The Perhappsy Chaps having been published in 1918. Her second, The Princess of Cozytown, was pending publication when William Lee, vice president of Baum’s publisher Reilly & Lee, solicited Thompson to continue the Oz series. Between 1921 and 1939, she wrote one Oz book a year, beginning with The Royal Book of Oz[28] and ending with Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz, thirty-third in the Oz series. (Two more books, Yankee in Oz and The Enchanted Island of Oz, were published by The International Wizard of Oz club in 1972 and 1972 respectively.)

The Wonderful Game of Oz

The Wonderful Game of Oz, produced by Parker Brothers in 1921. The cover, featuring Neill’s characters, is by an anonymous artist.

John R. Neill is justly credited with bridging the difficult gap between an original author and his successor, providing continuity and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Ruth Plumly Thompson agreed, “Working with Johnny was one of the real bonuses that added to the pleasure of writing Oz adventures, and no one before nor since has been able to bring to life, as Johnny did, the curious and enchanted creatures of Oz.” Neill’s characters “fairly exploded across the pages of the books and almost exactly as L. Frank Baum and I imagined them.” Thompson recalls Neill as being “a completely unpredictable, restless, dynamic and altogether delightful person, …much miscast in an age of stern and stark realism.” She concludes, “No one could ever or will be able to depict the Oz characters as perfectly as Johnny did. Half the fun and zest left the books when other artists took over.” Neill felt the same about Thompson, sending Reilly & Lee his congratulations “on having secured an author of such superior qualifications to continue the work of supplying the Oz books.” He was delighted with her first story, Kabumpo in Oz, and was determined to echo the qualities of the text, “the whimsical, the humor, the interest and the zip” in his illustrations. King Features Syndicate approached Thompson and Neill do create a new Oz comic strip. Although they produced a sample, the project never materialized. (Given the volume of work Neill already produced, it’s hard to imagine he could have taken on more.) Neill also illustrated one of Thompson’s non-Oz books, The Curious Cruise of Captain Santa, in 1926.

After Thompson’s last Oz story, Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz, Neill became the designated “Oz historian” (he was already dubbed “Royal Painter of Oz”) and wrote and illustrated three more Oz books from 1940 to 1942 for Reilly & Lee. The Wonder City of Oz, The Scalawagons of Oz and Lucky Bucky in Oz are also considered part of the Famous Forty. The Wonder City, which necessitated a good deal of work within a tight deadline, since Neill had to supply a story as well, saw him pull out unused Oz illustrations; he had little time to devote to the text. Much to his dismay, Reilly & Lee hired a ghostwriter to extensively rework the story. Only minor editorial changes were made to the next two. Neill was working on a fourth when he died in 1943. While the text draft was finished, the illustrations were not, and the publisher declined to publish it, preferring to continue on with a new author and illustrator.

For many years, Neill pecked away at a project entitled The Foolosopher, an adult fairy tale. He was unable to find a publisher, despite several drafts of the text. He also created illustrations for the book, reputedly amongst his best work. Both text and illustrations remain unpublished today.

In 1946, The Magical Mimic of Oz, written by Jack Snow[29] and illustrated by Frank Kramer was published; followed by The Shaggy Man of Oz in 1949. The Hidden Valley of Oz by Rachel R. Cosgrove (illustrated by Dick Gringhuis, 1951) and Merry Go Round in Oz by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and her daughter (illustrated by Dick Martin, 1963) are the last of the Famous Forty published by Reilly & Lee. Neill’s widow preserved his last manuscript, which was published in 1995 by Books of Wonder, illustrated by Eric Shanower.

John R. Neill’s sketches for The Runaway in Oz

John R. Neill’s sketches for The Runaway in Oz, his final book. The text was completed, but Neill died in 1943, before finishing the illustrations. The sketch shows Scraps, the Patchwork girl, hurtling along on her spoolicle. The back of the same sheet has a number of character sketches. The book was eventually published in 1995; story-wise, it is the 37th Oz book.

John R. Neill created literally thousands of illustrations for Oz, designed fonts and titles and conferred a distinctive style of the books which, rather than suffering dilution through repetition, shows enrichment and variety as he went. Only three Oz books had full-colour illustrations. He made 17 paintings each for Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz and The Emerald City of Oz; 16 colour plates and a front cover for each book. Neill also created an original painting for the dust jacket illustration used with The Road to Oz. For the most part, though, the books were illustrated in black and white throughout; colour was overprinted on a line drawing for the covers. Neill also considered the endpapers to be available canvases to try new ideas; they vary from book to book.[30] Only The Wishing Horse of Oz, published in 1935, was without illustrated endpapers.

Endpapers of Oz

Endpapers of Oz. In no particular (publishing) order, a selection of John R. Neill’s various and varied endpapers. From left to right: Ozma of Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, Rinkytink in Oz, The Tine Woodman of Oz, The Cowardly Lion of Oz, The Giant Horse of Oz, The Lost King of Oz, Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, The Silver Princess in Oz and Lucky Bucky in Oz, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, Grampa in Oz and The Hungry Tiger of Oz.

Neill also changed the approach to the characters. While Denslow’s Dorothy is a chubby auburn-haired child of 5 or 6, Neill’s blond girl of 12 or so was far more fashionable. Denslow concentrated on the characters – his Tin Man and Scarecrow would remain the templates for every other book, he accords little attention to the actual land of Oz. Neill uses every opportunity to explore the magical environments. Nonetheless, Denslow’s vision remains indelibly imprinted on elements of Neill’s work; Tin Man and Scarecrow, and to a little lesser degree the Cowardly Lion, are all sturdy branches in the Oz family tree.

John Rea Neill illustrated thirty-nine of the forty “canonical” Oz books and Oz remains the best-remembered part of his work. Oddly enough, unlike Tenniel with Alice and Wonderland, or more recently Frank Frazetta with the Conan books, his name has not become indissociable with the world he visualized.[31]

John R. Neill in Oz

Neill Gallery 2Neill Gallery 3

John R. Neill in Oz: Providing a serious overview of the inventiveness and genius of John R. Neill’s illustrations would take a full book (and a lavish one to boot.) Here is a small selection, in no particular order, of illustrations from the Oz books.

Left: Princess Ozma of Oz, original watercolor for the color plate facing page 292 in The Emerald City of Oz, 1910; The Scoodlers capture Dorothy’s party, full page illustration from the Road to Oz; Miss Cuttenclip with her paper doll subjects, original watercolour for The Emerald City of Oz (1910); “The Royal Palace impaled fast on the spikes of Ruggedo’s giant head,” illustration from Kabumpo In Oz; “The Gargoyles wound their long arms around Zeb and the Wizard,” illustration from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz; “Silently, they took their places,” illustration from Tik-Tok of Oz, the first appearance of the dreaded dragon Quox; The Scarlet Alligator of the Phanfasms, from The Emerald City of Oz

Centre: The Cowardly Lion meets Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, from The Emerald City of Oz, 1910; The A-B-Sea Serpent Managed to Make a Bridge of Himself and the Scarecrow Stepped Easily Over the Blocks, from The Royal Book of Oz, 1921; The Grand Army Sprang Upon the Back of the Saw Horse, from Kabumpo in 0z, 1922; The Running Buns of Bunbury, from The Emerald City of Oz; Illustration from page 210 of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, 1908; A conversation in Rigamarole, from The Emerald city of Oz

Right: Dorothy in Kansas, before going back to Oz once again, from The Emerald City of Oz; Zeb, Dorothy, and Jim the Cab-Horse falling through the earth to the land of the Mangaboos, from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, 1908; The invaders approach the Fountain of the Water of Oblivion, from The Emerlad City of Oz; original pen and ink drawing from The Road to Oz, 1909; Polychrome being drawn back up to the rainbow by her father, from The Road to Oz, 1909; Ozga the Rose Princess being exiled from her kingdom, from page 63 of Tik-Tok of Oz, 1914; The Scarecrow’s New Corn Mansion, from the Emerald City of Oz.

Did Neill miss an opportunity to work on the Oz films Baum so tirelessly promoted by steadfastly remaining in the east, would his design sense have brought greater success to the enterprise, or was such a possibility even envisaged? Many illustrators, notably Gustav Tenggren and Kay Neilsen, left unforgettable marks in Hollywood. Neill certainly had the qualities necessary to become a Hollywood film designer.

The public has largely forgotten Neill’s other work, even the other non-Oz books he illustrated for Baum. Most of the articles on Neill’s life and work seem to have appeared in the Baum Bugle, the triannual member’s magazine of the International Wizard of Oz Club, which debuted in 1957. For a man who literally died while on the road, it seems a modest tribute at best. L. Frank Baum’s name justly lives on; Neill’s is unjustly ignored. A large, comprehensive book of Neill’s work, both of Oz and elsewhere, is long overdue.

Scarecrow and Tin Man

Versatility on Oz: originals put to good use and some abuse. Neill’s artwork was often used on several different books, with adjustments for format and production. From left to right: The original artwork, originally done in black and white for the endpapers of image the Little Wizard series of books; the endpapers themselves, printed in blue ink, with a stippled shadow. In 1932, the image was re-used on some of the Little Wizard books, reprinted with sets of jigsaw puzzles, and later as advertising for Jello. The original figures were then apparently cut out and pasted on a larger sheet of paper, the black shadows painted white and a landscape drawn in, to become the endpapers a 1913 edition of The Patchwork Girl of Oz. The colour would have been done separately.

John R. Neill might be considered a central figure in the growth of a specifically American style of fairy tale, with few specific ties to older European models. Baum’s own comment is revealing, and demonstrates he well knew the difference when he considered Queen Zixi of Ix to be “nearer to the ‘old-fashioned’ fairy tale than anything I have yet accomplished.” Baum invented a new folklore, anchored in the New World. He learned his craft through practicing it; Neill had no formal art training. Both would have largely escaped exposure to the “classics”, both literary and artistic, that were the staple of academia. No late nights swotting Shakespeare and memorizing Milton for Baum, no endless hours drawing plaster casts of Greek statuary for Neill; both men inherited only their unassuming American upbringings and a taste for hard work. Naturally it is impossible to determine the exact influences of Baum and Neill, but they both proved to be men of remarkable talent, especially Neill, whose realistic and academic style must have been entirely self-taught. While his work respects many elements depicted by his predecessor, such resemblance is as much imputable to Baum’s text as to Denslow’s illustrations. There is something of the Gibson Girl in Neill’s Dorothy Gale, and his female characters have effervescence foreign to the languishing post-Pre-Raphaelite damsels that still presided over European fairy tales.

As far as I know, neither Baum nor Neill ever travelled abroad, with, in Neill’s case, two exceptions: a honeymoon in Europe with his first wife (in 1902 or 1903) and a brief visit to Mexico to invest in a silver mine on a sudden hunch. (He had dreamt of silver mines and two weeks later the president of a Mexican silver mine visited his studio. He travelled to Toluca, about 60 miles southwest of Mexico City, was convinced by what he saw and bought shares, only to watch the price of silver dwindle from 72 cents an ounce to 34.)

The result is a wide-ranging fantastical universe that has few boundaries. Baum also broke with the literary standards of the time; Victorian literature for children was more often than not tame, sugary and intended to drive home a suitable moral. Baum believed children were due more respect. In The Lost Princess of Oz, he states, “imaginations and dreams are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent and, therefore, to foster civilization.” Neill underlines the proximity of image and text in children’s literature in a penciled note on the original drawing for the half-title page from The Wonder City of Oz: “Dear Children, The question is… Were the pictures made for the story, or, was the story made for the pictures?”

Half-title page from The Wonder City of Oz, the first Oz book to be written as well as illustrated by John R. Neill.

Original half-title illustration for the Wonder City of Oz, annotated by John R. Neill.

John R. Neill’s work appeared in Drawing with pen and ink, and a word concerning the brush, by Arthur L. Guptill (the introduction is by Franklin Booth) published in 1928 by the Pencil Points Press, New York. After an rather pedant appreciation of the finer points of Neill’s work, Guptill finds that his work “shows a surprising variety of line and tone.” He adds, “The use of black accentuates the whole, yet nowhere is one conspicuous of any straining to produce the desired impression,” which is, unfortunately, a lengthy way of saying nothing at all. Elsewhere, Guptil noted, “Although this artist is particularly remembered for his imaginative concepts, his technique, composition and draftsmanship were eually outstanding.” Clearly, a critical appreciation of all aspects of Neill’s work is long overdue.

Dragons, staple fare in many fairy tales, are present in the Oz books in wholly unconventional forms, and are modern, post-Nesbit dragons in every sense.  (One formerly ferocious dragon, Quox, carries passengers in seats strapped to his back, probably the first mass public transport wyrm in fiction.) The elderly Yellow Knight, Sir Hocus of Pokes (his steed is called the Comfortable Camel) is more of a blundering and amiable Connecticut Yankee than a knight of the Round Table.[32] The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz himself has more of the politician or the circus showman, finally revealing himself as far less great and terrible than he led people to believe. “How can I help being a humbug… when all these people make me do things that everyone knows can’t be done,” he even complains. Emerald City would be more at home in a tale of Sinbad the Sailor. We are light years from the traditional sorcerer, and Neill’s depiction of him, like Denslow’s, owes more to the snake-oil seller or carpet-bagger than to Merlin.[33] We may not be in Kansas any more, and we are certainly nowhere that would be familiar to Grimm, Asbjørnsen and Moe, Andersen or d’Aulnoy.

The clamour for American stories written by American authors was of course raised a good century before, though the flourishing of American literature was a slow bloom. (In 1850, Herman Melville still felt moved to bellow, “Let us away this leaven of literary flunkeyism towards England!”) Additionally, fairy stories and fanciful tales were considered a genre of their own in which inventiveness largely left the field to simple retellings for decades after American literature was recognized as such.[34] Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls (1851) and the sequel Tanglewood Tales (1853) primarily retells classic myth, and even Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is a story that would have been familiar to Europeans. By Baum’s time much had changed, but his stories represent a grand leap into modern fantasy. Oz is a post-modern land of fanciful beings and exotic places, a benign (if occasionally dangerous; Scoodlers for example, don’t object to using humans as ingredients in their soup) children’s version of Breughel and Bosch, with unexpected beings brought alive by all-pervading magic. Mechanics and magic mix easily, physics and fancies are indistinguishable, creatures speak, as do objects; the unexpected is the only thing you can count on in Oz. This is very much a child’s view of the world: the face-value of the marvelous is everywhere, but clever children keep their wits about them nonetheless. It is magic liberated from the hoary and confining traditions of Magick; even the Wicked Witch of the West would not have much to chat about with her overseas sisters in Macbeth. (She is afraid of the dark.) It is a magic of cyclones and cornfields; the Wizard is a Midwest Merlin fresh from a travelling circus or medicine show. Dorothy and her readers are very much at home, since it is from their minds, through the craft of L. Frank Baum, that Oz has sprung.

The Wizards of Oz

The Wizards of Oz: Promotional poster for the books of L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1901. The Wizard of Oz by John R. Neill.

Neill’s art is the perfect visualization of this fresh post-industrial land of faerie wholly unencumbered by self-comparison to the genre of the illustrated fairy tale. The Oz books were being published at same time as the Coloured Fairy Books by Scots poet, novelist and anthropologist Andrew Lang, illustrated principally by Henry Justice Ford.[35] Lang had no use for modern fairy stories, and repeatedly said as much. “But the three hundred and sixty-five authors who try to write new fairy tales are very tiresome. They always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms: “Flowers and fruits, and other winged things”. These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed. Real fairies never preach or talk slang. At the end, the little boy or girl wakes up and finds that he has been dreaming. Such are the new fairy stories. May we be preserved from all the sort of them!”

Neill adds a Progressive Era flourish to his artwork that anchors it firmly in the 20th century, an artistic Trust Buster of Victorian conventionalism in children’s illustration. We may no longer be in Kansas, but we are definitely somewhere we’ve never seen before.

 Thompson reinforces this homegrown 20th-century magic; in The Lost King of Oz, Dorothy is accidentally transported to Hollywood where she meets Humpy, a living stunt dummy she brings with her to Oz. The circus is also a privileged source of characters and ideas. Magic is where you find it, and the Big Top constituted the focus of itinerant exoticism in America even after the movie industry began to flourish. Baum and his successors also breathe life into unlikely creations based on the unselfconscious pleasure of word-games. The Saw Horse is a living horse of wood, the Silver Princess comes from Anuther Planet, the Scalawagons run on Flabbergas and proper names like Anne Soforth abound.

Many elements of Oz are pure science-fiction, the cloud city of Airland in Ozoplaning in Oz is closer to Flash Gordon than fairy tale.[36] The Stratovarians are described in these terms: “The Airlanders were a head taller than even the Tin Woodman. Their hair grew straight up on end, sparkling and crackling with electricity in a really terrifying manner. Their eyes were star-shaped and shaded by long, silver lashes; the noses and mouths were straight and firm, the foreheads transparent. Some shone as from a hidden sun, while across the brows of others tiny black clouds chased one another in rapid succession. Watching their foreheads would be a good way, decided Jellia Jam, to find out whether they were pleased or angry. Strut and his subjects wore belted tunics of some iridescent, rainbow-hued material, and silver sandals laced to the knee.” This blurring of genres is refreshing at very least and a key element of the magical utopian Oz; diversity and variety are welcomed.

Neill contributed more to the bustling effervescence of Oz through his art that through his prose, though the Scalawagons, driverless self-operated cars with eyes on their roofs sound eerily premonitory. His steadfast accompaniment of the Oz series should be considered in its own right as a factor of the success of the books, providing a unity of vision and ever-renewed inventiveness to a world that must have become terribly familiar to him.

Is it possible that his style so closely echoed the aspirations of the age in which it was drawn that the post-war shift to a less adult style of children’s book illustration simply left him behind, along with flappers, prohibition and petting parties? It is worth analyzing Neill’s audience; I suspect that parents found as much to look at in his work as their children did. Perhaps the actual format of the Oz books, medium length and heavily illustrated throughout, no longer fell into a convenient bookseller display category, or perhaps the publishers never stumbled on the correct formula for re-editions. Baum’s and Neill’s grandest accomplishment is that Oz, narratively and visually, does not fit in any convenient category. It occupies a class of its own defining and deserves to be recognized as such, as a unique journey into a brand new world of fable.

If we still must await a comprehensive overview of John R. Neill’s art, his work is showcased in Kansas; there is an Oz Museum in Wamego that opened in 2004. It is home to a good deal of Oz memorabilia, from books to toys and film, both vintage and modern. [37] (Toto’s Tacoz is next door if all that nostalgia leaves you famished.)

To close, a gallery the Oz books illustrated by John R. Neil, followed by the authors’ and publishers’ names and the year of publication. The place of honour preceding the list is naturally held by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, illustrated by William Wallace Denslow, published by George M. Hill in 1899.


To see images in original size, right click and open in new tab

Left:The Marvelous Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1904. Three different covers for the sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Author and publisher decided on The Marvelous Land of Oz, with Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman becoming the subtitle. The title was shortened to The Land of Oz in 1906. When the publisher’s name changed in 1919 to Reilly & Lee, the title became The Land of Oz, with the subtitle A Sequel to The Wizard of Oz.

Centre: Ozma of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1907. Dust jacket and printed clothbound cover

Right: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1908. Pastedown colour cover and cover of a 1938 reprint, without the colour plates, from Sears, Roebuck & Company, with a largely lackluster copy of Neill’s characters.




Left: The Road to Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1909. Printed clothbound cover and colour pastedown cover

Centre: The Emerald City of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1910. Three different editions, all with colour pastedown covers

Right: The Patchwork Girl of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1913. Colour pastedown cover and printed clothbound cover




Left: Tik-Tok of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1914; The Scarecrow of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1915; Rinkitink in Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1916; The Lost Princess of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Britton, 1917; The Tin Woodman of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Lee, 1918

Centre: The Magic of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Lee, 1919; Glinda of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, Reilly & Lee, 1920; The Royal Book of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1921; Kabumpo in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1922; The Cowardly Lion of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1923

Right: Grampa in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1924; The Lost King of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1925; The Hungry Tiger of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1926; The Gnome King of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1927; The Giant Horse of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1928




Left: Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1929; The Yellow Knight of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1930; Pirates in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1931; The Purple Prince of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1932; Ojo in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1933

 Centre: Speedy in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1934; The Wishing Horse of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1935; Captain Salt in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1936; Handy Mandy in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1937; The Silver Princess in Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1938

Right: Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Reilly & Lee, 1939; The Wonder City of Oz, by John R, Neill, Reilly & Lee, 1940; The Scalawagons of Oz, by John R, Neill, Reilly & Lee, 1941; Lucky Bucky in Oz, by John R, Neill, Reilly & Lee, 1942

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[1] Originally Reilly & Britton. The name changed in 1919, when Britton’s share was sold to long-time employee William F. Lee.

[2] Jack Snow (August 15, 1907 – July 13, 1956) is also the author of Who’s Who in Oz, Chicago, Reilly & Lee, 1954

[3] The Hidden Valley of Oz, the first book written by Payes, was published by Reilly & Lee in 1951. Her second, The Wicked Witch of Oz (1954) remained unpublished on the grounds that the Oz books were not selling and was finally published by The International Wizard of Oz Club in 1993.

[4] Merry Go Round in Oz, the last Oz book published by the original publisher Reilly & Lee in 1963. McGraw’s second Oz book, The Forbidden Fountain of Oz, was published by The International Wizard of Oz Club in 1993

[5] In Oz taxonomy, these fall into the Sovereign Sixty and the Supreme Seventy-Five, according to the Royal Timeline of Oz. (Grand titles are de riguer in Oz fandom.)

[6] Additionally, resuming in a few words the many Lands of Oz is impossible, it is a world bursting with ideas, characters and exotic locations; even attempting to summarize any one of the books succinctly requires several pages. Web sites such as Wikipedia will adequately supply all the basic information. Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York and died on May 6, 1919 at his home in Hollywood.

[7] Other accounts mention two drawers. In the words of Robert A. Baum, one of Baum’s grandsons: Frank leaned in to the children and began, “The Yellow Brick Road led them into a dark and scary forest. The further they walked into the forest, the darker it got. They held onto each other as they slowly kept walking. The trees almost looked like they were closing in on them, when….” Just then, one of the children asked, “Mr. Baum, Mr. Baum, where is this magic land?”

“Even though Frank had been working on this story in his head for some time, the right name for the magic land had not yet come to him. Looking around the room for the answer while still telling the story, he soon noticed his office filing cabinet in the next room. The top drawer was labeled A – N and the bottom drawer was labeled, well …let Frank tell you. “Why it is called the Land of Oz,” he said, smiling to himself. The oh’s and ah’s of the children told Frank he now had a name for his magic land.” (Admittedly, if you’ll permit an irreverence, the land of Ag or An hardly has the same resonance.)

Henry M. Littlefield, in The Wizard of Oz; Parable on Popularism, published in the American Quarterly in 1964, held that Baum intended Oz to mean the abbreviation of ounce, the standard measure for gold, with Dorothy’s silver shoes and the yellow brick road representing the Populist Party’s desire to construct a bimetallic standard of both gold and silver in place of the gold standard. These precious metals, though, are to be taken with a grain of salt. Littlefield, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times dated February 7, 1992, explained of his theory “that there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology.” In 1964 Littlefield was reading the Wizard of Oz to his children at night, and teaching turn-of-the-century politics to a summer school class during the day. He thought using the book’s characters as a device would help his pupils remember the political facts. He had not made an effort to explore Baum’s political stance.

[8] The book recounts the adventures of a little girl named Dot and a little boy named Tot in Merryland, reached by floating on a river that flowed through a tunnel.

[9] Fanny Y. Cory was a talented illustrator who would have been more than capable of picking up the Oz series.

[10] In all fairness, it was a sign of the times; the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries saw a spate of books where science was introduced to children by way of the fairy tale, resulting in some exceedingly odd books, which must have confused their young readers to no end.

[11] See Michael Patrick Hearn’s “Introduction to The Annotated Wizard of Oz.” The Annotated Wizard of Oz: Centennial Edition. New York: Norton, 2000.

[12] The title was shortened to The Land of Oz in 1906. When the publisher’s name changed in 1919 to Reilly & Lee, the title became The Land of Oz, with the subtitle A Sequel to The Wizard of Oz.

[13] Now that sounds familiar. My mother also kept me supplied with a sheaf of papers “clear on one side” for drawing when I was very small. I believe I still have one or two of the school yearbooks I decorated.

[14] While there, he became friends with Joseph Clement Coll (1881-1921) prolific artist known for his fine pen and ink work which influenced a generation of illustrators.

[15] Bessie was born in 1885 in the Germantown area of Philadelphia.

[16] The feature is a source of much speculation for Oz fans. Strangely, Baum seems to indicate Oz is somewhere in outer space, whereas a broad desert separates the Land of Oz from Kansas and the rest of “Great Outside World” in the first two novels. The Queer Visitors pass the North Star and five planets on their approach to America (the adventures chronicled in the feature follow directly on from the end of the second book) and Ozma’s “Proclamation Extraordinary” mentions their arrival on “your Earth planet.”

[17] Denslow’s only (posthumous) consolation is his headstone, which reads William Wallace Denslow, 1855 – 1915 Original Illustrator of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the dates flanked by vignettes of the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, with Denslow’s trademark seahorse signature between. He is buried in Kensico Cemetery, located in Valhall, Westchester County, New York.

Somewhat confusingly, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was also republished in 1899 0r 1900 as the New Wizard of Oz, with many of Denslow’s illustrations, by Indianapolis publisher Bobbs-Merril Company.

[18] Serialized in 1906 in the Philadelphia North American.

[19] “The Men Who Make the Argosy” was a regular feature in the Argosy magazine, providing autobiographical sketches of their contributors. Neill’s page was published for the November 8th, 1930 issue.

[20] Frank L. Baum died in his Hollywood home on May 16, 1919. He had undergone gall bladder surgery in 1918 and never fully recovered. Glinda of Oz is considered as the darkest of the books, likely due to Baum’s illness.

[21] See Rebecca Locraine’s The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum. New York; Gotham, published in 2009.

[22] The six titles in the Little Wizard Stories are: The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, Little Dorothy and Toto, Tiktok and the Nome King, Ozma and the Little Wizard, Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse and The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman.

[23] The last claim appears to have been stretching the truth a little; the book was entirely composed of previously published texts and illustrations.

[24] Another unjustly neglected illustrator of great talent.

[25] The prices of Oz books of course fluctuated over the years. The Wizard of Oz had a cover price of $1.50; Oz books between 1904 and 1916 sold for $1.25. (While the price remained stable, the number of colour plates steadily diminished.) The Lost Princess of Oz sold for $1.35 in 1917, the next two, The Tin Woodman of Oz and The Magic of Oz, for $1.50, rising to $2.00 from Glinda of Oz through to Grampa in Oz between 1920 and 1924. The price dropped to $1.60 between 1925 and 1930, from The Lost King of Oz through The Yellow Knight of Oz, rising to $1.75 for Pirates in Oz and the Purple Prince of Oz, and dropping again to $1.50 for the last 10 books illustrated by Neill. After the Wishing Horse of Oz, colour plates were no longer included.

[26] See L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography, by Katharine M. Rogers, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2002

[27] The Sea Fairies was republished by Reilly & Lee in 1920; Neill did a new cover for the new edition.

[28] The Royal Book of Oz began with an introduction by Mrs. Maud Baum, “the wife of the Royal Historian of Oz.” Thompson retired from the Oz series in 1939; she died in 1976.

[29] There have been rumours over the years of a third unpublished Oz book by Snow, entitled Over the Rainbow to Oz, but no manuscript has ever been unearthed. Snow’s address book of Oz fans, discovered after he died, became the basis of the mailing that established The International Oz Club, founded by 13-year old Justin G. Schiller in 1957.

[30] Pinning down complete original editions is often difficult; the books were reprinted often and went through many versions. Neil probably produced upwards of 3500 illustrations for Oz during his career.

[31] Others’ work has endured, even though the general public has forgotten their creators’ names. Who recalls the name of the artist who illustrated all those novels by Jules Verne, even though chances are they would instantly recognize the artwork? I hope to make up for that with a future newsletter. There is also a distinctly American mythology in Frazetta’s work; if you’ll excuse me for continually remarking that another newsletter is in the works on that particular subject, it is. A personal aside: a good friend mentioned that her father had once offered her “a coloring book for Christmas. It was an oversized replica of the illustrations. And he told me, ‘This is a really good one because it has the right pictures.’”

[32] The nature of the Oz books, their abundance of characters, their youthful audience and their relatively short length hinders any borrowed references from gaining a momentum of their own. T. H. White’s Arthurian books begin in the same tongue-in-cheek fashion, filled with calamitous knight continually galloping about a-joustin’, until the pathos of the original material weighs on the author in the last book, transforming his light-hearted foray into an inevitable tragedy.

[33] Many have read into the character of the Wizard an implicit criticism of American politicians; the scarecrow is thought to represent the farmer of the American West, whose straw-filled head holds a sharper and more resourceful mind than expected. In a sense, Oz may represent an American utopia. This said, suggestions such as the one that hints Dorothy’s dog Toto may have been so named as an insidious dig at teetotalers and the Prohibition are more than far-fetched. It is possible, with a little determination, to read pretty much anything into Oz.

[34] And even – shocking – actually read by the English.

[35] This is not to compare the two series as such, but to underline the freshness of approach of Baum and Neill. Andrew Lang’s twelve coloured fairy books are amongst the finest books of myth, legend and fairy tale ever produced. The first, the Blue Fairy Book, was printed in 1889, and the last, the Lilac Fairy Book, in 1910. H. J. Ford is a marvelous illustrator – a lavish and comprehensive book on his work would not be unwelcome either. Lang’s other books on myth are undeniably some of the best written at the time.

[36] Ozoplaning in Oz is of course by Ruth Plumly Thompson, but her writing is faithful in spirit to Baum’s, who had no qualms about inventing extraordinary machines and other contraptions.

[37]  The Oz Museum. Wamego is about 70 miles straight east of Kansas city. (Dorothy’s House, in Liberal, also in Kansas, opened in 1981.)

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For more information on John R. Neill and Oz:

JOHN R. NEILL, The Royal Illustrator of Oz. This site is owned and operated by Neil’s granddaughter Jory Neill Mason

THE OZ ENTHUSIAST, Owned and operated by, well… an Oz enthusiast. Bill Campbell’s site is full of information hard to find anywhere else.



MOUSE HEAVEN has a special Oz section


ILLUSTRATION MAGAZINE One of the best magazines on illustration today. Issue # 17 features the article on John R. Neill.


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Special thanks to Jory Neill Mason, Arden Edwards, Nathalie Mather, Jane Albright and Bill Campbell for their kind help to a total stranger who wandered into Oz by chance and was made to feel very welcome. (And, in Bill’s case, allowing me to plunder his site for a wealth of details I would never have discovered elsewhere.)

I am also greatly indebted to the article on John R. Neill by Michael Patrick Hearn, published in Illustration Magazine # 17, in 2006. To date it is the most detailed and comprehensive review of Neill’s life and work. Hearn is the author of Myth, Magic, and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children’s Book Illustration, published by Robert Rinehart in1996.

Every step of the way on my short trip down a stretch of the Yellow Brick Road, I discovered new details, new artwork and novel and fascinating anecdotes about the books. I eventually had to stop adding bits and pieces here and there to this newsletter, or I would still be writing it. I hope that one day that lavish book on John R. Neill will become a reality. One day very soon.

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THE END OF BOOKS Mon, 14 Dec 2015 10:39:46 +0000 But don’t be alarmed, it already happened in 1894.

The other day, I stumbled across a most extraordinary article in the August 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, entitled The End of Books, by a certain Octave Uzanne, with illustrations by the prolific futurist illustrator Albert Robida.

Louis Octave Uzanne (Auxerre, 14 September 1851 – Saint-Cloud, 31 October 1931) was a prolific French journalist and author, one of those larger-than-life figures of the literary scene in fin-de-siècle Paris.

Portrait of Octave Uzanne by artist Ramon Casas

Portrait of Louis Octave Uzanne by the Catalan artist Ramon Casas

His first notable work was a four-volume compendium of lesser-known 17th and 18th century writers, which later expanded to over twenty books in all.[1] He contributed articles to l’Echo de Paris and other French periodicals, as well as The Studio, the Magazine of Art and Scribner’s. He collaborated with the exhuberant Albert Robida, whose futurist trilogy Le Vingtième Siècle (1883), La Guerre au vingtième siècle (1887) and Le Vingtième siècle: la vie éléctrique (1890) more or less single-handedly defined the steampunk genre, a good century before K. W. Jeter[2] coined the term. (Robida’s work deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.)

Front cover of the 1883 first edition of Albert Robida's Le Vingtième siècle

Les Tubes by Robida

Maison tournante

Life in the Twentieth Century according to Albert Robida. Left: Front cover of the first edition of Albert Robida’s Le Vingtième siècle, 1883. Centre: Modern house. Right: Paris, Southern Tube station.

Uzanne wrote books extolling the beauty of French women and fashion as well as another extolling celibacy. (His attitude towards women is ambiguous, but he clearly subscribed to the notion that the world was better off in the capable hands of men, stating “The curious and paradoxical physiologist has argued that the woman genius does not exist, and when such genius manifests itself it is a hoax of nature; in this sense, she is male.” According to Patricia Townley Matthews in “Passionate Discontent”, a study of study of the relationship between gender and genius in late nineteenth-century French Symbolism, movement that extolled the genius of the “poète maudit”, the mad creative genius, as long as he was a man – if a woman dared try something similar in the arts, she was dismissed as hysterical, and possibly interned – Uzanne admitted that while the female figure were useful in allegorical and decorative art, female artists were mediocre and inferior.[3]

Cross-Channel Victorian misogyny aside, Uzanne’s article for Scribner’s is little short of visionary. The article begins with a group of eight gentlemen, Uzanne in their midst, who have just attended a conference where Sir William Thomson, eminent British physicist and professor at Glasgow university, has cheerfully (one imagines) predicted the exhausting of the sun and the end of the world in ten million years. The gentlemen decide, in light of that particular bit of news, that dinner at the Junior Athenaeum will, if not avert the coming end, at least pleasantly account for the rest of the evening. In turns, they debate subjects of interest. James Whittemore predicts the rise of the Americas and the decline of the Old World. Vegetarian Julius Pollock speculates on the “success of certain interesting chemical experiments transforming the conditions of our social life.” He imagines a vegetarian future, where nutrition will come in the form of powders, syrups, pellets and biscuits, bringing on the disappearance of slaughterhouses. (Humourist John Pollock retorts that creatures will continue to eat and be eaten – clearly, he must have ordered a steak.) Symbolist painter Arthur Blackcross, founder of the School of Aesthetes of Tomorrow, [4] rails against modern art’s immanent decline into mediocrity, (a perpetual complaint; there is no period in history, it seems, but has lamented the end of art) predicting that art will become a closed aristocracy of a dozen individuals per generation, while cheap mass-produced imagery “…art photography in colors, photogravure, illustrated books, will suffice for the gratification of the masses.” There will be no more painters in the 21st century he fiercely proclaims, before turning to Uzanne and asking him to lighten the atmosphere with his wisdom on books.

Uzanne of course made no demur. Here are a few excerpts:

“If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.”

He goes on to predict that “Printing, which Rivarol so judiciously called the artillery of thought… is threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.”

After a chorus of “astonished oh’s! and ironical ah’s!”, Uzanne goes on to detail the inconveniences of reading and adding “phonography will probably be the destruction of printing. Our eyes are made to see and reflect on the beauties of nature, not to wear themselves out reading texts…”

“There will be registering cylinders as light as celluloid penholders, capable of containing five or six hundred words, and working upon very tenuous axles, and occupying not more than five square inches; all the vibrations of the voice will be reproduced in them; we shall attain to perfection in this apparatus as surely as we have obtained precision in the smallest and most ornamental watches.”

As to electricity, that will often be found on the individual himself. Each will work his pocket apparatus by a fluent current ingeniously set in motion; the whole system may be kept in a simple opera-glass case, and suspended by a strap from the shoulder.”

“… the author will become his own publisher.” He will “talk his work, fixing it upon registering cylinders. He will himself put these cylinders on sale; they will be delivered in cases for the consumption of hearers.”

“Libraries will be transformed into phonographotecks, or rather phonostereotecks; they will contain the works of human genius on properly labelled cylinders, methodically arranged in little cases, rows upon rows, on shelves.”

“The Narrators, blithe authors that they will be, will relate the current events of current life, will make a study of rendering the sounds that accompany… the exchange of commonplace conversation, the joyful exclamations of the crowd, the dialects of strange people.”

“Hearers will not regret the time when they were readers; with eyes wearied, with countenances refreshed, their air of careless freedom will witness to the benefits of the contemplated life. Stretching upon sofas or cradled in rocking-chairs, they will enjoy in silence the marvellous adventures which the flexible tube will conduct to ears dilated with interest.”

Twelve assorted poetsHome theatre with the telephonoscope

Home distribution

Entertainment in the twentieth century. Left: Evening listening, from a selection of twelve assorted poets. Centre: Choosing the evening program. Right: Home theatre with the telephonoscope.

At home, walking, sightseeing, these fortunate hearers will experience the ineffable delight of reconciling hygiene with instruction; of nourishing their minds while exercising their muscles; for there will be pocket phono-operagraphs, for use during excursions among Alpine meadows or in the cañons of the Colorado.”

“At every open place in the city little buildings will be erected, with hearing tubes corresponding to certain works hung all around for the benefit of the studious passer-by. They will be easily worked by the mere pressure of a button. On the other side, a sort of automatic book-dealer, set in motion by a nickel in the slot, will for this trifling sum give the works of Dickens, Dumas père or Longfellow, on long rolls prepared for home consumption.”

Journalism and the daily paper will follow the same path, he predicts, when the “voices of the whole world will be gathered up in the celluloid rolls which the post will bring morning by morning to the subscribing hearers.” When pressed by Blackcross to explain how the world will make good the want of illustrations, Uzanne has a ready answer: “You perhaps forget the great discovery of To-morrow, that which is soon to amaze us all; I mean the Kinetograph of Thomas Edison, of which I was so happy as to see the first trial at Orange Park, New Jersey, during a recent visit to the great electrician.”

“The kinetograph will be the illustrator of daily life; not only shall we see it operating in its case, but by a system of lenses and reflectors all the figures in action which it will present in photochromo may be projected upon large white screens in our own homes. Scenes described in works of fiction and romances of adventure will be imitated by appropriately dressed figurants and immediately recorded.” He goes on to predict the rise of “aurists” as the focus shifts from eye to ear, just as oculists appeared with the printed word, since “no progress has ever been made without changing the place of some of our ills” and to conclude: “Be that as it may, I think that if books have a destiny, that destiny is on the eve of being accomplished; the printed book is about to disappear. After us, the last of books, gentlemen!”

Well, there you have it. One hundred and twenty years ago, Octave Uzanne predicted the audio book, home cinema, earphones and the walkman (the what? Oh, of course, I forgot, we saw the end of those a while ago). Happily he was wrong about printed books.[5] I still have a few I am loath to consign to the scrapheap of history.


Cover of the August 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. The periodical was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons between January 1887 and May 1939.











The full article “The End of Books” by Octave Uzanne



I’ve long collected imagery by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, all the time longing for a decent book of her work to be published. Recently, I stumbled upon what I am convinced is a self-portrait, in the guise of Botticelli no less; there is an intent and an intensity in the features that seems to point to a real model, rather than an idealised portrait. I’ll leave you to judge.

Botticelli’s Studio orThe first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, 1922

Botticelli’s Studio or The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, 1922


[1] Poètes de ruelles au XVIIe siècle, 4 volumes edited by Uzanne, printed by Damase Jouast: followed by Les Petits Conteurs du XVIIIe siècle’, 12 volumes edited by Uzanne, and Documents sur les Moeurs du XVIIIè siècle, 4 volumes edited by Uzanne, between 1875 and 1878.

[2] I had the immense pleasure of meeting K. W. Jeter in Leipzig, at a slightly obscure but nevertheless fascinating science fiction convention. Read his work. Posterity will pinpoint him as a pivotal figure in the evolution of science fiction.

[3] See: The Defining of Dreams. Women in the Golden Age of Illustration: Florence Harrison

and The Stuff of Dreams. Women of the Golden Age of Illustration: Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

[4] Mental note to self, look HIM up.

[5] He was outrageously wrong about women too, but he was hardly alone then – or now for that matter. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded seeing some of Robida’s more ambitious ideas come true. I really would like a flying skateboard.

RUINS Wed, 18 Nov 2015 20:16:07 +0000 A few months ago, a colleague and I were discussing topics – my colleague is an archaeology graduate, active in the art field, both old and new, therefore scientific and disciplined, two qualities which I don’t posses – so the interest we both find in common subjects is geometric – an impossible quadrature of the circle in aesthetic and spiritual terms; two people on opposite mountain tops looking over the same vista. All that to say we don’t always agree, but we like hearing about the view from the other side. Practical and comparative parallax, if you like, the best way to see depth in any subject.

Usually the theme means one of us is out of depth (usually me) but then that’s where the interest lies. (Each time, I learn something. You don’t learn to swim if your feet are always firmly on the bottom.)

This time, the topic was ruins: what they are, how they got there, and most importantly, what we ought to do with them…



When you walk into Westminster Abbey, along the aisle, after the graves of scientists and poets, you can find yourself in a spot where to your left lies Queen Elizabeth I and to your right Queen Mary I, one on each side of their grandfather Henry VII.

 Westminster, built in the 16th century, goes well beyond the limits of faith. In the world, of all places I have visited, it is the one that most reminds me how wonderful humanity can be, with its marvelous ability to create, build, destroy and rebuild.

Passing near Dickens, Laurence Olivier, Newton and Elizabeth I, you can feel that quality that other countries have always envied and hated for centuries: the respect that England has for itself.

Dedication of the Battle of Britain Memorial window in honour of ‘The Few’ at Westminster Abbey, 10 July 1947. Window and altar

Dedication of the Battle of Britain Memorial window in honour of ‘The Few’ at Westminster Abbey, 10 July 1947. 

Westminster reflects all this. It is a temple dedicated to story, is like a journal that continues to be updated. Walking inside it, I understand that no damage, no trial, can ever bring Westminster to be a ruin, a remnant of what once was, because it is constantly linked to the present, with a foot always in the past, in touch with the future without forgetting history.

But, back to the beginning; the last chapel, at the tomb of Henry VII who died in 1509, the eye falls on the colors and shapes of the windows that rise behind the tomb, tall and stately, where, as if by chance, you can find an air pilot and just below to the left, a hole in the wall, glass-lined.

The hole, caused by bombing during the Second World War, was sealed but was not “repaired”. There was nothing to fix; the hole, like the windows dedicated to the RAF, are now part of Westminster, as if there had always been there.

Westminster has the ability to resist becoming a ruin. In a country like Italy, none of this would have happened. The hole would have been plugged, the original stained glass windows of the chapel would have been replaced by copies identical to the original dedicated to Mary, or maybe, things would have been left as they were, obeying a principle of abandonment and the process begun to become a ruin.

Becoming a ruin is not as easy as you might think. There is no instruction manual, no options describing gradual abandonment, catastrophe or war. In the face of the unforeseeable, it can go any way. The result, however, remains the same: the need to not be rebuilt.

The notion of an inexorable, all-devouring time is nonsense. Time destroys nothing. Everything depends on us, even when there is destruction, our capacity to rebuild and reinvent could easily ensure that in the world there are no ruins left at all. This is a sad thought.

But a ruin, however beautiful, as a fixed point in time, is a ruin because someone allowed that it so become. For what it’s worth, I believe Italy is set to become the largest, most beautiful and wonderful ruin of the whole world.

Italy is blind to the potential of its own history. We are slowly letting it go, but lately there have been many complaints and much debate. On one side, people who say that we should take more care of our ruins; on the other, those who reject the idea that the ruins could be nothing but ruins.

In Rome, a controversy has erupted on the subject of the arena of the Colosseum. The arena was not only the battleground of gladiators, it was the roof over two underground levels containing animals, staff, pulleys and “props”. Built of wood, it did not survive fire and damage following the abandonment of the coliseum. The arena floor eventually collapsed, the underground levels were partially buried.


Rome, The Colosseum as it is today.

It was rebuilt in the last century, but again removed, to ensure that we could see those two floors in which hid the Colosseum’s secrets. Today only a small portion of the arena is paved, just to give an idea of how it once was, but there are those who would like to bring back the flooring of the entire surface.

This is a problem from an ethical point of view, less from the practical point of view, even less from the point of view of return on image investment. Build up a new arena, it would mean giving new light to the Colosseum, a structure unique in the world, not just a tourist attraction, not just to collect an entrance fee. It’s true, in the galleries already there are areas dedicated to exhibitions, but the arena could open a whole world of new activities and opportunities for aggregation that go beyond simple “tourism”. Perhaps we can be more than tourists inside the Colosseum? Maybe we can be actors on stage of new arena, spectators of something different than the ruins themselves. The superintendent of the Archaeological Heritage of Rome fortunately likes this idea, and wishes take it forward, but he faces political inertia and old habits, opposition led by those for whom the Colosseum is purely a ruin, and must remain so.

We do not dare so much as the British, we do not repair, do not care, we barely restore, and not to rediscover an ancient splendor, but only to bring to the first stage of deterioration places that will never be used again. Think about the Imperial Forums in Rome, if we could put stalls and recreate markets, you think you will not be able to feel the historical value of the place if it was reused again as a market? We seem to think they are so fragile and precious, well, perhaps what is happening in Pompeii requires us to think so, now a ruin is a ruin, there is no going back; the only future envisaged for ruins is wear and tear from tourism, and eventual destruction and disappearance. We can’t imagine a future for them different from the present.

Then, finally, when the destruction is total, the ruin would be replaced with a memorial to ruin itself.

This brings us to the second precondition for becoming a ruin, something that also happens to humans who longer have a function, becoming useless, although even that, as irreversible as it sounds, always depends on us. History, technology has led us to abandon wooden house for stone and concrete, but there are wooden houses that are worth being kept alive.

Think of the Globe Theatre in London, built in 1599, destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1614, had to wait three centuries before someone understood that although not a perfect project, the memory and the value of the theater were far stronger than ideological criticism. It was rebuilt in 1987, a reconstruction that while possibly unfaithful to the original, brings with it the construction techniques of the time, the structure of wood, the walls and roof of the stands. At the same time, below the arena, after the entrance, there is a modern and avant-garde lobby. Why have just a memorial? Why have only a crumbling ruin? Or nothing at all?







Left: The Globe meets the media. Right: Happy Birthday Mr. Shakespeare

Being without a function leads us inexorably into the abyss of ruin, and perhaps there is no remedy to emerge again from the ashes.

But, I’m an hopeless optimist, I do not see the ruins as something now lost, something untouchable, I do not see the ruin as a thing from which we can expect nothing. But instead of thinking about what might be the tools to find new glory and new splendor, the secret is that it is the ruin itself to be the tool.

The nature of ruins, their aspects both good and bad, depends not on the ruins themselves, but on our perception of them. Non essere causa del tuo male, ma del tuo bene.[1]

At UNESCO, for the past several years, there is a discussion about a Japanese temple. To become Unesco site, a place or a particular cultural aspect must be so rare as to be unique specimens in the world, or be very threatened.

Ise Grand Shrine is a traditional Japanese temple, its peculiarity is that the temple is rebuilt every 20 years; the present building is the 62nd reconstruction. The temple has a long history, but there isn’t a millennial temple, rather the idea and the culture behind it. It is rebuilt again with the same techniques passed down carefully. Fortunately UNESCO protects not only the material but also the immaterial, culture as an idea and philosophy, and this will probably make the Ise Temple a future Unesco site.

Approached from this perspective, the old image of the ruin is based on the new one that we give and we attribute them in the future. Guaranteed the respect that it deserves, the ruin remains, but we complete it, we make it stronger, more attractive, more useful. The hole is embellished, is not plugged, it stays there, but the glass allows us to see where that last shot came from, so that we might hope to dodge the next

 In that light, the valuation seems something extremely simple, but it is not. Politics and money are too often are the decision makers. There are places where the ruins, even with the bet of intentions, have no possibility of recovery, they will remain beautiful ruins, tied to the past.

These ruins, always using the tape measure of UNESCO, are destined to remain forever the Tentative Lists, in a kind of indefinite purgatory, as wonderful traces of a glorious past. The present does not have those criteria that would allow them to become patrimony of mankind, remaining relegated to a condition in which few people know that they exist, and even fewer know that they can visit them, even locally. Little is being done for these places to make them better known.

A Tentative List particular, the number 5408, literally reads:

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value:

Criterion (iii): Lycian Civilization is unique to Teke Peninsula, Mediterranean Coast of Turkey in the world. Lycian League is also unique for being the first democratic union of the ancient times which actually inspired the democratic systems of the modern times. The city states are firmly bounded with this system and this system was assurance of the equal representation of the cities in the parliament. This federation brought strong ties between the citizens in the social life.

The political power gained by the Lycians through this federation contributed much to their survival against the invasions by the outer powers of their time.

“Criterion (iv): Lycian cities are easily distinguished with their characteristic architecture which is very well known for this part of the world and mostly well preserved. Especially the rock-cut monumental tombs are very distinctive in Anatolia and quality of stonemasonry of these people is noteworthy. Lycian cities mostly situated along the seaside on the overlooking hills to the sea and represent the solid relationship of these people with the sea.

Comparison with other similar properties: No other comparison is possible, because Lycian civilization is onlyexisted (sic) in this part of the world and Anatolia.





No comment is needed, I can only leave you with photographs of this “tentative list”, as a dedication to all those places that because of a few in power, because of not having access to money for protection before and valorisation after, will be destined to be the ruins that sooner or later will disappear and of which will remain only the memory.

Irene Fanizza, Padua, Italy




You can find a lot in a ruin besides old stones and crumbling mortar. I spend enough of my time wandering about in them, not unlike some character who inadvertently stepped beyond the frame of a painting by Friedrich, and has since been wandering among ruins, seeking a way back to the blank spot he’s left on the canvas.

Ruins are not unlike music, the sustained and fading notes of the past. Curiously, like dinosaurs, they haven’t been around that long. About the time the first iguanodons were emerging from their long sleep and taking shape in the imaginations of the public (initially as squat and lumpy quadrupeds, snouts comically capped with diminutive rhinoceros-like horns), ruins were at last gaining long-deserved recognition as well.

Additionally, like so many sweeping cultural changes, this recognition came on the threshold of radical and irreversible societal shifts. The industrial age had shifted focus – and populations, aided by quiet yet determined social wars; the Inclosure Acts come to mind – from rural to urban, mines and factories gave us smog for Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries, steam took over from sail, as the world began to shrink. (We are never so adept at looking back as when we are leaving something behind.) In France, Prosper Merimée and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc[2] decided it was high time to give a voice to silent and crumbling masonry. Merimée was appointed inspector general of the Monuments Historiques on May 27, 1834. (Victor Hugo had declared La Guerre aux démolisseurs in the Revue des Deux Mondes two years before.)

Followed Viollet-le-Duc’s (controversial) restoration of Pierrefonds, Carcassonne, Vezelay, Notre-Dame de Paris (with the now-famous chimères, elbows posed pensively on parapets) and countless other decaying structures. It was about time; prior to that, abandoned castles and the like had been open-air quarries of ready-to-use stone, and many had already been much diminished, not so much by time as by enterprising masons. If the Coliseum in Rome has the ragged silhouette it has today, it is not because of shoddy Roman workmanship, but because so much of it found a place in more recent constructions.

The foundations of this new temple of thought, though, had already been paced off a generation before, across the Rhine in Germany, with the Romantics languidly promenading thoughts of faded glory against sunsets, in tailed coats and top hats. This painterly re-evaluation of nature naturally included ruins, though they were not the especial focus. Others were taking care of that, with the folly for follies seeing the construction of artificial ruins on rich estates, gigantic garden decorations ranging from Egyptian pyramids, Classical temples to more
plausible ruined abbeys and castles.[3]

Louis_Daguerre - The_Ruins_of_Holyrood_Chapel

George Arnald (1763-1841) Glastonbury Abbey With The Tor Beyond

Ferdinand Knab - Ruins, 1888

The romantic and the ideal ruin. Left: The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel, by Louis Daguerre, 1824. Centre: Ruins, by Ferdinand Knab, 1888. Right: Glastonbury Abbey With The Tor Beyond, by George Arnald (1763-1841)

Or perhaps it all began earlier, when Piranesi was busily engraving his unforgettable Carceri, and Rome itself was a ruin. From a city perhaps exceeding two million inhabitants in the first century CE, by Piranesi’s time, after century upon century of invasions, plagues and other calamities, only 150,000 could call Rome home. (From a low point in the 10th century of perhaps 30,000; Rome would only reach the proportions it once had in the 1940’s, 1800 years after its heyday.) It must have been stupendous monument to vainglory; ruins as far as the eye could see, with a scattering of inhabitants.[4] (What I would give for a wander through Rome in the 17th century…)

Piranesi - Salario bridge

Rome in ruins: Salario Bridge, engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Who knows exactly what our ancestors thought of ruins? (For the most part, they may have been too busy creating them.) Whatever they may have thought over millennia, concerted and generalized preservation of ruins is not yet two centuries old.

Isolated monuments had occasionally been revisited. The Sphinx at Giza was also variously reshaped, restored and shored up over the centuries, and excavated from the drifting sand a number of times.[5]

The Sphinx, from The Children's Encyclopedia, edited by Arthur Mee, London, 1920's

The enigmatic ruin: The Sphinx, from The Children’s Encyclopedia, edited by Arthur Mee. Published by The Educational Book Company,London, 1920’s

One of the very first – and failed – attempts at restoration took place around the year 199 CE when the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus “fixed” one of the Colossi of Memnon, in Luxor.[6]  In the third century BCE, an earthquake toppled the torso of one of the statues, and cracked the base. It was the beginning of the statue’s lyrical career. Witnesses began to report hearing the statue “sing”, usually just before dawn, a sound Strabo described as sounding “like a blow”, and Pausanias as “the string of a lyre” breaking. Others described it as a whistling or keening sound, and travelers came from afar to witness the plaintive cry, as well as for the good luck it was supposed to bring. Then, the statue was repaired, with five rows of sandstone blocks fashioned into a clumsy silhouette and the dawn keening silenced forever. Symmetry: one, mystery: zero.


The mythological ruin: The Colossi of Memnon. From left to right: Photo by Antonio Beato, 19th century; The Colossi of Memnon in the flood season, by David Roberts, 1846-1849; The Colossi of Memnon, Thebes, by Carl Friedrich H. Werner, 1872; The Colossi at dawn, by H. R. Schutz; The Simoom, by Ludwig Hans Fischer, 1878; The Colossi of Memnon, by Hubert Sattler, 1846.

Before we acquired an appreciation of the weathered past, by the time the interest in archaeology, which began in Egypt and Greece, came closer to home, ruins, along with forests, mountains, rivers and much of what has become the elusive residence of the sublime, had no voice.

The noun “ruin” is only attested from the late 14th century, with the same sense as the verb which preceded it, descended from the Latin ruinaa collapse, a rushing down, a tumbling down“, via the Old French ruine. Ruins “remains of a decayed building or town” appears in the mid-15th century. A straightforward enough genealogy, but a short one, in view of the existence of ruins themselves.

Where does that leave us today? Ruins present no danger (except the purely physical, of course, in the form of falling clocks of masonry on incautious noggins), they stoke no political fires, they are passive and patient. By now, we have stepped beyond trying to improve on them, to recreate a perfect past, to recapture some imagine perfection of the ancients. A good century and a half has covered controversial late 19th-century restorations with a patina of history in their turn.

Let’s face it; we adore them because they are broken. We are drawn to broken things – museums are full of them: faded, cracked remnants of lives suspended in clay, stone, wood, glass or metal. We love them because they have moved beyond practical into intellectual usefulness; witness of vanished lives, they have gone beyond our reach and become art. (That is the defining thing about art; we don’t mess with it. We scrutinize it, we social-comment on it with all the sagacity we can muster, we parody or reinterpret it, but we don’t touch the originals except to preserve or restore.) Notwithstanding the occasional and spectacular refreshing of a chapel here and there, we don’t seek to mend broken things. (While objects can remain visibly fragmented, we are less partial to damaged paintings, and more often than not, expect them to be restored.) Do we want to see the face of the Victory of Samothrace, or run our hands over Venus de Milo’s shapely arms? Not really. Their absence justifies our existence, lets us perceive the past from a vantage point. The missing bits remind us that immortality is a hard slog, with heavy lifting and damaged corners.

The myths of the freefall from grace, of the abandoning of a Golden Age, so permeated our culture, (horizon-wide echoes of our own intimate life-journeys but on a vaster scale) that these immobile reminders of our past must be overgrown and crumbling to comfort us in our mobile brevity. (Ozymandias is more meaningful poetically than historically.) They remain still and endure; we, always in motion, do not. They offer a day pass for immortality, without the hard seats and frequent stops.

Arthur Watts - Ozymandius

The allegorical ruin: Ozymandias, by Arthur Watts

That is why we so religiously preserve ruins, something inconceivable only two centuries ago, when antiquarians were wealthy gentleman looters, slowly metamorphosing into archaeologists[7] and wunderkammers transformed from private to public collections to become the first museums, the eagerly amassed flotsam of aristocratic expeditions and canny overseas agents encumbering the authorities via generous bequeathals. (The oldest known museum, dating from 530 BCE, was to be found in the city of Ur, curated by Princess Ennigaldi, daughter of Nabonidus, the last of the kings of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The Renaissance saw museums established in Italy, but most institutions date from the 18th century.)

Museums though, house the mobile remnants; ruins, on the other hand, remain for the most part sagely where they were put, they don’t engage in movements of ill-considered nationalism or ethnocentricity. (The more diminutive and detachable cousins of ruins, antiquities, were happily stolen from Greece and Egypt for decades. Lord Elgin may have put the Marbles in his luggage, he had to leave the Parthenon be, though given the number of obelisks that strayed abroad from Egypt, never to return, the definition of “portable” is an ample one. Early in the 20th century, wealthy American magnates could still purchase European abbeys to ship to the USA.) Nonetheless, ruins have acquired a sort of neutrality through their steadfast abnegation, left high and dry by the swelling and shifting tides of migration and conquest. They are the patient survivors of time and the elements, of pogroms, reformations and zealotry.

Their patience, akin to the patience of Nature, mutes even the ill-intentioned passions dedicated to their willful defacement. The cold-chiseled coats-of-arms, the shattered features and limbs, are mutely and selflessly displayed. (Statues take their punishment unflinchingly; willful damage immediately takes on a surrealist quality.) All these mutilations are the eternal shame of those by whose hands the damage done. Time doesn’t heal stone; the maiming is as fresh as the day the dust settled. Time, though, eventually places ruins beyond our reach. If we watch with some satisfaction bronze dictators prized off pedestals, and with legitimate and ineffectual dismay antiquities topped with crowbars, smashed with sledgehammer or blown apart with explosives, it is because the former are still part of our world, the latter removed from it, and we have finally recognized ruins for what they are: Art. For that very reason, they require our protection, since they cannot defend themselves.

They deserve, as just recompense for their patience, to be placed beyond the reach of our passions, at least those destructive or interventionist ones, where we wish to eternally remain center stage, to be the principal players, where any other presence, be it inert and millennia old, is intolerable, where we would keep the past alive not for its own sake, but to provide significance to our dominance. We can’t rewrite history, but we like to think we can ignore portions of it by removing from the corner of our eyes inconvenient reminders of a past otherwise beyond our reach. Ruins need to remain beyond the grasp of that misguided egocentricity; how their silent silhouettes can irk is incomprehensible.

We can, and should, of course seek to arrest to some degree time’s erosion of ruins, but deftly, discretely, without compromising their nature. (We can, and do, dig carefully in their vicinity, the realm of archaeologists and historians.) Within earshot of ruins, the past murmurs to attentive minds; too heavy a restoration would still those voices, and we would only reveal that we have misunderstood.

Ruins are places of contemplation, like the spaces in front of paintings, spaces that should stand outside our petty preoccupations, for their own sake. In a sense, they are the sacred within the secular, belonging to no one, but to all.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1824, Oil on canvasCaspar David Friedrich - The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1808–10Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fog

Caspar David Friedrich. Left, the ruin as art: The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1808–10. Centre, man as the focus of the sublime: Wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818. Right, nature as ruin: The Sea of Ice, 1824

Ruins are Art, and thus require, in terms of the passions they solicit, that these passions be the apposite ones. No more than we would expect to make new arms for the Venus de Milo should we expect to “improve” on ruins. We may enthuse over the Mona Lisa or remain indifferent, but we wouldn’t propose that she would be prettier in a blue dress or with blond hair; we don’t draw up plans for a new nose on the Giza Sphinx. The Buddhas of Bamiyan likely listened in dismay to the chorus of would-be saviors who almost immediately proposed repairing them with concrete or resin; why make matters worse, they might have observed, just do a better job of protecting us next time.

The arena of our undertakings is the present and future, not the past. The remains of the past can be erased, but not the past itself. Rewriting history doesn’t change it, although it does change our view of it, usually for the worst, rarely for the better, as we shoehorn the past into our restricted view of things. We like the past to be convenient, to comfort and conform to our views, but the past just is, imposing our brief takes on old stories is petty. Leave the past – and above all, the lingering notes of the past – out of it.

That’s the reason ruins are so necessary to us. As Art, they define those human undertakings that are beyond our need to intervene, impose or change. These fading notes require that we listen, rather than raising our own out-of-key chorus to drown them out.

If we know what not to do with ruins, what then should we do with them? That’s the whole point. What do we do with Art? Principally, we content ourselves to pose only our regard upon it. We experience it without seeking to impose more than our reflections, contemplations and interpretations (modern art is a different matter of course; I am thinking of art by those who are no longer amongst the living). These encounters can be the well-cemented hooks on which we hang our concepts and thoughts, where we can come into the closest possible contact with the true nature our time on this Earth.

They are symbols of our acceptance to engage in Time itself, not as an unavoidable consequence, but as an action that may endure. Ruins are at our mercy, we may bulldoze them if we wish, but such acts only reinforce the transitory nature of our presence; you can destroy works of art, (and goodness knows humans have proved themselves to excel at it) you can’t destroy Art itself.

Architectural Landscape by Monsù DesiderioArchitectural Landscape by Monsù Desiderio

Architectural Landscape by Monsù Desiderio

The ruin as the actor and the stage: the enigmatic works of Monsù Desiderio. For more:Two Gentlemen from Naples

Regrettably, for something that doesn’t really belong to us, we have total responsibility, a burden we assume with varying degrees of success; any errors we make remain disfigurations until time gathers them up in distance and makes them part of history. Later generations will shake their heads, and discuss how backward we were.

Equally, ruins of some age (before the dominance of reinforced concrete, a substance that ages poorly, and without elegance) are made of materials found in nature, and their attrition leads them back to the nature from whence they were quarried. (Of course they cannot be preserved unchanged, and indeed should not be, since their recipe is entropy and their raison d’être abandonment, but time for them flows so much slower than for us.) They possess a harmony rarely equaled, that of substance and form, tempered by time, encroached by wild and growing things they are the perfect places for thought to wander unfettered. They may no longer house human beings, but they can house our imaginations, be the realms of wandering thoughts.

No practical archaeology for me, I have a nodding acquaintance with the wings of history’s stage, but little more. I’d rather leave that to others. My favoured domain is harder to describe, mixing myth-genesis, story and image, but I do know where those things are best found: within sight of old walls and crumbled arches. (If it were possible, I would speak in etymons and paint in imagos – admittedly nonsense, but an entertaining fancy nevertheless.) That is why I am so grateful to circumstance, for placing all that wealth of imagination across my path. No pretensions of mystagogy, no postulating for apprentice hierophant, no desire to become the centre of anything, just a sense of sensibility and a willingness to listen for fading notes.

Where that leaves me is with the profound conviction that Art is a work of many hands, and especially those of time, and especially in regards to stones humans place on stones. The works created belong to us in a way that is so far beyond our brief endeavours that to wander in a ruin is to wander in time, past the liminal threshold into the sublime, in the same way the first Romantics awoke to the hectic beauty of nature. We, like they, are shielded from its worst extremes, our minds are freed by that distancing to wander. Ruins are places of introspection and effacement of self; they deal well with the morning and evening light, witness to the ever-reenacted union of Eos and Astraeus, with Aeolus as best man, those transitional moments when the soul is less solidly anchored to the consciousness, and when it is more likely to be reached by the voices of numinae (if there is not a Lares of ruins, there should be).[8]

Where that leaves me is with the sentiment that ruins are the perfect numenon for the numinous (if you’ll pardon an indulgence of alliteration), the finite spaces that can house the infinite, as nature does. They are on the frontier between worlds past and present, human and natural, so many outposts on the borderlands between the commonplace and the transmundane.

Where that leaves me really, though, is wandering through a ruin, whenever I possibly can. I might stop looking to get back into that canvas and see what’s over hill and horizon.

And besides, chances are that blank spot has been overgrown with ivy by now.

John Howe, Neuchâtel, Switzerland



[1] “Be not the cause of your evil, but of thy good.”

[2] Viollet-le-Duc is buried in the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, in Lausanne, possibly not even under the modest headstone on plot 101 – many graves were relocated to make way for a freeway. He deserves far better; though monuments to his name abound, they are all of his own creation, done during his long and energetic career.

[3] The Romantic painters of the British Isles have Oliver Cromwell to thank for all those striking ruined abbeys and churches that were such favoured subjects. In a brisk half-decade, between 1536 and 1541, over 900 abbeys, monasteries, nunneries and religious houses were suppressed, many falling into abandonment and decay.

[4] For a little more on Piranesi and his engravings: Perspectives

[5] Legend has it that Horemakhet arrived from the west in some forgotten time, before settling down facing the Nile to contemplate the rising sun. From where he came, we don’t know; with his long tail, he carefully effaced his tracks. For a little more on the Sphinx: The Sphinx with a Thousand faces

[6] Memnon was a King of Ethiopia, hero of the Trojan War, slain by Achilles. His name, “Son of the Dawn” (he was reputed to be the son of Eos, goddess of dawn), led to his association with the statues, the whole Theban necropolis eventually becoming known as the Memnonium. The statues are actually representations of Amenhotep III, who reigned in the 14th century BCE.

[7] The current sense dates only from the mid 19th century. Heinrich Schliemann plowed vigorously through layer upon layer of city under the tell at Hisarlik, bent on unearthing Homer’s fabled Troy and spiriting away “Priam’s Treasure” by night. Arthur Evans applied rather more scientific rigour in Knossos.

[8] My guess is that Jungian psychopomps happily reside in ruins, along with the thistles and ivy (and the ghost of Edmund Burke).


NOTHING CHILDISH ABOUT CHILDREN’S DRAWINGS Fri, 14 Aug 2015 14:00:40 +0000 1922, London: Edmund Dulac, pen in hand, is not inking an illustration, but writing an introduction.

Impossible to guess at the exact circumstances surrounding the encounter of Edmund Dulac and an exhibition of children’s drawings that took place in London the year before. Was he amongst the guest invited to the opening, or was he alerted by acquaintances? Did he initiate creation of the book or offer to participate, or was he approached, as a prominent artist, to contribute an introduction?

“Christmas: pictures by children with an introduction by Edmund Dulac” was published simultaneously in London by J. M. Dent & Sons, and in Vienna by Burgverlag Richter & Zôllner, in 1922. The book reproduces fourteen artworks created by the pupils of Professor Franz Čížek’s Juvenile Art Class in Vienna in the 1920’s.[1]

Here are Dulac’s words:

We have all been brought up with the superstition, that efficiency in drawing and painting is the privilege of a few adults, that it can only be achieved after a long and arduous struggle, and by means only revealed to an intellectual oligarchy.

From time to time, however, the performance of some extraordinary child seems to throw a doubt on this belief and starts us wondering whether in the face of such achievements, the result of a few tender years’ work, the long efforts of maturity are no so much waste of misplaced energy.

But quite recently in a comprehensive exhibition organized in London by Mr. Hawker, we were shown not a few isolated examples, but an impressive number of works by children between the ages of 6 and 16 done in the schools directed by Professor Čížek of Vienna. These displayed not only the most vivid imagination, and uncanny power of observation, but an unusual freshness of vision, and remarkable ability.

The importance of the problem cannot be overlooked any longer. It goes further than aesthetic pure and simple, it opens a door upon the unexplored and somewhat disturbing processes of the human mind, and the child prodigy can no longer be looked upon as a freak.

Life, some will have it, is a never ending attempt at solving the sempiternal problems that have faced man since his first contact with realities; by seeking his knowledge through them, he evolved Science; when he stretched his activities beyond contingencies in an endeavour to organize the forces hidden behind his consciousness, Art was born, – Art, which was at the beginning Magic, and has remained Magic.

The Artist put at man’s disposal a tangible world of unrealities by means of the most illusory elements, things that have no existence outside our senses – colour, lines, sound – and made him master if he wishes of a world he could conjure up at will.

Through Art man becomes a child again, that is, his consciousness is lulled back into that sleep full of wonders from which he was tragically awakened by the phenomenon of the real world, and whose phantasmagoria lingered through his younger years.

We forget that we had those treasures of imagination, open to our hands and eyes and that we have deliberately buried them under the burden of our growing consciousness, and that all the while the child is there refusing to abandon them and sometimes making them visible and tangible for us and as perfect as the sophisticated phantasies of those more mature years!

To our utter astonishment, he uses a technique which we associate with a training of many years, a fact most worthy of notice, for it is evident that a very good knowledge of drawing can be acquired in an incredibly short space of time, and this may lead to an extension of the methods that have accomplished such good results, not only in art, but in all branches of educational training: a different and better comprehension and use of all the different kinds of memories and associations of ideas.

We fail, in general, to realise that technique is based on memory, the regulating element of most subconscious phenomena. The artist, even in drawing from nature, is reproducing forms that are memorised between the moment he looks at his model and the moment he puts his pencil on paper. Whether the model is immediately in front of him or was, a day or a month before, the process is the same, and it should not be any more difficult to keep an impression of a form for many hours or even days than for the short space of time required in drawing from nature.

Now, the child has this faculty developed to an extraordinary degree, because his subconscious organisation is still unimpaired, and his mnemonic stimulants have not yet been completely replaced by conscious habits. The younger he is, the easier the process. Why then, should we view accomplishments with wonder, and sometimes suspicion seeing that we take it for granted that learning of languages, which involves a far more complicated mechanism, and is sometimes an impossibility to grown-ups, is the natural privilege of children?

Professor Čížek has successfully demonstrated with his methods that the scope of reflexes can be enlarged, and that because a child is taught to paint, he need not necessarily have in view Art as an end and a profession. Understood in that manner, it ought merely of every child’s education; it should not consist any in the drudgery of drawing or stuffed animals, but should aim at preserving the freshness and spontaneity of the subconscious machine that is still at our disposal in the lumber room of our childhood.

This would help us to develop a greater sense of balance between objective and subjective worlds, to lose the fear engendered by the paralysing respect for our own habits, and we might be able instead of taking our cue from the puzzling contingencies that surround us, to time realities to the rhythm within ourselves, and realise perhaps the perfect harmony described by the Chinese philosopher when he said:

“Last night, I dreamt I was a butterfly, and now that I am awake, I do not know any more whether I am a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.”

Edmund Dulac

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Edmund Dulac, as everyone knows, was an immensely talented and energetic artist. His other writing (how one wishes for a book by Dulac in the same vein as “The Elements of Drawing” by John Ruskin)

Dulac is right in comparing art to Magic. Images were Magic once, and established in ocre and madder and soot the sacred and intimate connections to the world. The earliest artists drew the world in the same spirit that the First Humans in many mythologies are said to have named the animals: an act of appropriation, preparatory to the act of propitiation. The gesture of image-making was equally sacred, some practiced in secret, some in ceremony, Neolithic art is only the residue of the act of its making. Eventually the very act of drawing was dissociated from the drawing itself, the sanctity being invested in the image itself, the making no longer a part. Nonetheless, in images both sacred and profane magic exists in the intangible made tangible, the very definition of Dulac’s Magic

The Artist put at man’s disposal a tangible world of unrealities by means of the most illusory elements, things that have no existence outside our senses – colour, lines, sound – and made him master if he wishes of a world he could conjure up at will.”

Here Dulac touches on the very reason that pushes the maker of imagery (and for that matter, all the liberal arts) forward: the possibility of touching with your mind’s fingertips the indicible, of conferring a form of reality to something not real – a tangible world of unrealities.

Nevertheless, as Dulac underlines, this “intelligence” is a capacity lost to most adults. “…the child has this faculty developed to an extraordinary degree, because his subconscious organisation is still unimpaired, and his mnemonic stimulants have not yet been completely replaced by conscious habits.” In other worlds, nature, not nurture; a natural capacity which the apprenticeship of adulthood relegates to a memory. No wonder Dulac was enthused by the artwork displayed in London.

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The illustrations are mostly Christmas scenes, and the artists were all aged between 6 and 16. Every image in the book represents a remarkable achievement. What is it that made the work of these children and teens so accomplished?


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Title page and introduction by Edmund Dulac

Professor Franz Čížek inaugurated his Juvenile Art Class in Vienna in 1897. Prior to that, “the ‘father’ of creative art teaching” studied at The Academy of Fine Arts. Lodging with a carpenter’s family, Čížek spent much time drawing with the carpenter’s many children, and was struck by the spontaneity and directness of their drawing. Sharing his observations with his friends, these latter encouraged him to open his own school and put them into practice. He established a mandate, developed programs, and was allowed to open his first classes.

It’s worth noting that the art scene in fin de siècle Vienna rivaled Paris and Brussels. Čížek rubbed shoulders with Secessionist artists such as Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser and architect Otto Wagner. The official magazine of the Vienna Secession, “Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) began publication in 1898, echoing the German publication “Jugend”, and more traditional “The Studio” in London. An artistic revolution was in the air, stuffy and formalized academism was being supplanted throughout Europe in the wake of the breach opened by the Pre-Raphaelites several decades earlier. Art was Young and Art was New: Jugenstil, Art Nouveau, Modern Style, Secession, Liberty and their less ambitious counterparts: Młoda Polska, Arts & Crafts and Skønvirke, to name a few.

In the words of Ruth Kalmer Wilson, a former pupil of Čížek’s, “When Čížek, himself, came around, the procedure was that you were encouraged to draw something or he would tell a story, or ask some questions or say “draw whatever you want.” That was always in a small format. Then you would draw and make several drawings. Then when Čížek came through after about half an hour, he would go around and look at what people did. When he found something he liked, he asked us to make it big. What was used to work on was white wrapping paper stretched over frames. There were squares three feet by three feet or rectangles three feet by four feet or more.”

She adds: “Figures should be big, at least three quarters of the height of the paper. Pencil or charcoal lines had to remain visible; the paint had to be applied very carefully within or around them. Colours were opaque and flat. A quarter inch border line, painted in a colour of one’s choice was to serve the picture as a natural frame.”

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Illustrations from “Christmas: pictures by children with an introduction by Edmund Dulac”

Čížek’s classes were free. His teaching has all the idiosyncrasies of a highly personal pedagogy, but was dedicated to nurturing the artistic potential in each individual, not about filling up the ranks of art societies. He stated “The child comes into the world as creator and creates everything out of his imagination… The child is born with creative power, but at a certain age this power begins to decline. Either mannerism or naturalism appears, as a substitute for creative power.” He adds “too many pictures, books, visits to the theatre, cinema, etc., are bad for the child. The child is so strong and rich in his own imaginative world that he needs little else.”

In many ways, his approach echoes the then-prevailing sentiment that simpler peoples, who were considered child-like, had a deeper connection with nature; Rousseau’s noble savage in a classroom with pastels and paints. Nonetheless, the artwork produced by his pupils, if we are to judge by the book, displays many fin-de-siècle tendencies and characteristics, some ascribable to simply drawing from life, others attributable to the Secessionist taste for flat colours and graphic compositions. His observations are indictments against the Victorian establishment as much as they are invitations to explore an artistic purity of spirit.

Nonetheless, an evident sincerity and respect pervade his undertaking. While his pedagogic approach might not seem so extraordinary today, this was a time when girls were still happily excluded (for their own good of course) from many art academies.[2]

Up to fifty pupils attended his Saturday classes and were able to experiment with a wide range of materials, including drawing, painting, wood block printing, wood and plaster carving and modeling with clay. In 1904, the class was incorporated into the School of Applied Arts (where he also taught older students) and continued on until 1938. Franz Čížek died in Vienna, on December 17, 1946.

It is of course impossible to draw any all-embracing conclusion about children’s art from one example. Experts in the field abound, but of course, they are all adults, and I doubt any of them, myself included, recall what drawing actually meant when a child. The Child Art Movement was an eminently laudable undertaking, except the practitioners’ careers are necessarily brief, so definition and direction is by default in the hands of educators and school boards. Remains the encounter between an energetic French expatriate, one of the finest illustrators of all time, and a small exhibition in London, in 1921 or 1922, and the modest book that was the result.

Dulac’s musings, interrogations and appreciations are as fresh as the day they were penned. The ink never dries as far as we adults and Art are concerned: art is for everyone, until art decides what it wishes to do – or not – with us.



[1] To raise money for his Juvenile Art Class, Franz Čížek held the first exhibition of his pupil’s paintings and woodcuts in England as early as 1912, and until 1935. In November 1920, the children’s art was exhibited at the British Institute for Industrial Art in Kingsbridge, before touring the country. Birmingham teacher Francesca Wilson reportedly exhibited the child art in London in 1921, though Dulac attributes the organization of the exhibition he saw to a Mr. Hawker. (1912 also saw the first exhibition of children’s art in Alfred Stieglitz’s New York 291 gallery on Fifth Avenue.)

[2] See previous newsletters: