Or A Few Words on Fantasy and the Fine Art of Unravelling
I’ve often wondered how best to describe what by default must be qualified as an approach or method to fantasy illustration.
But, the more I think about it, the more I attempt to apply reason to my work, the more elusive any method appears to be. Thus, I’ve come to set my need for organization and method rather like a fence around a field, a field full of cotton-headed sheep, or like the thick black contours in a colouring book of simple shapes, but inside which I scribble in a most undisciplined fashion.
But, at last I’ve decided on a word that sums it up: tatterdemalion.
Not only does it have a certain irresistibility of enunciation, both staccato and sognando, it possesses a suitably ambiguous parentage. Bear with me, this is going to be a newsletter as ragged and patched as the word itself.*
According to most etymological dictionaries, it is a “ragged child, person dressed in old clothes,” 1608, probably from tatter, with fantastic second element, but perhaps also suggested by Tartar, with a contemporary sense of “vagabond, gypsy”; first written tatter-de-mallian and rhymed with Italian.
You have to love definitions that flush out more questions than answers. Starting with tatter, which would be mid-14th century: “clad in slashed garments”), from Old Norse toturr “rag,” cognate with Old English tættec, tætteca “rag, tatter,” Low German tater “tatter.” The noun is (apparently) attested from c.1400. (Ignored the superficial etymological dictionary that linked “tatter” to “tater”, and from there to potato. No patience for tuberous associations by alliteration or over-eager anagram.) One lonely descendant, and naught but a nonce: tatterdemalionism.
Now, that’s meagre fare for a word which carries in its folds and creases so many connotations, like leaves caught in an old cloak. -Demalion may well be related to Old French desmailler ...“to break the meshes of”, or to tear, from Old French maillon or maillot. Perhaps the mystery is beginning to unravel. Also associated with “maille” is mail or chain mail. Shades of knights and proud destriers, chamfreins and bards aglister. (As for the “de” it is likely used with no more precision than in Hobbledehoy (a “clumsy or awkward youth,” 1540, first element is probably hob in its sense of “clown, prankster” - see hobgoblin, where “hob” is defined as “elf” - “dehoye” perhaps being Middle French de haye “worthless, untamed, wild,” literally “of the hedge.”) Does the abundance of “de” in such words send us back to the Normans and their slowly assimilated presence on British soil? Anybody’s guess. Mysteries, rather adverse to unraveling, tend to thicken without notice. (In such an etymological charivari, it pays to be chary of so much charismata.)
With “-demailion” dismissed as “fantastic”, that definition definitely needs to be explored. Fantastic: late 14th century, as in Old French “fantastique”; Latin phantasticus (imaginary); Greek phantastikos ( able to imagine) from phantos ‘visible’. In sum, able to see what can’t be seen with ordinary eyes. “To make visible.” Thus, by implication, to see what is not. To peer in direction of the secret commonwealth that is only visible from the corner of the eye. (Mythago, anyone?) Also playing a tune in the shadows is the French “fantasque”, which entails more than just a little madness. And no method to speak of. Now, the fantastique has deep roots, firmly set in the soil of the chansons de geste, like the Song of Roland, or the romances of Chrestien de Troyes, the Roman de la Rose, or Renart; an extended sojourn in the lands of oc and oil, all the way through the detours of the Enlightenment and the Baroque to Perrault and d’Aulnoy. Good company. (English “phantasy” is little more than a transient trace of the Latinizing vogue from the 16th to 19th centuries.)
The unavoidable Ben Jonson makes one of the first recorded uses of the word in 1611. In his rather ribald panegyric to Coryat’s Crudities (Containing his Observations of France, Amiens, Paris, Fountaine Beleau, Nevers, Lyons, Savoy, Italy, Turin, Milan, Cremona, Mantua, Padua and the Most Glorious, Peerlesse and Mayden Citie of Venice), he wrote “Ths Horse pictur’d shows that our Tatter-de-mallian Did ride the French Hackneyes & lye with th’Italian…”, which might well indicate it rhymed more or less with Italian, however he pronounced that word, of course, with all those shifty vowels muttering in the wings. (Jonson would be turning in his grave with everything that’s said on his account, had the poor fellow not been buried upright.) John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, etc. (1809) lists it as a synonym to skybald, scalrag, shake-rag-like, tarloch, and the more familiar rapscallion. Taretathers all, but excellent if ragged company. Mirriam-Webster associates it with Shakespeare’s bezonian, but it goes rather better with his patch in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other seventeenth century spellings include tattertimallion, tatterdimallians, totterdemalions, tatterdemalean and more. (“Tattermedallion” is a 20th-century addition, with a speculative and unconvincing pedigree. Inattentive typesetters, more likely.)
Tatterdemalion describes exactly how I feel I proceed through the business of fantasy, slowly unraveling and gathering as I go. For each tattercoat thread left on a bramble there is a fresh leaf caught in the folds of the cloak. For each night spent under the hedge, there is a nightsky of stars to read. Little method and a modest measure of madness. One gathers one’s ragged cloak against the cold but breath on the early morning air is so fetchingly graphic a device.
I am never so content as when I forget myself in my work. When the images themselves assume such importance (all relative, bien entendu) that the creator of them is the eager vavasour at their beck and call. A sort of vagabondage de bon aloi, from captivation to fascination, each time gathering something, and likely losing something else. Ever noticed how proud the ragged-edged are of their poor garments? It’s because they are not just clothes, they are the patchwork heraldry of errantry without shining armour, only a Cote Mal Taille. Lost in work, or in good company, and it need not be human. It might be the simple poetry sometimes glimpsed in companions of fortune, but it might be just the wind and weather - or broken shells on a beach or leaves fallen. Wide vistas or small. Everything that contains some glint of glamour that can add to the conviction of depiction so sought after and so seldom attained.
But this is not really about some romantic gypsifying (another nonce word for you) of an often difficult profession, it’s about light and perspective.
Fantasy painted is tatterdemalion with light, who is never a sage and retiring actor on any stage, but who steals in and out at will, no good at remembering lines and extuent; everything depicted is ragged at the edges with stories implied, with connections and connotations, a romani of tongues all talking out of turn. The blurring of edges, the reluctance to define crisp borders graphically is the visible transliteration (I spend an inordinate amount of time rounding off and bedimming contours; to leave then too sharp is to fall into an arbitrarily selective perspective, rather than one governed by light and air) of a need for continual emulsification of intuition and intellect. Wind and rain are equally helpful, gracefully and obligingly blurring motion and distance. (The narrative talents of meteorology are never to be underestimated.) Ragged edges keep nothing out.
Fantasy illustration is a garment that is rags and riches in the weft and warp. The stories it tells are always just so. Fantasy is more about brambles and hedges than open fields (Metaphors thrive more readily under decent cover.) Always something hidden, something disguised, all about the depth and the maybe-meaning of the almost-seen-clearly. Ignes fatui in fading light. The opposite of esoteric, which is ultimately a fastidious exercise, and looks down its long nose at such messy extrapolations.
But, before this becomes all too awkwardly romantic and lamely narcissistic, here is a field guide to help you identify the tatterdemalion in its natural habitat:
Gathers broken shells on beaches, pebbles with holes in them and other hopeful but powerless talismans. Goes for long walks on steep hills, spends much time watching the sea. Picks up dead leaves and tries to memorize their structure. Becomes enamoured of themes to a point beyond any reason. Works into the night, but still gets up at dawn. Never seems to do well enough. Can only look back on work that is so old it no longer matters. Knows the next painting will be the one. Wants to get it right but cannot define what right is. Hates getting it wrong (but quite familiar with that feeling, thank you.) Cannot even describe that it is for that matter. Buys useless and usually broken things because they suddenly appeal. (To what? Cannot define.) Would happily be a knight in shining armour, but rust just gets everywhere. Loathes paperwork (how terre-à-terre and quotidian). Is always busy, but never done. Isn’t at all heroic or invincible, but daydreams about it. Works hard on things that don’t matter because somehow they do. Gets lost in thought often (has no proper map). Is a little raggedy at the edges, and patched at the elbows, but patches of gold and silver. Goes to buy groceries and comes back with books. Can spend whole life drawing pictures of things that don’t exist. Occasionally peers out of hedge at the world speeding past, but knows roads are dangerous things… they can lead just about anywhere. Even to the other side of the world.
*Originally written in a much more structured form, I’ve dragged it through brambles and puddles and patched it up with found bits of mismatched stream-of-thought. It may not have worked, but it was worth a try. That’s what fantasy is all about.
Special thanks to Ann Carling, who helped enormously with unraveling the etymological threads.
Posted by John on 15/02/10 | 04:00 AM | Chronicles
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