Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Man Of Words: Favorite Poems

A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds;
And when the weeds begin to grow,
It's like a garden full of snow;
And when the snow begins to fall,
It's like a bird upon the wall;
And when the bird away does fly,
It's like an eagle in the sky;
And when the sky begins to roar,
It's like a lion at the door;
And when the door begins to crack,
It's like a stick across your back;
And when your back begins to smart,
It's like a penknife in your heart;
And when your heart begins to bleed,
You're dead, and dead, and dead indeed.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Short, Incomplete Dissertation On The Eclectic In Culture

Way back at the beginning of Western Literature, everything was One. In Aristotle's Poetics, he described most of literature (which at the time meant largely poetry and drama) as falling into certain large, well-defined groups. A Tragedy dealt with persons of high degree having a fall or coming to a bad end. A Comedy dealt with lower people and ended on an upbeat note. In his description, and for hundreds of years, never this twain did meet. In Greece and Rome if you had a play in high style, it could be followed with a low, knockabout, scurrilous parody of the same story, often involving satyrs as the main characters (from which we get the term satire), but never in the same play. The Unities, as they came to be known, of time, place, character, and tone had to be preserved.

With the disintegration of the Roman civilization and the influx of barbarian invasion (and furthered by the Islamic incursions from the 7th Century on), Western Literature went to the wall. It was driven to the edges of Europe, where it mainly survived in monasteries, preserved by those who revered the precious heritage from the past. Thus it is to Christian monks that we owe the preservation of much that is left us of the old world of Greece and Rome; it is true that Islamic Arabs preserved many of their technical and scientific works, but stories and poetry were not.

At the ends of the earth western culture licked its wounds and tried to rebuild itself out of the shattered fragments that were left. And it was now that a very different voice began to emerge; a voice that was three voices, seeking to harmonize together. There was the High, from the Classical culture; there was the Holy, from Christianity; and there was the Homely, from the life of the people on the land, including their folk beliefs about ghosts, goblins, and magic. The voice of Middle Ages Europe was all three seeking to reconcile what it knew into one grand system. Perhaps the greatest offering of this impulse was Dante's The Divine Comedy, which has angels and Titans, griffins and saints, ghosts, demons, and the main real life characters from Greek and Roman history all cheek by jowl, as it were, in a grand tour from Hell to Heaven. It was the same sort of impulse that impelled the cathedrals, with their angels, saints and gargoyles.

Then along came the Renaissance and shook things up. Old books that had been buried in monasteries or Arabic translations were rediscovered; what began as a craze for old knowledge recovered turned into a culture for the present. Aristotle's observations on the workings of literature were now laid down as iron-bound laws of culture: where the Renaissance prevailed (as in Italy, and France) it was seen as barbarous and low to mix comedy and tragedy. Only at the very ends of the West, in England, where long habits of isolation and conservatism had made independence native did the syncretic tradition remain part of the cultural fare. While old stick-in-the-muds like Ben Jonson might insist on the Unities in his plays, writers like Shakespeare mixed kings and clowns, fairies and ancient Greece, laughter and tears in a heady brew. A defining example of this type of work might be Edmund Spenser's The Fairy Queen, with it's Arthurian nights, fauns, elves, dragons, and saints.

This syncretic, eclectic impulse remains a trope in our culture to this very day. From C. S. Lewis' Narnia books with their talking animals, centaurs, fauns, and dwarfs, to Neil Gaiman's Sandman with it's gods of many mythologies, superheroes, and imaginary friends, we love the mix, the crossover, the what if? What if Star Trek met Planet of the Apes? What if Gandalf met Dumbledore? Who would win, Superman or the Hulk? Purists may cluck their tongues and stroke their beards, but it is a pure, childlike desire, to see our friends from many genres mixed and mingling, in a glorious crossover pageant. It is a reconciliation or dialectic of our loves; and it is an accurate expression of our lives (at least our inner lives) and the way we experience them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


In Germany and its neighbors, as early as 1533, there appeared in the folklore a kind of goblin or bogeyman called a Kinderfresser (Child-guzzler) or Kinderschrecker (Child-scarer). It appears in an illuminated Book of Hours, in popular broadsheets sold at Carnival, and even as a fountain in Switzerland. Wherever it appears, it has three distinguishing characteristics: it steals children, it puts them in a sack, and it eats them.

I mention this now because I have lately been reminded by John at The Absurd Good News Network ( of the bogeyman of my youth. In his words: "There was also the man who took kids who would not take their naps away to the dump in a burlap bag, there to barbecue his naughty prize on a pile of burning trash." I realized I had been conflating this figure with an actual Peeping Tom who plagued our neighborhood for a while; I think our mother added it as a rider to make us take the danger seriously.

What impressed me was the cultural survival of this tale, how it seems to have come down through our German heritage as a sort of folk fossil, for 400 years. The stealing, the bag, the cannibalism. Take a look at that picture. One of those kids is pooping himself in fear. This is what makes this boogeyman peculiarly German; we have always had a profoundly humorous antagonism with our own bowels and their products; in fact, I suspect we might never had have the Reformation if Martin Luther had been more regular.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dragons Of My Youth

I have always loved dragons. But long before I was fully introduced to the hurricane-winged, fire-breathing incarnations of greed and wrath, there was a gentler, more comic strain of the breed that visited the scenes of my childhood. Let me knock at the old doors in my memory and introduce (or re-introduce) you to them when they answer.
The first picture shows the Reluctant Dragon from the Walt Disney comic adaptation of its short film. I chose this picture rather than a frame from the film because that was how I was familiar with it, in comic book form; so obscure a Disney film never was re-leased in theaters and never came on TV. The story I remember reading as a child had the fairy Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty finding a baby dinosaur to keep the Reluctant Dragon company and listen to his poetry.
The second picture is of the "Stupid Dragon" from Knighty Knight Bugs. We saw this one much more often, as The Bugs Bunny Show ran constantly when we were young. Yosemite Sam rode this dragon like a horse, and was always feeding it coal, because it had caught a cold from letting its fire get low. The dragon was always sneezing fire at inopportune times, mostly at Sam's butt. In the end it sent a tower full of dynamite to the moon with him and Sam in it, Sam muttering "Stupid Dragon!"
The dragon in the third picture is the Stupid Dragons direct descendant, made by some of the people who used to work in the Warner Brothers animation department. This was the Jolly Green Dragon, ridden by the Grump in the eponymous show, Here Comes The Grump. In this 1969 show, Terry, a boy from our world, his morphing "dog" Bip, and Princess Dawn try to stop the evil Grump from spreading his gloom across the kingdom. The Jolly Green Dragon was seldom jolly; he had the same cringing relationship with his master as the Stupid Dragon had with Sam. He even did the same abrupt stop that sent the Grump bumping painfully over his back spines to land in the dirt.
In 1970 came the Rankin/Bass incarnation of the Reluctant Dragon, in The Adventures of the Reluctant Dragon and Mr. Toad, as shown in the fourth picture. This dragon was more of a lovable goof than the aesthete of the Disney dragon; he also had an allergy to daisies that made him sneeze fire uncontrollably. This ability was often taken advantage of by his little friend Daisy, who used it to save the village they lived in from a bumbling pair of Vikings who were always trying to raid them.
The fifth dragon, the Lollipop Dragon, was part of a series of educational filmstrips we saw in grade school. We would file into the library, the room would be dimmed, the projector turned on, and the record begun. At each piercing beep the librarian would advance the strip one frame. I don't remember a lot of details of the stories; just that he lived somewhere called Tumtum, taught gentle lessons, and gave out lollipops to soothe over troubles.
Then of course there was Dudley the Dragon, whom I've had an entire post on, and H. R. Pufnstuf, who began life locally in San Antonio at Hemisfair '68, and deserves a whole post to himself. Musically there was Puff the Magic Dragon, who got a couple of animated shows of his own in the late '70's, where he was voiced by Burgess Meredith.
All of these dragons were gentle or non-threatening, even the Stupid Dragon and the Jolly Green Dragon, who were rather bumbling and who you felt would be alright if they had better masters. All were large without being imposingly huge. Their fire-breathing was absent or disabled; their wings were non-existent or tiny. A fun and comforting lot for the young, and ones I remember fondly.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holding A Place

Just a short note to say what's been up.

Lately I've been fighting a cold, and it's made me a little slack in applying myself to this blog. However, tomorrow is another day.

One thing I have been reading with absorbed fascination is this site: Television Tropes and Idioms at . Go check it out.

I leave with this quote from Samuel Butler: "Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Granny Weatherwax On Sin: Favorite Quotes

"...And that's what your holy men discuss, is it?" [asked Granny Weatherwax.]
"Not usually. There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin. for example." [answered Mightily Oats.]
"And what do they think? Against it, are they?"
"It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray."
"There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."
"It's a lot more complicated than that--"
"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes--"
"But they starts with thinking about people as things..."
--from Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations: Favorite Quotes

"Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.

"All appeared new, and strange at the first, inexpressibly rare, and delightful, and beautiful. I was a little stranger which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was divine: I knew by intuition those things which since my apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason. My very ignorance was advantageous. I seemed as one brought into the estate of innocence. All things were spotless and pure and glorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious. I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints, or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions, or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. Everything was at rest, free, and immortal. I knew nothing of sickness or death or exaction; in the absence of these I was entertained like an angel with the works of God in their splendour and glory; I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me. All time was eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be heir of the world, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?

"The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold. The gates were at first the end of the world, the green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me; their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The men! O what venerable and and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling angels and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born and should die. But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the light of the day, and something infinite behind everything appeared: which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver was mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins, and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the world was mine, and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds nor divisions; but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted; and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become as it were a little child again, that I may enter into the Kingdom of God."

--Thomas Traherne, 1637-1674

Thomas Traherne was an English divine about the time before and after the Restoration, which puts him squarely in the strong religious tradition of the time. Although he was published in his lifetime, it was mainly rather dry stuff on Church history and law; it was not until the late 19th Century that the main body of his works for which he is famous today were discovered and made known to the public. Some scholars consider him a fore-runner of the Romantic Movement and its ideas, although he was about 130 years earlier and unknown to people like Blake and Wordsworth; this seems to be another part of the trend of scholars to lump what they like together and denying that traditions they dislike could have anyone of worth, for instance considering Dante as "Renaissance" rather than "Medieval", and here Traherne "Romantic" rather than "Puritan". When I read these two paragraphs I immediately thought to myself "Yes. This is how childhood was!" Somehow, I had forgotten, but Traherne had called me back to remembrance, like a distant bell ringing in a dim wood that tells you that, wait, home is over this way.

Words of changed meanings: Centuries, means hundred. The Meditations were written in four groups of a hundred paragraphs; the quote above is mostly paragraph 2 and 3 from the Third Century. Apprehensions: not worries, but the way you know the world. Saluted: means greeted. Exaction: means punishment. Entertained: means amused, yes, but also occupied and accompanied. Orient: means shining.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Few Words About Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has recently won the Newbery Medal for his latest work The Graveyard Book, and in a few days the movie of his story Coraline will be hitting the theaters. I thought it would be timely to say a few things about him and his career.

He was born in England in 1960, which makes him only a few years my senior. While growing up his favorite reading was many of the classics of fantasy and science fiction, including J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lord Dunsany, G. K. Chesterton, James Branch Cabell, H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, and Thorne Smith, among many others. He began his writing career with journalism and interviews in these genres; one of his earliest books was Don't Panic!, about Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker books.

Gaiman's work notably developed in collaboration: his first published novel was Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett. He wrote story arcs for already existing comic books; he made up the character of Cagliostro for Tod Macfarlane's Spawn. These can be considered essays in already developed examples of mythos, as are his scripts for shows like Babylon 5 and Dr. Who, of which he is a great fan.

But the work that really established his fame and voice was The Sandman. At the request of Vertigo Comics, he revamped a moribund old DC Comics title into the story of Morpheus, King of Dreams, one of the seven Endless, anthropomorphic personifications more powerful than gods but less free than humans. For nine years Gaiman spun out the story about stories and their power, from Morpheus' imprisonment and escape to his final doom, in the meantime wandering over the DC comics continuum, time, space, Heaven, Hell, and the depths of human hearts. All the while he developed a mythos so characteristic and personalities so recognizable, and yet both so flexible, that other writers can work them almost seamlessly.

His novels and short story collections followed; Stardust, which began as a graphic novel and has become a movie; Neverwhere, which became a BBC mini-series; American Gods and Anansi Boys, which deal with lingering mythologies trying to make a life in modern America; and the short story collections Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things. All these works deal with the marvelous intruding into the mundane, but there is little airy-fairy about it; Gaiman's characters, even gods, love, bleed, and suffer, and on the whole exist in a gritty, sensuous world that carries with it an air of conviction and mystery.

Much of Gaiman's work has been, as mentioned, collaborative. He works with other writers, illustrators, and film makers to help embody his visions, and it is the mongrel strength that comes with these alliances that helps propel his work. Tropes, ideas and images from all the great fantasists that have gone before him are part of his palette, but it is the selection and personal twist with which he presents them that makes him the core and key element of the presentation of the same, and mediates them to the modern audience.

Gaiman moved to the United States some years ago, lives in Minnesota, and has three children. He has won just about every award possible in his various fields of writing. To learn more about him, there is an excellent site, which includes his own personal blog.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Alucard from Hellsing Action Figure

Don't have it. Rather pricey over on e-Bay. But pretty damn cool. Don't know if he has a hat (don't see one in the package); he needs one to look like the anime character. Thought AlanDP over at might get a kick out of looking at it.

Sailing To Byzantium: Favorite Poems


That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--Those dying generations-- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is: and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

--William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939