Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Return to Mermaid Island

To my fellow Americans, especially veterans and servicemen and -women: I hope you had a great Memorial Day weekend.  But between my recovery and the return of Mrs. Obscure for the holiday weekend, the Mythopoeic Monday blog had to be postponed.  In the future, I hope to have planned better so that the MM feature is truly regular, come hell or high water, but this week, I'm playing catch-up. 

Last Monday, I raised the topic of mermen and mermaids, as they have been placed on my mind by the recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie (which I still have yet to see) and by the classic bestiaries of D&D.  Indeed, the disparity between these two is the source of creative tension.  The iconic image of the mermaid -- half fish, half woman, with nary a merman* in sight -- as pictured above is not only classic, but seems to continue to have the strongest appeal.  We have not only the witness of On Stranger Tides in this matter, but that of a highly successful company whose espresso machines sing their sirens' songs, luring us in to spend more than ever before on coffee.  (For more on Starbuck's mermaid logo, see this excellent blog.)  Further, in the past week I have discovered two blogs entirely devoted to the mermaid: Melusina Mermaid and I am a Mermaid.  This frankly makes me want to dump mermen and go all classic, all maiden, all the time, but I'll save that for another setting.  For Ygg, I'll retain the sexual dimorphism.  Also, I am going to set aside the option of mermen as monster, another large part of their traditional role.  This latter decision stems largely from the considerations below.

Broadly, to even consider mermen as a race raises the question, what kind of race?  Again, when we turn to traditional lore, there is a strong tendency to make them a fey race, as for example, in the stories of merrows and selkies.  This would work very well in some settings, but I feel like I largely have faerie carved out for Ygg, and with its largely Nordic feel for the faerie, there is less call for the mermen there.  Indeed, the bestiary already includes nixies for fey water creatures.  Instead, there are two other elements on Ygg that pull the race of merfolk towards them: the classical civilization of the South (an imagined version of what the civilization of Greek city-states might have been like if they had survived and gone the route of independent colonies instead of empire) and the elemental races.  It is in relation to these two elements that I will develop the mermen further on the pages devoted to Ygg (see tabs above).  So it was the connection with classical mythology and the greater need for elemental races that finally decided the matter in favor of race.**  Appealing to classical mythology inevitably raises before our imaginary senses the sunken continent of Atlantis, and I will pick up with this in my Ygg updates.

In addition to looking to classical sources for inspiration, I'm interested in literary sources as well.  In Leigh Brackett's Skaith (John Eric Stark) trilogy, there are the mutated Children of the Sea.  Similarly, there are the Seaborne in Robert Silverberg's "Spawn of the Deadly Sea" (see link for Hunt the Space Witch! below).  From these I take the idea that mermen were originally human, but mutated -- in this case, by a god and not by pre-cataclysmic genetic engineering.  However, the idea of a casually related cataclysm is attractive and echoes the Atlantis myth.  These ideas will be developed accordingly in the respective Ygg sections tabbed above.

Finally, for further visual inspiration, I recommend the Flickr photo group Triton or merman, where I found the image below.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Triton als Brunnenaufsatz vor St.Johannis, photographed by Renzo Dionigi

* I recommend cartoons 1 and 3 here.  Note that the humor in these cartoons relies on prior shared knowledge about mermaids and the absense of mermen.  It is interesting to note that, based on the images in the Flickr group linked above, it would seem that our medieval forebears were much more familiar with mermen than we are, thanks to their immersion in the classics.
** The categories of "race" and "monster" in the D&D bestiarium are nowhere near as clear and consistent as I have been using them.  This is a tension that D&D frankly inherits.  In Tolkien, for example, orcs and trolls are generally treated as monsters, but there are scenes that almost shock us with their conversation and give us hints of some sort of society and technology belonging to them.  These raise some troubling questions for the mythopoet, especially as we reflect back on these categories of race versus monster.  The world builder has the option of deciding with some clarity upon these matters ahead of time, or leaving them open to allow clarity on the question to be created through story-telling, or, if it is not crucial to the story, leaving the answers vague.   I will admit to being in the camp that prefers to be clear on what is a monster and what is a race -- not for the characters, necessarily, but for myself.  This is a moral issue for me: it is not genocide to wipe out a nest of dangerous pests, it is genocide if they are a race.  As far as I can tell, it comes down to monsters being inherently evil and races having a potential for good through an inherently good creation.

Edit: Just ran across the work of Juan Cabana. Wonderfully horrific stuff, with an emphasis on the horrific.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Does a Gnome Tinker in the Faerie Wood?

The answer is YES!  (And apparently not just a gnome, but a badger and a puffin, too.  Sorry folks, private joke.)  Okay folks, I feel kind of stupid, but when I mentioned this product before, I somehow missed that not only were there three authors, but all three were pals of mine.  I blame the constant stream of medications I've been taking for the past couple of months. (And also Cosmo.)  Press release at the CGP site. 

So a big congratulations to Allen Taliesin, Mike Welham, AND CHRIS CORRELL!  Now Pathfinder players, go click buy, and Labyrinth Lord players, I hear the conversion for LL will be available in about a week or so.  More news as it develops.

Purchase Finwicket's Bestiary: Along the Faerie Path at Paizo.com..  Check out the free preview.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mermen Expose Sexist Blogger!

Arthur Rackham, A Crowned Merma
Well, perhaps something is exposed, but in this matter, I will leave the judgment up to you, my gentle readers.  To start with, Google searches confirm that the internet's impression of the world conforms to my own: mermaids are much more a part of our cultural consciousness than mermen* are.  So at least if the presumption of mermaids over mermen exposes something sexist, I am not alone in my turpitude.  The majority of mermen figures seem to be a particular figure: Neptune, Triton, or Proteus even when they go unidentified as such, for example, in the Rackham illustration above.  We are not surprised to see an illustration in the same tradition continue this mode of representation: the merman is the singular figure, the old sea king (the Dulac below).  In mixed gender groupings of merfolk, it is common for there to be a single one of these kingly, older mermen surrounded by a group of young mermaids.  It is not always clear whether we are looking at a group of daughters or an undersea harem. 

Illustration from The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

But in my mind, these singular figures stood out as unique persons in a veritable sea of mermaids: they hardly comprised a race of mermen.  It was with some shock then, that I encountered mermen as an underwater race in a gaming context.  (More on this in a future post.)  Yes, according to the highest authorities in fantasy role-playing, mermen where a sexually differentiated race of which mermaids composed only apparently only something like half of the population.

Now, as a kid, I could only relate this to a TV series that I had remembered liking, that classic of the small screen, "The Man from Atlantis," starring Patrick Duffy as the last survivor of the lost civilization of Atlantis.  The Atlantean man was the only choice to my mind other than the Gill-man, and clearly the choice of a monster did not fit the direction that the illustrations were leading me. Returning to my gaming roots has got me to thinking about the mermen again as a race, apart from the more common mermaid/siren of folklore and what she tends to represent.  Another major complication casts its shadow over any adult reconsideration of the matter:  the shadow from Innsmouth.

So once one has decided to adhere to the idea of a sexually dimorphic species, here is the major matter, as I see it, for world-building or mythopoeic purposes: do mermen best fit the role of race (demi-human) or monster?  A part, but not the whole, of this question is bound up in the lead of the illustrations, that is, are mermen less monstrous in keeping with what is suggested by their appearance, or is appearance misleading in their case, which has the potential effect of making them more monstrous, if anything? This will be the subject of my forth-coming post which will purpose these questions as directly related to the World of Ygg.

I'll close with a couple of potential pieces of inspiration to draw upon: Edward Vizetelly's "Mermaids and Mermen," in The English Illustrated Magazine No. 209, February 1901, (available online at the linked sites in part 1 and part 2) and a non-Western depiction of a merman, below.

Thai Merman by ~practicalmagic89
Thanks for stopping by for this week's installment of Mythopoeic Monday!  For an earlier treatment of related creatures, see N is for Neptune, Nymphs, Nereids, Naiads, and Nixies.

*NB I am not dealing with the question of sexist language, that is, whether the term "mermen " is inclusive or exclusive of mermaids, or that certain answers to that question are acts of linguistic sexism, but merely taking the terms as I find them.  I will leave the subject of politically correct genderspeak to some other time or some other person.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Elves of Ygg Updates

Artist Daniel Reeve's Interpretation of Some of Tolkien's Creations

The entries for the elves in the Player's Guide and Dungeon of Game-Mastery have both been updated.  There are further mechanical elements to support the world-building soon to come.  While the elves are a part of this Norse-inspired structure, and have Tolkienian and Christian elements, the most influential tradition on my poesis has been Hinduism.

The starting point for my inspiration was the old D&D convention that elves do not have souls and hence cannot be resurrected,  They may, however, be reincarnated.  I took this rather confused notion and simply interpreted it to mean that elves have a different kind of soul from human and other non-fae creatures, and that unlike humans, these souls go through a process of metempsychosis or reincarnation.  Hindu thought is thus a natural starting point for inspiration to develop the elves in the Ygg setting.  I took Tolkien's Iluvatar or Eru and identified it (for lack of a better pronoun) with (Nirguna) Brahman, and that opened the way up for a Trimurti or Trinity of Saguna Brahman. That, is, Deity in the ultimate, transcendent divine nature, and deity as known and interacting with lesser beings.

There is a nice parallel here with Sanskrit as well: my players can happily make use of any knowledge they have of Quenya to put in the mouths of the Brahmin-like priests who head elven, caste-organized society.  Making magic, or to be specific, enchantment, the elven birthright, mean the lowest members of elven society are those who have not yet passed through the cycle of rebirth, and are thus non-enchanted.  This makes nice work of the multi-class options for the characters and puts them into a social structure with mythic significance.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pain, Suffering, and Making Art

 Albrecht Dürer, JOB AND HIS WIFE,1504, STADELSCHES KUNSTINSTITUT, Frankfurt am Main

The image of the suffering artist has dominated the Western imagination at least since the English Romantics.  Based on my own experience, I understand this image to be of mixed value.  To separate the precious from the dross, I propose the following distinction: Suffering versus Pain.

First let us set aside the obvious: too much of anything is destructive.  A little water quenches the thirst.  A lot of water and you flood the land.  But beyond the issue of quantity, there is a difference of quality, and it is this that I am attempting to pick out.  The sensation of pain is not particular useful to artistic making or poesis.   Pain is gnawing, distracting, maddening.  Give me pain and all I want is an opiate to deaden it and make it bearable. And opiates send the artist to bed: unproductive.

But give a poet suffering, and they will give you operas, sculptures, novels.  Psychological suffering gives you Job, pain gives you Jesus.  Of Jesus' pain we have seven lines, of Job's pain we have thirty-one chapters of speeches.

As I look at my notebooks, the years where I was suffering from a bad romance were years of filling reams of pages of poetry and novel ideas: a motherlode that I will be fortunate to go back and mine in this lifetime.  As I look at the productivity of the past few months, plagued with pain, I had to struggle to produce the minimum.

There is an entire literature on Melancholia (melancholy) and the artist long before the rise of Romanticism that bears witness to the relationship.  Without crossing over into sado-masochism, we may take a pragmatic attitude that recognizes the potential in suffering and harness it.  Suffering cannot be eliminate; suffering sucks.  So we might as well get something out of it.

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, 1513-4.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Clockwork Gnome Tinkers for the Labyrinth Lord

My buddy Allen over at Clockwork Gnome Publishing just announced that he is expanding support in his Aerendal City setting product line from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game to include Labyrinth Lord as well.  Good taste, Allen, and good news for LL fans.  Check it out, gamers.

And if you truly have the luck of the fae, creature maker Mike Welham's forth-coming bestiary in the CGP's Cogs line will also get Labyrinthized.  Though not featured on this blog before, Mike has been turning out creatures for KQ and Rite Publishing, and I'm proud to say is another one of my hail-fellow-internet-well-met chums.

Great work, guys!  I raise the last glass of La Fin du Monde to you!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Siren Calls from the City of Angels


For this week's Mythopoeic Monday, I'm going to put my fellow ramblers in touch with a great resource person: Nick Owchar.  Or, as I like to call him, the Reason for the L.A. Times to Exist.  Nick is the Deputy Books Editor at the US's second-largest metropolitan newspaper in circulation and the fourth most widely distributed newspaper.  He also often reports on things that matter to mythopoets, such as Star Wars.  But once a month is when he does his truest and best work.  Flying his standard high, he writes The Siren's Call. I have not been the first in the blogosphere to recognize Owlchar's work: the late, great blog The Cimmerian commented on his attentions to Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith on more than one occasion.  If you are a book person, you know how seriously our genre works are taken by the literati.  They ignore such popular (sneer) works of escapism (double sneer) except for when they are compelled to pay attention, and they resort to mockery.  This in spite of the fact that they cannot hold a candle to writers such as Tolkien or Lewis in their discursive writing, let alone in their powers of invention.  Thus Owchar is a rare bird to begin with, but his position in the high places of American media makes his work even more important.  While the first reason to bring him to your attention is because I believe you stand to benefit from his work as I have, secondly I do so because we need to support such work for the good of the mythopoeic community as both sub-creators and consumers.

Siren, The Louvre

Nick in 2009

Nick before the Siren got hold of him.

The Siren's Call is dedicated to fiction that fits into the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, magical realism, and to non-fiction works that treat of mythic matters.  Oh, and also mysteries and graphic novels and travel books and the classics of Western literature.  See what I mean?  All over the place, like a real mythopoet.  For example, last month's column covered books on the chupacabra, the monster of Gévaudan (a similar beast in France), and the kraken.  Great stuff if you were working on creating your own real monster for your adventure or putting together a cryptozoological hoax as a mystery to be solved.  Both the mythic and the science angles are covered.  Also, Owchar has you covered this month on land and on sea.  For readers of our interests, Nick will turn you on to new novels to entertain and new sources to research. 

NOAA scientists aboard the G. Gordon examining a giant squid off the coast of Louisiana.  Photo by Smithsonian.

Now, I wish today's post could be all sunshine, and rainbows, and monstrous women singing you to your doom, but this gem of a column is not getting its due at the paper.  Not only is the Siren's Call monthly only (an outrage!  Make Siren's Call weekly!  Give Owlchar a limo!  A raise!), but it is accessed from the Books page only and it seems past months of the column are only being displayed from so far back.  If this is not the case, then the way to find them is unfriendly as to render them practically non-existent.  (Don't make me do the syllogistic thing and show you what this says about the Times' existence!)  In the course of Googling like crazy for today's blog, I did run across this Archive.  I have no idea how to navigate there, otherwise.  So first order of business, and the one that will require the least from the L.A. Times, is to give each one of these features (most importantly, Siren's Call) their own landing page off off the main Books page for all the previous months.  This would be an easy way to make the columns more visible and more useful to their audience.

In sum, get hold of the L.A. Times online or at the news-stand and make The Siren's Call a part of your mythopoeic diet.  I hope you will also look for ways to make our influence more visible in the market place so that providers like the L.A. Times get the message that we are customers worth reaching and that people like Nick Owchar are to be given the resources to meet our demand and the rewards for doing so well.

Just a parting reminder for any Lakers' fans.

Friday, May 6, 2011

News Flash! Neil Gaiman is a Weasel!

Leaked document that has come into your Obscure Mythojournalist's possession.  Notice the self-portrait at the bottom and the clear signature of Gaiman mid-page.

Ever once in a while, there will be a news piece of such import, that I must stop the virtual presses and interrupt your regularly scheduled programs to be sure that Mythopoets get the News They Need (working on the appropriate registration here). 

Matt Dean, Republican leader of Minnesota state representatives, has outed Neil Gaiman.  In this fine piece of public servanthood, Dean has fingered Gaiman as a "pencil-necked little weasel who stole $45,000 from the state of Minnesota."  If you poke around Gaiman's blog and look at his latest entries, you will see that he admits to being a "pencil-necked little weasel."  It's the thief part he bristles at.  Let me break this down for you: Gaiman admits to being a weasel because it's true, it's out, at this point it's past plausible deniability.  He's moved on to damage control: He's not a thief.  But is he the mustelid Richard Nixon?

However, informed mythopoets are not going to let this weasel business pass so easily.  We've read our kitsune and tanuki stories.  We know how much trouble these fey furries, these amoral shape-shifters are.  And we are on to you, Mr. Gaiman.  Try your pencil-necked, shape-changing, sticky-fingered tricks now, Gaiman.  We are watching.

Now, do I need to even return to this thief business?  Maybe when Gaiman escaped Her Majesty's United Kingdom, he thought he had escaped the long arm of Kenneth Grahame.  Not so, Gaiman.  Mythopoets the world all over know their Wind in the Willows.  Uncle Walt, fearing a day when American illiteracy might give a cloak to the wicked, made sure of that:

Yes, we've read the end of the book, and we've brought its ending to screens big and small for the good of the mythopoeically illiterate.  Gaiman, everybody knows that weasels are thieves.  The game is up.

Now, if Mr. Gaiman wants to defend his reputation, the way I see it, he has one avenue left to him to save his pencil-like weasel neck: Come on MR  for an interview, Mr. Gaiman.  Defend your reputation if you can and let the Ramblers judge.

Nothing is More Important than Correctly Pronouncing Fantasic Words!

1 : an artificial being in Hebrew folklore endowed with life
2 : someone or something resembling a golem

The above are GO-lems.  
Not GOL-lums.  Not this guy:

If you can't hear the difference between the long O and the short O in English, please seek help.  If you can't be helped, please refer to them as "an artificial being from Jewish folklore popular in D&D games" and "Smeagol," respectively.  Stop stabbing my brain through my ears.

This rant was brought to you by the last podcast I listened to where one of the speakers kept calling the magical constructs, Gollums.  Have your own pet peeves about the mispronunciation of fantastic words?  Let us hear about them in the comments!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Development in Ygg

I've finally figured out that I can turn comments on for my Dungeon of Game-Mastery page (tab above), where I am developing the Ygg setting that was favored with some interest.  I've also added a "World of Ygg" label for blog posts, so that I between the two clicks, interested parties can go between the two and get the latest on what's happening with the setting.

It looks like there's enough interest that I'll run an online play-by-post set in Ygg sometime this summer.  I'll post a link to where that will be when the time comes for interested readers.  Also, I've decided to use the Core Rules of Swords & Wizardry for the game, so I will leave you with this badge of mystical membership.

I like that creepy magic-user.  He looks like someone who would understand this guy:
You may want to skip ahead to about 9:30 to set up for the relevant dream sequence.  Unfortunately, the video is a mirror-image.  :-(

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Durians for John Stater

Sunday night, the fam and I stopped by one of the Asian groceries in town, so I had to snap a shot of the world's stinkiest fruit in honor of John Stater putting out the newest issue of the old school gaming e-zine, Land of Nod.  John does really creative work, and I've enjoyed the copies I've gotten, plus the generous sharing of the material on his blog (you can back-track there from my link above).  I'm afraid if John ever has an opportunity to taste the durian, he's going to come after me.  But until then, cheers, John, and keep up the good work!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Looking Back Over My Ramble through the Alphabet

Alphabet of Uncial Gothic Capital Letters, 16th Century.

Well, I did it!  To me it, it was with satisfaction that I posted all 26 days without missing or getting behind (I made no goal as to what time I would post everyday.  As the oracle said, "Know Thyself.")  I had a rough plan sketched out in advance that had multiple options for almost every day, and some days already set.  A few days I didn't decide until the day of, and a few I changed, but the loose plan as a whole worked well for me and gave me some freedom.  I started out with an emphasis on mythic archetypes and as we came to the end, I started focusing on the beginnings of a hypothetical setting as an exercise in using mythological sources as an inspiration for world-building, which wasn't planned.  The experiment brought in some new readers and pulled them from a different part of the blogosphere than I was reading before, including new followers and commenters.  That it was fun for me and seemed successful statistically renders it a win-win in my eyes.  Naturally, I hope that you all agree.  There a few comments I still plan on getting back to, so I hope folks check back on the comments from time-to-time.  I really, really do appreciate your challenges, questions, musings, poesies, nose-gays, what-have-you.

In particular, I'd like to mention three aspects that I appreciated about this undertaking, looking back on it.  First, there was a plan, but it was flexible.  I know that some people were more focused in approaching the 26 day challenge than I was, for example, 26 Days of Pie  (Did somebody really do that?  Don't get distracted by mouth-watering visions of pie, it's an example).  I could have, for example, treated 26 archetypal figures or 26 locations in the World of Ygg or something like that.  Such a tighter plan might be interesting for a future undertaking, but frankly, just getting a blog up each time that I thought was interesting and decent on any 26 subjects that fit the domain of my blog was enough of a discipline for me this time around.  Second, I liked the discipline of doing it.  I hope that it improved my blogging skills and it gave the blog a reliability factor that it didn't have before, when it was essentially whenever the wind blew me over here with something to blog about.  Third, I liked the kind of creativity that this challenge pulled on.  Normally, I would blog when I felt like I had something specific to blog about, whatever that was.  The arbitrariness of the alphabet married to the demand of having to post something at a given time pulled my creativity in different directions than the previous program of blogging did.  This raises the question, Whither now?

Entering the demanding crunch time of the semester, I will now tend back to my "Let the Spirit move me" [non]discipline out of a kind of practical necessity.  But seeing the helpfulness of structure and discipline to myself and, I take it, for my reader's expectations, I am going to minimally post on Mondays in addition to the random posts that will appear based on happenstance and inspiration.  So, if you are wanting to look out for my posts on a particular day, say to yourself, Mythopoeic Mondays!  The other posts will likely be more occasional and ad hoc, the former, more epic and thought-out.  Well, maybe just more thought-out.

But above all, I'm looking for ways to improve the blog.  You will notice that I've added labels to facilitate exploration.  I'm also going to be adding tabbed pages at the top.  I'm not sure what all will end up on those pages, but one will definitely be specific to gaming resources.  I keep playing with house rules and other resources to produce Basic/Expert (Moldvay/Cook) mechanics, rules, and possibly setting material that fit the kind of pulpy, Sword & Sorcery game that I have been in the mood for lately, and those may go there.  Whether this ever comes together as my own fantasy heart-breaker, we shall see, but maybe such material would be of interest to some folks and I'm sure would benefit from feedback, so those are a candidate for their own page.

Now I turn to you, gentle readers, and your desires, druthers, and determinations.  I'm very interested in hearing:

1.  What do you, the readers, want from our mythopoeic rambles?
2.  How could the blog be improved?

I'll entertain any feedback you care to share.  I appreciate it!