Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Superman Link

I haven't been combing the internet for Superman material much lately. Still, every once in a while something comes across the comb, so to speak.

Like this essay, by Stephen Lovely at Portalist.

Superman struggles with as many internal motivations and priorities as any other superhero, or any other person. He is an orphan, an immigrant, and an alien. He is feared and loved. He is in a love triangle with two women (Lois Lane and Lana Lang); he is in another love triangle with himself (Lois Lane, Superman, and Clark Kent).

These aren’t simple issues, and they can’t be easily resolved despite Superman’s ultimate morality. Superman always strives to do ‘the right thing’, but the questions he faces in each story ought to be tough enough to match his intellect and his drive for goodness. With the right conflict, a Superman story is more than a superhero story, and Superman’s true value shines through.

It's a response to the occasional statement that Superman is boring, and I tend to agree with Lovely's argument, even if I would put it in a different way. Anyway, good stuff that I might revisit soon.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Miracle Monday

I missed Miracle Monday, didn't I? Oh, well. I'll blame it on my son's tonsilectomy happening that day, my ghostwriting gig, my editing work, proofreading, and having  to index my Superman book. A while back I actually did write a post about Miracle Monday, so might as well  post it belatedly.

For whatever reason, nobody published novelizations of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. However, Elliott S. Maggin wrote a couple of novels around the same timeframe, published by Warner Books, that were photographically, if not narratively, tied in with the movies. By that I mean that there are pictures of Reeve on the cover and a section of photos from Superman II in the middle.

The plot is fairly straightforward: A demon named C.W. Saturn is tasked with taking Superman's soul. He tries to get it--and it must be done in a fair manner, i.e., Superman has to agree or commit some heinous sin--by wearing down the hero to the point that Superman would commit murder just to make things stop. So Saturn takes over the body of a young woman (who just so happens to be a time traveler from the future who's trying to figure out exactly what happened on Miracle Monday) and causes all sorts of havoc all around the world, starting with revealing Superman's secret identity. Superman's got to stop him, which is both an act of will and a superheroic feat. He does stop Saturn, of course, by not giving in to exhaustion and despair.

It's a pretty good little novel. Maggin knows Superman better than just about everybody, and it's on display. Including Jimmy Olsen and Perry White seems almost perfunctory, but in a story about Superman's secret identity being exposed, it's also obligatory. I did like the conversation between Lois and Clark after she finds out.

Miracle Monday is an artifact of its time--back when Clark Kent was a television news anchor (which just doesn't seem to work for him, no matter the rationale behind it).

The time travel works as a framing device, with the travelers going back in time to find out why people started celebrating Miracle Monday in the first place. It's a holiday in which everybody is just happy to be alive, with Superman as it's patron saint. So as we learn about the holiday, the fact that everybody's memory of the events leading up to it will be erased becomes clear. As if it wasn't already obvious when Saturn exposes Superman's secret identity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

French Sources of Mystery

One reason I haven't been posting much lately is that I've been combing through a bunch of old French books. Particularly, the Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses to which Borges refers in "Fauna of Mirrors."

Let's review: The "Fauna of Mirrors" story opens as follows:

In one of the volumes of the Lettres edifiantes et curieuses that appeared in Paris during the first half of the eighteenth century, Father Fontecchio of the Society of Jesus planned a study of the superstitions and misinformation of the common people of Canton; in the preliminary outline he noted that the Fish was a shifting and shining creature that nobody had ever caught but that manysaid they had glimpsed in the depths of mirrors. Father Fontecchio died in 1736, and the work begun by his pen remained unfinished; some 150 years later Herbert Allen Giles took up the interrupted task. According to Giles, belief in the Fish is part of a larger myth that goes back to the legendary times of the Yellow Emperor.

I've gone through most of Giles's work (already mentioned here) and now I've gone through all but one volume of the Lettres. In the thirty-some I've gotten access to, there is no mention of a Father Fontecchio, or of fish being in mirrors and attacking our world.

I say all but one volume: I haven't been able to get number 31 yet.

Keep in mind a few things. First, my French is pretty rusty. Second, this is eighteenth-century French. Still, I think I've been pretty thorough. All the volumes of the Lettres are available on-line in searchable formats. I used the same terms for each volume search: miroir, Fontecchio, Zallinger, poisson, superstition.

I used to be certain that Fontecchio was a real guy, though I can't recall why and have no source for that. Zallinger is equally obscure. Let's see, there's reference to Zallinger (as Zallinger, P.) on the University of Pittsburgh's Borges Center site, but nothing on Fontecchio. They publish a journal devoted to Borges.

So what's the next step? I dunno.  

Friday, April 28, 2017


Here's another Matrix video that popped up yesterday. This time, on the craft that went into its production and post-production.

Thursday, April 27, 2017


I remember going to see The Matrix when it came out in 1999. One of the best parts of that was going in with no expectations. Everything was a surprise. A couple of web series (A History of Violence and Really that Good?) revisited The Matrix this month, and they're worth checking out.

Tom Briehan's essays on action films in A History of Violence:

More than any movie before or since, The Matrix made Keanu Reeves part of the action-star pantheon. Reeves, who’d been enough of a cowboy to do stunt work in Point Break and Speed, took things to a new level, setting new standards in Hollywood action-star diligence. And more importantly, he didn’t just give an athletic performance; he meant it. Reeves’ kung-fu poses never looked goofy; he sold them through commitment and sincerity. And the dazed sweetness that had always been his movie-star calling card also showed through. Reeves always used to get shit for being a terrible actor, but he sold bewilderment like nobody else. When he muttered “whoa” at the sight of Morpheus taking to the air, he was speaking for the audience. And you won’t find too many iconic badass moments more iconic than the one in the subway station, when he decides not to run from Agent Smith and turns to fight him instead.

Moviebob's in-depth look at some of the most popular films in Really that Good?:

Moviebob also digs into the Matrix sequels a bit, which is worthwhile. If you like that video, check out the Really that Good? entry on Ghostbusters, too.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mystery: Norman Thomas di Giovanni

I don't have a lot of time to dig into the mystery--which is what I have been calling the origin and authenticity of the story called, variously, "The Fauna of Mirrors," "Animals in the Mirror," and "Animales del Mirro" by Jorge Luis Borges...and maybe Margarita Guerrero. Less than an hour per week, maybe. Not much time, really.

So today I wanted to devote my few minutes to Norman Thomas di Giovanni. I found this. di Giovanni worked directly with Borges on translations of Borges's work into English. As things progressed, after Borges passed away, di Giovanni found himself being deprived of the results of that work. Publishers and Borges's widow had begun releasing newly translated versions of Borges's Spanish editions, without di Giovanni's contributions at all. He writes:

Behind my back, I was being ushered out of the door (if such a mixed metaphor is permissable) and at the same time was being airbrushed out of history, out of Borges's existence. All of my volumes of his work - work to which he contributed and gave a unique voice - were deliberately allowed to go out of print. No publisher, no editor, no agent, no executor of any estate ever wrote to me to explain any of this. New translations appeared. Viking-Penguin had bought up E.P. Dutton, and unilaterally, without a single word to me, they nullified my contracts, an act which experts in the law have told me was illegal. So ruthless was Viking that they even commissioned a new edition of Borges's poems, stealing from my edition, without permission, without payment, a considerable body of my work.

This is all very depressing.

I learned all this when I was looking up di Giovanni with the hopes of contacting him about the mystery. He passed away in February of 2017.

Norman Thomas di Giovanni will be remembered by friends in Buenos Aires for his wit and for his brash manner in all that he set out to do. He must also be remembered for his brilliant literary training, his high quality as a translator and his capacity to move from his hard-knocks managerial style to his kindness as a friend to all of his friends and for his often excessive generosity. Di Giovanni wanted to help the whole world. He was a sponge for attention and affection from all those he befriended or was close to at any one time.
However, Di Giovanni would probably want to be remembered simply as the best translator that Jorge Luis Borges ever had.

Friday, April 14, 2017


I've been thinking about American National Character a lot lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about stories we tell about large-scale conflict. This sort of thing has been on my mind for a while now, ever since I was teaching a myth course when the movie Troy came out. Some students in this myth class liked the film, particularly the parts in which Achilles talks about how the Greeks weren't portrayed in the best light. Their sympathies lay with Hector and Troy.

Now, I think lots of people today have the same sympathy. This is interesting because the Greeks of Homer's time probably didn't share it.

Back to stories of large-scale conflict. I'm referring to alien invasions and the like. Independence Day, Star Wars, Avengers, all that. Stories of underdogs. Overwhelming odds being beaten by a small group of heroes.

Here's where you've got to follow me: America's fascination for underdog stories stems from the perception of the country's origin as the result of the actions of just such a team of underdogs, often referred to as The Founding Fathers.

Take this premise through time, and we see that our most popular stories have at their core the same themes already present in our myth of national origin. So of course people see in Star Wars a version of US-England conflict--never mind its references to Vietnam.

Here's where history becomes important. The US had no chance to defeat England, or rather would have had no chance if England hadn't been embroiled across the globe in conflicts with France and Spain. England didn't have the opportunity to employ its full military might to stop the colonial uprising. Yes, France gave aid to the colonial rebellion, but myth has downplayed that. I remember seeing that movie The Patriot when it came out, with Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. There's maybe one French guy in it (or more; honestly, I don't remember much about that movie).

Yet our national myth has erased that very detail of history, that England had lots of things going on. The Empire in Star Wars didn't also have to battle The Other Empire while facing the Rebellion. Or the Other Other Empire. I haven't seen the Independence Day sequel, so maybe that one's about the aliens conquering earth because they finally defeated the competing conquistadors from the Crab Nebula. Yeah, my astronomy knowledge is pretty thin.

There's a book to be written about this topic, I think. Drawing mostly on movies as the texts of the myth, but also on children's school books on history,

These movies have one thing in common: once something small about the enemy is destroyed, the whole Empire falls. More or less. I mean, Iron Man blows up that thing in the space hole in Avengers and the whole alien army falls down dead. Luke shoots the exhaust vent in the Death Star and the movie's done (yeah yeah yeah sequels and stuff, but even at the end of Jedi they win by the same sort of move, only with Lando and Nien Nunb and Wedge taking the shots; and sure, the expanded universe stuff expanded the defeat of the Empire, but still...). Even the movie of Starship Troopers does pretty much this same thing. Essentially, if you want to defeat an apparently unstoppable enemy empire or civilization, all you've got to do is find the weak spot.

So, what was the British Empire's weak spot? I mean, we all realize that it's not very realistic for the plucky underdogs to really beat the evil empire by finding their way inside to learn about the exhaust port vulnerability, or uploading a computer virus to the mother ship, or teaching Hugh about individuality, or tossing the ring into the cracks of doom. And do we consider it more realistic when Jon Snow's rag taggers are saved only by the arrival of Little Finger and a new army? How about how Katniss and her buddies finally overthrew Panem? Does that one fit? (haven't seen those movies, and though I read the books I don't really remember how they won--did they win? they must have won, right?)

I've sort of lost my train of thought. Let's recap: as Americans, we're predisposed to like stories about the triumph of underdogs because our national myth presents our origins in those terms. This elides several key factors of actual history that are ignored by reimaginings of those myths, such as hugely popular movies. The British Empire's weak spot wasn't an exhaust port or vulnerability to infiltration. It was that it had too many enemies.

What movies complicate this reading of myth and history? Probably every movie about actual wars fought in the twentieth century, especially the two world wars. I don't really know.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

All We Fiddlers

From Edgar Lee Masters, in the Spoon River Anthology poem "Blind Jack." This is the storytellers' heaven:

There's a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The plot thinnens

So there's this weird thing with the name of the writer who first introduced the Mirror Fish to the western world. di Giovanni uses Fontecchio. Hurley uses Zallinger. So I dug up a pdf of the Spanish publication of Book of Imaginary Beings. El Libros de los Seres Imaginarios. "Animales de los Espejos" is the title of the chapter in question. The original text uses the name Zallinger. So where did Fontecchio come from?

Both Zallinger and Fontecchio were part of the La Compañía de Jesús, which is...okay, I'm just going to admit that I don't know Spanish. Anyway, La Compañía de Jesús, is Society of Jesus in English.

Updates as they arise.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Quote: The Einstein Intersection

I've been reading Samuel R. Delany's The Einstein Intersection, and I'm really enjoying it. He does things with words that I didn't think were possible. It reminds me a little of Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. But different. Also Gene Wolfe stories,. particularly the Book of the New Sun novels.

Here's something interesting, starting on page 20 of the 1992 printing:

"Let's talk about mythology, Lobey. Or let's you listen. We've had quite a time assuming the rationale of this world. The irrational presents just as much of a problem. You remember the legend of the Beatles? You remember the Beatle Ringo left his Maureen love even through she treated him tender. He was the one Beatle who did not sing, so the earliest forms of the legend go. After a hard day's night he and the rest of the Beatles were torn apart by screaming girls, and he and the other Beatles returned, finally at one, with the great rock and the great roll." I put my head in La Dire's lap. She went on. "Well, that myth is a version of a much older story that is not so well known. There are no 45's or 33's from the time of this older story. there are only a few written versions, and reading is rapidly losing its interest for the young. In the older story Ringo was called Orpheus. He too was torn apart by screaming girls. But the details are different. He lost his love--in this version Eurydice--and she went straight to the great rock and the great roll, where Orpheus had to go to get her back. He went singing, for in this version Orpheus was the greatest singer, instead of the silent one. In myths things always turn into their opposites as one version supersedes the next."


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lois Lane: Fallout

Anybody read these novels about Lois Lane by Gwenda Bond? I've gotten through the first one, and I liked it quite a bit, despite being about as far from the target market as you can be.

Fallout starts with Lois, sixteen years old, arriving for her first day of school in Metropolis. Since her father's a general, she's moved around a lot up to this point. She feels a lot of pressure in this new situation since she wants to fit in, but she can't help being herself--someone who does her thing regardless of consequences because her thing is what she believes is right. Now that's an awkward sentence, but being sixteen is an awkward time.

Lois gets into trouble almost immediately upon entering her new school. She finds someone who needs help and helps her, thereby putting herself and a few others in all sorts of danger. This book had the odd effect of making me worried about the characters on every page, even when that page lacked impending danger. Sure, the stakes were high in the plot, but that almost wasn't the point. The point, I guess, is that Lois is figuring out how to become the character we all know and love, the kind of woman whom gods would fall in love with.

One of the reasons I picked up this book is because of the Mark Waid/Leinil Yu version in Brithright. See, one of the challenges of Superman is for a writer to convince us that Superman and Lois Lane would fall in love. Perhaps the biggest flaw in All-Star Superman is the way Grant Morrison dodged this question. Why Lois? Well, according to Morrison, Superman just can't help it. Not a lot of substance there. Waid, on the other hand, shows us a Lois whose personality dominates the panel, the page, the whole twelve issue series. Her words and demeanor elicit a "Wow" from Clark Kent the first time he sees her.

Gwenda Bond's Lois Lane is everything you'd want her to be.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mystery Plot thickening

Back go Borges and the mirror fish. Well, not exactly the mirror fish, but on a related note...

Page 134 of the Hurley translation of Imaginary Beings contains the following:

The Ink Monkey
This animal is common in the northern regions and is about four or five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its eyes are like carnelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick China ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink; which done, it squats down as before, and does not frisk about unnecessarily. 

This entry is attributed to Wang Tai-hai in 1791. In the accompanying end note, Hurley refers us to a book called The Chinaman Abroad: An Account of the Malayan Archipelago, particularly of Java, written by Ong-Tae-Hae and translated by W.H. Medhurst in 1850.

That book exists, and can be accessed here. On pages 46-47 we find this:

The Ink Monkey

(46) Is common in the northern regions and is about four of five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its (47) eyes are like carnelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick Chinese ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the kink; which done, it squats down as before; and does not frisk about unnecessarily. Ong-te-hoe used to keep one at the head of his ink-stone, or in the middle of his seal-box.

The author hedges his accuracy a bit when, in his preface, he writes, "Although far from being intelligent, I dare not refuse carefully to record the things which I have seen and heard, together with some references to the country and its inhabitants, in shirt every individual word and action worthy of being noted down; thus publishing the whole, in order to render some small assistance toward correcting men's minds, and sustaining right principles in the world!" 

Here's the other translation of the story, by di Giovanni:

The Monkey of the Inkpot
This animal, common in the north, is four of five inches long; its eyes are scarlet and its fur is jet black, silky, and soft as a pillow. It is marked by a curious instinct--the taste for India ink. When a person sits down to write, the monkey squats cross-legged near by with one forepaw folded over the other, waiting until the task is over. Then it drinks what is left of the ink, and afterwards sits back on its haunches, quiet and satisfied. 

Same attribution.

In an essay on Borges titled "Repetition, Museums, Libraries," Alicia Borinsky opens with Norman Thomas Di Giovanni's translation of the Ink Monkey story. Then uses that image, of the satisfied monkey, to get to this point: "The position of the monkey regarding the writer is the double nature of authorship; no text is ever complete and finished; the author are always two, one who writes the texts and another one--at least--who profits from its excess."

I bring up these things precisely because it's important to see that at least some of Borges's sources in The Book of Imaginary Beings are genuine. Interestingly, Borinsky lets us know that the Wang Thai Hai's ontological status is irrelevant. It's pretty much a straight translation, although the entry in the original does refer to the author, Ong-te-hoe, in the third person.

(a couple of translation notes: Giovanni uses "scarlet" for the eyes, but the Spanish uses "cornalinas," so I assume Hunley's is more strictly accurate; carnelian stones don't exactly look red to me; also, Giovanni's use of India ink isn't in the Spanish: "la tinta china")

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Here's an interesting perspective on the recent DC films, especially on how Superman operates as "the other." This article, by Dennis R. Upkins, is making me rethink the DCEU. For instance:

The arrival of both Superman and Obama changed the power landscape of America, of the entire planet. White humans were irate because in both cases, Obama/Superman threatened the existing power structures and now whites were getting a taste of the fear PoCs have had to endure daily for centuries. And even though both men fought tirelessly for truth, justice, and the American way, they were met with outright bigotry. The ones leading the hate-mongering were Lex Luthor and Donald Trump.

The Superman/Obama parallels were noted a while back. I haven't seen it put this way before. It's worth reading in full, on The Nerds of Color.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Irish Folklore: Fairy Coin

I had this post all ready to go the week of St. Patrick's Day, but for whatever reason didn't publish it.

We return to Sean O'Sullivan's Folktales of Ireland for another story of the fair folk. This one, told by Diarmaid Mac Seain in Donegal, 1946, concerns itself with the tension between the old (fairies) and the relatively new (Christianity). Like the other tales of fairies in Ireland, it's a legend; meaning it has the benefit of the doubt in regard to veracity. It's told of a man from the city of Teelin.
This fisherman was in Church on a Sunday when he was overcome by a strange weakness. He left the church and stumbled along the road, feeling a little better. He came up on a gentleman, who asked what was the matter. He told the gentleman, who pulled a florin out of his pocket and handed it to the fisherman with the words, "Go to the public house and buy yourself a glass of whiskey. It will do your heart good."
The fisherman thanked him and headed for the pub. The florin was valuable, so he ordered the finest whiskey in the house. He put the change in his pocket, drank the whiskey, and chatted with the bartender--Eamonn--about his trouble.
The next day he was going fishing, and wanted tobacco. He went to the shop, and when he reached into his pocket to pay for the tobacco he found the florin where he thought only to find his change from the day before. He said nothing about it, paid for the tobacco and went fishing. At the end of his work, he went back to the pub for another whiskey. He found that the florin had returned to his pocket. This sort of thing happened every time he paid for anything for the next few days, until he began to worry. He thought that no good could come of it, and he worried that the man who had given it to him might not be a man at all. It got so that the fisherman was worried to go out on the sea to do his job with the coin in his pocket.
Eventually, he went to Eamonn's pub and, when paying for his whiskey he could take it no more. He flung the coin on the counter and said, "May the devil go with you!"
He told Eamonn the whole story. Eamonn said the fisherman was a fool to say that about the coin; he should have kept it. Intent on inspecting the coin, Eamonn went to his till to find it.
It had vanished.
The fisherman told the story to everyone he met, convinced he'd been given the coin by a fairy.
It's a good story, exhibiting the usual attribution (Eamon is named specifically, even his surname) and localization (Teelin, a church in Carrick). O'Sullivan points out that this story can be found in Israel and Norway as well.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Clues to the Mystery

So, Borges and the mirror animals...

I've gone through thirteen of the twenty-three books written by Herbert Allen Giles. So far, no mention of animals in mirrors. The other ten don't look promising.

I've gone through one of the Fontecchio books, and nothing.

Andrew Hurley, who translated the edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings I've got, provides notes on the sources Borges (and co-author Margarita Guerrero) used for his creatures. Those notes conveniently skip the mirror beasts.

Sorry about the misleading title to the post. No clues yet.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A mystery

Anybody ever read The Book of Imaginary Beings by Borges? So there's this chapter called sometimes "The Fauna of Mirrors" and sometimes "Animals that Live in the Mirror," depending on which version you're reading. This story tells us how mirrors are actually windows into another world, and there are fish there that are one day going to come and kill us all, or something like that. Only the magic of the Yellow Emperor of China has kept us safe...for now. One day the mirror animals will become different from us; "gradually they will no longer imitate us; they will break through the barriers of glass or metal, and this time they will not be conquered."

I came across this story long ago, and some consulting work I recently conducted brought this story to my attention again. I hadn't thought much of it, but encountering it again made me want to dig through the history books to see what I could find. Borges references a certain Father Fontecchio (sometimes spelled Zallinger, depending on the edition), a Jesuit who recorded the story from Canton in the 18th century. He also mentions Herbert Allen Giles telling the same story 150 years later. Fontecchio and Giles are real people, so are the mirror fish an authentic Cantonese legend? This is Borges we're talking about, after all.

I intend to learn the truth.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Exciting times

Well, I'm going over the first round of copy editing of my Superman book. I've seen the cover, and ad copy. And I bought a house.

So here's a list of "essential" Superman stories from comics to mull over, from Comics Alliance. Lists like this are interesting for their concept of essential, or essence, as it informs their creation. In this case, the author, Kieran Shiach, writes, "The stories in our list all follow a general theme that focuses on the character's inherent goodness and inspirational qualities," and so excluded are alternate takes on the character. Shiach wants the list to be a good starting point for someone who wants to jump into the comics without a lot of previous knowledge. Interesting choices.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Superman Link

I haven't posted much Superman content lately. So here's a link to a re-watch of the 78 Superman film that's kind of interesting.

I maintain that Kidder’s Lois was in fact exactly what I wanted her to be. I loved that she was so completely career-oriented, and unashamed of it. I loved that her personality quirks (like her terrible spelling) were related specifically to her work. I loved that her work clearly took precedence over everything else, including her appearance, her social life and even her own personal safety, and it took an actual demi-god showing up before she could be bothered to have any interest in men.
And before you say it, I don’t love these things about her because I think every woman should be like Lois Lane, far from it. I just like that these traits made her so particular. Kidder’s Lois was a distinct and unmistakable character, whether you liked her or not, and that’s rare enough for female characters that I feel the need to celebrate it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Irish Folklore: At last, a Leprechaun

Sean O'Conaola of Galway heard this story from some elderly folks in the area. He told it to Brian Mac Lochlainn in 1937; it's in Sean O'Sullivan's Folktales of Ireland.

The Three Laughs of the Leipreachan
A farmer, out early to check on his livestock and crops, heard a hammering noise. Looking around, he found a huge mushroom, under which was a leipreachan making a pair of shoes. The farmer seized the little person and demanded to know where the liepreachan's money was hidden.
[It might be relevant to know that legends tell of Danish treasure being hidden in the earth, the location of which is only known by the little people]
"I can't tell you," said the leipreachan, "for I don't know where it's hidden."
"Then," said the farmer, "I'll shut you in a trunk for seven years. We'll see if you know the answer then."
So the farmer brought him home and shut him in a trunk . When th4e farmer was out once, he found some driftwood and managed to sell it to another man. When he returned home, he heard laughter from the trunk. When the seven years ended, the farmer took out the leipreachan out and demanded to know where the riches were. Again, the liepreachan pleaded ignorance, and again he was shut up in a trunk.
A while later, a poor man was traveling by the farm. The farmer offered the man some food, but the poor man refused. Walking along shortly thereafter, the poor man fell and broke his leg. The farmer again heard laughter from the trunk. Again seven years went by, and when asked the leipreachan still denied all knowledge of treasure.
Later still the farmer was going to a fair, and dug up his money from where he'd hidden it out behind the farm (as was common in those days). Alas, he was spotted in this activity by some thieves, who waited until he was gone and then raided his stash.
When the farmer returned home, he heard the leipreachan laughing once more. This time, he got the little man out of the trunk and demanded to know the reason for the three times he had laughed. The leipreachan said, "There are many things which a person would be better for not knowing."
"Enough of that," said the farmer. "Tell me."
So, the leipreachan told him: First, the bit of driftwood the farmer had found and sold had been full of money, and the man who bought it was filthy rich. Second, the leipreachan told of how the poor man had broken his leg, and that he'd have been unhurt if he'd just stayed for a bit to eat. And third--and this one the man had to coax out of him with threat of force--he told the farmer about the thieves stealing all his cash.
At this the farmer jumped up to go check his stash and found it empty. He went around like a mad man from one place to another. If he didn't know that it had been stolen, he mightn't have lost his reason.
Not the typical leprechaun story about the ribbon tied around a tree, but a common one in Ireland a while back. Apparently it's sometimes told of a mermaid, instead of a leprechaun. And though it's not often said these days, leprechauns are said to be cobblers.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Irish Folklore: Dying Traditions?

From Henry Glassie's The Stars of Ballymenone:
"When you are young," Tommy Lunny said, "you do laugh at what the old people say, but then the young get older." The young rip ahead, assuming the world is as it appears. That is their job. The job of the old is to keep the argument open. In generation after generation, rambling observers note that only the old people tell stories of ghosts and fairies. In generation after generation, they predict, on that basis, the death of traditions, not understanding that tales and beliefs are tied both to historical eras and stages in life. The young get older, and the old have heard and seen. Their world is complex, unstable. A long life of experiences has taught them to believe, and taught them to doubt, and they assemble their findings into tales for others to consider. Peter Flanagan tells stories of tokens and fairies and ghosts, he said, "for your own decision whether to believe it or not. I wouldn't ask you; it's a matter for yourself."

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Irish Folklore: The Witch Revealed

It's common to oppose a modern sensibility to a pre-modern one by saying that the pre-modern worldview ascribed misfortune to personalities, and the modern ascribes many of the same sorts of misfortunes to impersonal forces. The classic example is disease, which was often said to be caused by witch craft or the evil eye, but is now said to be caused by tiny, invisible creatures that invade our bodies and use us as spawning grounds.

Where was I?

Ah, Ballymenone, right on the border of Ireland's North and south. The folklorist Henry Glassie did more than a decade of fieldwork there, the results of which were books such as All Silver and No Brass, about a Christmas mumming; Irish Folktales; and Passing the Time in Ballymenone. In that last one (actually, not his last book on Ireland--in 2005 he published The Stars of Ballymenone; we'll get to that one soon) he included the following story told by Hugh Nolan:
There was a shortage of milk being gotten from the local cows, so the folks of Ballymenone decided to watch the field at night to see if anything was causing it. They knew that people whose cows weren't producing enough were apt to go to a neighbor's cows at night to milk them. So they armed themselves.
They didn't see any people, but at a late hour there came a hare along, and the hare started sucking on a cow's teat. They waited until the hare had moved away from the cow (so as not to harm their own beast), and one of them took a shot, hitting the hare.
The next day, they noticed a woman walking around, bandaged from what appeared to be a gunshot wound.
That's a common type of story, with the injury from the night before revealing the identity of a criminal or witch. It's often told of butter theft, too. It's interesting that Nolan's tale, which I have paraphrased, doesn't include any reference to what the community does as response to learning there's a witch in their midst. Often the tales tell us that she's run out of town. And quite often it's a cat, not a hare.

There's a silver-age Superman story in which Lois Lane notices that Superman's hand is injured, and she seeks out Clark Kent to once again try and prove their identity. I don't seem to have the issue handy, but it's in one of those Showcase Presents volumes.

We generally don't ascribe hardship such as a paucity of milk to witches nowadays. But that worldview isn't entirely gone.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Irish Folklore: a joke

The folklorist Ray Cashman has done quite a bit of fieldwork in Ireland, one result of which is the book Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border (he's got another out called Packy Jim, which I'm going to get soon). It's a book that analyzes the anecdotes and other stories told, mostly, at wakes in the town of Aghyaran. There's a bit about the storytelling event known as the ceili (pronounced kaylee), which was once a common way to pass the night, especially in the north. Cashman's is a more academic book than the others I've been drawing upon, but it's all the more interesting because of it.

Anyway, the book has lots of humorous stories, such as this one:
An Irishman has a brother living in the United States. The traveler (he's called Mickey) in the comes back to Ireland often, but the other brother (Johnny) always dreads his return. Mickey is given to exaggerating, using big words and blowing everything out of proportion. With Mickey home, the brothers sat around the fire. Johnny says to Mickey, "You use the word 'coincidence' often. What does that word mean?"
Mickey says, "Well, it's like this. If your cat and my cat kittled on the same day, that'd be coincidence."
Johnny takes his pipe out of his mouth, spits in the fire, and says, "That's not a coincidence--it's a miracle. My cat's a boy."
I had to quote the story from the book for that one sentence, because the term "kittled" is just too great to omit. In this case, it means the cats were giving birth.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Irish Folklore: The Aran Islands

My wife and I went to the Aran Islands in 2006. We walked along the paths between the stone walls, westward to the ocean. We stood on the farthest point west, not quite the westernmost part of Ireland, but close to it; across the water was Newfoundland.

I've never seen another place like it. The stone walls that cross the Island were often all that kept in the gigantic horses. We saw a man walk along a path like the one we were on. He came to a wall that enclosed a horse and started pulling stones from the wall. He unmade it until there was a gap large enough for the horse to exit--it took a while. He lead the horse out and then built the wall again. He took the horse by the reins and walked back up the hill.

The island was covered with limestone, which looks very much like slate. (From Discover Mayo: The Aran Islands are one of the finest examples of a Glacio-Karst landscape in the world and it is characterised by slabs of limestone, called clints, separated by deep cracks called grykes, giving a chocolate-bar structure to the landscape.) The whole place was grey and black. We found a small shop, an inn, a dock. To be on the Aran Islands feels like being on the edge of the world, after a nuclear winter. I loved it, the way it looked. J. M. Synge writes of Inis Mor (which he calls Aranmor), "...I was wandering out along the one good roadway of the island, looking over low walls on either side into small flat fields of naked rock. I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed away in corners that had shelter."

Synge's book The Aran Islands is well worth reading. In it, he describes his travels there, and the people he met, and the stories they told him.  While walking with an old man named Mourteen, they sought an old beehive-shaped dwelling. Finding one, they crawled inside. Mourteen "sat down in the middle of the floor and began to recite old Irish poetry, with an exquisite purity of intonation that brought tears to my eyes though I understood but little of the meaning.

"On our way home he gave me the Catholic theory of the fairies.

"When Lucifer saw himself in the glass he thought himself equal with God. Then the Lord threw him out of Heaven, and all the angels that belonged to him. While He was 'chucking them out,' an archangel asked Him to spare some of them, and those that were falling are in the air still, and have power to wreck ships, and to work evil in the world."

Fairies as fallen angels. There you go.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Irish Folklore: Sea Child

Here's a short one from Sean O'Sullivan's Folktales of Ireland.

The Child from the Sea

One day in the olden times, a fisherman from Errismore was fishing for gurnet. The day was very fine, and fish were plentiful. Toward evening, the fisherman felt a great weight on his line and thought that he had hooked a heavy fish. He started to haul it in, and when he had it on board, what had he caught but a male child! His hair was as red as the coat of a fox. The hook was stuck into his cheek. The fisherman was very proud of his catch. The boy ran up under the forward thaft of the boat and stayed there.

The fisherman took him home, but as soon as he let him down on the floor the boy rushed in under a bed, and even a man with a pitchfork couldn't get him out. There he stayed until the following day. They tried by every means to get him to eat and drink, but it was no use. The man went to the priest and told him what had happened.

"You must take him out again, as close as you can to the spot where you caught him," said the priest, "and put him back into the sea again."

The fisherman took him in the boat next day and rowed toward the place where he had caught him. When they were near the spot, the boy gave a big laugh. He jumped, legs up, out of the boat, dived down like a cormorant, and was seen no more.

Apparently, stories of a hidden world under the sea, populated by humans, were pretty common in the past. This one, told by Val O Donnchadha in 1939, doesn't have any seals in it, but it wouldn't have been unusual if it did. A thaft is a fisherman's seat in a boat. A gurnet is a type of fish (also spelled gurnard) that lives along the bottom of the sea. It's known for grunting when caught.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Irish Folklore: A Grave and a Bottle

In 2006 I went to Ireland to spend some time with my wife, who had been there for a month teaching elementary school. She was in a little town called Port Laois (pronounced Leesh, in case you couldn't figure that out from the spelling). One of her coworkers took us to meet her uncle, who is a seanachie (pronounced shanakee)--a storyteller. We listened to him perform for a crowd, and his stories were great. We didn't have much time to talk afterward, much to my disappointment. Also disappointing: I only remember one story in full. It's about two friends who go out drinking a lot:

They've been friends for years. Went through school together. Worked together. And every night they shared a bottle of whiskey. Then one gets sick, and asks the other to pour out a bottle of their favorite whiskey on his grave when the time comes. The other agrees. The one dies, and is buried, and shortly after the funeral, the other brings to bottle of whiskey to the grave.

He says, "I'll surely miss you, dear friend. And I've brought the bottle, as requested." He took the bottle out and gave it a long look. Pulling out the cork, he says, "I'll pour it over your grave, as you asked...but I hope you don't mind if I run it through my kidneys first."

Friday, March 3, 2017

Irish Folklore: The Banshee's Cry

Lady Gregory was a famous collector of Irish lore. She worked with Yeats here and there. Yesterday, I included a legend Yeats collected, so let's look at one from Lady Gregory. I found this one in Henry Glassie's collection Irish Folktales, in a section titled "Mystery." The banshee is a commonly known Irish portent of death. Mrs. O'Brien, from Galway, told this to Lady Gregory about 1920, which she reported in Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland.

The Banshee Cries for the O'Briens

The Banshee always cries for the O'Briens. And Anthony O'Brien was a fine man when I married him, and handsome, and I could have had great marriages if I didn't choose him, and many wondered at me.

And when he was took ill and in the bed, Johnny Rafferty came in one day, and says he, "Is Anthony living?" and I said he was. "For," says he, "as I was passing, I heard crying, crying, from the hill where the forths are, and I thought it must be for Anthony, and that he was gone." And then Ellen, the little girl, came running in, and she says, "I heard the mournfullest crying that ever you heard just behind the house."

And I said, "It must be the Banshee."

And Anthony heard me say that where he was lying in the bed, and he called out, "If it's the Banshee it's for me, and I must die today or tomorrow." And in the middle of the next day, he died.

The legend, as a genre, lends itself to this sort of story. Folklorists call it a memorate, a term coined by C.W. von Sydow to mean a story relating a person's own experience or encounter with the supernatural. So while the teller of this tale didn't actually see the Banshee, it's still her experience of the encounter.

Oh, it's worth noting that a forth in this story is a ring of trees on a mound of earth. These things are all over Ireland, and are thought to be the dwelling place of fairies. They're also called raths.

We'll return to Glassie's works on Irish folklore another day.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Irish Folklore: The Swine of the Gods

It's a good thing Yeats didn't call this story "The Divine Swine." I think all his literary credibility would have vanished in that one unfortunate rhyme. He might have retained it with sentences from The Celtic Twilight such as, "I have desired, like any 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." Or, "Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet."

The Celtic Twilight is a little book, first published in 1893 and expanded a few times before its final form, Mytholgies, published posthumously in 1959. Only twenty years posthumously. It's hard to think of Yeats living until the start of World War II, but there's the undeniable entry on the lawyer page of my edition of Celtic Twilight: 1865-1939. When I went to London in 2006, I went well out of my way to get to the British Library. I had gone to see the Beowulf manuscript, cause that's the kind of nerd I am. I also listened to a recording of Yeats reading his own work. Blew my mind. But today I discovered that there's a clip on youtube of him reading his stuff. Transcribed here. Geez.

So, Yeats included today's story in the 1902 edition of Twilight, but he gives no specific source beyond "a friend." The first-person narrator of the story is Yeats himself. When scholars talk about The Celtic Twilight (here's an example, if you've got access), they tend to ignore the swine of the gods. The book as a whole devotes lots of attention to the fairies of Irish folklore, the witching hour (or twilight, if you will) when this world and the next--always close together in Ireland, Yeats thought--are especially tight. Tight enough that a child or a young bride may be abducted and taken to the fairy lands. Enough of this; let's get to the pig...

The Swine of the Gods

A few years ago a friend of mine told me of something that happened to him when he was a young man and out drilling with some Connaught Fenians. They were but a car-full, and drove along a hillside until they came to a quiet place. They left the car and went further up the hill with their rifles, and drilled for a while. As they were coming down again they saw a very thin, long-legged pig of the old Irish sort, and the pig began to follow them. One of them cried out as a joke that it was a fairy pig, and they all began to run to keep up the joke. The pig ran too, and presently, how nobody knew, this mock terror became real terror, and they ran as for their lives. When they got to the car they made the horse gallop as fast as possible, but the pig still followed. Then one of them put up his rifle to fire, but when he looked along the barrel he could see nothing. Presently they turned a corner and came to a village. They told the people of the village what had happened, and the people of the village took pitchforks and spades and the like, and went along the road with them to drive the pig away. When they turned the corner they could find nothing.

"The Swine of the Gods" is so close to the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" that I can't stand it. If only the swine had been in a picture hanging on a tavern wall in the village... If I'm ever called upon to tell this story, that's how it will end. I tried to find images of an old, thin-legged Irish pig, but nothing of interest showed up. A google image search for "swine of the gods" isn't nearly as interesting as you think it'd be.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Best Stories in the World: The Man Who Had No Story

I figure that the best way to honor my Irish ancestry is by writing about Irish folklore (especially folktales) until the 17th. So the story every day will come from my respectable trove of tomes devoted to Ireland.

Let's start with Sean O'Sullivan's Folktales of Ireland. It's part of Richard Dorson's series of Folktales of the World. Dorson, who wrote the foreword, tells us that "No nation of the world has gathered in its folktales with the fullness, the loving  care, and the dazzling rewards manifest in Ireland." 1.5 million pages of them in the archives of the Irish Folklore commission (and that's 1966 pages). By the way, O'Sullivan uses the spelling Sean O Suilleabhain inside the book; the Anglicized version on the cover and title page.

Here's one of the stories in that collection:

The Man Who Had No Story

Things start simply enough, with a man named Rory a-going to town the night before a big market day. He's on his way to sell the stockings knitted by his wife. Along the way he grows weary and, upon seeing a house up the road with the glow of a fire inside, he inquires at the door. He meets and old man who, strangely enough, knows his name: "You're welcome, Rory O'Donoghue."

When the old man offers a seat, the chair pulls itself out. The man sits as well, and offers Rory dinner. There's no one else in the house, so far as Rory can see, but the man does no work. Instead, the plates and forks and knives rise up of their own accord to begin the cooking. The meat and potatoes emerge, to be sliced by the knives and plopped into the pots. Buckets bring water, and soon the feast is ready. They eat their fill together, in silence. Then the same forks and knives and plates clear themselves away.

At that point, Rory hears the approach of footsteps, but it turns out to be nothing more than a pair of slippers striding toward him to provide comfort for his weary feet. Only then does the old man speak again:

"Do you know, Rory," how I spend my nights here? I spend one-third of each night eating and drinking, one-third telling stories or singing songs, and the last third sleeping. Sing a song for me now, Rory."

"I never sang a song in my life," said Rory.

"Tell a story, then."

"I never told a story of any kind."

So the old man kicks him to the curb. On his way out, the door strikes Rory on the back.
Rory has no choice but to go onward. He soon sees the glow of a campfire, where he finds a man roasting meat on a spit. The man welcomes him warmly enough. "Would you mind, Rory, taking hold of this spit and turning the meat over the fire? But don't let any burnt patch come on it."

Rory takes the spit as the man walks into the darkness, for what reason we're not told. Once he's gone, of course the piece of meat shouts at Rory, "Don't let my whiskers burn!"

Understandably upset, Rory throws the spit and takes off running. But the spit and the meat upon it overtake him, striking him "as hard as they could" on his back. Fleeing blindly, Rory lucks upon another house and bursts inside--only to find that it's the same house he had visited earlier and been fed by the old man. This time, the old man is already in bed, and not at all upset to be barged in upon by Rory. He welcomes Rory once more, but Rory refuses his hospitality on the grounds that the beating from the not-quite-cooked meat has left him covered in blood.

The old man asks Rory what happened, and Rory tells him--presumably the first story Rory has ever uttered in his life.

"Ah, Rory," said the old man. "If you had a story like that to tell me earlier, you wouldn't have been out until now." He let's Rory sleep in the house. When Rory woke up the next morning, "he found himself on the roadside, with his bag of stockings under his head, and not a trace of a house or dwelling anywhere around him."

Conchobhar Pheadair Ui Cheilleachair [how's that for a name?] of County Cork heard that story from his mother about 1863, then told it to the collector Proinsias O Ceallaigh [!] seventy years later.

So why's the one of the best stories in the world? I'm a big fan of absurdity like this. Random sentient meat on a stick, a bag of socks as a pillow...great stuff. There's also a lot to be said for the structure--a man who has no story experiencing something that he can transform into a story. But I've got to wonder, why doesn't the old man make sure Rory has something to contribute before feeding him?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Howard and Simonson's Grey God

Today's story: "The Grey God Passes" by Robert E. Howard. I came across this because Walter Simonson did the illustrations. Simonson is most famous for his run as writer and artist of the Thor comic in the 80s (issues 337 to 382). Howard is most famous for Conan, of course.


Simonson did black and white illustrations for this story back in 1975, and they appeared in a pamphlet-style printing. Howard's story recounts the 1014 Battle of Clontarf in Ireland, which he fashions into a fight between Christians and heathens. He's reworking history a bit with that one. It's the story of Conn, who escapes slavery in the Orkneys and returns to Ireland in time to aid his king in the battle. He's on the Christian side. The grey god of the title is Odin. The story originally appeared in a collection called Dark Mind, Dark Heart, edited by August Derleth, which contains stories by many other writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Lovecraft.

"Grey God" is a bit of a slog to read, which might explain why it wasn't published in Howard's lifetime. The names, more than anything else, weigh the story down. Just too many of them, with all the kings and jarls and whatnot. It's still a good story, though. It was also adapted as a comic back when Marvel was doing Conan stories (the splash page informs us that the story has been "freely adapted" from the original; Conan's in it).

I was hoping for a little more mythological content. Odin is more or less an observer, seen a couple of times. First by Conn, inciting him to return home for the battle. Then again toward the end. He doesn't do much. There are a few fantastical elements, but mostly it's the story of the build-up and the battle. Yeah, I really don't have much to say about it.

I do like the art, though.