California Green

Yin Yan, or Balance

 

i.

Green is something special in California. Oh,sure, we have “green all year” because people can water their lawns and gardens to keep them vibrant, and there’s no white blanket of snow to cover them up.

But in the wild hills that frame our developed landscape, green is a rare and fleeting thing, dependent on the rains that come only for a few months in the winter. The flush of fresh, spring green only lasts a few weeks or a month before sun and heat turn the running grasses into waves of gold. And that’s in a good year, when three years of drought haven’t left the hills parched and stuttering for color. There’s only brown, in years like that. Brown and flames.

But we’ve had a couple of good rainstorms in the past six weeks, and the hills – which never die, they just go dormant – have responded with a burst of enthusiasm. “Seize the day” has never been a more appropriate rallying cry, when the hills are green like this.

And maybe, if we’re really lucky, and if there’s a bit more rain, there will soon be wildflowers.

Quail Hll

 

ii.

These photos were taken at the Quail Hill open space land preserve in Irvine last weekend. It’s that spot along the 405, just south of the airport and the university, where a few grass-covered hills rise like an anomaly from between the condos and mini-malls. I’ve often wondered, driving by, if it was an area open to the public. Thanks to FunOrangeCountyParks.com, I found out that it is indeed!

There’s a great loop trail there, about 2 miles long, with only a mild incline if that sort of thing bothers you (they bother me way too often). It is incredibly well-maintained, and while we passed a number of families and joggers and other ramblers out enjoying the fine weather, it was by no means crowded.

I don’t have much in the way of historical info about the spot, except that it was once part of the Irvine Ranch, a vast agriculture conglomerate of the 19th and early 20th century that was mindfully parceled out and developed into the city of Irvine, with great swaths of land designated for open spaces and wildlife preserves. There is a cellphone audio tour of the walk, which talks about the biology and wildlife and so forth, including the manmade pond which was created to nurture fairy shrimp.  You can listen to it here, if you’re curious: http://apps.guidebycell.com/gbc/http/Podcast.jsp?phone=9497435943

Cloudbending

 

iii.

This is the point in the blog post where I would normally tie my photography and other worldly observations into some commentary about my writing process. And while I have more than once inwardly compared my creative drought with the California drought (they have both lasted about three years!) I don’t think it’s worth going on too much about.

I will say that there will be a fresh City of Bridges post tomorrow! It’s not the greatest thing I’ve ever written, but after a year and half I figured it was time to get it out there, regardless. It’s not sign that my personal drought is over, by a long shot, any more than the green hills shown here are a sign that California’s long drought is over.

But with any hope….there will be wildflowers.

Wanderer

Fantasy Character Crochet

I’ve been busy with my hook lately – crochet hook that is. A few months back, I was inspired to whip up a couple dolls that represent the characters a friend and I play in an online RPG:

Castle Marrach dolls, Ophidias and Tiernon

Photo by Kim D.

 

These are based on the patterns from the book Creepy Cute Crochet, by Christen Haden, though I have modified the details. It’s the same pattern I used for my wizard a few years back:

crochet wizard

I have always liked trying to make portraits of my characters and there was something particularly enjoyable about doing these tangible versions, and I’m looking forward to making a few more – with my City of Bridges boys, perhaps. In poking around for different patters – something with arms and legs, I think – I’ve happened upon some really amazing crocheted characters that I thought I would share with you.

Most of these are going to be fantasy, with this exception. Because Star Wars:

Star Wars Amigurumi by Lucy Ravenscar

Star Wars Amigurumi by Lucy RavenscarHarry Potter by AA Crochet

Harry Potter Crochet by AA Crochet

 

I love the scarf!

Game of Thrones by Luna’s Crochet

Game of Thrones by Luna's Crochet lunas-crochet-lannisters lunas-crochet-starks

 

Lord of the Rings from Geek Central Station

Lord of the Rings amugurumi by Geek Central Station geek-central-station-gandalf geek-central-station-gimli

(These have crocheted bodies with crazy detailed costumes from felt and, I think, polymer clay.)

The next group is actually knitted, not crocheted, but I had to include it because it’s pretty awesome.

The Hobbit by the Knitting Witch

knitting-witch-hobbit

Also, check out this amazing jacket she created, depicting scenery from The Hobbit!

Okay, so much for the obvious fandoms. Chances are, you can find crocheted characters for just about any fantasy fandom that’s out there. Like this one, for the 1980s BBC show, Robin of Sherwood:

Robin of Sherwood by Lucy Ravenscar

Robin of Sherwood by Lucy Ravenscar

I have to figure out how to do that mini-Nasir hair.

Merlin by Luna’s Crochet

Merlin and Arthur by Luna's Crochet

 

Aang by Deadcraft and Korra by PhileasFogghorn 

Aang by Deadcraft Korra by PhileasFogghorn

But not all fantasy crochet dolls are based on fandoms. Checks out this lovely lady, a commission from a writer depicting one of her characters:

Luciana by FandomGurumi

Luciana by FandomGurumi

(She makes my poor Ophi pale in comparison.)

Red Wizard by Crafty Tibbles

Red Wizard by Crafty Tibbles

Rosie and Yelenda by Ayakitsune

Rosie and Yelena by Ayakitsune

 

I’ve specifically been focusing on people for this post, but there are zillions of dragons, unicorns and other creatures that have made their way into crochet-representation. Perhaps I’ll do some posts on those later! But here’s a few that cross the line between people and creatures that I thought were really cool.

Harpy by Atruyis

Harpy by Atruyis

Centaurs by Bandotaku

Centaurs by Bandotaku

Mermaid by Petite HorreursAs a crafter, looking at all these amazing dolls inspires me for the next time I try to make one on my own. As a writer, it makes me think about how strongly people respond to characters that they read about or see on the screen, and want to bring them into their own world. If you can inspire someone to produce fan art based on your work – whether it’s writing, drawing, or crocheting – then you must be doing something right!

 

Welcome 2015

UntitledI can’t let the new year begin without a quick look over the one just ended. It was not a very active year here on the blog, with only 11 posts the entire year – less than one per month!

The most popular post of the year was A Contemplative Photography Lesson Plan, from January, but at a mere 26 hits I can hardly call it popular. The Playdate post from 2011 was actually the most popular page on the site with 50 hits, no doubt all those people looking for paper doll knights. I wonder if anyone ever actually downloads and uses them? I don’t think I have anyway of telling.

Not surprisingly, search results landing on the site were low, too, with not very many interesting terms to put on the “how did you find me” list for the year. “Companion artifacts”, “enchantment writing”, and “the mystical and/or spiritual backgrounds of the sequoia trees” have caught my eye, and may inspire actual posts some time this year. (Of course, if I write a post about sequoia’s I’ll have to go take a trip for photos, right?) Apparently, a lot of people have been looking for my sister Natasha by googling me too. Go figure.

The above photo was taken today, with an iPhone 6, on a midday walk with my daughter and the family dog. Let’s hope the entire year is filled with such gorgeous colors!

Untitled

Endurance

Oak Canyon

 

“Oak spoke first, as became the noblest of all. He stood throbbing his leaves in the twilight, to which Time had mixed down day and night; stretching out his great muscular branches; yawning, as if it were, like a noble giant of the earth who cracks his limbs in the morning when he wakes.”

Oak Canyon

 

“‘Ah,’ said the oak, ‘It’s good to be alive. Look at my biceps, will you? Do you see how the other trees are afraid of Gravity, afraid that he will break their branches off? They point them up in the air, or down at the ground, so as to give the old earth-giant his least purchase upon them. Now I am ready to challenge Gravity, and I can stretch my branches straight out in a line parallel to the earth. He may swing on them for all I care, but, bless you, they won’t break. Do you know how long I live? A thousand years is my expectation. Three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live, and three hundred years to die.”

T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone

Oak Canyon

The Last Enchantment

To say that I was unenthusiastic when I started reading the third book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy would not be an understatement. It is also true to state that I was largely unenthusiastic when I finished reading the book, too, proven by the fact that it’s taken me about two weeks to get around to writing this post about it.Julia Margaret Cameron's Viven and Merlin
Let me start by saying that there are definitely some things I like about The Last Enchantment – the writing is clear and engaging, for starters, and I continue to appreciate the deftness with which Stewart weaves legendary source material into a historical setting. She tackles all the major plot points that typically follow Arthur’s ascension to the throne: themassacre of the babies in a misguided and failed attempt to remove Mordred as a threat; the twelve major battles Arthur wins, including Badon; the two Guineveres; the kidnapping of the Queen by Melwas; the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot/Bedwyr; the four sons of Morgause who are Arthur’s greatest knights (Gawain, etc.); Morgan le Fay’s attempt to steal Excalibur; and finally the “entrapment” of Merlin by the sorceress Nimue/Niniane.

That’s a lot of plot to try and fit in one novel, but most of it doesn’t directly involve Merlin – which is, ultimately, the biggest problem with the book. Imagine, if you would, if the first Star Wars movie had been focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of Luke Skywalker, and you can begin to understand how the approach of telling a classic Hero’s Journey tale from the Mentor’s point of view just doesn’t work. We are just too far removed from the main characters to really be touched by the drama of it.

A stronger character arc for Merlin himself could have compensated for this, but the book fails to achieve that. When the story focuses on his personal trials and tribulations (instead of him guiding Arthur through his) there doesn’t seem to be any significant challenge or growth to his character – his period of madness in the forest, for example, doesn’t seem to highlight any personal defects, or cause him to change his course of action in the future. It’s just something that happens to him. His relationship with Niniane is only really compelling at the beginning, when she’s disguised as boy and the (knowledgeable) reader gets excited about what could have been a really interesting twist to the tale. But Stewart takes the conventional route (if having a 50+-year-old man fall passionately in love with an 18-year-old girl is conventional), and then pulls all the teeth out of Merlin’s betrayal and entombment by telling us that it never really happened. Yes, Niniane traps him in the crystal cave, but it’s only because she thought he was dead, and he gets out later, so everything is okay. Consequences: none.

I do have to say that one of the things I liked the most about the books was the relationship between Merlin and Arthur. When they are alone together, you can really feel strength of the relationship between them, and for me that’s key to engaging with a story. When the characters care about one another, I care about the characters. Unfortunately, there are too few of these scenes, and Merlin’s relationships with other characters don’t carry the same weight, coming off as flat and perfunctory instead.

Julia Margaret Cameron's Vivien and Merlin

Fortunately, the book ends with Merlin and Arthur together, so the book ends on a high note. Not only are we left with a warm feeling from observing the deep friendship between these two men, but Merlin tells the king, “I’ll be here when you come back” – which resonates with the whole “once and future king” legend in just the right way. And that’s the whole point in reading Arthurian fiction anyway, right?

Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):

  1. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)
  2. The Last Enchantment, by Mary Stewart (1979, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)
  3. The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)

Photos by Julia Margaret Cameron, courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Hollow Hills

The Hollow Hills cover artWhen I wrote up my review of The Crystal Cave, I said I had read the first two books in this Arthurian series by Mary Stewart years ago, but I think I may have been wrong. None of what I read in this second volume felt at all familiar to me (except in the general Arthurian sense), so I’m not sure I ever read it after all. Of course, it’s only been a short time since I finished it and it’s and is already fading from memory, so who knows?

The only  distinct impression I have after reading The Hollow Hills is that I really didn’t like Merlin at all. Since he’s the first person narrator it makes it difficult to enjoy the book as a whole. His self-righteous assurance that everything is going to happen exactly as it’s supposed to not only leeches any tension from the narrative, but it makes him rather unsympathetic as a character. He has no doubts, no conflict between his own desires and what his God wants him to do, nothing that makes him feel like a person instead of a divine tool. He never even expresses the least bit of discomfort at the near-legendary status he’s already achieved in his life. Confidence is sexy, sure, but he just comes across as an entitled prick, naturally deserving of the accolades and honors that come his way, even though (he freely admits) he really didn’t have anything to do with it, since he was just a tool for his God.

the-hollow-hills-2I actually cheered when Morgause seduced the young Arthur, right under Merlin’s nose, because it’s the only thing that happened that threw him for a loop. Poor Morgause. We’re not supposed to like her, I know, but I couldn’t help feeling empathetic towards her. She’s one of only two women in the book given a voice.* We first meet her at age 14, when she asks Merlin to teach her magic. His response is pretty much to pat her on the head and say, “Pretty young girls like you don’t need to learn magic, go make us some tea.” is it any wonder she goes “bad”? She wanted power and influence in her world, and since legitimate channels were refused her, she had to take some less savory routes to achieve it. It’s hard to get excited by a world view that automatically assumes that women who want power must be evil.

the-hollow-hills-1As a side note, this is the first literary version of the legend where I’ve seen Morgause and/or Morgan depicted as Uther’s children, instead of related to Ygraine (sisters or daughters). I had wondered where the two recent TV series came up with that idea!

Aside from not liking the main character, and the book’s lack of positive female characters, I didn’t actually hate it – I’m just not that enthusiastic about it. The writing is good enough, though the story is weaker than in the first book, largely because of the aforementioned lack of tension. It covers Arthur’s birth through his ascension to the throne. Arthur’s youth and education is not nearly as entertaining as it is in The Sword and the Stone (book or movie), unfortunately, but Arthur is likable enough. It does some interesting things with the historical and legendary sources, weaving in the tale of Macsen Wledig, and suggesting thatthe-hollow-hills-3 the “fay folk” are actually the non-Romanized early Brits who hide in the hills and mountains (but not necessarily without magic). The actual discovery of the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) feels a bit contrived, as Merlin has to do a lot of maneuvering to set up events that will generate both the sword in the stone legend as well as the Lady of the Lake** origin story, while still preserving a historical sensibility for the event instead of something that is purely mythical or magical. I still like the blend of history and legend – I just wish the historical viewpoint was not so narrow-minded when it comes to women.

All in all, I’d say this was worth a read for someone interested in the literary Arthur, but it’s not something I can see myself coming back to read again in the future, and it wouldn’t win a space on my bookshelves. It’s just not that compelling.

the-hollow-hills-5Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):

  1. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)
  2. The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973, Book Two of the Merlin Trilogy)

* The other is Merlin’s old nurse, and all she really does is praise him.
** Of course there is not actually a lady involved, because we couldn’t have that any powerful females in the story. There’s a grim bit where Merlin is cleaning up an old chapel, and as he is restoring many of the pagan icons that the previous caretaker had removed, he mentions that he’s glad a bloody, curved knife has been disposed of permanently, because nobody ever wants to invite the goddess’s presence into things.

The Crystal Cave

Crystal Wizard

I have just finished reading The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. I haven’t read this particular iteration of the Arthurian saga for a long while – since my early teens I suspect, and I have to confess that I’m pretty sure I never read more than the first two books of the 4-book series.* Which is kind of crazy if you know me, and my long-lived adoration of all things Arthurian. The essay that got me into college was all about Merlin, for goodness sake, in answer to the “one person you’d like to meet” question. I don’t know why I never finished the Stewart books, or revisited them before now. All I can say is that I’m very glad I’ve picked them up again, as I have really enjoyed the first book and am looking forward to the rest.

For all my love of the Arthurian legend, it has been a long time since I’ve read any Arthurian books, and I can’t say precisely what prompted me to pick this up now, other then the general presence of Arthuriana in the air. It was a year ago that Parke Godwin** died, and Mary Stewart herself died just last month. And there’s been much discussion this past week about the author of what is probably the most influential work of Arthurian literature since The Sword in the Stone.*** And topping it all off, I’ve been watching the BBC series Merlin with my daughters.****

Let me tell you, it is really, really good to be back in Camelot. This story, along with Star Wars and the Chronicles of Narnia, lies at the foundation of all I love about stories, and my passion for mythic narrative in particular. Stewart’s books, with the careful balance of history and fantasy, and firm grounding in legendary material (it uses Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the British Kings as it’s primary source) is probably the perfect choice to reacquaint myself. It feels a bit like a homecoming.

In fact, I am feeling inspired to read a lot of Arthuriana right now, and have decided to produce a entirely definitive and entirely unofficial ranking of the best literary Arthurian novels, right here on this blog. (It’s not doing much otherwise, so why not?) As I progress, I’ll write a little about what I like and don’t like about each book, and how it compares to the legendary material, and I’m going to rank them in terms of personal preference. Here’s how the ranking stands right now:

Definitive, Unofficial Ranking of Arthurian Novels (that I’ve read):
#1: The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart (1970, Book One of the Merlin Trilogy)

(Okay, it’s gonna take some time to fill in the rest. I’m going off fresh readings, not what I remember from reading years ago.)

Crystal Wizard

Specifically, what I like most about The Crystal Cave is that it closely follows the narrative source while giving it a firm historical grounding. (How accurate that history is may be up for debate, but it feels realistic enough for the average reader.) I really dislike versions that disregard the bones of the legend and instead construct their own narratives that just happen to use the characters and/or setting, but this book captures all the important events (so far): Merlin’s unknown father, his prophecy about the the red dragon and the white dragon, the erection of Stonehenge, and the deception that results in the conception of Arthur at Tintagel. Stewart interprets all these through a historical lens, but she doesn’t change them.

Stewart also injects in a significant mythic element, showing us a Merlin who is driven by the hand of the God (not specifically Christian), for purposes that aren’t always clear to him. Many of his feats that are attributed to magic are really the product of knowledge, engineering, and good luck, but his visions and prophecies are true, and he must often pay the consequences for acting on them. There is a definite sense of powers beyond the mortal realm at work.

What I don’t like is the lack of women of substantial character. There are four women of note in the book: Niniane, Merlin’s mother; Rowena, the Saxon wife of King Voritgern; Keri, a romantic interest for Merlin; and Ygraine, Arthur’s mother-to-be. Of these, Rowena doesn’t have a line of dialog, and Keri is only there to demonstrate that, for Merlin, girls are off-limits (the price for his powers, essentially). Niniane’s function seems to be primarily to keep Merlin’s father a secret – she doesn’t seem to have much influence on his character and once his reputation is secure she conveniently dies. Ygraine, of course, only comes in at the end, and while she is a reasonably interesting character, she never escapes from her role as Vessel of Prophecy. Her actions and choices have all been pre-determined. Of course, this is a big challenge for any Arthurian work – how do you create agency for characters whose fates are already established?

Overall, the book has good, solid writing, with first-person narration (by Merlin) that makes it very engaging. I like the character as presented, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I kept turning pages because I want to see how it affects him. That, really, is the essential point of any good story, isn’t it? Not what happens, but how it affects the people it happens to.

So, does anyone have recommendations for future Arthurian reads? What’s your favorite version of the legend?

* Wow, turns out there are 5 books – the last one came out in 1995.

** It’s been a long time since I’ve read them, but I remember thinking that his Arthurian books (Firelord, Beloved Exile, The Last Rainbow) were the best literary adaptions I’d read.

*** The Mists of Avalon, natch. I will leave you to google the current controversy if you’re not familiar with it already.

**** For all the liberties they take with the legendary material, it’s probably my favorite screen adaption to date.