classic Literature

Manticore: Man-Eating Hybrid Beast of Legend and Art

As we mentioned on Monday, guest columnist Richard H. Fay will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  Additionally, the artwork referring to the creatures discussed in this article can be found here.

Artwork by Richard H. Fay

A legendary monster that bore many names (Manticore, Manticora, Mantichora, Manticory, Manticoras, Martikhora, Mantiserra, Memecoleous, Mancomorion, and the Satyral), the fearsome Manticore featured in the lore, bestiaries, and creative works of various lands and cultures, from ancient Asia to medieval Europe, and beyond. However, the Manticore legend first took root in ancient Greece and Persia. A garbled account of man-eating Bengal tigers of India may have been the seed that sprouted all subsequent tales of this strange and ferocious hybrid creature. Despite its dubious origins, the legend of the Manticore persisted and developed over the centuries.

Ctesias, Greek physician to the Persian King Artaxerxes II Mnemon (reigned 404 to 358 BCE), penned what seems to be the first written account of the Manticore. Even though Ctesias never visited India, he wrote that a lion-sized man-faced monstrosity prowled the sub-continent. As preserved in later works by the Roman writer Aelian (c. 170 – c. 235 CE) and the Byzantine scholar Photius (c. 815-897 CE), Ctesias described what he called the Martikhora (derived from the Persian mardkhor, meaning “man-slayer” or “man-eater”) as possessing pale blue eyes, three rows of sharp teeth, savage claws, a cinnabar-coloured pelt, a scorpion’s tail, additional stings on the crown of its head and each side of its tail, and a voice that sounded like a trumpet. Ctesias also claimed that the creature could, to defend itself, shoot regenerating foot-long stingers both forward and backward a considerable distance. One animal alone could withstand those poisoned quills; the thick-skinned elephant had little to fear from the Manticore’s otherwise deadly sting. To hunt such a formidable beast, Indian natives rode upon elephants and attacked their prey with spears or arrows. 

It seems likely that the man-eating Martikhora of Ctesias was based upon tales of the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). The Romanised Greek Pausanias (c. 110 – c. 180 CE) believed this to be the case, and wrote about his thoughts on the matter in the ninth book of his ten-volume travelogue entitled Description of Greece. In his section on fabulous animals, he suggested that the red-hued pelt described by Ctesias could be explained by a tiger appearing to be a homogeneous red in colour when observed running in full sunlight. Pausanias also put forward the opinion that the more fanciful traits recorded by Ctesias, such as the lethal stingers and three rows of teeth, arose from natives exaggerating the deadly characteristics of a man-eating beast they dreaded. According to what Irish naturalist  Valentine Ball wrote in his 1883 paper “Identification of the Pygmies, the Martikhora, the Griffin, and the Dikarion of Ktesias”, these two traits dismissed by Pausanias as false may have had a basis in fact. Ball argued that the Manticore’s three rows of teeth might have been derived from the tiger’s trilobate molars, while the tail-borne stingers might have been a distorted account of a horny dermal structure he asserted exists at the extremity of a tiger’s tail.

Regardless of the reality behind Ctesias’ account, other ancient writers helped propagate the legend of the Manticore. With the sceptical qualifier of “if we are to  believe Ctesias”, Aristotle described the Martichora of India in his History of Animals of  350 BCE. He included most of the characteristics already mentioned and also said that the beast’s call sounded like a combination of pan-pipes and a trumpet. The Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia of c. 77 CE, displayed little scepticism over the creature’s actual existence when he echoed Ctesias and Aristotle, although he placed the creature in Ethiopia. He added that the triple-rowed teeth fit into each other like a comb. He also claimed to have been informed that  the man-faced monster could mimic human speech.

Inspired by the writings of ancient Greek and Roman naturalists, the compilers of medieval bestiaries included the Manticore among their compendia of beasts, both ordinary and fantastic. 

The exact appearance of the creature varied from work-to-work, although all variations displayed a feline-body with a human face. One 12th century bestiary featured a Manticore wearing a Phyrgian cap. An English bestiary of the early 13th century portrayed its Manticore as possessing a particularly savage countenance and prominent stingers all along its tail. Another mid-late 13th century English bestiary depicted the Manticore with a visage that was merely a rough approximation of a human face. Yet another 13th century bestiary, this one from northern France, portrayed the beast as having a distinctively human head, but no stinging tail. This particular depiction also deviated from the standard reddish coat colour, in this instance (assuming the colour hadn’t faded or altered drastically over time) the illuminator had instead opted for a greyish hue.

Besides its frequent presence in bestiaries, the Manticore also made appearances in medieval sculpture and even, on rare occasions, medieval and Tudor heraldry. The Manticore carvings found in some medieval churches stood as symbols of the weeping prophet Jeremiah. The late medieval Lord Hastings adopted a tusked Manticore (or mantyger) as his heraldic badge. The Tudor-era Lord Fitzwalter had, for his badge, a purple-hued Manticore. At times, the head of the heraldic Manticore would be adorned with spiral horns.

Over time, the Manticore became associated with other fabulous creatures and served as inspiration for other legendary monsters. In the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, the heraldic Manticore helped shape the imagery of the female-faced chimaeric creature that stood as a symbol of the sin of fraud in “grotteschi” (grotesque decorative elements) and some Mannerist paintings. Edward Topsell, in his 1607 work The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, copied the description of a Manticore as given by Ctesias, but then equated the man-faced beast with the badger-headed cloven-hoofed Leucrocota and the hyena. In Spanish lore, the Manticore transformed into a kind of werewolf that kidnapped and preyed upon children. Tales of the Manticore told by sixteenth century missionaries to the New World may have formed the basis for the Cigouave, a human-faced feline-bodied beast, of Haitian Vodou tradition.

As the ages progressed, the Manticore of art and popular culture gained additional attributes. Along with the spiral horns added by heraldic artists, others tacked on scales, udders or dragon’s wings. A scaly Manticore sporting horns, udders, and wings featured in a 17th century bestiary. In modern times, a bat-winged Manticore has numbered among the monsters that adventuring characters may encounter in the fantasy realms of a certain well-known role-playing game. The Manticore in Gustave Flaubert’s 1874 work The Temptation of St. Anthony spoke of possessing screw-like claws and the ability to spew plague.

Interestingly enough, although it seems likely that distorted tales of man-eating tigers served as the basis for the man-faced scorpion-tailed stinger-flinging Manticore of ancient natural histories and medieval bestiaries, the legend lives on. In Indonesia, some villagers today tell tales of a man-eating Manticore that prowls the jungle and kills its human prey with a single bite or scratch. It just goes to show that the Manticore has endured, in human imagination if not necessarily in reality.

Sources

Aelian (1958). On the nature of animals 4.21. (A.F. Scholfield, Trans.). Attalus. (Original work written c. 200 CE) http://www.attalus.org/translate/animals4.html

Aristotle (1910). The history of animals. 2.1. (D. Thompson, Trans.). The Internet Classics Archive. (Original work written 350 BCE) http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/history_anim.2.ii.html

Badke, D. (ed.). (2011, January 15). Manticore: gallery. The medieval bestiary. http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastgallery177.htm

Ball, V. (1883). “Identification of the pygmies, the martikhora, the griffin, and the dikarion of Ktesias”. The Academy, XXIII, 277. https://books.google.com/books?id=oEZRAQAAMAAJ

Curran, B. (2016). The carnival of dark dreams. WyrdHarvest Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=KzNnDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Flaubert, G, (2016). The temptation of St. Anthony. (L. Hearn, Trans.). (Original work written 1874). http://www.gutenberg.org/files/52225/52225-h/52225-h.htm

Gygax, G., & Arneson, D. (1981). Dungeons & Dragons fantasy adventure game expert rulebook. TSR Hobbies.

Heraldic badge of William Lord Hastings [ink drawing]. Wikimedia Commons. (Originally drawn c.1466-70) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hastings,_1st_Baron_Hastings.jpeg

Lehner, E. & Lehner, J. (2004). Big book of dragons, monsters, and other mythical creatures.  Dover Publications.

Manticore. (2020, March 2). Wikipedia. Retrieved March 3, 2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manticore

Matthews, J., & Matthews, C. (2005). The element encyclopedia of magical creatures. HarperElement.

Pausanias (2018). Description of Greece (English). 9.21.4-9.21.5. Perseus under PhiloLogic. (Original work written c. 150 CE) http://perseus.uchicago.edu/

Photius (2017). Photius’ excerpt of Ctesias’ Indica. (J.H. Freese, Trans.). Livius. (Original work written  c.850 CE) https://www.livius.org/sources/content/ctesias-overview-of-the-works/photius-excerpt-of-ctesias-indica/

Pliny the Elder (1855). The natural history 8.30 & 45. (J. Bostock & H.T. Riley, Trans.). Perseus Digital Library. (Original work written 77 CE). http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D8%3Achapter%3D30

Rose, C. (2000). Giants, monsters, and dragons: an encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth. W. W. Norton & Company.

Rosen, B. (2008). The mythical creatures bible. Octopus Publishing Group. 

Rothery, G. (1994). Concise encyclopedia of heraldry. Senate. (Original work published 1915)

Topsell, E. (1607). The historie of foure-footed beastes. Printed by William Iaggard. https://archive.org/details/b3033469x/page/n9/mode/2up

Zell-Ravenheart, O., & DeKirk, A. (2007). A wizard’s bestiary. New Page Books.

Merfolk: Sea People of Folklore and Legend

As we mentioned on Monday, guest columnist Richard H. Fay will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  Additionally, the artwork referring to the creatures discussed in this article can be found here.

Artwork by Richard H. Fay

Featured in the lore of many human cultures, merfolk were said to be people of the sea, although some resided in freshwater. In their most usual form, these beings appeared humanoid from the waist up and pisciform from the waist down. However, some chronicles and tales presented variations from this standard. At times hostile, at other times helpful, merfolk interacted with land-dwellers in various ways. Certain stories even spoke of marriages between merfolk and mortals, unions that could produce lines of human descendants. With potential links to ancient gods, goddesses, and monsters, merfolk have been a fixture of human legends for ages, but some accounts suggest that they are more than mere creatures of legend. Surprisingly enough, various historical records describe actual encounters with these aquatic entities, According to some reports, such encounters have even persisted to the present day.

The origins of merfolk lore might be as murky and difficult to plumb as the ocean depths themselves, but possible precursors to the merfolk of later chronicles and tales may be found in ancient myths and legends. Oannes, god of wisdom who granted the ancient Babylonians the gift of culture, appeared as a human-fish hybrid (Sykes & Kendall, 1993). The Philistine god Dagon and the Syrian goddess Atargatis were also depicted as prototypical merfolk (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Mythographer Robert Graves traced a connection between mermaids and sea-born goddesses Aphrodite and Marian (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The Greek scholars Nicholas Polites and Stilpon Kyriakides argued that the mermaid of modern Greek lore, the gorgona, shares features with the siren of Classical Greek myth (Simpson, 1987). Notwithstanding the fact that medieval authors did conflate the sailor-luring siren of ancient lore with the northern mermaid, Classical depictions portrayed the siren not as half-woman, half-fish, but as a monster that possessed a woman’s head and torso atop a bird’s body (Rose, 2000).

Although the true nature of alleged links between ancient gods and merfolk of later times may be doubtful, there is no doubt that such beings feature in folklore and legends around the world, from Ireland to New Ireland, New Guinea. The usually peaceful Irish merfolk known as merrows wore magical red caps that allowed them to shape-shift and travel back-and-forth between their undersea realm and dry land (Rose, 1996). The Manx mermaid ben varrey exhibited two conflicting natures, one a benevolent finder of treasure, the other a malevolent enchanter of men (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The handsome Danish merman havmand treated those mortals he encountered with kindliness, while his female counterpart havfrue could be either helpful or harmful (Rose, 1996). Like the sirens of ancient myth, the alluring Swedish mermaids called sjörå entranced boatmen at sea and destroyed both mortals and their vessels (Marriott, 2006). The cannibalistic mermaids of Portuguese tales went one step further and devoured those lured into their watery abode (Marriott, 2006). The far more benevolent ningyo of Japanese lore brought peace and dispelled bad luck (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Clad in cowrie-shell jewelry, the bonito maidens of the Solomon Islands acted as caretakers of both bonito fish and lost ivory fishing hooks (Rose, 1996). The singing ri of New Ireland tradition resided among the mangroves and along the strand (Rose, 2000). On the east coast of Canada, the halfway people of Micmac legends alerted courteous fishermen of impending storms (Rose, 2000).

Merfolk through the ages and across the globe have traditionally appeared as humanoids with fishy tails, exemplified by the beautiful-but-deadly comb-and-mirror-wielding sea maiden of the English folk song “The Mermaid” (Briggs, 1978), but there are variations to this tradition. The 1st century author Pliny described mermaids as being completely scaly head-to-tail (Rosen, 2008). The medieval Irish Annals of the Four Masters told of a truly monstrous mermaid said to have measured a whopping 160 feet long (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Another oversized mercreature featured in a report made to Bishop Pontoppidan of Bergen in 1719 that described a human-faced seal-like beast 28 feet long (Rose, 2000). Male merrows appeared downright hideous in aspect, possessing green-coloured hair, teeth, and skin, pointed red noses, and piggy eyes (Rose, 2000). On occasion, the Danish havmand was said to have had blue skin (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Instead of looking like a human woman from the waist up, the Japanese ningyo could appear as a huge fish with a woman’s head (Rose, 2000).

Along with the varying physical descriptions of merfolk, different human cultures expressed different views regarding what merfolk symbolised. In medieval Europe, mermaids represented deceit and were believed to be in league with the Great Deceiver himself, the devil (Rose, 2000). Additionally, the medieval church considered mermaids to be symbols of vanity, lust, and the soul-endangering aspects of femininity and sex (Rosen, 2008). In Tudor times, the word “mermaid” became synonymous with the word “prostitute” (Franklin, 2002). Conversely, the Afro-Brazillian Batuque cult saw their aquatic jamaína and imanja as intermediaries between mortals and angels (Rose, 1996). The Japanese thought of their ningyo as a positive entity, a protector of the land (Matthews & Matthews, 2005).

As has been touched upon above, merfolk in various locales and circumstances sometimes dealt with land-dwelling mortals in a less-than-beneficial, or even outright malevolent, fashion. The otherwise friendly male merrow named Coomara captured the souls of drowned sailors in cages in the mistaken belief that he was performing a good deed sheltering the souls and keeping them warm and dry (Croker, 1882). Mermen of a more baleful nature were believed to conjure terrible storms and sink ships (Rose, 2000). At times, the female of the species also acted in a destructive manner; the subject of the folk song “The Mermaid” sent a ship of doomed souls to the bottom of the ocean (Briggs, 1978). The Norwegian havfine herded the waves and wrecked vessels foolish enough to be caught asea when storms rolled in (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). The Scottish lake-dwelling mermaid encountered by the youthful Laird of Lorntie proved to be a downright bloodthirsty creature that would have feasted on the young laird’s blood had his loyal servant not pulled him from the loch’s waters (Briggs, 1979).

Of course, not all merfolk treated humans poorly; some had favourable and even intimate dealings with humankind. According to Danish lore, a prophesying havfrue foresaw the birth of Christian IV of Denmark (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In one Scottish story, a young man learned how to cure his ailing love with an infusion of mugwort when a mermaid surfaced and sang of using the herb to prevent the girl’s death by consumption (Briggs, 1978). A mermaid that rose from a Renfrewshire pool as a funeral procession crossed a stream advised the mourners how to use both mugwort and nettle to ward off fatal illness (Briggs, 1978). In the tale “The Old Man of Cury”, a stranded mermaid rescued by an old man granted her saviour the gift of healing (Briggs, 1978). The title mortal of “Lutey and the Mermaid” was rewarded with similar benefits when he aided a mermaid, but found himself lured into her watery abode nine years later (Briggs, 1978). Along with knowledge of healing herbs, rescued mermaids could also warn of impending storms (Rose, 1996). On occasion, female merrows wedded mortal men and gave rise to a line of human descendants who possessed webbed fingers and scaly legs (Briggs, 1979). A mermaid was said to number among the ancestors of the McVeagh clan of Scotland (Franklin, 2002).

Apart from marriages and other relations between merfolk and mortals, some stories told of humans transformed into sea people. According to a popular Greek legend, Alexander the Great’s sister Thessalonike turned into a mermaid when, grief-stricken by the death of her conquering sibling, she attempted suicide by throwing herself into the Aegean Sea (DocumentaryMakedonia, 2013). Lí Ban, the pagan subject of a 12th or 13th century Irish tale, underwent a magical metamorphosis from human woman to mermaid after the majority of her kin were drowned in a flood (Ó hÓgáin, 2006). According to a certain Irish legend, pagan crones became mermaids when Saint Patrick expelled them from the land (Franklin, 2002). In the Samish story of Ko-kwal-alwoot, a maiden became enamoured with a merman who insisted on taking her as his bride and who eventually transformed her into a sea-dweller like himself (Matthews & Matthews, 2005).

Beyond the myths, legends, and folktales about merfolk told over the centuries by many different storytellers around the globe, sailors and fishermen across the ages have reported real-life sightings of fishy-tailed humanoids. Christopher Columbus wrote that he spied three less-than-lovely mermaids off the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic in January 1493 (Salaperäinen, 2016). In 1560, the bodies of several mermaids netted off the coast of Ceylon underwent dissection at the hands of a learned physician who concluded that, externally and internally, the anatomy of the merbeings resembled that of humans (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). Henry Hudson recorded that two of his crewmen spotted a white-skinned black-haired mermaid in 1608 (Cohen, 1982). In 1723, a Danish Royal Commission tasked with proving that merfolk existed only in myths and legends ended up running across an actual merman near the Faroe Isles (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In 1830, residents of the isle of Benbecula in the Hebrides found the body of a small dark-haired white-skinned mermaid with “abnormally developed breasts”, perhaps the same creature that had been seen and injured at Sgeir na Duchadh a few days earlier, washed ashore at Culle Bay (Munro, 2016). Three years later, natural history professor Dr. Robert Hamilton described the capture of a short-haired monkey-faced mermaid offshore of Yell in the Shetland Isles (Munro, 2016). During a few notable summers around 1890, hundreds of eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the so-called Deerness Mermaid, a black-headed white-bodied creature that appeared like a human when swimming in the waters of Newark Bay, Orkney (Towrie, n.d.).

Believe it or not, in certain regions of the world sightings of and belief in merbeings have persisted right up to the present day. In 1947, an elderly Hebridean fisherman reported sighting a mermaid combing her hair near the shore of the Isle of Muck (Matthews & Matthews, 2005). In June 1967, passengers aboard a ferry travelling past Mayne Island, British Columbia, observed (and one snapped a photograph of) a blonde-haired dimple-faced mermaid with the tail of a fish or porpoise sitting upon a shoreside rock (Obee, 2016). In January 2008, several South Africans who had been relaxing near the bank of the Buffelsjags River at Suurbraak claimed they encountered a river-dwelling mermaid with white skin, black hair, and hypnotic red eyes known locally as the Kaaiman (Pekeur, 2008). In 2009, dozens of eyewitnesses caught sight of a mermaid porpoising and performing aerial acrobatics off the beach of Kiryat Yam, Israel (“Is a Mermaid”, 2009). As recently as 2012, workers at a dam in northern Zimbabwe insisted that mermaids were to blame for mysterious malfunctions and refused to continue their work until the harassing entities were appeased with a traditional beer ritual (Conway-Smith, 2012).

Merfolk number among the most widespread of legendary beings. Diverse cultures around the world have told stories of aquatic humanoid beings with piscine tails. Tales handed down from generation to generation attest to mankind’s relations with merfolk, for good or ill, throughout the ages. Perhaps such lore is merely the product of human imagination, but what are we to make of reports of actual sightings? Historic and more recent claims of seeing mermaids or mermen could be chalked up to mirages, misidentifications, hoaxes, or even mass hysteria. For instance, Columbus might have spied a trio of manatees. Witnesses who saw a mermaid on Mayne Island may have actually seen a human girl posing with a fake mermaid’s tail. Men who refused to continue work on a dam in Zimbabwe due to interference from mermaids might have fallen victim to mass hysteria. Whatever the truth of the matter, belief in merfolk has endured over time and continues to endure, in some locales, to this day. Regardless of the reality, merfolk continue to have a place in the hearts, minds, and imaginations of their land-dwelling mortal counterparts.

References

Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: fairy lore and legend. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Briggs, K. (1979). Abbey lubbers, banshees, and boggarts: an illustrated encyclopedia of fairies. New York, NY: Pantheon Book.

Cohen. D. (1982). The encyclopedia of monsters. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Conway-Smith, E. (2012, February 12). Zimbabwe mermaids appeased by traditional beer ritual. PRI. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org.

Croker, T. C. (1882/2008). Irish fairy legends. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

DocumentaryMakedonia. (2013. May 24). The legend of Thessalonike, a mermaid who lived in the Aegean sea [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHSOjYTco0U

Franklin, A. (2002). The illustrated encyclopedia of fairies. London, England: Collins & Brown.

Is a mermaid living under the sea in northern Israel? (2009, August 12). Haaretz. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com.

Marriott, S. (2006). The ultimate fairies handbook. London, England: Octopus Publishing Group.

Matthews, J., & Matthews, C. (2005). The element encyclopedia of magical creatures. London, England: HarperElement.

Munro, A. (2016, March 16, updated March 17). The myth of the Hebridean mermaid. The Scotsman. Retrieved from https://www.scotsman.com

Obee, D. (2016, January 8). Dave Obee: mermaid had no legs, but story does. Times Colonist. Retrieved from https://www.timescolonist.com/

Ó hÓgáin, D. (2006). The lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press.

Pekeur, A. (2008, January 16). Mysterious ‘mermaid’ rises from the river. IOL. Retrieved from https://www.iol.co.za.

Rose, C. (1996). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: an encyclopedia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Rose, C. (2000). Giants, monsters, and dragons: an encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rosen, B. (2008). The mythical creatures bible. London, England: Octopus Publishing Group.
Salaperäinen, O. (2016). A field guide to fantastical beasts. New York, NY: Metro Books.

Simpson, J. (1987). European mythology (library of the world’s myths and legends). New York, NY: Peter Bedrick Books.

Sykes, E., & Kendall, A. (1952/1993). Who’s who in non-classical mythology (Rev. Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Towrie, S. (n.d.). Monsters of the deep: mermaid accounts and sightings. In Orkneyjar: The Heritage of the Orkney Islands. Retrieved from http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/mermaids.htm

Libraries Revisited

I like reading books about libraries. The best of these is probably this one because it balances, but there are many, many wonderful pictures with a complete history of the content and the buildings that made up libraries all over the world, both ancient and modern. Interestingly, it is also entitled The Library (although the main difference with today’s subject is the fact that the earlier book also had a subtitle: A World History).

I also enjoy reading chattier, more personal, history of bibliophile things and in this sense, Nicholas Basbanes Patience and Fortitude is a good bet, and a nice thick book that will keep you entertained for some time. If your own library is in any way quirky or fun, you’ll like this one.

Today’s work is a much lighter read than either of these two, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing.

The Library – A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells is one of those cases in which a book is perfectly described by its subtitle. The “Catalogue of Wonders” part immediately brings to mind those cabinets of curiosities that wealthy private individuals used to have. These so-called cabinets (they were sometimes rooms) could contain anything the person found of interest, from stuffed birds to shrunken heads.

This book is kind of like that. It’s not a chronological history of the evolution of the library (although it does give a well-researched glimpse into that), but a collection of eclectically arranged chapters that tell of major things that befell or happened in libraries. So one chapter might give an evolution of medieval libraries while another might talk about imaginary libraries in literature (of course, Eco’s is in there, but so are the ones from LotR, and Kells shows himself to be a bit of a Tolkien scholar).

It’s actually a perfect book for those who either have already read the two mentioned previously or for those who don’t want to invest the time you’d need to do the others justice. At slightly under 300 pages, the Kells is the perfect length for the casual reader while having enough new anecdotes and stories to be a delight for those who’ve read the other volumes.

Heartily recommended to book lovers everywhere!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a single story made up of many stand-alone shorts. The characters deeply affect each others’ lives, often without ever knowing the others exist. You can check it out here.

Oh Captain! My Captain, Patience and Fortitude

We read only a little poetry here so it may sadden readers to learn that I’ve never read Leaves of Grass cover to cover, it will probably not surprise you. This state of affairs may be unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t read plenty of Walt Whitman’s work over the years. In fact, I’ve probably read Leaves of Grass in its entirety at some point or another… just not consecutively in book form the way it was published.

So when I was in New York in Early June, 2019, I went to the exposition of Whitman’s life, work and influence at the New York Public Library.

Now I’d like to take a second to talk about NYPL’s exhibitions. They are wonderful, the place where they are held is just the right size to cover a specialized topic, and I’ll likely walk into the one held at any given moment even if its subject matter isn’t particularly interesting to me (they are free, so you only spend the time you invest). When it’s something like Whitman, though, it’s doubly nice.

On my way out, I grab the booklet you can take and toss it into my to-be-read pile (currently standing at about 90 books and magazines, not counting the separate pile of Road & Tracks from the 70s and 80s), where it eventually cycles through.

In this case, reading it helped fix what I’d seen in the exhibition in my memory and help me remember stuff I might otherwise have forgotten.

Of those little details, the one that interested me most as a writer was that Whitman released Blades of Grass in one form (which flopped, though it was well received by some critics) and then went on adding to it in subsequent editions. That seems strange to me… I always try to get my publishers the best possible version of my work, complete enough that adding to it would only be an exercise in padding. But it definitely worked for Whitman, who eventually turned the book into one of the most influential collections of poetry in history. Unlike other literary giants from America like Poe or Melville, Whitman became a giant in his own lifetime.

No writer could ever ask for more.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in a strange little book called Love and Death in which the characters from one of the linked stories influence the lives of every other character, usually without knowing it. You can check it out here.

Aliens in Science Fiction – A Critical Text

As most of you here are probably aware, most of what I read is fiction, interspersed with magazines around various topics (or maybe it’s the other way around). But I do find the exercise of literary criticism fascinating, and read texts when they come my way.

So it was delightful when I was given a copy of Elana Gomel’s wonderful book Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism.

As the title implies, this one is a scholarly text at a university level and needs to be read carefully. Some of the technical terms on the philosophical and ethics side forced me (an engineer) to do a little bit of studying. Nevertheless, the book is anything but opaque; the arguments and analysis are clearly stated and easy to follow. Gomel also pushes her theories with strong argumentation and vivid exemplification from selected SF novels which helps the reader understand what is being said.

As a reader (and a science fiction reader in particular), the delight of this on lies in discovering books and stories that I wasn’t aware of. Gomel’s genre knowledge is as deep expected of the author of a book of this kind, but it is also broad, casting a wide net that includes more obscure titles and less commercial work from behind the iron curtain.

As for the arguments themselves, the book does exactly what the title says it will: it takes alien encounters and analyzes them through a philosophical lens, focusing on humanism vs. posthumanism in particular. I found it fascinating but perhaps I found it fascinating for a different reason than academic readers will; in my case, a major source of the fascination came from seeing how differently certain beloved classics can be read when one has the critical tools to understand them beyond what a run-of-the-mill reader would see.

I think that exercise is worthwhile for any reader of the genre (especially if that reader, like me, is also a writer). Academic readers with a philosophy background will, of course, be able to absorb the conclusions more fully (and possibly disagree with them), but I simply dedicated myself to reading and learning stuff I’d completely missed.

I enjoyed it, and this one is worth reading regardless of where you stand on the regular-reader-vs-academic-reader spectrum. If science fiction–particularly science fiction about alien encounters–interests you, you will find something to like in this book.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most well-received Science Fiction novel is Siege. You can check it out here.

Writers’ Writers vs. Readers’ Writers

I used to think the phrase “so-and-so is a writer’s writer,” was just a way to indicate a writer that other writers would read and recommend. Hell, even after I became a writer myself, the same attitude prevailed.

It was only after my writing reached a certain level, and my consciousness of the art form became much less subliminal and much more specific that I began to realize why some writers are revered by their peers while others most emphatically are not.

Let’s take Dan Brown, for example. Writers will never, ever accept that there is any literary merit in his work. They describe him as a hack who writes awfully, an aberration that proves that, just because words are in a book, it doesn’t make it literature.

Though I don’t know Dan Brown personally, I imagine he is laughing all the way to the bank. You see, no one told the millions of readers of The Da Vinci Code that it sucked, and they kept right on reading.

In fact, I’ll admit to having enjoyed it enormously (especially the first half of it). I was on a plane and out of books and the only interesting English-language paperback they’d had in Madrid airport was this one. So I bought it and loved it.

Is it well-written in the sense that Brown focuses on the language and the currently fashionable tenets of literary expression. No effing way.

Is it good? Absolutely. It is a page-turner in the classical mold and, like it or not, these are the books that engage readers. No matter how many critically acclaimed auteurs sniff at it, readers are not stupid; they can tell when something is excellent… and they will ignore critics in droves to read it.

So who’s right.

Offhand, I’d say the readers, as they are the people that writers create for in the first place.

But it isn’t that simple. A more nuanced answer would be that both groups are right.

A book that keeps readers reading is good by the most important of all definitions: it gives pleasure, escape and entertainment to its target audience. That can’t be bad, and critics of everything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades are wrong to forget it. Great storytelling has to be an important part of any great book, and when postmodern critics sit down and disparage anything with a plot that people enjoy, they are doing a disservice to literature (modern critics had the same issue, BTW, this isn’t an attack on postmodernism per se).

Having said that, it’s possible to read for more than just the basic pleasure of finding out what happens next. The plot can be advanced in elegant as well as simple ways… and the texture of the writing can bring pleasure to readers as well. In that sense, arguing for more literary text is perfectly valid.

So why “writers’ writer” and not just “sophisticated readers’ writer”?

I think it’s because of the way writers react when they see a spectacular chunk of prose. While a reader might feel pleasure at the aesthetics, a writer will admire (or be jealous of) the mechanics. Writers, when they manage to turn off their inner reader, can feel awe at another writer’s craftsmanship.

In my case, I see it in Wodehouse, of course. While he is beloved by millions for the sheer sake of his humor and lovable characters, any writer exposed to his prose will leave with a sense of awe and inadequacy that will take a while to shake. There is no writer in the English language whose sentences are as beautifully crafted as Wodehouse. Don’t remember it that way? Then I challenge you to pick up any one of his books and prove me wrong. You won’t.

There are other writers who use language wonderfully (Fitzgerald), or incorporate erudite concepts effortlessly (Eco).

So, yes. There is another level in writing, and these are the books that authors will gravitate to.

But don’t discount readers’ opinions. That a book is straightforward in no way makes it a bad book. You have my permission to ignore the critics who tell you otherwise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books (he hopes) are long on both storytelling and language. In an attempt to prove it, he cites his collection of literary fiction, a novel in short story form, entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Mona Lisa Overdrive: Cyberpunk Mysticism Explained… Sorta.

I’ve spoken about William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy here before. Last time, we mused at just how much influence the books had on The Matrix film series (basically it’s impossible to overstate).

Now that I’ve finished the trilogy by reading Mona Lisa Overdrive, I can give my final thoughts.

First off, this book is fun. It’s structured like a multi-string crime book or a thriller in the modern mold, with different characters showing us different threads of the action, which then converge at the end. While it’s a little short to be quite as effective in this treatment as a contemporary (1988) Tom Clancy book, it’s still an entertaining way to structure the novel.

This is probably the one where the cyberpunk elements are woven into the tale most skillfully, possibly because Gibson understood them better or maybe because he assumed that the readers who’d gotten that far also understood everything much better. Either way, I think this book would not really work at all for people who hadn’t read the first two in the series.

Having said that, the best part of this book is that it actually explains the mystical aspects of the earlier novels, which, like the mystical aspects of the Matrix trilogy always annoyed me. They were a jarring note in an otherwise hard-science-y universe of hardware and software.

Though the explanation isn’t very deep or detailed–this book is much more about completing character arcs and telling its own unique set of events–the fact that the spiritual explanations are closed off helps reestablish the hard-edged nature of the series.

These books aren’t perfect–not many seminal books are–but they do transport you to an alternative and noir world, which is always welcome.

And seeing that a lot of modern science fiction seems more concerned with diversity and inclusivity than with actually telling a cool story, this is a welcome change of pace for those who’ve become saturated with the modern stuff. (I don’t want to be unfair–there’s still plenty of good, story/tech/adventure-driven SF out there. But you have to wade through it).

So there’s a reason Gibson has taken his place among the canonical writers.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside explores, as Gibson’s work does, the limits between humanity and technology, and the consequences of too much reliance on the latter. You can check it out here.

A Different Look at Early Feminism: The Bostonians

Back when I did my review of A Room of One’s Own, I commented that political discussion seemed to be much more intelligent back then and, in consequence, less annoying than our present day state in which people on the other side of the argument need to be unfriended, because politics.

Apparently, I spoke too soon.

Henry James is probably best known for A Portrait of a Lady, but in The Bostonians, he ridicules the political obsessives of his own day, which in this case was the late 1870s. That he choses the female emancipation movement is probably not representative of James’ own political leanings, but more that he needed a political movement that made itself utterly obnoxious for an extended period of time. Feminism appears to have been that movement on that day.

Despite Virginia Woolf’s well thought out and beautifully delivered speech that formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own, we were naive in stating that this was an era of intelligent political discussion. Woolf did not represent her movement’s rank-and-file, or even the day-to-day organizers. She was a superstar in a different field brought to impart wisdom… and she succeeded.

But that daily membership was just as subject to ridicule as your friend who wears the MAGA hat and drinks bleach to kill microbes or your communist buddy who insists that the Soviet Union wasn’t “real socialism” and that all historical evidence of the failure of socialism is caused by either aliens or corporate conspiracies.

Here, the victim of Henry James’ satire is a young fanatic feminist who may (or may not) be a lesbian. She lives and breathes for the movement to such an extent that she ends up hating all men… which is no less adolescent in 1870 than it is today.

Making things even more delightfully ironic, her antagonist is a southerner, a man who recently fought on the losing side of the Civil War… and whose views are decidedly conservative–and who James also satirized and turns into a caricature.

The stakes are the heart of a woman who is the most original and persuasive feminist speaker the movement has yet discovered and, unlike others, is young and beautiful to boot. The Southerner wishes to win her hand, while the feminist wants to keep her in the movement (which she will abandon if she becomes the Southerner’s wife).

I won’t spoil this one by telling you who wins, except that no one comes out smelling like a rose… and that it paints a portrait of the politics of the time which allows us to see that even the suffragist movement, which managed enormous good was, at its core, populated by the same sad fanatics we see today.

Interesting stuff, and a good way to immerse oneself in the day and age.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the range from literary fiction to historical fantasy. His most mainstream novel is a thriller entitled Timeless which combines a fast-paced international-crime-driven plot with the inherent sexuality of a young globe-trotting journalist to create something unique and absorbing. You can check it out here.

Why Space Opera is so Much Better than Dystopian SF

We live in a world that seems to love its dystopias. From television shows about zombies to near-future resource-constrained novels to the sudden rediscovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a crappy book that resonates with certain forms of gloom-and-doomism, it’s in vogue to consume media that tells us how awful everything will be.

The world, critically acclaimed media tells us, will be awful, and humanity will be trapped on Earth, never to leave again.

Of course, it isn’t actually obligatory to consume dystopian SF. While it’s difficult to escape it, there are good things on the shelves at your local bookstore and even, if you make the effort to look for it, on TV.

And while I can’t explain the popularity of depressing SF that takes place on Earth, I can tell you the name of its fun, inspiring antidote: Space Opera.

Now space opera doesn’t have to be Stars Wars cheesy. It can be technologically awesome, like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space cycle, political, like Iain M. Banks Culture novels, or idea-driven in the tradition of Asimov or Heinlein. Hell, there’s even Eco-space-opera in the form of Dune.

It’s superior to the dystopian stuff for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s much more fun to read. Not only is the imagination liberated, but these tend to show humanity at its best, encountering and overcoming challenges on a galactic scale, as opposed to small-mindedly obsessing over the problems of one planet. It takes a very small mind indeed to feel threatened by the possibility of humanity spreading its wings; most people will be uplifted by this subgenre in ways that seldom happens in pessimistic portrayals of an earth-only future.

If you want proof of this concept, just walk down to your local bookstore. You’ll find Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Niven, etc. well represented despite the fact that they created their best work forty years ago in the best of cases, seventy in the case of Foundation… The problem is that those books still attract the kind of reader that was attracted to science fiction in the first place, while the recent crop of dull, politicized dystopia is only good for as a sleeping aid for insomniacs. (recent space opera is much more likely to be on shelves in 50 years than the tripe winning most awards…).

The second reason Space Opera is better is that it is actually more likely to come to pass. While no one should be a climate Pollyanna, the truth is that humanity, through thick and thin, has always advanced technologically. Some of the forthcoming challenges will be tough, but they will be overcome. Moreover, humanity is finally pushing towards colonization of space and that is the kind of barrier that, once broken, crumbles like a piece of stale bread. We will be out there in numbers, very likely within our own lifetimes. So any climate apocalypse tale that doesn’t have a significant human space presence is just silly. I’d shelve it under fantasy and not SF.

Finally, the attitude of the writers is a turn-off in many dystopian books. These volumes are often a reflection of the fears that capitalism and individualism are destroying the planet. While one may agree or disagree with that sentiment, the kind of obsession with it that drives someone to actually pen a novel to show how badly it will end don’t necessarily make for someone in whose head you want to spend a few hundred pages.

They are, in fact, obsessed enough to ignore the fact that living standards have been steadily rising worldwide for the longest time. I recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature for the science and numbers that pretty much conclusively prove it. But not for our poor, angry content creators – they need the world to be going down the tubes, because if not, they’re wrong about everything.

But the technical considerations and political annoyances are secondary. The bottom line is that Space Opera is just more fun, and we read and watch science fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at.

So go forth and buy something fun for a change. It probably won’t have won a Hugo but if you’ve been following the Hugos lately, you know that that no longer matters (caveat, if I ever win a Hugo, you can take it as a given that I was drunk while writing this and that the Hugo represents the very pinnacle of literature of any kind. But until that enormously unlikely event happens, I stand by the above).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who writes a certain amount of Space Opera both in short and long form. His well-received novel Siege is a far-future space opera in a very dark galaxy. You can check it out here.

More Fine Books

As I’ve mentioned here before, I love Fine Books & Collections. I used to be a subscriber but, unfortunately, the postal service they use to mail magazines overseas just isn’t arriving in Argentina for some reason. And no one seems to have any clue as to where they are going missing.

So I buy them when I travel to the US, if I happen to spot it at a B&N newsstand. Which I did on my recent mid-pandemic trip to Washington and Philadelphia.

It appears their distribution issues are not just limited to Argentina, because the only copy I was able to snag was the Spring 2020 issue… in October. Still, I grabbed it without hesitation and, unlike the rest of the reading material I bought on the trip, I read this one immediately.

Totally worth it, even if a good chunk of the magazine dealt with the New York Rare Book Week (I assume that got cancelled due to Covid).

Even so, this one represents immersion therapy in a world of classic editions of beloved books, old maps, beautiful craftsmanship and art. Along with my visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum, which had some unexpected highlights in its holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern art, this was my cultural break during my trip since the Smithsonian museums I am interested in–Air & Space, Art and American History–were closed on the dates I was in town.

My head spends a long time in the future because I’m in the middle of a science fiction novel, my kids ensure that I spend a good chunk of the day very much in the present (with both the joys and the annoyances that come with it), so just stopping everything and enjoying beauty and wonder created decades or centuries ago and seeing into minds who appreciate that sensation just like you do is a way to relax and just let go for a bit. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that these magazines are probably among the things I most enjoy reading.

In this one, there are the usual great articles and columns, but two, about the photography of Danny Lyon and the book listing high-tech inventions of the renaissance really stood out. I always leaf through these mags when I have a desire to be transported… and I still haven’t found one that disappoints on rereading.

Recommended (and maybe if enough people buy it, they’ll be able to fix their distribution problems!).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. You can check out his literary fiction in Love and Death a narrative that comes together out of several short pieces to tell the story of a group of individuals who never quite realize how closely they are linked. You can check it out here.