American Mythic

19 May

When we think of mythology we tend to think of the old world – European fairytales, folklore of the Far East and tales from the dark continent of Africa. Even when the new world is mentioned, in mythic terms it is the Native American folklore of the tribes and nations that first settled the lands of North and South America that comes to mind. Whilst all of this world mythology represents a rich and varied tradition of fairytales, folklore and legends, this is also to ignore the unusual and fascinating modern mythology of the United States. There are lots of interesting directions that this ‘American Mythic’ takes. There are larger than life stories of the birth of the nation, its founding fathers and the Revolutionary War; there is an entire mythology surrounding the Civil War that almost ripped apart the nascent union, when brother fought brother and fire and blood threatened to consume all the land from sea to shining sea; and up to the present day the Cold War and many other conflicts that have shaped the postwar nation also contributed to the character and myths of the modern United States. Anyone who takes the time and trouble to investigate American Mythic might be surprised at what they find.

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The Music of John Williams

14 Apr

With a career spanning over six decades, John Williams has composed some of the most popular, recognizable, and critically acclaimed film scores in cinematic history, including those of the Star Wars series, JawsClose Encounters of the Third KindSupermanE.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones series, the first two Home Alone films, Hook, the first two Jurassic Park films, Schindler’s List, and the first three Harry Potter films. Williams has won 24 Grammy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, five Academy Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards (with 51 Academy Award nominations, Williams is the second most-nominated individual, after Walt Disney). Williams also composed the score for eight of the top 20 highest-grossing films at the U.S. box office (adjusted for inflation). Despite this awesome CV, or perhaps as a contributory factor, Williams has a style and approach almost unlike any other film composer. While skilled in a variety of 20th-century compositional idioms, Williams’s most familiar style may be described as a form of neoromanticism inspired by the late 19th century’s large-scale orchestral music—in the style of Tchaikovsky or Richard Wagner’s compositions and their concept of leitmotif—that inspired his film music predecessors. Williams is associated with a who’s who of history’s greatest film-makers, including Steven Spielberg, for whom Williams composed music for all but three of his feature films. However it is another cinematic legend – George Lucas – for whom he reserved perhaps his greatest achievements in the form of the soundtrack to Star Wars, which was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

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Monstress

17 Mar

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu, uses a unique fantasy setting to tell the epic story of a magically inspired war. In it, readers are instantly thrust into a world of strange creatures, unique magic, and an unexplained conspiracy which gets more and more interesting with every page. Liu does a fantastic job in crafting a world with a lore so dense that it feels like we have only just scratched the surface of everything there is to learn. This is a compelling series pushed forward by strong, yet beautifully flawed characters making their way through this world and uncovering aspects of it which we are only just beginning to understand. The end result is a graphic novel that doesn’t just appeal to fantasy lovers, it also appeals to anyone interesting in epic stories set in detailed and elaborate worlds. Before even getting into the actual story behind this series, the sheer scope of the worldbuilding present here must be addressed. Liu has created a society with a rich history of war and development, that has a number of strict rules for the storyline to follow. There are multiple distinct races; magical elements, whose properties remain surprisingly consistent; and a full history behind every character, location, and artifact. Discovering all of this becomes one of the reader’s biggest objectives and gives them something to look forward to with every page they read.

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Fantasy Masterworks: The Last Unicorn

17 Feb

The Last Unicorn is a 1968 fantasy novel by American author Peter S. Beagle, which follows the tale of a unicorn who believes she is the last of her kind in the world and undertakes a quest to discover what has happened to the others. The Last Unicorn is also an elegy for a world that has lost its magic, lost its sense of wonder, and whose people are desperate to get it back but so passive in their acceptance of the mundanity of their lives that they can’t even see the magic and the beauty that’s there in the world around them if only they’d look. All that makes the book sound like dour and dismal stuff indeed, but it hasn’t become one of fantasy’s most beloved and enduring classics — in print consistently for fifty years and counting — for nothing. Peter S. Beagle frames his story as a fractured fairy tale, rich in self-aware humour. The Last Unicorn was meta before meta was cool. A beloved classic, it has sold more than five million copies worldwide since its original publication, been translated into at least twenty languages, spawned sequels and spin-offs and been adapted for the big and small screen numerous times. Locus magazine once ranked The Last Unicorn number five among the “All-Time Best Fantasy Novels”, based on a poll of subscribers. In the end, this is the simple message of The Last Unicorn: that the magic hasn’t gone away, that it’s all around you in your life right now, and the only thing preventing you from recognizing it and being dazzled by it is you.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

13 Jan

Gilgamesh, the famous Mesopotamian hero, is believed to be based on a real person, who was most probably a Sumerian king. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem recording the hero’s exploits, was transcribed onto tablets in the second millennium BC. He is portrayed in sculptures and reliefs from every period of the region’s civilisation as a robust, bearded warrior, who struggles with lions, bulls and assorted monsters. He owes his immortality to the great epic poem that was written about him – the very first such literature known to humankind. Far from being a mere relic, the Gilgamesh epic is one of the most dramatic stories ever told. Even today, 3,500 years after its composition, its themes of friendship, loss and the fear of death have profound resonance. In Sumerian times, the epic must have enthralled its readers or, more often, its listeners – for in a society where only a small number were literate this poem was surely written to be read aloud.

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Lords of the Skies

16 Dec

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the eagles were immense flying birds that were sapient and could speak. Often emphatically referred to as the Great Eagles, they appear, usually and intentionally serving as agents of eucatastrophe or dei ex machina, in various parts of his legendarium, from The Silmarillion and the accounts of Númenor to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Ents are guardians of plant life, the giant eagles are the guardians of animal life. In The Silmarillion, they were described as the noblest of the winged creatures of Arda, for they were brought forth by two mighty Valar: Manwë, Lord of the Air, and Yavanna, Queen of the Earth. The Great Eagles were numbered among the most ancient and wisest of races. These birds were always messengers and servants of Manwë. Over all the azure world they flew, like lords of the skies – for they were the eyes of the Valar, and like thunderbolts fell on their foes. In the First Age, a mighty breed of this race lived in Beleriand. These Eagles were far-famed for their deeds in the War of the Jewels. Their lord was Thorondor, said to have been the greatest of all birds, whose wingspan was thirty fathoms and whose speed out-stripped that of the fastest wind.

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Faire Game

11 Nov

Renaissance Faires have become increasingly popular the world around, often establishing themselves as annual events in specific locations. From jousts to feasts, plays to magic shows, from dancers and musicians to fortune-tellers and artisans, today’s Faire-goers can find any number of events and people to catch their interest and spark their imagination. Countless Renaissance Faires  throughout the world are perfect settings for experiences of a fantastical nature – here you can see legions of players in all their regalia, fighting in jousts, singing to fair maidens, hawking their wares and so on. Many Renaissance Faires are set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, as this period has been generally considered to correspond to the flowering of the English Renaissance. Some are set earlier, during the reign of Henry VIII, or in other countries, such as France, and some are set outside the era of the Renaissance; these may include earlier medieval periods (including Vikings), or later periods, such as 17th-/18th-century pirates. Some engage in deliberate time travel by encouraging participants to wear costumes representing several eras in a broad time period. Renaissance Faires (or RenFaires for short) encourage visitors to enter into the spirit of things with costumes and audience participation – many even welcome fantasy elements such as wizards and elves!

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The Art of Charles Vess

14 Oct

Charles Vess is an American fantasy and comics artist who has specialized in the illustration of myths and fairy tales. His influences include British “Golden Age” book illustrator Arthur Rackham, Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, and comic-strip artist Hal Foster, among others. Charles Vess has been drawing ever since he could hold a crayon. Working in his studio in downtown Abingdon, Virginia, Charles Vess adds a little bit of magic back into the mundane world, drawing pixies, swamp things, goth spirits and fantastical forests. If you’re a comics or fantasy fan, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the works of Charles Vess, an award-winning artist and illustrator.  His collaborations with authors Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint, as well as his cover art for Marvel and DC have gained him a passionate following across the world. His award-winning work has graced covers and pages from numerous comic book publishers including The Books of Magic, Sandman and Swamp Thing from DC Comics, as well as Spider-Man from Marvel Comics. He currently concentrates on book illustration, where he continues to win praise and accolades for his unique style. The ultimate testament to his talent came when Vess shared the prestigious World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story with Neil Gaiman in 1991 for their collaboration on The Sandman #19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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The Irish Folk Music Tradition

16 Sep

Kept alive by a combination of historical, political and cultural forces, Irish traditional music remains one of the richest musical cultures in the Western world. In Ireland itself, the growing interest in traditional music is further evidence of a national maturity that allows Irish people to be more relaxed about aspects of their traditional culture. Consequently, traditional music is neither seen as backward, rural and something shameful, nor is it a stick of cultural purity for fending off the 21st century. Long after much traditional music in the industrialised West has ceased to exist in any meaningful way, Irish music continues to refashion itself, not as introverted, stagnant and nationalistic, but as an evolving and progressive part of a common, universal oral folk tradition. Travellers to Ireland will most likely come across traditional music in a pub setting and these quasi-impromptu musical get-togethers are known as ‘sessions’. These are the life-blood of traditional music, accompanied by the associated notion of craic (or crack) whereby music, conversation and drink combine to produce an evening of fun.

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John Constantine, Hellblazer

12 Aug

John Constantine first appeared in 1985, gracing the pages of Swamp Thing #37 with his barbed one-liners and suspiciously Sting-like appearance. Originally a supporting character who played a pivotal role in the classic “American Gothic” Swamp Thing storyline, John struck a chord with readers and in 1988 the first issue of his own comic, Hellblazer, hit the stands. For such an enduring and influential character, John Constantine’s origins are almost bland: drawing for Swamp Thing in the mid-80’s, artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting. Swamp Thing writer Alan Moore wanted to create a more “blue-collar” occult character to contrast the more aristocratic Zatanna and Dr Fate, and John Constantine (rhymes with “wine” not “bean”) was born. His solo series, Hellblazer, began in 1988 and lasted 25 years, ending with issue #300 in February 2013.It was then relaunched in 2016 with the title The Hellblazer as part of “DC Universe Rebirth”, restoring the character to his original cast, tone and setting. Well known for its political and social commentary, the series has spawned a film adaptation, television show, novels, and multiple spin-offs and crossovers.

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