The Little Match Girl - A New Year's Eve tale

I've always wondered why Hans Christian Andersen set this story on New Year's Eve. Probably as a stark reminder, which is just as timely today, that while we look forward to better things and happier moments with the arrival of a new year, the world's injustice and misery won't vanish just because the date changes.

The Little Match Girl

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.

Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that!

In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.

She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.

"Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.

She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.

"Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"

And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.

But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year's sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned.

"She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.

-- Translation by Jean Hersholt
-- Image: from the 1928 film La Petite Marchande d'Alumettes by Jean Renoir 

Ice dragons part 2

Due to the popularity of my 2009 post on ice dragons, I thought it would be a good idea to provide some more information on these magnificent and terrifying creatures.

As related in the earlier post, the lands ruled by the ice dragons have dwindled considerably over the ages. And as the rivers of ice have receded with the warming of the world, so have the ice dragons become more rare, and in some cases, smaller and less powerful. Nevertheless, if you’re going to travel in the regions where these creatures dwell, it’s still important to be on your guard. Make sure you’re carrying all the necessary equipment for survival, including rope, crampons for your shoes, a first aid kit, and warm, protective clothing. The dragons are still easily roused to anger when humans or others come clambering all over the glaciers they call home.

In one case I’ve heard of, a climber fell into a crevasse which turned out to be a dragon’s mouth. The climber’s companions struggled to get him out but he was stuck fast, and only escaped when the dragon relented at last and spat the man out through a crevasse lower down on the glacier. This unfortunate (or fortunate) traveler was renowned from then on for being the only known person to survive a trip through the digestive tract of a dragon.

Few people know that Santa's workshop at the North Pole is guarded by a semi-tame ice dragon called the Yulewyrm. This creature is the reason the workshop has not yet been found: the dragon's massive body distorts compass readings and his ability to cloak the area in a thick fog have been keeping explorers from finding the real North Pole.

One of the most well-known ice dragons is Whitewing Stonegrinder, whose ancestral home is the glacier surrounding the abandoned citadel of Aran Tir, as described in The Shadow of Malabron. Some enigmatists say that Whitewing Stonegrinder is the glacier, and that all this talk about dragons is nothing but a myth or just a colourful metaphor for the power and majesty of ice. If you’ve ever hiked or climbed a glacier, you’ll have experienced the feeling that there is something alive under your feet, something powerful and fickle-tempered that has to be respected.

What is known for certain is that Whitewing Stonegrinder played an important role in the struggle against Malabron the Storyeater, as told in the three books of The Perilous Realm trilogy. 

Supposed photograph of an ice dragon on Angel Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, c. 1917.

Keep on questing

Someone stole your horse while you were down in the catacombs looking for the mystic amulet. That’s annoying. You got the stupid amulet, but your expensive Elven-made armour is cracked now, and that old battle injury to your leg is acting up.

You start out on the winding mountain path for Starhaven Keep. Lord Thrandar wants that amulet, and he’s promised you eight hundred gold pieces and a noble title. But suddenly you stop in the middle of the road. It’s getting dark. There will be wolves out soon, hunting anything that dares walk this remote path. And worse things will come crawling out of the night, too. Beasts that a level seventeen warrior-mage such as yourself might not have the skill and experience yet to handle. It might be nice if you had a healing potion or two but you used those all up in the catacombs battling the Soulless Bureaucrats of Korthrakor.

But you're just standing here because you're wondering: why keep on? What’s the point anymore? More gold? Fame? Noble titles? Experience points? Think of all those other adventurers out here right now, madly chasing after coins and amulets and greatness. Kill another monster and on we go to the next one. Fit in to someone else’s preprogrammed scenario, where they make the rules that decide who and what you are allowed to be. It’s so completely pre-scripted and pointless. The magic’s gone out of the world and everyone’s rushing toward the big conflagration like they can’t wait for it to get here. The game ends with death. No more respawning. There’s no glitch or cheat code that’s gonna get you out of this one.

Keep on. Keep on even though your heart’s not in it anymore. Keep on until you find a reason to keep on. And even if you don’t find a reason, keep on if only to find out what it’s like to be someone who keeps on through this meaningless game. There is no one else here like you. There never will be again. Keep on, with your eyes and ears and heart open. One day you may find you don’t need reasons anymore, you don't need rewards, you’re just here, and the real point of all this, the goal that nobody programmed into the game, is to help others keep on.

[Image: Screenshot from Skyrim]

Story art

Some lovely and original interpretations of famous stories in art:

See some more of Christian Jackson's work at

And here's another artist's interpretation of some famous stories:

See more of Eugenio Recuenco's work at

William Blake is one of my favourite artists, and I've often wondered what he would have come up with if he'd illustrated classic children's stories. Sometimes his illustrations to his own work suggest the possibility of stories other than those he intended. That's often the case for me with artwork: a brilliant, intense or disturbing image will seem to call out for a story to go along with it, and sometimes that's how I begin my stories, with nothing more than an image.

Surreal art in particular lends itself well with this kind of story-generating exercise, such as the work of Polish artist Rafał Olbiński, one of whose paintings was used as the cover art for the American edition of my novel Salamander.


Writer's Block ... Party


In the realm of Story, where metaphors are real, writer’s block isn’t a condition, it’s a place.

Writer’s block is a huge concrete edifice, taking up one whole city block and rising many not-quite-finished stories into the dazzling sky of Silent City.

The enticing red light district known as Muse Mews is just down the street, but there’s always construction going on between it and the Block, so it’s actually pretty hard to get to.

Writers are always arriving at the Block and leaving at all times of the day and night. It’s a bustling, happening place. Sort of a hotel slash spa slash prison slash drug store slash slash slash SLASH…. Sorry. Let me continue. Writers are arriving and leaving all the time. When you get there, you find to your surprise that there are many perks and conveniences. The lobby is well-lit. Very well-lit. And clean. And neat. And the rooms are actually quite comfortable and spacious. Most of them have well-stocked mini-bars and comfy beds and HD TV’s and gaming consoles and big windows with great views where you can stand for hours, looking out over Silent City, thinking up all your awesome ideas for new stories.

And you discover to your relief that the Block is not the house of misery and gloom one might expect it to be. People who aren’t writers are dropping by at all hours of the day and night because the Block has become known for its wild parties. Man, the stuff that happens at these parties. Good times. The strange thing is, though, the writers themselves are almost never to be found partying. They’re more likely to be in the lobby, milling around in their pajamas (pyjamas?), looking for someone to tell about this great idea they have for a story about a writer who can’t write.

Unlike the Hotel California, you can’t check out any time you like, unfortunately. There’s never anyone at the front desk. And suddenly you can’t find the door. Where was the door? But you can leave. Yes, you can. Just not any time you like. Someone hands you a pencil and a pad of paper. You’re told you have to make your own exit. You stand there, listening to the all-night all-day party booming away on some story far above you. You could go back there. Or maybe do something else. You haven’t even checked out the pool or the hot tub, after all.

Or you could make your own exit. If only you knew how. You know how. You don’t know how. The party is getting louder. It sounds like such fun. Actually it sounds desperate and sad. You don’t know. Maybe there’s a story about that. Maybe you should just go back to your room and look out the window for a while and maybe an idea will come to you.

Ten Things You Didn't Know About Dragons

1. Dragons guard hoards of treasure not out of greed, but because of the healing properties of gold and other precious metals. Dragons lying on hoards have been overheard purring contentedly.

2. That’s right, some dragons purr, like cats. This should not, however, be taken as a sign that the dragon is well-disposed toward you. Deep contented purring often precedes a particularly vicious attack.

3. The average dragon’s pulse is one beat per minute. A dragon’s heartbeat may be audible from a mile away, or felt as a tremor in the ground from an even greater distance. That is why many professional dragonslayers go barefoot, to get as much advance warning of the presence and location of their enemy as possible.

4. Dragon bone is the hardest substance known to be produced by animal bodies. On the Mohs scale of hardness (in which diamond rates at 10), human tooth enamel is rated at 5, and dragon bone comes in at 9, the same hardness as sapphires and rubies, and far harder than quartz, iron and steel.

5. The longest-lived dragon is reputed to be Tau Lung, who was born before the formation of the Earth and inhabits the Sun (he may be responsible for sunspots and solar flares).
The shortest-lived dragons are the “offspring” of Motherworms, immense sack-like black dragons capable of vomiting hundreds of small fiery “drakelets” at their enemies. The drakelets can briefly fly on their own power but in a matter of moments they fall apart into gobbets of flame or burn to ash. Since the drakelets do not last long enough to reach maturity, it is not known how Motherworms actually reproduce.

6. There are seventeen officially recognized classes of dragon, including the well-known Firedrakes, as well as ice dragons, riverdrakes, celestial dragons, bookwyrms, etc. The classification of certain dragon-like creatures is currently in dispute, most notably in the case of the scaly flatwyrm, a parasitic organism that infests the digestive system of dragons and can grow to be over one hundred feet long. The scaly flatwyrm most often infests fire-breathers, and its irritating presence in the dragon’s bowels is said to be the real reason these dragons so often hate and attack humans.

7. Dragonflesh contains no fat. It is the healthiest and most vitamin-rich meat available, if you can get it. One has to be careful cooking dragonmeat, however, since it can spontaneously combust in an explosive burst of liquid fire.

8. The most intelligent dragon ever known, Auggg the Venerable, held a professorship in astronomy at Hypatian University in New Alexandria. She taught there for seventy-nine years before taking a well-earned retirement, though she still continued to give very popular lectures as a Professor Emeritus. Her office was a cavern deep underground said to be lined with the bones of hapless graduate students who never finished their dissertations.

9. The vulnerable spot on a dragon’s hide is not always on its underbelly. Dragons have been known to have what professional dragonslayers call “sweet spots” on other parts of their bodies, including the head, limbs, and tail. There have been legendary dragons whose hides were said to be completely impenetrable, but these creatures apparently all died of boredom after several centuries and thousands of failed attempts on their lives.

10. According to most enigmatists, a dragon is an event, not a thing. A fire-breather, for example, is what happens when heat, oxygen, and combustible material combine with story.

Image by TW

Intriguing Stories

The other day in my introductory fiction-writing workshop we talked about the intrigant, a term coined by Jerome Stern in his book Making Shapely Fiction. An intrigant is anything in a story that makes the reader want to keep reading.

As an exercise I had each student write one sentence that they thought would work as an intrigant. Then each student passed their paper to the person on their right, and each got to read someone else’s intrigrant and then add another “intriguing” sentence to follow from the first. Then the papers were passed again, and another sentence written, and so on. After seven passes, the eighth person’s challenge was to come up with a satisfying concluding sentence. The end result being a collection of micro-stories of eight sentences each, each one written collectively by eight different people.

Here are three of the stories:

“Why is there a box sitting right there James?”
            James glanced around wildly but could not find the source of the voice. Outside of the small pool of light in which he and the box stood, he could see nothing. The question echoed in his mind, pushing him to open that box and find an answer, lest he suffer some horrible punishment for not knowing.
            Yet the voice waited just outside of recognition, and the hair on his arms stood as he contemplated his choice.
            “The box, James,” the voice pushed, “why is it there?”
            “Am I dead?” asked James, his voice almost failing him.
            “The box, James,” repeated the voice, “is your life. If you are not inside, then you are--”
            “Dead,” James finished, the word turning sour in his mouth.

“You aren’t crazy if the shadows start calling your name,” my father told me, “but the next time you go for a walk, take a flashlight.”
            I only wish he had told me not to call back.
            Nothing good ever came of calling back.
            Next time I went I was glad to have the flashlight because it was good for more than finding my footing. It was probably what saved my life, that little piece of manmade light. Or rather, was it the manic elf who lived on my shoulder (though it seemed no one else could see him)? He usually had my back, I found, but my father wouldn’t let me talk about him, saying only crazy folk had shoulder-elves, and his daughter was certainly not crazy.
            The elf agreed.

After buttoning her burberry trench coat and tying on her Hermes scarf, Brenda swung the Chanel bag containing the severed hand onto her shoulder and called to her husband, “I’m ready.”
            He was already at the door, frowning back in consternation as he tucked his worries into the back of his mind; they were already an hour late and their clients weren’t known for being forgiving. On the contrary, they were known for being singularly unforgiving. They didn’t want to repeat what had happened the last time. So this time, Brenda had taken several precautions – hence the severed hand she had so carelessly tossed over her shoulder.
            Just as they were about to close the door behind them, he stopped. “Brenda!” he called in anxiety, “I don’t know where I put the eyeballs!”
            “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I have them too.”
            Planning Halloween parties was a very stressful job.

The vampire plague

They’re everywhere. There are so many of them infesting Story these days that sometimes it seems there are more undead in books and on glowing screens big and small than there are regular people. And rather than being creatures of pure evil, these bloodsuckers have hopes and dreams and relationship problems just like the rest of us. In fact some are so unlike whatever was supposed to scare us about them in the first place that it seems “vampire” has simply become a trendy way of saying that a character in a story is “cool” or “different,” or even “rich.”

It seems to happen every few years, this virulent cycle: we find ourselves craving genus Nosferatus in our stories. We just can’t get enough of them, we binge on them, and then get heartily sick of them, as every tired toothy cliché gets overworked and exhausted, and all the same old “twists” get passed off as new. The blood of Story grows clotted and unnourishing. The night people no longer have the same scare factor or hipness quotient and we go looking for something else. Vampires quietly fade into the night. Then a new generation comes along looking for thrilling stories, and the Undead crawl forth once more, reviving on the scent of fresh victims.

But we’re not really the victims. We do this to ourselves. We’re the creatures of unholy appetites. We the readers and viewers and browsers hungry for our next quick fix. We the editors and publishers and storymongers seeing the trend beginning again and flooding the screens and shelves with more vampires. Entire aisles at the bookstore of dark covers featuring haunted-looking young women beneath titles that drip blood (though this time around there will probably be a lurching zombie  somewhere in the background). And the poor ghosts and witches and werewolves who always seem to play second fiddle, hanging around the edges of the feeding frenzy wondering if this time it’s really their turn. If this time they’re the big new thing.

Or maybe this time it’ll be minotaurs.

We force the Undead to rise too soon and too often from their well-earned sleep. We yank them up out of their coffins and charnel pits and make them dance for us. We dress them up to make them fresh and relevant but we still insist they act out the same threadbare plots over and over again.

Poor vampires.

Summer's Lease

 Summer arrived late this year.  I mean really late. I found her setting up camp by the lumber yard just outside of town, in a clearing  in the middle of a patch of scrubby old trees somebody had forgotten to cut down. The leaves on these dusty trees are already turning yellow, and now she shows up? 

Every time she comes this way she surprises me, that’s a given.

She’d set up her musty old canvas tent and was stringing paper lanterns through the trees when I found her. She had a snappy little fire going. It was actually a bit cool in the shade of those trees. She never worries about whether she's trespassing. They can shout and curse and point to their fences and signs, but in the end it has to be admitted she's got a perpetual lease wherever she chooses to settle.

I didn’t bother asking her why she was so late. I knew all too well she never answers questions like that. Summer doesn’t really inhabit time like the rest of us. It’s more like she makes time. When she’s around you can feel time kind of slowly percolating out of things, or into things.

I kept quiet about the lateness but I did ask her why she insisted on living like a bum. She laughed at that, and put water on to boil for jasmine tea.

She has this ridiculous whistly laugh like a blackbird warbling, and when she laughs her gold tooth shines in the sun. Sometimes I think I come to see her just for that laugh, and that tooth.

“Are you sure I’m not a hobo or a tramp?” she asked me. “Maybe you’re using the wrong word.”

“Hobos work,” I said. “And tramps work when they’re forced to. These words have specific meanings. Bums are the ones who don’t work.”

“You think I don’t work?” she asked, giving me a look with that hot deadly eye of hers. “I work like a son of a gun.”

She sounded angry but neither of us was serious. She works, I know it, and she knows I know it. It’s just that she works like nobody I else I’ve ever met. She gets things done without seeming to lift a finger. Everything that needs doing gets done, and then it's like nothing's been done at all. How does that happen?

“How long are you staying?” I asked as we drank the tea and shared some coconut macaroons she had in a paper bag. It was another question about time, but I couldn't help myself. I like hanging out with the old girl and I'd missed her.

I found a bit of twig in the bottom of my teacup. Summer started telling one of her rambling stories, about some of the folks she hitched rides with when she was on her way here from the coast, the kind of story that drifts along like a silty stream, and you know you don’t have to listen to every single word, the story is just there and somehow you’re part of it, too, as it unfolds. After a while I was aware of a needling buzz that I thought was mosquitoes, then I remembered the mosquitoes were already done for the year and it had to be the sound of the saws at the lumber yard. I pictured the clearing silent with snow, titanium white. I shivered.

“Not long,” she said, and it took me a moment to realize she had actually answered my question. “Though they’re not in any hurry to see me again over the way. Think I overstayed my welcome last time.”

“Well,” I said casually, “if that’s the case, why not stay with us a little longer?”

She nodded, the kind of nod that you know isn’t an answer to your question but simply an acknowledgement that the question is there and has its place in the scheme of things. Then she poured us both another cup of tea.

More sharp pointy things

More about stories and swords. Most of the time the hero is the one wielding the blade. There is a story, however, in which the sword ends up taking the lead role.

Lord Dunsany’s 1908 fantasy tale, “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” is an odd story in many ways, a mish-mash of elevated heroic narrative and downright silliness. Sometimes the writing soars, and sometimes it lands (on purpose?) with an undignified comic thump, as in this passage describing a magician’s spell:

… It was a verse of forty lines in many languages, both living and dead, and had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for "wasp".

As the story opens, the peaceful village of Allathurion is threatened by some nameless evil that darkens people’s dreams. The village wise man discovers that the source of the evil is Gaznak, “the greatest magician among the spaces of the stars,” who comes to earth every two hundred and thirty years, builds himself a “vast, invincible fortress” and sets to work bringing evil dreams to the minds of men. Why Gaznak goes to all of this trouble every couple hundred years, the story doesn’t say, but the village wise man reports that the only way to slay Gaznak is with the sword Sacnoth.

Without a moment’s hesitation, a heroic young man named Leothric sets out to find the sword, which is hidden inside the body of the terrible dragon-crocodile Tharagavverug. After a long struggle, Leothric defeats Tharagavverug (in fact, defeating the dragon-crocodile turns out to be a tougher challenge for Leothric than taking down Gaznak, as we’ll see), obtains the sword Sacnoth, then sets off for The Land Where No Man Goeth, where lies Gaznak’s fortress.

From this point on it’s Sacnoth that makes most of the decisions about where to go and what to do next, since, as we’re told, “the sword nudged Leothric to the right or pulled him to the left away from the dangerous places, and so brought him safely to the fortress walls.” Leothric isn’t very deep or complex as heroes go, so it seems to make sense for the magic sword to take charge.

Accordingly, the sword arrives at Gaznak’s mighty fortress with Leothric in tow. The place is pretty formidable, for sure: it has walls like precipices of steel studded with boulders of iron. No getting in there, one would think. However, the evil magician is thoughtful enough to post a sign above his doors that reads, in letters of brass: “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth.” A good thing Leothric’s brought Sacnoth with him, then.

From here things proceed pretty much as has already been spelled out by the village wise man and by Gaznak’s helpful sign. We readers of a more ironic era look forward to some kind of plot twist or surprise ending to trip up our expectations, but no, the sword lives up to its billing as the only thing that can defeat Gaznak. Still, there’s an entertaining cavalcade of hapless warriors and monsters (I really like the spider with hands) who try unsuccessfully to bar Leothric’s way through the fortress, and all of this jolly good fun makes up for the mechanical inevitability of the plot. The bad guy is defeated, the fortress crumbles away, and Leothric returns home to a hero’s welcome. Yay.

But what of Sacnoth, the real hero of the tale? The story doesn’t tell us. Once Gaznak’s head has been lopped off, the sword isn’t mentioned again. Maybe, with the magician and his fortress destroyed, Sacnoth instantly became superfluous, unnecessary, and it just crumbled away, too.

I don’t think so. I like to think Sacnoth is still out there somewhere, that the sword has adapted to find a place for itself in a world without unvanquishable fortresses. After all, it’s really a very intelligent sword. And anyhow, Gaznak will be returning from the spaces of the stars in a couple hundred years, so there will be work for Sacnoth again someday…

Sharp pointy things

The worlds of Story contain an amazing number and variety of swords and knives and other weapons of a cutting and stabbing nature.

Most of these are generic, serviceable blades that simply do the job they are meant to do in the story, which is usually to kill someone.

But every so often one of these run of the mill swords takes on greater importance because it is the means by which a character becomes a hero.

Lost in Mirkwood, Bilbo Baggins uses the nameless “knife in a leather sheath” he took from the trollhoard to slay a giant spider. Something changes in Bilbo at that moment, and it is in fact the turning point of his story: the “poor little hobbit” is no longer merely an unhappy, reluctant participant in the dwarves’ quest. From this point on he often takes charge when difficulties arise, and makes decisions while the dwarves quarrel and wonder what to do. He is, in other words, becoming the hero of his own tale.

He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.
“I will give you a name,” he said to it, “and I shall call you Sting.

Bilbo marks this important moment in his life by giving his knife (now referred to as a sword) a name. To give something a name is to invest it with importance, individuality, magic. The worlds of Story contain plenty of other famous swords with names. Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword, is probably the most famous of the famed, at least in the Western world. Some other legendary swords include:

Durendal, the sword of the eponymous hero of the French epic The Song of Roland.

Gram: the sword of Sigurd the Volsung, slayer of Fafnir the dragon in Norse and Germanic mythology.

The Vorpal Sword: in Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky.

Kusanagi, sometimes referred to as the Excalibur of Japan. 

[to be continued]

The Boy and the Dolphin

From a letter by Pliny the Younger (62 AD – 118 AD) to his friend, the poet Caninius.

I’ve been told about an incident which many people witnessed, though it sounds very much like a fable to me. The story was told to me the other day over the dinner table, where we happened to be talking about various kinds of marvels. The person who told me the story was a man of unquestioned honesty, but perhaps as a poet you will find another kind of truth in it.

In Africa there is a town called Hippo, not far from the seacoast. It stands upon a lake connected to an estuary, which alternately flows into the lake or into the ocean, depending on the tides. People of all ages amuse themselves here with fishing, sailing, or swimming, especially boys, who love to compete with each other to see who can swim the farthest. Once, during one of these trials of strength, a boy who was bolder than the rest struck out for the opposite shore. On the way he encountered a dolphin, who sometimes swam in front of him, and sometimes behind him, then played around him, and at last took him upon his back, set him down, and then took him up again. The dolphin carried the poor frightened boy out into the deepest part of the estuary, then immediately turned back again to the shore, and deposited  him among his friends. 
The story soon spread through the town, and crowds of people flocked around the boy (whom they saw as a kind of prodigy) to ask him questions and hear him tell his story. The next day the shore was thronged with spectators, all keenly watching the ocean and the lake. Meanwhile the boys swam as usual, and among the rest, the boy I am speaking of waded into the lake, but with more caution than before. The dolphin soon appeared again and came to the boy, who swam away quickly with his friends. The dolphin, as though to invite and call them back, leaped and dove and flipped playfully. He did the same the next day, the day after, and for several days together, until the people began to be ashamed of their fear. Some swam out to the dolphin, calling him to come to them, and he did, and allowed himself to be touched and stroked.

The boy who first met the dolphin now swam up to him, and leaping upon his back, was carried backwards and forwards through the water. He felt that the dolphin knew him and was fond of him, while he too had grown fond of the dolphin. In fact there seemed to be no fear on either side, the confidence of the one and tameness of the other mutually increasing.

Remarkably, this dolphin was followed by another, who remained close by but did not allow himself to be approached or touched like the first, but only swam back and forth with him. Even more remarkably, the first dolphin would sometimes push himself onto the shore, dry himself in the sand, and, as soon as he grew warm, roll back into the sea. Octavius Avitus, deputy governor of the province, believing the dolphin to be a god, poured some ointment over him as he lay on the shore, as an offering. The dolphin swam away immediately and did not return for several days. When he reappeared he seemed slower and less playful; however, he soon recovered his spirit and returned to his former tricks and sport.

Many officials flocked to the lake to view this spectacle, and their prolonged stay caused much unwanted trouble and expense to the townspeople. For that reason it was decided the best thing to do would be to quietly have the dolphin killed.

The conclusion of this sad tale I leave you to finish, my friend, trusting that your poetic gifts will find the proper words. Farewell.

(Adapted from the Harvard Classics edition of the letters of Pliny the Younger.)

Useful monsters

The wolf prowls the worlds of Story, in many forms and guises. One of the most terrifying is the garm wolf. This creature takes its name from a hellhound, Garmr, mentioned in the Poetic Edda: he is a monstrous dog whose howling will announce the coming of Ragnarok, the fall of the gods and the ending of the world.

In the Perilous Realm, the garm wolf is a wild wolf which has been captured and transformed, by sorcery or ill-treatment or usually both, into a vicious hunter and killer. Unlike the werewolf, which is a man (or woman) changed into a monster that kills other men, the garm wolf is a wolf changed into a monster by man, to kill other men.  The journey may be different but the end result is much the same: a creature that is neither one thing or another but something else, a thing that crosses a guarded boundary and leaps out at us from our darkest nightmares.

Wolves have been demonized in stories probably since stories were first told, or at least since humans began to domesticate sheep and cows and other livestock. When this happened, however many thousands of years ago, when we began to keep animals as stock, like items in a store, instead of just following them around with spears and bows, what a change that must have made in our way of seeing the world. Because now there were two different kinds of animals: ours, and all the others out there, including the ones that wanted to kill and eat ours. Come to think of it, this may have been the reality-altering moment that the idea of wild first entered human consciousness: when we put a fence around some animals to keep other animals out. Before the sheepfold and the barn, we were hunters along with the wolves and the other predators. The forest was our home too. But once we learned to keep animals and breed them, we stopped thinking of ourselves as having anything in common with the other predators. Of course we were still predators, only we’d learned how to keep our prey close by for when we needed them. We no longer had to venture out into the dark dangerous forest to find them.

So, as we looked over this new thing we’d invented called the fence, which divided the world into two separate places, home and out there, our stories must have changed, too. On the other side of the fence was the wolf, a dusk thing, prowling the border of night and day, of two worlds. He was a lot like our new friend the dog, and so seemed close to us in a disturbing way, and yet he was not like the dog because he could not be tamed. And so the wolf made a handy villain. We could tell scary stories about his cruelty, his lack of mercy, his diabolical craftiness (conveniently forgetting these are traits we excel at ourselves). We could give evil a face. And if we could name it, and kill it, we’d be safe for a while. Good defeats evil once again.

And so we invented the Big Bad Wolf, and he began to prowl through our stories and nightmares. And that is what the tale of the garm wolf is really about, perhaps. It is a story about the story of the Big Bad Wolf. About how we made the wolf into a useful monster.

The Spark of Story

Lovely description of how the spark of Story was first lit in the author Richard Wright when he was a child:

“Once upon a time there was an old, old man named Bluebeard,” she began in a low whisper.
 She whispered to me the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives and I ceased to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything. As her words fell upon my new ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me. She told me how Bluebeard had duped and married his seven wives, how he had loved and slain them, how he had hanged them up by their hair in a dark closet. The tale made the world around me be, throb, live. 

As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow. Enchanted and enthralled, I stopped her constantly to ask for details. My imagination blazed. The sensations the story aroused in me were never to leave me.”

From Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, by Richard Wright. Harper, 1945.

Overland to the Klondike

Edmonton was the jumping off place for the gold seekers who were so unfortunate as to choose the overland route to the Klondike. They came from every part of the world and many, unused to the travel of the north, brought with them fantastic devices for making the long trip in quick time.

One of the most ingenious arrangements was that of Texas Smith. He arranged three barrels tricycle-wise, fixed shafts to the barrels, and hitched up a horse. Inside the barrels he carried all of his supplies. Texas got about seven miles before the hoops came off the barrels and he traced his way back to Edmonton by following the track of beans, rice and flour.

In a shed near the river bank, Brenneau Fabian was preparing for the journey. Noahs’ Ark, the people called his invention. It was a large vessel, large enough to hold a score of men. Made entirely of galvanized iron, the ship was hinged in the middle so that the stern could be folded over the bow and the whole pulled along on either wheels or runners – a streamlined version of the covered wagon. A team of oxen was to be the motive power on land, and sails on the water. The Juggernaut did not leave its place on the riverbank. For many years, Fabian’s Folly was an outstanding float in all parades in Edmonton.

Another party spent a long while constructing an ice boat. Since the group expected to do a little profiteering when they reached the gold fields, space had to be allowed for cargo. Gingerly the heavy contraption was tugged out onto the ice. The towering mast was hoisted and the expanse of sails set. The boat bade fair to become part of the ice. It would have taken a hurricane to move it. The grinning citizens rounded up fourteen teams of horses to haul the monstrosity back up the grade to the shed from which it emerged with such éclat.

The prime folly was that of the I Will Steam Company of Chicago. This firm manufactured a single piece of equipment: a steam sleigh for hauling a train of four cabooses on runners. Powered by a boiler and a marine engine, traction was provided by studding the cylindrical wheels of the engine with spikes or teeth. The first car behind the engine carried fuel, the second was the living quarters of the crew, and the third carried provisions. The date for the start arrived. The crew strode about oiling and wiping and testing gauges. “Let her go!” cried the leader. With the blast of a four-funnel liner, the sleigh lurched forward. The wheels churned, showering the spectators with clods of earth. The tractor wallowed and settled in the mire. All the frantic efforts to extricate her failed. The “I Will” wilted. Years later an enterprising sawmill man bought the machinery for his mill.

… Men with an eye to business advertised the Edmonton route far and wide as the best, quickest, and easiest route to the Klondike. Hundreds believed this golden hokum, and hundreds died of scurvy, of starvation, of heartbreak, somewhere in the North.

-- From Johnny Chinook, Tall Tales and True from the Canadian West, by Robert Gard, 1945. 

Robert Kroetsch's novel The Man from the Creeks tells a story of the Klondike Gold Rush, based on the famous poem "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Robert Service.

The Fathomless Fire: update

In an earlier post I announced that The Fathomless Fire, the second book in The Perilous Realm trilogy, would be on bookstore shelves this August. The release date has since be revised by the publisher, to January 2012. My apologies to those who have been waiting eagerly for the continuing adventures of Will, Rowen, Shade and their friends. 

I can at least promise you that "Fire" is worth the wait!

P.S. Amazon lists the book as a paperback, but I'm told this is an error: it will in fact come out first in hardcover.

NEW UPDATE: January 10th, 2012: The Fathomless Fire is now at a bookstore near you!


Fifteen years old. Working for the summer at Monarch Pizza on Connaught Drive in Jasper. Busboy and dishwasher, and sometimes allowed to help with the cooking, when Nick and Antonia Demetrios, the owners, found themselves shortstaffed. And they were often shortstaffed, with all the restless young people coming and going, stopping in our town on their way elsewhere.
I remember the broiling sauna of the kitchen, the back door open to let in the breeze off Bear Hill. The tiled floor slick with a film of dishwasher suds and grease splatter, and no-nonsense Antonia at our heels with her mop and squeakywheeled bucket. Nick’s was the day, hers the night. She took orders, served meals, handled customer complaints and yet she always found time to clean, a job that was supposed to be mine. She preferred to do it herself, to make sure it was done right. Antonia never stopped moving the whole time she was on shift, and the same was expected of us. All evening I shook cold pizza rinds off plates and sent sticky dishes and cutlery through the huge dishwasher and hauled them out again, abashed and steaming, stacked them on the countertop for the harried, incessantly cursing cooks and waiters. And if Antonia overheard the muttered profanity, at our ducking heads shot a torrent of mediterranean imprecation. What was that? Do you talk like that at home, in your mother’s kitchen? What’s the matter with you people?
Earlier that year Nick bolted a television high in a corner, to add the excitement of Wayne Gretzky’s rookie season with the Edmonton Oilers to the dining experience. Customers with their mouths full of pizza, roaring at an Oilers goal with jaws clamped shut, cheese clinging to their chins. The soundtrack of hockey play-by-play like a homey fixture in the room, like familiar wallpaper. And then that summer all of us turning to that small high-up screen to monitor the progress of Terry Fox.
I would be on a break, talking with my friends in a booth by the window so we could watch for girls, and I’d glance up and see this freckled boy on the screen, toiling up a long stretch of highway. He was going to run all the way across the country. He had lost a limb to cancer and he was going to run across the whole entire country. No one had ever done that before, that anyone knew of. Every night, the updates on his location. How close he was to the halfway point, which to my surprise turned out to be somewhere in Ontario, when I had always thought maybe Manitoba. His run making the country larger, more real.
We got used to seeing him up there on the little screen, the matted curly hair, the permanent wince. His outdoor sweat seemed to be in brotherly concord with my kitchen sweat. The stride and the hop and the sideways heave of the body as the dead artificial leg is thrown forward, stride hop heave, one more time and one more and one more, measuring the immensity of this country in jolts to the pelvis, the spine. We would all watch him for a moment and not say anything, maybe laugh uneasily or say look at that poor bastard and then one of us would slide out of the booth to go pick up an announced order and imitate him on the way, stride hop heave, and this of course would set the table on a roar.  
I can see it in my mind’s eye now, as I write, hardwired permanently to who I am. That agonizing lopsided jig. The national dance.

The cancer returned and stopped him in Thunder Bay, and the next year he was dead, at the age of 22.

-- from The Logogryph