Groucho the Snake

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This is Groucho the Snake. (He’s a squeak toy who was made for dogs to play with, but don’t tell him that!)

He was named after Groucho Marx–has those same buggy eyes.

Groucho is also a pretty good dancer.

I got him last October, about a week before the election, to help relieve the tension of a long election night. When you squeeze below his head, he sounds like a rubber ducky (for “rah-rah, go Hilary!”); when you squeeze near his tail, he makes a sad squeak, like he’s crying. (We were all making sad squeaks by the end of the night.)

This is how Groucho and I feel now.

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Gargoyles: Mischievous Monsters for over a Millennia

I’m pleased to welcome fellow Sister in Crime Gigi Pandian as today’s guest on the blog. Gigi and I share a fascination with gargoyles, the subject of her post, and Gigi’s latest mystery, The Accidental Alchemist, features a centuries-old female alchemist and her impish gargoyle sidekick who was accidentally brought to life by a French stage magician. Take it away, Gigi!

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I’ve always been fascinated by gargoyles, so when I began writing a paranormal mystery about an alchemist, the gargoyle character ended up taking over the story!

I’m not alone. Gargoyles have fascinated people for millennia. Though they were most popular during the medieval era in Europe, the first known use of gargoyles was in ancient Egypt.

Nobody has the definitive answer as to why drainage pipes were anthropomorphized as gargoyles, but many different forces contributed to their rise in popularity. Gargoyles reached the height of popularity in 13th century Europe. Since they look like tormented souls, and were often used on cathedrals in medieval Europe, one common theory is that gargoyles symbolize trapped souls, showing people they would be safe once they entered the interior sanctuary of the church.

Within this theory, it’s up for debate whether or not those tormented gargoyles were trapped human souls, fierce guardians warding off the devil, or creatures ready to harm people who didn’t attend church. As with much religious interpretation in the Middle Ages, it’s likely that all of these interpretations were used. After all, most people were illiterate, so different ideas spread in different areas.

But what was the intent of the stone carvers themselves? Gargoyles provided an outlet where they could let loose with their creativity.

Historian Janetta Rebold Benton speculates that gargoyles have always fascinated people because we’re naturally drawn to the mysterious and the macabre. “The modern horror movie,” she says, “like the medieval gargoyle, pretends to threaten us but does no harm.” And yes, I do read books about gargoyles by historians!

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Technically, a gargoyle is a water spout used for draining rainwater away from a building. But over time, the term has come to be used more broadly, applying to ornamental grotesques perched on buildings. And today, many of these modern “gargoyles” are have a much more benevolent appearance. The gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris are even said to keep watch for anyone drowning in the Seine.

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Architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was the man who created the gallery of gargoyles at Notre Dame, during the cathedral’s restoration in the 1800s. Those famous gargoyles are a “new” addition to the old cathedral.

I love to use real history in my novels, so in The Accidental Alchemist, I created Dorian the gargoyle using the real history of Notre Dame. Both Viollet-le-Duc and famous stage magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin are important figures in the Accidental Alchemist series.

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The Accidental Alchemist is the first in a series, so there’s plenty more fun with gargoyles to come.

In The Accidental Alchemist: Unpacking her belongings in her new hometown of Portland, Oregon, herbalist and reformed alchemist Zoe Faust can’t help but notice she’s picked up a stowaway. Dorian Robert-Houdin is a living, breathing three-and-a-half-foot gargoyle—not to mention a master of French cuisine—and he needs Zoe’s expertise to decipher a centuries-old text.

“Pandian launches a supernatural cozy series that hits high marks for a modern twist on an ancient practice.”Library Journal

Gigi Pandian is the USA Today bestselling author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery series (Artifact, Pirate Vishnu, and the forthcoming Quicksand) and the new Accidental Alchemist mysteries. Gigi’s debut mystery novel was awarded a Malice Domestic Grant, and her short fiction has been short-listed for Agatha and Macavity awards. Gigi spent her childhood being dragged around the world by her cultural anthropologist parents, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Find Gigi online at www.gigipandian.com, connect with her on Facebook (facebook.com/GigiPandian) and Twitter (@GigiPandian), and check out her gargoyle photography on the Gargoyle Girl Blog at http://www.gargoylegirl.com/.

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Cats and Dragons (Here there be Dragons; 3rd in an occasional series)

I generally try to avoid controversial topics, but here I boldly venture the opinion that those who love dragons are predisposed to also love cats.

My Dragon Cat by artist Amelie Hutt Smirtouille

My Dragon Cat by artist Amelie Hutt Smirtouille from Digital Art Gallery Online

Cats, like dragons, are predators. They may not breathe fire (though they are fond of warmth), but cats have often been accused of being selfish and standoffish. I daresay the same accusations have often been lobbed at dragons as well.

Why then are some of us so attracted to these predatory creatures?

To begin with, they are quite pleasing to look at. Both dragons and cats have graceful, sinuous bodies and long, equally sinuous tails. (“Sinuous” is one of my favorite words.) Both seem to grin, rather like Alice’s crocodile, a grin of deep and somewhat smug self-satisfaction that is nevertheless quite attractive.

In a previous post, I discussed the mysterious attraction that predatory animals hold for many of us: the way that raptors, owls, wolves, and big cats, among others, inspire us with feelings of wonder and awe. The love I hold for dragons and cats is a somewhat more domesticated version of this, and the feelings they incite are a safer, more comfortable and cozy sentiment that is removed from the dangers of the true wild. The house cat,  a domesticated version of the wild’s tigers and lions, pleases cat lovers in part because its presence combines the pleasures of domesticity with the vicarious excitement of wild things in the same way that lovers of mystery enjoy curling up by the fireside with the latest thriller or a classically gruesome tale by Poe (often with a cat curled up on one’s lap). In the same way, dragons offer a similar sort of vicarious thrill as we read or view their adventures from the comfortable safety of our favorite couch or reading nook.

So, fellow dragons lovers, it’s time to weigh in. Are you cat people or fonder of dogs? I’m curious to know!

Here there be Dragons: Smaug (2nd in an occasional series)

As a follow-up to last week’s post on J.R.R. Tolkien, I thought I’d pen a few thoughts on visual images of Smaug, the dragon in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Smaug, J.R.R._Tolkien_-_Conversation_with_Smaug_(large)First we have Tolkien’s own illustration of the beast. Despite Tolkien’s literary portrayal of Smaug as an evil creature, the drawing is a delight to the eye. The dragon’s body is a graceful curve, ending in a fanciful fleur-de-lys tail, Smaug’s bright orange scales a pleasing and complementary contrast to the bright gold of his hoard. Like Alice’s Crocodile, Smaug’s claws are neatly spread, and their greenish cast makes them stand out against the background of gold. Crocodile like, too, is Smaug’s expression, not quite a grin, but the slight upward tilt suggests a degree of smugness and satisfaction with his accumulated (and ill gotten) wealth.

Smaug, b&w, direction pictured in bookDragonSketchTolkien drew another image in black and white, a stripped down version that again emphasizes the dragon’s pleasingly graceful curves and striking fleur-de-lys tail, while offering a better view of Smaug’s spectacular wings. This graceful image appears in my paperback edition of The Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin, corrected & revised text of 1978)  on the two half-title pages.

Peter Jackson’s second installment of The Hobbit gave us a marvelous Smaug. While not modeled precisely on the color drawing of Tolkien, Jackson’s Smaug remains true to its spirit. The closeup image of the dragon’s eye that ended Part 1 was a masterful stroke, and the sequel doesn’t disappoint. The film’s dragon is both graceful and menacing, its movements a sinuous ballet, the voice (actor Benedict Cumberbatch) precisely what I would expect, deep and Vadarlike, cultured and smugly amused by the puny hobbit. Smaug’s face, with the cat-slit eyes and catlike grin of the mouth, shows us an antagonist both elegant and cunning, attractive despite his evil intent. (Not something I would ever say of a human villain, but I just love dragons!)

The trailer below gives the most footage of Smaug that I could find–which is still only a few seconds right at the very end. Understandably the film makers wanted to give away only the barest teaser of one of the movie’s very best features.

And here’s a link to a fun and fascinating interview with the voice of Smaug, actor Benedict Cumberbatch (otherwise known as Sherlock Holmes—amusingly enough, his Watson, Martin Freeman, plays the young Bilbo). Lots of great details on how he went about playing Smaug.

Here there be Dragons: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (another Eco Story)

I’ve always loved dragons and snakes, and been disturbed that Christian iconography typically portrays them as agents of evil, so I was especially delighted to discover a positive portrayal in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

rime of ancient mIt’s a poem I’m rather ashamed to admit I’ve never read before, and I owe my final acquaintance to one of the delightful Gothic literature groups I recently joined on Goodreads. I was especially struck by the moral of the poem: “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.” Certainly an ecological theme! The basic story of the poem is that the Ancient Mariner of the title comes under Heaven’s curse for wantonly killing a friendly Albatross that had landed on his ship, a bird which the other sailors had taken as a fortunate omen.

Even more striking is that the Mariner’s redemption arises from the most unlikely of creatures: a band of water-snakes:

“They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elflish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind Saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

(Text from The New Oxford Book of English Verse, c1972, p. 534.)

Illustration by Willy Pogany from the 1910 edition, published by Doran. Image scanned by George P. Landow, from the Victorian Web.

Illustration by Willy Pogany from the 1910 edition, published by Doran. Image from The Victorian Web, scanned by George P. Landow.

I know nothing of Coleridge’s life beyond the bare bones, but I’m curious to know whether he knew anything of Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis, who was officially declared patron saint of ecologists by Pope John Paul II in 1979, is well known for his love of all living creatures. While I’ve never heard any anecdotes that specifically mentioned snakes, there is a story that “he lifted worms from the road for fear they might be trampled underfoot by passersby.” (I was especially gratified to read this, because I often do the same for earthworms when they’ve crawled onto the sidewalks after a hard rain.)

Of course, without further research, there is no way to know whether or not Coleridge was familiar with such stories about Saint Francis. He may merely have soaked up the Romantic movement’s love of nature from his friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth—or he may have loved such creatures from boyhood and needed no model or excuse to sing their praise. Though I have no idea what inspired Coleridge to give his character such unlikely saviors, I’m glad that he did.

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