Monday 31 December 2018

Putting the Terror Back Into Terrible Lizards

The depiction of dinosaurs as monsters has long been a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, dinosaurs-as-monsters has kept them in the public consciousness, and acted as a gateway for more nuanced & naturalistic media, like documentaries. On the other, it can be dispiriting to see them depicted as run-of-the-mill bogles. One of the things I still applaud Jurassic World for its recognition of this dichotomy, exemplified by the Indominus & Indoraptor - warped, disfigured, monstrous abominations which bore little resemblance to the animals from whence they came.

So while I love media that presents dinosaurs as animals, or with a wide variety of temperaments, I also appreciate new ways of making them scary. The Velociraptors in Jurassic Park were iconic because not only were they savage & dangerous, they were also intelligent. This added a certain existential dread to their threat: you could outsmart a T.rex or a Dilophosaurus, but could you be so sure you could outsmart a Raptor?

With that in mind, a fellow RPG aficionado posed this question to me:

I need some truly nasty dinosaurs, real bastards, things that could lay waste to a tough band of adventurers. Real nightmare fuel. Thrill me.

Well, I couldn't not respond, could I?

Because I had such fun writing this, I thought I'd write it down on the blog for posterity.

Friday 14 December 2018

Mortal Engines & the Tyranny of Realism

Urgh. How very unrealistic.

I love realism in my speculative fiction, but I am by no means beholden to it. I can enjoy realistic science fiction like The Andromeda Strain, 2001, Interstellar, Silent Running, and Moon at least as much as I relish scientific romance & space operas like the Space Trilogy, the Barsoom saga, & Star Wars. It's answering the question "Do you like hard or soft science fiction" with "yes."

Take dragons, for instance. I greatly enjoy the likes of The Last Dragon/Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real, which offered a fascinating pseudo-palaeontology for dragons, from the early draconic creatures of the Late Cretaceous which survived the K-T extinction, to the variety in forms which led to Marine, Occidental, and Oriental forms. Similarly, Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George and its spiritual companion, Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons (both inspiring the fascinating Rankin-Bass cartoon sharing the latter's name) offer inventive extrapolations into dragon society in fantasy settings, as well as the anatomical nature of dragons.

8-year-old Aly ate stuff like this right up. In this age of the Internet, daft nerds like me can explore further than ever. Shad Brooks' series Fantasy Re-Armed does for other fantasy beings what has been done for dragons, from dwarves to elves, orcs to mermen, minotaurs to centaurs, fairies to giants, while also exploring traditional fantasy elements like dungeons, castles, paladins, and barbarians. It's a great time for those people in the middle of that very niche Venn diagram that loves hard science and complete invention.

At the same time, however, I don't need my fantasy creatures to be realistic (imagine that). I don't scoff at the unrealism of Ancalagon the Black being ludicrously huge, nor will I be over fussed if one dragon or another defies the laws of aerodynamics. I will not immediately dismiss a work of fiction because one thing or another isn't realistic, and I cannot believe I'm actually saying these words about stories with freaking dragons in them. Speculative fiction does not have to adhere to the constraints of our current reality: it doesn't even have to acknowledge them. All it has to do is be true to what it is trying to achieve.

Thursday 11 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 11: Margaret, Queen of Scots, ca 1070 AD

Let me speak first of all about her prayerfulness. In church no one was so silent and composed as she, no one so wrapt in prayer. Whilst she was in the house of God she would never speak of worldly matters, or do anything which savoured of the earth; she was there simply to pray, and in praying to pour forth her tears. Only her body was then here below, her spirit was near to God, for in the purity of her prayer she sought nothing but God and the things which are God's. As for her fasting, I will say this alone, that the strictness of her abstinence brought upon her a very severe infirmity.

To these two excellent gifts of prayer and abstinence she joined the gift of mercy. For what could be more compassionate than her heart? Who could be more gentle than she towards the necessitous? Not only would she have given to the poor all that she possessed; but if she could have done so she would have given her very self away. She was poorer than any of her paupers; for they, even when they had nothing, wished to have something; while all her anxiety was to strip herself of what she had. When she went out of doors, either on foot or on horseback, crowds of poor people, orphans and widows flocked to her, as they would have done to a most loving mother, and none of them left her without being comforted.

But when she had distributed all she had brought with her for the benefit of the needy, the rich who accompanied her, or her own attendants, used to hand to her their garments, or anything else they happened to have by them at the time, that she might give them to those who were in want; for she was anxious that none should go away in distress. Nor were her attendants at all offended nay rather each strove who should first offer her what he had, since he knew for certain that she would pay it back two-fold.

Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold upon Maundy Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the Queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried, and found guilty. Nor was it towards the poor of her own nation only that she exhibited the abundance of her cheerful and open-hearted charity, but those persons who came from almost every other nation, drawn by the report of her liberality, were the partakers of her bounty. Of a truth then this text may be applied to her, "He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor, therefore his justice remaineth for ever."

 -   The Life Of St Margaret, Queen Of Scotland, Turgot, Bishop Of St Andrews

Wednesday 10 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 10: Lady Fenella of Angus Assassinates Kenneth II, ca 995 AD

The principal of these were Constantine the Bald, son of King Culen, and Gryme, son of Kenneth, son of King Duff; and, plotting unceasingly the death of the king and his son, they at length found accomplices for the perpetration of such a crime. The daughter of Cruchne, Earl of Angus, who was named Finele, consented unto their deeds and design, her only son having formerly been ordered to be put to death by the king at Dunsynane, whether by the severity of the law, or for what he had done, or in some other way, I know not.
This wily woman, therefore, ardently longing for the king's death, caused to be made, in an out-of-the-way little cottage, a kind of trap, such as had never before been seen. For the trap had, attached to it on all sides, crossbows always kept bent by their several strings, and fitted with very sharp arrows; and in the middle thereof stood a statue, fashioned like a boy, and cunningly attached to the cross-bows; so that if any one were to touch it, and move it ever so little, the bowstrings of the crossbows would suddenly give way, and the arrows would straightway be shot forth, and pierce him through.
Having thus completed the preparations for perpetrating the crime, the wretched woman, always presenting a cheerful countenance to the king, at length beguiled him by flattery and treacherous words. The king went forth one day, with a few companions, into the woods, at no great distance from his own abode, to hunt; and while pursuing beasts hither and thither with his dogs, as he hunted, he happened by chance to put up hard by the town of Fettercairn, where the traitress lived. She saw him; and, falling on her knees, she besought him with great importunity to come into her house -
"otherwise," said she, "I shall, without fail, think myself mistrusted by your Majesty's Grace. But God knows - and thou, my king, shalt soon know - that, although the tattling of the spiteful may repeat many a lie about me, I have always been faithful to thee - and shall be, as long as I live. For, what thou not long ago didst to my most wretched son, I know right well, was justly done, and not without cause;"
and tripping up to the king, she whispered in his ear, saying: -
"When thou be come with me, I will explain to thee, my lord, who are the accomplices of that accursed son of mine, and the manner of their treachery. For they hoped to get me to join them in their conspiracy to deceive thee; but I straightway refused to countenance their heinous treachery Nevertheless, they forced me to lay my hand on the Gospel and swear never to betray their secret; but, though I promised them this on my oath, still I should be most false and traitorous towards thee, my lord king - to whom, above all others, steadfast and loyal fealty is due - were I to conceal the danger to thy person. For who knows not that no sword covenant holds good against the safety of the king's majesty. 
Thus that crafty woman cunningly misled the king's mind, and drew him, alas! too ready of belief, into the house with her, everything speeding her design. Why say more? Why dwell on so sad a tale? After the king had alighted from horseback, she took his hand, and quickly led him, alone, to the house where the trap was concealed. After she had shut the door behind them, as if with the view of revealing the secrets of the traitors, as she had promised, she showed him the statue, which was the lever of the whole trap. He naturally asked what that statue had to do with him; whereupon she answered, smiling
- "If the top of the head of this statue, which thou seest, my lord king, be touched and moved, a marvellous and pleasant jest comes of it."
So, unconscious of hidden treachery, he gently, with his hand, drew towards him the head of the machine, thus letting go the levers and handles of the crossbows; and immediately he was shot through by arrows sped from all sides, and fell without uttering another word. The traitress then went hurriedly out by the back-door, and hid herself in the shades of the forest for the time; but, a little after, she safely reached her abettors. The king's companions, however, after having long awaited his return from the house, wondered why he delayed there. At last, having stood before the gate, and knocked persistently at the door, and hearing nothing, they furiously broke it open; and when they found that he had been murdered, they raised a great outcry, and ran about in all directions, looking for the guilty woman - but in vain: they found her not; and, not knowing what to do, they consumed the town with fire, and reduced it to ashes. Then, taking with them the king's blood-stained body, they shortly afterwards buried it with his fathers in lona, as was the custom with the kings.
 - John of Fordun, Chronicles of the Scottish Nation
 The death of Kenneth II of Scotland is shrouded in mystery, with little compelling contemporary evidence. Lady Fenella - or Finella/Finele, depending on the source - is even more mysterious, with some suggesting she was even fictional. While John leaves Fenella's fate unclear, the locality of Den Finella in Kincardineshire is alleged to be the location of her death: chased by the king's men, she leapt from the cliffs into the sea.

Finella is one of many Scottish historical and folkloric figures that featured in Disney's groundbreaking and fascinating series Gargoyles - though, as with many of these individuals, her story is rather different from established history - voiced by none other than Sheena Easton.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 9: Máel Brigte slays Sigurd the Mighty... Posthumously, 892 AD

Earl Sigurd made himself a mighty chief;  he joined his fellowship with Thorstein the red, son of Olaf the white and Aud the deep-minded, and they won all Caithness and much else of Scotland, Moray and Ross;  there he caused to be built a burg southward of Moray.  These two agreed between themselves to meet, Sigurd and Melbricta toothy the Scot-earl, that they should meet and settle their quarrel at a given place, each with forty men.  And when the day named came, Sigurd thought to himself that the Scots were faithless.  He made them mount eighty men on forty horses;  and when Melbricta got to see them, he said to his men: 
“Now are we cheated by Sigurd, for I see two feet of a man on each horse’s side, and the men must be twice as many again as the steeds that bear them.  Let us now harden our hearts, and let us see that each has a man for himself ere we die;”  and they got ready after that.  And when Sigurd saw their plan, he said to his men: 
“Now half of our force shall get off horseback and come on them in flank when the battle is joined;  but we will ride at them as hard as we can, and break in sunder their array.” 
And so they met and there was a hard battle, and not long ere Melbricta fell and his followers, and Sigurd caused the heads to be fastened to his horses’ cruppers as a glory for himself.  And then they rode home, and boasted of their victory.  And when they were come on the way, then Sigurd wished to spur the horse with his foot, and he struck his calf against the tooth which stuck out of Melbricta’s head and grazed it;  and in that wound sprung up pain and swelling, and that led him to his death.  And Sigurd the mighty is buried under a “how” at Ekkjalsbakka.
 - The Icelanders Saga, Volume 3: The Orkneyingers' Saga

Sigurd "the Mighty" Eysteinsson was Earl of Orkney. In 892 AD, he met Máel Brigte of Moray in battle: he slew the Pict, and to add insult to injury, beheaded him, and tied his head to his saddle as a gruesome trophy.

On the ride home, the head's teeth started to graze against Sigurd's thigh. After hours of this, a wound emerged, and Sigurd died of infection.

Máel Brigte thus joins the likes of El Cid and Arrichion of Phigalia in managing to achieve victory over his foe from beyond the grave.

Monday 8 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 8: Vikings at the Rock of the Clyde, 870 AD

While the Roman Invasion left an indelible mark on these isles, it was far from the last great assault from overseas: four centuries after the last Eagle crossed the channel, a new menace emerged - the Norsemen.

The very end of the 8th Century is generally considered the beginning of the Viking Age here. While many Norse folk settled peacefully, hungry-eyed kings brought swords rather than ploughshares to the coast. One of these was Ivar the Boneless, a great warrior-king who was one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army which conquered much of what is now England. Ivar joined forces the Olav the White, another robber king who invaded Ireland & ruled Dublin, in an assault on one of the last strongholds of the ancient Britons - Alt Clut, the Rock of the Clyde.

The Britons of Strathclyde, descendants of the fierce Damnonii who harried Rome, held out for four months of merciless siege. Ivar marched an army all the way from York, while Olaf sent forth a great fleet of longboats numbering in their hundreds. By the end of the siege, no less than two hundred boats were required to carry away their plunder.

Despite this devastating attack, the Kingdom of the Clyde survived and flourished - indeed, it retained its independence all the way to the middle of the 11th Century.

Sunday 7 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 7: Óengus mac Fergusa, Mightiest King of the Picts, and the Saltire in the Sky, ca 761 AD

Good the day when Óengus took Alba,

hilly Alba with its strong chiefs;
he brought battle to palisaded towns,

with feet, with hands, with broad shields
 - The Book of Leinster
There are two pieces of Scottish history in here. The first is Óengus mac Fergusa, one of the greatest kings of the Picts: he fought the other kingdoms of what would become Scotland and defeated them all. He captured and drowned the King of Athfhotla, becoming overlord of the southern and northern Picts; he beheaded the king of Dál Riada as Dunadd roared in flames; he battles and defeats the great Brythonic kingdom of Alt Clut. He was the first warrior-king to proclaim himself King of the Scots and Picts - though, obviously, not the last.

The second is the saltire in the clouds. The story of Scotland's flag - that a Scottish army beheld the Cross of St. Andrew in the sky before a battle against the Angles, a possible omen for their victory - is traditionally associated with Óengus' successor, Óengus II, and the legendary Angle king Æthelstan, and dates it to 832 AD. The problem with this date is that Æthelstan was not born until much later. However, The Scotichronicon suggests another Pictish King, one "Unust," and the Picts battle the Northumbrians rather than the Angles. Not only are the Northumbrians more suitable from a political and geographical point of view, "Unust" is not a million miles away from Onuist, the Pictish name of Óengus - and given the Son of Fergus' military achievements, it seems entirely possible that at least the tradition could date from the last year of his reign at the latest.

Most compelling of all, Óengus is generally credited with establishing a monastery to St. Andrew at Cennrígmonaid, modern St. Andrews: even if the story is ultimately folklore, it could be a thematic embellishment on the First King of the Picts & Scots' devotion to the apostle who would become the patron of all Scotland.

Saturday 6 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 6: The Illuminations of Iona, ca. 670 AD

WHAT we are about to relate concerning the plague, which in our own time twice visited the greater part of the world, deserves, I think, to be reckoned among not the least of the miracles of St. Columba. For, not to mention the other and greater countries of Europe, including Italy, the Roman States, and the Cisalpine provinces of Gaul, with the States of Spain also, which lie beyond the Pyrenees, these islands of the sea, Scotia (Ireland) and Britain, have twice been ravaged by a dreadful pestilence throughout their whole extent, except among the two tribes, the Picts and Scots of Britain, who are separated from each other by the Dorsal mountains of Britain. And although neither of these nations was free from those grievous crimes which generally provoke the anger of the eternal Judge, yet both have been hitherto patiently borne with and mercifully spared. Now, to what other person can this favour granted them by God be attributed unless to St. Columba, whose monasteries lie within the territories of both these people, and have been regarded by both with the greatest respect up to the present time? But what I am now to say cannot, I think, be heard without a sigh, that there are many very stupid people in both countries who, in their ignorance that they owe their exemption from the plague to the prayers of the saint, ungratefully and wickedly abuse the patience and the goodness of God. But I often return my most grateful thanks to God for having, through the intercession of our holy patron, preserved me and those in our islands from the ravages of the pestilence; and that in Saxonia also, when I went to visit my friend King Aldfrid, where the plague was raging and laying waste many of his villages, yet both in its first attack, immediately after the war of Ecfridus, and in its second, two years subsequently, the Lord mercifully saved me from danger, though I was living and moving about in the very midst of the plague. The Divine mercy was also extended to my companions, not one of whom died of the plague, or was attacked with any other disease.
 - The Life of Columba, CHAPTER XLVII, Concerning the Plague. 

Iona was one of the most important places in Early Medieval Europe. The march of the Roman Empire and the vacuum of its absence meant that centuries of knowledge, chronicles, and histories were lost. In addition to being an essential destination for pilgrimage, Iona became a foundation for literature, philosophy, and art throughout the "Dark Ages."

The appointment of Adomnán as Abbot in 670 AD led to his hagiography of Columba, and started Iona on a path which would lead to the Book of Kells - which is to Irish history as Y Gododdin is to Welsh - another example of the global influence the people of what would become Scotland would make.

Friday 5 October 2018

HistoScotIntoberFest Day 5: The Battle of Catraeth, ca. 600 AD

Men went to Gododdin, laughter-inciting,
Bitter in battle, with blades set for war.
Brief the year they were at peace.
The son of Bodgad, by the deeds of his hand
     did slaughter.
Though they went to churches to do penance,
The young, the old, the lowly, the strong,
True is the tale, death oer’took them.
Men went to Gododdin, with eager laughter,
Attacking in an army, cruel in battle,
They slew with swords without much sound
Rheithfyw, pillar of battle, took pleasure in giving.
Men went to Catraeth, swift was their host.
Fresh mead was their feast, their poison too.
Three hundred waging war, under command,
And after joy, there was silence.
Though they went to churches to do penance,
True is the tale, death oer’took them.
Men went to Catraeth, mead-nourished,
Sturdy and strong, it would be wrong should I not praise them.
Amid blood-red blades in dark-blue sockets,
The war-hounds fought fiercely, tight formation.
Of the war-band of Brennych, I would have thought it a burden,
to leave any in the shape of a man alive.
A friend I have lost; faithful I was.
Swift in the struggle, it grieves me to leave him.
The brave one desired no father-in-law’s dowry,
The son of Cian from Maen Gwyngwn.
Men went to Catraeth with the dawn.
Their fears left them,
A hundred thousand and three hundred clashed together.
They stained their spears, splashed with blood,
He was at the forefront, foremost in battle,
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mwynfawr.
Men went to Catraeth with the dawn.
Their bravery cut short their lives.
They drank yellow mead, sweet, ensnaring,
For the space of a year the minstrel was merry.
Red their swords, let them not be cleansed;
Their shields were white, their spearheads four-edged,
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mwynfawr.
Men went to Catraeth with the day,
He made certain the shame of armies.
They made it certain biers would be needed,
With blades the cruelest in all the world.
Rather than speak of truce, he made
A blood-bath and death for his enemy.
Before the army of Gododdin, when he went,
Brave Neirthiad accomplished a splendid intent.

A man went to Catraeth with the day–
He gulped mead at midnight feasts.
Wretched, a lamentation for his fellows,
Was his attack, ireful killer.
There rushed to Catraeth
no great one so generous,
in his purpose [?]
There was none who more completely
From the fortress of Eidyn,
Scattered the enemy.
Tudfwlch Hir from his land and his villages,
Slew Saxons each seven-day,
Long will his valour endure,
And his memory among his fair company.
When Tudflwch was there, his people’s pillar,
Bloody was the place of spears, son of Cilydd.
A man went to Catraeth with the dawn,
About him a fort, a fence of shields.
Harshly they attacked, gathered booty,
Loud like thunder the noise of the shields.
A proud man, a wise man, a strong man,
He fought and pierced with spears,
Above the blood, he slew with swords.
In the strife, with hard weapons on heads.
In the court the warrior was humble,
Before Erthgi great armies would groan.

Three hundred gold-torqued men attacked,
Guarding their land, bloody was the slaughter,
Although they were slain, they slew;
And until the end of the world they will be honoured.
And of all of us kinsmen who went together,
Sad, but for one man, none escaped.
Three hundred gold-torqued,
warlike, wonderful [~]
Three hundred proud ones,
Together, armed;
Three hundred fierce horses
Carried them forward,
Three hounds and three hundred,
Sad, they did not return.

He pierced three hundred, most bold,
He cut down the centre and wing.
He was worthy before the noblest host,
He gave from his herd horses in winter.
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was not Arthur.
Among those powerful in feats [?]
In the front rank, a pallisade, Gwawrddur.
  - Aneurin, Y Gododdin (translation by Siân Echard)
Long after the Legions left, the islands faced a new future free from the influence and order of Rome. Many new kingdoms came into being, while others reawakened old memories.

The Brythonic peoples of the lands between the two great Roman Walls formed a common area known as the Hen Oggled, the "Old North," whose roots can be seen today: Aeron in Ayr, Manaw in Clackmannan, Ystrad Clud in Strathclyde, Lleuddiniawn in Lothian. One of these kingdoms, Gododdin, was the home of a great bard called Aneurin. One of his poems, Y Gododdin, is both the oldest known work written in the Welsh language, and also the oldest surviving example of poetry written in Scotland.

Thursday 4 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberfest, Day 4: Ninian at Galloway, ca. 397 AD

Ninian of Galloway,
homage we fondly pay
and tribute bring;
Saint by our church proclaimed,
Scotland’s apostle named,
Thy praise we sing,
thy praise we sing.  

Born of our Scottish race, 
God led thee forth by grace 
to find in Rome 
That pearly so richly priced, 
that faultless creed of Christ, 
And bear it home, 
and bear it home.  

Softly the Christian morn 
dawned o’er the lone Whithorn 
Like kindly sun; 
Nobly thy loyal band, 
led by thy sure command, 
Our kingdom won, 
our kingdom won.  

Where once thy footsteps trod, 
unquenched, the fires of God 
Await thy hand;
 Renew thy fervent care. 
Tender to God thy prayer 
To bless our land, 
to bless our land.

 - Ninian of Galloway: words, Rt Rev J McHardy; music, Francis Duffy

It has been almost two centuries since Severus marched his legions north of Hadrian's Wall. Beleaguered by corruption within and invasion without, it is the last days of the Western Roman Empire: only a few decades remain before the last legions depart from Britannia forever. The void left behind would become known as the Dark Ages - a misleading term borne of poor understanding - where it seemed the lands of Europe were torn by war.

Nonetheless, while the legions were on their way home, another Mediterranean institution was making its way out. Christianity had enormous influence on the history of all the lands of Western Europe, even the farthest reaches of the continent - even what is now Scotland.

Little is known for certain about the earliest Christian missionaries to Caledonia, and St. Ninian is one of the most mysterious of all. Tradition holds that St. Ninian was a Briton educated in Rome who established one of the earliest churches at Whithorn in Galloway: a cave nearby is said to be a place of deep reverence to the saint. Unfortunately, there's precious little archaeological information from that period... for now.

Wednesday 3 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberfest, Day 3: Argentocoxos' wife scandalises the Roman Empress, ca 208 AD

In this connexion, a very witty remark is reported to have been made by the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian, to Julia Augusta. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: "We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest." Such was the retort of the British woman.
 - Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book LXXVII, Roman History
Just over a hundred years after Agricola's victory at Mons Graupius, the Caledonians were giving Rome trouble again. Emperor Septimius Severus seized the laurels in 193 AD - the infamous Year of the Five Emperors. Even after defeating his four rivals in quick succession, he was not content to rule his empire in peace. He invaded the eastern Parthian Empire and pushed Roman borders to the shores of the Tigris River; he greatly increased troops and provisions in Arabia; he even braved the fierce Garamantes tribe and sacked their capital. Severus expanded the borders of the Empire to the east and to the south.

In 208 AD, Severus sailed to Britannia - for there was a border he aimed to push north.

Tuesday 2 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberfest, Day 2: Calgacus addresses the Caledonians at Mons Graupius, ca. 83 AD

Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
– Tacitus, Agricola
In the 8th decade of the Gregorian Calendar, the Roman Empire was approaching its greatest extent. The Sons of Romulus and Remus made the Mediterranean their lake. They had subdued the nations of Gaul, Iberia, Illyria, Mauretania, and Britannia. They toppled the heirs of Alexander’s empire. They crushed Carthage, the only city which could truly challenge the might of Rome, and razed it to the ground.

It seemed there would be no end to the empire – no limits. But after centuries of dominance, it seemed even Mars’ favoured could not conquer forever. They could not break the Parthians in the east; the barbarians north of the Rhine proved indomitable; the sands of the Sahara stopped even the legions. And north of their newest conquest, Britannia, was Caledonia.

Monday 1 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 1: Pytheas of Massalia visits the Callanais Stones, ca. 320 BC

After the wildly productive PrehiScotInktoberFest last year, another subject dear to my heart will be the focus for this year: Scottish History. From famous moments to little-known anecdotes, tales of ancient Caledonia to modern Scotland, today will be the first of 31 sketches from Scotland's past.

While Scotland's civilisations were well-attested in archaeology, there was precious little in the form of written records - at least, any we can currently translate. The earliest account of what would become Scotland could be found in the now lost-book On The Ocean by Pytheas of Massalia. Pytheas, a Greek geographer, embarked on a grand voyage to the farthest reaches of the Greek World around 320 BC - to the frozen northlands of Thule, Hyperborea, and more.

As the book is now lost to history, we have to rely on quotations and criticisms of his contemporaries and successors - many of whom considered his adventures fabulous, if not outright fraudulent. But from the little we do know, we can trace Pytheas' voyage, and find that he provides a highly accurate measurement of the British Isles. One particularly interesting conjecture is that Pytheas visited the Callanais Stones: these megaliths were ancient even by Pytheas' time, old ruins to the contemporary people of Berrice - which could have been Pytheas' name for Lewis.

Friday 31 August 2018

Dinosauria Caspakensis: Diplodocus ajori

During the three days which followed, our progress was exasperatingly slow. I doubt if we made ten miles in the entire three days. The country was hideously savage, so that we were forced to spend hours at a time in hiding from one or another of the great beasts which menaced us continually. There were fewer reptiles; but the quantity of carnivora seemed to have increased, and the reptiles that we did see were perfectly gigantic. I shall never forget one enormous specimen which we came upon browsing upon water-reeds at the edge of the great sea.
 -  Edgar Rice Burroughs, Chapter 3, "The People That Time Forgot" (1918)

Most of the biota of Caspak are terrible creatures indeed, locked as they are in what seems like a constant battle for survival: they menace the crew of U-33, they pursue the hominids of the island, they feast upon each other and fight to the death. 

Diplodocus ajori ("Ajor's Double-Beam") is different: even among the beasts of Caprona, this animal is unique.

Saturday 25 August 2018

Dinosauria Caspakensis: Allosaurus whitelyi

The deer lay in a small open space close to a clump of acacias, and we had advanced to within several yards of our kill when we both halted suddenly and simultaneously. Whitely looked at me, and I looked at Whitely, and then we both looked back in the direction of the deer. "Blimey!' he said. "Wot is hit, sir?"

"It looks to me, Whitely, like an error," I said; "some assistant god who had been creating elephants must have been temporarily transferred to the lizard-department."

"Hi wouldn't s'y that, sir," said Whitely; "it sounds blasphemous."

"It is more blasphemous than that thing which is swiping our meat," I replied, for whatever the thing was, it had leaped upon our deer and was devouring it in great mouthfuls which it swallowed without mastication.
 - Chapter 5
You might be wondering why this series is named Dinosauria Caspakensis, given the first two entries into its records are not dinosaurs at all. I use the term quite deliberately: the Dinosauria was, in the first place, a loose grouping of three creatures. Owens had little notion of the sheer variety of forms prevalent in this great dynasty of beings in 1842, and indeed, the latest taxonomic tumult suggests in its most extreme form that an entire family of what we used to call dinosaurs weren't members of the Dinosauria at all!

There's also the fact that it isn't clear the "dinosaurs" of Caspak are dinosaurs as we understand them at all: likewise for the pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and even (especially) the humans. If we go by our current understanding of evolutionary biology, many creatures on Caspak must, logically, all be members of the same species, undergoing metamorphic upheaval that makes the life cycles of insects & amphibians positively stagnant in comparison. Nonetheless, for the sake of simplicity, and to evoke the style of the time - to pick the most dynamic and thrilling name - I decided to stick with Dinosauria over the more prosaic Fauna or Animalia, which would probably be more technically correct.

In fact, only three members of the Dinosauria are actually named in The Land That Time Forgot. The first of these was encountered by Tyler and Whitely while out hunting for some venison: I figured that since Olson was immortalised by the crew of U-33, and Tyler already has an eponymous taxon, that the very strange creature they encountered should be named Allosaurus whitelyi ("Whitely's Different Lizard").

Thursday 16 August 2018

Dinosauria Caspakensis: Pterodactylus tyleri

Above the trees there soared into my vision a huge thing on batlike wings - a creature large as a large whale, but fashioned more after the order of a lizard.
  - Chapter 4, "The Land That Time Forgot," Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1918

There are three general "groups" of animals which are not members of the Dinosauria, but due to their size, majesty, and the terror they instill, are included as "honourary Dinosaurs" in the public consciousness. There are the "pre-Mesozoic reptilimorphs" like Dimetrodon ("two measures of teeth"), Scutosaurus ("shield lizard"), and Gorgonops ("Gorgon face"), who may belong to wildly distinct groups, but are sufficiently morphologically similar that they are counted among them; there are the marine reptiles like the Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, and Mosasaurs; then there are the Pterosaurs, who are the closest related to the Dinosaurs as fellow members of the Ornithodira.

While Burroughs only granted a specific name to Plesiosaurus olsoni, I thought that the other fauna of Caspak deserved that honour. As Bradley coined P. olsoni in honour of the man who slew & subsequently cooked it, I figured that as the first person of the U-33 to see a Pterosaur should be its namesake. That being none other than Bowen Tyler himself, I introduce to you Pterodactylus tyleri, "Tyler's wing finger."

Friday 10 August 2018

Dinosauria Caspakensis: Plesiosaurus olsoni

The Burroughs master illustrator J. Allen St. John's illustration of P. olsoni

Close by us something rose to the surface of the river and dashed at the periscope. I had a vision of wide, distended jaws, and then all was blotted out...
- Chapter 4, "The Land That Time Forgot," Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1918

The first native of Caspak the reader encounters is, alas, not technically a dinosaur, though it is one of another ruling dynasty of the Mesozoic - a Plesiosaurus ("near lizard"). "The Land That Time Forgot" is not the first story to feature a Plesiosaurus, but as far as I can tell, it is the first to do battle with a German submarine, which earns it a special place in the annals of Man vs. Dinosaur.

Wednesday 1 August 2018

100 Years of "The Land That Time Forgot": Dinosauria Caspakensis

It must have been a little after three o'clock in the afternoon that it happened - the afternoon of June 3rd, 1916. It seems incredible that all that I have passed through - all those weird and terrifying experiences - should have been encompassed within so short a span as three brief months. Rather might I have experienced a cosmic cycle, with all its changes and evolutions for that which I have seen with my own eyes in this brief interval of time - things that no other mortal eye had seen before, glimpses of a world past, a world dead, a world so long dead that even in the lowest Cambrian stratum no trace of it remains. Fused with the melting inner crust, it has passed forever beyond the ken of man other than in that lost pocket of the earth whither fate has borne me and where my doom is sealed. I am here and here must remain.
 - Chapter 1, "The Land That Time Forgot"

There are several significant anniversaries of particular importance to me. Obviously, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is out, as well as the much-anticipated 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park on 9th June. But there are some others:

  • 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Robert T. Bakker's "The Superiority of Dinosaurs," an augur for what would become the Dinosaur Renaissance
  • 30th August is the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Wendell Williston, the first palaeontologist to suggest birds developed flight cursorially, and (with Benjamin Franklin Mudge) co-discoverer of Allosaurus and Diplodocus, my favourite dinosaur
  • 17th November is the 100th anniversary of the premiere of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, Willis O'Brien's first dinosaur film, and the first film to combine live-action human actors with stop-motion dinosaur effects
  • 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the first ever mounted dinosaur skeleton

And, of course, there is Edgar Rice Burrough's "The Land That Time Forgot."

This is it. 100 years of the story from which this blog, itself almost nine years old, takes its name.

"The Land That Time Forgot" first appeared in the August 1918 edition of The Blue Book Magazine, the home of many of Edgar Rice Burrough's creations: it was closely followed by "The People That Time Forgot" and "Out of Time's Abyss," a series that became known as the Caspak trilogy.

Monday 9 July 2018

8-Year-Old Reviews: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Part 1

Yet if you can't go back to the island, how can you call it Jurassic World? Well, maybe we just need to change the meaning of that phrase. Ever since JPIII, the world has known about Isla Nublar. Jurassic World is a worldwide phenomenon. Yet even before the park was made public all those years ago, BioSyn was hunting for clues, wanting to get a piece of the resurrected dinosaur pie.

Wu leaving the island with the embryos is a pretty tantalizing sequel hook. Of course there are probably still nutters in the military desperate for Raptor Commando Squad, but why focus only on military applications? Indeed, what if Wu went further than InGen, and brought dinosaurs to the world on a scale they never imagined? Having a park populated with giant deadly carnivores is risky, but what about a number of smaller, safer parks with those baby Triceratops, Apatosaurus and Gallimimus, genetically altered to inhibit growth to create "pet" dinosaurs a fraction of the size? The dinosaurs aren't cheap now, but that's because they cared enough to do them right - in the absence of extinct species protection laws, who's to say some company or another will just create inferior knock-off dinosaurs from stolen DNA? Perhaps advances in genetic technology and recreation revolutionise the techniques, making them cheap and reliable enough for multiple applications. Soon dinosaurs could become as normalised as dogs, cats, horses and livestock are now.

The park may be gone, but it's still a Jurassic World. 
 - Me being a soothsayer, 3 years ago

There are good films, and there are bad films, so it seems to go. Some are universally accepted; others have a mixed reception; still more are curate's eggs or flawed masterpieces. As I've watched more films, read more about film theory, and engaged in my own criticism, I can never escape the same conclusion - film criticism is completely and utterly subjective. Films are art. How can it be otherwise?

Yet there's part of us as a collective so obsessed with quantification of everything, we end up applying maths to them - a certain rating, a certain percentage, a certain number. I'd say there absolutely is a place for maths in art, but to act as if it is the be-all-end-all of all artistic expression seems, to me, to be stripping subjectivity from the equation altogether. It's the difference between saying "this film is" and "I think this film is." One is an observation, the other is about what the film meant to you.

36-year-old Aly, is this just a roundabout way of trying to justify that you liked Jurassic World while still acknowledging its weaknesses?

More like trying to understand why I liked it, 8-year-old Aly. After all, there are dinosaur movies I - well, we - don't like, despite dinosaurs. I think it's because even the least celebrated Jurassic Park films have something in them that makes you think.

So this film made you think?

Oh, it sure did.

Monday 2 July 2018

Finding A Way

I remember playing on my grandpa's island. He owned an island in the South Pacific: nothing too ostentatious, just a couple of square miles, surrounded by lagoons and shallows, easily accessible by yacht or seaplane. The trees were so green; the sharp, fresh scent invigorating and wild. I miss trees. Me, my sister, and Mais just ran around for miles, hide and seek, Marco Polo, and the games we just made up ourselves. Sometimes Mais would argue with me over who knew the most about dinosaurs, but Sis made sure we got along. She was great at humoring me: I could be kind of a pain. I miss them.

Boy dragged me sharply into the undergrowth.

"Shhh. Out there."

Friday 22 June 2018

The Moon Pool - A Century of Adventure with A. Merritt


The publication of the following narrative of Dr. Walter T. Goodwin has been authorized by the Executive Council of the International Association of Science.
To end officially what is beginning to be called the Throckmartin Mystery and to kill the innuendo and scandalous suspicions which have threatened to stain the reputations of Dr. David Throckmartin, his youthful wife, and equally youthful associate Dr. Charles Stanton ever since a tardy despatch from Melbourne, Australia, reported the disappearance of the first from a ship sailing to that port, and the subsequent reports of the disappearance of his wife and associate from the camp of their expedition in the Caroline Islands.
Because the Executive Council have concluded that Dr. Goodwin's experiences in his wholly heroic effort to save the three, and the lessons and warnings within those experiences, are too important to humanity as a whole to be hidden away in scientific papers understandable only to the technically educated; or to be presented through the newspaper press in the abridged and fragmentary form which the space limitations of that vehicle make necessary.
For these reasons the Executive Council commissioned Mr. A. Merritt to transcribe into form to be readily understood by the layman the stenographic notes of Dr. Goodwin's own report to the Council, supplemented by further oral reminiscences and comments by Dr. Goodwin; this transcription, edited and censored by the Executive Council of the Association, forms the contents of this book.
Himself a member of the Council, Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, Ph.D., F.R.G.S. etc., is without cavil the foremost of American botanists, an observer of international reputation and the author of several epochal treaties upon his chosen branch of science. His story, amazing in the best sense of that word as it may be, is fully supported by proofs brought forward by him and accepted by the organization of which I have the honor to be president. What matter has been elided from this popular presentation—because of the excessively menacing potentialities it contains, which unrestricted dissemination might develop—will be dealt with in purely scientific pamphlets of carefully guarded circulation
Per J. B. K., President

"The Moon Pool" illustrated by - who else? - Virgil Finlay.

While many stories utilise the Literary Agent Hypothesis, there aren't many as taught and instantly compelling as the above foreword.

Thus began "The Moon Pool," the third published story by A. Merritt, and the tale which changed everything.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Lost in the Borderlands: William Hope Hodgson

This silence, when I grew fully aware of it was the more uncanny; for my memory told me that never before had I come upon a country which contained so much quietness. Nothing moved across my vision—not even a lone bird soared up against the dull sky; and, for my hearing, not so much as the cry of a sea-bird came to me—no! nor the croak of a frog, nor the plash of a fish. It was as though we had come upon the Country of Silence, which some have called the Land of Lonesomeness.
 - William Hope Hodgson, The Boats of the Glen Carrig

It is 100 years - more or less - to the day since William Hope Hodgson left this earthly plane of existence. With his passing in the monstrous horror that was the Great War, he left behind a rich library of supernatural fiction. I leave it to the Hodgson experts over at the William Hope Hodgson site for a truly fitting tribute, but I thought I'd put my own tuppence ha'penny worth too.

There are three great cycles in Hodgson's fiction, which I'll have the merest glance towards on this important occasion. Hodgson himself considered that his first three novels to be published - The Boats of the 'Glen Carrig,' The House on the Borderland, and The Ghost Pirates - form a "thematic trilogy," but I'd reckon given the multidimensional nature of his work, there's surely provision for a Hodgkins Multiverse that surrounds and penetrates; binds his work together like the tendrils of some dreadful unknown horror beyond the ken of humanity.

Monday 19 March 2018

William Blain, the Comics Wizard of Gourock

Image taken from This Was The Wizard, courtesy of Down The Tubes
Eventually Willie Blain became Managing Editor of all of the Thomson line of comics, originating their girls' comics with Bunty (1958), their boys' adventure comics with Victor in 1961 and such famous titles as Jackie (1964). Although he rarely gets a credit, a poll of the most important figures in the history of British comics would almost certainly have to include Willie Blain in the top five.
- Steve Holland
Today would have been the 115th birthday of William Blain. You may not immediately recognise the name, but many a child who grew up in Scotland in the 20th Century will be very familiar with his works.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Black Panthers and Ape Lords

I had a feeling Black Panther would be my favourite Marvel film for a while now. The first trailer indicated to me that this was going to be a film steeped in the lore, ambiance, and spirit of Africa. I've always loved that continent: the many peoples, the fauna, the landscapes. So much of my favourite pulp adventure - Burroughs, Haggard, Howard - is set in a historical, mythic, or fantastical version of Africa. But so many of these stories are written from the adventurer's perspective - someone going to Africa, where Africa is a faraway land of wonders and mysteries. From the African perspective, Africa is home: it's always been there, they've always been there. Black Panther, being the creation of two North Americans, started life as an outsider's interpretation of an African superhero. Black Panther, the film, seeks to bring him home.

The results are plain to see: an all-star cast and senior crew from all across the world, almost all of whom have a direct or ancestral link to the continent. It isn't an adventure so much as a homecoming.

The depth and richness of Black Panther could easily inspire thousands of words of critique and analysis, from the languages to the clothing; the architecture to the martial arts; the music to the dances. To demonstrate the film's profundity, I'm going to look at one seemingly tiny aspect of the film across three posts, and explore the possibilities and meaning therein - the Gorilla God of the Jabari.

Monday 22 January 2018

Robert E. Howard at 112

As I'd been branching out over the past few years, there are a few new friends & followers who might not know much about Robert E. Howard's work, and it never occurred to me to do something fairly simple: a wee list of my favourite stories. Not necessarily those I consider the best, just ones that have stayed with me, and that I found the most compelling & memorable.

Today, Howard's birthday, seems as good a day to do so as any.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Six Quarter-Centuries of Clark Ashton Smith

He and his followers were well armed and accoutered. Some of the men bore coils of rope and grapplinghooks to be employed in the escalade of the steeper crags. Some carried heavy crossbows; and many were equipped with long-handled and saber-bladed bills which, from experience, had proved the most effective weapons in close-range fighting with the Voormis. The whole party was variously studded with auxiliary knives, throwing-darts, two-handed simitars, maces, bodkins and saw-toothed axes. The men were all clad in jerkins and hose of dinosaur-leather, and were shod with brazen-spiked buskins. Ralibar Vooz himself wore a light suiting of copper chain-mail, which, flexible as cloth, in no wise impeded his movements. In addition he carried a buckler of mammoth-hide with a long bronze spike in its center that could be used as a thrusting-sword; and, being a man of huge stature and strength, his shoulders and baldric were hung with a whole arsenal of weaponries.
 - "The Seven Geases," pre-dating the current D&D Everything's Better With Dinosaurs craze by 80-odd years

125 years marks since the birth of Clark Ashton Smith. 2018 marks several other important anniversaries in the world of weird fiction, in particular dinosaur fiction. Because of this, I'm going to take inspiration from Mr Smith, & decide to finally do a thing that I've been wanting to do for years. I'll explain more in a future post.

Mr Smith wrote dozens upon dozens of extraordinary stories & poems: even if he doesn't receive anything like the recognition he deserves, his influence is clear among those who have shaped the worlds he lit up with the sparks of his prose.