Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Six Words and Seven Winds


Six Words

So it probably surprises no one who is even vaguely familiar with me that I like words. One of the primary sources of inspiration for me when I write Ampersandy stuff is Joseph Wright's incomparable tome from the turn of the twentieth century, The English Dialect Dictionary. And when I say tome I actually mean tomes, because it's a six-part beastie and runs to somewhere around five thousand bountiful pages. And when I say tomes I actually mean pdfs. I would love to own a hard copy of the thing but that is not only very expensive but of less utility than a searchable pdf. Much as perusing the thing is great, being able to search a specific term and find synonyms in twenty different English dialects is my favourite way of enriching my nomenclature*.

But the serendipitous acquisition of intriguing words is also great. I've always said that you can look at any page and find something gameable. I shall now attempt to prove this to myself with a few random examples, one from each of the six volumes (and probably draw them because I like to make things as time-consuming as possible).

Several hours later;

This one is going to be easy. There are so many names for this kind of bogeyman (bugbear is the least awesome one). Note how in the examples in the Somerset dialect there is the form béol-bag'ur. I like that one.


Béol-Bag'ur. Evidently sufficiently evil that he must wear purple death's head pants.






This is a random process and this was a suboptimal page but herbalism is good. Fumitory is said to be not just good for removing freckles but good for eye ailments and poisonous. Gameable. 
Fevertory: looks poisonous





This is also easy, and the fact that it's from Devonshire means that's two opportunities for bad West-Country accents already. Obviously the Hinderling is a particularly useless kind of hireling, and the notion that there are kinds suggests a taxonomy of hirelings. I cannot stress enough that hireling taxonomy is grossly underdeveloped.


Ornately ensatcheled rustic hinderling



Pirrie-dog looks like a corruption of pariah dog. This one is also easy. It's an annoyingly parasitic kind of dog

Also gameable. PCs need pets. The pirrie-dog is meek unless its master be harmed, it also probably steals provisions.




I like guns in the game and this one gets points for being a proparoxytonic trisyllabic compound from the Shetlands.

Because it's a fowling piece, this shimylick is ornate and doesn't do a lot of damage. Aristocrats covet it, though.

There are a lot of words for sickly, underdeveloped, malnourished people in the dialects of the 19th century

Yurlin: yet another kind of wretched little fellow. I do not know what he is reaching for but I want to play him. He is wearing green winingas.



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Seven Winds

I was reading this post by Arnold and I got to thinking about the winds that have names, like the Sirocco, or the Mistral. There's a wind in Western Australia called the Fremantle Doctor that brings cool relief when things are unpleasantly warm, and a wind that blows across the Great Lakes called the Witch of November that I can't imagine is very pleasant. Wikipedia has a great list of named local winds.

So I wrote about these winds. The only one of these I know well is the Scrafflehorn, which led me frequently astray when I was young. It is very difficult to resist.

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Seven Winds are held to be of special significance by the Magonian Tempestarii, who, by the secret art that is theirs, do call them from out of the very firmament. Likewise, among certain cunning folk of more meagre realms the art of Whistling Down the Wind is known.

In each tradition, the production of certain tones is required. The Magonians have developed, through queer metallurgical and sonic arts, a type of ocarina of yellow-grey metal, and playing certain melodies upon it brings down the wind. Hedge Wysards merely whistle with their fingers, or upon an ancient eaglebone flute. Times and seasons needs must be right or the wind will disobediently dissipate and all be becalmed.

1. The Gaberliltie: Lyrical and gentle breeze that blows across sunlit streams and sends the yellow willow leaves in tumbling cascade. It undermines the dictates of the waking wit, suggesting rather slumber in shady places where dreams of distant music fill the fancy. It is ever a cause of tardiness and distraction.

- The Gaberliltie will cause folk to go missing for a time, but only in daylight. Their excursion will be spontaneous and seemingly harmless as the Gaberliltie beckons them towards dappled shade and running water to wile away the day.

- A magician may use this wind to carry a snatch of song, to bear a piece of parchment, to lead an unsuspecting person astray by day

2. The Scrafflehorn: A warm wind, fragrant with the mingled perfume of flowers and of distant smoke, that comes on certain autumn evenings. It wakes in the hearts of those too young to stray abroad at night a wanderlust to do just that, and to run with the wind, encapsulated within an unseasonal warmth, always in the eventide and always away from safety toward some manner of trouble.

- The Scrafflehorn abducts innocent people with a kind of beckoning entrancement and they eagerly go forth unaware of the danger. In the night are sudden chasms and smugglers and nobles on ignoble trysts and innumerable dangers besides.

-A magician may use this wind to carry seditious words, to bear a piece of cloth, to lead an innocent astray at night

3. The Knaurthaw: Laments among barren boulders and among the wiry brush of forlorn and distant places. It whistles and mutters interminable and does not cease for maddening weeks.  And it is a hermit wind that scorns populated places in favour of the utterest desolation. But the lonely find in it some bitter solace, that like the restless soul within them the Knaurthaw grieves without cessation, and solely for the sake of grieving.

-The Knaurthaw afflicts wanderers in desert places with loneliness and madness. It is difficult for those afflicted to determine that it is the wind that is doing this but the suffering caused by the delusions and savage melancholia is real.

-A magician may use this wind in a wilderness to carry threatening message, to drive a little boat, to drive a lonely person mad.

4. The Rackletongue: Inordinately perverse and malicious wind that with fitful gusts seeks to upset the order of things. Fine garments are thrown by it into the mire and inkpots upset upon inspired poetry. It has about it a sullen vindictiveness, that any should strive to remain untouched by disorder aggrieves it and it punishes them with innumerable petty slights.

-The Rackletongue acts like a petulant intent on causing as much distress as possible and it seems to know what is important. It is not especially strong but it targets that which is valued.

-A magician may use this to carry an angry message, to drive a large boat, to break things from afar

5. The Lournagh: Cold sorrow manifest as a wind off the mountains. It carries with it the stark essence of those elevated regions of inimical stone and sky. The uncaring nature of the Lournagh suggests, to those sensitive to such things, the uncaring nature of the cosmos-at-large.

-The Lournagh is not a strong wind but it is frigid and saps the will to live. Numb emptiness prevails where it blows. It tempts with oblivion and the meaninglessness of everthing.

-A magician may use this wind to freeze a person, to carry a desolate message, to induce self-destructive despair

6. The Rambaleugh: Fearful tempest that tears reckless and unbound from boreal wastes in search of ruin to wreak. It carries with it sudden squalls and sleet and heedless brutal violence. Shouted words are snatched away in the howling, and familiar geographies rendered obscure by the blinding tumult.

-The Rambaleugh is perpetually enraged in its stupid kind of way and will smash everything, if need be, to sate that rage. Unlikely things are borne aloft by it and dashed to pieces on the rocks

- The magician may recklessly ride this wind or use it to destroy things

7. Uncle Withershins: An unwholesome exhalation as of the last breath of a moribund earth before the death rattle, Uncle Withershins is more malefic and defined a personage than the other winds. He blows through the underworld, among catacombs of immemorial decay, and bears with him the redolence of rank odium. His gentleness is leprous, no noxious vapours are dispersed, but borne along slowly in a haze. Miasmas, especially, are his gifts, and ill-tidings.

-Once Uncle Withershins is loosed upon the world he will blow where he wishes. Wherever he blows suffering increases.

-A magician can bestow Uncle Withershins with prophecies of doom to promulgate to those who least deserve it, and to seek out miasmas to inflict upon the populace



Quick Windy Glossary

Gaberliltie: troubadour or travelling minstrel
Knaurthawing: discontented grumbling
Lournagh: sorrow
Magonia: fabulous land held by mediaeval French people to be among the clouds**
Rambaleugh: tempestuous
Rackletongued: harsh, blunt
Scrafflehorn: rascally youth
Tempestarius: weather-worker
Withershins: anticlockwise. Opposite of deosil

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*Of course I could just make up words for things. It is perfectly ok if you make up words so long as you don't show them to anyone. Unless you're a philologist and have spent decades creating your own language. That's ok too.

** Written about by Agobard of Lyons in 815, source here. Mediaeval Aliens!

"But we have seen and heard of many people overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity, that they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds. In these ships the crops that fell because of hail and were lost in storms are carried back into that region; evidently these aerial sailors make a payment to the storm-makers, and take the grain and other crops. Among those so blinded with profound stupidity that they believe these things could happen we have seen many people in a kind of meeting, exhibiting four captives, three men and one woman, as if they had fallen from these very ships. As I have said, they exhibited these four, who had been chained up for some days, with such a meeting finally assembling in our presence, as if these captives ought to be stoned. But when truth had prevailed, however, after much argument, the people who had exhibited the captives, in accordance with the prophecy (Jeremiah 2:26) "were confounded … as the thief is confounded when he is taken."

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Sojourn Among Antediluvian Archæotheria

This started with nomenclature, as so many things do. I started writing a response to Scrap Princess's post about Dinosaur naming conventions in the fantasy genre. Then I got carried away.

Essentially, I attempted to cunningly misinterpret a Stegosaur, an Azdarchid, a Theropod and a Plesiosaur.

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I have an Instagram now, on which I am recording some of my illustrations. Please follow it. I am engaged  in a project exploring the conventions of representation in mediæval bestiaries and am still (and increasingly so) obsessed with epistemology and delusion and pretending, with Umberto Eco's historical omnivory, with prosody, time, the Anabasis, Heart of Darkness, Eddison, Melville, lists, sentences that go on and on,Classical historiography, evolution, Harryhausen, melancholy, nomenclature-which-I-think-I-mentioned, the sweet futility of existence, the poetics of et cetera, people getting killed by monsters etc.

I cannot remember why I think the bone marrow of giraffes is hallucinogenic but that gets a mention.

Some of the Meropians are named for Archaic Greek potters, whose talent it was to enclose voids in burnt earth made beautiful. I am not sure what this suggests.

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A Sojourn Among Antediluvian Archæotheria

The image is sufficiently large as to warrant opening in a new tab


(What follows are the notes of the transcriber)

And lo! Who has not heard of those half-a-thousand phalangites from the seven city-states of the Omphalian Autarky who, returning burthen'd with spoils from campaign against the Lemurians, did fall afoul of cacodaemoniacal tempests, doubtless vengeful sendings of those initiates of foul dæmonologie who reign over the immemorial swarming verdure of thrice-curséd Lemuria, and, finding themselves most mournfully marooned upon an alien strand beyond Taprobane and Palaisumundus afar, did suffer the depredations of unnamed tribes, and of the untamed elements themselves, that with immoderate vehemence did scourge the waylorn woeful wanderers with agonies innumerable, and with miasmatic airs laid low the mighty, such that in the span of forty days few only survived in confraternity of hardihood to overcome unspeakable perils and return, to what ingratitude and upheaval and what eventual ascendance escapes the bounds of this tale?

Of late, an Archivist of House Mirkinnen, trading favours for secrets that she may assure the betrayal of the unjust that is ever the stock-in-trade of those crepuscular whisperers, made available a fragment attributed to a nameless Meropian Scribe, claimed to be a student of Dropides the Metagnomist, and, asserting its claim as a lost chapter of that tale of phalangitic exile and return, did profit mightily in the exchange, such is the eager appetite for the outlandishness of that history

It was understood then, as it is understood now, that the inhabitants of quinqueremes are but poorly endowed with discernment, else why would they, in contravention of good sense, condemn themselves to bodily and to spiritual peril aboard such inadvisable vessels, to plough the deeps of unknown oceans in search of endless war? Little wonder is it, then, that gathered in those floating enclaves as far from the influence of such wise personages as do universally scorn foolhardy misadventure as they are from the rectilinearity and orderliness of civilised lands, and as far, indeed, from the immutability of land itself, starving and straining among the phantasmagorical changeableness of ocean, little wonder that such misapprehensions arise as to the nature and the order of things.

Thus, it is necessary to take the teratological revelations gleaned from the recovered chapter as being perchance the ravings of those too long in the habit of disgorging confabulatory concoctions as edicts of unfailing veracity. Mayhap the ordeal had temporarily bereft them of their senses, or strange fruit gobbled greedily by starveling sailors had, as does the henbane or the thornapple, bestowed strange fancies in their minds. Mayhap the scribe himself in old Meropis had gorged himself upon the marrow of the cameleopard that plunges the senses into radiant abysms beyond right knowing. Each of these circumstances is more likely than that what is said is true. Nevertheless, having disavowed claims of veracity, and not rendering salient the stark possibility that the fragment was a brilliant forgery, I relate to the reader what was claimed to have transpired upon the interior plateau of that unnamed island.

Fragment 1: The Crenellated Beast

On the third day after the massacre among the bowers the skiapodes gave up their pursuit. We had, by this time, ascended above the scree into a place of thickets and thorns where we could rest. There was, nearby, a stream that ran upon a rocky shelf to a waterfall, and the spindrift and spume thereof, caught by the wind and borne about, filled the place with a misty uncertainty. It was at the edge of this stream and among this mist that, in the extremity of their exhaustion, the men beheld a thing like a great lumbering ox, but that he bear upon his back series of fortifications like those upon the walls of a fortress. In size he was greater than the great olifant who is likewise burdened by masonry when in warlike array he trumpets his challenge and tramples underfoot the massed legions of mankind. Greater and more terrible was this crenellated beast, and most terrible of all his twenty-cubit tail that bore upon its end the likeness of a morgenstern, that bludgeoneth even as it pricketh, so the saying goes, and with a sweep of this tail it smote Agathon, the lover of Teuthras, such a ponderous stroke as to hurl him bodily through spindrift and spume and over the precipice itself. There Teuthras plunged also, in extremity of woe, for had they not, against the designs of fickle fortune, escaped together the captivity of the Androphages and a dozen likelier dooms? Thus was the Plunge of Teuthras that in later days became proverbial. (Transcriber's note: No record of the proverb remains)

Fragment 2: The Haunter of Precipices

Following the theft of the fruit by the feathered jackanapes we ascended the second tier and came into a region of sheer chasms and ridges, a land cleft as by the primordial titans of an elder aeon, who with colossal strokes did split the world irrevocably asunder and thus allow the reign of chaos unending that, of a surety, prevailed still in this place. The necessity of traversing the chasm floor beneath such beetling heights wore heavily upon the men, inured to so many privations but exposed, in this place, to a growing terror of what might espy them from far above and stoop upon them in the barren streambed where they walked. They all remembered the report of lost Hegesistratus: of that great carrion fowl he had seen circling above the carnage following the disastrous battle with the Antichthones, and of other like shapes, greater by far than any mortal bird, incised upon the stones of their holy places.

The second day in the chasms they all saw it, climbing along a narrow spine of stone in a manner reminiscent of the vespertilio that hangeth inverted in shrine or grotto and flitteth forth by dark of night. For it climbed upon its taloned pinions as well as its taloned feet, and those wings were of hide, but greater than the azure sails of the argosy flying before a zephyr, and they sagged in loathsome grey folds as it crept. Of a surety it espied us from those red eyes at the moment we saw it. For all cried aloud at the terror of the thing. But it did not come nearer then but crept over the far edge of its stony tower and out of sight. All saw, though from afar, the horrific delineation of its terrible crimson head, though what mad god devised it none could say.

Though they kept to the narrowest ravines, the fear of the thing ate at the men and, in his anguish, Euphronios ascended alone an escarpment he thought an egress from the region of chasms. While he climbed, weeping, and Glaucon railed at him for a fool, there came a shriek unlike the cries of earthly fowl, and in it was mingled the hissing and bellowing of those serpentine and those bestial denizens of unfriendly Earth whose mischief has been ever the undoing of the world. The clamourous echoes in that stark and labyrinthine place resounded to such a cacophony that the waking nightmare of the thing that came upon cinerous wings and took Euphronios in its talons was not incongruous but fitting, for each perceived the world, in that moment, as does a sleeper in the torments of a night-terror. It bore him aloft, and he cried out in sorrow to Glaucon below. All saw it, plumed and scaled and inexplicably furred, bear him to its eyrie and rend him as the gastrel rendeth the slayworm, and its horrific brood raised their heads to received his proffered flesh.

Fragment 3: The Imperator Fowl

The third belt of verdure had been a more difficult barrier to traverse, in part due to its density and in part due to the chittering fowl that attended us nightly in great abundance and groped at us with curious fingers, snuffing, perchance, some victual and seeking to purloin it as had the treacherous plumed jackanapes a week before.

After the squalls of the previous days the soil of the clearing was soft and muddy and bore the many and varied pawprints of the feathery denizens hereabouts. But they were furtive in the daylight, and the clearing was empty when we crossed it. Near the middle, where there grew a few ferny thickets, Cynaegirus saw the tracks of a far greater creature, alike to those of the pilfering fowl of the forest but huge and deep. "Indeed, among these diminutive subjects this must be an Imperator grown fat upon tribute" - such was the jape. For desperation necessitates a ready mirth,  or hearts would burst asunder at the strain, but likewise  came fear and decision was made to abandon open ground for the sheltering tangle on the far side of the clearing. As we ran there came a shrill warbling from far behind and a response from ahead, a strangely liquid and a harmonious sound to come from so great a creature but such it was.

 It came, trotting gigantic upon its hindlimbs, this Imperator Fowl, like unto a pullet grown titanic, or, even more so, the regulus that is hatched by an aspic from a cock's egg and embodies the very principle of virulence, so loathsome it strikes dead those who behold it. More loathsome still this Imperator Fowl strutting vast, his plumage like a habberjock, his crested head more fell by far than aught bethought  by civilised man. For he had an hundred teeth, long and gleaming sharp, his maw was great and jaws heavy. He bit Mnesikles in half as he ran, and Taxis and Tleson he slew, and Kleitias left  screaming dismembered to put down resistance imposed by Smikros and Sophilos, who sought in vain to spear the beast. He trod them mightily into the sod with his great paws and raked them with talons such that fair Smikros and brave Sophilos were torn to tattered shreds upon that muddy field.

The rest escaped into the tangled woods but saw the great Imperatrix come stalking after her paramour, and they warbled together in the language of their abominable kind, and ate the men they had slain.
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Fragment 4: The Lacustrine Enormity

And there was upon that lake an island, and visible there an edifice of stone, like unto those structures attributed to the ancestors of the ancestors of the barbarous Choromandae, who build nothing now save it be with mud and leaves. Decision was made to seek if there be any dwelling there, for no other structure had we seen upon this plateau and perchance amidst such bewilderness the rites of hospitality prevailed yet. The raft was crude, but the work of Hegesander the shipwright, even in the uttermost reaches of the unknown, was sound, and it bore the dozen of us who yet survived to the island.

The millenial abandonment of the island and of its temple was made apparent by the accumulated dung of the thousands of fowl who made of it a monumental rookery. But its structure was largely intact and we were able to shore up a bivouac and feast on stolen eggs. These fowl, fanged and uncouth like the rest, were nevertheless winged and not of preposterous size, in their raucous company we stayed the night.

In the morning, as we prepared our embarkation, a great head was seen out on the water, borne on a long neck like a serpent. This head was, again, abominably bestial and predacious, with yet more terrible teeth than aught we had yet seen in his place, that its maw was fairly crowded with fangs. It beheld us patiently with dark eyes, and in each man's heart, seeing the great size of this creature revealed and glimpsing the ponderous girth yet submerged, there fell the sense, inevitably, that we would none of us survive the crossing back.

At this Hegesander, the eldest among us and traditionally taciturn, strode out upon the raft and began to declaim in the epic mode;

O, Creature! Than whom none swim
More sinuous in dreadful dank
And dreary depths, and who,
In days afore, in epochs long forgot
Did sate a hunger horrible and huge
On those that built this fane forlorn,
This fallen folly. Beseek thyself!
For in each bestial heart there must abide
A wakeful wit, lest nature in its schemes
And devious devices dupe thee ever,
And appetites immense unsated be.
Nay! Thou knowest what I speak
Though ye be dumb, and doubtless,
Did ye bargain for the bones of bigger beasts
than I. And we, though weak
And weary, with spirits sore beset,
In westering lands unnumbered allies have
Whose hard harpoons and hateful hands and hearts
Shall see thee slain, who rends this raft to ruin
That is not thine. Only this I ask:
Eat only me. My brothers
On this barque, shall bear my bier
Unburdened by my body,
That shall be thine,
In far Meropis, and the sun shall shine.

This said, Hegesander, whose face and voice had been transformed for a time by the nobility of his words, renewed his grimness of countenance and busied himself with casting-off. The rest, uncertain of the outcome of this crossing but transfixed by the purpose of abandoning this island despite the danger, went all aboard the raft. The head went down into the deeps and scarcely a ripple remained. 

We rowed all in silence, aware of the terror that lurked beneath. Young Praximon wept, for Hegesander had saved him in the sea-battle against the reivers of Thule, two years ago but an age now, for in their folly they had abandoned a world where heroisms might perchance prevail for one where impetus of implacable circumstance brooked no opposition. Nonetheless, they rowed across unmolested and, nigh unto the far shore, the thing rose up and took Hegesander in silence, and they saw, with wonderment, the calm visage of the shipwright borne into the depths betwixt those terrible jaws.
(Transcriber's note: Praximon, after he had usurped the throne of the Archon Sostratos, had a mausoleum made for Hegesander, descriptions of the mausoleum reinforce the testimony of the author of the manuscript for the mosaics and statuary within depicted fanciful creatures and scenes resembling those referenced within the narrative.)

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Ago

Two things;

1. There is no easy way to do this. Anything I write here will inevitably seem an obscene rearing-forth from forgotten aeons, a coelacanth dredged from benthic slimes and gasping in implausible sunlight. Never mind.

2. Google Plus is dying. I never used it much but for a very long time I checked it every day to see what was going on. I drifted away from it over the years and am unable to authentically commiserate with those who lament its passing. With G+ gone there is no centralised hub for the movement. No rightful heir being found, perhaps the blogosphere that birthed it shall rise from the ashes.

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This out of the way, I continue.

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I am no longer much of an aficionado of the fantasy genre. I am, however, interested in the human imagination and in human attempts to interpret and understand the world throughout history. This is a very pertinent subject at the moment.

Part of the genre of fantasy for a very long time has been a kind of Euhemeristic reframing of some of the facts about the world that had been derived from rigorous post-enlightenment interrogations of reality. This can be seen as a kind of science-fantasy incursion into a pure let's-pretend-the-epistemological-approach-of-benighted-historical-peoples-was-effective conception of fantasy, and was prevalent during times when our infatuation with prehistory was at its height.

Consider Tolkien. There are several examples in Lord of the Rings where Tolkien could be said to be drawing inspiration from prehistory. His work was very much concerned with capturing an emotional response to the passage of time. Techniques he employed in his construction of languages were designed to evoke, in one with the requisite knowledge of scientific philology, the sense of an extraordinarily long period of time. Much as the anatomical characteristics of basal forms of known lineages of organism would indicate the passing of time to an expert in biological evolution, so too the grammatical structures of Quenya and Sindarin are vastly more archaic than living languages and have encoded in their inflections a plausible reconstruction of the characteristics of the language of an earlier age. Tolkien had mentioned his imagined time for the events of The Lord of the Rings to be something like 6000-8000 years ago, and the archaic grammar he wove into his invented languages was supposed to extrapolate the processes of language evolution backwards in time in such a manner as to evoke that kind of timeframe.

Since I encountered this idea in Ross Smith's Inside Language I have always likened it to the observations of parallax in astronomy. These observations, of the tiny shifts in the position of a star from the vantage point of Earth at opposite ends of its orbit around the sun, are what enabled astronomers to calculate the distance to other stars and thus give us a glimmer of an idea as to the vastness of the cosmos. To conceive of his fictional world in this way required that Tolkien had specialised knowledge. It is possible, given that the languages preceded the narratives, that Tolkien was working to capture the emotional resonance of his perception of the passage of time he encoded within the languages. It is, perhaps, something of an explanation for the whole sweet melancholy of his allusions to Elder Days before the Fall.

But this is merely an aside, the specific elements of Tolkien that I am interested in unpacking here are the prehistoric allusions. There are three examples I'd like to touch on that I see as being characteristic of drawing inspiration, consciously or unconsciously, from prehistory.

Oliphaunts

Cor Blok is the only Tolkien artist I know that Tolkien owned work from


"To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope. ... much bigger than a house, it looked to him, a grey-clad moving hill. Fear and wonder, maybe, enlarged him in the hobbit's eyes, but the Mûmak of Harad was indeed a beast of vast bulk, and the like of him does not walk now in Middle-earth; his kin that live still in latter days are but memories of his girth and majesty. On he came ... passing only a few yards away, rocking the ground beneath their feet: his great legs like trees, enormous sail-like ears spread out, long snout upraised like a huge serpent about to strike. his small red eyes raging. His upturned hornlike tusks were bound with bands of gold and dripped with blood. His trappings of scarlet and gold flapped about him in wild tatters. The ruins of what seemed a very war-tower lay upon his heaving back, smashed in his furious passage through the woods; and high upon his neck still desperately clung a tiny figure -- the body of a mighty warrior, a giant among the Swertings."

So, the elephants that remain in the world are not as big as the elephants that lived before. The fossil record of proboscideans gives indication of plenty of examples of huge elephantine animals. One of which, the Woolly Mammoth, is so emblematic of the idea of prehistory that we do tend to magnify it it our minds (it was probably about the same size as surviving elephants). Still, there were bigger mammoths, and, as I shall demonstrate, much bigger proboscideans, but the Woolly Mammoth's primordial shagginess and extravagant curving tusks that so effectively embody the weirdness and savagery of an antediluvian world has thus infiltrated our mythic imagination deeply.

Something of Tolkien's preoccupation with the diminishment of wonder in the world is encoded in this passage. I do not presume a literal attempt to include an extinct proboscidean in Middle-Earth so much as a potential source of inspiration. There were, in Tolkien's time, other endeavours that had begun to indicate the presence in our past of lost worlds.


The Nazgûl Steeds

Alan Lee: Pterodactylic


Tolkien, from Letter 211:

"Pterodactyl. Yes and no. I did not intend the steed of the Witch-King to be what is now called a 'pterodactyl', and often is drawn (with rather less shadowy evidence than lies behind many monsters of the new and fascinating semi-scientific mythology of the 'Prehistoric'). But obviously it is pterodactylic and owes much to the new mythology, and its description even provides a sort of way in which it could be a last survivor of older geological eras."

So he disavows it, sort of. It "owes much to the new mythology". Its inclusion is an element that lays open Tolkien to the kind of criticism he leveled at C.S. Lewis' practice of heterogenous mythological inclusivity in the Narnia books. But it is beautiful;

"The great shadow descended like a falling cloud. And behold! it was a winged creature; if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil."

I always particularly enjoyed that passage and interpreted it in the kind of way Tolkien admitted was possible in Letter 211. The idea of creatures from the deep time of scientific discovery existing in what is explicitly a created world sets up a kind of paradox that really oughtn't be scrutinised unnecessarily but shimmers weirdly at the edge of my consciousness.

The Drúedain

"There sat Théoden and Éomer, and before them on the ground sat a strange squat shape of a man, gnarled as an old stone, and the hairs of his scanty beard straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss. He was short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy, and clad only with grass about his waist."

There is a slightly different process going on in the descriptions of the Wild Men of Ghân-buri-Ghân. I am tempted to characterise them as a literary creation making reference to the Neanderthals and other archaic hominids but it is perhaps a safer set of assumptions to treat them as simply a race of humans living a more technologically-primitive lifestyle than their pseudo-mediaeval neighbours in Rohan.

One of the telling elements is in the application of the term "woses" to the men of the Drúadan Forest by the Rohirrim. The wose/woodwose/wuduwasa is a potent mythic archetype of the mediaeval mind: the wild man who represents untamed nature (and the untamed nature in humanity). The application of the term as an exonym reframes the Drúedain as being the potential source of inspiration for what is undeniably a mythological being. There is also a similar process in the description of statues associated with the Drúedain as Púkel-Men. Púkel is a word with Old English roots (and a whole host of cognates in Germanic languages) that refers to fairies or spirits. Púkel is cognate with Puck, Phooka, Puca, Bwca, Bogle, Bogie, Boggan, Bauchan, Boogeyman and Bug.

Wild Men flanking some Albrecht Durer altarpiece


As as aside,  Tolkien used archaic forms of English to represent Rohirric as a means of establishing the relationship between Rohirric and Westron in a way analagous to that between the Modern English that stood in for, but was not identical to, Westron, and the Old English that stood in for Rohirric. Aside from the specific  examples of constructed languages in Tolkien, everything is assumed to be a translation. As an aside within an aside, I am intrigued with the idea that there is behind the anglicised story of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee an earthier narrative of Maura Labingi and Banazîr Galbasi (their original untranslated Westron Hobbitish names) tramping around in the early Holocene.

Was Tolkien making an attempt to say that our ancestors were inspired by their more technologically primitive neighbours to invent wicked fairies? Probably not, though there is definitely an interesting subject of investigation in the extraordinarily imaginative conceptions of the other by our xenophobic forebears. This example in Tolkien is less an example of the emotional resonance of deep time than of the entanglement of reality and myth that I find so endlessly fascinating.

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Remember the Oliphaunt? Huge, old and tall? For a very long time there was a consensus that the largest terrestrial mammal, and therefore the largest terrestrial creature aside from the sauropods, was an Oligocene giant hornless rhinoceros called variously; Baluchitherium, Indricotherium, or Paraceratherium, extinct for more than 20,000,000 years.

I have no name, for I existed before names were.

But the giant hornless rhinos were not the biggest, we have only recently determined that the biggest mammal to walk the earth (as far as we know) was Palaeoloxodon namadicus, the Asian Straight-Tusked Elephant, which inhabited Asia from Japan to India until the late Pleistocene, 24,000 years ago, and may have weighed up to 22 tons. This thing was not only bigger, this thing had a name (probably several). For this thing existed alongside behaviourally modern Homo sapiens who would, quite obviously, have had need upon occasion to refer to it. In all probability, we contributed to its extinction, along with at least eighteen other proboscideans that existed on the planet at the time of Homo sapiens most significant exodus from Africa about 70 thousand years ago, only to disappear after our arrival on the scene. Along with them died a suite of extraordinary creatures that we once shared the world with. This world of circa 70 thousand years ago was an extraordinary zenith of diversity in which practically every animal that exists now was joined by many others, of which the hugest and weirdest were all huger and weirder than what remains.

Old Oliphaunt am I. Palaeoloxodon namadicus. Image by Roman Uchtyel, extraordinarily prolific palaeoartist, evidently not afraid of giant elephants

The fact of the existence of these creatures alongside Behaviourally Modern humans is, to my mind, astonishing. Behaviourally Modern humans were us, they had language and myth and art.  They named these creatures and incorporated them in stories. The time of our cohabiting the world with these creatures was very recent, evolutionarily speaking.

As a general rule, every highly successful species usurps the niches of previous species. There is evidence in the fossil record of extinction pulses occurring in Africa that correspond to periods of increase in brain size in our lineage. Every time we got smarter we wiped entire species from the face of the Earth. Come 70,000 years ago or so, we had achieved our current level of staggering genius. The world was not ready. Those of us who crossed the Bab al Mandab, the Gates of Grief between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, would find a world heaving under the weight of preposterous diversity.

This all-consuming genius within explains, and to an extent is explained by, our confrontation with this world. In order to thrive and spread across the Pleistocene Earth we had to learn to adapt to environments dominated by the biggest representatives of most of the lineages that are in existence: the biggest land mammal, the biggest terrestrial predator, the biggest cat, the biggest lizard, the biggest bird, the biggest tortoise, sloth, prosimian, bovid, cervid, marsupial etc. Since the beginning of our rapid increase in brain size we have been killing and outcompeting other lineages, once we achieved so-called Behavioural Modernity we were able to overcome the most formidable examples of every other lineage we encountered. They all went extinct and we thrived.

Perhaps it is that bounty of extraordinary diversity and extraordinary size, of the richness of ecosystems that were at a zenith unmatched since the Cretaceous, that gave us the start-up capital we needed to kickstart the Agricultural Revolution and create civilisation. It parallels the idea that the wholesale plundering of the Americas by the European colonial powers gave them the wealth needed to start the Industrial Revolution. Schrodinger said that living things "drink orderliness" from the environment. In order for us to persist with the extraordinarily harmonious organisation of matter and energy we call our lives we need to vampirise the lives of other organisms who are themselves the end-result of a process of billions of years of the evolutionary algorithm honing and perfecting mechanisms to survive. The late Pleistocene abounded with accumulated orderliness, perhaps unmatched in any age of the Earth. Then we came.

The following graph shows the effect we had when we arrived.



The world that existed immediately prior to human dispersal across the world was astonishing. A couple of facts about these events bear keeping in mind;

1. All the animal lineages that remain in the world lived in the world before 70,000 years ago.
2. If we hadn't made them extinct then the vast majority of the lineages wiped out by us would remain alongside us.

To which I cannot help but add;

3. We're not finished.
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Back to the elephants;

In addition to the colossal namadicus, there were plenty of other elephants bigger than those that remain, including 10+ ton Palaeoloxodon recki.

Straight-tusked Elephant. Image from Sameer Prehistorica

The Americas were fairly festering with Mammoths, many of whom were present in Eurasia also. Roman Uchtyel again

But there were also various kinds of smaller mammoth, like Mammuthus exilis. From Sameer Prehistorica

There were tiny Proboscideans on many islands, the products of insular dwarfism like this Mammuthus creticus from Crete. Image from Victor Leshyk

And various middle-sized Proboscideans like the Gomphotheres from South America

Malta had a dwarf elephant, Palaeoloxodon falconeri, and a giant swan, Cygnus falconeri (which probably went extinct before humans arrived). Image from Julio Lacerda
The island of Flores had the dwarf elephant: Stegodon florensis insularis, which only looks huge because the Homo floresiensis (also extinct around 50kya) are so tiny

I don't like calling them hobbits but understand why people do.



Leptopilos robustus must have been terrifying to the little Flores people.

Utterly fucking terrifying. It was probably mostly flightless and converging on the terror bird niche and body plan.

Until recently it was thought that the largest bird of all time was Madagascar's famed elephant bird: Aepyornis maximus.

Which went extinct around the time of the Crusades. Image from Peter Schouten

At nearly half a ton it is an impressively huge bird. Image from Roman Uchtyel

But recently another Madagascan bird was described that was bigger, Vorombe titan may have weighed around 700 kg. It was also driven extinct some time in the last few thousand years.

Vorombe titan triumphantly flaunting its unparalleled avian enormousness
  Australia's huge bird species was the Mihirung, Genyornis walleri, still huge at 250 kg, but not record-breaking. It died out during Australia's significantly earlier megafauna extinction about 50kya.




Genyornis had to contend with Varanus priscus (formerly Megalania prisca) the largest terrestrial lizard that ever existed. Only the huge Mesozoic marine reptiles, the Mosasaurs (still technically lizards), were bigger

The size estimates for Varanus priscus range up to 7m long. 5 metres is probably more realistic and sufficiently terrifying. Also extinct c. 50kya.

This is the best Diprotodon I have seen, it really captures the rough-hewn blundering coarseness that characterises remaining megafauna. Diprotodon optatum was at a couple of tons the largest marsupial ever to live, and part of an assemblage of large marsupial herbivores, all of which went extinct after human arrival in Australia. Image from Roman Yevseyev, the second most prolific palaeoartist called Roman. 
Quinkana fortirostrum was only a medium-sized crocodile, about alligator size, but it was entirely terrestrial so it could get you while you slept.
Image by Vlad Konstantinov.




Wonambi naracoortensis, a five metre long constrictor from a now-vanished lineage.
Image from Peter Schouten

We also had Thylacoleo carnifex, the leopard-sized Marsupial Lion, with its weird evil-koala dentition and vicious thumb talons.
Image from Peter Schouten.

And giant short-faced kangaroos like Sthenurus and Procoptodon. The Red Kangaroo, on the right, is the last marsupial species left (aside from the occasional obese wombat) that still qualifies as megafauna .
Image from Roman Uchtyel.

Palorchestes resembled a marsupial version of the giant ground sloth with a cheerfully stupid face.
Image by Vlad Konstantinov.

Giant Horned Turtle Ninjemys (formerly Meiolania) from Australia, relatives of which on Pacific islands were even larger (and were wiped out more recently).
Image from Peter Schouten.

Megalochelys atlas, at 2000-4000kg, was the biggest tortoise that ever lived, it went extinct in Eurasia after humans arrived

Not my caption but the picture is too good. South America's Agriotherium angustidens (also known as Arctotherium) was the largest terrestrial mammalian carnivore we have evidence for. Estimates range up to 1.7 tons. It went extinct in the relatively recent American extinction about 12,000 years ago.

North America also had huge short-faced bears - Arctodus simus. Alside from their unreasonable largeness, it was their long-legged, far-ranging chasey qualities that made short-faced bears so unpleasant. Disclaimer: The bear on the right was already extinct. We are not to blame.

The Americas had this huge range of predators 12kya: Panthera atrox, (American "lion" the largest cat of all time), the sabretooth Smilodon fatalis (not as big as Smilodon populator, also present in that fauna assemblage), The scimitar-toothed Homotherium serum, the American cheetah Miracinonyx trumani, and the frickin' Dire Wolf (Depressingly, there were many more also wiped out)

There was another Homotherium species in Europe also. Gone now.

Smilodon populator from Charles Knight, who imbued his palaeoart with that glorious overblown American landscape tradition splendour

That is how big and beefy they were. Roman Uchtyel is unperturbed

It is possible that the former presence of the American Cheetah explains why the Pronghorn, second fastest land mammal, is so damned quick. Incidentally, there were 13 species of pronghorns when humans first crossed the Bering land bridge. Now there is only one.

Plenty of examples exist, as in the case of the Ngangdong Tiger Panthera tigris soloensis, of populations of existing species being wiped out from areas where they formerly existed P. soloensis was significantly larger than existing tigers, rivalling the American Lion, and the largest Smilodon as one of the biggest cats of all time.

I always thought the Irish Elk, Megalaceros giganteus, was the biggest deer of all time. It survived well into the Holocene

Nope, the biggest deer was actually the Broad-Fronted Moose, Cervalces latifrons, that was driven extinct by Pleistocene humans. Lovely image from Emiliano Troco.

The largest bovid was probably Bison latifrons, with the comically huge horns, incidentally driven extinct by humans.

But it also could have been Pelorovis antiquus from Africa that survived until 2000 BC, also with comically huge horns. Also humans. Image from Peter Schouten

Madacascar had, in addition to the biggest birds of all time, an extraordinarily diverse assemblage of prosimians, including the huge Archaeoindris fontoynontii, which may have been bigger than a gorilla. 

It also had this giant fossa, Cryptoprocta spleea,  like an arboreal leopard-mongoose. I really don't like the one on the right.

The Madagascan fauna included, until about 1500 AD, two kinds of pygmy hippos, similar species used to exist on various islands around the  Mediterranean. Insular species are very susceptible to extinction so they're all gone. Humans.
Image by Peter Schouten.

The largest sloth to ever live, Megatherium americanum, was around until shortly after humans arrived in the Americas about 12-14kya. It was about the size of an elephant


It was also just part of an array of giant ground sloths that had thrived in the Americas for a very long time, the last of which were exterminated on Caribbean Islands around the time the pyramids were built.

Armadillos, much like sloths, were represented by a variety of huge and bizarre forms, Doedicurus clavicaudatus happened upon an approximation of the ankylosaur body plan.

As did Glyptodon in this lovely old illustration by Heinrich Harder.

A lot of people know there used to be horses in the Americas, the largest , Equus giganteus, (henceforth Gigantic Horse) weighed around 1.2 tons and was thus the largest equine.



Meanwhile, New Zealand was home to a diverse array of birds and very few native mammals (mainly bats). The two Dinornis species, the largest of the nine moa species, were, at 240 kg, about the same size as Australia's Genyornis, twice the size of an ostrich and a third the size of Madagascar's Vorombe. The moa all went extinct during the mediaeval period. Their relatively recent extinction means that we have better quality archaeological sites showing that they were butchered for the choice cuts and much of the meat was wasted. Image from Peter Schouten.

Prior to human arrival, the only predator of the moa was Harpagornis moorei, the largest eagle ever to exist. It is gone now.



The largest owl of all time was the Cuban Giant Owl, Ornimegalonyx. Probably flightless but a fast runner. Doubtless hooting hideously as it chases you through the primordial forest dark. Extinct since the end of the Pleistocene.

Rather surprisingly, the largest flying bird of all time, the largest teratorn Argentavis magnificens, went extinct long before we had a chance to drive it extinct. Its smaller cousin Ailornis incredilbilis still had a 5m wingspan, far larger than any living bird, and was the largest thing flying until the arrival in the Americas of humans and the rapid extinction of the colossal creatures whose colossal carrion that would have provided the sustenance for this giant carrion fowl.


Biggest beaver ever. Gone 12,000 years ago.




Finally, Europe was home to a shaggy array of extraordinary shaggy creatures, most of which are sufficiently well-known that I don't feel the need to enumerate them here - Cave lions, Cave bears, Cave hyenas, Cave men, Woolly mammoths, Woolly Rhinos. Its almost like there's a theme. My favourite is this colossal horned muppet, Elasmotherium sibiricum, a primitive rhinoceros the size of an elephant

It's all a sadly familiar story.

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Curiously, a little farther back in time, between 130,000 an 115,000 period there was another interglacial period resembling the Holocene. At this stage, while the numerous human species on Earth already included our own, we were still inhabiting the curious category of Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens and had yet to achieve Behavioural Modernity. The transition to Behavioural Modernity, what Jared Diamond called The Great Leap Forward, probably had something to do with the development of complex language as it precipitated a Cambrian Explosion of cultural development. Humanity during this Eemian interglacial may have ventured out of Africa to some extent, genetic markers in Neanderthal DNA indicate a few furtive forays of our lineage before the great crossing of the Gates of Grief, but did not have the necessary toolkit to conquer the Earth. All human populations in recorded history had the complex set of traits we characterise as Behavioural Modernity. Everyone alive today is from the only lineage of hominid that survived the great extinctions.

The Eemian fascinates me. It was slightly warmer, on average than now (we are catching up). Hippos cavorted in the Thames. The ancestors of the songbirds you know probably had different accents. There were more creatures in the world then. We had not tamed it.

That is a nagging doubt that I return to: that rather than merely being an extravagant waste of irreplaceable diversity, the bloody business our ancestors conducted during the last Ice Age was the necessary Great Taming of the Wild. If they had not done these terrible deeds then maybe I wouldn't sleep so soundly in my bed, knowing that there was no chance I would be killed and eaten by a giant lizard.

And maybe the violence in us is a necessary adaptation to a world far more dangerous than that which remains, our heedless energy a sign of our role as the perennial invasive species, to whom no terrestrial ecosystem is unconquerable.

It explains a lot.

It may not be possible to determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, which period of evolutionary history supported the greatest biodiversity. The moment in time that immediately preceded human groups leaving Africa may be the strongest candidate. In addition to producing the bewildering array of forms now extinct, far more than I have mentioned, and the forms that remain, it produced several Homo species. The evolutionary algorithm, grinding away behind all things, gave rise to us. The others are gone now.

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 This is from the end of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

“It was an old hunter in camp and the hunter shared tobacco with him and told him of the buffalo and the stands he'd made against them, laid up in a sag on some rise with the dead animals scattered over the grounds and the herd beginning to mill and the riflebarrel so hot the wiping patches sizzled in the bore and the animals by the thousands and the tens of thousands and the hides pegged out over actual square miles of ground the teams of skinners spelling one another around the clock and the shooting and shooting weeks and months till the bore shot slick and the stock shot loose at the tang and their shoulders were yellow and blue to the elbow and the tandem wagons groaned away over the prairie twenty and twenty-two ox teams and the flint hides by the hundred ton and the meat rotting on the ground and the air whining with flies and the buzzards and ravens and the night a horror of snarling and feeding with the wolves half-crazed and wallowing in the carrion.

I seen Studebaker wagons with six and eight ox teams headed out for the grounds not hauling a thing but lead. Just pure galena. Tons of it. On this ground alone between the Arkansas River and the Concho there were eight million carcasses for that's how many hides reached the railhead. Two years ago we pulled out from Griffin for a last hunt. We ransacked the country. Six weeks. Finally found a herd of eight animals and we killed them and come in. They're gone. Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if they'd never been at all.

The ragged sparks blew down the wind. The prairie about them lay silent. Beyond the fire it was cold and the night was clear and the stars were falling. The old hunter pulled his blanket about him. I wonder if there's other worlds like this, he said. Or if this is the only one.”


Bison skulls destined to be used as fertiliser


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But what of the Ampersand and its Flanking Capitals? 

I have not forgotten about that. I do not think it needs to be spelled out but wallowing in carrion is our birthright and we must continually invent more worlds to conquer.