Etc.: Leonardo's apocalypse, Hobbit style, and something Sherlockian

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Leonardo and his era knew all about apocalypse. THE END OF THE WORLD, AGAIN: How many of your friends on Facebook posted "Well, I'm still here!" as their status update on Friday, Dec. 21? It was funny the first or second time, but the joke got old pretty quick, didn't it?

That joke would have been even less amusing to the people of 15th-century Italy. The opening of a recent book about Leonardo by Ross King, which I talked about earlier this week, begins with a passage that's incredibly apt for all the Mayan expectations this year:

"The astrologers and fortune-tellers were agreed: signs of the coming disasters were plain to see. In Puglia, down in the heel of Italy, three fiery suns rose into the sky. Farther north, in Tuscany, ghost riders on giant horses galloped through the air to the sound of drums and trumpets. In Florence, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola received visions of swords emerging from clouds and a black cross rising above Rome. All over Italy, statues sweated blood and women gave birth to monsters.

These strange and troubling events in the summer of 1494 foretold great changes..."

Every age, it seems, thinks that it's the final one.

hobbit-book-coverTOLKIEN'S METHOD: There's a moment in "The Hobbit" -- the novel, not the Peter Jackson movie -- when the band of adventurers seek shelter from a giant named Beorn. It's always struck me as being an unexpected insight into Tolkien as a storyteller of fantasy tales. The key to a tale's success, and its believability, seems contained in Gandalf's strategy for approaching Beorn and asking for his hospitality:

" 'You had better wait here,' said the wizard to the dwarves; 'and when I call or whistle begin to come after me--you will see the way I go--but only in pairs, mind, about five minutes between each pair of you. Bombur is fattest and will do for two, he had better come alone and last. Come on Mr. Baggins!' "

A large group, Gandalf thinks, will overwhelm Beorn: It is far better to introduce the group gradually, piece by piece, so that he has time to absorb and accept them.

That does seem, to me at any rate, an ideal method for introducing a world of fantasy to readers.

great-pearl-heist-coverSHERLOCKIANA: The holiday season not only inspires people to pick up their novels of Dickens; it's also a time for old-fashioned English detection. That's the impulse behind "The Great Pearl Heist: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most Valuable Necklace" (Berkley) by Molly Caldwell Crosby. Caldwell tells an intriguing story of a master criminal, down to the details of life in Edwardian England, and a phenomenal heist that readers will savor alongside their collections of Conan Doyle adventures.  What's even more phenomenal is that it's all true.

Etc.: Tolkien's names, Pullman's grimly good

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark WHAT'S IN A NAME: Just some trivia for the end of the weekend about J.R.R. Tolkien's interest in the late, great storyteller Snorri Sturluson.

Nancy Marie Brown's new book on the Viking chronicler (featured in a previous post at Call of the Siren) who gave us stories of Odin, Thor & Company also recalled her shock as she flipped through the pages of Snorri's Prose Edda.

Brown couldn't believe her eyes: There, on the page, was a listing of the names of Gandalf as well as that courageous, merry band of dwarves that traveled far and wide in order to battle the dragon Smaug. The list was written more than seven centuries before Tolkien penned "The Hobbit."

Here's that passage from Snorri:

Then all the powerful gods went

to their thrones of fate,

the most sacred gods, and

decided among themselves

that a troop of dwarves

should be created...

Nyi, Nidi,

Nordri, Sudri,

Austri, Vestri,

Althjolf, Dvalin,

Nar, Nain,

Niping, Dain,

Bifur, Bafur,

Bombor, Nori,

Ori, Onar,

Oin, Modvitnir,

Vig and Gandalf,

Vindalf, Thorin,

Fili, Kili....

(taken from Penguin Classics' edition of the Prose Edda, translated by Jesse Byock)

So, the great Tolkien wasn't smart enough to invent names on his own?

If you've read any of the great Tolkien scholars, like Tom Shippey, you know the answer: The great inventor of Middle Earth (Midgard, in Snorri's epic) wanted to root his saga in older Western traditions. It increased his cycle's mythic reality. Instead of being an isolated, separate invention, his tales would belong to the great web of historical legend ... and live forever. He wasn't unoriginal -- he was aiming for immortality.

GRIMLY GOOD: Philip Pullman, the epic storyteller behind "The Golden Compass" and the rest of the "His Dark Materials" stories, has retold the stories of the Brothers Grimm in a new edition. A friend, Mindy Farabee, has written a review of the book for the Los Angeles Times that's definitely worth checking out.