Review – Big Mushy Happy Lump

Big Mushy Happy Lump – Sarah Andersen

Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017

In her second book, artist Sarah Andersen explores social anxiety, female friendships, sweater theft, the borrowing of cats and how to avoid responsibility by hiding under a blanket. Including illustrated personal essays and comic snapshots of incredibly relatable problems, this collection is as brutally honest as it is hilarious.

I’d seen Andersen’s comics online before and enjoyed them, and this collection was just as good as I expected. Andersen tackles subjects from a distinctly female perspective, which is very refreshing, and her art style is charmingly bouncy. Her first book was Adulthood is a Myth.

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Review – The Westing Game

The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin

Dutton Children’s Books, 2003

Originally published in 1978

The Westing house has stood empty for years. It can be seen from the new apartment complex of Sunset Towers, where the residents of each flat are unaware that they were handpicked to be exactly where they are – unaware that in fact, their new homes are the chosen setting for the eccentric Sam Westing’s last game, which begins at his funeral. His chosen heirs are all in line for a life-changing prize of millions. First, though, they have to solve his clues. With neighbours set at odds and families now rival competitors, the game is about much more than money…and Westing is not a man who ever loses.

The Westing Game is an intricate knot of a mystery, with a strong cast of complex characters. Though the book contains some unfortunate racist and ableist language typical to the time period (and generally within character of those using it), there a deliberate and thoughtful exploration of how people are much more complicated than they may initially come across – in good ways and bad. My one complaint would be that I found the ending just a little bit too glib, but despite that, it was satisfying and a very clever piece of writing.

Ladies of Legend: Hippolyta and Penthesileia

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/penthesilea/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolyta A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penthesilea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otrera

Trigger warnings: references to incest, rape, necrophilia

This post may be slightly influenced by the existence of the Wonder Woman movie, which contains comic book Amazons backflipping off shields and whacking people with axes. It is not faithful to Greek mythology, obviously, nor is it intended to be, but it’s nonetheless a delight to see my ladies of legend on the big screen. Especially when they are setting things on fire.

The Amazons were a race of warrior women, believed to be a real civilisation in ancient times. They originally lived beside the Amazon River, led by their matriarch Lysippe, but Aphrodite took against Lysippe’s son Tanais for favouring war over love. Spitefully, Aphrodite caused him to become obsessed with his own mother. Tanais threw himself in the river, and Lysippe led her family away into the mountains, where they founded the city of Themiscyra.

The set-up of Amazonian society was strictly divided by gender. The Amazons were said to abandon their sons at birth, only keeping the girls. When men were tolerated, they were confined to the domestic sphere and to ensure their obedience, the legs of boys were broken while they were very young. The women fought and ruled. 

The Amazons were supposedly the first to use cavalry in battle. Lysippe and her daughters founded an empire and later Amazonian queens – including Marpesia, Lampado and Hippo – continued that tradition by conquering their way across Asia Minor. At one point they seized the city of Troy, though they were in the end unable to hold it.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and the hunting goddess Artemis. They carried bows and half-moon shields, and performed shield dances in Artemis’ honour. It was said that they cut off their right breasts to improve their skill at archery, which I feel only makes sense if your baseline assumption is that archers shouldn’t have breasts at all.

One of the most famous Amazon queens was Hippolyta. She was the daughter of Ares and Otrera, who was daughter of the east wind and a queen of the Amazons herself. It was, in fact, a family of queens – Hippolyta’s sisters Antiope and Melanippe ruled with her over the three principal cities of their land, and her other sister Penthesilea became her successor after Hippolyta’s death.

As a symbol of her authority, Hippolyta wore a golden, jewel-encrusted girdle, a gift from Ares himself. One day the Princess Admete, daughter of King Eurystheus, decided she would quite like to own that magical girdle, and as her father just so happened to have the hero Heracles in his service at the time, the odds of her getting her wish were quite high. Heracles was undertaking labours as a penance for killing his family. The labours usually involved killing other people. Nobody has ever claimed the Pantheon are consistent in their morality. Heracles brought a band of warriors into Amazonian territory to either convince or force Hippolyta to give up her treasure.

At first, it seemed Hippolyta might give up the girdle of her own free will, after she took a fancy to Hercules’ muscle-bound body. So the goddess Hera, who compelled Heracles to start his twelve labours and work for King Eurystheus in the first place, decided to stir up some trouble. She disguised herself as an Amazon and spread a rumour that Heracles and his warriors had really come to kidnap Hippolyta. The queen’s warriors attacked.

In one version, Heracles gave up his pretence at diplomacy, killed Hippolyta and seized the girdle. In another, Melanippe was the sister held captive by Heracles, and the girdle was a ransom Hippolyta paid to get her back. In a third, Hippolyta fought Heracles, and died rather than surrender.

Theseus of Athens (killer of the Minotaur, future king, reliably a cad towards women) was present in Heracles’ company of warriors. Among the plethora of alternate stories is one in which Theseus declared a passionate love for Hippolyta and took her away with him to Athens. They had a son together, Hippolytus. When Theseus decided, inevitably, to put Hippolyta aside and marry Ariadne’s sister Phaedra instead, the outraged Amazons descended upon the wedding party. During the confusion, Penthesileia delivered Hippolyta an accidental killing blow. There is also an account in which Heracles and Theseus are not involved at all; Hippolyta was hunting deer with Penthesileia when the gods sent a capricious wind, and Penthesileia’s spear struck her sister instead.

One thing is certain: Hippolyta died, and Penthesileia inherited her crown.

Penthesileia was a great archer (the trick to it being that she cut off both her breasts). She was also credited with inventing the battle-axe. The fact that Hippolyta’s death was an accident did not stop the Furies from pursuing her killer, so Penthesleia took refuge in the city of Troy. During the war with the Greeks, she fought to defend the city. So formidable a warrior was she that even Achilles fell back when she took to the field.

In the end, he was the one who killed her. Just to make the whole thing unbearably creepy, he fell in love with her the moment he stabbed her, and in one version, had sex with her corpse. A Greek warrior called Thersites then gouged out her eyes, and Achilles responded to the desecration by punching him so hard he died. Thersites’ cousin took revenge on Achilles by throwing Penthesleia’s body in a river.

She was buried eventually – in one account, by Achilles, in another, by the grateful Trojans. Achilles made sacrifices to Apollo, Artemis and Leto in penance for Penthesleia’s death.

As with so many women of myth and legend, Hippolyta and Penthesleia’s stories have sad endings. But myths, you know, have a special immortality: with every different version that is told, they live again. And so the Amazons are reborn, battle-axes and all.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Isolde

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iseult, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html,

Trigger warning: references to rape

Well, it’s probably still Tuesday somewhere. This is over two weeks late – sorry! – but as I’ve been sick for about a month straight, anything I get done at this point is getting counted as win.

When it comes to famous tales of tragic love, June’s Lady of Legend is up there with the big guns. ‘Tristram and Isolde’ are two names bound together in the same way as ‘Lancelot and Guinevere’, and in fact predate them, being originally separate from the Arthurian cycle. There are two distinct versions of their legend: the early romances and the Prose Tristran. I shall begin with the Prose.

Women in Arthurian legend have a certain tendency to come in threes. The ancient Welsh myths reference three different Guineveres; in Le Morte d’Arthur, Igraine has three daughters; and in the story of Tristram(/Tristran) and Isolde (alternative spellings include Iseult, Iseo, Yseult, Isode, Isoude, Izolda, Esyllt and Isotta) there are three royal women bearing the same name. The heroine is Isolde the Fair, who was named for her mother, Queen Isolde of Ireland. The third Isolde is Isolde’s rival in love, a woman she never met. For their stories to make sense, you need a little background on the man who spectacularly screwed up all of their lives; and for him to make sense, you need some background on his mother.

Tristram (also known as Tristran) was the son of King Meliodas of Liones and Elizabeth of Cornwall, the sister of King Mark. According to Le Morte d’Arthur, Elizabeth was pregnant with Tristram when a sorceress kidnapped her husband and imprisoned him. Elizabeth went to get him back. She never reached Meliodas; she went into labour in the forest and died there. Tristram’s name means ‘sorrowful birth’. He was found by his father’s barons, who would have killed him for the power if not for Elizabeth’s companion, a lady-in-waiting so persuasive she got a majority vote for Tristram’s continued survival. The same lady-in-waiting brought the queen’s body home to her husband, who was released from his prison by Merlin (too late to be of any use; that’s Merlin for you.)

It was not a good start.

When Tristram was seven, his new stepmother tried to win a crown for her own children by poisoning him, and it was only through Tristram’s pleading for her life that she was kept from the pyre. After that, bizarrely, it was Tristram who had to leave home. He went to France for his education, which was very thorough and knightly. And fortuitous, because his uncle Mark was in a spot of financial and political bother. Cornwall traditionally owned truage to Ireland, but had not paid up in seven years. King Anguish of Ireland, upon being told he was never going to get his money, decided to settle the question with a duel of champions and sent his brother-in-law Sir Marhaus to Cornwall. This being Isolde’s uncle. Do you see how this gets very messy very quickly?

Marhaus arrived outside Tintagel Castle and Mark regretted all his life choices, as nobody at his court was willing to fight a celebrated knight from the court of Arthur himself. Tristram, full of youthful fervour, asked his uncle to make him a knight in order to take on the duel. While he was busy getting ready for his big Knightly Moment, he received word from King Faramon of France’s daughter, who fell in love with him during his time abroad. Tristram was not interested, and the poor girl died of sorrow.

And Marhaus didn’t even want to fight Tristram, he thought he was too young and tried to send him home. The battle that eventually ensued was brutal. Marhaus received such terrible head injuries that he ceded the field, returned to Ireland and died there with a piece of Tristram’s sword embedded in his skull. His sister kept that fragment after Marhaus’ death, and ached for revenge. Her daughter did not have an uncle any more, so that Tristram’s could escape his debt.

Tristram did not escape the duel without injury. Marhaus’ spear was poisoned and in consequence, Tristram’s wounds would not heal. A ‘wise lady’ advised that Tristram seek help in the land of the venom’s origin. Having no better ideas, that was what he did. Which is how he ended up outside the castle of King Anguish, Queen Isolde and their very beautiful, reknown surgeon of a daughter. Surgeon being Malory’s word, by the way.

Tristram’s skilful harping caught the attention of the court. He called himself ‘Tramtrist’, because that’s just what he’s like as a person. Pretending he was injured fighting on behalf of a lady, he finangled his way into Anguish’s circle of knights and into the care of Princess Isolde, who cleaned his wound properly. In return he taught her to play the harp. There was flirting of the courtly, deceptive variety. Isolde, however, already had a serious suitor at court: Sir Palamides the Saracen. Like Marhaus, Palamides was a knight of King Arthur’s court, and he was head over heels for Isolde, sending her gifts every day, even planning to convert to Christianity for her sake.

For all that, Isolde was not interested in him. With Tristram more or less recovered from his injuries, she urged him to compete in an upcoming joust. Palamides was an excellent jouster, but Tristram was the Hero of the Story and therefore not only defeated his rival, he forced him to give up the trappings of war for a whole year and give up on his courtship of the princess. Which one would assume was her intention.

She was certainly delighted by his victory. Together, she and the queen prepared a bath for him. Unfortunately, Tristram left his sword in his chambers; the same sword he used to kill Marhaus, with a tell-tale piece missing. Queen Isolde put two and two together, and came up with rage. She picked up that sword and marched off to run Tristram through with it.

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Review – Kingfisher

Kingfisher – Patricia A. McKillip

Ace Books, 2016

Once upon a time, a heartbroken sorceress vanished and took an entire cape on the coast of Wyvernhold with her. Only when a trio of lost knights stumble into her sleepy haven does Heloise Oliver’s son start asking inconvenient questions and discover the truth: the father he has never met is still living, a knight himself in the royal court at Severluna. Pierce Oliver takes off for the heart of the kingdom, unaware of greater and darker mysteries rising to the surface around him. In a crumbling inn, a strange ritual cannot ever be questioned; a chef spins beautiful, irresistible nothings in a restaurant that cannot be found by those who want it most; and in Severluna, the king announces a quest without the least idea of what is really at stake.

I always adore Patricia A. McKillip’s writing, which is at its elegantly enigmatic, exquisitely wry best in Kingfisher, but the infusion of Arthuriana into a world of modern day alternate world fantasy is so brilliantly done I think this may be one of my favourites of her books, as well as one of my favourite books in general. The richness of the worldbuilding is entrancing, the familiar bones of legends and fairy tales woven into a setting that includes mobile phones, river gods and knights riding motorcycles. I would be thrilled if she wrote more in this world.

Reviews – Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2017

From the emergence of Ymir, ancestor of the giants, from the first waters of the worlds, to the end of all things at Ragnarok – from the tricks and treachery of Loki to the wisdom and wickedness of Odin, the adventures of Thor and the betrayal of Balder, these are the legends of the Norse gods as you have never known them before.

I have a long-standing love of Norse mythology and while I knew many of these stories, some I didn’t. It was a delight to read Gaiman’s vivid retellings, all infused with his recognisable wry wit. I particularly loved a twist on the story of Balder that gave a more prominent role to – avoiding spoilers! – a shadowy female character I’ve always been fascinated by. Gaiman has a wonderful turn of phrase and by making all references to Ragnarok in future tense, the stories have a fresh shock of immediacy. This is a book I’m certain I’ll re-read.

Ladies of Legend: Queen Medb

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney, http://www.queenmaeve.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medb, http://www.bardsongpress.com/Celtic_Culture/The_Intoxicating_Warrior_Queen.htm, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Medb, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire

Trigger warning: references to rape

Welcome to May and this month’s Lady of Legend, the Irish warrior queen Medb (also spelled Medhb, Meadhbh, Maebh or Anglicised into Maeve). Translated, her name means ‘drunken woman’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. If you haven’t heard of her yet, you are missing out.

As is the case with many mythological women, she may have originally been a goddess of sovereignty (it being said that the ruler of Connacht had to be ‘married to Medb’, as if married to the land itself) or a goddess of war. Her sacred tree was the bile Medbh and she was often depicted with a squirrel and a bird sitting on her shoulders. In the stories that depict her as a human queen, the squirrel and the bird became her pets.

Her father was Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, and her mother was Crochen (or Cruachú) Crobh-Derg, a handmaiden to Etain. It was partially through her mother that Medb claimed a right to rule over Connacht. Eochaid married Medb to Conchobar Mac Ness, the king of Ulster, as a recompense after Eochaid killed Conchobar’s (alleged) father in battle; not the most promising of starts to what would become a hellish marriage. Medb had a child with Conchobar, a son named Glaisne, but took a strong enough dislike to her husband to leave him, political reconciliation be damned.

Nothing daunted, Eochaid gave Conchobar another of his daughters – depending on the version, either Eithne or Clothru – but when the unfortunate second wife fell pregnant, Medb is said to have murdered her. The baby (a son, Furbaide) had to be taken from her dead body. There is, however, another version of events in which Furbaide’s mother drowns in a river and it is Lugaid mac Conor, Furbaide’s brother, who is responsible. It seems probable that Eochaid, at least, did not believe Medb killed her sister, given that he deposed the king of Connacht to put Medb on the throne. The erstwhile monarch, Tinni Mac Conri, made the best of the situation by winning a spot in the new queen’s bed.

Conchobar showed his true colours after an assembly at the High King’s seat of Tara, when he raped Medb. War broke out between the High King and Ulster, and Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat. He lost. Eochaid Dála, Tinni’s rival for the crown of Connacht, managed to extract Medb’s army from the battle and became her next husband.

Being Medb’s husband came with conditions. Any man she married had to be without fear, meanness or jealousy – basically, she wanted a good-natured big spender for an open relationship and said so upfront. She was a beautiful, powerful woman known for sleeping with her best warriors and Eochaid Dála was fine with that up until he found out she was sleeping with Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard. He challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill became the new king of Connacht.

Together, Medb and Ailill had two daughters, Findabair and Cainer, and seven sons. Upon being told by a druid that one of her sons would kill Conchobar, and that son would be named Maine, Medb renamed all her sons to increase the odds. Therefore Fedlimid became Maine Athramail (“like his father”), Cairbre became Maine Máthramail (“like his mother”), Eochaid became Maine Andoe (“the swift”) and was also known as Cich-Maine Andoe or Cichmuine, Fergus became Maine Taí (“the silent”), Cet became Maine Mórgor (“of great duty”), Sin became Maine Mílscothach (“honey-speech”), Dáire became Maine Móepirt (“beyond description”). And the strategy paid off! Maine Andoe did indeed kill Conchobar…just not the Conchobar Medb was expecting.

I’m disappointed, I can’t imagine how she felt.

And her luck with men continued to prove terrible. Aware he was only king through his marriage to Medb, Ailill had insecurity issues. One night after sex, he wrecked the afterglow by announcing that she’d been terribly lucky to get him what with all the wealth and prestige he’d brought to her. Medb laughed. Her retort was that her wealth far outstripped his and he was her ‘kept man’. This kicked off the sort of marital argument that begins with comparing all of your possessions to find out who really has the financial upper hand and ends (after Medb found out her own prize bull had refused to stick around in her herds, choosing to plough through the fences into Ailill’s fields because he couldn’t bear being owned by a woman, what the actual hell) with a legendary cattle raid and a whole lot of bloodshed.

You see, there was only one bull in Ireland to match Ailill’s. It belonged to Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal to the unfortunately still surviving Conchobar. To her credit, Medb did try to buy the bull, but her messenger got drunk and told everyone that she’d just take the bull if Dáire wouldn’t sell it to her…so he didn’t sell it to her. And she did come to take it. Look, she had a POINT to prove.

Also, it could not have been a more perfect time to attack. A curse had been laid upon the men of Ulster, leaving them weak and unable to fight (the curse, incidentally, originated from a mistreated pregnant woman and they brought the entire damn thing on themselves). Medb was fast and strong and her very presence on the battlefield made her army feel invincible.

Among Medb’s forces was Fergus mac Róich, the former king of Ulster and one of Medb’s more worthwhile lovers. It was said that it took seven men to satisfy her in bed, or Fergus once. She had two children with him, Ciar and Cormac. He was a reluctant ally, but an ally just the same – and as it turned out, Medb needed him very much, because the one man left standing in Ulster was the unstoppable Cuchulainn, a hero so powerful he could take on an entire army on his own. Even the promise of the very beautiful Findabair’s hand wasn’t enough to attract a champion who could overcome him. He was also an old friend to Fergus. The two of them came to a deal that Cuchulainn would pretend to run away, so that they wouldn’t have to fight, if Fergus would return the favour at a time of Cuchulainn’s choosing.

Medb couldn’t let Cuchulainn go, however, and Cuchulainn himself was not the type to stay away from a battlefield. He slaughtered her armies, her pets, one of her handmaidens and one of her sons before finally dying of his many wounds – but first he gave the word to Fergus to flee, so that Medb’s army would follow and the war would be over.

Nevertheless, Medb got her bull. As soon as it was put in with her husband’s, the two beasts killed each other, so all those people died for no reason whatsoever, but the important thing to take away from it all was that Ailill couldn’t lord it over Medb any more. Out of jealousy, he had Fergus killed. Medb got her own back when Conchobar finally did everyone a favour and died, leaving the Ulster hero Conall Cernach to come spend his retirement in the Connacht court; Medb set the aged hero to watch Ailill, who was sleeping around himself, and with her support, Conall avenged Fergus by killing the king. Aillil lived just long enough to set his own men on Conall.

And Medb lived on. She’s said to have ruled for over sixty years. As an older woman, she made a habit of bathing in a pool on the island of Inchleraun, also known as Inis Cloithreann. Her nephew Furbaide, blaming her for his mother’s death, practiced with the slingshot until he was certain of his skill. The next time she went to bathe, he killed her. With a piece of hard cheese.

Legend has it that Medb was buried in Rathcroghan, under a long slab called ‘Misgaun Medb’. There is, however, a second possible burial site in a stone cairn atop Knocknearea, where her body is supposed to stand upright, still facing her enemies in Ulster. Medb was not the type of woman to let go of a grudge. She was a terrible enemy and not even that great a friend – but she lived loud and fast and fierce, and even her death sounds like a tall tale. Who could ever resist the larger than life warrior queen of Connacht?

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!