anghara (anghara) wrote,

Once upon an encyclopedia #2: Volume I, A to Bib

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition (1979)
Volume I: A to Bib

Okay, this is how the thing is going to work. I take a volume of the encyclopedia and I open it at random four or five times and then I pick the thing that catches my eye on the page at which the book falls open. And then (without reproducing the entries verbatim as such) I discuss the topics that came up in this wise.
In volume one, the A-Bib volume, here is what turned up for me.

(1) Agamemnon:

Oh, the Greek legends of my misspent youth! They all come alive for me all over again, all those familiar names leap out at me – Agamemnon and Menelaus, Clytemnestra, Helen, Orestes, Paris, Iphigenia, Troy and all the rest of that. I cut my teeth on these things. I do believe that partly my love for complex storylines, and my love for fantasy, was first nursed in the cradle of these Greek tales.

I remember a handsome book I had on Greek legends, a treasured thing, long lost now to the many moves that came between childhood and my now. That’s where it began. I have other books on the subject now (on mythology as a subject, actually – I have books on the myths and legends of everybody and everything, from the Greeks and Romans to the Norsemen, the Slavs, the Polynesians, the tribes of Southern and Western Africa, to the Chinese and Japanese and East Asian tales, you name it, I’ve got it. I’ve a library on the subject. I never grew out of the love of mythology.)

But, as I said, it was just a beginning. The father of the two mythical Greek kings was Atreus – and for those who are paying attention there are things that reach further into the future here. It was this name, this set of legends, that crossed my mind when I first met Paul Atreides of Dune. And there are many things that followed from THAT seminal read. You might say that I have been shaped by mythology every step of the way. Everything is connected.

But – and here we come against the fatal pleasures of the encyclopedia for the first time – did you know that Agamemnon is also the name of a minor planet? Below this sparse entry – the fact that this minor planet exists is more or less the entire extent of the thing – it says cryptically, “see Trojan Planets”. And now I am going to have to go and investigate those. If I have ever heard of them before then I have forgotten what I know, and I am now caught up in my other overwhelming love and interest, the cosmos, the planets, the stars. Who or what are the “Trojan” planets, and what relationship do they have with our own solar system which I thought I knew so well…?

And also, beyond all this, there is the classical play, one of the original “Greek tragedies” – and this entry is linked to something that just says, “textual analysis problems”. Inquiring minds want to know, now – what kind of problems? Did we run into translation difficulties? Or is the story itself problematic and questionable? The long hand of history reaches out and touches me and it is cool like Greek marble. And there is a LOT more to learn here. But that’s for me to pursue. Later.

(2) Amalasuntha:

Daughter of Theodoric the great of the Ostrogoths The Gothic Queen who plotted with Justinian of Byzantium, who tried to make her son into a Byzantine princeling inasmuch as that was possible under the circumstances, and was murdered for her pains. Odd, this, because it ties in dramatically to “Empress”, my own new historical fantasy epic which is STILL out there looking for a publisher and a home (hands up, if you want to read it… maybe some publisher will trip over this and realize what they’re missing.... [grin])

In my research for this novel, I did quite a bit of reading around Amalasuntha who was an interesting character herself. A Queen, a blood-royal woman who ruled in a society where male power and the ability to use a weapon with dispatch was prized far more than subtlety and elegance, she was a fish out of water in some ways, a woman out of her time. She might have been something far greater if she had been born in a different hour, to a different people. But in the end her own moment of history proved to be too heavy for her to hold up on her own and then it crushed her. I admired her spirit. And also, how many women of her era can you name who actually RULED SOMETHING? She was one of a very special handful of women who were strong enough to make their mark, to have their names remembered, even noted in encyclopedias much after their time. She may have lost her battles at the time that she lived, but she sure won the war of posterity. She is remembered. This is a big deal, really. Think about it.

(3) Armadillo:

Described in the encyclopedia as ”stout short legged animals with strong curved claws and pinkish brown scaled armour”. That was essentially all I knew of them – I was born in the quiet cultivated Eastern Europe where such things did not walk, and then lived in other parts of the world where armadillos were vanishingly rare.
But then I moved to Florida, and yes, indeedy, they had real armadillos there. I remember a car trip – there we were, my new husband and I, driving along an interstate highway, when I suddenly screeched for him to stop – and when, mystified, he did, by the side of the road, I spilled from the car and ran back a ways to take a closer look at something in the grass beside the highway. A dead armadillo. So sue me, it was the first “real” armadillo I had ever seen and I wanted a closer look – it was like someone had pointed out a dead dragon by the roadside, and I could no more have resisted it then. Later, during one of Florida’s extravagant downpours, we saw a live specimen whose burrow must have been flooded out by the torrential rains – he was turning tight panicked circles on a suburban lawn – “helpmehelpmehelpmehelpmehelpme” – but if I had not stopped to take a closer look at his dead brother, before, I would not have been able in THAT moment to point and say hey, look at that armadillo. Because now I knew what armadillos were. And there is just something amazing to see an encyclopedia entry turning into a dead-but-still-real specimen even if it was just a sad piece of roadkill and then coming to life (and begging for assistance) in front of your eyes. This is how the world works. You are EDUCATED, by reading, by seeing, by experience. There are times it is just GOOD to be alive.

(4) Bardo:

In Tibetan Buddhism, the intermediate stage between death and rebirth lasting up to 49 days. Paraphrasing the encyclopedia entry, the dying person immediately enters Chi-kha’I Bar-do (“transitional state of the moment of death”) where he remains for three to four days until he realizes that he is dead – don’t you just LOVE that? It takes people three or four days *to realize that they are dead*. This tickles my imagination instantly. But during this initial period, so the story goes, the newly-dead person is offered a glimpse, an intuition, of highest reality – and, if ready, if the life just departed from had been lived to the limit and the one newly dead had learned his life lessons well, the dearly departed can grasp this here and now and thus escape the wheel of rebirth, forever.

But it isn’t as easy as that, and most turn away in fear and ignorance and thus enter the second stage of Chos-hyid Bar-do (transitional state of the experiencing of reality”) – and here he encounters his own past, “first as figures of great beauty and power”, says the encyclopedia, and then, finally, “as terrifying monsters” – and then, fleeing from these demonic apparitions, he enters Srid-p’a Bar-Do (“transitional state of seeking rebirth”) where he precipitously chooses rebirth (I get a mental image of someone screaming “MOMMY!” and, um, getting answered…)

I love this. I love the complexity of this. When you die you don’t just DIE, you have a whole another existence, possibly attaining immortality but if you don’t then you get chased by angels and demons and finally you fall into the waiting body of a brand new person and you get to do it all again. It’s a world vision that is active and always changing, and somehow it beats the static Christian Heaven hands down. At least you get to DO something after you’re dead instead of sitting on clouds and preening your wings all day. There are so many stories here. So many. And my storytelling mind is already swirling with them…

(5) Beowulf:

Famous Old English poem, believed to be composed between 700 and 750 – and appeared in print for the first time in 1815. That in itself is a story that’s dismissed in a sentence but think about the tenacious life of this piece of storytelling. It survived for a thousand years and more just by being copied by hand, and retold as an oral tale – talk about immortality. The “print” part now seems like little more than an afterthought, really. The tale is probably familiar to many – the hall of Heorot, ravaged by the monster called Grendel who takes King Hrothgar’s warriors and eats them. Until the Hero comes, Beowulf, and says to the king, I will rid you of this menace. Beowulf slays Grendel, and then Grendel’s mother, and then all is well at least for a while. There is a second part of the poem which deals with the now ageing Beowulf’s dealing with a fire-breathing dragon and getting himself killed in the effort.

It’s an archetypal tale, and it’s been interpreted and reinterpreted any which way during its long and gloried existence, according to the mores and the philosophy of the culture and civilization doing the analyzing. You can read any number of derivative works, of commentary, of critique… and this particular encyclopedia entry endeared itself to me immediately with just one sentence – the phrase (as immortal in itself, in its own way, as any aspect of Beowulf ever was, which begins with, “The English critic J R R Tolkien…” HAH. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it.

Well. That will do for now. I’ll pick up the next volume when the moment moves me. Watch this space.
Tags: encyclopedia

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