Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Book of Weird


I mentioned previously that The Book of Weird by Barbara Ninde Byfield was worthy of a post of its own, so here it is.

I've had this book for 15 or 16 years. It seems like I can't recall a time when I didn't have it; it has a timeless quality, and is, as mentioned on the book's cover itself, a lexicon, or glossary, for fairytales. It's an amusing conceit, the attempt to define terms and concepts for such a nebulous subject. Byfield's definitions are both tongue-in-cheek and incisively cogent, homing in on and pulling out elements from stories we all know and love, but may never have put much thought into.

The art is atmospheric. There was an era, roughly from the mid-'60s into the mid-'70s, where a lot of kid-oriented art had a sketchy, whimsical look. Scratchy pen 'n' ink, black & white illustrations evoked a unique mood.

Timeless, knowing, deft. Byfield has the ability to capture and project characters with thought and emotion. So, too, is she adept at dreamscapes, conjuring images of places that seem at once rooted in reality, but also co-existing in a fairytale kingdom.

 Byfield has a way of winnowing down a concept from familiar stories, ones we all recognize, and encapsulating it in an instantly recognizable way, whether with words or with drawings, but often with both. Dig her definition of Wizards; first, a picture with a nifty caption.

The word should be "poring," but still.
A fine figure of a wizard, one instantly recognizable due to his - or his literary doppelgangers' - prevalence throughout Western legend and literature.

But Byfield isn't done with Wizards; they're too prominent in our consciousness, they loom too large in our legends. Witness how she manages to succinctly capture the essence of Wizards with carefully chosen words:


There are a number of artists who leap to mind when I page through The Book of Weird, which was illustrated by the author. Byfield's contemporaries included such artists as:

Shel Silverstein

E.L. Konigsburg
Roald Dahl
Emily McCully

Marilyn Fitschen

There is a loose, jangly look to this art. It often is as striking for what is not shown than what is, with minimal backgrounds. Or, if the backgrounds are elaborate, details are so finely picked-out that there is a remote feel to it, as though we're watching from a distance that is both physical and temporal, like looking at an old, old photograph of a time long lost. I saw art like this so often as a kid, that it became second nature to me. Of course these worlds of the fantastic - and some not-so-fantastic - looked this way! They all shared a reality that ranged from bucolic suburbs to magic-infused lands that never were. That's why, even though I was an adult when I discovered The Book of Weird, it struck a chord with me.

Somewhere along the way, I became aware that this book was a source for Gary Gygax, as he worked on what became the Dungeons & Dragons game we're familiar with. I hadn't known that when I first bought The Book of Weird, but it became a revelation when it clicked. Suddenly the influence of this book on the game became obvious. When I first became acquainted with D&D, it evoked a world that was amorphous, where whimsy was the rule, with endless dungeons and wilderness-besieged fortresses in an ever-changing landscape. The Greyhawk Folio was still a bit in the future, so what little setting information existed was embedded in the rulebooks, creating by implication more so than by definition. There was definitely more whimsy and tongue-in-cheek attitude in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks than what came later, with capricious wizards, obscure terms, and a more pseudo-Medieval look and feel that seems similar to what Byfield created in her book, than later D&D iterations. A good bit of the art in those early AD&D books, especially by David C. Sutherland III, was similar to the art of Barbara Byfield in The Book of Weird. Compare Byfield's lineup of giants, trolls, and ogres:

to a similar line-up of beings by Sutherland in the AD&D Player's Handbook:

Or this moody image of a wizard by Byfield:

with an equally dark and mysterious piece by Sutherland:

Byfield's impression of inhabitants of Faerie:

jibes well with Sutherland's view of similar creatures in the AD&D Fiend Folio:

A definite similarity. I doubt it was intentional, but as I said above, the kind of art in The Book of Weird was similar to a style that was fairly common in fantasy at one time. Something about the fantasy zeitgeist then was more about whimsy than grit, more The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings, the latter just beginning to make its influence known on the fantasy genre at large. Even the mighty Frazetta, dominating the covers of swords & sorcery novels at the time, was having only minimal impact on D&D's art.

Let's set aside the influence of The Book of Weird on games. On its own, The Book of Weird is a delightful nonesuch, the kind of book that lends a bit of literary magic to any library, that is a bit of wondrous treasure waiting to be stumbled upon among the stacks. There is no pretense, no multiple phonebook-thick volumes, just a wealth of imagination that can appeal to kids and adults. I subtitled this blog "a look at things best viewed after Midnight," and The Book of Weird is precisely that, though it is just as good for whiling away a rainy day or a Winter's evening, a dreamy little book that I'm glad I own.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! The missing link as you say on those early DnD illustrations, all of which are very familiar to me. I like (and think you are absolutely correct) "more about whimsy than grit." That is true.

    The sea change seemed to happen in the late 80s/90s across the board in fantasy/ sci-fi/ comics. Sort of like that Simpsons line about "Fox became a hardcore pornography channel so gradually no one even noticed..."

    But these things are usually cyclical, so whimsy shall return.

    This Book of Weird seems pretty wild; I can understand the longstanding affection.