The Encyclopedia of Early Earth – Isabel Greenberg

I wanted to write about this graphic novel on Wednesday and then the events in Paris unfolded and I thought I should hold off, it might be seen in bad taste. Yet I think that one of the things that has come from these horrific events is the power of the pen, be it the written word or illustration, and that of freedom of speech and to be silenced by such actions (and I know this is only a book blog but you know what I mean) is to let these cruel people win. I don’t want to do that. It actually seems apt then to tell you about The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg because it is a book that highlights how powerful both imagery and words can be. After all they say a picture can paint a thousand words.

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Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2013, graphic novel, 200 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is probably one of the most imaginative and unusual books that I have read in quite some time. It is also one of those wonderful books where stories unravel within other stories, or lead to other stories, and somehow without being chronological create a whole set of worlds that all interweave and unfold in front of your eyes. No, really. It tells of a world, which we now know as Earth, in the time before mankind when other groups of people inhabited it with their different beliefs, legends and cultures – which often relate in some slight/subliminal or occasionally pretty blunt way to the way we are living now or the tales we know be they mythical, fictional or factual.

The book is framed by Love in a Very Cold Climate (which I like to think is some kind of homage in some way to Nancy Mitford, even if I am wrong) where two people meet and instantly fall in love over one another’s mittens. (This is actually really sweet and not saccharine at all.) There is a problem however as when these two lovers try to touch they are magnetised apart so how if they cant touch what can they do? Well the man, who we soon come to learn is a storyteller from the land of Nord on the opposite side of the planet, starts to tell stories to entertain them. These stories we soon learn are in actual fact his tale of the journey to get to the south and to find a piece of his soul that went missing, which leads us to the first of the tales that start to unfold.

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Stories and storytelling are very much what The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is all about. As I mentioned they might have a mythical, biblical, fairytale, fictional or historical elements. For example some of the cultures the storyteller meets are like Eskimos now and in the past, some are like the Vikings, some the Romans etc. Then there are the biblical references such as a story involving these people’s god Bird Man’s daughter who falls in love with Noah who is a bit of a so and so and so what does she decide to do in a rage, flood the earth of course. There are also moments which link back to classical times when we meet a learn of a tale of an old lady who reminds her people of why old people shouldn’t just sit around waiting to die and can be rather useful. I wont give away anything other than it evolves a Cyclops…

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Then there are nods to more modern stories like the fairytale of Pinocchio, or indeed classic novels such as Moby Dick…

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I think Isabel Greenberg adds much depth and the occasional punch as she writes and illustrates the importance of stories and histories with The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Firstly she imparts little moments, I don’t want to say they are morals but then all the best fables and fairytales have them (Rapunzel taught me never to steal cabbage because I might lose my first born to a witch, or let down my hair for any common old Tom, Dick or Harry; both important life lessons) and as I mentioned with moments like the old lady who shows how old people can be useful, Greenberg just weaves in some lovely little poignant thoughts for you to mull over.

She also does it with much wit, for example when Dag and Hal – the first man and woman on earth – have children sibling jealousy leads to cultural wars. The latter point is very serious yet Greenberg shows how these awful things often evolve from some small thing, or from one person’s moment of weakness. She then makes us laugh about it to show how small and stupid these things are and how with some thought and understanding they could be avoided. (The image below made me laugh for about five minutes, laugh to tears laughing too.)

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She does the same with war. It is all very clever, thought provoking and looks at religion, history, culture and beliefs in a very interesting, original and impartial way.

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I cannot recommend you getting a copy of The Encyclopedia of Early Earth enough. It really is just wonderful how every page will hold a story within a picture, yet all those pictures create another story which adds a layer, back story, or myth around the story we are following. As you will know from reading this blog I am prone to a tangent, and indeed am quite fond of them. Well I couldn’t get enough of Isabel Greenberg’s tangents and wanted more and more. In fact as soon as I had finished the book I went and ordered more of her work some of which interlink with this book. They have already arrived…

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If all the above, and the fact that I have run off straight away to get more of her works straight away, isn’t enough to convince you to run out and get it I can do no more. I won’t be surprised if it is in my books of the year in December, even though we are only in January. In fact I have read two books so far this year where I have felt that. Back to the recent horrors in Paris though, reading this and seeing such awful things on the news has reminded me about the power that the pen has when it writes or draws, and when writing and illustration are combined they can be the most powerful of all when used for good. Let us never stop reading then.

10 Comments

Filed under Books of 2015, Graphic Novels, Isabel Greenberg, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review

10 responses to “The Encyclopedia of Early Earth – Isabel Greenberg

  1. Simon: you have written a wonderful review of _The Encyclopedia of Early Earth_ and Greenberg’s other work. You’ve enticed me to acquire all of her books and enjoy them together with my niece who is also a book enthusiast, an old soul at almost 13. Excited to explore these in what remains of the cold and dreary winter months!

  2. This was the the first graphic novel I ever read, about a year ago, and I still can’t get over how gorgeous it is. Fantastic review!

  3. Parts of this book made me laugh out loud too. BirdMan’s reaction to prayers made in his name cracked me up completely: “What the bloody hell is that noise?”

    • Yes I liked that too Lindy and what I thought was clever is that in the wrong hands people could see that as being sacrilegious yet she hands it so deftly and lightly that it doesn’t come out that way at all.

  4. What a great review! I’ve never gone near graphic novels before but I’m very tempted to give this one a try. It sounds wonderful!

    • Give this a whirl as Leah mentions above it seems the perfect introductory graphic novel to see how you get on with the form. Its just a wonderful graphic novel about stories and storytelling.

  5. Pingback: Why I Still Turn to Fairytales… | Savidge Reads

  6. Pingback: Savidge Reads’ Books of 2015 Part One… | Savidge Reads

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