Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monster Smackdown: The Trojan Horse Vs. Godzilla At Cornell Library

By Nancy Mattoon

A Japanese historical magazine,
which singles out the birth of Godzilla
as the signature event of the year 1954.

(All Images Courtesy of Carl A. Kroch Library.)

Man has a long history of creating "famous" animals. Some are mythical or literary, like the Minotaur or Toto. Others are real animals, elevated to celebrity status like Rin Tin Tin, or more recently, Internet sensation Maru the Cat. A fascinating new exhibit at Cornell University's Carl A. Kroch Library uses rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and artifacts to explore "how and why humans choose to elevate certain individual animals or species to the status of divinities, emblems, mascots, heroes, or celebrities."

Woodcut Illustration From:
Opera Virgiliana
. Lyon: Crespin, 1529.

Animal Legends: From the Trojan Horse to Godzilla is an elephantine display of serpentine complexity. It is divided into five major sections, corralling creatures from ancient times to modern, including the menagerie rescued from the Biblical Flood by Noah, Ulysses's "noble hound" Argos from Homer's Odyssey, E.B. White's web-spinner Charlotte, and even canine cosmonauts Belka and Strelka, two of the first living creatures to orbit the earth for an entire day. It is inspired in large part by the pioneering work of French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau, who in his book Les Animaux Célèbres, maintains that our intense attraction to wonders of the animal kingdom comes from the simple fact of "how difficult it is to be human."

Barrie G. James. The Trojan Horse:
the Ultimate Japanese Challenge to Western Industry.
London: Mercury Business Books, 1990.

The first section of the display, Tales of Destruction and Rebirth, begins with an examination of the Trojan Horse. The exhibit notes that the wooden equine giant, filled with soldiers, "may have been a siege machine." But "in any case, the tale was made hugely popular by Virgil’s Aeneid, and by innumerable pictures and films." Books and ephemera dating from 1529 to 1990 reveal the staying power of this "metaphor for political tactics of infiltration," and the show reminds us that the horse's most recent incarnation is as "the name of a destructive computer application."

Poster for the American Version of
La Guerra di Troia, 1961.

The rare books and ephemera in the show providing images of the Trojan Horse are a great indication of the huge range of the exhibition. The section begins with Opera Virgiliana (1529), which features two hundred woodcut illustrations for the poems contained in the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid. After that beauty is the 1664 "pocket edition" of the works of Virgil from the Elsevier family of Dutch booksellers, publishers, and printers. Up next is a garishly kitschy poster for the big-budget 1961 "sword and sandal" motion picture epic, La Guerra di Troia. Following on the heels and hoofs of the horse opera, is a presentation copy of Archibald MacLeish's The Trojan Horse: A Play (1952), inscribed to Cornell English Professor Arthur Mizener. Finally an alarmist business book from 1990, The Trojan Horse: the Ultimate Japanese Challenge to Western Industry, by futurist Barrie James, closes out the wildly eclectic selection.

Poster for Gojira.
Japan: Toho Ltd., 1954.

One of the largest sections of the show is called From Farm To Screen. Creatures covered here include E.B. White's super-mouse on a road trip, Stuart Little, Disney stalwarts Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and the pop culture star attraction of the exhibition, mass media "mon-star," Godzilla. The exhibit notes that unlike the "carefree escapism" offered by Disney's cartoon critters, "Godzilla, a primitive, destructive force awakened by the excesses of modern science," plays "on the darker aspects of human fears and repressed desires." But the subversive appeal of the unstoppable King of Chaos cannot be denied: "Godzilla has starred in 28 feature films produced by the [Japanese] Toho Film Company, as well as two American remakes, and has also appeared in television series, novels, comic books, video games, songs, toys and countless commercials and advertisements."

A Pictorial Box Set of
Five Godzilla Films in Translation.
Japan: Toho Ltd. and Anchor Entertainment, 1997.

Animal Legends: From the Trojan Horse to Godzilla presents a terrific introduction to a cultural phenomenon that deserves much more serious study. The animal kingdom is an important part of the collective iconography of every culture that has ever existed across the centuries, and throughout the world. And, as the exhibit points out, "All human societies have reserved a mythical or allegorical place for...extra-ordinary animals, 'fictitious' or 'real,' from the most ancient myths of origin to the most recent scientific discoveries." As mankind's environmental expansion continues to encroach upon what used to be the domain of the animal kingdom, the time to reflect upon its cultural importance is now.

Poster for Godzilla, King of the Monsters!.
Japan: Toho Ltd. and Jewell Enterprises, 1956.

Animal Legends: From the Trojan Horse to Godzilla continues through September 30, 2011 at the Hirshland Exhibition Gallery of the Carl A. Kroch Library of Cornell University. A terrific online exhibit has been created to those unable to visit the Ithaca, N.Y. campus.

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