Thursday, 11 December 2008

Fairies in Film - Pan's Labyrinth

I suspect most fans of folklore are to some extent a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, if not overtly then at least in secret. I certainly am. I wanted to look at the film to see what ideas I could spot that derived from other tales, and what might be learnt from the story and its telling that might reinforce my understanding of fairy lore.

In doing so I’d be taking a cue from my folklorist heroine, Katherine Briggs – primarily to keep a critical eye out for a descent into whimsy, prettifying the creatures, simplifying their morality and denying their capriciousness.

Seeing as I had already watched the film a number of times before deciding to examine it in this manner I already knew what to expect, so I thought I’d cast a similarly critical eye over Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which I was watching for the first time.

Surely the summer superhero blockbuster would provide a far shallower and more whimsical vision than the relative oddity of the foreign language fable that owed so much less to Hollywood?

Del Toro claims the film has themes of disobedience and choice. He says in the director’s commentary that each of the characters are at a crossroads in their lives – a claim that is easier to see in some than others. This claim may have a metaphorical significance too though – in folklore crossroads are places where the connection to the spirit world and reality is thin, and where death and the devil hold an influence. That the choices that many of the characters will make will lead them to evil acts and/or the ends of their lives surely feeds back to this idea that they are at a crossroads, even though it is not a literal feature of the film.

The book Ofelia, the heroine, reads is referred to as “The Book of Crossroads”. The book outlines the three tasks she is to complete in order to reclaim her right to live as a fairy princess, and also warns her of danger to her mortal mother – who falls very ill and nearly miscarries her unborn child.

Disobedience is a theme that features in many myths and legends. Ofelia’s inability to perform some of the tasks set before her does not invalidate her position as a heroine, and the creatures whose rules she violates decide to offer her further opportunities to make amends. Her success is not judged to be as important as the spirit in which she carries out the tasks. She is a rather quiet and modest heroine – and perhaps it is her humility that spares her from hubris. Were she Icarus she would fly too close to the sun, but such an act would not necessarily doom her because she is not boastful.

Many tales involving fairy lore make fertility a central issue of the story, and Pan’s Labyrinth deals with it explicitly – in particular there is a theme of difficult birth, both of Ofelia giving birth to her self as the heir to a magical royal family and of her mortal mother’s troubles in bringing her baby brother to term.

The fairy realm is given a strong visual connection to wombs and birth canals. The colour palette used in scenes such as the Pale Man’s dining room is one of placental reds and pale flesh, the old fig tree in which a giant toad hides resembles the shape of a uterus and pair of fallopian tubes, with the crevice by which Ofelia enters the tree looking somewhat like a gaping vulva. Cascading pollen also accompanies magical scenes and appears whenever the uncanny impresses upon the real.

I was waiting to come across some evidence that Pan’s Labyrinth contained an environmental message, though it wasn’t something del Toro broached in his commentary (though he did touch upon it in Hellboy II). I do perceive a very subtle (perhaps even subconscious) environmental sympathy in the film, which I perceive from the fact that there seems to be such a strong connection between the fairies of Pan’s Labyrinth and the plant world.

The cascading pollen mentioned earlier foreshadows this, but all the creatures and fairytales mentioned in Pan’s Labyrinth strike me as involving a botanical connection.

The first fairy encountered in the story is a diminutive green sprite initially disguised as a stick insect (an insect that disguises itself as part of a plant). Ofelia, guessing at some sort of hidden nature to the fairy, shows it an illustration of what she believes fairies should look like – a rather whimsical drawing owing a deal to Victorian flower fairies. The insect undergoes a metamorphosis into a shape that resembles the drawing, though one of the details it doesn’t quite manage to reproduce is the wings – instead of the insect wings of the original it sprouts two pairs of leaves with which it flies.

Ofelia is introduced to the faun a short while later. The creature also has a strongly botanical appearance, at first appearing to be nothing more than some tangle of overgrown wood. The skin of the faun resembles the bark of an Ash tree and it creaks like wood as it moves its joints. Moss and ferns adorn it like an old statue left out in the rain. The faun also is seen eating raw meat – something del Toro claims makes it seem more morally ambivalent (is he a vegetarian I wonder).

The giant toad that Ofelia is required to confront in order to pass her first task is not a plant, but it does threaten the life of a fig tree in whose roots it has nested and who it has poisoned.

Ofelia is also clearly not a plant, but seems to interact with the plant world in an almost symbiotic way. When Ofelia is asked to improvise a story to tell her unborn brother she riffs on the botanical theme, describing a rose upon a hill that was an object of desire – conferring immortality on the person who picked it – a task made impossible by the thicket of poisonous thorns that surrounded it. Ofelia is made a significant present of a green dress, and her carelessness with it contributes to her mother’s illness, which Ofelia attempts to assuage by feeding her own blood to a mandrake root. It is Ofelia’s consumption of fruit which makes a disaster of her mission to the Pale Man’s dining room. When she dies Ofelia is reborn in the magical realm as a fairytale princess, and leaves form a part of her family’s heraldry. In the real world a white flower grows as a sign of her passing.

The botanical motifs may be no more than a way to stress the otherness of the fairy creatures in the films – but the fact that threats to the plant world are associated with the more obviously adversarial creatures, and the health or reproduction of plants with the more benign ones, may indicate an idea that these creatures are avatars of the natural world and protective of it (or I could just be projecting my own ideas).

The Pale Man is the most memorable creation of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro apparently claimed that creating a good monster should give you a hard-on – in which case he must have been painfully priapic on the day he invented the Pale Man.

Del Toro claims the Ogre is meant to represent faceless politics and religion. It sits at a sumptuous feast in a dining room that echoes an earlier scene in which the fascist captain sits at the head of a table. The Ogre has access to a great deal of delicious looking food – but seems only interested in eating kids and fairies.

The religious allusions are more interesting to me than the political, and contribute far more to the look of the creature. Holes in the hands echo the stigmata of Christ, and the eyes placed on the platter are a tribute to the passion of St Lucy. It’s not just Christian symbology at work here, as the manner in which the Pale Man snacks on the fairies it captures is inspired by Goya’s painting of Saturn eating his children.

The Pale Man seems to be all about rules and the punishments we are threatened with for violating them. Perhaps it is a deliberate irony then that one of the film’s few obvious debts to widely understood folklore is shown in this scene, the ‘rule’ that eating food in the fairy realm leads to disaster. Ofelia’s consumption of a few grapes does not trap her in fairyland (the typical punishment for this act) but awakes the Ogre and imperils her quest. Rather than trapping her in the fairy realm, Ofelia's consumption of fruit effectively forces her out - and so a reference to traditional folklore is made and subverted, which reinforces the film’s theme of choice and disobedience.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

A Love Spell in London

The following is a story both frightening and gory.
It has too many flat-lines to be good for bedtimes.
So reach for your tissues if upset by such issues…

When the growth in my gut
Turned to thought in my head
I had to spend a while in bed.
Then I found me a bit of rough
It’s funny – being in love.

The ringing in my ears
Was it a wedding bell
Or a tolling funeral knell?
Hey! I’m still up for a few beers,
Still crazy after all these years.

My new love’s an enchanter with his leg of frog
And skin of a buck rabbit and his big black dog.
Oh and I thank heaven above;
it’s funny – being in love.

When the growth in my gut
Turned to a monkey on my back
The DSS cut me some slack.
Up ‘til now my life’s been tough,
It’s funny – being in love.

Snake’s scale, dog’s tail and a fingernail
Removed with a blade of the Schutzstaffel
Mixed with rat droppings and unopened mail
(He’s no need of letters just to cast his spell)
And I thank heaven above;
it’s funny – being in love.

Oh I loved being a mom
But lately it’s not been fun.
I’m made to feel like a pariah.
I had a dream of mount Moriah
Where I offered up to Him my one begotten son.

When the growth in my gut
Turned to a thought in my head
I had to spend a while in bed.
Then I found me a bit of rough
It’s funny – being in love.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

What The Devil's Dictionary Teaches Us About Folklore - Part 1

I am a devotee of the philosopher, wit and fine moustache wearer Ambrose Bierce and his Devil's Dictionary, a caustic collection of alternative meanings for words we think we understand.

Here are a couple of short and sweet entries to get you into the frame of thinking:

BEGGAR, n. One who has relied on the assistance of his friends.

BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Like most people of wit and learning Ambrose has a fine appreciation of folklore and I plan to copy the relevant entries here for easy reference.

A - G

BASILISK, n. The cockatrice. A sort of serpent hatched from the egg of a cock. The Basilisk had a bad eye, and its glance was fatal. Many infidels deny this creature's existence, but Semprello Aurator saw and handled one that had been blinded by lighting as a punishment for having fatally gazed on a lady of rank whom Jupiter loved. Juno afterward restored the reptile's sight and hid it in a cave. Nothing is so well attested by the ancients as the existence of the Basilisk, but the cocks have stopped laying.

BELLADONNA, n. In Italian a beautiful lady, in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two languages.

CENTAUR, n. One of a race of persons who lived before the division of labour had been carried to such a pitch of differentiation, and who followed the primitive economic maxim "every man is his own horse". The best of the lot was Chiron, who to the wisdom and virtues of the horse added the fleetness of man. The scripture story of the head of John the Baptist on a Charger shows that pagan myths have somewhat sophisticated sacred history.

CERBERUS, n. The watch-dog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance — against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance. Cerberus is known to have had three heads, and some of the poets have credited him with as many as a hundred. Professor Graybill, whose clerky erudition and profound knowledge of Greek give his opinion great weight, has averaged all the estimates, and makes the number twenty-seven — a judgment that would be entirely conclusive is Professor Graybill had known (a) something about dogs, and (b) something about arithmetic.

CURSE, v.t. Energetically to belabor with a verbal slap-stick. This is an operation which in literature, particularly in the drama, is commonly fatal to the victim. Nevertheless, the liability to a cursing is a risk that cuts but a small figure in fixing the rates of life insurance.

FAIRY, n. A creature, variously fashioned and endowed, that formerly inhabited the meadows and forests. It was nocturnal in its habits, and somewhat addicted to dancing and the theft of children. The fairies are now believed by naturalist to be extinct, though a clergyman of the Church of England saw three near Colchester as lately as 1855, while passing through a park after dining with the lord of the manor. The sight greatly staggered him, and he was so affected that his account of it was incoherent. In the year 1807 a troop of fairies visited a wood near Aix and carried off the daughter of a peasant, who had been seen to enter it with a bundle of clothing. The son of a wealthy bourgeois disappeared about the same time, but afterward returned. He had seen the abduction been in pursuit of the fairies. Justinian Gaux, a writer of the fourteenth century, avers that so great is the fairies' power of transformation that he saw one change itself into two opposing armies and fight a battle with great slaughter, and that the next day, after it had resumed its original shape and gone away, there were seven hundred bodies of the slain which the villagers had to bury. He does not say if any of the wounded recovered. In the time of Henry III, of England, a law was made which prescribed the death penalty for "Kyllynge, wowndynge, or mamynge" a fairy, and it was universally respected.

GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

He saw a ghost.
It occupied — that dismal thing! —
The path that he was following.
Before he'd time to stop and fly,
An earthquake trifled with the eye
That saw a ghost.
He fell as fall the early good;
Unmoved that awful vision stood.
The stars that danced before his ken
He wildly brushed away, and then
He saw a post.
—Jared Macphester

Accounting for the uncommon behavior of ghosts, Heine mentions somebody's ingenious theory to the effect that they are as much afraid of us as we of them. Not quite, if I may judge from such tables of comparative speed as I am able to compile from memories of my own experience.

There is one insuperable obstacle to a belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears either in a winding-sheet or "in his habit as he lived." To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power inheres in textile fabrics. Supposing the products of the loom to have this ability, what object would they have in exercising it? And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it? These be riddles of significance. They reach away down and get a convulsive grip on the very tap-root of this flourishing faith.

GHOUL, n. A demon addicted to the reprehensible habit of devouring the dead. The existence of ghouls has been disputed by that class of controversialists who are more concerned to deprive the world of comforting beliefs than to give it anything good in their place. In 1640 Father Secchi saw one in a cemetery near Florence and frightened it away with the sign of the cross. He describes it as gifted with many heads and an uncommon allowance of limbs, and he saw it in more than one place at a time. The good man was coming away from dinner at the time and explains that if he had not been "heavy with eating" he would have seized the demon at all hazards. Atholston relates that a ghoul was caught by some sturdy peasants in a churchyard at Sudbury and ducked in a horsepond. (He appears to think that so distinguished a criminal should have been ducked in a tank of rosewater.) The water turned at once to blood "and so contynues unto ys daye." The pond has since been bled with a ditch. As late as the beginning of the fourteenth century a ghoul was cornered in the crypt of the cathedral at Amiens and the whole population surrounded the place. Twenty armed men with a priest at their head, bearing a crucifix, entered and captured the ghoul, which, thinking to escape by the stratagem, had transformed itself to the semblance of a well known citizen, but was nevertheless hanged, drawn and quartered in the midst of hideous popular orgies. The citizen whose shape the demon had assumed was so affected by the sinister occurrence that he never again showed himself in Amiens and his fate remains a mystery.

GNOME, n. In North-European mythology, a dwarfish imp inhabiting the interior parts of the earth and having special custody of mineral treasures. Bjorsen, who died in 1765, says gnomes were common enough in the southern parts of Sweden in his boyhood, and he frequently saw them scampering on the hills in the evening twilight. Ludwig Binkerhoof saw three as recently as 1792, in the Black Forest, and Sneddeker avers that in 1803 they drove a party of miners out of a Silesian mine. Basing our computations upon data supplied by these statements, we find that the gnomes were probably extinct as early as 1764.


The Gorgon was a maiden bold
Who turned to stone the Greeks of old
That looked upon her awful brow.
We dig them out of ruins now,
And swear that workmanship so bad
Proves all the ancient sculptors mad.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Fairies in Rock Music - City Hobgoblins

A number of Fall songs deal with the subject of folklore, at least implicitly. An admitted fan of science fiction and horror literature, singer Mark E Smith also strikes me as knowing his Boggarts from his Bugganes. H P Lovecraft and Aleistair Crowley are influences MES returns to time and again for subject matter, and he also claims to possess a degree of precognitive ability, having "anticipated" such events as the newsworthiness of Terry Waite (just prior to his kidnapping in Beirut) and the IRA bombing of Manchester's Arndale Centre.

As usual I will plant my flag in the sceptical camp over such matters - I think if you comment regularly enough and abstractly enough on popular culture you're bound to look as if you've predicted something with eerie accuracy every now and then. Even so the Terry Waite thing strikes me as impressive.

City Hobgoblins is the B-side of the Fall's classic 1980 single "How I Wrote Elastic Man".

Tap, tap, tap, tap
You think it's the pipes
But who turns on the lights?
Our city hobgoblins
Ubu le Roi is a home hobgoblin
And at nights all ready
Our city hobgoblins
Infest my home at night
They are not alright
Ten times my age
One-tenth my height
Our city hobgoblins
Buzz of the all-night mill
Ah but evil
Emanates from old green glades
Pretentious eh?
Our city hobgoblins
They'll get yer
So Queen Victoria
Is a large black slug in Piccadilly, Manchester
Our city hobgoblins
And they say
We cannot walk the floor at night in peace
At night in peace

As with most Fall lyrics the meaning of the song is highly abstracted and contains a number of bewildering and probably entirely tangential asides. There is a theme to the song though, it apparently refers to a gang of street toughs who plagued the area of Collyhurst, an inner-city area of Manchester, about 1 mile from the City. I once read an interview with Morrissey were he talked about how the song referred to "the Collyhurst Perries", who all seemed to be somewhat diminutive as a result of breeding or poor nourishment. The Perry Boys website gives some further information.

The Perry Boys wore many Mod styles, but it was the Fred Perry logo that eventually provided a brand with which to label them. People feared Perries, but they were a rare sight in the mid-70s, favouring night-life over day, Soul over Glam-Rock and music over football. Despite the obscurity, they were feared as nasty lads, very insular and ready to strike at anyone who looked at them, full stop. They were the Perry Boys. They knew who they were, even if you didn't. They proved to be a prototype for much that evolved after and their offspring, the Boys, declared undying war on the Merseyside Scallies.

So really, with typical precognition, Mark E Smith turned his attention to the malign phenomenon of chavs some twenty years before the mainstream media caught up with the idea.

Identifying people from "another tribe" as maliciously inhuman and/or supernatural is something that has probably gone on for all of history. Often because of a technological or military imbalance (think of the Aztecs viewing Spanish Conquistadors as gods, or the Huns seen as "a scourge of God") or just to demonise invaders, opponents or immigrants.

City Hobgoblins is not the only Fall song to deal with gangs of yobs and the supernatural, Squid Law (sometimes known as Squid Lord) seems to be an invocation to Cthulhuesque god-monsters to do away with a particular gang who seem to have caused Mark E Smith some grief.

Good man, lend a hand
Help me to deal with some scum
Who are only in their late teens
But I hate their existence
They think 3 on 1
A normal thing
Network 7 encouraged them
But tonight they picked the wrong man

Squid Lord
His intelligence

Number One squat with grey turnup jeans
Stuck up white hairstyle
Obviously sheep shag mill town
Squid lord revenge
Just his intelligence vast

The second one is a streak of piss
Leave me alone with him
His blindness will be fun
But it won't make a difference

Squid Lord
His intelligence

The third one stood behind
Held my arms
But in the hospital
His bed will be in a draught
A geriatric germ-well
I curse his family and wish them poor
But he'll have time to dwell
On squid revenge, cooped-up
In 3 months of pure Hell

Squid Lord
His tentacles

Good man, lend a hand
Help me clear this mess
Give me back the law it took from my life
Give me back the pride of my class
This scum are just a morass

Squid Lord
His intelligence

Friday, 31 October 2008

Fairy Names, the Ten Best

10) TOMMY RAWHEAD - Far more user friendly than Rawheadandbloodybones whilst retaining an evocative nastiness.
9) BOGGART - Good and contemptuous sounding.
8) PUCK - Too the point and rude sounding. If lad's magazines carried more articles on fairies you would see this name used in headlines A LOT.
7) RUMPLESTILTSKIN - Face it, if your name was this cool you'd sing about it too.
6) HOBGOBLIN - A very sonically satisfying word with some strong brand associations (Pub Chain and associated yummy ale, Folk Music chain store, Spiderman villains, etc.)
5) BLIX - See earlier post for lowdown on Blix's full majesty. Fresh insight into fact that he shares a syllable with 'Pixie' and 'Nixie'.
4) ROBIN GOODFELLOW - Undeniable literary classic.
3) NIXIE - Opted for over 'Pixie' because of it's relative obscurity. Used with an awkward degree of tweeness on Julian Cope's otherwise splendid epic "Psychedelic Odin".
2) CLAPPERNAPPER - Internal rhymes are always great for fairy names.
1) FLIBBERTIGIBBET - Without peer, as frightening and amusing as a good tune by the Fall. Earns extra points for the slight mysogynisitic undertone that many mythological beasts seem to earn (Gorgon, Harridan, Termagant, etc...)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Campaign Against Crap Hallowe'en Costumes

Please help the cause by displaying the following notice on your front door.




Bit of a bugbear I suppose, but when I were a kid we used to make a proper effort (well, our parents did), spend ages on our very own Flibbertigibbet outfit, construct our own dolmen to commune with the spirits of Samhain*, chop our own heads off, things like that, I used to love nostalgia, etc...

* Please note: If you use a different spelling of this word, one that you feel more accurately expresses an ancient celtic tongue, good for you. However, please don't lecture me on using the spelling I chose. I know there are different spellings and that some experts don't like the one that seems to be the spelling opted on by the gestalt. That's cool, but can I just use the spelling most people use so that there might be a vague chance someone might get what I'm on about? Ta.

Friday, 5 September 2008

My Proposals for a Skriker Soundtrack - Part 2

Mental illness is a theme of many stories about Fairies and is certainly gets a detailed looking at in the Skriker (which I will say again is the world's best wildly poetic and bleak theatrical vision of fairies in a modern day context, which may make it top of a field of one but it's still impressive). Not that it gets me anywhere but I do like to think about what I'd do if I were to be given the opportunity to direct a film of the play.

In fact, seeing as I am currently looking for employment, should some board of film producers want to turn a deeply odd piece of theatre that appeals to very niche interests into a big budget cinematic epic, and if they are willing to take on a director with very little relevant experience (I slag off other director's work in pubs with my mates, have a Theatre Studies qualification and do a bit of amateur dramatics) and if one of them reads this blog - I'm your man (provided you are willing to meet my outrageous rider requests).

Anyway, back to the soundtrack. These are my favorite songs on the subject of insanity and I reckon they should join my favourite songs on the subject of environmental destruction for consideration.

Each and every Cocteau Twins song is, in and of itself, a thing of wonder. They suffer from coming in albums next to other Cocteau Twins songs, which sometimes robs the less distinctive ones of their elan.

Sex and birth are subjects that inspire madness in many folktales, and has strong connotations in the Skriker with Lily's baby and Josie's infanticide. Pearly Dewrops Drops is charged with a seemingly terrified sexual energy, thrilled or frightened, it's difficult to tell. It's never a good idea to say for sure what it is Liz Fraser sings, but I think I can hear "bloody cups" and the words of the title (semen, surely?) in places.

Got to be used, maybe in the underworld scene that could do with some music to convey a sense of otherworldly beauty. It could fade away to be replaced by the following number:

I used to be a Goth, me, and the JaMC are one of the few bands that I adored back in my misspent days of wearing eyeliner and winklepickers that I still like. This may be because they were not really a Goth band. Cracked is one of their B-Sides and is available on the Barbed Wire Kisses collection.

It's a gloomy half-heard drone, feedback and the occasional curse fades in and out of the mix. It should be played at parties for Vampires. Not cool aristocratic Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee vampires, but ravenous "I'll bite your fucking nose off" Vampires like the ones from 30 Days of Night or I Am Legend (the book).

To be used in the scene in the scene in the underworld.

Really to be included because of the pun on Blue Men and Wights, but also because it is bonkers in a fun sort of way.

Note that 11 Mustachioed Daughters is also great fare for folklore fans.

The most creepy Birthday Party song, written by one of the band members' girlfriends. Nick Cave at his most growly and Rowland Howard, or maybe Mick Harvey, being terrifically spooky on guitar.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Those Who Purport to Believe in Fairies

ECCENTRICITY, n. A method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity.

Curse you Ambrose Bierce! Before I read the Devil's Dictionary I used to be a big fan of eccentricity, of the 'Old English Eccentric' school in particular. I used to regale anyone who would listen with anecdotes about Vivian Stanshall and secretly want to be him (despite the fact that the man felt himself so isolated, lonely and valium-addled that he very probably burnt himself to death) and like many fans of The Fall I wasn't sure if I was interested because of the music or because of the latest irascible capers of Mark E Smith, who I also wanted to be (premature toothlessness, temper tantrums and Multiple Sclerosis aside).

I suppose that's what makes someone a hero - someone who you wouldn't mind, just for a while at least, being in order to know first hand what is was to have achieved what they achieved.

It's not fashionable to admit to having heroes, it's seen as a bit of a denial of self, I suppose, and as you grow older people's personas tend to become a little more see-through and obviously PR-orientated - but we all still have heroes, don't we?

I've got plenty of heroes me, most of them musical: Nick Cave, Julian Cope, Yan and Noble from British Sea Power, Kate Bush, Liz Frazer and Robin Guthrie, and more. Literary ones like Alasdair Grey, BS Johnson and Kurt Vonnegut. Arty ones. Personal ones. I've a few heroes amongst folklorists too, Katherine Briggs of course, Caryl Churchill, Alan Lee and Brian Froud among them.

Brian Froud's website is here and is well worth a look at. I have found his art, designs and writing very inspiring for a long time. I enjoyed films that he has been a part of, such as Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal, and I think his book with Alan Lee, Faeries, is a brilliant visual companion to Katherine Briggs' Dictionary and a perfect primer-level book on British folklore in it's own right.

But I do get a sinking feeling when reading the following on his website's FAQ:

Where do Brian and Wendy get their ideas?

Both Brian and Wendy are inspired by the land they live in and by their experiences and interactions with faerie. Brian is deeply read in world mythology and folklore especially that of the British Isles. He enjoys reading primarily non-fiction: psychology, anthropology, sociology, metaphysics and literary criticism.

Does Brian actually believe in and see faeries?

Yes he does; his pictures are his experience of the world of faerie. But more important, he believes that you can too.

How can I see faeries?

Brian talks about how to connect with faerie in GOOD FAERIES/BAD FAERIES. He also has created a way to help you connect with specific faerie energies in THE FAERIES' ORACLE, a book and oracle card set designed by Brian and written by Jessica Macbeth.

I just find this a terrific disappointment, and I'm very suspicious of such claims for a variety of reasons.

1) I think it might be a bit of a con ("Talk with Fairies like Brian can - using his book and oracle card set - only £16.50 on Amazon").

2) It seems to fit Ambrose's definition of distinction cheaply bought, not only is Alan a brilliant designer and artist, not only is he a smashing interpreter of the creatures that feature in these tales, but he sees them and interacts with them as well!

3) I think it cheapens the man's genuine talents and achievements to make such boasts, and I also think it cheapens the stories too - the general idea from certain quarters seems to be that to appreciate them to the full you have to actually believe them. Being an atheist in matters of belief in the supernatural I strongly defy those who suggest that they must somehow automatically appreciate the stories more because of 'belief'.

If Oliver Twist and The Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast can be appreciated to the full whilst acknowledging that they are works of imagination and that the characters and events in them are not real, why can't the same be said of any work of religion and folklore? I've no way of proving it, but I suspect that I have my emotions stirred by The Skriker, or Yallery Brown or any other quality work of folklore as much as someone who purports to believe in fairies. I think I can appreciate the story of Exodus as much as anyone who believes in God. I can appreciate what Joan of Arc did without telling everyone I was her in a past life.

It's as if credit to an active and powerful imagination is somehow mundane or boring. What's impressive to me about Brian's art is all the research, the expression, the costuming, the anatomical quirks, the whole interpretive process that went into his work.

Isn't that more than impressive enough?

Wouldn't an honest appraisal of what processes he went through be more interesting than the hokum of "his pictures are his experience of the world of faerie"?

I don't pretend to be a folklorist of Brian's calibre, and I repeat that I respect the man's art as possessing a great deal of the mood and substance that I get myself from reading about Jenny Greenteeth, or Merrows, or Phooka, or many of the other creatures of folklore. Beyond that though I think that it is a body of work of fantasy and imagination, and I find the claims of genuine experience to have the whiff of snake oil and/or self delusion about them. I can't understand why crediting his own impressive imagination, obvious enthusiasm for the subject and technical discipline isn't more than enough for him.

I suppose I'm still in love with eccentricity, but this particular claim to distinction seems a cheap step too far.

Monday, 9 June 2008

What's the Best Thing that Comes up in Google Images when you Type in "Flibbertigibbet"?

I think this is:

Which is a piece of abstract art by Justin Baily.

I also found out that Flibbertigibbet were a prog/folk band from Johannesburg who "arranged traditional folk songs in a quasi modern folk style that predominantly incorporated bouzouki, mandolin, fiddle, and bodhran but occasionally included synthesizer, piano, and electric guitar" (Dave Sleger, All Music Guide).

It also seems to be a favourite nick of forum users.

Monday, 26 May 2008

A Bit of the Old Antiquarianism

I got to do a bit of the old antiquarianism yesterday so I thought I'd log it here as it seems, albeit very vaguely, relevant (I mean, people who are into folklore often seem to be into standing stones and the like, and standing stones often have stories about wierd goings on, or associations with a particular flibbertigibbet attached to them).

I'm visiting my parents in Northern Ireland for a week and we drove up the Antrim coast road - which I think is a particularly scenic part of the countryside over here. I noticed there were a few neolithic sites mentioned on a map of the area near the Vanishing Lake, so we took a detour west into the hills to take a closer look.

It's a particularly warm and sunny May in Northern Ireland this year, and as a result the Vanishing Lake had vanished, which was a shame as it's far more picturesque with water in.

The monuments were accessed by taking the Ballypatrick forest drive (£3 at time of writing) - which is quirky and very attractive - it's essentially an old and somewhat overgrown pine lumber farm by the looks of it, with a tarmac covered path to drive around on in a winding one-way system that takes in a ford under a bridge, dozens of picnic areas and (on the day we were there) some sort of Q&A contest open to fans of cartoons who rally drive minis (?!).

Included in the itinerary of Ballypatrick Forest Drive are the remains of a "double-court tomb" (as the Gazetteer of Irish Prehistoric Monuments say), or "double-horned cairn" (as the signs in the forest would have it), or a "chambered grave" (as the ordinance survey tell it). According to the Gazetteer of Irish Prehistoric Monuments 'The more northerly (three-chambered) gallery of which still retains two of its roof-stones (one of them large and displaced) and only two of its court-stones. Only one court-stone of the other (unsegmented) gallery survives.' The chambered cairn was noted as being a mesolithic tomb about 2,000 years old. My father, a keen gardener, was pleased to notice a number of spotted orchids growing the vicinty of the the graves.

After seeing the cairn and the rest of the park we wandered up to Cloch na h-Uaighe, disturbing flocks of sheep as we did so (which always makes me feel a little guilty). This is a menhir nearly six foot in height. The south face is (to quote BS Johnson on the Rollright Stones) "made lovely with lichen" (this is a very good phrase to remember if you want to wax lyrical about the appearance of big lumps of basalt that have been stood in the earth for millennia), whilst the north was quite barren but for a few chisel marks (it's nice to think that they were made by the tools originally used in the excavation, but I doubt it somehow - the chips looked rather too neatly cut to be the work of sharpened antlers or stone axes). Local legend has it that the stone was meant to mark the grave of a chieftain, and it is also supposed to be about 2,000 years old.

I didn't take any photographs, as I was expecting to find some nice images on the web to illustrate the article with (and, without wishing to sound like a hopeless old hippy, I always find snapping away at menhirs and tombs somewhat disrespectful). No such luck, the sites don't have an entry in the County Antrim Section of the Modern Antiquarian or anything, that'll teach me to be lax about taking a camera with me.

On reflection it probably is a bit crap to bang on about standing stones and the like with no photos - won't do it again.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Skriker Performance on YouTube

This is part of a performance of the Skriker that was at the Dallas Hub Theater in October 2005. Directed by Robert Neblett.

This is one of my favourite sections of the play, the creature with the Hurdy Gurdy machine at the start is Yallery Brown - the dancer who pays him money is meant to keep bopping throughout the rest of the performance (I suppose that this is to represent the way Yallery Brown is said to punish those who show him gratitude).

Lily encounters the Skriker disguised as a vagrant and shows her some affection, for which she is 'rewarded' with the ability to cough up money as she talks.

A man becomes obsessed by a Green Woman - have never been able to work out exactly what this is meant to symbolise, though there are plenty of examples of people in folktales who have had a relationship with a fiary that has been lost, and they have gone on to pine to death. The Green Children is a tale where one of the green children pines and dies after being separated from it's home land. Also green is a colour often worn by the fairies and is associated with fairy royalty.

The final scene is shown in a bar where the Skriker, in the guise of an American tourist, tries to get Lily to explain such concepts as aeroplanes and television to her (presumably the Skriker has not been paying too much attention to human affairs in the past century or so).

The Skriker isn't the only fairy in the scene, to the left of the screen a Kelpie can be seen trying to pick up a date (he will later go on to drown and eat her).

There is a hint about something that might be bothering the Skriker in this scene, as she accuses Lily of poisoning her. This is probably a reference to environmental damage - something Caryl Churchill has said is one of the themes of the play. There are other, more obvious references to damage to the environment later in the play - but this is the only time the Skriker seems bitter about it. As an "earth spirit" the Skriker may have felt some personal injury as the result of environmental damage - hence the angry accusations of poisoning.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Fairies in Rock Music - Sit Down by the Fire

Sit Down by the Fire can be found on Should I Fall From Grace With God by The Pogues, the LP was their biggest chart success (reaching #3 in th UK charts and #88 in the US) and spawned their most famous song (and - FACT! - best popular Christmas song of all time) - Fairytale of New York. Anyway, Sit Down by the Fire seems to be very well informed as to certain aspects of fairy folklore (and has a nice bit of rude bathos at the end).

Sit down by the fire
And I'll tell you a story
To send you away to your bed
Of the things you hear creeping
When everyone's sleeping
And you wish you were out here instead

It isn't the mice in the wall
It isn't the wind in the well
But each night they march
Out of that hole in the wall [1]
Passing through on their way
Out of hell [2]

They're the things that you see
When you wake up and scream
The cold things that follow you [3]
Down the Boreen [4]
They live in the small ring of trees on the hill [5]
Up at the top of the field

And they dance on the rain
And they dance on the wind
They tap on the window
When no-one is in
And if ever you see them

Pretend that you're dead
Or they'll bite off your head
They'll rip out your liver
And dance on your neck
They dance on your head
They dance on your chest
They give you the cramp
And the colic for jest [6]

They're the things that you see
When you wake up and scream
The cold things that follow you
Down the Boreen
They live in the small ring of trees on the hill
Up at the top of the field

They play on the wind
They sing on the rain
They dance on your eyes
They dance in your brain [7]

Remember this place
It is damp and it's cold
The best place on earth
But it's dark and it's old
So lie near the wall
And cover your head
Good night and God bless,
Now fuck off to bed

[1] The holes that can sometimes be found in planks of wood are occasionally referred to as elf-bores, reflecting the belief that a piece of wood from which the knot has dropped out was the operation of the fairies. It is sometimes said that to look through an elf-bore is to view fairy-land (and such voyeurism was not considered wise).

The elf-bore features in one famous folktale in particular, commonly known as The Boggart, in which one of the children teases the creature repeatedly by shoving a shoehorn through “a large knothole” in a closet wall “behind which the Boggart lived”. This action angered the Boggart so that one day he took the shoehorn and threw it so violently at the young man that it “hurt him badly” and (according to his father) “almost killed” him.

[2] Fairyland is often thought to be part of an underworld that also includes Hell and fairies sometimes seem to have a symbiotic relationship with Hell, or are indebted to it in some way. This indebtedness leads to the teind – a payment the fairies have to make every seven years to the devil. A variety of reasons are given for this, including theories that fairyland might be an area of hell that the Fairies had loaned off of the devil.

Another reason could be the common belief that fairies were fallen angels, Wikipedia has the following to say on the subject:

A third belief held that they were a class of "demoted" angels. One popular story held that when the angels revolted, God ordered the gates shut; those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became devils, and those caught in between became fairies. Others held that they had been thrown out of heaven, not being good enough, but they were not evil enough for hell. This may explain the tradition that they had to pay a "teind" or tithe to Hell. As fallen angels, though not quite devils, they could be seen as subject of the Devil.

[3] Certain fairies are described as cold, especially those who have something in common with ghosts. The Cauld Lad of Hylton strikes me as a particularly notable example. In fact it is a gift of clothes that finally exorcises him. A summary of his story can be found on wikipedia.

[4] A boreen is an Irish term for a narrow, rough, unsurfaced road, or a small, narrow urban road.

[5] I’m not too familiar with any obvious links between rings of trees and fairies, though obvious links between mushroom rings and fairies exist, or stone circles and fairies.

Having said that, the few times I have visited ancient earthworks on hills they have been notable for having trees upon them, whilst often the surrounding land is rocky and barren. I suppose that when earth is moved onto an otherwise barren hill trees and bushes can take root there whereas the surrounding earth is too shallow for them. So perhaps this line might infer an old barrow or hill fort.

Quite besides that it seems fitting for a natural landmark, such as a spinney, to provide a home for the fairies.

[6] The infliction of various ailments was often blamed on fairies, and cramp and colic are particularly associated with them. Fairies are described as inflicting aches, pains and ailments on people by pinching or by flinging small sharp stones known as elf-shot.

[7] Hallucinogenic visions and mental illnesses are also associated with fairies. They seem to me to have long been blamed for the effects of eating the wrong variety of wild mushroom, or for things like dementia, alcoholism, post-natal depression, strokes and suchlike.

And - at the end of the day - Shane MacGowan is currently about as close as a human gets in terms of sound and appearance to some sort of Bogle or Hobyah, and he parties like a Cluricane. Huzzah for the Pogues!

Friday, 2 May 2008

Folklore Alive and Well - Black Shuck

Another attempt to provide a bit of evidence to show how certain folk tales (if not folk beliefs) are very much with us even in the twenty first century.

Black Shuck is East Anglia’s contribution to the Black Dog legends that come from all over the British Isles. In fact he is the most famous of the Black Dogs, though he has a lot in common with regional variations such as Padfoot, Skriker, Barguest, Shagfoal, Guytrash and others.

Black Dogs in England often fit the same pattern: large (often compared to a calf in size), black and shaggy fur, large and glowing eyes, portent of death (should you see one you or someone close to you will soon die).

Wikipedia gives the following information about Black Shuck:

For centuries, inhabitants of East Anglia have told tales of a large black hellhound with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green. They are described as being 'like saucers'. According to reports, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a horse.

The legends of Black Shuck roaming the Anglian countryside date back to the time of the Vikings. His name may derive from the Anglo-Saxon word scucca meaning "demon", or possibly from the local dialect word shucky meaning "shaggy" or "hairy". The legend may have been part of the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Sometimes Black Shuck is referred to as the Doom Dog. It is said that his appearance bodes ill to the beholder, although not always. More often than not, stories tell of Black Shuck terrifying his victims, but leaving them alone to continue living normal lives.

One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. On the August 4, 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the church doors. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church tower to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.

The encounter on the same day at Bungay was described in "A Straunge and Terrible Wunder" by the Reverend Abraham Fleming in 1577:

“This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) runing all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.”

It does seem that, around East Anglia sightings of the dog are still regularly recorded, a lengthy list of them can be found on the Shuckland website (great site that gives a detailed analysis of Black Dog sightings and features a few myth-busting articles as well).

In recent years Black Shuck has provided the inspiration for a reasonably well known rock song and a book of poetry.

Black Shuck: The Ghost Dog of Eastern England by Martin Newell is a poem about the Black Dog, it follows Shuck on a journey through both time and space in an attempt to follow in the phantom dog's tracks through the half-forgotten villages and lanes of North Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. The poem begins with the theory that the dog was brought (metaphorically speaking at least) over with the Vikings - the hound of Odin (a theory that the keepers of the Shuckland website are quick to be dismissive of, by the way, and they wouldn’t be impressed with Newell’s use of the word 'Snarleyow' either). The theme of Shuck as a death portent is heavily referenced in the poem, and one sequence were a warplane jettisons spare bombs over a village is particularly memorable.

Better known, of course, is the song by the Darkness (who were a British hard rock band active a few years ago that took their light-heartedness seriously, or their seriousness with a light-heart, it was hard to tell). Their song Black Shuck was a decent enough blend of pyrotechnical lyrical ability, and largely concerned the Blythburgh church incident.

In a town in the east
The parishioners were visited upon
By a curious beast
And his eyes numbered but one and shone like the sun
And a glance beckoned the immediate loss
Of a cherished one
It was the coming of the
(Black Shuck) Black Shuck
(Black Shuck) That dog don't give a fuck

Flames licked round the sacred spire
And the congregation's last line of defence
Was engulfed in fire
As the flaming priest stepped into the firing line
On the business end of a beam of despair
God, he took his own life
During the coming of the
(Black Shuck) Black Shuck
(Black Shuck) That dog don't give a fuck

A nimbus of blue light surrounds a crimson paw
As he takes another fatal swipe
At the Blythburgh Church Door
(Black Shuck) Black Shuck
(Black Shuck) That dog don't give a fuck

Not quite as literary as the Newell effort, of course, but with a charm of it's own I'm sure you'll agree. To the right there is an image of the 'claw marks' left on the Blythburgh Church Door (a larger image can be seen on the Shuckland website).

There are plenty of other recent references to Black Dogs in literature, such as The Skriker and a number of Shagfoal apparitions in Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire. Black Shuck seems to remain the most popular manifestation by far though.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Fear of Children, Changelings and Burden of Proof?

It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched The Orphanage and I’m still sometimes finding myself checking dark nooks and crannies for spooky kids as I move about the house after dark.

In other words, it was an awesome horror movie and I’m overjoyed that I got to see it. I used to be terrified of scary films as a kid (to the extent of fleeing the house rather than finish watching a film even as naff as Alligator), but I thought I had gotten jaded in the years since, most horror movies just strike me as either icky, a slightly nauseating experience like being forced to handle slugs, or shocking - but cheaply so, like the dream sequences in the remake of The Omen, they’re good at making me jump but as I don’t have any religious beliefs what’s there to provoke any sort of uneasy thoughts beyond the initial shocks and violence?

So horror movies either left me feeling unmoved, or left me acknowledging that they had shocked me, but not for any thought-provoking reason. Rather just because they had used the same crass tricks as a ghost train, or someone who knows when to shout “Boo!” Slasher movies never did anything for me because documentaries about killers are so much more disturbing, movies that rely on demons and devils never move me because I’m not a believer in heaven and hell – but a good ghost story can still do it for some reason.

The Orphanage was clever, and it left me feeling genuinely spooked for the first time in years. In most horror movies I find I stop sympathising with the protagonists if they persist in examining weird lights and rustling bushes, but in The Orphanage you knew why the heroine had to persist in roaming around her sprawling, creaking, shadow-filled house. Instead of thinking “oh don’t be so stupid” all I thought was “oh – you are being really brave!”

My favourite thing about the film was that is eschewed the use of “evil” (as in an inborn-maliciousness or a deliberate defiance of a commonly understood morality) as a motivator for its antagonists or as an explanation for their behaviour. Even the most irredeemable of the characters (some are more vindictive and unreasonable than others, of course) win some sympathy, and even though some the acts committed in the film are very cruel, injurious and unjust – the circumstances leading up to these acts render them, in the wider picture, understandable to a certain degree.

The worst thing about stories you enjoy tends to be the ending, but the resolution to the film was also satisfying. For a while it looked like it might be unremittingly grim with no sort of resolution, but it also threatened to resolve things with a happy ending. However, it managed to negotiate a bittersweet compromise, which felt apt.

Still, I was rather interested in what it was about the film that left me feeling quite so disturbed. I came across this review in the Guardian that I think may be on to something.

A sinuous modern twist is applied to the classic ghost story form by screenwriter Sergio Sánchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona. Their chiller, set in contemporary Spain, is involving and disturbing, and revives the genre's great theme: our profound yet unacknowledged fear of children. We are afraid of their vulnerability, which is our vulnerability, and the mysterious otherness of their private, mental worlds.

And this in turn got me thinking about the most disturbing of acts blamed on fairies, and a theme of the Skriker and also something that may go on to give some form of explanation for (or at least provide an influence to) the tale of Yallery Brown, which I was puzzling over a month ago.

In her essay for Fairies and the Folklore of Disability Susan Schoon Eberly discusses Changelings and how myths surrounding them may have derived from stories of child sacrifice. In particular she mentions that “the tale of Yallery Brown may in fact tell of a child left to die under a stone”, and talks about how in certain points in Britain’s history children may have been killed or abandoned in order to perform such services as the placation of fertility spirits or other sacrificial functions. Roman historical records apparently mention how deformed children, or those that display signs of congenital disability, might even have been set aside and raised so that an emergency human sacrifice would be on hand the next time there was a natural disaster or bad harvest. I’m certain the pre-Roman tribes of the British Isles hardly treated disabled offspring with greater care.

On Peta Jinnath Andersen’s blog there is a in-depth discussion of some of the details Eberly raises, as well as interesting thoughts on Changelings in general. There’s far more there than I want to go into now but of particular interest to the Yallery Brown story is the examination of the characteristics of various congenital disabilities and how they compare to the reported descriptions of various types of fairy.

Progeria is a condition that is noted for having some striking similarities to Yallery Brown’s appearance. Wikipedia gives the following description:

Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria syndrome is an extremely rare condition in which physical aspects of aging are greatly accelerated, and few affected children live past age 13. About 1 in 8 million babies are born with this condition. It is a genetic condition, but occurs sporadically and is usually not inherited in families.

Andersen’s blog post also mentions that fairy lore may have existed as a kind of covenant between members of poor communities in the past. They provided a way to educate people about poisonous plants and dangerous environments, or to encourage everyone in the community to be hygienic and hard working. As these people didn’t have the benefit of a modern education, and as ancient religious texts may not have given advice literally relevant to some of the situations a society faced in the past, perhaps putting “the fear of the fairies” into people was a good way to enforce a relevant set of values and behaviours. The bible may not literally tell you to keep your milk churn clean or your coulter sharp, so let’s invent and tell some tales that do.

One of the situations that probably sorely tested a poor community in the past was the prospect of raising a disabled child, and this may have been another root of tales about Changelings. In poor communities it may have been seen as socially acceptable (if not socially responsible) to blame a sickening or disabled child on the fairies, to the extent of accusing them of replacing the child with one of their own, and so rid yourself of the child by subjecting it to the ordeals that fairy lore proscribes in such circumstances – ordeals that almost certainly end with the death of the unwanted baby.

In short, beliefs about Changelings may well have been used to justify the murder of children.

I have mixed feelings about pondering on academic explanations for beliefs about fairies, not because I believe in fairies (I find a stated belief in fairies either deceitful and cynical or extremely naive) but because I think it might do something to the appreciation of the stories. At the end of the day I think it’s important to remember that Yallery Brown was a story told by a labourer to Mary Balfour, a collector of Lincolnshire folktales, therefore we can only infer in the vaguest manner about what might have provided the inspiration for the story. The web is full of references to Yallery Brown being a Yarthkin who didn’t receive proper sacrifices in the past, and so became bitter – but there is no evidence for this being the case, it is simply an attempt by people who figure that such a lack of respect might turn a Yarthkin bad in the same way that mistreated Brownies are said to become malicious.

The startling thing about the tale is Yallery’s malice and how relentlessly he seems to punish Tom Tiver. Because his malice is so remarkable it is tempting to find a reason for it, but I don’t want to loose sight of the fact that, as far as I am aware, all a modern audience knows about Yallery Brown is as a result of the record of the labourer’s tale.

Perhaps it was a tale handed down throughout the years that has, at its root, a story of a young child suffering from Progeria being abandoned. It may even carry a warning about refusing to abandon such children (the life of someone who tries to care for a child with a congenital illness in such an environment is probably going to be one of unrewarded toil).

Just as easily though it could be a spooky tale told by a teller canny enough to know about how audiences react to portrayals of the childlike juxtaposed against the tales of the uncanny – just like the makers of The Orphanage (presuming, of course, that the makers of the film had no ulterior motive or message that I have managed to miss).

This turned into a huge and somewhat incoherant ramble - and I'm not even sure what the whole point of it is. I suppose I will try and sum it up by saying that whilst it is very satisfying to try and think up real world reasons behind folktales the evidence behind such reasoning is scant and I feel that it is overly bold of some commentators to treat it as an open and shut case.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Tricksy Blixie’s Film’s Best Nixie!

An awful lot of pants movies have been made over the years with fairies and goblins in, and Legend must be one of the worst of them. Clichéd one-dimensional characters, god-awful dialogue, predictable overarching plot tied together by a bunch of utterly nonsensical progressions, no real sense of danger at any time, no real sense of character development (She’s good! She’s evil! No she was just pretending to be evil she’s actually good!), overall tone of saccharine yuck, bad interpretive processing going on with the choice of lighting strength and hue, hasn’t aged well, mediocre performances from actors we know can do better, etc.

To give it some credit it is a film that I think makes a braver attempt than many to capture some of the character of fairies in tradition, but the action moves so fast there is only a matter of seconds to hint at, say, capriciousness in the character of Oona (She’s able to get the key! She’ll only do it if Jack’ll kiss her! He won’t! She vanishes! Where’s she gone? Oh the suspense! Hurrah - here she is with the key!). I reckon that Meg Mucklebones is a nice enough riff on the Jenny Greenteeth, Nelly Longarms type of carnivorous water sprite too.

I also don’t want to miss the point that Legend is, in intent and delivery, a loud, brash, enjoyable, good vs evil romp for kids either. Most of all, I certainly don't want to deny that it possesses the very best Goblin ever committed to celluloid in the shape of The Mighty Blix!

Why is Blix film’s best Goblin?

Blix gets to do all the cool things Goblins tend to do in films, like ride a giant wolf, wear a top costume, do a funny voice, cackle regularly and wildly, threaten to eat kids, make a grovelling display of sycophancy to a big red demon, belligerently boss about a bevy of subordinate Goblins.

Blix is a cool name for a Goblin, sounding sort of like a swear word and sort of like a cleaning product. This is a good formula for the creation of Goblin names. Jick. Shidge. Fuff. Cullit Bunt. See? Other characters in the film have awful names (“Darkness”, “Brown Tom”, “Jack”). I think they may have blown the film’s cool name budget wholly on Blix, with maybe a bit saved over for Meg Mucklebones.

Blix is ugly, and I mean Really Ugly. Long curvy nose and tapered ears that look painfully fragile, cruel slash of a mouth, greasy matted hair, rotten pale greeny hue. Blix never smiles but he leers, he never frowns but he sneers. Apparently Alice Playten (the actress playing Blix - where is her Oscar?) suggested that his look be based on that of Keith Richards. Keef! Genius! That’s how fugly Blix is.

Whilst the other characters in the play mutter a lot of half-assed clichés Blix makes an attempt to spout verse at apt moments. Asked by his boss, Darkness, if his heart is dark enough for the nefarious deeds he will soon be asked to perform Blix responds “Black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch.” Other rhymes include, “Mortal world turned to ice... Here be goblin paradise!” and (personal favourite) “May be innocent, may be sweet... ain't half as nice as rotting meat.”

Alright it’s not exactly Shakespearian iambic pentameter, but you try better with regular off-the-cuff ad-libs. Your standards will slip after a few days, I bet you.

Blix’s lieutenants, Blunder and Pox, are two of the best Goblin subordinates in film themselves - well, except that Blunder is not really a Goblin but some kind of undercover Mexican Dwarf in a suit of armour (though it is a brilliant suit of armour) and Pox is also not really a Goblin but some sort of Pig-like thing, perhaps inspired by Jimmy Squarefoot. Blunder and Pox also ride about on giant wolves, spout random verse and look properly grotesque. So Blix's subordinates are two of film's best Goblins as well, even though they aren't even really Goblins.

Blix is just about the only character in the film who behaves with any sort of competence (I know that the good guys win in the end, but just through a mixture of dumb luck and "because they are good" really). Anyway, in the space of a few hours Blix manages to poison a Unicorn and hew off its horn and then capture a second Unicorn and a princess, he responds well to critical feedback from his employer (Darkness really lacks the social skills to make an effective leader, bellowing "You insignificant strands of toad slobber!" at your workforce does not lead to a happy working environment, but Blix copes well with this sort of abuse), he also provides effective line management for Pox (admittedly Blunder becomes insubordinate, but remember he is not really a Goblin but an undercover Mexican Dwarf, in fact - further credit should be due to Blix for leading his team so effectively when half of them are actually undercover Mexican Dwarfs). Blix does display some downsides, a touch of megalomania (though I think his crowing about ruling the world really boils down to motivational banter and is therefore forgivable) and the inability to properly shoot a drunken Dwarf. Most movie Goblins are there to provide the comic relief, but despite the rhymes and anarchic play with the other Goblins there's precious little comic relief with Blix, you really honestly wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley.

Perhaps best of all, he escapes admonishment at the end of the film, he and Pox just seem to slink off when Darkness receives his eventual comeuppance. Most fantasy villains, no matter how lowly, are shown getting some sort of just desserts in the final stages of these sort of films, yet Blix (who I repeat is the only character in the film who seems to display much ability) slinks off to brood further plans for world domination (I like to imagine).

Utterly cool.

Saturday, 22 March 2008


Did you see Arbor Low, did you see Doll Tor?
Did you visit the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor?
At the end of the day did you let the brothers play
by the River Wye's green banks? Well I give you my thanks.

I stretch out a full reach & I pick me a flower,
I drag it kicking & bubbling to my drowning bower.

'You know, one these days the boys will dive like whales!'
You boasted at the pool during their first armbanded flails.
Yes he was taught how to swim as soon as he could begin,
& then, length after length, you amazed at his strength.

Now its no use to struggle, its no use to tussle,
this undertow is stronger still, this current has muscle.

Did you make him a throne of the tall Andle Stone?
At Arbor Low did cold winds blow & chill him to the bone marrow?
Did you see him pelt a pebble at a Merlin in the sky?
Did you see him holding to his breast a crawling butterfly?

Was he loved by his mother? Did he quarrel with his brother?
These ties that bind are torn asunder as I drag him under.

Andle Stone
Arbor Low
Doll Tor
The Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor

Thursday, 20 March 2008

My Proposals for a Skriker Soundtrack - Part 1

Do you spend all your time thinking about what you would do if you were able to direct a film of a book you reckon is top? Wouldn't The Skriker make a great film? You must regularly spend spare moments thinking about all the various interpretive processes and directoral decisions you would make were you to be priviledged enough to have the chance to direct a film of The Skriker!

What, you've never heard of it? But its the world's best play! Well, it is if you have an abiding passion for British folklore, are concerned about damage to the environment and/or damage to the brain, aren't too intimidated by wildly ambitious stage directions, love a good stream of consciousness, have a well developed sense of black humour and don't require a happy ending.

Being dead into the play and into music I think I'll start by compiling a soundtrack, I'm going to start with my four favourite songs about damage to the environment. I'll cover songs with a folkloric theme, or ones that just suit the tone of the play with sonic aptness at a later date.

This is top and must be one of my Favourite Songs Ever. I know it must be one of my Favourite Songs Ever because 15-odd years after I first became a fan it still makes my toes open and shut with a bang when it turns up on random shuffle on the iPod. This is in comparison with, say, Catch by the Cure, which I used to love alongside 225, but now makes me cringe in near physical pain. It’s as if someone is rooting around inside the bottom of my spinal column with a flathead screwdriver every time I hear its horrid synthetic violin drone sparking up.

225 is essentially about feeling helpless in the face of rampant consumerism, the rising of corporate culture and exploitation of the environment. Whilst most rock songs about such concerns come across as politically naive, if not openly and preachingly hypocritical, 225 remains passionate whilst being wise enough not to come across as some patronising student radical’s call to revolution. The song sympathises with a young girl struggling to scan in barcodes and operate a till (“I would help her if I only knew how, but these things they are a mystery to me too”), it stresses a love of wild places, and an affront at their despoliation (“even in the freshest mountain air, the jet fighters practise overhead”), and a fear of being monitored by forces beyond your control (“we’ll hope that the corporate ears do not listen lest we find ourselves committing some kind of treason and filed in the tapes without a rhyme without a reason whilst they tell us that its all for our own protection”).

Musically it manages to sound both down-to-earth and spooky, with a long droning keyboard noise ushering the grungy tune in and out of existence. Thanks to the military drumming and squalling guitar riffs it also Rocks, and it Rocks with a northern accent at that.

So I think it’s a prime candidate for inclusion into a Skriker soundtrack. Perhaps it could even play over the closing credits.

Another grungy rock song with an environmentalist bent, perhaps the most famous example, is Monkey Gone to Heaven. Like 225 Monkey Gone to Heaven also avoids seeming preachy and naive, but it does so by miring the message in self-effacing humour and poetic obfuscation. It flirts with an environmental message the same way a shy boy flirts with a girl he believes is out of his league. Ha ha ha, I’m not really doing this, if I was really doing this it would be embarrassing wouldn’t it? I’m not doing this really (yes I am).

I’m being a little unfair (after all, obscuring an environmental message within arresting poetry is an accusation that could be levelled at The Skriker as well). The song is great fun and I won’t deny the strength and intent of lyrical imagery in lines like “now there’s a hole in the sky and the ground’s not cold, and if the ground’s not cold everything is going to burn, we’ll take turns, I’ll get mine too”.

Musically it Rocks, and it Rocks with cellos too (which any fan of the Auteurs will tell you is A Good Thing).

It might be a bit light in tone for the play though. If I were going to use it I’d work it into the scene with the American woman in the bar. Black Francis’ accent and the musical style are so recognisably US that it might help forge an association in the viewers’ minds. The scene is also one of the few in which environmental concerns are clearly voiced by a character in the play.

As a bonus there’s the obvious association with fairies in the band name too.

Perhaps this jaunty number sounds just as jokey and guilty of avoiding the point as the previous choice, but I think Oh Larson B is far cleverer than that. It strikes me as being more of the “treating a weighty subject with levity” school, which I approve of, rather than being ashamed to openly admit to its intentions, which I'm less impressed by.

For those of you who don’t know Larson B was a swathe of Antarctic ice, some 3250 square kilometres in size, which collapsed in 2002. The break up of the shelf is pointed to as clear evidence of global warming by those who know what they are talking about, and dismissed as irrelevant by those who don’t.

So the song is unusual for being the only eulogy to a swathe of ice I can think of. It has a great sense of bleak humour (is the line “oh Larson B, you can fall on me” a message of support for the broken shelf or, as I prefer to think, a sardonic acknowledgement of where much of our future rainwater is going to come from?) whilst acknowledging the physical awesomeness of something that’s about the size of Wales or Rhode Island (“oh Larson B, desalinate the barren sea”).

Musically it Rocks. It Rocks in a sort of politely reserved manner, but it still Rocks.

Not too sure where or how I’d employ this in a production, it wouldn’t pay to put too much Rock into The Skriker, but I promise I would try.

Basically after choosing three songs that seek to avoid preaching or patronising I’m going to plump for one that doesn’t worry about that and seeks to hit the nail on the head, with a sledgehammer. After all if you’re going to try and get through to those who seek to deny that we need to do anything about the changes we are engendering in the sea, soil and atmosphere of the planet on which we live then I don’t think sledgehammers are out of the question. Why not sing at them in an aggressively arresting manner, utilising a tone of voice that engenders a sensation somewhat akin to having an orgasm whilst being forced to chew tinfoil?

“Protecting my planet! You wrap it in plastic! This package is product! Perfected eternal! A crap in cling wrap! I never met yet a Prime Minister or President who tolda da truth yet!”

It Rocks, it Rocks in a weird poppy-but-uncomfortable “I want to listen to it dead loud but don’t want the neighbours to think they live next door to a nutter” way.

Don’t know how I’d use it in a soundtrack exactly, I probably wouldn’t, it would distract too much. Bless it.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Folklore Alive and Well - Hobgoblin Ale

I'm going to start something of a recurring theme now, the idea that folklore should not be regarded as something people did in the past and now only exists in reference books. I also defy the opinion that folklore has been replaced by fantasy literature, or stories about UFOs and alien abductions. Those things owe their existence to folklore for sure, but I happen to believe that it could do quite well for itself without them. this has nothing to do with any sort of belief in fairies or goblins (I find a stated belief in such things somewhat sad myself), but just a conviction that we pay more lip-service and experience the trappings of this living tradition, the images and stories, a lot more than we may realise.

I’m also going to wax lyrical about booze for a bit.

I’d like to think my fondness for a bottle of Hobgoblin Ale has absolutely nothing to do with my interest in folklore, though I’m philosophical enough to accept that my choice of tipple might be influenced in some way by it being linked to an enthusiasm of mine. I think I’d still find it terrifically tasty if it was named after something boring, like ‘sweetish dark ale’ or ‘greydrab’ or ‘banging on and on about sport’.

Oh I admit it! The fact that there is a beautifully executed cartoon Hobgoblin peering from the label, alongside the word “Hobgoblin” in big letters, does add a great deal to the appeal.

I also like to think I recognise which particular nixie the Wychwood Brewery chaps were thinking of when they decided on his look and apparel. I paraphrase the Wikipedia entry on Redcaps:

A Redcap is a type of malevolent murderous goblin found in British Folklore. They inhabit ruined castles found along the border between England and Scotland. Redcaps are said to murder travellers who stray into their homes and dye their hats with their victims' blood (from which they get their name). Redcaps are very fast in spite of the heavy iron pikes they wield and the iron-shod boots they wear. Outrunning the buck-toothed little demons is quite impossible; the only way to escape one is to quote a passage from the Bible. They lose a tooth on hearing it, which they leave behind.

Well, our ale-quaffing Hobgoblin looks capable of some malevolence, the beetling brows, the red eyes and claws, the armoured bracers. He wields a weapon (not a pikestaff, admittedly, but he is sometimes shown with a long-hafted axe, which suggests to me knows how to handle a polearm). He has irregularly spaced snaggle teeth. He wears a red cap.

Admittedly many of these aspects are relatively ubiquitous in the design of cartoon goblins from Spiderman to The Lord of the Rings, but it would be nice to know if the Redcap was consciously referred to during the design process by whoever developed the look of the Wychwood character.

If so I think it's a good example of how even the most savage of these old folk tales continues to inform the world around us, that they do so on a daily basis and in all kinds of largely unacknowledged ways.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Something of a Bugbear

I thought I'd perform a quick image search today in order to find some costume designs from productions of The Skriker in order to have something to talk about on the blog, and I found a brief interview with George Popovich, the director of theatre at the Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, MI. He is talking about a production of the play that they were preparing at the time. Very interesting it seems too - why do I always find out about productions of the Skriker after they finish their run?

When asked about what makes the play special he is quoted as saying: "The theme is intense and riveting, it's all rooted in Celtic Irish mythology, the fairy lore. A lot of people think fairies are Tinkerbell, and actually that's not the case at all. That's all been whitewashed and 'cutied up' to sell dolls. The world of fairies is a vile, ambitious world. Fairies can be good, evil (or) both at the same time." He then goes on to talk about the environmental subtext and the technical innovations the theatre used in the production.

Whilst I am glad that he stresses the fairies' moral capriciousness whilst dismissing their cutesy public image [1], he also makes a claim that I often see levelled at fairy lore, that it is an inherently Celtic tradition - by which they seem to mean that it is 'an Irish thing'.

Now I don't mean to appear the least bit ignorant of the debt that the canon of British Folklore owes to the Gaelic world, or that Ireland provides hotspots where many folktales have arisen, but to stress this importance over that of Cornwall, the Orkneys, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and many other areas of England, Scotland and Wales is just unfair.

Especially when referring to The Skriker. The main character is taken (via Katherine Briggs, I imagine) from a collection of folk tales from Lancashire. "Skriking" is still a fairly common slang word for wailing and crying in the north-west of England - use it in conversation in Salford and they'll know what you mean, use it in Dublin and you'll get blank looks. The play's supporting cast are mainly English spirits as well, Black Dogs from Norfolk, Lincolnshire's Yallery Brown, Cornish Spriggans, northern England's Jenny Greenteeth, and so on. Scotland may lay claim to the Kelpie, Blue Men and Thrumpins, and Redcaps were said to haunt the towers on the English/Scottish borders. Wales gets a look in with Black Annis. Jimmy Squarefoot is Manx.

But, if my memory serves, the only sizable area of the British Isles that doesn't contribute a particular creature to the play is Ireland. There ain't no Leprechauns, Cluracanes, Formorians, Finn Mchuuls or wide-eyed magic salmon in the Skriker! [2]

I wonder if American commentators in particular are tempted to believe that all the perplexing, beautiful, terrifying, wise folktales of these islands simply must be Irish, due to romantic notions of what Ireland is and what England couldn't possibly be. [3]

Seeing as Americans seem to have an appetite for these stories (The Skriker is performed there far more regularly than it is in the UK) this is a temptation I would suggest they resist if they want to get to the bleeding heart of folktales and learn the truth of the heritage of these stories.

[1] I'm also bloody glad that he thought the environmental subtext was important and that he was interested in applying technical innovations to theatrical performances, so I don't want it to seem that I disapprove of his thrust at all. However, environmental concerns and directoral adventures, whilst laudable, are not the topic of this post. "I think Americans often miscredit significant aspects of folklore to the Irish" is.

[2] I was moved to do a bit more research after writing this, and it turns out I was recollecting poorly. Rawheadandbloodybones is said to have his roots in Ireland. By way of a weak excuse he is a particularly minor character in The Skriker and I had forgotten all about his inclusion.

[3] I feel that a good proportion of Americans may tend towards a fonder overall feeling towards 'Irishness' than they do towards 'Englishness' - particularly in regards to folklore. This is based on a variety of reasons.
* The fact that England used to run areas of America until they won their war of independence, providing a temptation to cast Brits as historical villains (see a variety of Hollywood movies with Mel Gibson's involvement, The Patriot, Braveheart, et al).
* The fact that England's administration now largely buoys up the political decisions of the American administration regardless of their popularity with the people of England, providing a temptation to cast Brits as ineffectual and/or toadies.
* The Irish Diaspora in America, which leads to the temptation to believe that there is something inherently more interesting, deep and/or noble about Irishness, because people often give in to the further temptation to see their own heritage as superior to that of others (judging by George Popovich's surname this may not a particular issue for him, but I believe this perception is widely held, if subconsciously so, in the US).
* A sense of sympathy with the underdog in regards to the troubled history between England and Ireland.
* The perception that Irish life is more rustic and rural and less modern and metropolitan than English life, and the belief that those who live a rustic existence must appreciate folklore to a greater degree than city-dwellers or suburbanites.
* The tourist industry trappings of Ireland you see in duty free shops on the Emerald Isle - soft-toy Leprechauns, gaily painted bodhrans and guinness glasses decorated with a four-leaved clover (the same sort of mass-produced cutesiness George Popovich himself warns against).

Monday, 17 March 2008

The Perplexing Point of Yallery Brown

Yallery Brown

One of my favourite folktales is that of Yallery Brown, though why I find the story so compelling makes me wonder. Here is a short version taken from Wikipedia:

According to the story, a young lad named Tom was sitting in a field resting during his daily labours when he heard a little whimper, like the sound of a young child in distress. Upon further investigation Tom found a little creature trapped under a flat stone. The creature was like a ragged little man and had yellow-brown skin, the colour of dark mustard. The little man begged Tom to help free him from the stone. Tom knew that he should just leave the creature where he lay, but it whimpered so much that eventually Tom took pity upon it and lifted the stone from on top of the little man. The creature jumped up in delight, introduced itself as Yallery-Brown then promised to reward Tom by granting him a wish. Being workshy, the young lad asked for help with his daily chores. Yallery-Brown clapped his hands and said it would be so. Tom thanked the creature who flew into a rage and warned that it must never be thanked or dire consequences would follow. As a parting word Yallery-Brown told Tom that if he ever needed him he was to call his name.

The next day, when Tom set about his tasks, he found that the jobs were already doing themselves. The broom was rushing around the room sweeping the floor of its own accord and the quern was grinding the corn without human assistance. After many days of the same thing happening, the people began to whisper that Tom was a witch or warlock. This worried Tom, so he called for Yallery-Brown. Tom thanked the creature for its help but told it that it was no longer needed. Yallery-Brown again flew into a rage and told Tom his help would be withdrawn, but as he had been thanked Tom would be left with a curse. The little man vanished with the words:

“Work's thou will, tha'll niver do well, Work's thou mowt, tha'll niver gain owt, For harm an' mischance an' Yallery-Brown, Tha's let out theeself from unner the stone!"

Yallery Brown was as good as his word. Tom was plagued with bad luck and ill fortune his whole life.

Why does such a story strike me as being so interesting? It doesn't seem to offer any sort of redemption to its hero - poor Tom was fated to be doomed from the moment he performed his act of mercy. He doesn't get to grow or change in any way. He didn't really do anything wrong - a little bit of sloth, perhaps - some absent-mindedness in forgetting the bizarre ban on thanking the creature - ignoring his hunch that it is somehow wrong to free Yallery Brown (and note that the version told above emphasises these negative qualities more than many others I have come across, for example a version found here is rather more sympathetic towards Tom). Really, the story is just irredeemably grim.

And I love it! But why?

Jospeh Campbell (a student of Jung who came up with many influential theories on storytelling) taught that in order for a tale to work in any sort of satisfactory manner (I simplify horribly here) it requires three elements, a Call (to Adventure), a Time of Trial and a Return (to Normality).

Yallery Brown certainly contains the Call (Tom hearing the creature's wails and freeing it) and the Time of Trial (the rest of the story), but there is no obvious return, Tom is just punished, and then punished more, and then punished more, until he dies.

One of the things that seems to distinguish a folktale from a children's fairy story is the lack of an obvious moral lesson. Take Little Red Riding Hood for example, and the lesson seems to be "if you're a young girl on your own, it's not a good idea talk to strangers", the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the Three Little Pigs both extol the virtues of lateral thinking and teamwork in confronting problems, and a plethora of tales strike a chord with those who want to believe that being good will reap rewards and that telling the truth is also a redeeming virtue.

Not so the folktale, shun the stranger and he will follow, rape and kill you anyway, match wits with the uncanny and you discover that they outstrip you in the ability to trick and confound, stand up to bullies and you end up getting eaten.

I can't help thinking that there is more painful honesty in the folktale, as nice as it is to think that the noble and virtuous receive their rewards it is often the unpleasant who inherit the Earth. The innocent do suffer and apt justice does not get served to the guilty. Liars thrive. As fairy stories for adults, perhaps folktales do away with the need for a point, and instead force us to face harsh aspects of an absurd existence.

There is no return to normality, because normality is a somewhat niave and fragile concept anyway.