Wednesday, 26 March 2008
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).
Saturday, 22 March 2008
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.
The Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor
Thursday, 20 March 2008
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.
225 – NEW MODEL ARMY
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.
MONKEY GONE TO HEAVEN – PIXIES
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.
OH LARSON B – BRITISH SEA POWER
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.
DON'T ASK ME – PIL
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
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
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 , 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! 
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. 
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.
 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.
 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.
 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
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.
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
says: "Stay away from old marl pits.
In old marl pits the Rawhead sits,
he'll pull the arms from your armpits,
pop your eyes and eat your bits,
oh, heed my advice you little nitwits!"
Philly Joe was a brave young cove
and Little Ninny, oh so skinny.
Angelo who was want to rove
with Tricky Vicky - this is sticky.
Old Aunt Agnes sits and knits,
says: "stay away from old marl pits.
In old marl pits the Rawhead sits
and he'll grind your bones to make his grits,
snack your skull, swallow and spit,
oh, heed my advice you little shits!"
But they're out the door and climb the streets
and up the wolds and through the heath.
They'll not stay away from old marl pits,
they'll brave the lair where Rawhead sits.
But when they get there it's a scene of dread,
human bones and giblets, hanging from gibbets,
they'd underestimated old Rawhead,
he's a famishing Ogre - no fey Flibbertigibbet!
Philly Joe thinks of having a go,
but Rawhead's roaring frightens him, so
he runs and hides behind Angelo,
pulls Tricky Vicky to and fro.
He says to Rawhead "Don't eat me,
I've a medical complaint and I taste sickly,
eat Angelo and Tricky Vicky
and Little Ninny - hid within the spinney.
She may be lean but she's fit for the Queen.
She may be lean but she tastes supreme!"
Old Aunt Agnes sits and knits,
says: "Stay away from old marl pits."
And Philly Joe heeds her advice,
he went there once and won't go twice,
he'll stay away from old marl pits,
his lesson's learned and he's better for it.
Well my main enthusiasm, the primary one, is music. I listen to music all the time and I enjoy playing it too, I play drum, mandolin, guitar and the sitar - all at varying degrees of mediocrity. I am in a rock band - who put up with me regularly picking up the mandolin with admirable forbearance - and I take part in the Nottingham School of Samba too.
But there are lots of blogs about music, so I thought I'd start one devoted to folklore instead. Ideally I’d like to come across as some sort of online combination of Katherine Briggs and Brian Froud, but I'm sure I'll just rant inanely about fairies and post crap poems.