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Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Fairy Folklore in 'A Boy Called Christmas'

 This is a 2021 Netflix original movie but I chose it for the second piece in my series on fairy folklore in movies/television because of the wider theme. It is a children's movie and a Santa origin movie (surprisingly non-Christian) but for all that it does have a good amount of older folklore and hints of fairy beliefs that are reasonably accurate. 

This blog will contain minor spoilers, so be warned if you haven't watched the movie yet. 

The gist of the plot of the of 'A Boy Called Christmas' is that Nikolas lives with his father in a kingdom that has lost all hope. Nicholas's mother died and his father is sent on a quest (along with other men) by the king to restore hope to the kingdom by proving magic is real and finding the fabled Elfheim, home (as the name implies) of the elves. Nikolas is left with his horrible aunt who badly mistreats him and eventually decides to leave to find his father after finding a hidden map to Elfheim left by his mother, who used to tell stories of a girl who spent the winter with the elves there (spoiler: she was that girl). Over the course of his adventures Nikolas proves to be a truly kind and giving boy and eventually finds the elves, the magic, and the spirit of Christmas, which in this movie is a sort of nebulous winter festival of joy the elves celebrate*.

So, on to the fairy folklore:

  1. The elves are a hidden people, which is inline with older folklore, and at one point Nicholas is in the middle of their town and doesn't know it because he can't see any of it. At least not until he is shown how to. This is all actually really accurate to many beliefs about the Good Folk.
  2. The elves are around 4 to 5 feet tall, live in a society much like a human one, and are both helpful and dangerous to humans. Again this is all fairly accurate to older folklore and honestly very refreshing to see especially in a children's movie.
  3. Besides elves we also see a Troll and a pixie. The troll is large and dangerous, but not especially smart, and the pixie is human-sized, with wings, and a rather malicious sense of humour. The troll - given the wide array of troll folklore - is more or less what one might expect a troll to be like. The pixie, while I would quibble with the wings and ears, is at least in size and personality close to what one would expect. I did find the inclusion of a Welsh/Cornish pixie in what is otherwise framed as a northern European-esque story a bit odd but given how the whole of it was handled I'm willing to give it a pass. 
  4. The pixie can only tell the truth. Now this is a debated point in fairylore and likely doesn't apply to pixies, as there isn't a tradition in the areas pixies come from of the Good Folk only speaking the truth, but it is a concept found elsewhere. So this one is a bit of a mixed bag as folklore references go and its taken to an extreme where the pixie must speak the truth even when its rude rather than the wider belief that the Good Folk don't lie but can be very deceptive. I'm still including it here though as its an aspect of fairy folklore not often mentioned in media. 
  5. One of the elves holds a serious grudge against all humans because of the actions of a few and because of a hurt done by a human (unintentionally) long ago. This definitely seems to reflect the stubborn nature of the Good Folk. The reaction of the elf and actions she takes because of it are also quite extreme which is also very reflective of older folklore. Elves always tend to have extreme reactions when they react to things.
  6. The humans kidnap an elf child. So this isn't fairy folklore obviously but I did find it to be a fascinating reversal of changeling folklore, where instead of the elves taking a human child the humans take an elven one, for nefarious purposes (as a prisoner to prove magic exists)
  7. Elves have magic which is both benevolent and malevolent. This is another thing that often gets treated badly in movies and tv, where we see elves as either effectively magicless or as mostly able to do helpful things (think Tauriel's healing spell in The Hobbit for example). In this movie we see elves both healing as well as using magic in more negative ways to control or attack others. I enjoyed the nuance of it. 
So, overall I found the elves to be especially well done in this movie and was quite surprised that they were handled as well as they were considering its a children's movie which are usually the worst culprits for mauling the older beliefs around fairies (TinkerBell and Fern Gully I am looking at you). The overall personalities of the elves and pixie were also pretty much in line with what folklore would have us expect and I appreciated that. For what it is - a blatant Santa origin movie - its actually very good and surprisingly true to wider folklore around these beings. 

*okay that part was kind of weird to be honest but I'm not opposed to a depiction of an entirely secular Christmas

Friday, December 17, 2021

9 Fiction Writing Tips

 I'm just wrapping up my tenth novel and so I have writing and fiction on my mind which led me to deciding to write this today. The internet is glutted with writing tips, most of which are confusing and contradictory when compared to each other, so I hope that this attempt might offer aspiring writers some more practical suggestions than the usual run.

This is not meant to be business writing advice, most of which in my experience sucks the joy right out of the process of writing. This is advice for how to write good stories and still like doing it ten years later.

  1. Write What You Want to Read - This is pretty straightforward advice but honestly its so important. When I wrote my first novel my friend Catherine Kane, who had encouraged me to give it a try, was the one who told me to write what I would want to read, and its advice that hasn't ever steered me wrong. If you don't want to read what you are writing why should anyone else? A lot of people will tell you to write to market, to avoid tropes, to write what's popular or going to be popular but ultimately you have to remember that you are part of the market too. If you love those tropes that other people say are tired then trust me so do plenty of other people. Everyone telling you that elves are overdone now? If you still want to read it then so do other people. Write what you want to read and you will find an audience for it. 
  2. Research Matters - This is pretty obvious with non-fiction but even with fiction this is important. Some of the cringiest moments I've had as a reader have come from badly researched material in novels, whether its a book character supposedly from Connecticut talking about how 'new' everything there is compared to New Orleans (New Orleans was first reached by the French in 1690; Connecticut by the Dutch in 1614, for context), a book consistently referring to a town in Maine as a small town despite it having a population of 25,000 people (again for context 6 of the 10 biggest cities in Maine have less than 25,000 people), or books set in Ireland written by people in the US that have clearly never been to Ireland. Even in high fantasy take the time to find out how far a person can walk in a day or a horse can travel, or what you write is going to be unbelievable and not in a good way. And please if you are including foreign language material for a language you don't speak hire a native speaker to check it for you.
  3. Beta Readers Are Essential - A beta reader is someone who reads the early version of your story or book and offers feedback on it. This can be anything from pointing out plot holes or weak characterization, noting areas where a story drags or moves too quickly, or suggesting points where the story is weak. Some beta readers will also read for errors in the text, or anything else you specifically request. Beta reader feedback allows you to polish a story and fix details that you may not be aware of because you are so immersed in the story. 
  4. Don't Worry About Having a Perfect Draft - Some of the best early advice I got (from Dave D'Alessio if you were curious) when I started writing was to look at the first draft as a rough product that was meant to be fixed later and not an instant finished project. When we expect our first draft to be perfect we are setting ourselves up for problems and stress. Get it written and then go back and smooth things out, add or delete as needed, address plot holes or any other issues you have. A book (or story) isn't done when you finish writing that first draft, its only beginning so don't treat the first draft as if it should be flawless. 
  5. If You Get Stuck, Try Something Different - This is something I discovered really helps me when I get jammed up in a scene - which does and will happen. Sometimes things just stop flowing or you lose that creative momentum, and its easy to get frustrated and give up or put a project on permanent hold. What I do instead is switch to another section of the story, or go back and read from the start, or even just stream of consciousness write for a bit. This may or may not work for you too (see point 7) but I do think its worth suggesting here because its easy to let that frustration completely derail us, just like its easy to start to see word count goals as all important. But ultimately its okay to delete what doesn't work and its okay to switch things around if you need to, or anything else that frees up that creative block. And in the end if walking away is what you need to do then do that - go watch a movie or take a walk. 
  6. Define Success for Yourself - I consider myself a successful author. Do other people agree with that? I don't know and honestly it doesn't matter to me. There will always be measures of success applied by others that we don't meet. Always. That's life. What matters is if we think we've succeeded. What is your goal with your writing? Have you met it on any level? Then you are successful. 
    On a related note I highly recommend setting up a variety of goals for yourself and celebrating every success you have, big or small. Its great to be called a best selling author, sure, but its just as great to see someone loves your story, or see your name on a byline, or simply see a something you wrote out in the world. All of those things are success and all deserve recognition. 
  7. Find What Works For You - As I mentioned in the intro there is a lot of writing advice to be found online and its often predicated on what worked for the person writing it. And the thing is I could tell you what works for me and you could try it - and be absolutely miserable because my writing process is not what works for you. And I've seen that so many times, where someone reads writing advice from a famous author they admire and tries to follow it and finds that it absolutely kills their desire to write. Because the process that works for one person can be absolutely counterintuitive to another. Do you need to plan out plot points in a detailed outline before starting? Do that. Do you write best off the cuff with only a general idea where its all going? Do that. 3,000 words a day? Awesome. 100 words a day? Just as good. It really is wahtever works best for you to get your story down.
    Ultimately we can't compare ourselves to other writers, we have to find our own way - and that means trial and error and work and failing and succeeding. 
  8. Consider Sensitivity Readers - So, let's talk diversity. Yes its important (in my opinion) to include diversity in your writing but its so, so easy to mess that up because writing outside your own life experience is difficult to do well. Its worth considering sensitivity readers within any group you don't belong to but are writing about, although you must understand that a sensitivity reader isn't going to give you some sort of stamp of approval but rather will help you see areas that may need improvement. In other words a sensitivity reader is there to help you write more realistically about things you personally don't understand by pointing out places you may be reflecting stereotypes instead of reality, creating a caricature instead of a character, or leaning into race tropes
  9. Content Warnings - if you plan to share your writing publicly and your work includes things that are common triggers for other people's trauma, such as sexual assault, suicide, disordered eating, you should use content warnings. These are just an easy way to signal to potential readers if a book might be something they shouldn't read. You don't need to and realistically can't content warning every possible thing that might cause an issue with someone but definitely make note of the common ones especially if they are unusual in the genre you are writing (ie you don't need to put a content warning for sex on a paranormal romance book where it would be typical content for the genre, but consider putting a content warning on animal death which isn't necessarily expected)
My final comment here isn't exactly writing advice but it is important. Once you put your writing out there for the public you will get people who like it and you will get people who don't. There is no perfect, universally loved novel or story because everyone enjoys something different. And that's okay. Do what you can to make your work the best it can be, listen to fair critique to help you improve, but don't let the unfair criticism pull you down. Like Dita Von Teese said: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” and that's true of writing as well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

2021 Recap

 Hello everyone! 2021 is just about wrapping up and I wanted to offer a quick recap of what I've been up to work-wise this year, which has been a very tumultuous one for me (and I'm sure many others).

I had three articles published in 2021:
“Sexuality and Gender Among the Good Neighbours: the Intersection and Inversion of Human Norms in Fairylore”, written for Revenant Journal 2020, cut, posted on; FIS newsletter 2021
“Lugh, God of Many Skills”, Pagan Dawn, Lammas Issue, 2021, no 220
“Seeking in the Mists: Gods and Goddesses of Ireland”, Pagan Dawn, Samhain issue, 2021, no 221

I presented  “Unseely to anti-hero: The Evolution of Dangerous Fairies in Folklore, Fiction, and Popular Belief” at Hertfordshire University’s ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ conference

I wrote and published two stories in my 'Queering Fairy' series:
The King of Elfland: A queer retelling of Thomas the Rhymer 
In the Fairy Wood: A queer retelling of Alice Brand 

I wrote two articles for forthcoming anthologies which I hope will be out in the next year or so, one focused on Irish America folk magic and the other on the Irish sidhe in modern fiction. 

I wrote three books that will be out in the next year, including a high fantasy novel that's out with beta readers right now and the forthcoming Pantheons the Norse and Pagan Portals Aos Sidhe.
I had three books published in 2021, one through Moon Books and two self published:
Pagan Portals Lugh 
Settling of the Manor of Tara 
Through the Mist a dual language mythology book 

Additionally I have three books under contract with Moon Books that I will be working on across the next year. I taught several classes through the Irish Pagan School and I ventured into offering my own class with 'Elves After Dark' which looked at elves and sex across folklore. I also presented at several conferences and was a guest on a variety of podcasts and shows, which is always fun. And of course I've been blogging a few times a month and making fairy focused educational videos on Youtube, including a series focused on the fairy ballads. 

With 2021 almost over I'm looking forward to 2022 and the new projects in the works. I hope you all have a good new year and a better 2022. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Fairy Folklore in Jim Henson's 'Labyrinth'

 I'm going to do a small series of reviews over the next few months looking at the fairy folklore in different films and tv shows, prompted by some discussion on social media. I think this will be fun and also help people see the various threads of older beliefs that are woven into some popular shows and movies. I'm thinking of covering a variety of things including Pan's Labyrinth, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Legend, Maleficent, The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Siren, and maybe Krampus. But I'll start with one of the most classic fairy films, Jim Henson's Labyrinth. 

 Full disclosure this is one of my favourite movies, in part because Brian Froud was eth concept designer and he is one of my favourite artists. I also want to note that while I'm specifically picking out threads of folklore found across the film there are many, many ways to interpret this movie including seeing it all as a coming of age story, a dream, or as a reflection of Sarah's mental state. I'm not getting into any of those here and sticking purely to the folklore.

Discussing fairylore in Labyrinth is, admittedly, low hanging fruit (pun intended). Brian Froud has said in an interview that "We based Labyrinth on European folklore." so its hardly a stretch to find that folklore on display in the film. I will go over them point by point below. Before I start I do want to quickly note that historically goblins, elves, and fairies were treated interchangeably and the terms were used synonymously so I will be taking the same approach here. 

Warning spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't seen the movie before.

  • The foreshadowing in the movie of the owl in the park while Sarah is pretending to rehearse a play, where the owl is later revealed to be the Goblin King in disguise, harkens back to folklore which tells us that the fairies can be around but unseen at any time. One might read into this the implication that the goblins had wanted to take Sarah's brother and were arranging circumstances to their own advantage. This is echoed later in the labyrinth where Jareth appears in disguise as a beggar then reveals his true self to confront Hoggle and Sarah. 
  • The idea of a specific phrase or word having magic power to invoke Otherworldly beings, ie 'I wish the goblins would come and take you away right now'. This is very much in line with older folklore where the fairies could take a thing - or a human - if certain words were said about it. In folklore this was usually either the owner/guardian speaking ill of it or people failing to properly bless it; in this case wishing her brother away would qualify as speaking ill of it or ill-wishing in my opinion. 
    This is reinforced when Sarah asks for her brother back and Jareth replies 'what's said is said'. 
  • Jareth trying to bribe Sarah with the gift of a magical object is reminiscent of various stories of the Fair Folk giving something in exchange for something they want form a human as a form of compensation - although what they give is rarely what it appears to be.
  • The scenes where Jareth turns an object into various things - a crystal, a snake, cloth -  echoes wider fairy lore about fairy glamour and also is similar to the scenes in the ballad of Tam Lin 
  • '13 Hours' a time that doesn't properly exist on any human clock recalls wider folklore about the way that time moves differently in the world of Fairy. This is also shown in the way that Sarah's entire adventure in the Labyrinth occurs over those 13 hours but she returns home after a much shorter time, not even long enough for her father and step-mother to notice her absence. 
  • The deceptive nature of appearances is a particularly interesting aspect of fairylore incorporated into the film. Sarah learns quickly that the 'nice' looking twee fairies bite while the unattractive dwarf Hoggle - as well as beings like Ludo who frighten others - are helpful. There are also several points where the landscape of the labyrinth itself proves this as well, with things changing based on perspective, like the wall that is actually a doorway. As Sarah herself says partway into her journey 'things aren't always what they seem'. 
  • Sarah encounters a talking worm soon after entering the labyrinth and later talking objects like the door knockers. This idea of intelligence and speech in beings/objects that humans wouldn't normally attribute them too is another thing that is often found in fairy folklore, particularly because things may not be what they seem - like the owl that is actually the goblin king - and partially due to fairy magic. 
  • Toby being taken so that he can be turned into a goblin* is from classic changeling lore, where a baby might be taken and turned into one of the fairies, or trolls, or trows, etc., It was common across a wide swath of folklore for humans to be stolen and transformed into the same type of being who stole them, in order to add to the numbers of the Good folk who are not known to reproduce often. One might perhaps argue that Sarah's later experience with the Junk Lady where Sarah has forgotten why she is there and starts to transform into a Junk Lady herself also echoes this theme. 
  • Following on that last point Sarah engaging in a quest to recover her brother is also following classic changeling folklore. Although her quest is particularly magical and odd, we find multiple examples across folklore of people who recovered stolen humans (babies, brides, etc.,) by either confronting the fairies directly or by stealing the person back from them. Often times in these tales the person is seen riding a horse as part of a fairy cavalcade and the rescuer pulls them down and gets them back home without saying a word (if they speak the person is lost).  
  • Jareth asking Sarah how she likes the labyrinth and when she replies that its 'a piece of cake' he immediately makes it harder and creates a dangerous situation for her to face, as well as his later claim that his actions in tormenting her throughout the labyrinth were 'generous' certainly captures the wider temperament of the fairies. The Fireys inability to understand Sarah's physical differences - her body parts can't detach as their do - is another good example of the way that fairies think differently from humans and react differently to situations. We might also argue that the way they try to remove her head but are angry when she pulls off one of theirs (and throws it) saying that isn't fair because you are only supposed to throw your own head, despite their attempts to forcibly pull hers off demonstrate the different rules that fairies apply to themselves versus humans. 
  • The scene with the peach has a lot going on with it, but I'll just note in particular the idea of eating fairy food resulting in a person being trapped in fairy and the deceptive dreamlike nature of some fairy experiences. 
This touches on the main points that I'd like to note with this particular film. There may be more that I have missed or some that I mention that are open to discussion but I think this summarizes the most salient points. From the perspective of fairy folklore at least Labyrinth may be viewed as a classic tale of a quest to recover a changeling, albeit with a lot of extra flourishes and additions, and goblins that are more comical than truly malicious. 

*the implication here is that all of the goblins in the labyrinth were once human babies, stolen and transformed.