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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Baobhan Sìth in Folklore vs my Fiction

 I recently gave a presentation 'Elves After Dark 2' in which I discussed several specific types of folkloric beings known to directly and intimately interact with humans. This included the Scottish Baobhan Sìth a being that I also include in my fiction and in the Q&A after the presentation I was asked about how the folklore differed from my interpretation in my Between the Worlds series. I answered the question then but thought this was a good topic to get into here as well, to offer an illustration of the way that fiction based in folklore differs from that folklore and why. 

main characters of Between the Worlds, art by Valerie Herron

To start I want to be clear that while there is very good fiction out there based on fairy folklore, no fiction that I have ever seen is 100% accurate to that folklore. Its just a fact that writing fiction means fitting the plot and that often means altering things. Some books alter the folklore so far that its basically only the folklore in the names beings used while others stay largely true to the source material. 
I have always endeavored in my fiction to be the second sort and stay as true as possible to the folklore I'm drawing on in my work which is heavily based on fairylore, however that said certain adjustments were made, so let's look at that here. 

Baobhan Sìth in folklore are somewhat obscure beings. The name itself means something close to 'dangerous female fairy'. We have one main thread of stories which are all almost identical, varying only slightly in the details. In these stories a small group of men goes out hunting in the woods and finds a small group of women just as the men have decided to seek shelter for the oncoming night. The group shelters together and one of the men provides some kind of music - singing or playing an instrument - while the rest dance with the strange women; one of the women lurks near the musician. At some point the musician notices his friends have gone oddly quiet or in some versions looks up and sees a bit of blood on one of his friends shirts and realizing the other men are dead or dying he flees. The women pursue him until he takes shelter among some horses whose iron clad hooves ward the fairies off. The next morning, the women having fled, the man goes to his town or village and gathers a group to seek out the now missing men; they find them all dead in the shelter. In most versions they have been drained of blood while in some their hearts have been removed. 
That is all quite consistent across the stories we do have. Now we also have some Victorian, Edwardian, and post-Edwardian era folklorists material that elaborates on these stories by adding detail. Particularly Mackenzie's 'Scottish Folk-lore and Folk Life' which more directly equates Baobhan Sìth to classic demons and eastern European vampires and also adds details more usually found with the Glastig, such as the wearing of a green dress to cover animal feet (goat hooves in the Glastig's case, deer hooves in the Baobhan sìth's) as well as claiming the Baobhan Sìth could take the form of a crow or raven. This has further been greatly elaborated in 21st century material which may or may not be pulling from Scottish folklore. 

Now in my fiction I do include a Baobhan Sìth, but I based her character on the older stories of these beings not the folklorists descriptions - so no green dress, or deer hooves*, or shapeshifting. She is, arguably, dangerous and in my fictional world Baobhan Sìth (under a phonetic spelling of that term) have a bad reputation because of the danger they present to everyone around them. I did take creative liberties, which I admit, in making my Baobhan Sìth something closer to a modern psychic vampire, feeding on emotions, rather than a traditional blood drinking vampire. I made this decision in part because it worked better with the story I was telling and also because the ambiguity of the older folklore, while implying a vampiric nature, doesn't explicitly state that the Baobhan Sìth drink blood rather than just kill their prey. I wanted a being that fit the broad strokes and worked within the framework of the folklore but also worked in the wider narrative I was telling so while I feel she is still strongly reminiscent of Scottish Baobhan Sìth folklore she isn't a template for that folklore or an exact replica of it. And while I generally make a lot of effort with my fiction to stay as true as possible to the source folklore there will always be places where things have to be nudged slightly one way or another to fit the wider story I am telling. 

When we have folklore in fiction it is always going to be along a spectrum of accuracy to that folklore. Some material will be much closer and some will be much further and many times how close or far the material is will be a matter of personal opinion. Anyone reading fairy folklore inspired fiction is best to remember though that it isn't folklore and shouldn't be treated as actual folk belief though and just enjoy it for the fiction that it is. 

*I do have a Glastig that shows up in one story which fits that folklore with the dress, hooves, and all. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Its Time To Talk About The Anti-Irish Issues in That Popular Series

 I've said I would write this blog for a while, after discussing the subject in bits and pieces on social media so here we are. I want to preface this by saying though that this isn't an indictment of the author in question personally nor am I saying she did this consciously nor intentionally. This isn't me trying to bash the series; I'm picking it as one example out of many because its popular and because we need to have this conversation. This is me trying to get people to be more aware of a particularly insidious aspect of anti-Irish propaganda that has been around for centuries and continues because its almost a trope now, as much as the idea of Irish and Irish folklore as inherently fantastic (which Orla ní Dhúill discusses in depth in her article 'Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish Is Discount Elvish?).

So. Let's talk about the anti-Irishness of A Court of Thorns and Roses series.

First, establishing the Irish connection as it were, and no its not the folklore that may or may not have been used in the series. Or the use of Morrigan as a name for one of the secondary characters. Maas tells a tale of a world that has both mortal lands and lands of fairy and offers a map in the books which shows what the main areas of the story look like and are called. The map is basically a slightly reworked Ireland and Great Britain. Its not subtle:

my actual face contemplating the side by side comparison of these maps

Prythian is where the 7 fairy courts of Maas's story are, roughly everything north of Cornwall in Britain. Hybern is also ruled by the fae, but as we'll get to in a moment of a very different nature. Prythian seems to be a form of the Welsh Prydain, an old word for Britain; Hybern is obviously based on Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland. Like the map this isn't particularly subtle and I am not the first person to make this connection. So we have a map that is basically Ireland and Britain and a name for those places that is also, basically, Ireland and Britain. Further to the Irish aspect of this the king of Hybern (who is never named) has a nephew named Dagdan, one letter off from the Irish god the Dagda, and a niece named Brannagh, a name that is often said to be from the Irish word for raven. The warriors of the Hybern king are called Ravens, a bird that features prominently in Irish mythology.
So this gives us, effectively, fantasy pseudo-Ireland, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself.

However, then we get into the backstory and story of Hybern and its people. To recap the series: At one time humans were enslaved to the fae, but there was a war to free them. Hybern was adamantly against freeing the humans and when the king of Hybern was forced to sign a treaty agreeing to do so he and all his people killed every human in Hybern instead. They were subsequently cut off from the rest of the world, plunging their people into centuries of  poverty and misery during which they became convinced that the whole human slavery thing was a golden age that had to be brought back to restore their kingdom. To this end the king of Hybern first sent out an emissary who enslaved the Prythian Lords (Prythian being ruled by a group of lords rather than a monarch) and when she eventually failed he sent out his niece and nephew to reconnoiter the area where a wall separated the fairy lands from mortals - because he had a plan to enslave humans again. His emissary was cruel and vicious; his niece and nephew (twins who were in an incestuous relationship by the way) were equally so. All three end badly because of their bloodlust. The king uses a primordial cauldron to both remake people and to break through that wall but (of course) is ultimately foiled and prevented from enslaving humans again. 
Generally speaking the Hybernians are depicted as violent, vicious, amoral, and evil. They use poison as a weapon against other fae, use torture, delight in killing humans, and want to subjugate not only humans but the other fae who sided with humans in the war.

So at this point we have fantasy pseudo-Ireland that is full of people who are backwards thinking, stuck in the past, cruel, and stuck in poverty because they lost their slaves. Which, for scholars of history, is awfully similar to anti-Irish propaganda since the 18th century, except the poverty was blamed on laziness - although I'd argue that's a fine line here since ultimately its the implied laziness of the Hybernians that keeps them from doing the work the human slaves did previously. Anti-Irish material often featured the Irish as animalistic, lacking self control, drunk, lazy, and dangerous. This is so persistent and so ingrained in popular consciousness that anti-Irish stereotypes often don't even get a notice from people today and still appear in various forms in tv shows and movies (I'm looking at you Wild Mountain Thyme). The king of Hybern is even physically described as less beautiful and less regal than the Prythian fairy lords, which is inline with older anti-Irish stereotypes. While Tamsin and Rhysand, main fairy lord characters, are described as heartbreakingly beautiful and well dressed, the king of Hybern is described in A Court of Mist and Fury as 'ruddy', dressed more practically, average height, and 'blandly handsome'.

What we end up with then is a very popular series like A Court of Thorns and Roses where the fantasy pseudo-Irish are all the bad things in the world and everything that has to be fought against, the ultimate antagonists. 

I'm not saying any of this anti-Irish coding was intentional but the thing is its undeniably there and it reflects a long history of seeing Ireland and the Irish as backwards, primitive, violent, and dangerous. Its the same thing we see with Harry Potter's Irish character having a penchant for blowing things up or American Gods Mad Sweeney perpetually suffering and fighting. Its a reflection of the way that many people have internalized a perception of the Irish based on stereotypes that are inherently anti-Irish. 
At best its very sloppy, lazy world building with cringey results. At worst its leaning into hibernophobia to intentionally bring those things to mind with readers. We can and must do better.