Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Folklore in Legend

 The 1985 movie Legend is often classified as a dark fantasy but it contains many themes from older folklore. So today lets look at some of the folklore we find in the film and how it is incorporated into the story. 

1551 woodcutting of a unicorn

Spoilers ahead:

For those unfamiliar the movie tells the story of Jack, a young man who lives in the forest, and Lili, a princess and friend of Jack, as they work to stop the Lord of Darkness from casting the world into an endless winter night. It begins when Darkness sends two goblins into the wood to kill the unicorns; the goblins decide to follow Lili as she goes to visit Jack and so follow the two as Jack takes her to see the unicorns for the first time. Because the unicorns are drawn to Lili's innocence they stand still long enough for one of the goblins to shoot the stallion with a poison dart, and later chase him down and cut his horn off. Jack is angry at the unicorns being frightened off, not being aware of the goblins, but Lili ignores it instead taking off her ring and throwing it into a pond while declaring she will marry whoever recovers it. Jack, in love with Lili, dives in after it only to be trapped as the lake freezes over when the unicorn is killed. He manages to escape but Lili has already fled; she runs across the two goblins and overhears them admitting they killed the unicorn because of her. She then follows them back to Darkness who is angry that both unicorns weren't killed. Meanwhile Jack has allied himself with an elf, fairy, and two dwarves who have found the mare and realized they must retrieve the stolen horn in order to revive the stallion and save the daylight from Darkness. 

Now, on to the folklore. As one might guess from the above synopsis there is a great deal of folklore woven throughout the film which blends Christian symbolism with western European fairylore. I will be focusing on the latter here and instead of looking at incidents as they occur throughout the film will instead be discussing various characters and plot points. 

  • The unicorns are presented in a way that largely aligns with wider folklore: they are rare and hard to find, are attracted to innocence and purity, and their horns are magical in nature. The unicorns in Legend, of course, are white horses with horns, while the unicorns of folklore are generally described as more goat or deerlike than horselike. Similarly folkloric unicorns of earlier periods were not depicted as particularly gentle creatures.
  • The goblins of Legend are a bit of a mixed bag folklore-wise. They adhere to older ideas of goblins as generally dangerous and possibly malicious, but as with much media from this period they are shown to be more bumbling and comedic than actually dangerous. In a particularly odd twist that adds a moral layer to an already moral tale one of the goblins is later revealed as a fairy who has lost his way, implying perhaps that goblins in this world are corrupted fairies which is certainly a unique idea not found in older material.  
  • The elf, Honeythorn Gump, appears as a youth with pointed ears but speaks as wise adult. Given the wide range of folklore about elves to be found across the centuries and various cultures this depiction fits in to folklore at least broadly, although it does lean into the more twee end of things. Gump acts as a guide and mentor to Jack throughout the movie.
  • The fairy, Oona, is an interesting character who is initially presented as a flying ball of light but later reveals that she has the ability to shapeshift into a human-sized being (albeit still with wings). Oona's early appearance is very much inline with 20th century fairylore, particularly drawn from the stage productions of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell was literally just a light effect. Her later appearance is still inline with that imagery but her behaviour and ability to change shape and size reflect older folklore. She is an ally to Jack but is somewhat mercurial and seems to have her own agenda as well. 
  • The dwarves are less aligned with folklore and more with late 20th century popular culture, being shown (as the goblins are) as bumbling and rather goofy. They may represent the furthest characters from older folklore of any in the film although they are rather inline with the disney concept. 
  • At one point Jack and his friends must cross a swamp and encounter a dangerous being named Meg Mucklebones. Meg is a fairly standard folkloric hag, a being who lurks in swamps, rivers, and lakes, and who will drown and eat humans - examples from folklore would include Black Annis and Jenny Greenteeth. Meg does threaten to eat Jack but is killed by him instead. 
  • The group also encounters trolls after being captured and these beings are what might be described as extreme version of the folkloric concepts - hideous, grotesque, animalistic, violent. Troll folklore is another type of material that can vary widely so the trolls of Legend aren't entirely outside older material but certainly seem to be a lot more concentrated versions than what is found in older stories. 
Ultimately Legend is a fascinating film that blends older folklore, newer folklore, popculture ideas about fairies, and a morality tale into a cohesive whole that is unique. It should, perhaps, be understood within its own context or as a good example of late 20th century fairylore distilled through the lens of hollywood. 

Friday, August 12, 2022

Marriage and the Otherworld part 2

 In my last piece I established that marriage was a common feature of stories involving fairies but today I'd like to look at some patterns we can note within that wider concept particularly of the Good Folk marrying humans. I think this can help us further explore the idea of marriage with the Othercrowd and may be useful both for those with an esoteric bent as well as those writing fiction who look to folklore as a source. 
As with the previous article I will be using the word fairy here somewhat loosely, in line with the material itself, and will also be looking at relevant examples from related folklore of other types of Otherworldly beings, such as that of selkies. Also as with the previous article I will be focusing on the folklore and mythology rather than modern anecdotal or esoteric experiences, which fall outside the purview of this particular piece.

illustration by Warwick Goble

Two types of Marriage
Looking across the folklore one thing that quickly becomes evident is that marriage with fairies can be broken down into two rough categories: forced marriages and voluntary marriages.

Forced marriages occur both when a human captures an Otherworldly being and when a human is captured although generally it is a woman being captured no matter which version is in play. The Stolen Bride motif is based on the idea of a human woman being taken by an Otherworldly suitor to be married in the world of Fairy (see Briggs Fairies in Tradition and Literature) for example and can be found across both folklore and anecdotal accounts. The human woman is usually thought to be dead by her family but sometimes is able to communicate with a relative or her husband - if she were already married - and may or may not subsequently be rescued. In the case of a fairy woman being taken as a spouse they are usually trapped in some way so that they cannot return to their own world and must marry the human who trapped them; selkies having their sealskins stolen, for example, or Maran who could be trapped if the knothole she entered through was blocked (Ashliman, 2005). In both those examples the Otherworldly wife would immediately flee her human husband if she found a way to undo the magic holding her - the selkie must find her hidden sealskin and the mare must find and unblock the knothole through which she'd entered. A human taken and married into the Otherworld can only hope for one chance at rescue, usually during a fairy procession through the mortal world, and if that fails is trapped forever with their new spouse. We do see at least one example, in the ballad of the Elfin Knight, of a human woman (or girl) who tries to trap an elf into marriage; although she ultimately fails it does suggest that there were cases involving men as the captured spouse. 

Voluntarily marriages, similarly, occur with both combinations of partners. In the Echtra Nera and the Echtra Condla we see human men who gain fairy wives with the consent of the wife; in Connla's case the fairy woman goes to great lengths to convince Connla to return to her world with her, while in Nera's case the fairy wife is given to him by a fairy king but nonetheless seems to be happy with the situation. There is also an anecdotal account in Lady Wilde's work of a young human man taken by the sidhe who refuses to be rescued because he is happy with his fairy wife. The Welsh tale of the Physicians of Myddfai features a Lake Maiden who chooses to wed a human man after he successfully courts her and the Orkney tale of the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry tells of a human woman who weds a selkie man. In Jean d'Arras tales of Melusine we see both Melusine and her mother Perryne choosing to marry human men out of apperant affection for them. In these cases both partners are willing participants in the marriage through choice not coercion and often seem to feel some genuine love for the other person within the context of the story.

How This Happens

How a human gets into a marriage with a fairy across the folklore generally occurs in one of three ways: the human is compelled by the fairy, the human compels the fairy, or the human and fairy meet and choose to marry. In cases where the human is compelled by the fairy it is usually what we might classify as an abduction: there are multiple examples of this across Irish folklore, where a person (usually a woman) is kidnapped by the Sidhe and taken into the Otherworld to marry one of the Good Folk. In cases where the human is compelling the fairy they either use magic or steal a magical item from the fairy; the girl who hears an elf blowing his horn on May Day morning and wishes for him as her husband is an example, where the elf appears to be compelled to do as she wishes against his own will. In the third case the meeting and marriage are more along what might be considered typical lines although the speed that things occur in is usually swift - in most stories where both partners are willing they often meet and marry quickly. 

Gain and Loss

Another notable pattern that we must discuss is that in all of the examples we find of mixed species marriages, humans and Other, one partner must inevitably - by choice or force - give up their own world for the length of the marriage. This is not as simple as choosing to be with the partner and only being able to visit their own world but is a full immersion in the new reality to the exclusion of the old. Stories that discuss a partner returning to visit their own world inevitably end tragically, as we see when Oisín begs Niamh to visit Ireland only to fall from his horse, instantly age 300 years, and die. Fairy spouses that choose or are taken into the human world live fully within it, either becoming human themselves as we see in the story of the kelpie who weds a human girl*, or eventually returning to their own world, often heartbroken.  Humans who are taken into Fairy and are not quickly rescued from it cannot safely return and must instead live out their existence in that realm or die, as Oisín did, when the time they missed on earth catches up to them upon their return. 
There are only a few accounts of what we might call 'long distance marriages' where the human remains living on earth and is regularly visited by the fairy spouse, mostly found in the Arthurianesque material such as Lancelet and Ogier the Dane**.
It would seem that to choose marriage with a fairy - or to be forced into it - means one partner must make a choice to give up their own world, or be stolen from it. 

Rules For Otherworldly Marriage

There are some basic rules that seem to exist across folklore for marriage between fairies and humans:

  1. Persuasion is often required for one partner (Gibson, 1955). One partner usually is advocating for the relationship while the other, human or fairy, is reluctant to engage in it. Even in cases where love seems to be a factor this is often in play, for example Connla takes a month to decide to go with his fairy woman and in Ogier the Dane Ogier goes through multiple trials and two human wives before accepting the fairy woman's love. Obviously in forced marriages this is even more extreme.
  2. The human partner is usually put under some form of prohibition in order to equalize the partnership (Spyra, 2020). Spyra suggests that there is an inherent power imbalance in these relationships which is addressed through the use of prohibitions which help to empower the human so long as they are adhered to. Certainly it is common in these stories to see the human partner explicitly given a thing they must do or must not do to retain their fairy spouse - for example Pressyne told her mortal husband he couldn't see her birth her children nor bath them and left when he violated that, and similarly her daughter Melusine prohibited her human husband from seeing her on Saturdays and left him when he did so. 
    In the case of forced marriages this is demonstrated through a secret the human must keep, whether that is the location of the selkie's sealskin or the knothole the mare entered through. If the fairy finds the source of the magic that's binding them to the human they will flee. 
  3. Broken promises or prohibitions result in immediate dissolution of the marriage. Across all the stories this rule seems to exist without exception. To betray a fairy spouse is to lose that fairy spouse, and often lose anything you have gained since they came to you. Fairy wives will return to the place they came from, taking with them their own possessions and often any children who have been produced. Selkie wives who find their hidden sealskin leave immediately, even those that seem to have formed a genuine affection for their mortal spouse, and may or may not take their children with them. Humans taken into fairy voluntarily who break a promise or prohibition are immediately expelled, often leaving them insane or pining away for their lost spouse. 
  4. That which belongs to the fairy spouse remains with the fairy spouse (Gibson, 1955). Although we might imagine fairy marriages as somewhat equal within themselves folklore paints a different picture, often implying that even when the fairy is in the human world they retain greater control, able to bring luck or financial success or withhold it and retaining possession of everything they brought with them or add to the marriage (as discussed above). 
  5. Children are possible but must choose one world to live in. A common theme across these stories is that fairy-human marriages do result in children but that these children must choose a single world to live in, despite their mixed heritage. In some cases the child ultimately goes to the Otherworld with their fairy parent while in others they remain in the human world with their human parent; if staying in the human world they are often notably odd or unusual and have a reputation for uncanniness (Gundarsson, 2007).
This summarizes the details within the concept of fairy human marriages, across a range of Western European beliefs. I would suggest that just as the borrowed midwife and stolen bride are motifs within folklore the fairy marriage occupies a similar space and is deserving of similar consideration. It is, at the least, something found across 1500 years of folklore and across all of Western European material dealing with Otherworldly beings. 

End Notes
*see McNeill, pp 68-72
** long distance or intermittent relationships are more common however in folklore of fairy lovers, rather than spouses per se. 

Ashliman, D., (2005) Night-Mares
Black, G., (1903). County Folk-Lore, vol. 3: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands
Briggs, (1967) The Fairies in Tradition and Literature
Child, F., (1882) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads vol 1 - 5
Cooper, H., (2006) Lancelot's Wives, Arthuriana vol 16 no 2 Retrieved from 
Gibson, H., (1955) The Human-Fairy Marriage Retrieved 
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology
Gundarsson, K., (2007) Elves, Wights, and Trolls
Ogier the Dane (2022) William Morris Archive 'Introduction to Ogier the Dane' Retrieved from 
Jones, M., (2022) The Physicians of Myddfai Retrieved from 
McNeil, H., (2001), The Celtic Breeze: Stories of the Otherworld from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales
Spyra, P (2020) The Liminality of Fairies: Readings in Late Medieval English and Scottish Romance
Thomas Off Ersseldoune (1997) Thomas the Rhymer Appendix Retrieved from
Towrie, S., (2022)  Mansie O'Kierfa and His Fairy Bride Retrieved from 
Wood, J., (1992) The Fairy Bride Legend in Wales Retrieved from