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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Folklore in Hilda

 As part of my ongoing series on folklore found in mass media I'm going to take on the popular Netflix show Hilda. This is an animated series based on an existing comic/graphic novel that pulls heavily from Icelandic and related folklore. It is aimed at children and features a main character who is a child and so we go into this understanding that the folklore within the show has been softened for modern views on what is appropriate for children. 

Hilda is an entertaining series, so far having two seasons and movie which follow the adventures of the eponymous Hilda who is something of an expert in the magical and unusual. Where most people in Hilda's world fear the supernatural its Hilda's main focus and many of her adventures occur because she engages with something other people avoid. 
So that all said, let's dive into some of the folklore we find in the series:

  • Elves -  Elves are one of the more important groups of folkloric beings found in Hilda, with the elf Alfar (literally named elves, which to be honest is a bit confusing) as an important secondary character. The elves of Hilda are extremely small, only a few inches tall, and effectively powerless (lacking magic); this is at odds with elves in wider folklore, even the places where they are described as small they are seen as powerful magically and able to protect themselves. However inline with folklore the elves are invisible to mortals unless they choose to be seen - and in Hilda's world the human signs paperwork. 
  • Giants - Giants are a common being found within folklore and another which appears in Hilda as a blend of actual folklore elements and creative license. In folklore giants are usually dangerous and often described as somewhere around 12 to 13 feet tall. Hilda's versions are truly gigantic - one sleeping giant being mistaken for a mountain - but are only dangerous in that their size means they often unwittingly cause destruction. 
  • Trolls - Trolls exist across a range of folk belief  sometimes as outright dangerous beings and sometimes as a sort of rough mannered fairy being. In most folklore its agreed that they turn to stone in the sunlight, with this transformation understood to be permanent. They sometimes steal human children and their characters can range across stories from vicious to very human-like. Hilda's versions of trolls follow some of this folklore, in that they are rough and dangerous creatures who turn to stone during the day, but they are different in that the stone transformation is temporary. Hilda's trolls initially appear almost animalistic but they are later shown to be intelligent beings with a society and relationships.
  • Mara -  Folkloric Maran or Mare are night hags that cause sleep paralysis, night terrors, and sometimes death. Since this would obviously be a bit intense for a children's show the Mara in Hilda are mean teenage girls imbued with supernatural powers who cause nightmares and torment sleepers with their worst fears. 
  • Nisse -  Nisse is the Danish and Norwegian term for a type of spirit that helps around a home or farm. Described as male and usually appearing with a beard and wearing a hat they live in the house and protect the home. Hilda's versions, as usual, follow the broad strokes of the folklore but with differences: there are female Nisse for one thing, and while folkloric Nisse will leave if offended in Hilda Nisse can be thrown out of a home by an angry homeowner. Also in Hilda all the Nisse are named Tontu, which is just the Finnish word for Nisse.
  • Barghest -  In northern English folklore a type of giant monstrous dog which sometimes is said to kill people and other times is an omen of death. Hilda plays with this idea, featuring a gigantic black dog which is terrorizing the area but is eventually found to be friendly when reunited with its original owner. 
  • Lindworm -  Lindworms are beings found across centuries of folk belief, specifically Norse, and are usually depicted as what we might understand as a sort of wingless dragon. They could be dangerous or malefic but were also connected to knowledge of medicine and the natural world. Hilda stays true to this idea although her Lindworm is friendlier than the usual run. 
  • Changelings - showing up in the recent Hilda movie is the concept of changelings, something found widely across folk belief. In traditional folklore a changeling is a fairy or object exchanged for a stolen human; this is also what it is in Hilda. The main difference in Hilda's depiction of changelings is the method used to get the human back (usually very brutal in folklore) and the motivation behind the change. In stories a fairy is swapped for a human because the fairies want the human for various reasons, while in Hilda the swap occurs because of a supernatural being that decides her own child will be safer among humans.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Recommended 'Celtic' Resources

 So I am occasionally asked for good places to start studying Celtic culture or otherwise learn about the Celts. This would seem like a pretty straightforward request but actually its a really complicated topic; what I usually suggest is that people start with a specific culture rather than going to the wider, older idea of 'Celtic'. What many people mean when they say Celtic is a single homogenous or unified culture which they think is a monolith and therefore easy to study. However Celtic is actually a loose term for a constellation of cultures related by language, art, and mythic motifs which were at one point influenced by or grew out of a single source culture - that source culture is understood via archaeology and commentary from outside sources like the Greeks and Romans. Even that older source culture however wasn't actually a cohesive group but an array of groups that shared a root language. Historically there were a multitude of cultures labelled Celtic; currently there are 6 that are referred to as Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. So studying this becomes a bit difficult. 

Its important to note several things here as well:
1. This is a field which is constantly changing and in which theories come and go. Scholarship is fluid not fixed, for the most part, and there are several perpetual fierce debates about things. A theory that may have been widespread 50 years ago may still be seen as valid or may have been entirely refuted - or may be argued over today. Bias is a factor that must be kept in mind in this field and new information must be incorporated regularly. 
2. Despite the way it is often discussed there is no 'Celtic pantheon' per se. The group of deities labelled as Celtic represent an array of beings from across the various Celtic cultures: only a few are pan-Celtic (ie found across all or most of the groups) and most of the cross cultural ones weren't historically worshipped together in the way that the idea of a Celtic pantheon. Its also vital to note that the handful of pan-Celtic deities were not cohesive between cultures - the Irish Lugh isn't identical to the Welsh Llew even if they likely share a common root and are seen as cognates. 
3. Celtic doesn't equal Irish. I often see people treating Celtic and Irish interchangeably and that is inaccurate. Ireland is one culture that falls under that Celtic language speaking cultural umbrella but not the only one.
4. There is a huge amount of romanticism around this subject, some of it harmless and some of it manipulated for nationalist, fascist, and supremacist ends. When studying this subject and especially when vetting sources extra discernment and caution is needed in my opinion because of this, particularly when considering sources outside academia. 

That all said I will offer a few recommendations here, with the caveat that these are based on my opinion of good places to start with the subject and my own interest in this is tangential. 

  1. Rees and Rees - Celtic Heritage. A bit dated at this point, but a solid resource. 
  2. Simon James - Exploring the World of the Celts. this isn't what I'd call an academic text but is a great intro to the subject and includes a large number of illustrations and photos. 
  3. Koch and Carey - The Celtic Heroic Age. Focusing on literary sources across Europe, Ireland, and Wales this is a good book to get an idea of many of the sources people pull from.
  4. Barry Cunliffe - The Ancient Celts. A wide overview of the subject. I would also suggest Cunliffe's work on 'Celtic from the West' with the understanding that is a debated theory. 
  5. Sjoestedt - Celtic Gods and Heroes - definitely dated (originally published in 1949) but an easy accessible introduction to the subject and it covers all the highlights. Definitely don't rely on this one alone. 
  6. MacKillop - A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Caveat on this one, MacKillop doesn't clearly cite his sources in the text and some of his material can't be verified outside his own book. So take this one with a grain of salt but it can be a good starting point and a good quick reference. 
  7. Miranda Green - assorted titles. Green has written extensively about various aspects of Celtic culture. As with MacKillop she requires a caveat in that she is primarily an archaeologist and her material focused on that is strong but when she theorizes outside of that always double check her assertions which can be creative. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022


 One of the more well-known types of fairy, by name at least, are goblins but many people are vague on what exactly goblins are. So today lets take a look at goblins, what they are, and some folklore surrounding them. The following is an excerpt from my book 'A New Dictionary of Fairies'

The word goblin itself dates back to about the 14th century and is believed to possibly come from the Latin Gobelinus, and to be related to the German Kobold; the meaning is given as an ugly fairy or devil (Goblin, 2016). Originally the word goblin was not applied to a specific type of fairy being but rather was used as a generic term, in line with the older uses of fairy and elf, to indicate a more general type of being. In Scots, for example, we can see more than a half dozen kinds of fairies which are described as goblins, from Gunnies to Whaups (SLD, 2016). The name goblin was used in earlier periods as a synonym for other negative types of fairies, such as thurs and shuck, both of which had connotations of maliciousness and evil (Williams, 1991). The prefix 'hob' was added in front of the word goblin, giving us hobgoblin, to indicate a goblin type spirit which was less negative and more benevolent; hobgoblins were inclined to mischief but also known to be helpful to people where goblins were not (Briggs, 1976). MacKillop posits that the word as well as the being were borrowed into Celtic belief from outsiders, likely from Germanic folk belief probably of the Kobold (MacKillop, 1998). The Irish Púca is sometimes described as a goblin, and goblins are often seen as equivalent to bogies. An array of subgruops of fairies are considered goblins or hobgoblins including the aforementioned Púca (and more general Puck), Bogies, the Fuath - themselves a general term inclusive of specific types - Boggarts* and Bogles, who are usually considered the more evil sort of goblins, the Welsh Coblynau, and Irish Clauricaun and Dullahan (Briggs, 1976; MacKillop, 1998). Even the usually benevolent Brownie is sometimes considered a goblin, or perhaps more properly a hobgoblin (SLD, 2016; Briggs, 1976).

When they appear in folklore goblins are generally described as wizened or smaller than the average human and unattractive in their features, ranging from grotesque to animalistic. In Rossetti's poem 'The Goblin Market' the depiction of the goblins directly relates them to animals describing them with whiskers, tails, and with fur (Rossetti, 1862). Dickens described them as small, with long arms and legs, and rounded bodies (Silver, 1999). These descriptions are typical of those found in older folklore as well where goblins are usually referred to as grotesque and ugly. Generally goblins are male and their physical descriptions reflect ideas closer to imps or devils than the usual fairies who appear fair on the outside no matter how dangerous they may be on the inside. This may reflect a belief that goblins, although a type or kind of fairy, were closer to or on the border of being demonic; this is muddy water at best as there was often a fine line between fairies and demons in the medieval period especially among the literati. Briggs suggests that it was particularly the influence of Protestant belief which edged the goblins into the category of the demonic as they directly equated them to 'imps from Hell' (Briggs, 1967). In fact imp is often given as a synonym for goblin, further confusing the issue. Specific types of goblins, such as the bogies, were known as shapeshifters as well and could alter their appearance at will in order to more easily deceive people. Because of their fearsome reputation many people were afraid of goblins, and even the generally more benevolent hobgoblins (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Goblins were known to favor specific locations and might set up residence in a home; in one story a bogey takes over a farmer's field and had to be tricked into leaving (Evans-Wentz, 1911; Briggs, 1976). In Rossetti's poem they have their own market and a well worn path which is taken to and from it each dawn and dusk. Like many Fey goblins are usually considered nocturnal and are most likely to be encountered at night (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Goblins of various sorts might also be associated with wilder locations and with the ruins of former human habitations and were known to lead people astray, either as part of a frustrating but ultimately harmless joke or to the person's eventual death (Briggs, 1967). By modern reckoning goblins fall under the dominion of the Unseelie court and may be either solitary or trooping fairies, depending on what kind of goblin is being discussed (Briggs, 1976). Hobgoblins, however, are harder to be certain of as they are usually seen as more benign and can be associated with helpful spirits like Brownies.

There is at least one well known piece of more modern literature which refers to goblins, Rossetti's poem 'The Goblin Market' which I have written about previously. In the poem the goblins appear in a fairly typical form being deceptive, malicious, and grotesque in appearance. They play the usual role of a group of fairies trying to trick mortals, in this case by getting them to eat dangerous fruit. In the poem when the person the goblins are seeking to trick resists they become violent, which is also inline with the general temperament normally seen with them. Goblins play a prominent role in the film 'Labyrinth' where they are depicted more as hobgoblins, being somewhat dangerous and set against the story's heroine but overall more mischievous than actually malicious. 

Ultimately goblins are a difficult group of fairies to define, both a specific type of being and also a class of being. The word itself is just as ambiguous, the etymology uncertain beyond the 12th century, and the ultimate root unknown. The term goblin can be used to indicate a specific being which is small, grotesque and malicious or a broader category of beings that were generally described as 'imps' and ran a gamut from devilish to mischievous. When the prefix hob is added it indicates a more benign nature to the creature being discussed; Shakespeare's Puck is referred to as a hobgoblin in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream. However Protestant influence did add a darker reputation even to the hobgoblin who were considered out-right demonic in some places. The only way to be certain of the usage of goblin or hobgoblin is to look at the context of the reference, however one can safely say that goblins were generally viewed as dangerous and to be feared, whatever sort of goblin was being discussed.

*boggarts may also be angered brownies and there is a somewhat fine semantic line at times between a hobgoblin and a brownie.

Goblin (2016) Online Etymology Dictionary
SLD (2016) Dictionary of the Scots Langauge: Goblins
Williams, N., (1991). The Semantics of the Word Fairy: Making meaning out of thin air
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionary of Fairies
Silver, C., (1999) The Strange and Secret Peoples: fairies and the Victorian consciousness
Rossetti, C., (1862) The Goblin Market
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
MacKillop, J., (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Briggs, K., (1967) The Fairies in Tradition and Literature

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.