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American Mythic

19 May

When we think of mythology we tend to think of the old world – European fairytales, folklore of the Far East and tales from the dark continent of Africa. Even when the new world is mentioned, in mythic terms it is the Native American folklore of the tribes and nations that first settled the lands of North and South America that comes to mind. Whilst all of this world mythology represents a rich and varied tradition of fairytales, folklore and legends, this is also to ignore the unusual and fascinating modern mythology of the United States. There are lots of interesting directions that this ‘American Mythic’ takes. There are larger than life stories of the birth of the nation, its founding fathers and the Revolutionary War; there is an entire mythology surrounding the Civil War that almost ripped apart the nascent union, when brother fought brother and fire and blood threatened to consume all the land from sea to shining sea; and up to the present day the Cold War and many other conflicts that have shaped the postwar nation also contributed to the character and myths of the modern United States. Anyone who takes the time and trouble to investigate American Mythic might be surprised at what they find.

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Fantasy Masterworks: The Last Unicorn

17 Feb

The Last Unicorn is a 1968 fantasy novel by American author Peter S. Beagle, which follows the tale of a unicorn who believes she is the last of her kind in the world and undertakes a quest to discover what has happened to the others. The Last Unicorn is also an elegy for a world that has lost its magic, lost its sense of wonder, and whose people are desperate to get it back but so passive in their acceptance of the mundanity of their lives that they can’t even see the magic and the beauty that’s there in the world around them if only they’d look. All that makes the book sound like dour and dismal stuff indeed, but it hasn’t become one of fantasy’s most beloved and enduring classics — in print consistently for fifty years and counting — for nothing. Peter S. Beagle frames his story as a fractured fairy tale, rich in self-aware humour. The Last Unicorn was meta before meta was cool. A beloved classic, it has sold more than five million copies worldwide since its original publication, been translated into at least twenty languages, spawned sequels and spin-offs and been adapted for the big and small screen numerous times. Locus magazine once ranked The Last Unicorn number five among the “All-Time Best Fantasy Novels”, based on a poll of subscribers. In the end, this is the simple message of The Last Unicorn: that the magic hasn’t gone away, that it’s all around you in your life right now, and the only thing preventing you from recognizing it and being dazzled by it is you.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

13 Jan

Gilgamesh, the famous Mesopotamian hero, is believed to be based on a real person, who was most probably a Sumerian king. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem recording the hero’s exploits, was transcribed onto tablets in the second millennium BC. He is portrayed in sculptures and reliefs from every period of the region’s civilisation as a robust, bearded warrior, who struggles with lions, bulls and assorted monsters. He owes his immortality to the great epic poem that was written about him – the very first such literature known to humankind. Far from being a mere relic, the Gilgamesh epic is one of the most dramatic stories ever told. Even today, 3,500 years after its composition, its themes of friendship, loss and the fear of death have profound resonance. In Sumerian times, the epic must have enthralled its readers or, more often, its listeners – for in a society where only a small number were literate this poem was surely written to be read aloud.

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Faire Game

11 Nov

Renaissance Faires have become increasingly popular the world around, often establishing themselves as annual events in specific locations. From jousts to feasts, plays to magic shows, from dancers and musicians to fortune-tellers and artisans, today’s Faire-goers can find any number of events and people to catch their interest and spark their imagination. Countless Renaissance Faires  throughout the world are perfect settings for experiences of a fantastical nature – here you can see legions of players in all their regalia, fighting in jousts, singing to fair maidens, hawking their wares and so on. Many Renaissance Faires are set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, as this period has been generally considered to correspond to the flowering of the English Renaissance. Some are set earlier, during the reign of Henry VIII, or in other countries, such as France, and some are set outside the era of the Renaissance; these may include earlier medieval periods (including Vikings), or later periods, such as 17th-/18th-century pirates. Some engage in deliberate time travel by encouraging participants to wear costumes representing several eras in a broad time period. Renaissance Faires (or RenFaires for short) encourage visitors to enter into the spirit of things with costumes and audience participation – many even welcome fantasy elements such as wizards and elves!

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The Irish Folk Music Tradition

16 Sep

Kept alive by a combination of historical, political and cultural forces, Irish traditional music remains one of the richest musical cultures in the Western world. In Ireland itself, the growing interest in traditional music is further evidence of a national maturity that allows Irish people to be more relaxed about aspects of their traditional culture. Consequently, traditional music is neither seen as backward, rural and something shameful, nor is it a stick of cultural purity for fending off the 21st century. Long after much traditional music in the industrialised West has ceased to exist in any meaningful way, Irish music continues to refashion itself, not as introverted, stagnant and nationalistic, but as an evolving and progressive part of a common, universal oral folk tradition. Travellers to Ireland will most likely come across traditional music in a pub setting and these quasi-impromptu musical get-togethers are known as ‘sessions’. These are the life-blood of traditional music, accompanied by the associated notion of craic (or crack) whereby music, conversation and drink combine to produce an evening of fun.

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Trollhunter

15 Jul

As it turns out there is more to Scandinavian cinema than just Ingmar Bergman and bleak, wintry black and white films which contemplate the human condition, religion and death. A new generation of young filmmakers are challenging old stereotypes and forging exciting new ground. Trollhunter is a 2010 Norwegian dark fantasy film, made in the form of a “found footage” mockumentary. It is written and directed by André Øvredal, and features a mixed cast of relatively unknown actors and well-known Norwegian comedians. This is a bit of an oddball film: a found footage faux documentary about a group of Norwegian college students tailing and filming a mysterious hunter who turns out to be a specialist in capturing and killing trolls. The result is a surprisingly believable dark fantasy film with some top notch digital effects.

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Into the Labyrinth

8 Apr

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back. The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff. He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Streetand Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories. But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood. For over thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain. So, following the pearl anniversary of its cinematic release, we ask: what’s all the fuss about?

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Realm of the Rising Sun

11 Feb

In Japan, as in China, there is a large pantheon of gods and demons, but whereas the Chinese mirror the bureaucracy of Earth in heaven, the Japanese pay homage through their state religion of Shintoism to a sun goddess, Amaterasu. Shintoists believe that almost 3,000 years ago Amaterasu sent her grandson down to Earth to be Japan’s first ruler, thus making the emperors of Japan her direct descendants – an actual divine family and not just a divinely chosen one. The persistence and survival of Shinto beliefs are remarkable phenomena in a country in which the majority of people are practising Buddhists. In part Shinto owes its longevity to political factors – it has been used periodically to bolster the authority of the state. Equally significant, however, is the way in which Shinto beliefs are meshed into the very fabric of Japan: into the physical landscape as well as the mental hinterland of traditions. For Shintoism (literally “The Way of the Gods”) has its roots in ancient nature worship: its first deities were the innumerable spirits – the kami or “beings of higher place” – that resided in mountains and waterfalls, or sacred groves of trees. Yet even now, when the emperors have renounced their claim to divinity, the gods have retained a place in Japanese affections. While, today, most these beliefs are consumed as entertainment – in manga or anime – there is nevertheless a sense in which for many Japanese they form an important part of national identity.

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A Touch of Frost

14 Dec

Jack Frost is the personification of frost, ice, snow, sleet, winter, and freezing cold. He is sometimes described or depicted with paint brush and bucket colouring the autumnal foliage red, yellow, brown, and orange. Sometimes he is portrayed as a dangerous giant but, starting in late 19th century literature, more developed characterizations of Jack Frost depict him as a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief maker or as a hero. This mischievous sprite is traditionally said to leave the frosty, fern-like patterns on windows on cold winter mornings (window frost or fern frost) and nipping the extremities in cold weather. Over time, however, Jack Frost has become far less prevalent in the modern world due to the advance of double-glazing, but he remains a well-known figure in popular culture. He is a variant of Old Man Winter who is similarly held responsible for frosty weather, nipping the nose and toes in such weather, colouring the foliage in autumn, and leaving fern-like patterns on cold windows in winter. However, he also resembles other similar spirits of winter from around the world, including the Japanese Yuki-onna, Grandfather Frost in Russia and Mother Holle in Germany.

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Faith and Fantasy: American Gods

20 Aug

Scary, gripping and often deeply unsettling, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has reached a new audience since being adapted recently as a television series. Placing it in a specific genre has however proved tricky since its publication – some have described it as urban fantasy while others label it as mythic fiction. One description that is as good as any, given the novel’s subject matter, is religious fantasy. A fantasy of religion is a text that depicts or makes use of commonly understood religious tropes, but which recasts them in the context of additional fantastic narrative elements. A clear example of this approach is the satire employed by James Morrow in his 1990 novel Only Begotten Daughter. Although it has a notionally science-fictional frame, being set a few years in the future and hypothesizing some near-future technologies, the overall effect of the book is clearly that of fantasy, as was recognised when it won the World Fantasy Award for its year. The book begins by following Murray Katz, a celibate lighthouse-keeper, who discovers that a sperm donation he has made has become a foetus: an immaculate conception. Overtaken by responsibility for his child-to-be, he brings home the ‘ectogenesis machine’ containing it, and ends up superintending the birth and childhood of the Daughter of God, Julie Katz. The body of the book follows Julie’s adulthood, as she arrives at her credo despite the best efforts of fundamentalist ministers and the Devil. Of course, fantasies of religion need not be as overtly revisionist as Morrow’s. Gene Wolfe is an author primarily known for science fiction rather than fantasy. His Catholicism is also a well-known part of his worldview; it is prominent in his most well-known work, The Book of the New Sun (4 vols, 1980-83). It is set on a far-future ‘Urth’, and many of the fantasy tropes that appear – wizards, magic and so on – can be understood from the text as, for instance, aliens or energy weapons. However, it cannot be denied that the experience of reading the series has many similarities with that of a religious fantasy. The unlikely protagonist, the torturer Severian, is a Christ figure sent and enabled to achieve the task of a new sun for a dying world. The many layers of imagery this invokes – Christ/Apollo, New Son/Sun, for instance – are left for the reader to understand.

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