Posts Tagged 'Britain'

MONSTER OF THE WEEK: Rawhead & Bloody Bones

Rawhead

When you’re five years old, you don’t question the existence of monsters. You know, on some primal level, that there are things in the dark waiting to grab you. You might not be able to put a name or a face to such dangers, but you’re certain they’re out there all the same. Your parents will come into your room and show you that there’s nothing under the bed, or in the closet, or outside the window. They’ll put on the night-light and insist there’s no such thing as monsters. While you’re reassured, as you drift off into sleep you still harbor doubts. It’s at the edge of such thoughts that Rawhead and Bloody Bones lives.

Britain has produced a lot of fantastic bogeymen (a class of monster I’ll elaborate on in future articles), but Rawhead is unquestionably one of their champion contributions.  He’s also known as “Rawhead Bloody Bones”,  “Old Bloody Bones”, “Tommy Rawhead”, “Tommy Rawbones”, or just plain “Bloody Bones.” Stories about him seem to have originated somewhere around Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, or Lancashire, and he dates back to at least the seventeenth century.

He takes his name from his appearance, which is suitably ghastly. He’s a lean, naked giant, with pale skin and great, grasping hands. His head is a mangled nightmare, all pulped flesh and wide, staring eyes, rivulets of blood running down his face and dripping on his chest. He has a den, hidden somewhere, piled high with the gnawed bones of children, where he sits and waits, his long arms clasped about his long legs, which he keeps tucked under his chin. When he senses prey, he unfolds his limbs like a waking spider.

Every bogeyman has some gimmick. Perhaps they stuff you in a bag and carry you off to god knows where, or lurk in dangerous places your parents told you to stay away from, or maybe they punish certain bad behaviors. Old Bloody Bones has all of these traits, but he has a certain directness and simplicity the others lack. He comes for children who lie or say bad words. He can lurk anywhere, from the basement to the attic, from the stagnant pond to the crumbling old well. Most of all he favors dark cupboards, especially if they’re located under the stairs. Nothing can keep him away. You never know where he’ll appear, and once he does those long, pale hands can slip through any crack or keyhole, and their grip is as hard and cold as iron.

For such a simple monster, Rawhead is particularly enduring.  During the English Civil War, there was a folk song that compared the murderous Colonel Thomas Lunsford to the monster with the line: “Made children with your tones to run for’t/As bad as Bloody Bones of Lunsford.” John Locke wrote about him, warning parents not to tell stories of him to children. In more recent years, he inspired the titular monster of Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex movie, and the band Siouxsie and the Banshees wrote a song about him:

His most notable influence, though, is on his cousin, the Rawhead and Bloody Bones of the United States. This Rawhead is very different, and his stories are told mostly in the southern U.S., especially in places like the Ozarks and the Appalachians, regions settled generations about by largely British immigrants. In these stories, Rawhead starts out as a big, ferocious boar, who is kept as a pet by a strange old woman, often reputed to be a witch. Usually Rawhead is caught by a butcher or hunter and gets slaughtered, but his bloody bones and skinned head are left behind. Either through the powers of the old woman (who is in fact a witch in this take) or through his own terrible will, Rawhead comes back to life. His bones rearrange themselves into a standing position, and place the skinned head on top, and then he takes off into the woods, where he acquires the teeth of a mountain lion, the claws of a bear, and the tail of a raccoon from various corpses and attaches them to himself. Rawhead Bloodybones then hunts down the men or men who killed him, murders them, and then collapses into a pile of bones and meat or escapes into the wilderness to kill again.

The influence of the British Rawhead is obvious in the American version, as both are sinister monsters lurking in the darkness, each with a mangled head and the same name. The pig element is strange, though. It’s nowhere in any of the British folk traditions. It might be the result of Rawhead getting conflated with the Black Sow, a Welsh bogeyman who takes the form of an anthropomorphic, murderous pig, during his transition from Britain to the colonies. The Black Sow is a pretty good monster in her own right, inspiring an old episode from Tales from the Darkside, though it makes her Scottish for some reason.

As you can see from all of this, Rawhead’s reach is long. I think his great strength as a monster is his simplicity. It’s basic enough that you can easily spin him into new variations, and he embodies very powerful, basic fears. The distorted human form, danger lurking in dark places, the threat to children, and most of all an implacable nature that you can’t hide from or escape. You can pick him up, adjust a few basic traits, and plop him down in any culture, place, or time, and he works just as well as ever. I’ve been longing to work him into a story for ages. For now, he lurks at the corners of my mind, and hopefully now he’s lurking in yours as well.

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Beware Old Man Willow

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The poem in the above picture is, supposedly, an excerpt from a Somerset folk-song. I say “supposedly” because the source is one Ruth Tongue. Ms. Tongue was an invaluable source of Somerset folklore, publishing numerous books, but she was not a trained researcher, she was a storyteller. As a result, it’s hard to tell if some of her works are genuine folklore or her own creations, and I’ve never been able to find a full copy of the song this excerpt comes from.

Nevertheless, it reflects a genuine belief in British folklore that different trees had supernatural properties. Elm trees were thought to grieve for one another; if one elm died, another nearby may as well. Oaks were thought to be vengeful, and a coppiced oak grove, grown from the stumps of oaks cut down by humans, was not a safe place to be, especially if a carpet of bluebells lay beneath it; that meant it might be home to hostile, dwarf-like nature spirits called Oakmen. Willow trees were more dangerous still, uprooting themselves after dark to follow people around, muttering dark threats.

There are many other such beliefs, aside from the ones in this poem. Oaks were also reputed to wail when cut. Hawthrown trees were supposed to be fairy-haunted. Yew trees were associated with death, and nothing was supposed to grow around them; this one might have some basis in fact, as yew leaves are toxic. There’s a story about a sacred elder tree in Borrisokane that if anyone  tried to burn part of it for firewood, their house would be consumed in an inferno.

This is just a sampling of such beliefs. It simply goes to show that cultures that believed in magic saw it everywhere. Modern fiction sometimes presents the world as if there is nature (which functions according to science and physics as we understand it) and then the supernatural (which does not) but genuine magical beliefs tended not to make this distinction. The magic of trees is just one small example of this philosophy.

DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests

Art of a medieval German mine

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot Men of the Mountains

PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Last week I talked about how in certain parts of Europe, the belief in dwarves introduced by the Vikings blended with pre-existing local beliefs in fairies, but that was hardly an isolated incident. Europe is host to many, many spirit-beings that are similar to dwarves. In some cases, a Norse influence is clear. In the first article of this series I mentioned a British dwarf called a duergar, a hostile being generally regarded as some sort of fairy or goblin, whose name is linguistically derived from the Norse term for a dwarf. In other cases, though, there’s no relation. The ancient Greeks believed in beings called dactyls, little men created by the titan Rhea, who lived under the mountains and taught humanity the art of metalworking. They sound very similar to dwarves, but there’s no evidence whatsoever of them being culturally related. Two different cultures just happened to come up with similar ideas.

There’s a lot of grey area between these two extremes. When a belief is introduced to a new culture, it can become almost unrecognizable as it fuses with other beliefs or gets spun off into unprecedented variants. Without direct linguistic or historical evidence, it’s hard to say which dwarf-like beings in European folklore evolved from dwarves, and which ones, like the dactyls, were created independently. Still, in Northern Europe, where the Norse influence was strongest, we can reasonably assume that similar traditions are probably related. Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests’

DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Dwarfs_at_Work.jpg

Like elves, dwarves have become a staple of modern fantasy literature. Also like elves, this is largely due to the influence of JRR Tolkien, and it’s his version that dominates. These dwarves, despite being short, are brawny and tough, with big beards and big axes.  They are champion smiths, miners, and architects, living far beneath the earth in underground cities. That’s the common version, but the history behind it is more complex.

Elves and dwarves both have their roots in Nordic mythology, but where Tolkien mainly based his elves on Celtic lore, his dwarves are very Norse indeed. Tolkien’s dwarves use Nordic runes for writing, often use axes as weapons (very popular amongst the Norse, especially the Danes) and epitomize a certain gruff manliness commonly associated with Vikings. Beyond that, they stick very close to their mythic predecessors in that they are master smiths and craftsmen, sometimes have an unpleasant greedy streak, and live underground. Still, there are significant differences as well, and Tolkien (as well as many other writers) have drawn on dwarf traditions that evolved through the centuries.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men’

SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds

The magic circle, by John William Waterhouse

If you’re writing a story about supernatural dangers, you don’t want things ending in the first few pages, so the characters may need some reliable ways to defend themselves. Folklore and legend are chock full of various ways to do this, so per a reader request, I’ve spent the last week digging up some good ones for your use.

These remedies and protections can be played in a lot of different ways in a story. Sure, you could use them as described, but you could also just make them a point of cultural interest, or use their symbolism in a story otherwise devoid of magic. You could undermine them as well, foreshadowing the one crucial defense against a monster, only for the hero to find out it’s all a lot of hot air at the worst possible time. Plus, if you want to create some original otherwordly threat for your story, these might be a good jumping off point for creating your own defenses against it.

Continue reading ‘SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds’

DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath

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What makes a magical creature magical? This question has often bugged me in my own writing. Take the griffin, for example. On the one hand, it’s a blatantly impossible creature, part lion and part eagle. At the same time, in most stories, the griffin is just a beast. It’s a strange beast, and it’s very fierce, but it is still a brute creature of flesh and blood, to be avoided or killed. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when a magical creature is reduced to a beast, it becomes much less interesting.

This brings me to dragons. I haven’t talked much about dragons on this blog so far, and that’s been on purpose. There’s so much literature out there about them already that I feel I should avoid the topic unless I have a relatively novel aspect to bring to the table. Today I think I do. You see, dragons often have the same problem as the griffin. It’s all too common to see them reduced to a big dinosaur with halitosis. They’re so popular, so frequently seen and written about, that it’s hard to find new things to do with them. If that issue is one that has plagued you in your creative attempts, this article is for you.

Continue reading ‘DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath’

ELVES, PART IV: The Little People will Shank You

Rackham_elves

PART I: Stealing Creatively

PART II: Sociopaths from Another World

PART III: Magical Viking Supermodels

We’ve discussed elves as fairies, and we’ve discussed the older origins of elves, but there’s a third and very obvious option left. It is also probably the least popular. You see, there’s a funny trend with mythological creatures. Initially, when they’re believed in, they’re tall and threatening and powerful. As belief wanes and they become less important to the culture that created them they tend to shrink in stature and become more mischievous or annoying. It’s a pattern that you can see with fairies, trolls, Japanese tengu, and countless others. It’s one major reason why today fairies are generally thought to be diminutive creatures. It’s why when the concept of Santa’s elves was introduced in the 1800s, people accepted it matter-of-factly.

Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART IV: The Little People will Shank You’