Posts Tagged 'Celtic'

Beware Old Man Willow


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.


BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales

In this series, I’ve talked a lot about books that are purely reference material, providing overviews and general information about their chosen topics. While these sorts of books are fine, if you really want to plumb the depths of folklore you need to read the actual folktales, and I’d like to introduce you to some good collections of them. I’ve talked about fairies a number of times on this blog, including in last week’s list of defenses against the supernatural, so let’s start with a book about them.

Continue reading ‘BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales’

DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath


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 II: Sociopaths from Another World


PART I: Stealing Creatively

Cultural views of fairies have changed a lot over the centuries. Once, they were viewed as spirits or beings that looked like humans, only more beautiful and powerful, who lived across the sea or under the earth in an otherworld of eternal spring. They could be terrible or friendly, depending on their mood. Fairyland was notably out of sync with our world, only allowing fairies to visit our world at certain places or times.

For the most part Tolkien’s elves take their cues from fairy folklore. They’re tall, beautiful, and immortal, live under hills[1], or in deep forests[2], or in great shining cities[3]. Time passes differently in their realms[4]. They even have a weird combination of heaven and fairyland out at sea in the form of Valinor[5], very clearly inspired by the Irish tradition that the fairies lived in enchanted islands far out in the Atlantic Ocean.

I could go on and on about the parallels, but the fact of the matter is what’s more interesting is what Tolkien chose to change. The Fair Folk are generally very mercurial in folklore and are less benevolent compared to Tolkien’s elves. Moreover, while Tolkien’s elves do things that seem magical to the people around them, they are decidedly less magical than traditional fairies, who could change their shape (or yours) at whim, could conjure castles of glass, bewitched knights, stole babies and switched them with changelings, and much, much more.

Now, several fictional settings have already used the term “elf” to refer to the taller, more old fashioned sort of fairy, notably Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics (and the associated movies), and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. They, like Tolkien, picked and chose what stuff they kept and what they didn’t. If you want to write fantasy, there’s no reason you can’t do the same.

Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART II: Sociopaths from Another World’

ELVES, PART I: Stealing Creatively


The modern fantasy genre draws on a lot of disparate literary sources, from Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter to Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, but the biggest of all is J.R.R. Tolkien. He really solidified the concept of a fantasy world, apart from our own, set in a quasi-medieval period where humankind interacted with supernatural forces. One particular element he made commonplace was the visualization of supernatural creatures as just another sort of people, made of flesh and blood, with their own cultures and traditions. Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART I: Stealing Creatively’