Middle English Word of the Moment

Monday, April 20, 2009

Some disjointed notes on folklore origins

Various notes to return to later, some more interesting than others, culled from a conversation with zastrugi. She’s Canadian, I’m Australian, and yes, I know I should read more of Jeffrey J. Cohen’s work if I want to take this any farther.

- So, America has an inordinate number of road-related evil folkloric things – the hook man, phantom hitchhikers, etc (cf Supernatural, which exploits these and which started this conversation). Possibly related to the fact that America has an awful lot of roads and quite a culture of interstate/city driving?

- Canada has some of the same but not so many, intercity driving / hitchhiking not being considered so much of a social danger as in America? Tends to be a little more regional in its folklore, eg, stories of pirate/ship ghosts in the east, though for obvious reasons not so much in the landlocked provinces. Places with forests are prone to sasquatch stories.

- Australia has a lot of water-based spirits/bogeys (granted, everywhere does, but more than most places), many of which can be vaguely lumped under ‘bunyip’ - water being a strong focus of rural-based communities, a rare commodity, desirable and necessary and also a danger, don’t-go-near-the-waterhole? We do have a few larger Nessie-type creatures, and there’s a several thousand year old Aboriginal painting in a cave near a Sydney lake that depicts something suspiciously like a Plesiosaur. We don’t get so many humanoid monsters – why? Nor road-based ones, possibly because we don’t do so much intercity driving, our cities being too far apart.

- Those humanoid monsters Aboriginal myth has given rise to are mostly of the old man of the forest type, and mostly focus on grabbing/stealing/victimising children. The figure of the lost/stolen children carried on more strongly than most aboriginal myth patterns into white settlers’ imagination – why this particularly? Fear-stories to prevent children from wandering off? Insofar as there is a difference, I think Aboriginal stories tend to personify, have a certain thing (monster?) being responsible for taking them, whereas European stories it’s the bush itself that eats them up, disorients them and consumes them - the bush itself as something threatening, waiting, hostile? The bush not so foreign and other to aboriginal societies, so they locate the evil on specific things?

- Zastrugi would like to point out that Australia is scary and the landscape is still foreign / dangerous enough to give us enough monsters without needing humanoid demons. Canada has “various legend/stories that are ... liberally told .. about wild animals or the cold killing people, and madness, but it's usually a variation of THE WILDERNESS KILLED THE POOR PERSON (in some horrible way), not so much FOCUSSED EVIL OUT TO GET YOU”.

- We do have phantom big cats in modern folklore, and joke things like drop bears. But we don’t have much. Australia doesn't go so much for the folklore at all, which maybe can be attributed to mostly being settled within the whole modern frame so you don't get so much local background legend building up, and possibly the fact that the humanoid monsters seem less popular in the last century or so – in western society, are human-faced monsters (vampires, werewolves) less prevalent or taken less seriously since Victorian times?

- The type of monster-with-a-human-face doesn’t really work now - now monsters are actually humans, the rapist, the paedophile, the terrorist, the nightly news, no need to make things up. Zastrugi points out “one of my favourite authors (An American who actually DID run away because it was scary there and is now a Canadian, bless Spidey Robinson) wrote before Sept. 11 that soon the only two sins the Western world would recognise would be paedophilia and terrorism, because they're the only two sins that you can allege without proof.”

- Mediaeval maps / travel accounts – the boundaries of the known world are marked with monsters and deformed people, two heads, head beneath their shoulders, ape men, dog-headed people, more and more not-human the farther they get. Distance increases otherness, pushes the unfamiliar farther away and makes it comfortably monstrous, helps to define what is ‘here’ and ‘us’. Cf. Gerald of Wales – you think Wales is foreign and backwards? Wait until you hear about Ireland, with all their shapeshifters and sex with animals! But now we have mapped all the world, and can’t mark HERE BE DRAGONS anywhere. So logically, the boundaries with strange things on them move farther out – aliens, monsters of the mid 20th century, the unknown that defines us in body and mind.

- But now aliens are not so scary because I think collectively we kind of feel like we have control over space/science, which we didn't in the mid 20th century. Now it's the human psyche, back to look at humans again, but the ‘other’ is no longer spatial, it’s internal. Still about the limits of comprehension, but it’s pushed back on what we comprehend of ourselves.

- WWII had a part in it, maybe? Z: “as the realisation slowly began to sink in that normal people can be monsters, too, then go back to being normal people without so much as a pause or recognition that there was anything wrong with who they were being.” me: “yes, without even that disjuncture that you can say that is not a human like you can with a werewolf or a vampire. But also people feeling so comfortable with science and technology and feeling like we all control/understand it on an everyday level, so aliens which were the realm of science aren't so foreign or so potent.”

- Zastrugi speculates that this is why there’s so little actual science fiction, as opposed to fantasy set on a spaceship: “why bother dreaming about the impossible when you've been trained that it'll happen with enough time? Heinlein, though (old sci fi writer) is very good to read, because he actually does do science in it (without being as thick as some of his contemporaries), but he also thinks very much about how all the changes he's postulating would change how people interact with each other”.

- Zastrugi has made sauce to bread something for dinner and has only now realised that “I don't have bread or breadcrumbs. :/”


Anonymous said...

I think that what Zastrugi ought to mean by `so little science fiction' is `so little well-known science fiction'! The hardcore tech stuff sells less well so is less famous but is certainly out there (and I might start with Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash as a mainstream example and appeal to my housemates for further ones if need be...). As to the monsters theme, you say:

Canada has “various legend/stories that are ... liberally told .. about wild animals or the cold killing people, and madness, but it's usually a variation of THE WILDERNESS KILLED THE POOR PERSON (in some horrible way), not so much FOCUSSED EVIL OUT TO GET YOU”.Just made me think, isn't the Wendigo a Canadian monster?

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

I have no idea - this is just really two people brainstorming concepts on a subject that's rather out of our fields, so accuracy isn't a given - but it sounds like something to look into! Thanks!

Jules Frusher said...

Yep, the wendigo is a Canadian evil spirit which is cannabalistic in nature and often takes a human form (or possesses a human). The Chippewa of Dakota (yes, I know, US not Canada) also have many legends about water spirits, particularly one called Misshepeshu which features in the excellent novel by Louise Erdrich called Tracks.

The bit about the Australian bush being dangerous made me laugh as I watch Neighbours (yes, OK, I admit it) - and every time the characters go out into the bush something bad happens to them!

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Oh now really? That's very interesting! I never watch Neighbours, though I can usually tell it by the cringingly bad acting if I flick past it when looking for something else, but if the bush exists in that purely as Ye Olde Dark Evil Forest Of Malice that's rather telling in itself, isn't it?

Of course, we love to tell stories about various scary animals or plants or other elements of our landscape, in a way that makes them sound terrifying while pretending they're no big deal, just like we do with our weather. "Oh, 35? Sure it's hot, but you just walk a bit slower and take your time and it's not so bad." "Well, there's a red-bellied black snake in a burrow just next to where we camped. Deadly? Oh, yes, technically, if they actually bite you, but they're pretty sluggish, and they're shy. It's not as if they're going to CHASE you, all you ahve to do is watch your step..."

I think we all quite like the Little Aussie Battler myth about ourselves, too.