The Alp and the Schrattl

Our guest columnist Richard H. Fay, is back this week for his last topical post before Halloween (fear not, this series will continue after the 31st!).  You can read his blog here, and, since not only is he a notable historian of the occult but also a talented artist, we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Alpe And Schrattl

According to traditional Germanic lore, strange creatures haunted the craggy peaks and shadowed vales of the European Alps. Some of these beings delighted in troubling humankind, using supernatural powers to harass and even prey upon vulnerable mortals. Certain examples of Alpine bogey, such as the Alp and its more dangerous and ghoulish sub-type the Schrattl, combined the traits of fairy, vampire, and sorcerer to become feared threats to those living in the shadows of the snow-capped mountains of central Europe. A few even exhibited a taste for blood reminiscent of the Slavic vampire.

Several different folkloric threads seem to have been woven together by Alpine storytellers in the creation of the tapestry of Alp lore. Originally, Alpe were conceived as magical metal-working dwarves, inhabitants of the dark places deep within the mountains (Rose, 1998). Later, Alpe evolved into bringers of nightmares and disease, beings with a penchant for sitting on the chests of unsuspecting sleepers to cause breathing troubles and bad dreams (Franklin, 2002). At times, Alpe sexually assaulted humans in the manner of incubi, and were even known to suck blood from the nipples of both sexes (Guiley, 2005). In addition to blood, Alpe also consumed milk and semen (Curran, 2005). In a motif echoed in the fairy lore of Europe’s Celtic fringe, Alpe occasionally knotted the hair of sleeping mortals and took nighttime joyrides on the backs of unprotected horses (Franklin, 2002).

The exact nature of the Alp often depended upon location, varying from place to place. In parts of Germany and Austria, the Alp manifested as a malignant revenant (Curran, 2005). In other parts of Germany, Alpe remained living dwarfs, albeit ones imbued with elemental powers (Curran, 2005). Certain tales told of Alpe appearing as vampiric butterflies released by the breath of the demonic horerczy (Guiley, 2005). In the Brocken and Herz Mountains, Alpe served witches, often spreading evil in the form of cats or voles (Curran, 2005). Under certain circumstances, living mortals could become Alpe, either through sinister sorcery or through a mother’s unforgiven sins (Curran, 2005). Regardless of appearance, whether it be pig, bird, cat, vole, or lecherous dog, each Alp in animal form typically wore a magical hat which granted it the ability to shape-shift and to render itself invisible (Guiley, 2005).

While some variations of the Alp undoubtedly displayed vampiric tendencies amongst their diverse range of disturbing traits, the Austrian Schrattl was a vampire in the truest sense, a revenant roaming Alpine nights in search of blood. Roused to a semblance of life while still interred in the grave, the animated corpse of the Schrattl would tear and gnaw at its funeral shroud until it devoured the winding cloths (Curran, 2005). The Schrattl then turned its hunger toward the bodies of those buried in nearby graves and launched attacks against its former family and friends (Curran, 2005). Not content with assaults against humans alone, the Schrattl assailed animals and property as well (Curran, 2005). Possessed of fearsome mental powers, the Schrattl could drive its potential victims and those it wished to control insane (Curran, 2005). Typical of vampires worldwide, the Schrattl also spread disease in its dreadful wake (Curran, 2005).

Germanic tellers of dark tales threw various strains of ancient belief into the pot to create the potentially deadly stew that was Alp lore. Witches, demons, sorcerers, dwarfs, fairies, and vampires all lent different attributes to the Alp hodge-podge. No matter the form the Alp took, dangerous dwarf or vampiric butterfly, ghoulish revenant or shape-shifting sorcerer, it could be a potent threat to human life and well-being. Although various Alpe may have thirsted for blood and other bodily fluids, the vampiric nature of these creatures expressed itself most strongly in the shroud-eating Schrattl. Powerful and extremely malignant, the Schrattl troubled all mortals it encountered during its nocturnal forays across the Alpine countryside.

 

References

Curran, Dr. Bob. (2005). Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night. Franklin Lakes, New Jersey: New Page Books.

Franklin, Anna. (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies. London: Anova Books.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Checkmark Books.

Rose, Carol. (1998). Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

 

(Article originally published in Hungur, Issue 10, Walpurgisnacht 2010.)

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Inspiring Disney Since 1946

beauty and the beast 1946 poster

If you’re anything at all like me, you will often find yourself watching a Disney film and shaking your head in disbelief at the sheer talent and creativity on display.  Where, you’ll ask yourself, do they get all these amazing ideas?

Part of it is the source material, of course.  By borrowing from humanity’s most beloved myths and legends, the company is assured a product that, for whatever reason, is a proven commodity that pushes the buttons of audiences, and often has been doing so for hundreds of years.

That’s incredibly smart, but it’s just a base on which they then unleash some of the most talented directors, artists and animators on the planet.  The results speak for themselves.  I still remember watching Aladdin (first Disney feature I saw in a cinema as a teenager after years of disdaining cartoons) and being completely blown away by it.

But at least in once case, I know where they got most of their ideas and aesthetic, and that one is Beauty and the Beast.  Simply stated, the 1991 Disney edition is a remake of Jean Cocteau‘s 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bête.

This is a huge relief to me because the excessive talent of the people working on modern films was driving me to drink, so it’s a bit of a relief to know it isn’t all down to their own creativity.  It’s nice to know that they are inspired by someone else every once in a while, and that they are humble enough not to mess with perfection… only to animate it!

There’s no need to summarize the plot of the 1946 film.  It’s the Beauty and the Beast after all, but it has to be acknowledged that what Cocteau pulled off in immediate post-war France was extremely impressive.  Dark, moody sets, an ever-present sense of utter magic and the feeling of being immersed in a fairy tale that looked just how a peasant in 1800 would have imagined it to look must not have been easy to achieve.

But most of all, it was interesting to see just how many of the elements were familiar to viewers of the 1991 animation.  The creative teapots, candelabra and other living elements were included, albeit not as characters in their own rights.  Despite being made nearly fifty years later, it is clear that the Disney film was more than just inspired by the earlier movie–they simply updated it.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

They also chose to leave the beast as he was–they are remarkably similar in concept, considering the huge leeway allowed by animation versus having to apply makeup to an actor using what was available in Europe in 1946.

It was an inspired decision–the old film is still the definitive B&B, so messing too much with the formula would have been unwise in the extreme, and thanks to that, the animated version is now a classic in its own right.

There have been other takes on this legend, both on stage and on screens big and small.  None have stood the test of time as well as these two (the awful TV series, especially), essentially because the most important elements–the visuals of the beast and his castle–are identical in every significant way.

And now, I’m even more impressed with the Mickey Mouse guys.  Knowing when to leave well enough alone is just as difficult as knowing when to solve problems in the most creative way possible.  But for my money, I’ll still take Cocteau’s version.

Not much strangeness surrounding the production of this one, so we’ll drop in a racing driver piece (at Classically Educated, we enjoy auto racing, mainly because of its social unacceptability): it seems like one of the actresses, Mila Parély was married to multiple Le Mans entrant Taso Mathieson.  We approve.

Impressive Youth

One thing we see quite a bit of are posts on social media and articles on supposedly reputable news sources that express horror over the terrible literacy and writing habits of teens and young adults.  Some sources blame text messaging (LOL) while others wring their hands over the terrible decline in the educational system under either the left or the right, depending on each individual or media outlet’s political leanings.

Of course, here at Classically Educated, not only do we believe that every political party has an unfair bias against the cultural elites (which is irrelevant in this context, but we like to remind everyone of it every chance we get), but we also believe int he scientific process.

Which means that we decided to put the theory to rigorous scientific examination* to find out if all the fuss was justified.

The first thing we did was to try to track down some modern writing from young adult, maybe someone younger than 22 or 23 years of age.  Fortunately, one of our editors works with a woman who fits the bill and also enjoys doing some creative writing.  So we asked her for a story.

After reading it, we were pretty depressed.  It needed a little polish, but, other than that, the story was not only competently written and well thought out, but it the ending was brilliant.  In fact some of our editors and contributors, who are also writers wept openly and are considering giving up their word processors because if the forthcoming generations are going to write that way, we’re all pretty much doomed anyway.

More importantly, the writing was grammatically correct with not a LOL or WTF to be seen.  It was even set in a culturally interesting milieu.

Of course, we still weren’t convinced,  A twenty-one-year-old might not have been affected by the full brunt of the texting-centric social culture, and therefore might have outgrown it.  What we really needed was something written by teens and pre-teens to figure it all out.

Impresiones 2011

Fortunately, we had something to hand, a small volume of prose and verse published by a school called Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires.  This is an institution very much in the spirit of those we listed among our World’s Most Awesome Schools.

The book in question is entitled Impresiones: A Bilingual Anthology (2011) and is perfect for our purposes because it has prose and verse in both English and Spanish.  It should give us a pretty good idea of whether the people immersed in the texting culture were having any literacy issues (we chose the 2011 edition because the authors are now adults, which means we’re not exposing teens to any particular scrutiny, but they were teens when this was written).

Well… while none of our editors decided they had to give up literature forever after reading this, the writing, on a sentence and grammar level, is all very good.  Even in those stories written in English (remember that these are students whose first language is Spanish) were well-written, and seemed to be thought out in English (one of the easy ways to tell when a story was written by a Spanish speaker is that the sentences, while grammatically correct, use a word order that is more typical of Spanish than English–dead giveaway that the writer was translating as he wrote, not thinking the story through in English).

It might be argued that these examples are no use because they’ve been curated.  The anthology was probably the best writing of the year at that particular school, and the woman’s story was an outlier: written by someone who is set on becoming a writer.

Infinite Monkeys With Typewriters

That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t really matter.  You see, it’s always been like that.  Even twenty or fifty years ago, most people wrote like a drunk chimpanzee.  The joke above describes the literary efforts of any given 99% of the population in whichever era you choose to name.  But the fact that the good ones are still good puts any idea that texting obsessively is killing the language.

Which makes sense if you think about it.  There’s a good analogy for this which we don’t remember the source for (if it was you, drop us a comment and well give due credit): Text messaging is like playing catch.  It’s not a rigorous exercise in perfection, but it can’t do the person doing it any harm; after all, it’s still writing, and not everything is ROFL.

So everyone can stop panicking and go back to your political arguments.  We, by the way, are trying to clone Tiberius.  Now THAT was a leader (you can yell at us in the comments, that’s what they’re for).

 

*All right, we didn’t do a rigorous scientific examination.  We looked at a couple of isolated anecdotic cases.  So sue us.

Vampiric Creatures of Ancient Myth and Legend

As you can see, we’re in the spirit of October here at Classically Educated with the spirits being prevalent!  Our guest columnist Richard H. Fay, is back this week (you can see last week’s post about the connection between fairies and the dead, here) with yet another topical entry (for more vampire posts, we also recommend this article).  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

 

Lilith Stone Carving

Ever since mankind first imagined mythic threats alongside the mundane, creatures that feasted on the blood or life-force of humans haunted the long, dark night. Blood-sucking monsters, life-draining fiends, and the revenant dead featured in the myths and legends of many diverse cultures across the globe and throughout history. Even though the concept of the vampire as an animated corpse feeding on the blood of the living became most fully developed in medieval Eastern Europe (Curran, 2005, p. 33; Richardson, n.d.), the idea of strange and supernatural creatures sustaining themselves on human vitality goes back centuries.

The great-great grandmother of vampiric creatures in Western lore may have been the winged female entity known as Lilith. This spiteful demoness entered early Hebrew tradition through Mesopotamian mythology about beings such as Lilitu, a wind and storm spirit (Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 366). Lilith was either Adam’s first wife or became his lover after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Jealous of the fruits of marital unions and angry over God’s destruction of hundreds of her own demonic offspring, Lilith became the vampiric bane of women in childbirth and newborn babes (Guiley, 2005, p. 181; Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 367.) She also sought sexual intercourse with lonely and vulnerable men, leaving her male victims exhausted or even dead after their night of sinful passion (Curran, 2006, p. 23). In an interesting parallel to vampire lore regarding the crucifix as a potent protection against the predatory undead, magic amulets and holy talismans could thwart Lilith’s unholy advances and infanticidal attacks (Guiley, 2005, p. 181; Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 366).

According to the apocryphal text Testament of Solomon, King Solomon encountered and eventually controlled a vampiric, shape-shifting demon named Ornias. During the construction of Solomon’s Temple of Jerusalem, Ornias appeared every day at sunset to steal a portion of the wages, food, and very soul of the head workman’s boy. The lad wasted away as the demon drained his life by sucking on his thumb. Given a magical ring by the archangel Michael, Solomon subdued the demon and ordered him to cut stone for the temple. Terrified to touch iron tools, Ornias begged to be freed. Solomon then sought the aid of the archangel Uriel, who commanded the demon to obey. Once his work was completed, Ornias was delivered to Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons (Guiley, 2005, p. 223; Peterson, 1997).

Babylonian and Assyrian storytellers told tales of the revenant ekimmus. Individuals that died violent deaths or suffered improper burials would be denied entry into the underworld. Doomed to walk the Earth, ekimmus troubled mankind by wreaking misfortune and destruction upon the living. These restless souls could also possess mortal bodies and proved to be very difficult to exorcise (Guiley, 2005, p. 117).

Dracula First Edition

Ancient Greek mythology spoke of several blood-thirsty beasts and beings. Empusae, ghostly daughters of the goddess Hecate, frightened travellers to death and lured young men to bed to drain their life energies (Atsma, 2000, Empusa & Lamiae; Guiley, 2005, p. 117). Dark, grim-eyed keres, female death-spirits, hovered over battlefields to drink the blood of the wounded and dying. Some of the keres also personified plague and pestilence (Atsma, 2000).

The half-serpentine monster Lamia was yet another mythic beast that stalked the Grecian night. Once a mistress of the god Zeus, Lamia suffered a fell transformation at the hands of his jealous wife Hera. The goddess also destroyed all of Lamia’s children that arose from her illicit union with the lord of Olympus. Angered by her terrible fate, Lamia swore to kill the children of others. The lamiae became a class of female demons who stole newborns and seduced young men to feed on tender flesh and pure blood (Curran, 2006, p. 19; Guiley, 2005, p. 175; Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 361).

The Greek dead did not always remain in their graves. Dead men were known to shout abuses, torment passers-by, attack descendants and former neighbours, and even seek sexual intercourse with their grieving spouses. The Greeks that crossed between the worlds of the dead and the living appeared not as wispy phantoms, but rather as corporeal revenants, fully capable of maiming or even killing those around them (Curran, 2006, p. 17).

The Romans adopted many of the same terrifying beings found in Greek mythology, but they also added a few nightmares of their own. Along with the erotic night terrors known as incubi and succubae, Romans feared encountering horrible striges, female avian monstrosities that drank blood and spread disease (Curran, 2006, p. 20). Possibly born through the metamorphosis of hags into dreadful birds of prey, striges possessed misshapen heads and plundering claws. Poisonous milk filled their ungainly breasts. According to certain accounts, striges would peck at infants to feed on their blood and bowels or cause illness by offering children their poisoned milk (Curran, 2006, p. 20; Guiley, 2005, p. 268; Simboli, 1921, p. 33). Carna, the goddess of door hinges, could chase them away with magical incantations and rituals involving an arbutus branch, “drugged” water, and a white thorn twig (Simboli, 1921, p. 33).

Ancient cultures created a host of foul entities that exhibited many of the characteristics found in more recent vampire lore. Lilith, Ornias, empusae, keres, Lamia, and striges all dined on the blood, flesh, or life force of hapless humans. Striges and keres were also associated with disease, a trait shared with later vampire traditions. Ekimmus and Greek revenants returned from the dead to wreak havoc upon the living. Furthermore, some of the devices effective against many of these marauding beings, such as holy symbols and charms, were similar to what might be found in a vampire hunter’s array of armaments. Although certain aspects involving their creation and appearance differed from those found in later vampire beliefs, ancient vampiric creatures were thought to be as much a threat to humanity as their more recent cousins.

 

References:

Atsma, A. J. (2000). Keres, in theoi greek mythology. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2008, from
http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Keres.html

Atsma, A. J. (2000). Empusa and lamiae, in theoi greek mythology. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2008, from
http://www.theoi.come/Phasma/Empousai.html

Curran, B. (2006). Encyclopedia of the Undead: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Cannot Rest in Peace. Franklin Lakes: The Career Press.

Guiley, R. E. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Checkmark Books.

Matthews, J., & Matthews, C. (2005). The Elemental Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Fantastic Beings From Myth and Legend. London: HarperElement.

Peterson, J. H. (1997). The testament of Solomon (F. C. Conybeare, Trans.). In twilit grotto: Archives of western esoterica. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2008, from
http://www.esotericarchives.com/solomon/testament.htm

Richardson, B. (n.d.). Vampires in myth and history. The vampire’s vault. Retrieved Feb 20, 2008, from
http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/~vampire/vhist.html

Simboli, C. R. (1921). Disease-Spirits and Divine Cures Among the Greeks and Romans. New York: Columbia University. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2008, from
http://books.google.come/books?id=NvsHAAAAIAAJ

(Article originally published in Hungur, Issue 6, Walpurgisnacht, 2008.)

Who needs Rosebud? We’ve Got Nazis!

Orson Welles in The Stranger

When Orson Welles set out to direct The Stranger (1946), he did so under unfavorable conditions.  Saddled with a well-deserved reputation for being constitutionally unable to complete films on time or anywhere near the budget, he simply agreed to everything and got down to it.

How much of the result was actually his fault is open to discussion, but the bottom line is that, though this film has a certain Wellesian nightmare quality, it is far removed from his more atmospheric work.  It’s definitely not terrible, but there’s a reason Citizen Kane is a household name and this one isn’t.

Let’s start with the good.  The tension in this film is constant and constantly ratchets.  It is mainly driven by concern for the wellbeing of the young bride and her family as opposed to any sense of mystery as to what is really going on.

And therein lies my major complaint about this movie: there’s no mystery, about whether the protagonist is the bad guy or not.  That’s pretty much cleared up in the first five minutes of the movie (contrast that with the Rosebud mystery), so we’re pretty much left with a melodrama of a thriller.  That’s fine for some audiences, I suppose, but one expects better of Welles.

The Stranger DVD cover

Perhaps what got this film its place on the 1001 movies list (apart from the name of its director) is that it was the first hollywood film to use images of the Holocaust at a time when many Americans were either unaware of what had transpired, or simply didn’t believe it.  They are strong scenes which, perhaps, have lost a little bit of the effect on modern audiences that they would certainly have had on period viewers–making the job of reviewing it just a tad more difficult.

So, even though it’s certainly not a bad movie, it certainly wasn’t the best thing Welles produced, but as a document of its time… definitely worth watching.

Our unusual note returns today with the fact that one of the actors went on to play Mayor Linseed in the 1960s Batman series.  Not sure what that might mean, but it has to mean something, right?

BTW, don’t forget we have a Facebook page you can hit like on!

 

 

Three Unconventional Roads To Wodehouse

Mention PG Wodehouse in a conversation and most people will immediately think of Jeeves and Wooster.  That’s partly due to the success of the books and stories, but, I suspect, mostly because of the various film and TV adaptations.  Of course, the one with Hugh Laurie as Wooster utterly deserves to have that notoriety.

But there is more to Wodehouse than the butler and his hapless gentleman.  No less a writer (and polymath) than Isaac Asimov said that Wodehouse, on a sentence level, is one of the three greatest writers in the English language (the other two, if memory serves, being Austen and Dickens).

People often scoff at that, of course.  A mere humorist upstaging countless numbers of earnest, serious writers, some of whom are even politically committed?  Blasphemy.  My answer to that is simple: pick up any of Wodehouse’s books, turn to a random page, and read any sentence that is more than five or six words long.  If you know anything about literature or writing, the odds are that you will have to concede the point.  He is consistently that good.

The above means that it’s a bit of a tragedy that casual readers don’t always go beyond Jeeves and Wooster so, in order to address that failing, we present three other good Wodehouse books (and discuss the three very different editions we read).  Think of it as a Classically Educated public service (you can thank us by buying our mug)!

The Girl in Blue.  PG Wodehouse.  Paperback

The first is The Girl in Blue.  This is a fairly typical standalone Wodehouse novel, and is a good non-Jeeves primer.  As you can see from the cover illustration of the version we read, a policeman ends up in a pond.  This is a recurring theme in Wodehouse, and upon reflection, we feel that if it were only a recurring theme in other types of literature as well, the world would be a better place.  Of course, star-crossed lovers feature as well, another central tenet of the canon.  If you’re going to start, and have already read the Jeeves books, this is a good place to begin.

Mr Mulliiner Speaking PG Wodehouse

Unlike the above novel, which is unrelated to other Wodehouse tales the Mr Mulliner stories are linked together in various books.  The one we’ll be discussing here is entitled Mr. Mulliner Speaking, and is sheer happiness.  Mr. Mulliner is an older and wiser character, so he is usually above Wodehousian shenanigans but, to the eternal entertainment of his drinking buddies, he has a number of young, nearly brain-dead, relations who get themselves into ridiculous situations.  They always work out for the best, of course, but the way they do reminds us that in Wodehouse, as in life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  And few journeys are more rewarding.

We read this one in the original hardcover from 1929 (pictured above), and it was fun to experience it as pre-war readers would have.  But even though these are plentiful and affordable, there’s no real need to track one down, as 1929 is reasonably modern, so the book is just a book, not some artifact.

 

Utterly Uncle Fred PG Wodehouse

Finally, we reach the main course, a volume entitled Utterly Uncle Fred, which is quite possibly, the perfect Wodehouse.  The reason is that Uncle Fred is, perhaps, the most demented character in his oeuvre.  Age has not made this one wise, not in the least.  Instead, it sharpened his sense of chaos.  Of course, he is a kindly old man despite the propensity for landing his nephew in the soup, and his ability to get everyone in trouble is matched only by his knack for pulling them back out.  Once again, it’s the journey, not the destination that makes this book.

The book above is an omnibus edition (one of the nicest things about Wodehouse is the number of collections you can buy) containing three novels and one story, so it’s a meaty proposition.  We’d recommend buying it even if you’ve never read a line of Wodehouse in your life… but most people are too cautious with their money to do so, perhaps start with one of the other two.

Or just read some Jeeves and Wooster.  I’ve never heard of anyone going wrong with that!

BTW, apart from mugs, we also have a Facebook page.  You can like it if you like it!

The Connection Between Fairies and the Dead

Today marks the return of guest columnist Richard H. Fay, a man who exemplifies the polymath spirit of Classically Educated by being an artist, a poet and also, as he proves below and in his previous post for us, an expert on very different aspects of history.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store. Best of all is that this is only the first article in a weekly series, which we’ll be running over the next couple of months!

The Fairy Queen

At first glance, there may seem to be few links between the frolicking fairies and the souls of the dead. However, if one delves deeper into traditional fairy lore, one finds that the fairy realm and the realm of the dead overlapped. A handful of fairy types functioned as harbingers of death or summoners of dying souls. On occasion, fairies would intermingle with the human dead. At times, the spirits of deceased mortals gathered in fairy places or even behaved rather like fairy folk. Lost human souls, especially those of children who had died prior to undergoing the Christian rite of baptism, might take fairy form and join the ranks of the fays.

Some denizens of the fairy realm had links to the realm of the dead by heralding the approach of death or summoning the spirit of a dying human to the otherworld. The keening fairy woman known as the banshee foretold the forthcoming demise of Irish mortals of Milesian descent, humans of heroic lineage whose surnames started with ” Ó” or “Mac”(White, 2005). A glimpse of the Highland Bodach Glas, the Dark Grey Man, signalled impending doom (Briggs, 1976). The gruesome-looking dullahan would ride the countryside on his thundering black steed and then stop to hold his severed head aloft to summon the soul of whoever was about to die (Curran, 1998). The mine-dwelling wichtlein of Germany warned miners of imminent death or disaster by raising a din as if they were hard at work (Sikes, 2002). Dunters or powries, noisome resident spirits of Border fortresses who sounded as if they were beating flax or milling grain in a quern, would raise a louder ruckus if death or disaster drew near (Briggs, 1976).

According to tales from Ireland and its remote western isles, at certain times human souls who had departed their mortal shells would accompany the fairies in their preternatural revelries. During dark celebrations held on the night of October the Thirty-First, fairies reeled hand-in-hand with the risen dead (White, 2005). A man of Ireland’s western islands named Hugh King discovered that his deceased friends and dead acquaintances, clad in their long funeral shrouds, danced at the fairy fair held on November Eve (Wilde, 1887). Out late one November night, an Inishark woman sighted revenants garbed in white mingled amongst a great gathering of cavorting fairies (Wilde, 1887). A grief stricken lass from the same isle spied her late lover gambolling with the fairies atop their hill when she peered through a ring of herbs given to her by a lady in white (Wilde, 1887). A shepherdess who encountered a group of festive fays met a pale young man; a man she knew had drowned the previous winter (Wilde, 1887). In a tale found in different locales across Ireland, a man witnessed deceased acquaintances riding with the fays when he tried unsuccessfully to rescue his dead wife from a fairy procession (Ó hÓgáin, 2006). The Irish fairy monarch Finvara was also King of the Dead and ruled over a host of departed mortals (Briggs, 1978).

Faerie

Some stories of earthbound souls blurred the line between fairy and ghost. Noisy spectres of those who had once been human would haunt fairy raths with their clanking and creaking (White, 2005). The Northumberland bogy called Dunnie, a shape-shifting prankster who liked to adopt the guise of a horse or donkey to play practical jokes on Hazelrigg farmers, had been a plundering Border reiver in life (Briggs, 1976). The Irish Phooka of Kildare, who appeared as an ass and performed the toilsome tasks of a household fairy, identified itself as the spirit of an indolent scullion (Briggs, 1978). The English Cauld Lad of Hilton, a brownie-like entity that the servants of Hilton Hall expelled in the traditional fashion of laying brownies by leaving him a gift of a new cloak and hood, was said to be the ghost of a murdered servant boy (Keightley, 1978). The Cauld Lad of Gilsland, reputed to be the restless soul of a neglected boy who died of hypothermia, acted like a banshee and foretold death by shivering and moaning at the bedside of one about to die (Rose, 1998).

In perhaps the most direct link between fairies and the dead, certain types of fay were considered to be human spirits endowed with fairy powers. The sluagh of the Scottish Highlands, dark entities that winged to and fro across the midnight sky and forced hapless mortals to join in malicious mischief, were said to be the Host of the Unforgiven Dead (Briggs, 1976). The bean-nighe, who portended doom by washing blood-stained clothes in the forlorn streams of both and Ireland and Scotland, was believed to be the restless shade of a mother who had perished during childbirth (Briggs, 1976). Cornish tin-miners claimed that their helpful mine fairies known as knockers had once been Jews who had toiled in the mines in ancient times (Briggs, 1976). The Welsh commonly considered their Tylwyth Teg to be the spirits of departed humans neither entirely evil nor completely good, spirits consigned to reside in this world’s hidden places until Judgement Day (Sikes, 2002). The samovily, a fatally seductive southern Slavonic water fairy, was thought to be either a human bride who had lost her life on the night of her nuptials or a deceased mortal girl who had never been baptised (Franklin, 2002). The beautiful vily of Slavonic lore danced in circles and possessed powers of enchantment and shape-shifting just like their Fair Folk kin of Western Europe, but some accounts insisted that these alluring beings were the ghosts of prideful maids or unbaptized youngsters (Franklin, 2002).

In a recurring theme in fairy lore, the souls of departed human children who never entered the Christian fold could become mischievous and even malevolent members of the fairy realm. The sheerie, luminous Irish sprites who used maleficent magic to lead wayfarers astray, were thought to be the bitter spirits of unbaptized babes (Curran, 1998). According to Devonshire lore, their own diminutive mischief-making pixies shared similar origins (Keightley, 1978). The potentially deadly tarans who roamed Scottish forests and the nocturnal spunkies who misled wanderers in Somerset were also believed to be the souls of children who never underwent the ritual of baptism (Franklin, 2002). The same explanation was applied to the origins of numerous will-o’-the-wisps such as Pinket, a will-o’-the-wisp who haunted Worcestershire (Franklin, 2002).

Though some people insist that “ghosts are not fairies” (White, 2005), certain aspects of fairy folklore suggest that wayward human souls did, at times, acquire a fairy existence. The connection went beyond mere association. Ghostly entities such as the Phooka of Kildare, Dunnie of Northumberland, and the Cauld Lad of Hilton appeared to possess fairy-like attributes and exhibit fairy-like behaviour. Fairy folk such as the sheerie, the sluagh, and the samovily had once been human. Fairies not only foretold the coming of death and consorted with the dead, sometimes, they were the dead.

(Article originally published in Disturbed Digest, Issue #4, March 2014.)

 

References

Briggs, K. (1976). An encyclopedia of fairies, hobgoblins, brownies, bogies, and other supernatural creatures. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: Fairy lore and legends. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Curran, B. (1998). A field guide to Irish fairies. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Franklin, A. (2002). The illustrated encyclopaedia of fairies. London, England: Vega.

Keightly, T. (1978). The world guide to gnomes, fairies, elves, and other little people. New York, NY: Avenel Books.

Ó hÓgáin, D. (2006). The lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press.

Rose, C. (1998). Spirits, fairies, leprechauns, and goblins: An encyclopedia. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Sikes, W. (2002). British goblins: Welsh folklore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions. Doylestown, PA: Wildside Press.

White, C. (2005). A history of Irish fairies. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Wilde, Lady F. S. (1887). Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Co.

A Strong Case for the Best Western Ever

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp

It’s not as famous today as it was back then, and it doesn’t star John Wayne, which has worked against it.  On top of that, it is extremely liberal with the facts (read: it would have been easier just to base it on a work of fiction with no real names) and it starts with a cliché (which never actually happened in real life, so could have been avoided without loss).

And yet, My Darling Clementine (1946) is, by far, the best western I’ve ever seen.

Why?  Well, maybe it’s just the fact that it wasn’t a noir film or something from the Italian neorealist school that made me enjoy it as much as I did, but, more probably, it was the interplay of the male and female characters–there are about six different storylines woven into this one–and the development of the town around them that makes the film so watchable.  It develops the central theme (the events around the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday) while showing the rich tapestry of the developing west around it.

From about fifteen minutes in until the end, the movie becomes much more sophisticated and interesting than the Western norm and Henry Fonda gives a different take on Wyatt Earp than what you’re expecting.  When you read about it like that, it’s a recipe for disaster, but it’s a tribute to director John Ford that it comes together as well as it does.

So we’ll recommend this one highly, not just to people who are looking for a good shoot-’em-up (there’s plenty of that, thankfully) but also to those who enjoy a film with surprising depth.

The only people we emphatically wouldn’t recommend it to  are those who are obsessive about the history of the American West, unless you can turn that part of you off.  In the first few minutes of the film, James Earp whom in real life, survived until 1926, is killed.  And it’s all downhill, accuracy-wise, from there!

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 2

For Part I of this series, see here.

Dozois Year's Best 30

As lovers of all literary forms, from Romance to the classics, we don’t turn our noses up at anything, mainly because we know that everything is interesting in its way.

But not everyone shares our eclectic preferences or polymath tendencies.  For decades, the literary establishment considered Science Fiction writing to be little more than a lowbrow diversion suitable for children and the lower classes.  The pre-pulp and pulp eras of the genre are probably the most illustrative of the times when that attitude was prevalent.

After WWII, however, the tide shifted and the stereotypical science fiction fan was a pimply male who was better in the classroom than on the playing fields of the world.  Fans of SF clustered together and fandom–a pioneer that showed today’s myriad fan communities the way forward–was born.  The fiction, of course, was still dismissed as something that was fine for teenage boys: you know, rocketships and robots and that sort of thing.

Both of these stereotypes over-generalized, of course.  The literature being published in the pulps was often excellent… and the postwar fans were not all pimpled nerds.  Having said that, there were arguments that upheld both of those assumptions, and no one was particularly concerned with debunking the prejudice except for SF fans themselves, and no one really cared what they thought.

In the sixties, those postwar teens had become adults, and deeply resented the ghettoization of their beloved genre.  They set fingers to typewriters to prove that SF could be grown up as well, and proceeded to bombard the world with reams of mostly-forgotten prose (Dune being the major exception) that proved that the genre could do character-driven stories, stream-of-consciousness, literary sexuality, drug-addled confusion, angsty existentialism and pop psychology just as well as the literati of the day.  It was the New Wave.

Luckily for the genre, that particular tendency soon died out and SF went back to its roots in the seventies. After the new wave, the genre was more mature and held a much higher profile (more thanks to Star Wars that anything the New Wave did for it), but it was still easily recognizable as the genre which had been born in the pulps and not some weird thing that Andy Warhol would have written had he been a writer.

The eighties, which we discussed here continued the pendular swing towards action-driven SF, but the pendulum swung back decisively in the nineties.

With a few honorable exceptions, the more visible genre is now dominated by character-driven, agenda-driven literary fiction, and is bitterly split roughly along political party lines in the US.  At the risk of over-generalizing, Democrats seem to appreciate the high-quality writing of the genre the way it is, and are at the helm of many of the established magazines and also at least one of the major houses while Republicans find the current iteration of SF to be mind-numbingly dull and overly focused on politics over substance (this is the essence of the famous Sad Puppies schism).  They are also the core audience of one of the publishing houses.

Other than the two we’ve mentioned, the rest of the houses don’t actually care about the color of the politics if they think they can sell the book, so there is more literary diversity on the bookshelves than in the magazine spectrum but, as the talent in SF is supposed to come up from the magazine world, even the big houses’ output does tend to skew a little to the left.

So why am I rehashing and oversimplifying the history of the SF genre?  Easy, I’ve been catching up on my reading of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction Anthologies.  Though I’m still a couple of years behind, I recently read #29 and #30.

A quick note for those new to the genre: Dozois, a former editor of Asimov’s is the current taste-maker of the SF genre.  Vastly experienced, he is hugely respected in the field and can be essential in making (or ignoring) promising young writers.  He specializes in the short form, which means that he can turn an obscure story in a mag into a famous piece just by including it and praising it in one of his anthologies.

Anyhow, Dozois’ taste has evolved over the years, perhaps matching, perhaps leading, the genre’s swing towards more literary sensibility and political activeness and less entertainment.  The two or three Year’s Best books before #29 had been pretty dull and more concerned with diversity of voices than diversity of content, broken only by the occasional Alastair Reynolds tale (Reynolds is always high-concept fun and I honestly think he doesn’t care about politics at all… at least that’s the impression I get from his fiction).

Dozois Year's Best 29

And #29 was just another one of these.  Kind of a slog.  Some good stories and some great writing in there, but not enough to become a memorable collection.  Sort of another grey monument to the “diversity” era of SF.  The worst of it is that the individual stories are all generally good.  The problem is that, when taken together, they put the problems of the genre into sharp focus.  No one seems to want to deviate from the norm and after two dozen tales, it does get monotonous.

Number 30… gives me hope.  There seemed to be less grey porridge in there, and a few more tales that march to their own drummer.  Reynolds, of course, but also a brilliant one by Stephen Popkes.  It just seemed… better than any of the prior ones, perhaps a sign that, after a couple of decades, the pendulum is swinging back towards the sense of wonder that has been lacking in the genre for so long.  (or it might have been the fact that they re-used the cover art from Foundation and Earth, and this colored my thinking!)

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

Of course, this might just be a flash in the pan.  Both of these came before the Puppies controversy.  That ended with the establishment simply retrenching and covering up their ears, trying to yell louder than the opposition–as it does in every walk of life–and widening the gap.  Time will tell if Dozois took the same line.  Our review of the anthos from the next few years should answer that.  Stay tuned!

Painting with all the colours of the wind, USN airships created tragic landscapes.

Today marks the return of our most prolific contributor: Stacy Danielle Stephens.  She’s the author of our beloved article on the Hindenburg and this time, she’s discussing airships built in the US.

Wreckage of USS Shenandoah Viewed By Locals in 1925

Launched in August, 1923, USS Shenandoah was moored at Lakehurst on January 16th, 1924, awaiting the approach of bad weather, to test how well it could tolerate high winds. The crew and command staff soon realized this was a bad idea; the ship was preparing to cast off and flee the storm when a 78mph wind removed the covering of a tail fin, rolled the ship, then tore it loose from the mast, rupturing the first forward gas cell and perforating the second. The ship departed Lakehurst backwards, helpless in the wind. The crew spent the next nine hours regaining control and making emergency repairs midair and returning to Lakehurst early the next morning.

Shorter airship mounts with Breakaway Mast

In response to this incident, the USN changed to shorter masts with breakaway mounts.

On September 2, 1925, USS Shenandoah departed Lakehurst for St Louis, the first leg of a midwestern promotional tour. Early the next morning, over southeastern Ohio, the ship encountered violently shifting lateral winds amid a strong updraft. The crew could not control the ship, which rose until decreased external pressure ruptured a gas cell, causing a brief rapid dive until the updraft lifted the ship again, repeating the process several times until the ship broke apart. While the bulk of the ship came down at once, the bow remained aloft, and crewmen there were able to later bring it down like a simple balloon.

Uss Los Angeles Airship Over Manhattan

USS Los Angeles over Manhattan; date uncertain.

Launched in 1924, USS Los Angeles was the only USN rigid airship to be formally decommissioned, in 1932.

On August 25th, 1927, while moored at the mast in Lakehurst, USS Los Angeles was pushed to eighty-five degrees from horizontal. There were no injuries to the crew, and minimal damage to the ship. This was the nearest USS Los Angeles ever came to disaster. It flew longer and farther than all other USN rigid airships combined, and never caused even a single death or serious injury. Perhaps not coincidentally, it had been built in Germany.

USS Los Angeles over Philadelphia with USS Akron in the distance

USS Akron over Philadelphia, PA, with USS Los Angeles in the distance, circa 1931-2

Launched in 1931, USS Akron was first damaged by wind in February, 1932, coming out of the hangar at Lakehurst. A tail fin was smashed, and some landing-rope fittings torn loose.

On May 11, 1932, during a failed landing attempt at an underequiped and inadequately staffed field, two men were killed and another injured after the mooring line severed. They held onto their ropes, and were carried up with the ship as the wind took it away. A fourth man who hadn’t released his rope had the presence of mind to secure himself to his rope, and wait there until the crew pulled him aboard.

Just after midnight, April 4, 1934, USS Akron encountered a violent storm east of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was blown tail-first into the sea. 73 of the 76 men aboard were killed.

USS Macon over New York City

USS Macon over New York City, 1933

Launched in 1933, USS Macon successfully demonstrated the usefulness of an airship, when operating with small fixed-wing aircraft and a surface task force, in performing recon, but also highlighted the vulnerability of airships in these same circumstances. Lessons learned from Shenandoah’s misfortunes had been applied to the Macon’s design, as well as its operations, but it, too, was caught in a storm, off Point Sur, California, on February 12, 1935, and was brought down by it. By this time, life boats and life jackets were standard equipment on USN airships, and only two of the crew were lost.