Who is your favorite mythical creature/character, and why?
Submitted By herasrevenge
Who is your favorite mythical creature/character, and why?
Submitted By herasrevenge
Once upon a time there were two dragons, one red and one white, and they fought; the red dragon symbolising Wales, the white a representation of the invading Saxons…
Or maybe the dragon was just a flag, a banner, the standard carried by King Arthur as he rode into battle…
National stories are powerful, hence the dragon emblazoned on the Welsh flag. And it’s said that the last dragon in Wales still sleeps deep within Radnor Forest, four churches surrounding it and keeping it at bay, all of them dedicated to St. Michael (the Bible’s angelic slayer of dragons). The churches still stand, at Nant Melan, Cefnllys, Rhydithon and Cascob, still doing their duty.
Of course, I make no claim for there really being dragons in Wales, because we’re all very modern and don’t believe in such things, but then there’s this strange little story uncovered by author Mike Dash, perfect for St. David’s day, and just enough to make you ask “What if…?”
Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.
Question: So, why did you call the last few posts "England’s Dreaming" when in fact a significant chunk of British folklore originated in Scotland, Wales and Ireland?
Answer: I didn’t think the Celtic nations would mind.
Q: Are you insane?
A: If you’d actually read the posts you’d know the answer to that already.
Q: Seriously, why did you choose that title?
A: Because I’ve always liked the phrase and I’d like to celebrate a fine purveyor of dairy products.
Q: So, is there anything you think you missed over the England’s Dreaming posts?
A: Robin Hood.
Q: And the anti-globalisation agenda?
A: Ooo, good one!
Q: And you missed the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" in the Excalibur post, didn’t you?
A: Yeah, and that could have lead into a discussion of story-telling traditions.
Q: Do you know anything about story-telling traditions?
A: Do comics count?
Q: I’m asking the questions here.
A: Fair point.
Q: Are you going to do any more of these posts?
A: Probably, just need to clear some head space so I can look at Robin Hood, local legends and some obscure stuff that I sort of half know about.
Q: So have you enjoyed writing this stuff?
A: Yeah. That’s what I like about blogging, the free-wheeling stream-of-consciousness stuff. You don’t get to do that when you’re writing TPS reports.
Q: So was there anything else you missed?
A: Um. No.
Q: Are you sure?
A: There’s a reason for that. I forgot how to spell Jehovah in Hebrew.
Q: With an I.
A: Thank you.
So, there’s one thing that I don’t understand about this wander through folklore and legend and whatever… Well, okay, more than one thing actually, but one thing in particular. And that’s the whole deal with iron.
See, if you’re ever faced with a rogue elf, all you’ve got to do is get hold of some iron. They don’t like it; it’s mythological Kryptonite. And I don’t understand why. I mean, why iron?
Some say it’s because of its physical properties – it’s magnetic, it’s cold to the touch. Maybe there’s something to that and the Kryptonite analogy is all there is to it – if you’re writing a story, and the hero is faced with a more powerful opponent you need to even the odds somehow, and a nail or a horseshoe are fairly commonplace objects. Maybe iron’s just a plot device that became a superstition.
Or maybe it’s a metaphor. Cold iron is apparently another word for ‘a dirty great sword’, and as we’ve discussed before, swords are badass. I’d be a bit disappointed if that turned out to be the explanation though – it’s like someone said about vampires (I think it was Terry Pratchett, but I might be wrong), sticking a stake through the heart and chopping off the head pretty much works with any bad guy. It’s becomes less about wit and cunning and more about brute force. It’s a bit dull unless you accompany it with a heck of an action sequence.
I have an idea, and it might be completely wrong, but maybe there’s some sort of philosophical thing going on. Iron beats magic, and maybe that’s because iron is, effectively, a symbol of technology, of getting control over the natural world. Shoeing a horse, forging tools for agriculture and building… It’s a symbol of settlement, of civilising the wild places.
(There’s a theory that a similar thing can be seen in the early stages of the book of Genesis, with a tension between nomadic herdsmen and settled farmers/city dwellers. The first murderer also founded the first city. There’s a bit of ambiguity between the two ways of life going on here, but I’m digressing. Again.)
(Although while we’re talking about iron, one of the reasons the Israelites had so much trouble in the David and Goliath scenario is that they didn’t have access to iron-working technology. Which makes things doubly ironic that God’s deliverer sent into the situation is a herdsman using a shepherd’s tools to fight…)
But that’s the Middle East and we’re talking about Britain, which seems to have a different slant on the whole technology thing. Smiths turn up throughout a lot of European myths – Wayland Smith is possibly the most famous (he escaped from some bad guys using some wings he made), but there’s also Goibniu and Gofannon and Hepheastus if we want to get Greek on things. They forge swords and make amazing tools and they work iron and iron keeps away hostile supernatural forces – I like to think there’s a connection.
Of course, as technology got more advanced, legends started to develop that had a folk hero not just using it to fight off magic, but putting it in its place. The most famous one I can think of is the story of John Henry, a steel-driver on the railroads who challenged a machine to a race – John wins the race but dies in the effort, but all the same, he runs that hammer down. Meanwhile, in the UK we had the figure of Ned Ludd, inspiration behind the Luddites; humans still need to show that they can triumph over machines.
So now we’ve got stories that don’t just tell us that science and technology are going to ward off the darkness and save us all from impending doom (technoutopianism – much as I enjoy Wired magazine, it heads a bit in this direction), but also stories that suggest that we might want to be a bit careful about things. The big one is Terminator, but it’s really just part of a tradition of technodystopianism (if that’s not a word it should be) in sci-fi. Star Trek straddles both camps – everything’s great in the future because we’re so advanced, but every now and then you need to kick a supercomputer’s ass because it can’t comprehend This Human Emotion You Call… Love.
(Don’t get me started on The Matrix again – alien computers are bad, raving hippies are good, although the whole thing seemed to end with a happy ending for anthropomorphic computer programs while most of humanity is turned into Hugo Weaving. I’m willing to admit I might have missed something while my eyes were bleeding.)
So I guess we’ve summoned up new bogeymen to show us that technology isn’t infallible – gremlins, for instance, the superstition not the film. Then there’s the backwash – hackers calling particularly ‘mysterious’ coding tricks ‘Deep Magic‘, for instance. There’s a greater intersection between science and technology and the murkier, less tangible world of folklore and legend than we’d expect. Folklore deploys technology to deal with magic; science develops its own legends. Maybe, once you’ve established the underlying truths, they’re all just ways of putting those truths into a narrative. When it comes down to it, human beings are storytellers, we just tailor those stories to fit the content.
All the same, I don’t think it’s true that typing ‘Google’ into Google breaks the internet…
And so King Arthur falls in battle and is spirited away to Avalon, the Isle of Apples, where his wounds will be healed and where he’ll rest until he returns to save Britain in its darkest hour…
Avalon’s just one example of the Otherworld, that strange parallel dimension that’s paradise without being heaven and that exists alongside our own but always just out of reach. It doesn’t work to the laws of physics or governments but the laws of stories and poems, and it’s both an aspirational land of plenty and a place of danger – elves and fairies in the old stories aren’t the neutered children’s characters they became in the Victorian era.
Other than Avalon, which got big because of its Arthurian connection, the best known example of this is Tir na nOg, the Land of Youth in Irish folklore. It would be easy to read it as being an equivalant to Heaven, but then mortals live there and it has its own story-rules that must not be broken… And after all, all the fairies and elves have to live somewhere…
The Wikipedia entry for Shambala, a legendary hidden Buddist kingdom, describes it as being "visionary or spiritual as much as physical or geographic", and that’s a pretty good description of Otherworlds in general. They’re not quite Heaven – they don’t fully exist within a theological context, or their symbolic power has become divorced from religious roots – but they’re not just another knigdom either. In many ways they’re paradise, but on the other hand they can be dangerous – you might not return from them, even if you want to, and if you do escape then you might find things have changed on your return – a hundred years may have passed in the blink of an eye. That beautiful woman or handsome man who invites you to a party? They might not be what they seem…
(And there’s a cautionary tale there if ever I heard one – don’t party with mysterious, dodgy strangers, no matter how hot they are.)
(And if you do find yourself in one of these lands, don’t eat or drink or dance, or you’re never getting away. And don’t accept money, cos the next morning it’ll just be leaves and your bank manager won’t like it. Thomas the Rhymer is an archetype for this sort of situation.)
(Neil Gaiman’s poem Instructions is a good guide.)
But, if you still want to, there are other otherworldly places you could go to, although sometimes you have to fit the job description – Fiddler’s Green is a paradise for cavalrymen and sailors (Neil Gaiman made it a place AND a character in Sandman; its human avatar looked a lot like GK Chesterton), while Big Rock Candy Mountain is an awesome place to go if you’re an American hobo. Cockaigne‘s where you want to go to in the unlikely event that you’re a medieval peasant reading this (and apparently it’s a possible root for the word ‘Cockney‘, although if EastEnders is a representation of earthly paradise then we’re all in trouble).
The Otherworlds are places of different rules and shifting identities – the beautful maiden you end up snogging might become a withered crone halfway through (so, you know, no tongues), and it’s okay to talk to animals because they might talk back, and besides they might not be animals anyway. That liminal identity is mirrored by how you get there – weird things happen at crossroads and at bridges, and maybe the reason midnight is such a mythic hour is because it’s the moment between one day at the next and it’s dark…
Over the last couple of entries I’ve tried to draw parallels between old stories and current society, and I guess the obvious connection between the 21st century and the Otherworld is the Internet – it’s all there, shifting identities (are people really the age they say they are? Are they the gender their photo implies? Are they really single?), the timesink aspect, the alternate worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life), the utopianism (bringing everyone together in a golden age of communication!). There’s also the Trickster element to it all – type ‘French Military Victories into Google and hit ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ – although that’s not always a postive thing (although it keeps Mythbusters busy debunking all those viral videos). Cyberspace (the term coined by William Gibson to describe the ‘space’ in which a telephone conversation takes place) is as liminal and as untouchable as any Fairyland, but it’s becoming more and more tied to the fabric of The Real World – augmented reality being the latest example of this, and we’ll know we’re up to our necks in the Otherworld when someone starts posting inaccurate augmented reality information to lead people astray…
And maybe this is stretching things (not that that’s ever stopped me before), but the way some tabloids talk about immigration, you’d think waves and waves of mysterious otherworldly beings were coming to the UK from a mystical land, using their strange powers to take all the houses and jobs and benefits… Because they couldn’t possibly be talking about fellow human beings…
(And it’s interesting that people talk about how glamourous celebrities are, given what ‘glamour‘ orginally meant. Remembering that usage puts a whole new slant on celebrity culture, and maybe reality TV is just seen as being a cheap ticket to the Otherworld… Or maybe the Otherworld has just become commodified and packaged and used to sell advertising space.)
So watch your step. There may be another world out there, the world of stories and songs, where strange things happen and you can get into a whole bunch of trouble… Stick to the right path. Don’t go with strangers. Don’t believe everything you hear.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is all there has to be.