Last week we looked in some detail about Rick Riordan’s take on the Greek Gods in the Percy Jackson series. This time I’m going to take the curious among you through the creation of the four characters in my stories that are unequivocally based in British and Irish folklore. I’m focussing on four main characters; Maeve, the Queen of the Fairies; the Erlking, the King of the Fairies; Jack O’Green, the Oak King; and Herne the Hunter.
Something Old, Something New
Before we dive into all that is exciting about looking for ideas in mythology, I wanted to get the really obvious-but-easy-to-forget thing over and done with now. Copy-and-paste is quick and that’s all that can be said about it. No one will like it, no matter how much work you put into digging it out.
Yes, Rick Riordan took a lot of inspiration from Greek myths in writing Percy Jackson and the Olympians but that’s not what I remember when I think about those books. When a friend who’d struggled with the books asked me what I’d liked about them, I swear I talked way more about Poseidon’s Neptune’s Lucky Fishing Hat and his folding chair throne more than I did about Zeus’s … Zeusness (and yes, I am indeed making that into a word!)
Now I would say that British and Irish folklore is a chronically under-used resource of awesomeness, and I think what scares people away from it is what I like best about it: there’s no canon. The folklore of the British Isles is one big collection of oral traditions, of which only a very small selection were ever written down. The rest stuck around in fireside stories that continued to be told and changed and shared around firesides right up until … well, today really, but the rise of television has definitely put a damper on the tradition. There’s no one source of information and there’s rarely ever anything that even remotely reaches a consensus about the characters for various figures, if fact only very rarely is there even enough overlap to call two figures in two tales related to each other. That’s true for a lot of myth and legend, but British and Irish folklore has some of the biggest gaps that I’ve ever come across.
Not to mention some of the craziest ideas, of which my favourite is the multiple, unrelated instances of men spontaneously turning into salmon. Yes, that happened. I mean, yes Saint Patrick managed to chase an especially fierce storm away from the Irish coast by reciting poetry at it too, that’s a close second, but really? Multiple men without previous magical abilities just turned into salmon? And we’re still not making this into a children’s animated series yet? I am disappointed in you, BBC…
These stories are amazing to work with because you can find the ideas that you like and just roll with them. Everything’s so fragmented anyway that you are simply forced to find and put together different snippets to make a bigger picture. But unlike with real-life jigsaws, there’s no one right answer!
On a personal note, I tended to look for recurring ideas and patterns that span different stories, especially from different areas and times, but that’s because, as I’ve discussed before in Defence of Doing Nothing; strong ideas will last, and be used over and over again and weak ideas disappear quickly.
Old Gods and Godliness
So, I don’t know if this is something that’s been going on for decades, or if I’m right and it really has popped up as a recurring idea mostly in the last few years. But has anyone else seen this trend of stories focussed on ‘The Return of The Old Gods’?
The general idea goes that the Old Gods who were forgotten by mankind return to stop a danger too big for the humans to defeat on their own. I’ve seen it as flash-fiction on Tumblr (coupled with alien invasions no less!), as fanfiction related to other works, as longer internet-based fiction. I don’t necessarily know that I’ve seen it as published fiction – has anyone seen this?
The reason I have taken to this trend is that it requires a very different approach to writing ‘godhood’ than in older works. Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and, yes you again Rick Riordan, all wrote of gods who were effectively powered and sustained by human belief. If people stop believing in a god then that god diminishes and may essentially die out. You also see this idea in the Rise of the Guardians film, where children no longer believing in Santa, or the Tooth Fairy means that they can’t do their jobs properly and again become small and powerless.
And this is a really solid idea with plenty of plot-potential. You’ve got a good, well-established and relatable risk factor, you can explore the nature of belief, or the relationship between believers and their deities, there’s lots to talk about.
The thing is… creating such a direct relationship between gods and mankind puts the humans in the position of having leverage over these powerful characters. The whole climax of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods is a human bargaining with his god for better godhood in return for sustainable belief.
In Percy Jackson, the gods often look down on their half-human offspring because they aren’t gods, or because they are reminders of spousal infidelity. However ultimately we learn that they have to put up with the demi-gods because as heroes they accomplish feats that remind humans on a subconscious level of the gods’ existence.
“I will deny I ever said this, of course, but the gods need heroes. They always have. Otherwise we would not keep you annoying little brats around.”
“I feel so wanted. Thanks.”
And that’s a great idea and all, but what terrifies me more as a human is the idea of powerful Old Gods who are not at all diminished by us forgetting them. Who owe us nothing and will not be affected if we were wiped off the map. Who are, if you will, strong independent powerful entities who don’t need no humans at all. It’s this mentality which makes Lovecraftian fiction so terrifying too. The idea that the universe does not care one iota if you exist or not is deeply unsettling to us.
As a writer, I like this idea because the resulting lack of importance being placed on humans as a group allows for more importance to be placed on individual humans as characters. If an Old God chose to favour a character, it has to be because of something that character has personally done, because an Old God has no need to feel like all human life is sacred or something. So it’s on me as a writer to give that character objective worth, which is more of a challenge.
The Fairy Queen
We’re starting with the Fairy Queen, Maeve, (made famous under the name of Titania by Shakespeare) because she’s definitely the character with the closest thing to an established archetype of anyone. In preparation for this post, I went through all the books of fairy tales, folktales, and legends and tried to look up all the times there was a fairy queen in the story as a major character. After spending the whole of Sunday happily sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by several small, tottering mountains of books, I gave the attempt up as lost. Suffice to say that if I was going to write stories taking place in a world built on folklore? There was going to need to be a fairy queen. Thankfully I really liked and needed her anyway.
If you read my post on The Power of Names, you’ll already be aware of the reasoning behind Maeve’s name, so I won’t repeat myself.
In terms of some common things with Maeve, she always has a husband, the Fairy King as it were, and that husband is rarely if ever even close to being as interesting or dynamic. I couldn’t get away with that in a series of stories, of course, but I compensated by suggesting the notion that Maeve had, in some distant past, thrown her husband out of her court and home. There is some evidence for this in Irish myth, with the division of the Seelie and Unseelie courts, essentially the ‘good’ fairies and the ‘bad’ fairies if one were to use very loose definitions of ‘good’ to include ‘probably won’t actually eat you, still will steal your soul’… Most people don’t.
Maeve is always ‘beautiful’, which is an indistinct concept, and ‘charming’, which is less so. Even the people who know for sure that they are trapped by her and are going to meet a horrible end are still unable to not be swept up in her charisma when she’s around. This is usually played in stories like Tam Lin as being due to magic, but I decided that Maeve could simply be very charming and charismatic on her own merits, which is both more interesting and more sinister than some ‘glamour spell’ which could be neutralised with a talisman.
The Fairy Queen is interesting because she is always, always shown as being a woman of great power. She rules the Seelie court, or the land of the fairies, depending on what story you tell, she has an army at her command. She passes out judgements and curses and blessings. She’s always pretty dynamic and intelligent in her stories, and even when she’s not, she usually seems to need to be drugged into submission (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon you ass.)
She’s also one of those unfortunate characters who always seems to have things stolen away from her; her legendarily beautiful white bull, her jewellery, her clothes, her children, her lovers. In the story of Tam Lin, Tam Lin explains that the Fairy Queen ‘pays a tithe to hell’ with her young lovers, but in some older stories, her husband is said to kill them or curse them in anger for his wife replacing him in her bed.
The image of Maeve having her children stolen from her by her vengeful husband was such a striking image I knew I had to include it, especially as it went so well with the many, many iterations of stories about fairies stealing children away to play with them forever. If you had a beautiful, grieving queen you loved (and no morals) wouldn’t you try to repair the damage by bringing her children to raise that her husband has no claim on? If you were starved of loving relationships, wouldn’t you lie to yourself with lovers, even if you knew they couldn’t last?
At the end of seven years
She pays a tithe to Hell
I so fair and full of flesh
I fear it be myself
—Tam Lin (Child Ballards 39)
Maeve became one of those powerful, yet tragic figures in my head. A woman with a lot of power, but no ability to guard her heart from getting hurt over and over again. And with an internal vindictive streak which is made more dangerous by that power and pain combination. You know that everything she does is wrong, but you also know that it’s coming from a place of pain. Her marriage is almost always a complete disaster, with a husband who hurts her, steals her children from her, and yet she’s very romantically inclined, and very nurturing to her stolen children.
I like to think that Maeve was the first of a long line of women who fell in love with the absolute worst of men, and despite suffering for it, seems to still cling onto the idea that True Love exists for her to find.
One of my earliest notes on Maeve’s character says this; “Maeve was the first woman to coin the phrase ‘living happily ever after’ which is extra sad because she never did and never will.”
I know, I depress myself too sometimes…
On that note, join me again over in Making Men of Myths – Part 3 to talk about the theme of ‘The Three Brothers’ and the characters who fill those roles…