Welcome back from Making Men of Myths – Part 2. This is a direct follow on from the previous post, which was split due to length. If you’re interested in the Fairy Queen and her tragic, tragic life, then go back and read that post if you haven’t already!
The Three Brothers
One of my initial biggest problems when I was creating characters was that I had three characters who were very similar in some things. They were all representative of nature-based mythos, they were all so old it’s hard to find the start of their stories and they tended be depicted as looking very similar.
The solution was obvious; make them into brothers and then the similarities are a natural product of their relationship, and only serve to make them more interesting as a group. Families are always interesting and having a set of three brothers is just one of those ancient concepts that keeps cropping up so often that it’s like a trope of folklore before ‘tropes’ were even a thing. So many stories begin with ‘Once upon a time there were three brothers’ that you could build an entire sub-genre by this point.
The Erlking very much takes on the persona of the Eldest Brother from the trope; he is the proudest, he’s focused on persona gain rather than the good of others, but is cunning and unscrupulous in how he achieves those goals. If this were a traditional fairy tale, he’d be undone by these faults, but let’s face it, folklore is not only about teaching small children good morals, and the ‘good people’ don’t always win.
In terms of anything concrete, the Erlking has basically one source for me; in 1782, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem called “Erlkönig” in which a little boy dies as a result of being chased down by the Erlking who steals his … soul? Life force? It’s not really clear to me. All the while his father tells him that there’s nothing chasing their horse through the woods, it’s all just the fog, although he seems less convinced as the journey continues, and when they arrive at their home, the boy is dead. Like all of the really simple horror stories, it’s absolutely horrifying if you read it for yourself, because for a long time the reader’s not sure what’s real either.
“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elf-king has done me harm!”
It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.
The Erlking’s name literally means ‘Elf-king’ and once again we’re looking at the Power of Names here, because I decided to just leave his name at that. No first name, or any kind of moniker outside of that title. Giving something a name humanises it; I name all my computer equipment for that exact reason (I feel less stupid while I swear at the printer if I’ve named it) and a character who genuinely does not have a name, only a title to identify himself by is intrinsically unsettling. Especially if he chooses that for himself.
The poem shows the Erlking killing a little boy, and references that he has daughters accompanying him on this hunt, although he promises the boy that the daughters will play games with him, and dance and sing with him. He wears a crown and a cloak, and seems to be pretty scary to look at because having caught sight of him, the boy hides his face in fear. And that’s it.
“My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the Elf-king quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through dry leaves the wind is sighing.”
“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.”
“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elf-king’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”
It might not be a lot, but like keeping his title as his name, I liked the idea that the Erlking is always seen wearing the marks of his authority, a crown and a cloak of gold (in the poem, there’s a reference to the Erlking’s mother giving out golden robes). It seemed fitting because the Erlking’s name translates as ‘Elf king’ the ruler of the Unseelie Court of Fairies (the ones who will not only steal your soul, but will almost certainly eat you, and/or make you suffer for all enternity.) It also further helps to distance the Erlking from the reader; wealthy and powerful, yet scary to look at.
“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elf-king?
The Elf-king with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”
The sort of character who hunts down and kills little boys while they hide in their fathers’ arms is totally consistent with the kind of man who would leave his wife broken-hearted after stealing her children away from her. Combined with his title of ‘Elf King’, it seemed completely natural to make him Maeve’s Fairy King, which also raises the uncomfortable question of the Erlking’s daughters. Did the Erlking turn them into the child-killing monsters they are in the poem, or were they like that already? I decided to bring up the idea in the stories, but leave the answer very much unclear – there’s something far more unsettling about both Maeve and the Erlking if you aren’t completely clear whether their children were changed by the Erlking or if they’d always prayed on the souls of innocents.
Jack O’Green, the Oak/Holly King
Jack has struggled as a character for me, for the longest time he had ‘Second Brother’ from Three Brothers Stories written all over him; he makes the same mistakes as Eldest Brother, is just as proud, but not as inventive. Which is a bit of a shame, but then I realised that he was based off such a vague concept, of course he was dull!
There are three main figures I pulled from with Jack and they are all short on details.
He started out purely as The Green Man, a figure carved into buildings, especially churches, since before the Roman times. He’s usually recognised as a representation of fertility, rebirth (hence the church-thing) and Nature as a whole. The problem here is that ‘Nature spirit’ doesn’t tell us very much; it’s not a legend with a story that you can get a sense of character out of. When he’s connected with vegetation deities (what with being made out of foliage) he’s usually associated with ones patronising forests, ‘wild fields’ and groves, so I took a strong sense of ‘Wildness’ for his character – still broad, but at least it was a start.
He got his name from the tradition of the Jack O’Green, also known as Jack-in-the-Green, a figure of the older more … bawdy… May Day celebrations and, for reasons I’m not completely clear on yet but still looking into, chimney sweeps. This figure is a man dressed completely in foliage who often leads the processions, and dancing, and he dates back to the mid-sixteenth century in some parts of England. I’ll be honest, the most I got from this was his name and a love of parties and drinking in a kind-of Bacchic tradition of wildness and unrestrained behaviour – dangerous, sure (see the legend of the first Bacchanalia and shudder), but mostly fun.
The biggest part of his make-up came from the legend of the Holly King and the Oak King. For those who love themselves some gruesome legends, the story goes that every year in autumn, the Holly King battles and slaughters the Oak King so he can reign over the world in Winter (the Oak King being dismembered is why the leaves turn red in Autumn; they’ve been stained so by the Oak King’s blood). The Oak King is reborn and rejuvenated in Spring, however, and battles the Holly King and defeats him, so he reigns over Summer. There are a lot of folk traditions surrounding this myth and some of them are more bloody than others, but the general theme of most vegetation deities’ legends is that they are horribly killed and sacrificed for winter, and then regrow in spring. This is far more appealing to my gory taste than Demeter being sad that her daughter ran off with Hades.
This probably tells you something terrible about me… Oops.
Anyway, I tried out the idea of making Jack into two people, maybe having Four Brothers, maybe taking Jack out of the group altogether (deciding against that option as I really liked the Three Brothers story idea, by the way) and then I came to a solution.
Now I recognise that this only really works because Jack is a very mythological character and therefore the rules of what is normal are very different. But the best solution I could find, which would also give me plenty to work with on making Jack interesting in his own right and not simply as an extension of his brothers, would be to have two personalities for Jack, a summer-time Oak King and a winter-time Holly King. I could make the Oak King a fun, mostly benevolent thrower of parties, and the Holly King a pricklier, sharper (pun!) figure who’s very practical and pragmatic, interested in getting his people through this time of hardship. They’d both be rulers over all the nature-based spirits in Fey, and interested in their well-being, but the Oak King could be all ‘buck up, there’s free food and good music, things will be fine and there probably won’t be a drunken brawl later’ and the Holly King could be more ‘my people are more defenceless than ever and you will harm them over my cold and rotted corpse’.
Success! It took a lot of very different myths to make Jack into a whole person, but it was definitely worth the effort, and shows how tiny fragments can be stitched together into something new and yet not totally unrelated.
Herne the Hunter
Herne the Hunter has one very distinct starting point – Shakespeare. And as is often the way with Shakespeare, we don’t really know where he picked the idea up from, or how much he changed it. Anyway, in The Merry Wives of Windsor there’s this little bit of dialogue:
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
So Herne is written as a ghostly figure, he’s got chains and appears at midnight and in the winter, which is pretty normal for a ghost. But he’s also a little weird in that ghosts of this time don’t tend to cause cows to produce blood rather than milk (lovely) and there definitely aren’t any ghostly stags.
The things that interested me in Herne the hunter however, are (of course) the horns, but also the way “he blasts the tree” which suggests lightning to me. And the reason this is interesting is that I naturally connected this to the Wild Hunt.
The Wild Hunt has a lot of variations; it’s a staple right across European folklore, wherever you go, the Wild Hunt will be there somewhere. Its general tale goes like this: there’s a ghostly hunt of men, horses and hounds, that rides through the night in a wild bloodlust. There’s usually a terrible storm when the Wild Hunt rides by, and even over the awful sounds of the wind and rain and thunder, you can still hear the dogs baying and the horns of the huntsmen. The riders are sometimes elves or demons or the dead, and the leader is always named; it can be Odin, but it also could be led by any number of biblical figures.
In England the legend goes that an Anglo-Saxon king, Herla, along with his hunting companions, chase a stag through the Underworld for a day and a night and when he returned he found that it was now three hundred years later. He and his hunt are cursed that they must always keep riding until a special white hound jumps down from Herla’s horse. One huntsman panics, tries to dismount before this happens and he crumbles to dust as those three centuries catch up to him all at once. The Hunt still rides on to this day, all the time getting further and further from the time they have known, which makes me wonder if by now they ever want to stop riding…
Over time these legends have been conflated a little, and one version I was told said that Herle was a Huntsman to Richard III (?) and was grievously wounded by a stag while out hunting. He passed out but came around to see a mysterious figure standing over him offering to heal him in return for working for a new master. Herle accepts (presumably because he didn’t listen to his mother’s fireside stories) and the figure heals him but is revealed to be the devil (because of course he was). The devil fixes the stags horns onto Herle’s head as a reminder of his bargain and sets him to work as the Devil’s Huntsman, doomed to chase down and catch the souls of the damned and drag them into Hell.
Anyway, there are also a lot of horned gods who share appearances with the description of Herle, Cernunnos being the most notable, and so he’s also acquired a reputation as a god or spirit of the wild forests and nature as well, which is why he and Jack being brothers works so well. And his hunting down of people ties him to the Erlking, so you can see why it was easier to put the three of them into a group rather than work to distance each from the other. Bonding them together with their similarities was much more compelling, but making them all different was necessary too.
Herne is very much the Youngest Brother out of the trope, although I’d be the first to admit not on first impression. Like his brothers, he’s proud and brash and has a potential for danger even in advance of the world he lives in. Herne, very much like his brothers, essentially exudes a constant impression that you would not like to run into him in a dark alleyway, he’s the embodiment of ‘Wild’, an untamed being who’s unpredictable and cunning.
The thing that is interesting and distinct (to me) about the Youngest Brother from the Three Brothers Story tradition is how his completely different approach to his older brothers is what wins him through. He is unconventional from the environment he’s been set up in. Traditionally the Youngest Brother is kindly and honourable, but also very straight-forward in his outlook. He therefore either defeats or totally evades the traps laid out on the adventure, which his brothers fall into because of their pride or greed. And yes, I know that this trait is over-used, but well-done versions of this story usually build up this dynamic in interesting ways with good set-up and punch-line beats. For example, if the Younger Brother is starved by his older brothers, then he will later share his food with a starving waif out of empathy and understanding. The Younger Brother has not triumphed from an innate special goodness, but from learning from the actions of his brothers that his actions affect other people.
So what could make Herne different and contrast him with his brothers, the Erlking and the Oak King? I suppose I could have made him this kindly, Santa Claus-like figure who rescues orphaned children or something, but … Well, I thought that this wouldn’t sit well with the tone of the stories I was plotting, nor would it gel very well with the kind of world that Fey is. Fey is a world where literally everyone in it is inherently deadly, and an honourable, kindly person still holding a prominent place in the world just isn’t believable.
In the end I made Herne disinterested in power and responsibility. I find Poseidon to be the more intimidating of The Big Three in Percy Jackson because he’s clearly so secure in his own power that he has no need to show any of it, contrasting with Hades and Zeus who can’t stop showing off how powerful they are. Similarly, Herne could be more frightening than his brothers because, despite having a lot of power, he would far rather run around with his Wild Hunt and chase people. Herne’s Hunt would be thirty people strong at most, and the fact that he would still garner as much attention in Fey as the Erlking ruling the Unseelie court and the Oak King with all his nature spirits says a lot more than words can.
So there we have it, a set of mythical brothers to clash and come together and scare the pants off everyone else! And it only took somewhere in the region of twenty different stories and myths and one Shakespearean play to get us here, too!
Thanks for staying with me for all three parts of this piece! If you enjoyed this and found it useful, check out the rest of the series here.