I suppose we should have a quick retrospective. An Inspired Mess and the Jack Hansard Series launched way back in January 2015. I published one episode roughly every two weeks – sure, I took a short holiday in the middle, and the beginning of this year suffered a blip as I got engaged and started a new job – but broadly speaking I’ve accomplished what I set out to do: finish what I started. I said I’d get to 20 Episodes, and I have. Suck it, stage fright.
Through Jack’s ridiculous misadventures we’ve encountered monsters in abundance, magic aplenty, mayhem galore . . . and we’ve topped it off with an epic showdown between gods, humans, and one quiet-eyed femme fatale. And, of course, the little Welsh coblyn.
What the future holds, I’m not quite sure yet. Do I continue on into Season 2? Do I adapt the existing stories into a different format? Do I continue staring at my laptop saying ‘What do I do?’
Whatever the case, Hansard is too big in my head to just go back to sleep. There’s a definite future out there, and I’m looking forward to exploring it.
As for you guys . . . the main thing I want to say is thanks. Thanks for sticking with me, and making this a worthwhile endeavour. I hope Hansard has been as entertaining for you as he has for me. If you like what you’ve read of the series, or have some thoughts on what I should do next, leave me a comment – you’ll undoubtedly influence my decision in some way or other. And I’d be just utterly chuffed to hear from you.
If you want to keep updated on what happens next, give that big old ‘Follow’ button a click. Or if you prefer, hit me up on Facebook. I hope we see each other again. Take care!
The Jack Hansard Series is now up to Episode 18, and I’m feeling like a proud mother in the weeks leading up to graduation. Better yet, I feel like the student who knows their long slog of essays and deadlines is finally drawing to an end. Bit of relief, bit of pride, a bit of last minute nerves and anticipation.
There are just two more installments to go this year: Episode 20 in December will bring to a close what I’ve affectionately come to call Season 1. When I started writing in January, I didn’t know if I’d get this far. I’ve been testing myself the whole way, daring myself to fail and let not just myself down, but all those who’ve helped to push me, encourage me along.
I know I’ve not got much of an audience – I’m not kidding myself with illusions of grandeur here – but I hope that what audience I do have is enjoying what I have to offer. Ultimately, that’s what really concerns me: not how wide my readership is, but whether I can entertain and amuse you in the same tradition of countless authors who have brought bursts of colour to my life. I want to pass the parcel on; the best thing is seeing the smile on the person who gets to unwrap the next layer. The worst thing is seeing them disappointed by the shitty plastic whistle inside.
So, small and silent as you are, I don’t want to disappoint you with some shitty ending (I can at least promise it won’t be a plastic whistle). I hope you’ve been enjoying the ride as much as me, and I’ll try and make our shared finale as explosively colourful as possible.
Peggy’s face lit up. I don’t think she gets enough opportunity to show off all that knowledge she stores up from being around books all day. “Well, the phoenix is a mythical regenerating bird that is said to live forever. Or rather, it begets a new phoenix from the remains of the old, sort of asexually reproducing. Most commonly it’s thought to die in a burst of flame and then be reborn anew in the ashes. Tales about the phoenix range across the world and through the ages: there’s the Greek historian Herodotus who suggests the phoenix is native to Arabia but flies to Egypt to be reborn; Pliny the Elder catalogues a possible live specimen sent to the Roman Emperor Claudius (but that one’s probably a fake); it crops up in all sorts of medieval bestiaries, and of course in religious imagery and symbolism, you know how popular the idea of rebirth is–”
“Myffical, ye said,” Ang pointed out flatly.
“That’s the interesting part,” I interposed. “Despite all the stories, general consensus is that the thing doesn’t exist. You’d think it’d have turned up on the Black Market by now, if it did.”
It looks like Hansard’s been tasked with finding the legendary regenerating firebird, the phoenix. I bet you could give me the low-down on this one yourself. The phoenix lives forever, it ‘dies’ in a burst of flames, and it’s reborn from its own ashes. Just like the lovable Fawkes from Harry Potter. Right?
Right. Well, sort of.
The above clip, Peggy’s explanation from Episode 17, gives you the bare bones of some of the earliest accounts of the mythical phoenix. Travelling historian Herodotus ranks the phoenix among the sacred animals of the Eyptians (we’re talking 5th century B.C. here), though he takes care to mention he’s never seen the bird himself and he’s just retelling what the locals told him. According to his report, the phoenix has gold and red feathers and is about the size of an eagle. It apparently lives in Arabia and flies to a specific Egyptian temple (the temple of the Sun in Heliopolis) once every five hundred years. It makes this journey in order to rebirth its parent – the phoenix makes a shell out of myrrh and puts its parent inside, then carries it to the temple of the Sun. That’s all Herodotus says on the matter.
The implication seems to be that the old parent bird will be born anew from the egg of myrrh. The fact that this happens every five hundred years suggests the lifespan of the phoenix could be one millennium. (Think about it: the new bird hatches and flies back to Arabia – it brings its parent back to the temple in five hundred years; then five hundred years later the original phoenix is brought by its child to the temple.)
So far, no explicit mention of immortality, and certainly no flames or rising from the ashes involved.
It’s through this link with Egypt – and Heliopolis in particular – that we might find the deeper origins of the phoenix story. Heliopolis (or ‘City of the Sun’) was a big center of worship for the Egyptian sun-god Ra. The Egyptians had a sacred bird called the Bennu, a divine being that formed part of the soul of Ra. Predictably, the Bennu is associated with themes of creation and rebirth and may have been worshipped at Heliopolis as well. Seems probable that this strong link to the sun is what could have later led to the fiery nature of the phoenix. The Bennu bird looks more like a purple heron than the majestic, eagle-like form of the traditional phoenix, but I reckon it’s not too big a leap if you squint.
Back to the actual phoenix. Sorry, tangents. Can you tell I studied Ancient History? Totally putting that degree to good use.
In the clip above Peggy also mentions Pliny the Elder, another contemporary historian who records a ‘real’ phoenix presented to Roman Emperor Claudius (knocking around in the 1st century A.D.) but he rejects this ‘live specimen’ as an obvious fake. He gives us some more hearsay on the bird though, describing it as gold and purple over the body, with a long blue tail and a crest on the throat and neck. He tells us it has a sacred link to the sun (hello, Bennu origins?) and that when it’s time to die the phoenix will build a nest out of spices and perfumes, then lay down and die on it. From the nest a small worm emerges; the worm becomes a small bird, and then a full-grown phoenix. Still no fire.
Fast-forwarding a little to medieval Europe the story has morphed to include flames, and the echoes of both the Greek phoenix and the Egyptian Bennu run through it. Take this entry from the Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200 A.D.) as a prime example:
“The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so called either because its colouring is Phoenician purple, or because there is only one of its kind in the whole world.
It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire.”
By this point in time the phoenix had become a popular symbol of rebirth across the world and in Christian and Jewish symbolism. Can’t tell you when fire became such a huge part of the story, though. Would be great if I could point at a specific record and go, “that one, guv”. Anyone out there got any leads on the subject?
Our snippet ends here, because if I go on any longer it’ll become an essay rather than a snippet. If you want to read more, there’s this book available through google.books preview that seems pretty interesting.
Thanks for reading; here’s hoping I managed to tell you something you didn’t already know 😛
(Warning! Spoilers ahead for Episode 14 of The Jack Hansard Series.)
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these Folklore Snippets, but I suppose Hansard hasn’t run into many beasties lately – or at least, no beasties inspired by our own, real world folklore. Hansard’s adventures have begun to take a darker turn and I’ve relished the opportunity to flex my horror muscles. Episode 14: Lament of the Lake features a monster of particularly macabre origins: the lake-dwelling, child-murdering kelpie.
This aquatic terror hales from the high peaks and ice cold waters of Scotland. Like many mythological water-dwellers, the kelpie has the ability to shape-shift and often appears in human form. But if you catch one in its natural guise, kelpies take the shape of a wild horse.
Usually, the human form of a kelpie is male – in most of the tales which were written down in the nineteenth century, at least. Later on, artists began painting kelpies as scantily clad maidens reclining on the rocks, much like the sirens of Greek mythology. You can put this down to either innocent misinterpretation of the stories, or the perversion of renowned artistes and their rich audiences. I know which one my money’s on.
Kelpies sometimes retain their hooves when in human form: a dead give-away to look out for if you’re in the habit of being chatted up by handsome lakeside strangers. Also watch out for water weeds and sand in their hair. Being Scottish, it’s natural that the kelpie inhabits lakes and rivers rather than the coastline. I suppose that makes it a freshwater monster. And monster it certainly is: a common theme to kelpie stories is the drowning of children.
One tactic favoured by the kelpie is to appear at the water’s edge as a beautiful horse; imagine a glossy coat and a shimmering mane. It entices both adults and children to ride on its back, and as soon as you are aboard the kelpie gallops into the depths. It may then eat its hapless victims, allowing their entrails – a lone lung or liver – to wash up on shore afterwards.
Sometimes, the kelpie’s trick is simply to let you stroke it. Who can resist a noble horsey gently nuzzling your hand? But then, much like what happens to Toby Everest’s poor son, your hand sticks fast to the horse’s coat and the kelpie drags you into the water. If you’re quick-witted, you might manage to save yourself from a watery grave by cutting your fingers off – and in some tales this is how the victim survives. But usually the kelpie claims many lives: the kelpie of Sunart is said to have taken nine children. This, and many more tales of tragedy attributed to a water-horse superstition, are compiled in John Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Thankfully, cutting off your fingers isn’t the only defence against a kelpie. There are a whole range of options for the monster hunters out there. You can outright kill one of the beasts by shooting it with a silver bullet, or, if one tale about a blacksmith is to be believed, merely poking them with hot iron will do the trick. If you can get the kelpie to appear in horse-form and find it to be wearing tack – that’s a bridle, saddle and other riding accoutrements to us non-horsey folk – remove the tack, and you’ve effectively disabled the kelpie, robbing it of its strength. Plus, that tack might have some nifty magic powers, such as turning humans into horses (or turning yourself half-kelpie, with the gift of second sight!). But what if your kelpie isn’t wearing a bridle? Have no fear – stick one on it! This would apparently capture the kelpie for your own amusement, trapping the creature in its horse shape and forcing it to obey your commands.
So what inspired the inception of this aquatic horror in the first place? The answer, I suspect, is so obvious it’s almost not worth pointing out. When you live in a place like Scotland, a landscape riddled with deep, unforgiving pools, it quickly becomes necessary to scare the bejeezus out of your children to keep them from playing too close to the water’s edge. Careless travellers who go for an ill-fated swim in a nearby lake get sucked into the rich body of folklore, and seeing as there is never a shortage of idiots, and Scotland certainly has no shortage of lakes, it’s a story that writes itself time after time and again.
So let that be a lesson to you, too: in all your wanderings, tread carefully by the lakeside, and be mindful of slippery rocks and treacherous weeds. And never, ever pet a strange horse by the water’s edge.
Moved into new house: Check.
Switched utility suppliers: Check.
Found new internet provider: Check.
Castrated unhelpful TalkTalk employees: Check.
Finally uploaded Episode 13 of the Hansard Series: Freakin’ CHECK!
I know it’s taken a long time, but it’s finally here. That was a ridiculous cliffhanger to be left on, wasn’t it? Everyone’s stranded in the Nether, Ang’s dying, Hansard and Jo are in mortal peril, something BIG is about to happen . . . sorry for the wait. The upside is that because Episode 13 was sitting on my laptop for so long, I’ve been tinkering with it for ages and it just kept growing – so it’s a good 2000 words longer than a normal episode. And it’s a fairly tasty installment: we get the first real insight to part of Hansard’s past; we finally find out what happened to Ang; and could it be that Baines and Grayle are involved somehow?
Furthermore, to help make up for the month-long silence, I’ve got some extra doo-dads to show you on the blog, including some bonus short stories and an interview with an author-friend of mine.
The world is full of thunder, though there isn’t a rain cloud in sight. You see the cannons before you hear them: a silent plume of fire and smoke, followed by the booming shock wave that sweeps across the battlefield, travels up my legs and rattles the shako on my head.
Behind us, our own guns return fire.
One of the Korporals has delighted in telling me, over and over, “Y’don’t see a battle. Y’hear it.” A sentiment which I understand to have originated from an officer of the 95th. And now I understand what it means. The white smoke drifts across the field like a thick fog. It passes in font of our battalion and for solid minutes we cannot see more than six feet ahead, let alone the French soldiers lined up on their ridge.
“Here comes Nosey!” shouts our Feldwebel. We turn smartly and stand to attention as Wellington rides by. Rumour has it that Bony was sighted holding afternoon tea on the other side of the field. Will we catch a glimpse of him before the day is out? He’s out there somewhere, hiding in those lines of French. Over two thousand of them, all lined up on their ridge, and us on ours, and all the while our guns are firing.
When the smoke thins there is no longer a line, but a column of French, at least ten ranks deep and advancing towards us in marching step.
Our boys ready their muskets and the order to fire is given. The sound is a crack through the air, and it cascades down the line in a rolling surge of smoke and flame. Another volley is called. Crack. Another, and another, and still the cannons boom behind us, and still the French advance.
The smoke thickens again – I am surprised to find it smells heavily of eggs. It clings to my throat, makes the very air feel heavy and grey. High above, fantastic smoke rings curl lazily against the sky, while on the ground the clouds crawl sluggishly around us.
And out of the clouds come the French.
“Fix bayonets!” comes the desperate call.
The lines clash in a riot of colour and noise and metal. French blue against the black of the Brunswickers to the right, and against the reds and greens of the Highlanders holding firm on the left.
We hang back with the supply wagon, distanced from the fray but hardly out of it. I risk a glance to my right. The same scenes are being played out as the battlefield stretches on, blocks of red fending off blocks of blue, cavalry diving in and out of the melee. The farms of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont are surrounded; my prayers go to the boys inside.
A shout and sudden chaos: a French horseman has broken through the line and advances towards us, alone. Is he insane?
I dive behind the cart – I am unarmed, but what French would care? Our bodyguard hastily draw their swords and surround us. The horseman isn’t mad after all; perhaps he’s just now realised he’s left his company behind. He turns tail and breaks back through to his own men.
The lines have separated now, the French retreat. Our volleys go into their backs. It’s time to advance.
I’m in position by one of the limbs of the cart, braced and ready. “Auf!” is the command I’m waiting for. We hoist up the cart and drag it forwards, ploughing through the waist-deep grass. It is like wading through prickly mud. Ahead, the army leaves a trampled void of flattened stalks where it passes. It will be easier through there.
At least, it is easier until we reach the bottom of our hill; now we start the climb up the next ridge.
“Halt!” shouts the Feldwebel. He is panting, and so are we. The black uniforms are hot and heavy, and the cloying smoke is still in my lungs. It’s nauseating. As I take a swig from my canteen, I spy the surgeon running towards us. His apron is bloody, and he holds an armful of empty canteens.
We can barely hear him over the roar of the guns, but his mouth frames the word: “Water.” We work as fast as we can, hauling the great jugs off the cart and refilling canteens as fast as possible. Any moment now we’ll be called to advance again, and we can’t afford to be left behind.
There is an almighty crack right beside us, and for just a second the world goes eerily silent save for the ringing tone in my left ear. As sound filters back I spy the culprit, a rifleman dealing with a misfire behind the lines. My muscles relax where they had tensed for flight.
As the surgeon withdraws, he is replaced by a lanky Brunswick Jäger. He doesn’t bother to salute, just opens his cartridge pouch and says with a grin, “Ammo please!” This is a job for the Quartermaster General – even with all that gold braid weighing him down, he’s a practical man to have on the field – the strongbox is unlocked, the black powder cartridges rapidly unloaded, and the Jäger sent on his way.
No sooner has he disappeared into the smoke another officer approaches. We have orders to resupply the Gordon Highlanders to our front and the 42nd to our left. Our relatively quiet corner of the battlefield is suddenly a squall of activity: we can’t pour water fast enough nor assign cartridges with enough speed. We hear that some of the men are completely out of ammunition. We can’t keep up!
And suddenly we are advancing again. With aching muscles we haul ourselves and our cargo up the slope, manoeuvring around bodies of French dead. It is chilling to think that I am walking across a graveyard. The sky overhead has turned an ugly grey.
Peering ahead, I can see a column of French backing away, huddled in on itself, harassed by cavalry and gradually being swallowed by the Highlanders. The Brunswickers advance on, over the ridge and to victory. The French are fleeing.
Our Brunswick motto rings in my ears: Nunquam Retrorsum. Sieg oder Tod.
Never Retreat. Victory or Death.
I look back, and see that we have walked a quarter of a mile from where we began. La Haye Saint lies in ruins; Hougoumont a burning wreck.
I cast my eye over the assembled dead. One of the bodies sits up, and takes a photograph.
The smoke is clearing, the booms and cracks have died away, save for the occasional puff of smoke as someone rids their gun of its last charge. We are approached by a group of weary French soldiers – Imperial Guard, I think – they wear ecstatic grins where terrified faces should be. We offer them some water: it is a long march back to camp, after all.
Bonaparte himself walks by us.
“They’ve left me behind!” he says, comically.
The night is drawing in by the time we leave the battlefield. I won’t reach my tent until midnight, and when I do I shall hit my pillow and sleep like the dead until dawn.
And then tomorrow night, we shall do this all over again.
And that, folks, is how I spent my holiday in Belgium – the reason I postponed the next Hansard episode. If you missed the news, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, portrayed with around 5000 re-enactors – I’m telling you, it was huge. I didn’t even have to exaggerate most of what is written above. The only real embellishments are the burning of Hougoumont (which happened in real life, but not during this re-enactment) and the order that some of the stuff happens in. It was loud, it was at times terrifying, and it was also awesome in the truest sense of the word.
The sheer sense of chaos is what I will treasure most. There were moments when my commanding officers were practically screaming at us to run into the middle of a square of Allied soldiers because French cavalry appeared to be flanking – because if there’s anything that a small, undefended unit dragging a cart don’t want to face, it’s any kind of cavalry. It was genuinely hard work, but it’s an experience I want to keep logged in my brain in as much detail as possible for future reference. As I was breathing in that strangely egg-flavoured black powder smoke, there was a big portion of my mind thinking, ‘I’ve got to remember how this feels so that if I ever want to write about a big battle with guns I know how to write it . . . ‘
But although that’s the closest I will ever come to experiencing what a real battle might feel like, I am very aware of how vanilla our experiences were – we were spared the gore and the shrieks of pain and the wreckage of a landscape. Most people were wearing a great big grin, like they couldn’t believe they were really there. I couldn’t believe I was really there.
And I couldn’t believe how many people died here, two hundred years ago. I looked out at the massed ranks of both Allied and French soldiers spread out before me, and knocked sections of them down in my head. Boom. You’re dead. Boom. You’re dead.
And at one point I realised: there are only about 5000 of us here. The historic battle suffered over 40,000 dead. I looked at this field filled with people and saw them all littering the ground; every one of us would be dead men. I’m not a praying kind of gal, but I gave my own private homage to the fallen. And of course there was the laying of wreaths and singing of hymns and other little rituals done by each regiment. I’m sure every individual had some little ritual of their own.
I don’t know what those soldiers would have thought of us here in the future, play-acting at what was probably the worst event in their lives. Grim thoughts like that can spoil this hobby, if you let them. The important thing is to temper our fun with respect, and to temper the spectacle with compassion.
Apology incoming. I’ve given in, and decided to postpone releasing Episode 10 until next Wednesday. You know what I was saying about life getting in the way? It continued to get in the way. It sounds like a feeble excuse to my ears – after all, there’s always time to write, right?
Definitely. I’ve been eking words out in spare moments at work. I’ve stayed up far too late on days that I shouldn’t in order to eke out some more. I found a few hundred words while squinting at my laptop during the long car journey home yesterday. I even managed about a hundred once I reached home, before the headache kicked in. I got up early this morning to make a last ditch effort on the thing – because better late than never, right? Then I read what I had written, and discovered that it was all a bit shit, and still wasn’t finished. Am I going to be able to correct that in the next two hours before I leave the house again? No.
I realised that over the past fortnight I’ve had very few nights in my own bed. I don’t think I’ve stayed in one place for much more than a day or two; the pile of washing up in the kitchen just keeps growing, and there’s something reminiscent of Hansard’s Odious Miasma living in the bin. I’ve got a couple of hours to deal with some of these things, but then I won’t be back home properly until Sunday night. Ugh. Some of the reasons for this constant movement have been unpleasant (a funeral on my partner’s side of the family, a friend moving away, etc) and some of the reasons have been exceedingly pleasant (such as a friend’s wedding, and a mutual belated birthday gift of a trip to the Harry Potter studios with my sisters – darn worth it, by the way). I’m stubborn as hell, and didn’t want to admit that I might have a teensy bit of trouble getting the latest episode finished on time. Because there’s always time to write, right?
Although I agree with this sentiment, I’ve often wondered how other people achieve it. Because when you say ‘there’s always time to write’ – are we talking about making time, or finding time? They’re two different things, and not equally possible. Ideally, you ‘make’ time by refusing other commitments – you say no to seeing your friends for a day, as an example. But it’s never as easy as that. Even though there’s this cliched image of a writer being in social isolation as a necessary consequence of their work, I’m not sure I believe it. I don’t think I’m an overly special case in that I live too far from friends and family to see them several times a week – there is no twice-weekly pub outing, or the like. But it does mean that social requests are not easily refused. For instance, I could have refused to go my mate’s leaving do, freeing up an entire, valuable evening for writing. But I don’t see him often as it is, and would rather be there to say ‘see ya, good luck, don’t fuck up’. Kinda what friends are for. I could have refused to see my sisters this week, which would have freed up an entire afternoon on Sunday and all of Wednesday. But they’ve paid money to have a week’s holiday near me, and frankly I’ve only seen them twice this year – we’re all skint, so visits are rare.
In my experience, most social commitments are like this. I don’t know if it’s a sign that I’ve become more of an adult, or if it’s just a symptom of moving out of the city (i.e. that place where my friends are) but I find social engagements involve a complex amount of give and take, and they are far more valuable to me now than they were a few years ago. It’s darn difficult to make time by dropping friends and family.
Then there’s finding time, which, if you’re like me, often involves stealing time-sheets from work so that you can write passages on the back of them during your shift. Or fighting the sun as it obscures your view of the laptop in the car. Or sacrificing sleep in exchange for a few more difficult words. This feels easier than making time, because you don’t have to explain it to anyone. You don’t have to let anyone down. Except, I suspect, yourself. The problem with finding time is that really the only person you’re stealing minutes from is yourself. Minutes you should be using to rest, eat, sleep. If you know that you’ve got a long week ahead, if you know you’re going to be hopping between cities and getting less than six hours sleep for several nights in a row, and then still getting up for work in the morning – it’s your own fault for trying to fit in even more work, and burning yourself out by the end of it. Should have made time instead, idiot.
These sound like excuses for why I haven’t met my self-allotted deadline. They’re not meant as excuses – just as observations. Lessons, hopefully. When trying to make or find time it often feels like you can’t win, because everybody else is demanding your time, too. How do you work around that? I’ve read that some people assign one specific day a week as their work day for writing. It’s treated like any other day at work. Friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, everyone else is told to stay clear, let the writer do their thing in peace. I love the idea, but I’m doubtful about how it works in practice. Regardless of whether you lock yourself away from the world or not, the world comes knocking just to tell you “The washing up needs doing and something might have died in the bin.”
Because even though you view your writing as one of the most important things in the world, few people share that view. I don’t yet think I’m at the point where I could tell a friend: “Sorry, I can’t come see you because writing is more important at the moment.” That sounds like a slap in the face. In my head, the response this gets is along the lines of: “What? Your stupid little short story thing, which isn’t exactly premier literature and nobody reads anyway – this is more important than a day with your friends? This silly, petty pastime is more important than your other hobbies?”
And inside, there’s this meek little voice that just wants to say: “…yes…”
Dang, it all comes down to self-confidence again, don’t it? Like rivers to the sea, follow your problems in writing and it seems they all lead that way. There’s a great big sea of self-trust out there. I’ll reach it, eventually. Ina little boat called Endeavour. Could you get any more twee?
Well, lookee that. I started with an apology and ended up with a piece that vaguely resembles something interesting. To recap: Episode 10 of the Jack Hansard series will be released on the 10th of June, in a suitably more entertaining and well-written state than it currently is.
I ran, crashing wildly through the crowd. Snarls and growls followed in my wake – what’s a few trampled toes and elbowed faces? – I was too intent on my goal to pay them any mind. I reached the spot where I’d seen her, and spun round in desperation.
“Where’d she go?” I shouted, frantically. I threw myself into a nearby cluster of people, certain she must be hiding in amongst them.
“Watch yourself, mate,” said one of the surly men as I broke through.
I grabbed him by the shoulders and practically screamed into his face: “The girl. Did you see her?” With a stunned expression, he dumbly shook his head.
In the latest episode of the Jack Hansard series the search for the quiet-eyed thief intensifies, and Ang receives the affections of an unlikely admirer. A bad decision in the heat of the moment might land them in a whole heap of trouble – but what’s new there?
What’s new here is that there’s new content in the works. The Folklore Snippets are fun to write and I intend to keep writing them, but perhaps to a less rigid structure, allowing me to branch out and experiment whenever the hell I feel like it. If I fancy writing a blog post on Tuesday, but an update isn’t due til Thursday – well, I need to get my head around the idea that are no rules here, because this is my space, so I can damn well put that post up on Tuesday with no explanation. Ditto if life gets in the way so that a supposedly expected blog post is a day late (it did get in the way this week, as it happens – Christ, sometimes it’s like people die on purpose – but the important thing is that I stuck to my promise and the Jack Hansard Episode 9 was on time. Yeah! But sod the blog). I wish I could stop feeling like I have to explain myself every time I decide to do something different – do I fear the judgement of an invisible (and so far silent) audience that much?
Sure, I guess I do. Doesn’t every writer? Wasn’t the whole point of putting my work online to get over that fear and face the judgement of others, silent or otherwise? Wasn’t the whole point, in fact, to build up that self-confidence so I don’t feel the need to ask politely if I can do the thing I want to do, so that I don’t feel like I have to tip-toe around this idea that I like to write things? Why am I embarrassed about that? I need to own that embarrassment, somehow.
I’m getting off-track. Not that there was much of a track to begin with for this post – and frankly I’m finding it quite refreshing. The odd ramble is good for the soul, no?
Anyway, besides all that, there’s something very exciting happening behind the scenes. So exciting, I’ve been bursting to shout about it for weeks, because I’m impatient and want everything to happen at once. An Inspired Mess has been joined by a frankly outstanding illustrator, and we’ve been working hard to bring the Jack Hansard series to life with some shiny pictures! And they are seriously shiny. I wish I could show you all of them, right now – but, like me, you’ll have to wait until they’re finished. Maybe we’ll do a big reveal, Hansard style.
Until then, expect some sneak-peeks of concept art over on the Facebook page, and a formal introduction to our new illustrator here on the blog.
I guess I should go and start working on Episode 10. See ya soon!
Last week’s Episode 8: Black Market featured a couple of interesting new beasties to choose from for this snippet. On the one hand you have Devin Tracey, the charming Irish siren; on the other you have the alluring female huldra. And as I suspect you are least likely to have heard of huldra, she will take the limelight today.
You don’t see much of her in Episode 8, which is a shame, because I think she’s a really characterful creature. She’s of Scandinavian origin, and might be likened to a forest nymph, or a type of troll. She typically looks like a beautiful woman from the front, but from the back you might see her cow tail. If you get to see her bare back, you might find that it is hollow and made of bark, like the dead trunk of a tree.
Now, whenever I do the research for my folklore snippets, I always have the same problem: digging through endless reams of similar but vague descriptions about the creature in question. Yes, unsourced internet article #178, that’s some very interesting information you have there, but it’s no use telling me that: ‘Some stories say…’; or even that: ‘One story from the South of Norway says…’ Which goddamn story, article #178?
What is it called? Who wrote it? Where can I find it?
I found them eventually. A lot of Norwegian folklore was collected by a pair of writers called Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe in the 19th century – they are the Scandinavian Brothers Grimm. Huldra apparently feature in a number of these stories, but the problem with Norwegian folktales is that they’re in, well, Norwegian. One great source for an English translation of their work is George Webbe Dasent’s translation of Popular Tales From the Norse – but I haven’t found a story about huldra in amongst these. So instead I’m using Clara Stroebe’s The Norwegian Fairy Book, which features many of the same stories. I’ve picked out two tales which show you some of huldra’s main characteristics:
The Troll-Wife tells the story of how a human man desired a beautiful huldra – she is described as a human-looking troll with a cow’s tail. But she loses her beauty the instant she is captured by this foolhardy man, and he is forced to marry her despite her ugliness. During their wedding ceremony, her tail drops off. At first her husband treats her badly, bitter over her bad looks. The huldra remains well-mannered and even compassionate toward her husband – until one day she shows off her full troll strength by bending metal horseshoes with her hands. Surprise, surprise, her husband is suddenly much kinder to her from that moment onwards.
The Player on the Jew’s Harp is a similar story about a man wedding a huldra maiden, but in this case there is no mention of a cow tail, and she remains beautiful throughout. She is described as being one of the underground folk, known variously as the huldrefolk and ‘the hidden people’. In the story it seems these people cannot be easily seen by human eyes, and they can bewitch other creatures to be hidden as well. The man attracts the huldra’s attention with his skillful playing of the Jew’s Harp (huldra seem partial to beautiful music) and unwittingly captures her by flinging the harp at her head, accidentally drawing blood. Now, in this story a big thing is made of the fact that the huldra is not a Christian. In fact, once they are married, the husband begins to bully her because of this. She ends up displaying her strength in the same way as the Troll-Wife huldra, by bending red-hot horseshoes with her hands. For a while after that the husband is good to her and they prosper. Then his mind darkens, and he goes back to his old ways. One day he beats her, draws blood once more, and she vanishes forever. She doesn’t die; she simply becomes hidden again and spends the rest of her life protecting her husband from her own friends and family, who understandably want to make him pay for his wrongdoings. It’s a very sad tale, made bittersweet by the enduring love of the huldra for her husband. He dies an empty man, full of regret for what he has done.
In both these tales the huldra comes off as a very sympathetic character, but in other tellings she is painted with more cunning motives, actively hoping to trick a human into marrying her so that she may lose her tail and become human herself. If I come across an online English source for these stories, I’ll let you know.
In more modern news, there’s a Norwegian movie about a huldra that I am dying to see: Thale. Fantasy, horror, and my new favourite folkloric creature? Hell yes. Have you seen it? Is it worth spending a whole £8 on? 😛
In the latest episode of the Jack Hansard series, Ang and Jack run into a river-dwelling creature going by the name of Shellycoat. The reason such sprites are given this name should be immediately clear: they wear a rattling coat of shells over their body.
Now, I admit I had some trouble tracking down solid information on Shelly. My first search turned up several sites which all carried the same basic description mimicked by Wikipedia. I don’t wish to become part of the same annoying cycle, but the basic impression is simply: the Shellycoat is Scottish; lives in lakes, rivers and streams; and, like almost every other folkloric creature, has a mischievous nature.
The one solid lead I had was the knowledge that Shelly is mentioned in Jacob Grimm’s (yep, of the famous Brothers Grimm) Deutsche Mythologie. After a rather frustrating time trying to pinpoint the correct volume and page number (vol 2, p.512 in this translation), it turned out to say very little. According to Grimm the Shellycoat is a type of goblin, and he confirms that it is a Scottish creature. He then likens it to a dwarfish thing who wears a bell-coat (which elsewhere I’ve seen called a ‘Schellenrock’ or ‘bell-coat’). The bells worn on the hats and coats of fools are apparently a reference to this ‘shrewd and merry’ goblin.
A more colourful view of the Shellycoat is provided by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish border (3rd ed), v1, which gives us an idea of the pranks Shelly like to play. Supposedly, he once led two travellers astray by calling out “Lost! Lost!” from the River Ettrick. The travellers followed this sound all night, assuming it to be a drowning person. They followed it all the way to the river’s source, only for the voice to head back down the river, back the way they had come. When they gave up their rescue effort, the Shellycoat revealed himself with laughter and applause, thoroughly amused with his own deception.
So Shelly may be a joker, but he seems to be fairly harmless, unlike a whole host of other water-dwellers whose sole intention was to lure travellers into the waves to drown.
It’s a bit funny that the most distinctive feature of the Shellycoat – y’know, his shelly coat – doesn’t seem to have much of a story to it. Does Shelly collect the shells himself? Does he wear them because they’re pretty or because they rattle in a musical way – like the bells the Schellenrock loves? Is it an actual garment like a coat, or more like a blanket-covering? I’m inclined to imagine the latter: picture this mass of shells creeping along the banks of a river, clinking and clacking as it moves. But it could be a more humanoid goblin like Grimm suggests; it might even help you around the home if you’re polite – so long as you don’t mind occasionally being tricked into a long walk down the river for no reason whatsoever.