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On Constructing Folklore

One of the things which bothers me the most in speculative fiction is how the folklore and mythologies are constructed. I love mythopoeia (constructing mythology) and I love folklore, but there’s one thing I see a lot of which drives me so far up the wall that I make friends with the ceiling.

That’s the assumption, by writers, that anything folklore that they write in – fairy tales, myths, legends, ancient prophecies, tall tales, jokes, etc – are basically like little stories in the main story which all work on the same rules. Yes, a focus on the numbers three and seven will appear – along with a few other ‘staples’ of the fairy tale – and the language will take on a more pretentious ‘old fashioned’ air, but other than that they are written as if they are working on the same rules as modern fiction writing. That they have the same sense and polish.

They arent polished. The ‘rules’ of writing a story are rules for polished, planned, stories written at once by one person for the purpose of telling that story. Folklore isnt. Myths, legends, folk tales, fairy tales, etc are the mish-mashed amalgams of many generations telling what they can remember of incidents, jokes, and stories, to each other and themselves, and twisting with each new teller – none of whom save the last (the one who writes it down in what comes to be the ‘final’ or ‘popular’ form) will be professional story-tellers and none of whom will know the craft.

No one who created folklore (as opposed to setting down on the record) set out to write a story. If you want your fictional folklore – your fairy tales, or mythopoeia, or legends for your heroes to go in search of – to ring true, to actually sound like they are folklore and not the author slamming a massive infodump down on a culture it doesn’t mesh with, you have to do one thing:

Take everything you ever learned about how to write a story or write correctly and THROW IT OUT.

Myths, fairy tales, and other folklore do not obey the rules of fiction writing. It’s not just a stylistic tone change. You know the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Doesn’t apply here. Truth is stranger than fiction because truth involves the actions of humanity as a group. Fiction, in the modern sense, is not written by humanity as a group – it is written by one or two individual humans. Folklore, like truth, comes from humanity as a group. And humanity as a group is batshit crazy.

Folklore is not neat and tidy. Fiction is expected to be neat and tidy (tie up loose ends, not have plot holes, have characters who aren’t acting like they’ve been slapped half to death with a stupid stick, have a message or theme, etc). Most folklore, for all that there are some very ‘logical’ things within it (like how most vampire’s weaknesses are anti-septics), makes no sense. Consider the modern meme. No one can explain why certain things suddenly become hugely popular and get quoted and remixed to death, but they do and they are – for the most part – nonsensical. Nevertheless, they become a common theme amongst large swathes of the population – and while most fade from existence as rapidly as they occur, others linger …despite there being no rhyme or reason to which or why. The same is true of folklore. The myths and fairy tales which we have had passed down to us are the ones which lasted best – the funniest, or the least confusing – but if you actually read them (not their many retellings and adaptations) you find that they make no sense and that all of the ‘rules’ of fiction writing appear to have been ignored.

They weren’t ignored. They just aren’t applicable. And this is what modern writers creating folklore for their works need to understand. Fiction is orderly, but folklore is chaotic. If you are trying to neatly categorise your gods by what they are god of and your myths follow modern writing structures …well, then, you’ve failed to understand what real mythology is like.

Folklore – myths, fairy tales, the like – should feel alive. The clear, plot-relevant, modern-structured ‘myths’ and ‘fairy tales’ seen in modern speculative fiction don’t. The heart is missing from them. The myths and fairy tales – all the folklore, in fact – that writers create for the world’s they build work very well as little modern stories, but not as myths and fairy tales.

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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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V is for Vampire (Part 1)

This post, due to the huge umbrella which “Vampire” covers, is just an introductory post – first in the Bestiary I’m compiling in the On Folklore category – and I will go into more detail on the modern and traditional vampires in later posts, as well as giving each named type (Strigoi, Moroi, Mullo, Dhampir, et cetera) it’s own entry. When I eventually cover other, less common and/or less debatable, creatures from folklore, I hope to be able to cover everything (nature, history, causes, meta-causes, pros and cons in film, television, stage and page, and other notes) in a single, or pair, of posts per creature. But in my typically over-enthusiastic way, I’ve started with a hugely complicated and contradictory creature.

So. Welcome to the Bestiary.

V is for Vampire

What is a Vampire? It sounds like a ridiculously easy question to answer, given the sheer oversaturation of vampires in modern fiction, but it truth it couldn’t be more complicated. In folkloristics “vampire” is sometimes used as a blanket term for any creature from folklore which falls under a very wide umbrella of un-death or blood drinking, or sometimes both. However, if you ask a fan of paranormal romance fiction, they will tell you that vampires are immortal, brooding, sex-gods who sparkle in sunshine, while many modern people simultaneously face-palm because they “know” that vampires are un-dead, blood-drinking monsters who are destroyed by sunlight and that the paranormal romance fans are just ruining the entire concept of vampires because they’re straying from the original and embarrassing themselves. Meanwhile, in some of the more traditional and remote villages that still exist in the places where the lore of vampires originated (remote here meaning that it’s a bit hard to get Wi-Fi, not that they’re still living as 17th century peasants) they might tell you that a vampire is a loved one’s spirit which has not been laid to rest properly and needs to be set free – and then someone less traditional will disagree, the media will turn it into a culturally offensive circus, and the entire thing will end in lawsuits.

The key to understanding folklore is that “older” does not mean “better” or “truer” and that nothing in the subject has one “right” answer. Two equally old tales from neighbouring villages may tell completely different truths about some lore. Neither village is wrong. They most fascinating facet of folklore is that the facts change with time and location – we cannot say what definitely started something, even if we can get a rough history of an idea, we cannot say that something is right or wrong; merely observe how (and the possible whys of) its changing. More importantly, we have to remember that folklore did not stop existing in the time of picket fences around thatch-roofed cottages: we are still creating new folklore every day, so Meyer’s sparkle-pires (no matter how unrelated to all vampire lore which came before them and how much they may seem to be other creatures from legend simply misnamed) are not wrong or less true to the “real” vampire than Bram Stoker’s Dracula (who, by the way, was NOT harmed by sunlight – he just couldn’t shape shift in it). Indeed, while it is the Stokeresque vampire which is most prevalent in the modern mind, much of Stoker’s Dracula was as different from the traditional lore as Meyer’s Sparkle-pires are. That all being said: Meyer’s sparkle-pire work may not be guilty of being untrue to the “real” vampire, but – unlike Stoker’s Dracula – it is guilty of being very bad (that is: poor to no quality) writing. But I digress.

In truth the modern vampire of fiction (typically: a pale, aristocratic, fanged bloodsucker which can turn into a bat, which creates new vampires by infecting them, which is inevitably either wholly malevolent or tragically misunderstood with a chance of brooding, and which may or may not have mind control powers to explain its sexualised enticing aura) is so far removed from the traditional vampire folklore (most often: a fangless, bloated, ruddy, un-dead corpse which is – for various reasons – causing harm to the living with its presence but not necessarily meaning harm, often viewed as a disease victim, but sometimes an apparently living, hypersexual, dead loved one or red-headed albino who reproduces like normal people and can go undetected for decades) that it is almost laughable to claim that they are from the folklore of Romania and its neighbouring countries.

What Do Vampires Represent? Probably nothing. No. I’m serious. There’s a considerable erroneous belief about folklore amongst the general population – thanks (sarcastically) to armchair psychology and overly-analytical professional psychologists who neglect to consider human nature when they explain human nature – that everything must represent something (and that’s singular, both meaning more than one thing and meaning nothing are often dismissed in favour of academics and amateurs battling out their theories). Insofar as our ancient ancestors were concerned, however, they were just as much normal humans as we are and just as likely to imagine having wings because that looks cool or come up with scary stories just to spook their siblings as we are. Vampires don’t have to be a subconscious projection of anything, nor a metaphor for addiction (as commonly assumed, whether intended in the portrayal or not, of modern vampire fiction), nor subtly tied to the American political parties (ever going up and down in popularity as the foreign, minority sucking the lifeblood from society, while opposed to the mindless consumption of the Zombie) because America is not the centre of the universe and it’s about time it admitted that. However, it is worth noting that traditional vampires were often associated with illness and rot, as can be seen through both the tales left behind and an analysis of their weaknesses and the apotropaics (a type of magic which wards off harmful things) which shows that many of the items meant to keep them away were actually disinfectants and cleaners (silver, running water, holy water, salt, garlic, etc).

Why Did People Invent Vampires? The most common explanation for how people, once upon a time in a land which – depending on where you read this from – you might actually be in right now, is that people from pre-industrial societies did not fully comprehend how decomposition works and therefore would observe that recently buried bodies appeared to be growing new hair and nails (those don’t keep growing, by the way, it’s just your skin shrinking), groaning (that’s decomp gasses moving and giving you post-mortem flatulence), were no longer stiff from death (that’s because rigor mortis only lasts for about forty-eight to sixty hours; long enough to last the wake, but gone after burial), appeared ruddy (decomp juices again) and sometimes had blood oozing from the nose and mouth (again, not unusual in decomposition). Other popular theories include: to explain illnesses like TB (“consumption” in the Victorian era, which was considered a very romantic way to die) which were contagious and thus made it seem that an invisible killer would take out entire families after the first victim died, to explain premature burial (all of the reasons of misunderstanding decomposition, but with the added bonus of fingernails scratching on the inside of the coffin), and to explain physical and mental illnesses such as Porphyria (mostly debunked as the symptoms it had in similarity to vampirism were in similarity to modern fictional vampirism and not the older vampire of folklore), rabies (symptoms include biting, frothing at the mouth, problems with sunlight – again too modern for the origin – and garlic, according to folklore problems with looking at their reflection; which is questionable in value as evidence as the no-reflections rule of vampires came from their silver allergy in a time when mirrors were backed with silver, disrupted sleep patterns and hyper sexuality), OCD (traditionally vampires could not cope with messy ropes, had to count any spilled grain no matter what they’d been doing before that, could not enter without permission, and could not cope with crossroads) and some forms of albinism.

The truth is: all of the above. Folkloric beliefs almost never come from one single source or have one single explanation. One town might have had a premature burial and dug someone up to find they looked as if they had been drinking the blood of the living, and if a rumour of that spread to two towns – one where the family of a mentally ill person had been sick with a contagious disease recently, and one where an unusual looking person had recently travelled through and played a few practical jokes – then within three towns you would easily have three completely different vampire legends spring up, based on their experiences and how the tales would change as they heard rumours from the other villages.

 

So, that was fun. I hope you enjoyed it. At some point soon I will write and post the next part of this little series on vampires (probably a history of the concept). Sometime after that, I’ll make posts on the modern and all more traditional types of vampire – nature, appearance, behaviour, causes, weaknesses, and the pros and cons of each type in various mediums of fiction. These take more research than my On Writing rants, which I will also be continuing, so these will comes more slowly and intermittently.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in On Folklore

 

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