For those of you who have already read Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove you’ll know that the crusader Edwin Strongarm plays an important role, albeit a mysterious one that will be gradually revealed as the series goes on and the story unfolds.
When thinking about other types of creatures Willow and her friends might come across during their adventures, it occurred to me that during the various crusades that happened in the Middle Ages, crusaders and their followers might have picked up all sorts of creatures in the Middle East and brought them back to England.
Neither cuddly nor very appealing in looks, the European green toad is at home not just in rural Stinkforthshire pastures but also in the region that is now Israel. Amphibians of various descriptions would have been among the more familiar sights the crusaders encountered on their long march towards the Holy City.
It seems plausible to me that homesick, tired and fed up crusading knights and their page boys might have picked up an animal or two that was easy to carry and provided a little companionship along the way – not to mention be useful as a possible food source during sieges.
The green toad is happy to live in steppes, mountainous terrain and semi-deserts, but doesn’t say no to an urban pad either. There are at least 12 different and important evolutionary lineages or variations, which show the toad in a variety of spotted outfits of different colours and patterns. Spots can be dark green, brown or red with the toads’ tummies being either white or slightly coloured. Light and temperature changes also affect the toad’s appearance and to defend itself the toad has glands behind its neck which secrete a toxin – so here we have a toad that can change its spots more or less at will.
Today the green toad is one of the most widespread amphibian creatures still living in Israel, alongside rarer cousins like the endangered Eastern Spadefoot Toad, which prefers a habitat of coastal plains, or the Israel painted frog, which defied scientists who’d thought it was extinct when it popped up quite happily one day in November 2011.
It’s also sometimes referred to as the Hula painted frog because it was found along the shores of Lake Hula in Israel. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as pretty as the green toad and – let’s face it – toads, vampires and witches simply go together like strawberries, bananas and cream. It seems a strange choice for a witch to have a toad as a trusted companion, but there it is, and who am I to argue with folklore when it is so rich for us writers to plunder!
Unlike Neville Longbottom in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, who keeps a toad as his pet, which is continuously trying to flee from its master’s affectionate cuddles, Willow is going to meet toads under very different circumstances. Companion the toad may be to the person I will introduce into the next novel, but this particular green toad won’t be a much loved pet, but will be more like a Saturday Guardian food critic in character than an affectionate playmate.
My next post will be about the other types of animals the crusaders met on their journey into the Middle East and why crusaders play a part in the series at all. Until then…reddit, reddit, reddit…?