Faeries, Faeries, quite contrary

flying pixie manDuring research for one of my WIPs I came across this lovely book “Faeries, Elves and Goblins – The Old Stories” by Rosalind Kerven, a National Trust book published under their Folklore banner. It not only has beautiful illustrations by Arthur Rackham and other acclaimed artists but also contains a very interesting collection of stories and a wealth of information about the Little People living under hills, in meadows and ancient groves.

I had never realised how wicked some faeries, goblins and elves could be – just read King Herla’s story or the plight of poor farm boy Tom Tiver, when he meets goblin Yallery Brown, and you’ll know what I mean!

Not all of these nightly creatures are wicked though and some are rather helpful to humans, provided said men, women and children are deserving of their magical interference. I also didn’t know how many different kinds of faeries existed in the folklore catalogue of mythical creatures populating the British Isles – there’s a veritable legion of them.

fairy on islandThanks to J K Rowling we all know about Cornish Pixies, and if you aren’t friends with Hermione Granger it’s probably not a good idea to invite a Cornish Pixie into your house for tea. But did you know there were pixie populations in Devon and Somerset, too? Would a Devon Pixie have a different accent than a Cornish one? Would a Somerset Pixie offer you a pint of scrumpy if you asked nicely?

Do you know what a Greenie or Grey Neighbour is or have you ever come across Henkies, Hobs or Hogmen before?

Hands up, who’s heard of Phynnodderees, Portunes or Trows? Ever come across the Siofra, Spriggans or Grogachs after a particularly boozy night out?

I’m especially intrigued by the stories that mention faerie folk living under hills and mountains, for it ties in with my research on Arthurian legends – not the medieval 12th and 13th century romantic versions we usually get to see on telly or on the silver screen, but the “real” 6th century AD legendary King Arthur and Merlin characters mentioned in various historical documents (which may be fictional accounts and not about real people at all but hey, us folklore fanatics take what we can get).

To me, faeries belong to the Dark Ages, the time when the Romans had left the British Isles and Britons had to fend for themselves – and according to legends, Arthur and Merlin were probably the last remaining defenders of the Celtic way of life, before the invading Saxons and their nasty new-fangled religion destroyed the magic that had once permeated every aspect of Brythonic life. King Herla’s story in particular stands out – it’s almost as if the storyteller is referring to the Romans, making them faerie folk who promised a land of golden opportunity, patronage, friend-and kinship and then simply vanishing into thin air.

excalibur out of waterSo if you want to learn more about these mischievous creatures of the night, these laughing, chanting, giggling dancers and musicians with their gem encrusted halls, their faerie gold and silver bells, their colourful clothes and strange sense of humour, have a peek at Rosalind Kerven’s book. It’s perfect night time reading material.


(source for animations: heathersanimations.com)

More boar-ing Facts from the Wild Wood

Fig. 16 - Wild boar.

I’ve already touched on how wild boars were hunted to extinction in Britain during the Middle Ages. Before heading for the subject of boar worships, perhaps we should look a little closer at why boars are regarded as such worship-worthy beasties.

Famous for their resilience, strength and courage, wild charging boars make formidable opponents. Hunters, who merely graze wild boars with their bullets, lance or spear, might find they’re being chased up a tree, mauled, trampled, squashed and even killed. The general rule is to kill the boar or be killed by it. The wild pig is blessed with very thick fur and hide, dense bones and enormous tusks (worn by males only to impress the girls), which makes it so resilient.

The Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) is the wild ancesto...

Naturally, boars were mainly hunted for their delicious meat, but they were also pursued with such relentless vigour because pigs, wild, domesticated or just ill-behaved, can cause tremendous damage to crops, kitchen gardens, fields and forests. They take being an omnivore very seriously and “hoover” up everything that comes before their snout, lizards, acorns, snails, mushrooms, carrots in a kitchen garden.

There were various methods to kill wild pigs, among them pick-sticking and hunting at bay with hounds like mastiffs or trapping with nets and deep holes. While pick-sticking had at least something of the single combat, heroic element to it, hunting with dogs, shooting with guns or trapping wild boar is unmanly and a hunting method used only by cowards.

During a pick-sticking hunt the hunter or spearman used a special boar spear to kill the animal, either on horseback or on “foot”, sometimes in groups of hunters but also in a single man-to-boar situation.

Worshipping boar for their strength and bravery reminds me of humanity’s first foray into this misguided belief. Can we truly imbibe our enemies’ physical strength and positive traits of character? I rather doubt it. If true, we’d all be biting Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Geller or Marilyn Monroe. It’s a fairy-tale made up by cannibals, when they clubbed each other over the head and consumed their uncles, aunts and nephews in the privacy of their own caves. A slice of Uncle Herbert, anyone?

Skeleton of wild boar

Skeleton of wild boar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as there are still thousands of idiots out there who believe that bits of tiger flesh stewed with a selection of Asian herbs and spices or ground up rhino horn sprinkled over their oysters or snow leopard steaks with chips and mayo will give them greater prowess in the bedroom department, thousands of years ago Celts worshipped the boar and munched their way through thousands of these wonderful animals for rather different reasons.

Even the great King Arthur himself didn’t escape the boar-magic. A story found in the Welsh/Celtic Culhwch and Olwen mentions Arthur chasing after the mythological boar Twrch Tryth and that the boar and chase had something to do with Arthur entering the otherworld or realm of the dead in order to steal a magical object.

Culhwch entering Arthur's Court in the Welsh t...

Culhwch entering Arthur’s Court in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike the aforementioned men with too much money on their hands and too little brain between their ears, the Celts created tiny metal boar statues to wear on their helmets and nearly life-size ones as offerings during special burials of important personages as their tribute to the boar. Romans were less fanatical in their boar hunting efforts, but also prized the animal for its courage and strength.

Although during the 13th and 14th century noblemen mainly hunted boar for sport and food, they also practiced their martial skills on them and eventually paid tribute to their wild opponents by including them in their heraldic emblems. Because wild boars were so ferocious and often killed hounds, horse and hunter, the boar was considered a malicious animal and was even accused of having links with Satan. However, this didn’t stop the rich aristocracy to covet their cunning, strength and intelligence.

My particular favourite is the noble house of Schweinichen, who used pictures of a wild boar in their heraldic emblems and colours (Schweinchen = piglet). Undoubtedly, the wild boars would have preferred to be left in peace to forage in the forest rather than being hunted and then used as a cute namesake.

Heubach wild boar

Wild boars, like all pigs, are highly intelligent animals. Hunted to extinction in large parts of Europe, wild boars are gradually making a comeback, thanks to their astute understanding of human habits and human habitats. In Greater Berlin in Germany, populations of some 10,000 animals have been recorded, around 4,000 of which sneak into suburbs to raid bins or forage for food in gardens or to play in the municipal parks with their piglets.

Knowing they are unlikely to be hunted or even chased by suburban humans, they have become so brazen that the normally nocturnal animals have been sighted during the day – when in May 2003 two wild boars went for a stroll on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the municipal powers ran out of patience and sent out storm troopers to deal with the trotting menace. Both intrepid piggy-tourists were shot, proving once and for all that only Stasi-swine are allowed to live happily ever after in Berlin.

English: Mosaic of a wild boar on the Northern...

English: Mosaic of a wild boar on the Northern Aisle floor of the Byzantine Church of Petra, Jordan Français : Mosaïque représentant un sanglier sur le bas côté nord de l’église byzantine de Pétra en Jordanie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As per my earlier blog, wild boars have also discovered the delights of Hamburg, where earlier this year several of them invaded private gardens. These links are to German newspaper reports, showing pictures of the “humane” hunt with stun guns that merely sedated the animals. Only two of the Hamburg tourists were caught; the rest of the piggy gang escaped by jumping into the river.



Medieval Cooking for Vampires (Beginners Part 3)

While I’m not in favour of advocating fast food for humans, this culinary concept is not always a negative one.

Reading up upon medieval spells and remedies I was surprised to learn a medieval person’s diet was actually quite different from what I thought it would be. Far from all the yummy ham, capons, chickens and roasted piglets we see King Arthur, his knights and Queen Guinevere consume in the BBC’s Merlin series, most medieval people didn’t eat meat very often and getting a protein rich diet would have been quite rare for an average girl like Willow the Vampire.

Cooking lessons for humans would have been very different from today. For a start, carrots were either white or purple but not orange (not introduced until 17th century), no doubt pretty confusing for colour-blind witches and warlocks at the time. How do you tell such ingredients apart from radishes or mandrake?

Parsnips, onions, turnips (of Blackadder’s Baldric fame), apples, wild garlic, watercress, cabbage, beetroot, leeks, beans, eel and various cheap dried meats would augment a meagre diet that consisted mostly of “gruel” type broth made from barley, acorns, rye or buck wheat.

Even in the 10th century, a full four centuries after Arthur had first complained to Merlin about the outrageous practice of serving salad to his meat-loving king, bread as a daily household ingredient was relatively rare – grinding wheat was time-consuming labour for women and in any event, most households were grindingly poor.

Health issues in general were addressed with a haphazard approach. If it didn’t kill you and you survived the cure, the “healer” would be set up for life and make a good living. If you died, the healer was probably going to die too – at the stake, accused of sorcery! The remedy might not actually do you any good, but survival often depended on faith rather than the physician’s skill. With regard to food production, a medieval Vampire Council was particularly concerned about the high death rate among human infants and their mothers.

Caesarean births were surprisingly common – although the mother rarely survived. The method was mainly applied to save the child so it could receive baptism before death occurred. The understanding of conception was still a rather muddled affair and some bewildering, often occult remedies existed to help childless couples. Childbirth in general was a risky and confusing issue in medieval times:

Charm One: “To make a woman pregnant give to drink in wine a hares rumnet (NB: they probably meant rennet) by weight of four pennies to the woman from a female hare, the man from a male hare and then let them do their concubitus and after that let them forbear; then quickly she will be pregnant and for meat she shall for some time use mushrooms and, instead of a bath, smearing (NB: anointing with oils), wonderfully she will be pregnant.”

It seems hares were generally associated with fertility – personally, I suspect the consumption of wine might have done the trick…although the stink resulting from not washing might be rather counterproductive (pardon the pun). Hare’s tonic aiming to produce a male child consisted of a dried hare’s belly being shredded and then eaten by both partners, washed down with a drink.

Charm Two (for women whose foetus is found to be dead): “The woman who may have a dead bairn (child) in her inwards, if she drinketh wolf’s milk mingled with wine and honey in like quantities, soon it healeth.” An alternative method was to use the heart of a hare which, dried and pounded to a pulp, was mixed with frankincense dust and presumably also washed down with wine. In either case, the woman was more likely to die than be cured.

United Kingdom

United Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charm Three (for women who lost children early in infancy): “Let the woman who cannot bring her child to maturity go to the barrow of a deceased man, and step thrice over the barrow, and then thrice say these words:

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome late birth

May this be my boot

Of the heavy swart birth

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome lame birth.”

All manner of bizarre remedies existed for ear problems, bladder troubles, chapped lips in winter or year round baldness among men. I particularly like the recipe for getting rid off dandruff by mixing watercress with goose fat and smearing it on one’s head…I also like the advice, how to get rid of insects in one’s ears:

Collect the juice of green earth gall, or juice of horehound, or juice of wormwood, whatsoever of these you choose. Pour the juice into the ear, this will draw the worm out. If there’s dinning (NB: buzzing) in the ears, take oil, apply on to ewes wool, and when going to bed close up the ear with the wool. Remove it on waking.

Don’t you just love the last instruction? You can just imagine dozens of medieval peasants shouting at each other, because they’d stuffed their ears with ewe’s wool and forgot to remove their worm remedy).

Bladder troubles and kidney stones were cured by Dwarf dwosle or Pennyroula, which was pounded and mixed with two draughts of wine. The sufferer would drink this stuff and any stones the sufferer might have would be “forced out” and the healing process would begin in a matter of days.

Male baldness, an affliction the medieval Brit seems to have been particularly cursed with (no change to today’s specimen), was apparently treated with the juice of nasturtium and watercress. Bizarrely, this concoction was not smeared on the balding head, but on the man’s nose…which finally explains why men over forty have such an abundance of nasal hair.

These latter three remedies were excerpts from  Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, collected and edited by Revd Oswald Cockayne in London 1864 (fragments republished in Harriet O’Brien’s book “Queen Emma and the Vikings”, Bloomsbury 2005, where above charms also appear. NB: Revd “Cockayne” was cearly an early advocate of drugs, who had a sense of humour).

Reading about the diet and remedies prevailing in medieval households, I began to wonder, how vampires substituted their meagre pickings. Blood would not have been as nourishing as in later centuries, when vampires like Buffy’s Angel, Drusilla or Spike thrived in Sunnydale.

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight V...

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight Volume One, written by Joss Whedon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifteen years on from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer bloodsuckers have reason to complain about their diet once more, given the high fat, sugar, salt and protein content in human blood. Human fast food outlets and lonely microwave meals in front of the TV are to blame, but humans themselves are not responsible for the introduction of a fast food concept. Vampires might loathe to admit this, but obesity among the fanged community today goes back to a time, when an early medieval Vampire Council introduced a new concept to change their fellow fanged ones’ culinary experience.

Early medieval bloodsuckers were endlessly complaining about the scarcity of decent food. Firstly, because there weren’t enough humans around in a largely rural landscape, which meant the gap between meals could be rather long and secondly, because medieval human blood wasn’t very nutritious and it took several kills to get a satisfactory meal.

Later in the 10th century, when England had been fully Christianized, a network of nunneries and cloisters was erected across the country, a development greatly supported by the Vampire Council. Feasting became much easier and, as far as vampires were concerned, the concept of fast food chains was born.

Just knock at a cloister door, pretend you’re a pilgrim and hey presto, you get an instant meal in the shape of some delicious young novice or a Mother Superior showing off the whiteness of her wimple and the crispness of her neck.

International fast fang outlets such as “Murder King”, “MacDrainers” and “Starsucks” were created to cater for the travelling vampire in a hurry. This revolutionary concept made it possible for fanged communities to cover vast distances without worrying where to get their next meal (“Mine’s a double nun with French friar to go. Hold the garlic and relic bones. Extra mustard, if you please”).

The introduction of fast fang outlets helped to preserve vampires to this day. It explains, how 19th century vampires reached Sunnydale in California and later established a colony in Los Angeles, close to Angel’s old hotel.

(animation source: heathersanimations.com, photographs of Llandaff cemetry & Cathedral by Maria Thermann, Buffy book cover photo credit Wikipedia)

Bloodletting from the Vampire Girl’s Point of View

Just like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s extraordinary take on the Arthurian legends in her novel The Mists of Avalon (1982), my Willow the Vampire stories are seen from the woman’s point of view – or rather, from the point of view of an 11-year-old vampire girl.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s (MZB) novel takes supposedly a feminist stance throughout and re-interprets the legends of Merlin, Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere through the eyes of the women, starting with Igraine, Viviane, Morgan le Fay and finally Guinevere herself.

Although I am obviously writing for children, I’m also looking at the clash of the pagan (vampire) world with the rising threat of Christianity, just like MZB. MZB explores religion and metaphysics as well as anthropology in her historical novel and when I read it for the first time I got a little irritated at the over-indulgence of her various themes.

To me there was simply too much going on in The Mists of Avalon and frankly, the author seemed to have got lost in the mists of the Arthurian legends. She clearly got so carried away during research, where several very lucrative sources had opened up providing her with an exploration of themes she’d always wanted to embrace and dissect. Her initial message of feminism got lost in a plethora of other concerns.

Cover of

Cover of The Mists of Avalon

When writing a series – be it for children or adults – or when embarking on a major project that is 100,000 words plus, it is good to have a strict timetable and also an even stricter list of “underlying themes”. At the end of MZB’s book, I was utterly confused as to its message, if any. I want to make sure that my child readers won’t feel the same, when they read Willow’s adventures.

As this is a series, rather than one large volume, it makes it easier. I can pick one or two themes per book and have one global theme in mind to represent the whole series. On the surface of things this is a battle between dark and light. Vampires, the creatures of the night, versus humans beings representing the light – but this would be far too obvious and frankly, boring.

My overall theme is the exploration of a mother-daughter relationship, while the intertwining, criss-crossing theme of female self-discovery in a world that loves gender stereotyping is always bubbling just under the surface.

According to the book Children’s Literature in Context (by Fiona McCulloch), “Fantasy allows a writer to comment upon society through the use of metaphor and symbolism rather than directly, as we would expect in a realist text,” (page 97, paragraph 2).

Although Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy have a female protagonist, Lyra is still very much a female heroine in the old tradition. With Willow the Vampire I wanted to introduce a strong female role model into children’s literature along the lines of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, a wonderfully anarchic figure who takes no nonsense from anybody and doesn’t need a male to help her fight her battles.

An adult reader, who is reviewing Willow’s first adventure, said in a Facebook message the other day, he wouldn’t want to cross Willow, as she was quite scary. She is intended to be that way: a little girl who fights back with her wits, but also her claws, fangs and fists if she has to.

Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot and Guinevere (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Female passivity as portrayed in children’s and adult literature as well as TV has always been one of my pet hates. MZB had good intentions, but halfway through her novel she fell for the muscled arms of Arthur and Lancelot, losing her heart to her male protagonists in the mist of their charming smiles. Joss Whedon’s Buffy starts out well, but then her hormones always get the better of her, allowing Spike as well as Angel to get their alluring fangs into her with varying degrees of success.

Who are the people who feature largely in worldwide suicide statistics? MEN!

Why? Because, unlike women, they do not cope well with change – but the world and human beings with it are perpetually engaged in change as the greatest battle we all have to face.

Who kept nations fed and clothed as well as ammunition travelling to the frontlines during WWII – women! Who cleared away the rubble of European cities after my not-so-charming fellow countrymen had reduced Europe to a mess? Women! So why then are females always shown as being weak and needing rescuing?

Hermione Granger in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books is yet another example of this female passivity thing. Generally speaking, women might not go out to fight wars – but then they do not feel the need to start them either. Females, vampire and humans, are always the ones with the strength to rebuild the world after men have turned it to ashes.

If Ragnarök happened today, who would you rather have around to rebuild the world? Batman or Catwoman, Buffy or Angel, Pippi or Harry, Willow or Peter Pan?

Vampires and the Age of Chivalry

I have already mentioned in an earlier blog that Willow the Vampire and her friends are likely to find some crucial weapons for their battle against evil among the artefacts and treasures brought back by fictional crusader Edwin Strongarm, who made his fortune during the First Crusade. Willow’s friend Eddie is the last in a long and illustrious line of Strongarm descendants, inheriting not just the title but also the lands and all that comes with it from his crusader forbearer.

Death duties forced Eddie to part with the ancestral home, but in Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove the friends discover the old crusader had a few tricks up his sleeve when it came to providing against future death duties and taxes.

So how exactly did crusaders and other knights make their fortune in medieval times? If they were landed gentry, they could command rent and taxes as well as men in arms. During the various battles and successful sieges knights managed to ransack wealthy cities, making considerable fortunes in the process. If they were put in charge of the government of conquered cities, knights could also profit from taxes and various privileges that came with their new position.

Français : Mort de Bertrand Du Guesclin Grande...

Français : Mort de Bertrand Du Guesclin Grandes Chroniques de France, enluminées par Jean Fouquet, Tours, vers 1455-1460 Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, Français 6465, fol. 456 (Livre de Charles V) Lors du siège de Châteauneuf-de-Randon en Lozère, Bertrand Du Guesclin tombe malade et meurt le 13 juillet 1380. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, there were other ways to get rich during the Middle Ages. Captors often kept their wealthy prisoners of war, until they were ransomed for as much as their families could manage to pay. In England a prisoner of war might spend months or even years in captivity before he was released. Essentially, a prisoner had two choices: either yield and become the “property” of the captor or forfeit life and be slain immediately.

Where an aristocratic son was not the main heir, taking office with the church or at court was one way of rising to fame and fortune. This option was not open to those who were born of lowly descend. It is therefore even more remarkable that Bertrand du Guesclin, who lived in the 14th century, should eventually be awarded one of the highest honours in France. As one of the Ten Worthies, a hero of the nation according to the Old French epic (Grandes Chroniques de France), he was enshrined among kings in the royal basilica of Saint-Denis.

Bertrand had been born as a lowly squire; he could not read or write and was not much to look at either. After fighting for twenty years in various skirmishes in his native province Bretagne, he rose through the ranks and was finally made a knight and Charles V saw in him the very military leader the country needed.

Oddly enough high born prisoners of war could also be released on oath, swearing to return after a certain period of time to repay their ransom in person. Their word was their bond and in an age of chivalry they wouldn’t have dreamed to break it, as their honour and their good name meant everything to them. Prisoners, who could not be released upon giving their solemn undertaking to return, were kept in good condition according to the laws of chivalry and, if they were relatively high born, might even get an invite to a jousting event or festivities held by their captors.

There was usually some hard haggling over how much ransom a prisoner would have to pay to regain his freedom; even the exchange rate might be discussed, if a prisoner was French for example. Larger ransom sums could be paid in instalment at fixed dates to allow for the harvest to come in.

This allowed prisoners to write home and find out first, how rich the harvest pickings were going to be. If the condition of their estates was good and the harvest was rich, the prisoner would be in a position to raise the required ransom money more quickly.

It is likely that ransom money wasn’t always money in the strictest sense – coins in part most certainly, but there would have horses and other livestock, land and artefacts handed over to make the payment in full. Once the haggling was over, a document would be drawn up that had to be signed by both parties. It gets more complicated where a prisoner was deemed to be the property of a group of men rather than one individual, as was often the case in the Middle Ages. Once the ransom is paid the members of a group of such masters was entitled to sell their individual shares of the ransom.

Reading of these practices during medieval warfare made me think how odd it was that men should slay each other with such ferocity and horrendous weapons on the battlefield and then turn to civilised haggling afterwards. It also struck me that goods and chattels must have been travelling frequently from one part of Europe to another – even within England, where local squabbles broke out frequently, there must have been whole caravans of ransom goods traversing the country back and forth.

I love the idea of injecting some treasure hunt into my vampire stories. Vampires in the age of chivalry must have had a great time. They could mingle with knights on the battle field and munch on a few people, before grabbing some prisoners for the purpose of holding them hostage. As long as the vampires could either prove or pretend they were of noble birth, no squire or knight would question their intentions.

Vampires could even keep hostages alive, sucking their blood in the interim, until the ransom arrived and then slay both captives and those who brought the ransom. This was legitimate, if political complications of the times meant that a prisoner, even though he had paid the ransom, could not be released after all, because his release might pose a political or strategic threat to the overlord.

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe,...

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century minature from Robert de Boron’s Merlin en prose (written ca 1200). (Manuscript illustration, c.1300.) Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of Mythology, Lorenz Books/Anness Publishing Limited, 1996-1999, p. 114. ISBN 1-85967-164-0. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As history is the educational element of my Willow the Vampire stories, the Middle Ages provide excellent ground for inspiration. In a modern world of chaos we often think how wonderful a realm filled with chivalrous knights in shining armour might be; knights who help the poor and punish wrong doers.

We conveniently forget medieval people felt exactly the same about their world as we do: they saw violence, injustice, poverty and want everywhere they looked and waited in vain for a hero…seems nothing has changed so very much since the days, when King Arthur and his knights allegedly sat around their table at Camelot, scratching their heads, wondering which damsel they should rescue next.