Thursday 31 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #31 - Wild Hairy Haggis

My heart’s in the Highlands,
twa strings on my bow
To hunt the fierce haggis,
man’s awfu’est foe.
And weel may my bairn
ha’ a tear in his ee.
For I shallna come back
if the haggis hunts me.
 - James J. Montague, The New York Tribune, 2nd January 1924

Ah, that most feared & beloved of Scottish beasties, the Wild Haggis. Elusive yet ubiquitous, they're rare enough to be seldom seen in the wild, yet populous enough to feed 5.4 million Scots every Burns' Night. Some say they are small furry mammals, others that they are little birds with vestigial wings; some say their right (or left) legs are longer than the others to facilitate mountain navigation at the cost of reproductive opportunity, while others suppose that they have only three legs, or even no legs at all; there are those who compare their call with the drone of the bagpipes, and others who equate it with a whistly twittering.

There are regional variations, of course. Those Haggis which perambulate around the hills and mountains have two known species based on the direction most amenable to their gait: the Deisul Haggis (Haggis scottii dexterous, also known as the Sunwise Haggis) & the Widdershins Haggis (Haggis scottii dexterous, or the Taibhse Tuathal in the Gaelic heartlands), who are forced to travel clockwise and anti-clockwise respectively by their biology. The Golden Haggis of Lewis (Haggis limnuensis) - an even-legged variety - is prized not just for its meat, but its fur, which was traditionally used to adorn the sporrans of Lewis's menfolk. The near-legendary Great Haggis (Haggis magnificens), now thought to be either extinct or hiding with Nessie, was an enormous breed which could feed an entire village from St. Andrew's Day to Burns' Night, as documented in The Capture of the Great Haggis, 1743. All varieties are believed to be derived from the ancient Hebridean Haggis (Haggis hebudensis), a small and hardy creature especially adapted to the rough lands of the Western Isles in a manner not unlike the famous Shetland Pony.

A pseudoscientific fad in recent years claims that the Wild Haggis are not real, and that it is merely a Scottish culinary staple given some local flavour. Such attacks against science & history are not to be dignified with a response.

Thursday 10 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #10 - Bauchan

I have given these specimens of a particular class of tales which are common enough, as they came to me, because they seem to be fair illustrations of the popular creed as to spirits; and to show that the so-called spirits are generally very near mortal men. My belief is, that bocan, bodach, fuath, and all their tribe, were once savages, dressed in skins, and that gruagach was a half-tamed savage banging about the houses, with his long hair and skin clothing; that these have gradually acquired the attributes of divinities, river gods, or forest nymphs, or that they have been condemned as pagan superstitions, and degraded into demons; and I know that they are now remembered, and still somewhat dreaded, in their last character. The tales told of them partake of the natural and supernatural, and bring fiction nearer to fact than any class of tales current in the Highlands, unless it be the fairy stories of which a few are given under number 28, etc.
 - John Campbell, Popular tales of the West Highlands

As an admirer of the great Arthur Rackham and modern master Brian Froud, I wanted to pay tribute in one of the (slightly) less terrifying beasties of Scottish folklore, the Bauchan.

Here's a tale of the Bauchan chronicled by John Campbell:

In the neighbourhood of Loch Traig, in Lochaber, Callum Mor MacIntosh held a little farm. There were rumours of his having intercourse with a mysterious personage called a bauchan, but of his first acquaintance with him there are no authentic accounts. One thing, however, is certain, that on some occasions he was supernaturally aided by this bauchan, while at others, having in some way excited his displeasure, Callum was opposed in all his schemes, and on several occasions they came the length of fighting hand to hand, Callum never suffering much injury. On one occasion, as Callum was returning from Fort-William market, he met his friend the bauchan within a short distance of his own house, and one of these contests took place, during which Callum lost his pocket-handkerchief, which, having been blessed and presented to him by the priest, was possessed of a peculiar charm. The fight being ended, Callum hurried home; but, to his dismay, found that he had lost his charmed handkerchief, for which he and his wife in vain sought. 

Callum felt certain he had to thank the bauchan for this mishap, and hurried back to the scene of action. The first object that met his view was the bauchan, busily engaged in rubbing a flat stone with the identical handkerchief. On seeing Callum, he called out, "Ah you are back; it is well for you, for if I had rubbed a hole into this before your return you were a dead man. No doctor on earth or power could save you; but you shall never have this handkerchief till you have won it in a fair fight." "Done," said Callum, and at it they went again, and Callum recovered his handkerchief. Peats were almost unknown at that time, and Callum, when the weather grew cold, took his axe, and felled a large birch tree in the neighbouring forest, the branches supplied wood for the fire for several days, and Callum did not trouble himself to lay in a store nearer hand-when, lo! a snow storm came on, and blocked up the country, so that he was cut off from his supply. There was no means of access to the tree; and careful as Callum's wife was, the last branch was almost consumed, and the fire burnt low.

Up started Callum with an exclamation, "Oh! wife, would that we had the tree I felled in the forest! it would keep us warm this night." Hardly had he spoken when the house was shaken and the door rattled; a heavy weight had fallen near the door. Callum rushed to see what the cause was, and there was the wished-for tree, with the Bauchan grinning at him - "S ma am Bauchan fathast, ged a sgain an Sagart" - ("the Bauchan is still kind, though the Priest should burst") - said the wife. On another occasion it happened that Callum left the farm he was in and went to one adjoining which he had taken carrying with him his wife and all his furniture. In the nighttime Callum turned to his wife and said, "Well, it is well we have all with us; only one thing have we forgotten, the hogshead in which the hides are being barked; that we have forgotten" "No matter for that," said the wife; "there is no one to occupy the place yet a while, and we have time to get it home safe enough;" and so the matter rested; but on going round the end of the house next morning, what did Callum see but his own identical hogshead, hides and all. It had been transported the distance of five miles of most rugged, rocky district. None but a goat could have crossed the place, and in the time it would have bothered one to do it, but the Bauchan managed it, and saved Callum a most troublesome journey. If you will go and take a look at it--the spot is there yet--and I would like to see how soon you would manage it, let alone the hogshead.

Poor Callum, however, was obliged, with many of his neighhours, to leave Lochaber; indeed, he was amongst the first embarking at Arisaig for New York. The passage was a tedious one, but it ended at last, and without any particular adventures but on arriving they had to perform a quarantine of many days. On getting pratique, Callum was in the first boat which landed, and happened to have stowed himself in the bows of the boat, and when she grounded, was the first man to jump on shore. Directly his feet touched the ground, who should meet him in the shape of a goat but the Bauchan, "Ha, ha Callum, ha mi sho air thoseach orst" - ("Ha, Malcolm, I am here before thee"). Here ends our story; but rumour says that Callum was the better of the Bauchan's help in clearing the lands of his new settlement, and that, till he was fairly in the way of prosperity, the Bauchan abstained from teasing and provoking poor Callum.

Wednesday 9 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #9 - The Blue Men of the Minch

The Blue Men are found only in the Minch, and chiefly in the strait which lies between the Island of Lewis and the Shant Isles (the charmed islands), and is called the " Sea-stream of the Blue Men". They are not giants, like the Nimble Men, but of human size, and they have great strength. By day and by night they swim round and between the Shant Isles, and the sea there is never at rest. The Blue Men wear blue caps and have grey faces which appear above the waves that they raise with their long restless arms. In summer weather they skim lightly below the surface, but when the wind is high they revel in the storm and swim with heads erect, splashing the waters with mad delight. Sometimes they are seen floating from the waist out of the sea, and sometimes turning round like porpoises as they dive.
 - Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth & Legend

Now for something really scary... While many nations have their equivalents to Kelpies, sea serpents, and bogles, the Blue Men are peculiar to Scotland alone. It's probably just as well, as the idea of long-armed, creepy humanoids floating out on the open sea from the waist up is quite a frightening image. This aspect was rather cleverly theorised by Sophia Kingshill as a folk memory of woad-painted Pictish Warriors travelling with low kayak-like canoes, which might indeed somewhat resemble people eerily floating from the waist up. An alternative explanation is that the "Blue Men" were in fact black - daoine gorm, rendered in English, literally means "blue people," but is used to refer to people with dark skin - and is a folk memory of Viking or Roman slaves, who would understandably be very unusual to people on the very edge of the world.

Mackenzie relates one tale of the Blue Men, where their love of poetry and messing with ships at sea is highlighted:

In days of old the " Blue Men's Stream " was sometimes called " The Current of Destruction ", because so many ships were swamped in it. The people blamed the Blue Men, who dwelt in caves, Nimble Men, Blue Men, &c. Si they said, at the bottom of the sea. Their sentinels were always on the look-out, and when a vessel came in siofht, word was sent to the men o in the caves to come up. Sailors were afraid of them, and many sailed round the Shant Islands instead of taking the short cut between these and the big Island of Lewis. When the chief of the Blue Men had all his men gathered about him, ready to attack a ship, he rose high in the water and shouted to the skipper two lines of poetry, and if the skipper did not reply at once by adding two lines to complete the verse, the Blue Men seized the ship and upset it. Many a ship was lost in days of old because the skipper had no skill at verse. True is the Gaelic saying, however: "There comes with time what comes not with weather."

One day, when the wind was high and the billows rough and angry, the Blue Men saw a stately ship coming towards their sea-stream under white sails. Royally she cleft her way through the waves. The sentinels called to the blue fellows who were on the sea floor, and as they rose they wondered to see the keel pass over- head so swiftly. Some seized it and shook it as if to try their strength, and were astonished to find it so steady and heavy. It carried on straight as a spear in flight. The chief of the Blue Men bobbed up in front  of the ship, and, when waist-high among the tumbling waves, shouted to the skipper:

"Man of the black cap, what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?"

No sooner were the words spoken than the skipper answered:

"My speedy ship takes the shortest way,
And I'll follow you line by line!"

This was at once an answer and a challenge, and the chief of the Blue Men cried angrily:

"My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you below the waves!"

 The skipper answered defiantly in a loud voice:

"My ship is speedy, my ship is steady,
If it sank it would wreck your caves!"

The chief of the Blue Men was worsted. Never before had a seaman answered him so promptly and so well. He had no power to injure the ship, because the skipper was as good a bard as he was himself, and he knew that if he went on shouting half-verses until the storm spent itself the skipper would always complete them. He signaled to his followers to dive; and down below the wave ridges they all vanished, like birds that dive for fish. The big ship went on proudly and safely under snow-white, wind-tight sails while the sea-wind through the cordage sang With high and wintry merriment. 

Also included is this haunting song of the Blue Men, attributed to Scottish boatmen:

When the tide is at the turning and the wind is fast asleep,
And not a wave is curling on the wide, blue deep,
Oh, the waters will be churning in the stream that never smiles,
Where the Blue Men are splashing round the charmed isles.

As the summer wind goes droning o'er the sun-bright seas,
And the Minch is all a-dazzle to the Hebrides,
They will skim along like salmon, you can see their shoulders gleam,
And the flashing of their fingers in the Blue Men's Stream.

But when the blast is raving and the wild tide races,
The Blue Men are breast-high with foam-grey faces;
They'll plunge along with fury while they sweep the spray behind,
Oh, they'll bellow o'er the billows and wail upon the wind.

And if my boat be storm-toss'd and beating for the bay,
They'll be howling and be growling as they drench it with the spray
For they 'd like to heel it over to their laughter when it lists,
Or crack the keel between them, or stave it with their fists.

 Oh, weary on the Blue Men, their anger and their wiles!
The whole day long, the whole night long, they 're splashing round the isles;
They'll follow every fisher ah! they'll haunt the fisher's dream-
When billows toss, Oh, who would cross the Blue Men's Stream!

 - Boatman's Song, Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth & Legend

Tuesday 8 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #8 - Burach-Bhadi

The Burach Bhadi, also known as the Wizard's Shackle, lives in the Western isles of Scotland. It is an eel or leech with nine squinting eyes and a horrible habit of entwining itself around a horse's legs, pulling the animal down to die.
 - Joyce Hargreaves, Hargreaves New Illustrated Bestiary

This is another creature that is difficult to track down. The notion of a particularly large species of eel or leech dwelling in the Western Isles is not the most unusual one, though the nine eyes adds a bit of flavour. Burach is a weel-kent Gaelic word which made its way into Scots vernacular, usually a synonym for "mess; muddle; shambles", sometimes compared with "digging a hole" - all things that make sense for eel/leech/worm-like creatures. Bhadi, on the other hand, is a bit more of a mystery , as is the origin of the "Wizard's Shackle" nickname (more research needed).

Of course, leeches are known to dwell in Scotland's waterways, notably the infamous Hirudo medicinalis, which was used to treat all sorts of ailments in Medieval society. It's easy to see people imagining a particularly large relative of the Medicine Leech inhabiting the lonely lochs and burns. The treacherous marshes, bogs, and quagmires would be a trial for any horse to navigate - suggesting that the Burach-Bhadi was a warning against careless equestrians.

Alternatively, many large eels have turned up on Scottish shores over the centuries: the Giant Oarfish, the "King of Herrings," can occasionally be sighted around Scottish waters, and will be discussed further on other Beastie posts.

Monday 7 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #7 - Sianach

(With profuse apologies to Edwin Landseer)
In Gaelic Scotland, where deer were and continue to be prevalent, there are indications of deer worship in the Lochaber region. The sianach is a deer-monster in Scottish Gaelic oral tradition.
 - James MacKillop, Myths and Legends of the Celts

Much more mysterious than the established creatures so far, the Sianach ("monster") is a huge, carnivorous deer alluded to in Highland Gaelic oral tradition. It is difficult to pin down the earliest documentation of this being: most of the sources I can find specifically mentioning sianach as a deer-monster are fairly recent. Other descriptions include has sharp, jagged teeth, and glowing hooves and eyes. Given the presence of supernatural horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, it seems at least plausible that dangerous supernatural deer be a feature of Scottish folklore.

Yet the concept of toothy, flesh-eating deer is far from outlandish. There are cases of modern deer consuming eggs, cattle, and even human remains. The Musk Deer of Southern Asia are distinctive for their enormous fangs more suited to a vampire than Bambi. Scotland itself was once home to the great Megaloceros, with fossils found in Ayrshire, Galloway, and other corners of the land:

Perhaps this legend can be traced back to the Ice Age: the earliest humans in Scotland, already embattled by the climate, had to deal with all sorts of creatures. But they came to expect big cats and canines to try and eat them: what would they make of a gigantic deer, driven to desperation by starvation, chewing on one of their fallen clansmen? Deer are dangerous prey as it is.

Sunday 6 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #6 - Tarbh Uisge

Clanronald told us, as an instance of Highland credulity, that a set of his kinsmen - Borradale and others - believing that the fabulous `water-cow' inhabited a small lake near his house, resolved to drag the monster into day. With this view they bivouacked by the side of the lake in which they placed, by way of night-bait, two small anchors such as belong to boats, each baited with the carcase of a dog slain for the purpose. They expected the `water-cow' would gorge on this bait, and were prepared to drag her ashore the next morning, when, to their confusion of face, the baits were found untouched. It is something too late in the day for setting baits for water-cows.
 - Walter Scott, Sir Walter Scott: Diary, Letters & Articles

The Tarbh Uisge, "Water Bull," has many of the hallmarks of its more notorious & malevolent kindred spirite, the Each Uisge ("Water Horse," the Kelpie's dangerous cousin). It, too, is a resident of the waters of Scotland; it usually manifests in its male form, as evidenced by its Gaelic name; and is known for its shapeshifting qualities. A curious aspect to their physiognomy is their ears: unlike the familiar ears of normal cows, the Water Bull lacks external ears entirely - possibly an adaptation to its underwater domain, as seen in pinnipeds and cetaceans.

Where water horses tend to menace female humans, it's the cattle which are at greatest threat to water bulls. The offspring of a union between water bull and land cow are marked by their stunted ears: these unfortunate calves are named Corc-Chluassask (Split Ears) or Carechluasach (knife or short ears):
But while the waters of the south can only boast of their kelpy, those of the north are the habitation not only of the uirisg, but of the water-horse and water-bull (An t'Each Uisge'san Tarbh Uisge) as well. These last are painted on  that tablet of the popular mind consecrated to super-  stition, as, upon the whole, upon the whole, of the same shape and form as the more kindly quadrupeds after whom they have been named, but larger, fiercer, and with an amount of `devilment' and cunning about them, of which the latter, fortunately, manifest no trace. They are always fat and sleek, and so full of strength and spirit and life that the neighing of the one and the bellowing of the other frequently awake the mountain echoes to their inmost recesses for miles and miles around...
Calves and foals are the result of occasional intercourse between these animals and their more civilised domestic congeners, such calves bearing unmistakable proofs of their mixed descent in the unusual size and pendulousness of their ears and the wide aquatic spread of their jet black hoofs; the foals, in their clean limbs, large flashing eyes, red distended nostrils, and fiery spirit. The initiated still pretend to point out cattle with more or less of this questionable blood in them, in almost every drove of pure Highland cows and heifers you like to bring under their notice.
 - Alexander Stewart, Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe: The Natural History, Legends and Folklore of the West Highlands (1885)
From a more mundane perspective, one could suppose that it was an explanation for crop ear among cattle:
Like many mythologies Celtic mythology embraces the existence of a mysterious creature called a water-bull ( ref. Maier ). The survival of legends through the oral tradition in Scottish Gaelic folklore makes it impossible to date the arrival of water-bulls, or the Tarbh Uisge, which for centuries appeared unpredictably in and around the sea and lochs of the Hebridean Islands and West Highlands of Scotland. However, the folklore has preserve comment on both behaviour and appearance of the Tarbh Uisge. Seemingly the Tarbh Uisge itself is rarely seen, it emerges from the water at night and covers ashore cows, and the resulting progeny are very easily identified as those sired by a water-bull. Such a mythical bull is called Tarroo-Ushtey in the Isle of Man, and there are also water-bull myths in Germany, but the Hebridean Tarbh Uisge is distinct in that it is given specific attributes: Tarbh-Uisge is a large black bull with velvety fur, he has no ears and his calves have slotted ears. 
When the explorer Martin Martin, on his journey to the Hebrides in 1695 visited the Isle of Skye he documented this legend writing " There are several calves that have a slit at the top of their ears; and these the natives fancy to be the issue of a wild bull that comes from the sea or fresh lakes; and this calf is by them called corky-fyre "(Martin ). In the extensive collection of “Popular Tales from the West Highlands” (Campbell) an island resident reported in 1862 that he had "often seen bulls feeding about the lake sides with the cattle, and the cows often had calves. They are `corcach´, short-eared, a cross between the water-bull and a land-cow ". And A. Carmichael, who collected Gaelic songs, rhymes and legends in late 19th century, wrote “These notch-eared cattle - ` Torc Chluasach ' - are frequent in the Western Isles and are spoken of as `Slioc a Chroidh Mhara', the descendants of the fabled sea cattle."

Saturday 5 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #5 - Kelpie

When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord
An' float the jinglin icy boord
Then, water-kelpies haunt the foord
By your direction
An' nighted trav'llers are allur'd
To their destruction.
 - "Address to the Devil," Robert Burns, 1786
The legends of the doings of the water kelpie all point to some river god reduced to a fuath or bogle. The bay or grey horse grazes at the lakeside, and when he is mounted, rushes into the loch and devours his rider. His back lengthens to suit any number; men’s hands stick to his skin; he is harnessed to a plough, and drags the team and plough into the loch, and tears horses to bits; he falls in love with a lady, and when he appears as a man, and lays his head on her knee to be dressed, the frightened lady finds him out by the sand amongst his hair. “Tha gainmheach ann,” “There is sand in it,” she says, and when he sleeps he makes her escape. He appears as an old woman and is put to bed by a bevy of damsels in a mountain sheiling and he sucks the blood of all, save one, who escapes over a burn, which, water horse he is, he dare not cross. In short, these tales and beliefs have led me to think that the old Celts must have had a destroying water god, to whom the horse was sacred, or who took the form of a horse.
 - Popular Tales of the West Highlands, J.F. Campbell

Kelpies are among the most well-known & well-documented of Scottish mythological terrors, featuring in literature, art, sculpture, and beyond. Campbell's supposition that it is the folk memory of a great, dangerous water deity is pretty compelling considering the importance of horses in old Celtic folklore.

Most modern cultural depictions of Kelpies tend to eschew the more supernatural elements like the human transformation: they tend to be either weird aquatic equines, seaweed-strewn Hippocampi, or plant monsters. For my part, if we're going that route, I quite like the idea of some ancient prehistoric relative that developed a taste for meat: as Andrewsarchus is essentially a sheep in wolf's clothing, perhaps there's some hitherto undiscovered species of carnivorous horse.

Nonetheless, the human form aspect is one of the most important parts of the Kelpie myth, as surely as it is for werewolves and Selkies. As such, I figured I'd reflect that in the picture (ho ho).

Friday 4 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #4 - Beithir

A serpent, whenever encountered, ought to be killed. Otherwise, the encounter will prove an omen of evil. The head should be completely smashed (air a spleatradh) and removed to a distance from the rest of the body. Unless this is done, the serpent will again come alive. The tail, unless deprived of animation, will join the body, and the head becomes a beithir, the largest and most deadly kind of serpent.

The big beast of Scanlastle in Islay was one of this kind. It devoured seven horses on its way to Loch-in-daal. A ship was lying at anchor in the loch at the time, and a line of barrels filled with deadly spikes, and with pieces of flesh laid upon them, was placed from the shore to the ship. Tempted by the flesh, the "loathly worm" made its way out on the barrels and was killed by the spikes and cannon.

 - Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, John Gregorson Campbell, 1900 
The Beithir is one of many serpentine creatures one can find in the folklore of Scotland - all the more unusual, since the moors & glens aren't exactly the ideal habitat for reptiles. The fact that one beast devoured seven horses (which I hinted towards in the illustration) suggests it was a mite larger than Scotland's modern reptiles, like the adder or the slow worm.

Being a fan of The First Fossil Hunters, I also look towards prehistoric inspiration: could the Beithir be some long-embedded memory of the great ophidians which terrorised humanity's ancestors? The Titanoboa of Columbia has a lot of press nowadays, but before its discovery, the 30ft+ Gigantophis slithered through what is now Egypt some 40 million years ago. Scottish mythological enthusiasts will know the importance of Egypt in Scotland's cultural memory.

The Beithir might also be known to Dungeons & Dragons fans as a possible inspiration for the Monster Manual II's Behir, another serpentine beastie ready to gobble up any unwary adventurers.

Thursday 3 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #3 - Baobhan Sith

Wouldn't be long until vampires started baring their fangs in BeastieScotInktoberFest. There are a number of bloodsucking horrors in Scottish folklore, but I thought this creature - which sometimes has the hind legs of a deer, and other times transforms into a raven, & depicted here with wild frizzy hair because reasons - offered a nice inversion of the usual male vampire grasping a gasping, chest-baring female victim.

After the break, a story of the Baobhan Sith...

Wednesday 2 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #2 - Fachan

... A "FACHAN" is thus described: - "Ugly was the make of the Fachin; there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head, it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft."
 - Popular Tales of the West Highlands

He held a very thick iron flail-club in his skinny hand, and twenty chains out of it, and fifty apples on each chain of them, and a venomous spell on each great apple of them, and a girdle of the skins of deer and roebuck around the thing that was his body, and one eye in the forehead of his black-faced countenance, and one bare, hard, very hairy hand coming out of his chest, and one veiny, thick-soled leg supporting him and a close, firm, dark blue mantle of twisted hard-thick feathers, protecting his body, and surely he was more like unto devil than to man.
 - Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories, Douglas Hyde

There are a number of ways one could imagine the Fachan, but I felt the Celtic Druid theory was so strong & interesting a possible explanation that it was the best route to lean into, and save something more monstrous and frightening for another beastie. To that end, I was heavily inspired by the illustration which appeared in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, and borrowed the twenty-tailed, fifty-headed flail from the desert creature of Glen Eite.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

BeastieScotInktoberFest: #1 - Gigelorum

Gigelorum. - The Giolcam-daoram, or Gigelorum, is the smallest of all animals. It makes its nest in the mite's ear and that is all that is known about it.
 - Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, John Gregorson Campbell
 Having been a fan of Water Bears long before Ant-Man and Star Trek Discovery made them cool, I figured that this micro-animal would make a great model for "the smallest of all animals" - albeit with a wee bit of Highland flair.

Friday 14 June 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I am the symbol of Creation and Destruction
I am the beginning and the end.
With my tail in my mouth
I am the Circle of Eternity.
Wisdom is in my eyes
And the dusk of wisdom lurks amid my coils.
My track circles the world
And I loop my coils around the Universe.
My head waves among the stars
And the nations fall prostrate before me.
Coiled, head upright, I am the spirit of the sea.
The world-shaking dinosaur was my henchman
And the flying dragons were my footmen.
The ancients knew me.
They reared shrines and altars
And I taught them dim, dusky wisdom...
 - Robert E. Howard, "Serpent"

It's obvious why there's such a divide between critics and audiences for Godzilla: King of the Monsters - because it isn't the kind of film most critics would like. This isn't a film you go to see for dialogue, character arcs, or plot points: it's a film to experience spectacle, and ponder what it's about. You will undoubtedly be disappointed by the human characters, the script, and the story - the "people" and "events" which take up the runtime - but that's not the point of a Godzilla film. It's fair to criticise those elements, of course, and there's no real barrier to a monster film having excellent characters, script, & plot: it's just their absense is not a mortal failure. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: when it comes to monster movies, great critics discuss themes; average critics discuss plot; small critics discuss characters.

Since this is going to delve deep into the mythology of the Monsterverse, I'd wait until after you've seen the film - and I do recommend you see it - until reading.

Monday 20 May 2019

Narrative Rebellion: The Last Song, Or, How A Song of Ice & Fire & A Game of Thrones Should End (But Probably Won't)

What A Song of Ice and Fire was always about for me.

So, that's the end of A Game of Thrones. I've written about it a few times on the blog, often quite sceptically, but generally more against the pundits than the show itself.

I, like I'll wager a great many other people, had my own idea about where the series was going. I'm sure many of us had our own theories about how the great struggle for the Iron Throne was going to end. Now, while 25-year-old Aly might've gone into rage over some of the decisions made over the course of the series - by Martin & the showrunners alike - 35-year-old Aly has mellowed out somewhat. I've realised that not only is it OK if a story makes decisions you find bad or terrible, it can be an essential creative spark.

When J.R.R. Tolkien experienced Shakespeare's Macbeth, he couldn't help but be deeply disappointed in its treatment of the Weird Sisters' prophecies: Birnam Wood didn't actually march on Dunsinane, a bunch of soldiers just tied sticks to their bodies to make it look like the forest was marching. Similarly, the entire justification for MacDuff killing Macbeth based on a painful semantic point over the definition of "born" was total weaksauce. As such, two of the most important & beloved elements of The Lord of the Rings - the Ents march on Isengard, & Eowyn's prophesied defeat of the Witch-King - could be traced back to Tolkien's displeasure at Shakespeare's perceived cop out. Whether you agree on that point - wordplay like this was a popular conceit in Shakespeare's time - is somewhat beside the larger point that, rather than complain about what he didn't like about the story, Tolkien did something creative about it.

Hence, while I'm not going to sign the petition making the rounds to remake the last season of A Game of Thrones (and certainly without presuming to be J.R.R.T. to Martin's Shakespeare!), I think creating our own alternate takes is a great creative outlet for any frustrations one might have, as well as possibly inspiring more productive, creative possibilities for the future.

So here's how I would've written the final stretch of A Game of Thrones.

Thursday 4 April 2019

Amis Absents

Just over five years after Steve Tompkins' death, Miguel Martins died. Deuce Richardson has a fine tribute marking the fifth year of his absence. I still miss him. I wonder what he'd think about everything that's happened over the past five years: what would he make of the new Howard collections, the Conan games and comics, even things like current affairs in his home country and the continent. There was so much we could have talked about even before - fiction, adventure, history, art, all sorts. Maybe next life.

I stepped away from a more active involvement in Howard fandom for constitutional reasons. In retrospect, perhaps it was more than that too. We were reminiscing over Steve's passing mere weeks before we got the news of Miguel's death. The memory of Patrice & me sharing a quiet moment in memory of Miguel is one that will stay with me forever. For a while, to be part of Howard fandom felt like being in the Company of Death, waiting for the next to fall, dreading to hear about someone's ill health.

Yet the Company of Death does not care what you're doing with your life. Death visited my family in the last month: my grandfather is now the last of his generation following the passing of his two surviving siblings, mere days apart. Relatives, friends, all fled - all done. The price of having a large extended family is the dry cleaning bill for your best suit.

Yet we live, and through us, their memories live. In Taoism, there is no past or future, only the present, which is in a constant state of change. When someone dies, they don't proceed to an "afterlife," but transpose themselves to the other side of the Universe (think of the Yin & Yang). Your body has simply outlived its usefulness, & your spirit carries on in some other form which we mortals cannot perceive. Sometimes the spirit dissipates & joins the Tao, sometimes your spirit is transported back to our side of the Universe in a "new life." In the meantime, those who were left behind retain some contact, as all life is connected with the Tao.

As I say: maybe next life.

Saturday 23 March 2019

The Immortal Memory of Steve Tompkins

Here at TC Central a schism wider than the Hyrkanian steppes has long separated me from site-founder Leo Grin and Silver-Keywielder Brian Murphy. Is John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian Li’ Abner versus the Moonies, as Karl Edward Wagner discerned so many years ago, or the most stirring sword-and-sorcery epic ever filmed? Well now Al Harron, who posts as “Taranaich” at the REH Forum, has graciously given us permission to run El Ingenioso Bàrbaro Rey Konahn de Simaria, an attempt at reconciling the Howard and Milius Conans that far surpasses the L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp CtB novelization. Mr. Harron is clearly the greatest Scotsman since Sean Connery, and Gordon Brown should knight him forthwith:

- Steve Tompkins, “Wheel of Pain, Tree of Woe, Throne of Tinfoil, Or, The Daze of Highly Insulting Adventure”

This, aside from an email to Deuce Richardson enquiring about my wee parody (“my day, she is made!”), is the only personal contact I had with SteveTompkins, at the time editor of the twice World Fantasy Award-nominated fantasy blog The Cimmerian. I can't tell you how thrilled I was: Steve Tompkins – editor of The Cimmerian, as well as The Black Stranger and Other American Tales, contributor to some of the finest critical anthologies on Robert E. Howard's work from The Barbaric Triumph to The Robert E.Howard Companion, whose online 'zine Visions, Gryphons, Nothing, and the Night was no small inspiration for me to get into blogging in the first place – liked something I wrote!

I had been posting feverishly on the Robert E. Howard Forums, conversing with serious Howard critical scholarship and fans who just enjoy good stories for being good stories. From talking about the literary and historical influences of Conan's world, to Howard's own authors & life, all the way to arguing over what Howard would make of his creations' impact on the world today - all discussions were welcome. I looked to The Cimmerian, Two-Gun Raconteur, REHupa, and other sites as “the big leagues,” something that “real” scholars and writers get involved in, not simple fans from Scotland who hadn't so much as contributed to a fanzine yet.

But Steve republishing that daft pastiche gave me that boost of confidence: this guy thinks my writing's good enough to go on The Cimmerian. From then on, I started thinking about writing about Howard more seriously. “Scholar” has all sorts of connotations which, naturally, rankled some among Howard scholarship, so I was constantly battling feelings of imposter syndrome in deigning to debate with the likes of Rusty Burke, Damon Sasser, Rob Roehm, & others. With the help & encouragement of Deuce Richardson, I began writing articles in the hope that, perhaps one day, I'd see my name on the byline of a site like REHupa, or REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, or even The Cimmerian. Less than a month after I made my unofficial debut on the site which would be my home for the three years until its closing, Steve died. My second post on The Cimmerian was a euology to him.

Steve left behind an incredible volume of scholarly explorations, from including essays in Howard collections like Del Rey's Kull: Exile of Atlantis and The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume II: Grim Lands. His essays on The Cimmerian are still available to read, including personal favourites like “The Conscience and the Kisses of a King,” (an exploration of Bran Mak Morn) “What a Mummer Wild, What an Insane Child,” (which compares motifs in the seemingly unrelated The Dark Knight to The Hour of the Dragon) “After Aquilonia and Having Left Lankhmar,” (a look at Sword-and-Sorcery fiction since the 1980s) and the “Something to Do With Deathlessness” and “Derleth Be Not Proud” trilogies. As well as Visions, Gryphons, Nothing, and the Night, several of his other essays are collected in this thread in the Swords of Robert E. Howard Forum, the spiritual successor to the Robert E. Howard Forums.

There are some essays which I always return to. The first I ever read, “The Chants of Old Heroes, Singing in Our Ears” is one of the most concise, compelling, and eloquent treatises on why Howard's original work, free from the editing and censorship of folk who think they know better, is so powerful, and worth preserving. “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers” is perhaps the best piece of scholarship comparing Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien I've ever read, and unlikely to be topped any time soon. While some Tolkienists sneer at the perceived low-brow, low-culture Howard, and some Howardists similarly dismiss Tolkien as overrated or airy-fairy, Steve respected both authors immensely, and treated them as the dual Argonath of 20th Century fantastic fiction. Similarly, while many speculate what new stories Howard may have written had that fateful day in June 1936 gone differently, few offer the convincing & exhaustive extrapolations Steve produced in “Newer Barbarians,” one of the best essays in The Cimmerian print journal. In the end, it's impossible to find a Tompkins essay that I didn't find rewarding, illuminating, or worthwhile. Like the works he so expertly analysed, they're always good to return to, and reward repeat readings.

On this tenth anniversary, I drink to his shade: always present, never obscured even in brightest day or darkest night.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

The People of the Heather: Robert E. Howard and Scotland

Books dealing on Scottish history were easier for me to obtain than those dealing with Irish history, so in my childhood I knew infinitely more about Scottish history and legendry than Irish. I had a distinct Scottish patriotism, and liked nothing better than reading about the Scotch and English wars. I enacted these wars in my games and galloped full tilt through the mesquite on a bare-backed racing mare, hewing right and left with a Mexican machete and slicing off cactus pears which I pretended were the heads of English knights.
 - Robert E. Howard, letter to H.P. Lovecraft

Robert E. Howard's Irish fascination is well-known and explored among Howard scholars. Nearly every genre and series he wrote had some connection to Ireland and the Irish: several series starred Irishmen in lead roles, and a few of his most famous stories are set in Ireland. But Ireland is not the only Celtic nation Howard wrote about: Scotland too can boast her share of Howardian heroes and histories.

Howard counted Scottish authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert W. Service, and Walter Scott among his very favourites, and plenty of his favourite non-Scottish authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, and Lord Dunsany wrote a few Scots tales in their time. As seen above, Scottish history was a significant influence on Howard's imagination. The theosophical writings of Scots Lewis Spence & William Scott-Elliot were foundational to the Thurian and Hyborian Ages of Howard's most famous creations, Kull of Atlantis and Conan of Cimmeria. My Floridian pal Jeffrey Shanks goes into great detail here:

Howard was far from alone in setting his Weird Tales in Scotland: Edmond Hamilton's "The Atomic Conquerors" is a wild yarn which supposes a rather otherworldly origin for the mysterious vitrified forts populating the Scottish wilderness; H. Warner Munn's "The Werewolf's Daughter" is a grand trilogy detailing the adventures of the Werewolf of Ponkert; Weird Tales regular Seabury Quinn even got in on the action with "the Bride of Dewer," a Rumpelstiltskin tale with a tartan twist.

So, on Robert E. Howard's 113th birthday, I wonder: what would a "Scottish" anthology of Robert E. Howard stories look like?