Building a Better Bedtime Story

Now we know.

The ideal bed time story should be just 8.6 minutes long, feature a dragon, a fairy and a wizard and be set in a castle, the Telegraph reports that new research has revealed. Many a parent has melded the literary greats with the themes of Hollywood blockbusters to create bedtime stories to tell their young ones.

But now the formula for the ultimate bedtime tale has been revealed for the first time. A new study of 2,000 parents and their children has shown that the ideal story should last just 8.6 minutes long.

Characters should include a dragon, a wizard and a fairy, said the families who participated in the survey, and should ideally revolve around a mythical castle.

Children said that they enjoyed a brief moment of peril where the hero is endangered before ultimately triumphing over the forces of darkness. A happy ending is essential, according to nearly all of those surveyed with most children shunning love stories in favour of fantasy.

For what it’s worth, the fourth installment in the Into the Wonder series, with the working title The River of Night, will include a faery (lots of them, actually), a wizard, and a dragon. A visit to something that might be construed as a “castle” will also be featured. So other than the time restriction, I’m good to go. 🙂

Classifying Native American Little People (1)

How_Morning_Star_Lost_her_Fish_-_from_Stories_the_Iroquois_Tell_Their_Children_by_Mabel_Powers_1917When I first started writing Children of Pride, I knew I wanted the story to reflect great cultural diversity. That’s why you’ll find the world of Taylor Smart populated not only with the traditional faeries of European folklore but also with mythological creatures from North America and Africa. The mundane United States is a diverse melting pot, so why not its faery realm?

But how to bring together the often contradictory takes on spirit-folk, little people, or what have you? Admittedly, this would still be a problem if I had limited myself to a single culture’s folklore—the various stories aren’t easily harmonized. Adding in different cultures just ramped up a problem I already knew I’d face.

To deal with the problem, I made two decisions. First, I decided that no culture would be shown to be 100% correct in their faery beliefs. I would try to account for as much of the cultural data as I could, but in the end, I was the writer. It was my fantasy universe, and everybody would have to play by my rules.

Second, I decided that the countless faeries and faery-like beings of world mythology should actually fall into a small number of “templates” or “archetypes”: tricksters, satyrs, nature spirits, domestic spirits, elementals, etc. This provided a level of uniformity against which the beings found in particular cultures or mythologies could serve as variations on a theme.

In light of this second decision, I was delighted to find a recent blog post by Mason Winfield in which he has developed a different (to me) way of classifying the “little people” of Iroquois folklore. In this post, I want to summarize Winfield’s model. In a follow-up, I’ll see how the model might apply to the faery folk of other Native American cultures.

A Three-Tribe Model

Winfield’s post, by the way, is an excellent primer on the faery folk of northern Europe as well as their transatlantic cousins. His specialty, however, is in the legends of the Iroquois of upstate New York. He writes,

Most Algonquian-language groups call their Little People “Puckwudgies.” The Iroquois / Haudenosaunee people nickname them “Jungies.” Their correspondences to the Celtic wee folk are remarkable. Their wonted sites in New York State are intricate natural spaces: a stairstep waterfall, a natural gas well, a curious valley.

He goes on to explain how, in the older versions of these legends, the Iroquois conceived of three tribes of “Jungies” that “embody the three functions of the fairies worldwide.” These are the “Hunters,” who share a close connection with the Underworld; the “Plant Growers,” who are linked to the natural world and its cycles; and the “Stone Throwers,” who are most likely to be seen by human beings and hence, by human children. I have described these three tribes in an earlier post about the Jogaoh, from which the term “Jungies” no doubt comes.

A Two-Tribe Model

So, here we have what we might call a “three-tribe model” of the little people. Winfield notes, however, that by the mid-twentieth century, most people who held to these beliefs seemed to report only two tribes. He explains,

The American literary and social critic Edmund Wilson (Apologies to the Iroquois, 1960) found only two of the fairy nations surfacing in living report. Wilson (1895-1972) called them, “Healers” and “Tricksters.”

Winfield confirms that his own Native American contacts say the same. So does his colleague, Michael Bastine, whose area of specialty is the Algonquin culture (in Québec and Ontario). I can’t find reference to “Healers” and “Tricksters” in the Google Books version of Apologies to the Iroquois, but that can be chalked up to the relevant pages being blocked out.

Winfield proposes that the “Healers” are an updated version of the “Plant Growers.” Given the strong connection between plant lore and herbal medicine and Native American healing traditions, this makes perfect sense.

As for the “Tricksters,” their origins are a bit more murky—and they themselves are more foreboding. In 1975, Tuscarora Chief Elton Greene sat for an interview with Virginia Scipione, a librarian at the Lewiston (NY) Public Library. The typewritten transcript of this interview is preserved on the library’s web page. In it, Chief Greene discusses, among other things, legends he has heard about the “little people” from Elias Johnson. According to Chief Greene,

[H]e has told me a lot when I was small of the legends and traditions of what it used to be like in the early days. There is one that is very interesting to everybody about the dwarfs or very small persons. What we call in our language ______.* That means a degraded human race. He told me they were about 28 to 30 inches tall and he had seen them lots of times when he was a boy, when he was small. They liked to play around the trees. They liked to fool around with the children and the parents don’t like that because they claim that they will give peculiar spirits to the children if they let them fool around them because they are very smart. They have seen their tracks a lot of times on the highways. His mother at night (he used to live in a little log house just a little ways from there and they had a fireplace) said they would climb up there and go thru the chimney. They would come down there during the summer. They would make noise and wake them up and then they would run back up there. They would build a little fire to keep them out.

To summarize, Winfield perceives two basic categories of “little people.” On the one hand are the “Healers,” immensely powerful beings who are generally kind and helpful to humans (though they can still be dangerous if insulted). On the other hand are the “Tricksters,” a “degraded human race” whose members are mischievous and perhaps even malevolent. They are not, however, generally in the same “weight class” as those in the first category.

Furthermore, Winfield suggests this classification works cross-culturally. It holds up not only in the context of Iroquois culture but also Algonquin.

In my next post, I want to test this classification against some of the Native American cultures of the Southeast.


* The name is left blank in the typewritten transcript. Apparently, it should be “oogweshiya.” At least, that is how it is rendered on the Lewiston Public Library page where the interview is introduced.

 

Uncanny Georgia: Oba

Igbo man with facial scarifications ("ichi"), early 20th century

Igbo man with facial scarifications (“ichi”), early 20th century

For the last installment in this series, I’d like to direct your attention to a ghost story that is told on St. Simons Island, as it is recounted at The Moonlit Road:

Near the mouth of Dunbar Creek on Georgia’s St. Simons Island, there’s a section of swampy marshland where some fishermen refuse to cast their lines. In the daytime, it doesn’t look any different from the other vast marshes stretching across Georgia’s coastal islands. Elongated white herons call to one another over the endless plain of reeds and mosquito infested marsh grasses. Fiddler crabs scurry across the sands. Unseen creatures plop into the black waters.

But when night falls, it is said that one can hear a different sound entirely. Swamps are known to make strange sounds at night. But if you listen closely, you may hear what sounds like the faint rattling of chains drifting across the marsh, followed by an eerie chant: “The water brought, us the water will take us away.”

If you think your ears are deceiving you, think again. For the old timers in the area will tell you that what you’re hearing is the brave warrior Oba, leading his people on their final march home….

Read the rest here.

Uncanny Georgia: Plat-Eyes

The plat-eye is another Gullah monster, a kind of ghost or haint that can pass through gates without opening them. Plat-eyes operate much as bogeymen; serving as a warning to children against wandering and getting lost in the woods. They are shape-shifters, but not very accomplished ones: you can spot them from their mistakes. In human form, for example, they often have only one eye. An article in the Augusta Chronicle describes them thusly:

Long before interstate highways and jet travel, back roads of the Deep South were dangerous for solitary travelers.

Besides Indians, wild animals and cold-blooded highwaymen, other terrors lurked among the remote hills and swamps – fanciful terrors that belong more in the realm of folklore than history.

One of the most dreaded creatures was the “plat-eye,” a much-feared spirit that supposedly haunted and tormented its victims unmercifully before driving them either to insane asylums or early graves. To meet up with this loathsome creature meant doom for the unlucky traveler. That’s why in the old days folks tried their best to avoid certain hollows, woods and swamps when going cross-country.

The website The Moonlit Road elaborates:

Like many other Southern folktales, the “plat-eye” stories were brought over by African-Americans who had been sold into slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are especially prevalent in the coastal Gullah communities of Georgia and South Carolina. In these tales, the plat-eye is typically an evil spirit who has not been properly buried, and now stands guard over buried treasure deep in a forest or swamp.

Plat-eye stories became especially prevalent after the Civil War, when rumors thrived that plantation owners had buried their Confederate money to keep it away from the Union army. In some of these stories, a slave was beheaded and buried with the treasure. His restless spirit would then become the guardian of the loot.

The Moonlit Road has also made available a plat-eye story for you to read (and hear). In this tale, the plat-eye takes the form of a ghostly dog, not too different from the grims and barghests of England.

Uncanny Georgia: Haints

Photo from Karri_and_Steve via TripAdvisor.com

Photo from Karri_and_Steve via TripAdvisor.com

“Haint” (or “hant”) is most likely related to the word “haunt.” In Gullah folklore, a haint is a frustrated spirit caught between life and death that looks for a place to haunt. In other words, they’re pretty much the same as restless or wandering ghosts from many other cultures.

There are some distinctive features, however. For one thing, haints are unable to cross water. This gives rise to perhaps the most notable feature of haint-lore: painting one’s shutters, window frames, door sills, etc., blue in hopes of tricking the haint into avoiding the house, thinking it is prevented from getting in.

This practice is evident, for example, on St. Simons Island, and the color used is darker than the traditional “haint blue” one sees further up the coast. See, however, this post that suggests what is traditionally called “haint blue” is not the ghost-repelling color of Gullah folklore! (The blue window pictured above is from St. Simons.) The practice is also slightly different. In South Carolina, the idea seems to be that either (1) the blue color makes the haint fly up through a porch ceiling thinking it is ascending to the sky (and thus leaving the house alone), or (2) that there is something about the color blue that is itself repulsive to haints.

In any event, driving away haints by means of the color blue is a practice first brought to North America from Angola in the 1700s. “Haint blue” (whatever its authentic hue) is often seen in areas that were strongly influenced by African folklore, including coastal Georgia, coastal South Carolina, New Orleans, and the Caribbean.