Folklore and fantasy themes aimed at creative writers: to start writing stories and challenge your brain with exciting ideas, dip into this kit-bag. Learn how fantasy worlds draw on real world history, mythology, and folklore. And there’s weekly news from the world of fantasy fiction too, plus fabulous creatures, studies on folk tales, nature fables and lots more mythical, magical fun.
This week I explore what the word EPIC means. What are the ingredients that make fiction epic? Tips on how to write your own epic. Some advice on creating chimaera and my own list of fabulous creatures [see directly below]. Also I discuss anchorites & anchorholds and my wildflower of the week is the bluebell (pictured below)
Podcast listeners: Here is my list of chimaera from my bestiarum (how to use it: check the attributes of the body parts from the list underneath my list of fanciful chimaera.) A full explanation of the chimaera, with images, can be found at the bottom of this page.)
Blackguarduiker – greyhound, nebek (pictured above)
Clawsprey – hare, hawk
Cormoragoon – cormorant, pelican
Magriffon – magpie, vulture
Muskougar – deer, panther
Packrock – crocodile, wolf
Pantheradron – lioncel, martlet
Peltsensitive – otter, ferret
Sylphaster – hare, melusina
Tauruslimy – bull, salamander
Triumphallow – deer, wild boar
Ursignus – bear, swan
Worshipacock – dove, peacock
Wrassequirrel – hedgehog, badger
Animal / Creature Attributes
Alligator (croc) – heartless, merciless
Alphyn (hairy wolf) – condemning, judging
Badger – enterprise, snooping
Bear – boldness, courage
Boar – courage, ferocity
Bull – strength, steadfastness
Cormorant – patience, fortitude
Deer – nimbleness, shy
Dove – peace, compassion
Eaglet – valiant, royal
Falcon – vision, acuity
Ferret – fast, perceptive
Greyhound – speed, loyalty
Hare – speed, eves-dropping
Lioncel (small lion) – alert, noble
Magpie – burglar, robber
Martlet (martin type bird) – swift, lofty
Melusine (2-tailed mermaid) – egotistical, neurotic
Nebek (hairy tiger) – ruthless, tenacious
Otter – persistent, ingenious
Panther – unseeable, shrouded
Peacock – extravagant, bold
Pelican – devoted, charitable
Salamander – endurance, fire-resistant
Stag – proud, noble
Swan – gracious, elegant
Urchin (hedgehog) – defensive, bristly
Vulture – patience, commitment
Wolf – vigilant, protective
Wyvern – ferocity, venomous
Anchorites & Anchorholds
An anchorite (female: anchoress) is a person who has chosen to “withdraw” from society. The word comes from the Ancient Greek: ANKORITAS which means “someone who has withdrawn from the world”.
Anchorites differ from hermits in that they enter “isolation” after a service of “internment” (it might resemble a funeral rite) — so they can be considered dead to the world — and therefore they act as if they are a living saint.
The anchoritic life became widespread during the Middle Ages and there were a large number in England. The anchorites were normally isolated in a simple cell ( called an anchorhold) that had often been built against the walls of a village church. In German-speaking areas, it was customary for the bishop to say The Office of the Dead when the anchorite entered his or her cell, to indicate the anchorite’s death to the world and rebirth in a spiritual life.
Some anchorholds had a few rooms and perhaps even attached gardens. Servants tended to the basic needs of the anchorite, providing food and water and removing waste.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these anchorholds is that they were often considered to be a communal “womb” which offered an idealized sense of a community’s “reborn” potential.
Anchorites would provide spiritual advice and counsel to visitors through a small window or hatch in their cell, and therefore tended to gain a reputation for imparting words of wisdom and played an important part in the community as a guide, counsellor or mentor.
It’s well known, across the world, that self-isolation brings a person inner peace and the possibility of quiet and deep contemplation. Although other religions have priests or monks who separate themselves from “everyday life” to seek truth and spiritual clarity, no other religion has anything as extreme as the anchorites. I know we have not chosen to be isolated, in lock-down, but since we are, perhaps it’s healthy and reasonable to look at the positives rather than complain about the negatives.
The fourteenth-century English hermit, mystic, and religious writer Richard Rolle (who met the famous North Yorkshire anchoress Margaret Kirkby) undertook to identify the principles of an anchorite way of life and listed the benefits.
We have been bequeathed good ideas from Richard Rolle about the advantages and compensations that come through self-isolation, and I will finish with those perspectives most relevant to us today — and heartening to hear, too, I think — especially as we respond to the challenges brought by a period of self-isolation. They are presented in my own words and bring my own conceptions (but with thanks to Rolle):
* Living humbly and living calmly brings a person closer to love and patience
* Exchanging transient pleasures for deeper meaning brings a person a more permanent sense of spiritual resilience
* Being isolated from society brings the pleasure of devotion to a higher consciousness
* Isolation allows us to reflect on the shortness of life and, with those reflections, the acceptance that we must account for the hours that we have
* Purity comes when we submit to the will of external influences over which we have no control
* Isolation helps us fix our minds on what is true and fix our hearts on what is meaningful
* An isolated person will discover she or he has time to improve on their wisdom, on their knowledge, on their faith and on other worthy skills
What are the ingredients that make something epic?
Our word EPIC comes from the Latin epicus and the Greek epikos — words that mean story, or poem. Somehow, along the way, we have taken “Epic” to mean “long” or even “overlong” and perhaps even “arduously overlong” — so, for example, an “Epic journey to the shops…” might be laborious and lengthy. Our friends would murmur their sympathy and be glad they didn’t join us on such an arduous quest…
But if you are reading (or, indeed, writing) an Epic fantasy novel, then you’d expect something that offers more than: “long and arduous” — you’d want something that offers:
* Extraordinary derring-do
* Exceptional heroics
* Immortals, superhumans and average humans working together for the common good
* Complex mythologies
* A re-examination of morals
* Rhetorical or figurative language
* Rhapsodic romanticism
If you test The Lord of the Rings against my criteria above I think you’ll agree that it ticks each (and every) box. It is an epic novel.
Several experts, including the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) have attempted to outline the main characteristics of an Epic. So here’s my shot at it. Test your own novel and your favorite fantasy fiction work against this list:
- Epics must have an obvious moral theme
- In Epics the action starts immediately, we’re dropped right into the action, in the middle of events (think Star Wars)
- The setting will be vast, it will encompass a multitude of nations / realms / worlds (think Game of Thrones)
- A prophetic goddess / enchantress / sorcereess might be the catalyst or spur for action (think Chronicles of Narnia or the Arthurian Legends)
- The main characters will have epithets (think, the Man of Steel or Gandalf the Grey)
- Epics contain lists (think, the list of demons in Paradise Lost)
- Epic heroes will recite long and formal speeches
- Epics demonstrate that superhumans / aliens / dieties can work together to overcome evil
- The protagonists will embody the best principles / virtues of civilization
- An Epic will often feature a tragic hero’s descent into an underworld or hell on earth
Wildflower of the week: Bluebell
If you want to find a unicorn… go to a bluebell wood in springtime…
It’s said that when the blood-blooded Prince Hyacinthus was killed in a game that went fatally wrong, bright blue flowers sprang from his blood. His lover (the god Apollo) shed divine tears that marked each of the new flower petals: “AIAI” (alas)
The British bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta has often been described as Britain’s “favourite flower”. When I was young my family used to make an annual pilgrimage to one of several “bluebell woods” near to us the view the amazing sight of “the blue of the wood” (and to greedily collect) bunches of this wonderful, aromatic and magical plant. The folk-belief was that if you pulled the flower-stalk away cleanly (they often made a little yelp) the bluebell would not be harmed. This folklore has since been proven to be true (though, if you trample all over the plants – which we were careful to avoid – this would harm them.) I still remember how exciting it was to bring bunches-and-bunches home, to vase them up and take-them to our rooms to enjoy the warming fragrances. When I moved into my current cottage-home at Penton Hook, here by the River Thames, we had British bluebells growing in sturdy bunches by our front door (we also had a witch-scaring Elderberry by the corner of our house). But we had our front yard (garden) paved-over two years ago (it’s very nice & efficient) but in the process of those extensive groundworks we lost our old Elderberry bush and the Bluebells. However, nature is miraculous, and through a little crack in the stonework (and after an absence of 2 years) a bluebell has just appeared!
Common British bluebells aka wild hyacinths, wood bells, fairy flowers or bell bottles (my favorite is the Somerset word for them: Grigglesticks) ought not be confused with harebells (though harebells are known as bluebells in Scotland) which I will cover in another show. Bluebells are a perennial plant that grow from bulbs and appear in April (spring time) and Bluebell Woods are found in all parts of Great Britain and Ireland. Bluebells are a common indicator species for ancient woodlands (that’s any woodland that has existed continuously since at least 1600.)
Native bluebells are a protected species under British law (though they weren’t protected when I was young) and this is because so many important woodland sites have been lost to development since the 1950s.
It’s known that Bluebells synthesise a wide range of chemicals that have potential medicinal properties. For example, they contain at least fifteen biologically active compounds that probably provide them with protection against insect and animal consumption.
The bulbs of bluebells have been used in folk medicine for years: primarily as a remedy for some infections and to stop bleeding, and the roots had been used by folk to make glue.
Bluebells can be clearly seen in the famous medieval “ Unicorn Tapestries” and, since they are pictured alongside other “sex” plants it’s likely they were once considered a symbol of fertility and marriage.
bestiarum of chimaeras
An absurd list of insightful but fabulous creatures
In heraldic representations we often see CHIMAERAS like the hippogriff with body parts taken from various real or imaginary animals. The word chimera (actually means “she-goat” in ancient Greek) was originally used to describe a fearsome looking lion / goat / snake monster that breathed fire, but has since been used to describe any fantasy creature that has been made out of various parts of leftover body parts, or is considered delusionally imaginative, ridiculously extravagant, or simply mind-blowing.
The good thing about the original Chimera (the goat thing) was that this monster personified and embodied the attributes of its original component body-parts: namely, the bravery and ferocity of a lion, the sneakiness of a snake and the obstinacy and persistence of a goat. Other (obvious) chimeras in daily use include the sea lion (also known as a morse) that has the head and upper body of a lion, but the webbed forelimbs of a fish. Therefore, it is predatory like a lion, but it is skillful underwater. And although it is a “legendary creature” and it embodies the attributes of a lion and a fish, the sea-lion is also tangible in a “real world” sense both physically and stylistically. Slightly less “tangible” yet totally recognizable is the mermaid: a human woman with the tail of a fish. So, stylistically, she’s beautiful but slippery. Understandably, we might associate the “Sirens” of classic mythology with the idea of a mermaid, but surprisingly we’d be wrong! The sirens of Greek mythology were half-woman half-bird chimaeras (not fish).The switch to an aquatic swimming creature came later when many of the Christian bestiaries were compiled. It’s possible (though I’m just guessing) that those later compilers didn’t want mermaids to mingle with the (much holier) angels. There’s also a sensible line-of-thought that early sailors might have seen seals (or less likely, manatee, or dugong) languishing on rocks and “singing” and thought they’d seen half-human / half-fish creatures.
But back to my own list of preposterous yet insightful creatures, and perhaps inspired a little bit by J.K. Rowling’s (aka Newt Scamander’s) “Fantastic Beasts” that included several recognisable chimaeras such as the manticore (lion / scorpion) the hippocamp (horse / fish) and the griffin (lion / eagle) but more properly inspired by Friar’s “New Dictionary of Heraldry” I have created my own set of chimaera that “make sense” stylistically.
My set of chimaera might be distinctly improbable and highly wondrous but they’re really quite functional — perhaps even workable — so you could use them for your fantasy fiction project. You can, of course, use them (even though I conjured them out of thin air) and if you do, it would be great if you credited me. But more importantly, I’d love to know if you’ve used (or even thought about) using one of my odd creations. Or why not create your own? But try to follow my advice and make them insightful