My love affair with folklore started with a small book from a Northumbrian castle. It was more of a pamphlet, really – a handful of pages in a cardboard cover, stapled at the spine. There was a whole series of them that I went on to collect. Each one contained tales of ghosts, fairies, monsters, and ghouls.
Heinous murders and bloody revenge stained some of the stories, while the others glittered with the promise of magic. Make no mistake, these were not the cute fairies of Disney, or the “wise Fae” so beloved of the Mind Body Spirit crowd. These were the fairies that struck bargains and made sure you read the small print. Perfect reading for a pre-teen, wouldn’t you think?
Whether I’ve been conscious of it or not, folklore has rippled through many of the short stories and novels I’ve produced. Except my first western, but what are westerns if not modern myths?
But this post isn’t about me. Not really. No, gentle reader, what I wanted to discuss with you today is the value of folklore within fiction. Or perhaps it’s about the value of folklore in general. We may see little wisdom in these old wives’ tales and superstitions from our 21st-century perspective. Many may scoff at these quaint beliefs or outdated practices. Yet this lore still contains a few remaining sparkles of magic dust.
Who can say our world doesn’t need a reminder of that? So come with me, dear one, and let’s explore the heady combination of fiction and folklore.
Folklore in World-BuildingSpeaking of our world, we’ll start off with the use of folklore in world-building. I know fantasy authors like to design huge worlds in which their characters can play. There’s something appealing about generating entire cities, with their labyrinthine streets, peculiar citizens, and antiquated customs.
Now imagine a fantastical world, full of by-now-familiar creatures like elves and goblins. Perhaps they’re the two opposing sides in a drama that spans the breadth of a disjointed family tree. A third group of characters enters the fray: faeries. Both the elves and the goblins believe the faeries to be working on their side.
But the reader, fully cognizant of the tricksy side of faeries, understands the game the faeries are playing in this particular war. Our plucky reader grasps the implications well before the elves and the goblins do. They can only turn the pages with mounting horror as the faeries’ full endgame becomes apparent.
True, the fantasy author could have simply invented a brand new race of beings. This happens often enough. But they wove a couple of threads of folklore into their world-building (I say they, obviously I made this up to make a point). It adds a fuller flavour because it is familiar.
Folklore becomes the warm blanket thrown around the reader’s shoulders. It is the spark of something they recognise, blending this world and the one inside the story. This spark needn’t be something spectacular. A healer may repeat a superstition about an ingredient. Perhaps a character panics at the prospect of walking beneath a ladder. Maybe the world’s Royal Family use a river as a moat since everyone knows vampires cannot cross running water.
Whatever it is, that flicker of folklore is the anchor that makes the reader feel they know this world. Perhaps it is not so different from their own.
The Stories within Fiction and Folklore
Folklore encodes warnings within stories that seemingly emerge, unbidden, in far-flung places or at different times. These warnings keep us safe, our hands turning away from poisonous plants. We hesitate before entering unfamiliar places without an invitation. Small children know to avoid the rivers and streams where Jenny Greenteeth lives; this wicked water creature may drag them to the depths, where they could become tangled in weeds or ferns.
So far, this is a snippet, an oral tradition passed on to teach people to avoid treacherous places. The commonplace dangers, so easy to spot here in the 21st century, become fantastical creatures or terrifying figures with their passage into lore. Let us be honest for a moment, dear reader. Which are you more likely to remember – Jenny Greenteeth in the depths, or unseen currents?
I thought so.
This is where folklore gains its value for the writer. That snippet, on its own, becomes a curio. It’s a trinket to be traded in a Twitter hashtag chat. Or perhaps it’s a treasured belief, carefully carried through a lifetime of wonder.
In the hands of a writer? It becomes the spark of an idea. Who is our hero, the plucky child who faces down Jenny Greenteeth for attacking her friends? Or Jenny Greenteeth herself, misunderstood and driven to a meagre existence by the river? Expanded and explored through the power of fiction, we can further unpack the wisdom in these tales.
Folklore can teach us such valuable lessons, if we have the wit to listen.
We connect with each other through story
I don’t just mean connecting with each other through the teller and the audience. We connect with each other across the ages, recovering and exploring the folklore of centuries past. Scholars would advise us to think better of treating these legends as historical documents. They have a point. Although folklore can sometimes act as a ‘gateway’ into the ‘true’ tales of history.
It was through my treasured folklore pamphlets that I first learned of the Border Reivers. This network of families on both side of the English/Scottish border has been largely neglected by broader British history. Yet they lurk in the ghost stories and the ruins of the borderlands.
There are many who will dismiss tales of witchcraft, focused on the historical record and not the individuals caught up in its snare. True, it’s unlikely that these lonely, marginalised women actually cavorted with Lucifer or cursed their neighbours. But folklore rubs up against history once more to reveal a darker side of humanity. Thomas the Rhymer claimed to have encountered the Queen of Elfland, spending years by her side before he returned to our world as a prophet.
Bessie Dunlop claimed the same fairyland experience as Thomas the Rhymer. She was not hailed as a prophet as he was. She was punished as a witch. The stories of countless women cry with injustice down the centuries. For the fiction writer, such folklore lives on through the exploration of Elfland. Or Bessie may live again, given a different ending she was denied in life. Such is the dance between fiction and folklore.
It’s a kind of magic
Of all the common threads in folklore, magic continues its special hold over humanity. Haven’t we all sat in traffic, whispering a fevered charm to change the light from red to green? Or silently begged the powers that be for one last parking space when we’re running late? Tugging on the strings of the universe might sound fanciful, but maybe it’s the birthright of all humans. It’s hardly surprising my dark fantasy stories feature mages, necromancers, and other wild magic.
Such magic bleeds into the work of other writers, particularly those tales by my fellow Skolion authors. Is it a metaphor for human agency, often lost amid the silly games we play with each other? Or is it a call back to an ancient time when maybe, just maybe, those whispered wishes came true? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Humans of all types continue to pursue their own forms of magic. The sheer range of magical systems available in fiction reflect this back to us from the bookshelves.
This in itself is the power of both fiction and folklore. They are united, in a peculiar way, in their desire to preserve worlds that never truly existed. Folklore celebrates the weird and the bizarre. Fiction creates it.
We need such oddities in our lives, if only as a reminder that the world doesn’t always make sense. And that’s okay.
Which blend of fiction and folklore do you enjoy most?
Icy Sedgwick is a writer based in the north east of England.
She writes Gothic-tinged not-quite-YA fantasy novels and Gothic short stories.
When she's not writing fiction, Icy is also the host of the Fabulous Folklore podcast, exploring folklore, legends and the supernatural in 15 minutes (or less).