As is so often the way, it was the unexpected, the unanticipated, that ended up having the biggest impact. When I was doing an MFA in Creative Writing in UCD, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne kindly let me sit in on a folklore module she was giving to another class. I’ve always loved fairy stories, primarily thanks to a beautifully illustrated large-format book that was the consolation present for having my tonsils out when I was six. As an adult reader, I am aware of the influence fairy tales and legends have had on contemporary Irish writers such as Roddy Doyle (his short story The Pram grabs several types of folktales by the ponytail and shakes them around), Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Seamus Heaney and of course Éilís Ní Dhuibhne herself. The book Folklore and Modern Irish writing, edited by Anne Markey and Anne O’Connor, explores the relationship between oral traditions and literary practice in Ireland and what those points of intersection mean.
Though I knew I’d find the module interesting, the extent of the influence it was to have on my writing surprised me. Because what I hadn’t understood was the space folklore already occupied inside my imagination. It must be like that for all of us who were ever told fairy stories as small children. Narratives divided into good and bad, hero and villain. Stories that ran in a single line from beginning to end. Yet it was more than simply remembering the details of the frogs and princes, the towers and trails of crumbs. It was more than ‘Once upon a time’ or ‘happy ever after’ or even the significance of ‘the end’. All the aspects about folklore I didn’t realise I knew – alongside all those I learnt for the first time – were what became so interesting: how the use of motifs and structure can add depth and resonance to contemporary writing. How in urban legends that horrifying encounter with the supernatural has been replaced by a more modern danger. How fairy tales begin by breaking up a family only to resolve themselves by establishing another.
William Thorns came up with the term ‘folklore’ in 1846 to describe the oral stories and learned wisdom of a community. By its nature, folklore is transient, as stories change their shape when they are passed from teller to teller. As I learnt, the study of folklore is as complex and widespread as the stories themselves. Typically, a folktale is set long ago and far away in a never-never land where, after all the adventuring is over, everything ends happily; whereas a legend is told as being about named people or set in a real place and often ends tragically. There are even laws – Alex Olrik’s fantastically-titled ‘Epic Laws Of Folk Narrative’. Having worked as a copywriter for years, I realised how regularly his Law of Three and Law of Repetition feature in the structure of design and advertising copy.
Last summer, while reading up about folklore in Scandinavia and Scotland as part of my exploration of the Shipping Forecast thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award, I came across a report on the BBC called Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks. The article claimed that work on a new road linking the Alftanes peninsula to a suburb of Reykjavik called Gardabaer was halted when campaigners warned it would disturb an Elf Chapel – in actual fact, a craggy twelve foot high rock – and a protected area of untouched lava. A local woman who claimed she could talk to these Huldufolk, who are believed to be the same size as humans but invisible to us, intervened. The road went ahead on the basis that the government department in charge would relocate the Chapel. Belief in land-spirits is thought to have become especially strong in Iceland primarily because of its isolation, and modernity doesn’t seem to have entirely swept away these beliefs: in a survey in 1998, 54.4% of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. I can’t imagine that a similar survey in Ireland would yield such a response, but it does suggest that the space within us all where folklore exists has the potential to be stronger than we think.
Einstein said, ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’ There is a mythic quality that a story set in the now can achieve when it looks back at the never-was, at our non-existent common past. Perhaps fiction that looks to folklore and legend for inspiration can reach all of us in some way, no matter how contemporary or experimental a form the work might take.
Even when there isn’t a Happy Ever After in sight.
(c) Henrietta McKervey