Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. At the summer and winter solstices, I mimic the sun and pause to reflect on my own creative work. In this edition, I'm bringing sea monsters to your holiday season with a discussion of folkloric elements in a poem entitled "Leviathans," published nearly a decade ago in Strange Horizons.
It was not enough; the Hafgufa,
rock-toothed maw of the deep,
insouciant crusher of vikings
into bone splinter and driftwood.
It was not enough; the Lyngbakr,
heather-backed false island,
splitting fathoms to air its blossoms
and diving again, like any heedless behemoth,
with Örvar's luckless men on its shoulders.
Those krakens of saga, primeval beasts,
implacable as deepwater currents,
birthed from the World's abyssal womb
to chasten sailors who fouled Her blood;
they were, in the long telling, not enough.
"As far as scientists can tell, the undersea oil is actually a witch's brew of crude mixed with dissolved methane, stretching 15 miles long, 5 miles wide, and 300 feet thick in the case of one plume detected by the Pelican, and 22 miles long, 6 miles wide, and 3,000 feet thick in the case of a plume found by University of South Florida researchers aboard the WeatherBird II last week. The latter plume reaches all the way to the surface."
Now slick leviathans spew from the sediment;
mephitic fiends, nameless, insensate,
pitchy tentacles undulating inland,
dragging the seabed, aquiver with methane,
shaming the World with Her own shit—
while brown pelicans blacken,
feathers clotted, bills dripping crude
into hungry, hatchling mouths,
and bottlenose dolphins slip to the shoreline,
toothy grins fixed in a death-rictus.
Far below, the slumbering krakens never waken.
Hafgufa gapes, cavernous gullet
choked with tarballs. Lyngbakr bursts,
carapace crushed under too many carcasses.
Inadequate monsters, undone by their betters.
 Begley, Sharon. "What the Spill Will Kill." Newsweek. 06 June 2010. Web. 07 June 2010.
The Folklore Behind the Fiction
The Hafgufa (Sea Reek) and the Lyngbakr (Heather Back) may be found in two pieces of early writing; the Icelandic fantastical tale of Örvar-Oddr (Arrow Odd) and the Norwegian Konungs skuggsjá (King's mirror), which is an instructive work for the education of a king's sons. Together, they represent some of the earliest appearances of krakens in literature. Örvar-Oddr learns from the sea captain Vignir that the Hafguga is the largest sea-monster in the ocean, capable of swallowing men, ships, whales, and anything else caught in its massive jaws when it retreats into the depths. The Konungs skuggsjá tells us that the Hafgufa appears "more like an island than a fish," perhaps because of its size, but the Lyngbakr has the greater reputation for this appearance. When Örvar-Oddr's men go ashore to find water on a heather-covered island Vignir forbids his own men to visit, they are drowned when the island sinks. Vignir explains that it was no island at all but a sea-monster instead (Larson 1917, 125; Palsson and Edwards 2005, 85-86; Whitaker 1986, 3).
I wrote "Leviathans" long before I returned to university for a PhD in Folklore. Still, it was easy to imagine that the "...vast underwater plumes of crude oil spreading like Medusa's locks" were part of a newer, more awful sort of sea-monster when I read Sharon Begley's evocative coverage of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in Newsweek. I went in search of kraken lore, found it, and spent three days mourning the deaths of fish, birds, and turtles while I wrote the poem. Begley's most evocative passage lies at its heart, and I was fortunate that she granted permission for it to remain there when Strange Horizons picked the poem up for publication. As I write this newsletter edition, I remember feeling helpless and outraged in the face of BP's careless cleanup efforts, which burned hundreds of endangered marine mammals alive (Goldenberg 2010).
Perhaps this seems a strange topic for a holiday missive, but I've read a great deal lately about the need for new kinds of storytelling and storytellers able to wield the power of narrative in service to the Earth. I've been writing the Folklore & Fiction newsletter for a year now, and it remains my goal to blend folkloric scholarship and writing instruction in a way that informs the creative process. But I also hope that some of you will fuse these enduring folkloric ideas with your own and bring powerful tales into being that light a way forward for us all; humanity, the animals who share this world with us, and the Earth herself.
With that in mind, I have a recommendation that might help nudge your creative spirit in this direction. You might remember that some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed words like acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, and others, replacing them with attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voice-mail. In response, nature writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created The Lost Words: A Spell Book, which aimed to summon these words for nature back into our lives. On their heels came a cadre of folk musicians from around the world and the creation of The Lost Words: Spell Songs. You can find out more about the project by clicking on the links in this paragraph, but I've also linked my favourite song from the album below. As you listen to it, remember that this power is also yours.
I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons and every blessing in the coming year. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back on the first Thursday of next month with a discussion of Arnold van Gennep's work on rites of passage.
- Begley, Sharon. 2010. ‘What the Spill Will Kill’. Newsweek. 5 June 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/what-spill-will-kill-73393.
- Goldenberg, Suzanne. 2010. ‘BP Accused of Killing Endangered Sea Turtles in Cleanup Operation’. The Guardian, 25 June 2010, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jun/25/bp-accused-of-killing-turtles.
- Larson, Laurence Marcellus, trans. 1917. The King’s Mirror (Speculum Regale-Konungs Skuggsjá). New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation.
- MacCath C.S. 2010. ‘Leviathans’. Strange Horizons. 20 September 2010. http://strangehorizons.com/poetry/leviathans.
- Palsson, Hermann, and Paul Edwards, trans. 2005. Seven Viking Romances. Reprint Edition. London: Penguin.
- Whitaker, Ian. 1986. ‘North Atlantic Sea-Creatures in the King’s Mirror (Konungs Skuggsjá)’. Polar Record 23 (142): 3–13.