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By Angela Slatter
As an avid reader and self-confessed story junkie I’ve spent most of my life reading books of fairy and folk tales, legends, myths, religious texts, apocrypha, and demanding the people around me tell me stories. My mind, therefore, is a really big treasure chest of, well, stuff. When I say “treasure chest” I mean like that drawer in the kitchen where you put EVERYTHING: all the useful stuff, like the good scissors, the different lengths of string, the cool cookie cutters, that allen key you need for the Ikea shelves, the last couple of headache tablets and cough drops, the sharpie, a tiny scrap of ribbon for when you’re wrapping an emergency birthday present ... you know, the stuff that seems like crap but is in fact entirely useful in the right situation. So I offer some items from the top sedimentary layer of my personal kitchen drawer/brain treasury: my Top Ten Scary Creatures from Fairy Tales and Mythology
Generally found in Norse fairy tales and mythology, trolls come in various forms, some live in caves, mountains, under bridges, some look more like humans, but most seem to be generally described as lumpy, bumpy and not at all attractive. They’re nasty and smelly, overly fond of treasure, not too bright and, if you believe Tolkien, tend to turn to stone in the sunlight. Plus there’s their nasty habit of swapping human babies for their own, leaving a squalling changeling in the cradle like a cuckoo for harried parents to bring up. In “Tatterhood” while the ugly sister is fighting the trolls, the pretty sister opens the window to watch − and a troll snatches off her head and replaces it with a calf’s (of course!). Eventually the ugly sister beats the trolls and gets her sister’s head back, but it’s touch and go for the pretty one’s modelling career for a while. My favourite version of this story is Mike Mignola’s The Troll Witch.
I’m generally pretty fond of witches in fairy and folk tales and think they get a bad rap, but those old-timey ones sure did have a good range in nastiness. Generally pictured as wretched old women with dowager’s humps, warts on their noses, no teeth, and questionable eating habits, the fairy tale witch is not the cuddly nanna type. “The Baba Yaga”, “Hansel and Gretel”, "The Twins and the Snarling Witch", “Rapunzel”, “Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty” are all examples of this. You will be tricked into entering a house made of gingerbread, fattened up, then eaten. You will be chased through the woods by an old woman who travels via mortar and pestle. You will be offered a poisoned apple as a snack (hint: don’t accept). You will be locked in a tower and kept in ignorance all your life. You will try to learn how to spin as a career move and find yourself sleeping for a hundred years. All thanks to the bad grannies.
As the poor old wolf is just following his natural urges − to him small children are crunchy, fast-moving canapés − it’s a bit harsh to paint him as a villain in a story. So, I’m going to defend the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” (seriously, she was warned not to leave the path!) and the one in “The Three Little Pigs” (who doesn’t love bacon?). John Connolly’s worse-than-wolves in The Book of Lost Things are another thing entirely − there’s malice there and the sense that you’re being sized up for a proper five-course meal, that the critters are considering which wine to serve you with. Still and all, no one wants to get eaten by a ravening wolf.
Grendel is the monster from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, and no one’s really sure of his true nature. Some say he’s a demon, some a kind of troll or ogre, some a giant − the poem itself says he’s a descendant of Cain from the Bible, so you know that’s not going to end well. Suffice to say he’s not a good neighbour: he hates the sound of people being happy, is a fan of neither music nor mead, lives in a marsh or a moor which is wet and muddy and bound to make anyone cranky. Grendel takes the whole party-pooper thing to a new level by charging into the mead hall Heorot and slaughtering the drunken revellers therein. He does this more than once, most definitely harshing the partygoers’ squee. Although he’s a positive pussycat compared to his mum.
5. Your sister
Yes! Sibling rivalry can get way out of hand in the old tales: in “White Bride, Black Bride” the bad sister colludes with her mum to have the good sister thrown out of the carriage on her wedding day and turned into a duck (as you do). Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters are The Literal Worst and not too bright: when the prince brings the glass slipper for them to try on, at least one of them cuts off a small toe so the shoe fits. In “Beauty and the Beast” the older sisters delay Beauty’s return to Beast in the hope he’ll kill her in a fit of anger. And in “The Three Sisters” the jealous older sisters injure the youngest sister’s beloved and she has to kill trolls to cure him − she lives happily ever after but the sisters are thrown in the oven. So, when you’re complaining about your sister borrowing your shirt, dress or shoes without permission, consider yourself lucky if that’s the worst thing she does!
The sirens start out in Greek mythology as bird-women, sometimes there are two, sometimes three, sometimes five. Sometimes they have names and sometimes they don’t (although one of the names mentioned is Ligeia, and I use that one in my novel Vigil). The earliest sirens had the heads of women, the bodies of birds; later it was more a female form but with feathers and clawed feet. According to the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedia, they were birds from the chest up, women in the downward direction; later still they were entirely female women, fair of face and form. The things that unite each of these versions of the siren are their lovely seductive voices, singing songs to lure men close, and their unfortunate tendency to eat said men.
The Bluebeard figure has been around in folk tales for a long while in various forms and cultures, but probably the most famous is the one written down by Frenchman Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century. The gentleman is a compulsive widower, marrying then testing his wives with the curiosity test: “Here are all the keys to all the rooms in the castle; you can go into all of them except the room belonging to this hey here. See, this one with Forbidden Room Key engraved on it.” The wife always went into that room, which contained all the bodies of all the previous wives, in theory proving things about curiosity, cats and killings. Or perhaps really just proving that some husbands are just psychopaths.
8. The Minotaur
In Greek mythology the Minotaur is the result of Pasiphaë (wife of King Minos) falling in love with a rather handsome looking bull. Totally not her fault: her husband had offended the god Poseidon by not offering up the best possible sacrifice and said god punished Minos via his wife. Because gods are Not Very Nice. The Minotaur has the body of a man, the head of a bull, and likes to eat human flesh. Minos had the labyrinth built to hide the creature in, and every year other subject kings had to send tribute in the form of tasty young people to be sent into the labyrinth as snacks. Basically, you’re being eaten by a bovine. For a different perspective, read Lisa L. Hannett’s “The Short Go: A Future in Eight Seconds” in Bluegrass Symphony.
9. The Kelpie
Everyone likes a pony but be wary of the kelpie, whose CV reads “child-eating, shape-shifting water spirit.” Some are said to be able to take the form of a human, but they’re given away by their hooves, which they apparently can’t hide (especially as those hooves are reversed). Once restricted to streams − they’d offer to carry travellers across, then transform mid-way and drown, then eat said travellers − they’re now associated with most non-oceanic bodies of water. I think they speak to our fear of the things we can’t see that brush against us when we’re swimming. They can be tamed by use of a blessed bridle and set to work hauling stones for a castle or pulling a grinding stone around a mill ... but beware the curses they deliver when released, you might find your entire family being wiped out! Not one for the My Little Ponies gift pack.
10. Your parents
Your parents sent you to your room? Wouldn’t let you have a PlayStation? Don’t appreciate your Pokémon obsession? Buck up, buttercup! In the original “Hansel and Gretel” the parents (the actual blood parents, not just one parent and a step-parent) lead their kids off to starve in the woods to save on groceries. In “Donkeyskin”, “Doralice”, “All-Kinds-of-Fur”, “Catskin” (there are a lot of these kinds of tales!), a father wants to marry his daughter as she’s the only one as beautiful as her dead mother (faultless logic there!). Rapunzel’s parents swap her for salad greens (Homer was right when he said you don’t make friends with salad). In “The Girl with No Hands” the miller unwisely promises the Devil whatever is in his backyard in return for treasure − unfortunately it’s not the fat grey cat he thought, but his very own daughter.