Guest post by Alys West
Fiction inspired by folklore has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Folklore and folk tales have always been a fruitful lode for fantasy writers but through the novels of writers like Sarah Perry and Joanne Harris it’s become both more literary and more mainstream.
I’m the author of the Spellworker Chronicles which are contemporary fantasy novels inspired by folklore. Beltane grew out of the folklore of Glastonbury and Storm Witch was inspired by an Orcadian folk tale. There are challenges in taking folklore as your starting point especially if you’re translating it to a contemporary setting. Some things don’t shift forward as well as others. Orkney has stories of trows, fairylike creatures who are not blessed in the looks department, who have a habit of tempting human into their world. In writing Storm Witch I couldn’t find a use for the trows, even though there’s some great stories about them. I had to accept that they didn’t fit with the world I was creating.
I was more interested in the tales that people told about the pre-historic sites on the islands. There’s a saying that if you scratch the surface in Orkney it bleeds archaeology. Orkney’s World Heritage Site comprises the key sites of Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The dig at the Ness of Brodgar has revealed a Neolithic temple complex which has overthrown much accepted thinking about the period. It’s exciting stuff if you’re interested in pre-history and the lives of the people who built such fascinating but enigmatic monuments.
It’s believed that folk tales grew up around pre-historic sites as a way for subsequent inhabitants to understand the landscape they’d inherited. I’m from Yorkshire and there’s a great example of that in the Devil’s Arrows, three standing stones just off the A1 at Boroughbridge. According to legend these were thrown by the Devil from a nearby hill. He was aiming for the next town of Aldborough but the stones fell short and landed near Boroughbridge instead. Similarly, there’s the Devil’s Chair at Avebury. According to folklore if you wish to speak to Old Nick you need to run round it a hundred times widdershins after which he’ll appear to you. It’s not hard to imagine that for a God-fearing population the Devil must have been a handy way of interpreting these inexplicable monoliths.
It’s where magic and folklore intersect that I find the questions arise for the writer. The folk tale of Janet Forsyth, the storm witch of Westray (one of the northern islands of the Orkney archipelago) is a mixture of fact and folklore. It involves a girl who was believed to be able to control the weather and call up storms. You can read my retelling of the story on my website but the key elements are that Janet had an unusual ability to read the weather which results in the other islanders ostracizing her. Then when a ship was blown onto the rocks in a storm, she rowed out and brought it safely to harbour. Unlike Grace Darling three hundred years later, it was felt that only through witchcraft could a woman have achieved this. Janet was tried and convicted as a witch.
There were two question which interested me most about this story. The first was what if Janet could actually do what she was accused of? From that grew the character of Rachel Sinclair who has the power to manipulate the weather but is unable to control her abilities. As the Spellworker Chronicles have spellworkers (which are extremely powerful witches) and druids the book imagines the possibilities of this form of magic in the real world setting of the Orkney archipelago.
The second was, how do you cope when your whole world falls apart? In the story Janet loses her sweetheart, loses her place in her community and is tried and convicted for witchcraft. As this is a folk tale we don’t find out what that does to Janet and how she puts her life back together but in Storm Witch I could look at that. The two female main characters are living with the repercussions of trauma and have to decide how that affects the way they interact with the world.
Of course, when Janet was alive in the seventeenth century the belief in magic was much more prevalent in society. In the same way as the Devil was thought responsible for standing stones, witchcraft was the go-to explanation for an unusually powerful or intuitive woman. There’s always a choice for the writer as to whether they accept the magical which comes with the folklore. Personally (and there’s a potential spoiler coming) I was hugely disappointed in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent as, in the end, it didn’t. As I’m writing fantasy I can explore these questions and let them play out in the world of druids and spellworkers that I’ve created.
Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. She lives in Yorkshire but loves to travel especially to Scottish islands. Her stories grow out of places and the tales which people tell about places. Her work draws on her own experience of surviving trauma but always with the possibility of a hopeful ending.
Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and teaches creative writing at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She’s also a book whisperer (like a book doctor but more holistic), mentor to aspiring writers and runs an online mindful writing group.
When she’s not writing you can find her at folk gigs, doing yoga and attempting to crochet. She occasionally blogs at www.alyswest.com, intermittently tweets at @alyswestyork and spends rather too much time on Facebook where you can find her at Alys West Writer. She is also on Instagram at @alyswestwriter. To keep up with Alys’s news you can join her Facebook readers’ group ‘Druids, Spellworkers and Dirigibles’.