The Spriggans of Cornwall

sprigganSpriggans!

Spriggans are creatures from Cornish faery lore. They’re particularly associated with West Penwith in Cornwall, UK.
These malevolent “unseelie” wights are mentioned in editor Joseph Wright’s 1905 book “The English Dialect Dictionary. Vol. V” and eleven years later in one of my favourite books, Robert Hunt’s “Popular Romances of the West of England”, but the oral storytelling tradition places them much earlier than that.

More recently, in the 21st century, spriggans (or at least the term “spriggans”) seem to have been kidnapped by “The Elder Scrolls”, a series of action role-playing video games.  “Spriggan” is also the title of a Japanese manga series  (スプリガン).

In the original folklore tradition, “Spriggans were depicted as grotesquely ugly, wizened old men with large childlike heads. They were said to be found at old ruins, cairns, and barrows guarding buried treasure. Although small, they were usually considered to be the ghosts of giants and retained gigantic strength, and in one story collected by Robert Hunt, they showed the ability to swell to enormous size. Hunt associated these spirits with the hillfort known as Trencrom Hill in Cornwall.

“Spriggans were notorious for their unpleasant dispositions, and delighted in working mischief against those who offended them. They raised sudden whirlwinds to terrify travellers, sent storms to blight crops, and sometimes stole away mortal children, leaving their ugly changelings in their place. They were blamed if a house was robbed or a building collapsed, or if cattle were stolen. In one story, an old woman got the better of a band of spriggans by turning her clothing inside-out (turning clothing supposedly being as effective as holy water or iron in repelling fairies) to gain their loot.

“On Christmas Eve, spriggans met for a midnight Mass at the bottom of deep mines, and passersby could hear them singing. However, it was not spriggans but the buccas or knockers who were associated with tin mining, and who played a protective role towards the miners.

“Based on the collections of Robert Hunt and William Bottrell, Katharine Briggs characterized the spriggans as fairy bodyguards. The English Dialect Dictionary (1905) compared them to the trolls of Scandinavia.”

[Source: Wikipedia, “Spriggan”.]

Being a fan of the great folklore collector Katharine Briggs, I too depict spriggans as faerie bodyguards in The Bitterbynde Trilogy.

The Otherworldliness of Elves

Image courtesy of Mysticsartdesign on Pixabay.

ON HIS BLOG “Every Day Should Be Tuesday”, H.P. has posted a piece titled “Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Howard, Moore, and Dunsany“.

In it he notes that “One of the things that struck me rereading The Lord of the Rings this summer . . .  is the otherworldly nature of the elves. The movies of course miss this entirely, as do his imitators. [In The Lord of the Rings] Legolas isn’t a superhuman archer; he doesn’t really come off as human at all. The otherworldliness of the elves in The King of Elfland’s Daughter is much more marked. . .

“. . . It is the otherworldliness, evoking a sense of wonder, that most stands out, as distinctive in Dunsany’s tale, present but more subtle in Tolkien’s, and entirely absent from his imitators.”

I must agree with H.P. and extend the idea to cover not only elves, but also the Faêran, wights and vampires. In modern literature, movies and games, elves and vampires are usually depicted simply as good-looking humans with supernatural abilities. They think like human beings. Their emotions are typically human.

Yet Dunsany, Tolkien and students of the great folklore collector Katharine Briggs know that this is as far from the original conception of these creatures as it is possible to be. These magical, non-human beings have a completely different, unhuman mindset.

H.P. writes, “an elf can never understand a human,”  and I would add that human beings can barely fathom the minds of elves, the Faêran, wights, or indeed vampires as they were originally conceived. Even the look of these beings has changed. Vampires, for example, were first described as  being bloated, with flushed or dark faces – very different from the slender, pallid vampires that became fashionable in the early 19th century.

Take, for example, the Drowner in my novel The Ill-Made Mute. This unseelie wight takes the form of Sianadh’s sister and calls to him with her voice, to lure the man to his death beneath the river. When her attempt is sabotaged and she fails:

‘The drowner, cheated of her prey, did not scream in rage. No recognizable expression crossed her delicate features. She reacted in no human fashion.
“Kavanagh, Kavanagh,” she called, or chanted,
“If not for she,
“I’d have drunk your heart’s blood,
“And feasted on thee.”
Having spoken, she subsided gracefully, leaving a faint turbulence.’

Of course, since elves, the Faêran, wights and vampires are fictitious, it could be argued that there is no right or wrong way to depict them, but to discard their otherworldliness is to strip away their most magnetic and intriguing qualities.

It is too easy to transform them into superhumans. Too easy, and far too boring!