The Morphing of Mollie HunterBetty Greenway
Folklore as the Root of All Fantasy
Author of an impressively varied collection of over twenty-five novels of fantasy, historical fiction, and contemporary realism, all set in her native Scotland, Mollie Hunter writes in Talent Is Not Enough, her theoretical work about writing for children, that all fantasy is rooted in folklore (p. 61). She defines "lore" as derived from an Old English root meaning either the act of teaching or that which is learned. Thus, she goes on to explain, "folklore is what people have learned and passed on through the ages -- in effect, the traditions, beliefs, customs, sayings, stories, superstitions, and prejudices preserved by word of mouth among the common people" (p. 61).
And since folklore is "the known, the remembered, and the imagined," fantasy therefore must also be rooted firmly in fact. There can be no such thing as pure fantasy, she argues:Neither Hunter's fantasies nor modern science fiction films about shape-changing, or "morphing" in the current jargon, are "pure" in this sense. Both have their roots in Celtic folklore, which, as Hunter explains, has its roots in many factual events. In both, there is another reality parallel to ours and capable of interacting with ours.
There is only a succession of folk memories filtered through the storyteller's imagination, and since all mankind shares in these memories, they are the common store on which the modern storyteller must draw in his attempts to create fantasy. (p. 65)
The difference between Mollie Hunter's books of fantasy and these modern science fiction films is that Hunter's parallel reality is the Celtic "Otherworld," peopled by creatures that are either natural but are thought to have supernatural powers, such as the seal, or those whose form and substance is only apparent, who have no physical existence in our world, such as the kelpie, goblin, or pooka. In this Otherworld, creatures can be either beautiful or horrible, helpful or hurtful, creative or destructive -- in other words, manifestations of all our fears and longings. And as Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, a poet who chooses to write in Irish, explains, this Otherworld is not simply an anticipated joyful afterlife but an alternative to reality. In a New York Times Book Review article discussing the importance of this Celtic concept, she expresses amazement at the way modern psychologists go on about the subconscious, so that "you'd swear they had invented it, or at the very least stumbled on a ghostly and ghastly continent where mankind had never previously set foot." She says that even the dogs in West Kerry know that the Otherworld exists and that "to be in and out of it constantly is the most natural thing in the world" (p. 28).
Traditionally, the parallel world created by contemporary science fiction has been located on other planets, but a number of current science fiction films locate this world in time, either the past or future, which has been folded forward or backward to become parallel with our world. For example, in The Terminator, Terminator 2, and Total Recall, among many others, the future comes back to interact with the present, and in Highlander the past comes forward. In these films, creatures metamorphose, or "morph," as they do in Celtic folklore, changing shapes freely, but here their ability to do so is tied to a scientific explanation, based on computer technology. However, whether this shape-shifting is given a natural, scientific "explanation" or a supernatural one, it serves as a metaphor for our belief, or desire to believe, in the human possibility of change -- for good, creative ends or evil, destructive ones.
We see perhaps the clearest example of the nearness of the supernatural, as manifested in the ability of the soulless creatures of the Otherworld, as Hunter calls them, to change shapes and enter our world in Hunter's A Stranger Came Ashore. Here, Hunter tells her version of the ancient Celtic legend of the Selkie folk, those creatures who take the form of seals in the waters around the Shetland Islands of Scotland. In her story, their king, the great bull seal, takes the form of a handsome man, dark-haired with a streak of gray, and the name Finn Learson, and comes ashore one night in a terrible storm to ingratiate himself with the Henderson family, simple crofters who have one thing the Great Selkie wants, a beautiful golden-haired daughter, Elspeth, whom he desires and seeks to lure to his kingdom under the sea. The climax of the story occurs at the Shetland New Year celebration, Up Helly Aa, in a battle for Elspeth of cosmic proportions between this god of the sea (for the selkie folk have been described as fallen angels, cast out from heaven for their transgressions when the world was shining new) and the god of the earth, the Skuddler, who commands his guisers, earth spirits of corn and fruit and flowers, in a wild dance in honor of all the good things he has created. Although only an ancient pagan ceremony that survives still into modern times, Hunter makes clear that magic also survives into modern times and enters the human actors in this ritual so that it is all the forces of earth-magic and all the forces of sea-magic that Elspeth is pulled between.
The Great Selkie and all his destructive powers are defeated by a twist involving the hiding of the seal's coat, also part of the selkie lore on which Hunter draws. And to support her point that all lore is rooted in fact, Hunter elsewhere explains the factual circumstance behind the legend -- where the ancient Shetland islanders were often visited by another group of islanders from off the coast of Norway who most skillfully used tiny canoes of sealskin to invade the Shetlands but who, when robbed of their canoes, were unable to extract their customary tribute (Talent is Not Enough, pp. 68-71).
The same process whereby folklore, itself rooted in fact, becomes the root of fantasy can be seen in the modern science fiction film Terminator 2, also a story of shape-shifting very much like the tales of Mollie Hunter based on Celtic lore. In this film, too, there is a battle between good and evil over the human race, represented by a woman, or more accurately here a madonna and child. The plot is complicated, but in the future there is a war between humans and machines. One machine is sent back from the future, by the leader of the humans, to protect the woman and her child against the much more sophisticated machine that wants to destroy them. As in A Stranger Came Ashore, where there is a line between earth and sea around which the battle rages, in Terminator 2 there is also a line, or more a fabric between times, the past and the future, into and out of which these machines constantly emerge to do battle. But perhaps the greatest similarity is in the ability of the bad machine to change shapes at will, which we see on the screen in incredible realism. This "morphing," based on the computer technology where we can literally and seamlessly change one shape into another (seen in the Michael Jackson video and the Schick commercial), now has a natural, and not a supernatural, explanation, based on an ability to alter DNA, to change the molecular structure of things. All fantasy is rooted in folklore, and all folklore is rooted in fact.
A similar parallel can be seen in Hunter's The Walking Stones (published in Britain as The Bodach) and the film Total Recall, but here as well as morphing there is also cloning. The Bodach, a very old Scot with the power of Second Sight, or the ability to see into the future, determines to stop the flooding of his glen by a hydroelectric power station -- to stop it, that is, until the stone circle that is in the glen can enact its ritual of every hundred years and actually move to the river and dip into it to renew its power, as it is due to walk in a week's time. The Bodach delays the flooding of the glen and the drowning of the stones by calling up his Co-Walker, a copy or echo of himself, a projection of his mind, to lead the dam builders on a chase, since they cannot flood the glen until everyone is safely removed from it. As in A Stranger Came Ashore, there is a young boy who listens to, believes, and learns from the old man, and when the Bodach falls ill, it is this boy who must carry on the mission and create his own Co-Walker to divert the dam builders until the stones can walk, as they do at the dawn of Beltane, or the first of May. And as the young boy watches this in the swirling mist, he is reminded of the story the Bodach told him of the ancient priests who would go to the stones as the sun struck them to draw the power of the stones into themselves, and he wonders if "the Stones themselves were Priests who had been frozen into a magic stillness that could be broken only once every hundred years" (p. 136).
Hunter's fantasy of modern science vying with ancient magic has its roots in the Celtic folklore of the Otherworld, as the Bodach is always telling stories of shadowy beings in a world where "witches could, for their sins, be changed into the shape of great gray mountain peaks and stay frozen like that for all eternity," like the Five Sisters of Kintail, five mountains that brood over Glen Shiel (pp. 50-51). As we see in The Walking Stones, the shape-shifting can occur equally to the destructive and the creative, the evil and the good, and the transformation can work both ways -- the inanimate can come alive and the living can become inanimate, or frozen in time.
So in The Walking Stones, there is the shape-shifting that we see again in Terminator 2 -- the terminator can morph into things, for example turn his arm into something like a spear or become a floor. He is finally destroyed at the end after his mimetic form is frozen into a statue, a stone that can be shattered, and careens into a pit of liquid steel. But there is also cloning, which we see again in Total Recall, where the villains have dammed up the air, not the water, of Mars so that the savior -- Arnold Schwarzenegger again -- must fight to flood the planet with air so the inhabitants can live freely without dependency on the modern corporation that won't turn on the air generators that were built by people of the past, like the ancients in The Walking Stones. And the way that the good defeats the evil is exactly the same as in The Walking Stones -- the hero projects a Co-Walker, a hologram of himself, a duplicate in every way except that it can't be hurt, to fool the villains.
There are so many of these parallels between modern science fiction films and the Celtic folklore incorporated into Mollie Hunter's novels. The shape-shifting of the wizard Yarl Corbie in A Stranger Came Ashore appears with black irony in a film such as The Fly, where the scientist discovers how to teleport but accidentally combines his DNA with that of a fly and morphs himself horribly into a mixture of both, and the shape-shifting of the Great Selkie himself appears in the classic I Married a Monster from Outer Space, where aliens come to Earth and assume human form, hide their ship and marry humans, but can't get back once their ship is found. And the way in which a callous and arrogant human is captured by the Sidhe, the dark and terrible but also pitiable Fairy Folk, in another of Hunter's novels, The Haunted Mountain, is reenacted in a film such as Poltergeist, where callous builders who put their subdivision over an old burial ground and thus unleash the angry but also very sad spirits of those who were buried there cause the imprisonment of the young daughter of an employee by these spirits. In both, it is only the bright love of the family that can recapture these prisoners of dark forces.
The parallels, of course, are more than a simple matter of influence. The film makers did not read Mollie Hunter, or the Celtic sources of folklore with which she infuses her novels. These stories are so elemental, archetypal, that they keep appearing in many forms, permeating the entire culture, of child reader and adult viewer alike. Which demonstrates, I think, not that some adults (i.e., science fiction fans) are still childlike or that children share the same mental processes as our primitive ancestors. The lore of childhood is a constant that we return to often -- the child is father to the man -- a source or spring to which we can go throughout our lives to quench our thirst for something other than the ordinary. This can be the Celtic Otherworld or it can be the future of our world. But, in the words of Mollie Hunter that began this paper, folklore is "the common store on which the modern storyteller must draw in his [or her] attempts to create fantasy," for folklore is the repository of, also in Hunter's words, "the timeless yearning of humans to identify with their sense of an eternal oneness in the universe -- the sense which tells man he has a soul" (Talent, pp. 99).
A faculty member in the English Department at Youngstown State University, Betty Greenway lends her support to the annual Youngstown English Festival.