by Tereza Walsbergerová
Agender and gender-queer creatures, bisexual mermaids, homosexual warriors, asexual goddesses, non-binary elves, and transgender seal folk. All this and more awaits you in Rachel Plummer’s 2019 LGBT themed retellings of Scottish mythology – Wain: LGBT Reimaginings of Scottish Folklore. As the book was commissioned by an organisation dedicated to the inclusion of queer children and youth in Scottish society, this article questions the educational potential of story-telling, the possibility of inclusive heritage, the use and “abuse” of mythology, and the universal character of mythical meanings.
Stories as teaching tools
There is no doubt that legends, myths, fables, folk tales, and fairy tales play a key role in every child’s and young adult’s mental, social, and cultural development. They teach us about the world, human nature, and instill within us a sense of right and wrong. In “The Link Between Mythology and Education” (1991), Richard L. Sartore confirms that we are all affected by myths from our cultures and that “the development of an individual’s lifestyle is based on the psychological development provided through myths.” (Sartore 35) When it comes to children in particular, as Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen stresses in “The Education Value of Fairy-Stories and Myths” (1903), mythology is incredibly important in education, as it provides young minds with the ability to understand the world and express their own thoughts about it in a “language [they] understand” (Thorne-Thomsen 161).
Although all cultures have their sets of folktales, it is fair to say that their importance and their role in education has differed in different eras, places, and contexts. Many indigenous cultures used storytelling as the sole teaching tool for children before colonialism and the establishment of western-style schooling. Storytelling was how these cultures made sense of the world (similarly to the “primitive” cultures occupying the area of today’s modern Europe). In her study “An Investigation of the Role of Legends and Storytelling in Early Childhood Practices in a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Early Childhood Facility” (2016), Sandra Deer considers indigenous storytelling essential to the “reciprocity” of cultural ideology from one generation to another. It is safe to say that for some cultures, storytelling is not only a teaching tool, but also a vehicle for heritage. As indigenous communities became marginalized and eliminated in droves, the loss of their mythology mirrored the fate of their physical bodies as communities, kins, and generations became separated and cultural ties severed. In her article, Deer argues that returning to indigenous education – the analysis of myths and folktales – can help the culture, in essence, heal: “Rebuilding education through decolonizing methods, for example by using storytelling to recite our histories, can contribute to the reconstruction of current Indigenous educational practices and begin to offset the undetected viruses that remain incubating within the people and their current systems.”
While I am in no way trying to argue that any of the indigenous communities that essentially had their heritage severed from them are suffering the same fate as the queer community, I believe that this healing potential of educational mythology and the power of heritage can also be beneficial to other communities that have been similarly marginalised and systematically erased from history (including indigenous history). While the queer community is slowly becoming accepted in many places around the world, this kind of erasure and rejection can be difficult to forget. Heritage, which can also be synonymous with “birthright” and “inheritance”, can, therefore, through its educative potential, serve as the perfect tool to (re)integrate the queer community into specific society, such as Scotland, and help it heal.
“Bonny lads in green lipstick”: towards inclusive heritage
Heritage can serve as an educational tool, but it can also be used for inclusion and representation. The term “inclusive heritage” may, of course, sound ironic. As Johanna Mitterhofer points out in “Beyond the Nation: Making Heritage Inclusive”, heritage “provid[es] a shared narrative and a sense of belonging to those who find themselves represented” while those who cannot recognise themselves will never fully belong” (Mitterhofer 136). That is to say, heritage – as it often appears in popular culture – can be incredibly mainstream and heteronormative and so it can be difficult for certain minorities and marginalised communities to feel included (even if they have cultural ties to it). In spite of this, as Mitterhofer adds, there are ways for minority groups to “negotiate heritage practices and discourses formulated by the dominant national population” (137) by approaching it from “dialogical” and “pluralistic” perspectives which allow for “different, even contrary interpretations of the past to coexist, and thus contribute to the successful construction of societies inclusive of difference and diversity” (137). In essence, if you want a functional inclusive society, treating your heritage as inclusive and letting minority groups create ties to it seems to be the key.
Wain (2019, The Emma Press) is a collection of poetry which reimagines Scottish mythology through an LGBT lens. It was written by Rachel Plummer and illustrated by Helene Boppert. The collection was commissioned by LGBT Youth Scotland whose goal, according to their website, is to “make Scotland the best place to grow up for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people”. It is therefore safe to say that it uses Scottish mythology to both educate Scottish youth about the existence of queerness, queer people, and queer families, and to create an accepting space for queer youth through inclusion and representation within their culture. In LGBT Youth Scotland’s service, Wain helps construct Scotland as a society that is – as Mitterhofer says – inclusive of difference and diversity – in a very effective manner.
The poem “Nimblemen”, for example, focuses on the Scottish Gaelic folktale of the “Nimble Men” (or “Merry Dancers”), which is tied to the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Although Scotland does not appear anywhere near the top of the list of the best places to see the Northern Lights (it is preceded by e.g. Alaska, Canada, Iceland, and Norway), there are many places in northern Scotland where you can, in fact, encounter this incredible sight (e.g. Shetland, Orkney, and the tip of the Isle of Skye) which gave birth to the Scottish/Gaelic myth of the Merry Dancers, and so we can say that it is indeed a major part of Scottish culture and heritage. According to the myth, the lights represent “great warriors who fight and dance in the sky” (Plummer 78), the red specks of light representing their blood. Additionally, according to scotclans.com’s Amanda Moffet, there is a story in which the Nimblemen (or “Fir Chlis” in Gaelic) may refer to the occurence of bloodstones at the Isle of Rum, which also ties to story directly to the Scottish soil:
In another story, the Fir Chlis take part in a war called “an linne fhuil” or “pool of blood” and the local red and green “bloodstones” were believed to be drops fallen from the sky warriors. In this way people drew features of their landscape into the story of the aurora and made its spectacle both supernatural and familiar.
In her retelling of the myth, Plummer imagines the Northern Sky as a “dancefloor” and the moon and as a “disco ball”, having her “fabulous warriors” dance amongst the lights with a sense of incredible freedom and lightness, which can be easily connected to the longing of queer people to become liberated from the confines of sexual and gender stereotypes:
Bonny lads in green
our well-glittered hair.
Even the air is dancing tonight,
it knows all the moves. (Plummer 22)
By having these great warriors – who may, in Scotland, even represent the clans fighting amongst each other – dance around their handbags with glitter in their hair, Plummer is not only showing queer children and youth reading this poem that it is safe for them to be themselves (because these warriors do not seem to care that they are defying gender-stereotypes), but also that they can see themselves in their own heritage, that they do, indeed, belong. The additional facts that these lights are something that the readers can actually see in the sky in certain parts of Scotland and that they can touch the bloodstones representing the sweat and blood of these warriors, then only solidifies these connections.
“Nessie knows”: the use and “abuse” of mythology
What is particularly fascinating about Plummer’s retelling of these folktales is that they do not seem to be that different from the originals. While the subtle hints at queerness in “Nimblemen” through the use of glitter and words like “fabulous” do draw attention to aspects of the story that resonates with the queer community, the original image of warriors dancing in the sky never disappears. In other words, the changes seem to add value to the myths rather than take it away. Another example of this kind of “soft” reimagination is the poem “Gentle Annie”. “Gentle Annie” works with the myth of a rather capricious goddess (or “storm-wife”) who is capable of summoning strong winds and storms both onshore and at sea, threatening fishermen and those living in Scottish hills and valleys. In the poem, Gentle Annie is described as a “Stormwife. Stormspirit of the glen, / the hills of hope and loyalty, / of cities, of the spaces in / between things.” (62), which essentially leaves the original folktale unchanged. The entire poem, however, uses the Ze/Hir pronouns, which could be¹ indicative of gender neutral representation (i.e. of people who may identify as gender neutral, agender, non-binary, gender-queer, transgender, third gender, etc.):
Ze comes between the houses like
ze used to come between the hills.
Some things don’t change. Here in the dreich. (62)
While this simple change in pronouns does not drastically change the story itself, for a person that prefers and uses these pronouns in real life, seeing them on a page as a part of a tale that represents their heritage could be life-changing.
It is a known fact that mythology has always been used and sometimes “abused” by many different people for many different purposes throughout history. In fact, we may even want to say that all stories have been at some point reimagined to serve someone’s agenda. It may be difficult, though, to decide what classifies as a simple “use” and what might already be considered “abuse”. For instance, it is common knowledge that Christians made sure to establish important holidays on days that traditionally marked some significant pagan sabbaths. Yuletide became Christmas to celebrate the birth of Christ, the Spring Equinox became Easter to commemorate the Death and Reincarnation of Christ, and Lupercalia became St. Valentine’s Day. In this case, the “original” mythology has essentially been transformed into a new kind of mythology through a process not dissimilar to cultural “castration” as the new mythology kept the parts that were useful to it and discarded the parts it did not want. Plummer’s reimaginings of Scottish folktales are not without an agenda, of course, but they are in no way an “abuse” of mythology. Their perspective on Scottish folklore, as I demonstrated, adds rather than takes away from mythology. Without violently distorting any part of Scottish heritage (like Christians did with pagan traditions), this book has been created to do exactly what LGBT Youth Scotland sets out to do in their statement of purpose – to make queer youth feel included and accepted in Scotland. To make heritage – one of the most important aspects of one’s identity – more inclusive.
Looking at the poem “Nessie” may help illustrate this point as the Loch Ness Monster myth is probably the most popular Scottish/Gaelic story. In a way, Nessie is almost one with Scotland; its unofficial mascot alongside the thistle, the cross of St. Andrew, and the tartan. The myth is so iconic it may seem that there is no way it could be reimagined to appeal to queer readers. That said, the (not so) secret point of “Nessie”, similarly to “Nimblemen”, is that Plummer did not actually have to change much to make the myth a representation of the queer community. The fact is, nobody knows much about Nessie, their sex or gender. In fact, sex and gender are irrelevant when it comes to the Loch Ness Monster as they are not the point of the story, they are not important: “The Loch Ness Monster Isn’t a boy or a girl. / Nessie doesn’t have much use for words like that.” (42) Thus, in this instance, the poem manages to demonstrate that sometimes it is not necessary to create a new interpretation. That pointing out the truths in these stories – truths that most general readers would not notice – is enough to establish inclusion within heritage. Truth is, intersex, agender and non-binary people have always existed, which is something the poem references at the very end:
Under the weight of the water, under the shadow of the hills
Nessie has always existed.
Not a boy or a girl. But real. (42)
“Her love was a transformation”: on the universality of inclusive heritage
As I have just established, there are ways to make specific heritage inclusive for minority groups. One question that remains unanswered, however, is: how universal books like Wain truly are? In general, it is to be expected that Wain can be just as educational for hetero-normative families and children in Scotland as it can be for Scottish queer families, if not more. In an interview included at the end of the collection, Plummer points out that from her experience as a mother, “children’s stories are often quite gender stereotyped” (in the sense that they tend to not depict LGBT people) (Plummer 72). While making sure that there are more queer stories in the mainstream of children’s literature can play a key role in queer representation, it also has the potential to educate those who might otherwise not encounter queerness up close in their day-to-day lives. By creating a connection between queerness and Scottish folklore, heterosexual and cis-gender Scots have an opportunity to familiarise themselves with and, more importantly, understand queerness within the realm of something familiar and essential to their own identity – their heritage.
How can other cultures and people living outside Scotland benefit from reading Wain, though? In his texts approaching myth through the structuralist perspective, Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that there is a certain universality to human mythology: “Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader throughout the world.” (Lévi-Strauss 430) Looking at the issue through this lens, we may assume that any heritage can (to a certain point) feel familiar to people on the outside, in a different culture. Although there are no merfolk in Czech mythology (as the Czech Republic is land-locked), there are similar stories of (fresh-)water-creatures with similar kinds of connotations and meanings that can remind us of stories such as Wain’s “Finfolkaheem”.
“Finfolkaheem” may be a poem about a bisexual person directly referencing “the coast at Eynhallow²” (Plummer 38) and the word “Finfolkaheem” itself may stand for “the ancestral home of the Finfolk” situated somewhere on the Orkney Islands, which ties it directly to Scottish heritage, however the story itself is universal. As Wain’s glossary explains, “[s]ome stories say that [the merfolk] must marry a human” (78), which is a trope that occurs in various mythologies. In fact, the Czech equivalent of a finman – Vodník (also known as “Vodyanoy” or “Wassermann” in Slavic and Germanic mythologies) often seeks a young female partner in folktales. In a popular balladic adaptation of the myth by Karel Jaromír Erben, “Water Sprite”, Vodník decides to kidnap a young girl and marry her to keep him company in his lake:
Whoever enters once
through his crystal door
is never ever seen again –
nor heard from anymore.
Water Sprite sits at the door,
mends carefully his nets,
and his soft young wife
holds a baby to her breast. (Erben)
Although this particular story (as is typical of ballads) does not exactly offer a tale of grand romance nor does it actually end well (Vodník murders the baby by tearing off its head at the end), the familiarity and similarity of the myth is clear from reading the two poems side-by-side:
That was how much I loved her.
So much that I breathed water
And spoke coral, and swam.
So much that I forsook the land
and went home with her
to the Finfolks palace on the sea bed:
Finfolkaheem. It glowed with the light
of a thousand phosphorescent creatures. (Plummer 38)
As opposed to “Water Sprite”, “Finfolkaheem” is a tale of not one but two grand romances – one with a boy and one with a girl – and so it offers representation to queer readers that might identify as bisexual, pansexual, or simply fluid. One way or another, if the idea of the universality of myth is valid, then this kind of queer representation might be useful to queer readers outside Scotland as well (with the familiar part of the myth acting as glue). In fact, I would go even further and suggest that the queer representation itself can help make these stories more universal (and therefore applicable to any queer readers who might see themselves in them).
Ultimately, Rachel Plummer’s Wain represents an ideal project in the field of children’s/YA literature whose aim is to make the queer community feel like a welcomed and valid part of society, as it manages to harness and combine the educational power of folktales and the possibility of inclusive heritage. Though it is primarily targeting Scottish families, the fact itself that it is grounded in mythology gives it potential to appeal to readers all over the world. As such, Wain does not only fulfill the manifesto of LGBT Youth Scotland, but goes beyond it, helping not only Scotland, but the world be the best place to grow up for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people.
1 According to mypronouns.org, “[a]lthough the pronoun “ze” tends to be thought of as gender neutral (and many people find pronouns to be an important affirmation of identity), a person who goes by “ze” could actually be a man, a woman, both, neither, or something else entirely.”
2 The island of Eynhallow is an abandoned Scottish island off the north coast of mainland Scotland, also known as “The Holy Isle”, “[o]riginally believed to be summer home of the Finfolk”.
Works Cited (excl. linked sources)
Erben, Karel J. “Water Sprite.” A Bouquet: Of Czech Folktales, translated by Marcela M. Sulak, Twisted Spoon Press, 2012.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 68, no. 270, 1955, pp. 428–444. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/536768.
Mitterhofer, Johanna. “Beyond the Nation: Making Heritage Inclusive.” Heritage at the Interface: Interpretation and Identity. University Press of Florida, 2018.
Plummer, Rachel. Wain: LGBT Reimaginings of Scottish Folklore. The Emma Press, 2019.
Sartore, Richard L. “The Link between Mythology and Education.” The Clearing House, vol. 65, no. 1, 1991, pp. 35–36. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30188650.
Thorne-Thomsen, Gudrun. “The Educational Value of Fairy-Stories and Myths.” The Elementary School Teacher, vol. 4, no. 3, 1903, pp. 161–167. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/993304.