An archeologist unearths a remote Scottish town's ancient secrets. A woman in Ireland spends one too many nights dancing with the fairies. And in England, two mysterious children appear near a pit.
These are old stories, originally passed on by word of mouth. Despite being centuries old -- some were first recorded in the 12th century and may be even older -- they touch on themes of gender, religion and community that still have relevance today. Now Audible is breathing new life into them with Hag, a series of eight original podcasts based on Britain and Ireland's little-known folklore. The podcast launches Aug. 29 on Audible in the UK and is free to subscribers. It'll launch in the US later this year.
Hag: Exclusive excerpt from Between Sea & Sky
Professor Carolyne Larrington, who selected the tales used in the collection, specializes in Old Norse and British fairy tales at St John's College, Oxford. Speaking to me by email, she says it's no coincidence that women are drawn to these stories. They were traditionally told by mothers and grandmothers -- we still talk about "old wives' tales" -- and many of their early chroniclers were women. Firebrand poet and Irish nationalist Lady "Speranza" Wilde (whose son Oscar you may have heard of) collected Irish folklore in the late 19th century.
"Traditional tales often feature women in a whole variety of roles, and although patriarchal ideas are everywhere in the stories, trying to constrain the women to behave in certain ways and often casting them as victims, the women usually find ingenious ways of subverting their fates and defying the forces that are ranged against them," Larrington says.
Fairy tales also form part of a girl's early education. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, reminds us that it isn't always wise to trust charming strangers. But they can also reflect the values of societies where women's freedom was often limited.
Just as the oral tradition once kept Rapunzel and Snow White alive, Hag is part of a newer tradition in fiction. From Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber to Disney's Frozen, written and co-directed by Jennifer Lee, writers in recent decades have spun old tales into works that can shed new light on women's roles in contemporary society.
Hag's eight authors include Eimear McBride, winner of the Bailey's Women's Prize For Fiction, Liv Little, the founder and editor-in-chief of Gal-Dem, and Sunday Times best-seller Daisy Johnson.
In each episode, a piece of folklore is reinterpreted by an author from the region where the story originated. Each one is rooted in its own community and many position their heroines as outsiders, able to observe a society's norms and injustices. These women are often pitted against narrow-minded members of their communities. But while the original stories may have painted in broad strokes, there's room for nuance in these updated versions.
In Kirsty Logan's Between Sea & Sky, the heroine is an osteoarcheologist investigating generations of skeletons buried on the Scottish island of Orkney. When she has a child and won't reveal the father's identity, she's acutely aware of the gossip surrounding her. But, as her friend Heather points out, the island isn't a hive mind and plenty of the locals have better things to do than poke their noses into other people's business.
Elsewhere in the collection, Eimear McBride sardonically retells The Tale of Kathleen. The story is set on Inishark, a now-uninhabited island in County Galway, Ireland. McBride pokes fun at traditional narrative tropes, noting the tendency of grieving heroines to become appealingly waifish instead of turning to food for comfort.
The Tale of Kathleen also toys with the stereotypes of its region, playfully contrasting popular notions of Ireland as either a mystical fairyland or a country dominated by austere religious authorities. In this fantastical version of the past, magic and the church coexist without anyone really questioning the situation -- and both forces prove hazardous to the young woman at the center of the action.
Telling tales in the 21st century
In some ways, audiobooks and podcasting feel like a natural continuation of the oral tradition that produced these stories. Instead of sitting down to read a book and conjuring up a world in your head, you can sit back and listen as the plot unfolds.
"If there is a drawback [to the audiobook version], then I suppose it might be that the performance is always fixed as it was recorded and edited. And that isn't quite the same as hearing your grandmother telling the story with different nuances, elaborations and explanations each time," Larrington says.
Meanwhile Kirsty Logan hopes that the collection will inspire people to rediscover the magic of storytelling in their day-to-day lives.
"I'd encourage everyone out there to try reading aloud to the adults in their lives. A partner, a friend, a parent. It's considered natural to read bedtime stories to children, but then for some reason we think we grow out of it. But the rising popularity of audiobooks and podcasts shows that we love being told stories, and we never get too old for it."
Hag launches Aug. 29 and is free to subscribers on Audible in the UK. It'll be available in the US later this year.
Professor Larrington on curating the collection
"I tended to choose the tales that might be slightly less familiar. For example, there are lots of stories about selkie women, all following much the same pattern, but I decided to go for one about a selkie man. Finding stories from London – which has urban myths and legends but not traditional folk-tales as such -- or from the Midlands was more difficult. Much depends on how early people started collecting tales in different areas, and we don't have so many tales preserved even from the rural Midlands. So there I used a legend about the origins of a coat-of-arms of a noble family."
What surprised her about working on Hag
"I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn't have been, by the turn many stories took, away from the merely uncanny and unsettling into absolute full-blown horror. The effects of the supernatural have tended to be magnified in the new stories, and there are often suggestions that the speaker may be mad or hallucinating. The emotional impact of the events in the stories on the women is spelled out rather than left implied, as in the original stories, where the audience could easily infer from their own lives how loss, infertility, or social exclusion might feel."
The stories that inspire professor Larrington
"You can't teach medieval English literature in Oxford without being strongly aware of the legacy of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis; other fantasy writers who studied English here, such as Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman have absorbed a good deal from reading medieval literature and you can see how myths, legends, folklore are refracted in their writing.
The short ghost stories of the Cambridge don M. R. James were made into a series of black and white TV films in the 70s. From rewatching these, I've become increasingly interested in folk horror -- films like (the original) Wicker Man, or the very recent Ari Aster film, films in which modern, normal people are confronted with ancient rituals and traditional story-patterns, and which challenge the protagonists to make sense of the world in utterly different terms. I have a PhD student who is working with me on the ways in which Welsh myth and legend -- including the Arthurian story -- is used in the works of some 20th-century writers, including Garner. We're both learning a lot from this project!"
Clarification at 8:45 a.m. PT: The podcast's US release is coming by year's end.