Hopeless, Maine, Folklore, and the Folkloresque
This thread is an ongoing conversation on the role of folklore and the folkloresque in Hopeless, Maine. Topics of interest include the nature/definition of folklore, its connections to place, and the role of digital media in the creation and performance of contemporary folk cultures.
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Okay, on to the good stuff.
The conversation began via email, but Nimue and Tom Brown, the creators of Hopeless, kindly agreed to move it into this public format. In our most recent email exchange, I had asked Tom and Nimue about the definition of folklore. Tom said he thinks of folklore as "the stories/song etc. that express a sense of place (sprit of place) and give a sense of belonging to a culture or group." In her answer, Nimue emphasized that folklore requires active participation: "It's folklore because we carry it with us, because we exchange it, because it provides important points of references for who we are, who our people are, where we came from, and maybe signs for where we are going."
This is really interesting to me on several levels. Folklorists have had a lot of anxiety over the definition of the stuff they study. One of the most famous, short-and-sweet definitions of folklore is by folklorist Dan Ben-Amos, who said that folklore is "artistic communication in small groups." But more contemporary folklorists tend to take an even broader approach, viewing folklore as simply the ordinary, everyday, informal mode of cultural expression and performance that everybody participates in. Slang, for example--also called folk speech--is something everyone "does" to greater or lesser extent.
If folklore is tied to place, and can give people that sense of belonging, is there a danger of exclusivity? That is, do you think it can create an us/them way of thinking? I have in mind here nationalistic uses of folklore. I don't know if you all are familiar with the group Folk Horror Revival, but they've taken a public stand against nationalistic and fascistic content in their social media--which of course means that some of that has bubbled up from a minority of users, and they've felt the need to respond to it. (I've spoken with the FHR folks for another research project.)
Edit: Fixed the reference to Ben-Amos. The full citation is Ben-Amos, Dan. 1971. “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context.” The Journal of American Folklore 84 (331): 3–15. https://doi.org/10.2307/539729.
This is a fantastic subject and you couldn't have picked a better way to study modern folklore than with Hopeless, Maine. My name's Craig Hallam, I'm an author of Speculative Fiction of all kinds but I tend to lean toward the Gothic in any of my work. I've had the absolute pleasure of working with Tom and Nimue, submitting my own work to the Hopeless, Maine collective on a few occasions.
For me, folklore show the innate human desire to communicate ideas and feelings through the medium of story. I wrote a foreword for an anthology recently on the same subject, actually. Or rather, a subject that I feel overlaps with this one. As humans, we're restricted by our methods of communication. Because we have to communicate externally through our body language, voices, or other visuo-auditory methods, that makes it very difficult to articulate feelings in a way that we can be certain some other human will understand. Basically, we're lacking a good dose of telepathy. And because our feelings, anxieties, and wisdom are often difficult to put simply into words, we have learned to generate stories that do the work for us. That's where folklore comes in.
I absolutely agree with Tom and Nimue on this one. Folklore is about belonging. Only, in the modern era, we're not talking about belonging to a village community. Modern folklore gives a sense of belonging that breaks physical boundaries. Hopeless, Maine has generated its own community by bringing people from all over the world to a place that exists solely in our collective imaginations. We are all drawn to the poignantly dark genius loci of Hopeless as a fictional representation of our soci-political fears and, oddly, our hopes.
As with all good folklore, Hopeless is a representation of the realities of our time represented in story. Our fear that people in power might be insidious, untrustworthy or have no idea what they're doing? Hopeless has Reverend Davies. The worry that our children are being cast aside as an afterthought and left in the hands of carers who are withered to shades by the stress and pressure of soulless government initiatives? Hopeless has the Pallid Rock Orphanage. And the worry that, despite our previous assumptions, the activists for the environment and supporters of nature that we've been told to fear and mock are actually the ones who are switched on and should be rallied behind. I give you Hopeless' resident witch, Anna-Marie Nightshade.
Through it all, characters such as Anna-Marie rail against these fears, and stand strong despite the overwhelming darkness. Our folklore, Hopeless folklore, teaches us that these things might be difficult to overcome, but they can be weathered together. We might not be able to defeat the dragon like in ancient folklore, but we can wait the bugger out and strike when it's got the flu. Hopeless folklore might be whimsical with its Spoonwalkers and Night Potatoes, but it is grounded in a reality that we can recognise. To conjure the spirit of a master of injecting reality into fantasy, we could do no worse than Terry Pratchett:
"I make considerable use of fantasy, but I also make considerable use of reality and indeed, every time Bilbo Baggins takes a quaff of ale, Tolkien makes considerable use of reality."
Aaaaaaand I ended up writing a bit of an essay, there. Sorry. I'll leave the topic of exclusivity for another time.
Thanks for having me!
Hi, thanks for the invite. The viewpoint I bring in is that folklore forms my inspiration. Your average English county (I know those best), has a fair few dragons kicking about, countless witches, boggerts, pooks, and whatnot. Most of it forgotten because the folklorish memory of new generations is filled with generic Disney stuff and no longer by grandparents telling the old local tales. Or a worship of the old Celtic traditions which is in itself healthy in my humble opinion, but kind of odd coming from the Anglo-Saxons, and a bit sad when they've cast aside their own fascinating folklore in exchange. Being fundamentally lazy, but needy for praise, I steal the forgotten lore, claim to be 'saving' old heritage so that I can pretend I'm doing something noble, and then twist it into tales of my devising. Not just the supernatural, but also a rich vein like Sussex smuggling traditions. All mixed and jumbled up. And then presented as something new. I console myself with the thought that some folk say this blatant thievery is actually the essence of folklore. Not freeze-framing it for ever, but retelling it, re-inventing it, re-weaving it around archetypal needs - and contemporary norms. Let's not forget that long before the Grimm brothers cleaned up Little Red Riding Hood and invented a male character to save the young girl, she saved herself, after a bit of sordid narrative, involving her drinking the blood of her slain grandmother and eating the flesh, despite being warned by a talking cat what refreshments old Wolf had set on the table, and then a very detailed strip-tease in which each item of clothing is instructed to be removed and cast into the fire, after which Red - starkers - gets into bed with the wolf and says: My, how hairy you are, Grandmother." Stories like that change a little over the time and this particular one has been with us for over ten centuries I believe.
This is fascinating! Can you say a little more about these two points, Craig? We've been using the term "folkloresque" to refer to this kind of referencing--creative works that are somehow "grounded" in "reality," as you say. But I'm especially interested in the collective nature of the process you're talking about. Would you say it's accurate to think of Hopeless as a "community" (even though that's probably an imperfect term)?
The Hopeless collective is definitely a kind of community just like there are many online communities. The interesting thing for me is that communities are historically brought together by physical proximity. A village, a school, a workplace. The creation of the internet means that geography is no longer a defining factor in the development, or membership to, a community.
Like any good fantasy (myth, folklore, legend), Hopeless creates an imaginary world that is a mirror of our own. As we all know, in historical communities folklore was not only a way to wile away the dark hours around the fire, but a way of sharing morals, experiences, and warnings. The world is dangerous, we must stick together to survive, avoid the local pond or Jenny Greenteeth will get you (a warning against drowning). And those things were understood by that community because they shared a point of reference, be it the untrustworthy local squire, wolves in the woods or the local pond where they actually lost loved ones. Any good folklore tales are the ones that stretch beyond a single village, of course. There are many ponds, many wolf infested woods, and so stories get passed around because they are useful to other communities as well.
Now, it would be easy to assume that the internet has taken away those close-to-home reference points that make folklore function in a community. Distance surely creates fewer cultural reference points between people across the globe. But actually, we're finding through endeavours such as Hopeless, Maine that we have far more in common with each other than we could have ever imagined.
As I mentioned earlier, we live in a time where government decisions, viruses and global warming don't just affect our little village; they are worries that people have the world over. People can come to Hopeless and recognise their local diabolical politician, the way that their weather is changing, and the desperation in their neighbours. And through our stories, poetry, and art, we fight against those things together although we're a world away.
The term community might be imperfect for this kind of interaction but it's certainly the closest thing that we have. Maybe we're just taking the word back to its original meaning from which it deviated. It's less about a quirk of residence and more about a group of people with a common feeling, thought or interest.
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Dorson was actually doing something positive here: he was challenging American nativism and xenophobia. Right after this, in the same article, he goes on to decry the American unwillingness to accept folklore from other places, and explicitly compares this tendency to Nazism.
For Dorson, folklore had to be oral, and it had to be used (that is, told) by people in real life. "Fake lore" was the term he applied to all that other stuff, decontextualized snippets held up as "American folklore," bowdlerized Paul Bunyan stories and the like. The term came to be somewhat conflated with a related idea,folklorism, and together they've been used in a mostly pejorative sense.
We wanted "folkloresque" to undo the damage those terms have done. It does keep Dorson's focus onuse(though not on orality): for something to be folklore, it has to be "used" in some sense by real people. But the folkloresque allows for the possibility of such a thing as, say, a fictional story that draws on "real" folklore, to actuallybecomefolklore--if it's used and shared by people.
I think you've both pointed to ways that Hopeless does exactly that: Craig emphasized its communal, collective dimension, and Nils the way that people have always used and re-used folk narratives. Does that seem right to you?
That's an excellent point. As soon as the folklore is no longer "in use" among a group of people, that is, as a growing and living construct, then surely it stops becoming folklore. The folk are removed, if you will, and therefore it is simply lore. Simply writing it down wouldn't stop the growth as we know that tales of King Arthur have continued to evolve and change after their initial transcription. But the act of modern books to create a single, ineffable, unchangeable story that everyone in the world knows and recites stops the growth of the tale dead. Folkloresque, therefore, is an incredibly useful term for the folklore version of fake news. Except, where fake news is the thing that runs away from facts, folkloresque is an evolutionary construct of storytelling being stopped dead in its tracks and pinned as a fact. The very act of pinning down the folklore butterfly stops it being the living thing that it needs to be to remain truly folklore.
That kind of certainty can also lead to a local tale becoming scripture. And that's where we cross the boundary from folklore to religion.
For context, my parents met in the folk club my mother and grandmother were running. I grew up with the folk tradition, with the music and stories of the British isles. My grandmother had a lot of stories about the landscape we lived in. I grew up in a landscape that was alive with stories – some of them held in the context of wider folklore and history, some more specific to my own family.
The world of my childhood also included Welsh myths, Tam Lin, barrows, hill forts, fairy tales and fairy folklore, moon magic, old straight tracks, the ghosts in my grandmother’s house, Kevin Crossley Holland, Alan Garner, and other writers working heavily with traditional stories and more. It wasn’t something I dipped into – it was where I lived. I knew you didn’t accept food from fairies, and that the barrows were liminal places (long before liminal was a world I knew) and that the Severn river is sacred, and that you have to be careful crossing thresholds, and that white animals might lure you to the otherworld.
From my teens onward I’ve been more deliberate and self conscious in my reading, and my engagement with folklore and reworkings of folklore. But even so, I know not to accept food from fairies and that the river Severn is sacred, and you have to be careful about crossing thresholds. I miss the ghosts in my grandmother’s house now that she’s gone.
When I write, I don’t sit down and think ‘I know, I will deliberately borrow this bit of folklore and then I will make up this other thing to sound a bit like folklore but fit my story needs.’ I write what I know, and when I’m writing fiction, I don’t dissect it. The witchcraft in Hopeless is a case in point here. It’s all based on everything I have absorbed across my lifetime about traditional witchcraft and fairy tale witchcraft. I have breathed in witchcraft in all kinds of ways. I breathe out Annamarie Nightshade, and Jemima Kettle and Lilly May.
How I write is a consequence of who I am. I’m not a folklorist. I’m not using folklore to try and ground a project or make it more attractive. It’s there in my work because it is a part of me, a part of my life, my family history, my relationship with place. I write the way I do because I understand the landscape in a storied way. The folklore is in me, and has been in me my whole life. As a baby I was passed through the Men-an-Tol in Cornwall. It is intrinsic to who I am and how I understand myself and how I see the world – how could I write from anywhere else? It is home and hearth and who I am.
And so when anyone talks about ‘real’ folklore as something that is, by definition not mine, outside of me, separate from me and unavailable to me, I experience pain and grief on a scale I find it hard to articulate. Because when someone presents it that way, it’s telling me I am not allowed to be myself, I am not allowed the things that make me who I am.