Fantasy-Faction World Tour of Wonderment: Scotland
Welcome back to the Fantasy-Faction World Tour Of Wonderment, where I aim to shine the spotlight on individual nations and their contributions to the fantasy world. Last time we had Italy, the land of pizza and Pinocchio and today we have the small but mighty Scotland.
For such a small nation, Scotland has had an enormous impact on the world. It is the only nation in Europe that the Romans couldn’t conquer and is the only country in the entire world that Coco-Cola is not the best selling soft drink, with the Scots instead opting for the wonderfully odd Irn-Bru. For those of you not familiar with Irn-Bru, it is nuclear orange in colour and has a bizarre but pleasant taste – worth a try if ever you get the chance.
Scots are responsible for giving us the telephone, the television, the steam engine, tarmac road surfacing and also the bicycle. Other great things the Scottish have given the world is haggis – a sausage-like meal consisting of sheep insides boiled within the poor sheep’s intestines – and they have also given us your dad’s favourite song to dance to at a wedding, that old-school disco classic “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers.
It’s not all good things though, as unfortunately the Scots also gave us kilts. And what is especially odd for such a windy nation, is that it is traditional for men not to wear undies beneath a kilt as anyone who has seen Braveheart will confirm.
Side Note: In event of Armageddon: I am yet to find a Scot who wears anything other than a vest and shorts during the winter. They are ‘ard b*stards, so I advise everyone that on the day the zombies attack, the apes start talking and the saucers come down, forget bunkers and the military and get yourself behind a Scot with a frying pan.
In regards to fantasy though, Scotland is a phenomenal nation although you might not realise it.
If you think of famous Scots in fantasy media you probably can’t think of many people or characters at first but you know loads, I promise. For example, you must know Shrek or Scrooge McDuck – both Scottish accents. How about Mrs Doubtfire? Is that a Scottish accent I hear? Oh yes!
Bart and Harry’s hijinx wouldn’t have been half as fun without the threat of Groundskeeper Willie or McGonnagal catching them. Without Moira Mctaggert and her home on the fictional Muir Island, Professor X would still be swooning over Magneto.
Think of your favourite Bond, timelord or hobbit and chances are you’ll think of Sean Connery, David Tennant and Billy Boyd (Pippin) – all Scottish. Finally, what is your favourite movie all time if you take in to account story, acting and special effects…?
That’s right… HIGHLANDER! Whatta film.
You see, you do know Scottish fantasy and you love it right? Me too. However, none of these things are my favourite Scottish influence in the media though, that prize goes to The Wee Free Men…
The Wee Free Men
When I was eight years old, I was given a copy of The Carpet People by Pratchett and it quickly became one of my favourite books. Surprisingly, it is about tiny people who live in our carpets. His next books written for younger readers were Truckers, Diggers and Wings which again all involved tiny human-like creatures, so I suppose it was no surprise that Pratchett’s first kids book set in the Discworld series involved little people, namely the Nac Mac Feegle – The Wee Free Men.
The Nac Mac Feegle are fairy folk but not the kind that have wands and wings. These guys are blue creatures with bushy red hair, kilts and an affinity for drinking and fighting. These buggers will fight anyone and anything regardless of the size. Imagine Papa Smurf had a son who developed a steroid problem and spent a few years in prison who then went on to impregnate Scotland and refuse to pay alimony. The offspring would probably be these guys.
Side note: For anyone who doesn’t know, wee in Scottish means small, whereas in England wee means urine. So I often chuckled when my Scottish friend at uni would suggest we go out for ‘a wee drink.’ *snigger* I’ll grow up one day…honestly.
Also known as The Scottish Play and bane of 15-year-olds worldwide before exam time. Macbeth by Shakespeare is a story about destiny and regicide – set in Scotland. You’re probably familiar with the story but for those in the cheap seats I just want to remind you that the play begins with Macbeth and Banquo being confronted by witches who supposedly tell them their destinies which leads to everything all going tits up.
Back in the good ol’ days witches were the Devil. They were worse than traitors, thieves and Norman Osborn all rolled in to one.
People lived in fear of witchcraft and if found guilty of being a witch the typical punishment was to be burnt at the stake. There were many ways to see if someone was a witch and one of the more popular methods involved throwing the person into a pool of water. If they floated then they were a guilty bitch so BURN HER and if they sank and drowned it meant they were innocent…whoops.
This caused a huge problem for women (witches were usually women) as one accusation of witchcraft and you are pretty much barbecued. Many people would often use this situation to their advantage, calling witch on anyone who troubled them. So if you were the young lady who has caught a husband’s eye or the old lady who lives in the house that so-and-so wants to buy, then you were screwed. I suppose it was like hiring a hitman except cheaper and a lot more messy.
The reason I am talking about the witches is that despite Macbeth effectively being a fantasy, it was also believed that Shakespeare used real spells when he wrote Macbeth and so, to say aloud the name of the play in a theatre would doom the production to fail and probably take a few actors with it. Theatre folk are often rather superstitious creatures and so they developed different ways to exorcise this curse whenever the plays name was mentioned. Invariably they involved spitting, jumping, hopping and cursing. Therefore to avoid having to perform these actions it is now normal to refer to Macbeth as The Scottish Play. 400 years later and we are still following this superstition – proof that sometimes this fantasy genre of ours, has the power to change the world.
For a great example of this superstition, you should check out a scene British sitcom BlackAdder that ridicules it perfectly.
What’s that? You don’t want to traipse through Google for it. Okay, hang on a minute…There! Click here to watch the video. I am far too good to you.
Side Note: I always thought that there was a great porno idea for Macbeth. Especially when Lady Macbeth asks, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” …Well love… *Unzips jeans*
Okay, so both previous examples of Scottish fantasy were actually created by the English so let’s crack on to the Scots themselves.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
James Hogg (1770-1835) was a struggling Scottish writer who spent most of his professional life being ridiculed by many peers. His most famous work The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner was largely ignored until a century after his death, when it soon became recognised as a masterpiece.
The story follows a young man, Robert Wringham who is indoctrinated in to a Calvinist sect that convinces him that he is among the elect and is predestined to be saved by God. Robert begins to believe that he will be welcomed in to Heaven regardless of how he acts on Earth and uses this to justify a terrible and sordid life of murder. What took this story in to fantastical realms was the implied influence of a separate entity called Gil-Martin that only Robert could see.
Gil-Martin is a shape-shifting figure and is considered to be one of the very first examples of a doppelganger in literature. Gil-Martin transforms himself into various people including Robert and convinces him that killing is a salvation. Very much the devil on your shoulder.
When Robert’s world breaks down, Gil-Martin takes more and more control of the man’s actions and soul. Days and weeks are lost to Robert only for him to find out about his actions during these times at a later date – think of Fight Club and you have the idea. What is beautiful about this novel is the ambiguity at the end.
It is never stated whether Gil-Martin is real or imaginary. It is possible that Gil-Martin assumed Robert’s identity during those blackouts and committed the atrocious acts of murder and violence but it is also possible that Robert committed the acts and blocked them out, mentally creating Gil-Martin to help justify his actions as his sanity cracked.
What makes this book even more important than just its stand-alone fame as a masterpiece, is that without The Private Memoirs… we would never have had The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde by Stevenson.
Jekyll and Hyde
We all know the idea behind Jekyll and Hyde in that a nice and quiet man drinks an elixir of his own creation, which transforms him into something else. It is part of pop culture and has spawned hundreds of variations, from films where the transformation is from a man to a woman, to Alan Moore’s fantastic League of Extraordinary Gentleman (I liked the film by the way,) but many people don’t realise that Jekyll and Hyde was written by a Scot.
Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde is also famous for writing Treasure Island. He is said to have been fascinated with Hogg’s book and wrote Jekyll and Hyde as an allegory to the light and dark of human nature. Jekyll turns in to Hyde as a means to escape the tie of morality and indulge in his deep desires.
What I find particularly fascinating about the Hyde character in particular is that in the book he is considered terribly ugly but not in an obvious way and he is also strong but he is still a regular human being, unlike most modern incarnations where Hyde is a hulking mass of muscle and bile.
The story of Jekyll and Hyde has had such an influence on the world because we can all associate with it. We all have a Hyde inside of us that occasionally we just want to set loose.
Also, if you are a fan of the J&H story then it is worth checking out the short TV serial Jekyll with James Nesbitt. It is absolutely brilliant and written by the genius that is Stephen Moffat, who is not only the current head writer on Doctor Who, but is also Scottish.
The little boy who couldn’t grow up (also known as Edward Cullen), Peter Pan has become synonymous with Disney. Disney has a great way of using American vocal tracks on their animated movies, thus making the character American and in doing so leading many young minds (read: mine for a long time) to believe he was an American invention. However, Peter Pan was written by J. M. Barrie, a Scottish author and play write. For those of you who have seen the film Neverland, with Johnny Depp, you will already know this.
The stories of Peter Pan have influenced some of the greatest pieces of modern fantasy. For example, it is said that Tolkien thought of the ageless elves in The Lord of the Rings straight after seeing a theatre production of Peter Pan. Without Peter Pan, it is doubtful we would have ever seen Robin Williams in green spandex…yummy. My personal favourite example of Pan’s influence on modern fantasy was Michael Jackson’s ‘youthful’ face…
It is obvious why the Pan stories are so popular. Much like the lure to the idea of Jekyll and Hyde, Peter Pan is that bit inside of us that wants a different life. That nagging voice that would rather be flying, talking to mermaids and battling pirates than flying down the M5 while late for work, talking to morons when there, and battling deadlines.
Side Note: It is a common fallacy that Barrie invented the name Wendy. This isn’t correct as the name features on many pre-Pan census but it is argues that Peter Pan boosted the popularity of the name hugely.
For me, the greatest source of contemporary fantasy is to be found in comic books. Each month we are presented with hundreds of different comic book stories, and especially now with the success of the many superhero movies, which are pulling in people who might otherwise not read fantasy, the quality of writing has had to step up.
There are two men that are doing a grand job of keeping this level of quality sticking in to heavens, they are Mark Millar and Grant Morrison. Both are Scottish.
Millar is a personal hero of mine. Not only has he written for some of the greatest comic book houses on the planet but he was also the man behind both Wanted and Kick-Ass. Not only that, but he also created both Nemesis and The Ultimates. For those that don’t know, The Ultimates is a modern day re-imagining of The Avengers (Cap America, Thor, Iron Man et al) and is pure genius. Nemesis is from Millar’s own publishing house and was initially advertised with the idea of, ‘What if the Batman was a bad guy?’ Yup, with Nemesis you get the a super genius who likes the evil side of life and although it got panned by a few critics I personally loved it.
On top of this Millar has established his very own comic convention with Ka-Pow that happened last summer in London. He also now edits his own comics magazine called CLINT, which is definitely worth the expensive price, as it the first place to read new comics. The last copy I read had comic strips by Jonathan Ross and Frankie Boyle (both UK comedians), which were actually awesome. Can Mark Millar get much cooler? He used to write for the Sonic the Hedgehog comic… ’nuff said.
Grant Morrison is also a very cool character, being one of my favourite X-men writers and also having successful runs on a massive variety of DC comics. He has become a bit of a celebrity in his own right appearing in the videos to some My Chemical Romance songs (the band got their name from an Irvine Welsh story – the Scottish writer of Trainspotting don’t-cha-know) and even appearing in a Simpsons comic along with Mark Millar. In 2006 Morrison was voted #2 greatest comic writer of all time by Comic Book Resources (with Alan Moore at #1 and Neil Gaiman at #3… alll British…) so yeah he’s kinda a big deal.
Check out this scene from The Simpsons comic in which Millar and Morrison duke it out over who was the better writer on the X-men.
These two (Millar and Morrison), as good as they are, aren’t the only Scottish greats in comics though. You may not have heard of him but Alan Grant was a big deal back in the day. He was one of the first writers on Judge Dredd for 200AD and is also the man responsible for creating Anarky for the DC universe. Not too shabby.
So in conclusion, if comics are the modern fantasy vent, then the Scottish are the lords of the genre.
For more Scottish influenced comics, it is worth checking out Ian Rankins’s (very popular Scottish crime novellist) brief run on HellBlazer.
So, I am almost finished but I just want to mention a few things. First of all, if you are wanting a great, new Scottish author then can I suggest Hal Duncan…? I have only read his first novel, Vellum, but oh my it is brilliant. It is very much in the vein of New Weird so if you like authors like China Miéville, then you will love it.
Secondly, those of you shouting “Why is J. K. Rowling not on this list?” It should be known that although she lives in Scotland, and Hogwarts is set there, she is actually English, being born, not far from where I was, in Gloucestershire in southern England.
And finally, I finished the last tour article with a mention to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and today I will end with another monster – Nessie.
So what do you think of Scotland as a fantasy nation? Cool right?
Stay tuned as next time we are heading to Holland, The Netherlands, land of the Oranje. Catch you then.
Visit the other countries in our world tour here:
Title image by Rob Carlos.