American Folklore and Fantasy

Myth and Legend

Brer Rabbit and The Tar BabyIf I trace my lineage back, it goes to Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, and an assortment of other European countries. No small wonder then, that I identify with the folklore from those regions, which provides the roots for much of today’s fantasy. In a sense, these legends are my legends, and fantasy tales written by British authors or borrowing from Western European lore will always remain among my favorites.

Yet stories steeped in American culture connect to my heritage in a different, more immediate way. I remember my great-grandmother, now in her nineties, telling me stories of growing up in the Great Dismal Swamp, tales I found echoed in The Charlatan’s Boy and the Wilderking series by Jonathan Rogers. In his books, I first glimpsed what American-flavored fantasy novels might look like, and from there I began to explore a bit more the unique folklore of the US.

America certainly has its share of unusual legends–think of Paul Bunyan and Brer Rabbit and all manner of tall tales and native lore. And we have some strange mythic creatures, as I explored in this post on the squonk, the tote-road shagamaw, and other odd beasts birthed in the lumber camps and forests of America. Inspired by the legend of the squonk, fellow fantasy writer Jeff Chapman even penned a short story giving his version of its origin.

And many other fantasy writers are choosing to draw from American history and folklore in their novels.  Though he draws from a wide variety of mythologies, ND Wilson places many of his stories in the modern day mid-West, and the setting presents a nice contrast to the fantastical nature of his books. Similarly Patricia Wrede has a series (which I have not read, so don’t know if they are worth recommending) set in the Wild West…only on this frontier, dragons and mammoths roam. This choice to incorporate elements from American history and folklore adds a unique flair in world awash with European style fantasy.

I don’t think fantasy will ever stop taking inspiration from European lore and settings–at least I hope not–but it’s nice to occasionally see something different.

Are there any fantasy novels incorporating American elements that you would recommend? Or any favorite pieces of American folklore that you’d like to share?

Comments

  • Maria Tatham
    January 26, 2012 - 5:51 pm · Reply

    Sarah,

    Please let me go round about, in order to answer about recommendations for American lore and legends. (And by the way, by ‘the Great Dismal Swamp,’ do you mean Northwest Ohio?)

    As an English major, I was required to take an American lit survey course, which was taught over two semesters. I disliked it, sad to say; because now, there is much that I appreciate in American lit and I also feel a sense of loss. Essentially, we majored in British lit over the ages.

    Now, as a writer of fantasy, my story worlds are very ‘Old World’, and I feel as if my scope is limited. Though I have a smattering of acquaintance with American legends, they don’t seem like mine. I can’t even recall anything, except for a few Native American legends about the origins of the natural and spiritual world; and of course, the old standby Sleepy Hollow, which probably mirrored legends of that early period of our history.

    I majored in literature, am an American, and can’t recommend American legends or tales. In part I think this happened as a result of the fact that my mother was a first generation American, and on my father’s side, I’m a first generation American. Need to study up, I believe!

    Maria

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 30, 2012 - 3:29 pm · Reply

      Round-about answers work for me–I always learn something interesting that way. The Great Dismal Swamp my great-grandmother grew up in is on the Virginia/North Carolina border. There may be one in Ohio, but if so, I’m not familiar with that one. I’ve always been fond of the name, because it sounds like something from a storybook. 🙂

      Sometimes professors choose the strangest books for their classes, so I imagine what you had to read might have influenced your feelings about American literature. Authors of American literature don’t go back as far as their British counterparts, but there are certainly some good ones (which it sounds like you’ve become acquainted with over time).

      What nationalities were your parents, if you don’t mind my asking? Did you grow up with folklore from their cultural backgrounds?

      As a fantasy writer I also tend to draw more from Old World sources, but I wanted to take the time to recognize some of the unique American fantasy and lore. It’s interesting stuff!

  • Maria Tatham
    January 30, 2012 - 7:01 pm · Reply

    The Great Dismal Swamp (Virgnia/NC)–is that where the Swamp Fox fought from, in Revolutionary days? I was wrong. We don’t have one. We have the one and only Great Black Swamp, an area cleared and drained for rich farmland. Location: Northwest Ohio. The soil can be chocolate dark.

    My background is Italian-American, second generation on my Mother’s side; German-American, first generation on my Father’s side. I grew up in an extended Italian-American family. I love struffoli!

    Like you, Sarah, I draw mostly from Old World sources, but a make-believe OW really; though I have reworked a real Old World theme, character–Parzival.

    By the way, I still intend to read your thoughts on Rapunzel.

    Bless you!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      February 6, 2012 - 11:44 am · Reply

      I believe that the Swamp Fox fought primarily in South Carolina, so to my knowledge, he wasn’t in the Great Dismal Swamp.

      So often swampland becomes settled territory, as you mentioned with the Great Black Swamp. In the case of the Great Dismal Swamp, there was a conservation movement that protected some of the swamp and in the 1970s, Congress designated a wildlife refuge there that encompasses 107,000 acres.

      And since we were speaking of American lore, Native American folklore suggests that the massive lake at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp was created by a firebird, who created a nest of fire there, which later filled with rain. It’s interesting to see how some of the Old World legends (like that of the firebird) have New World counterparts.

      Ah, what a wonderful family heritage you have! My husband’s grandmother was Italian, and she was always cooking something delicious. 🙂

      • Maria Tatham
        February 6, 2012 - 9:48 pm · Reply

        Sarah,

        It’s interesting that in the Native American folklore about a firebird, the focus is on its life and habits resulting in a natural phenomenon, the lake; while in the Old World legend the focus is on the firebird itself, its life cycle, its new life springing from the ashes.

        A wonderful family heritage? Yes, with many close and loving cousins. It’s good that you had this experience with your husband’s Italian grandmother. America brought us all together, and that is wonderful. When my Grandpop and Grandmom married, he moved into a neighbordhood with people from many backgrounds, so she would learn English and they could enjoy a true American life. It was hard on her, I believe, but also good for her, and good for their children. (I love Italian food!)

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