“Folklore and the Legends of the North”

Review: “Folklore and the Legends of the North”, Arthur Machen, 1898.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe.

Machen, by 1895, had finished all his Dyson tales with their frequent references to the Little People. But the theme was one of continual and certainly not casual interest for him. This is a book review touching on the theme and is one of the pieces in the appendix of Arthur Machen: Collected Fiction, Volume 1: 1888-1895.

For Machen, most of the modern study of folklore is hampered by the idea that the unusual never happens and the supernatural does not exist.

He speaks of the work of Léon Pineau, particularly Les Vieux Populaires Scandinaves. Pineau held animism was the most primitive form of human thought. Machen says Pineau was following Andrew Lang in this regard, but he dropped Lang’s suggestions that myths are misunderstood rituals. 

Pineau talks about tales of dwarves as memories of a “short, non-Aryan race” that first lived in Europe.

Machn argues fairy lore may point to something similar: “a confused recollection of the relations existing between tall Aryans and short Turanians”. Turanian seems to be, according to the Web of a Million Lies, still in use as a designation, among other things, for a proposed pre-Celtic European group derived from a Central Asian population. The word derives from Persian which adds an interesting background detail to Selby’s notes looking like they were “written by a Persian” in “The Red Hand

Machen, though, thinks Pineau didn’t go far enough.

Pineau holds lycanthropy a superstition. Machen agues it’s fact because some people really believe they are possessed by animals. It is a myth based on reality. 

Machen then talks about the work concerning merman, mermaids and “ladies from the sea” by J. Russell-Jefferson. He thought, and Machen seems to agree, those legends go back to the clothing of the sea-going Lapps. Machen argues collective memories last a long time in humanity. 

He points out the existence of notions of the Evil Eye in Britain though he says it can be seen in Ancient Babylon too. Perhaps, Machen speculates, the Paleolithic artists and their drawings go back to an even older time when “men had scarcely emerged from the company and state of the beasts”. This, of course, is quite similar to how Machen uses the idea of the Evil Eye in “The Shining Pyramid”.

It may be that the human consciousness was powerful enough to transmute, at least mentally, ancient humans. He points to the transformation of actors in this regard. (This lends another meaning to his title The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations. The titular trio transmute themselves many times in their assumed roles.)

Machen then talks about the power of suggestion and hypnosis of a mother whose hand mimicked her son’s injury. He ends with noting there are many marvels philosophy can’t explain. This is a reiteration of Machen’s belief that all human inquiries end in mystery eventually. For Machen, “the wildest myth may prove to be founded on a, perhaps, wilder reality.”

It’s an interesting review for showing Machen’s thinking on the inexplicable mysteries he saw underlying existence and, specifically, his knowledge and ideas about European folklore.

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