The Folklore Behind the Fiction

by C.S. MacCath, plus Stephanie Burgis discusses new MG The Raven Heir


It was not enough; the Hafgufa,
whale-eater, ship-swallower,
rock-toothed maw of the deep,
insouciant crusher of vikings
into bone splinter and driftwood.

It was not enough; the Lyngbakr,
heather-backed false island,
splitting fathoms to air its blossoms
and diving again, like any heedless behemoth,
with Örvar's luckless men on its shoulders.

Those krakens of saga, primeval beasts,
implacable as deepwater currents,
birthed from the World's abyssal womb
to chasten sailors who fouled Her blood;
they were, in the long telling, not enough.

"As far as scientists can tell, the undersea oil is actually a witch's brew of crude mixed with dissolved methane, stretching 15 miles long, 5 miles wide, and 300 feet thick in the case of one plume detected by the Pelican, and 22 miles long, 6 miles wide, and 3,000 feet thick in the case of a plume found by University of South Florida researchers aboard the WeatherBird II last week. The latter plume reaches all the way to the surface."

Now slick leviathans spew from the sediment;
mephitic fiends, nameless, insensate,
pitchy tentacles undulating inland,
dragging the seabed, aquiver with methane,
shaming the World with Her own shit—

while brown pelicans blacken,
feathers clotted, bills dripping crude
into hungry, hatchling mouths,
and bottlenose dolphins slip to the shoreline,
toothy grins fixed in a death-rictus.

Far below, the slumbering krakens never waken.
Hafgufa gapes, cavernous gullet
choked with tarballs. Lyngbakr bursts,
carapace crushed under too many carcasses.
Inadequate monsters, undone by their betters.

Stanza 4: Begley, Sharon. "What the Spill Will Kill." Newsweek. 06 June 2010. Web. 07 June 2010.

The Folklore Behind the Fiction

The Hafgufa (Sea Reek) and the Lyngbakr (Heather Back) may be found in two pieces of early writing; the Icelandic fantastical tale of Örvar-Oddr (Arrow Odd) and the Norwegian Konungs skuggsjá (King's mirror), which is an instructive work for the education of a king's sons. Together, they represent some of the earliest appearances of krakens in literature. Örvar-Oddr learns from the sea captain Vignir that the Hafguga is the largest sea-monster in the ocean, capable of swallowing men, ships, whales, and anything else caught in its massive jaws when it retreats into the depths. The Konungs skuggsjá tells us that the Hafgufa appears "more like an island than a fish," perhaps because of its size, but the Lyngbakr has the greater reputation for this appearance. When Örvar-Oddr's men go ashore to find water on a heather-covered island Vignir forbids his own men to visit, they are drowned when the island sinks. Vignir explains that it was no island at all but a sea-monster instead (Larson 1917, 125; Palsson and Edwards 2005, 85-86; Whitaker 1986, 3).

I wrote "Leviathans" long before I returned to university for a PhD in Folklore. Still, it was easy to imagine that the "...vast underwater plumes of crude oil spreading like Medusa's locks" were part of a newer, more awful sort of sea-monster when I read Sharon Begley's evocative coverage of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in Newsweek. I went in search of kraken lore, found it, and spent three days mourning the deaths of fish, birds, and turtles while I wrote the poem. Begley's most evocative passage lies at its heart, and I was fortunate that she granted permission for it to remain there when Strange Horizons picked the poem up for publication. As I write this newsletter edition, I remember feeling helpless and outraged in the face of BP's careless cleanup efforts, which burned hundreds of endangered marine mammals alive (Goldenberg 2010).

Perhaps this seems a strange topic for a holiday missive, but I've read a great deal lately about the need for new kinds of storytelling and storytellers able to wield the power of narrative in service to the Earth. I've been writing the Folklore & Fiction newsletter for a year now, and it remains my goal to blend folkloric scholarship and writing instruction in a way that informs the creative process. But I also hope that some of you will fuse these enduring folkloric ideas with your own and bring powerful tales into being that light a way forward for us all; humanity, the animals who share this world with us, and the Earth herself.

With that in mind, I have a recommendation that might help nudge your creative spirit in this direction. You might remember that some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed words like acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, and others, replacing them with attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voice-mail. In response, nature writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created The Lost Words: A Spell Book, which aimed to summon these words for nature back into our lives. On their heels came a cadre of folk musicians from around the world and the creation of The Lost Words: Spell Songs. As you listen to this music, remember that this power is also yours.

Essay first appeared here.


Begley, Sharon. 2010. ‘What the Spill Will Kill’. Newsweek. 5 June 2010.

Goldenberg, Suzanne. 2010. ‘BP Accused of Killing Endangered Sea Turtles in Cleanup Operation’. The Guardian, 25 June 2010, sec. Environment.

Larson, Laurence Marcellus, trans. 1917. The King’s Mirror (Speculum Regale-Konungs Skuggsjá). New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation.

MacCath C.S. 2010. ‘Leviathans’. Strange Horizons. 20 September 2010.

Palsson, Hermann, and Paul Edwards, trans. 2005. Seven Viking Romances. Reprint Edition. London: Penguin.

Whitaker, Ian. 1986. ‘North Atlantic Sea-Creatures in the King’s Mirror (Konungs Skuggsjá)’. Polar Record 23 (142): 3–13.

C.S. MacCath is a PhD candidate in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, a playwright, and a musician. Her long-running Folklore & Fiction newsletter, now a podcast and written dispatch, integrate these passions with a focus on folklore scholarship aimed at storytellers. Ceallaigh’s research interests include animal rights activism as a public performance of ethical belief, and she brings a deep appreciation of folk narrative, ecology, and Neo-Pagan spirituality to her writing. Work from her two fiction and poetry collections has been shortlisted for the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and nominated for the Rhysling Award. She lives in Atlantic Canada. 

Why publishers need to take action on climate change today

These last few weeks feel like standing on the edge of a precipice, the unimaginable combination of the stark IPCC report on this planet’s chances of staying below 1.5 degrees, and the fires sweeping both the Mediterranean and the West coast of the US.  More than 650 UK based companies, including major media corporations like the BBC and Financial Times, have set targets to reduce emissions in line with the Science Based Targets Initiative, developed by the WWF and the UN. But very few are UK publishers or agencies. With Philip Kavvadias, a writer who works in sustainability, Hannah Gold and Nicola Penfold, we drafted the open letter below, calling on the publishers who print our work and the agents who represent it to make a public commitment to sustainability now.

If you would like to add your name, please reply in the comments below the letter on Medium.

Piers Torday


From over 100 British writers and illustrators

As last week’s IPCC report makes clear, humanity stands on the threshold of catastrophic, irreversible climate change. 9 out of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. Human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017, increasing at 0.2°C per decade.

The effects of this warming are around us every day, from the terrifying fires in the Mediterranean to those blazing across the West Coast of the US, the floods from Germany to China. These are not freak events, they are symptoms of a rapidly warming world.

We cannot reverse climate change, we can only limit it to 1.5°C. To get us on track, countries and companies around the world are setting more ambitious targets. The UK aims to reach net zero by 2050, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by the end of the decade.

At the moment of writing this, more than 650 companies have set targets with the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), in line with the 1.5°C trajectory. 110 companies are also participating in The Climate Pledge, aiming to reach the Paris Agreement goals 10 years early.

But as a group of writers and illustrators, passionate about communicating the urgency of the situation, the possibility of a more sustainable world and setting a good example to our readers, we are dismayed that so few UK publishers and literary agencies have signed up to these goals or made public their sustainability targets.

We call upon every publisher and literary agency operating in the UK to commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. We have a responsibility to our readers and our communities to publish sustainably and ethically at this moment of crisis. We cannot simultaneously profit from addressing our greatest crisis whilst perpetuating it.

Climate action failure is the #1 global risk to every one of us. Climate change is real, it is impacting us now, and we cannot delay action.

This is our call to action today:

Please commit to, develop and implement programmes that reduce your greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

The window for action is narrowing every day. The time to act is now.

Real-world Issues in a Fantasy Setting

Rab Ferguson talks to Stephanie Burgis about her new book The Raven Heir, which is out now.

I've just finished The Raven Heir, and I loved it. There's so much I want to talk to you about in this wonderful middle grade novel! But before we get into it, how would you describe the book to a new reader?

Thank you so much! The Raven Heir is the story of three children who've grown up in an enchanted forest only to discover one day that everything they thought they knew about themselves and their family was wrong. Now one of them is the heir to the throne - and they're all in deadly peril.

One of those three children is the main character, Cordelia. An element of the novel that particularly spoke to me was Cordelia's connection to nature. She has the power to turn into different animals, and from the beginning feels called to go out into the wild. Could you tell us a little about your thinking behind that connection?

I've always loved the idea of shapeshifting, but of course you can't transform into an animal in every way without being changed inside. As I was writing Cordelia's character, I wanted to give her a really strong intuitive sense of the natural world around her that's very much tied to the various animal aspects of her nature. There's a strong core of personality - her essential Cordelia-ness! - that remains unchanged in every form; but some of the wild, animal elements that she's gained through all of her animal transformations remains within her even when she's wearing her original human form.

I found that so interesting, especially when she was in animal form and took on a bit more of that particular animal's character. I have to ask: if you could transform into any animal, which would it be, and why?

What a great question! I have thought about this a LOT (you will not be surprised to hear!), and my answer is generally a cat, but with breaks to become a red kite so that I could fly (without any fear of being snapped up by larger predators).

However, if it REALLY has to be just one animal, I'll stick with cat after all.

So you and I are two of many writers in the Climate Fiction Writer's League whose work is aimed towards children and young people. What draws you to write for the middlegrade age range, especially around the topic of the environment?

I have two middlegrade-aged kids, so I can say from their experience that MG-aged kids right now are learning about climate change in school AND a lot of them are extremely concerned about it - and unlike many adults, they're willing to consider the kind of big changes that society needs to avert a total crisis. When we address environmental issues in MG fiction, we're not telling kids anything they don't already know, but we are offering hope and empowerment and the reminder that it's worth fighting to make things better for everyone!

Something I liked in The Raven Heir was that the environment itself was key to the book, and had its own personality. Could you tell us more about the importance of the landscape to the novel?

When I set out to write The Raven Heir, I knew one of the triplets at the centre of the story would be the "rightful" heir to the throne...but that is such a fraught concept to wrestle with, especially in our modern era! So the big question I had to answer was: what would actually MAKE any one person the "rightful" king or queen? WHY would they be better than anyone else for the job? And that brought me back to the old folk belief that a sign of rightful royalty was the happiness of the land; if a land was ruled by its rightful ruler, the harvests would be good and there would be no droughts or famines.

As I was working all of this out, I was also accompanying my kids on protest marches as part of Greta Thunberg's global School Strikes for the Climate...and all of that bubbling anxiety over our own climate future and all of my admiration for the passion of the kids who actually organised those protests in our town came together in the conception of the powerful and magic-infused land of Corvenne.

Those protests and the young people behind them were so inspiring. It's interesting that these real world issues can spark the writing of fantasy. What's the advantage of talking about these real problems in the magical genre?

I think that when we reconceptualize a real-world issue in a fantasy setting, it gives us some much-needed distance from the fears and the day-to-day stress factors that can overwhelm us and stop us from trying to find solutions to that problem in real life. It's all too easy to get overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis when it comes to climate change and think - it's too big, it's too hard to change, it's unstoppable... But the truth is, there ARE options we can fight for on a big structural level by putting pressure on businesses and on our governments, and we CAN fight for change even when it's hard. I hope that my fantasy adventure - where 3 kids are given the option of either hiding from the huge problems of their broken kingdom or stepping forward to try to make a difference - can leave readers feeling empowered and hopeful and willing to make the hard effort to fight our own world's problems.

I love that. It feels so important to remember that even broken kingdoms can be changed! I'd be interesting to hear a bit about your writing process for the novel. Was it all planned out beforehand? Did Cordelia or the or the other characters anything to surprise you along the way?

I wrote the first four chapters before I stopped to do any planning at all, but then I did pause and - since this book was sold on proposal - talked through the story a bit with my editors, which mostly consisted of them asking important questions about the worldbuilding that I needed to figure out for consistency before I kept going. That was really good for me, but the truth is, I never plan books in a lot of detail - I'm very much an exploratory writer. Whenever I write a first draft, I'm always following the internal guideline: "What would be the most fun thing that could happen next in this scene/chapter? What would make things harder for my protagonist in the most interesting way?" So every chapter is full of real surprises!

That reminds me of a Neil Gaiman quote, that the first draft is you telling yourself the story. I wanted to finish by asking you three favourites. Favourite character, favourite setting, and favourite magical moment from The Raven Heir? And why, of course!

Ooh, this is such a (good) tricky question! My favourite character as I wrote completely depended on the scene. I love all three of the triplets! My favourite setting was the mysterious Mount Corve, home of the ancient spirits of the land. And my favourite magical moment might be the first time the land actively whispers to Cordelia!

Finally, where can people find you if they want to learn more about your writing?

On my website! You can read excerpts from all of my books there and also find links to lots of free short stories.

And of course I'm on Twitter and Instagram too (as @stephanieburgis and @stephanieburgisinwales, respectively)

You can find out more about The Raven Heir here.

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She writes fun MG fantasy adventures and has published six so far, most recently the Dragon with a Chocolate Heart trilogy and the Raven Heir duology. She also writes wildly romantic adult historical fantasies, most recently the Harwood Spellbook series. She has had over forty short stories for adults and teens published in various magazines and anthologies.

Climate Change in the News

How to write and think about a warming planet [Galaxy Brain newsletter]

Meet the BIPOC Farmers Cultivating Green Spaces in NYC [Teen Vogue]

LGBTQ rep in Books About Climate Change [LGBTQ Reads] - by League members Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang

#ReadGreen Campaign - Amazon KDP to switch to sustainable book printing on recycled paper []

Facebook let fossil-fuel industry push climate misinformation, report finds [Guardian]

Democrats Seek $500 Billion in Climate Damages From Big Polluting Companies [NY Times]