An unofficial transcript of the podcast episode by Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan.
LB: So this is Episode 2 of The Skeleton Songs.
LB: Ooooh! (Pause). So you took me somewhere very romantic and not-scary, last week.
AK: It was the one with all the animal poo.
LB: And the teeth.
LB: And the raw meat.
LB: Yes. You took me to a big animal sanctuary and then waltzed around it telling me nerdy facts about medieval bestiaries. So we thought we’d do this episode on spooky medieval beasts.
AK: Because I was literally standing in front of the panther cage with Lottie and I said, “Don’t you know, in medieval bestiaries the panther was said to be a multicoloured beast of unusual beauty, which had a breath so sweet that it drew all the animals from miles around to come and lie down before its cave. Except for the dragon, which hates its breath and runs away.” So we thought we’d talk about… that.
LB: So d’you want to go first? I know you’ve got a couple of medieval best…
AK: Yeah, well, I think, I think, so— medieval bestiaries, the, um…
LB: Are crazy places, populated by the dreams of nightmare.
AK: Th— they are crazy places, but they’re… there’s a couple of meta-interesting things about them. And one is that we talk about bestiaries, um, and we, we mention things that start with, like, Pliny, and go all the way to the High Middle Ages. And, um, as if they’re similar. And partly this is because those of us who are, you know, game designers talking about it are not professional historians or classicists, who no doubt wince with pain, that’s one of these things, but also because a lot of the same information gets repeated. Stuff that Pliny wrote in the 1st century BC? Um, gets repeated in the 12th century AD, so, you know, a famed medieval bestiary backed, you know, bears, the bear cubs are born shapeless, as sort of blobs of meat like little amoebas. Um, and obviously they can’t go around the world bear-ing in that form, so the mother has to lick them into shape with her tongue…
LB: See, where does that come from?
AK: Well, I th—
LB: ‘Cause it was not observed, I don’t believe it was observed, so is it just… they thought it’d be fun to tell kids?
AK: I think, I think— It’s, it’s a l— it’s basically the original Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: of email chains, the original dodgy Facebook News posts.
LB: And there wasn’t Snopes.
AK: There was no Snopes! There’s, there’s travellers’ tales, there’s Sir John Mandeville going around the world saying “I spoke to a man in Mongolia who told me that, that the monoceros leaps off a cliff when it’s being hunted…”
It wasn’t actually… oh my god, nerd fact, I can’t believe I actually know this detail— it wasn’t Sir John Mandeville who talked about the monoceros, it was, um, what was the name, Cosmas Indicopleustes.
LB: Oh my god.
AK: Which means, ‘Cosmas who Sailed to India’, and Cosmas claimed that there was this beast called the monoceros, which is sort of like a shit unicorn, as you can guess from its name, sort of like a— or a one-horned rhinoceros. And it’s got one horn, hence monoceros, but the— when the monoceros is being hunted, it’s impossible to catch. So nobody has a monoceros trophy.
AK: Which is convenient— you know why?
AK: Because if you chase the monoceros, it jumps off a cliff… ask me how it survives.
LB: How does it survive?
AK: It lands on its horn, which is unbreakable.
LB: (laughing) That sounds like a really, like, back-catalogue DC superhero. Like— like the— like the guy who— whose power is that he has no friction, so it’s very hard to, like, tie him up. I bet they trialled something about a guy who has, like, an unbreakable, a non-breakable foot.
AK: I think, I think— again, there’s a very similar sort of process of invention here, somebody’s, you know, just, late at night, writing any old shit down, “I think, maybe, this one will stick”, and then actually it wi— the bonnacon! The bonnacon actually ended up a D&D— a lot, a lot of these bestiary monsters ended up in 1st edition D&D monster manuals, some of them survived into later editions. The bonnacon is…
LB: You spent the entire series of Stranger Things complaining that I said ‘the demogorgon’ and correcting me, that it is, in fact, ‘Demogorgon’.
AK: Well, it’s a proper name, Lottie Bevan.
LB: Mm-hmm, I’d just like everyone to know this, ‘cause if you meet Alexis, he will be like “Excuse me, it’s, ah, Demogorgon”.
AK: Yeah, and, and, you don’t get a saving throw if its tentacles touch you and turn you into into a [sic] rotting flesh in original first edition. Anyway. But. The bonnacon is, is sort of like a bull.
AK: But, but its horns go backwards, so it can’t gore you, so it can’t defend itself?
LB: Doesn’t it look, sort of, constantly surprised?
AK: It might do, I mean I’d look surprised if my horns went backwards. But the, um, uh, the way the bonnacon defends itself is, it does a big poo and…
LB: It doesn’t!!
AK: It does, it does, it’s got this fiery poo, like a sort of really big bombardier beetle.
LB: I would like to apologise to everyone who’s tuned into this podcast expecting some sort of literary, intelligent…
AK: This is, this, I think this is also in— it can’t be in Pliny, bonnacon doesn’t sound Latin, but anyway, some super-fancy medieval author— but, uh, the bonnacon’s poo is lethal to plant life and to animals…
AK: And it covers two acres.
LB: How big is this animal?
AK: The size of a bull.
AK: Besides, uh, the other, just, while we’re on horned beasts, so, there’s the, the, monoceros that jumps off the cli— off cliffs onto its horn, there’s the bonnacon, with its ridiculous backward-facing horns and its terrifying poo, and there’s the yale, spelt like the, um, the College, and the Yale’s thing, I would love to demonstrate but I can’t because this is audio-only, it’s got swivelly horns, so it can point its horns in any direction, sort of like snails’ antennae, but the horns… I’m demonstrating now but you can’t see it, sadly. Uh, so, uh, if it’s fighting, um, it, uh, it points one horn at you, and it, like, stabs you with that horn, and if you break that horn, then it can turn its other horn to stab you, so you know, shows, shows you, BUT, you know who really hates yales?
AK: Good answer! But no.
LB: Thank you very much.
AK: The, uh, the basilisk.
LB: Why? Why’ve they been feuding?
LB: Do they like the same girl?
AK: Um, lost in the mists of time. It’s like, fucking, Trinity and Balliol.
AK: But, a basilisk, as of course you are aware, is from the Greek, and it’s derived from the phrase ‘little king’.
LB: I mean obviously.
AK: So the little king comes up to the yale when the yale is asleep, and it stings it between the eyes.
LB: Dick move!
AK: And then its— the yale’s eyes explode.
LB: Serious dick move!
AK: So that happens.
LB: Well, that kind of ruins my point, ‘cause I was gonna say, you know, there definitely is an element of, of kind of, I think, probably drunk monks, I think, some people…
LB: …probably thought, ‘What’s the craziest, funniest thing we can do?’, and made up insane animals. I think there was also definitely, um, an idea of exoticism…
LB: So, so I know that, that the idea of the maps, with the ‘here be dragons’, was kind of, you know, here is this unknown land full of these magical mystical things that no one knows about, and when you come back, having visited that land, or having talked to somebody who alleges that they visited that land, you don’t want to come back and say, ‘They had a slightly different type of pig’.
LB: You want to come back and say, ‘Oh my god, they have these moveable horns and unbreakable shoes and they wear these big feathered bird masks and breathe fire, ‘cause that’s much more exciting than, than the slightly different type of pig. Um, but I was going to say that there is also—
AK: But I was going to say, if you actually come back from a foreign land, you know, some shit just be crazy: imagine describing a rhinoceros or an elephant in the Abyssinia, or— you know what a cameleopard is?
AK: It’s a beast that is shaped like a camel, but spotted like a leopard. He’s got a really long neck.
LB: That’s just a dirty camel!
AK: It’s a giraffe.
AK: Because you’ve never seen a giraffe before…
LB: Well, I was gonna say, I mean, w-we talk about as though, as though it was kind of ignorant people who didn’t know what was in the world, which is partly true, but we still do this, we still sit down and watch—
LB: Well, no, but we sit down and watch David Attenborough, and the only difference…
LB: … is that it’s now set to, sort of, plinky-plonky, isn’t it funny, music, and we see the weird dormouse with the snake head who runs about eating fish.
LB: And we go, ‘did you hear about the snake-eating dormouse?’ And everyone says, ‘Ah, no, I didn’t’, ‘you should watch that programme’, rather than ‘(gasp) the Terrible Tale of the Yale!’. But— but obviously there is something inside of us that still loves, you know, basically, most people like animals, people wanna find out about exotic weird animals.
LB: There’s entire subreddits dedicated to, like, look at this weird animal. And everyone goes nuts. Everyone’s still excited about axolotls.
AK: And, now, you mention Attenborough— I hadn’t made, drawn this parallel before, but one of the reasons bestiaries are so popular is because, um, they acquired, once the monks got in on the act, a veneer of religious instruction. So, um, just as, you know, we sit watching the lyre-bird do impressions of a chainsaw, um, and the peacock look completely ridiculous, and we say, you know, it’s educational, so, um, we’re improving ourselves as people by, um, looking at it, the monks would say, ‘Yes, it sounds cruel that the eagle tests its children, and the ones that can’t look into the sun without blinking get turfed out of the nest…’
LB: I mean, that’s my method…
AK: Ah, it’s what you did with Sulo? Too soon?
LB: That’s way too soon! He’s referring, gentle listeners, to my totally beloved kitten who did happen to fall off the balcony six floors and nearly die. So that’s a nice joke he’s just made. She’s fine, she’s here next to us, she’s—
AK: She is, she’s purring.
LB: She’s being stroked. She’s not a very scary beast.
AK: Eheh, but, actually, I’m quite scared of her— but ah, so you know, that sounds cruel, but that is how picky Christ is about people coming into the Church; if you don’t fit, then you’re, you’re thrown out of the nest. Or the pelican…
LB: Is that— is that true? Are we gonna get letters?
AK: Uh, Well, it is true that medieval monks claimed that the selectiveness of the eagle was akin to—
LB: Was a metaphor— really? They connected—
LB: Is that—?
AK: Or the, the fox, which is, you know, it’s so devious, it only runs in circles, it can’t run in a straight line…
LB: The most devious of shapes!
AK: … is, is the Devil.
AK: I mean, it symbolises the Devil, because it’s cunning and deceitful…
LB: I mean, didn’t every, I mean, so did that apple, so did that woman…
AK: But, but there you go, sort of— if you are a Christian monk looking to write a fun book about beasts that can swivel their horns and do lethal poo, then obviously you want to say, ‘And this proves God’…
AK: Or, ‘This demonstrates this Biblical point’.
LB: Well, that—
AK: And, and… sometimes, there’s more basis for it, so, the pelican, for example, um, you were going to say something, so…
LB: Well, I was gonna say, that leads me on to my favourite mythical beast…
AK: Yes! Go on…
LB: Which is a literary mythical beast, and it’s the Blatant Beast (dun dun dun…)
AK: So this I… I don’t know much about it, but I know you named our last sprint update after it…
LB: Yes! Nerdily.
AK: Faerie Queene-themed.
LB: Yes! So it’s from, um, one of the longest poems in the English language, written by Edmund Spenser in, uh, the 16th century, it’s called The Faerie Queene, and it’s an allegorical English poem that started off as, um, what we scholars call an epithalamium for Elizabeth I, which is essentially a—
AK: Bless you.
LB: — it’s a poem that celebrates an upcoming marriage. But it took him so long to write, it was first published in 1590, and then republished in 1596, so we’re talking, sort of, the best part of a decade, just to write these six books… it took him so long to write that over the course of, um, the poem, it became apparent that everybody that Elizabeth I wasn’t going to marry, was going to get old pretty quick, and was gonna die a virgin queen. So he had to sort of rather snake around, um, what was going on in the real world. Um, and it has this really weird ending, where it ends this incredibly long allegorical fantasy story of knights and queens and faeries and, and, and beasts good and bad, witches, um, with this weird interaction with the Blatant Beast…
LB: So, the Blatant Beast, um, is essentially an allegory for, um, malicious rumours. So it is, um, a sort of hell-puppy… it’s described in various ways, including like a dreadful dog of hell, um, uh, and a wicked monster that ‘his tongue doth whet, ‘gainst all, both good and bad, both most and least, and pours his poisonous gall forth to infest the noblest wights with notable defame’. So he’s bad news, and the description is, he’s essentially, um, the, the puppy of, um, Cerberus and Chimaera, which is not a good start—
LB: And he grew up in—
AK: That’s a good backstory, though!
LB: It— I mean, it deserves some kind of inspection, which it doesn’t get, because Spenser was busy writing about Elizabeth again, um…
AK: You would, wouldn’t you?
LB: Yeah, otherwise she’d have your head. Um, and it grew up in Stygian fen, so again, hellish background, he has two rows of iron teeth, very frightening, and he has initially hundreds, and then I think, because Spenser was busy not thinking about it, later thousands of tongues, all of which make noises, and sound…
AK: (laughing) [<…> drew them]?
LB: I mean, honestly, this is the great thing about medieval allegory, was it deliberate or did he just not give a hoot, who knows? But the different tongues all make different noises and sound like different terrible things, for example, um, dogs barking incessantly, or wrawling cats, which is a brilliant, weird spelling, which describes exactly the noise that an angry cat makes, or bears and tigers or serpents, which actually spit poison at you, “but most of them”, and I’m quoting here, “but most of them were tongues of mortal men/which spake licentious words and hateful things of good and bad alike, of low and high.” So he spares nobody, he’s just an eternal force for, sort of, bad stuff.
LB: He doesn’t care if you’re a king, or a good person, or a bad person, he’ll just come, and if he bites you, the wound cannot be cured by a doctor, it can only be cured by good people rallying around you. As you might expect of reputational damage.
LB: So, um, he, he first appears accompanied by two hags, which is obviously the correct accompaniment for a hell-hound, um, and, um, he first appears in Book 5, but his real story comes out in Book 6— now, each of the books of The Faerie Queene focuses on a different figure of something good.
LB: So Book 6, um, the hero is, ah, Calidore, who is the Knight of Courtesy, and he is asked by the Faerie Queene herself, who, of course, represents Elizabeth, to go and kill this Blatant Beast, or at least catch it. And similar to that monster you mentioned at the start, um, the Blatant Beast is famously impossible to catch.
LB: He’s constantly running. So the whole thread of Book 6 is this meandering tale of Calidore trying to catch this Blatant Beast and having adventures on the side. Um, and eventually, uh, he does manage, um, to catch him, right at the end of this book…
LB: After hundreds and hundreds of lines of Spenserian stanza— and three stanzas later, he escapes!
AK: (bursts out laughing)
LB: And literally, that’s the end of the book! That’s the end of the whole poem! Um, and there’s a sort of little [drill?] at the end, and it’s literally two stanzas, and then the poem’s done. Um, when Spenser says something like “Oh, so, you know, he’s out in the world again, um, so say something nice about this poem! Bye!”
AK: How does he escape? Is it specific?
LB: So, um, Calidore puts a muzzle on him, and then it says, let me find the quote, I don’t think I’ve got it, but I think it says something like, um, “It’s not clear if it’s by fate, or by the flaws of men”, but he looses his iron bonds, and escapes into the world again!
AK: I mean, that’s, honestly, Spenser was… quite keen to go to the pub.
LB: Well he was going— he was going— I think probably he was, because apparently, by the end of the— writing this incredibly, sort of, elegant medieval ode to, to Elizabeth and her court, he not only was disappointed that she was now this, like, old virgin queen, but also he was very disillusioned with court life itself, and was only given a £50 annuity, um, as, as thanks. So he was cross about that as well. So I think probably, by the end, he was, like, “Oh, well, stuff it! There’s a dog and it got away! The end.”
LB: And— but, but, that’s a great example of, of you know, a famous beast…
LB: That isn’t actually about having a particular believable skeleton, or, or lifestyle: it’s not about, you know, ‘we went to this foreign country and found this exciting exotic creature’, it’s more about representation of something within society and within people, and I think that is a lot, the kind of metaphor behind these bestiaries. I think there has to be something behind the monster to make it one of the famous ones. Because if you just say ‘it was a really spooky thing, and it had spots, and then it had big fiery hair’, everyone’s like, ‘Okay, that’s a fun image, but I can’t really engage with that, it doesn’t, it doesn’t latch onto me’, but when there’s something behind it that is about, you know, ‘this represents the tendency of human nature to, to be mean and spread lies, or this one is about uhh, the tendency of, of, of monks to like getting drunk’, like that kind of stuff tends to stick with us and get rolled into other beasts later down the line.
AK: I think— Yeah, if you’re inventing something, then one way to, uh, invent it is, is just— I mean, the way a lot of medieval beasts were built, like the yale, which I mentioned earlier, I think I left out that it has the tail of an elephant, and the jaws of a boar, and also it’s sort of a cow-sized thing with horns that swivel. So, you know, plainly at that point, somebody’s just got the identikit out and they’re, they’re [inaudible] matching…
LB: I was gonna say, it [inaudible] jigsaw that…
AK: And sometimes, that, you know, they’re ridiculous things nobody really remembers. Um, what the— ah, I was, um, I remember this, I was looking, for this podcast, yesterday, at a bestiary site— bestiary.ca, I strongly recommend, it’s a really good digest, um, of a bunch of this stuff— and I came across the yale, and I happened to remember it— but most, you know, everybody remembers what a griffin is, because it’s got…
LB: Lion bird!
AK: Lion bird. There we go! Eagle’s head, lion’s body, wings, eagle’s wings, you would seem to think…
LB: Doesn’t it have a snake tail?
AK: I think that’s the chimaera.
LB: Oh, yeah, you’re right.
AK: Uh, but the, you know, that made sense— a lion-bird? They’re both f— a lion-eagle, they’re both fierce things, [so that’s fine?]
LB: Yeah. Yeah.
AK: It works with the rest of it.
LB: Yeah, there’s nothing intrinsically silly about that, is there?
AK: No. Unlike, uh—
LB: The unicorn [inaudible]
AK: The catoblepas.
LB: A, er, what?
AK: The catoblepas, now, this, this was another one of these things that made it into, um, first edition Monster Manual, I believe, I don’t know how um, how many editions it survived through, but, uh, the cato—
LB: I love that the main legacy of the medieval bestiary is D&D.
AK: I mean, if you, you know, y-you’re a nerd in, in, uh, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 1970s, uh, there’s not that much stuff to raid, there’s, you know, there’s Vance, there’s Tolkien, you start going to medieval bestiaries earlier than people now, who, who have all this, this, fantasy literature I didn’t have when I was growing up— but, um, the catoblepas is sort of like the basilisk in that its gaze kills.
AK: But unlike the basilisk, it’s got a really long neck. And unfortunately its neck’s really weak, so it’s very hard for it to lift its head up and look at you.
LB: What a pathetic enemy!
AK: So you [just can run?] away— right?
LB: Awww, like a sort of rubbish hydra.
AK: But the, um, what I was gonna say, uh, in the wake of the eagle thing, in the wake of, um, Christian symbolism, expressed in mythology, some of it makes more sense than others, so the pelican, uh…
LB: I know the pelican’s important.
AK: Right. The pelican is important because it feeds its young in this wise: it pecks at its breast until the blood flows forth…
AK: And its young drink the blood.
LB: I mean, I know this, because this is why the pelican is the, ah, insignia, uh, for Hush House, but…
AK: I’ve forgotten we did that, yeah!
LB: the library of our upcoming game BOOK OF HOURS.
AK: I literally forgot it.
LB: Because we’re big old goths.
AK: We are big old goths…
LB: So why does the pelican feed its young with its blood?
AK: So you know what happens in church…
LB: Not that?
AK: So I was brought up in the Church of England, as you know, in the Church of England we have a cannibalistic feast at the conclusion of every ceremony, where we devour the blood and, um, bones of, of our Lord Jesus Christ.
AK: Uh, I didn’t listen that carefully, but I understand th-that’s…
LB: No, no, it’s true, I’ve got it, ‘cause that leads me on very clearly to my next monster.
LB: Which, which is everything you’ve just described—
AK: But, uh, to be slightly more, slightly less frivolous, but tell me about the next one— to be slightly less frivolous, the point about the pelican is, it is self-sacrificing like Christ, so it gives of itself so that we can live.
LB. Right. Right, right, right.
AK: But tell me about the second beast.
LB: Well, my second beast is something that I think many people have heard of, but it’s got lots of incarnations. And again, it’s the sense that it speaks to something inside of us…
AK: Is it Dr Who?
LB: It is not Dr Who, I’m not a fan of Dr Who, but I would like—
AK: We lost so many listeners.
LB: Keep listening to this podcast! So… ‘yay, Dr Who…’. Not as good as Robot Wars though. Um, so my monster is the wendigo.
LB: Now, it’s appeared in lots of different places, and I think if you asked a random person what they thought a wendigo was, most people would say, a sort of scary, cannibal thing. Which is not far from the truth. But there is more to the wendigo than meets the eye. So— ah, there’s lots of interpretations, um, as far as we can tell it originated in Indigenous Canadian tribes, as an idea, and later it was picked up, um, by a number of, ah, stories and tales in the US and the wider West. But, but, ah, but generally despite the fact that it has these many incarnations, it mostly revolves around, um, this being an ever-ravenous semi-human cannibal thing, with something to do with coldness, winter, insatiable hunger, and malice, all of which you can imagine, living on the frontier of any early civilisation…
AK: I mean, I’ve been to Vancouver.
AK: I REALLY LIKE VANCOUVER!
LB: Um, and, uh, one of the earliest descriptions of a wendigo was given by Basil H. Johnston, who was an— uh, please forgive me for this pronunciation— an Ojibwa teacher and scholar from Ontario. Now Ojibwa as I understand it is another First Nation tribe. He describes the traditional Canadian wengo— wendigo as, um, ‘being gaunt to the point of emaciation, with desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones, with its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash grey of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave’.
AK: That’s fucking great.
LB: ‘What lips it had were tattered and bloody. Unclean and suffering from suppuration of the flesh, the wending gave off a strange and eerie odour of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.’ So it’s not— I wouldn’t say it’s super-unique in the way that, you know, a particular…
AK: No, because, what you’ve just described sounds like a risen corpse— details like the tattered lips are fantastic!
LB: Mmmm— it’s really powerful, and it, and this isn’t being written in a, sort of, deliberately fictitious way, it’s not a horror story, this is somebody describing something that they alleged to have seen, or to know about. Um, and one of the nastiest details about it that, that I’ve read, is, whenever wendigoes eat, and, remember, they’re constantly hungry so they’re constantly searching, and they never stop searching for food.
LB: Um, whenever they eat, they grow in size or strength in proportion to the meal that they have just had, so they remain just as hungry as they were before the meal, even though they have feasted and therefore continue to, to exist. Um, and there’s actually a very controversial medical condition called ‘wendigo psychosis’, uh, which some people believe to have happened, and, and, for listeners, one of my favourite things to do is, basically, read true crime and listen to psychology books, so this is super up my alley, um, it’s a controversial culture-bound syndrome, which means, in medical terms, that this syndrome is usually only found in closed cultures, and it can only be identified as this particular syndrome within that culture, so the flu is international, everyone can have the flu, but wendigo psychosis would only happen in certain, um, group— culture groups, um, and, uh, it’s been reported in places like New France in the 17th century, Alberta in the 19th century, um, a First Nations tribe called Oji-Cree, um, in the 20th century, so there’ve been a number of instances, and I’ll give you an example. Um, there’s a trapper from Alberta called Swift Runner, and this was in the 19th century, who along with his family in the winter of 1878, nearly died of starvation. His eldest son did die of starvation. They were 25, um, miles away from an emergency food supply at a Hudson’s Bay Company post.
LB: Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five remaining children. He was only 25 miles away. So even if he was at the absolute ends of his strength…
LB: …he could realistically have butchered one person, eaten them, contained 25 miles, and got the rations that were waiting for him. So, so people believe…
LB: That, um, this was not, um, it was not an entire-family cannibalism in desperation, this was somebody who chose to, to behave like this, and once he had eaten of the flesh of one human…
LB: Suddenly developed this ravenous desire to eat the others. Um, so, so this is an example of ‘wendigo psychosis’, um, and he eventually confessed and was executed by authorities, um, as a result of his pretty heinous crime. Um, but that’s the sort of ‘wendigo psychosis’ that we’re talking about. But in terms of literary stuff, the most famous example of a wendigo is The Wendigo, um, which, uh, published in 1910 by an Algernon Blackwood, who is one of the most prolific ghost writers ever.
LB: I love him a lot, and it turns out he was actually born really near where we are now, in Shooters Hill!
AK: I did not know that!
LB: Neither did I.
AK: I go running up there!
AK: Or used to, before my knees gave out.
LB: Shooters Hill, for people who have no idea where we are, is in London, it’s a pretty nasty name, but a pretty good place to be born, if you’re gonna be a spooky ghost writer. Although I love this fact about him, that he was, um, pretty varied in what he did. Algernon Blackwood, very famous ghost writer, was also: a dairy farmer, a hotel owner for six months, a newspaper reporter, a bartender, a model, a journalist for the New York Times, a private secretary, a mysterious businessman, and a violin teacher. All this while he was writing all these stories.
Anyway… just to get back to, um, the story, The Wendigo is set in the wilderness of Ontario, around a party of five explorers on a moose-hunting trip, so already we’ve got this idea that it’s very cold, it’s very rural, hunger is likely to be an issue, if they’re hunting, and essentially, after splitting up into two small groups, um, the one Canadian— he’s described as a wilderness-loving gentleman called Joseph DeFago— thinks he smells something, so, remember that odour that we talked about earlier, with that early description— thinks he smells something on the air, that is a bit frightening and he can’t place, while his companion, he’s got someone called Simpson, isn’t kind of aware of, of wildness and nature in the way DeFago is, so he doesn’t, kind of, pick up on anything and he thinks, you know, whatever. And that night, um, Simpson finds DeFago cowering in fear from something Simpson cannot see. Um, before he leaps into the forest and runs away.
LB: Now this is obviously very dangerous, it’s just them two in nature, so Simpson races after DeFago and follows his tracks, and realises that there are two tracks, one of which is clearly not human, and one of the very spooky details is, as he’s following these tracks in his terrifying flight in this midnight wood, he sees DeFago’s tracks change.
AK: Ahhhh! That’s so good!
LB: …to become a sligh— a smaller version…
LB: Of the inhuman tracks, that then disappear together. Now, I’m not gonna ru-ruin the rest of the story, or tell you anything else— it does have a very unusual ending that leaves a lot of questions unanswered, in kind of a Turn of the Screw kind of way. Um—
AK: Footprints are so good for this kind of thing. Because they are, they are both a specific trace, it’s not just a trick of the light, or, or a sound that may have actually just been rats, it’s something specific, but there are so many explanations for anything— that’s why I guess they keep showing up in, in folk-tales and [inaudible]. That’s brilliant, the changing as they go.
LB: It’s really, rea— and this is what Algernon Blackwood does really well, I think— I think he’s a pretty underrated author, um, his two most famous, ah, stories, if you haven’t read any of him, is The Wendigo and The Willows, both of which exhibit this exact same sense of, like, the supernatural that reflects something in humanity. Um, he did, certainly as an author, have, uh, have an interest in, um, the supernatural being, firstly, real, but also something that is purely an extension of existing human experience or emotion. So he felt that if you, if you change someone enough or you put them in a strange enough situation, that supernatural stuff and magic actually really could happen. But it was all part of our, like, human spectrum, it wasn’t like, suddenly fairies came down.
LB: And he’s very spooky and very good. Um, and yeah, I think the tracks is a really, really good motif, because, because it gives you just enough evidence so that the story can continue without the idea that the narrator is mad or mistaken.
LB: But not enough conclusive evidence—
LB: For any question to be answered. And I think you get that a lot in, I dunno, it’s a very common horror trope, I’m thinking, like, in The Thing, there’s lots of, sort of, suggestions that something was there, and it takes us half the film before we actually see its [intimation?]—
LB: And we see the beast.
AK: Yeah, you’re absolutely, things, things are spoilt by it being too specific, too early. Uh, so we’re running out of time, aren’t we?
LB: We’ve got, we’ve got a couple more minutes.
AK: Uh, shall I tell about the caladrius? I’ll tell you about the caladrius, you don’t know about the caladrius, do you?
LB: I have never, I mean, it sounds like Galadriel’s loser cousin.
AK: This— this, this isn’t, this isn’t a, um, funny beast, this is, this is, I think…
LB: Mine weren’t funny! [But yours were kind of?] funny…
AK: No, no, you know, but the bonnacon was, the poo beast is funny.
LB: Oh, I see…
AK: But, so, the caladrius, I, I found this, um, weirdly moving— it’s a white bird, pure white, um, uh, and it lives in the house of the king. And when somebody is dying, the caladrius will enter the dying person’s room, and if it looks away from the dying person, they’ll die, they’re done for, they, they can’t be cured. If it looks towards the dying person, then the dying person’s disease will leave them and enter the caladrius, and the dying one will be made whole, the caladrius will be diseased. So it will fly up into the sun and be consumed, and the disease and the caladrius will both pass.
LB: Oh my god!
AK: And there’s some sort of Christian metaphor there, I can’t remember what, but you can, you know, you can think of half a dozen.
LB: Wait, so we’re talking about… Western medieval…
AK: Yes. I can’t remember the exact source, and—
AK: —again, as with a lot of these things, it probably showed up in three or four bestiaries, because they’re all constantly cribbed from the— cribbed from each other. They all used each other as sources, because obviously.
LB: Of course they did, yeah.
AK: You know, semi-factual thing. Um…
LB: I mean the, it reminds me immediately of the, the motif of the, the dove, as the metaphor for God, right?
LB: That it’s a white bird, that it is fundamentally this messenger between mortals and something good…
LB: …that is better than mortals, and I bet, I bet there is some link there.
AK: But it’s turning its face away, and that’s the detail that [inaudible]— you get the caladris coming into your room, you’re lying there, coughing up blood…
AK: And you see this bird, and then it looks at the wall, it’s… yeah. Right?
LB: It also implies, very elegantly, a sort of just—judgment.
LB: You know, because you’re— they’re waiting to find out if you’re going to die, or if you deserve life, you know— there is some sort of decision-making. Because it could take your disease away, and [inaudible] it’s more complicated than that, but there’s, there’s already a sense of, of judgment by an external factor…
AK: I agree. Yeah.
LB: And then obviously it builds into [inaudible]
AK: I think, in fact, that was the thing— I think, or, vaguely I remember that, that, that, symbolic [element?], it’s supposed to be the judgment of God, but… I wanted to talk about Elias Ashmole, um, and the dubious, er, assignment of the Tradescant Collection, but I will have to leave that for another one, I think. And I think we can probably fit another one around dubious collections of museums.
LB: I think we absolutely can. Um, OK then, well, that is our quick-fire round on our favourite mythological beasts, and beasts in literature, uh, let us know if you have any beasts that you think that are little-known but we have missed out. I think we’re kind of done with magical horns. And cannibals. But if you’ve got other suggestions—
AK: You know, the eagle used to re-grow its beak by breaking it off— it would tap on a stone until its beak…
LB: What is it with eagles!?
AK: They’re, I think…
LB: They are hardcore
AK: …early-type or early descendant of the phoenix, I think, because they were supposed to fly into the sun and be renewed as well. There’s a whole sun thing. But yeah, cracking the beak off…
AK: … renewing their beak.
LB: What, like, daily?
AK: Ah, when it, when it wore out… so don’t try it at home, folks.
LB: Oh, a top tip! This is now a very handy podcast, to stop you doing stupid things with your eagle. Um, thank you very much for listening.
AK: Um, bestiary.ca is, is a site from what looks like the early days of the internet but it’s, uh, got a lovely index that is full of extremely interesting, um, symbolic, um, and mythical and bestiary-related beasts, and, uh, if you are looking for inspiration or an afternoon’s browse, I recommend it.
LB: Top tip! Alright, thank you so much for listening to Episode 2 of Skeleton Songs, subscribe if you like it, um, and we will be back next week with some other nonsense about forbidden books, and…
AK: So you have to say something about it being spooky, or something.
LB: No, no, we’re not making ‘Have a spooky day’ the motto of this podcast. I refuse to let it happen. Goodnight, people.
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