The Sin-Eater: Ritual and Representation in a Hypermodern World

This article sheds light on the sin-eater – a shadowy character occasionally glimpsed by, yet tantalisingly elusive to historians of popular funeral customs. Any historical survey of this subject begs as many questions as it yields answers, but here I adopt an alternative approach. Slipping between historical fact and present-day fiction, I contend that the sin-eater and his (or occasionally her) ritual has latterly come alive again through the media of film, television and literature as a means of expressing and exploring some of the existential contradictions and anxieties engendered by present times. In thus collapsing boundaries between the historical personage and their present-day fictional representations, the sin-eater is revealed as much more than mere antiquarian curiosity; instead, they become a timeless Everyperson.

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Performing Kirk: A search for authenticity in the dramatisation of the life of the ‘Fairy Minister’, Reverend Robert Kirk

Is it possible to achieve authenticity in the fictionalisation of a historic figure? To research my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, extensive experiential and archival research was undertaken. Having covered the experiential approach elsewhere (2020), here I focus primarily upon the archival. In this palaeographic enquiry I describe the discovery of a possible lost manuscript by the Reverend Robert Kirk – a version of his famous monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, Fairies (1691). I analyse its provenance and content in a comparative study with extant MSS, contemporary accounts, and scholarship. I situate this enquiry within my own practice-based research undertaken for my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester (2014-2018) and what this potential discovery means for Kirk scholarship.  I draw upon the work of Scott (1815), Lang (1892), Rossi (1957), Sanderson (1976), Stewart (1990), Hunter (2001; 2012) and Warner (2006), as well as more recent scholarship by Maxwell-Stuart (2014), Baker (2014), DeGroot (2015), and Temple (2019). How the archival discoveries revealed secrets of Kirk’s life (through painstaking textual analysis and transcription), and how the context of these discoveries (research libraries; a Scottish castle; a winter’s writing retreat and long-distance summer walks) all fed into the portrayal of Kirk and his world, will be discussed.

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Not Entirely Flattering: Revealing Mr Simonelli’s Fairy Nature

Susanna Clarke’s first follow-up to hugely successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a lavishly illustrated volume of short stories, some of which intertwined with the world of the novel. ‘Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower’ features characters mentioned in the novel, expanding the scope of this already rich alternate history. In the course of the story the titular figure transforms from arrogant scholar to agonized suitor and finally to true fairy. While the information supplied by the fairy John Hollyshoes reveals the truth of his inheritance, Simonelli discovers that he has been performing as fairy all along. What he considered to be a difference of temperament, fueled by his recognition of class difference within the hallowed halls of Cambridge, turns out instead to be part of his non-human nature. Is his performance as human or fairy more convincing? Which is ‘truer’? Almost nothing in the story is what it seems to be, but when truth is uncovered, it is Simonelli’s turn to tell lies, half-truths and misdirect others. In the Butlerian sense, he seizes ‘the reiterative power of discourse’ to sway the narrative and characters to his will. However, revelation of his ‘true’ nature does not entirely switch his orientation from the human to the fairy. He works to save human women from the predations of his relation Hollyshoes—even going so far in later years, we are told, to work for the education of women generally—a sharp contrast to his earlier dismissive misogyny. As Sara Ahmed argues, ‘If orientations point us to the future, to what we are moving toward, then they also keep open the possibility of changing directions, of finding other paths’ (569). Perhaps fairy orientation need not live up to Norrell’s dismissal of the ‘race’ as ‘poisonous’ and ‘inimical to England’ and all human life.

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The Obscure Becomes Vivid: perspectives on the (re)mediation of fairy lore by folklorists, performers and audiences

Tales about fairies are often thought of as the province of children, popularised by moralising fairy tales and Disney films, yet the success of works such as The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft demonstrate that other tropes that tap into the mythical past hold the power to enthral adult audiences. The Modern Fairies and Loathly Ladies research project explored the porosity of this border by inviting thirteen musicians, writers and visual artists to respond to traditional tales about fairies and collaborate to make new works for contemporary audiences. We frame the artists’ interpretations of fairy lore as acts of (re)mediation. Audiences were involved through work-in-progress sharings and focus groups to capture their responses to the developing work. Here we present three distinct perspectives on the project: the folklore academic, the practice-as-research artist and the audience researcher. The thematic choices the artists made with the open-ended creative brief were at times unexpected, exposing the individual journeys artists made to create personal connections with the material. This resulted in work being produced that represented an individual artistic voice. Audience experience was similarly bound up in deeply personal understandings of fairy folklore, requiring modes of marketing presentation to be fully thought-through if this content is to be commercialised for new target markets. This project exposes the process of mediating folkloric material to make it relevant to contemporary concerns and anxieties. The narratives foreground vital themes of individual identity and self-determination; the vivid dramatisation of timeless and enduring truths about human existence still communicates powerfully with contemporary audiences. With attention to the staging of concepts and mediatised (re)presentation, this project has shown that the ancient, academic and obscure has the potential to become immediate, relevant and vivid.

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