July 07, 2012

Nightlights and Shadow Sprites

"Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery...
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?"
(Fairy, Dream I.ii)

Pixar's latest film, Brave, features sighing, wafty blue-light creatures who lead our heroine down the forest path.

The website Mysterious Britain says:

"The Will o' the Wisp is the most common name given to the mysterious lights that were said to lead travellers from the well-trodden paths into treacherous marshes. The tradition exists with slight variation throughout Britain, the lights often bearing a regional name...:

Hertfordshire & East Anglia: The Hobby Lantern
Lancashire: Peg-a-Lantern
Cornwall & Somerset: Joan the Wad
East Anglia: The Lantern Man
Somerset & Devon: Hinky Punk
Shropshire: Will the Smith
Worcestershire: Pinket
The West Country: Jacky Lantern, Jack-a-Lantern
Lowland Scotland: Spunkies
Wales: Pwca, Ellylldan
Norfolk: Will o' the Wikes
Warwickshire & Gloucestershire: Hobbedy's Lantern
North Yorkshire & Northumberland: Jenny with the Lantern...

There are various explanations for the Will o' the Wisps, the most general being that they are malevolent spirits either of the dead or non-human intelligence. They have a mischievous and often malevolent nature, luring unwary travellers into dangerous situations."

Wikipedia's page on the 19th century Denham Tracts provides an extensive list of other names for the same phenomenon: Jemmy-burties, kit-a-can-sticks, melch-dicks, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, Meg-with-the-wads, spunks, Jack-in-the-Wads, hob-and-lanthorns, friars' lanthorns, Jinny-burnt-tails and corpse lights or corpse candles:

"A corpse candle or light is a flame or ball of light, often blue, that is seen to travel just above the ground on the route from the cemetery to the dying person's house and back again.... Among European rural people, especially in Gaelic, Slavic and Germanic folk cultures,[9] the will-o'-the-wisps are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead or other supernatural beings attempting to lead travellers astray (compare Puck). Sometimes they are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell. Other names are Jack O' Lantern, or Joan of the Wad, Jenny Burn-tail, Kitty wi' the Whisp, or Spunkie."

Puck alludes to corpse candles in V.i: "Now it is the time of night, / That the graves all gaping wide, / Every one lets forth his sprite, / In the church-way paths to glide."

Luckily for Merida, her will-o'-the-wisps, diverging from legend, lead not to her doom but to her destiny:

The image of glowing sprites thronging the woods reminded me of Avatar's bioluminescent milkweed seeds...

...as well as the kodama in Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke (starting at 0:20 in this clip):

According to Wikipedia, the will o' the wisp is specifically linked with Puck:

"The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the United Kingdom, and is often a malicious character in the stories. In Welsh folklore, it is said that the light is "fairy fire" held in the hand of a púca, or pwca, a small goblin-like fairy that mischievously leads lone travelers off the beaten path at night. As the traveler follows the púca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished, leaving the man lost.... Other stories tell of travelers getting lost in the woodland and coming upon a will-o'-the-wisp, and depending on how they treated the will-o'-the-wisp, the spirit would either get them lost further in the woods or guide them out.... [The] related Pixy-light from Devon and Cornwall... can generate uncanny sounds... frequently blowing out candles on unsuspecting courting couples or producing obscene kissing sounds, which were always misinterpreted by parents."

In W.B. Yeats's Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, "the púca [puck] is a deft shapeshifter, capable of assuming a variety of terrifying or pleasing forms, and may appear as a horse, rabbit, goat, goblin, or dog. No matter what shape the púca takes, its fur is almost always dark. It most commonly takes the form of a sleek black horse with a flowing mane and luminescent golden eyes." (While that immediately brings to mind the glowing-eyed beast in John Henry Fuseli's painting The Nightmare, it's interesting to note that the term mare in this case refers not to a female horse, but "a spirit believed to produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal" (O.E.D.), and so the real "nightmare" in Fusili's painting is the goblin sitting on the dreamer's chest.)

Puck's famous line "If we shadows have offended" (V.i) and his addressing Oberon as "King of Shadows" (III.ii) lead me to imagine that perhaps Titania's fairies (who "dew her orbs upon the green"), have powers of night-lighting, like fireflies or will-o-the-wisps, while Oberon controls the shadows. What would the opposite of fireflies look like? Perhaps the soot sprites susuwatari in Ghibli's My Neighbour Totoro? (starting at 0:40 in this clip):

Ines Buchli turned me on to the Australian dance company Chunky Move, whose piece Mortal Engine uses motion-capture technology to control lighting, lasers and music. Nothing is pre-rendered: "Pre-composed phrases are triggered by the dancers’ motions, or by the operator at the correct point in the performance." As far as I can tell, they're using a similar trick to what Don Sinclair did in Bugzzz: A Cautionary Tale, where the Microsoft Kinect infrared sensor allowed the actor playing a firefly to be lit by video projections that mapped directly to her moving form, with little overspill onto the background. Mortal Engine also reverses the trick: "lighting" with moving shadow. There are some incredibly striking images in this video, but the most powerful to me are where darkness comes alive: as creepy-crawlies or shadow sprites (1:45), as infection (0:55), as smear (2:55), as swarm (3:50):

Returning to Pixar as a cheerier postscript, the short "La Luna", which screened before Brave, features some of the cutest nightlights in recent memory:

Posted by Alison Humphrey at July 7, 2012 08:10 AM