For anyone just joining us, over the course of the month of April, I’ll be looking at several of the most intriguing monsters outlined in Katharine Briggs’ excellent book An Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ll also take a moment or two to explain what about them I find compelling (or not), and what we can learn about creating monsters of our own for use in our fiction.
For our final beastie of the month, It!
“It” certainly sounds like a prosaic and unoriginal name for a monster. I mean come on! We’ve talked about “Nuckelavee,” the “Slough,” the “Fachan,” and “Herne the Hunter.” Maybe at some point in the future I’ll cover the hinky punk, the gwyllion, Jeannie of Biggersdale (who is also more imposing than her name implies), or even Dobby (not the house elf). To go from that level of creative nomenclature to a simple “It”?! Couldn’t we think of something better? Don’t write It off yet, though. It is one of Briggs’ most interesting creatures–and also one of the most mysterious.
According to Briggs, It is a very powerful representative of the sidhe from Shetland, and is uncommonly adept at using something known as “glamour.” Glamour is the natural ability that fairies have to enchant mortals. This allows them to manipulate how we view reality. They can work any number of different effects, from hiding from us to leading us astray (i.e. the “pixie-led” phenomenon) to stealing our energy to playing pranks on us. In this case, It has such a mastery of glamour that no one has ever seen It’s true form. No two people looking at It ever see the same thing. Apparently, It is most commonly encountered around Christmas time, when the power of the trows is at its peak for the year.*
The attempts to describe It are, of course, as diverse as they are futile. Briggs mentions an account in Jessie Saxby’s Shetland Traditional Lore:
One said, It looked like a large lump of ‘Slub’ (jellyfish). Next It would seem like a bag of white wool. Another time it appeared like a beast wanting legs. Again, like a human form without the head. Never did It appear in the same guise. Without legs or wings It could run faster than a dog, and fly faster than an eagle. It made no sound of any sort yet folk could understand what It meant to say, and repeated what It told one without a word being uttered.
So, not only does It have significant power in terms of glamour, it is sentient and even psychic. As a creature, then, It is indeed far more than meets the eye!
While it might seem that It runs afoul of the same points I used to critique Nuckelavee and the fachan, I think It is another good example of a beastie done right. Nuckelavee and the fachan are limited in that they are obviously compiled once and that is that. Either they scare you or they don’t. It has the mystery and subtlety that they sorely miss.
In It we see…quite literally anything we want to see. That allows It to take on the form of whatever frightens us, our characters, or our readers the most. The fact that It remains a complete mystery only deepens It’s effect on us. What is It’s true form? Does It even have one? What sort of creature is It, really? What does It want? Why did It choose to show me that form in particular? What might It look like if It appeared now? If It can project It’s thoughts into my head, can It hear what I’m thinking?
Of course, none of that can be answered. Nor should most of it be. Handled properly, that vagueness can be It’s greatest asset. We see enough of It to know that we’ve something to fear, but not so much that the fear can become tangible to the point that we know what to do about it. That makes It, in a very real way, “fear itself.” It is the unknown and unknowable personified. When one skeptic asked a witness if a sighting of It could have been nothing more than an otter or perhaps a seal, he “was gravely answered with a shake of the head:”
We all ken there’s mony kinds of life that lives in the air, in the earth and water–foby the clouds abune [above]. And we, poor mortals, have no vision to hear or see, or understand the like. We must just leave all that to the Powers abune.
Perhaps it is that fact that can scare modern humanity the most. In It, we see something that we cannot control. It cannot be understood, It must simply be accepted. To many of us, that idea is indeed terrifying.
Next week: Rachel takes over Fridays next month. Make sure to check out what she has to offer. I’ll be checking in with my Lewis “Meditations” on Sundays and be back with another regular series in June. 🙂
*That by itself is somewhat interesting. I would hazard to guess that most of us would expect that time to come around November 1st and Halloween. According to Briggs, Christmas makes quite a bit of sense too–that is when the nights are longest.
Other posts in the Briggs’ Beasties series: