Conference Review: The Fabled Coast: Coastal and Maritime Folklore, Superstitions and Customs.

This post was originally published on the Supernatural Cities website. 

Held over 27th & 28th April 2019, the Fabled Coast conference was a multi-centre event celebrating “the unfathomable deep” and its rich, global history of myths and legends. Organised by the Sussex Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction at the University of Chichester, the first day of the conference featured a diverse range of topics and speakers, who hailed from across the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, Israel, Azerbaijan, Canada, and the United States.

Proceedings opened with a keynote lecture from folklorist, playwright and author Sophia Kingshill entitled: “‘Mermaids: Fish, Flesh or Fowl?’” Kingshill is an established coastal folklore maven with several related titles on mermaids and coastal legends, including the inspiration for the conference: Fabled Coast, a compendium of fabulous tales from the shores of Britain and Ireland, co-written with renowned folklorist Jennifer Westwood. Kingshill’s keynote offered a deep dive into the multifaceted nature of the mermaid in the human imagination. Depictions of these mythical marine beings stretch as far back as 8th century BC in ancient Assyria, continuing on throughout the ages in many guises: as sirens in Greek mythology, as symbols on maps, as sightings reported by sailors, and, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as constructed curiosities in exhibitions. Kingshill probed the erotic potential of the female mermaid and its many narratives breeds, noting fictional and artistic representations of the figure as a seductive yet elusive sea nymph, selkie or siren: “exposed above, unavailable below”. Ultimately, mermaid stories and images appear consistent only in their diversity and fluidity, but seem to have harnessed perceptions of the power of water as a female element; dangerous, mysterious and seductive.

Mermaids and other monsters of the deep were a prevailing theme throughout the day. M. N. Meimaridi discussed the forms and functions of mermaids in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, while Francesca Arnavas used four contemporary fairy tales to show how the mermaid’s hybrid body is used to cast doubt on the rigidity of societal norms. Cecilia Inkol’s “robot mermaid” acted as a guide, traversing streams of philosophical thought on the nature of time and consciousness from Plato to Jung and Lacan. The amphibious creature from Guillermo del Toro’s recent film, The Shape of Water was the subject of a talk by Olle Jilkén and Lina Johansson, who explored this character’s appeal as a monstrous love interest who embodies rather than rejects traditional ideas of masculinity. Tommy Kuusela’s talk also focused on the nature of sea monsters, this time from a Nordic perspective on a panel enticingly titled: “Demonised Waters: the Dangers of Sea, Lake and Bog in Folklore”.

John William Waterhouse “Hylas and the Nymphs” 1896

Some presenters chose to approach the conference themes using human subjects. Teo Rogers provided us with a detailed look at occupational folklore concerning the Basque as a legendary whaling nation in the medieval and Renaissance periods. Two of my colleagues from the University of Portsmouth also explored coastal folklore through social lenses. Cathryn Pearce, Senior Lecturer in Naval and Maritime History, explored the myths concerning ‘false lights’, lanterns said to be carried by Cornish wreckers in order to lure ships to shore for plunder. Pearce discussed the impact these stories had on Cornish identity, and the struggle historians have faced in sifting fact from fiction in these narratives. Alison Habens, Course Leader for Creative Writing, showcased a spoken word performance featuring the character of ‘Jolly Jack’, a down-on-his-luck animated matelot doll in a display case. Habens based this rather sinister ‘laughing sailor’ on a real doll, who graced Southsea’s Clarence Pier for many years, now on display in Portsmouth City Museum. Habens is developing ‘Jack’ as part of a psychogeography project for Supernatural Cities which aims to bring Portsmouth’s old and new folklore to life. My own paper for the conference also explored sinister sailor identities. I shared my research on newspaper reports of nineteenth-century sailor cannibalism narratives, both on shore and at sea. What fascinated me most about this subject, were the ways in which the sea appears almost like a monstrous agent in these stories; a kind of contagious transmission fluid through which cannibal identities were perceived to flow from the colonies towards the British metropole.

The second day of the conference took on an entirely different feel and format. It was refreshing to escape into the bracing sea air at Portsmouth, as Supernatural Cities’ director, Karl Bell, led us on an eerie tour of the city’s coastal legends. This trail took us deep into the heart of Old Portsmouth as Karl regaled us with stories about local celebrity ghost, Jack the Painter, and other lesser known haunts. We finished up with lunch in the dockyards under the shadow of two very famous vessels, HMS’ Victory and Warrior. The second half of the day involved a lively creative writing workshop led by our keynote, Sophia Kingshill, and conference organiser and author, Victoria Leslie. Ensconced in the suitably nautical setting, of the Royal Maritime Club, we discussed our writing processes and were encouraged to come up with new tales based on traditional fairy tale prompts. I found this exercise really helpful, and I think many of us came away with several pages full of ideas for future stories.

As is often the case with the best conferences, it was not only the academic discussion which made this a worthy weekend, but also the opportunity to meet so many passionate and engaging researchers. The more creative focus of the second day added a wonderful dimension to the proceedings, enabling us to not only observe, but to practice shaping our own coastal yarns. Huge thanks to conference organisers Heather Robbins and Victoria Leslie for putting on this fantastic event, who really pulled out all the stops to make the weekend memorable, informative and fun.