Re-imagining Cornish Folklore in Australia

The fantasy for younger readers, Across the Creek, uses Cornish folklore in an Australian setting, that of an abandoned copper mine, perhaps the most Cornish setting that an Australian could devise. Aidan Curnow is drawn into a land called Trevalia when he steps on stones across the creek which runs through an abandoned mine near his town. Raff is a piskey who leads Aidan into the land where a dragaroo attacks them. Aidan escapes and runs back across the creek, never meaning to go there again.

I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey not long before I wrote Across the Creek and many aspects of ‘the hero’s journey’ can be noticed. Like a true ‘hero’ Aidan returns to Trevalia hoping to find his friend Jenice and, led by Raff and haunting music, travels underground through the old mine tunnels, until he finds a green lake and meets the Lady of that land. Aidan discovers his friend Jenice has been living there along with other lost children but the Lady says they have now been captured by the warrior faeries, the spriggans. Only a mortal who is brave enough to survive a dragaroo attack and return, can save the children.

I based the idea of lost children on the Cornish story, The Lost Child of St Allen which can be found in antiquarian Robert Hunt’s Drolls. When the boy was recovered he told everyone how he was lured by music into a dark grove and found himself at the edge of a lake. A beautiful lady led him to an underground cavern built of crystal and supported by glass pillars. This influenced my depiction of the Lady’s cave in Across the Creek, though I made the landscape predominantly Australian – the crystal pillars became quartz and the lake is the copper dam in an unused open cut mine.

The lost child is a recurring symbol in Australia’s history, from the Cooper/Duff children in 1864, Louis Viewsseux in 1858 and Clara Crosbie (who was lost for three weeks), to the Beaumont children and Azaria Chamberlain in the twentieth century. These lost children have inspired art and narratives as in McCubbins’ painting, Lost, and Pedley’s story, Dot and the Kangaroo (1899), Marshall’s Walkabout (1963) and more recently, Broome’s Cry of the Karri (2001). Researcher Peter Pierce is concerned with what the image of the lost child reveals about Australian feelings of insecurity, and states Australians are fearful of where they are lodged in place and time.1 Even creek crossing is a frequent symbolic representation of a journey into the unknown2 and though I did not consciously call the novel Across the Creek because of this, it remains a story of Aidan’s journey into an unknown, underground world where lost children are found.

The use of fairy tales shows children that although there is a struggle against severe difficulties in life, if they persevere they can overcome obstacles and emerge victorious. The work of folklorists Briggs and Bettelheim is invaluable in this area. Fairy tales address issues such as the love of life, the need to be loved, self-identity, and, fear of death, as in Across the Creek. This story explores feelings about death and missing persons in a way a child can grasp. The Pied Piper was probably a story to help explain the loss of children to the plague. In fairy stories, however, death may not necessarily signify the end of life. Snow White wakes up, for instance, and Aidan finds Jenice Trengove alive.

(Siphoned from my PhD thesis: Jack & Jen in Oz, 2005)
1 Cheater, C. ‘Lost Children – Review’. Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History. http://www.jcu.edu.au/aff/history/reviews/pierce.htm
2 Boots, J. ‘The Lost Child at the Centre of the Intuitive and Reparative Experience.’ Psychoanalysis Downunder – the Online Journal of the Australian. http://www.psychoanalysisdownunder.com/PADPapers/pap3/lost%20child_jb.htm

PS I’ve just realised these older academic links don’t work now. I’m trying to find their new whereabouts. No 1 quote is from Peter Pierce, (1999). The Country of Lost Children: an Australian anxiety. Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press.

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7 thoughts on “Re-imagining Cornish Folklore in Australia

  1. When I lived in Whyalla, we would visit Wild Dog Hill as a picnic area and I recall my father telling me the legend behind the area. I have no idea if it was true or not, or if he just made the whole thing up to warn us kids away from the cliffs, but it was pretty elaborate of a tale about a brother and sister going missing, living in a cave for awhile, being chased by dingo’s and falling over the cliffs on the hill. (He told it with a lot more exposition)
    I have never forgotten sitting in that picnic area, overlooking the red barren rocks that made Wild Dog Hill and being so overwhelmed by the tale my Dad told.
    It never really accrued to me that lost children really is a theme in so many Australian stories.

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  2. Really enjoyed reading this post. It’s interesting how you’ve taken Cornish folk lore and reworked it to fit with Australia and themes throughout history. I look forward to reading it.
    I found the statement that ‘Australians are fearful about where we are lodged in place and time,’ intriguing. I’ll have to read the whole article that you mentioned. Do you have any other comments on that?
    Thanks for sharing about how you got your ideas!

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    1. Hi Linsey, thank you fr commenting. Yes that is so interesting. I have just discovered that those links which were active ten years ago no longer are. Fortunately I have a copy of the review Christine Cheater wrote. The book which this comment came from is ‘The country of Lost children: an Australian Anxiety’ by Peter Pierce, 1999, Cambridge University Press. Here are some quotes from the review: Pierce is concerned with with what the image of the lost child reveals about Australian feelings of insecurity… He shows how the stories of lost children were imbued with meaning. the children were passive victims. Their fate stood as a warning. Given the convention in Victorian literature of using the child to symbolise the future, Pierce argues that these early lost child accounts reveal a profound unease about the European presence in Australia. He even suggested that the Azaria case was doomed because their story of a dingo taking the child was not congruent with the tales of the lost child. In nineteenth century literature, the bush never actively destroyed the child.

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      1. Thanks Rosanne, this is really interesting. I appreciate you adding those quotes. What was said about the Azaria case and tales of the lost child is intriguing. I was thinking of stories like Jungle Book, and Romulus, Dot and the Kangaroo where the child is taken care of and raised by animals.
        My husband commented that those were just stories and myth but then our stories come from somewhere, whether they have an element of truth to them or an element of what we believe to be true.
        Years ago at university I did development studies and within that course I did a lot of Australian history, sociology, politics and anthropology. It’s amazing and quite scary to think of the extent to which our history continues to affect us today both for newer Australians as well as Indigenous Australians.

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