Myths of the Fringe

In Hag, a girl called Lisa, full of rash fury, goes to get a light from the house of Baba Yaga. She strides determinedly into the dark, and therein finds what she most needs.

In The Bread and The Beer, the dark is woken by two unwary workmen who unearth John Barleycorn, an ancient god of harvest revels. Resurrected, the god looks around at the modern world, at all its well-lit order, and decides that it will not do.

Both tales on the surface appear similar. Both are stories of humans encountering the dark and receiving what they require. However, where Hag is simply a good story, The Bread and The Beer is a narrative rush.

Hag boasts excellent costumes. The pig-nosed stepsister masks, the stepmother’s evil beehive hair and the wizened fetish-head of Baba Yaga all function as visual shorthand for the characters’ natures. The acting was good too. Grief is no easy thing to convey convincingly, but the tears of Lisa felt genuine. Still, though I was entertained, I was never immersed in Hag.

That was not the case with The Bread and The Beer. Tristan Bernays told the story of John Barleycorn with the fervour of a prophet mid-revelation. He was never still, always on the move, his prose flowing intoxicant like the blood of his hero, his language switching without pause from bard to modern bloke and back again. His was a show with a Stone Age heart, beating with captivating rhythm. His was a show that knew the wonder of the dark.

In the old times, the imagination of humanity filled the gaps of knowledge with phantoms. Into them was poured all the fear and excitement mankind felt on meeting the unknown. The Bread and The Beer is a modern myth, in the sense that it brings that wondrous unknown back into the modern day. Hag by contrast is a modern myth that takes the everyday into the dark. Hag humanises Baba Yaga. John Barleycorn remains an inhuman force, and that’s what I preferred.

There is definite value in making myth human. Sometimes humans are even best examined in unreal contexts. And yet, it is the wondrous unknown that holds the vice-grip on my pituitary glands. Humanity made its gods to inspire fear and awe, their white eyes hard-gleaming within painted faces, and Barleycorn is a proper god: alien, chaotic, fantastic and old. Into the story he brought the mass of age, so great that it pulled me close and down, with gleeful velocity, down into the dark, because only there could I find what I needed.

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