The Weiser Book of the Fantastic and Forgotten

by Judika Illes

Fantastic tales are frequently referred to as weird tales. Techni­cally, they fall into the literary genre of weird fiction. Academia has now further classified weird fiction as a subgenre of speculative fic­tion, defined as any literary fiction containing elements, characters, plots, or settings deriving from speculative sources, as in the human imagination, as opposed to being based on everyday life or “reality.” Science fiction, horror, and fantasy are all categorized under the speculative fiction umbrella. To me, there is an inherent flaw in this particular system of literary classification. Whose reality sets the stan­dard? Whose everyday life? I suspect that my reality and your reality and Betty Hill’s reality may not all be precisely the same, although clearly we share commonalities. I prefer calling it weird fiction, espe­cially because of the complexity and history of the word “weird.”

Like “fantastic,” “weird” is a word with both modern and archaic connotations. Should you survey a group of random people and ask them to define the word “weird” for you, most will likely suggest that “weird” means strange or odd. This now most common inter­pretation of the word “weird” is fairly modern. It is only since the early 20th century that “weird” has been applied to everyday situ­ations. (“He sounded weird when he spoke to me,” for example, or “What a weird ring tone!”) Previously, the word intimated something supernatural in nature or portentous. In fact, the word “weird” has a long, complex, and weird history!

The word has its roots in Norse mythology among the Norns, a trio of fate goddesses. According to Norse myth, the Norns, three wise women, are the most powerful of all beings: they determine the destiny of everything that lives. The Norns are the repository of all knowledge: past, present, and future. They are three sisters who operate together as a unit.

-> Urd, the eldest sister, is the Norn of the past.

-> Verdandi, the middle sister, is the Norn of the present.

-> Skuld, the youngest sister, is the Norn of what shall be.

The Norns live together in a beautiful hall beside the Well of Urd, essentially the Well of Destiny, which is situated beside Yggdrasil, the world tree—a giant, eternally green ash tree. (Coincidentally, M. R. James’s story “The Ash Tree” explores the influence of past events upon the present and how fate can be changed.) The Well of Urd waters the roots of the world tree; rain that drips from its leaves falls back into the Well of Urd. As the name indicates, the Well of Urd is most closely associated with the Norn of the Past. One could interpret this as indicating how much the actions and events of the past nourish the present and future, determining what sort of fruit will be borne, a theme implicit in so many weird stories.

Our fantastic tales are intended as entertainment; rarely heavy handed, they are instead fun or suspenseful or pleasantly scary— thrillers and chillers. Keep the implications of the Well of Urd in mind, however, and you may recognize a subtle current that runs thematically through these tales.

In Norse cosmology, Yggdrasil is the axis mundi that unites all worlds. The world of living humanity, the world of the dead, and the worlds of the deities and other spiritual entities may all be accessed via the trunk and branches of this world tree. (Norse cosmology recognizes nine such worlds.) In other words, all these realms, even though distinct, are also all interconnected. Anything that happens to one part of the tree, whether accidentally or intentionally, potentially affects another. The Norns are the caretakers of the well and the tree, hence the world.

The Norns are spinning goddesses. They weave the Web of Urd, the matrix of fate. The Old English variant of the word “urd” is wyrd, which eventually evolved into our modern spelling, weird. The Anglo-Saxon variant of the Norns, known as the Weird Sisters, spin the Web of Wyrd. This web is the reminder that the actions of the past and present impact the future and perhaps vice versa.

By the 16th century, the word weird was extinct in the English language, although it survived in Scots. When William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, his Scottish play, he reintroduced the word with his trio of witches, named after the Weird Sisters. (Coincidentally, norn is an Old Norse word meaning “a witch or a practitioner of the magical arts.”) Shakespeare used “weird” as an atmospheric, ambient word. The modern connotation of weird as something uncanny derives from Shakespeare’s era and after.

Let’s take another look at that dictionary to make sure we understand the true and complete concept of weird. Here are some meanings:

  • connected with fate or destiny; able to influence fate
  • of or pertaining to witches or witchcraft; supernatural; unearthly; suggestive of witches, witchcraft, or unearthli­ness; wild; uncanny
  • having supernatural or preternatural power
  • having an unusually strange character or behavior
  • deviating from the normal; bizarre
  • (archaic) of or pertaining to the Fates

Unless they are already metaphysically minded, most random modern people asked to define “weird” would probably think of the fourth and fifth definitions, but what of the authors of classic weird fiction? Which definitions did they have in mind as they wrote? These are other mysteries to ponder rather than answer definitively or, at least, not in this brief space. The subject of the orientation of the fin­est writers of weird fiction—the world views of the masters—has been the subject of bitter, contentious debate for decades and will probably remain so. This is especially true for author H. P. Lovecraft, whose many devotees argue about the nature of his fictional creations. Just how fictional are they, in other words?

Excerpted from the Introduction of The Weiser Book of the Fantastic and Forgotten


Judika Illes fell in love with the magical arts as a child and has been studying them ever since. She is the author of numerous books about traditional spirituality, witchcraft, and the occult including The Big Book of Practical SpellsThe Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, and Magic When You Need It.

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