Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Wisp of a Tale

It's October, the witching month, if neighborhood decorations and movie channel lineups are reliable guides. I don't go all out for Halloween. My frightful rituals are limited to hanging a faded paper pumpkin on the front door on the 31st and buying big bags of assorted candy bars—fun-size, of course—for the zero to one trick-or-treaters that will ring my doorbell.

So I was amused that a recent dip into etymology brought me a Halloween surprise. I read the phrase "will o' the wisp" in a context I have completely forgotten. Ignoring whatever important point the article's author was making, I went in search of the underlying meaning of the old-fashioned phrase. I knew it as a description of something insubstantial or foolish for which one may strive in vain (not to mention as one of the descriptions of Maria by the nuns in "The Sound of Music.")

I was surprised to find that it actually means something more sinister, something fitting for All Hallows Eve. does not bring up an entry for "will o' the wisp," but instead diverts to "jack o' lantern." Jack and Will are twins. The grinning pumpkin and the…well, what is Will? Scientifically speaking, a will o' the wisp, a.k.a. ignis fatuus or "foolish fire," is swamp gas that spontaneously bursts into flame and then burns off on its own.

Less scientific minds, such as my ancestors in the British Isles, came up with their own explanations of the flickering lights in the night. In folklore, both Jack and Will were considered to be souls so malignant they were blackballed by demons and forced to wander in creepy marshes, lighting their way with incandescent coals from Hell.

According to Wikipedia (yes, I know), "wisp" refers to a bundle of sticks or twisted straw or paper used as a torch. So Will o' the Wisp is the identical twin of Jack o' Lantern. They often were associated with fairies, which in folk tales are not pretty, gossamer-winged girls, but evil beings who lured lonely travelers to their doom or enticed young children away from their homes to similar fates.

Yes, Jack and Will are a wicked pair, but while Jack is famous and is represented on doorsteps nationwide in October, Will has faded to obscurity. You know, Clement Clark Moore introduced Dasher and Dancer and the boys in his poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" in 1822. It was not until 1939 that an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward stores reminded the world of Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all." Ten years later, Gene Autry recorded a song and the world never looked back. Prancer who?

If I could just write a spooky, but catchy, song about Will o' the Wisp, maybe he, too, could come into his own. It's time for the poor guy to put down that hot coal and stop haunting the marshes. And I wouldn't mind the royalties and product tie-ins. That would be a Halloween treat healthier for my bottom line than all those leftover candy bars.

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