The Folklore of Burly Men at Sea
Note: If you haven’t yet played our folktale adventure, know that there be spoilers here.
The summer of 2008 was a strange one. It began when the carcass of an unidentified creature washed up on a New Jersey beach, followed by police dashcam footage of a fleeing chupacabra in Texas. By the time two good old boys in Georgia announced they had a Bigfoot in their freezer, press had christened it the “Summer of Monsters” — and I was unabashedly glued to the headlines.
It was a good summer. Yes, the experts weighed in with their “hairless raccoon/coyote” explanations, and the Georgia boys skipped town with a Sasquatch costume thawing in their garage. And really, I knew. But for just a little while, there was a chance it could all be real.
I love this stuff. As a kid, I devoured folklore and cryptid stories, and I still can’t resist a good headline of the unexplained variety. Let there be mystery, I say.
Last year, we released a game called Burly Men at Sea, an adventure set in Scandinavian waters. To someone of my background, it seemed clear that a story in that setting should incorporate creatures from folklore, in some capacity. So we called it a “folktale adventure,” both for tone and theme, and I filled it with my own lighthearted version of lore from the far north.
In the game, we don’t identify most of the creatures encountered. That was an intentional choice: both to signify our characters’ inexperience and to keep the writing uncomplicated. But every creature in the game is drawn from actual folklore, primarily Scandinavian in origin. We did put our own twist on each, and avoided a few clichés skewed by pop culture, but we did our best to keep their mystery intact.
Here they are, in order of appearance.
Stories of huge whales are not uncommon throughout history, so it was no surprise to come across the Scandinavian tale of a man transformed into a massive, angry whale who goes about destroying everything in his path.
For our story, I imagined a milder, nobler giant: more Jabu-Jabu than Monstro. He acts as a sort of bus driver, carrying pilgrims on his daily route to a mystical land. And if, at times, he collects a few unintentional pilgrims, at least he means well.
Thus benevolently swallowed, our men find themselves in a second mystical encounter.
Inside the whale are a trio of sea nymphs. In Scandinavian folklore, they tend to be at best mischievous, and murderous at their worst. Often, they drag a man down to their seafloor abode, where he lives happily ever after but forgets everything he’d known.
Our nymphs appear to have transcended their wayward past and are now pilgrims of a sort, traveling by whale to the “Place of Promise.” They speak in New Agey non-sequiturs and are generally unhelpful, though it’s unclear whether the entire act is a practical joke.
Also known as draugen or draugr, the draug makes appearances in many sea-based Norwegian folktales. He acts as a sort of grim reaper, often representing the spirits of those drowned at sea. According to legend, the draug is a premonition of death, and in many tales, a sailor who spots one must race the creature for his life.
Our draug is not particularly good at his job, and tends to be rather gloomy on the subject. He has yet to win a race and so remains an apprentice, hoping to chance upon some soul willing to let him win.
The kraken is a gigantic sea monster somewhere between a crab and a squid, said to be sometimes confused for an island. When angered, it was known to drag ships into the sea.
As the kraken is one of the most popularly known of the creatures in our story, we tried to steer away from modern depictions for something closer to the folklore version — with, of course, our own twist.
Our kraken has the misfortune of being cute when he’s angry.
Trolls are a common creature encountered in Scandinavian folklore, taking many forms. In general, they are large and not very bright, often earthen in appearance.
Our men encounter a lonely rock troll, emerging from sleep to find “small beings” at his feet. He’s a simple soul and alarmingly eager for company, but — to their good fortune — also easily fooled.
These pale, otherworldly ghost lights make appearances in folklore worldwide, and in Scandinavian legend are believed to lead the finder to something desirable.
Our wisps take on a similar role inside a glittering cavern.
The Moskstraumen is a powerful whirlpool at the tip of a Norwegian archipelago, charted as early as 1539 in the Carta Marina and exaggerated in literature by Edgar Allen Poe, among others. As the largest of its kind, it’s typically referred to as the maelstrom.
Our maelstrom stays true to the hyperbolic nature of folklore, unfortunately for the men. You may even notice a nod to Poe in their choice of vessel.
Udröst and Fossegrim
Norwegian legend tells of a mysterious floating island called Udröst. Visible at times on the horizon, it always vanishes before it can be reached. In one story, a fisherman run aground in a storm encounters there a mystical bearded man and his shapeshifting sons.
On our Udröst lives the similarly mystical and bearded fossegrim. Found playing fiddle behind waterfalls, the fossegrim is said to offer musical skill in exchange for a gift from the finder.
Our worthy adventurers, however, prove difficult to impress.
Selkies, or seals with the ability to take on human form, are most common in Scottish and Irish folklore, but these skin changers also make appearances throughout Scandinavian tales. Some believe they represent the souls of the drowned.
In our story, the men are nearly drowned themselves when they encounter selkies — whose aid is timely, if a bit uncomfortable.
If one creature is to be left entirely to its mystery, it should be the leviathan. A catch-all term for an unidentified sea monster, it’s fitting that ours remain in the shadows as a toothy monster keen on an evening snack.
Most mythology knows mermaids to be cruel, but in Scandinavian folklore alone, they not only reward kindness but warn sailors of storms. When crossed, however, they don’t hesitate to repay evil in equal measure.
Our mermaids are a bit shy, but they’re lovely singers on a stormy evening.
The sjøorm is a sea serpent of Scandinavian legend: enormous, terrifying, and revered.
We could think of no more majestic creature for the close of a journey and no better symbol of mystery itself. And so it is that the men meet her.
Burly Men at Sea is a story about curiosity, about chasing after mystery in all its forms. And when all is told, there’s always more to tell. Adventure is only the chase itself, after all.
“What’s left unwritten in one story can fill others, if ye’ve the inclination to sail again.”