Welcome back to Queer History 101!
Is it possible that the folklore gatekeepers of yesteryear once tried erasing the existence of queer folktales?
It’s a question that British author and illustrator Pete Jordi Wood stumbled upon during his illustration studies at Falmouth University in 2020. “I knew a lot about comparative mythology, and I was a bit sick of it because everything is based on the Hero’s Journey. So I started looking at alternatives.” And that’s when Wood discovered folkloristics.
“I thought folklore studies was just little old ladies in a community center talking about stuff,” he said. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “It is very much about facts and history and known origins of stories.” Wood found himself attracted to the idea that he could trace the origins of stories like Cinderella back to the Ming Dynasty, or even further back to Ancient Egypt. He realized that folklore was rooted in a shared pursuit of the truth.
“I started looking at methods used to trace stories,” Wood explained, and it wouldn’t take long for him to learn of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index (ATU Index). “It’s the Bible of fairytales and everything to do with folklore, like ballads and jokes.” With the help of this “Bible,” Wood’s curiosity pushed him to climb the metaphorical beanstalk in pursuit of queer fairy tales.
“I went through the whole ATU Index, looking for queer elements.” But something, as Wood quickly took notice, was off. “There have only been three editors of the ATU, One of whom was Stith Thompson, the main editor.” An outspoken man, as Wood described him, Stith had openly acknowledged and classified “homosexuality” and “lesbians” as “sexual perversions” in an accompanying compilation he’d written to the ATU, called the Motif Index of Folklore.
“He clearly wasn’t on our side,” Wood remarked. “But that’s why I was excited. He admitted his bias. Given the evidence that he listed these motifs as sexual perversions, we can assume that there might have been stories that were purposefully omitted.” Any number of queer folktales could still be out there, waiting to be rediscovered.
Then, as if summoned by a fairy godmother, “The Dog and the Sailor,” a folktale first documented in the mid-nineteenth century, fell into Wood’s lap. “I realized there was something queer about it. The listing was so brief: a sailor goes to sea, meets a witch who has powers of seduction, and then the dog he’s with turns into a handsome prince when he defeats her.”
Upon continued inspection of the motifs in the story, it became as clear as Cinderella’s glass slipper: “The hero in the story, a sailor, was gay,” exclaimed Wood. The queer, folkloristic nuances were all there. “He was the only person in the world who could defeat the witch because he was immune to her seductive powers. And in one variation of the story, he is offered half the kingdom by the prince’s father, which was pretty on the nose: basically his hand in marriage.”
So what does an author and illustrator do after rediscovering a long-lost, queer folktale? To accompany his graduate exhibition from Falmouth University, Wood presented an original adaptation of “The Dog and the Sailor,” translated from the original Danish, German, and Frisian. “But the story is far from over,” Wood added with a wink. “There is going to be another book where I get to tell an extended version with lots of new illustrations. And there might be something in development for the screen too with some awesome people involved. Watch this space!”
If you would like to know more about “The Dog and the Sailor,” limited edition copies (only 500 available) of “The Dog and the Sailor Zine,” which includes Pete’s sources and research notes, are available at www.petejordiwood.com. To hear the latest news about the project as it evolves for the page and screen, follow Pete on Instagram or Twitter @petejordiwood.