Fairy-Tale Files: The Practicality of a Gargoyle

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.

The phrase “Gothic church umbrella” doesn’t convey grotesquery, yet this was the gargoyle’s original purpose, their spouted heads diverting rainwater from building walls. We have France’s St. Romanus to thank for the legend itself, as he drove the horrific Gargouille out of his homeland. Accounts of Romanus’s methods fall between the solo (aided only by a crucifix) and the duo. In the latter, his backup was a man sentenced to die, the assistant’s efforts a redemptive act that resulted in the commuting of one capital punishment per year, a French form of salvation good through 18th century’s end.

Quasi-cousin to a gargoyle, Ireland’s Sheela na gig guards against evil forces. Scholars theorize these architectural wonder women were derived from the Celtic goddess Cailleach, a mythical hag in possession of such wintry attributes as deer herding and the ability to prevent spring through her cryo staff layering terra firma with ice. Ironically, some Sheelas existed as talismans distributed to the child-expectant – a pagan baby-shower fixture, if you will. The protectress crossed over into 1990s audio with PJ Harvey’s song “Sheela-Na-Gig.” A little over the three-minute mark, Harvey’s composition addresses “imperious male demands and female self-loathing.”

Rae Dawn Chong plays a female gargoyle who renounces her form to marry James Remar in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, Remar’s previous encounter with the creature during an alleyway murder sworn to secrecy. Naturally, he has no idea who she really is, nor do their offspring, until he betrays his silence a decade on. His revelation triggers her reversion, gar-children in tow. Screenwriter Michael McDowell based certain plot elements of his gargoyle opus on Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, specifically the Yuki-onna spirit who hails from Japan’s Musashi Province.