Writer's Bestiary: What is a Leprechaun?
Leprechauns form interesting additions to any fantasy story whether as the main character or in any secondary role. To write about Leprechauns, however, a writer needs certain information. What does a Leprechaun look like? What is typical Leprechaun clothing? What norms will your story be breaking about the Leprechaun? I offer this information to inspire and inform; not to confine. Use what you need and ignore the rest.
Physical Description of a Leprechaun
Leprechauns are small creatures; standing between six and twenty-four inches in height (1). They only live in Ireland and seek out solitary locations such as the roots of trees or abandoned castles. They usually can be found either smoking a pipe or drinking whiskey. Beyond these descriptions, however, a leprechaun’s appearance depends on their location and the time frame. A Northern Leprechaun, for example, wears a militaristic red coat with white breeches and a high pointed hit. In Tipperary, Leprechauns (known as Lurigadawne) wear red slashed jackets with a jockey cap. No doubt, the Leprechauns simply wear the clothes appropriate to the location; consequently, a writer could dress a leprechaun in any manner appropriate for the story.
Writers have also a level of poetic license when it comes to a leprechaun’s height. In early myths, Leprechauns were considered the tallest of the mound dwellers or the Tuatha De Danann (2). Now, Leprechauns share the same height as the Brownies of Scotland (3). Writer’s can choose a height that seems appropriate for their story and still be within the limitations of the folklore surrounding the Leprechaun.
History of Leprechaun Lore
Writers use folk lore to help them show their audience the species without telling their audience the species of their characters. Leprechauns have certain well-known traits that writers could choose to use as identifiers. Folk lore identifies leprechauns as great cobblers. Heroes often track Leprechauns by the distinct sound of their cobbling and will discover Leprechauns working on a pair of shoes. They will seek out the Leprechaun because if you can catch a Leprechaun and keep eye-contact with him; he will tell you the location of his pot of gold or grant wishes depending of the tale. Leprechauns, however, are extremely cunning and, if you look away for even a moment, they can escape you. Most tales of Leprechauns feature this same motif including the earliest known tale of Leprechauns; a medieval story called “Echtra Fergus mac Leti” which translates to “The Adventures of Fergus, son of Leti” (4).
Different folk tales argue on the origins of the Leprechaun. Some believe that they are a type of Faerie (5) while others argue the myth of the Leprechaun stems from the old stories of the Celtic Sun God Lugh (6). They argue that the word “Leprechaun” stems from “Luchorpain” which means “little stooping Lugh.” David Russell McAnally, on the other hand, argues that Leprechauns are the child of an evil spirit and a faerie (7). Any of these possible origin stories for the Leprechaun remain rich with possible content for any Fantasy writer.
Contemporary Portrayals of Leprechauns
Writers could also use contemporary portrayals of the Leprechaun and any controversy that may surround it to deepen any story. Most people today identify Leprechauns as light-skinned, green-clothed creatures who laugh frequently and easily (8). Older tales, however, identified the Leprechaun as dark-skinned and prone to fits of sullenness. What happened to these dark-skinned, sullen figures and how do they fit into the modern world? Some find the current image of the Leprechaun as a racist depiction of negative Irish stereotypes. Certainly, the use of the Leprechaun to sell alcoholic beverages can be considered slightly inappropriate (9). How would a Leprechaun feel about his race being used in such a way? Society has created this idea of the Leprechaun through a quilting together of English, Scottish and Irish mythology. Three cultures who, throughout history, have not had peaceful relations. Could this have had an impact upon the Leprechaun in your story?
Fantasy writers may find the Leprechaun offers an interesting history and mythology that can be added to any fictional story. A large degree of poetic license is granted by the continued confusion over the Leprechaun’s abilities, appearance and nature. Most audiences will easy recognize a Leprechaun or the characteristics of a Leprechaun which a writer could use to benefit his or her story. Despite his popularity, the Leprechaun has not had as much use in popular fiction as many other fantasy creatures such as the vampire, elf, or dragon.
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1. Arrowsmith, Nancy.Field Guide to the Little People. “Leprechauns.” (2009): 133-137.
2. “Leprechauns.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. NP. Web.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leprechaun June 14, 2013
3. HOgain, Dr Daithi. “Leprechauns.” Myth, Legend, and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition. 1991. Print
4. “Leprechauns.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. NP. Web.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leprechaun June 14, 2013
5. Arrowsmith, Nancy.Field Guide to the Little People. “Leprechauns.” (2009): 133-137.
6. Cotterell, Arthur. “Lugh” The Encyclopedia of Mythology. 1999. Print.
7. “Leprechauns.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. NP. Web.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leprechaun June 14, 2013
8. Arrowsmith, Nancy.Field Guide to the Little People. “Leprechauns.” (2009): 133-137.
9. “Leprechauns.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. NP. Web.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leprechaun June 14, 2013