One of Disney and Pixar’s collaborations, Brave, delves deep into the Scottish highlands, complete with proud patriarchal clans and mysterious stone circles. Among the striking images of the film (besides that incredible head of hair) are the Fantastic and enigmatic blue wisps that guide the protagonist Merida at various stages of her journey.
The folklore surrounding will-o’-the-wisps dates back centuries. The exact origins of will-o’-the-wisps vary depending on who’s telling the story; it is either a fae creature, a spirit of the restless dead, or a combination of the two. Generally the wisp manifests as a ball of white or blue light in a swamp, marsh, or graveyard, and according to wikipedia is the same flickering light phenomenon as jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, and hobby lanterns.
However, while Brave’s wisps are of uncertain motivation at the outset, but ultimately benevolent, folklore paints will-o’-the-wisps as entirely deceptive, and at times even evil; a wisp usually lures travelers off of safe paths and onto treacherous ground. For many years will-o’-the-wisps were viewed as supernatural creatures that responded to the motion of their viewers, always receding just out of reach when approached, but sometimes following travelers who tried to ignore them. This prevailing belief prevented any serious attempt to scientifically classify them until the eighteenth century. However, it has since been discovered that there may be actual scientific phenomenon that explain the frequency and wide spread occurrence of wisp sightings throughout history. Natural gases in swamps and marshland are said to be able to at times ignite spontaneously to give off light, often with a bluish hue (although some contest this as an explanation, as it is increasingly difficult to observe this in nature due to the drainage and reclamation of swampland). In addition, bioluminescence in fungi or fireflies probably contributed to the legends.
Within the story of World of Warcraft, the legend of the will-o’-the-wisp is given a beautiful and much less sinister spin, although a good deal of the mystery remains.
One of the oldest civilizations in World of Warcraft is that of the Night Elves (although most agree that Troll civilizations predated those of the elves, a subject tied closely with the hotly discussed relationship between the two races in the WoW forums). For as far back as the history of the Night Elves is recorded, the wisps have been their devoted allies. Using their power to manipulate the shape of living wood, the wisps aid the elves in the construction of their living buildings in their forest home of Ashenvale.
According to the game lore, the exact nature of wisps is unknown even to the Night Elves, but it is rumored that they are in fact the ancestral spirits of Night Elves. This theory is supported by the fact that Night Elven players, when dead, take on the form of a wisp, rather than a ghost, and by the fact that if you look closely enough you can sometimes discern an elvish face in the midst of a wisp’s glowing form. Strangely, wisps also have the ability to sacrifice, or plant themselves like a seed which, over a great deal of time, will grow into a giant tree-like ancient, another of the Night Elves’ Sylvan allies.
The convoluted nature of Night Elves’ genealogical relationships with their magical allies aside, the inclusion of wisps into the story of World of Warcraft is one of the more starkly folkloric touches in the game. It pulls together both the fae and ghostly natures of will-o’-the-wisp stories, and throws in some added charm through the creatures’ devotion to their elvish friends. It’s a far cry from the disembodied spirit of some malcontent luring travelers to a watery doom, but as long as we’re speculating, I’d like to posit a theory that glowing lights in the woods on a warm summer night are nothing more sinister than a fairy picnic.