One of my favorite quotes from Brave is in Merida’s intro, “Some say our destiny is tied to the land, as much a part of us as we are of it. Others say fate is woven together like a cloth, so that one’s destiny intertwines with many others. It’s the one thing we search for, or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led.”
In Disney Pixar’s Brave, Merida is riding through the forest looking to change her fate, when she sees tiny blue lights that form a path beckoning her to follow them.
Scotland is full of legend and folklore and it is said that Will-o’-the-Wisps are either mischievous spirits of the dead, or spirits such as fairies, which lead travelers off the beaten path.
The bright blue will o’ the wisps in Brave seemed so alive, I think if they crossed my path I might be tempted to follow them if I could find the courage.
Travelers—particularly those who venture out after sunset on unfamiliar pathways—beware of the will o’ the wisps.
So what are they really? According to Merriam-Webster,
“The will-o’-the-wisp is a flame-like phosphorescence caused by gases from decaying plants in marshy areas. In olden days, it was personified as “Will with the wisp,” a sprite who carried a fleeting “wisp” of light.
Foolish travelers were said to try to follow the light and were then led astray into the marsh. (An 18th-century fairy tale described Will as one “who bears the wispy fire to trail the swains among the mire.”)
The light was first known, and still also is, as ignis fatuus, which in Latin means “foolish fire.” Eventually, the name will-o’-the-wisp was extended to any impractical or unattainable goal.”
When I spoke with “Brave” director Mark Andrews, he had his own interpretation.
“The Will-o’-the-Wisps are in a lot of Scottish folktales.
They were said to lead you to treasure or doom—to change your fate—but they’re an actual phenomenon of swamp and bog gas seeping up through the earth and interacting with the natural resources to create the blue flames.
People would follow these lights thinking they were little fairies, and basically drown or get sucked down into the bogs.”
So Will-o’-the-Wisps are basically enchanting balls of greenish-blue floating lights observed over swamps and marshes at night. At a distance, they look identical to flickering lanterns.
It is said—though by whom is a bit of a mystery—that on certain days for certain travelers in certain parts of the world, little lights dance on the horizon, whispering tempting invitations… pledging the answers to lifelong questions, the realization of dreams, a key to secret treasures—a change of fate.
The animated lights, Will-o’-the-Wisps, lead Merida to a mysterious location where she finds the witch’s cottage that holds the power to change her destiny, although not necessarily for the better.
Charmed and curious, unsuspecting travelers follow the floating lights, mesmerized by their whispers, their promises.
Yet no matter how long or how fervently they follow, they never quite touch the beautiful beacons whose flickering lights eventually fade and disappear… leaving the inquisitors, the dreamers and the treasure seekers lost… and alone.
“We made the wisps like actual little spirits,” Andrews continues. “They’re almost like Marley’s ghost in a way, because Marley’s ghost isn’t an evil spirit—even though he’s frightening, he’s trying to warn Ebenezer to change his ways. That’s what the wisps are doing. There’s a duality to them, because they’re either good or evil—they lead Merida into more and more trouble, but in the end, they’ve led her exactly where she needs to go.”