On English Folk Tales

Arthur Rackham’s ‘And they, so perfect is their misery’

Reynard, Brigid, and me were sitting in Toad Hall enjoyin’ a keg of their stout that had just been tapped, and discussin’ which bands were worth bookin’ for The Wild Hunt festival which will have English, Celtic, and Nordic performers, when he said that he had run ‘cross a magazine where the editor said that his reviewers and readers couldn’t tell the difference between English and Celtic music. ‘Eh?!? Bloody poor sods!’ was me reply, ‘Any reasonably smart musician who plays either Celtic or English music can tell the difference between the two.’ But it got us thinking ’bout what the differences were. Reynard insists that Celtic music is more centred around the group of musicians and English music is more of a community-based affair. Certainly, he notes, contradance music, which comes out of the English country dance tradition, de-emphasizes the musicians in favour of the dancers. The music is there for the sake of the dancers, not for the listening pleasure of passive spectators. The old contradance saying, ‘shut up and dance,’ sums up the purpose of the music very neatly — the music enables the dance to be. He notes that one website comments about English country dance: ‘…For many, it’s the music — hauntingly beautiful tunes that make the heart swell. Some dance tunes are taken from old ballads and political satire; others come from classical music and operas. This gives English Country Dance music tremendous variety; sometimes sweet and melodic, sometimes melancholy, and sometimes absolutely driven with a pulsating beat. All local dances feature live music, played by many of the area’s most accomplished musicians.’

Brigid here — As a dancer, what I like ’bout English dance music is that it’s bright and bouncy with rhythms that are obviously designed for dancing in pairs. Me husband obviously forgot that most Irish music is as danceable as English music, which to my ear is closer to the Nordic dance music than anything else. It’s good ‘nough to warm one’s self on a cold winter night!

Now what does that have to do with Oxford University Press’ A Dictionary of English Folklore? Just that the neatest things show up in the post here. And that there is a meaningful difference between all things Celtic and all things English. This book is an essential part of the library of anyone interested in all aspects of English folklore from Morris dancing to Father Christmas. Fairy rings and even the Wild Hunt itself are covered in exhaustive detail in this amazingly inexpensive (only $32!) book. And you’ve got to love a press release for a book that starts off thusly:

A Dictionary of English Folklore is the sort of book that one can dip into at random, or use as a serious reference work. It is often thought by many folklorists that English folklore is not nearly as rich as its Celtic counterparts in Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, and Scotland, or the Nordic countries with which England shares some commonalities of folklore themes. Bosh and tish! Like the music of England, the folklore of this country is both very old and very deep. I previously mentioned The Wild Hunt, which is more commonly considered to be German. The entry in A Dictionary of English Folklore for the Wild Hunt shows that it goes back at least as far as Arthurian times.

(An interesting question arises as to what is Celtic and what is English as the Arthurian mythos is claimed by both traditions.)

English folklore has been neglected in part because — like English traditional music — it simply isn’t as hot or marketable as Celtic folklore. It is indeed cool to claim Celtic ancestry in our culture, but less than fully acceptable to say one is of English ancestry. Thus, English folklore became the neglected grandparent of popular culture.

Brigid here again — May I note that A Dictionary of English Folklore is particularly useful when reading English folktales, or listening to artists like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention? Even the legendary Katherine Briggs, author of dozens of English folklore books, often used references she didn’t bother to explain fully. This book clears up those references very nicely!

How well versed are the editors, you ask? Let’s just say that this tome begins the process of reclaiming a uniquely English folklore tradition. (Note English, not British.) Calendar customs such as April Fools’ Day, May Day, and Royal Oak Day are covered, as are characters such as the Green Man (which did not exist by that name ’til 1939 when Lady Raglan said that was what the foliate heads on Churches were called) and Father Christmas; supernatural beliefs such as Fairy rings (again, also claimed by Celtic folklore), frog showers, and hag riding; and lots of detail on performance related activities such as Morris dancing and mumming. Anyone interested in folklore should read this book, as well as anyone who reads any amount of English fiction, such as mysteries set in the country. I’m sure you’ll find yourself using it to figure out what, say, the Whitsun celebration really was about, or why Midwinter celebrations aren’t exactly on the Winter Solstice! Anyone interested in understanding English customs would do well to have this book.

I really can’t quibble ’bout anything in this book. It’s not as ambitious as Jack Zipes’ The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales which me editor had some minor complaints about, and it certainly has everything I wanted in it. I don’t think the handful of photographs and drawings was worth including. It certainly will have an honoured place in our bookcase, and I expect both of us to use it over and over again. (I have one final note — they could have had a more extensive entry on bread, and there’s nothing on baking! Nor is there anything on ale!)

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