In her new book Carolyne Larrington explores the richness and diversity of the folklore of the British Isles, which of course comprises England, Wales, Scotland and the whole of Ireland. What is presented to the reader is a great treasury of ancient tales of the supernatural and legends that relate to the geographical features of these lands and the peoples who lived in them.
But this book is much more than a compendium of folk tales. It is a journey through the landscape. Here we learn about local people in real places, still in existence today, and interactions with all kinds of supernatural beings. All our old favourites are here: goblins, trolls, kelpies, enchanted shapeshifters and the whole panoply of folklore. There is not only entertainment but also wisdom to be gained from many of these stories. Lessons such as seeing beyond an ugly or repellent feature to the beauty lying within. The Irish tale of Oisin and the pig-headed Princess is such a story.
Arthurian legends, such as 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', receive a good deal of attention and analysis. The various claimed resting places of King Arthur himself are here. Also you will find many intriguing unexplained mysteries, such as the Black Dog or 'Black Shuck' of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. During a terrible storm of lightning and thunder on Sunday 4 August 1577, the villagers were sheltering in their churches and praying for deliverance. A few people met violent deaths when a 'horrible shapen thing' attacked them inside the sanctuary of the churches. This was perceived by the terrified villagers as the 'Black Shuck', and you can still see its black clawmarks on the church door in Blythburgh. The actual cause was probably ball-lightning, a strange phenomenon that might well in the circumstances be perceived as a vicious and evil entity.
Dr Carolyne Larrington is a Fellow and Tutor in Medieval English Literature at St John's College, Oxford, and a prolific author. Her erudition shows throughout this book as she not only re-tells these stories in a charmingly direct style but also perceptively analyses their deeper meanings.
In the hustle and bustle of modern-day Britain, especially in its increasingly congested urban areas, one can easily lose sight of the rich spiritual heritage of this 'green and pleasant land', as William Blake so memorably described it. The book's own cover blurb puts its theme this way: “Beyond its housing estates and identikit high streets there is another Britain. This is the Britain of mist-drenched forests and unpredictable sea-frets of wraith-like fog banks, druidic mistletoe and peculiar creatures that lurk, half-unseen, in the undergrowth, tantalising and teasing just at the periphery of human vision. How have the remarkably persistent folkloric traditions of the British Isles formed and been formed by the identities and psyches of those who inhabit them?”
The book comprises an Introduction and six Chapters: 'The Land over Time', 'Lust and Love', 'Death and Loss', 'Gain and Lack', 'The Beast and the Human' and 'Continuity and Change', followed by a section of Notes with references, a list of Further Reading and an Index. It covers a broad scope from ancient legends and mythology right up to modern culture, including 'Game of Thrones' and 'Harry Potter'. Perhaps as would be expected from the author's academic speciality, there is a strong literary aspect to the book, with some elegant interpretations and rigorous evaluations of novels in the fantasy genre.
It is a delightfully entertaining book that can be read for pleasure, ideal for bedtime reading or while on a journey. Yet it also has something of the nature of a reference book. That impression is given partly by the sheer amount of information and references contained in the text but mainly by the manner or format in which the text is laid out. There are occasional sub-titles, which help to locate a theme or story title, and some very welcome illustrations, 30 in total, which add greatly to one's interest and comprehension. However, to serve as a reference book it does require a comprehensive Index and that is sadly not the case. For example, having read the book thoroughly I knew that there were several references to Orkney, with some mermaid and selkie tales from those islands and even a summary of a 2013 novel with that title, but, inexplicably, 'Orkney' does not appear in the Index. The same applies to 'Isle of Man', appearing several times in the main text, but not at all in the Index.
Also on the downside there are rather too many pages where the text appears as a solid block with little or no variation. An otherwise exciting and fascinating subject thus becomes somewhat heavy and hard to read in places. This book's appeal would benefit from a little judicious editing to enhance its accessibility to the general reader. Obvious suggestions for improvement would be shorter paragraphs or better spacing, and more use of illustrations and sub-headings. Some variation of font size and boldness to emphasise particular names and themes would also help.
|"In the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck |
they now saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered,
pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes,
and a grin that ran right across his freckled face"
The Introduction opens with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill: “Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest - gone, all gone! I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.”
Following this most appropriate quotation, which sets the scene and themes of the whole book, the author invitingly draws us into her personal world with a warm description of her participation in a communal occasion: The Scouring of the White Horse. This family-centred event, arranged by the National Trust, was for the purpose of renovating the ancient chalk figure of the White Horse. This enormous figure, now known from archaeological research to be nearly three thousand years old, lies along a hill high above the Oxfordshire vale to which it gives its name.
As Oxfordshire is the author's adopted home county this anecdote is a nice personal touch for an Introduction. It also gives her the opportunity to describe the old-time Scouring Festival, almost an evocation of 'Merrie England'. This leads on to coverage of other ancient sites in the same area: Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hill fort, and the ancient Ridgeway, said to be England's oldest road. This route has been walked for five thousand years, originally running coast to coast, all the way from the Wash to the Dorset shore, passing the ancient mysteries of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill. Barrows and chamber graves, such as Scutchamer Knob and Waylands Smithy, lie on the Ridgeway. There are also dramatic natural features there, including Dragon Hill, where tradition has it that St George slew the dragon. White chalky patches show where the dragon's poisonous blood seared through the grass. The author conjures up the image of the brave young knight on his proud white horse which echoes the figure on the hillside above. However, she points out that the legend of George and the Dragon is truly an international one, whereas the tales associated with the White Horse are as local as they come. What is their significance?
Referring to archaeological digs and dating research, while acknowledging the great contribution this makes to our understanding of the lives of our ancestors, Larrington emphasises the limitations of such scientific knowledge: 'Knowing the Horse's age and knowing the tale of the Horse's habits: these are two crucially different modes of understanding the British landscape, both its past and its present.....And it's that 'something' that they were looking for, that second kind of knowing, that this book is interested in.'
As Larrington goes on to explain, it is a strong human urge to belong to a geographical place, be it a nation, landscape or city: “...our yearning to belong somewhere, to find a space called home, is an enormously powerful human drive, and the strength of our bonds with the land, even with the city streets, should never be underestimated. And strong too is our longing to be told stories, tales which draw their energy from the places where we live or where we travel.”
There is some poignancy to this statement by the author, as she confides that she was a 'forces brat', having to keep moving from place to place in her childhood. She felt that she came from 'nowhere', and this indeed explains her especially strong interest in what it means to choose and live in a particular place that one can call 'home'.
Many of these tales, featuring supernatural creatures such as giants, fairies and mermaids, are centuries old and had a life of their own. They refused to be locked away in libraries as 'records of superstition which no longer had any relevance to the modern age'. Authors such as Kipling, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis drew upon this rich heritage of mythology and dramatic legends for a reason. They were not simply re-telling old stories or creating new ones but rather examining the human condition and the challenges it poses; subjects such as life and death, love and desire, riches and poverty. As Larrington puts it, the legends of our past offer “beautiful and mysterious answers...to very large questions“.
One of the largest questions is, inevitably, 'Where do we come from?' There are of course many possible answers to that question, but at some point the mythological ones become just as valid as those based on scientific enquiry. Historical records go back only so far, and even the records of archaeology and geology are never complete and become essentially speculative and subject to interpretation. We know that dinosaurs existed because we can see their massive skeletons for ourselves in many Natural History museums. But as to how they evolved or were created is still uncertain. Whether humanoid monsters or giants ever existed is much more a matter of speculation. Huge natural features such as the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea are explained in mythology and folk tales as the work of giants. This book thoroughly details all of these ancient legends and manages to cover virtually every corner of the British Isles.
Regarding the origin of giants, many readers will already be aware of the account in the Old Testament that they were the hybrid offspring of coupling between 'sons of God and the daughters of men'. But did you know that the British Isles at one time had a large population of giants? In this book I learned of the legend of Princess Albina, the eldest of thirty-three evidently violent sisters, who arrived on these shores after some previous adventures. Apparently, this land was uninhabited at the time, apart from a multitude of demons, and the sisters named it Albion after their leader. Not having any men available, the unruly women were driven to coupling with the demons, giving birth to even more violent and uncivilised offspring. One wonders whether any of this progeny has survived in the genes of some modern-day Britons!
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's history, Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas from Troy and founder of Britain, systematically wiped out the giants throughout the land, all the way to Cornwall. It is said that the county gets its name from Brutus' companion Corineus, who killed the last mighty giant by throwing him off a cliff. That giant's name was Goemagog, or Gogmagog, whose name derives from the biblical giant pair Gog and Magog.
|WICKER IMAGES OF GOG AND MAGOG IN THE LORD MAYOR OF LONDON'S PARADE|
However unlikely this story may sound, the names have survived to this day. At the Guildhall in the City of London, many hundreds of years ago there used to be two giant figures representing Corineus and Gogmagog, later known as Gog and Magog. New figures were made in 1953 to replace the wooden figures destroyed during the London Blitz in 1940. Large wicker versions of Gog and Magog lead the procession of the annual Lord Mayor's Show. As we can see, ancient tradition is very important to the City of London and to Britain generally. 'They remind the city-dwellers that there are forces which, despite their ingenious technologies, their concreting over the clay, humans cannot control, and which they must remember to propitiate......they throw up important questions about how we live in this land...and how our imposition of human culture on nature has changed the land - and changed us'. There is an important message here. Ancient legends, particularly concerning giants, refer to powerful natural forces which may initially seem friendly but can turn extremely nasty and hostile if not treated with respect.
Before concluding with what or who the 'Green Man' is, this review would not be complete without mention of the 'Green Children'. According to a Latin chronicle written around 1210, two very strange green children, a boy and a girl, were found at the village of Woolpit, near Coggeshall in Essex. The composer of the chronicle, Ralph of Coggeshall, was the abbot of the Cistercian monastery there. He relates that the children had bright green skin and spoke an unintelligible language. They were taken to the local manor house of Sir Richard de Calne. There they refused to eat anything but beans. The boy did not thrive and eventually died, but the girl flourished and lost her greenness as she began to eat a more varied diet. Eventually she learned to speak English, so could then explain where she and her brother had come from. In simple terms, it sounds like fairyland. Could this be where ultimately the stories of 'little green men' originated?
As to the 'Green Man' himself, the nature god appearing in many places as a 'foliate head' mixture of human features and foliage, he never existed! Larrington saves this surprise for the end of her book. It was the anthropologist Julia, Lady Raglan, who gave birth to him in a 1939 edition of the journal Folklore by conflating the images of 'Jack-in-the-Green' inn signs with Robin Hood. So there you have it. Truth may sometimes be stranger than fiction, but, as this book beautifully shows, fiction can also become truth. -- Kevin Murphy