The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind

By Neil Philip

One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

English Folktales Lost & Found

On Tuesday 11 October, The Watkins Book of English Folktales was published, a re-vamping of a book first published 30 years ago as The Penguin Book of English Folktales. The first edition vanished into the void; this new one, helped by a Neil Gaiman foreword and a marvellously supportive publisher, is getting rapturous acclaim. I was supposed to be giving a talk at the Bodleian Library in Oxford on publication day, alongside another Unbound author, Elizabeth Garner, whose beautiful book of retold folktales Lost & Found was published last month. We thought it would be interesting to have the contrasting views of a scholar and a storyteller on essentially the same material. Sadly, personal circumstances meant I had to withdraw at short notice, but Professor Diane Purkiss of the Oxford University English Faculty delivered my talk for me. Some of you may well have been among the online audience, but for anyone who wants it, here it is:


Sorrow and Love: The Poetry of the English Folktale


On 26 September 1914, an English Romany named Gus Gray told a story called “Sorrow and Love”. It’s an English version of an international folktale type, known as “The Search for the Lost Husband”, or sometimes after its first known incarnation in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, as “Cupid and Psyche”. It was a Scottish story of this type, “The Black Bull of Norroway” that gave Tolkien his idea of the eucatastrophe, the happy ending achieved after much sorrow and hardship.

         Gus Gray told the collector T. W. Thompson nine stories in this one storytelling session. Thompson regarded his narrative skills very highly, describing him as “even in ordinary conversation... a man of beautiful speech”, who was capable in his storytelling of rising to heights of poetry. Thompson writes:


 “I remember particularly (who could forget it?) his description of Squire King Kaley’s mare in ‘Sorrow and Love’ as the rider reined her in to keep pace with the old farmer’s cob. ‘The bit was hard back in her mouth, and the foam flying like big flakes o’ snow; the veins on her neck was standing out like rope; the sweat dripping off her like a hail o’ bullets; her chestnut coat black wi’ sweat, and shiny like jet. She was all of a dither; at a touch she’d ha’ jumped out’n her skin.’”


         This is an example of one of the kinds of poetry that is evident in the English folktale, the poetry of verbal dexterity and daring, the creation of a vivid picture or a dramatic scene on the wings of the moment. Another kind of poetry can be found in the way the stories unfold in what Joseph Jacobs called “bright trains of images”. A Derbyshire version of “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Small-Tooth Dog” demonstrates this well. When the dog rescues a merchant who has been beset by thieves, the merchant offers him anything he wants in return. A fish that can speak twelve languages; a goose that lays golden eggs; a mirror in which you can see what anybody is thinking about. But the small-tooth dog refuses them all; what he wants is the merchant’s daughter.

         These bright trains of images can be expressed in vivid language that is highly personal to the individual storyteller, which will vary according to the context and audience for each particular narration. But they can also be told in a language of inherited phrases and formulae. This is particularly obvious in the formal openings and closures of many tales. Here, for instance, is the opening of a version of “Jack the Giant Killer”, collected in Herefordshire in 1909 from W. Colcombe.


         “Once upon a time—a very good time it was—when pigs were swine and dogs ate lime, and monkeys chewed tobacco, when houses were thatched with pancakes, streets paved with plum puddings, and roasted pigs ran up and down the streets with knives and forks on their backs crying ‘Come and eat me!’ That was a good time for travellers.

         “Then it was I went over hills, dales, and lofty mountains, far farther than I can tell you tonight, tomorrow night, or any other night in this new year. The cocks never crew, the winds never blew, and the devil has never sounded his bugle horn to this day yet.

         “Then I came to a giant castle; a lady came out of the door with a nose as long as my arm. She said to me, she says, ‘What do you want here? If you don’t be off from my door I’ll take you up for a pinch of snuff.’ But Jack said ‘Will you?’ and he drew his sword and cut off her head.”


         One of the interesting things about this opening is the way it works its way by means of formulae into the fairy tale proper, the moment when “I” becomes “Jack”.

         So there is verbal creativity involved in folktale narration, but also verbal memory, and these two elements are differently balanced in every single telling.

         Some may be surprised to learn of the existence of a whole range of English folk narrative, including jokes, anecdotes, local legends, stories of ghosts, fairies, mermaids and witches, as well as fairy tales with all their magic and wonder.

         If we had a time machine and could go back to almost any moment in English history before the societal disruption of the Industrial Revolution, and the cultural disruption of near-universal literacy, what riches of oral literature would be revealed. As it is, scholars and storytellers alike have had a struggle to document a barely visible tradition of English folktales. To compile The Watkins Book of English Folktales required research in many different kinds of documents—diaries, autobiographies, and memoirs; the endnotes to a volume of Hungarian folktales; scrappy collections of antiquarian lore.

         In some cultures, storytelling has a distinct cultural value, and storytellers are highly regarded. Storytelling in England seems, from the written record, to have been much more informal and ad hoc. Stories were told as the occasion arose, in the fields, or at work, or at nighttime to a child, as a natural element of daily life. We know that stories were told in the casual wards of workhouses, in prisons and on transport ships, on coaches, in pubs, and in other situations where people were crowded together with no entertainment other than their own wits. 

         Albert Smith’s 1848 novel Christopher Tadpole describes an excursion party which provides a typical image of English storytelling. After “the jolly man” has told a sensational story of an attempted robbery:


“such an impetus had been given to the narrative faculties of the van party that they all began to tell stories at once, of things that had happened to them. And after this they dropped down to anecdotes and witty sayings, and finally sang songs.”


         One typical setting for storyelling was the dinner table. The gossipy Victorian clergyman Augustus Hare was much in demand as a dinner guest because of his fund of stories, recorded in his voluminous autobiography, The Story of My Life. Hare specialised in scary stories, which he used as currency to “sing for his supper”. “The Tell-Tale Sword”, for instance, learned from Mrs Hall Dare, tells of a young woman who practises folk magic in order to summon her future husband. He duly appears through the locked door, a young man in uniform. The girl faints, but in the morning finds the young man’s sword lying on the floor. Next year, she meets the same young man in real life, they marry and are happy, until the time comes to pack up their possessions when they move. When her husband sees the sword, he asks how she came by it, and she tells him the whole story.


         “He was rigid. He said, ‘I can never forgive it; I can never see you again;’ and nothing she could say or do could move him. ‘Do you know where I passed that terrible night?’ he said; ‘I passed it in hell!’He has given up three-quarters of his income to her, but she has never seen him since.”


Although this is told as a true story about a friend of the storyteller, it is recognisably a folktale in shape and form; there is an Irish version of essentially the same tale in Michael J. Murphy’s My Man Jack.        

In his Foreword to The Watkins Book of English Folktales, Neil Gaiman recalls how when he was a child, he thought that “folk stories and fairy tales came from somewhere else, not England.” When he read the book in its first incarnation thirty year ago, “it changed the inside of my head”. Reverberations from this can be felt in Gaiman’s Sandman, in his novella Snow, Glass, Apples(inspired by Traienti Lovell’s version of “Snow-White”), and in Coraline, in which Coraline’s scary “other mother” with her big black button eyes has her roots in “The Pear-Drum”, with its ghastly new mother “with glass eyes and a wooden tail”.

         “The Pear-Drum” is an interesting example of how stories dip in and out of the oral and written traditions, from mouth to page and back again. It started out as a literary fairy tale, “The New Mother”, published by Lucy Clifford in 1899. It haunted the imagination of the historian of children’s literature, F. J. Harvey Darton, who wrote that, “Getting on for fifty years after I met her first, I still cannot rid my mind of that fearful creation.” J. Y. Bell contributed an orally transmitted version of the story, now called “The Pear-Drum”, to the journal Folklore in 1955. Since then it has turned into Alan Garner’s “Iram, Biram” as well as morphing into an elemental strand of Coraline.

         The poet John Clare provides another example of this cross-fertilization. Clare knew folktales both from oral narration (his father had a store of them) and from chapbook retellings. When he writes about Cinderella in The Shepherd’s Calendar, he mixes details derived from Perrault’s “Cendrillon”, such as the pumpkin carriage and rat coachmen, with elements from a different, local, version, in which it is a “golden glove” that Cinderella loses at the ball, not a glass slipper.


         The tale of Cinderella told

         The winter thro and never old

         The faireys favourite and friend

         Who made her happy in the end

         The pumpkin that at her approach

         Was turned into a golden coach

         The rats that faireys magic knew

         And instantly to horses grew

         And coachmen ready at her call

         To drive her to the princes ball

         With fur changd jackets silver lind

         And tails hung neath their hats behind

         Where soon as met the princes sight

         She made his heart ach all the night

         The golden glove wi fingers small

         She lost while dancing in the hall

         That was on every finger tryd

         And fitted hers and none beside

         When cinderella soon as seen

         Was woo’d and won and made a queen.


         The imaginations of writers such as Clare, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens were suffused with English folktales—The Watkins Book of English Folktales contains two stories from Hardy, “The Ghostly Woolpack” and “The Haunted Barn”, evidently gleaned from local sources, and two from Dickens, “Captain Murderer” and “Chips”. Both of these gruesome stories were told to him by his childhood nurse, Mary Weller, who seems to have specialised in “frighteners”. Dickens recalled how she told him “Captain Murderer” hundreds of times, with “a fiendish enjoyment of my terrors, and used to begin, I remember—as a sort of introductory overture—by clawing the air with both hands, and uttering a long low hollow groan.” This reminds us, of course, that oral storytelling is not solely about words, but that it incorporates gestural and performative elements too.

         Shakespeare knew and referred to English folktales, often in an obliquely allusive way that suggests he expected his audience to be familiar with them too. So a throwaway line in Hamlet, “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter,” turns up as a folktale in both Gloucestershire, in which the mean baker’s daughter is transformed into an owl by “Our Saviour” himself, and in Herefordshire, where the punishment is inflicted by a fairy.

         Just as writers from Chaucer and the Gawain Poet, through to Shakespeare and George Peele, right up to Dickens and Hardy, have taken inspiration from our rich and strange folktale tradition, so it is hoped that the unvarnished folktales in The Watkins Book of English Folktales—in which nothing is retold, summarised, altered or “improved” in any way—will be a source of inspiration for novelists and poets and today’s thriving band of oral storytellers. For the point of presenting authentic texts of the tales, with detailed notes on their origins and variants, was not to preserve them in aspic, but to offer them as armature for creative interpretation by new voices and new imaginations. Emily Dickinson wrote that,


         A word is dead

         When it is said,

         Some say.

         I say it just

         Begins to live

         That day.


The same is true of a folktale. When it is written down, turned from living words on the air to frozen words on the page, it is in a kind of enchanted sleep, waiting behind a hedge of type to be woken once more, whether by a prince or in Taimi Boswell’s skit on the tale type, by Lousy Jack, the youngest of twelve sons, who makes his way through the barrier of thorns because he liked “a good scratching because he was lousy.” This comic text seems to have been a parody of another tale, “The Castle o’ the Golden Phoenix, the Bottle o’ Eversee Water and the Three Sleeping Beauties”, known to have been in the repertoire of both Taimi Boswell and another Romany storyteller, Jimmy Smith, whose version apparently took six hours to tell; unfortunately no text survives of this longer tale.

         In Gus Gray’s “Sorrow and Love”, the strong and resourceful heroine loses her true love because she is one second late to their rendezvous.


“He got off his horse, took hold her hand, removed her glove, and then bit off the end of her little finger. With it he made three bloodstains on the front of his white shirt. Then he jumped on his horse, ‘My name is Squire King Kaley: if you ever find me again then I’ll make you my wife.’”


And so begin her terrible trials, as she tramps through the land with just a pair of thin slippers on her feet.  When she finally tracks down Squire King Kaley, she finds she has a rival, and takes a job as her servant. Among other things, she has to cry a bowl full of tears. But at the end, “Squire took bride in his arms and kissed her. ‘You’ve had your sorrow; now you are going to have love.’”

         And there is Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” at the end of a fairy tale, yielding “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Both sorrow and love.


         Be bow bend it,

         My tale’s ended.

         If you don’t like it,

         You may mend it.



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