Persisting Fairy Tales

Once (of course) upon a time, there lived three disciplines, and they lived in a cottage in the woods or possibly on separate parts of a campus. The Big one was called Anthropology, the Middle-sized one was called Folklore and the Teeny-tiny one was called Children’s Literature…

And one day Alan Garner and a whole load of other people threw open to all of them (rather more than three!)  the question

Where are your stories?

That question, which he asks in story-form as well as lectures, might be seen as being as disruptive as the breaking-and-entering “delinquent little tot” Goldilocks’ intrusion into the bears’ cottage. In Boneland – not Children’s Literature, I know – Garner asks his storytelling ancestor this massive question about the roles of story and culture. The Man says he “dreams in Ludcruck…the cave of the world” and in response to the question about stories, begins with an origin tale about Crane. The Man’s stories (which are, after all, Garner’s stories) continue to ring true for the human newcomers to what we now might call the Peak District, and so his dancing and singing are not in vain: the stories are handed on. Garner talks about this relationship of place and story passionately, eloquently. They become origin stories, spirit stories, and mix with concerns through the ages to give Garner his alfar and his Morrigan. This kind of reconstruction and continuity gives a lot of power to the way Garner (and Townsend and Rowling and Pullman and Lewis….) themselves tell stories, drawing some of their authority (if that’s the word) from storytelling of past times. If there is continuity here it is because folklore scholarship has enabled a sort of  continuity of sources. Leafield’s Cure-all Water, its Black Dog, all the Black Dogs maybe, and the standing stones at Rollright and elsewhere are examined by writers such as Katherine Briggs and Neil Phillip and often re-presented by Briggs, Lively, Rowling et al. One form of continuity.

We see another in the engaged and detailed work exploring landscape and language in Rob Macfarlane’s Landmarks which, as he writes of Richard Jeffries, is

fascinated by the strange braidings of the human and the natural.

Here, language is seen to contain elements of older land use, beliefs and practices. Sparrow-beaks explain fossilised sharks teeth and a tuft of grass looking like a bull’s forehead is bull-pated in Northamptonshire.

I have written before about folk tales that explain places, and how these “fairy” tales do provide a sort of continuity, although I think that possibly the syncretism of European story and British folk tales brings its own obscurity: Garner is on his own ground by Seven Firs and Goldenstone, but he is not suggesting that le Petit Chaperon Rouge lived in Congleton.

Where we get into trickier areas is when folklore is pulled into service elsewhere. Gargoyles and grotesques become evidence of a continuing belief in goblins; stories of boggarts become somehow real. I have looked behind me in darkening woods, been impatient to leave a lonely valley, and must acknowledge the pull of this argument, just as Garner steps (nimbly) between his own writing and rural practices and traditions in discussing the roots of his great novel Thursbitch. This talk is chilling, enlightening, inspirational – so that Big Bad Wolves, the Green Knight, Garner’s vision of story and space walking together pepper this blog:  turn but a stone and start a þurs. 

But can this is universalised?   I suppose my problem comes down to how much is understood but not spoken and certainly not (until recently) written. Can we see a Jack-in-The-Green and know for certainty this is the same as the carving on that roof boss, and that this is a continuing belief?  Can we really link Star Carr and Abbots Bromley? Did my great-grandma know quite who she might be warding off by crossing the fire-irons at night?

I would love to see those links clearly. We have tantalising hints, shadows, half-stories (Katherine Briggs’ doctoral work documenting the continuing traditions in literature in folklore across the Interregnum is fascinating) that might lead us in all sorts of directions, and Garner’s defence of place and story should not be overlooked. Rob Macfarlane’s “strange braidings” go between town and country but also between present and past, and how far back they link and join we can speculate  – but we cannot know. Briggs puts it well when she comments on the recurring concerns in Arthurian stories:

A remarkable thing about the Arthurian stories is the way in which primitive themes reappear amongst the most sophisticated embroideries. It seems as if the matter of Britain had a magnetic quality which attracted every type of myth towards it

This “magnetic quality,” it seems to me, is a good image of how Children’s Literature, especially when it explores themes that themselves arise from traditional tales, draws to itself fears and triumphs from former times. Piers Torday’s There May be A Castle is a good example, where quests and knights and woods and danger are explored: Abi Elphinstone, too, works magic here. Perhaps our best bet is to see that similar concerns – fears of the outside as well as celebrating its joys, the worrying menace of wolfish men, women placed outside the Christian context by their (sometimes useful) cunning, half-seen wanderers in a twilight wood –   continue to be represented in cult and place and story.

Apologies for the weak ending here: I think what it means for me is that, studying Children’s Literature I have to pay due attention to Anthropology and Folklore as fundamental to my understanding of so many works I want to study. You can see it clear as day in Garner’s Elidor or Weirdstone – but what about other books – younger children’s books, for example –  I am trying to look at, where the outdoors is a challenging place?




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