Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella. Puss-in-Boots. All names with which most of us are familiar. But in Britain, when it comes to our own folk tales, myths and legends, most are long forgotten. Few of us know the names of Woden, Herne the Hunter or Wayland the Smith, though their stories were once passed down through generations. Mention Jack-in-the-Green and you’ll be met with blank looks. In Scotland and Ireland there is Cuchulainn, and in Wales the Mabinogion. Children are more likely to know the deeds of Hercules or Achilles than Bladud or Belinus. It is as though a fog has descended, obscuring the stories that once made up the cultural scenery of these islands.
When we talk of folk tales, we are referring to the oral stories of common people. In the British Isles, a rich folkloric tradition emerged following waves of invasions by, among others, Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans. They are tales of dragonslayers, giants, and wizards, preserved in texts like Beowulf, Old English poetry and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. But over centuries, knowledge of them faded. Numerous reasons have been suggested for this, including the rise of Christianity, the Norman Conquest, Reformation, Interregnum, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, capitalism, globalisation or merely the passage of time.
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Or perhaps Britain has erased its folk tales in an attempt to forget its past. Folk law is the ethnography of peoples, holding memories of traditions, beliefs, and values whose existence may have long vanished. In Britain there appears to be some modern discomfort with folktales, tied as they often are to particular landscapes, people and nations. After the Second World War, Germanic folklore, which the Nazis had overtly employed as a tool to bolster their notion of an Aryan nation, fell out of fashion. It may be that ongoing discussions around British Empire and colonialism, and the sense that folk tales are too easily linked to a nationalistic nostalgia, have made them taboo once again. Or perhaps in a post-Brexit world, anything that sniffs of specifically British or English myths aligns too closely with a perceived backwardness, insularity, or prejudice.
But it is their very sense of place and ties to particular landscapes and peoples that ensure their continued relevance. In the face of global “McDonaldsisation” that flattens the diversity of cultural traditions into a sanitised monoculture of big brands and business suits, folk tales radically resist homogeneity. As Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage points out, globalisation gives rise to “grave threats of deterioration, disappearance and destruction” of heritage such as folklore. Folklore is a “mainspring of cultural diversity”, and its loss is tantamount to cultural destruction. A country ripped from its roots, with no sense of self, will fracture. It will leave people unmoored in an increasingly impersonal world. Brexit has been endlessly analysed as a reaction against globalisation by those angry at how their lives and cultural identities have been disregarded. Perhaps the vote was a desperate attempt to grasp something vital they felt was being lost. Folklore is one such vital anchor, connecting us with that past and each other.
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Folk tales have refused to be banished entirely. Sporadic resurgences litter the 20th and 21st centuries, from the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner, to the folk horror movement in films such as The Wickerman and Midsommar. Today a new generation of British writers is exploring the folk tradition: Neil Gaiman and A.S. Byatt have reimagined the Norse myths; Max Porter’s Lanny features an incarnation of a “Green Man” or woodwose; Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent revolves around superstitions of a legendary serpent; Zoe Gilbert’s Folk interweaves folk stories with the lives of the inhabitants of a remote island. All these centuries later, artists are discovering reasons to explore these ancient stories.
But why? Perhaps the first attraction of folk tales is that they are tales of wonder and magic. Folk tales, put simply, enchant. When the philosopher Max Weber spoke of the “disenchantment of the world”, he was talking of the dominance of scientific thinking, reason, and modernisation. Everything was, in theory, knowable. Superstition and other irrationalities would be banished. But folk tales, concerned as they are with the unexplainable, are the opposite of disenchantment. In Andrew Michael Hurley’s Starveacre the corpse of a hare can regrow muscle and skin and return from the dead. In Garner’s Booker-nominated Treacle Walker the arrival of a rag and bone man brings ancient rituals and second sight — an entire book, if you will, about rubbing at our dulled, disenchanted vision and revealing magic.
However, magic is often dismissed as a subject for children — not literary fiction. With the exception of genres such as magic realism, stories of magic are often seen as slightly shameful or embarrassing, unlike, say, a solid realist novel about contemporary issues. Today, many of the motifs and settings of folklore can be glimpsed in children’s literature: Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Perhaps no one has done more to cement the folk or fairy-tale as an art form for children than Walt Disney. But rarely has literary fiction been permitted the same licence. When authors do dabble in folklore, the response is often bafflement or snobbery. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, set in an ancient Britain of monsters and dragons, was met with general bewilderment.
Yet there is clearly desire for these kinds of tales. “The fairy-story is really an adult genre, and one for which a starving audience exists,” as Tolkien put it. There is no better example than the continuing popularity of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, inspired by Old English and Norse literature, and more recently George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. These are not niche fantasy, children’s works, or guilty secrets, but mainstream, celebrated works of art. Perhaps those who scoff at magic and folk tales have “stopped short of true maturity”, which, according to WH Auden, consists of “a recovered sense of wonder”.
Fairy tales aren’t just about escapism, though. They can be political too. Many modern writers use folk tale characters and motifs to fight against a modernity that is destroying the planet and old ways of life. Now the forgotten figures of the past, the Green Man, giants and fairies, embodiments of the natural world, are resurrected and reimagined as defenders of the environment. In Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s state-of-the-nation play, a decaying olde England of druids and maypoles clings on even as the “civilising” modern world tries to sweep it away with clipboards and council edicts. That it has passed into near-legendary status since its premiere in 2009, with performances still selling out in 2022, is telling.
Clearly the old tales cannot be silenced. They cling on all these centuries later in new forms and new works as authors rediscover the rich traditions of this country. Perhaps one day, alongside Achilles and Hercules, Herne and Belinus and Wayland will take their rightful place in the pantheon of popular consciousness.