Thursday, 26 January 2017

Folklore and Memory



This is the text of a talk I gave at the University of Warwick, 25th January 2017.

I’m here to talk to you about folklore and memory. What I’m really going to do is tell you a lot of stories, and when we get on to the discussion part of this, I hope you’ll feel able to tell some stories to me.  First of all, though, it would be helpful to define some terms. I’m going to assume we have some kind of collective agreement of what memory is or at least what it feels like. Memory is about personal identity: we depend on memories, however fragmentary, for our sense of who we are – which is why it’s so awful when we lose them. But what, please, is folklore?

I want to suggest that folklore can be a form of memory and that memory actually is a form of folklore. Both are fascinating, both can be highly unreliable, and I think both are unreliable-but-powerful forms of history. I’ll try and explain why, as I go on.  

Let’s start with family folklore – personal tales passed down to us from our parents and grandparents. Perhaps there was a family tragedy or a wartime adventure, or some memorable act of generosity or betrayal.  Most of us know several stories about our parents – anecdotes about their childhood, the story of how they met. We probably know fewer about our grandparents, and quite possibly none at all about our great-grandparents, but family folklore seems to provide a sense of identity. We like to ‘know where we came from’. It gives us roots. One of my grandmothers was brought up in India, where she was born in 1886. She was a great raconteur and extremely pretty even as an old lady.  Here she is, aged about eighteen.


Many if not most of her stories involved men whose attentions she had to evade or fight off. Whether consciously or not, she told stories which emphasised her own attractiveness, courage and resource. There was one about encountering four soldiers as she came home from playing tennis (‘All I had with me was my tennis racket, Katherine!’) and another which involved an amorous male in a railway carriage, from whom she escaped with the assistance of an old lady and a parrot. I wish I could remember it, but I was only sixteen or so when she was telling me these stories, and hadn’t really been paying attention. Only the most striking of family tales survive three generations.

Most of the stories of most the people in all the generations before us have been lost. Some are simply forgotten, some are deliberately suppressed. Successful stories by definition are the ones we continue for some reason to value and therefore to tell. Before I go on, let me just say that folklore is a massively inclusive genre. It is quite literally the stuff people tell to one another, from useful stuff such as how to to treat a cough or get bloodstains out of linen, to how to keep on the right side of the fairies or the gods, or God. (Also useful!) Folklore includes myths and legends, songs, skipping rhymes and lullabies – ghost stories and fairy tales and jokes – family history, local history, natural history…  All these categories shade into one another. Let’s get some of them out of the way.  

First off, I’m not going to be talking today about myths or legends. Myths attempt to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it.  (So the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades is a religious, poetic exploration of the mysteries of winter and summer, death and birth.) Legends recount the deeds of heroes, like Achilles or King Arthur. There are often whole cycles of legends about single outstanding figures. 

I’m not going to be talking much about fairy tales either. The difference between folk tales and fairy tales is that fairy tales don’t ask to be believed. They are set far away and long ago. No one’s ever thought there was an historical Little Snow White or tried to point out the ruins of the Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Fairy tales are quite definitely fiction.

A folk tale is a humbler, more local affair. (By the way, as I’m talking today I’m going to be using the terms folk tale and story more or less interchangeably.) A folk tale’s protagonists may be well-known neighbourhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk tales happen in real, named landscapes. Green fairy children are found near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. In Dorset an ex-soldier called John Lawrence sees a phantom army marching ‘from the direction of Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill, and making for Wareham’. Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.  Folk tales often also involve legendary heroes, because everyone wants to be close to fame.



All over Britain, from Tintagel to Edinburgh and beyond, there are places associated with King Arthur. This is Arthur’s Stone near Dorston, Herefordshire – a Neolithic chamber tomb which according to various stories was either built by Arthur, or was his burial place, or was a place where he fought and buried a rival king. I said that fairy tales don’t ask to be believed. Well, folk tales do. Often – not always, but often – they tug at our sleeves, hinting they contain some kind of truth. We know there wasn’t ever a real Sleeping Beauty. But was there ever a real King Arthur? Was there a real Robin Hood? 

Well, was there? Do folk tales ever preserve ‘genuine’ folk memories?  As in, historical truths?  Here’s a man who thought not. 


This grim-but-dapper-looking gentleman is Fitzroy Richard Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan (1885-1964), amateur anthropologist and one-time President of the Folklore Society. In his 1936 book The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama, he provides a delightfully sceptical example of the way in which a tradition may become attached to a place:

1: ‘This house dates from Elizabethan times, and since it lies close to the road which the Virgin Queen must have taken when travelling from X to Y, it may well have been visited by her.’

2: ‘This house is said to have been visited by Queen Elizabeth on her way from X to Y.’

3: ‘The state bedroom is over the entrance. It is this room which Queen Elizabeth probably occupied when she broke her journey here on her way from X to Y.’

4: ‘According to local tradition, the truth of which there is no reason to doubt, the bed in the room over the entrance is that in which Queen Elizabeth slept when she stayed here on her way from X to Y.’

This is very shrewd and funny. All the same, such a story is going to be hard to kill in any individual case, because the Queen undoubtedly did spend the night in a great many different English country houses, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The owner of the house, who takes pride in this story, is not going to listen to Lord Raglan, casting cold water. The owner wants to believe it.  

Stories grow in the telling, too. Here’s another tale. A couple of years ago, BBC Radio 4 ran a series called ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. It was organised and written by the British Museum’s director Neil McGregor, and of course there was also a book.  Ranging from a 2 million year old African handaxe to a modern solar powered Chinese lamp, McGregor used artefacts in British Museum as the focus for a hundred thoughtful essays on the cultures and circumstances which produced them. Number 19 in the series is this.  


It’s a gold cape, it dates from between 1900 to 1600 BC, and it was found near Mold in North Wales in 1833. Here’s how McGregor introduces it:

For the local workmen, it must have seemed as if the old Welsh legends were true. They’d been sent to quarry stone in a field known as Bryn yr Ellyllon, which translates as the Fairies’ Hill or the Goblins’ Hill. Sightings of a ghostly boy, clad in gold, a glittering apparition in the moonlight, had been reported frequently enough for travellers to avoid the hill after dark. As the workmen dug into a large mound, they uncovered a stone-lined grave. In it were hundreds of amber beads, several bronze fragments, and the remains of a skeleton. And wrapped around the skeleton was a mysterious crushed object – a large and finely decorated broken sheet of pure gold.

McGregor goes on to tell how the workmen ‘eagerly shared out chunks’ of the gold, with ‘the tenant farmer taking the largest pieces’, and that it was only ‘three years after the spoils had been divided’ that the BM bought from the tenant farmer ‘the first and largest of the fragments of gold which had been his share of the booty’.

It’s quite a story. I blogged about it myself back in 2013. I wrote:

The mound those workmen were digging into was in a field called Bryn yr Ellyllon, the Hill of the Elves; and the legend of the hill was that it was haunted by a ghostly boy, clad all in gold.  Isn’t it possible that the sight of a young man being laid to rest in his shimmering golden cape so impressed and touched the onlookers that for nearly four thousand years if a child said, ‘Mother, who’s buried in that hill?’ the answer was ‘a boy all dressed in gold?’ 

When my friend the writer Susan Price expressed some scepticism about all this, I did some checking, and unfortunately for me and Mr Neil McGregor, I discovered some problems, even some inaccuracies in this romantic account. The discovery was originally made public on December 17th 1835 when John Gage, FRS, exhibited the flattened remains of the cape to the Society of Antiquaries of London.  The cape had been dug up two years and two months previously, on 11th October 1833 (which seems to me like speedy work for the early 19th century) and the tenant farmer – Mr John Langford – had been corresponding with antiquaries about it as early as January 1835, so to represent him as a treasure hunter interested only in ‘booty’ is rather unfair. A further letter of the same year written by the Vicar of Mold, Charles Butler Clough, provides the fullest account. 

A short time before the discovery of the Corselet, workmen had … made a considerable pit for some yards into the adjoining field. A new tenant, Mr John Langford … employed persons to fill in the hole by shovelling down the top of the bank. While so employed … about four feet from the top of the bank and without doubt upon the original surface, they perceived the Corselet.

The Vicar goes on to describe the burial in detail and then provides the only evidence for the ghost story.

Connected with this subject, it is certainly a strange circumstance that an elderly woman, who had been to Mold to lead her husband home late at night from a public house, should have seen or fancied, a spectre “of unusual size, and clothed in a coat of gold, which shone like the sun”  to have crossed the road before her to the identical mound of gravel, and that she should tell the story next morning many years ago, amongst others to the very person, Mr John Langland, whose workmen drew the treasure out of its prison-house. Her having related such a story is an undoubted fact. I cannot, however, learn that there was any tradition of such an interment having taken place; though possibly this old woman might have heard something of the kind in her youth, which still dwelt upon her memory … associated with the common appellation of the Bank, the Fairies’ or Goblins’ Hill, and a very general idea that the place was haunted.

So there hadn’t been ‘frequent sightings’, plural, of a ‘glittering apparition’ of a ‘golden boy’: the Vicar of Mold never says if the old woman thought the figure was male or female, young or old. And she saw it only once. But no one can resist a ghost story, can they?  And they get embroidered. If you google ‘Mold Gold Cape’ today you’ll come across references to ‘numerous past sightings’ of a ‘ghostly, giant warrior in golden armour’ who even used to ‘beckon travellers’ towards his burial place. However all that can be said for sure is that this spot, like many another in Wales, was named ‘Hill of the Elves’ before the finding, and was believed to be haunted. Since the vicar couldn’t turn up any other accounts of a golden ghost or a golden burial, bang goes the ‘information preserved in folklore’ theory, in this instance at least. If the old woman’s vision truly predated the finding of the cape, it was probably a coincidence. 

It’s all very sad. If you’re anything like me, you’d love to believe at least SOME folktales preserve real folk memories. A percentage of them may, perhaps, but which ones and how could it be verified? The author Adam Nichols, in his recent book about Homer, ‘The Mighty Dead’ (read it, it’s wonderful) tells an interesting story. In 1953, just 8 years after the end of the War, an American-Greek professor of ethnography, James Notopoulos, travelled to the Cretan province of Sfakia. Everywhere he went, men were singing songs about the War, the cruelty of the Germans, the burning of villages, the heroism of the defenders. The professor recorded many of these songs. 

One of the most daring acts of the war on Crete had been the successful kidnapping of Crete’s German commander, General Kreipe, by two British officers, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss, who were embedded in the Cretan resistance. They impersonated German soldiers, intercepted the general’s car, killed the driver, held a knife to the general’s throat and drove him through 22 German checkpoints before abandoning the car and taking to the mountain paths, where they hid up in the day and travelled by night for the next 20 days while the Germans combed the area for them. Finally they bundled the General on to a British Navy launch and took him to Alexandria. 

The professor was surprised he hadn’t yet heard any songs about this feat, and said as much to one of the local bards, a gifted young man called Andreas Kafkalas. Kafkalas agreed, and said he thought he could compose a song about it right now, ‘to fulfil the obligations of Cretan hospitality’. He began at once, using ‘the traditional Cretan fifteen syllable line’, and the professor recorded it. 
The story had changed almost beyond recognition.

In Kafkalas’ version, the two English officers are replaced by an unnamed English general who arrives in Crete and summons before him a local Sfakian hero, Lefteris Tambakis - who did exist, but who had no connection with this operation. The English general ‘draws himself up to his full height, weeps over the cruelties being done by the Germans to the people of “desolate Crete” and reads out the order to the Sfakian people that Kreipe be captured, dead or alive [all untrue – no such order existed].’ Next, Tambakis recruits a beautiful girl who sacrifices her ‘woman’s honour’ by seducing Kreipe (renamed “Kaiseri", which I assume means something like ‘the big boss’) who tells her all his plans. She passes these to Tambakis, who, riding a beautiful horse, intercepts the general’s car. ‘No horses were involved,’ Nicols tells us, ‘but they always are in old Cretan songs. The Cretan fighters strip the general naked [they didn’t] and he begs for mercy [he didn’t, but this is a motif that usually appears at these moments in Cretan poetry].’ Finally, after the journey over the mountains, a submarine takes the general away to Egypt. Hitler is in despair, and ‘Never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done.’  

‘If this is what could happen to a modern story in nine years,’ Nichols asks, ‘how could anyone hope that anything true might survive in the Iliad of the Odyssey?’ 

Well, in this folk version of the story, at least the core event remains - the successful kidnapping by Resistance fighters of a German General in occupied Crete during the Second World War. None of the other details are true, and though the reason Kafkalas changed them may partly be due to the formulaic structure of traditional songs, it seems obvious the main reason must be that he wasn’t emotionally invested in a story about two English heroes. He has transformed this true and dramatic event – far too good to forget - into a Cretan patriotic epic.  National pride demanded no less.

Pride trumps history.

The story that ‘Queen Elizabeth slept here’ means a lot to the man who owns the house; not much to anyone else.  We are all most invested in what is closest to us, belongs to us.  I grew up in Ilkley, Yorkshire, ‘knowing’ – and I don’t know who told me – that fairies were once seen splashing about in the well-preserved Roman Baths on Ilkley Moor, known as White Wells. The caretaker opened the door one morning and saw them ducking and splashing in the water, and when they saw him they rushed past him out of the door screaming like swallows. 

I didn’t believe the story but I knew the place, and I think I was proud of the fact that such a striking tale belonged to my town. But such local folk tales are unimportant or unknown to people living ten miles away (who have their own). There’s always the chance they’ll be lost. A storyteller dies. A family moves away. New people arrive. And no one remembers any more.

And sometimes, stories die because a deliberate effort has been made to erase them. Here’s an example. My third book, Troll Blood, is the final volume of a fantasy trilogy set in the Viking Age, incorporating a lot of Scandinavian folklore about trolls and other supernatural creatures. In this last book, my young hero and heroine set sail in a Viking ship to cross the North Atlantic and arrive in America as described in the ‘Greenlanders’ Saga’ and which we now know from archeological evidence the Vikings actually did. 



Because the book is a fantasy I wanted also to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls with whom my Norse characters shared their world. A folk belief in trolls is part of one people’s way of apprehending the world which defines and differentiates them from another group, for example one which believes in nymphs. (Trolls are rougher-edged, with snow on their boots.) I wanted to use stories from Native American folklore because I felt that to leave out any reference to the belief systems of the people I was writing about would be to lose a dimension. In travelling to North America, my Norse characters would have to meet Native Americans, and it was important that the latter should have a voice. For reasons I won’t go into here I chose to investigate the folklore of the Mi’kmaq of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, whose ancestors at least could have encountered the Norse voyagers. (No one really knows.) I spent at least six months, probably more, going through ancient copies of the Journal of American Folklore in the Bodleian, tracking down primary sources wherever I could, especially stories taken down verbatim from named individuals.  One of these was a story collected in the mid 1920s by the anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons from a Mi’kmaw woman called Isabelle Googoo Morris.

THE HAMAJA’LU

These are very small beings, no larger than two finger joints.  There are thousands of them who live along the shore. Water-worn, pitted stones are associated with them, “they have chewed in them, picked in them”. Once when some men landed on the shore for a short time, before they took to their boat again they saw a model of themselves and their boat made in stones by the hamaja’lu.  They work very fast. 

               Elsie Clews Parsons, ‘Micmac Folklore’, p94, J. of A. F, V.38, 1925



I thought this was charming, and the hamaja’lu went into my story. When the book was finished I sent it to be vetted to Dr Ruth Holmes Whitehead, an expert in Mi’kmaq studies who kindly set me right on a number of important points. But I was rather dismayed when she asked me to correct ‘the hamaja’lu’ to  ‘the wiklatmuj’ik’, a far more difficult word to read and pronounce. (My editor was certainly not going to like it!) So I asked her ‘Why? After all, the word ‘hamaja’lu’ is there, written down in a verbatim account.’   And she wrote back, ‘Because there is no ‘h’ in modern Mi’kmaq, and this word is obsolete. The word used today is the one I have given you.’   I wanted to be sensitive, yet felt I had to express surprise.  How could it be that a word used so freely in the 1920’s – there were several stories about the ‘hamaja’lu’ – could have died out?  Back came the reply: ‘You would not find it so surprising if you were aware that, during the course of the 20th century, generations of Mi’kmaq children were taken from their parents, put into homes, taught European ways, and punished – beaten, shut in cupboards, thrown down stairs – for speaking their own language.’ 

This sorry pattern of dominant Western culture imposing itself on the cultures of indigenous peoples has been repeated many times. Even though stories about the hamaja’lu were written down in the 1920s, they’re not told any more. (The wiklatmuj’ik aren’t really the same.) Such tales are more than curiosities. In many, many ways, folk tales make us. They define us as individuals, as families, clans and nations. Though the now-forgotten hamaja’lu may never have had objective reality, they were once part of a wider story, a belief system, part of the truth of Mi’kmaq identity.  That was what the Canadian Government was trying to eradicate. 

Lord Raglan was a real hard-liner about folk tales. He didn’t believe that any of them preserved any historical information at all. He defines history like this: History is the recital in chronological sequence of events which are known to have occurred. Insisting that history depends entirely on written chronology, he claimed that since (what he termed) ‘the savage’ cannot write, ‘…the savage can have no interest in history.’ 

I’ll let you gasp. He goes on,

Since interest in the past is induced solely by books, the savage can take no interest in the past; the events of the past are in fact completely lost.

Pause for another gasp. One more quote if you can stand it.

When we read of the Irish blacksmith who said that his smithy was much older than the local dolmen … or of the English rustic who said that the parish church (13th C) was very old indeed, it was there before he came into the parish, and that was over 40 years ago – we are apt to suppose the speaker exceptionally stupid or ignorant, but their attitude towards the past is similar to that of the Australian black who began a story with: ‘Long long ago, when my mother was a baby, the sun shone all day and all night’, and is the inevitable result of illiteracy. (my italics)

You know what? A man who poured scholarly scepticism on traditional tales about Queen Elizabeth, has no right to take these other tales at face value. He can’t have it both ways. Breaking his own rule, Raglan does not even source the first two anecdotes, which appear to be racist shaggy dog stories. In the third example, Raglan makes a category error. The Aboriginal storyteller is clearly opening a traditional story with the type of formulaic phrase found all over the world – a nonsense phrase which places it firmly in the land of long ago and far away. In other words, a fairytale. 

‘Long long ago, when my mother was a baby, the sun shone all day and all night.’ 

Compare with this, from the Brothers Grimm:

Once upon a time, when wishing stll helped one, there was a king who had three daughters.

Or with this super-exuberant opening from Romania: 

Once upon a time, long long ago (and if this story were not true, it would never have been told), when all the poplar trees were covered with pears, and the willows with nuts, when bears switched their tails like cows, when wolves and lambs loved each other like brothers, when fleas with ninety-nine pounds of iron on their backs hopped high in the sky and brought back wonderful stories, when flies wrote rhymes like this on the wall -  ‘A tap on the nose for all who doze/Who doubts my lore shall hear no more’ – once upon a time, then, there was a powerful emperor who had three sons.

Or even this: 

               Long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

None of these are naïve. The Aboriginal storyteller and her audience know perfectly well there never was a time when the sun shone all day and night. That’s the whole point. The concept is deliberately, joyfully surreal.  Far from from making any claim to be true, fairy tales openly delight in their unbelievability.   

How does Raglan miss all this?  Partly because his sense of privilege and superiority blinds him to the sophistication of illiterate narrators. And in my view he misunderstands folk narratives. What he really wants to do with folklore is to prove that ‘All traditional narratives originate in ritual’, which is a very 1930s thing to think.  Take the widespread folk motif of ‘The Faithful Hound’. The best-known British version is about Gelert, favourite wolfhound of the Welsh prince Llewellyn. The only thing Llewellyn loves better than his dog is his own baby son.  Coming home from hunting one day, he’s horrified when Gelert, whom he’d left guarding the child, bounds to greet him, jaws and muzzle covered in blood. He rushes into the castle hall to find the baby’s cradle overturned, the sheets bloodied, the child nowhere in sight. ‘Faithless hound,’ he cries. ‘You have murdered my son!’ and drawing his sword, strikes Gelert dead.  Then he hears a baby chuckle, and behind the cradle finds the child tugging at the fur of a huge dead wolf – which Gelert has clearly fought and slain. In deep remorse, the prince buries Gelert and raises a stone in memory of his faithful friend.  


Lord Raglan tries to convince the reader that this well-known tale-type preserves, as if in aspic, references to a type of ritual drama going back to the days of Abraham and Isaac when child sacrifice was replaced by animal substitutes. This is as much baseless conjecture as any ‘Queen Elizabeth Slept Here’ story. 

Now, OK, this is a guy writing in 1936: do we need to listen to his outmoded theories about what is and what isn’t history? Well, I think it’s salutary, I think it can provoke thought, because here’s where he goes wrong. He thinks, and a lot of people still think, history is all facts and dates and dated events, and being able to prove conclusively that certain things happened and where they happened, and when. Of course that’s essential. But another view of history could be that it’s what goes on inside people’s heads. It’s what we remember and what we forget, it’s what we’ve been taught and what we’ve never had a chance to learn. And it’s shaped and driven by all sorts of inconvenient emotions such as pride and shame and patriotism and nationalism.  


This is a book called ‘OUR ISLAND STORY, a History of England for Boys and Girls’, by H.E. Marshall, first published in 1904. 

The opening chapter,  ‘Albion and Brutus’, tells how Neptune and Amphitrite had a lovely little boy called Albion. They wanted to give him an island all of his own, so they sent the mermaids far and wide to find somewhere good enough, till at last one pretty little mermaid came back with news of an island ‘like a beautiful gem in the blue water’. So Albion ruled over this island for seven years, until he was killed in a fight with Hercules, and then Brutus arrived from Troy and fought and killed various giants who lived here, and finally, when Neptune retired as a god, because he had loved Albion so much he gave his sceptre to the islands now called Britannia –  ‘For we know – Britannia rules the waves.’

Now that’s clearly a fairy tale, even if parts of it are based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, which itself, as you’ll know, is almost entirely fiction. The author, who was Australian, winds up the chapter like this, loading it with nostalgia for the imagined past. 

In this book you will find the story of the people of Britain. The story tells how they grew to be a great people, till the little green island set in the lonely sea was longer large enough to contain them all. Then they sailed away over the blue waves to far-distant countries. Now the people of the little island possess lands all over the world. … Yet the people who live in them still look back lovingly to the little island, from which they or their fathers came, and call it ‘Home’. 

David Cameron (remember him?) has gone on record three times to describe Our Island Story as his favourite book. Clearly, its version of British history shaped his mind. In a speech delivered in 2014 just before the Scottish Referendum he says:

I have an old copy of Our Island Story, my favourite book as a child, and I want to give it to my three children, and I want to be able to teach my youngest, when she’s old enough to understand, that she is part of this great, world-beating story. And I passionately hope that my children will be able to teach their children the same … that together, these islands really do stand for more than the sum of their parts; they stand for bigger ideas, nobler causes, greater values. Our brilliant United Kingdom: brave, brilliant, buccaneering, generous, tolerant, proud – this is our country.

‘Our Island Story’ is absolutely jam-packed with pure folk tales. It’s got a chapter about how Merlin brought the Giants’ Dance (Stonehenge ) to Britain from Ireland for the legendary Aurelieus Ambrosius. It’s got a chapter about King Arthur (‘only fifteen when he was made king, but the bravest, wisest and best king that had ever ruled in Britain.’) It’s got the story of King Canute and the waves, and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Sir Walter Raleigh throwing down his cloak so Queen Elizabeth can walk across a puddle, an act beloved of illustrators such as Herbert Moore whose colourful picture of 1908 is reproduced at the head of this post, though there is no contemporary evidence Raleigh ever did such a thing. More bizarrely, 'Our Island Story' presents Raleigh as a benefactor of the Irish people; listen to this:

Two of the things Raleigh brought home with him [from the Americas] were tobacco and potatoes. [Queen] Elizabeth had given him estates in Ireland, and there he planted the potatoes and showed the people how to grow them. Even to this day the poor people in Ireland grow potatoes and live on them very largely.

Raleigh received his Irish lands as a reward for helping to put down the Desmond Rebellions, when he took part in at least one massacre, so this vision of him as a sort of kindly agriculturalist is ‘alternative truth’ of a high order. These are folk tales, not history. H.E. Marshall admits this openly in her introduction.

I must tell you that this is not a history lesson, but a story book. There are many facts in school histories, that seem to children to belong to lessons only. Some of these you will not find here. But you will find some stories that are not to be found in your school books – stories which wise people say are only fairy tales and not history.  But it seems to me that they are part of Our Island Story, and ought not to be forgotten, any more than those stories about which there is no doubt.

This is highly equivocal. The book is subtitled ‘A History of England for Boys and Girls’. In fact it’s a complete mélange of fact, folklore and fiction, and there’s very little way for a child to tell what’s true and what’s not. If anything, Marshall favours the unlikely but emotionally weighted tales. This is not history, but a book of stories chosen and designed to give a child a particular identity, that of the son or daughter of a heroic, benign and glorious British race. It is still in print. Lord Raglan – I assume –  would have deplored it and he’d be right. But even if they’re exaggerated, even when they’re total inventions, these stories, these folk tales, have become woven into the British historical narrative and won’t go away. They still influence real people, real politicians, real events. Stories are very powerful. With every story told to us, especially if it’s one which pretends to a thread of truth, it’s worth pausing to consider who is telling it, and why. The stories we choose to remember and pass on, as individuals, families, societies and nations, have real agency. Don’t think for a moment you can ignore them. 


Picture credits

Raleigh lays his cloak before Queen Elizabeth. Illustration by Herbert Moore, 1908, from 'The Men Who Found America' by Frederick Winthrop Hutchinson, 1909
Arthur's Stone, Herefordshire.  Photo by UKgeofan at Wikimedia Commons  
Lord Raglan. Photo by Evelina B at Wikimedia
Mold Gold Cape. Photo by kind permisson of the British Museum.
Pebble figure found on sand-dunes - Photo by Katherine Langrish
Llewellyn and Gelert. Engraving by Gourlay Steell RSA 1819-1894
Our Island Story, cover. Photo by Katherine Langrish


10 comments:

  1. Kath, I love, love, love your speech. I am printing it out and saving it for posterity. So many similar insights came to me while researching a forthcoming book set in 1890s tribal culture in the Philippines. Writing this book has been a reflection on identity and forgetting. You put into words all kinds of vague thoughts that I have yet to knit into coherence. Thank you.

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    1. Candy, this is such a compliment - thank you! x

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  2. You asked your audience for stories. Here's one that I like to fancy has become part of someone's family folklore. When I was 18 I spent about 2 weeks in Paris. One day I was standing on a bridge, leaning and smoking and looking at the Seine. Suddenly two young women about my age approached me, and said in French as bad as mine that they were visiting from New Zealand, and would I be kind enough to take their picture. I smiled and held out my hand for the camera. I maneuvered them about with waves of my hand and took the photo. They thanked me profusely and went their way. I had never said a word in French or English. I like to imagine that somewhere in New Zealand are two middle-aged women who on occasion talk about the nice, young Frenchman who once took their picture on a bridge over the Seine.

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    1. I hope so! How nice you didn't destroy their illusion!

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  3. Wonderful post. I wish I'd been in your audience!

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  4. Thank you for this thought provoking post! My gran has been a wonderful source of family folk history, and I find its always the small details that bring them to life; for example, the aunt who went to the cinema for the first time and couldn't understand why there was snow on the screen whilst it was the middle of summer, who was wearing a seal skin coat...or how my gran herself was 'lured' round to her future mother-in-law's house by a jar of marmalade so that she could be introduced to my grandad. The golden cape discovered in Wales made me think of this. I wonder...there are so many objects in fairy stories that are integral to the plot. The tinder box, for example. I know they are explicitly fiction and not meant to be taken as fact, but I wonder if they might have originated in a similar way, a story that contained an object that the teller couldn't remember, so the object became a focal point in a new story not meant to be interpreted as truth? Thank you for all the questions you've got me asking!!

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    1. Thankyou for those stories - I love the one one about the snow in summer! Yes, object in fairy stories are often utilitarian. I wrote an essay on 'Enchanted Objects' in my recent book, though I'd forgotten about the tinder box.

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