Tag Archives: folklore

Family traditions

How you present something has considerable impact on how people understand it. If you want something to sound like tradition, and like authentic folklore, it pays to mention Granny when framing it. I’ve noticed in Twitter’s Folklore Thursday that anything framed by the idea that it came from Granny is seldom questioned. I’ve experimented with this as well – when we talk about Yule Badger traditions and reference what Granny said, no one queries it. You are allowed to make folklore up so long as you aren’t honest about that. Talk about working with folklore and you can get into all kinds of trouble…

(Some of the things in that piece, my grandmother did say. Some she didn’t. There is no way anyone else can tell what’s what.)

 

This video was originally created for Patreon – I do one a month there, alongside a poem, a book excerpt and a newsletter. There’s also a level where I post things to people… https://www.patreon.com/NimueB if you’d like to support me.

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Playing with Folklore

One of the things I like to do with the Hopeless Maine graphic novel series, is play with folklore. Here’s an example- the entirely traditional Mari Lwyds in a clearly non-traditional setting.

The Welsh Mari Lwyd tradition involves exactly the kit you see with horses skulls on poles and trailing costumes to cover the person holding the pole. You then go to houses and/or pubs for riddling fights.

When people migrate, they take their culture, folklore and beliefs with them. How that plays out can vary – it can mean that sometimes what the disaspora hold is an older form of the tradition than what develops elsewhere. People away from home can be more focused on keeping their traditions unchanged. Sometimes the opposite happens, and the tradition is influenced by what else is around, or evolves to suit the circumstances. Clearly, both trajectories are equally valid.

Playing with folklore in this way gives me scope to make things up – you can read what happens to Mari Lwyds on Hopeless Maine here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/the-hopeless-mari-lwyd/

And doing this in turn gives me a chance to talk about folklore as a process without getting too bogged down in the academic side of things, which is not my natural habitat.

More about the latest volume of Hopeless Maine here – http://www.slothcomics.co.uk/news/hopeless-maine-3-victims-is-released-in-june

Art in this blog mostly by Tom Brown and a bit by me.


The Folk Process

In a living, oral tradition, material changes. Each person who tells a story or sings a song will add something, or leave something out. It’s easy to see this in action as there are so many songs that share features. They may have the same tune and chorus but different verses. They may tell the same story, but with a different tune and words. Sometimes you do it to keep the language contemporary. Sometimes you do it because what rhymes in one accent doesn’t in another.

There’s a natural selection process in stories as well. For example, there are many older versions of the Cinderella story, and they don’t all have glass slippers. For some reason, the glass slipper was a detail/innovation a lot of people liked, and it stuck.

Every traditional piece was at some point first created by someone, or perhaps by a small group. The idea that we can’t create new folk material seems mad to me – this is where folk material comes from. If it is only allowed to be stuff from the past, what we have are museum exhibits, not a living tradition. I have nothing against museums, but I am reluctant to take living things and pin them to boards so that we can all look at them more easily and agree about what their real and proper form should be. And this is why folk gatekeepers drive me a bit nuts.

I’m aware of a number of 20th century folk songs that are sliding into the tradition. If you are most likely to hear a song sung by a floor spotter, if you picked it up from your granny, the name of the writer may have fallen off. I’m aware of several 20th century songs already experiencing folk process, with variations of the words and tune occurring. This is good, as far as I am concerned. This is living tradition.

Sometimes it is important to change the song. Simply changing the singer can be powerful, and some songs suddenly sound queer, for example, when you get the right person singing them. Were those songs queer before? They might have been, we don’t know. As there have always been queer people, I think it’s a good thing to have older songs reflecting that.

The idea that you can ‘pollute’ tradition by adding ‘fake’ things to it mystifies me. Adding to tradition is… tradition. There’s a natural editing process here. If an addition is good, and works, it’ll become part of the tradition – as with those glass slippers. If it doesn’t catch on, for whatever reason, then that’s fine, too. There are many singer songwriters working in the folk style whose material won’t endure. For a song to survive, it has to be sung by other people. It becomes folk because of the ways in which other people sing it, adapt it and keep it alive.

Folk purism is, from my perspective, the unreasonable practice of killing folk tradition in order to pin it down in a fixed shape and own it. The whole point of folk is that it is not the property of a single person, and it is not for one person to say what it means or how it should be. Folk is of the people, by the people, for the people – it is collectively owned and anyone who wants to has the right to mess about with it. that’s what makes it the way it is. Folk is not re-enactment. It isn’t backward looking and it isn’t all about the past.

This blog was brought to you by me being cross about someone on Twitter yesterday. Here’s what was said in regards to a post about Hopeless Maine ( a project very much inspired by folklore)

“Isn’t this that made up faux folklore?”

“That feels like a rather important distinction that shouldn’t be forgot. So many people viewing this hashtag aren’t experts and it’s extremely disingenuous to have faux folklore just mixed in on the #FolkloreThursday tag. It muddies the waters and potentially tricks neophytes”

Get your hands off my living, breathing tradition. It is not a butterfly for you to pin to a board. It is not something you get to define, or own, or tell other people how to do. All folklore was once faux folklore, until people adopted it – that’s what the folk tradition is.

 


Painting the Tales – a review

Katherine Soutar has created many of the covers for History Press’s Folk Tales and Ghost Tales books. Painting the Tales gives you (by my reckoning) 83 book covers plus commentary. It’s a hefty volume, which is great because the art is far bigger than any book cover versions you may have seen. The images themselves are beautiful.

Katherine uses watercolours, pencils and inks in her work and because she works on paper, you can see the effect of the materials in the finished piece. As a colourist working on paper (but nothing like as good) I’m fascinated by how she harnesses the idiosyncrasies of her tools. So much illustration seems to be digital now, and there’s a smooth, clean unrealness to it, often. I like the more substantial and unpredictable qualities of a more physical process.

In her images, Katherine mixes realism with stylisation and symbolism. There’s a sense of constant flow and experimentation here, and an urge to find the precise mix that conveys the story, rather than adherence to a specific way of working. I like that too. I’ll be staring at these book covers a lot, trying to learn things.

I was fascinated by the commentaries as well. With each image comes a page of text – which may be about the folklore, or the process of finding the image, or method used to create the image, or combinations thereof. I picked up a lot of folklore fragments reading this book, and for someone who wanted a folklore taster, it would be an excellent place to start. Folk tales and ghost tales alike are mostly sorted by county – although a few aren’t. Here you can get a flavour for the books beneath the covers that might help you decide what else to pick up.

This is a book to dip in and out of – I read it fairly quickly because I got a review copy, and months of dreaming over a book can be frustrating for author and publisher alike. But ideally, you want to leave this somewhere and dip in and out of it. An ideal read for someone who enjoys folklore. Also idea if, for whatever reason, you have limited time and attention. You can read a single page, gaze at an image, and that be a complete experience in itself. It doesn’t matter how long passes before you come back for the next one.

More about the book here – https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/painting-the-tales/9780750986014/ 


The Princess in the Mound – a review

I first encountered Linda Raedisch through her folklore-orientated non-fiction work. So when this novel came to my attention, I was keen to read it. It isn’t a big book – 98 pages of not especially dense text, but my Gods! So much happens.

I was really excited by the way this book has been written. The subtitle is ‘A Visitor’s Guide to Alvenholm Castle’ and that is the form the book takes. We begin with a note on the artist in residence, an overview of the castle and its upkeep fund, then short sections on history, architecture and haunting. Then we step into the entry hall and make our way around the rooms and gardens.

As the guide book takes us from room to room, a story unfolds. It is not a straightforward story, and various versions of it and glimpses into it are offered as we go along. The reader is obliged to draw their own conclusions, choose which stories to put together and what shape to give them. I like ambiguity in books, and I like being asked to become an active participant in making sense of a story. To a degree, all stories do this, and often the real magic of a book comes from the author’s ability to shape gaps for the reader to play in. These shaped gaps have the delicacy and complexity of lace. Technically speaking, it is a stunning piece of work.

The story itself explores the interplay between what we think we know about history, and what we think we know about fairy tales. The swan maidens of fairytale and myth are very much at the heart of this book. As a folklorist, the author has a keen appreciation of how events transform into stories, and stories colour events, and fragments from ancient history linger in folk memory. She’s able to put rationalisations into some character’s mouths and wild, magical thinking into the mouths of others, and sit these varying takes on things alongside each other. It’s not an entirely neutral telling – I certainly felt I was being steered towards the magical and supernatural interpretations, but then, that might be reader bias!

This is a book that also deftly explores the roles of women as wives and mothers, sisters and daughters, as keepers of the castle, and workers in the laundry. Women as figures you will empathise with and women who will make you uncomfortable. Women who are all too banal and of this earth, and women who seem touched by otherness. It’s splendidly rich in this regard.

Linda Raedisch offers a view of the modern world that still has plenty of room for magic and mystery in it. A world alive with stories, rich with deep history, and rooted in landscape. This is a book of enchantment. You need to read it.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.com/Princess-Mound-Visitors-Alvenholm-Castle/dp/1548161799/


Elder folklore

Elder trees have some really interesting folklore associated with them. They’re often thought of as a witch’s tree, and it is generally considered very bad luck to burn them. For Pagans, the bad luck aspect is often understood in terms of the aforementioned witches, or a sense that this is a goddess tree.

What happens when you burn elder? (I do these dangerous things so you don‘t have to!)

It’s not something I’ve ever done deliberately. However, I’ve been involved with enough community bonfires, where cut elder has been thrown in. I also lived on a boat for a couple of years, and we often burned foraged wood in the woodstove. Wood cut to keep the towpath clear was often just left where it fell, and many an impoverished boater has got through the winter a bit more easily thanks to this, but I digress.

Most of the wood foraging fell to my other half, who is American. He’s come to British tree recognition late in life, and so elder would get into the firewood pile.

Elder doesn’t burn easily. If there’s a small amount of elder in a big fire, you can get it to burn. If there’s a fair amount of elder in a very small fire, there’s every chance your fire will go out.

The conclusion I draw is that the superstition is largely correct, in that if what you’ve got to burn is elder, you’re stuffed – it’s very unlucky to be stuck with elder to burn.

 

Image taken from the Woodland Trust website – find out more about elder trees here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/elder/


Folklore, myth and new writing

All three of the titles in this set of reviews have a really interesting relationship with folklore and mythology.

Coal House, W.S. Barton I came to quite by chance through a Twitter conversation. It’s a really creepy ghost story, with high levels of tension but not a lot of gore. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one evening. I can definitely recommend it. A haunting landscape, and a great plot. The folklore role in this is really interesting. A couple buy an empty house on impulse. Then the local people start being weird at them, but no one wants to talk about it. There’s some dark and troubled folklore associated with the house, but people seem reluctant to take it too seriously, until the deaths start again… everything anyone needed to know was there in the local folklore all along, but people coming in from further afield, and people not wanting to seem superstitious keep that valuable information out of the mix for too long. Given how well, and how long important information can survive in oral tradition, there’s something very pleasing about the way spooky tales do tend to validate the folklore while the people who sneer tend to be eaten first.

More about the book here – http://www.rudlinghouse.com/books/fiction/coal-house-by-w-s-barton/

 

Kadath, Charles Cutting is a graphic novel published by Sloth (Hopeless Maine has moved to this house). Its a tale that both operates within and cunningly subverts the Lovecraftian mythos. I think what’s happening with Lovecraft is a fascinating case study in modern myth making, and Charles has certainly added to the mix. Based on The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, is makes explicit that the main character from Lovecraft’s story is really Lovecraft himself and brings to the fore all the detestable things about the man. It’s no mean feat to make a story viable with a loathsome main character, but it works – not least because it’s visually so appealing. Set mostly in the realms of dream, it shows a dreamworld that seems more like Dunsany than Lovecraft, and is enchanting. Carefully avoiding any spoilers, this is on one level a moral tale about people who obsess about the wrong things, and creative souls who are more enchanted by their own egos than by anything… well… enchanting. A remarkable and gorgeous piece of work, highly recommended.

More about the book here – http://www.slothcomics.co.uk/kadath.html

Invoking Animal Magic, Hearth Moon Rising. This is a book offered as a study text for would-be students of animal magic. I confess I didn’t read it that way, not being someone who is looking for study options at the moment. I read it instead as a fantastic collection of myths, folklore, and personal insights relating to a set of creatures. Hearth Moon Rising has picked out a selection of creatures with particularly rich and magical folklore and explored the differences and similarities in tales from around the world to help the reader connect with these various beings. I especially like the way that there’s no attempt to shoehorn international folklore into single narratives, and that the diversity in stories is kept really visible. The tales are brilliant, and shared with considerable wit, wisdom and insight. It was an absolute joy to read. I suspect it’s a great study course, but if you aren’t looking to practice, it’s well worth having for the stories, and everything you can learn and enjoy in them. As it’s an illustrated book, I recommend getting the paperback – an ebook won’t do the visuals any justice at all.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/invoking-animal-magic


Walking Calendar – Christmas

Seasonal walking is a practical issue as well as a way of connecting with the cycle of the seasons. It’s something I’ve been exploring for a while. One of my personal traditions is to walk to my mother’s house at Christmas, with my husband and son. The first few times we did this, we were walking up from the canal (low, flat ground) into the hills. It wasn’t a charming route – the necessity of crossing a motorway and the scarcity of places to do this meant mostly road walking, although on Christmas morning there’s never much traffic. One year we did this in heavy snow, and had the odd experience of someone passing over us in a hot air balloon!

The last three Christmases, we’ve walked over the hills from Stroud to Dursley, taking in several barrows as we go. On a few occasions, this year included, we’ve done it in less than ideal weather. Last year was exquisite, with light and colours that you don’t often see at any time of year, but especially not the middle of winter. The Severn River tends to be grey, or muddy browns when you look down on her from these hills, but for that one walk, with the fields shining in greens, the river was the kind of blue that children paint rivers. It was unreal in many ways, and wondrous.

This year we had to modify the route, because there’s a small pair of hills we can come in over – again the views on a good day are stunning, and there’s something exciting about finishing the walk with these final hills, separate from the Cotswold edge, taking in the views and coming down into the small town feeling triumphant. However, the hill is steep and in wet weather, too slippery to be faced. We took the lanes, an old holloway, weaving between hills and farms, past the hill that homed a small pox isolation hospital. The ruins of that were still visible when my great grandmother was a child. On maps, the hill bears the bland name of ‘Downham’ but to local people it is Smallpox Hill. In mist it is an eerie place.

We paused to talk to some friendly sheep, saw a retirement home for old horses, and were charmed by a sleeping goat. These are the kinds of experience that you can only have when moving through a landscape at a human pace. We also got cold and wet.

One of the highpoints of the walk for me, came as we were moving over the top of the Cotswold hills in driving wind and heavy rain. It wasn’t easy walking, we were all starting to feel tired by this point and the battering by the elements wasn’t easy to bear. My son expressed his enthusiasm for what we were doing, because it was real; an immediate encounter with the reality of the land and weather. He put it more bluntly but I can’t recall the exact phrasing. It was a moment of pride for me. I don’t want to be at the raw edge of existence all the time, I doubt my son does either, but to be willing to go there, to experience discomfort so as to meet the season and the land – that’s powerful.

Walking through a landscape with history, folklore and tradition is an opportunity to talk about it, and to pass down knowledge. Walking past Smallpox Hill created time to tell my son the stories of the hill – the history of the hospital, and the mystery of the bumps. There are two large, rectangular constructions on one side of the hill. Local myth has it that these are mass graves from the hospital. The more likely version is that these are mediaeval rabbit warrens. It’s an interesting example of how we make intelligible stories out of landscape features when we don’t know what’s going on.


New Year, New Books

I’ve had a week off, and in that time, I’ve been reading. I thought I’d set the tone for 2016 by kicking off with reviews of the books I’ve read over the last week.

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch. A book exploring myths, legends and folk practice from Germanic and Scandinavian countries, interspersed with ways to do some of the things described. Charming, accessible and very readable, it’s not an academic text but the author seems well read. While I’m no expert on Christmas traditions, where there were overlaps with things I know about, I saw nothing to take issue with. I very much enjoyed the author’s willingness to explore all the gruesome and creepy aspects of the season. If only regular Christmas had more trolls in it, I’d probably find the whole thing far more palatable!

https://www.llewellyn.com/product.php?ean=9780738733340

 

 

The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman. A prequel to the Sandman series, I imagine it would make little sense to a reader who hadn’t already read the other titles. It’s beautifully put together, the art really shows what can be done with a graphic novel when the artist, letterer and colourist have time to lavish care and attention on every page rather than what the usual factory approach delivers. In terms of story, it is odd, clever, sometimes funny, poignant, uncomfortable – in short all I have come to expect from Neil Gaiman. If you like what he does, you will like this one too.

http://www.vertigocomics.com/graphic-novels/the-sandman-overture-deluxe-edition

 

 

The Voice that Thunders – Alan Garner. A collection of essays exploring the process of writing, the writing industry, landscape, history, family, the relationship between books and classrooms, mental health issues, language, dialect… all laced through with stories of people and places. A fascinating read and exactly what I needed at this point in time. If you’re fascinated with Alan Garner and his work, of if any of the above themes are obsessions of yours, then I heartily recommend it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1602869.The_Voice_That_Thunders


Journeys to mythical places

Over the last few days, I have entered the Legendary Middle Studio, and The Potionary. As with all places with mythic aspects, knowing the myths is critically important for appreciating the location. Some places are so striking that they suggest, or attract myths anyway, while others become important through association with events. I’m a big fan of knowing how stories connect with landscape, both old stories, and new ones. However, the reasons for these two locations being important to me are not as famous as they deserve to be.

The Legendary Middle Studio belongs to BBC Radio Shropshire, and every Sunday evening, Genevieve Tudor broadcasts a fabulous two hour folk show from this building. You can listen live, or after the event, online if you are further afield. Most weeks there are live performances, and these take place in the Legendary Middle Studio.

I’ve known Genevieve pretty much my whole life. Nearly five years ago, Tom, the lad and I moved onto a narrow boat. At night, in the darkness of winter it can be a bit lonely out on the canal, and all we had for contact with the rest of humanity was a small wind-up radio. We discovered we could pick up the folk program via BBC Hereford and Worcester, and so it became something of a lifeline. I’d gone from running a weekly club, to having no live folk in my life at all, so it also provided an important sense of connection. For the two years we’ve been in a flat, we’ve continued listening. Seeing the place where it all happens was a really interesting experience.

The Potionary is also in Shropshire, at a much more secret location. It is the space where the Matlock the Hare books and art have been created. I’ve been a big fan of Matlock the Hare for some time, and of the lovely creative duo behind it, so when they said ‘do you want to see The Potionary?’ I of course squealed and said yes. And it was splendid.

Everything happens in a place. We don’t tell history in terms of place location, unless you happen to be at a tourist spot. Myths and folk tales can go either way – some are very specific ‘There was once a farmer from Mobberly way’ and some have an ‘everyman’ quality that means no matter where you tell them, it all occurred just down the road from here and involved the friend of a guy in the pub who told the story teller the tale in the first place.

I think that when we lose the connection between narrative and place, we lose the sense of the place being important. Over the last few days I also saw the ruins of a number of industrial buildings. Some had history boards to explain them, some did not. If it’s just a tumble down old place, it can be left to rot. If we know it was the first, or the biggest, or the most important at one time, if we know it was the centre of working life in a place, or something else like that, the past connects to the living landscape and it becomes easier to feel a sense of connection and significance. Not only does this change a person’s perspective on a landscape, it also shifts how settled that person feels in a place. How real, or unreal the stories are, and no matter how old, or how recent, having stories of place makes a lot of odds.