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‘There’s room for more in our stable,’ call out the wise old ox . . . and there was somehow! Room for them all, and the manger was filled with hay.’
The result of a lifetime’s work, Katharine M. Briggs’s Folk Tales of Britain is an extraordinary compendium – the most complete in existence – of the folk-story heritage of Great Britain. Part one of her magnum opus, published earlier this year by The Folio Society as Folk Tales of Britain: Narratives, contains stories which people knew were fiction. This new three-volume collection contains over 1,000 ‘Legends’, that is, stories once believed to be true. Thus, actual places, people and historical events appear frequently in these tales, anchoring even the most bizarre to the real world, from the many drowned villages whose bells can be heard ringing as the tide moves them, to the brave deeds of a 12-year-old girl during the Monmouth Rebellion, who killed a soldier with his own sword to protect her mother.
A few of these tales have become famous in other forms – ‘The Pied Piper’ of the Isle of Wight or ‘Whittington and His Cat’; others have faded from memory, but seem to have originated in a real life incident, like ‘The One-Horse Farmers at a Christening’, in which an evangelical mission arrives in the fens of Cambridgeshire. The preacher suspects the fenlanders are making game of him because every single child who comes for baptism is named Noah. It turns out that the children were all born at the time of a flood and were, naturally, all named Noah. The preacher so far forgets himself as to exclaim, ‘Well, I’ll be damned’.
Many supernatural creatures haunt the books’ pages, from the skinless Nuckelavee to the Somerset spirit Blue Burches exorcised by two parsons. Other tales have a more homely explanation – the Sea-Worm of Solway who was stranded on the beach and ‘bellowed and moaned’ was most likely a whale. Novelist Kevin Crossley-Holland has written a wonderful introduction, paying tribute to a book that has been one of his favourites for nearly 40 years, the reading of which he describes as ‘akin to going on the most fascinating walk with a tactful, knowledgeable, maybe ghostly companion’.
Read more about the life and work of Katharine M. Briggs