James Clarke Holt
‘Every nation needs its own collection of folk tales, and this is the fullest and most authoritative we have. To open it anywhere is to sink a shaft into the memory of a people and all that they know …’ With these words Philip Pullman introduces a new Folio Society edition of a pioneering publication. Katharine M. Briggs’s Folk Tales of Britain: Narratives is an unrivalled collection of stories, from local traditions and historical legends to shaggy dog stories and fairy tales. A cornucopia of storytelling, it is an essential part of both Britain’s heritage and the literary heritage of the world.
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‘A young lover in Scotland sent his goshawk with a letter tucked into its
feathers to be carried to his lady in England. The goshawk asked how he
could know this lady whom he had never seen, but the lover replied that she
had the whitest skin, and the reddest lips and cheeks of any lady in England.’
~ The Gay Goshawk
Katharine M. Briggs was born in 1898 to a wealthy family that had made its fortune in the coalmining industry. With no pressure to work, she was able to devote her life to her passion: the study of folklore. She set out to compile a definitive collection of Britain’s folk tales, seeking out the widest possible variety of sources, from medieval manuscripts to oral transcripts recorded in the 20th century. It became her life’s work, and only in 1971, aged 73, did she finally publish A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language. It was instantly hailed as a landmark publication.
‘Long ago the Lincolnshire Cars were full of
bogs and it was death to walk through them,
except on moonlight nights, for harm and
mischance and mischief, Bogles and Dead
Things and crawling Horrors came out at
nights when the moon did not shine.’
~ The Dead Moon
Collected from every corner of Britain, from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands, these stories are wonderfully diverse, with famous tales like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Robin Hood’, and others less familiar such as ‘Chimbley Charlie’. The roots and branches of these tales spread all over the world: ‘Old John and Young John’ is known in Germany, China and Ireland while ‘Jack the Robber’ is told as ‘The Clever Thief ’ in North Carolina. ‘Ashpitel’ is a Scottish version of the Cinderella story, in which the heroine meets the prince at church rather than at a ball, and is helped by a black lamb instead of a fairy godmother. Many have specific local origins, including tales of places, such as Settle in Yorkshire and Gotham in Nottinghamshire, ‘celebrated’ for their supposedly foolish inhabitants.
This beautifully bound and illustrated edition of Folk Tales of Britain is the perfect way to appreciate stories that are at the very heart of our cultural heritage. As Philip Pullman says, Katharine M. Briggs’s great achievement was to create ‘the greatest source we have in our language for these funny, coarse, uncanny, beautiful, earthy, tender, cruel, wise and mysterious old stories’.
Folk Tales of Britain: Narratives comprises the first part of A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales and is divided into 5 categories. Within these categories, each story is assigned a ‘tale-type’. These group together different versions of similar stories under headings that range from ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The fairy funeral’ to the wonderfully obscure ‘Numbskulls unable to count their own number’ and ‘One cheese sent out to bring back another.’ An index of these tale-types is included in volume I, providing a fascinating insight into common themes in stories around the world.
FABLES AND EXEMPLA:
Often just a few lines long, these frequently explain natural phenomena or use animals to illustrate a moral. Here we learn how the robin got his red breast by pulling a thorn from Christ’s brow, and that the Cornish maiden Alice was punished for her pride by being turned into a mole (still dressed in her black velvet gown).
These range from popular tales such as ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘The Frog Prince’ to less-well-known stories such as ‘The Flight of Birds’ and ‘The Girl Who Went Through Fire, Water and the Golden Gate’.
Bawdy or merely humorous, these tales include ‘The Miller of Abingdon’, a version of Chaucer’s ‘The Reeve’s Tale’. Others poke fun at stereotypes: a miserly Scotsman, a woman whose talk cannot be silenced by all the devils in hell, and a forgetful husband.
These longer tales are collected from more literary sources and are what Briggs terms ‘naturalistic fairy tales’, in which ordinary girls marry princes or heroes outwit robbers, but without supernatural aid.
These are nonsense tales, rhymes and animals stories intended for reading aloud, from ‘The Three Bears’ to ‘Chicken-Licken’ and ‘The House that Jack Built’.
Read more about the life and work of Katharine M. Briggs
Each volume in this edition is illustrated by a different artist: volume I by Hannah Firmin, volume II by Peter Firmin and volume III by Clare Melinsky. Peter Firmin began working as a printmaker at the age of 14 and celebrated his 81st birthday while illustrating Folk Tales of Britain. His daughter Hannah has developed her own work over 30 years, using a traditional technique taught to her by her father. This is the first time that they have worked together on an illustration project. These three very different artists worked in similar relief media using vinyl and lino, giving a family resemblance to their work. The style of the illustrations is ideally suited to the traditional nature of the stories and to their range: from the comic and earthy to the magical and haunting.
A new preface has been commissioned from Philip Pullman, a writer whose work – like folk tales themselves – speaks to both adults and children. In it, he praises the achievement of Katharine M. Briggs and the depth of scholarship she brought to this work. He celebrates the rich variety of voices captured here, and reminds us that these tales should be thought of as a starting point for new tellings: ‘They should be taken out and made to dance.’ His enthusiasm, together with the creative response from the three illustrators, is testament to the enduring power of these stories.
‘There was a man of Gotham that rode to the market
with two bushels of wheat, and lest his horse should
be damaged by carrying too great a burden he was
determined to carry the corn himself, upon his own
neck, and still kept riding upon his horse till he
arrived at the end of the journey. I will leave you to
judge which was the wisest, his horse or himself.’
~ The Wise Men of Gotham