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Category Archives: Top Ten

My Folkloric Influences

So to satisfy my insatiable craving to make lists, I decided to compile ten non-fiction books which have most influenced my work in the realm of folklore and what I like to call cryptotopography. It’s a very personal list: many of these tomes do not represent the most important work in their field, but the one which has had the greatest impact on my imagination and intellectual development; it also means that I will list books which have been superseded by updated editions or which have fallen out of academic fashion. A work’s success at invoking the genius loci may be considered more important than sound reasoning. It was also impossible to rank the entries in anything resembling order of preference—quantifying qualitative impact is a futile endeavour—so I have iterated them in order of publication instead, which has inadvertently demonstrated what a bounteous year 1976 must have been for folklore junkies!

1. “Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England & the Borders” (2nd Edition; 1879) by William Henderson

19th Century county folklore collections represent an invaluable source of primary material and Henderson’s seminal work was one of the very first to devote itself to the various shires which form the unified territory of northern England. Many famous traditions associated with these areas were originally recorded here and despite the hundred-and-fifty years since its publication, it remains a compelling read—unblemished by the literary embellishment or philological theorising which compromise so many texts of a similar vintage.

2. “The Minor Traditions of British Mythology” (1948) by Lewis Spence

Lewis Spence has something of a reputation as a romanticist whose work is hidebound by the discredited “myth-ritual” school of folkloristics which dominated in the early-20th Century; however, whilst his theories are indeed somewhat dated, the sheer volume of primary data he marshals ensures that it remains relevant. And the romantic spirit which shines through Spence’s work should not too readily be sneered at; although some such assertions may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, their capacity to inspire the imagination is vast.

3. “The Fairies in Tradition & Literature” (1967) by Katharine Briggs

Arguably the greatest British folklorist of the 20th Century, Briggs’ work strikes the perfect balance between the speculative meta-myths of her predecessors and the more positivist approach adopted by later scholars. Although she wrote numerous books on fairy-lore (including the comprehensive Dictionary of Fairies), this remains her best introduction to the subject, covering its manifold facets in a lively, accessible style. It’s a shame that folklorists of her talent (other than perhaps Jacqueline Simpson) are so rare in British academia today.

4. “Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography & Tradition” (1967) by Anne Ross

Dr. Anne Ross was surely one of the foremost “Celtic” scholars of the 20th Century, yet as an avowed believer in the “otherworld” she perhaps found herself more accepted by counter-cultural visionaries than fellow academics, despite her formidable talents as both an archaeologist and folklorist. This exhaustive tome is her magnum opus; the first major study of the “Celtic” religion in Britain and although so much more has been discovered since its composition, it remains definitive—the vagaries of academic fashion be damned.

5. “The Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain” (1976) by Leslie Grinsell

The author of this book was a veteran field archaeologist and a noted authority on prehistoric barrows and his seminal study shines with a passion for prehistoric monuments as cultural loci onto which countless generations have projected their cosmogonies. Grinsell offers both a taxonomy and gazetteer of legends connected with such locations, and whilst it represents his life’s work, the survey is far from comprehensive—a fact which merely contributes to its appeal, inspiring readers to continue the project themselves.

6. “North Country Folklore” (1976) by Jessica Lofthouse

Although they flourished in the mid-20th Century, topographic writers of the sort exemplified by Jessica Lofthouse do not seem to exist anymore. This is a great shame, for in her travels around the northern counties of England, she collected a wealth of folklore, much of which came first-hand from oral sources and preserved variant traditions which are to be found nowhere else. The material is all lovingly recorded in a conversational style, which made it the perfect introduction to the subject when I was a mere ten years old.

7. “Brigantia: A Mysteriography” (1976) by Guy Ragland Phillips

Written by a regular contributor to that topographic institution, The Dalesman, this is a visionary survey of the archaeology, history, toponymy and folklore of the northern counties of England, once a unified Celtic kingdom inhabited by a tribe known as the Brigantes, after their tutelary deity, Brigantia. Philips’ mission is to uncover traces of the region’s pre-Christian heritage. Although modern folkloric scholarship may question its guiding principle of “pagan survivals”, Philips’ mythopoeia ably invokes the potent genius loci of the territory.

8. “Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain” (1977) by Readers’ Digest

My passion for this volume is not unique and it is almost a standard text in many folklore libraries. Perhaps that is because it feels like a folkloric artefact in its own right, with its spooky map keys, atmospheric illustrations and iconic cover depicting the Dorset Ooser, debossed in gold on a black background. It is also that rare thing: a masterpiece created by committee—and despite its comparative age, no publisher has succeeded in publishing a general guide to British folklore which can compare to its breadth and beauty.

9. “The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature & Legacy” (1993) by Ronald Hutton

An academic historian who’d formerly confined his work to the early-modern period, Hutton was regarded as something of an enfant terrible when he first burst onto the pagan scene with this demolition of the romantic ideas which had previously defined prehistoric religion in the popular imagination. Now that the dust has settled, and the counter-culture has had chance to assimilate his influence, this tome stands undiminished as a seminal statement on the mysteries of our pagan ancestors, despite having been recently revised itself.

10. “Twilight of the Celtic Gods: An Exploration of Britain’s Hidden Pagan Traditions” (1994) by David Clarke & Andy Roberts

Whilst the “Celtic” component of the title is an unwelcome modifier insisted upon by the publisher, this is a compelling and convincing study of various animistic beliefs which survived in Britain, especially the Pennine regions of northern England, well into the 20th Century. My dad co-authored the book and I spent much of my childhood visiting many of the sites to which it refers and hearing their stories; as such there is no more powerful influence on my imagination and it is a work whose spirit I proudly endeavour to continue.

11. “Stony Gaze: Investigating Celtic and Other Heads” (1998) by John Billingsley

When Sidney Jackson first drew attention to the abundance of Celtic-style carved stone-heads found across northern England, Anne Ross declared them evidence of an indigenous Celtic tradition which had survived over two thousand years. Billingsley takes a more cautious approach, arguing that whilst they represent a significant and persistent theme in local folk-art, they cannot be declared “Celtic” in the truest sense. Nonetheless, he is not blind to their mythic aspect and this is a comprehensive study of a curious phenomenon.

12. “Aliens, Ghosts & Cults: Legends We Live” (2001) by Bill Ellis

I confess to a preference for folklore as social history, as opposed to cultural anthropology, but when I turn to study contemporary legend, this is the first book for which I reach. Ellis offers one of the most sustained scholarly discussions of the symbiotic processes known as “ostension” and “legend-tripping”, which drive so much folkloric transmission today. He also has a wealth of valuable tips concerning the methodology and ethics of oral collecting which are essential reading for any would-be folklorist in the modern field.

13. “Explore Folklore” (2002) by Bob Trubshaw

Written in a laudable attempt to introduce concepts current in scholarly folkloristics to a wider audience and rescue the subject from its academic decline in Britain, this is the book which revived my formative love of folklore in adulthood and inspired me to write on the topic. It emphasises the discipline’s relevance and its value as social history and contemporary ethnography, offering countless avenues for research, whilst tackling some of the misleading shibboleths which have for too long infested popular understanding of the subject.

14. “The Old Stones of Elmet” (2003) by Paul Bennett

The area known today as West Yorkshire positively bristles with prehistoric monuments and there are few people who know them better than Paul Bennett. His guide to standing-stones, stone-circles and cup-and-rings in the county is not merely an exhaustive gazetteer of regional archaeology; it is full of snippets of local folklore and antiquarian fancy, alongside informed speculation concerning the geomantic significance of these rocks and their place in the wider ritual landscape.

15. “The Gaelic Otherworld: Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland” (2003) by John Gregorson Campbell

An omnibus edition which contains several volumes of folklore collected by the 19th Century Gaelic scholar, John Gregorson Campbell, across the western highlands and islands of Scotland. Unlike his friend and namesake, J.F. Campbell, Gregorson Campbell was more interested in sagen than märchen—which nicely corresponds with my own concerns. This is undoubtedly the most comprehensive collection of such material from Scotland and offers an inexhaustible source of interest for the folklore scholar.

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Robin Hood – The Best Books

My first and most personal book was “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” for CFZ Press in 2011, and although that work is a study of how certain locations breed legends as much as a study of the medieval outlaw, I read extensively on the history and evolution of the Robin Hood canon whilst I was writing it. With so many books available on the subject it can be difficult to decide exactly which ones are worth your time, so I’ve come up with a list of the sources I found the most comprehensive and reliable. A couple of entries are out-of-date and discredited, but they remain important in understanding the historiography of the legend. I also found a number of journal articles equally useful, but that list will have to wait for another time. Clicking on the hyperlinks in each title will direct you to purchasing information (which I’ve added from shamelessly mercenary motives).

1. “Robin Hood: 3rd Edition” by J.C. Holt (Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Undoubtedly the definitive survey of historical evidence concerning the figure known as Robin Hood and the evolution of his legend. It was first published in the 1970s and has now reached its third edition; each revised version adds new material crucial to our understand of the mythos.

2. “Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography” by Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2009)

A more recent work than Holt’s study but now tied for the title of best book on the subject. Knight is a Professor of English Literature and he views the Robin Hood legend as a literary canon rather than a historical or folkloric topic. His background also ensures that the book is highly readable.

3. “Robin Hood & Other Outlaw Tales” by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Eds.) (Medieval Institute Publications, 2000)

A comprehensive and up-to-date collection of all the medieval and post-medieval ballads and plays with line analysis of each by two of the most respected scholars working on the academic study of Robin Hood. As such, it is an essential reference resource for all students of the legend.

4. “Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw” by R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Eds.) (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1989)

An earlier critical edition of the ballads—now out-of-print—but as essential as Knight & Ohlgren’s volume. It is particularly notable for the linguistic analysis which firmly placed the origin of the ballads (and therefore the legend) in Barnsdale—a former region of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

5. “Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context” by A.J. Pollard (Routledge, 2007)

As both literary works and historical artefacts, the Robin Hood ballads and plays that circulated in the late Middle Ages form a fascinating record of the concerns of medieval England. Pollard’s study explores what the legend has to say about issues such as yeomanry, forest law and popular religion.

6. “The Outlaws of Medieval Legend” by Maurice Keen (Routledge, 2000)

Although Robin Hood is the only medieval outlaw whose legend has survived into the present day, he was not unique and the likes of Eustace the Monk or Fulk FitzWaryn were equally popular folk heroes in the Middle Ages. Keen’s study examines Robin Hood in the context of this wider corpus.

7. “Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-medieval” by Helen Phillips (Ed.) (Four Courts Press Ltd, 2005)

An excellent collection of essays relating to historical aspects of the Robin Hood myth. It is particularly interesting for those studying the legend of his death as it contains a number of papers on this subject, including the first academic scrutiny of the history of Robin Hood’s Grave at Kirklees.

8. “Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism” by Stephen Knight (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 1999)

Published by an academic press, this mammoth anthology is almost prohibitively expensive; which is a shame because it is a rigorous and diverse resource, including studies of everything from Robin Hood’s role in the May Games to a study of the character’s role in the Romantic poetry of John Keats.

9. “Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression & Justice” by Thomas Hahn (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 2000)

Another absurdly expensive critical anthology, but once again its contents are multifarious and compelling. The book includes essays on Robin Hood and the Nottingham tourist industry; Robin Hood musicals in the 18th Century; Robin Hood and swashbuckling cinema; and many more just as diverting.

10. “Robin Hood: Outlaw or Greenwood Myth” by Fran and Geoff Doel (DPI Media Group, 2000)

Although the mythological interpretation of the legends of Robin Hood has fallen out of fashion in academia, it was highly influential from around 1850 – 1950 and survives in the popular imagination thanks to the 1980s TV series, Robin of Sherwood. This is a good overview of the evidence.

11. “Robin Hood: The Green Lord of the Wildwood” by John Matthews (Gothic Press, 1993)

The mythological interpretation of Robin Hood survives most strongly in Neo-Pagan and other New Age circles, where it is almost an article of faith. Matthews is a veteran writer on such topics and whilst his book lacks academic rigour it nicely shows how the legend influences the Neo-Pagan imagination.

12. “The Haunts of Robin Hood” by Jill Armitage (The History Press, 2008)

In late medieval and early modern England, the ballads of Robin Hood were so popular that nearly every region claimed the outlaw for their own and sites bearing his name proliferated—from Robin Hood’s Arbour to Robin Hood’s Well. This book provides a useful gazetteer of the most famous.

13. “Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads” by Joseph Ritson (James Clarke & Co, 1826)

Long out-of-date, of course, but this was the seminal study of the Robin Hood legend: the first attempt to collect together all material relating to the outlaw and place it in a historical context. As a radical, Ritson’s work strongly influenced the image of Robin “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”.

14. “The True History of Robin Hood” by John William Walker (E.P. Publishing, 1952)

The theory that Robin Hood was based on a 14th Century resident of Wakefield has been conclusively disproved by new evidence found by J.C. Holt. However, the argument was once very convincing and this is its definitive expression, based on preliminary work by Rev. Joseph Hunter in the 19th Century.

 

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Top 10: M.R. James

I believe there is no such thing as a substandard M.R. James ghost story and I even enjoy maligned tales such as “Two Doctors” or “An Evening’s Entertainment”. Indeed, the only story I’m not keen on is “Lost Hearts”, which Monty disparaged himself as one of his earliest efforts; both less developed and more graphic than his later work. My own list of favourites includes a couple of idiosyncratic choices such as “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” and “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”, but by and large, it does not substantially diverge from popular opinion and many of these stories were rated highly in a poll conducted by “Ghosts & Scholars: The M.R. James Newsletter”.

1. A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS
A late but archetypal example of the M.R. James ghost story, in which an amateur archaeologist must pay for his blinkered rationalism, scholarly arrogance and personal greed when he disturbs ancient relics better left alone. The antiquarian Saxon milieu and coastal East Anglican landscape are richly evoked, whilst James draws on certain folkloric motifs and traditions which resonate throughout the British Isles.

2. COUNT MAGNUS
Lauded by H.P. Lovecraft as a “veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion,” this is also one of James’s bleakest tales in which his favourite trope of the supernatural pursuit is explored to a chilling extent. Whilst the protagonist Mr. Wraxall is guilty of “over-inquisitiveness”, the relentless persecution he is subsequently subjected to far outweighs his initial calumny. He becomes the most abject victim in the canon.

3. OH WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU MY LAD
A masterful subversion of the traditional image of the ghost as an incorporeal, shrouded thing bestowed with even greater effect by its manifestation in that place of refuge, the bedroom, ensuring it’s never possible to hide beneath the sheets again. Meanwhile, James is clearly in his antiquarian element and ready with lessons on the consequences of doctrinaire scepticism and overweening curiosity.

4. THE ASH TREE
Witches are a familiar motif in British folklore and whilst James piles on the authentic detail, he imbues his own creation, Mrs. Mothersole, with a quite unique and maleficent quality which is sure to send a shudder of revulsion through the reader. It’s also once of his most carefully constructed pieces, elliptical without being too obscure, expertly building towards the “nicely managed climax” which he so valued.

5. THE MEZZOTINT
Embodying another favourite Jamesian narrative, in which terrible historical events are re-enacted before a powerless and horrified protagonist, The Mezzotint portrays the supernatural on two levels; firstly in the titular print, whose mysterious and unique animation is without explanation or logic; and secondly in the vile, crawling revenant who plays a starring role in the tragedy that unfolds.

6. THE DIARY OF MR. POYNTER
This is the story that disturbed me most when I was young and led to several sleepless nights. It features a perfect exemplar of H.P. Lovecraft’s observation that “The average James ghost is lean, dwarfish and hairy – a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man – and usually touched before it is seen”. There is something about the dead man’s hair motif which is particularly grisly indeed.

7. CASTING THE RUNES
The sole example of an M.R. James story in which the victim of supernatural persecution decides to fight back and is actually successful. Meanwhile, the character of Karswell is a formidable antagonist. Like Count Magnus, he is the embodiment of scholarship perverted by desire for a hidden knowledge (an impulse James maybe felt himself and feared) but unlike Magnus, ultimately hoisted by his own petard.

8. THE STORY OF A DISAPPEARANCE AND AN APPEARANCE
A much underrated story which has sometimes been criticised for being too oblique for its own good. However, this opacity makes it a story which actually improves with successive readings, forever revealing more of its horrible implications. You also suspect this was a very personal story for James, invoking the sinister image of the Punch and Judy show which he confessed so terrified him as a young child.

9. A VIEW FROM A HILL
Unlike Machen or Blackwood, James was not primarily a landscape writer and whilst he never lacked skill in its description, A View From a Hill is the only instance where he explores what might now be dubbed the “psychogeographical” aspect. In a nice synchronicity, he uses the landscape of Herefordshire, which similarly inspired Alfred Watkins to write The Old Straight Track.

10. A SCHOOL STORY
Reggie Oliver, a talented writer of antiquarian ghost stories in his own right, has claimed that A School Story is underdeveloped, but I disagree. The fact that so much remains obscure renders the evocative Latin phrase “remember the well amongst the four yews” and the ultimate fate of Mr. Sampson even more ominous. As the writer Sacheverell Sitwell so rightly noted, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”.

 

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