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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greatest impact on my imagination and intellectual development; it also means that I will list books which have been superseded by updated editions or which have fallen out of academic fashion.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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