Lore of the Land

Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends from Spring Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. Penguin Books, 2005.

This huge 900+ page coffee table book is bound to become the standard source book for English legends for many years to come. It is an (old) county-by-county guide to legendary stories, tales of ghosts, boggarts, witches, fairies, folk explanations for landscape features and general tales. Wherever possible the stories are traced back to their original sources, and one can see how in some cases they grow in the telling, or how many classic ghost stories depend on literary sources. These authors are among the pioneers who have tried to liberate folklore from its former obsession with 'prehistoric' or 'pagan' survivals.

That being said, from the Magonian perspective of contemporary visions and beliefs, the coverage is rather light. There are a couple of accounts of phantom hitchhikers, a reference to the Surrey puma which ignores the much wider gamut of modern day mystery big-cat stories, and a one off mention of the 'Little Blue Man' of Studham Common. Yet there is no discussion of modern UFO stories at all, yet these must be the most ubiquitous of modern folklore. There is also a dearth of stories of English water monsters. Though antique folklore of the mines such as knockers are included there, there is no mention of modern factory or office folklore, the lore of the railways and canals is missing, there are no ghost planes, no legends of the World Wars or the Cold War. There are no legends of half-way modern personages, or of crime. Needless to say there is nothing of the folklore of the many immigrant descended communities in England

This gives a view of folklore that is essentially something rural and 'olde worlde', something, which apart perhaps from obviously touristically inspired fakelore, is dead and gone. By and large folklore is presented as something quaint, remote and safe, and quite suitable for nice coffee table books.

Of course, the authors will, and do, argue that much modern folklore lacks the element of rounded story, it deals with memorates of ambiguous experiences, without rhyme or reason. So might traditional folk stories however. Modern day story tellers such as 'mediums' and 'psychics' are well able to produce traditional sounding tales to account for peoples uncanny experiences. Of course as society globalises stories increasingly have international, rather than a purely local character.

However, though this is implicit in the way that many traditional tales of attached to many different localities, there is probably an underestimate of the role of the mass media of the day, chapbooks and broadsides, had in the role of disseminating traditional stories. It is not unknown for one the contents of one generations carefully gathered and prettified book of county folklore to be recycled as the oral lore of the next.

Nevertheless we can get hints from even these old stories of how narratives can be used in a non literal fashion. For example the author's point out that motifs in tales such as headlessness or huge luminous eyes, act as a metaphor for the supernatural. Possibly many of these tales are used as a sort of off the peg shorthand to indicate numinous experiences which cannot readily be put into words. -- Peter Rogerson.

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