“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories,” writes the American literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal.
He may be on to something.
A good story is a kind of organism, a living, breathing entity that can migrate, take on new dialects, evolve, and even reconfigure itself. Folktales in particular often have a dreamy quality: objects and animals can talk, squadrons of soldiers can emerge from a burlap sack, your husband can turn into a bird, children can fly, etc. There’s something both quaint and profound about oral storytelling. It’s a fluid medium, an open-ended format where deeply embedded motifs and narrative structures merge and break apart, reassembling themselves in new and interesting ways. It’s as though a nation’s folktale tradition reveals its collective unconscious.
For that reason, this 2022 reissue of The Watkins Book of English Folktales is cause for celebration, and should remind us that who we are is rooted in the stories we tell. In this volume, one of the most comprehensive on English folklore ever published, Neil Philip has gathered over 100 stories from all over England, all rooted in the oral tradition, and many of them — like “The Flyin’ Childer”, a macabre and disturbing tale — are recorded in their original vernacular. These stories demonstrate an astonishing breadth of format, theme, and language. Some of them are fanciful tales, others are terrifying ghost stories, and others still unfold in the structure of a bar-room joke. They tell of magical foxes, giants who covet gold, imps that weave skeins, and hedgehogs who outwit the Devil.
Many bear the structure of a lighthearted comedy: a clever lad uses his wits to overcome a difficult situation (or foe) and finds his fortune and a happy marriage. Women claim their destinies by expressing their natural beauty and kindness — the charming “Cap o’ Rushes”, a cousin of the “Cinderella” story, is a great example. These characters climb the social ladder, earning wealth, love, and social position through their natural capabilities, often overcoming those that should have power over them like witches and wealthy knights.
However, other stories have a darker side: intimations of incest, sexual violence, murder, starvation, and poverty abound. But even in these, the strange is harnessed to generate intriguing narratives. My favourite is “The Golden Arm”, about a man who marries a woman with a golden arm. When she dies, he digs it up and puts it under his pillow, only for her ghost to visit him in the night. It’s a bizarre tale, somehow both terrifying and humorous, the sort of thing American readers would recognise from the pages of Gammell and Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Neil Gaiman, in his delightfully penned foreword, recounts his surprise at picking up this volume after its initial publication over 30 years ago. “Folk stories and fairy tales came from somewhere else, not England,” he writes. The triumph of The Watkins Book of English Folktales is that it makes space for English storytelling alongside towering continental names like Grimm and Perrault.
However, The Watkins Book of English Folktales is a gift to the whole world, not just England. More than anything, it is a study into the architecture of narrative, each folktale a creative and fragmented insight into regional narrative traditions as well as its teller’s unconsciousness. Philip arranges them thematically, often setting different versions side by side, allowing you to relish in the regional differences and witness how they have evolved over time. Many echo famous stories collected in Germany, yet still others have a unique (sometimes mysterious) origin.
Philip does a great service to his readers by inserting a brief commentary to accompany each tale, explaining its oral and publication history, as well as its deeper significance. These commentaries are a treasure to scholars wanting a deeper understanding of folklore historiography. But more importantly, for any reader that wants to understand how great stories assemble themselves over time, The Watkins Book of English Folktales is an indispensable guide.
11 October 2022