Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain

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Ed. Reader’s Digest, 1973. Hard cover. Size 28,5 x 17 cm. With more than 300 photographs in black and white. State: Used, excellent. 552 pages

Mysteries are as irksome to the human mind asa a grain of sand to an oyster. Just as an oyster will form a pearl around its centre of irritation, so men, baffled by the imagination out of their need to understand. From this need springs the richness of folklore, myth and legend. All the same, so que now dismiss many of our forefathers’ notion as mere superstitions, there is no reason for thinking that the men and women who held them were more credulous than ourselves. Like us, they were sensitive to the fears and uncertainties of their time, and like us too they depended on their powers of imagination to explain what lay beyond the limits of their knowledge.

One definition of folklore is that it is the study of beliefs which were once firmly held, but which have long ago lost their adherents. No one now believes in giants, but throughout Britain there are hundred of curious rock formations and prehistoric monuments that were once thought to be their work. Few people now imagine that they will ever encounter a fairy, though as recently as a century ago, belief in the Little People was almost a religion in the lonelier parts of Celtic Britain. Many people are convinced that Loch Ness harbours an unidentified monster; but who now recalls the many other beasts that were once said to lurk behind the northern mists – Cailleach Bheur, for instance, the fearsome blue-faced hag, who wandered around the Highlands freezing the ground with every tap of her staff? Yet not so long ago they were accorded much greater respect than has ever been lavished on “Nessie”.

There are some beliefs, however, which have stood the test of time, though they may fail the test of reason. Even today, many of us are guilty of an odd kind of double-thinking about ghosts. We deny their existence, yet would hesitate to spend the night alone in a “haunted” house; we do not believe in them, yet might trust the word of a close friend who said he had seen one.

Many of the hundreds of ghost stories in this book are traditional; they are echoes of tragedies of long ago. But others are not so easily explained; these are the personal accounts of frightening experiencies which happened to people who are still alive, and whose truthfulness is beyond question.

The stories collected together in this book have been gathered from many sources. County archives supplied the background to tales of witches, saints and villains. Fishermen and fenmen, gipsies and churchmen, craftsmen, farmers and tinkers recounted their traditions. There are legends which are part of our national heritage, and village customs whose origines, obscure by time, are hotly argued by scholars. The one quality the stories have in common is that some or all of the British people have told them from generation to generation. Sometimes the customs and stories altered as populations shifted and social conditions changed but, taken together, they amount to a vivid picture of ourselves.

In the greatest shift of all, the mass migration of the British from the countryside to the cities, some of the older belefs became submerged. People struggling to exist in the squalor of the Industrial Revolution were too exhausted to tell stories; and where traditional stories did survive, they were usually tales of the village transformed to an urban setting. Only the older trades, such as mining and shoemaking, retained a lor of their own.

Much of Britain`s urban folklore remains to be told, for it is largely a folklore in the making. Now that many of us are generations removed from the countryside, new patterns are emerging. There are signs that our native lore -the product of many invasions and migrations- is to be enriched still further by that of more recent immigrants.

The upheavals of modern times, too, have produced their own legends. On a long-deserted Lincolnshire airfield, the scream of rending metal is said to be that of a wartime bomber that crash-landed there with a dying crew. The sounds of the Blitz are reputedly etched on the South London air, and train disasters are re-enacted on their anniversaries. Phantom hitch-hikers stand at cross-roads and ghostly lorries speed silently along the motorways. The more traditional Roundheads and Cavaliers, misty coaches and headless horsemen, no longer ride alone.

CONTENTS
Contributors
Introduction
PART ONE, LORE OF BRITAIN. MYTHS AND LEGENDS THAT HAVE ENDURED FOR 2000 YEARS
I- THE MYSTERIOUS WORLD OF NATURE
The Sovereign Sky
Seasons and Festivals
The sea’s edge
The water-guardians
Hollow lands and hilly lands
Green magic
The Fantastic Ark
II- LIFE, LOVE AND WORK
The brink of life
Come out to play
“He loves me, he loves me not…”
House and home
Angels and images
The seed and the harvest
To the sea in ships
The day`s work
A song of Britain
Health, sickness and medicine
Death and burial
The gap in the courtain
III- GODS, GHOSTS AND WITCHES
The Old Gods
Unquiet graves
The anatomy of witchcraft
The hidden people
Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum
Fabulous beasts
PART TWO, ROMANCE OF BRITAIN. A REGIONAL GUIDE TO BRITAIN`S FOLKLORE
Land of Merlin: Cornwall
The summer land: Devon, Dorset, Somerset
Cradle of a Nation: Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire
Normandy’s England: Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark
The Southern Threshold: Surrey, Sussex, Kent
The Gold-Paved City: London
The witch country: Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk
The Pilgrim Counties: Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire
The Danelaw: Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Rutland
England’s Heartland. Staffordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire
Norsemen’s Kingdom.
The Marcher Lands: Cheshire, Westmoreland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Isle of Man
Land of the Red Dragon: Wales
Reivers and Makkars: Southern Scotland
The Faraway Hills: West Highlands and Hebrides
Warlock’s Country: North-east Scotland
The Norsemen’s Dowry: Orkney, Shetland, Caithness
PART THREE, PEOPLE OF MYTH. A GALLERY OF HEROES, SAINTS AND SCOUNDRELS
Ways of glory
The undefeated
Arthur of Avalon
Death to the Normans!
Robin of Sherwood
Soldiers of God
The Mystic Crown
Scotland, the brave!
The light in the north
The Stuarts and their champions
“Wolves and wild boares”
Men of Art
INDEX