A Treasury of British Folklore
Alongside her heritage work, archaeologist and author of A Treasury of British Folklore, Dee Dee Chainey has always had a love of folklore. Starting up the hashtag #FolkloreThursday in 2015, Dee Dee began writing and sharing folklore from around the world every Thursday as part of what was to become the successful online magazine FolkloreThursday.com with co-founder and fellow folklore enthusiast, Willow Winsham. When she was approached with the idea of writing a book solely on British folklore, she jumped at the chance to pen her passion for magical tales and their history.
A Treasury of British Folklore delves into the stories, songs, customs and legends which were once part of a rich aural and written history passed from generation to generation. Heroic tales, magic and witchcraft, customs which encompass the milestones of life, these stories allow us to dip our toes into something a little more magical and mystical than the ordinary. Dee Dee presents a tradition of storytelling which conjures up an insight into cultures and lore, some of which have been long forgotten. A Treasury of British Folklore is an engrossing collection which prompts us to remember the cyclical nature of the seasons once peppered with rituals that marked ancient festivals and feast days and a selection of regional British customs still celebrated around the country today.
Stories of giants hurling stones, the legend of the Lambton Worm, thirteenth century monks treating snakebites and leprosy with the humble bluebell whilst the Elizabethans used the juice from its bulbs to starch their ruffs – Dee Dee’s book is a reminder that so many of our legends and superstitions have shaped British culture, each community and generation making them their own.
Sharing her fondness for old wives tales and superstitions, Dee Dee chats to us about how it all began.
Rebecca: Have you always had a fascination with folklore and folk tales?
Dee-Dee: I remember having the Ladybird fairy tales read aloud to me when I was small. I was given a copy of the Brother Grimm tales when I was around 9 and I remember being fascinated by how strange they were. One I particularly remember is the tale of ‘The Three Spinners’. It begins with the mother of a lazy girl beating her as she refused to do her spinning work. The queen overhears and asks why. The mother, not wanting to admit her daughter’s laziness, says it’s because the girl spins so much she can’t provide enough flax. The queen takes the girl away with her, saying that if she can spin all the flax in a huge room within three days, she will be rewarded with marrying the prince. During the night, three spinning women magically appear in the girl’s chamber: one with a huge lip from licking the thread, one a huge thumb, and the last a huge foot from pressing the treadle on the spinning wheel. They offer to spin the flax secretly, on the condition they will be invited to the wedding as the girl’s aunts. She agrees. All ends well when the king questions the women about their oversized appendages at the wedding. When they reply that it’s down to spinning, the king decrees that his new daughter-in-law will never spin again!
R: Do you have any particular favourite tales or folklore?
D: Personally, I love calendar customs from around the world. There are so many amazing festivals taking place across planet all the time, and it’s only recently people are beginning to photograph these. Here in Britain photographers like Henry Bourne are documenting the festivals and traditions taking place, while Charles Fréger has been doing the same across continental Europe. I love seeing what’s happening around the rest of the world and meeting people who are documenting festivals to share in that magic too. It’s just amazing to see the costumes people wear, dances and food shared – things we might never get to experience, but can admire, nonetheless, whether they’re from a small village at the other end of our own country or somewhere on the other side of the world.
R: Are there any folk traditions which have made it into modern life with you?
I’ll admit, I never step on paving cracks in case it breaks my mother’s back and I certainly don’t walk under ladders. We also have a horseshoe hanging near the doorway here at home, although it caused quite a stir one #FolkloreThursday when I put up a photograph!
D: Is it just about telling stories of our past?
Folklore often provides an outlet for imagination and creativity. It helps us to remember that the world is an amazing, mystical place. It isn’t just about stories and magic. It’s how we communicate with each other, how we celebrate and pass on our traditions and values. Folklore has been used to help us find our place in the world for thousands of years, teaching us right from wrong, good from bad. It’s a way of passing on traditional knowledge, from learning traditional stories that teach life lessons to teaching us how to prepare a specific dish for a special occasion.
R: How do you think these tales relate to us in modern times?
Now folklore is being used is so many new ways — in community projects and schools — as well as the old tales being reworked in really exciting forms to reflect modern ideals. Many modern writers have retold tales to showcase stronger female characters that do things for themselves whilst others prefer the original tellings. It’s great to see how the old tales still resonate with the modern reader and find their place in the modern world, rather than being forgotten.
R: With so many different stories, and so much folklore out there, how did you narrow down what you wanted to put in the book?
It was actually really hard to decide what to include and what to leave out! I wanted to get a really great mix of all types of folklore — from sayings, to traditions and superstitions, right through to legends like King Arthur which bring the landscape of Britain to life. It was important to me to show how folklore is a living thing, not just something old and stuffy from the past. I wanted to make sure there was something for everyone, so I spent time collecting folklore from as many regions in Britain as I could. My favourite part was looking at the folk tales of the creatures that lurk in rivers and woodlands right across the land, like the Lambton Worm which used to eat children until killed by a local hero in Durham. I love the Gille Dubh, a kindly forest spirit who helps lost children in the Scottish Highlands too.
R: What sparked the creation of #FolkloreThursday?
The hashtag was started when Willow (her co-founder) and I were chatting on Twitter about the Efteling fairy tale theme park in the Netherlands. We joked about how we should pack our bags and head off on a trip right away and that’s pretty much how we started chatting about our shared love of folklore. We wanted to create a central place for people to find all things folklore and that got us thinking about the need for a hashtag day specifically for folklore so we decided to create our own. We launched the first hashtag day on 18th of June 2015 and things just took off from there.
To join in with #FolkloreThursday, simply visit this page: #FolkloreThursday Each week there are new posts and you can add your own to appear on the hashtag feed. You can also find an array of folklore features and articles from around the world at folklorethursday.com
Dee Dee Chainey, A Treasury of British Folklore, published by National Trust Books