Folklorists and the origins of the stories

Or: Who are these rich, mostly men, and what do they have to do with the stories?

This is a mini essay to answer a question no one has asked.

Why do I end up talking about individuals so much when discussing the origins of folk stories?

“Folklorists” and very often “nineteenth century folklorists” crop up quite a lot on the podcast, so much so I’ve included biographies of some of them on the website (as below). This is an exploration of why that’s the case.

Before you jump into this if you want a very quick overview on what folklore is I’d recommend this article at the ever wonderful Folklore Thursday – What is Folklore?


Here you can find here a curated selection of the people who have been mentioned in various “inexpert discussion sections” of the podcast,…

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Who are we talking about here?

I use the term “folklorist” as a convenient shorthand for the group of people whose names crop up when I get around to talking about sources for the stories.

But in actuality this motley crew are drawn from a much wider stock than anything that could reasonably be described as a folklorist, and that’s even if there’s any validity to attempt retrofit what is a reasonably modern word (coined in 1846) to those who lived long before.  

Merlin telling his prophecies – an important early bit of folklore collecting.

As well as folklorists we’ve got a selection of characters from over a thousand years or more of history: medieval chroniclers, poets, novelists, translators and historians with a generous dollop of antiquarians in the mix. 

The relation of these people to the stories that I’ve told differs – some popularised a particular variant of an already well known tale, others faithfully collected and recorded a story from oral tradition and yet others embellished, or in some cases plain up invented these stories themselves (though I usually only include stories where that’s not quite provable).

There are notable translators of manuscripts written centuries before them, people who’ve substantially changed the stories and and in many other cases still the exact relation of the person to these stories is unclear – collector, author, translator or in many cases all at once.

But these people share in common two traits: Firstly that, in almost all cases, they are not the originators of the tales.

The Brother’s Grimm – folktale collectors, yet to appear directly on the podcast but it’s only a matter of time

Secondly that they recorded tales already in existence by writing them down. And it’s this writing them down which has led to their names being now tied to tales they merely recorded.

The writing down is unfortunately also the reason that I end up talking more about rich people than I’d perhaps like.

In an age before widespread literacy and when even many of those who were literate hardly had the leisure time to write books and study as they fancied the hobby of folklore collecting or antiquarianism or translating was left to those with the money and education to pursue it.

This applied from senior church figures in the middle ages up to the wealthy middle and upper classes in the early twentieth century.

The Inexpert Discussion Section

St. Patrick is lucky in that he gets his folklore straight from one of the key characters in it. A scene from Acallam na Senórach

So – if they’re so different this leads on to the thorny question of why are they here?

Fundamentally this host of characters are here because they’ve been mentioned at length in the discussion section of one of the podcast episodes or another.

When Tales of Britain and Ireland started I was very keen to talk a little about the origins of the stories such as I could discover, and thus was born the aptly named “inexpert discussion section”.

I like exploring such things as much as I am able with the wonders of the internet, and until someone pays me to do a Doctorate this is a suitable place to indulge my passion.

Folktales, legends myths and fairy tales are presented by some tellers as sort of having no particular source for them. 

Instead they exist as part of some nebulous tradition, with each telling often hinted to be but one in a series of many retellings of the tale going back to some distant time immemorial, when the events were meant to have happened, or at least the story was first written in some version or another.

“It is said that”…”I’ll tell you a tale my grandmother told to me”… “once upon a time” etc…

And I simply could have told the stories in the same way. Decoupling them from history can make them more enjoyable, and it certainly means not having to get into boring questions of who wrote what document when and instead focus on the dragons, shocking firey betrayals and murder-princesses which we all know and love.

But while being perfectly prepared to do a bit of chopping and changing of the stories themselves, as all storytellers must do to a greater or lesser extent, I wanted to dig just a little deeper into where these stories came from. And I do mean only a little deeper by the way.

Many of these tales are worthy of volumes of books on their own and a five minute snippet of inexpert research is not going to leave any one with a real appetite satiated. But just a little.

Sources of the stories

The kind of book of folklore I might consult

Now the stories I chose to tell are pretty much defined by not originating in a single source. Of being part of some long or short tradition of oral and/or literary story telling. Of not being the clearly identifiable authored creation of a single person who we can name.

I’m not telling, say, Robinson Crusoe, Dracula or Romeo on Juliet on here though all could be considered Tales of Britain and Ireland (though I keep considering the Canterbury Tales so I may break this rule at some point….).

These are stories that have been told and retold and written by different authors with a myriad variations, sometimes more, sometimes less.

The only times when I get close to breaking this previously unstated yet critical rule are when it seems like an author has created a tale that they claimed they didn’t (cough possibly the Buried Moon) and/or the tale has subsequently been picked up and retold by different authors and storytellers despite having a definite origin.

The Brother Jucundus story is the most obvious example of this latter – originally a short story which was then transformed into a local legend and subsequently repeated as such.

But most of these stories have been out there in some form or another for more than a century, some much much longer, their ultimate origin is unknown and they have in all likelihood been formed by the working of numerous creative hands over a great many years.

And so if that’s the case and we don’t really know who we wrote these tales then why the Dickens do I end up naming so many people?

So why so many  “folklorists”?

“One and the same” – the symbol previously used for Publications of the UK Folk-Lore society. I don’t know why..

You see it was not my original intention to bring up so many historical personages. I believed when starting, and to a greater or lesser extent still do, that these stories were a communal effort, a continuous process of tales evolving and changing by their passage through many hands, a tradition which I was continuing in some insignificant way.

But it readily becomes apparent that the nature of my research method lends itself to an end point where of a lot of discussions is naturally going to be a focus on one or two named people.

Which might seem rather topsy-turvy: The stories are defined by not knowing the author but end up focusing on some named people?  That can’t be right surely?

By and large the research done does have a natural end point: with the first person whose name is connected to the story. And usually that’s someone who wasn’t just telling the story to their children, in their pub, or singing it at county fairs or whatever.

It’s the person who wrote the thing down. If we’re very lucky indeed we might get the name of the person who told them it. But usually only that.

And once something is written down people who write the tale later, well they usually reference the person who wrote it down.

To take some examples:

On one hand we find ourselves with an individual from whom the story originates e.g.  The Buried Moon. This first appears in a work of M.C.Balfour’s and all other variants subsequently told date back to her 1890s version, and that alone. No one else ever claims to have heard it from anyone else.

Alternately an individual is so closely tied up to the version of the story I’ve chosen to tell, or is otherwise so connected to subsequent tellings of a story, that they basically require mentioning.

For instance while Lady Charlotte Guest did not write the stories in the Mabinogion her central role in translating them, combining them to produce the Mabinogion in its current form and subsequently popularising them means it would be a disservice not to mention her.

Similarly mine and many others’ reliance on Lady Gregory’s translation, and particularly her narrative form, for the Fenian cycle means she warrants a very big mention. 

Not always a folklorist

Francis Child – a prolific ballad collector

This does not mean that every story has named individuals attached to it. But that doesn’t typically put us any closer to discovering a source for the story.

Some stories are from well known singular texts that aren’t tied to a named person. For example the Robin Goodfellow story is from an pamphlet by an author about whom I found nothing.

In the case of others, various versions of the story are so generally widely known and distributed that they don’t lend themselves strongly to the naming of one person in particular.

This usually happens when lots of people were recording traditions from a widespread oral story independently  – see for instance the Mistletoe Bride.

Many versions of this story exist and were written down by people at various different times, and about various different locations. The song was clearly in circulation and immensely popular and essentially emerges at different places again and again.

In conclusion…

Ultimately the upshot of all of this is that while the stories originate from a large number of unknown, unnameable, people I regularly discuss a few individuals connected to the stories.

They are connected to them in a variety of ways but taken together are distinguished by having significantly contributed to me being able to tell these stories to you today, and the form in which I tell them.

And in the folklorists section of the website you can find out a little bit more about them.

This does not mean either that I believe they are the original tellers, or that I wish to in any way diminish the importance of those unknown individuals who actually crafted those tales.

Unfortunately because they were writing in the past, they’re mostly men, and they’re almost all rich, and quite a lot of them are connected to the church. Sorry about that.

In time and with more research I’d love to be able to say a little more about the lives of people who might have been telling these stories before some folklorist came and wrote them down and “preserved” them forever. A preservation that often came with a good dollop of first substantially revising and, then with a side order of calcifying the tale at the point it was written down.

I’ll leave the last word to the mother of James Hogg who sung Ballads printed by Sir Walter Scott:

There was never ane O’ my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yousell, an’ ye hae spoilt them a’thegither. They war made for singing, an’ no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an’ they’ll never be sung mair.”

P.S Where are the modern folklorists?

Most of the stories I’m telling have versions that date to the nineteenth century or earlier so when talking about the first written version or popularisers of a tale the persons of interest are usually long dead.

While there are some cases where modern academics have made a big difference to the reading of a story, or my understanding of it particularly e.g. the Mabinogion, this page is really about historical figures.

I’m in no way qualified to or indeed interested in writing flash-biographies of working academics and I’m definitely not qualified to criticise any of their work!

Where I have relied heavily on the work of modern academics to better understand a story’s origins, historical and cultural position and origins I have included links to works on individuals podcast pages.

I’d strongly recommend that you check out those people’s work out in detail as they are far better secondary sources than myself should you wish to research deeper into a tale or a folklorist.

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Welcome to Tales of Britain and Ireland!

Welcome to Tales of Britain & Ireland: A podcast telling folktales, myths and legends from across Britain and Ireland. Hosted by Graeme Cooke.

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