Author Hollie Starling explains how folklores have and continue to be used to deal with difficult times, to entertain and to form a sense of identity and survival
In her new book, The Bleeding Tree: A Pathway Through Grief Guided by Forests, Folk Tales and the Ritual Year, Hollie Starling comes to terms with the shocking news of the death of her father by suicide by embracing her lifelong interest in folklore and embracing the healing power of nature, the changing seasons and the rituals of ancient communities.
Here, Hollie explains how folklore and folk tales have been used to cope with hard times, entertain and understand the world for thousands of years.
King Canute and Donald Trump
Long ago, not far from where I grew up in North Lincolnshire, Dane marauder King Canute attempted to prove his divine right to rule over England by standing on the shore of the River Trent and commanding its tidal waters to stop rising. He got drenched, obviously, ruining his breeches and everyone’s afternoon to shout at the sky.
Almost exactly 1,000 years later another man in high office with a high opinion of himself, and who had claimed that climate change was a hoax, demanded that a wall be constructed around his golf course to protect it from rising sea levels.
"There’s no telling when a folk story will again become relevant, only that as long as humans are around it will"
Folk stories—over the years we have amassed a lot of them, and there’s no telling when a particular one will again become relevant, only that as long as humans are around it will. As the quote attributed to Mark Twain goes, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme”.
Strictly speaking the Canute story is a legend, based as it is on a historical figure. Legends are distinct from myth, which take place before the beginning of time and beyond the universe as we know it. Folklore, meanwhile, is small-scale and intimate; common people undergoing rites of passage or coming into unusual circumstances which give the narrative cautionary meaning or poetic elevation.
Folklore as a child and as an adult
Author Hollie Starling examines how folklore is used to deal with hard times, such as grieving
Your first introduction to folklore was probably through fairy stories; fables about elves and witches and enchanted forests enjoyed by kids for their magic and moral certainty. You might continue to interact with it, every time you throw salt over your shoulder or repeat a saying long used within your family. Folk culture is deeply interlaced with what we might think of as the “official” cultural foundations of society. At its heart it has three functions: to entertain, to explain and to instruct.
Folklores to entertain
To sit around an open fire and listen to someone gifted in the art of storytelling conjure a fantasy, using the power of words alone, must surely have been thrilling. Though now we get our entertainment through screens and the banishment of darkness through the flick of a switch, the transmission of information has not returned to the transactional—if anything our sharing of this so-called “low art” has only widened. The media may be different but the inclination to share compelling stories simply to provoke emotion appears to be timeless.
"Folklore continues to serve as a source of inspiration for artists and writers, informing much of the culture we consume"
Folklore continues to serve as a source of inspiration for artists and writers, informing much of the culture we consume. It was an impulse that proved irrepressible when writing my own book. Though ostensibly a memoir of grief, I couldn’t help but add in hyper-localised folk tales from my home, about card-playing corpses, ghostly hags and the bog spirits of the Fens, to widen their audience, yes, but also simply to delight in the telling.
Folklores to explain
An illustration by Johann Jakob Wick depicting a werewolf in Geneva in 1580
In every part of the world humans have used folk wisdom to explain things they don’t yet understand. Where does thunder and lightning come from? How do I undo a hex? Why did my child die? Lycanthropy, or werewolves, may have arisen as an interpretation of rabies, demonic possession taken to explain sleep walking.
We might flatter ourselves that we are long past such unenlightened thinking, but faced with a new transmissible disease, folk cures from injecting disinfectant to medicine for horses proliferated. In positive and negative ways, we are linked to our ancestors through our very human tendency towards irrationality, driven by fear of sickness and danger.
Folklores to instruct
The final function of folklore is to instruct, instil morals and caution against threats. In Lancashire children are warned not to play near canals or they will be carried to a watery grave by Jenny Greenteeth. Some warnings are for us all. Killing the goose that lays the golden egg, a lesson about exploiting the gifts of nature, could be a parable about the folly of human activity hastening the end of our only planet.
Folk tales for survival and identity
Taken altogether the three functions help to preserve the cultural heritage of a community and allow the transmission of its values from one generation to the next. Quite literally it can be a matter of survival. Take, for instance, the stories of Anansi the spider, a dream-weaver and god of storytelling from the Ashanti people of West Africa—stories that were carried on the ships of the Atlantic slave trade. Today Anansi endures throughout the Caribbean. In all circumstances of displacement, folklore helps to root us and provides a sense of identity and belonging.
"Anansi the spider endures throughout the Caribbean, as folklore helps to root us and provides a sense of identity"
Folklore is our long-term memory and alternative history. While the historical record is laden with celebrated names and seismic events, folk culture passes down the unofficial: the songs, jokes and oral traditions that preserve the truth of the everyday lives of everyday people. In them we can see the preoccupations, anxieties and hopes for a better future that we see in ourselves. And the very fact of their continued existence is proof that there is a way through troubling times. Denying the relevance of our shared past is like trying to stop the tide.
The Bleeding Tree: A Pathway Through Grief Guided by Forests, Folk Tales and the Ritual Year by Hollie Starling is published by Rider on May 11 and is available for Available On Amazon
Banner photo: A 1911 illustration by William Balfour Ker depicting King Canute, dressed in the clothes of the time, holding the tide back
Read more: 10 Folklores from around the world
Read more: Quiz: How well do you know your folklore?
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