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Thoughts of Katharine M. Briggs

The British folklorist and writer Katharine Mary Briggs (1898–1980) wrote the massive, four-volumed A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language (2005) and other books on fairies and folklore. From 1969 to 1972, she was president of the Folklore Society, which is a national association in the United Kingdom for the study of folklore. In a sampler (2002) from her four-volumed Dictionary she sums up:

The study of Folklore covers a wide area and touches a great number of disciplines. Professor Archer Taylor, one of the great Folklore scholars, used to describe it as a central study because it dealt with so many different aspects of scholarship: Sociology, Anthropology, Literature, Linguistics, Music, Drama, History, Archaeology. All these are of importance to Folklore, and Folklore is significant to them. So it will be seen that Narrative Research covers only a small part of Folklore Studies. - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 2

Local anecdotes . . . sometimes throw a revealing light on historical events. - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 3

Drama . . . not only draws themes from folk-tales and folk-beliefs but may well spring from the folk-plays which still survive. - Katharine M. Briggs - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 3

Folk tradition . . . is an enormous, many-branched subject, and folklorists . . . pursuing a great variety of specialized activities, and will have a great deal to teach each other. - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 3

Folklore . . ., like History and the study of Literature, [is not] an inexact science. - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 3-4

Folklore is being invaded and captured by the mass media for commercialization. True traditions are coarsened and falsified [through such] an ignorant and wilful debasement for the sake of money. [But luckily, most continental] European countries have a well-established, scholarly discipline in the Folklore field. Their chief danger would be from pedantry. P. 4

Professor R. D. Dorson, of Bloomington, Indiana, has waged a continuous war against this falsification [and debasement by mass media], and has coined a name for it, "Fakelore", as opposed to "Folklore". - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 4

Folk-tales . . . can be broadly divided into two categories, [a] Folk Narratives or Folk Fiction, and [b] Folk Legends or "Sagen". P. 5

Folk Narratives [are] frankly fictional . . . probably with an announcement on the front that no reference is intended to any living person. [Further, a tale of this kind is made] to delight an audience. P. 5

A Folk Narrative commonly forms a recognizable pattern, which is called a "Type". P. 6

A Type should be made up of a cluster of motifs, though there are some stories so anecdotal that they consist of one motif only, and hardly deserve to have a Type assigned to them. - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 6

Folk Legend, on the other hand, is an account of something that was believed to have happened, historical, anecdotal, supernatural, curious. P. 5

Many kinds of border cases arise between the two. Different versions of a tale may be called fairy tales in some quarters, and legends in others. On the whole, however, the two genres can be distinguished without too much difficulty, - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 5, 6

Certain Legends . . . are set in many different places, either by the general resemblance of human nature or by transmission. Reidar Christiansen of Norway worked on the classification of these diffused Legends and produced the fruit of his work in The Migratory Legends, A Proposed List of Types with a Systematic Catalogue of the Norwegian Variants, of which the first version was published in Helsinki in 1951. - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 8

My chief criterion [for selecting stories] has been my own enjoyment of the story and my pleasure in handing it on. - Katharine M. Briggs, p. 13

Great Britain
West England is called Cornwall.


  • Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom.
  • England is another country that is part of the United Kingdom.
  • Cornwall is a county in England.

These tales have been collected in England, including Cornwall - and Wales. Storytellers have passed on many sorts of stories - many in English, some in the native languages of Cornwall and of Wales.

What is called English folklore is drawn from a varied and quite violent past, as well as from Germanic, Celtic and Christian sources, and many tales of Britain tales reflect deeper-lying conditions of the country in the past.

Old stories that you hear of, are more likely about bold heroes, kings and queens and noble men and women than about honest, frugal commoners and many of the downtrodden ones, no matter how good they might have been. Apart from hero tales, Britain has ancient myths, fairy tales of many sorts, legends, and other forms of tales too. Some are wont to reflect, in some way or other, social conditions they were shaped in and built from, and some might be products of fancy, even hostility.

[A source: The introduction in Keding and Douglas, 2005, passim]

A Glimpse of the background

The English people . . . is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved. [Jean-Jacques Rousseau]

Stories of the many downtrodden are hardly as popular as stories of kings and nobles who got power and wealth and then wrote history versions that suited them well. England shares the island of Britain with Wales and Scotland, and is amazingly diverse. Some stories from England go way back, to the times of Celts, and to Romans who conquered and stayed in the country for centuries. Stories about Celts and Romans may mingle with legends. Other stories relate to Angles and Saxons who came and settled and drove the Celts farther west, away from the flat plains. Danes came and took over north-east of England. And at one time the Danish King Canute ruled over England, Denmark and Norway. Harald Hardrada ("Harsh-ruler"], a Norwegian king, tried to take England in 1066 with a large Viking army, but failed. Normans led by the cruel and greedy William the Conqueror came to the island right afterwards, and became largely vicious lords with vast tracts of lands. Twenty years after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which William won, there was left only two major English landowners, one English bishop and three English abbots. Normans went on to give England taxes and tax records.

Life for the conquered beneath the Normans and their descendants was tough, and the poor had few rights and few opportunities. Punishments were savage and cruel. The tables were set for tales of Robin Hood among others, and stories of ghosts in the mansions of the rich.

A king wanted to divorce his wife; much untoward was to follow. In the first half of the 1500s the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, for King Henry VIII wanted to divorce and the Church would not allow divorce. The English Reformation was based on Henry VIII's desire to annul his first marriage, and at the start more political than theological. [Wikipedia, s.v. "English Reformation"]

In 1642, civil war broke out. The king was beheaded, but the civil war went on without him. At last Great Britain had a dictator, Oliver Cromwell. Regional militias were set up to maintain order, suppress vice and encourage virtue. Drinking, gambling and horse-racing were banned. The militia interfered with free speech and liberty.

When Cromwell died in 1659, the people wanted a king again. When the new king had reigned for fifty years, one more of several plagues hit England. A chant and game reflects it:

A ring a ring of roses. A pocket full of posies.
Atchoo, atchoo, we all fall down.

The "roses" were scarlet sores, and the posies were herbs and flowers to keep the disease away. The sneezing was a symptom too, and falling down stood for dying.

In September 1666, London burned for three days and nights. Much had to be rebuilt.

Giant success with much German blood on the throne. Kings succeeded one another. One of them lost America and went cuckoo. Then, in 1837, an eighteen-year-old of 3/4 German descent became queen. During her very long reign, lots of stories that circulated among commoners far from court and its cares were recorded by folklorists, and published.

During Queen Victoria's reign, women had no right to vote, not yet. However, in the 1900s common people won the right to vote, and much changed for it.

Wars and worse and reflections on the English by a US philosopher.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's outlook. If you do not really like another, it may be stepped up so that you make wars, take prisoners, capture slaves, and then lord it. England has been engaged in very many wars throughout the centuries, and many try to keep utterly polite with a "stiff upper lip" like P. G. Wodehouses' butler Jeeves, for whatever reason. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Military history of England", "Military history of the United Kingdom", "List of wars involving England", "List of wars involving Great Britain" and much else.]

The New England philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson found in his essay "Ability": "The nearer we look, the more artificial is their social system." "Heavy fellows, steeped in beer and fleshpots, they are hard of hearing and dim of sight. Their drowsy minds need to be flagellated by war." And, "When they [the English] have pounded each other to a poultice, they will shake hands and be friends for the remainder of their lives." He does not say how long such lives will be.

Emerson may not advocate or prescribe that the English need to be sent to war for their "drowsy minds"; he could merely try to describe English minds of the 19th centory.

The English and the Irish. It could be unwise to consider the English and Irish good allies. Englishmen in power and many accomplices sold a lot of Irish people as slaves. The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners to be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the Caribbean. Most of the early slaves to the New World were actually white. John Martin informs that hundreds of thousands of Irish people were transported on British ships bound for the Americas. The slaves included men, women and even the youngest of children. Whenever they rebelled or disobeyed an order, they were punished severly - and rather often to death. Being brusque is not as bad as that. [1]

Oliver Cromwell went to war against Ireland in 1649. The brutal war lasted until 1653. Cromwell is still a hated figure in Ireland. [Cromwellian conquest of Ireland]

The Irish had to wage war against England to gain independence, and won it for 26 of 32 counties of the island in 1921. Only Northern Ireland remained British.

In the Northern Ireland question, the British and Irish governments started to seek a peaceful resolution to the violent conflict involving many paramilitaries and the British Army in Northern Ireland known as "The Troubles". . . . With regard to Northern Ireland's status, it said that the UK Government''s "clearly-stated preference is to retain Northern Ireland's current constitutional position: as part of the UK, but with strong links to Ireland". (Wikipedia, "Republic of Ireland > Recent history")

A few enlightening quotations

The English may batter us to pieces, but they will never succeed in breaking our spirit. [Maud Gonne (Irish Actress)]

Under the English legal system you are innocent until you are shown to be Irish. [Ted Whitehead]

Englishmen hate Liberty and Equality too much to understand them. But every Englishman loves a pedigree. [George Bernard Shaw]

More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. [Bill Bryson]

I admired the English immensely for all that they had endured . . . But after a week there, I began to feel wild. It was those ruddy English faces, so held in by duty, . . . and always swigging tea and chirping, that made me want to scream like a hyena. [Julia Child, My Life in France]

How I like the people who say what they think! [Voltaire]

This selection of tales

The background of a people resonates - but there are many strains in that, not just one song of war and top-down mistreatments of others. Many wise tales that are told in it or have come down to us from the past, and resonates with many songs that are sung in it. "By their folk songs - not just a few of them - and the many strains intertwined as their history you may know much of them" - deep down. That is a guess. To guess one's way to theorising or claiming this and that about what is behind a facade is what psychoanalysts do! [Wikipedia, "Metapsychology"]

Add "perhaps" to great claims to avoid being bitten and making them your pet ideas.

Now, by their stories you may see if common people have been as quarrelsome and cruel as those on the top - in England and other warring lands -, or just giving up halfway and bowing to them and sustaining them half-heartedly by quite symbiotic or old patterns, or doing still better . . .

The following material has been culled from some of the oldest sources so far. Trimmed or retold folktales and legends follow.


English, Cornish, and Welsh Folktales and legends, tales of Wales, Cornwall tales, Literature  

Addy, Sidney Oldall. Household Tales with Other Traditional Remains: Collection in the Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham. London: D. Nutt, 1895.

Armistead, Wilson. Tales and Legends of the English Lakes. Glasgow: Thomas D. Morison, 1891, p. 68-71.

Bottrell, William. Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall. Vol. 2, Penzance: William Bottrell, 1873.

Briggs, Katharine M. A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language. Part A and B. (2 Volumes). London: Taylor and Francis / Routledge, 2005. ⍽▢⍽ A tip: The English novelist Phillip Pullman thinks it is the fullest and the most authoritative collection of British folktales around.

Briggs, Katharine. British Folk-Tales and Legends. A Sampler. London: Routledge Classics, 2002.

Emerson, Peter Henry, coll and ed. Welsh Fairy-Tales and Other Stories. London: D. Nutt, 1894.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. English Traits. New, rev. ed. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1876 (1856).

Glover, W. J., ed. 1920. British Folk and Fairy Tales. London: A. and C. Black.

Halliwell, John Orchard. The Nursery Rhymes of England. 5th ed. London: Frederick Warne, 1886.

Hartland, Edwin Sidney, ed. English Fairy and Other Folk Tales. London: Walter Scott, 1890.

Hunt, Robert. Popular Romances of the West of England, or, The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall. London: John Camden Hotten, 1865.

Huws, John Owen. Folk Tales and Heroes of Wales.. Vols 1-3. Llanrwst, Wales: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, (Vol. 1:) 2004, (Vol. 2:) 2004, (Vol.3:) 2006.

Jacobs, Joseph, coll, ed. English Fairy Tales. London: David Nutt, 1890.

Jacobs, Joseph, coll, ed. More English Fairy Tales. London: David Nutt, 1894.

Johnson, Clifton, ed. The Birch-tree Fairy Book: Favorite Fairy Tales. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1906.

Johnson, Clifton M., ed. The Oak-tree Fairy Book: Favorite Fairy Tales. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905.

Jones, Gwyn. Stories from Wales. Paperback ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013 (1955).

Keding, Dan, and Amy Douglas, eds. English Folktales. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited / Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.

Lacey, Robert. 2003. Great Tales from English History: The Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart and More. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Parkinson, Thomas. Yorkshire Legends and Traditions, as Told by Her Ancient Chroniclers, Her Poets, and Journalists. London: Elliot Stock, 1889.

Peele, George. The Old Wives Tale 1595. Menston: Scolar Press / The Malone Society Reprints, 1908.

Philip, Neil. English Folktales. London: Penguin, 1992.

Rhys, Ernest, ed. Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales. London: J. M. Dent, 1906.

Tibbits, Charles John. English Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends. London: Gibbings, 1904.

Tibbits, Charles John. Folk-lore and Legends: England and Scotland. London: Gibbings, 1894.

Tregarthen, Enys. The Piskey-purse: Legends and Tales of North Cornwall. London: W. Gardner, Darton 1905.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.


  1. Martin, John. "White Slavery: The Slaves That Time Forgot". The Abolitionist.

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