Uncovering Our Familiar Folklore through Ballads and Old Tales

Uncovering Our Familiar Folklore through Ballads and Old Tales

During her travels, Dr. Rachel Grosvenor has discovered folktales that have helped her to question stories left behind at home. 

The queen of Laos was feeling peckish, but nothing in the palace was satisfying her craving. It was more specific than the food the streets of Luang Prabang could offer; more nuanced than the average daily snack. She wanted mushrooms from a mountain in Sri Lanka. Now that’s no mean feat, especially in a time before planes, and given the fact that railways don’t exist in Laos even now. The queen therefore asked a god for help, and explained her desire to the Monkey King. He was only too happy to oblige, after all, this was the queen of Laos. He beat his magical wings and flew to the mountain and collected the first mushrooms he found there, delivering them back to the queen with pride. She stared at them, shaking her head. Those weren’t the mushrooms she wanted, she explained. The Monkey King, a little less enthusiastically, returned to the mountain in Sri Lanka and collected more. On his return the queen repeated her displeasure. Those weren’t the mushrooms she had been craving. This continued, again and again. Eventually, the Monkey King sighed to the queen.

‘Your majesty, please tell me the name of the mushrooms that you desire, so that I can give you the correct ones.’

The queen refused. She knew the name of the mushrooms she wanted, but they were called ‘monkey ears’, and she was worried that this would offend the god. Instead, she asked him to continue his efforts. The Monkey King flew back to the Sri Lankan mountain, and considered the hundreds of types of mushrooms that grew atop its peak. Suddenly, a solution provided itself. He lifted the entire top of the mountain, and brought it back to the queen.

‘Your majesty, now you may select the mushrooms you desire yourself.’

Phousi Mountain still sits in front of the palace today. This is only one of the intriguing folktales told in Laos culture, shared through generations to explain how the landscape was formed. After spending an evening learning about Laos folktales, I began to wonder about my own country. What did I know about British folktales, and how had I come across them? The only ones that sprang to mind were German folklore such as Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Riding Hood. However, even these are arguably called fairy tales – as Masterclass confirms, ‘Fairy tales are written folktales credited to an author’. Were the only folktales I knew therefore written stories (the Brothers Grimm being the main providers), or was there still a practice of traditional storytelling in the UK, as there is in Laos?

British folk talkes: Jack the Giant Killer and Robin Hood are still talked of today

I realised through research that there was actually a British folktale that I was incredibly familiar with: Jack ‘the giant killer’, which brought to mind ‘Jack and the Giant Beanstalk’. Though these two stories differ from each other, they both use the classic ‘Fee Fie Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an English man’. This line alone can be traced back to 1606, when Shakespeare used it in his tragedy King Lear (Act 2, scene 4). The story, or various stories of Jack, did not appear in print until early 1700, and it’s impossible for us to say whether the stories were verbally told prior to the line’s use in King Lear – though I think it probable.

Another familiar tale was Robin Hood and his Merry Men, popular since the 15th Century in England. I remembered my sister and I coveting the Disney movie on VHS, and watching the series ‘Maid Marian and her Merry Men’ as children. Though the British folktales that I recognised were outnumbered by those that I had never heard of, I realised that people still share these stories with each other today – it’s just the medium of sharing that has changed.

Folklore and the power and longevity of storytelling

I was a lecturer of Creative Writing for four years, and I took pleasure in teaching the history of writing to each of my classes. This is, in itself, a folktale. From sharing and embellishing stories verbally from village to village, to writing, and printing by hand, the world has been full of storytellers for as long as we have had the ability to share a tale. The phrase ‘Once upon a time’, a line that my mother would use at the beginning of each story she made up for me, can be traced to 1380. And here perhaps lies the real beauty of folklore. There’s a comfort to a story we know well, being told with phrases used for centuries. It’s more than a familiar story – it’s a sense of belonging.

When children in Laos walk the steps up to the top of Phousi Mountain, and look down on Luang Prabang, they know that the Monkey King placed that mountain there. Whether or not they believe the story doesn’t matter, because the result is something more than knowledge – it’s the memory of the story being told to them, the fascination of a familiar tale, the gift of a narrative that they can share.

Western culture amnesia, and the twining threads of folklore and folk music

Luckily, there are still people out there sharing folklore. Welsh musician Owen Shires tells folktales both through his music and storytelling. I asked him about why this was important to him:

‘We have a bit of a cultural amnesia in the West, and I think we’ve lost touch with the past, and I think we’ve lost the mythic understanding of folklore, i.e. we tend to see folktales as children’s stories rather than have the capacity to understand them on a symbolic and mythical level – because that’s what they were designed for originally. They were moral guidelines on how to live well. It’s also important in Wales to maintain a Welsh language tradition – and there’s not many people doing that. There’s barely any Welsh language storytellers, so that’s another reason that this is important to me.’

The stories that Owen tells are not ones he grew up with, but rather tales that he discovered in books and manuscripts. He was driven to research these tales after coming to the conclusion that the oral tradition of storytelling had pretty much died in the UK, so he now shares both geographical tales with factual roots and broader tales, ‘from love and romance, to tragedy.’

English folk music has used the narrative form of ballads since the middle ages, and it was after talking to Owen and seeing his fascinating work that I discovered two folktales that I was brought up with, and that I had never even considered as folklore. The first is ‘Scarborough Fair’. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ’As in, the Paul Simon song?’ and the answer is yes, almost. Simon and Garfunkel did borrow from the original English ballad, though they added their own lyrics and music, embellishing in the classic folklore storytelling tradition. The source of the ballad is in fact the English folktale that first appeared in print in 1670.

The second folktale is one that I sing every year with confidence, despite only knowing a few of the lyrics, ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Though attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns, written in 1788, it was originally accompanied by a note from said author, stating that:

‘The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

Perhaps then, we are more familiar with folklore in England than we know, we just don’t always realise the historical context of our familiar traditions. As I write this article I am in my third month of travelling South East Asia, and it’s been a fascinating experience because it’s helped me to understand how my own British culture leads me to behave.

Though not every English person would agree, there is a lot of Britishness that informs my personality traits, and I’ve been noticing them for the first time this year. Whether it’s a slight reserve, being quick to apologise for a minor incident, or insisting on queueing whether others are pushing in or not – there’s a lot that I do that could be called inherently British.

British folklore lies in our bones, our stories, our hearts.

English folklore, it seems, is a part of who I am without my even realising. From repeating the same words at New Year since I was a child, to the Midlands based sayings that I learned from my mother, such as ‘going around the Wrekin’. This phrase alone is based on the Wrekin hill, which folklore says is the result of a tired giant dumping a spade full of dirt on the ground.

English folklore is, then, still present today. It might just take a little research to discover its origins.