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Today (March 20) is World Storytelling Day, a perfect chance to celebrate the traditional tales and oral myths that give a nation a sense of itself.
So, here are ten tales that have done the rounds. Some exist across all of northern Europe, because of thousands of years of trade and travel across the region. But some are very specific to their original area.
The Black Dog
If you are feeling more than a little under-the-weather, maybe considering a duvet day, or just wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket and sipping a hot broth, take a quick look around you before you get settled. If you can see a big black dog with glowing eyes, you might want to ring your nearest and dearest and say some fond farewells. You’re not going to make it.
When the British naval hero Sir Francis Drake—who defeated the invading Spanish Navy in 1588—passed away, he bequeathed his battle snare drum to Buckland Abbey, with the pledge that, if England was in danger once more, the drum should be struck and he would return. Naturally, there are claims that the drum has been heard during many subsequent attacks on English soil, or at key moments of national crisis.
In Northern English folklore, a boggart is a nasty piece of work, a rotten creature that causes milk to sour and dogs to run lame. Once attached to a family, the boggart will pester them forever, chasing them wherever they may run and making their belongings disappear. And should you try to reason with it, maybe even offering it a name, it will turn violent and destroy all your stuff. Avoid.
In marked contrast, brownies are helpful creatures that tidy up and fix things during the night, only asking for some porridge or honey as a reward. But if you should be lucky enough to have a brownie in your house, don’t call their breakfast a payment, or they’ll report you to the brownie union, and leave.
And somewhere in between the two is Lob—or lubber fiend, lubberkin, lurdane or Lob Lie-By-The-Fire. A much larger creature than the brownie, Lob was described as being big and hairy, with a tail, and some tales claim he’s the offspring of a witch and the Devil. Nevertheless, he’s a useful soul, performing duties around the house. But he prefers just a saucer of milk and a warm spot by the fire to curl up in than all of that sweet porridge.
It’s only right that a word as wondrous as this should have many meanings. Currently, the accepted definition of a flibbertigibbet is someone who is hard to pin down, a gossipy, flighty, wayward soul whose gums flap onomatopoeically. But this interpretation belies a fascinating alternative history.
“Fly by the gibbet” is a phrase hinting at two meanings: there’s the gibbet, a big sail used by ships, that would flap uselessly if it wasn’t pulled tight, which makes flibbertigibbet a metaphor for an ungrounded personality. Another interpretation concerns the cage used to display the remains of executed criminals, which was also called a gibbet. Birds would pick at the decaying flesh, and so these bodies would literally fly away, one piece at a time.
Probably because of all this nastiness and lack of gravitas, a flibbertigibbet also entered folklore as a kind of devil, and there’s even a legend that a blacksmith’s apprentice was thrown down a hill in Oxfordshire (by the longbarrow called Wayland’s Smithy), turning into a stone as he hit the valley floor.
Speaking of which…
Travelers in that same valley might like to know that if their horse has lost a shoe, all they will need to do is leave a silver coin on the longbarrow capstone, and the horse will be magically reshod overnight. This legend dates back to pre-Saxon times, so it’s unlikely that there’s a more modern equivalent involving smartphones and recharged batteries.
Ladies, beware the werefox that stalks the mountains at night, seeking maidens to steal and spirit away for unpleasant purposes. The subject of many a folk ballad, Reynardine, or Ranordine, Rinordine, Rinor Dine, Ryner Dyne, Rine-a-dine, Rynadine, Randal Rhin or Randal Rine began his mythical life as the unsupernatural bad guy in a morality tale about young girls trusting charming strangers. The twist in his fox-tail arrived in the early 1900s, when folklorists began adding verses about a transformed man with flashing teeth. It’s a rare example of a myth that can be observed becoming more magical and less rational with age.
The first History of Tom Thumb was published in 1621, and told the story of a boy born to be no taller than his father’s fingers. By that time, his adventures had already been told and retold orally, including tales of meeting King Arthur, of meeting giants (actual giants, this is, not just his view of people-sized people) and even working his way through a cow’s digestive system. A grimmer than Grimm fairy tale indeed.
Ever wondered why Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is referred to as Robin Goodfellow? It’s because this mischievous sprite is an archetype of English folklore. His spirit name is probably taken from the Old English puca, referring to a woodland spirit that would tempt travellers into dark clearings in the dead of night. The same root also gives us the word pixie.
Robin Goodfellow is an earthier sort, with a name synonymous with the word hobgoblin, and deeply suggestive of the Devil as well. The clear inference being that this is not a person you could trust, no matter how many household chores he may do for you. He’d just as likely sour your milk or set pranks and traps in your home.
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Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic