A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Chainey

Earlier this year, I was walking with a friend in Brighton on a misty, murky morning when we saw a pair of magpies in an old oak tree. “Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, “two for sorrow, isn’t it?”, remembering the nursery rhyme. Actually, he need not have worried as it’s one for sorrow and two for joy, so we were set up for a good day after all.

Folklore, traditions and superstitions still make up a huge part of our lives whether we really believe in them or not. While I consider myself a rational, scientific person, for example, I always say ‘morning magpie’ when I spot one of those much-maligned birds, just as I was taught long ago. I blame my mother, who would never let me cross her on the stairs lest I bring bad luck upon her.

Dee Dee Chainey has plugged into this love of lore, and hunger to save the knowledge of the distant past, by creating ‘Folklore Thursday’ on Twitter. Instead of scrolling through thousands of tweets moaning about you-know-who and you-know-what, every Thursday my twitter feed is filled with all sorts of homespun wisdom, ancient tales and, frankly, bonkers medical advice from past times.

All you need to do is follow the hashtag #FolkloreThursday. Because of the global nature of the Internet, the themes of the feed change during the day as the Europeans start things off, then readers in the Americas and Asia join in. It is a wonderful, welcoming community and utterly non-judgmental. People are encouraged to post whatever folkloric charms grab their fancy, be they well-known or almost totally obscure.

There are clearly many of us out there because whenever I have tweeted anything using that hashtag, my views/follows/likes shoot up to astronomic levels. With so many followers, it is natural that Dee Dee Chainey would build on her success with a book, and here is her first, A Treasury of British Folklore.

Those long winter nights must make us Brits a superstitious bunch, because the well of legend and myth from these islands runs deep. Chainey captures the spirit as well as substance of these stories:

As we get older, we still sense the wonder of those tales we know from childhood. They whisper to us with every fleeting glimpse of what might just be a fairy in the woodlands, or a giant peering through a crevice in the rocks.

Even the format is rather old-fashioned: a treasury, echoing hard-backed collections left on a Victorian child’s bedside table. This makes for very pleasant reading as the books flits from place to place and time to time, following threads with open themes like ‘Trees, plants and flowers’ or ‘Home life’. It’s one of those books that is perfect to dip into in a quiet hour.

Alongside well-known tales, there is plenty to discover here and I think I’ll need to read it a couple more times before I’ll be able to digest it all. I have learned an enormous amount from reading this book. For instance, I had never known before why there is a dragon on the Welsh flag, but now I know it is all to do with battling wyrms beneath the walls of an Arthurian castle.

Folklore and superstition have a dark side too and have been responsible for many dreadful deeds. Chainey fearlessly confronts this issue as well, not falling into the trap of treating past knowledge as something safe and twee:

In England in the 1600s torture was illegal. Instead, ‘confessions’ from witches were drawn out by starvation … In Scotland …odious methods of torture were used to break the prisoners ….In England, fewer than 500 people faced execution for the crime of witchcraft, yet, shockingly, 2,500 people in Scotland were executed for this crime. The fate of those who confessed under horrendous torture … was often to be burned alive at the stake.

A final mention must go to the charming illustrations by Joe McLaren, which look like they are woodcuts. One graces the cover above. It’s a perfect fit for a pleasant tramp through Britain’s winding and leafy, ancient footpaths.