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  • Writer's picturePaul Jameson

What is Folklore? My Tuppence Worth...

What is Folklore?

This is a question I've seen discussed on social media many times. Efforts tend to try to distinguish why it's different (if at all) from myth, legend and/or history. Sometimes it can get quite heated, dull-eyed trolls and silver-wrought warriors do battle on keyboards, but this is thankfully rare and debate is generally healthy, fun and rewarding. After all, there is no right answer, only what you choose to believe, and so this is my own two pence worth.

For me there are two broad definitions of folklore:

  • The Academic

  • The Magickal

I'll start with the easy one - 'The Academic' - and I lie; it ain't so easy.

You see, from an academic perspective folklore touches and plays o'er many disparate disciplines. It influences history, is myth - or myth is at least a subset of folklore - and it's a driver of art, literature, popular culture; an influencer on all forms of entertainment from the first story told in a cave to the widescreen, high definition tales of the cinema. It's a reflection of society over time too; the geography of people and place; the culture and beliefs of a people, clan, tribe, state, from 'right local' to nationwide and beyond. In many cases it represents what was once religion, or a means of societal and tribal control.

Only folklore isn't so easily constrained by dogma. It quickly becomes a means for the dreamers and wayward of society - artists and rebels - to paint the darker sides of taboo and imagination, of life; to tackle questions and fears, belief that might not otherwise be easily broached. Folklore is the past, the present and the future, a topic without borders, always changing.

No wonder then that folklore's growing in academic popularity. A fledging subject - certainly where academia in the UK is concerned. Gaining a foothold, it's attracting students. And why wouldn't it. The diversity of discipline and topic is wide, interesting, appealing, with an opportunity to better understand our own hidden histories, culture, magic, belief, and being.

I could go on.


But that for me, in a nutshell, is the academic topic of folklore. A chance to sift fact from fiction. Explore the old nature-based religions in a time of Pagan uplift, understand the influence of the Fae and Otherworlds on society and culture; become immersed in readings of legend and myth, history, religion, and study where they hold hands with the people and dance. It's an academic's dream. A subject with no bounds. A mess to label and put in boxes.


Then there is - 'The Magickal' - definition. This is where Common Folk, the likes of you and me, kindred who care little for category and class, discipline or truth, and get involved. It's where the stories of folklore, its words and teachings, become truly flexible. Meanings are reinterpreted, told anew in the musty air of a local pub, the whispers of children in a playground, over a cuppa, in the library or standing in queues at a bus-stop. Ghosts are real, and Gods still live just out of sight. Here is where shadows breathe, and our steps are hurried on the walk home at night.

Fear and magic, truth and light, darkness, is in the woods and fields at the edge of town. 'Neath bridge. Under root. Drowned in dark waters that stand still and ne'er flow. It lives alongside canals and rivers where heron scream, foxes laugh, and the deer do cough. Where blue-painted tribes still hunt and trains now run. It's in places where monsters live and people do die. Both imagined and real.

That's folklore too.

And it never stands still.

Sandy - Bedfordshire - 2018

Paul is an author and Masters student in Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. Folklore is his passion - the art of it, the wonder - and it greatly influences the fiction he writes.

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