With TALES OF BRITAIN, the first British folktale anthology to be released in decades, nearing publication, it seems timely to migrate all the weekly blogs going back to the launch at Glastonbury in 2017 to a safer place, as Nuada knows what Unbound does with them after publication. I’ve made attempts to keep references intact for this migration, but if you’re missing any video or audio, you can probably find it somewhere on the
www.TalesofBritain.com website HERE.
TALIESIN and the Turning of the Seasons
Thursday, 20 September 2018
A heart harvest Folklore Thursday to all your campaign supporters!
As we enter our sixth season of weekly blogging, it’s a rare feat to find one of our 77 tales we haven’t blogged about, and even moreso to be able to theme it to the weekly topic. But while other stories we have covered may have more immediate pertienence to autumn and harvest – Jack O’Kent’s crop-based deals with The Devil, or the crocus crops in The Saffron Cockatrice, for example – the origin story of one of Britain’s most famous bards has its own rhythms which speak of the changes of the year, resulting in our hero turning himself into an ear of corn! Grain crops could not have a more crucial place in British folklore, from corn dollies to corn rigs and barley rigs, and their associate, the Wicker Man. But few heroes actually have the ability to mutate into grain.
The 5th century poet and seer TALIESIN had many tall tales told about him long after the flesh and blood artist was dead and buried – he was folded back into Arthurian myth, along with the likes of Tristan and Bran the Blessed, and pops up here and there throughout our 77 tales. But this superhero’s origin story returns us to the shores of Lake Bala, the most fecund area in the whole country for tales, most notably ‘Vengeance Will Come’.
Telling the truth and shaming all manner of demons, the first tale told of Taliesin is a total lift from Irish mythology, and the infamous Salmon of Knowledge that Fionn MacCool was said to have accidentally tasted. In this version, the young bard is a servant to mighty sorceress Ceridwen, claimed by some to be the ex-wife of hideous King Tegid Foel, poor woman. This unholy union produced a brilliant, beautiful daughter and a hideous, moronic son – and so, to boost the brainpower of the latter, Ceridwen created a potion which required constant stirring in the cauldron for a whole year – and guess who was given that job? And guess what he did when a drop of the potion burned his hand?
When the boss discovers the now-brilliant servant’s unintentional faux pas, it triggers a long chase, somewhere between Wile E Coyote and Road Runner, and the famous magic battle between Merlin and Madam Mim in ‘The Once and Future King’ (Or Disney’s ‘Sword In The Stone’ if you prefer). When Talisein, gifted with his new-found magic powers, turns into a sparrow, Ceridwen becomes a sparrowhawk, when he turns into a minnow, she becomes and pike, and so on – until the surreal conclusion, in which Talisein’s disguise as an ear of corn seems to backfire, when Cerdiwen mutates into a giant black chicken and scoffs him right up.
Of course, this isn’t really the end of the poor servant boy-turned-genius wordsmith and magician – he grows as a baby inside his furious employer, and ends up adrift, Moses-like, until his discovery by an unlucky prince (son of King Gwyddno, lord of the sunken lands of Cardigan Bay – the connections between all our Welsh legends are incredibly strong!) and his infantile versifying earns baby Taliesin a new job as royal adviser and bard – and a whole lifetime of adventures begins anew.
No doubt similar tales will be told of the origin of John Lennon in 2,000 years, with tales told around the fireplaces of post-apocalyptic Britain about him flying to Earth in a flaming pie and transforming himself into a walrus. It’s funny what we’re prepared to believe about our rock gods.
With one trip to Bala, you get this and a whole host of others tale locations all within walking distance, but the only way to get them all together in one place – along with dozens of other tales and locations – is to pre-order our book!
And if you would like to enjoy Brother Bernard performing a choice selection of these stories in person, we have a second of three candlelit folk evenings coming up in the tiny village of Kelston (near Kelston Round Hill) this Saturday – and the final one in Avoncliff a week later. The first one in Freshford was a real joy, and the tales change every time, so our modern day bard and follower of Talisein hopes to see you around the campfire, with marshmallows, this weekend!
Travelling By Bear: The Green Glen
Thursday, 13 September 2018
Happy Folklore Thursday, folksters!
It is, I fear, a necessarily rushed folktale blog this week, due to a double deadline clashing with the book launch for Soupy Twists in London on Wednesday, and then a recording of Great Lives on Douglas Adams for Radio 4 in Bristol today. And then, after all that metropolitan publicity, I’m spending the weekend in a tent at the countryside, wrapped in a green velvet cloak telling Tales of Britain as part of a candlelit folk evening in Somerset… quite a week.
But nonetheless, when it comes ot the theme of transport, we have one recommendation for you: TRAVEL BROWN BEAR! The ancient – and very very silly Scottish story of The Brown Bear Of The Green Glen has no specific home. We placed it in Inveraray, as that was where the original folklorist James Campbell heard a version, but if anything its spirit survives through all the Western Isles.
The plot is about as pat as they come – youngest of three, sent on a mission, meets a number of very quizzical beasts, returns home victorious, is cheated by evil older siblings, but finally good wins through. We had trouble making our retelling as distinct as possible from Molly Whuppie, for a start! Also, we consider this one of the silliest tales of our 77, you could almost hear the old nurse desperately waiting for her audience to fall asleep, as she was forced to come up with yet another stage of tests for the hero to go through before achieving his goal.
But none of it is possible without the help of the kind, brave, strong – and extremely convenient Brown Bear of the Green Glen, who invites our hero onto his back, and flies from Isle to Isle, completely free of charge! If only flying by brown bear was still a possibility today…
We may well perform this story at The Inn at Freshford this Saturday evening, as part of their candlelit folk nights! If you’re in the area, Brother Bernard hopes to see you there! If you don’t live in the area… catch a brown bear?
Fairyland In The Border: Thomas The Rhymer
Thursday, 6 September 2018
We wish you an otherworldly Folklore Thursday, dear Tales pledgers!
Hectic times over here, given that this Folklore Thursday is also publication day for SOUPY TWISTS – the official biography of Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie, otherwise known as ‘The Book That Came Before Tales of Britain’!
But of course there’s always time to share a special themed blog with you lovely folksters… however, when the theme is ‘legendary places’, even discounting the legendary nature of the entire landmass we’re celebrating (in 77 places, with tourist guides to each location), where on earth, or on this bit of it at least, do we start?
Since the first wave of post-Ice Age immigrants washed up on these shores, Britons have been suspicious of ‘other worlds’, in the sky, in the trees, under the sea, and above all, under the ground, and in the hills. Maybe houses like those found at Orkney, inhabited by races smaller than the invading ‘Celtic’ (© Generic Pre-Roman Britons) are what inspired the many tales of faerie-ish folk living underground, but whatever the inspiration was, our book is packed with tales of legendary places, where British folk have travelled to, and – less often – from.
Camelot is of course, a legendary place in itself, as, you could argue, is Sherwood Forest. But we’ve already covered a whole host of ‘fairy lands’, be it Brother Elidor’s Welsh odyssey, The Mermaid of Zennor’s undersea kingdom, The Green Knight’s Chapel, or most recently, The Doonies who creep out of the hills of Kilmartin.
This last is one of a trilogy (at least) of southern Scottish, borderland legends of faerie denizens under hills. It’s not strictly a Scottish idea, hills hiding pathways to lost lands – Avalon itself, now known as Glastonbury Tor, is supposed to be the portal to the land of Gwyn Ap Nudd. But there’s something about these majestic hills at the bottom of Britain’s northern splodge of craggy land which has inspired generations of storytellers to give their ideas of what lies beneath.
Pictured above are the hills of Eildon, which will forever be associated with Scotland’s answer to Nostradamus, the medieval poet and prophesier Sir Thomas Learmouth de Ercildoun, otherwise known as True Thomas, or Thomas the Rhymer. When we came to retell the legend of how he learned his versifying party tricks from the Queen of the Faeries, we were a bit taken aback to realise just how close the myth is to that of Tam-Lin – they could almost be both spun from the same real-life nugget of news, if it wasn’t for the clear historicity of the talented Thomas. Scotland even proudly marks the spot where he was said to have met the irresistible Queen, who led him under a specific hill to a very specific kind of faerie country – usually termed ‘Elfland’.
Both tales involve sexy young Scotsmen, border-dwellers, who pique the fancy of the Faerie Queen (Titania in our retellings, a rather schizoid but endlessly fascinating paragon of aristocratic hauteur, delightful when she gets her way, but cross her and… well, you’ll see), and are taken to live with her in her underground – or certainly, otherwhere – kingdom. In both cases, it’s usually even for the same period, of seven years. However, where Tam-Lin is imprisoned and marked for sacrifice, and can only be saved by the story’s hero Janet, Thomas’ deal with HMQ is far more pleasing to all – they meet, they kiss, he adoringly follows here all the way home under one of the Eildon Hills, and in a fascinating journey, through a series of tests, choosing the primrose path to hell, a heavenly path, or just heading midle-of-the-road, then wading through rivers of blood dripped down from the surface’s many bloody battles, then past tempting fruit trees and so on… this journey constitutes much of the story of Thomas the Rhymer. Ultimately, at the end of his time of absolute hedonism, Thomas is given a fruit which will grant him the gift of prophecy, which he chooses in preference to improved lute-strumming skills (turned down because he already considers himself the medieval Hendrix anyway).
This is all that remains of the grand tower Thomas built on his return to our realm in the late 1200s, the last remaining crumb of the great fortune he built up as a result of his faerie-bought poetic flair. You’ll find it in the market town of Earlston in Berwickshire, and there you can retrace Thomas’ steps, to the spot where he met the Queen, and the hill where he followed her to seven years of magical luxury in Elfland… but sadly, no tourist has yet left any suggestion that they managed to follow his footsteps all the way to Elfland, on TripAdvisor.
We’ve never performed this tale live as yet, but perhaps we will, as we have THREE shows coming up this month, all candlelit folk evenings in gorgeous rural pubs here in the NE Somerset area. Take a look at our LIVE page and see if you fancy any of them! Come along, and we promise to take you to any legendary place that takes your fancy…
©ChaliceMoon on DeviantArt
Thumbs Up For Tattershall Tom
Thursday, 30 August 2018
A bear hug for you all this Folklore Thursday!
First off, a thank you to all who came to the Waverley in Edinburgh a week ago today for our Scottish debut, where we got away with doing Molly Whuppie with all the accents. Maybe a Thursday lunchtime isn’t the best time for any kind of gig, but we were outnumbered by the audience, which is some kind of achievement at the Edinburgh Fringe.
We have exciting plans for Halloween and Xmas in Bath, and three interesting shows coming up in September: candlelit folk evenings in the North Somerset area, as you can see from our LIVE page – but we do have yet to confirm a Welsh date for this year, and having performed in England, Kernow and Scotland, we INSIST on a gig in Wales before 2019, so if anyone out there has any ideas, and fancies a storytelling session, PLEASE get in touch! Or we’ll be busking in Cardiff’s Millennium Centre…
Now – if you want a folktale involving teeth and bodyparts, fitting today’s Folklore Thursday theme, it can only be the nasty tale of SIGURD’S HOWE and the disembodied head whose big teeth gnawed him to death… but, well, we’ve done that one, so if it’s bodyparts you’re after, how about we finally cover one of England’s finest folktale heroes, with a THUMB?
Most of our 77 tales were discovered by us anew, and we felt they were worth reviving – the adventures of Tom Thumb were thoroughly soaked into us from childhood, both from books and one very evocative talking book which we’re unlikely ever to hear again. But it was a great pleasure to rediscover his biography, and retell it for a new generation – from his parents’ lamenting a lack of a child, through to his ennoblement with a pin by by King Henry VIII.
And as our book provides tourist guides for every one of our stories, Tom Thumb has been a particularly pleasing one to add, because although there have been a few people of smaller stature to use the Tom Thumb name in history, the Lincolnshire village of Tattershall really went for it, and declared themselves the true birthplace of the real Tom Thumb. If you look to the roof of this building below, you can even see the little fellow’s home…
And there in the Holy Trinity church, is Sir Tom’s grave marker – though no archaeologist has yet dared disturb his bones and find out if there really is a thumb-sized skeleton in a matchbox under the flagstones…
One thing the book’s editor did point out was a preponderence of poo in Tales of Britain, which we did go some way to reduce – it never struck us as an over-abundance, and certainly wasn’t a tiresome attempt to add extra scatology ‘for boys’ – that kind of gendered nonsense is a real bete noir, as if only male kids enjoy a bit of bogey-flicking, and as if they only respond to that kind of writing. But poo, and indeed sick, do play crucial parts in Tom’s journey from bullied little schoolboy to royal servant, and you’ll find all that filthy business intact in our retelling – it’s not a tale you’d want to read while having your tea. Especially if you’re having salmon and peanuts followed by plum pudding.
We’re still awaiting a release date for the book, and it feels like soon we will have blogged about every single one of our 77 stories. But as collecting and reviving these dusty old tales has now become a lifetime’s job, don’t worry, this campaign is a journey we have only just started to take. Thumb a lift. (Sorry.)
Rub-a-Dub-Dub: The Madness of GOTHAM
Thursday, 23 August 2018
Busy Folklore Thursday, dear folksters – our first ever Scottish storytelling show kicks off at Waverley Bar as part of the Free Fringe at 1pm!
There are so many tales among our 77 full of rhyme and song, but so little time today! But we do just have time to consider the silly old British rhyme of ‘Rub-a-Dub-Dub’ – at least inasmuch as it is brought to mind by the madness of the folk of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham! There are loads of British folktales about loony villagers, but only one which became so famous, the village’s name was adopted by DC Comics as the home of that city of madness – GOTHAM.
The short version is that nasty old King John plans to travel north through the village – which will cost the villagers dear – and so they all decided to act as mad as possible, to warn away the royal entourage, lest the insanity be contagious! And one of the key moments of madness, among the villagers who try to trap a cuckoo by building a wall around its nest, or sieve the moon’s reflection out of a puddle, is a trio of loonies sailing away in a tub… or did we dream that?
Any which way, it’s a great little tale, linked to a very pretty village you can visit to this day, which is proud of its reputation for wisdom, for rebellion (and connections to America’s greatest vigilante detective), and for us the story has always brought to mind:
Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they were?
The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker,
And all of them off to the fair.
(Or ‘They all went to sea in a rotten potater’ in the Shropshire version I grew up with. Salopians maybe have a thing about potaters.)
And in fact, we’re going to perform this tale for the very first time in Edinburgh today! One tale from England, one from Kernow, Wales, and of course, Scotland. If this is our last blog, you’ll know that our Scottish accents have led to violence.
Als, as our teaser show last night was cancelled, for the first time ever, we’re going to end our show… on a SONG! We can’t visit Scotland without playing ‘Send The English Back’ after all!
We’ll update with details of how it went either later today, or as soon as we can! If you’re in the area, PLEASE do come along and say hello – it’s Pay What You Feel!
You’d be mad not to.
The Kintraw Doonies: Christianity vs Faeries
Thursday, 16 August 2018
Merry Folklore Thursday, lovelies!
Thank you to everyone of all ages and smells who came along to the Bath Folk Festival show last Saturday – yes, even baby Robyn who joined in with a fair few tales. It was one of Brother Bernard’s best solo shows yet, though we really hope to get a few folktale fans at our first ever Scottish show a week today – 1pm at the Waverley Bar, as part of the Free Fringe!
And talk of Scotland brings us to this week’s tale – the Kintraw Doonies. The theme of World Religion gave us pause for thought – partly because not many of our 77 tales really deal with the subject, but also because those that do may be a wee bit controversial, to some. We’ve already covered the oppressive nature of religion, compared to pre-Christian faiths, in our Long Meg blog, but the issue surfaces once again – old religion versus new – in this very sad Argyll legend.
These hills around Kilmartin are packed with myths and mysteries, and we settled on an unusually un-comedic tragedy concerning a group of poor children who lose their Mother, and then discover, when visited by her shade one Sunday while their Father is at church, that she was taken away by the Doonies: faerie folk generally said to be friendly, who take the form of little old people or maybe (and perhaps inevitably with Scottish lore) wee horses. The children’s widower Father is a church-going Christian (obviously, for those days), and when he hears their story of being visited by their poor dead Mother, and it gets back to the local priest, the Bible-bashing bigot belittles any such idea of faerie folk, and forces the children to break a bond which casts their Mother away forever…
But, in a macabre twist, the priest is later found dead in the hills, clearly a victim of the Doonies’ dislike of being laughed at by those who follow religions far more outlandish and dangerous than any idea of ‘faeries’ ever was.
Tales of Britain strives to be inclusive, it’s for everyone, no matter what their gender identity, sexuality, race or indeed, CREED. So we have no wish to isolate anyone of any faith – as in real life, as long as nobody is preached to, or judged according to outdated texts, or in any way harmed by anyone’s religious belief, they should be free to worship whatever they like, however they like. True, it is a crime that so much of British folklore has been distorted by Christianity over the last 1500 years or so, the old gods dismissed as demons, and ancient rights ruined by very silly concepts such as ‘Heaven and Hell’, and so on, as in the Long Meg legend. And as pretty much every other collection of folklore from these isles you will come across repeats this religious calumny again and again, we do feel it’s our important job, as secular storytellers, to right these crimes and present stories fit for 21st century folk of all ages, devoid of dogma and pre-21st century ideas of morality.
Nonetheless, the way the Doonies get their own back on the fire & brimstone preacher (a form of reprehensible ‘holy man’ we were more than familiar with in our own Christian upbringing) has given us pause, to worry about accusations of overt anti-theism. The obscurity of this tale in particular, made us ask ourselves, are we including it just as a kickback against the likes of the Doony-dismissing doomed priest? After all, someone who believes in the Bible has no right to mock any ancient belief once shared by the folk of Britain, even if it does involve horse-shaped people who live under hills.
But thankfully, rediscovering our source material reassured us – we’ve chosen to retell The Kintraw Doonies, sad and serious though the legend is, because it’s a rare example of a tale which deals directly with this clash of beliefs, and that’s a story worth preserving for new generations. Especially if it inspires visitors to these gob-slappingly beautiful Kilmartin hills to wander around, seeking the entry to the Doonies’ home…
Plus there was one extra reason for adding this legend to our collection – in our version, we add that the poor Mother character, once broken from her bond with her children, is left to roam the hills as a Caointeach – the Scottish equivalent of a banshee. So our version is especially thick with the lore of the Argyll landscape.
Anyone who worries that our approach to reviving these forgotten stories may be relentlessly flippant, should be reassured – some of these tales are almost devoid of jocularity, jokes do not suit all legends, and especially in the bleaker corners of Scotland, they are designed to provoke tears, rather than laughs. Here endeth the lesson.
Who Needs Hogwarts? Merlin at Dinas Emrys
Thursday, 9 August 2018
Well, salagadoolah, menchikaboola, and bibbiti-bobbiti-boo to all TALES OF BRITAIN pledgers this MAGICKAL MAGICIAN-THEMED FOLKLORE THURSDAY!
First of all, please do forgive the plug, but this is our last chance to alert you to our show for the Bath Folk Festival on Saturday – the very first item in the whole festival indeed, at St. James Wine Vaults, Bath at 3pm! Bernard is performing solo, with Sister Sal up in Edinburgh, and so it’s a whole hour of REQUESTS! Yes, with a point at the map, any of our 77 stories – nay, 80, including new retellings – will be performed for you, and you pay whatever you like! It is of course entirely family friendly (followed by a more adults-only comedy music show an hour later). Really hope to see you there for some storytelling magic…
And returning to magic, we’re simply spoiled for choice when it comes to magic-makers throughout our 77 stories – we’ve already covered Conjuring Minterne in this blog, and were very tempted to go with The Great Gormula, the best of all the many Scottish witches, but instead, we’ve gone to the very tip-top of the legendary fame charts, and the wizard known as Merlin – or if you prefer, Myrddin Emrys.
This image ©King Arthur’s Labyrinth in Machynlleth, which we only just found out about, and NEED to visit, and wish we’d been able to recommend in the book! Volume 2, definitely.
Of course, this particular Merlin – a native of Snowdonia, hence the name connected to the hillfort at Dinas Emrys – crops up time and again in our country’s lore, and he’s more usually seen in our book as the tall, elderly and wise Merlin, teacher of King Arthur. But his introduction, set at Dinas Emrys, is surely one of the most important stories of our 77, being one of the few legends which directly comments on the history – and future – of the United Kingdom.
It’s such a famous tale, this origin story for Britain’s greatest wizard, that it would probably seem patronising to summarise it, but as you know, crappy old King Vortigern was failing to build a castle in North Wales, and this young wise guy Merlin – believed to be half-demon – was sent for as a sacrifice to somehow make the construction process smoother, but instead revealed the true reason for the failed building – two wyrms or dragons in the foundations, one red dragon (who arrived on the island first) and a white interloper.
There’s a great origin story to these dragons too, involving the pre-Roman figure of King Llud Llaw Eraint, which is tempting to write up for a second volume of TALES OF BRITAIN, but suffice to say, for this tale, the red symbolises the British (eventually re-labelled ‘Welsh’ by the invaders), and the white stands for the Saxon interlopers (soon to masquerade under the title ‘English’) and their eternal struggle is still with us, to this day.
There’s no word on whether there was also a rock-hard blue dragon who joined in the scrap and gave the white wyrm a good nutting, but Scotland aside, this allegory of Anglo-Welsh relations remains a stirring tale, and one we could never have left out.
With three other tale locations within walking distance at Beddgelert and Lake Bala, site of Tegid Foel’s drowned city and the birthplace of the bard Taliesin, Dinas Emrys constitutes one of the greatest tourism no-brainers in our book, no matter how far from historical the story is – and the site was already settled in the Iron Age, centuries before Vortigern – generations of visitors have plotted out the exact site of the castle, and where the dragon scrap was taking place, and it’s almost impossible to visit without shivers.
A historical Merlin is of course even more debatable, but knowing what we do about the few possibly real shamans of that name in British prehistory, our book sees the name ‘Merlin’ as a kind of dynasty, so the wizard isn’t like Batman, with different men taking on the mantle in different centuries, it’s just a family boasting numerous ranting madmen and supposed seers, and the most famous magician of all in the bloodline, our Merlin, is this clever Emrys lad, born in Carmarthen, and eventually relocating to Cornwall to steer the chosen King of the Britons to greatness.
There are many more Merlin tales we could revisit, and we hope we do, but this is his starring role in our book, and we can’t wait to share our take on it with you.
Incidentally, a Google search for “young merlin” also reminded us of this, pictured below, the greatest SNES game not to feature Mario or Dizzy. If you have an emulator to hand, try ‘Young Merlin’, and even over 25 years later, it’s still entrancing. And bloody difficult.
Pennard Castle: A Verry Fine Feast
Thursday, 2nd August 2018
A fine, feast-filled Folklore Thursday to all!
We love a feasting theme – so many of our tales involve food, it gives us almost carte blanche. Knucker Pie? The Apple Tree Man? The Shillington Goblins all partying away? No, this week we make a return to Wales, and a look at the wild feasting party which led to the Gower fortification of Pennard Castle being buried under a mountain of sand!
So many Welsh tales seem to be about great big parties getting disrupted by tragedy – usually it’s a sunken city that becomes drowned while everyone has a good time, but in this case, it’s sand: the revenge of a gang of faerie funmakers turned away by a bunch of bigoted humans.
But first, a slight confession – this anthology hasn’t been quite put together with the most sensible level of organisation required. Which is to say, over 14 years of collecting and updating these tales, 77 of them in the book we’re all waiting for, another 4 already written for a follow-up, and a waiting list of at least a dozen more… it’s hard to keep track of quite where we first heard of each individual tale. Sometimes it can be so frustrating, trying to find a unique story to attach to a region, with a beginning, a middle and an end that isn’t just another version of Cinderella or something with big black ghost dogs, that when one swims into our ken, we pounce on it, and sometimes lose track of its origin.
So, for instance, if you were to search for “pennard verries mowbray” you will get nowt. Take out the ‘verries’ (a specific spelling of ‘fairies’, of course) and you get the rather dull historical information that ownership of the castle briefly passed to some guy called John de Mowbray, then to someone else, and eventually it was abandoned because of encroaching sand, ratherthan a magical tidal wave of the stuff. Boo.
But here is one retelling of the story we have chosen to represent this blob of south wales, except in our retelling, the plot about a great feast in the castle being disrupted by verry weird and groovy supernatural gatecrashers, who force everyone to flee the castle forever with a sandstorm on being turned away, becomes a tale about toxic masculinity versus peace-loving fun-makers. Mowbray and his army are pigs, obsessed with nothing but war and measuring their tiny manhoods, while the verries are just good-time faeries wanting to join in the fun.
The fairies’ complaint at being turned away has a wonderful wing of the infamous 1970 Isle of Wight Festival rant from Rikki Farr, sampled by Oasis on their track ‘Being Naughty In The Bushes’ (sic) – “WE PUT THIS FESTIVAL ON, YOU BASTARDS!!! WITH A LOT OF LOVE! WE WORKED FOR ONE YEAR FOR PIGS! AND YOU WANT TO BREAK OUR WALLS DOWN! AND YOU WANT TO DESTROY IT!! WELL YOU GO TO HELL!!!”
This sentiment is also just a tiny bit like lavishing years of hard work on a folklore collection and then not being sure whether it’s going to be published with anything but the most basic text-only treatment, but we’re going to keep you informed of the book’s devlopment over the next few months, as it inches nearer to release. In the meantime…
… If you’d like to hear some of these stories, as retold for the 21st century, then do come to St James’ Wine Vaults in Bath for 3pm on Saturday 11th August, as we’re kicking off the Bath Folk Festival with a special hour-long show, where you will get to choose any story you want from the map! And we’ll be doing it all over again at the Edinburgh Fringe on Thursday 23rd August at 1pm, Upstairs at the Waverley Bar! This will be the first ever Scottish Tales of Britain show, so please come along and support us if you’re north of the border!
Welsh show details are to follow – we’ll just have to be sure not to make it such a rollicking fun show that we end up dumped under tons of sand or gallons of water. You can never be too careful, having fun in Wales…
British Folklore: The Stories So Far…
Wednesday, 25 July 2018
Happy Folklore Thursday, pledgers! As today’s theme is folklore from around the world, we’re taking the very rare chance to not feature any specific story – they are all British, after all – and give an update on where we stand.
You know why this campaign has been fought for so long, and why we will continue far beyond this book’s release. There are endless books of random lore, myriad non-fiction investigations into British mythology, and copious releases covering individual counties, and the UK’s constituent parts – there are even themed lore books on plants, and Nuada knows what! But as for an anthology of British folktales, individually retold for a new generation – nothing along these lines has been seen since 1987, and never really attempted in this way, with tourist guides to each location. The passion that drives us was explained pretty well in this Folklore Thursday feature, and on www.TalesofBritain.com.
Launching pledges at Glastonbury in June 2017, and delivering the manuscript on Halloween, we were informed at one point that this book should be released in spring 2018 – the unlikelihood of this was tangible at the time, but we went along with it, knowing that my other Unbound book, the official Fry & Laurie biography Soupy Twists, was a definite for the end of summer, delayed by a whole year. Despite a crowdfunding campaign which caused such stress it was a serious health hazard (seriously, everyone who got a DM of any kind, it was one of the most painful times ever, so thank you to the tiny minority who then pledged for the book), and despite the patronage of our wonderful supporters including Cerys Matthews, Sir Tony Robinson, Francis Pryor, Neils Innes and Gaiman, Brian Blessed and many more of the wonderful people below… by the end of the year, after five months, we were still way off the target, and so Unbound moved our book to the cheaper Digital option, as detailed HERE.
The lack of a release date has been tricky, as the release of Tales of Britain needed, and still needs, storytelling events all over the UK to accompany its release, and so far this year I’ve performed tales in Bath, Bodmin and Ludlow.
Incidentally – ADVERTISING BREAK! Come to see us kick off the Bath Folk Festival for a special folktale request show on Saturday 11 August at 3pm! Or come up to Edinburgh to see our first ever Scottish show at the Waverley Bar on Thursday 23 August at 1pm! Shows in Cardiff, London (and anywhere you like, if you want to invite us!) will follow before Yule. Just try us.
Of course, nothing like a Spring release has happened, and right now, the first styled-up manuscript is currently back with us for checking. We’re sorry to say it is currently only the most basic text. The 77 tales are intact, and we’re really proud of them, every word shines and we know you’ll love them, both read alone and shared aloud. But when we agreed to the reduced Digital release, we were aware this meant the book would not be stocked in WH Smiths or Waterstones, and would only come out in paperback (which we preferred) and ebook… what we weren’t told was that there would also be minimal visual element, and we have worked so hard to provide useable art, saving budget by doing it all ourselves. But as you can see from this Art blog, we had great hopes for illustrations and visual elements aplenty.
As we’re presuming most of this work won’t see the light of day any time soon, we’l share a little with you. PLEASE note, this is not offered as ‘finished art’, the hope was that these rough designs would be reworked by more talented book designers, but it seems our budget does not stretch that far. There’s a tiny chance we might be able to change the publisher’s mind on this, though, with enough support…
Author’s rough page designs, of desired layout…
So this is the battle we face right now, after 14 years of dreaming of this book – and also partly why we have striven to keep asking those of you who haven’t pre-ordered to do so, as the bigger a group of pledgers we have, the stronger our position is when trying to fight for a more opulent release for this first edition. Tales of Britain is a campaign which has only just started, and will continue far beyond this first release – further volumes, audiobook releases, live shows, tales from further afield, you name it, we’re here to stay as a permanent line in 21st century folklore. So this is only the beginning. But right now, we’re doing all we can to make it an auspicious beginning, and to make for you the book we all want so badly.
So we hope you’re sitting comfortably.
MACBETH: A Deed Without A Name…
Wednesday, 18 July 2018
Hail to thee, O Tales pledgers… a foul and fair ritulatistic Folklore Thursday!
You may have received emails this week saying our book has now reached the next stage of production. The strictures of the digital deal we had to make when we moved from Unbound’s inflated original target mean having to make so many huge concessions with design – but the main thing is, the WORDS! 77 retold folktales, made for THIS century, for THIS generation! There’s truly nothing else like this, and all our supporters should know, plans are afoot for special editions and further volumes, so our campaign is only just getting going! This is STEP ONE!
The need to theme our blogs to each Folklore Thursday’s topic of the week means we’ve been most remiss, by only featuring English tales for some weeks, but the theme of RITUAL gives us a perfect opportunity to feature one of the greatest Scottish legends this week. Few tales feature freakish folklorish rites and rituals as centrally as that of MACBETH & THE WITCHES!
Admittedly, the rituals we think of with Macbeth are all the creation of an actor from the West Midlands, but Shakespeare did not invent the Weird Sisters. In fact, the earliest references to them call the trio ‘faeries’, which was tempting to use for our folklore collection, but there’s such a strong connection between Scotland and witchcraft, we went for the traditional approach:
Double, double, toil and trouble,
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
In even more fact, our first draft retelling of the King’s rise and fall had a kind of remix of this twisted ritual, a deliberate attempt to not just quote from the play (nothing to do with theatrical superstition), but one of the many copy editors presumed we’d GOT IT WRONG and corrected it back to Shakespeare’s version. So we settled for that. Maybe Bill did know what he was doing.
The rituals of Macbeth are personal favourite elements of the play – ‘A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap, and munched and munched and munched…’ – the play is like one long perfect poem, and every cut made my companies is a pair of daggers to the heart. The recent National Theatre post-apocalyptic production was such a sixth-form disappointment, fingers crossed selling a kidney to see Christopher Eccleston at the RSC next month wasn’t a waste of offal…
Where the bizarre rituals of these Hecate-worshippers came from – the playwright’s imagination, King James’ own witchcraft researches, or a rag-tag of half-truths and twisted reportage – we will never know. But there’s no doubt when it comes to the historicity of 11th century warrior MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh, ‘The Red King’ of Alba, of course. And the tradition that his (actually very successful and long) rule was inspired by magic and preternatural portents was already kicking around even before the Bard’s favourite source, Holinshed, starting putting together his lore-packed history book.
It’s even said that the very blasted heath where Macbeth & Banquo was met by the fateful threesome can be visited today, in the ground of Brodie Castle near Forres – a mound known as ‘Macbeth’s Hillock’ is the spot, and there’s even a whole site of places to visit HERE.
Although the great Dunsinane Hill where Shakespeare’s tyrant met his last does exist, and the real King was said to have lost a crucial battle there, he was actually killed in battle in Lumphanan, a village 25 miles outside Aberdeen. Our retelling of the legend hopefully has a heady mix of history, legend and Shakespeare, and as with our version of King Leir, fits in well with the other 76.
We’re proud that these 77 stories constitute the first British folktale (not ‘lore’) anthology to be published in over 30 years – and you have just a week or so to get your name in the first edition, by pre-ordering on the right!
Peace – the charm’s wound up!
Macbeth’s Hillock, Forres
BEGIN THE BUGGANE!
Wednesday, 11 July 2018
Happy and indeed proud Folklore Thursday to one and all this week of #Pride – and good one to the FT gang for recognising it in this week’s theme!
You may have picked up by now that – besides having a laugh and promoting tourism to each story’s location – a crucial part of our Tales of Britain campaign is the long overdue de-toxifying of our national folklore, examining what makes our best stories tick, going back to each tale’s roots, and scraping off the centuries of religious bigotry, racism and misogyny and so on. In spirit, of course this also extends to promoting tales which are inclusive of different sexualities and non-binary genders as well.
We were very excited by the folktale of a particular saint who was able to change gender – but saint stories were something we were keen to downplay, and then we realised that legend was Irish anyway, so inapplicable (However, we were told the tale by someone we’ve lost contact with and have failed to identify it, who was this gender-defying Irish saint? If you know, please tell us! firstname.lastname@example.org).
Our keenness to reflect diveristy as much as possible in our 77 stories doesn’t mean that any LGBTQ+ elements have been blatantly imposed on existing legends (although there may be plenty fo folk out there who think they should have been), because that would be frankly obnoxious, adding new layers of distortion to our national story treasury, and would also incite exactly the kind of ‘political correctness gone mad!’ hysteria barfed out by bigots in our society, to whom none of us want to give the slightest ammo.
But then, there is The Buggane of St. Trinians.
Nothing whatever to do with the vintage schoolgirl comedy franchise, St. Trinians is a ruined church on the mystical Manx isle which is plopped in the cold sea, surrounded by Ireland, Scotland, Wales and North-West England. Like around 85% of all British churches built before the Renaissance, it was said that building the church at the foot of Mount Greeba was made near-impossible by the pestering of Forces of Evil! Where this old chestnut usually involves Satan carrying away the foundation stone or similar, they do things differently on the Isle of Man – and this church was beseiged by THE BUGGANE.
In monster terms, The Buggane really is an absolute mess. A search shows some cryptozoologists trying to sum the creature up as ‘a kind of giant mole’, but it seems more like a kind of Frankenstein creation – several storeys high, covered in thick yak-like hair, and so festooned with claws, horns and tusks that it can only lope along awkwardly. But it can also speak, and kill slow humans very effectively – and it was said that St. Trinians had to be rebuilt three times due to his vandalism. The second each last slate went on the roof, along he would come, tear it off, scoff a few choir singers, and return to his cave.
But then, as the poor git’s cave had been there for countless centuries, until along came all these little pink people RINGING BELLS EVERY SUNDAY MORNING right outside his nice cave, you can hardly blame the poor man-eating mess of a monster.
Anyway, we don’t wish to spoil the tale as per usual, but the Buggane met his match when he clashed with a simple young tailor from the parish of Marown called Timothy. Timothy was wagered by the locals that he could not vanquish the mighty brute, but he swore to do not only that, but sew together a pair of trousers as he did so! With the help of his self-designed trousers, which allowed him to outrun anything, let alone the hulking great Buggane, he finally saved St. Trinians from vandalism for the final time, and made himself a bit of money into the bargain. There are many different tellings of this tale, even one from the famed and rather wet poet Gerard Manley-Hopkins – and the nearby pub is still proud of Timothy’s needlework according to this version – but one retelling of the legend we found suggested that Timothy wanted the money to be able to marry his true love, who remains off-stage throughout the story.
So we tell the tale of a young tailor alienated by his community, and in love with an unseen partner – and leave it at that. There’s no need to make the gender of Timothy’s partner explicit, if you think he’s marrying a pretty hetero lass, then historically that seems fair enough. If you wish to see this story as a triumph of same-sex love, that works every bit as well. It’s not at all the point of the story, the fresh take just gives it an extra layer of relevancy, of interest, of humanity. And once again, shows that heroes are not all bull-necked heteronormative galoots.
We repeat, the gender of this unseen partner of our hero is unmentioned, and left entirely up to the reader’s imagination. And if any Manx homophobes out there are outraged, crying ‘Why is our only tale the one with potential LGBTQ+ relevance?’ then you can be reassured, it is all in your own mind. Although we have to admit, the fact that the Isle of Man only legalised homosexuality in 1992 and same-sex marriage a couple of years ago, does add a layer of irony which honestly only struck us during the writing of this blog.
Tales of Britain is for everyone, and we wish a very happy Pride week to story-lovers of all genders and sexualities. Though particularly those who have already pre-ordered the book! If that’s not you, put on your go-faster trousers now and get busy!
Milky Milky: Mitchell’s Fold & Shropshire’s Blue Remembered Hills
Wednesday, 4 July 2018
Thank you to everyone who came along to the Ludlow Fringe Tales of Britain show on Saturday! By the end of local tale The Stokesay Key, Welsh tale Vengeance Will Come and very silly Scottish yarn The Brown Bear of the Green Glen – plus bonus request Jack O’Kent & The Devil – the hat contained enough money to more than cover the horrendous train fare up from Bath, so nil desperandum!
The past long weekend in the Land of My Fathers – south Shropshire – also brought suitable inspiration for this week’s Folklore Thursday theme of FARMING. Surprisingly few tales sprung to mind for the theme, considering the links between farming and folklore – plenty of lore, but precious few decent stories! The protagonist of The Wizard of Alderley Edge is only known as ‘Farmer’, but we’ve already done that one.
The thing about being a local is you rarely get to act like a tourist, and so this was my first ever visit to the very pleasant Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre, which left me a proud Salopian and as the video above shows, it contained lots of fascinating stuff about life here in the pre-Roman period. Being descended from countless generation after generation of Shropshire farmworkers (less so farmers, there’s not a lot of land ownership in the family tree), from such a very rural area, you think farm folklore would be at my fingertips, but I learned a lot.
Not least as the museum also had a very short version of a local legend all about dairy farming – MITCHELL’S FOLD – which I blush to admit, was deliberately left out of Tales of Britain many years ago. This was for a few reasons: I was worried that a glut of stories in my native area would be rightly criticised by those who live in a less tale-festooned region, and also the elements of the tale were familiar elsewhere – WADE & BELL had the giant cow, and LONG MEG the ‘difficult woman’ turned to part of a stone circle.
This has been one of the many challenges with creating the first British folktale collection in generations: avoiding repetition. Just this weekend, someone began relating a folktale unfamiliar to me, and it soon turned out to be largely an old yarn we have down as a Cheshire legend, with a bit of a story from Dyfed thrown in for good measure. Finding and settling on disctinct narratives has called for some harsh decisions here and there. But then, if we do well enough to get a second volume, there’s still oceans of lore out there to be revisited…
And, come to think of it, of course Mitchell’s Fold will be one of them, it deserves to be – but it took the pithy summary at the Discovery Centre to show me I was wrong.
In short, the stone circle itself was the original home of the Dun Cow – a familiar British myth trope often centred on Worcester. The giant dairy farmer allowed villagers for miles around to milk their fill from the gigantic udders, but a bucketful each. But then one day, a nasty old witch came along and milked the poor cow into a sieve until her udders ran dry, whereupon the distressed titanic heifer pelted for Worcester, dooming all around to famine and breaking the giant’s enclosure. So the obviously rather magic giant turned the witch into a stone post for his now empty cow pen in retaliation.
What historical events – famine and the building of sites of worship – this tale encodes, none of us can guess, sans Tardis. But there’s enough there for a very tasty tale, and so we’re getting to work on it right away.
But if it’s ever to be published, this first volume has to be a hit, so please do tell your friends to pop along here and pre-order a copy when you can!
Thank you, and may your udders never be milked dry.
You Don’t Know Jack…
Tuesday, 26 June 2018
This blog marks a FULL YEAR of providing you with weekly blogs for Folklore Thursday! And as Unbound has not yet provided us with a release date for this book we’re all anticipating so warmly, we must prepare ourselves for at least another few dozen, even though most blogs are centred on one tale, and we have 77 in total. When time allows, we’ll start trying to migrate all this hard work to a special Blog section on www.talesofbritain.com, as we presume once the book is in shops, this little corner of the Unbound website will be deleted.
Now, to turn to this week’s Folklore Thursday theme… Heroes, you say? (We don’t hold truck with ‘heroines’ – as if the gender of a character requires a different word.) Why, we have them by the bucketload. It’s not that many weeks since we confided our determination to celebrate the greatest female protagonists in British folklore, with our ‘Tales of Britain Princesses‘ update…
… In which we also discussed our happiness to present some of the less detailed heroic figures in British storytelling as brave women rather than men, to try and get closer to equality. But we also had to admit that our story still boasts some of the greatest inescapably male heroes in world literature – King Arthur, Merlin, Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Macbeth, Leir…
… And then, of course, there’s Jack. Now, while we consider a figure like Dick, who was a real historical figure, should be presented as male/white for historical accuracy, and even a vastly questionable legendary figure like Arthur is somewhat dependent on his maleness and status as Romano-British, from a historical perspective… we realise that a hero like Jack could be any gender, colour, etc. Okay, so he’s clearly supposed to smell like an ‘Englishman’, but who says giant’s noses aren’t racist or misogynist?
Anyway, we have placed Jack’s first ever titan-slaying mission – up the infamous beanstalk – in the east of the British island, this place some call ‘England’, and post-Arthur, when the villainous Saxons have firmly set up home in south-east Britain, and those born here, like Jack, never even question their ‘Britishness’. So on our historical timeline, Jack was busy killing giants around the 6th-7th centuries AD, based somewhere in the South Downs, near the Long Man of Wilmington…
‘Jack & The Beanstalk’ turned out to be by far the longest tale in our entire collection, over twice the average story length – because when you re-examine the world-famous yarn, there’s so much to fit in! Just the cow-selling, bean-grabbing narrative covers as much ground as most entire folktales do, before our hero has even climbed the magic vegetable plant.
But then there is, of course, the sequel, centred on St. Michael’s Mount at the tip of Kernow, where the seasoned ogre-murderer Jack takes on his supposed greatest challenge, against the giant Cormoran. Now, we’re well aware of the potential controversy of making this the same Jack, not least as Cornwall proudly boasts of the latter pest-control expert as their own, a Cornishman, not an Englishman, for which we can only apologise, but this way does make more sense of Jack as a figure of British mythology – a young boy who triumphs against a giant in the sky, and then is compelled to repeat his feats throughout a long career, until there are almost no giants left (except perhaps that poor lovely hippy giant up in Lewis).
The Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex provides the chalk outline to mark the spot of Jack’s first kill, and so our version of his sequel takes in a number of famous British giant battles as Jack makes his way down to St. Michael’s Mount, from the cheeky fellow at Cerne Abbas in Dorset, to Plymouth Ho (the site of Corineus’ triumph against Gogmagog, or if you prefer, Gog AND Magog), until the final showdown. Perfect for our collection, St. Michael’s Mount even boasts the grave of Cormoran, you can visit as part of a truly magical stay down in the South West…
In a way, this sequel tale – telling the story of a grizelled older Jack, rather than the boy who stars in some versions – makes Jack’s legend all about the very nature of BEING a hero, and particularly about brains coming before brawn – Jack is a trickster, a wily foe for his gigantic enemies, but not a swaggering assassin priding himself on giant genocide. Like everything else in Tales of Britain, we present more the kind of hero we need in the 21st century, not a toxic macho goon.
To support us in our cause to celebrate British folklore for the 21st century, please do pre-order a copy now, or get a friend to do so if you already have. Then you will officially be OUR hero!
Tiddy Mun, The Weather’s Thruff!
Wednesday, 20 June 2018
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks – or indeed, enjoy the lovely sunshine this solstice, ye folktale-pledgers!
This here is the Ancholme valley in eastern England – or at least, a particularly pretty bit of it, the result of centuries of drying out the biggy land and finding ways to live and capitalise on every square foot, despite the area’s natural sogginess. There’s a very particular piece of folklore in this bit of the country which concerns this sogginess – drought, and rain. But the problem for us was, The Tiddy Mun legend didn’t quite amount to a ‘folkTALE’…
This was particularly irksome, because this area of Britain – Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, the fens generally, was a very stubborn bit of the map to pop a pin into, when it comes to original folktales with a beginning, a middle and an end. This was particularly annoying, as Cambridge’s Museum of Folklore was not far away, and we wanted to mention it for an afternoon’s exploration – the area is famed for its storytelling, with medals being struck for the person who told ‘the most improbable tale’ (a fascinating challenge coming from the city where Douglas Adams was born).
Having written official biographies of Adams and Fry & Laurie, this area of east England is one I’ve had great pleasure in exploring, but just couldn’t find a fenland STORY to retell which wasn’t a mash-up of at least half a dozen stories we already had! Our 77 folktales are all distinct – yes, even the several which are about dragon slayings – and that means sifting through hundreds of repeated or unoriginal narratives, to settle on one worth telling anew.
Now, some Anglo-Saxons reading this may be yelling “WHAT ABOUT THIS STORY?” to which the reply would be, don’t yell at the screen, it looks weird, and you should instead email or tweet us with details, and hopefully a further volume will allow us to rectify the absence of the folktale in question. But for now…
Taken from the Hypnogoria blog.
‘The Tiddy Mun’ – nothing to do with Ken Dodd – is an interesting addition to our 77, as there really isn’t much of a story to tell you – in fact, it brings up the very tricky subject of folkLORE versus folkTALES. One of the reasons this book, and blog, and campaign exists at all, is because there are so many collections of LORE, but really no book which gave you an anthology of well-told TALES to enjoy, and share. While learning that virgins in Wolverhampton are told to put bacon rind in their shoe on Maundy Thursday to find out who their second husband would be is of course FASCINATING, it’s entertaining yarns that we collect.
But we felt there was just enough meat on the bones of Lincolnshire’s Tiddy Mun myth to hang a narrative on – and even better, a historical context in which to set it. The area, you see, was expertly drained by Dutch builders, sent over to reclaim land in the time of Charles I, and folk history tells us that their efforts were so good, a hot summer led to the worst drought anyone in the area had ever seen! And so, the British equivalent of a rain dance was required, anything to save the dry and cracked land and the people who lived off it. The Tiddy Mun were mysterious creatures, water sprites who dwelt in the fenland mists making sound like the peewit, or lapwing… and they were rightly very very peed off with what had been done to their moist home.
And so, the folklore runs that a certain rhyme, containing the words “TIDDY MUN WITHOUT A NAME, THE WEATHER’S THRUFF…” had to be intoned, while a water sacrifice was poured into the muddy riverbanks, and only then would the appeased little people allow the water levels to rise again, and rain to fall from the clear blue skies. And incredibly – or rather, improbably – it worked! The rains returned, and the Tiddy Mun could be heard going about their business. And that sound definitely wasn’t actual lapwings at all. No, of course not.
So, with the addition of a few local characters, we eventually found we had a tale to tell – and we placed it in the market town of Brigg, where the river Ancholme forks.
This need to extrapolate a narrative from lore was a rare occurence, with so many stories to squeeze into the book, but we felt every bit of the map had to have an even array of tales, so every child in the UK had a story within reasonable distance of where they live, and now we do. Although ironically, the other sparsest expanse is of course Northern Scotland, where population is thinner and fewer tales have come down to us – ironically because this is also the home of Britain’s other folklore museum!
With all this hard work done, development of the book is still going on, but as we keep saying, we need to keep swelling our ranks to have plenty of support for the best book possible – so wahetever the weather, please do pledge if you haven’t, or get someone else to if you have!
JOIN THE CAMPAIGN TODAY!