A few days back in one of my favourite places, Ty Newydd, at the end of April, made me re-engage with what most inspires my writing: folklore. During my wonderings and wanderings, I have tried to come up with reasons why folklore fascinates me and lights up my imagination. However, rather like romantic love, I think it is one of those things that runs deeper in me than my rationalising conscious can fathom. All the same, these are still reasons to love learning about folklore, even if they do not add up to the whole tale of why I do actually love it so.
Timelessness. I love to be plunged into the ancient, or even just older, worlds that historical folklore opens up, where a decent axe blade counts as technology and four days on horseback as a commute. Of course, there is modern folklore, and urban myth, and these can be equally as fascinating in the insights they provide into the human psyche and the zeitgeist of a time; they show how superstitious we remain, even if we no longer believe in fairies (Some of us, anyway. Pity the poor souls).
Nature. Folkloric customs and beliefs, and the tales that demonstrate them, involve an engagement with the natural world and all its details that can have the effect of engaging me with those things, even under an electric light in front of a laptop. It makes it easy to see how nature could appear magical, and powerful, and lets me wallow in worlds where trees matter and computers don’t exist.
Universal, microcosmic. The minute details of local folklore let us into tiny microcosms of human life, all of them unique and surreal and terrifying in their own ways. As an example, take the motto of the Clan of Chatton in the Scottish highlands: ‘Touch not the cat, gloveless.’ There’s an explanation out there somewhere (their crest included a cat) but it is beautifully bewildering to be fed such tidbits. On the other hand, folklore reveals universals of human existence, such as the need to find explanations for unfortunate events and the need to guard against despair with fortune-inducing rituals.
The deep nudge. I already claimed that human beings are still superstitious, and while I don’t salute magpies or throw spilt salt over my shoulder (well, not if anyone is looking) I feel something stir in my mind when I read about the superstitious beliefs of people from other times and cultures. It’s not that they seem reasonable given common knowledge at the time – often they are far from reasonable – but they tug at something human. Perhaps it is because they stem from greater, better desires, to protect oneself and one’s kin, to be able to live in the world you are given without going mad with confusion… and if a rowan branch will protect the cows from witches out to steal their milk, why not tie one above the barn door?