Ronald James explores the rich stories of Cornish folklore in relation to his new book on the subject published in 2019 by the University of Exeter Press
A trite question often surfaces during media interviews: ‘What is your favourite … fill in the blank’; in my case, ‘what is your favourite Cornish legend?’ With the recent publication of my book, The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation, I decided to arm myself with an answer. Of course, the query is unfair: it is not possible to select a single story from so many gems published by the classic nineteenth-century folklorists. These include the famed ‘Mermaid of Zennor’, one of the many fine rambling tales of giants, accounts of dangerous piskies, and cautionary knocker stories from Cornish mines, and there are many more. How is one to choose a favourite? I picked two. Not necessarily legends that are dearest to me and certainly not more important than the others, but these narratives nevertheless stand out because of what they reveal about the remarkable legacy of the droll tellers and the early collectors of Cornwall. The first of these is a brief story (Hunt, Popular Romances, 366) composed of only eighty-eight words arranged in four sentences:
A fisherman or a pilot was walking one night on the sands at Porth-Towan, when all was still save the monotonous fall of the light waves upon the sand. He distinctly heard a voice from the sea exclaiming, – ‘The hour is come, but not the man’. This was repeated three times, when a black figure, like that of a man appeared on the top of the hill. It paused for a moment, then rushed impetuously down the steep incline, over the sands and was lost in the sea.
So why focus on this one? Brevity, to begin with, and for that reason this is the only narrative presented in its entirety in The Folklore of Cornwall. It also begins my first chapter, which is devoted to those who collected Cornish traditions over the centuries. In that context, it is a good example of how Robert Hunt, the author of the 1865, Popular Romances of the West of England, gives meticulous details about the stories he encountered. He describes, for example, how he found other similar legends ‘all around the Cornish Coast’.
I exploited this hint to introduce what I regard as a pivotal concept in understanding Cornish folklore. An international, comparative approach reveals that the stories of Hunt and his contemporaries are traditional with counterparts in other lands. This is, for example, a widespread tale, appearing in Scandinavia, Germany and elsewhere in Britain. The Norwegian folklorist Reidar Th. Christiansen classifies it as Migratory Legend 4050, ‘The hour is come but the man is not’, a phrase that is close to what appears in Hunt’s story. Here, then, is my first core point: it is important to consider Cornwall’s narratives in their international setting. I suspect many readers might pass over Hunt’s short account, as ‘nonsensical and easily ignored as a subliminal oddity’ to borrow a few of my words (James, The Folklore of Cornwall, 8). Rather than discard what seems ‘nonsensical’, I attempt to unravel the documentation of Cornwall’s traditions, to place them in a larger context and to shed light, so stories easily misunderstood are not dismissed and forgotten.
My second selection to offer the media, ‘The Spriggan’s Child’, coincidentally appears in my second chapter. Here, I move from the collectors of folklore to the droll tellers, the famed storytellers of Cornwall. This subject underscores another core idea that I find of fundamental importance: the creativity of the droll tellers gave Cornwall more than its fair share of distinct variants of stories that were told elsewhere. Thanks to a large body of scholarship on Irish storytellers, it is possible to see an important element of Cornish folklore once again in a larger context. Numerous folklorists have discussed how Irish storytellers preserved narratives from early centuries.
The great British folklorist, Katharine Briggs observes how the Cornish droll tellers differed from their Irish counterparts, for ‘here a spontaneous and happy innovation was apparently welcomed’. Briggs than adds that ‘it yet remains for someone to make an exhaustive study of different methods in which tales were orally transmitted.’ (Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, 426). While I do not offer that exhaustive study, I do take the opportunity to compare the storytellers of Ireland with those of Cornwall, a place where creativity played an important role in fashioning a rich, unusual assemblage of stories. It is important to point out that there is no preferred way to repeat a story. To be conservative or to alter details is a cultural choice. Neither is right nor wrong. In the case of Cornwall, the willingness of the droll tellers to take new twists on stories they had heard is something to be celebrated.
An additional talent of the droll tellers was their inclination to transform stories into rhyme, and here is where ‘The Spriggans Child’ found a place, in my discussion. With its 144 lines, it is too long to present here – or in my book – but a sample, the beginning of the poem, is appropriate:
I’ll tell you a tale, an you’ve patience to hear an,
‘Bout the Spriggans, that swarm round Partinney still –
You knew Janey Tregeer, who lives in Brea Vean
In the village just under the Chapel Hill.
This remarkable expression of the droll teller’s art is valuable for several reasons. It is an excellent example of yet another widespread story, namely Migratory Legend 5085, ‘The Changeling’. In addition, it illustrates the poetic talent of droll tellers. And finally, it is one of the few times we hear the voice of a nineteenth-century droll teller. Too often, we must rely on collectors who abridged what they heard. Lacking recording devices, those who sought to preserve nineteenth-century stories were forced to take notes and to reconstruct a text that was as close as possible to what they heard. With ‘The Spriggan’s Child’, however, we find exact words, for it is not possible to retain rhyme while recreating poetry from a quickly recorded outline and series of details. One either records the poem or not. This, then, is yet another significant, valuable, expression of Cornish tradition from the pre-modern era.
With these two central points – international counterparts illuminate Cornish tradition and the droll tellers placed an unusual stamp on their narratives – I was able to proceed to discuss several aspects of Cornish tradition. A third chapter considers a variety of folk practices and beliefs, again placed in a larger context whenever possible. The following three chapters deal with stories associated with Cornish piskies. It should come as no surprise that these indigenous entities have counterparts throughout Northern Europe. With rigorous comparison, it is possible to understand how piskies differed from the fairies of other lands. Following the approach outlined at the outset, narratives about piskies appear in the context of legends from places as diverse as Ireland to Sweden and Brittany to Iceland.
Subsequent chapters deal with mermaids, giants, and an important story about a dead lover who returns from the otherworld to charm his beloved. Here, as with so many other stories, there is an opportunity to consider how droll tellers transformed a well-known legend: elsewhere, the corpse of the young man died in a foreign war, but in Cornwall, the setting has been changed to the sea. Cornish variants tend to describe the dead man as a mariner who drowned. He comes for his would-be bride, to take her to his watery grave, an exceptional Cornish adaptation to a widespread story.
Finally, two chapters are devoted to Cornish knockers, the spirits of the mines. In this case, we can consider how tradition changed over time but also how emigration affected belief and story. The way miners viewed knockers apparently transformed with their work. Initially, small teams of tribute miners, self-employed businessmen, sought the richest lodes to increase their profit. As Industrialism transformed society and the economy, miners became salaried workers, more concerned with safety than finding the best ore. Knockers echoed this; they originally served miners in a variety of ways, including revealing where to find the best tin. As decades passed, the most important role of the knockers was in warning miners when underground excavations would collapse.
An extraordinary thing occurred with the knocker tradition and emigration. It is not uncommon for supernatural beings to travel with those who left their European homelands, but usually they did not survive the passing of the first generation. With the move to North America, the Cornish knocker was able to find another place to thrive. Here, they became tommyknockers, underground elves that adapted and emerged as part of the folklore of diverse miners throughout the American West, not just those of Cornish ancestry. In this way, the knocker flourished with a new chapter – coincidentally, the last in my book.
That is not, however, the last word, nor should it be. My effort is not intended to end the discussion. Many talented people have contemplated Cornish traditions and that process continues. Now, with so many fresh voices expressed in emerging, wonderful venues including this website, Cornish Story, one can imagine a bright future for the folklore of Cornwall. To that end, I provide an appendix identifying legend and tale types that I found in the older publications. I intend this as a road map for at least one way to consider this rich legacy. I look forward to reading the work of others who hold the Cornish gems up to the sunlight and see innovative ways to consider these treasures.
With writing The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation, I hoped to frame the traditions of the far south west of Britain in an international context, to provide a way to understand the significance and place of Cornish stories and beliefs. I also looked to pay homage to the generations of droll tellers who preserved and joyfully adapted a legacy that we can all enjoy. The folklore of Cornwall has been dismissed for too long by too many as just another part of the traditions of England. I couldn’t be sure what I would find as I dug into the subject, but having ‘mined’ the Cornish folk literature and consider it in a larger context, it is clear to me that this incredible inheritance is something very different. Here, perhaps, the concluding words from my book may be of service, but rather than describing an ending, I hope this can set the stage for the next chapter of the Cornish story: ‘The material from Cornwall is imbued with the character of the place and its people. Few of its stories were peculiar to the peninsula, but the way the Cornish and their remarkable droll tellers dealt with this body of folklore resulted in a legacy that is, in a word, unique.’
Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).
Reidar Th Christiansen, The Migratory Legends: A Proposed List of Types with a Systematic Catalogue of the Norwegian Variants (Helsinki: FF Communications No. 175, 1958).
Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England or the Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall (London: Chatto and Windus, 1903, combined first and second series ).
Ronald M James, The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation (Exeter: University of Exeter, 2018).
For further details on The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation go to https://www.exeterpress.co.uk/en-gb/Book/1068/The-Folklore-of-Cornwall.html
Ronald M James was elected in 2016 to Gorsedh Kernow with the name Carer Henwethlow – Lover of Legends. He administered the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office for three decades, retiring in 2012. James also served in the President Obama administration as a member of the National Park System Advisory Board and as chairman of the National Historic Landmarks Committee (2009-2013). He was the nation’s I.T.T. Fellow to Ireland (1981-1982), studying folklore at the national archives. James is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books including his recently-released, The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation.