Thursday, May 18, 2017

Digging Up Folklore

by Mary Anne Yarde

In 1846 William John Thoms, a British writer, penned a letter to The Athenaeum, a British Magazine. In this letter, he talked about “popular antiquities.” But instead of calling it by its common name, he used a new term — folklore.

What did Thoms mean by this new word? Well, let's break it down. The word folk referred to the rural poor who were for the most part illiterate. Lore means instruction. So folklore means to instruct the poor. But we understand it as verbal storytelling. Forget the wheel ~ I think storytelling is what sets us apart. We need stories, we always have and we always will.

Edward III
But what does folklore have to do with history? Quite a lot actually. Let's take a look at one of the greatest British stories ever told, and that is the tale of King Arthur and his Knights.

Historically, Arthur is difficult to pin down. There are so many theories about who he was and where he came from that it is like chasing a phantom. Some experts have their feet firmly planted in the 2nd Century when they talk of Arthur. Others believe him to be a Scottish Dark Age warlord or an English Christian King. Of course, the Welsh and the Breton's also have candidates that fit the role. For a person whose very existence screams folklore—screams myth—there seems to be an awful lot of interest in him. And that interest has never gone away. We love the stories of Arthur and his knights, there is no getting away from that, and these stories have helped shape a nation. Look how obsessed Edward III was with Arthurian Legend. Edward was determined that his reign was going to be as spectacular as Arthur's was. He believed in the stories of Arthur and his Knights. He had even started to have his very own Round Table built at Windsor Castle. He also founded The Order of the Garter— which is still the highest order of chivalry that the Queen can bestow. Arthur, whether fictional or not, influenced kings.

The Sculpture at Tintagel Castle by Rubin Eynon
Likewise, Arthur and his Knights are, and always have been, a lucrative tourist attraction ~ those pragmatic monks at Glastonbury in the 12th century can contest to that. But so can English Heritage. Arthur draws in the crowds. At this very moment, the story of Arthur is being retold on the big screen. There is something about Arthur. There is something about the story that we want to believe is true. So how do we separate the fact from the fiction?

With difficulty.

In our search for Arthur, we are digging up folklore, and that is not the same as excavating relics. We have the same problem now as Geoffrey of Monmouth did back in the 12th Century when he compiled The History of the Kings of Briton. His book is now considered a ‘national myth,’ but for centuries his book was considered to be factually correct. So where did Monmouth get these facts? He borrowed from the works of Gildas, Nennuis, Bede and The Annals of Wales. There was also that mysterious ancient manuscript that he borrowed from Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, but let’s not get into that today! Monmouth then borrowed from the bardic oral tradition. In other words, he listened to the stories of the bards. Add to the mix his own imagination and Monmouth was onto a winner. Those who were critical of his work were brushed aside and ignored. Monmouth made Britain glorious, and he gave us not Arthur the general, but Arthur the King. And what a king he was.

Glastonbury Abbey
So is Arthur a great lie that for over a thousand years we have all believed in? Should we be taking the Arthurian history books from the historical section and moving them to sit next to George R. R. Martin's, Game of Thrones? No. I don't think so. In this instance, folklore has shaped our nation. We should not dismiss folklore out of hand just because it is not an exact science. We should embrace it because when you do, it becomes easier to see the influence these ‘stories’ have had on historical events.

 All photographs are my own, apart from the portrait of Edward III which can be found on Wikipedia.


Mary Anne Yarde is the award-winning author of The Du Lac Chronicles series. 

Set in the 5th and 6th Century, The Du Lac Chronicles follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Lancelot du Lac’s sons as they try to navigate their way through an ever-changing Saxon world.

Book 3 of The Du Lac Chronicles is due to be released later on in the year.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Erica! Folklore is so often overlooked as being historically important, when it is!!

  2. Having dabbled in writing a historical character, I know how much research goes into the work. We all love stories about Arthur and for that matter, Sherlock Holmes. I believe there is truth hidden behind those stories and a bard, such as yourself, nurtures the seed until it sprouts into an exciting tale. Thanks for being willing to do the research.

  3. Thank you, Diane. I agree with you, the truth is there..somewhere!!

  4. There's so much unrecorded history that can only be found in folklore as it is often the only source. Our Eastern European folklore is very rich and not to be dismissed. Or taken lightly. In my country of Croatia where recorded history can be traced to the cavemen it can be hard to separate folklore from facts. Nonetheless, scientists are equally interested and research both because facts can be found in folklore. Folklore is not just stories unwashed masses passed around the fire to scare little kids to bed.

    1. I completely agree with you. Folklore is so important and I am glad to hear it is taken very seriously in Croatia.

  5. Excellent article, Mary Anne. Behind every myth there is a kernel of truth, and it's a matter of finding that tiny grain among all the chaff. I've often thought if I ever got the chance to travel back in time it would be to 5th century Britain to see who Arthur actually was.

  6. Great post! Verbal storytelling is a very important part of every nation's history

  7. I enjoyed this. You brought up things that I hadn't thought about before. Love the images, especially those you took yourself!

  8. Long live the teller of stories! We who work at the boundary of history and fiction often tell the larger truths of real events, the truths that live in the lives of men and women of the era. Arthur has always spoken to my heart. Thanks for this article.