A COMPANION TO THE FOLKLORE, MYTHS AND CUSTOMS OF BRITAIN
By Marc Alexander, published by Sutton Publishing at £25.00. 356pp. Hbk. ISBN: 0-7509-2359-8
There is something rather old fashioned about this book. It reminds me very much of the sort of folklore books I used to pore over in the local library when I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s and which you often see turn up in second hand bookshops, well thumbed and often battered from much use.
There is, as you might expect from my initial comments, little here to surprise the average reader with an existing interest in British folklore. As usual with this sort of book the entries are listed alphabetically and many concern witchcraft, the occult and magic. Glastonbury, Dr Dee, death spells and omens, fairies (Cottingley and otherwise), megaliths, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the Witch of Newbury, Herne the Hunter, the Green Man, druids, the solstices, holy wells, Hallowe'en, May Day customs, King Arthur, Black Annis and Lud take their places alongside non-occult items on the Eleanor Crosses, Dick Whittington, boy bishops, Boudicca, Mary Queen of Scots, a variety of haunted buildings and places, and local customs such as Whitby's Planting the Penny Hedge, Eyam's Plague Sunday procession and Dicing for Bibles (what would the fundies make of that, then?) in St Ives.
It is, however, the occult and similar items which dominate the book. Browsing through the entries make it abundantly clear just how central witchcraft and the supernatural (or at least a belief in them) are in British folklore. If ever one doubted that we live in a haunted land, populated by the unseen and the uncanny, an hour spent with this book would remind the reader very quickly indeed.
There are always going to be quibbles with any book, and in this case one of mine concerns Alexander's entry on White Witchcraft, in which he defines a white witch as a “person with special powers who used them for good, in contrast to ordinary witches who acknowledged the Devil as their master”. Umm, yes. Or rather, no. In the period when people in Britain were genuinely afraid of witchcraft, I don't suppose anyone would have made such a distinction. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the role of the local cunning man or “wise woman” was almost invariably ambiguous, which is why one or two of the former were lynched and why one or two of the reputed latter were murdered by those who feared they were bewitched. The distinction between “black” and “white” witchcraft is a relatively modern one.
I suspect that for the specialist the individual entries in this book may not be detailed enough to give it a “must have” status, while for the non-specialist the temptation may be to wait for a paperback edition at around £15. Nevertheless there are hours of casual browsing here and it would be very useful for dipping into and checking out references in other works.