Myths, legends and folktales are well established in the fabric of English culture. But where do these often fantastical stories come from? Carolyne Larrington, Professor of medieval European literature at the University of Oxford, examines the origins of these stories, from dragons, kelpies and hobs to the legend of King Arthur.
The British Isles have a very long history, stretching back well before written records began. Much of what we might think of as early history is really legend – tales about the Druids, the story of Cædmon (the ‘father of English poetry’, who lived at Whitby Abbey) and the exploits of King Arthur for example. Interwoven with our understanding of history are the threads of myth, legend and folklore; these shape and colour our understanding of both our past and our present.
What are myths, legends and folklore?
Myths are usually understood as stories about gods or divine figures. They answer big questions such as: how was the world created? Where do humans come from? How did we learn to make fire, or to smith metal? What is the origin of the gods? The term ‘myth’ may be used more loosely to cover whole cycles of tales, like the stories of the Irish gods or the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, dealing with Welsh semi-divine characters. Stories that explain where certain peoples come from are known as ‘origin myths’; the most important and enduring origin myth for Britain is the legend of Brutus, a refugee from Troy who sailed to these shores and slew all the giants who were then the only inhabitants, giving his name to the British Isles.
Legends deal with heroes, imagined as human or superhuman, such as St George, Robin Hood, or Hereward the Wake. Sometimes there is a semi-historical basis for these stories. Hereward was a real person, descended from Viking lords on the one hand and English nobility on the other, who led a resistance movement to the Normans after the Conquest. Legends usually have a close connection with a particular place, such as Sherwood Forest, home of Robin Hood, or Tintagel, where King Arthur is said to have been conceived, Stonehenge, or Dover Castle, where the skull of Arthur’s famous knight, Sir Gawain, was long preserved.
Folklore covers a range of beliefs, from the existence of fairies who dance in certain places when the moon is full, to the habits of the Loch Ness Monster, to the belief that witches can turn into hares and steal milk from cows. Many of our most familiar stories, of dragons, black dogs, kelpies or hobs, are folkloric; they contain motifs which are commonly found in other stories told across Europe, or they tap into beliefs that are widely held across the British Isles.
Myths and legends have the remarkable property of often being rooted in particular places, and yet their general outlines tend to be surprisingly universal. Similar stories occur all over the world, varying only in particular details. So, versions of Cinderella or the Three Men who went to Search for Death can be found in places as far apart as China, India, Britain and North America. Sometimes it’s clear that these stories spread through migration, and were then passed down by word of mouth across the generations – thus, quite a few English folktales and ballads made it to North America and are still in circulation to this day.
Why are they shared?
The explanation for these internationally shared tales may be that they are rooted in general human experience. Our shared biology and universally similar life-cycles, from birth, marriage, child-rearing, ageing and death, may generate broadly similar stories: about true love or the perils of raising children, or futile attempts to surmount the barrier between life and death. Such dilemmas and difficulties are common to humans wherever they live, giving rise to universal patterns in the world’s store of traditional tales.
Experts are divided about exactly how stories develop and spread from place to place, but it is clear that myths and legends have always had important roles in our culture. Short tales are crucial in imparting vital information or life lessons in a memorable form – think of The Boy Who Cried “Wolf”, for example. Useful lore is transmitted from generation to generation in a brief and comprehensible form. They explain why small children shouldn’t be allowed to stray near a dangerous body of water or why it may be a bad idea to go up into the mountains alone. Groups that know how to pass on such stories improve the life-chances of those who hear them, and those folk in turn pass on the stories to their children.
Traditional tales often hinge on ethical or moral issues, or they permit insight into the way other people think. So they insist that you should keep your promises – and should avoid making rash ones; that courage and perseverance will be rewarded and that the wicked do not prevail in the end. It’s not always the big, beefy hero that is lauded in such tales; cunning and quick-wittedness, associated very often with the youngest child, or with a poor person can solve the immediate problem and win the day for the hero.
Famous British Myths
The British Isles have their myths and legends, preserved in some of our earliest written records. The story of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who battled monsters and a dragon, probably originated in eighth-century Northumbria, although it was not written down until the early eleventh century. Irish legends of gods and heroes were also written down in the twelfth century or later. In Welsh there are heroic poems from as early as the sixth century; one such poem contains the first ever reference to the hero Arthur.
England’s most famous heroes are probably King Arthur and Robin Hood.
Arthur is a blended type of heroic figure. Some of his characteristics stem from a legendary Welsh hero who fought monster-cats and dog-headed men and who went off to the Underworld to steal a magic cauldron. Yet Arthur also takes inspiration from a British war-leader, mentioned in early chronicles, who led his people against the invading Saxons. Arthur’s first full biography was related by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1138, but elements of the story were already widely known across Europe. In the mid-fifteenth-century, Sir Thomas Malory who was confined as a prisoner in the Tower of London, wrote down the best-known version of the Arthur story, incorporating into it tales of the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail. Malory included the ancient mythic ending, in which Arthur does not die after his last battle, but rather is borne away by boat to the Isle of Avalon. He will return to come to the country’s aid in Britain’s darkest hour.
There are references to various men called Robin Hood in thirteenth-century records, though it is not until 1377 that we hear of tales of ‘Robin the Outlaw’ being told in the tavern. Legends about Robin and his men, clad in Lincoln Green, who haunt Sherwood Forest, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, are first printed in the late fifteenth century. Later still, Robin is transformed from a thuggish and immoral thief to a dispossessed nobleman in exile in the greenwood.
These two myths became very popular once again in the Victorian period. Both stories were mobilised for political and ideological purposes. Arthur, the great king who ruled over much of the west and whose knights battled evil, rescued maidens and sought the Holy Grail, served as a model for Britain’s imperial and enlightened rule. Wherever the British went, the myth suggested, they tried to behave nobly, to establish law and order, and to bring Christian values to ‘less civilised’ peoples. Robin Hood and his Merry Men spoke to ideas of a peculiarly English democratic tradition and independence of mind. Robin stood for fairness and justice, for a certain amount of distribution of wealth, and he hated the hypocrisy and corruption of the establishment: the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and the bloated and greedy churchmen whose treasures Robin regularly stole. Robin came to stand for the sturdy average Englishman, mistrustful of authority, but loyal to his rightful king, gallant towards women and with a marked sense of humour. Both these mythic figures had important work to do in the contemporary culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
How do we know about these stories?
British myths, legends and folktales have survived in all kinds of different contexts. Some – like the stories of Brutus or Hereward the Wake – are recorded in medieval chronicles that purport to be ‘actual’ history. Others were written down as entertaining tales in early manuscripts, and from there were put into book form once the printing press was invented. Still other stories were not written down until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, when people captured legends and folktales that were on the verge of dying out; many of our best sources for traditional stories are to be found in late eighteenth-century books of ballads or in Victorian folk-tale compilations.
Myths and legends began to be recorded just as soon as humans mastered the technology of writing. Often the very first texts were hymns to the gods or collections of mythological stories that became organised into cycles, explaining how the world was created, how humans came into existence or why Death is necessary. Such stories are recorded in the Bible – the Fall, Noah’s Flood, for example – and in Greek myth. Hero-tales are also among the most ancient of story-types.
In contrast to these very ancient written sources, most of the world’s myths and legends have been preserved in oral versions, passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. The recording of these tales began only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when explorers, scholars and anthropologists became interested in tradition, and were motivated to learn tribal languages and to record with pen and ink (and subsequently electronically) the vivid and unfamiliar tales they were told.
Myths and the modern world
Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries myths, legends and folktales began to be seen as the province of children. They could be retold in simple and wholesome ways, shaped in order to point up important morals and to recommend particular models of behaviour. The King Arthur myth became a staple of children’s literature, and the Knights of the Round Table, in particular such figures as Sir Galahad or Sir Lancelot, were held up as exemplifying the ideal of chivalry.
In the twentieth century, writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and after them, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling seized on the myths and legends of the British Isles to inspire new fantasy worlds for both children and adults. The Old English epic of Beowulf, the first dragon-fighter in our tradition, inspired Tolkien’s Smaug in The Hobbit. The legend of King Arthur and the Sleeping Knights features in Garner’s stories about Alderley Edge; he also transposes a story from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi to contemporary Wales in The Owl Service. Susan Cooper melds together Welsh legend, Arthurian myth and the tradition of Herne the Hunter. Pullman and Rowling appropriate both English and wider European folk-tradition in the worlds of their novels: house-elves and black dogs jostle with giants, witches and fairies, talking bears and hippogriffs.
These authors wrote initially for a young adult audience, but the children and teenagers that learned to love this kind of story-telling grew up to appreciate – and to write their own – fantasy of various kinds. From the Star Wars films, which depend on classic models of the hero and the princess, good and evil, quests and family identity, to the powerful mythological elements that underlie the work of George R. R. Martin and the hit HBO TV series ‘Game of Thrones’, the elements of traditional story have crossed over into popular culture. ‘Game of Thrones’ contains elements of Old Norse myth – the ravens and direwolves, the Long Winter and the wights. The tale of Atlantis is reflected in the history of Valyria, and Westeros has its very own King Arthur, the lost heir who must reclaim his kingdom, in the form of Jon Snow.
Vampires and werewolves, creatures from European tradition symbolise contrasting elements in human nature: violence and desire, beauty and horror, featuring in titles such as the Twilight series and Buffy the Vampire-Slayer. Also drawing on myth from Scandinavia is the Thor franchise, while other superhero series use similar tropes of hero and monster, re-tooling and modernising many of the characters, themes and stereotypes of myth and legend. They are staples of video games that are often set in fantasy universes and structured around the quest as a framework.
The Importance of Place in Myth
Alongside the grand figures of gods, demi-gods, heroes and monsters that feature in the great myths and legends of the British Isles, there are many less well-known stories that often adhere to particular landscapes and places. One such is the story of how Merlin came to magic the Giant’s Dance stone circle away from Ireland across the sea to form Stonehenge as a monument to the great Romano-British battle leader Ambrosius Aurelius.
Many famous historic sites of the British Isles have long and fascinating pasts, and have played their part in the events that have shaped the nation. But just as many – perhaps even more – are linked to myths, legends and folktales, from the great legendary cycles of Arthur or Robin Hood, to figures such as Wayland of Wayland’s Smithy on the Ridgeway. He was a legendary smith, the most skilled craftsman of all, whose brutal story of maiming and cruel vengeance is retold in Anglo-Saxon sculpture and poetry, and in Old Norse legend. Britain’s landscapes and historic buildings form the backdrop to the vivid and exciting myths, legends and folktales of our spoken and written heritage; stories that fascinate, astonish and move us still today.
Carolyne Larrington teaches medieval literature at the University of Oxford and researches widely into myths, legends and folklore, in particular in Old Norse-Icelandic and Arthurian literature. She is the author of The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles (2015); Winter is Coming: the Medieval World of Game of Thrones (2015), and The Norse Myths (2017).