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How We Live Now: Amy Jeffs on ancient stories and new understandings
Lately I’ve been struck by a very folky kind of nostalgia. Maybe it’s my age, or maybe so much is changing that I have to cling to something, but myriad absences are suddenly apparent. What happened to Bonfire Night? Does no-one dance around a maypole anymore? I’m sure I used to watch St George slay the dragon on Gravesend Prom each April. When was the last time a carol singer came to the door?
I’m wary of this instinct, this sense that a chunk of my culture is being lost. I do not want to be the sort of person who continually harks back to an idealised past in which rosy-cheeked maidens ministered to men, who were men in those days. I’ve spent most of my life trying to drown out that aspect of our national identity, which calls so strongly to our most trenchantly conservative and white supremacist citizens. After all, nobody stole our culture. We ran from it gladly, thinking that it was fusty and outdated. In my lifetime, it seems to me that the English have seen themselves as cultureless: too sophisticated for embarrassing costumes and silly stories. Where we respect folk culture in other societies and identities - and that’s not always the case - it has been as a curio on their part. We have thought ourselves above such things.
Reading Amy Jeffs’ most recent book, Wild, I couldn’t help but notice a theme emerging. The residents of the British Isles have long been in the habit of seeing themselves as a small outpost on the edge of Europe, ever vulnerable to attack and occupation. This self-narrative has persisted in us despite our more recent history as colonisers and aggressors ourselves. It might seem like this renders the folklore irrelevant, but to me it signals something different. We made a mistake when we let the stories go stale. We need to reignite a lively storytelling culture that lets us once again reflect on our position in the world, and our moral and ethical duties within that. The mythos needs to grow and change with us, in order to let us grow and change. Getting our culture back - however daft and embarrassing that might be - would rob the jingoists of their obnoxious toolkit, and might just allow us to adapt to who we are now.
Amy Jeffs’ work would be the perfect place to start. An art historian and printmaker, she creates immersive retellings of ancient stories, beautifully illustrated with her own woodcuts and etchings. In this week’s episode of How We Live Now, we discuss the function and appeal of folklore, and roam around the wind-blasted landscapes of Medieval Britain.
All good wishes,
Links from the episode:
Amy's book, Wild: Tales from Early Medieval Britain
Amy’s book, Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain
Other episodes you might enjoy:
From the transcript
I've come to folklore fairly late and I found at first I had to really get past my own desire, because my training is as a sociologist to exactly situate every single piece of information, like, where is this from and what's the evidence? And of course that just doesn't exist.
I've ended up in this, this tug of war with myself where on the one hand I want to do what you're saying and, and it's probably quite a, I don't know, patriarchal impulse to taxonomize and organise and all that kind of thing. But there's also a wonder in antiquity, I have to say, the, the trying to, when you have got a story from a 12th-century text about a boy falling into fairyland, you think now that is really old. You know, we're not just making it up, these stories really have very, very ancient roots. And of course there are ones even older from other cultures that maybe wrote things down earlier than we did here.
But at the same time, you want to accept that stories that you hear while you're walking down the road are just as exciting. I'm thinking of, I mean, when my parents and I moved to a village in Gloucestershire and I got to know an old lady there who wrote a village history, and when she first moved there in 1959, and this isn't a story of magic particularly, it's just a silly story, but she collected various anecdotes and things from the villagers who were there when she first got there and one of them was about a man in the village, a farmer who was so strong he could vault a gate carrying three sheep, one under each arm, the other in his teeth.
Oh, I love that. I hope he existed.
And then it brings you right up to the present and you think there are stories being spun the whole time.
And when I was reading your book Enchantment, I was thinking about that idea of questing, questing through archives, whatever it might be to find these ancient, ancient stories and to marvel at their age, and they actually, I think, tune you in to the same things happening in the corner shop.
As you're speaking as well, I'm thinking, you know, fairy tales, the figure of the fairy still exists really coherently in our culture now, without having any, you know, without us having an understanding of that lineage. But we definitely know what a fairy is and where a fairy lives and what a fairy might do.
And even despite the Disneyfication of fairies, I think we still have an understanding that there's maybe another kind as well. And therefore actually probably that folklore persists much more than we sometimes think it does.
I'm spending a lot of time with a two year old at the moment and I think the instincts that she has to apply concepts she's learned in the every day to things she's seeing when we go on walks, you can see how they very easily welcome ideas like the fairy. So she knows from The Gruffalo's Child that the fox lives in an underground house and so when we go to the woods and she sees a hole under a tree, she says, “this is the fox's underground house”. And then the idea that other things might have houses, that the woodlice need a house. Yes. And then tiny houses are suddenly an idea. And then, you know, what about tiny people? All that imaginative journey needs is a story or something to suggest tiny people and suddenly the whole world of the fairy opens up to her.
Well, when you're a child, the notion of tiny people makes a whole load of things make sense. I mean, I remember sincerely believing that tiny people lived in the TV and in the tape-cassette player, you know, I was convinced there were little people with little instruments playing the music.
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