By Icy Sedgwick
Folklore is a part of our everyday lives, still influencing our actions, acting as entertainment in the 21st century, and weaving its way through the history we recount today. In this post, folklorist and author Icy Sedgwick discusses her life-long passion for folklore and how it has shaped her life.
Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library
Did you hear the story about the travelling salesman who picked up a stranger in a Las Vegas bar? He woke up the next morning in a bathtub full of ice. The hotel room telephone sat beside the bath, a note taped to it telling him to call 911. It turned out his kidneys were gone, stolen to be sold on the black market.
That, my friends, is an urban legend. You could say they’re the modern descendants of folklore. Warnings and information become encoded in story format, passed along through word of mouth, then in print, and now on the internet. In the above example, the warning counsels against the advances of strangers, wrapped in the guise of ‘a friend of a friend told me…’.
Within folklore, such warnings keep us away from poisonous plants, entering unfamiliar places uninvited, or taking items that don’t belong to us. Folklore also teaches us other valuable lessons, if we have the wit to listen. Gawain shows respect and honour to an ugly witch, only to learn she’s actually a beautiful woman who rewards him for his gallant behaviour. Such an example seems almost too apt for these troubled times.
It’s the story side of folklore that fascinates me.
These ancient tales, in their technicolour variations, populated by memorable characters, tell us so much about earlier times. They also come with a side helping of magic and wonder. Perhaps fairies really do cavort in the moonlight, gossamer wings fluttering in a gentle breeze. Or perhaps they steal babies and trick humans into doing their bidding.
The stories are filled with heroes and villains, captivating in their bravery or devilry. Look at King Arthur, forever sleeping beneath a mountain, ready to defend Britain when called. Or the murderous redcaps of the Borders, ready to strike humans down and dip their caps in fresh blood.
It was ghost stories that first snared me. Whenever I’d visit a new castle or stately home with my family, I’d paw through the books in the gift shop. If they had a collection of Northumberland ghost stories or folklore, I had to have it. I grew up with tales of the Cauld Lad o’ Hylton and the ghosts of Newcastle’s Keep. I learned about the Grey Man of Bellister and the phantoms of Chillingham Castle. Naturally, I went in search of them, and I’m yet to track down such a spirit… though I haven’t given up trying.
Those stories also inadvertently taught me the history of my city and its neighbouring counties. I learned about the Border Reivers, largely neglected by so-called British history with all its pomp and circumstance. The Battle of Flodden Field rubbed shoulders with the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Over the years I’ve developed my own areas of interest.
The folklore of plants is a particular favourite, from the exotic belladonna to the English yew. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why I love J.K. Rowling’s scenes of Herbology lessons with Professor Sprout. Whenever I visit the Alnwick Garden, I always tour the Poison Garden. Although I try to avoid the henbane when it’s in bloom, for its scent is less than pleasant.
Witchcraft and magic captivate the imagination, from hedge witchery to High Ceremonial magick, throbbing with the beat of Egyptiana. But then there are the quieter, perhaps more important, tales of witches and persecuted women. Take Bessie Dunlop, punished for claiming the same fairyland experience as Thomas the Rhymer. The stories of countless women cry with injustice down the centuries.
I think magic is perhaps my favourite. Haven’t we all sat in traffic, whispering an urgent spell to change the light from red to green? Or fervently begged the universe for one last parking space? Tugging on the strings of the universe might sound fanciful, but maybe it’s the birthright of all humans. It’s hardly surprising my dark fantasy stories feature mages, necromancers, and other wild magic.
And let’s not forget the ghosts. Whether they exist or not, there’s something exciting about the creak on the stair when you’re home alone. I’ll never forget finding an inexplicable cold spot in the corridor at the old refectory at Brinkburn Priory, tucked away from draughts and other mundane explanations.
Quite frankly, folklore celebrates the weird and the bizarre.
Whether they’re warnings or lessons, the myths and legends of every culture toss a dazzling throw over normality. They tidy away reason and logic, packing them into boxes to be reopened when the magical moment passes.
We need such oddities in our lives, if only as a reminder that the world doesn’t always make sense. And that’s okay.
Icy Sedgwick writes weird and whimsical fiction in the Gothic horror and dark fantasy genres. Based in Newcastle, she also blogs about folklore and the supernatural when she’s not knitting, writing, or exploring old buildings. You can get a copy of her short story collection, Harbingers: Dark Tales of Speculative Fiction, here. Or connect on Twitter @IcySedgwick.
Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250.