The Importance of Fairy Tales

By Adam Bushnell, author of County Durham Folk Tales (The History Press, 2013)


Fairy tales have been a key tool in the education of children and adults alike throughout history. These stories have been a way of teaching about ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. These ideas vary from society to society. In this post author Adam Bushnell explores how the governing regime in Nazi Germany manipulated popular fairy tales to express their own principles and beliefs.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

Bruno Bettelheim explains how fairy tales educate, support and liberate the emotions of children in his book The Uses of Enchantment. I wholly agree. Fairy tales are powerful developmental tools for children and adults alike. They can have a dark side to them, but generally good overcomes evil. They frequently contain moral messages too and are useful tools for promoting oral storytelling. They follow themes and structures still seen in modern writing. For example, The Gruffalo feels like a traditional fairy tale. It has the rule of three just like Goldilocks, The Billy Goats Gruff and countless others.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief follows all the rules of the fairy tale too with its triadic structure and themes of good versus evil. Modern books still follow the structure and themes of the fairy tale because they are of everlastingly appealing. The themes can be dark, but children still adore them as they excite and inspire. If I told my publishers I wanted to write a book about a cannibal witch that lived in the woods using sweets to lure children to her home, then they would probably be surprised I was pitching this for children in their early years. Yet Hansel and Gretel is exactly that.

Fairy stories are not just for children though. In Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, she describes her stories as ‘reimagining the fairy tale’. We meet familiar characters from childhood in an adult context. We view the stories in a whole new way. It is magnificent to read.

Fairy tales appeal to all ages essentially because human beings are story animals. We thrive on them in all of their forms, whether news articles, stories in the pub or experiences at work that we share at the dinner table. We communicate through story. We express our inner selves in the retelling of the story. Stories hold great power.

However, fairy tales are something that have been manipulated in the past. The Nazis understood the importance of the fairy tale. One of the first things they did upon rising to power in Germany was to make fairy tales into films and broadcast them in movie theatres across the country. In the Nazi film version of Puss in Boots, Puss is seen standing at the end on a raised platform wearing a swastika armband. The crowd gathered around all chant, “Hail Puss in Boots! He is our Savour! We will live again!”. This was a deliberate attempt to compare Puss to Hitler, with a strong suggestion to children that only a hero should be hailed.

Shortly after the invasion of Poland, the Nazis turned Little Red Riding Hood into a film too, where the heroine is rescued at the end by a swastika-armed, SS uniform-wearing man holding a knife.


Still of Josef Goebbels’ rendition of Little Red Riding Hood ©Deutsches Filmnstitut (available:


Frontispiece and title-page of the 1819 edition of Kinder und Hausmärchen by Ludwig Emil Grimm (1790-1863) (Available:

At that time, most households in Germany had a German House Book containing the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales. These were often shared by a fire with the whole family. The Nazis rewrote, reprinted and redistributed the book to all households in Germany but this new edition had sinister and subtle changes to the text.

In the original version of the Brother’s Grimm story The Little Magic Table, ‘The Golden Donkey and the Club in the Sack’, there is reference to a ‘yellow stain’ on someone’s trousers to suggest fear and cowardice. In the Nazi version, the yellow stain is written as a yellow star. The same star that Jewish people in the Nazi occupied ghettos were forced to wear.

In another tale, there is a magic fiddle which makes people dance. In the story, the fiddle is used to make Jewish people dance themselves to death in thorn bushes. Hitler wanted to warp young minds into thinking that this was the work of a hero.

Fairy Tales are powerful developmental tools for children and adults alike. As such, the Nazis used it to their own evil ends. Hitler knew of the power of these stories. He knew that children were influenced by them. He knew that if he manipulated them, then he also manipulated children’s minds.

As an author and a teacher, I think that fairy tales are critical in schools and at home. The more we share them in their untarnished form, then they help children, and adults, to understand the way of the world. They contain tragedy, comedy and hope.

Let us hope that the fairy tale will never again be a tool for manipulation, but rather only be used for good.

Adam Bushnell is an author of both fictional and academic books based in Durham. Find out more about his work here.


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit:

If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here:

How One Writer Learned to Love Folklore and Chase Magic

By Icy Sedgwick, blogger and author of Harbingers: Dark Tales of Speculative Fiction.


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.


Monkshood, also known as Wolf’s Bane © Icy Sedgwick

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.


Chillingham Castle © Icy Sedgwick

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.

Witchcraft and magic: a man conducting magic rites, devils and a ghost appearing, and a hunter cowering in terror. Colour engraving. From Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


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:

Thomas of Erceldoune: Fairy Geography

By Dr Victoria Flood, Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the University of Birmingham


At Palace Green Library, we are fortunate enough to co-curate our exhibitions with academics from across Durham University, with the final output helping to share their research with a wider audience. Dr Victoria Flood, formerly of Durham University and now based at University of Birmingham, was the academic lead on our Between Worlds exhibition, helping shape the exhibition content and decide on the themes and stories it discusses. Here, Victoria explores the story of Thomas the Rhymer and the significance of its setting on the Eildon Hills.

 David Wright, Assistant Curator, Palace Green Library

One of the most remarkable fairy narratives in the Between Worlds exhibition is that of Thomas of Erceldoune, also known as Thomas Rhymer, a pseudonymous author of poetry and prophecy, ostensibly based on a real historical person – whose tale, like much of the material in the exhibition, treads an unstable line between fact and fiction. The setting of Thomas’s fairy encounter is the Eildon Hills: the triple peak close to Melrose in the Scottish Borders, a landscape which, in the tale of Thomas, is an actor in its own right.


The Eldon Hills, Melrose by. Image © James Brown

The earliest known account of Thomas and the fairy is the fourteenth-century northern English Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune. The romance, which survives in four medieval manuscripts and one early printed book, tells of Thomas’s meeting, and sexual encounter, with a fairy on Huntley Banks. The fairy tells Thomas that if he lies with her she will lose her beauty. He ignores her warning, and the fairy undergoes a monstrous change (and he wonders whether she is a devil – a nod perhaps to the uncertain relationship between fairies and demons in medieval imaginations). Thomas and the fairy journey to the fairy Otherworld, during which time the fairy regains her beauty, and Thomas lives there for what he believes to be three days but is in fact three years. The fairy then returns Thomas to Huntley Banks, prior to hell’s tithe on the fairy realm, and as a parting gift gives him a true tongue and a series of prophecies about the Scottish Wars of Independence.

The tale of Thomas was incredibly influential in both its broader, and more local, appeal, and material from the Romance and Prophecies was reworked across Britain from the later Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. The legend is perhaps best known today through the ballad, ‘Thomas Rhymer‘. In the nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott was so struck by it that he cultivated an area of woodland on the edge of his Abbotsford estate as ‘Rhymer’s Glen’.

D NG 858

Rhymer’s Glen, Abbotsford (1831) by Joseph William Turner. Courtesy of National Galleries Scotland, DNG 858, Henry Vaughan Bequest 1900

Yet the medieval tale is far more geographically rooted than Scott’s horticultural experiment suggests. The romance is situated in a real landscape, which undergoes a supernatural transformation. Before they set out on their journey, the fairy points to three paths which Thomas sees cut across the Eildons, demarcating five distinct locales: three roads leading to heaven, purgatory, and the earthly paradise; a valley which is hell, and a castle perched on the hill above hell, the fairy court.

This is in many respects a familiar medieval topography: purgatory often appears as a mountain; and the earthly paradise is similarly concrete in its locative identifications – it appears on medieval world maps. But in the romance, all this is integrated in an actual rather than symbolic comprehension of geography. It is presented as a view from the Eildon Hills, which suddenly becomes a window onto the cosmos, the setting for a battle for human souls on a cosmic scale, between the divine, the demonic, and apparently the fairy also. But the role of fairyland in this is unclear. It is part of neither hell, heaven nor paradise – it is a quantity unto itself, and, like all the realms, an alien intrusion into a familiar landscape. Indeed, this vision might be understood as a dramatic overstatement of the local terrain: hills become mountains. This re-visioning is decidedly uncanny, the known becomes unknown. The Eildon Hills are not what they once were – suddenly, they abut mountains and mysterious fairy castles.  We step outside the rules of ordinary space, as we do ordinary time: after all, three days in the fairy realm pass as three years on earth.

We might compare the fairy topography of the Romance and Prophecies to that of another medieval romance, Ogier the Dane, where the otherworldly island of Avalon is situated left of the earthly paradise – and this reminds me a lot of the location of Neverland in Peter Pan: ‘turn third to the right and turn left after the sun. Second to the right and straight on till morning.’ Such geographies are at once highly specific and entirely impossible. Overlaid upon the world is an Otherworld, which might be glimpsed, even navigated, through all that is known and familiar, if only we look at it in the right way.

For further reading, see:

  • Byrne, Aisling, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Cooper, Helen, ‘Thomas of Erceldoune: Romance as Prophecy’, in Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England, ed. Corinne Saunders (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005), pp. 171-87.
  • Flood, Victoria, Prophecy, Politics, and Place: Political Prophecy in England from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas of Erceldoune (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017).
  • Lyle, Emily, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2007).
  • Murray, James A. H., ed., The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune (London: Trübner, 1875; EETS OS 61).


Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.

Piskies in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

By Judith Hewitt, Museum Manager at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic


Folklore, fairy tales, and superstition are a topic of interest to numerous museums throughout the world. Palace Green Library is hardly the first museum to touch on the topic of fairies, and we definitely won’t be the last.

Judith Hewitt shows us that the land of Cornwall and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic are terrorised by small mischievous creatures known as piskies.

If you find yourself in Cornwall, why not take a trip to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic to learn more about piskies and other creatures.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic is located in Boscastle, Cornwall. The West Country is said to be inhabited by piskies: small creatures with pointed ears, who wear brightly coloured clothes and cause mischief. If you get lost on the moors, Cornish folk say you have been “piskey led.” The Museum has a large display on the “fae” (otherworldly beings such as faeries, piskies, tree sprites, shapeshifting hares and green men).

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 3

“Pixies and Piskies… small elf-like spirits…They have pointed ears, round faces and squinting eyes and dress in…a medieval type tunic, pointed cap and pointy toed shoes that curl back on their feet. 

“Various theories have been put forward to explain the origins of the pixy tribe.  It is said that they are the departed spirits of druids or other pagan people who once inhabited the West Country or are the souls of unbaptised children… they love playing tricks on humans, but if left regular offerings… they will help around the house or farm…

“Small images of pixies and piskies are still popular on key rings and fridge magnets sold to tourists in the West Country.” The Book of Faerie by Michael Howard.

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 2This painting of piskies (left) was probably painted in the 1960s.  We know that it dates to the early days of the Museum.

Cecil Williamson, the Museum founder once said, “People are always asking me why there are so many stories of piskies on the moors – the answer is because there are so many piskies on the moors!”.

Look carefully at the picture and you will see that one of the piskies is dressed as a churchman. He seems to be telling the others off, perhaps showing the difference between the playful piskies and the perceived dullness of the Church.

Alternatively, this picture might illustrate someone who has been “pisky led” or “kidnapped by the fairies”.

Robert Kirk, a Scottish minister, researched fairy lore. When he died, his research was published in a book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1692).

Rumour had it that Kirk had fallen asleep on a known fairy mound and disappeared. Other stories state that he was kidnapped by the fairies for trying to reveal their secrets. One legend tells that his dead body was taken away by the fairies so he could become “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen”. Perhaps this picture is inspired by the story of the Christian Minister who found himself trapped in Fairyland!

The picture communicates many important ideas about piskies. They are small, associated with death, have a playful nature and their own morality. Why do people in Cornwall think of them like this?

“they thought… that the Piskies were the spirits of the ancient dead, our Pagan ancestors who dwell in the Otherworld reality of the Cornish landscape, alongside the living… One old story collected by William Bottrell… illustrates this view; the Piskies are described as being ‘not of our religion but star-worshippers.’

“…Another interesting Christian justification for Piskies was that they were the old Pagan Gods of Cornwall and that since the birth of Christ they had been forever diminishing in size until they became muryans (ants), and would one day vanish altogether. It was thus taboo in Cornwall to destroy a muryans’ nest, and it was believed that if a piece of tin were placed in such a nest during the time of the new moon, the old Gods, in their ant-form, still had enough power left to turn tin into silver…”Traditional Witchcraft by Gemma Gary.

BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 1

This pisky (above created by Alan Manktelow) has a very mischievous demeanour!

“Like all things, the Piskie have their light and their dark sides.” – Gemma Gary, Traditional Witchcraft.

People who provided food and warmth to piskies could be rewarded with good fortune or even help with their chores (but only if they respected the privacy of the pisky!).

Tales tell of piskies who took vengeance on the rich when they exploited the poor. Other pisky tricks included making noises and hiding household objects.

In the past, people worried that their child might be “kidnapped by the fairies”. Beautiful children were supposed to be the most susceptible and were said to be swapped with a “faery changeling” (an ugly fairy child).

A lot of protection magic related to this fear. This pisky is displayed with a bit of protective iron next to him (just in case!).


BLOG IMAGE - Judith Hewitt - Cornish Peskies 4The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic (MWM) explores British magical practice, making comparisons with other systems of belief, from ancient times to the present day. They aim to represent the diversity and vigour of magical practice respectfully, accurately and impartially through unique, entertaining and educational exhibitions, drawing upon cutting-edge scholarship along with the insights of magical practitioners. The Museum is located by The Harbour in Boscastle, Cornwall (taken from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic website:


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. Please visit the Palace Green Library website for further information about your visit.