03/31/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On English Folklore

Sometimes people ask whether England has any folklore. Scotland has plenty, and Wales, and of course Ireland -- but England?

I must admit that we have very few fairytales, no national costume, and most of our legends and customs are local rather than nation-wide, but look how colourful, and often quite gloriously silly those legends and customs are! Mostly, we don't know when or why they started, but we keep them going, adding new bits to fit the new times we live in. They are crazy; they are fun.

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Take, for instance, the Haxey Hood Game. In January every year a crowd of several hundred men representing two rival villages gathers on a muddy field in Lincolnshire. A man dressed as a Fool gets up on a rock and makes a speech, while straw is set alight all round him. Then the 'hood' is flung into the crowd and all the men hurl themselves onto it in a mighty scrum. The idea is to carry it into one or other of the two pubs which are the goals of the game, but the heaving and shoving is so strong that this may well take all day.

The 'hood' is actually a thick piece of rope covered in leather, but the story goes that way back in the Middle Ages a certain Lady Mowbray's hood blew off on a windy day. Thirteen farm labourers went chasing after it and brought it back, and she gratefully gave them half an acre of land each, provided they and their descendants chased the hood every year for ever.

Or consider the Hunting of the Mallard at All Souls' College, Oxford. It began in Tudor times as an annual custom, but later was just once every hundred years, being held in 1801, 1901, and 2001. A mallard is a kind of duck. According to legend, workmen found one in a drain when they were laying the foundations of the College in 1437, but it escaped and flew away. So the College decided to hold a 'Mallard Night', with a long and lavish dinner for all the dons. At midnight they set out in procession, carrying lanterns and torches, hunting for the lost bird all over the building, from cellar to attic, and singing the Mallard Song. The chorus goes:

Ho, the Blood of King Edward!
By the Blood of King Edward!
It was a swapping, swapping Mallard!

Nobody has any idea which of the various King Edwards is meant, or indeed why a king is mentioned at all. It's all quite daft, but good traditions usually are.

There have been a few changes over the centuries. People don't now clamber out onto the roof, as they once did. Originally a real live duck would be their quarry, and when they caught it they would bite its head off and drink its blood. This little detail was quietly dropped in 1801, and now a wooden duck is used instead. But on the whole the College still does what it has done for a good 500 years.

As for folktales, I absolutely love our local legends, of which there are hundreds, all over the country. Some are horrific, others funny, others merely odd, but all are in some way tied to real places we can visit any day. Within just ten miles of where I live I could show you these: a bottomless pool where a dragon used to live, till a local lad poisoned it; a clump of trees where, if you run round seven times, the devil appears and gives you a bowl of soup; a grave where a man is buried head down, and another, shaped like a pyramid, in which a man is sitting at a table with a bottle of port beside him; a gash in a hill, dug by the devil till he was tricked and driven off by an old woman; a secret tunnel leading to a pot of gold, but guarded by huge snakes; a church whose finest bell was stolen by Vikings, but it sank their ship, and now lies under the sea, still sometimes ringing; a tree under which there are skeletons, which come out to dance at midnight on Midsummer Eve. All that in one corner of Sussex!

Other counties are just as rich in stories about features in their landscape. Where there are large scattered rocks, you get tales of giants hurling them at one another, or at churches. Stone circles? Those are said to be groups of girls, or members of a wedding party, who were turned to stone for the terrible sin of dancing on a Sunday. A dramatic bridge? The Devil built it, on condition he could kill and carry off whoever was first to cross it, but was cheated when a clever man sent his dog across. There are hollow hills where sleeping heroes lie; secret tunnels, down which some fiddler went, and never returned; roads patrolled by supernatural black dogs with fiery eyes; phantom coaches, headless horsemen, ghostly white ladies, will o' the wisps, assorted bogies and hobgoblins . . .

Other tales are about people and events of the past, rather than places. Often they are about some long-dead member of a local landowning family, either a hero who established the family fortunes by a gallant deed (e.g. killing a monstrous boar or even a dragon), or else a wicked murderer and tyrant -- in which case, he may well haunt his old domain. Such ghosts are described in dramatic detail. There is Black Vaughan, a wicked medieval knight in Herefordshire, who appeared as a huge bull, but was eventually driven down into a snuffbox, and laid in a pond; and Lady Howard, who lived in Devon in the seventeenth century, but still drives along a certain route every night, in a coach made of human bones and topped by four skulls, because (they say) she murdered three of her four husbands.

The Victorian folklorists who first collected these old legends assured their readers that many local people still seriously believed them. Now nobody does, but they still make very good, dramatic stories, which we can admire and enjoy even if we are telling them just for fun.