The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation

By Ronald M. James. 2018. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. 256 pages pages. ISBN: 9780859894708 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Elissa R. Henken, University of Georgia

[Review length: 880 words • Review posted on March 13, 2020]

[Cover ofThe Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation]

In The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation, Ronald M. James carefully presents several genres (legend, folktale, belief) of nineteenth-century Cornish folklore, with a focus on supernatural beings living on the land (piskies), in the sea (mermaids), and underground (knockers), as well as spectres and giants. This is not an anthology of stories; James rarely provides a complete legend text, but rather summarizes it with occasional quotes from his sources. Instead, James uses a selection of previously published materials to investigate what makes the folklore of Cornwall distinctly Cornish, and to place it in relation to other Celtic and European folklore, with particular attention to any distinctions from English folklore.

Before discussing specific examples, James takes the time in the introduction and opening chapters (“The Collectors,” “The Droll Tellers” [itinerant tale-tellers], and “Folkways and Stories”) to lay out important information about folklore, folklore studies, and Cornish culture. Though these chapters sometimes feel like a slow route to the folklore itself, they provide valuable training for laypersons in fundamental points of folklore scholarship, and James’s presentation of scholarly arguments about oral-narrative theories (mainly historic-geographic versus structural) may be useful reminders even for trained folklorists. It is here that James introduces his major tools for comparative purposes in studying Cornish narratives: Aarne and Thompson, The Types of the Folktale; Ó Súilleabháin and Christiansen, The Types of the Irish Folktale; and Christiansen, The Migratory Legends. He takes the majority of his Cornish materials from nineteenth-century collections, most especially from Robert Hunt Popular Romances of the West of England, or, The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall and William Bottrell, Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall.

After the early chapters lay the groundwork in understanding both folklore and the Cornish context, James settles down to precise studies of specific legends. He starts with the Cornish form of fairies or little people (Pobel Vean), who go by a variety of names, including spriggans and buccas, but which James classifies generally as piskies. Over three chapters, he lays out their characteristics, comparing them and their legends with fairies in other regions. In chapters 5 and 6, he examines nine legends, in each case tracking the variants and pointing out motifs that seem to be distinctly Cornish. In one chapter he focuses on them as migratory legends, and in the other he focuses on characteristic traits of piskies. James then gives similar treatment in individual chapters to mermaids, spectres, giants, and knockers. The last receives a second chapter on knocker lore carried by Cornish migrants to mines in the United States, where they were known as tommyknockers and possibly shifted from a primary function of warning against greed amongst miners to warning about danger in the mine. James concludes the volume with full, very useful endnotes and with an appendix, “Type Index for Cornish Narrative.”

Studying Cornish lore is complicated by how little of it was recorded or has survived, and, out of that small amount, how much was simply included in collections as English folklore, blurring the lines between indigenous and borrowed lore. It is truly difficult to apply the comparative method when there is little material with which to work, but James thoroughly examines what is available, tracking variants and motifs as far as he can in time and across cultures. In his search for a “unique cultural fingerprint,” James finds that while some matters are readily explained by the importance in Cornwall of both sea-faring and mining, other matters reflect unexplained aesthetics, of which the primary example is that, while Irish tale-tellers emphasize conservatism, Cornish droll tellers pride themselves on making changes and also tend to tell the story in verse form. In his research, James wrestles with several complicating issues: how much does the community’s lore change as the language shifts from Cornish to English; how much does the droll tellers’ propensity for change delete indigenous forms; and again, the slight number of collected legends providing little basis for assessing a one-time body of legendry. Throughout, he provides an ongoing review of the literature, not only in bibliographic details, but also in assessment of his sources. He is always careful to state whether a certain text might be untrustworthy because of the author’s romanticizing and rewriting of material, a common danger with nineteenth-century materials. He also pays attention to literary re-workings and uses them to point out that a legend or belief custom can be reported or referred to without explanation, which shows traditional knowledge.

In making available and drawing our attention to folklore which has too often been left unnoted and unanalyzed, this volume is a gift to Cornish studies, an easy-to-read, scholarly work, which provides historic and theoretic perspective along with its valuable body of cultural information. I expect it to be of interest to people curious about Cornwall in general or legendry about supernatural beings in particular, to Celticists eager to learn more about a lesser-studied Celtic realm, and to folklorists concerned with narrative theory, with approaches to analyzing materials lacking most of the desired textual and contextual information, and quite simply, with knowing more about a culture’s folklore. James has taken on a difficult task in sorting through seemingly insufficient material in search of cultural distinctions and performed it very well indeed.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.