The folktale resurgence

From the #FolkloreThursday Twitter hashtag that became a global event, to a new effort to map the UK’s folktales, stories of legends and traditions are being rebooted for the 21st century

“Countries aren’t just made up of rocks and rivers; they’re also made up of the stories we tell each other. These tales give a special character to our homes, and give poetry to our landscape.”

Jeremy Harte, an expert in British folklore and committee member of The Folklore Society, is working with an unlikely champion of the genre: Center Parcs. The holiday company commissioned a study into the future of British folklore, to coincide with 30 years of having a site at Sherwood Forest, a place closely associated with legendary hero Robin Hood.

Though 80 per cent of those questioned for the study knew of Robin Hood, nearly a quarter failed to pick out even one other folklore story from a list including King Arthur, the Loch Ness Monster and Jack the Giant Killer. The company has joined forces with The Folklore Society
 to create a Folklore Map of Britain, showcasing some of the most famous legends from across the UK. Without action, such tales are ‘set to be forgotten within a generation’, warns the Center Parcs press release.

But is the picture really all that bleak?

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#FolkloreThursday is a popular weekly event on the social network Twitter, drawing people from all around the world to share local legends, stories, photographs and artwork. The Folklore Thursday account has more than 17,000 followers and the hashtag trends most weeks – a sure sign that posts are being widely shared and discussed.

“We had people from the UK at first, and then people from the US got involved, but we’re now really lucky to have some great contributors from places as far away as India, Japan, Australia and Qatar,” says Dee Dee Chainey, one of two co-founders.

Chainey says folklore is “very popular right now”. She welcomes the map project, with its focus on British stories, partly because she believes people are looking more globally to get their folklore fix these days. Newer folklore buffs may not necessarily know myths and legends that are based on their doorsteps, but they are probably aware of folklore around the world.

Illustration: Jia-yi Liu

“People have access to so much material now – online, 
in libraries, and on TV, and many children’s books and films now explore folklore and legends from around the world. Global folklore is at their fingertips,” says Chainey.

“And Britain is a really multicultural place: we’ve seen that many people are exploring the folklore of places which people in their families and their friends have links to.”

Technology appears to be helping revitalise folklore then, rather than killing it off. What about the kids who are glued to their screens, rather than settling down for a cosy bedtime story? Folklore is slipping through here too – and it is often more obscure stories that are being immortalised in films. While Sleeping Beauty was retold with a dark edge – from the point of view of the villain no less – in the film Maleficent, the blockbusting smash Frozen was inspired 
by The Snow Queen, a fairytale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.

Tangled, a 3D computer-animated musical fantasy-comedy film, reinterpreted the well-known tale of Rapunzel, but Moana – also a 3D animated film, released in 2016 – picks up on elements of folklore from Polynesia, albeit with a controversial Disney glossy tweak.

The film Frozen was based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen

In a world of Netflix and constant digital connection, why does a thirst for folktales remain at all?

“I think there’s a longing for enchantment, for a sense of connection to some old wisdom, some way of being in the world that we know we’ve lost,” says Sharon Blackie, psychologist and mythologist, and author of forthcoming book The Enchanted Life.

“We’re seeking a more connected way where we appreciate the wisdom of a bird, or a bear, or even a stone. Perhaps 
one of the reasons for the particular resonance of myth and fairytales these days is the fact that we are inhabiting a world in transition, a world which seems to be so often in crisis. And crisis is what many myths and almost all fairytales have at their heart. In most fairytales, for example, the hero or heroine not only survives, but overcomes a monster or other adversary, or escapes from an impossible situation. We need to believe that we have the power to transform not just ourselves, but the world we find ourselves in.”

Chainey agrees. “Life seems really difficult right now for
 a lot of people, and there are a lot of pressures. Tapping into the magic of stories allows people to relax into a tale for a little while, where they’re not in charge of what happens, and can just listen – like they did as a child.”

We need to believe that we have the power to transform not just ourselves, but the world we find ourselves in

These stories can help revive our enthusiasm for life, she says, which in turn gives us energy to plough on when things get tough. “They also help us to see past the problems of the everyday, and remember to feel the magic of life, to feel awe at the depth of time. They remind us that the world really is an amazing place, filled with forests, and mountains, and mystery – we just have to look for it.”

When we face climate change, globalisation and social disconnection, stories can help heal and bind us. “They connect us to our places, help us develop a sense of belonging, and a sense of cultural continuity,” notes Blackie.

“When places and features of the landscape are tied to old stories, knowing and remembering those old stories
 as we walk through the land can weave us into its history, connecting us to the ancestral voices, helping to establish enduring bonds between individuals and the natural world around them – whether that be animals, plants, or features like mountains and rocks. They connect us to land, and show us how to engage with it in a deeper way.”

I think there’s a longing for enchantment, for a sense of connection to some old wisdom

And folklore can be reassuring too as the stories show that humanity has, since the beginning, faced the same issues that we’re currently dealing with.

At a time when social division threatens, can these tales even help us transcend difference?

“There are so many folktales, myths and legends from around the world, and when you start looking through them you realise how similar they are,” says Chainey.

“Folklore is a great way of making people see past their differences, but also a lovely way of sharing in celebrating those differences too – the differences are the bits that make our own local folklore so distinctive, so rich. Debates often can’t achieve a connection on this level – stories tap into that child-like side of each of us, and really open our minds to the wonders of the world around, and make us more open to the things that other people have to say and teach.”

The news might all seem bad, but good things are happening too.

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