This was the book that introduced me to the rich lore of Albion, inspiring a lifelong interest in those odd and curious snippets of custom and belief that have made this island the cultural entity that it is, or perhaps ‘was’, for much has changed since it was first published by the Reader’s Digest back in 1973. The Britain of that era now seems almost mythical in itself, with an ever-diminishing number of us being able to recall how it was at the time, or, it seems, able to connect emotionally with the subject matter sandwiched between the covers of this volume.
The creation of Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain was overseen by Russell Ash, and was very much a team effort. Contributions came from a considerable number of eminent academics and specialists in folklore and related disciplines, with a wealth of striking original illustrations, often possessing the look of contemporary woodcuts, undertaken by a team of talented artists. Amongst the latter was the illustrator Eric Fraser, who created some of my favourite pen and ink illustrations such as those of Herne the Hunter, Lady Godiva, and ‘The Wicked Lady’.
The book’s general aesthetic and sensibility chimed with those of the times in which it was produced, and it thus seems apt that its year of publication coincided with the release of three of what I would consider to be the best British horror films: The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now, and Theatre of Blood. One can easily imagine Lord Summerisle perusing this volume with pleasure, or Sergeant Howie, equally, with horror. Being something of a sensitive soul as a child, when I first encountered this book the mere sight of its cover – graced with the glowering therianthropic head of the bull-horned Dorset Ooser – was enough to set me affright, but I look upon it with a fonder regard today.
Divided into three sections, it is the one entitled the ‘Romance of Britain’ that has always enchanted me the most. Here we are introduced to snippets of tales that enhance and enrich the localities with which they are associated, lending a colour to them that formal histories – whilst excellent in themselves – often lack. It is a book that provides endless stimulus to the imagination, particularly for the author who happens to be seeking to inject a local and authentic air into novels or shorter tales that possess a hint of the uncanny or the supernatural. Many of the stories themselves are ripe to be worked up into something more substantial, and have fed into my own fictional endeavours in one way or another, particularly, perhaps, in the case of Epona. In the introduction to Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, we encounter the spine-tingling account of Dr Anne Ross’s encounter with an evil presence – half-human, half-animal – that is said to have entered her house along with two mysterious crudely-worked stone heads found near to Hadrian’s Wall. She conjectured that they may in some way have been connected to a Romano-British deity venerated in the area when it was still part of the province of Britannia, and that this presence was a guardian of some form.
This book is now sadly long out of print, and the copies available on Amazon are going for a rather high price. That said, if you scour the second-hand bookshops you might just be lucky enough to pick up a bargain copy.