Sabine Baring-Gould




Folklore is, in many ways, an anthropological task.  Discovering why a myth exists or why a person becomes a folk-hero isn’t necessarily easy, or possible, but our best options are to consider how and why such stories come about.  Why might a pixie (or a piskie, in Devon) leave a ring of mushrooms?  Why is it believed that a spectral figure keeps his Ghastly Hounds in Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor? Why, in general, do these types of stories come about, even encompassing important and famous historical figures, like Sir Francis Drake, and making them folk legends, as much a part of the lore of the land as the ghosts and magical creatures?  The answers must, on some level, rely on a tradition that comes from things people observe in the world around them.  We see a place, perhaps, and need to understand it.  We want our kids not to go to the woods at night, so we start telling a monster story that sticks and builds until even the grown avoid going to a place that once held no power.

Many folklorists are firm proponents of anthropological explanations of folklore and myths.  “What is it,” they ask, “about the cultural experience of the people who live here, or their understanding of the world, that caused this story to come about?”

One of the most important English folklorists, Sabine Baring-Gould, fell very much within this tradition.  A Devon native and scholar of many eclectic topics, he was self-taught in the art of folklore.  He was extremely well educated, and fascinated by all sorts of things.  Though he was most well known for his novels and his collections of folk songs (SBGAS), he was also very interested in folklore, and wrote many books on the subject, each of which explored different parts of the British Isles, surveying towns and counties and compiling the stories told there.  Not content to simply copy out well known stories, He prided himself on finding stories that were authentic and local, but which may not have otherwise reached a large audience.  He also, however, desired to explain why the myths exist, or at least try to understand the people telling those myths.  Before even getting into the stories he has collected about Devon, for example, in his book  A Book of the West, about Devon and Cornwall, he attempts to present his own anthropological theory on the ethnology of its people and who and where their ancestors were and were from.

When he tells a story, it is a meandering affair, covering all sorts of details as they have been given to him, and often deliberately tied to other myths.  Rather than simply being content to tell a story, though, he asks questions.  After telling a great story of Tavistock, for example, he asks “Now, is there any truth in this story?” (270) and goes on to tell us his best guesses.  This leads to an interesting jaunt, invariably, through history, which enriches our understanding of cultural context, whether or not the story is true.  He is important because he helps to identify anthropological bases for the myths he discusses, but also because he demonstrates their complex relationships to places and people, as well as to each other.

Many of the stories that we will be talking about on our section of the website were collected, in some form, by Baring-Gould.  Though he was, in some ways, forgotten after his death (SBGAS), he has seen a resurgence in popularity due to his large body of work and the historical approach he took to collecting the stories.  These, and his beliefs that information about source and placement in time were essential to folklore, lends him credibility and import which is useful to modern scholars who seek to avoid the imperfect and ethereal following of many anecdotes that so often plague the profession.  In thinking about myths and stories, a perusal of his work as a curator of tales is not only inspiring, but also essential for the interpretation and aquisiton of certain myths.  He valued the part that the folk played in folklore, and for that we must be eternally greatful.

Works Cited

Baring-Gould, S. A Book of the West; Being an Introduction to Devon and Cornwall. London: Methuen, 1899. Print.

All text copyright Alex Kirshy

Images are in the public domain