Today here at Albion Calling, I am greatly honoured to have a scholar widely regarded as one of Britain's foremost folklorists as my interviewee, Dr. Jacqueline Simpson, currently Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester’s Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. A specialist in both the folklore of Iceland and her native England, Simpson has been active in the field since the 1950s, having published over fifteen books and many other papers in peer-reviewed journals over that period. She currently serves as editor of FLS News, the newsletter of The Folklore Society and has previously been both president of the Society and editor of its journal, Folklore. We talk about the many things that she has accomplished over the years, and discuss everything from the witch-cult theory of Margaret Murray to Simpson’s experiences with the eminent medievalist Hilda Ellis Davidson, and from the folklore of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels to the perils and pitfalls currently facing folkloristics.
[EDW] Having been schooled at Sion Convent in Worthing, West Sussex, you went on to study English Literature and Medieval Icelandic at Bedford College, University of London. For many years you operated as an independent scholar, but returned to established academia in 2010, when you were appointed to the position of Visiting Professor at the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester in West Sussex. Can you tell us a bit more about this academic trajectory that you have taken? Were you driven to become an academic and a scholar from an early age?
[JS] There was a fairly ‘academic’ tradition in the Simpson family, where several generations of my forebears were vicars, doctors or schoolmasters, though none of them became dons. In my Belgian mother’s family there were barristers, and also (and more importantly for me) a deep interest in literature, classical music and art. At school I was good at my studies, and was particularly fond of English literature; it was simply taken for granted that I would try to get into university, and there was no need for me to feel ‘driven’ towards it. I did not consciously plan to become a scholar – I just wanted to go on reading and learning for as long as possible.
I say ‘try’ to get in, because in those days conditions for admittance were tough. There were far fewer universities then than now, and they accepted students not on school-leaving exams but on the basis of their own stringent entrance examinations, often with interviews too. I have seen it stated that only 5% of the population went to university then. It was particularly difficult for women, as almost all colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were for men only. On the other hand, money was no problem for us of the post-war generation; thanks to Labour Government policies, if you did get accepted, a Local Authority grant paid the fees.
And so I had three happy and hard-working years studying for a BA in London, and then two more years doing a thesis for an MA on a little-known Icelandic saga (the doctorate came much later, by the ‘body of published work’ route). My present status as Visiting Professor at Chichester came as a most unexpected and very gratifying surprise.
After the MA I could have applied for a university post, but decided not to, because of my mother’s frail health. So I settled in Worthing as a part-time teacher at my old school, and wrote a couple of academic articles based on parts of my MA thesis. Then came a stroke of luck: both the tutors who had supervised my MA research (Professors Peter Foote and Norman Garmonsway) were approached by publishers with requests to write books for a popular readership, which they were too busy to do, and both said, ‘No thanks, but I do know a young woman who might be interested.’ I most certainly was; hence The Northmen Talk and Everyday Life in the Viking Age. From then on I went on to combine teaching with research and writing, while living at home to look after my mother.
[EDW]: For most of your career, you have been closely affiliated with Britain's foremost organisation for folkloristics, the Folklore Society, at various times serving as its Secretary, President (1993–96), and Editor of its peer-reviewed journal, Folklore (1979–93). You remain a regular at the Society’s London lectures and conferences, sit on the group’s committee, and serve as editor for FLS News, while in 2008 the Society awarded you the Coote Lake Research Medal for your work. How did you get involved in this organisation, and what do you see as its importance and its achievements?
[JS]: My first contact with the Folklore Society was a by-product of my interest in Nordic mythology. I had become interested in the motif of severed heads that speak, and had read somewhere that there were instances of this in British folktales. I wrote to Dr Katharine Briggs asking for references, and she answered very fully and kindly, and advised me to join the FLS for the sake of its library. This was in 1962 or ’63. I soon realised that the study of folklore is a fascinating and important branch of cultural history in its own right, not a mere postscript to long-gone paganism.
I was elected on to the Society’s Council (now called Committee), and eventually, as you say, I served in several capacities. It has been a most valuable and enjoyable experience, and I have made many friends there.
To understand the importance of the Folklore Society one must realise that in English universities (unlike Ireland, Scotland and most European countries) folklore has not been accepted as an academic subject in its own right, with an entire department to itself. Most universities here, at most periods, have offered no folklore courses whatever; those that did (Leeds at one time, Sheffield at another) did so under the aegis of some more conventional department, and unfortunately were forced by financial pressures eventually to drop the courses. Currently, there is the new and vigorous Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester – may it live long and prosper!
The Folklore Society therefore played a vital role as a place where isolated folklorists, and scholars for whom folklore was a sideline to their official subjects, could meet, hear lectures, produce a journal, and – most importantly – use the extensive library which the society built up. Our Late Victorian founders were ambitious in their ideas for collecting and publishing material. Sadly, the First World War disrupted their plans, and throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s the Society concentrated its efforts on its journal and its library.
From the 1960s onwards, the Folklore Society steadily raised the academic standard of its journal and other publications, and gained increasing international recognition. Many of its members have written substantial books on one or other aspect of British folk tradition – children’s games and beliefs, witchcraft, fairy lore, plant lore, local legends, seasonal customs, folksong, superstitions, etc – often drawing on the resources of its library and journal. Even in this age of the internet, it is still important to have access to material where accuracy and evidence remain paramount.
[EDW] I’ve asked many of those in this interview series where their fascination with the subjects that they study actually stem from, and I’d like to extend that question to you; did you have a love of folk and fairy tales in childhood, or is this an interest that developed later in life?
[JS] My mother used to say it was her fault I turned to folklore, since she gave me Grimm’s fairy tales, stories of King Arthur, and a book on Greek myths as a child. Certainly I liked them, but the real fascination developed much later, through Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and medieval poetry.
[EDW] Born in Worthing, Sussex, you’ve clearly taken a great interest in the folklore of your home county, having published The Folklore of Sussex (1973, 2002, 2009) and articles on Sussex sites like Chanctonbury Ring and the Long Man of Wilmington. I can certainly understand why you would be interested in this area; it’s a beautiful place. For you, as a native, what is it that is so fascinating about the folklore of Sussex? How does it stand out from the folklore of neighbouring counties like London, Kent, or Surrey?
[JS] I remember very precisely how and when my interest turned to Sussex tales. It was in the summer of 1968. I had been working on Icelandic legends, but one day I was chatting with some workmen who were repainting my kitchen, and one of them jokingly mentioned the Devil at Chanctonbury Ring. This brought back my own childhood memories, and I thought to myself, ‘Hey, it’s not just in Iceland that people tell stories about the landscape, we do it here too! Maybe there are more… Enough for an article, perhaps?’ I knew that Worthing Public Library has a large Local History Reference section, so basic research should be fairly simple. Sure enough, I found many references to local customs, tales and superstitions scattered through back issues of the Sussex County Magazine from the 1930s and 40s, in little books on the history of some village, and in published memoirs. Most were brief, but by putting them together, there was soon not only enough for an article, but the makings of a book.
At first the fascination came largely from awareness that this is my county, so these are my stories, but very soon I realised that the same story-patterns can crop up in pretty well any part of Britain, provided the landscape is appropriate – obviously you won’t find tales about giants hurling rocks at one another if there are no rocks lying around. This repetition itself fascinates me too; so many legends that at first seem ‘local’ are in fact ‘migratory’, and not merely within Britain but often in Europe too. Details may vary to fit local topography and local history, but the core of the tale remains recognisable.
I think it dangerous to claim that the folklore of one county ‘stands out’ from others. So much will depend on the accident of whether there have or have not been people to actively collect and record the traditions of that particular area. Nor do I think the county is a really significant unit when one is assessing variation. Sometimes one can spot small local clusters where a story, song or custom seems to have spread from one village to another not far off, presumably through imitative rivalry. And sometimes there are large-scale regional differences, due to differences in social and economic history, e.g. in the growth of cities and industrialisation.
[EDW] Perhaps the strongest single research theme in your career has been the folklore of the Nordic world, something stemming from your undergraduate studies in Medieval Icelandic. Aside from various peer-reviewed papers on the subject, you have published The Northmen Talk: A Choice of Tales from Iceland (1965), Everyday Life in the Viking World (1967), Icelandic Folktales and Legends (1972, 2004), Legends of Icelandic Magicians (1975), The Viking World (1980), and Scandinavian Folktales (1988), in addition to adding introductions and notes to published translations of the Old Icelandic Gudmundar Saga (1955) and Heimskringla (1964). What is it that attracts you to the folk tales of the Northern nations, and could you tell us more about your research into the folk beliefs and tales of the region?
[JS] My interest in Northern literature and lore began with a book I happened to see in my school library, Word Hoard by Margaret Williams. It was an introduction to Anglo-Saxon culture, with translations of various poems, including ‘The Wanderer’ and parts of ‘Beowulf’, and also some information about pagan myths. Then in 1948 the BBC broadcast a two-part radio dramatisation of Njals Saga. I was deeply impressed by the dark, doomed courage seen in the poetry, in the saga heroes, and in some of the myths.
[EDW] As someone who is primarily an Anglo-Saxonist by university training, I am interested by your work with the eminent historian Hilda Ellis Davidson, whom you worked alongside in the Folklore Society and who authored a chapter on archaeology that was included alongside an edition of Old English poem Beowulf that you co-translated with George Garmonsway in 1968. How did you come to know Davidsen, and what was it like working alongside her?
[JS] In the summer of 1950, towards the end of my first year at Bedford College, Hilda Davidson came as a visiting lecturer to give a single talk on Anglo-Saxon swords. She was at that time on the staff of Birkbeck College, another branch of London University; previously, under her maiden name of Hilda Ellis, she had published her first book, The Road to Hel, a study of early Nordic beliefs about death and the afterlife, which I had read with great excitement. Of course as a mere student I did not actually meet her on this occasion, but her lecture had a decisive impact on my life
In the London Honours English course, students had to pick an ‘ancillary’ subject to study in their latter two years, something only marginally related to the main syllabus. The ancillaries on offer at Bedford were Modern Irish Drama, the History of Literary Criticism, and Medieval Icelandic (Old Norse). I passionately wanted to do the latter, of course. But a fellow student, one of those candid friends one should avoid like the plague, told me I’d become such a bore on the topic of Old English poetry that if I added sagas to my repertoire I’d be unliveable with, and Icelandic was a useless subject anyway. This had shaken me – was I being selfish? Should I give up my own wishes, and do Irish Drama? Then I listened to Dr Davidson on how pattern-welding was done, and what magic there was in swords, and I came out of her lecture almost in tears at the thought of abandoning the wonders of the North… and, encouraged by an older and more sensitive friend, I signed up for the Old Norse course.
Years later, when I joined the Folklore Society, I was delighted to find that Hilda was on the Council, and we got to know each other well. She had an amazing range of knowledge and interests, and wonderful enthusiasm, both in lectures and in conversation. Time and again she would return from visiting some archaeological site or some museum exhibition, with glad cries of ‘It’s so, so exciting!’
It was Professor Garmonsway’s idea that she should contribute a chapter to the Beowulf book, since archaeology was relevant to the topic. She sent her section direct to him, so I cannot claim to have actually worked with her. Of course we often talked of Anglo-Saxon and Norse topics, and went to the same meetings and conferences.
One which I remember well was the second Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium in Galway in 1991; we sat together, simmering with quiet indignation whenever speakers claimed that a particular genre (e.g. legends of buried treasures) was distinctively Celtic-Nordic, when we knew it was common in England too. This the first time I really grasped how little was known outside Britain – or even in Britain itself – about our rich repertoire of local legend. When we got back to England we grumbled about this to various friends in the FLS, including Jennifer Westwood. I suspect that the origins of Lore of the Land may go back to these grumbles.
[EDW] Throughout the latter part of the 1970s and 1980s you also published on a wide array of folkloric topics: The Folklore of the Welsh Border (1976), British Dragons (1980), The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang (1982; with Eric Partridge), and European Mythology (1989). How did you manage to carry out so many diverse strands of research, and what brought about your interest in these various subjects?
[JS] The first two you mention were natural developments from The Folklore of Sussex. It had sold unusually well for such a topic, so the publishers (Batsford) commissioned a series of similar regional books, and assigned the English counties nearest to the Welsh border to me. I was dubious, for it is a large area to cover in a book of the size they had allotted, and much of it had already been covered by previous folklorists. I would have preferred to tackle some less well known area, but for commercial reasons the publishers stuck to their choice. I think of Folklore of the Welsh Border as my ‘patchwork quilt book’ – a mass of small items stitched together from various sources.
British Dragons, on the other hand, arose entirely from my personal fascination with the topic, which started when I found out that my own Sussex dragon, the Knucker of Lyminster, was not alone of his species, for there were other local dragons and dragon-slayers scattered up and down Britain, each more dramatic and/or amusing than the last, which nobody had ever studied as a group. I spent many happy hours tracking them down through various books of regional and local lore in the FLS library.
The Historical Slang book was another commissioned work, a scissors-and-paste job abridging and selecting from Partridge’s extant two-volume Dictionary of Slang. A boring job, with no actual research involved.
European Mythology was again a publisher’s idea – or rather, my modification of their idea. Hamlyn were running a series of mythology books, and what they thought of as European ‘mythology’ was stories of historical or semi-historical figures regarded as heroes. I said this was very narrow; I would prefer to tackle wider issues in popular belief and culture, e.g. the belief in witchcraft, or in fairies, attitudes to death, and so on. I have always liked writing for ‘general readers’ and giving them what I hope is sensible information on topics which intrigue me, so this was a book I very much enjoyed doing. Once again, information mostly came via the FLS library.
[EDW] Much of my research has looked at the development of the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca, which was founded largely from the basis of the witch-cult theory advocated by Margaret Murray in the first half of the twentieth century. One of your most widely read papers has been “Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?”, published in Folklore in 1994; in that paper you built on the work of historian Norman Cohn and highlighted the various problems with Murray’s hypothesis. Why did you feel the need to put together that paper, and what do you think Murray’s influence in folkloristics – and the public perception of folkloristics – has been?
[JS] It began accidentally. The Folklore Society decided to hold a conference on the theme of women folklorists in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and we sat around discussing who’d like to do which. I picked Murray because I’d read her Witch-Cult in Western Europe in my teens, and had found it exciting and convincing. Naturally by the 1980s I had long realised that her theory was historically rubbish, but my memory of her actual arguments was vague, and I assumed that I would be saying something like ‘She was wrong of course, but when one considers that she used X as source and was influenced by Y, it becomes understandable.’ Instead, I discovered that she distorted, or even suppressed, the statements in her sources in order to fit her preconceived theories, and that her attitude to other scholars was arrogantly dismissive. I was astonished, and indignant.
Murray’s influence on the general public had been considerable. It can be seen in many writings from the 1930s onwards, from the pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica to assumptions made about pagan survivals in detective stories, ghost stories and horror films, and it was, as you say, crucial to the formation of Wicca in the 1940s. It was widely assumed among historians that most folklorists endorsed her views – even Ronald Hutton in his early book The Stations of the Sun casually referred to ‘the folkloric or Murrayite view of witchcraft’ – and I felt this mistaken perception might well be one reason why folklore was not seen as a ‘respectable’ academic subject. I felt it was very necessary to put the record straight.
[EDW] In the early years of the twenty-first century, you published two significant overview works on the subject of English folklore; The Dictionary of English Folklore (2000), which you co-authored with Steve Roud, and The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends (2005), which you co-authored with Jennifer Westwood. These are both major projects, and I was wondering how they actually came about, and what you see as their successes?
[JS] These were indeed massive projects, and I feel proud and happy to have achieved them. As regards The Dictionary of English Folklore, the initiative again came from the publishers (this seems to be a recurrent theme in my life!). Oxford UP was expanding its range of dictionaries, and approached me to ask if I would do one on folklore. I replied that I would love to, but that the subject is far too big and varied for one person to tackle, and in particular that I was not competent to deal with the musical side. I suggested bringing in Steve Roud, who already had extensive knowledge of folksong, dancing, and the mumming plays. The combination worked extremely well. Steve wrote the entries on these topics, and also most of those on seasonal customs and festivals. I dealt with narratives (local and historical legends, fairytales), magic and supernatural beings (fairies, bogies, witchcraft, ghosts, demons). He did weddings and Christmas; I did Easter and funerals.
The Lore of the Land was originally Jennifer Westwood’s idea; she had convinced Penguin that there was scope for a whole book on English legends, but she also felt that it would be more than she could tackle alone, so she invited me in as her collaborator. This time, the division of labour was not according to topic but by geography. She took counties north of the Thames and up the east half of England, plus Cornwall, on which she had worked some years before; I took the south and the west. We overlapped a bit in the midlands, and shared London; we also shared the ‘green page’ mini-essays on particular subjects. Once again the collaboration worked very smoothly and happily.
With both these books, my collaborators and I had two main aims: to present as full a picture as possible of England’s numerous folk traditions, and to correct out-dated and inaccurate ideas about them which persisted at popular level, e.g. in guide-books, press and TV, though now discarded by scholars. Usually this was a matter of dating; people assumed a custom or belief must be ancient – medieval at the very least, preferably pagan, prehistoric, and concerned with fertility – when the earliest evidence for its existence was from the 17th or 18th century. Jennifer, Steve and I all see folkloristics as a branch of historical studies, where accurate evidence is of prime importance. I am confident that our books are succeeding in both aims.
[EDW] In 1997 you met the famous fantasy author Terry Pratchett at a book signing, and have since become friends, co-authoring a book titled The Folklore of Discworld (2008) together. How did this collaboration come about, and were you a fan of Pratchett’s work beforehand?
[JS] I first discovered the Discworld books when Wyrd Sisters came out (in 1988, I think) and fell in love at once with their cleverness and humour. I read them all avidly, but I was not a ‘fan’ in the sense of going to Discworld Conventions, or collecting Disc-related jewellery, stamps, figurines, craft-work – indeed, I never imagined such things existed. Then in 1997 I learnt that Terry would be coming to Worthing for a book signing, and by good luck I was free that afternoon. Terry’s interest in folklore is obvious from his books, so I decided to give him a copy of my Folktales of Scandinavia as a small thank-you for all the pleasure he had given me. Now, it so happened that he was asking everyone in the queue what rhymes and superstitions they knew about magpies, since he wanted to put magpies into Carpe Jugulum, so he was delighted to find a folklorist standing before him. I told him as much as I could remember there and then, and offered to send him some more once I had consulted books I had at home. That was how it all began.
Not long after, the Folklore Society Committee suggested that I invite him to lecture to us, which he did; it was the most crowded lecture in our history, and a huge success. Meanwhile, he had enlisted me as one of his ‘occasional consultants’, and would ring me up from time to time to check up on some folkloric point he wanted to use. And the phone conversations would then ramble off into a general exchange of news and views, so that although we did not meet again in person, we soon became friends.
Then one day he told me, on the phone, how his fans often asked questions which showed a distressing ignorance of traditional lore, such as, ‘What gave you the idea of having three witches?’ Would it be useful, he asked me, to have a book about the folklore of Discworld, rather like the ones on its science? Certainly, said I, there would be plenty to say. ‘Right,’ said Terry, ‘We will do it together.’ After a moment’s stunned silence, I delightedly agreed.
The collaboration worked very smoothly, by email. I would draft a section and send it to him, and it would return peppered with additional details, jokes, references, footnotes. It is very thoroughly interwoven, so it is just as well that nobody has demanded to know who wrote what. Since 2008 I have been adding further comments on folklore material he has used in more recent books; these appeared in the e-book versions and are now gathered in this year’s second and updated edition of The Folklore of Discworld.
I may say that in 2008 I became a fully fledged fan – I now go to Conventions and Wincanton Gatherings, often in rather crazy costumes, and to book launchings. The whole thing has been a most happy experience.
[EDW] Your most recent book has been Green Men & White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names (2010), in which you delved into yet another aspect of Britain's folklore. What was the impetus behind this project, and have you got any further research projects in the pipeline?
[JS] Green Men and White Swans. The suggestion for this book came from the publishers, presumably wanting to build on the success of Lore of the Land, though they said there should be less detail and no scholarly apparatus. It was a fairly easy task, as much of the material is based on what Jennifer and I did for Lore, though presented from a different angle.
I probably will not undertake another book-length project, because I do now find that going up to London is tiring, and working in libraries most frustrating – they are hot, the books are heavy, the shelves either too high or too low for me to read their titles, and in most places (including, alas, the Folklore Society) you have to order the book you need in advance, which means you can never make accidental discoveries or pursue a clue there and then. So I will probably limit myself to small projects which I can cope with in my own home.
[EDW] Given that you have decades of expertise in the subject, I wondered what you felt the current state of folkloristics was like in Britain, and on the wider international stage? Furthermore, what problems do you think that it will face with the current cut-backs in the university sector, and what – in your opinion – will the discipline look like in future decades?
[JS] At present the study of folklore is in remarkably good shape in Britain. Over the past few decades we have seen a succession of well-researched, soundly based surveys of various branches of the subject, regional studies, individual figures (Robin Hood, Spring-heeled Jack, Dick Turpin) and (for the first time) books specifically about London’s folklore, plus Steve Roud’s massive index to folksong and Doc Rowe’s even more massive archives recording the annual performances of our customs over many years. There is no excuse now for wild speculation and woolly theorising – an enormous amount of factual data has been amassed and presented in accessible form, largely thanks to the efforts of members of the Folklore Society and the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
As for the future, who can tell? At the public level, I am confident that traditional customs and performances will remain popular and will modify themselves whenever necessary to fit in with changing circumstances. The academic future is less clear. Sad experience has shown that when financial cut-backs loom, folklore is one of the first areas to suffer. In some cases, some aspects of folkloristics could find a niche within a faculty of History or English, as it currently has at Chichester. But experience has also shown that individuals have achieved much when researching and writing outside the walls of academia, and I trust this will continue to be possible.
EDW: Jacqueline Simpson, thank you so much for talking to us today - it has been a pleasure, and I am sure that many readers will find your comments to be of great interest. I wish you all the best for the future.