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?
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
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?
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
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?
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?
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
[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?
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?
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
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
[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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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.