Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Lore of the Land (Book Review)

The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson

"The earth hath bubbles as the water has / And these are of them," Banquo observes of the witches at the beginning of the Scottish Play. There is usually something very earthy about the local habitations of the airy nothings of the English imagination. As a student I was taught by a South African who said she could not get used to the fact that the English landscape - all of it - had been trampled by thousands upon thousands of feet since the beginning of history. There is nothing vast, nothing empty. Our creeks and bogs and potholes and standing stones and ponds are inhabited by hosts of invisible creatures and wraiths and stories. Our language is formed by them, from the Boggle Hole in Yorkshire which housed a boggart, to Purchase Wood in Sussex, which has nothing to do with money, but is named for an infestation of mischievous fairies - puccels or little Pucks.

Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson's new guide to English legends is a wonderfully satisfactory book. It is arranged county by county, each with an elegant map followed by entries for individual villages, castles, lakes or moors. The maps have neat symbols - pointy-hatted witches, dragons, skulls, wolves, standing stones - and the text is plentifully illustrated with photographs of atmospheric places, chalk giants, carved Lincolnshire imps and so on.

There are elegant essays, on apple-green paper, on grouped themes - dragons, fairies, witches, bottomless pools, cunning men and (separately) high magicians - but also on individuals such as the murderers of Thomas Becket, on Shakespeare, Boadicea and Oliver Cromwell. Full Story

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