Celtic Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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Notes and References

IT MAY be as well to give the reader some account of the enormous extent of the Celtic folk-tales in existence. I reckon these to extend to 2000, though only about 250 are in print. The former number exceeds that known in France, Italy, Germany, and Russia, where collection has been most active, and is only exceeded by the MS. collection of Finnish folk-tales at Helsingfors, said to exceed 12,000. As will be seen, this superiority of the Celts is due to the phenomenal and patriotic activity of one man, the late J. F. Campbell, of Islay, whose Popular Tales and MS. collections (partly described by Mr. Alfred Nutt in Folk-Lore, i. 369-83) contain references to no less than 1281 tales (many of them, of course, variants and scraps). Celtic folk-tales, while more numerous, are also the oldest of the tales of modern European races; some of them--e.g., "Connla," in the present selection, occurring in the oldest Irish vellums. They include (1) fairy tales properly so-called--i.e., tales or anecdotes about fairies, hobgoblins, &c., told as natural occurrences; (2) hero-tales, stories of adventure told of national or mythical heroes; (3) folk-tales proper, describing marvellous adventures of otherwise unknown heroes, in which there is a defined plot and supernatural characters (speaking animals, giants, dwarfs, &c.); and finally (4) drolls, comic anecdotes of feats of stupidity or cunning.

                The collection of Celtic folk-tales began in IRELAND as early as 1825, with T. Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. This contained some 38 anecdotes of the first class mentioned above, anecdotes showing the belief of the Irish peasantry in the existence of fairies, gnomes, goblins, and the like. The Grimms did Croker the honour of translating part of his book, under the title of Irische Elfenmärchen. Among the novelists and tale-writers of the schools of Miss Edgeworth and Lever folk-tales were occasionally utilised, as by Carleton in his Traits and Stories, by S. Lover in his Legends and Stories, and by G. Griffin in his Tales of a Jury-Room. These all tell their tales in the manner of the stage Irishman. Chapbooks, Royal Fairy Tales and Hibernian Tales, also contained genuine folk-tales, and attracted Thackeray's attention in his Irish Sketch-Book. The Irish Grimm, however, was Patrick Kennedy, a Dublin bookseller, who believed in fairies, and in five years (1866- 71) printed about 100 folk- and hero-tales and drolls (classes 2, 3, and 4 above) in his Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, 1866, Fireside Stories of Ireland, 1870, and Bardic Stories of Ireland, 1871; all three are now unfortunately out of print. He tells his stories neatly and with spirit, and retains much that is volkstümlich in his diction. He derived his materials from the English-speaking peasantry of county Wexford, who changed from Gaelic to English while story-telling was in full vigour, and therefore carried over the stories with the change of language. Lady Wylde has told many folk-tales very effectively in her Ancient Legends of Ireland, 1887. More recently two collectors have published stories gathered from peasants of the West and North who can only speak Gaelic. These are by an American gentleman named Curtin, Myths and Folk-Tales of Ireland, 1890; while Dr. Douglas Hyde has published in Beside the Fireside, 1891, spirited English versions of some of the stories he had published in the original Irish in his Leabhar Sgeulaighteachta, Dublin, 1889. Miss Maclintoch has a large MS. collection, part of which has appeared in various periodicals; and Messrs. Larminie and D. Fitzgerald are known to have much story material in their possession.

                But beside these more modern collections there exist in old and middle Irish a large number of hero-tales (class 2) which formed the staple of the old ollahms or bards. Of these tales of "cattle-liftings, elopements, battles, voyages, courtships, caves, lakes, feasts, sieges, and eruptions," a bard of even the fourth class had to know seven fifties, presumably one for each day of the year. Sir William Temple knew of a north-country gentleman of Ireland who was sent to sleep every evening with a fresh tale from his bard. The Book of Leinster, an Irish vellum of the twelfth century, contains a list of 189 of these hero-tales, many of which are extant to this day; E. O'Curry gives the list in the Appendix to his MS. Materials of Irish History. Another list of about 70 is given in the preface to the third volume of the Ossianic Society's publications. Dr. Joyce published a few of the more celebrated of these in Old Celtic Romances; others appeared in Atlantis (see notes on "Deirdre"), others in Kennedy's Bardic Stories, mentioned above.

                Turning to SCOTLAND, we must put aside Chambers' Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1842, which contains for the most part folk-tales common with those of England rather than those peculiar to the Gaelic-speaking Scots. The first name here in time as in importance is that of J. F. Campbell, of Islay. His four volumes, Popular Tales of the West Highlands (Edinburgh, 1860-2, recently republished by the Islay Association), contain some 120 folk- and hero-tales, told with strict adherence to the language of the narrators, which is given with a literal, a rather too literal, English version. This careful accuracy has given an un-English air to his versions, and has prevented them attaining their due popularity. What Campbell has published represents only a tithe of what he collected. At the end of the fourth volume he gives a list of 791 tales, &c., collected by him or his assistants in the two years 1859-61; and in his MS. collections at Edinburgh are two other lists containing 400 more tales. Only a portion of these are in the Advocates' Library; the rest, if extant, must be in private hands, though they are distinctly of national importance and interest.

                Campbell's influence has been effective of recent years in Scotland. The Celtic Magazine (vols. xii. and xiii.), while under the editorship of Mr. MacBain, contained several folk- and hero-tales in Gaelic, and so did the Scotch Celtic Review. These were from the collections of Messrs. Campbell of Tiree, Carmichael, and K. Mackenzie. Recently Lord Archibald Campbell has shown laudable interest in the preservation of Gaelic folk- and hero-tales. Under his auspices a whole series of handsome volumes, under the general title of Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition, has been recently published, four volumes having already appeared, each accompanied by notes by Mr. Alfred Nutt, which form the most important aid to the study of Celtic Folk-Tales since Campbell himself. Those to the second volume in particular (Tales collected by Rev. D. MacInnes) fill 100 pages, with condensed information on all aspects of the subject dealt with in the light of the most recent research in the European folk-tales as well as on Celtic literature. Thanks to Mr. Nutt, Scotland is just now to the fore in the collection and study of the British Folk-Tale.

                WALES makes a poor show beside Ireland and Scotland. Sikes' British Goblins, and the tales collected by Prof. Rhys in Y Cymrodor, vols. ii.-vi., are mainly of our first-class fairy anecdotes. Borrow, in his Wild Wales, refers to a collection of fables in a journal called The Greal, while the Cambrian Quarterly Magazine for 1830 and 1831 contained a few fairy anecdotes, including a curious version of the "Brewery of Eggshells" from the Welsh. In the older literature, the Iolo MS., published by the Welsh MS. Society, has a few fables and apologues, and the charming Mabinogion, translated by Lady Guest, has tales that can trace back to the twelfth century and are on the border-line between folk-tales and hero-tales.

                CORNWALL and MAN are even worse than Wales. Hunt's Drolls from the West of England has nothing distinctively Celtic, and it is only by a chance Lhuyd chose a folk-tale as his specimen of Cornish in his Archaeologia Britannica, 1709 (see Tale of Ivan). The Manx folk-tales published, including the most recent by Mr. Moore, in his Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man, 1891, are mainly fairy anecdotes and legends.

                From this survey of the field of Celtic folk-tales it is clear that Ireland and Scotland provide the lion's share. The interesting thing to notice is the remarkable similarity of Scotch and Irish folk-tales. The continuity of language and culture between these two divisions of Gaeldom has clearly brought about this identity of their folk-tales. As will be seen from the following notes, the tales found in Scotland can almost invariably be paralleled by those found in Ireland, and vice versa. This result is a striking confirmation of the general truth that folk-lores of different countries resemble one another in proportion to their contiguity and to the continuity of language and culture between them.

                Another point of interest in these Celtic folk-tales is the light they throw upon the relation of hero-tales and folk-tales (classes 2 and 3 above). Tales told of Finn of Cuchulain, and therefore coming under the definition of hero-tales, are found elsewhere told of anonymous or unknown heroes. The question is, were the folk-tales the earliest, and were they localised and applied to the heroes, or were the heroic sagas generalised and applied to an unknown [Greek: tis]? All the evidence, in my opinion, inclines to the former view, which, as applied to Celtic folk-tales, is of very great literary importance; for it is becoming more and more recognised, thanks chiefly to the admirable work of Mr. Alfred Nutt, in his Studies on the Holy Grail, that the outburst of European Romance in the twelfth century was due, in large measure, to an infusion of Celtic hero-tales into the literature of the Romance-speaking nations. Now the remarkable thing is, how these hero tales have lingered on in oral tradition even to the present day. (See a marked case in "Deirdre.") We may, therefore, hope to see considerable light thrown on the most characteristic spiritual product of the Middle Ages, the literature of Romance and the spirit of chivalry, from the Celtic folk-tales of the present day. Mr. Alfred Nutt has already shown this to be true of a special section of Romance literature, that connected with the Holy Grail, and it seems probable that further study will extend the field of application of this new method of research.

                The Celtic folk-tale again has interest in retaining many traits of primitive conditions among the early inhabitants of these isles which are preserved by no other record. Take, for instance, the calm assumption of polygamy in "Gold Tree and Silver Tree." That represents a state of feeling that is decidedly pre-Christian. The belief in an external soul "Life Index," recently monographed by Mr. Frazer in his "Golden Bough," also finds expression in a couple of the Tales (see notes on "Sea-Maiden" and "Fair, Brown, and Trembling"), and so with many other primitive ideas.

                Care, however, has to be taken in using folk-tales as evidence for primitive practice among the nations where they are found. For the tales may have come from another race--that is, for example, probably the case with "Gold Tree and Silver Tree" (see Notes). Celtic tales are of peculiar interest in this connection, as they afford one of the best fields for studying the problem of diffusion, the most pressing of the problems of the folk-tales just at present, at least in my opinion. The Celts are at the furthermost end of Europe. Tales that travelled to them could go no further and must therefore be the last links in the chain.

                For all these reasons, then, Celtic folk-tales are of high scientific interest to the folk-lorist, while they yield to none in imaginative and literary qualities. In any other country of Europe some national means of recording them would have long ago been adopted. M. Luzel, e.g., was commissioned by the French Minister of Public Instruction to collect and report on the Breton folk-tales. England, here as elsewhere without any organised means of scientific research in the historical and philological sciences, has to depend on the enthusiasm of a few private individuals for work of national importance. Every Celt of these islands or in the Gaeldom beyond the sea, and every Celt-lover among the English-speaking nations, should regard it as one of the duties of the race to put its traditions on record in the few years that now remain before they will cease for ever to be living in the hearts and memories of the humbler members of the race.

                In the following Notes I have done as in my English Fairy Tales, and given first, the sources whence I drew the tales, then parallels at length for the British Isles, with bibliographical references for parallels abroad, and finally, remarks where the tales seemed to need them. In these I have not wearied or worried the reader with conventional tall talk about the Celtic genius and its manifestations in the folk-tale; on that topic one can only repeat Matthew Arnold when at his best, in his Celtic Literature. Nor have I attempted to deal with the more general aspects of the study of the Celtic folk-tale. For these I must refer to Mr. Nutt's series of papers in The Celtic Magazine, vol. xii., or, still better, to the masterly introductions he is contributing to the series of Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition, and to Dr. Hyde's Beside the Fireside. In my remarks I have mainly confined myself to discussing the origin and diffusion of the various tales, so far as anything definite could be learnt or conjectured on that subject.

                Before proceeding to the Notes, I may "put in," as the lawyers say, a few summaries of the results reached in them. Of the twenty-six tales, twelve (i., ii., v., viii., ix., x., xi., xv., xvi., xvii., xix., xxiv.) have Gaelic originals; three (vii., xiii., xxv.) are from the Welsh; one (xxii.) from the now extinct Cornish; one an adaptation of an English poem founded on a Welsh tradition (xxi., "Gellert"); and the remaining nine are what may be termed Anglo-Irish. Regarding their diffusion among the Celts, twelve are both Irish and Scotch (iv., v., vi., ix., x., xiv.-xvii., xix., xx., xxiv); one (xxv.) is common to Irish and Welsh; and one (xxii.) to Irish and Cornish; seven are found only among the Celts in Ireland (i.-iii., xii., xviii., xxii., xxvi); two (viii., xi.) among the Scotch; and three (vii., xiii., xxi.) among the Welsh. Finally, so far as we can ascertain their origin, four (v., xvi., xxi., xxii.) are from the East; five (vi., x., xiv., xx., xxv.) are European drolls; three of the romantic tales seem to have been imported (vii., ix., xix.); while three others are possibly Celtic exportations to the Continent (xv., xvii., xxiv.) though the, last may have previously come thence; the remaining eleven are, as far as known, original to Celtic lands. Somewhat the same result would come out, I believe, as the analysis of any representative collection of folk-tales of any European district.


SurLaLune Note

This article comprises Jacobs' introduction to the Notes and References section of his book. The notes for the individual tales have been added as notes to the actual tales in this collection for the reader's convenience.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Notes and References
Tale Author/Editor: Jacobs, Joseph
Book Title: Celtic Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Jacobs, Joseph
Publisher: David Nutt
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1892
Country of Origin: Ireland, Scotland & Wales
Classification: Notes

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