Glossop Folktales – the inside look!

By Dr. Mark P Henderson and Dr. Kathryn Starne

Storytelling is as old as language. The tales we tell to each other – to other adults, not just to children – are manifestations of our cultural memory. They encapsulate our values, attitudes, beliefs and practices. They define who we are. The dragons, seven-league boots and magic spells that feature in traditional stories are symbols of our shared concerns. What would become of us if our tales were to fade away? What could new tales make possible for our future?

In First Among Sequels (Hodder and Stoughton, 2008), page 221, Jasper Fforde wrote: ‘Humans like stories. Humans need stories. Stories are good. Stories work. Story clarifies and captures the essence of the human spirit. Story, in all its forms – of life, of love, of knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind. And story, you mark my words, will be with the last human to draw breath, and we should be there, supporting that one last person.’

We like to work with particular kinds of stories, stories that are part of folklore. These stories are fascinating because they are always changing. There is no definitive version of a folktale, although we may have favourites or choose versions that are more familiar than others. Folktales change over time and over space. Different variants appear in different places. Folktales are unlikely ever to be told exactly the same way twice. Also, they aren’t owned in the way that other stories might be.You don’t have to be a published author to share, create or re-write them. While you may find recorded versions in copyrighted volumes, any self-respecting folktale has friends and cousins that have slipped through the fingers of collectors. Folktales are the original open source, something anyone can pick up and re-make in their own way to suit their own circumstances.

One rule that does apply, though, is that for a story to become a folktale it has to be shared. Sharing folktales is one of the ways we share information within a community, particularly informal or unofficial information. That information might serve to discourage crossing the cemetery at night (maybe there are ghosts, or maybe stumbling around in the dark is a bad idea, haunted or not), or it might be a warning to live according to particular rules about drinking, stealing, or showing respect. 

In other cases the information is less specific, revealing concerns within our community. We see lots of folktales in which wealth is taken from those with plenty and finds its way to those who have little. In others, greed is punished, good deeds rewarded, and danger foretold.  The messages in folktales change over time; they may seem silly, ludicrous even, to those outside the community or from a different time, but they give us insight into what a community cares about and how that community wants to live. Likewise, such tales can help us to explore similar matters in real time in our own community.

It might seem there is little need for old-fashioned folktales nowadays, but as a community we still find plenty to talk about that isn’t so very different. Glossop has recently witnessed conversations about proposed building on sites of local significance, and there’s the longstanding lore about what happens to drivers who cut in on Mottram Moor. Anyone hearing the debates about who should and should not access the Snake Pass during a recent closure, and how they should or should not drive, cycle or walk, has witnessed just such conversations in our present-day community. These conversations recall old tales about those who went out on horseback towards Doctor’s Gate on a snowy night, about building a house on a site claimed by someone else, or about cheating your neighbour. We need only abstract them to see that our local issues haven’t changed as much as might first appear. There may not be a correct answer to them, but the issues themselves matter deeply in navigating daily life in our community.

In the Peak District, we’re surrounded by a wealth of traditional stories – folktales – all of which in their various ways reflect aspects of Peak District life, character, scenery and history, the ones born from the rugged sandstone moors of the Dark Peak contrasting with those from the gentler limestone hills and valleys of the White Peak. For the cultural health of our community it’s vital that we keep telling them, because telling is the only way we can keep them alive and continue to pass them on to future generations. Telling also offers us an opportunity to come together as a community and to re-write and retell stories to explore and discuss what it means to be a Glossopian.

About the Authors:

Dr Mark P Henderson retired from practice and started to collect and tell traditional Peak District folktales. His collection Folktales of the Peak District was published in 2011. He’s had four novels, several short stories and two plays published. His novel about Glossopdale’s Elizabethan folk hero, Harry Botham, is now in press with Stairwell Books. 

Dr Kathryn Starnes lives in Glossop and is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Manchester Metropolitan University. She studies how folklore can facilitate new political possibilities and conversations that feature new voices. She has published a book, Fairy Tales and International Relations, and a number of academic articles on the topic. 

Mark and Kathryn host regular storytelling events in Glossop: see the Glossop Creates events page for details of their next event.