Folklore and Humanity – a review of Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland

Have you ever noticed that when you’re walking the lanes of a Renaissance or medieval faire, there is a distinct love of all things connected to the United Kingdom? A generalization, to be sure, but Renfest enthusiasts are often devoted Anglophiles who love tea, kilts, Celtic knotwork, and may even be able to quote sumptuary laws. We here at LadyFaire profess a passion for Jolly Olde England, our auld Scotland, and the Emerald Isle. We also love books and gardening, and thought our readers might as well! Enjoy a review from contributor Reesa Graham.

I should start by mentioning that I LOVE fairy tales and folk tales.  I have always loved them, I’ve been reading and telling them my whole life.  I have shelves full of them, from all over the world (though I will admit to a fondness for the ones from the various UK isles, as that is where my family immigrated from).

I should also mention that although I am the daughter of a farmer’s son whose green thumb might make Flora look twice, I was born with, well without such a gift – at best, my thumb is brown – as my little window rosemary plant that I am struggling to keep alive might whisper to you on any afternoon you asked it.  I do love plants though, and trees, and flowers.

So when I saw Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa Schneidau (published by The History Press in 2018) I knew I had to read it.  The book is a collection of folk tales (and plenty of fairy tales) rooted in the plant life and lore of the UK Isles. 

One of my favorite parts of the treasury of tales is the way she organized them.  The tales fall according to the wheel of time – starting us in the deep midwinter “when the sun is lowest” (Schneidau 13), into Imbolc, then Spring, Summer, Harvest, and the Turning of the Wheel. This organization was a brilliant device to gather stories together in a theme (time) that wasn’t a theme (content).  

But what of the stories themselves? Let us begin where all good folk tales begin –  “Once upon a time, and it wasn’t your time, and it wasn’t my time but it was a very good time…” (Schneidau 171).

Schneidau has curated a collection of folk tales that all have plants (and trees, and flowers) in the starring roles of the stories.  Many have a common folk lore tropes, themes, or stories, like a woman whose life depends upon being able to complete impossible tasks; only in this version – the captor is the Cailleach (Goddess of cold and winds), the girl’s helper the Winter King, and the girl herself the Queen of Spring, out of whose footfalls snowdrops bloom.

Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

“Mossycoat” gives us a version of the tale of a girl avoiding a marriage she doesn’t want by dressing in rags and working in a neighboring kingdom kitchen, including a marriage to the prince of the same neighboring kingdom.  In Schneidau’s version, the coat is made of moss and magic. As in all great folklore, knowing the stories doesn’t lessen the magic of hearing (or reading) a great storyteller tell their version.

The stories that inspired me most were those in which kindness was rewarded, for example, “No Man’s Land,” a story of a community that joins together to help a farmer who has fallen on hard times; or “Two Moons in May,” in which the selflessness of the poor farmers is rewarded, while the greediness of the others is punished.  I sense those are the stories we need in the world right now – stories of kindness, caring, and community – stories that remind us that the world is bigger than our corner in it, that kindness extends beyond our small circle, and that helping others, even if we cannot see them, is what it means to be part of humanity.  In a different mien, stories such as “Blackthorn” remind us of what our ancestors knew but we have forgotten: the destruction of the natural world destroys us too.  

This book of folk tales does what folk tales do best – reminds us how to be human.  The old stories remind us to be careful what we wish for, because wishing on a dandelion might bring you more than you bargained for.  They remind us to care for our communities, both human and natural. 

There is much wisdom in the stories of old, stories that remind us what others who came before us thought and felt.  There is joy, sorrow, tears, and laughter (if you like a good joke, I highly recommend “The Travelling Tree”).  Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland is a wonderful example of what only a good collection of stories can do – it reminds us that we are not alone, that every generation before us has learned and forgotten many lessons, and most importantly humanity’s enduring need for story to tell in the darkness will continue to be a light for those yet to come. 

With a bed in Harlem and a heart in Texas, theatre activist Reesa Graham has spent most of her life  working both onstage and backstage. Her current focus is on directing new works and Shakespeare, and in her spare time, she dances competitive Irish Dance and social Scottish Dance, snuggles her old lady cat, and reads a bunch. Her alternate persona is a fairy named Rowan, whom she has been playing for over 20 years.

Though we know it’s quick and easy to order from Amazon, we encourage you to consider ordering Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland from Bookshop.org, a website that supports independent booksellers.

If you are also a lover of fairy tales, we invite you to peruse posts by our staff fairy tale scholar, Victoria Audley.

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The mission of LadyFaire is to encourage people, particularly women and femmes, to recognize the beauty and magic in their world while developing their inner strength and connections with others so that they can live abundant, creative, empowered lives. Words build bridges to relationships, art strengthens the soul, and authentic friendships change the world.

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