Folk-Lore/Volume 9/The Discrimination of Racial Elements in the Folklore of the British Isles
|←Twentieth Report of the Council||Folk-Lore, Volume 9
The Discrimination of Racial Elements in the Folklore of the British Isles (Presidential Address)
by Alfred Nutt
|The Dolmens of Ireland→|
THE DISCRIMINATION OF RACIAL ELEMENTS IN THE FOLKLORE OF THE BRITISH ISLES.
In my address last year I had occasion to lay considerable stress upon the presence in English literature of features derived, as I contended, from the mythico-heroic romance of the Celtic portion of our mixed population. I shall essay this evening to determine the limits within which conjecture as to the possible share in our common folklore of each section of that population is likely to prove fruitful, and to briefly indicate the lines along which, in my estimation, research should move if it is to attain any definite result. The discussion will necessarily be of a general character. I shall not be able to check the principles that may emerge from it by any examination of folklore items. But it is at times useful to take a broad survey of certain fields of our study, to plan out one’s campaigning ground, as it were, from a lofty eminence unembarrassed by the water-courses, swamps, and forests which are apt to encumber the progress of the toiler on the plains.
I necessarily leave out of account the numerous items of British folklore of recent and well-ascertained historical origin, as well as those traits and features which, be their ultimate source what it may, have undoubtedly assumed their present form (or rather the form of which the present one is a degradation) in a specifically Celtic or Teutonic environment. But there remain vast masses of belief and fancy the proximate origin of which is uncertain, and in which definite racial influences of the most varied character have been detected on very slight grounds.
I must at the outset state that the sense which I attach to the term folklore in the present connection is that of elements of culture surviving among the less advanced sections of the community, but discarded by the more advanced. Whether the idea of survival necessarily belongs to the conception of folklore used in its widest significance is a question that need not be discussed here; in connection with a community like the British, the more advanced members of which have entirely or almost entirely outgrown the philosophical and artistic ideas embodied in folklore, survival must be regarded as the dominant and characteristic note of the latter. Folklore, then, I treat this evening as a survival of elements of culture. These elements may, it is evident, be of different nature and intent, and may also survive from strata of culture different either sociologically or historically. As far as the difference of these elements in nature and intent is concerned, I have already indicated the two classes into which I divide them: philosophical and artistic. As far as their origin in varying sociological and historical strata of culture is concerned, racial considerations may or may not be involved. The same race may conceivably pass through such sociological changes, be affected by such varying historical conditions, as to bring about the difference between the conceptions and ideals of various sections of the race resulting in folklore. On the other hand, admixture of races is on a priori grounds an extremely likely factor in the production of folklore. It nearly always implies dominance of one, and the conceptions and ideals of the dominating supersede and oust those of the dominated race, but rarely to such an extent as to prevent their survival as folklore. Do the known facts of British history, using the term in its widest sense, justify the hypothesis of varying racial elements as a dominant factor in the production of existing British folklore, and is that hypothesis further justified by a searching and unbiassed examination of our folklore itself?
In endeavouring to answer this question, the two classes into which I divide folklore must in my judgment be considered separately. I have styled them philosophical and artistic. The terms will serve provided it be clearly understood that folk philosophy is definitely and rigidly practical. Man in the folklore stage philosophises with a view to action; it is in the last degree essential that his philosophy should be sound, as it is to result in action the effects of which involve life or death, dearth or plenty, weal or woe for him. Philosophical speculation in the air, without any definite relation to or bearing upon the practical conduct of life, is one of those benefits of progress which man in the folklore stage not only contrives to do without, but the excellence of which he fails to grasp.
This practical philosophy is necessarily largely conditioned by the sociological surroundings of the community. The agriculturist, the hunter, the warrior have not precisely the same object in view; and as their philosophy is designed to result in action which shall attain the object, it must necessarily differ to some extent. But the variation need not be large; the details of the philosophy may, nay must, vary slightly, but the guiding principles remain the same. Increase of the medium of sustenance, whether it be mainly vegetable or mainly animal, increase in the capacity for offence and defence alike of the community and of the individual against other men, against other animals, against the invisible forces which ever, as storm and drought and pestilence, war against mankind, increase in the capacity for augmenting individual or communal sway over the more primitive human passions, lust and hate and greed—such are the objects aimed at alike by the peasant, the hunter, or the warrior. His philosophy is to help him to achieve them.
It follows, I think, that as regards this, the practical side of the primitive philosophy we style folklore when it confronts our advanced thought, the discrimination of racial elements is a task of extraordinary delicacy. The objects of that philosophy are universally human—man must eat, must defend himself, ever seeks to gratify the overpowering impulses Ave style passion. It is a priori unlikely that different groups of mankind should elaborate markedly distinct philosophies, and this unlikelihood is intensified by examination of such groups or individuals as still live, or have lived in the the past, in the folklore stage. We find amazingly close kinship all the world over, and at all stages of recorded history, between practices intended to ensure plenty of crop or herd, to avert defeat or pestilence, to enable the gratification of lust or hate. I have already stated that communities living for a long lapse of time in the same stratum of culture will naturally develop special details of practice suited to their special needs. A community of fishermen of several centuries' standing brought suddenly into contact with one of nomad herds, or of fixed tillers of the soil, will certainly have a vast number of folklore items to exchange with its newly-found neighbours, but the philosophy under which these items have assumed form will be found to be largely identical. The only marked variation that is likely in my opinion to take place in the practical philosophy of communities living in the folklore stage is when one of them devotes itself exclusively or almost exclusively to war as a means of winning food and gratifying passion. Such large sections of the philosophy fall into desuetude when man pits himself mainly against his fellows, instead of mainly against other animals and nature generally, that a new and clearly discriminated type is likely to result; this likelihood can, I believe, be confirmed by historical investigation, especially of the communities of antiquity, and the result of such investigation sheds, I believe, considerable light upon the development of ancient beliefs and rites.
Let us apply these general considerations to the special conditions of the British Isles. We know that shortly prior to the Christian era Britain was partly inhabited by communities speaking well-differentiated varieties of that form of Aryan known as Celtic; we presume, on fairly convincing grounds, that these communities came here from the Continent during the course of the millennium preceding the Christian era; we conjecture, on grounds which are really of the vaguest, that they found in possession communities which did not speak any variety of Aryan. We know that in the course of the millennium following the Christian era there was a steady influx from the Continent of well-differentiated varieties of Teutonic Aryans; that the fifth and sixth centuries and ninth and tenth centuries A.D. respectively were marked by very considerable invasions, in the first instance of Continental, in the second of Scandinavian Teutons. We know that since that time the population of these islands has not been subjected to any considerable modification, for we cannot regard the Norman Conquest as at all comparable in its effect upon our population to either the Danish incursions of the ninth and tenth centuries, or to Anglo-Saxon incursions of the fifth and sixth centuries. Comparing the three main streams of Continental immigration, pre-Christian Celtic, post-Christian fifth-century Low-German, and ninth-tenth century Scandinavian, we have strong grounds for believing that the Celts brought their women with them to a greater extent than was the case with the Low-Germans, and certainly to a far greater extent than was the case with the Danes. So far then as race be taken in a purely physical sense, the postChristian German invasions are likely to have had a more mixed outcome than the pre-Christian Celtic; more men of German blood would have to seek alien wives, Celtic or pre-Celtic, than did the first Celtic immigrants. On the other hand, even in the invasion least marked by the presence of women, that of the Scandinavians, they were present in quite sufficient number to allow for the continuance of the invading community with comparatively little admixture. As a matter of historical fact, in the case of the Teutonic invasions, of which alone we know anything in detail, we do know that the admixture was greater than it need have been; there was more marrying between Saxons, Welsh, Gaels, and Danes than was actually necessary.
In the early days of our study the question of the origin of our folklore resolved itself into a trial of strength between Teutons and Celts; and as the facts of folklore were first co-ordinated and interpreted by German scholars, it was natural that items of British folklore found to be parallel to that of Germany should be referred to the Teutonic element in our community. It is now seen that this does not necessarily follow. In so far as the practical-philosophical side of the folklore is concerned, the two invading: communities stood on much the same plane of culture, and there is little ground for asserting that their beliefs and practices differed sensibly. They were Teutonic if found among Teutons, Celtic if found among Celts, but in themselves of almost the same nature. The moment the two communities came into contact there was nothing to prevent interchange and commingling. All that can be said is that the Teutonic invasion of the fifth-sixth centuries largely reinforced the bulk of folklore conceptions which in certain portions of England had doubtless given way before, or at least had been considerably modified by Pagan classic and Christian classic culture. The Scandinavian invasion of the ninth-tenth centuries stands on a somewhat different footing. I have already suggested that communities in which warfare and conquest had become the practical business of life would be likely to develop a philosophy differing more from that of the peasant or the hunter than did either of those two classes among themselves. And if ever a community seems at first sight wholly devoted to warfare as a means of livelihood, it is that of the Vikings who harried the remainder of Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. There is, moreover, abundant evidence that the warlike character of their social organisations did profoundly affect the mythic system they possessed in common with other Teutonic people, and that Eddaic mythology presents the beliefs not of Teutondom generally, but of those portions to which were due the Viking raids. It is therefore possible, not to say probable, that the Scandinavians did introduce new and sharply-defined elements into the folklore of these islands. The possibility remains purely conjectural until it is verified by an examination of the facts of folklore, but it justifies their investigation from this special point of view.
Confining ourselves for the moment to those Aryan-speaking communities known to have settled in these islands, and, when they did so, belonging substantially to similar stages of culture, it is, I would urge, almost impossible to assign large portions of the philosophical, the business element of our folklore exclusively to one or other of them, excepting always the possibility I have just indicated of specific Scandinavian features. As an illustration of the extraordinary similarity which obtains among rites and beliefs possessing a practical object and sanction, I may mention those connected with rude stone monuments. In Mr. Borlase's admirable work on the Dolmens of Ireland, a magnificent storehouse of material which I am glad to have the opportunity of publicly commending to members of this Society, there are figured and described monuments covering a vast range of country, lands like Ireland and the two Britalns, mainly Celtic for over 2,000 years; lands like Central Europe, largely Celtic 2,500 years ago, Teutonic later; lands like Southern Scandinavia, Teutonic as far back as we can trace; lands like East Central Europe, the battle-ground of Teuton and Slav; or again like the great southern peninsulas of Europe, but slightly touched by Celt or Teuton. In all these lands the rude stone monuments, similar in design and construction as they largely are, have given rise to similar beliefs and practices.
It is purposely that I have mentioned this particular set of beliefs and practices. A little while back I said that the earlier students who essayed to distinguish varying elements in British folklore referred them either to a Teutonic or a Celtic source. The point of view has changed. We now seek not for the Aryan-Teutonic or Aryan-Celtic, but for the Aryan and the non-Aryan, and the very instances I have cited would be urged in support of the contention that Aryan and non-Aryan can be separated. The rude stone monuments are, it is argued, non-Aryan, and so are the beliefs and rites connected with them. These latter have persisted, partly because the non-Aryan element in the general European population is far more considerable than was at one time supposed, partly because there was little to prevent the Aryans themselves appropriating the ideas of the peoples they subjugated. The wide spread alike of monuments and beliefs indicates a common non-Aryan substratum underlying the Aryan topdressing. Here is, it is said, a telling instance of the truth that folklore does contain specifically differentiated racial elements.
I shall return to this point later on. For the present I will confine myself to the historically known, i.e. to the Aryan-speaking peoples that have inhabited Britain.
Up to now I have restricted myself to the philosophical side of folklore, to that which has definite objects in view, the attainment of food, the gratification of desire. And my conclusion is agnostic. This or that feature may be due to a specific Scandinavian or Low-German modification of the common stock, But in the main it is impossible to say that our folklore on this side is specifically Celtic or Low-Teutonic or Scandinavian-Teutonic; nor does it really matter, because the three sets of beliefs and practices were substantially identical. Who can say that this or that drop of the water flowing under London Bridge comes from Thames-head or from any one of Thames' affluents?
But man does not live by bread alone. He has a fancy to be fed as well as a body, imagination to be gratified as well as passion, a foe to be combated as deadly as fellow-man or the wild-beast—boredom. Hence, everywhere, a form of artistry in words and ideas that only awaits the discovery of the written sign to become literature. And as communities outgrow in part the beliefs and practices that once directed and dominated their every act, so they outgrow in part the fancies that amused or thrilled them. There is, however, this difference: the philosophy of early man, logical and coherent as it is, once its starting point is granted, is to us not only foolish but frequently atrocious. With his artistry, on the other hand, we remain perennially in touch through our children, and it still constitutes the most profound and permanent source of literary achievement. The legends that humanity tells in its childhood not only survive, but are a living inspiration, whilst the beliefs dwindle down to mere museum-specimens.
It is for many reasons likely that the artistic products of the folk-fancy should betray racial influence more readily than the products, designed for severely practical purposes, of folk-speculation. Differ as unwritten, collective, traditional folk-literature does from the individual conscious literature of advanced communities, yet both are children of man's imagination, both share certain essential characteristics. A community will accept the outcome of a train of speculative reasoning if it thinks it has a practical interest in so doing, although the reasoning be alien to its average feeling, and never wholly taken to its heart; but literature, especially in the traditional stage, must make as wide and as sympathetic an appeal as possible if it is to subsist and transmit itself. If there is such a thing as racial expression, as a mode of conceiving and representing the thoughts and imaginings which arise from the contact of man's mind with the outer world, common to bodies of men linked together by ties of kinship and polity, it should surely make itself felt in their artistic creations, designed as these are to please, and dependent upon their success in this respect for their power to reach a wide circle and a later posterity.
Again, both early speculation and early artistry involve and require the establishment of a professional class—the magician-priest in the one case, the bard-historian in the other. But the invariable tendency of the priestly class is to stereotype teaching and practice, and thereby to remove them as much as possible from the new influences to which the ever-changing conditions of humanity subject them This tendency is condoned, nay, even commended, on account of the practical issues at stake. Sensible men—and man in the folklore stage is infinitely more common-sensible than his civilised descendant—will not allow even such a master-passion as the love of change to interfere with rites upon which depends, as they believe, the welfare of the community. But no such imperative sanction restrains the creations of artistry from obeying the universal law of change. Conservative as may be the singer story-teller class, it is bound to answer to new impulses, alien influences, far more readily than does the priestly class. The latter as a rule resist change to the last, and either perish or suffer degradation, the former adapt themselves and their conventions to altered conditions; the mythico-heroic romance of the primitive races lives on, transfigured and enriched, whereas its mythology and ritual disappear at the approach of a new and higher type of creed.
Now one of the readiest means for diagnosing the mental and moral consciousness of a race is supplied by its attitude towards an alien and higher culture, and it is in the phase of its intellectual and artistic activity, most promptly and permanently affected by the new influence, that we can best discern its essential nature. The history of modern (i.e. post-classic) Europe affords an admirable illustration in the reception of Christian and antique culture by the barbarian races of the north and north-west. The differences in their attitude towards the new faith and the (to them) new learning are marked, and throw a most vivid light upon their collective psychology.
Again, we can control any deductions drawn from the study of folk literature by an examination of written conscious literature. We can trace the latter back for many centuries, and we find, to confine myself to England, France, and Germany, an extraordinary permanence of certain characteristics, an immediately recognisable national mode of conception and expression. The instrument of comparison between tradition and conscious literature is almost the first that offers itself in any quest after racial characteristics; and comparison is fruitful because in literature, even in its highest and most complex manifestations, there is a continuity, lacking in modern Europe at all events, in such departments of creative thought as religion, philosophy, or law.
Such are the reasons which seem to promise the analyst of British folklore a larger measure of success if he attack the imaginative rather than the practical side of folklore in the endeavour to isolate racial elements. On the other hand, there are certain conditions, failing the existence of which the most careful analysis is likely to prove fruitless. Chief among them is the existence of a vigorous professional literary craft, with the inevitable accompaniment of rigid literary conventions. Thus alone can the collective fancy and wit of the community assume definite shape and form, thus alone are they assured of permanency. Traditional literature, collective in its appeal to the sympathies of the community, reflecting, as it must, collective emotion and judgment, is even more dependent than conscious, individual, deliberately artistic literature upon the strong organisation of its professors.
In applying these general considerations to the traditional literature of the three historically known communities represented in our population, Celtic, as the oldest, claims the first place. Two sections can be clearly distinguished: Goidelic, now represented, linguistically at all events, by Ireland, Northern Scotland, and Man, and Brythonic, represented by Wales and the extreme south-west of England; of these Goidelic or Gaelic is the older in these islands.
The conditions under which Gaelic traditional literature has come into being are precisely those I have previously indicated. The professional literary class was strong, and very well organised; it elaborated and handed down extremely rigid literary conventions; it effected a compromise with the representatives of Christian classic culture which enabled the preservation in large measure of the traditional romantic material, and it remained for some fifteen hundred years, at least, in close touch with every section of the community whose emotions and imaginings it faithfully interpreted. The resultant literature, if meagre and lacking in variety when compared with the great literatures of modern Europe, is extraordinarily homogeneous, and is represented by a still living folklore which has preserved its conventions, alike of conception and expression, with amazing tenacity.
If there be such a thing as a distinctive racial representation of life through the medium of words, we may seek it with confidence in the recorded twelve centuries of Gaelic literature, marked, as is no literature known to me, by unity of subject-matter and treatment.
We cannot speak as clearly with regard to Wales. Here, too, the literary class was strong, highly organised, thoroughly representative of the community; here, too, it elaborated rigid literary conventions. But it seems to have been less successful in making a compromise with the new faith, and, fatal defect from our point of view, its energies were largely directed to practical contemporary national aims, and were diverted from the preservation of the traditional romance. There exists too considerable doubt respecting the exact nature of what, for us folklorists, is the most valuable part of Welsh literature, the romantic legends known as the Mabinogion, with their accompanying prose and poetic scholia in the Triads and in some of the Bardic poems. These present the most remarkable analogies, alike in matter and style, to Irish mythic romance, and it is questionable how far they should be regarded as truly Welsh. The homogeneity which is so marked a feature of Gaelic is lacking in Welsh literature, and whilst the one community has preserved the traditional romance with marvellous fulness and accuracy, the other has allowed it to perish almost utterly.
If we turn from Celt to Teuton, there can be little doubt but that the Low-German invaders of the fifth-sixth centuries brought with them a great mass of mythic and heroic legend. One considerable poem, Beowulf, some smaller fragments, and a number of scattered references which involve nearly all the chief Teutonic legend-cycles, have come down to us. But taking Anglo-Saxon literature as a whole, it is vastly less archaic, less dominated by earlier mythic and heroic fancies, than is its contemporary Gaelic. In part this may be due to the weaker organisation of the literary class— the scop never seems to have had the same standing and guild-spirit as the Irish file or ollamh, or the Welsh bard; in part due to the fact that the most capable artists in words embraced Christianity more exclusively, if not more zealously, than their Irish fellows. The redactor to whom we owe Beowulf stands almost alone, so far as extant literature is concerned, in his attempt to perpetuate the pre-Christian whilst conciliating the Christian elements of Anglo-Saxon culture. As a source then of modern folklore, Anglo-Saxon literature, even had its development been unchecked, could not be compared for one moment with Gaelic literature. The stress of the one is on the Christian and modern, of the other on the pre-Christian and archaic, elements. But, as we all know, its development was checked in the eleventh century by the Norman Conquest; and when English literature emerges two and a half centuries later, its connections, such as they are, with mythical romance are with Celtdom rather than with Teutondom.
It would, however, be unfair to measure Anglo-Saxon influence upon English traditional romance solely by its extant literature. The local tradition, noted in Berkshire within the last 200 years, concerning Wayland's smithy most certainly goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, is equally certainly independent of anything in extant Anglo-Saxon literature, and testifies to a considerable mass of legend centering round the primeval smith whose fame was great in all Teutonic lands. It would, in my estimation, be absurd to suppose that Wieland was the only semi-mythical German hero about whom the Anglo-Saxon folk told tales or sang ballads. Despite the meagre space given by Anglo-Saxon literature to the sagas brought from Germany, this one instance of Wayland's smithy amply suffices to show that they flourished, struck root in the new land, and exhibited that strongest mark of legendary vitality—tendency to re-localisation.
The Scandinavian element in our traditional romantic literature remains to be considered. Among the Vikings of the ninth and tenth centuries, both Norsemen and Danes, but especially among the Norsemen, the literary class was powerful, well organised, and had elaborated a rigid and complicated literary convention. Moreover, the subject matter was either entirely traditional or depended for its literary effect upon the intimate knowledge of the tradition among hearers as well as among singers. Skaldic poetry implies not only the Norse mythical and heroic Sagas which have come down to us from a later period, but much of a similar character which has perished, and it implies the closest familiarity of the community with their contents. Again, the Scandinavian attitude towards the new faith seems to have differed alike from that of Gael and Anglo-Saxon. The Skald did not, like the former, accept the new, but continue to tell the old with a minimum of change; nor, like the latter, practically abandon the old for the new. He clung with increased fervour to his own faith, but he re-shaped and enriched it in competition and conflict with the alien creed. In the world of European literature as of European polity, the Viking of the ninth-tenth centuries acts as a potent ferment. Cycles of tradition crystallise around the famous leaders, as duchies and kingdoms take shape under their mighty hands; older, outworn cycles have new blood infused into them, suffer transformation, and acquire a fresh lease of life, as did so many political organisations when the Norman with his combination of strong practical sense and daring imagination mastered them for his use.
As far as Britain is concerned, we can substantiate the hypothesis of Scandinavian influence on romance by the testimony of figured monuments. The men who carved on stone the legends of Sigurd and Völundr most certainly retold them in verse and prose. It may also, I think, be taken for certain that the Conquest of the eleventh century affected Danish Britain less than it did Anglo-Saxon Britain; there was less wrench of social life, more chance for tradition to flow in unbroken line.
On the other hand, there is in the Teutonic-Scandinavian contribution to our folklore a disturbing factor lacking in the Teutonic Anglo-Saxon. The latter, whether scanty or rich, whether brilliant or monotonous, is Teutonic alike in form and content; it is an open question whether the former did not borrow much of its form and still more of its tone and spirit from the Celts. By the time the Danish element becomes a really potent factor in the normal life of Britain, it is certain that contact, mingling of blood, mutual influence in romance and saga had taken place between Celts and Scandinavians.
It may, 1 think, be assumed that such traces of the specifically Eddaic versions of Teutonic mythology and heroic saga as have been detected in Britain are due to the Scandinavian settlements of the ninth and tenth centuries, though even here the Wayland smithy instance forbids hard and fast dogmatism. Finally, just as delicate questions arise with regard to possible influences of Celtic romance upon Scandinavian story-telling, so the reflex action of Scandinavia upon Celtdom has to be taken into account.
If we pass from general consideration of the three main streams of Aryan folk-literature which have fertilised these islands to the actual distribution of our folklore, we are confronted by curious anomalies, to explain which upon any theory of specific racial influence is extremely difficult. Taking the Gaelic-speaking area first, we find throughout its present extent (with one remarkable exception to be noted presently), from Kerry to Sutherland, and from Perth to Donegal, the closest community of subject-matter and treatment. But this community cannot be laid to the account of common race. Pict and Brython, both of whom are known historically to have held large portions of this area, of however near kin they may be to the Gael, whose tongue they now speak, cannot be identified with him without so perilously widening the conception of race as to make it meaningless. Again, the Scandinavian element in certain portions of this area which are now purely Gaelic in speech is considerable. Yet, as I have said, the folk-literature of this entire area is remarkably homogeneous, and, so far at least as present research goes, is not affected by variations of race within its limits. Here the influence exerted by a common language and a common literature (for until 300 years ago there was practical identity between the mythical and heroic literature of the two main divisions of Gaeldom—Ireland and Scotland) would seem to have overridden any influences of race. The exception to which I alluded just now confirms, if rightly considered, this view. Of all the Gaelic-speaking districts the Isle of Man has probably the largest admixture of Scandinavian blood. The commingling of the two most imaginative and romantic strains of our mixed population would, one must think, have produced a specially rich folk-literature, yet as a matter of fact if such ever existed it would seem to have utterly died out. Man has retained customs and superstitions in fair abundance and vitality; stories of the saga type, anecdotes that is about supernatural and half-supernatural beings, are fairly numerous, but romantic tales and ballads have disappeared. The only cause I can detect is severance from the main streams of Gaelic traditional literature.
In the Brythonic-speaking area—Wales and South-west England—still more puzzling problems present themselves. Devon and Cornwall have certainly yielded more than their fair share of English folktales and legends, a fact which may fairly be ascribed to the existence within comparatively recent times of a Celtic-speaking population. The bulk of the people in these counties, it may be said, although English-speaking, is really Celtic, and their race colours their folklore. But in Wales, where the people has retained its Celtic speech, where it is certainly more homogeneous than in South-west Britain, where it has preserved its national literary class, in Wales, which possessed in the Middle Ages a romantic literature second only to that of Gaelic Ireland, romance has almost wholly vanished. Is there some underlying racial influence at work; is the Brython less tenacious than the Gael of his traditional romance? He has shown himself possessed of the rarest tenacity in other respects. Why should it have failed him here? The blighting influence of extreme Protestantism has been urged in explanation, but that ha? been at work equally in the Highlands of Scotland, which are still homes of living traditions. I can only conjecture that diversion of the national literary class, in consequence of the English wars and English conquest, from its proper task of fostering the traditional romance is the main cause of this strange phenomenon.
If the folk-literature of the Celtic-speaking area seems to afford scant warrant for the theory of racial as distinguished from linguistic and literary influence, that of the English-speaking area is more favourable to it. Where within that area the presence of a strong Scandinavian or Celtic element is apparent, there also story, legend and ballad are alike more numerous and more romantic in tone. That the most genuinely Low-German portions of the English-speaking area. East Anglia for instance, have not entirely lost the gift of racy popular humour so characteristic of Continental German folklore, is sufficiently proved by the admirable tale of Tom Tit Tot, collected in Suffolk by Mrs. Thomas, but first made known to the world at large by our last President. But as a whole the more unmixedly Low-German our English people is, the more it would seem to have forgotten the old traditional romance, the less capacity it would seem to have shown for transforming and endowing it with fresh life. As a matter of fact, the traditional romantic element which enters so largely into modern English literature is Celtic and not Germanic in origin.
One of the most fascinating problems in English popular literature is presented by the admirable body of ballad poetry recorded during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, partly in the southern but mainly in the northern portion of the English-speaking area of Britain. The language is English, the population among which the ballads were chiefly developed even if it did not originate them, partly Low-German, partly Scandinavian, superimposed upon a Celtic basis, Gaelic in parts, but mainly Brythonic, with a substratum of Pictish and other unknown elements. The country in which the ballads were chiefly found offered, in its material and social conditions, a soil admirably suited for their germination and growth. A wild, trackless March-land, a fierce, passionate, daring breed of men, with tenacious national and family feuds, with undiminished energy of primitive passion—the very conditions, in fact, we could postulate from the ballads themselves, had they come down to us without note of their locality and surroundings. In how far are the conflicting racial, in how far the conflicting political and social elements responsible for the ballads? The problem is not lessened in complexity by the fact that much of our English ballad literature is made up of incidents to which close parallels can be found in the romantic ballads of the Scandinavians (Danes and Faroese islanders), of the Slaves (Wends), and of neo-Latin peoples (French, Italians, North Spaniards), and that in all these various bodies of folk-poetry there occur not only similar themes, but marked similarity in their literary treatment. The ballads extant in English are, as a rule, greatly superior to their Continental similars, and there exist a considerable number certainly peculiar to and having their undoubted origin in the English-speaking area, which exhibit the same merits of conception and style.
In the northern portion of the English-speaking area of Britain, roughly speaking between Humber and Clyde, the presence of a considerable Celtic and Scandinavian element is, I would urge, a dominant factor in the production of our corpus of ballad poetry. Either element would supply a number of folk-singers rigidly trained and schooled, familiar with traditional romance, full of conventional formulas belonging to an archaic stage of literature. Stories of love and hate, of faerie and wizardry, would appeal to them, and their surroundings would foster the tone and spirit requisite to give the ballad full effect. But if, as I believe, mingling of racial elements is an important factor in the evolution of our ballads, unity of language was necessary to their inception and production. The Welsh Marches, like the Border, were a wild mountain tract, full of feuds and forays, offering the same raw material, the same favourable conditions, for working it up into ballad form as the Northern Border. One of the conflicting races possessed a rich traditional romance, a highly organised literary class. Nothing comparable to the Northern ballad poetry was the result. Why? I can only conjecture that the explanation lies in the absence of a language common to friend and foe, to victim and oppressor, to Romeo and Juliet. The difference of language served as a bar to the communication of artistic conventions and formulas, the sagas remained local and provincial, and, on the English side of the Marches at least, died out because there were no folk-singers qualified to present them in a form truly popular and yet artistic because exactly suited to their nature.
I have now briefly indicated the problems that confront the discriminator of racial elements in our folklore, in so far as these elements are known to us historically, and belong, linguistically at all events, to the Aryan-speaking group. I may be held to have over-emphasised the complexities, to have minimised the possibilities of successful solution. I do not think so. In any case it will be agreed that, great as are the difficulties of discrimination when dealing with Aryan-speaking communities, they increase tenfold when we essay to determine the share of our pre- Aryan forefathers. In the former case we are guided and controlled by recorded history, by recorded literature; in the latter we are working almost entirely in the dark, with, at the best, the dubious, scanty, and conflicting evidence provided by the archaeologists. The very method by which such an inquiry must be prosecuted seems to me questionable in the extreme; a standard of Aryan belief, practice, and fancy is set up, and what conflicts with or departs widely from that standard is assumed to be pre-Aryan. I dispute the existence of such a standard common to the Aryan-speaking world at any known period of its history, and even could it be established I should still dispute the necessity of referring an item of belief or fancy that conflicted with it to the influence of a different race. To talk, for instance, of the pre-Aryan matriarchalism of the Picts, of the pre-Aryan druidism of the Gael, is to confound hypothesis of a highly questionable nature with fact. It is very probable that the Celts found non-Aryan-speaking peoples in these islands, though after all the fact is not absolutely certain. It is highly probable that these peoples possessed both a folk-philosophy and a folk-literature, fragments of which have possibly, very probably, survived. But how are we to distinguish them? Is it really likely that the philosophy differed so markedly from that of the Celts that we can detect traces of it after 2,500 years? whilst of the literature, if aught has survived, it must by the necessities of the case have passed through the minds of Celtic bards and story-tellers. The Celtic record, sociological and literary, teems with examples of the enigmatic, the savagely archaic, the apparently misinterpreted. It greatly simplifies matters if in each case we can invoke the pre-Aryan hypothesis, but does our present knowledge of Celtic and Aryan antiquity justify our doing so? I do not think so.
I here touch upon what I ought perhaps to have started with, the significance of the term "race." Outside the record of history, of literature (oral or written), of art, of systematised thought, it is for me, in the present connection, void of meaning. When I speak of the Celtic or Teutonic race I have in view a community which for a definite number of centuries has manifested itself in clearly defined products of the mind, has set upon the universal human material of speculation and fancy its special stamp and impress. Such a manifestation is by no means necessarily conditioned by blood-kinship, by descent from a common ancestor; in modern Europe it results from community of speech and culture-traditions, it may be found, as in France and England, in countries inhabited by peoples of demonstrably different origin. In the discussion of racial elements in folklore and literature, we must first possess material which we can clearly refer to the various elements, and upon the basis of which we can sharply define them. In the case of the Aryan elements of our population, this indispensable requisite is present in however imperfect and confused a form; in the case of the assumed non-Aryan element it is altogether lacking.
Research should then, in my opinion, be directed in the first place to the analysis of folklore, which, if Aryan in no other respect, is at all events Aryan in virtue of the medium in which it has been handed down to us. Difficult as the task, insoluble as are many of the problems presented, yet much of interest and value for the true history of our people can be discovered by care and ingenuity. An excellent instrument of research is comparison between the folklore common to two sections of the same group separated sociologically from each other for an ascertained lapse of time. This is the case with the Gael of Ireland and Scotland, which have been separated for nearly three centuries. The ensuing variation in speech has been recorded and studied. The nature of folklore forbids as accurate a determination of the changes which it has suffered, but they can be noted with sufficient fulness to throw valuable light upon the development of folklore generally. In the same way, comparison between the recorded folklore of South-west Britain and of Wales may throw much needed light upon the latter. Close examination from a folklore point of view of such masses of the population as are known to have changed their speech within historic times is especially needed, as the process of shifting folklore from one language to another often affords valuable hints as to its true nature. Areas of ascertained and definitely dated admixture of population deserve especial attention. In this respect the country lying between Humber and Clyde, or the West-Midland district will probably repay the inquirer's labour best.
Such, all too briefly sketched, are the principles which should govern the inquiry, the lines along which it should move. This Society has already initiated such an inquiry by its scheme of collecting, in County Folk-Lore, the scattered references to the subject in printed sources, grouped according to areas which are so largely determined by racial and sociological factors as are our counties. As a rule these references are taken from sources, county histories, the elder antiquaries and the like, compiled before those vast industrial and economic changes which within the last hundred years have utterly transformed so many districts, have rooted up and carried away, as might a devastating torrent, vast masses of belief and custom and fancy which had come down substantially unaltered from a very early period. If the series were complete, instead of comprising, as it does, only three counties, it would be easy to verify many of the suggestions I have thrown out this evening. I am not without hopes that I may be able to work out during the ensuing year some special section of the general problem which I have stated this evening. In any case, I trust that students who are engaged in studying the question of racial elements in British folklore may find my survey not unhelpful.
- The Origin and Nature of Fairy Mythology in English Literature.
- See the review of Mr. Borlase's work ia the present number, infra, p. 53.
- See on this point my Presidential Address, 1897.