Happy May Day everyone!
The glorious combined festival to celebrate the goddess Floriana, patron of flora, and Beltane, in which one casts protections on your cattle, crops and people. Usually by lighting great piles of bones on fire; bone-fires or – as their more modern equivalents became known – bonfires. Traditionally a time when everyone gets together to make deals, alliances and betrothals. There’s often a young lady with flowers in her hair. Also chimney sweeps. That’s a thing that happens.
British folklore is the weirdest patchwork quilt ever made, I swear…
We were talking at work today that May Day in Oxford is like the pinnacle of Oxford-ness. It’s got Latin, it’s got pagan celebrations so obscure that most people have just stopped asking for context, it’s got a man dressed as a giant tree who dances, it’s got more Morris dancing and music, it’s got drunken antics, it’s got a seething hatred for traffic trying to enter the town centre…
Oxford on May Day is such a trip, you guys!
So normally when there’s a holiday Ivan and I get together and come up with some occasion-relevant folktale to retell for you all.
And this weekend past we went to visit Powis Castle together and I thought that there might be something from there. Sadly although Powis and the families who built and rebuilt it and lived and worked there have a really interesting history, there was anything that felt quite right for this section of the Here Be Wyverns.
But what there was in the gardens of Powis (which are beautiful, and well-worth visiting) were a lot of Snake heads. And I figured, Great! There must be a good story to go with these, right?
Well… No. Not really. I tried, I really did, but there’s nothing I could find about snake heads, nothing like the narcissus’s tale of the beautiful hunter and his total self-interest to the detriment of everything else in his life, right up to his own body.
And I was about to give up on the whole idea, but then… then May Day happened to me.
Because while I was researching Fritillaria meleagris, or the snake head, I found that there was an interesting story to go with it, and one which I think has some applicability to folklore in general.
So the fritillary is first recorded as growing in England in the wild in 1736, although herbalist John Gerard mentions it as a garden flower in 1578. As a result, although there’s still a tiny bit of debate on how native the snake head is to England, most people agree that it’s probably what is fantastically referred to as “a garden escapee.” I mean, by 1736 more than 86% of all our native flowers had been discovered and documented, so the likelihood that a fairly common flower which especially liked to grow around the tranquil rivers in Oxfordshire had been missed by some keen Oxford naturalists with scrapbooks at the ready is minuscule.
Incidentally, someone note down next to my efforts to suggest an animated TV show about British folklore, I want another one about plants escaping from enclosures and discovering the world, OK? Who’s with me?
Anyway, regardless of when it arrived and when it escaped in the wide world of the English countryside, the snake head thrived. It was beautiful at a time when the weather was warming enough for people to enjoy being outside, and especially with it’s flowering around the May Day celebrations (See, this does all connect up!) it got swept up into the feeling of joy that winter was finally over and that the summer was coming.
In one of his most lyrical accounts, the writer and botanist Richard Mabey (in his epic Flora Britannica) recounts the relationship between locals and this most loved of wild flowers. The species garnered a whole range of local names – frawcups, leper’s bells, oaksey lily, minety bell to mention a few. Andy Byfield in the Guardian’s Gardening Blog [Full Article]
It was so popular and plentiful, in fact, that bunches of the purple or white bells were sold in vast quantities in London and Birmingham, as well as in the markets of Oxford and its surrounding villages.
And then it started to vanish.
The wet meadows that suited it so well were drained for farming and building, and the snake heads began to recede into the most out-of-the-way places. It didn’t disappear completely and protected spaces like Iffley Meadows and Magdalen College’s meadows still have plenty that bloom every year. And as it became more scarce, people began to appriciate it more. There’s even a festival dedicated to “Fritillary Sunday” in the village of Ducklington, which I promise you is a real place, no really!
The thing is, though.
The story of the snake head fritillary, reminds me a little of folklore itself. It would be so easy to dismiss the fritillary from our notice as a non-native plant. To decide that only the most ancient and native plants may be celebrated in our lands. But that would be to miss the point entirely.
Some things don’t hurt us with their introduction into our lives. They just provide us with a joy we didn’t have before, and then they fit right into our world like they were always there.
There are people who will gleefully introduce a version of an ancient, ancient story with the words “In the original version” as if there can be such a thing in a cultural tradition that existed without the input of writing for centuries and travelled and evolved massively in that time before it was caught and caged within the written works of the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson.
Collecting and recording the folktales that were once told everywhere was a great thing, but it kind of lost a part of the fun inherent within them. The written word is like a formal border – words stay where they are meant to be and they have only the one desired effect.
Through such works the stories began to spread, and then the stories escaped the books once more, to be passed down and shared around camp fires, on sleepovers and school trips and in the games of children and the new stories of adults. They did what they were always meant to and changed and crept into people’s lives. We loved those old stories, didn’t we? They were a part of our lives and of ourselves, like they’d always been there.
But then they fell out of fashion, as many things do, and we told them less often. I learned a lot of the stories that shaped me as a child from my family, but many of my friends were not so lucky. Perhaps they were more interested in other less old-fashioned things, all worthy enough in their own way, just as the land which once nurtured the fritillary could be just as well used to feed people, or to house them.
And just as I’m happy that people are starting to celebrate the fritillary again, I’m just as pleased that we are once again pulling out all those old folktales, those stories we had passed down to us by kind elders, that we’re dusting them off and changing them and playing off them again to make them into something new.
I know that there’s a lot of versions of the same story in the world, just as there are lots of plants and flowers in England. And with the rise of more and more books taking folklore and retelling it again and again, in different settings, and time frames, and with different characters and roles…
It feels like we’re remembering what was great about those old stories, and that we’re also discovering the potential of their newer relations too. Like the experimental gardeners, we’re mixing together the old and the new and crossing them up and around to see what coolness comes out of it.
And on the evening of this May Day in Oxford, with it’s dancing tree, Morris dancers and the exact same drunken shenanigans that we’d have seen back in 1750-something… I wanted to say thank you to you all, you writers who have been gardening for years, and the ones who only just started. You have seen the beauty in both the old and the new. And you have helped me love writing and stories again when I too was in danger of forgetting what was important about them.
Happy May Day everyone. See you next time.
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