When the traveller looks at Rome for the first time he does not realize that there have been several cities on the same piece of ground, and that the churches and palaces and other great buildings he sees today rest on an earlier and invisible city buried in dust beneath the foundations of the Rome of today. In like manner, and because all visible things on the surface of the earth have grown out of older things which have ceased to be, the world of habits, the ideas, customs, fancies, and arts, in which we live is a survival of a younger world which long ago disappeared. When we speak of Friday as an unlucky day, or touch wood after saying that we have had good luck for a long time, or take the trouble to look at the new moon over the right shoulder, or avoid crossing the street while a funeral is passing, we are recalling old superstitions or beliefs, a vanished world in which our remote forefathers lived.
We do not realize how much of this vanished world still survives in our language, our talk, our books, our sculpture and pictures. The plays of Shakespeare are full of reference to the fancies and beliefs of the English people in his time or in the times not long before him. If we could understand all these references as we read, we should find ourselves in a world very different from today.
In those early days there were no magazines or newspapers, and for many people there were no books. The most learned men were ignorant of things which intelligent children know today. Only a very few men and women could read or write; and all kinds of beliefs about animals, birds, witches, fairies, giants, and the magical qualities of herbs and stones flourished like weeds in a neglected garden. There came into existence an immense mass of information (and misinformation) about all manner of things; much of it very poetic and interesting. Below the region of exact knowledge lay a region of popular fancies, ideas, proverbs, and superstitions in which the great mass of men and women thrived, and which was a kind of invisible playground for children.
Much of the popular belief about animals and the world was touched with imagination and was full of suggestions, illustrations, and pictorial figures which the poets were quick to use.
- When the king says to Cranmer in “Henry VIII:” “Come, come, my lord, you’d spare your spoons,” he was thinking of the old custom of giving children at christenings silver or gilt spoons with handles shaped to represent the figures of the Apostles. Rich people gave twelve of the “apostles’ spoons;” people of more moderate means gave three or four, or only one with the figure of the saint after whom the child was named.
- On Lord Mayor’s Day in London, which came in November and is still celebrated, though shorn of much of its ancient splendor, the Lord Mayor’s fool, as part of the festivities, jumped into a great bowl of custard, and this is what Ben Jonson had in mind when he wrote: “He may, perchance, in tail of a sheriff’s dinner, Skip with a rime o’ the table, from near nothing, And take his almain leap into a custard, Shall make my lady Maydress and her sisters, Laugh all their hoods over their shoulders.”
- It was once widely believed that a stone of magical, medicinal qualities was set in the toad’s head, and so Shakespeare wrote: “Sweet are the uses of adversity; Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in its head.”
- “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a most wonderful fairy story, but Shakespeare did not create it out of hand; he found the fairy part of it in the traditions of the country people. One of his most intelligent students says: “He founded his elfin world on the prettiest of the people’s traditions, and has clothed it in the ever-living flower of his own exuberant fancy.
The immense mass of cultural beliefs, superstitions, traditions, and fancies, is called folklore and is to be found in all parts of the world. These fancies or faiths or superstitions were often conveyed through stories. And so, side by side with folklore grew up the folk tales, of which there are so many that a man might spend his whole life writing them down. The folk tales were not written out; many of them grew out of single incidents or little inventions of fancy, and became longer and larger as they passed from one storyteller to another and were retold generation after generation.
Men love stories, and for very good reasons. From the earliest times, long before books were made, the people of many countries were eagerly listening to the men and women who could tell thrilling or humorous tales, as in these later days they read the novels of the writers who know how to tell a story so as to stir the imagination or hold the attention and make readers forget themselves and their worries and troubles.
All over the world, folk tales are still told, not only to children, but to crowds of people by those who have the art of making tales entertaining. There are still so many of these stories floating about the world from one person to another that if they were written down they would fill a great library. These stories have not only been handed down wholly by word or mouth for a thousand years, but are flourishing today and extending into fresh fields.
The stories, made by the people and told before evening fires or in public places, belong to the ages when books were few and knowledge limited, or to people whose fancy was not hampered by familiarity with or care for facts. They are the creations, as they were the amusement, of men and women who were thinking deeply and often wisely of what life meant to them, and were eager to know and hear more about themselves, their fellows, and the world. And in the earlier folk-stories one finds a childlike simplicity and readiness to believe in the marvellous.
*This edited excerpt is from Folk Tales Every Child Should Know by Hamilton Mabie, 1912.
Citation: Mabie, Hamilton Wright, ed. Folk Tales Every Child Should Know. NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., for The Parents’ Institute, Inc., 1912. This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.