Once upon a time, in my great aunts’ attic I found an old book…
It had belonged to my great-great-uncle. Between its covers, I discovered a world of wild old Cornish tales, where mischievous piskies, shape-shifting spriggans, and a host of giants, witches, saints, demons and fairies still roamed the land.
To celebrate World Book Day, this post is dedicated to Robert Hunt’s Romances of the West of England. My great-great-uncle’s copy from 1881 is never far from my side. It’s become a great inspiration and was an invaluable resource in researching The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies.
“Romances [stories, folktales, traditions, customs]… have floated down to us as wreck upon the ocean,” wrote Hunt. “We gather a fragment here and a fragment there, and at length, it may be, we learn something of the name and character of the vessel when it was freighted with life, and obtain a shadowy image of the people who have perished.”
In the 1800s, Robert Hunt and William Bottrell both published collections of Cornwall’s old “romances”.
Among them are tales from the droll tellers, the old wandering storytellers of Cornwall. Uncle Anthony James, from The Lizard in West Cornwall, was one of the last of the droll tellers before the tradition died out with the advent of newspapers. Hunt lamented that “the old-world stories were perishing like the shadows on the mist before the rising sun”.
Thanks to Hunt and Bottrell’s efforts in gathering and preserving these old tales and fragments, a rich hoard of stories has been salvaged for generations to come.
The Last Droll Teller is written for Robert Hunt, William Bottrell, and Uncle Anthony James, in thanks for the precious gift of the stories they have passed down to us today.
The Last Droll Teller
Regular as the seasons they came: the blind old man, the boy and the dog. He went by the name of Uncle Anthony James. And in every house they visited, from The Lizard to Land’s End, they were sure of a hearty welcome: food and ale to fill their bellies and a bed to lay their heads, in exchange for a tall tale or two, a tune on the fiddle to the beat of the crowdy drum – and most of all, a story.
They say he was a soldier once. Travelled to strange and exotic lands – Plymouth, and beyond. He was blinded in battle, lost the sight in his eyes. But that only made the eye of his imagination all the keener.
Folks piled into the tavern, pulled up chairs by the fireside. For Uncle Anthony had much to say of witches, ghosts, piskies and giants. Of spriggans and knockers and strange and miraculous acts of conjuration. Not to mention the gossip. From Bodmin in the North, to the Lizard in the East, St Ives in the West, to St Just in the South, there were always tales a-brewing of lovers, scandals, fights, feuds and misdemeanours, to feed hungry minds and tongues.
But the old tales were the best. That’s when ears pricked up and the hum of the tavern melted away. Where there had been only a crackling fire, dragons now leapt. Granite walls became cliffs. Shadows danced and came to life; hidden selves came out to play. Where moments ago had sat fishermen, farmhands, miners, fishwives, goodwives, and bal maidens, now gathered sea captains, brave warriors, giants and giantesses, wise women, conjurors, pellars and wizards.
His words were like magic: using only breath and teeth and tongue and that keen inner eye, Uncle Anthony James had the power to conjour people, places, lands and deeds out of thin air. And the ale and gin and treacle flowed; we put another log on the fire, wrapped ourselves in the blanket of story and staved off the darkness for another night.
Then the newspapers came, and folks listened less. They were too learned and grand for the tall tales of an old man. (Except sometimes on dark nights, when the wind howled at the windows and whispered at the door. Then they remembered Old Ant’s tales of tricksy piskies who led travellers astray at night. And though they didn’t believe, they might turn a sleeve inside out before venturing outside the safety of the lamplight – but, oh no, of course they didn’t believe.)
Yet still they came: the blind old man, the boy and the dog. Wending their way along cliffpaths and winding Cornish lanes, sharing drolls with those who still cared to listen. And the magic stirred when they saw the old man’s blind eyes twinkle in the firelight, ablaze with tales they half remembered, like fragments of a shipwreck washed up on the shore from far-off, foreign, yet half-familiar places; like places visited in dreams.
The droll teller’s tales salvaged trinkets and treasures from the wreckage, making the tarnished and time-ravaged gleaming and bright once more. And with each tale, more came ashore: timbers, a mast, a tattered sail, a ship’s wheel. Enough to build a raft.
Uncle Anthony spoke drolls to wind, the sail billowed, and he and his motley crew set sail upon the sea of story.
The peacock dazzle of mermaids’ tails flashed at the prow (for the craft was now a galleon). Witches on ragwort sticks circled over the craggy cliffs. And the ship pitched and rolled in the wake of giants’ footsteps as they splashed in the zawns and sent huge rocks hurtling overhead as they hurled for sport.
And when the crackling of a log brought them back to the fireside, they blinked their eyes, a little giddy, a little seasick, heads swimming with stories, as shadows danced, silently now, on the walls.
When, at last, Old Uncle Anthony James sailed over the horizon, it seemed the old tales might vanish with him, like shadows on the mist before the sunrise. Yet, by and by, those who had sailed aboard his ship of stories remembered, and shared the tales, making them new once more. And so the droll-teller’s gift passed on.
Should you choose to share the gift of a story, chances are you will meet Old Uncle Anthony James. And for a time you may sail with him, on to adventures older than the hills, fresher than tomorrow’s news, returning with your own trinkets and treasures to add the bright salvaged hoard.
Lucy Cooper read The Last Droll Teller at Telltales, Falmouth, 2016.