The Last Droll Teller

Once upon a time, in my great aunts’ attic I found an old book…

Robert Hunt 1881

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.

Dancing 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.


Radiant Tree © Viktoria Heard
Imbolc – the coming of the light. Photo: Radiant Tree © Viktoria H
February 1st marks Imbolc. A time to celebrate the coming of the light.

Falling between the winter solstice, when the days are at their shortest, and the spring equinox, when day and night are of equal length, the festival of Imbolc marks the halfway point to spring and the return of the light in the northern hemisphere.

Probably deriving from the Old Irish I molg, “in the belly,” Imbolc is generally thought to be connected with the start of the lambing season. Cows’ milk would not have been available until late spring, so sheep milk provided people with important nutrients at a time of year when food supplies were often scarce. Therefore the beginning of the season of the lactation of ewes was a cause for much celebration.

The festival has long been connected with the fire goddess Brigit, pagan goddess of poetry and smithcraft, possessed of the powers of divination and healing. She later became known as the Christian St Brigid in Ireland and St Bride in Scotland. St Brigid was the patroness of sheep and was associated with holy wells. In parts of Ireland and the British Isles February 1st is still celebrated as St Brigid’s day.

In Scottish folklore, Imbolc is the time of year when Cailleach, the old woman of winter, drinks from the Well of Youth and metamorphoses into Bride, who, with her white wand, heralds the growth and regeneration of spring. A “bridie doll” of corn is left by the hearthside with offerings of bread and milk to ask for protection and abundance, and candles are lit to celebrate the return of the light and lengthening of the days.

This is an excerpt from The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies.


October 31st marks the ancient festival of Samhain. A time for reflection.


Falling on October 31st, between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, the festival of Samhain takes its name from sam, meaning “summer,” and fuin, meaning “end.” It marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new cycle of the Celtic year.

Having the new year in the winter months followed the principle of dark coming before light in the measuring of time, as can be seen in certain sacred or religious events such as Passover beginning at sunset.

Today the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain is more widely known as Hallowe’en. This name is derived from the Christian All Saints’ Day on November 1st, hence October 31st being All Hallows’ Eve, which was shortened to Hallowe’en.

This is a time of completions and new beginnings. It marks the end of the season of reaping and the start of the season of resting.

In Scottish folklore, the Cailleach, old woman of winter, is reborn each Samhain, when she smites the earth with her staff to bring the snow and the winter. She rules the dark part of the year until Imbolc, when she drinks from the Well of Youth and metamorphoses into Bride, who heralds the regeneration and growth of spring. In other versions of the tradition, with the arrival of Beltane she throws her staff under a holly tree or gorse bush and turns into a stone.

In Ireland, Samhain was the main calendar festival of the year and was celebrated with the lighting of beacons to mark the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

It was traditionally a time when the boundary between the mortal world and the Otherworld was believed to be at its thinnest, when spirits could visit the human realm, and thus a time for remembering the ancestors and commemorating the departed. As the nights drew in and the storytelling season began, people exchanged stories of the dead. Yet it was also a time for divination, for looking ahead at what was to come.

In fairy lore, Samhain is a time of fairy rades―dark counterparts to the bright processions at the beginning of summer. These rades often have associations with the Underworld, or land of the dead. In the Scottish “Ballad of Tam Lin,” the Queen of Fairies holds a mortal man, Tam Lin, captive in fairyland, but he is rescued by his true love during the fairy rade at Hallowe’en.

This is an excerpt from The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies.

Patupaiarehe, Fairies of Maori Mythology

The Fairies are currently on vacation, visiting their cousins in New Zealand. So here’s a sneak peek at the fairies of Maori mythology…


(Also pakepakeha, turehu.)

Fairy-like creatures in Maori mythology.


Dwelling in the forests or on misty mountaintops, the Patupaiarehe were described as pale-skinned beings with reddish or golden hair. The Tuhoe tribe described them as small in stature, while they assumed giant-like proportions in Whanganui stories. In other accounts, they were a similar size to humans. One reason for the varying descriptions of height may be that patupaiarehe could generally be heard but not seen by ordinary Maoris. Usually only tohunga, or shamans, could see and communicate with them.

Like the Maori people, patupaiarehe lived in close-knit communities. In some accounts they built their homes or settlements, known as pa, out of mist. In others they built them from vines, or kareao. Though they engaged in some of the same activities as humanshunting, fishing, making lovethey were considered to be iwi atua, supernatural beings belonging to the spirit world, set apart from the world of mortals. As such they were regarded as tapu, taboo or sacred. Therefore, certain restrictions were associated with them. Unlike mortal Maori, they were never tattooed and they consumed only raw food. It was said that cooked food was offensive to them, and cooking fires and ash were used to ward them away. Another method of repelling patupaiarehe was to smear kōkōwai, a mixture of iron oxide and shark oil, on the walls of a home.

Patupaiarehe were most active at night or on misty days and were afraid of sunlight and fire. They were skilled musicians; when a male patupaiarehe played his flute to woo a mortal Maori woman, it was said she was powerless to resist. Albino and urukehu or red-haired offspring were believed to be the result of such unions.

Patupaiarehe were also skilled in the arts of magic and fishing and credited with imparting this sacred knowledge to the Maori people.

Fairies in Literature and Legend ~ Fairy Plays & Poems

Today, the image of a fairy that most readily springs to mind is of a delicate little winged creature like Tinkerbell from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. However, this was not how our ancestors envisaged fairies.

Through the ages fairies have been through many transformations, shapeshifting via the mouths of storytellers and the quills of playwrights and poets and onto the page, stage, and screen. Every culture has its own story to tell. Here we explore the rich history of fairy lore in English literature in Shakepeare’s era…

This is a special extract from Fairies in Literature in Legend in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies  to celebrate World Poetry Day.

Lily Fairy, Falero Luis Ricardo, 1888
Lily Fairy, Falero Luis Ricardo, 1888

In the Elizabethan age, with the spread of literacy, a new generation of poets and writers came from the country to the town, bringing their own traditions with them. These homegrown country beliefs mixed with ideas from the medieval romances to produce a new breed of small mischievous fairies in literature and on the stage.

Before Shakespeare, John Lyly was one of the first poets to introduce small fairies into drama. In Endimion (1591), fairies make an appearance to pinch the villain black and blue and reprimand him for prying into fairy affairs:

“Pinch him, pinch him, blacke and blue,

Sawcie mortalls must not view

What the Queene of Stars is doing,

Nor pry into our Fairy woing.”

The Sleep of Endymion, Girodet
The Sleep of Endymion, Girodet

But it was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c.1595) that fixed the image of little trooping fairies in the public consciousness. Unlike the larger-than-life fairy beings of legend and romance, Shakepeare’s fairies were “no larger than an agate stone,” as Queen Mab is described in Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet. But, like the fays of romance, Shakepeare’s fairies live in a community, ruled over by the princely Oberon and the fair Titania. And, like mortal monarchs, the fairy ruler has his jester in the form of Puck.

Like the fairies of country folklore, Shakepeare’s fairies enjoy dancing, have a penchant for cleanliness, and are wont to steal human children and leave fairy changelings in their place. They are mischievous and tricksy, and despite their diminutive size, still exercise a degree of power over nature; Oberon and Titania’s quarrels disrupt the seasons and the weather, causing storms that ruin crops and leave a shortage of food for humans.

The Quarrel of Oberon and titania, Joseph Noel Paton
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, Joseph Noel Paton

Once Shakespeare had placed fairies firmly in the limelight, a new fashion in poetry followed. Poets such as Drayton, Herrick, and Browne delighted in describing fairy courts in ever more minute detail. In Michael Drayton’s poem Nimphidia, The Court of Fayrie (1627), fairies are tiny enough to hide inside a cowslip bell. William Browne’s poems were slightly more rooted in folklore, describing underground fairy palaces that could be seen by the traditional method of looking through a “self-bored stone.”

Nimphidia, by  Michael Drayton
Nimphidia, by Michael Drayton

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1717) is often cited as one of the first references to fairies having wings. The poem is a satirical take on Victorian society, based on a petty squabble that ensued when a gentleman cut a lock of hair from the woman of his fancy. The sylphs or fairies Pope describes are similar to the picture-book fairies that we are familiar with today.

Some to the Sun their Insect-Wings unfold,

Waft on the Breeze, or sink in Clouds of Gold,

Transparent Forms, too fine for mortal sight,

Their fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light.

Loose to the Wind their airy Garments flew,

Thin glitt’ring Textures of the filmy Dew;

Dipt in the richest tincture of the Skies,

Where light disports in ever-mingling Dies,

While ev’ry Beam new transient Colours flings,

Colours that change when’er they wave their Wings.

The Rape of the Lock, Canto II

While the fashion in the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages was for poets to prettify fairies, making them ever-smaller and often the butt of satirical jokes, William Blake took them seriously, famously saying that he had witnessed a fairy funeral procession in his garden, of creatures resembling the size and color of green and grey grasshoppers, carrying a little body laid out on a rose leaf.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. William Blake c.1786
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. William Blake c.1786

This is an excerpt from Fairies in Literature and Legend, you can read the entire article in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies.

Spotted: Fairies with Katharine Briggs, Joseph Campbell & Marina Warner

The Fairies have been spotted sharing shelf space with Katharine Briggs, Joseph Campbell and Marina Warner. Not to mention Beowulf and a collection of Nelson Mandela’s favourite African folktales.


Briggs, Campbell, Fairies

Briggs, Campbell and Warner are giants in the field of folklore. Authors, folklorists, mythologists, and scholars – their work has inspired and guided countless explorers on their travels in the realms of folktale, fairytale and myth.

Katharine Briggs’ Dictionary of FairiesHobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures (1976) has served as a trusty reference to scores of fantasy authors, including Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.

On starting his novel  Stardust (1999), Neil Gaiman says: “I bought a large book of unlined pages, the first fountain pen I had owned since my schooldays and a copy of Katharine Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies. I filled the pen and began.” (Neil Gaiman on the importance of fairytales, in The Guardian.)

Researching magic for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke, too, went back to English folk traditions and reached for a copy of Katharine Briggs. (Interview with Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke in Salon).

Lucy Cooper, author of The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies (2014), is delighted to see the book in such esteemed company. It’s her hope that Fairies, too, will serve as a trusty companion to those venturing into the realm of faerie…


Excerpt from The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies:

Briggs, Katharine


English folklore scholar Katharine Mary Briggs is best known for her numerous and comprehensive collections of fairy lore and folk tales of the British Isles. She was born in Hampstead, London, the daughter of Edward Briggs and Mary Cooper. The family originated from Yorkshire, where they had invested, with success, in coal mining. Her father was a watercolorist who particularly enjoyed painting Scottish scenery and in 1911 the family moved to Perthshire.

Briggs’ interest in stories began at an early age, possibly catalyzed by her father’s fondness for storytelling. She also heard many traditional tales recounted while living in Scotland. In 1918 she moved to Oxford, where she studied English at Lady Margaret Hall. She obtained her PhD after the Second World War with a thesis on folklore (Folklore in Jacobean Literature). She wrote extensively on the topic of folklore and her works remain among the most esteemed sources on British folklore and fairy lore today. Her publications include The Personnel of Fairyland (1953), the Anatomy of Puck (1959), Folktales of England (1965), the four-volume Dictionary of British Folk Tales in the English Language (1970–71), and her comprehensive A Dictionary of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures (1976).

Briggs served as president of the British Folklore Society for three years; an award was named in her honor after her death in 1980.

Spotted: Fairies in the Joseph Campbell Foundation bookstore

We’re delighted to say that The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies is now available from the Joseph Campbell Foundation online bookstore.JCF Bookstore

Fans of folklore, fairy tales and myth will find plenty to fuel the mind and spark the imagination in the JCF collection.

From myths for children to journeys into dreams and the subconscious. Delve into world mythology, Jungian psychology, or mind-bending philosophy. Wander mythical paths, explore the folklore of far-flung cultures or lose yourself in the long-ago landscapes of long-forgotten lands.

JCF’s bookstore is a mind-boggling repository of mythological wonders. Whether you’re looking for a hefty scholarly tome to sink your teeth into, or a playful slice of escapism, chances are you’ll find a book here for you.

Head on over and see for yourself…the JCF Bookstore.

Follow your bliss!

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies, now available in the Joseph Campbell Foundation bookstore > Popular Voices.

Check back soon for more from the weird and wonderful world of The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies.

Fireside tales at Newlyn Nights…

On Friday we were at Newlyn Art Gallery for an evening of fireside storytelling as part of the gallery’s Newlyn Nights late night opening events.


We set up the Wishing Tree and invited visitors to the gallery to share their heart’s desires. There were wishes for peace and happiness, holidays, pets, a peaceful garden to sunbathe in, to be an Olympic swimmer. But most imaginative of all was the little boy who wished:

“I hope that I can make a brand new type of crystal in the future called Canoadocia”



We stoked up the fire and told Cornish tales of giants and sea witches. Two budding young storytellers, Amy and Martha, wowed everyone by doing some impromptu storytelling of their own. Amy regaled us with the tale of Wensey the dog and the wicked magician, and Martha treated us to the story of Eevee the Pokemon, complete with beautiful illustrations (watch this space for the full story) – if only we could all keep hold of that inventiveness, fearlessness, vivid imagination and flair for storytelling we had when we were 9 years old!

Newlyn Nights
Martha and Amy – stealing the show with their spectacular storytelling

It was a magical evening – thanks to everyone who came, and to Newlyn Art Gallery for having us.

Check back for more news on storytelling events and the weird and wonderful world of The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies.

#7 Arms and legs as thin as threads, and heads that rolled about on their shoulders…

A sneak peek at some of the denizens of fairyland you’ll meet in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies…

#7 Strangers, the

A Lincolnshire term for fairies.

Illustration ©Andy Paciorek
Illustration ©Andy Paciorek

Other Lincolnshire names for the fairies included greencoaties, tiddy ones, and yarthkins. People often used euphemistic terms to talk about the fairies, for they were said to become angered or offended if referred to directly.

The Strangers were said to be a curious-looking bunch. According to an account collected by Mrs Balfour in Legends of the Carrs (1891), the Strangers were no taller than a hand-span in height, with arms and legs as thin as threads, large hands and feet, and heads that rolled about on their shoulders. They had long noses and wide mouths with great red tongues poking out. They dressed in grass-green jackets and trousers and yellow bonnets that looked like toadstools. On summer nights they could be seen dancing in the moonlight on great slabs of rock, while on winter evenings they danced in fireplaces while the household slept.

Check back for more on the weird and wonderful world of fairyland from The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies, released 28 August, 2014.