(Dr. Katharine Mary Briggs)
born November 8, 1898, Hampstead, London, England
died October 15, 1980, St. Margaret’s Bay, England
British folklorist, scholar, and author
50. day of death on 15 October, 2020
“She had a way with a story that put me in mind of the powers of story-tellers in earlier ages and simpler conditions. She wooed you with a tale. I can hear in my inner ear that purring tone with a tiny lisp, that went on so softly that you daren’t stir.”
This memory of Katharine Briggs, by a friend from her student days at Oxford University, goes to the heart of her life’s work. Briggs is well known today for an ambitious project that she began in the 1960s, to collect and publish all the native British folk-tales in English she could find. As an established authority on folk-tales, and on the relations of beliefs in fairies and other supernatural beings with English literature, she was more than up to the task. From an early age, Katharine Briggs had a passion for telling stories, and a special affinity for the world of the imagination. Throughout her life – in creative childhood games, in amateur dramatics, in scholarly studies of folk and fairy lore, in many books and articles for academic as well as general readers and for children, and in her four-volume collection of tales – her passion shone through.
Katharine Briggs was born in Hampstead, London, in 1898. Her father’s family was from Yorkshire and had accumulated a great fortune in the coal mining industry. Briggs was independently wealthy all her life, but she never had any desire to lead a life of leisure. On the contrary, she always worked hard at whatever she was involved in, and distinguished herself in several fields – folklore, literary scholarship, dramatic work. Although highly educated, she avoided becoming caught up in academic theories and textual analyses, but chose rather to explore folklore and literature for what she loved best – the stories – and savor them, for herself and others.
Katharine’s father, Ernest Briggs, was an accomplished watercolor artist. He also knew a great many traditional folk and fairy tales and legends and loved telling them to his children – Katharine and her two younger sisters, Winifred and Elspeth. He strongly influenced all three and, in Katharine’s case, shaped her creative imagination and her enthusiasm for traditional tales, ballads, and poems. She later stated that she considered herself “lucky to have a father who was an artist,” for he would be at home painting in his studio and accessible to her much of the time, unlike other fathers who would typically be away all day. And she could browse in her father’s extensive library and read in the works of several well known folklorists, which “coloured my taste in Folk Narrative for the rest of my life.” Also significant for her later skill as a storyteller were the sisters’ governesses, who helped develop their charges’ ability to memorize by having them read or listen to stories and then repeat aloud what they had heard.
Growing up in Scotland
Ernest Briggs liked especially to paint scenes of water; he and his family often went during holidays to northern England and to Scotland, where he was attracted by dramatic landscapes of rivers and mountains. But his health was poor – he had a heart condition that prevented him from taking part in strenuous activity. After numerous visits, in 1911 he and his wife Mary decided to move permanently to Perthshire in central Scotland. They built a large house, which they called Dalbeathie House after an earlier building on the site. Sadly, however, Ernest lived there for only two years, for he died of his heart affliction in 1913. After his death, Katharine considered herself the man of the family, helping her mother and looking after her two younger sisters.
Education: Edinburgh, Oxford
Much as they loved Dalbeathie – the magnificent house and idyllic natural surroundings – the Briggs sisters were rather isolated there. They had to find ways to amuse themselves. Similar in some ways to the Brontë sisters a century earlier, Katharine and her sisters created imaginary worlds of their own. One of these was a game called the Eric game, based on their invented histories of royal families. Each player had to memorize intricate plots and complex historical developments and tell stories about the characters and events. The sisters kept up the game in letters even in later years when they were separated. Briggs later described it as not so much an escape from reality as an intellectual exercise.
When she was fourteen, Katharine Briggs went to a boarding school in Edinburgh. She did well; while there, she was glad to have opportunities to act in plays. After graduating, she entered university at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall, which had begun to accept women students in 1878 (although they were not permitted to take degrees until 1920). While at Oxford, Briggs was – as she later recalled – “blissfully happy,” reading English, particularly sixteenth and seventeenth century history and literature. She earned a BA degree in 1922 and an MA in 1926.
Return to Dalbeathie
Katharine returned to Dalbeathie and settled down to a creative life there rather than seeking a remunerative post elsewhere. She and Elspeth, who was also a writer, tried their hands at writing novels. Winifred, who was inclined more to the arts, acquired a printing press and printed short plays her sisters wrote. Dalbeathie became a center of artistic creativity, with others who were interested being invited to come and work on acting and producing plays. The sisters – all of whom were good actors – formed the Summer Players. They went on two-week tours around England and Scotland to perform their plays, as well as mimes and ballads, in village halls. Briggs also became involved with the Brownies and Girl Guides, who gave her further opportunities to hone her storytelling ability. As part of the Brownies’ and Guides’ training programs, she traveled to distant locales as far away as Newfoundland.
The war years
Despite Mary Briggs’ strong attachment to Dalbeathie House, the lively pace of life there eventually became too strenuous for her. She and her daughters decided to purchase a house in the Cotswolds, in England not far from Oxford. They found one in the town of Burford and moved into what was known as the Barn House. However, 1939 was the start of the second world war, and the sisters had their hands full working with refugees who were sent to Dalbeathie, and performing other tasks related to the war. In 1941, Briggs surprised her family and friends by joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where for a while she worked as a medical orderly. For the first time, she met people from social backgrounds other than her own of privilege and wealth. Eventually she was able to introduce play readings and games as entertainment for the enlisted men and women.
Return to Oxford; fairy books
When the war ended, Briggs went back to Burford and, as if to make up for lost time, immersed herself in her studies. She returned to Oxford for an advanced degree, choosing to write her thesis on folklore and seventeenth-century literature. Katharine Briggs was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1952. Also, a few years earlier, although the Briggs family was Unitarian, she decided to become a member of the Church of England, possibly attracted by its sacramental and mystical aspects.
One of Briggs’ consuming interests was the folklore of the supernatural, and in particular, the folklore of fairies. Not that she herself believed there really were fairies. She explained, “Folklorists are more concerned in the origin of fairy beliefs; what is important to them is not so much whether the fairies really exist as whether their existence is actually believed by the people who tell about them.” She deplored the prettified, sentimentalized fairies that had crept into children’s literature, unlike the more powerful, robust fairies of the native British tradition, such as Puck and Whuppity Stoorie.
In 1953 Briggs published The Personnel of Fairyland, a collection of stories, simply told, about native British fairies for people to tell to children. Over the next decade and a half she went on to write three scholarly books on British beliefs in supernatural beings and the ways they were reflected in the literature of the times – The Anatomy of Puck (1959), Pale Hecate’s Team (1962), and The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature (1967). All three books are readable, in-depth, generously footnoted studies of fairy and related beliefs, describing them in detail and quoting many instances of their various uses by poets and dramatists. American folklorist Stith Thompson, in a review of The Anatomy of Puck, stated, “Dr. Briggs has gone quite beyond earlier students of fairy lore in her exploration of English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She has been able to show how much interest the writers of all ranks…took in elaborating these ideas….This study could have made dull reading, but the author has handled it with a good deal of literary skill, especially as she has never failed to show the impact of these ideas on the literature of the age.”
As an example of her lively prose, commenting on the size of fairies in Shakespeare’s plays, Briggs notes that
in each play in which Shakespeare mentioned the fairies he turned a slightly different light upon them. Even the Queen Mab of Romeo and Juliet, though another tiny fairy, is as different as possible from Titania [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream], a less dignified person altogether. Her name is more native than Titania’s; she has the elfin quality of knotting locks and making elf stirrups in horses’ manes….The Welsh and Scottish fairies had miniature horses, and so had the tiny Irish fairies… but Shakespeare’s Queen Mab drove in a hazel nut drawn by ants.
In the same chapter, writing about The Tempest (which begins with a mysterious shipwreck on an island somewhere between Italy and Africa), Briggs suggests that Shakespeare based his depiction of the fairies there on those he was familiar with in England. Briggs’ own affinity for their magic is evident as she describes
the fairies of the island, Ariel’s companions. He shares with them a fairy’s love of flowers. They are nature fairies, ‘elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves.’ They seem hardly indigenous to the uninhabited island….In fact they are the nature fairies of an agricultural country with villages within earshot, Warwickshire for instance [the county of Shakespeare’s birth]…. [The fairies] haunt ‘grove and green, fountain clear and spangled starlit sheen’; they rest among flowers; they can be visible or invisible at will; small as they are, distance is nothing to them….the whole island tingles with them, an enchantment at once natural and remote.
In The Anatomy of Puck Briggs discusses many types of fairies that appear in the works of many well known and lesser known writers. Other chapters concern practitioners of magic, mermaids and monsters, and spiritual beings such as angels. In The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, Briggs continues her study of fairies in literature up to the twentieth century. The book is as informative as Puck and, written more for a popular audience, even more engaging, with chapters on hobgoblins and imps, fairy midwives and changelings, fairy wives and lovers, and more. On the other hand, Pale Hecate’s Team, about beliefs in witches and witchcraft as reflected in literature, explores the darker side of such beliefs during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a grim time for many people in real life – mostly women – who were accused of and executed for witchcraft.
Meanwhile Briggs was beset by several unhappy events in her own life. In 1956 her mother died. Her sister Elspeth, to whom she had always been especially close, died of a heart attack in 1961. Elspeth’s death was a grievous blow to Katharine Briggs. A friend reflected that the loss was “the major tragedy in Katharine’s life” and quoted her, “‘It was like being widowed.’” When Winifred died of a stroke five years later, Briggs was left on her on her own in Burford. She also had a serious auto accident in 1958, which would be followed by two more accidents in later years, leaving her lame but still able to get around with a cane, and undaunted in spirit.
Katharine Briggs was nothing if not versatile in her embracing of the world of fairy beliefs. Besides being a scholar and a storyteller, she was a collector and a novelist. She wrote and published two books of fiction incorporating such beliefs, primarily for children but appealing to adults as well. Hobberdy Dick (1955) is about a hobgoblin who has lived for hundreds of years as an invisible guardian in the home of generations of a family sympathetic to fairies, but who runs into trouble when the house is sold to a family of Puritans who equate fairies with devils. Kate Crackernuts (1963), based on an old folk-tale, concerns two sisters and a stereotypically witch-like stepmother whose evil magic against one of the sisters, the other sister attempts to undo. Both are considered classics of children’s literature.
Years later, Briggs combined and expanded the glossaries of fairies that she had appended to her earlier books in her delightful and very popular A Dictionary of Fairies, published in 1976. Amply illustrated, the book includes not only descriptions of all sorts of fairies – banshees, brownies, goblins, will o’ the wisps, and many more – but also discussions of human interactions with fairies, including ways to protect against fairies (such as turning one’s clothes inside out), their fondness for (and tendency to steal) human children and nursing mothers, and spells to obtain power over fairies. Briggs notes, “However often they may be reported as gone, the fairies still linger. In Ireland the fairy beliefs are still part of the normal texture of life; in the Highlands and Islands the traditions continue. Not only in the Celtic areas, but all over England scattered fairy anecdotes are always turning up.” Her biographer, folklorist Hilda Ellis Davidson, calls the book “a deservedly popular treasury of fairy lore. It was as if Briggs had discovered a rare new world of inexhaustible riches.” One reviewer advised that libraries “ought to buy at least two copies of this entrancing work – one could be locked away when the other is stolen. And stolen it will be, or ought to be….It is very difficult to spend a few minutes with it. The [author] has a little Scheherazade in her.”
Dictionary of folk-tales
During the 1960s, Katharine Briggs was occupied with another, related project. For all her extensive work on fairies, she is perhaps best remembered for her monumental, four-volume collection of folk-tales, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in English (1970-71). She felt that such a collection was essential. She had long regretted the fact that, thanks in part to the sobering influence of Puritanism, British people – especially children – were no longer familiar with their own native tales; instead they knew tales from foreign countries, such as German Märchen (wonder tales, or fairy tales) collected by the Grimm brothers, and fairy tales by the French author Charles Perrault. As she expressed it, “Twenty people know Cinderella and Rumpelstiltzkin and Bluebeard for one that knows Tattercoats and Tom Tit Tot and Mr. Fox.” In 1958 Briggs published a letter in the London Folklore Society’s journal Folklore stating her intention to undertake such a collection and requesting input from readers: “I am setting to work on a Dictionary of British Folktales, and have already received some valuable material from members of the Society. I should be most grateful if any members who know of unpublished tales, or variants of tales, would be so kind as to put me on the track of them.”
Briggs had a variety of sources to work with. The Aarne-Thompson tale type and motif indices of international tales were available and extremely useful for scholars, but some found the entries too abstract and “skeletal,” remote from the tales themselves. Briggs, on the other hand, did not want her work to lose sight of the stories “as stories.” She made use of such resources as the archives at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh and collections at Leeds University. Drawing largely from printed material, she also collected tales from singers of traditional songs, from other folklorists, and from storytellers – including gypsies and travelers – and learned how to use a tape recorder.
The Dictionary of British Folk-tales took Katharine Briggs ten years to complete. It contains about 2000 stories, published in two volumes each for Parts A (folk narratives) and B (folk legends). Part A was republished in 2011 as Folk Tales of Britain and is described by British writer Phillip Pullman in its introduction as “the fullest and the most authoritative collection of British folktales that exists.” The source and, where possible, motif reference for each story are given. Here are two typical selections from Local Legends in Part B:
The Fiddler and the Maids
There are three stone circles in Stanton Drew. The smallest is called “The Fiddler and the Maids,”… The story is that a wedding party gathered in the Church Field below Dundry Hill on a Saturday Evening. The local harper played for them until nearly midnight, and then reminded them that it would soon be Sunday. They were very merry, however, and one of them cried out that they would go on dancing even if they had to get the Devil himself to play. The harper put up his harp and turned to go, but heard piping behind him, and, looking back, saw that a tall piper had joined the company. He piped faster and faster, so that they danced on, whether they wanted to or not. Their cries and shrieks and curses were heard during the night, but in the morning nothing was to be seen of them but the three rings of stone.
A Legend of Weem Castle
There was a laird of Weem, who had lost his first wife, and married a second. His first wife had a daughter and his second wife had a daughter, and the girls were very fond of each other, but the second wife was very jealous of her stepdaughter and wanted her out of the way. Now there was a wild man, a kind of hermit up Weem Hill, and he met the lady and promised to kill her stepdaughter, but the two girls were always together. So the stepmother said she would give a bracelet to her stepdaughter, and he was to kill the one wearing the bracelet.
She gave the girl a beautiful bracelet, and told her to take care of it, and always to wear it. Then she sent the two girls up the hill, to look for a calf that had strayed. As they went, the lady’s daughter admired the bracelet so much that her stepsister lent it to her. The wild man leapt out on them, and carried off the lady’s daughter with the bracelet on her arm. The other tried to follow, but he drove her off, and she ran home. When the lady knew that her own daughter had been murdered, she went off her head, and they say that she killed herself.
(Briggs notes that “There is no motif in the Motif Index for love between stepsisters and stepbrothers, though this is quite frequent in traditional tales, as, for instance, in ‘Kate Crackernuts,’” the story Briggs wrote that is mentioned above.)
The Folklore Society
During the late 1960s and the 1970s, Briggs was relatively free from domestic responsibilities and ambitious writing pursuits. She began to branch out, traveling to other countries – including the United States – to speak at universities and attend conferences, and, closer to home, to the London Folklore Society. She had joined the society in 1927 but had not been an active member, although she had used the Society’s library when working on books about fairies and literature and her Dictionary of Folk-Tales. Now she began to participate more fully, attending meetings, giving papers, and participating in the politics of the society, which was at something of a low ebb due to administrative differences. Briggs’ levelheadedness, tact, and diplomatic skills led to the rejuvenation of the society and to her being elected president in 1967, a post she held for three years. In 1969 she was awarded a Doctorate in Literature from Oxford, a source of great satisfaction to her. In her honor, the Society named a folklore award in her name.
Gradually Katharine Briggs’ health declined. In 1975 she sold her house in Burford and, with friends’ help, moved to St. Margaret’s Bay, near Dover in the south of England. During her several years there she wrote three more books, including one on the folklore of cats, having been a cat-lover all her life. She retained her lifelong energy and high spirits, even having her ears pierced on her eightieth birthday so she could wear a gift of pearl earrings. She was at work on recollections of her childhood when she died suddenly in October 1980.
Summing up Briggs’ life and accomplishments, Hilda Davidson wrote,
She might be called a tradition bearer and an active one at that, gathering tales from multiple sources and retelling them to many different audiences, in a world where story-telling no longer forms a major part of our culture.
She had exceptional power over the spoken word, giving her an immediate appeal to those of all ages and backgrounds who knew how to listen, but her gifts went beyond this; she recaptured in her books much of the wealth of the imaginative world which [people] have created since the time when tales were first told. She brought back to us much that had been forgotten, and left a treasury of tales and legends in our hands, so that we might not neglect to our peril the dreams and visions beyond the range of ordinary human experience.
Author: Dorian Brooks
Literature & Sources
Avakian, Tanya B. 2009. Review of An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine M. Briggs, in Cabinet des Fées: a Journal of Fairy Tales, http://www.cabinetdesfees.com/2009/04/page/2/
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. 1986. Katharine Briggs: Story-teller (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press.
________________.“Katharine Briggs,” in Carmen Blacker and Hilda Ellis Davidson, eds., Women and Tradition: a Neglected Group of Folklorists (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2000).
Michaelis-Jena, Ruth. 1996. “Katharine M. Briggs: An Appreciation,” in Venetia Newall, ed., The Witch in History: Essays in Honor of Katharine M. Briggs (New York: Barnes & Noble Books).
Wynne, Gilbert. Speaking and reading, “Folk Tales of Britain: Narratives - The Folio Society,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6VE6TwIBQ8
Some Books by Katharine Briggs:
The Personnel of Fairyland (Oxford, England: Alden Press, 1953)
Hobberdy Dick (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1955)
The Anatomy of Puck: an examination of fairy beliefs among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957
Pale Hecate’s Team: an examination of the Beliefs on Witchcraft and Magic among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and his Immediate Successors (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962)
Kate Crackernuts (Oxford: Alden Press, 1963)
Folktales of England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1965)
The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967)
A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, four vols., 1970-71)
The Folklore of the Cotswolds (London: Batsford, 1974)
A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and other Supernatural Creatures (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976). Reissued as An Encyclopedia of Fairies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977)
The Vanishing People: a study of traditional fairy beliefs (London: Batsford, 1978). Reissued as Fairy Lore and Legends (New York: Pantheon Books and Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd)
Abbey Lubbers, Banshees and Boggarts: a Who’s Who of Fairies (Harmondsworth: Kestrel Books, 1979). Also published as An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies (New York: Pantheon Books). Illustrated by Yvonne Gilbert
Nine Lives: Cats in Folklore (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). Illustrated by John Ward
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