Are the legends authentic?

by Michael Behrend

From time to time doubts have been expressed about the authenticity of the tales that Marie Clothilde Balfour said she had collected.

Neil Philip included two of the Lincolnshire tales, The Flyin’ Childer and The Green Mist, in The Penguin Book of English Folktales (1992). On the first of these he comments (p. 156):

“However this, like Mrs Balfour’s other stories, is sufficiently strange and unlike anything else collected even in Lincolnshire … as to raise a real doubt as to the authenticity of the material, despite the circumstantial information provided about the narrators, and the printing in three cases of field notes. Joseph Jacobs, who was a shrewd judge, accepted the stories as genuine, as have scholars such as Katharine Briggs and Richard Dorson since. But the F. J. Norton manuscripts contain a note expressing his doubts, and these I share.”

Philip also notes that “the dialect of the Balfour texts presents a number of problems”, but concedes (p. 157) that the stories “may of course be, as Mrs Balfour claimed, accurate records of oral narrations, set down as near as possible ‘exactly as told to me’.”

Jeremy Harte, in his book Explore Fairy Traditions (Heart of Albion Press, 2004) goes further and says roundly that Balfour’s stories are a deception. Commenting on the rituals described in The Strangers’ Share he writes (p. 19): “This is all good Frazerian stuff, and Balfour deserves some credit for creating a myth of rural paganism some fifty years before Gerald Gardner bared all; but it is not folklore.” Harte also charges that the folktale Me A’an Sel, published in 1894 as having been collected by Balfour, “can be found pretty much word for word in a source printed fifty years before, except that Balfour has added a few literary touches.” Balfour’s version and its alleged source are shown in parallel on this website so that readers can form their own opinions.

Balfour has been defended by Maureen James, who writes: “For the past six years I have been carrying out research to attempt to validate the Legends of the Cars, a collection of tales submitted to Folklore in 1891 as having been collected in the Carrs of North Lincolnshire from local people.” See Maureen James’s website for information about her research to date.