Friday, 30 April 2010

Skrifenn Deg - Hwedhlow Gwerin 1 - Writing 10 - Folk Tales 1

In this series I will explore a little of the folklore of Cornwall. I am not an expert in folklore, so may miss many things, as I come to it from a modern perspective. Much Cornish folklore was collected from droll-tellers in the 19th century by such men as William Bottrell and Robert Hunt

I will talk a little about giants in the first of these episodes.

In Cornish folklore, it is thought that giants were the original inhabitants of the land. This element is also present in the Brutus myth, where the Trojans under Brutus became the founders of Britain, with each of Brutus' sons inheriting England, Scotland and Wales. However Cornwall fell by lot to another Trojan, Corineus who overcame the giant Gogmagog in personal combat to determine which of the two should be king of Cornwall. I would think that legend reveals something of the way the Cornish were thought as different or foreign to the English in medieval times, since they had a foundation separate to that of England.

The longest tale concerning giants in William Bottrells first volume of Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall is "The Giants of Towednack". It concerns a giant Denbras who lived in the hills of Towednack who was slain by a man called Tom who was himself 8 feet tall (Denbras was 15 feet in height) but said to be not a big man for those times. Tom subsequently goes to live in Denbras' old castle. It was thought that giants had persisted in the hills longest, although they had decreased in stature over the centuries.

One short story concerns a giant who lived in St Michael's Mount, who had a cousin who lived at a castle at Trencrom, some miles away. Nevertheless, they used to throw a hammer back and forth across this distance until the hammer hit and killed the wife of the giant of the Mount. Bottrell's tale interestingly doesn't say what the giant of the Mount thought of this, but that the giant of Trencrom was so overcome by grief that he died, but not before burying his treasure at Trencrom. Many have apparently tried to unearth the treasure, but been deterred by troops of spriggens who scare away the diggers.

Another tale has a giant "Wrath" living near Portreath at "Giant's Zawn". Apparently if any ship or boat from St. Ives came within a mile or so he would wade out to sea, tie the boats to his girdle and draw them into his den, where he would eat the better fed men. Also he would throw rocks in the event of a ship being in too deep water for him to wade out, which now form a dangerous reef extending from Godrevy Head.

What to make of these legends? It is the legend of an earlier age, a different time, populated by a different kind of people. The giants are not uniformly evil, although some were hostile to men, this was not universally true. They are located in the past, and in wild country such as hills. So perhaps they represent nature in some way personified. Where nature was as yet untamed, the giants were said to have persisted to relatively recent times.

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