Monday, 10 October 2016

An evening with the history of folklore

It is taking a while to get back into anything approaching a normal swing of things, but this week I'm happy to be making a first stab at public talks again. On Thursday evening I'm back with the lovely folk at the South East London Folklore Society (SELFS) giving 'A Beginner's Guide to Folklore'.

The idea came about earlier in the year when I heard George Hoyle, SELFS's charming and urbane host, give an introductory talk on John Dee, and it occurred to me that talking about the history of the subject I love might be fun and worthwhile for several people, including me. The more people are fascinated by folklore, the more important it becomes to talk about the history of the subject. What do we mean when we say 'folklore'? And who are the mysterious 'we' in that sentence? Does 'folklore' mean the same in popular usage as it does for folklorists? How do we balance all its various meanings? How do we go about looking at folklore?

I'm not particularly alarmed if that sounds like an intellectual rabbit warren: that's how I think of folklore, which is part of the reason I find it so massively, thrillingly exciting. I am genuinely excited at getting involved in this history.

Folklorists today don't think of their subject in quite the same way as their Victorian forebears. This means getting a handle on what they did think and how it changed.The blurb I sent SELFS gives my starting point:

170 years ago a letter appeared in the Athenaeum. It was signed ‘Ambrose Merton’, a pseudonym for literary antiquarian William John Thoms, and it proposed a neologism: ‘folklore’. This provides a good origin story for the study of folklore – it’s the first time folklorists identify themselves as such – but while Thoms may have invented the word he didn’t invent the subject. This talk will be a brief introduction to how we’ve come to think about folklore. Amongst other things it’ll discuss what William Thoms meant by the word and how he arrived at that meaning, and where we’ve taken folklore since. Folklore: we’re all interested in it, we all do it, let’s think about it.

And what a starting point! It takes you everywhere ... If you're in London on Thursday evening and that sounds as exciting to you as it does to me, come along.

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