Most of my books don’t come from Amazon. I try to buy as much as I can from indie bookstores, but every once in a while, a suggestion pops up, and I get wicked excited and must add to cart. It does freak me out a bit when the algorithm suggests something so spot on. Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa Scheidau was just such a book. I don’t often talk about my love of folk tales and oral traditions. For me, storytelling is the core of how we’ve survived this long. These traditions are the root of who we are.
Botanical Folk Tales is broken down by season, plant type, and location. There’s a brief history at the start of each section and details of how stories varied in different areas. I had to look up a few of the places because they’re from across the British Isles and not familiar to this American-girl. The openings gave the reader an understanding of the characters, landscapes, and plants.
The stories are captured how a speaker would say them. So they read differently than a story created in written form. Many have endings that feel as if a person is talking and wrapping up quickly, like “and then life went on…” Which allows for that feeling of telling as opposed to reading.
The basis for some of the stories will be familiar to American readers, like Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk. My favorite of the collection is a version of Cinderella titled Mossycoat. It begins with a moss lesson, much like mushrooms, moss is an often overlooked or discarded part of our ecosphere.
“There are over a thousand species of moss in Britain and Ireland. They are tiny ancient plants, simple in their structure, dependent upon water and often ignored.”
Then she goes on to share some legends and beliefs around moss, “Druids believed that mosses had the power to prevent accidents and misfortunes.” She continues by telling how villagers collected sphagnum moss to dress wounds during WWI.
Mossycoat is the story of an old, widowed mother collecting mosses to create a coat of moss to protect her daughter. The daughter has caught the eye of a local cunning man, an arrogant magician, who wants to make her his wife. The mother devises a plan to protect the daughter, who eventually escapes wearing Mossycoat as armor under her clothes. The daughter becomes Mossycoat and runs away, working as a servant in a rich person’s home. And if you know anything about Cinderella, you can imagine the rest of the tale.
The book is full of wee ones, faeries, and creatures of all ilk. The Wonderful Wood starts with the quote, “A number of stories tell of trees protecting the vulnerable, and even dealing out justice to the wicked.” It tells of a cruel king who hunts not stag or boar but young maidens. One young maiden knows the power of the oak and asks permission to pass through the forest. And the trees protect her.
Many of the stories are lessons on protecting the earth and the environment around us. They are about balance, harmony, respect, greed, and gluttony. The evil getting their comeuppance from the very nature they believe they hoard power over.
I want to read more of Schneidau’s collected tales. I’m always on the lookout for other folktales, especially those around the natural world.