Briggs, Katharine Mary


Briggs, Katharine Mary
(1898-1980)
   Born into a family of considerable artistic talent, she was herself a writer of children's fiction; she came relatively late to folklore. Her outstanding contribution was in two fields: *fairy lore, and *folk narratives. Although in both cases her work extended throughout Britain, the amount of purely English material she found was a revelation to those who thought English folklore scarce and unimportant. Initially, her interest was in the folkloric background to the supernatural in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature; her first academic books, The Anatomy of Puck (1959) and Pale Hecate's Team (1962), examined how far the treatment of fairies and witches by Shakespeare and his contemporaries reflected popular beliefs; in Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967) she extended this discussion to later periods. She made the vigorous and varied fairy traditions recorded by 19th-century folklorists readily accessible in books aimed at a wide audience. The most important are A Dictionary of Fairies (1976) and The Vanishing People (1978), which offer thorough coverage of British fairy lore and some comparative material from Ireland and Europe.
   Her other concern was to disprove the charge that Britain (and more specifically England) 'has no folktales'. Scouring a wide variety of published sources, from medieval to modern times, and drawing on the extensive manuscript collection of F. J. Norton, she brought together previously scattered texts to form a Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language - she knew no Celtic languages, so had regretfully to limit herself to those in English. The result was four large volumes (19701); the first two reprint or summarize all known fairytales, animal fables, jocular tales, novelle and nursery tales within her remit, while the other two give an extensive selection of local and historical legends, thematic-ally arranged to illustrate topics typical of English tradition. It is an essential reference work, showing the range of traditional narratives recoverable from printed sources.
   Her interest in the art of storytelling (at which she was herself very skilled) brought her into contact with Ruth *Tongue, whom she helped considerably by editing her Somerset Folklore (1965); she regarded Tongue as a valuable source for oral folktales, and included many of her stories in a joint work, Folktales of England (1965) and in her 1970-1 Dictionary. Briggs also wrote on the traditions of her own home area in The Folklore of the Cots-wolds (1974), and was a frequent contributor to folklore journals.
   She played a major role on the Council (later Committee) of the Folklore Society in the 1960s and 1970s, and was President from 1967 to 1970; she was much appreciated as an international lecturer, especially in America. Her warm charm and enthusiastic scholarship inspired all who knew her (Davidson, 1986).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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