Water World as Another Home for the English Nation Reflected in the English Folklore

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The British are a most curious nation in many aspects. When a tourist from whatever continent comes to visit Britain the first conclusion he arrives at is how bizarre the people living there are. The main reason to their uniqueness will certainly lie on the surface: Great Britain is an island populated by the nation that had to grow up and go all the long way of its history alone being separated from the rest of the world by great amounts of water. This very characteristics turned them into not only a curious nation, but also an interesting and special one, whose history and culture are one of the richest in the world. And the water surrounding the island played not a minor part in its forming. So the British people respect and cherish their "watery" neighbour who from the earliest stages of their history up to now gave them food, drink, work, power, respect of other nations, wealth and after all entertainment. It inspired a huge number of stories, tales, poems, superstitions and prejudicies and it has always been worshipped by the people.

The studies of the British culture and therefore understanding of the national character of the English cannot stand apart from the research of its important product - folklore. By culture we mean the result of the social activity of people. Every new generation historically brings its piece into the whole process of the development of culture of this or that nation; so culture collects the values expressed through different means: literature, architecture, music, sculpture, traditions, cuisine, etc. Cultural development of the nation is essential for the development of every person belonging to it, because his understanding and percepting of the world is formed according to the society he grows up in and is influenced by the norms and values of this society.

Arts in general are always meant to bring beauty into the life of people and educate them through it, make them better, kinder and wiser. National folklore is no exception in this sense. Even if it very often does not have a human being as the central figure it still bring forward ethical questions, studies human soul, its moral qualities. Accepting this aspect presupposes that we realize the educational side of the folkloric characters and understand what their creators wanted to tell us, or warn about, or what kind of an ideal they meant to form up. However, each folkloric hero or character is a mixture of a number of different qualities and its nature is not always clear and easy to interpreter. Therefore the aim and the meaning of a character should be searched for in just one side of its complicated semantics.

So the aim of this work is to make a research in the part of a rich field of the British folklore concerning British water world through the means of songs, poems, stories, legends, fears, superstitions, tales. With the help of this material we shall study the changes and development of the English character, language, history and culture.


The field of the country's economy connected with water was always a great concern for those who ruled it for they naturally attached much importance to it. From the times when the English society was being born and only beginning to take shape kings already would interest themselves in the conditions of trading across the sea. In the eleventh century Cnut on a pilgrimage to Rome took the opportunity of obtaining from the Emperor and other rulers he met there greater security and reduction of talls for his subjects, traders and others, travelling in their lands. Already in the eighth century an English merchant called Botta was settled at Marceilles, perhaps as an agent for collecting goods to be sold in England. The Viking rades of the late eighth and ninth centuries disrupted trade on the Continent, but Englishmen may well have taken part in the Baltic trade opened up by this time. At least, there is no reason to deny English nationality to a certain Wulfstan who described to King Alfred a journey taken to the Frisches Haff; he has an English name.

On the other hand, we hear of foreign traders in England from early times. Bede speaks of London as the "mart of many nations, resorting to it by sea and land", and mentions the purchase of a captive by a Frisian merchant in London. But the strongest evidence for the amount of sea traffic in Frisian hands is the assumption of an Anglo-Saxon poet that a seaman is likely to have a Frisian wife:

Dear is the welcome guest to the Frisian woman when the ship comes to land. His ship is come and her husband, her own bread - winner, is at home, and she invites him in, washes his stained raiment and gives him new clothes, grants him on land what his love demands.

Men from other lands came also. At the end of the tenth century a document dealing with trade in London speaks of men from Rouen, Flanders, Ponthieu, Normandy, France; from about the same date comes a description of York as the resort of merchants from all quarters, especially Danes.

The merchants and seamen plied an honoured trade. The poets speak with appreciation of the seaman "who can boldly drive the ship across the salt sea" or "can steer the stem on the dark wave, knows the currents, (being) the pilot of the company over the wide ocean", and it was at least a current opinion in the early eleventh century that the merchant who had crossed the sea three times at his own cost should be entitled to a thane's rank. The merchant in Aelfric's "Colloquy" stresses the dangers of his lot:

I go on board my ship with my freight and row over the regions of the sea, and sell my goods and buy precious things which are not produced in this land, and I bring it hither to you with great danger over the sea, and sometimes I suffer shipwreck with the loss of all my goods, barely escaping with my life.

As we see people working in the sea or over the seas gained much respect in the society and were loved by others. But so much for the economical aspect. The water, as we already mentioned earlier, was one of the greatest attractions as a source of entertainment.

Fishing, like hunting, was highly popular in England, but these were pleasures reserved for the nobility. In the twelfth century, when the kings had normally been so strong, they had claimed such oppressive fishing - rights that all the classes had united in protest. One of the demands of the rebels in 1381 was that hunting and fishing should be common to all; not only was this refused, but in 1390 Parliament enacted a penalty for one year's imprisonment for everyone who should presume to keep hunting - dogs or use ferrets or snares to catch deer, rabbits, or any other game. Fishing and hunting, said the statute, was the sport for gentlefolk.

So this is a scetch or an outline of reasons explaining why our ancestors valued so much the rivers, lakes, seas of their land - and it is worth mentioning that their land abounds in all that - and why they respected the work of sailors, merchants or travellers. All this is important for the understanding of how it was becoming an inseparable part of their culture and how it is reflected in their culture.


What is folklore? Funk and Wagnall's "Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend" (1972) offers a staggering 22 definitions, running to half a dozen pages. In recent years definitions have tended to be all - embracing in their simplicity: folklore is made up of "the traditional stories, customs and habits of a particular community or nation" says the "Collins Cobuild Dictionary" of 1987.

More specific definitions also abound; perhaps, folklore should be identified as the community's commitment to maintaining stories, customs and habits purely for their own sake. ( A perfect example of this would be the famous horse race at Siena in Italy: the p a l i o attracts many thousands of tourists, yet if not a single outsider attend, the people of the community would still support the event year after year).

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