Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Oxfordshire's Lost Dragon

So, I just finished rereading a favorite of mine, HOBBERDY DICK by K. M. Briggs (1955).* This novel by the great folklorist incorporates a great deal of authentic local folklore in a story set in Oxfordshire just after the end of England's Civil War. The iconoclast Puritans, newly come to power, destroyed a great many relics of the past and put an end to many traditional practices in the belief they were either heathenish or Catholic. My eye was caught by a paragraph in which a country girl tells her new city girl friend about some of the recent changes in the area:

" 'Tis not long to May Day now," said Marion,

 "and so flowery a May Day as us could wish,

  though 'twon't be like the old days. My grannie

says how when her was a girl, aye and when my

mammie was a girl too, they had a great old dragon

carried through Burford streets, all painted gold

and red, and there was guisers and morris men

dancing behind it, all in green and yellow and

white, and they set up the maypole on Church

Green, and danced round it like David in front

of the Ark.:"

(page 126; emphasis mine)

We are later told the fate of this processional figure:

Whitsuntide came and went almost unnoticed.

In the old days it had been a great time of rejoicing

round Burford, too conspicuous to escape suppression. 

It was years now since the procession had formed

to fetch the Whitsun buck from the forest lodge,

and the great dragon had been burned in '41**

(page 141, ibid)

At first I wondered if Tolkien had known about this great red and gold dragon figure once carried through village streets in Oxfordshire, and whether it helped inspire that little masterwork FARMER GILES. On the whole I'm inclined to doubt it --Burford is on the west side of Oxfordshire whereas Giles' Thame and Worminghall are in east Oxfordshire. There too a quick dip into Wikipedia shows that the Burford dragon was quite real (as I'd expect from Briggs), but it celebrated a battle between Wessex and Mercia in which Mercia (whom Tolkien tended to identify with) suffered a major defeat.

Still, with Tolkien you never know what little bit of story might get stowed away in his mind, ready to pop forth when needed. For example, there's this bit of lore about barrows:

It was now nearly certain that Martha had been caught 

near the barrow, and in all probability she was still beneath it. 

The barrow was one of the hollow places that had long lost

its proper occupant, and when a gentle spirit deserts a place

an evil one is almost certain to possess it.

(page 157; emphasis mine)

--it wd be tempting to suggest that Tolkien influenced Briggs, but the chronology doesn't really work out: Tolkien's barrow scene appears in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, published in 1954, whereas Brigg's book was published in 1955 --making it unlikely she wd have time to borrow from Tolkien's newly published book.

So, the Briggs-Tolkien connection is valuable mainly in that it shows us how two contemporary authors drawing on the same source can produce two such different books.

--John R.

*CSL said of this book

“And have you read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers 
and The Borrowers Afield? And K. M. Brigg’s 
Hobberdy Dick? — the latter good, but either 
Kipling or De la Mare, if they had had the idea, 
wd. have made a heavenly book of it, and 
hers is not quite good enough. "

--Just an example of how wrong he cd be sometimes. See CSL COLLECTED LETTERS Vol III page 700

**That is, 1641

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