ON FAIRY TALES Knowing your roots

Be they echoes of tales from long ago, retellings or twisted and fractured mash-ups, folk and fairy tales never lose their appeal. This issue, storyteller Tom Phillips talks about the importance of folk tales in connecting us to the land we come from and the tales that lie therein.

Tom Phillips in storytelling mode

Fairy tales are those stories we are brought up with, the tales told to us from memory and retold a thousand times in books, full of magic, mystery, scary themes, and morals to help us live our lives. They provide our growing minds with a structure of how our world works, what we should be cautious of, how we should live our lives, and the importance of relationships, both good and bad, in our lives. But, do you know the fairy tales that still live beneath your feet? For these are what we call folk tales, the stories of the everyday folk; not always involving magic and mythical creatures (although they can do). Folklorists have long debated the distinction between fairy and folk tales, even now, having some disagreements, but this is a debate for another time.


Today, I want to focus on the importance of those local fairy tales, the folk tales of where we live, those stories on our doorstep, and the importance of knowing them, the connections they give us to the land we inhabit, and the importance of preserving these both for adults and children. I have been telling stories in the traditional oral way for over 16 years. No books, no scripts, just me and the audience, the way stories have been passed on since the dawn of speech.

Do you know the fairy tales that still live beneath your feet? For these are what we call folk tales, the stories of the everyday folk 

Stories have become the way we make sense of the world and, with the invention of writing and the printing press, these stories have been captured and recorded to make them easier for the growing population of the world. The Brothers Grimm stories are a perfect example of the capturing of these oral folk tales written down and printed for the masses, turning these simple, locally well-known folk tales into fairy tales.


Over the last six or so years, I have been following in the Brothers Grimm’s footsteps in writing down the stories I have found, having now published two books of folk tales for children, one on the county I have been raised in, Leicestershire, and the other on stories to do with Forests.

Illustration (top) by Claire Alexander and cover by Jenna CartonLeicestershire Folk Tales for Children,
written by Tom Phillips. Published by The History Press.

I was brought up with a love of local folklore. My father, having been born and bred in our sleepy little village, knew all the stories and would regale me with them on long walks over the fields or at bedtime. He still does, and even though I’ve heard them a hundred times before, and even passed on these stories to the villagers through performances at the village hall, I still sit and listen and marvel. It means I can walk around that village and the fields that surround it and know every story, every tragic death, every happy meeting, every celebration, every haunting there ever has been.


Even though I moved out of the village nearly two decades ago, I can still walk around there and feel a part of the fabric of the village. Knowing those folk stories has given me somewhere to belong. And this is what I wanted to pass on to my children and the readers of my folk tale books.


I was brought up with a love of local folklore. My father, having been born and bred in our sleepy little village, knew all the stories and would regale me with them on long walks

Having been a primary school teacher, as well as a storyteller, I knew the importance of stories for children in their developmental process and to help build their vocabulary and literacy skills, but I also knew the connection these stories bring, to the land, the people, and to each other. This was my focus when writing my first book; Leicestershire Folk Tales for Children, published by the History Press.


I used some of the stories I knew from the county and researched some I didn’t, using those that sang to me, and began to rewrite them in a way I felt would challenge a younger reader just enough but be interesting and enjoyable. I set out to teach the reader some history such as Lady Jane Grey and Richard the III’s stories alongside the more fantastical stories involving witches, griffins, and giants. So after it launched, it was humbling to receive feedback from parents of how their children loved the stories so much, they wanted to go to these places in the book to walk in the footsteps of the main characters and to feel a part of the story. This is exactly what I wanted! Folk tales, as with fairy tales, should give you that connection, that drive to be a part of them.


Forest Folk Tales for Children, cover illustration by Amanda Vigors, written by Tom Phillips. Published by The History Press.

My follow up; Forest Folk Tales for Children, took a wider approach. Working at the time within the National Forest, I began there before looking across the country for forest based folk tales but, well, forests, as we know from fairy tales, are deep and dark and we stay out of them, so stories from forests were hard to find, however, stories from the edges of the forests, warning people not to go in were plentiful. Despite that being a recurring theme throughout the book, I included ‘Why don’t you…’ tasks for families to do when they are out exploring the forests, looking for dragons, hobs, or faeries. These served to cement the connection to the land that the stories started.


To sum up, I strongly feel fairy tales and folk tales are one and the same at their core, only differing in the way they are passed down, orally for folk tales, in books for fairy tales. But the biggest difference is the connection to a place. Fairy tales can almost be from anywhere, but folk tales come from a certain time and place, giving the story a tangible connection to the land, one that we, the audience can grasp and use to sew ourselves to that place, becoming part of the rich tapestry of the country. Through the hearing, reading, and retelling of folk tales we spread them and weave an ever-larger quilt of story that binds all together in the landscape.

*Header: Tita Berredo


Starting life as a primary school teacher, Tom 'the Tale Teller' Phillips began telling the stories he heard as a youngster to his class, soon branching out into the world of adult storytelling as well. After a decade of telling tales, Tom wrote two folk tale books for The History Press, using his knowledge of folk tales and researching more along the way. Tom continues to tell stories to all ages, writing in his free time.


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI British Isles and Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org


1 comment:

  1. Thank you Tom, an enjoyable read. In that same village , as a child, I spent many hours crawling under hedges, plodging through ditches and climbing trees.......looking for fairies. Did I find any ? Well, that is my secret x


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