Giants, in English folklore, tend to be, to put it politely, pretty stupid.

Their attempts to terrify, or eat, human beings, usually result only in their own demise, swiftly dispatched by some hero or other, or otherwise undone by another giant chucking stuff about.

The Avon Gorge, which marks the boundary between Somerset and Bristol, is said to be the work of the giant Gorm, though after a quarrel he tripped and fell, and his bones formed Brean Down, Steep Holm and Flat Holm.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain, 1136), Brutus, legendary founder of the British nation, slays the giants living in that land – all but the greatest of them, Gogmagog, who Brutus’s follower Corineus, who “enjoyed beyond all reason matching himself against such monsters”, challenges to a wresting match. He is eventually victorious, hurling the giant off a cliff, where he is dashed to pieces on the rocks below.

In a twist to the tale, in the romance of Fulk Fitzwarren, from the Thirteenth Century, Fulk’s ancestor, Payn Peverel, wrestles an evil spirit that has somehow inhabited the body of Gogmagog (or Geomagog as it is spelt in this account) – despite it being smashed to bits by Corineus – and drives him out of Whittington in Shropshire, taking the land for his own. The spirit then prophesizes how Payn’s descendant, Fulk, will have to fight for the land, and will come into conflict with King John.

Gogmagog is originally a biblical figure, or figures (Gog from the land of Magog in the Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 38-9, and Gog and Magog from the Book of Revelation), who over the centuries in England have appeared carved into Plymouth Hoe in Devon, and at Wandlebury Camp in Cambridgeshire (though both likenesses have since disappeared), and as great effigies at royal pageants and shows in London up until at least the Nineteenth Century.


The Knife and the Wave

Undines are water nymphs, or wraiths. According to legend, they cannot acquire a soul unless they marry a human man and bear him a child, although this can also cost them their immortality.

“The Knife and the Wave”, by Susan Cartwright-Smith – published below – is a story in that tradition, and tells the sad tale of a doomed romance between a fisherman and his undine wife.

The Knife and the Wave by Susan Cartwright-Smith

As we looked out over the Irish Sea, and took the opportunity to catch our breath, out of nowhere Dad said, “The Knife and the Wave”.
“What’s that?” I said.
“The Knife and the Wave. It’s a folk tale. I think it’s from Ireland.  Which is over there somewhere…” He waved his hand.
“I know that,” I grumbled, good-naturedly.  I fidgeted with my maternity trousers, the bump actually justifying my wearing them now.
“There was a handsome young fisherman.  I’m not sure when you go from handsome fisherman to salty old sea dog, but he hadn’t made that move yet.  And one of the magical sea sprites, or green ladies, noticed him, and wanted him for her own.  Now, the only way for a green lady to claim you would be to drown you.”
I put my head on his shoulder, and he absent-mindedly patted his grandson.

“And so, one day, when this handsome young fisherman set out to sea, the green lady stirred up a terrible storm.  And with terrible waves crashing about him, and throwing his boat like a cat with a ball of string, she came to claim him.”  We both looked out onto a reasonably calm sea, with just the occasional white horse.  “Aye, well, it can happen.  Anyway, the fisherman reacted as a man does, and as a particularly threatening wave came over the side, he threw his knife at it.”
“He threw his knife at it? At a wave?”
“Aye,  men sometimes act out of violence,  He sensed a threat, so he reacted in kind. Anyway.  The knife stuck into the wave, and suddenly the sea was calm.”
He stopped then, and looked out to sea.  The silence cloaking us, as silence often did. I winced a bit as, almost as if he were waiting for the story to go on, the child inside kicked me.
Dad took my hand then, and I held his bony knuckles to my forehead; a strange gesture we often shared.  Tears of exhaustion and confusion pricked at my eyes, whilst we avoided looking at each other.

“So. The storm died down. The sailor returned home. But a week later, carried on immense waves, the menfolk of the green lady’s world came.  They called for the fisherman, and bade him come.  His knife had wounded their lady, and she was sickening.
They had carried her, and the fisherman waded in the shallows, and freed his knife from her belly.  But the swelling remained.  And the green lady had to go with the fisherman, as she could not breathe underwater anymore.  The iron knife had robbed her of her magic.  As iron often does.
And so, as her belly grew, and time passed, the coldness of iron spread within her too.  She wasn’t where she was supposed to be, and she grew miserable. With that knife, he may as well have pinned a butterfly to a corkboard.”
After a few minutes, I said, “I don’t regret having this baby, dad. I’m not exactly young.”
He gave me one of his quizzical looks, as if he didn’t know why I was assuming he was referring to me.
“And so, she had her wee babby, and as she weaned him, so his gills grew, and the first day she took him down to the sea, he leapt and frolicked and sported in the waves with his uncles and kinfolk, and screamed when she took him back to land. Not a word she spoke to the fisherman, whose metal rings caused fine decoration about her eyes and mouth, as well as his iron knife wound had scarred her belly. She was as grey as iron now, both her skin and her thoughts, and so, one day, she took the wee man, now free from the need of her, and they both dived down, into the deeps.  Never to return to land.”

“But I thought you said the iron had robbed her of her magic?”
“Aye. It had.”
“So…what? She drowned?”
“She did.  She did what was right for the bairn.  Better to be free than live a half-life.”
We watched the waves: the tide going out; the horizon grizzling with mist.

Fulk Fitzwarren

In the village church of Norton Fitzwarren, just outside Taunton in Somerset, there is a carving, on the rood screen, of a local legend – about a terrible dragon who laid waste to the district, and was defeated by a local hero, Fulk Fitzwarren (there are various different spellings of his surname, including FitzWaryn and Fitzwarine). The screen dates from the Fifteenth Century, and was described in a letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1829:

“The animal is carved with great spirit, and is painted black with a golden stripe across his back…”

Several figures surround the dragon, and it is in the process of devouring a naked woman. Another part of the carving depicts three naked figures whose “attitudes and employment”, according to the letter writer, are “difficult to interpret”!

In fact, Fulk Fitzwarren wasn’t really local at all – though he may well have visited Somerset – for he was originally a Marcher Lord, from Shropshire, and was one of the barons who rebelled against King John and led a posse of outlaws in the early Thirteenth Century – a real-life Robin Hood. His exploits inspired a French romance, dating from the reign of Edward I (though the Tudor antiquary John Leland also mentions a poem in English alliterative verse, now lost), which greatly embroiders his adventures and throws in dragons, ogres and giants for good measure.

Perhaps because of the similarities between this tale and that of Robin Hood – there are some scenes that are almost identical – Fulk has become a much more obscure figure nowadays. Nevertheless, his story is an interesting one, and though the real-life Fulk may not have been quite as heroic as the romance which bears his name suggests, he did live through some genuinely tumultuous events in English history, and his actions helped lead to the creation of the Magna Carta in 1215.

The Drayton Wassail

For it’s your wassail

And it’s our, our wassail

And I’m jolly come to our jolly wassail…

These are the words to the chorus of the Drayton Wassail: a recording can be found on Topic Records’ Voice of the People Vol. 13 – They Ordered Their Pints of Beer and Bottles of Sherry. Drayton is a village on the Somerset Levels, not far from Hambridge, where Cecil Sharp was staying with his friend, the radical priest Charles Marson, in September 1903, and where he heard Marson’s gardener, John “Jack” England, sing “The Seeds of Love”, thus beginning the folk song revival, and his work as a collector.

When I was a kid I would often visit the area with my parents, and one of its most colourful characters was a Drayton resident named Charlie Showers, who would tell me ghost stories, and every January would sing the wassail around the village. The story was that, one year, he was the only person to turn up, and made his way from house to house, with no one else to share the liquid refreshment on offer!

Here is a recording, from the British Library sound archive, of Charlie and his wife in 1972, in which they talk about Charles Marson and Cecil Sharp:


The Doff-Off Goblin

The writer Susan Cartwright-Smith hails from Cumbria, a region rich in folklore and storytelling. Her story “The Doff-Off Goblin”, published below, takes its inspiration from the darker side of fairy-tale, and is a good example of how the medium can be a mirror for our deepest anxieties and sorrows.

The Doff-Off Goblin by Susan Cartwright-Smith

“Why don’t we rest awhile.”
Dad leaned on my shoulder, as he strode over the tree roots. He weighed almost nothing, and the pressure should have been greater. I held his arm as he struggled to sit down.  Always fit and agile – the word “spry” always came to mind – he was now gaunt and drawn.
I sat beside him.  With my padded behind, I found it uncomfortable.  I couldn’t imagine how Dad found it with his bones showing through.
“Do you remember you used to tell me that horrible story of the Doff-Off Goblin?” I asked, as the memory rose, from nowhere.
“No story – that was a real thing.”
“No it wasn’t, it was a fiction!  A goblin?  Come on, Dad.” I knew he was ill, but he wasn’t getting away with that.
I thought of the time I remembered him telling me, although there had been many more. In a more innocent time for children.  Or just maybe for certain children.  Or maybe not a time of innocence at all, but a time to allow oneself to feel innocent.

It had been one Christmas time, and for some reason the house was packed full to bursting. Dad and I had been relegated to sleeping on the sofa, which had magically transformed into a bed.  I had never seen it do so before, and I don’t believe it ever did again.  I don’t know why Dad was there with me, maybe I had insisted, being afraid.  For whatever reason there we were.  There was an earthquake that year, and the air was filled with the supernature of Christmas time.
In the darkness, with occasional twinkles from a bauble catching a streetlight, my father’s voice rose up: “The Doff-Off Goblin comes for children who don’t sleep, you know.”
Not likely to instil restfulness in anyone, this was hardly going to make a restless child sleep. “Tell me about the Doff-Off Goblin.”
“Well, once upon a time, there was a naughty little girl who would not sleep. Her poor parents were driven to distraction. But she refused. She would not get undressed for bed, nor settle down to sleep.”
He looked at me, out of the sides of his eyes.  I squirmed, feeling the reprimand.
“Then all of a sudden, she heard a scrapey scrapey sound at the window.  Her parents had turned up their television extra loud so they would not hear her silly noises or jumping about.  Who could it be?  She took down the large incongruous cactus her father liked to keep” (again another look to me – I hated my father’s cacti) “and she peered out.  She got a terrific shock, when appearing suddenly was a hideously ugly fellow, even worse than Heather Johnstone’s dad. She squealed in fright, and leapt backwards.  But then the nasty creature looked so pitiful, so yearning, she returned, and opened the window.
‘What do you want – ‘ she began, but the goblin had pushed past her, and landed in her bedroom, as lightly as a cat.
‘I will scream – you see if I don’t,’ she said, petulantly.
The goblin sneered at her – ‘Your dadda’s not a-lissenin
Your mamma’s makin’ tea
Nobody will come to you
There’s only you and me
There’s no-one wants to hear you
You’re shut up in your room
You might as well be Cleopatra
From inside her tomb…’
The horrid thing sang, and weaved round her.  She felt annoyed, but she knew, deep down, that the goblin was right.
‘My mummy and daddy love me.’
‘Maybe, but they don’t LIKE you,’ said the goblin, pressing his face close to hers, ‘not now.  Your mamma keeps on making tea…tea..tea..tea..all the time. Why?  To DROWN YOU OUT.’
The little girl’s face crumpled.  ‘That’s not a nice thing to say.’
‘You’re not a nice little girl,’ it said.
‘I don’t want you to say that.  How can I make it better?’
The goblin narrowed its horrid eyes, and scratched its warty forehead. ‘Well…you could start by doffing off your jumper.’

Doffing off – is taking off.  You know that, don’t you?” Dad said.
“Yes, Dad.”
“Very well. ‘You could make a start by doffing off your jumper,’ the goblin said, steepling its fingers, and grinning a nasty, slow grin.
The little girl looked at him, and pulled a mulish face.  But if she were to be a good little girl, then getting undressed for bed would be a good start.  She pulled the jumper off over her head.  The goblin took it, sniffed it, and ate it. ‘You won’t need that again,’ it whispered.
‘Next, you can doff-off, doff-off…doff-off your skirt,’ it rasped.  It rubbed its hands together with a sound like sandpaper, and bit at its lower lip with fervent excitement.
The little girl felt horribly awkward, but undid her skirt, and stepped out of it.  Once again, the goblin picked it up, inhaled deeply of it, and then devoured it. ‘No need to be leaving that lying around,’ it wheezed.
The little girl was standing in vest and pants, and started to shiver.  ‘Why don’t you doff-off, doff-off, doff-off your…pants?’ murmured the goblin.
‘I don’t really want to,’ said the little girl.
‘Are you being naughty?  Do you want your parents to dislike you forever?’ said the goblin.
The little girl shook her head, and a tear rolled down her cheek. She pushed her pants down, and held them out to the goblin, who took them, and as before, ate them. ‘And now you can doff-off, doff-off, doff-off your vest,’ it said, plainly.
The little girl, silent sobs shaking her body, did so.
As she watched the goblin eat her vest, she crossed her arms over her little body.  ‘And shall I get into my nightie now?’ she said.
‘No.  Now, now, little girl…now, you must doff-off, doff-off, doff-off your SKIN!’ the goblin shrieked, and the girl watched in horror as his nasty sharp teeth grew longer, and his eyes glowed red.  She screamed in horror as his long fingers reached for her, and his pocked face blocked out the light.”
Dad stopped.
“And then the screams of the little girl brought the parents running? Her daddy came and saved her?”
My dad closed his eyes with a small satisfied smile.  “No.  In Teralisle that night, the Doff-Off Goblin took the little girl’s skin, and climbed inside.  He sat down and watched her shivering, bloody body.  He got into her pyjamas, and got into her bed. He looked just like her, in her skin, in her bed. The girl’s daddy came up later, and saw what he thought was his daughter in her bed.  He kissed her cheek, smelling her scent, not smelling the rank mustiness of the goblin.  The little girl tried to cry out, but the goblin had taken the skin from her tongue, and so no sounds came.
The little girl’s mother came up later, tea in shaking hand. She was delighted to see her little girl in her pyjamas, in her bed, asleep. She didn’t see the bloodied creature that sat looking on, unable to cry, unable to speak.

Eventually this little girl faded away, sitting skinless in her bedroom.  And the goblin watched out of eyes that were not his own. Night, night.” And Dad kissed me and rolled over, and was soon snoring raucously away.

I sat, wide-eyed, but silent. I remember starting at every noise, and every time the rambling rose scratched the window, I jumped in fear.

It didn’t make me a punctual bedtimer, though, but did provide many colourful nightmares.  But I often begged for the Doff-Off Goblin story.  Maybe to see if Dad would allow her a happy ending.  But he never did.

“Why did you think about that?”  Dad asked, now his breathing had returned to approaching normal.

“I’m not sure.  I think demons are appearing everywhere at the moment. I think I’m beset by things we cannot change.  The Doff-Off Goblin seems like one of those things.”

“Aye – the world is not a comfortable place.  There might always be someone watching with false eyes, ready to harm you.” He rested a hand on my shoulder. “I did try and warn you.  Perhaps my words were not the right ones.  Perhaps you needed words that were not a story.” He looked downcast. “Maybe the Doff-Off Goblin had already been, Dad.” He looked sorrowfully into my eyes, his usually bright blue ones clouded and dull, mine still bright, but filling with tears.

“No”, he whispered. “I would’ve known.  And I would have always come running had you ever screamed out.  But you never do, do you?  No-one ever knows with you.”
We sat awhile, foreheads pressed together, years unsaid.
Then we stood – me helping him up, gingerly, and continued on our way. The day had darkened in, and the first prickles of winter twitched at our noses, and I shivered, as if icy fingers were closing round my arm.  I turned my head, half expecting to see the grim figure of the goblin, but all that remained was the place we had seated ourselves.  Nothing more than that.  Yet a lifetime’s memories concealed had poured forth, and it surprised me that there was nothing physical to mark that.
We continued on our way.