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The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor by…

The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor

by Ruth E. St. Leger-Gordon

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This is a bit of a mixed bag.

The author has an easy writing style and the first fourteen chapters are a good, entertaining read. The area seems to have engendered a wonderfully varied collection of legends and strange beliefs and supernatural denizens. Quite unexpected by me were the old legends of Sir Francis Drake’s magical powers, but the area is well-supplied with the more familiar spectral black dogs (and white ones, intriguingly), headless horsemen, devil’s hunts, wandering standing stones and so on.

It’s quite clear in the content that the author walked the moor herself and was quite familiar with the locations of her subjects. Reading up on the Dartmoor lore she has collected and her descriptions of places connected with it fired me to track down the locations with map and Google. In doing so, I’ve been given a lot of ideas for routes for a forthcoming walking holiday in the area – walks and intriguing locations that I’d otherwise have completely missed. I’ll certainly be taking this book with me as I’m sure it will add an extra dimension to the holiday – I’m sure that these old legends will add an extra frisson to those walks and locations and I’d thoroughly recommend it to prospective holiday-makers.

However, after those chapters, in the chapters where the author gets onto the subject of witchcraft, the book goes downhill rapidly.

Going on the foregoing chapters, I was expecting entertaining legends and folk-tales of long-gone or quite mythical Dartmoor witches. Instead, the chapters are concerned with the ‘witches’ of her own day or not too long before – the kind of people who supposedly magicked away warts and burns and adder-bites, or put the evil eye on people – together with some vague generalising about witchcraft in the wider world. This stuff was clearly as much of a hobby-horse with the author as Dartmoor and its legends, but I felt it didn’t fit in this particular book.

Indeed, I don’t think it is too strong to say that it spoils an otherwise good book. She is often writing as an absolute believer and I’m not sure whether to accuse her of gullibility or embroidery (perhaps both) but most of this section was too much for this old sceptic to swallow and I found it heavy-going and boring. ( )
1 vote alaudacorax | Jun 25, 2013 |
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In the wilder, and more remote parts of the country, such as Dartmoor and its borderlands, are corners where the remnants of folklore and traces of age-old witchcraft still linger. Nor are these anything but genuine. Only by personal contact and the traditional “word of mouth” is such lore still passed on and – sometimes – brought to light.

Walking on Dartmoor, and talking and lecturing, often to small, more or less isolated communities during the course of many years, have afforded the author quiet opportunities of gathering, piecing together and recording some of these fascinating fragments.

Most people have heard of pixies. Black witchcraft is a power many have heard spoken about, even if they have not actually experienced it themselves. Folklore which has accumulated round strange natural landmarks – stone circles and silent pools – is familiar, but not so universally known are the Wish Hounds; the Hairy Hands that guide motorists to destruction; and the White Bird of Oxenham,

All these things are not necessarily of the past. The growth of folklore is more continuous than might be supposed. Its tendrils, though slender, keep a firm hold upon the present. Here some attempt has been made to trace its course through the centuries into our own time where it sometimes reappears surprisingly in a new guise.

Not the least interesting part of this research has been the discovering of the number of people of all walks of life who are fascinated by folklore and witchcraft; it is, indeed, in response to many requests for “a book about it all” that the present one has been written.
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