top of page
  • Writer's pictureGrace

Purveyors of Peculiar Lore

When my parents packed me off to undergrad, they were still clinging to the hopes that I would do something “useful” with the English degree I was planning to pursue.

Sorry Mom and Dad, but not only did I fail to use my time in undergrad to cultivate “marketable” uses of my English degree, but I somehow managed to loophole my way into studying some of the most obscure and misunderstood niche of English academia:


I tried to be a good, “normal” English undergrad, sitting through classes like “Applying Literary Theory” and “Economic Theory and the British Novel,” and while I did enjoy some of my literature classes, there were many that made me want to drop my slightly-more-parent-approved English major for the money-wasting Creative Writing degree I was already pining after.

That is, until I took my first Anglo-Saxon class. Knee-deep in kennings, æ’s, and elegiac poetry, I felt myself come alive. Soon I was translating Beowulf, squinting over old-scratched texts, and steeping myself in different onomastic tales. Tolkien and Lewis were right, I considered: this old stuff is one hell of a drug.

And that’s what I continued to study the rest of my undergraduate degree: old stuff.

The thing I loved about this “old stuff,” was that it taught me to read folktales, and mythologies, and stories, and ballads, and all manner of things with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the cultural anthropology underlying it.

It helped me to study these artifacts and seek to understand the worldview and the conditions of the people who wrote them. What did they believe about life, about our shared humanity? What were their fears and hopes? What clues did this old stuff hold about humanity’s inherent quest for truth?

I felt like a detective seeking a window into the past. The more I read the more I realized I didn’t know, and the more mystery that prevailed, the more my curiosity sparked.

There’s still an inexhaustible depth to discover, and while insomnia-fueled Wikipedia deep-dives, and bookmarked JSTOR articles are how I primarily conduct my “research” now, the thing I love about folklore is that it is rich, ubiquitous, and inescapable.

What do I mean by this?

Good ol’ Oxford English Dictionary defines folklore as “the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.”

And sure, we’ll roll with that.

Folk culture is different from pop culture.

Folklore, and by extension, folk culture, is consumed by the people who create it. Pop culture is consumed by the masses, but produced by the elite (meaning, not everyone is going to get the budget and resources to create the next Hollywood blockbuster. But all Hollywood blockbusters are made by people that do).

That being said, folklore is more insular. It's created by people of a certain community for people in their own community. (I think there’s scholarship to be done about fandom and fanfic cultures as folk cultures, but that’s another conversation).

Whether you know it or not, you are a part of a folk-group, and you have consumed, passed on, or encountered folklore. It’s so much more than just stories.

Architecture, cooking, clothing, medicine, rites of passage, music, linguistics, gender roles, norms surrounding birth and death: all families, all cultures, all people and groups have folklore.

Does some folklore flirt with our understanding of superstition and magic? Absolutely. Does some folklore tangle with misinformation and falsety? Surely. But the true folklorist doesn’t seek to debunk or try to prove or disprove the lore she encounters. The true folklorist looks at the lore and asks “Why did some people deem it good to believe this? What does the folklore say?”

Because, at its core, that’s what folklore does.

It communicates the world-view, values, assumptions, and in-group knowledge of a people to future generations in ways that mere instruction could never achieve. According to the folklorist, what is “true” in a folktale comes secondary to what is useful to the worldview.

Meaning: it matters not so much whether there are really cryptids that live in the lake in the next valley over what matters is why did the people of that area deem it good to believe that?

But this doesn’t mean that folklore is all tall tales, and codswallop. There are certainly stories, medical remedies, rituals, symbols and other folk-practices that can be considered true in an empirical sense. There are also folk customs and practices that are “true” on a deeper level, not so much true on outward presentation, but on what truths and assumptions are communicated underneath.

I think, in a way, Catholics understand this better than anyone. Even in our reading of Sacred Scripture, we understand the layers of Truth present. While not everything in the Bible may be true in a literally, empirical, factual sense— all of it is True in what it communicates to us about our God. While we have our doctrines, dogma, and Scripture that are true revelation from God, two-thousand years of Church history has also created some delightfully rich and vibrant folklore.

Is it true that your house will sell faster if you bury a St. Joseph statue in the yard?

Perhaps not.

But is it true that the saints’ intercession can help us with temporal needs (the real impetus behind such a practice)? Absolutely.

From Epiphany chalk, King Cake, St. Joseph bread altars, elaborate chasibles, John the Baptist fires, and a plethora of other practices that could be considered Catholic “folklore,” our faith (and the culture it creates) is rife with truths and assumptions communicated through lore.

I suppose the next question is, how can we as writers use existing folklore or create folklore for the sake of our fiction writing? Ought we to do so?

I’ll be answering these questions in future blog posts.

But I think as Catholics, and as writers, we ought to be unafraid to plumb the depths of worldlore out there, and put such folklore into our fiction. While there’s certain pitfalls to avoid when handling lore (especially lore that isn’t our own), we ought not to fear strange truths or amusing falsities, for as Aquinas would say, “All truth is God’s truth”.

Like Tolkien, Lewis, Fr. Walter Ong, and many an intrepid scholar before me, I dive unafraid into the depths to be a purveyor of peculiar lore. With a curious and uncritical eye, I study the “old stuff”. Because Christian in origin or not, it has a lot to tell us about the human heart.

And if there’s any truth to be found in folklore, it belongs to God too.

106 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page