Among the ancient monuments and natural features that have been attributed to the prince of darkness in Jeremy Harte’s quirky study of English folklore and landscape is Devil’s Dyke in Sussex, a steep-sided valley in the South Downs near Brighton. But rather than being notorious for its demonic associations since time immemorial, it only became a fashionable destination for visitors “hungry for sea air and scenery” in the late 18th century. Local people at the time were keen to feed visitors with spooky tales about their district.
Its fame began to spread, and in 1810, William Hamper from Birmingham composed a verse based on a story he had been told in Brighton. Apparently “Old Nick” had become so outraged by the number of churches in the flat Weald countryside that he decided “to cut the lofty Downs in two”, creating a channel to the sea that would flood the countryside and its pious people.
But this plan was thwarted by an old woman who woke in the middle of the night and saw him engaged in his fiendish work. She held up a candle behind a sieve and tricked the evil one into thinking dawn was breaking: “Behold – he fled – his work undone – / Scar’d at the sight of a new Sun; / And muttering curses, that the Day / Should drive him from his work away!”
Harte points out that even the name of Devil’s Dyke is recent. Indeed, he argues that most of the tales he records date from the 17th century or later. Nevertheless, there can be ancient motifs in these yarns. The importance of night-time to the devil is one example: “once, he was not the devil of Christianity at all, but a troll; he had to flee the sunrise, or he would perish”. Harte uses a lovely analogy to describe how old and new elements have been woven together to create something fresh: they are like an “old hammer, which had been in the family for generations but with three new heads fitted to it and five different handles”.
He rejects the traditional notion that folklore grows like a tree, branching out from a single pagan trunk. There is usually no ancient “master clue” – such as the devil originally being Odin – which can be used to explain a story’s meaning. Instead, he emphasises the idea that local myth is a complex “lattice”, a collective work of the imagination that, like a palimpsest, is constantly being reworked to introduce new motifs and heroes.
Harte shows how just as place names change through time so, too, does folklore, and its history can be revealed through close reading and comparison with fables from across Europe. This is no easy task, for although scholars in other countries systematically collected and recorded such things, “our stories have come down to us in a muddle of guidebooks, scribbles in the corners of maps, amateur poetry and notes for antiquarians”. Fortunately, Harte – a curator at Bourne Hall Museum in Surrey – has an encyclopedic knowledge of the diverse sources of England’s traditional tales and proves himself to be an authoritative guide.
From the demon who appears as a fearsome figure hurling stones, gouging out valleys and heaping up hills, or as a sinister black-clad huntsman with his fiery-eyed hounds howling across Bodmin Moor, to ideas about how a woman’s wit is better than a man’s when it comes to besting the lord of darkness, Harte takes his reader on a devilishly entertaining tour of England and its richly storied landscape.
• Cloven Country: The Devil and the English Landscape by Jeremy Harte is published by Reaktion (£15.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.