Folklore as MacGuffin: British Folklore and Margaret Murray in a 1930 Crime Novel and Beyond

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Miles Burton’s 1930 novel The Secret of High Eldersham reveals readings of British folklore and folkloristics that still resonate in the discipline. While investigating a murder in remote East Anglia, a London detective is alarmed at possible evidence of witchcraft behind it. Another outsider informs him of current discussions of folklore, citing ‘the excellent work of … Margaret Murray,’ a prominent scholar of witchcraft. High Eldersham offers an early precursor of the use of the ‘folklore fallacy’ that Mikel Koven has identified in folk horror cinema, but it also points to an actual engagement with contemporary disciplinary thinking. This includes scholarship that was already being questioned in the 1920s, and has been much criticised since, and demonstrates a tacit engagement with other folkloric material. Witchcraft is deployed as a MacGuffin, a device to disguise and also facilitate the book’s criminal plot. That the thinking invoked now seems outmoded (and was hardly uncontroversial at the time) is less significant than the connection itself. It points forward to developments within folklore and folkloristics in Britain, and their popular uses, that we may now find as problematic as they are stimulating.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFolklore and Nation in Britain and Ireland
Number of pages204
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2021


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