Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Urquhart

Emily Urquhart, a journalist with a doctorate in folklore, prefers the term “Wonder Tales” to “Fairy Tales”. It suggests a sense of wonder while reading, rather than just the expectation of fairies or other fantastical creatures. I think we should call all stories “Wonder Tales”.

While reading these essays, I let Emily stoke a sense of wonder and an interest in folklore that I didn’t know I had. The essays are an interweaving of her own personal stories and how they connect to folklore. Through her personal stories, she shows us how fairy tales and folklore function. As I was reading them, I wondered what came first – the stories or the folklore? In an interview with Biblioasis, Emily explains that she often starts with an idea, and that she knows from studying folklore that there will be “some kind of folklore equivalent… to explain an idea or to get to the heart of a story.”

I don’t have any religious background or follow any organized spirituality, but I do believe in the stories that have existed over time for as long as anyone can remember.

Reading her essays feels like someone is reading you a bedtime story while learning new and marvelous things. For example, did you know there is a collection of over 300 ballads from England and Scotland that were gathered and anthologized in the 19th century and are now known as Child Ballads? Emily helps us to see what an incredible thing this is.

Ballads are survivors and they have travelled a long distance. The ancient songs warbled across centuries, passing from one singer to the next, wending through the countryside and in and out of towns, and eventually the sung poems crossed the Atlantic on sailing ships, tucked into the repertoires of the European emigrants on board.

The narratives are told without context or identifying details so the story takes place in the landscape of the listeners’ minds. It is for this reason that the songs adapted so well to the deep brush, to the endless whiteness of snow, to the mountains, and to the rocky island in the middle of the North Atlantic where I first heard them.

Other essays include stories of childhood hauntings, working on a PhD in rural Newfoundland, the death of a brother, time spent at a cottage during the first several months of Covid, and memories of Urquhart’s late father – the artist Tony Urquhart. Her father taught her that “the world can be both real and imagined and life can be given and hoped for and you must remember to look, to truly look, and see what is in front of you, and, to see beyond it as well.”

This vessel of folk concepts, names, and theories floated on a sea of stories. Everyone’s sea is made of stories, although some call them memories and, ultimately, they are the same thing.

What a lovely image… that “everyone’s sea is made of stories.”

Further Reading:

The Charlatan: “This isn’t a book just about the supernatural—it is also heavily based in reality. Her personal additions make the book feel intimate and heartbreaking, as Urquhart describes her experiences with violence, miscarriage and grief.

Toronto Star:The result is a sort of magic, a reminder of the wonder present in every day, and the way in which the resonances of the past can give additional shape and meaning to a life.”

Pickle Me This: “These essays—beautiful, rich and absorbing-will change the way you see your place in the world, and they’ll leave you noticing all the magic at its fringes.”

10 thoughts on “Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Urquhart

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’ve read another book of Urquhart’s, Beyond the Pale, which is about albinism (her daughter has the condition) but also brings in a lot of folklore. I’m sure I would enjoy this one, too. (You probably know that her mother Jane is the novelist?)

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I do! I have several of Jane’s books on my shelf that I haven’t read yet. I find it interesting that, so far, one writes mostly fiction and the other mostly nonfiction.
      I would also love to read Beyond the Pale – it’s on my list!

  2. Anne Smith-Nochasak says:

    This sounds excellent! Grounding the telling of intense personal experiences in folklore is a fresh approach; I am adding this one to my reading list.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I’ve got this on my shelf right now, so it’s helpful to now know what I’m getting into when I pick it up! I recognized her name from other book reviews, etc. so no doubt she’s a lovely writer. Plus, Biblioasis publishes great books 😉

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