For local author Ronald James, it all started with tommyknockers.
He was studying at the University of Nevada, Reno, in the early 1980s when he first heard about the Cornish creatures, known for knocking on the walls of mines to warn the miners of an impending collapse. After talking to his mentor, Sven Liljeblad, he decided to dig deeper.
“I already had some interest in Cornish folklore at that point, because I was studying in Nevada and there are a lot of Cornish immigrants there who believe in supernatural beings that live in the mines,” he said. “The Cornish knockers came to the United States with the Cornish immigrants, and other miners began to pick it up.”
According to James, many of the stories and traditions of Northern European emigrants fade with the first generation without being spread to people outside of that culture. The tommyknockers, however, continue to linger in American tradition.
He was fascinated by how these stories could spread to the general population and applied a method devised by Liljeblad (along with his own mentor Carl Wilhelm von Sydow) to the tales, which looked at how international narratives diffuse with local adaptations. Using this method, James sets Cornish folklore apart from other Celtic or English traditions.
“That was the first step to really tackling the subject,” he said.
After graduating with a dual bachelor’s degree in anthropology and history in 1978 and a master’s of arts degree in medieval history with an emphasis in folklore in 1981, James secured a fellowship allowing him to study in Ireland for a year. From 1981-82, he studied folklore in Ireland’s national archives.
Traveling to and living in Ireland, he said, provided him with a deeper insight that helped his research over the years.
“Any time you travel, it opens your eyes. I lived (in Ireland) for almost a year, and I think there was a point where I flipped over and became like a native,” he said. “I think having adopted a foreign frame of reference and really being exposed to a foreign culture reshaped everything.”
Among the topics studied, James found stories of Cornwall, giving him the chance to look further into the subject he had first encountered in college. However, he found that Cornish folklore had been largely ignored by scholars in the past.
“Cornwall is the last to be considered by the Celtic community, I think,” he said. “It seemed both unfair that this rich body of folklore was being ignored and it seemed like a great opportunity to explore the territory,” he said. “One thing led to the next, and I decided to right the wrong and exploit the opportunity.”
James explained that much of the Celtic and English-speaking world considers Cornwall as being a part of England and, as a result, Cornish folklore was perceived as being English folklore rather than Celtic.
“For many unfair reasons — industrialization, modernization, etc. — English folklore was perceived to be uninteresting, and therefore, Cornish folklore was put in that category as well,” he said. “I argue that Cornish folklore is very different from that of England, and that Cornish folklore should be considered in the ranks of the other Celtic nations.”
James also said that folklorists bypass Cornwall because it has been largely left unstudied. While the Irish, Scottish and Welsh programs maintain extensive folklore archives, “… No one took care of poor Cornwall. My book seeks to remedy that by putting Cornish folklore in an international context so that it can no longer be dismissed so easily.”
In February, James officially released “The Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation.” The book tackles a range of Cornish folklore, including piskies, giants, mermaids and — of course - tommyknockers.
James has authored or co-authored 14 other books and dozens of articles dealing with history, folklore, archaeology and architectural history. This publication, however, is a unique culmination of 40 years of research.
The book is also unique in how it is written. According to James, “This is the first book I’ve published on European studies, and the first book where the folklore carries 90 percent of the weight. Where, in the past, I would write a history book with folklore folded in, this one is folklore with history folded in.”
While writing the book from his current home in Zearing, in northeastern Story County, James wanted to ensure readers would understand the historical importance of the stories by giving them explanations rather than just presenting the tales one after the next.
He said, “You can read them. You can enjoy them. But what do they all mean? I didn’t want to just write a book of stories; I wanted to build a framework that gives them an explanation. I tried to cut that middle path between offering the little stories while also giving serious explanations as to what they all mean.”
James is affiliated with Iowa State University’s Department of World Languages and Cultures. He is also working with the city of Zearing to restore a historical building on Main Street. While his book was started in the state of Nevada, and took him to Cornwall and back, he said Story County is where it all truly came to life.
“Living here in Iowa, I really had the opportunity to just sit down and write,” he said. “This is where the book really took shape and made its way to the finish line.”