New life for old folktales of East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 11:16 06 December 2018 | UPDATED: 11:16 06 December 2018
Archant © 2010
Norfolk writer Kevin Crossley-Holland has conjured treasure from the stories which thread through our landscape and light-up childhood and beyond
Tis the season of folk tales. Even in the 21st century our thoughts turn to traditional tales as the dark, cold nights of winter take hold. The once-upon-a-time fairytales might become glitzy pantomimes, but the stories of magic, heroism and transformation have been told for centuries.
One of Britain’s greatest collectors and tellers of stories is Kevin Crossley-Holland and this winter the north Norfolk author has brought together some of his favourite tales.
And alongside the old stories of fairies and changelings, foolish kings and wise peasants, rooted in our rural past, he smuggles in some more modern mysteries, saying many urban myths are simply the latest reincarnation of folktales.
“Stories connect the past to the future,” he said. “They enable us to look back and forwards and to make sense of the extraordinarily complex world in which we live.”
Some of his earliest memories are of his father, saying and singing the old stories of East Anglia, Wales and Ireland, while playing a Welsh harp.
Now Kevin is a grandfather, and still loves the telling and retelling of stories.
One of his favourites in his latest collection is the 900-year-old tale of the Green Children of Woolpit, near Bury St Edmunds, who are discovered green-skinned and green-haired, speaking a strange language and eating nothing but green beans.
“It’s an imaginative, haunting, lyrical, melancholy story. What comes through most of all is the resilience of humans, and our ability to laugh at ourselves,” said Kevin.
A favourite Norfolk folktale is the story of the Pedlar of Swaffham, who goes to London to seek his fortune, only to return and find treasure beside the church in his own town. The Pedlar donates part of his new fortune to build a new church aisle and spire. “Like all the best folk stories it works on several levels,” said Kevin. “It tells us that we have to go on a journey to appreciate the treasure we have at home, and that if we don’t follow our dreams we won’t find treasure. Or is it telling us to give our money to the church?!”
There are also tales of a fearless Norfolk girl who tricked a ghost, Tom Tit Tot who was Suffolk’s Rumplestiltskin, a merman at Orford, and the underwater villages of the East Anglian coast.
All his life Kevin has loved the between-sky-sea-and-marsh landscape of the north Norfolk coast.
He and his wife Linda live near Burnham Market and his stories merge past and present, fusing the magic of fairytales into real places. Kevin learned Anglo Saxon at Oxford where he was taught by the poet WH Auden and encouraged by JRR Tolkien. He began a career in publishing before becoming a writer himself. His children’s book, Storm, won the Carnegie Medal in 1985. He is a poet too and has a lifetime of anecdotes including being greeted by the Queen Mother quoting from one of his poems about nearby Burnham Overy Staithe.
His last book for children retold Norse myths, next he will return to more stories which have fascinated him from childhood. His reimagining of the legends of King Arthur created a world as solid, sensual and real as the present day for the legions of children (and adults) who were absorbed by it. The first in the series, The Seeing Stone, sold more than a million copies and was translated into 25 languages. His last book for children retold Norse myths, next he will return to more stories which have fascinated him from childhood. His reimagining of the legends of King Arthur created a world as solid, sensual and real as the present day for the legions of children (and adults) who were absorbed by it. The first in the series, The Seeing Stone, sold more than a million copies and was translated into 25 languages. Next year the writer praised by Philip Pullman as “this great storyteller,” will be back with King Arthur, and a new book, illustrated by celebrated author, artist and cartoonist Chris Riddell.
Between Worlds, Folktales of Britain and Ireland, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, is published by Walker Books in hardback for £15.
BOOKS FOR SCHOOLS
Welcoming the Books for Schools initiative, Kevin Crossley-Holland, who was president of the School Library Association until last year, and is now a patron of the charity, said: “If books are well written they develop a love of language and it is language that separates us from the animals.” He said children can learn about themselves, and other people and places, from books. “They entertain us, they teach us, they give us back something of ourselves.”
The Archant Books for Schools campaign ends this week, with primary schools in Norfolk and Suffolk collecting tokens from our newspapers to win their share of £20,000-worth of books, plus a bonus £2,500 for the top four schools. Saturday is the final day tokens will be printed and they must be submitted by the following Friday, December 14.