A new book of ancient legends by Norfolk author Kevin Crossley-Holland and the Nordic roots of some of our Christmas traditions
PUBLISHED: 21:00 14 December 2017
Dark stories of the north are being retold in films and television series and by a Norfolk author Kevin Crossley-Holland who has been breathing new life into Norse folklore for decades
Tales of the northern gods of thunder, nature and oceans might seem far removed from modern East Anglia, but writer Kevin Crossley-Holland has spent a lifetime connecting young readers with ancient legends.
His latest book, Norse Myths, Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki, retells the old stories for a new audience.
And from his home near Burnham Market Kevin feels a connection with northern lands and beliefs.
As a student at Oxford he was taught by the poet WH Auden, who told him: “Look north. People look south to the Mediterranean, when you and I are creatures of the northern lands.” He was also encouraged to continue his Anglo Saxon studies by JRR Tolkien himself and has been called the master of Norse mythology by Neil Gaiman.
He recites part of a saga in Anglo Saxon, a mellifluous flow of sound but a hard-won skill - he tells the story of the day he was in a punt, revising for a retake of an Anglo Saxon exam, when a swan attacked, leaving him with a serious knee injury, but not dimming his love of the language and stories.
It led him from a career in publishing to writing. His children’s book Storm won the Carnegie Medal in 1985 and the first in his series reimagining the King Arthur legends sold more than a million copies and created a world as solid, sensual and real as the present day for the legions of children (and adults) who read it.
He is a poet too, revealed in every line of lyrical, perfectly pitched, writing, and full of anecdotes from his decades at forefront of children’s literature. Invited to make up numbers (he says) when the Queen Mother was visiting a friend in Burnham Market, he was astonished that she greeted him by quoting from one of his poems about Burnham Overy Staithe.
Kevin, now 76, has known the village all his life. His grandparents lived here and founded the sailing club, where an annual race is named for them, and he still adores walking out along the flood bank across marshes and grazing meadows to the beach.
Next year a film featuring him in some of his favourite places will be premiered at the Oxford Literary Festival. Director David Cohen has filmed him at Burnham, in the ruins of Creake Abbey and beneath the medieval carved angels which roost in the roof of South Creake.
Kevin, a churchgoer himself, has written a novel based on the angel roofs of Blythburgh and South Creake, as well as a retelling of the Christmas story and a series of carols.
He is now writing for a project with the National Children’s Choir, telling the story of the Syrian refugee Nujeen Mustafa, who escaped to the west by wheelchair.
This autumn Kevin, who has four grown-up children, and a “burgeoning” family of grandchildren, suffered a stroke. “I opened my mouth to say good morning to my wife and couldn’t make a sound,” he recounts. He was rushed to hospital and is immensely grateful for the care he received at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn, and to the speech therapy which helped the master wordsmith reconnect with language.
Six weeks on he still speaks with slight hesitation, and tires easily, but is certainly not planning to retire.
“Writers don’t retire, they just kind of fade away,” he said.
His five years as president of the national School Library Association ended this year, but next year his 1980s collection of British Folk Tales will be reissued, including several haunting stories of ancient East Anglia, and there is nothing faded about his latest work.
Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki is a sumptuous hardback, aimed at older children and bringing to life the nine Norse worlds and their cast of gods, giants, dwarves and people.
They are worlds which have become familiar through film, television, fantasy fiction and computer games and Kevin’s lifelong fascination with this ancient now harmonises with very modern concerns about our connection with, and separation from, the natural world.
Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love, is published by Walker.
The Norse roots of some of our Christmas traditions:
We still use the Scandinavian word Yule for our midwinter festival.
Our decorated Christmas trees can be traced back to the Vikings, who hung food and carvings on evergreen trees at midwinter.
The Viking Yule lasted 12 days – like the traditional 12 days of Christmas.
The centrepiece of the table was a roasted wild boar. Some families still buy a ham for Christmas.
Mistletoe is central to the Viking legend of the death of Balder, the best and most beautiful of all the gods.