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The Old Stories: Folk Tales from East Anglia and the Fen Country (Dolphin Paperbacks) Paperback – 15 Jul 2004
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"Sometimes humourous, often making us feel we have brushed against something dark, threatening and inscrutable in the marshes, this is an irresistible collection from a master storyteller. John Lawrence's distinctive wood cut panels and vignettes are the perfect accompaniment". (Linda Newbery TES, 10 Dec 04)
"Highly recommended" (INIS Children's Books Ireland Magazine, Winter 04)
"¿an irresistable collection from a master storyteller." (TES, 10 Dec 04)
Terrific and terrifying stories from ancient East Anglia and the Fen Country, brilliantly retold by one of the UK's greatest storytellers.See all Product description
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The seller despatched it promptly and it arrived the next working day in excellent condition.
A couple of The Old Stories are absolutely terrific. The tale of the merchant from an Anglian village who finds his fortune in London and uses at least some of it to bring some much needed improvement to the local church and therefore the local pride is an excellent example of a folk tale. Crossley-Holland's notes say that he has updated the story to give more detail about the journey to London - frankly that was boring anyway - but more interestingly the notes describe the stained glass window in the church that features this merchant. The folk tale is so good because it combines an event that really seems to have happened with some local beliefs about faery folk. The moral of the story seems to be that treasure is where the home is and that added level of depth speaks to these people and their values.
The merchant's tale is not the only excellent story. The other very impressive tale is the one of the braggart who boasts about his ability to brave the dangers of the marshland around the village. It is easily the most entertaining of The Old Stories as the hero boasts to his neighbours and sets out on his adventure. It is an adventure that speaks directly to the superstitions and fears of a medieval village community. The marshland has its constant dangers especially at night and the explanation for that danger is in the form of bogles, boggarts, witches, and most dangerous of all the dead hand. This set of monsters is a magnificent collection that deserves far more exposure. The villanous boggarts and tricksy bogles seem to be descendents of the kobold and are local representations of an ancient belief. The dead hand is the most dangerous because it is that creature which pulls the unwary to their death in the treacherous footing of the marshland - a great depiction of the real risk of a wrong step leading to disaster.
Why these particular tales work so well is that they are grounded in the local lore. Frustratingly so little else of the work holds local connotation. Crossley-Holland reproduces several stories written by a 19th century authory from Lincolnshire. They mainly have very little to do with Lincolnshire and there is precious little to associate the people or the actions with the environment in which they lived. Crossley-Holland exacerbates that by explicitly choosing to take out the local accent. There are only really two dialect references - one is the name of a particular faery creature called Yallery instead of Yeallowy while the other is the use of "that" instead of "it" in one story as in "that's been a...". Crossley-Holland quotes some Lincolnshire dialect in one of his notes to show why he made this editorial decision. It was a bad decision - the vernacular is not only easily readable but it would have given some semblance of localness to the proceedings.
One example of the mis-placing of location is the short story that is pretty much exactly the SE European vampire tale before Bram Stoker distorted it into what we currently understand as vampires. For anyone who wasn't aware of the original vampire tales of relatives risen from the dead to steal away loved-ones, the tale presented by Crossley-Holland might have some meaning that clearly does not exist for East Anglia. It is a folk tale but it is not a folk tale of East Anglia.
Perhaps there is just a lack of source material which might explain why Crossley-Holland reproduces so many from one Lincolnshire author but there is not much of local lore featured. The Anglians are a people who can trace at least back to the Iceni, there must be stories that date back to pre-modern times. Later on, the rise of Norwich to become England's second city based on the incredibly fertile farmland in the region has no reference in any of these tales. The legendary island of Ely, home to a great cathedral and the last redoubt of Hereward The Wake, gets one reference. There is nothing to connote these peoples as having real attachment to the stories allegedly told about them. It is so disappointing. Even the Fens are almost excluded from this collection which is frankly extraordinary. Instead, it is the Lincolnshire Carrs that are the main setting. The only reference to the Fens is in the 19th century story that can't really claim to be a folk story but is a morality tale set to the backdrop of the draining of the great marshes of the Anglian region and is about remembering the values of the past.
Crossley-Holland doesn't help his cause with his preface. He is the leading purveyor of folk stories in Britain and yet his description of why folk tales matter is mind-blowingly fatuous. Apparently the value in folk tales it that they are about you and me. Crossley-Holland would do well to read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys for a much more thorough and credible description of what folk tales are - they are the stories of a people that speak of that people's past, their values, and their environment. Crossley-Holland has not reproduced that in The Old Stories, he has repackaged a set of stories that were written in and often nominally set in East Anglia. What he has not done is produce the tales of the Anglians that speak to who they are, what they value, and why they did it. There is a generic dragon story somewhat distorted by Crossley-Holland's modern viewpoint on gender, there is a vampire story that read simply as a translation of a folk story from the other side of Europe, there are plenty of stories that could have come from anywhere and very few that speak to Anglia.
There is value in the notes that Crossley-Holland provides. It is always frustrating that these come at the end of the book when it would be better to have them physically associated with the tales they are about. The notes are occasionally really useful such as the note about the merchant but mainly they are just descriptions of where the narrative was found - mostly from one writer in Lincolnshire.
The Old Stories is a missed opportunity. Most of the stories are generic and not especially interesting. A couple of them are absolutely excellent. It is a shame but this work is very disappointing. This particular reviewer happened to accidentally lose the book while on a train from Vienna to Prague - should anyone have picked it up after me and read it, they would not have absorbed much at all of the culture, people, and stories of the Anglian part of the world.