A New Mythology of Britain
by Amy Jeffs
‘Arthur had a sister called Anna. She married the pagan King Loth of Lothian. Their sons’ names were Gawain and Mordred. They had a daughter too, whose name was Teneu. As soon as they were old enough, the boys had migrated south to fight for Arthur. Teneu didn’t miss Mordred much …..’
Mythology, I hear some of you say, what mythology?
In fact, Britain, indeed the whole of the British Isles, is awash with folk tales and legends, and with stories of magic, heroes, villains and noble deeds. And if Storyland is anything to go by, they challenge the best from Greece, Rome, Egypt and Persia. Most of us have heard the stories of King Arthur, Merlin, the Loch Ness Monster (not to be confused with the River Ness Monster as described in Part 4), and so on. The village where I live has its own legend – of a witch, a curse and a gigantic cow. However, although I have read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and some of the writings of Nennius, most of the stories in Storyland are unfamiliar.
Amy Jeffs is a good storyteller. Her narrative is straightforward and unadorned by the scholarly language of Robert Graves’s Greek Mythology. She does however add to her stories details of sources (as Graves does) and some of her personal experience of visits to legendary sites like Stonehenge and Tintagel.
‘When Christ was taken down from the cross, a tomb was offered by a rich man called Joseph of Arithmathea. Few know now that this same Joseph travelled to Britain during the reign of a king called Arviragus ….’
The narrative proceeds historically, from prehistory to the Middle Ages. The first three stories, The Giants’ Dance, The Naming of Albion and Brutus Founds Britain tell of giants, of their arrival in these islands and of the legendary Brutus, descendant of the Trojans, and his battle with Gogmagog. Readers familiar with Geoffrey’s work will recognise the name, the supposed origin of the word Britain. The book then goes on to tell of Scota, first queen of the Scotti, of the ‘founding’ of England and Scotland, and the origins of the wars for Scottish independence. Nor is Scandinavia left out of the picture, because both the history and mythology of the Danes, Norwegians and Britons are intertwined.
‘William the Bastard took the throne of England, wresting it from the hands of the English, from the lank-haired rebels of the fens led by Hereward. And, after that, William’s armies marched on Wales ….’
As expected, a significant amount of space is devoted to the Arthur/Merlin stories, and strands connecting it to parts of the islands not usually associated with Arthurian legend. Two of my favourites are The Deception at Tintagel (with which I was already familiar), and Lothian’s Daughter (with which I am not). It turns out that Arthur had a sister, Anna, who married the king of Lothian (Edinburgh), and whose sons were Gawain and Mordred. We read too of Wayland the Smith, King Lear and his daughter Cordelia, and the Throne of Scone.
Storyland mixes pagan and Celtic folklore with Christian thoughts and ideas, much in the way which the old ways remain today in our customs and festivals, Easter, Christmas and the rest. Thus, in the middle section of the book, we find missionaries Augustine, Columba and Mungo (Kentigern) making an appearance, the latter in a story about Merlin.
The final part moves into recorded ‘history’ with tales of Kings Edward (the Confessor and the Martyr) in The Conquest and Elfrida and Edward the Martyr. Nor is William the Conqueror left out when he marches out to confront the giant, Gogmagog in Gogmagog Rises Again.
I have skipped a few, so readers must get the book and chose their own favourite bits. A Christmas present from my daughter, Storyland is a beautifully artistic book. The print is clear and it is peppered with fine illustrations designed by the author herself in linocut. The page headings in the book are all printed in red. Amy Jeff’s academic background is Art and Art History, so she is well qualified to attempt the fusion of narrative, design and pictures.
‘[Lugne] was passing through icy ecstasy, each hole and cut on his skin soothed by the water, which not only held him, but held back the tide of biting insects. But when he opened his eyes, he knew the monster had been no fantasy. Something was blocking out the glimmer of the overwater world ….’
As well as an easy, absorbing read, this is the kind of book which looks great on the shelf!