Re-written in strictly standard English and regularly pruned of material thought no longer to fit, folk tales in anthologies today are often shadows of their former rough, and frequently rude, selves. So who better to rescue them from respectability than Alan Garner, himself a writer of wild imagination and defiantly uncompromising literary skills?
Casting his net over the whole world but with a bias towards the British Isles, he brings back into print outlandish characters and situations that make even the most lurid screen game look feeble. Be prepared to meet Great Head, the Dog of Darkness, a pipe-smoking skeleton and the Stoorworm, whose length stretches across half the world. He also adds some eye-witness accounts from those claiming to have met one or other of these unearthly creatures.
Up against this underworld are brave knights and also some pitiful no-hopers who still manage to succeed where better men fail. Women, meanwhile, tend either to be so beautiful that flowers spring in their footsteps, or else repulsive hags upon whose right side it is still very much better to keep. Riddles continue to be set: what is the trade that no-one knows, or what do women really want? Elsewhere, surrealism rules in stories where a hill is stabbed to death, an Irish giant turns upside down and then inside out in his own skin, and a wife transforms into a willow tree. Garner's own favourite, "Yallery Brown", does not disappoint. Its lack of any happy ending for the peasant who first frees an evil sprite and then makes the huge mistake of thanking him for succeeding favours, which he had been warned never to do, evokes a time when stories offered both hope and despair, often in equal measure.
Garner calls folk tales the "gossip of history", there to explain natural phenomena as well as the eternal question of why so few have it easy and so many are forced to live hard lives. The vocabulary he chooses is based on memories of his Cheshire blacksmith grandfather and the way he once spoke. These are tales told "so that the printed word may sing". Handsomely produced with a gold-embossed purple cover, this is a book to wonder at.
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