All folk welcome

24th September 2004 at 01:00
The Children's Bookshow hits the road next month, accompanied by a new guide to traditional stories from Booktrust. Kevin Crossley-Holland explains why we need myths, legends and fairy tales more than ever

In this retelling by Marcus Sedwick of The Emperor's New Clothes, illustrated by Alison Jay (Templar Publishing) - a tale highlighted in the Booktrust guide -two weasels announce their skill as tailors; opposite, the emperor admires his new suit

One of the wonderful things about fairy tales, legends, myths, traditional tales of all kinds, is that most of them belonged to our grandparents'

grandparents and most will belong to our grandchildren's grandchildren.

Like King Arthur, alive and asleep under a hill, always returning, they link generations. They were, and are, and will be.

Another wonder is the way in which a traditional tale must constantly change in order to survive, and yet always remains essentially the same.

And a third wonder ... well, I'll come to that.

Let me quickly try to define the different kinds of traditional tale. A myth is part of a jigsaw of tales, chiefly about goddesses and gods but also human beings and the whole order of creation. These deities mirror the characteristics, activities and values of the culture that creates them, but have vigorous, idiosyncratic lives of their own. I find it useful to think of myths as explanations or revelations of the physical world, our social behaviour and spiritual longings.

Folk tale is a generic name, a kind of grab-bag containing brief tales of many kinds. These involve humans, animals and supernatural beings, and illustrate our day-to-day lives with all their hopes, fears, small challenges, rewards, punishments, dangers and absurdities.

One kind of folk tale, legend, has at its heart historical actuality in the same way that each pearl contains a piece of grit. The stories about Robin Hood and Oliver Cromwell are legends, and so are the stories about our own early childhood: curious mixtures of memory and invention, fact and fiction.

In the fairy tale, humans and supernatural beings meet, and humans are often rewarded or pay the price of disrespect. And then there are tales of fabulous beasts and shape-changers, fables, nursery stories, wonder-tales, ghost stories, jocular tales and tales about giants, stories of saints and devils, urban legends. All of these are folk tales.

True, poets and novelists, visual artists and film-makers regularly use themes drawn from traditional tales, but most direct retellings are now written and illustrated with children in mind. Short, vivid and seldom introspective, myths and folk tales not only help a child to decode the mysterious, often threatening world she or he is growing into, but have the power to quicken a child's imagination and sow the seeds of a lifelong passion for story.

In the classroom, meanwhile, teachers put traditional tales to work in developing logical and predictive thought; for language work; as the basis for discussions about action and consequence, right and wrong, religious belief, the existence of magic; for history and geography projects; and for drama and music, dance and artwork.

But when European folklorists began to collect stories in the early 19th century, they regarded folk tales as being just that: the tales of the illiterate folk - a great hoard passed from mouth to mouth, to be enjoyed by everyone.

These folklorists, men like the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Asbjornsen in Norway, Grundtvig in Denmark and Arnason in Iceland, had to race against time: against the dislocation of rural communities as people got swept up in the Industrial Revolution, against the growth of literacy and proliferation of newspapers, against the soft option of mechanical entertainment.

There is so much for storytellers and writers to learn from early descriptions of storytellers in action: their authority and readiness not only to tell but comment, their vividness and accuracy of language, their constant changes of mood, their use of face and hands, and their sense of delight both in telling and sharing. I've made a list of these attributes and try to face up to them each day.

There are more retellings of traditional tales available than ever before: individual tales, collections, anthologies, adaptations, and novels that use traditional patterns and themes. The excellent Booktrust guide selects and reviews some of these.

I believe any writer or illustrator in this field has responsibilities. One is to inhabit rather than plunder the world of traditional tales and another is to familiarise oneself with the culture from which a tale comes; any writer has to contemplate what the tale actually means, and only then start to search for the appropriate form, words and images.

The last responsibility is, of course, to the audience. What, for instance, about the casual violence and downright cruelty that are part and parcel of folktale? The offensive sexism and stereotyping? And the almost invariably rural setting when the majority of us live in towns and cities? How is one to address such issues with children in mind?

As the guide makes apparent, the best of our authors and illustrators face up to these challenges triumphantly. And now, the third wonder...

The third wonder is the way in which traditional tales manage to have the best of both worlds. On one hand, they tell us we're all in many ways the same, because we're all human beings. On the other, they show us how different we are, each of us, because we're individuals, and children of different ethnic groups, religions, cultures, and geographical areas.

Failure to allow for and understand these differences has led to intolerance, persecution and war. But in celebrating differences while identifying all we have in common, traditional tales invite us to draw closer to one another, = Kevin Crossley-Holland writes for children and translates from Anglo-Saxon This piece is adapted from his foreword to Folk and Fairy Tale: A Book Guide published by Booktrust pound;5 inc pp (cheque made payable to Book Trust). Orders: D Hallford, Booktrust, Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ Tel: 020 8516 2984 Email:


Kevin Crossley-Holland is one of 15 writers and storytellers appearing in the Children's Bookshow, a series of events for schools and families on the theme of Folk and Fairy Tales, between October 4, the start of National Children's Book Week, and November 16 in London, Windsor, Oxford, Guildford, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leicester. Some tickets still available. Details: See the same site for Children's Book Week resources


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