Forget trusty blades and monsters rearing their ugly heads. Good collections of myths rely not on recycling cliches but on staying true to the spirit of traditional tales, writes John Mole.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE WORLD, VOLUME 2: THE SILVER TREASURE By Geraldine McCaughrean Illustrated by Bee Willey Orion Pounds 14.99
ORCHARD BOOK OF MYTHICAL BIRDS AND BEASTS Retold by Margaret Mayo Illustrated by Jane Ray Orchard Pounds 12.99
THE ANIMALS OF PARADISE By Noura Durkee, Illustrated by Simon Trethewey Hood Hood Books Pounds 12.95Pounds 8.95
THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF MOTHER AND DAUGHTER TALES Retold by Josephine Evetts Secker Illustrated by Helen Cann
THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF ANIMAL TALES Retold by Naomi Adler Illustrated by Amanda Hall
THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF STORIES FROM THE SEA Compiled by James Riordan Illustrated by Amanda Hall
THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF STORIES FROM THE STARS Compiled by Juliet Sharman Burke, Illustrated by Jackie Morris, Barefoot Pounds 12.99 each
The essence of good storytelling is clarity of narrative and vigour of language. This is especially true of myths and legends. Too much embroidery detracts from their potential as a template for the reader's or audience's imagination, substituting self-conscious literary effect for direct statement of the marvellous; too many cliches of mythspeak, in which all swords are trusty and monsters keep rearing their ugly heads, reduces even the most resonant tale to the commonplace.
The great, traditional stories of the world are not merely a heritage to be worthily preserved; they are an international memory-bank which thrives on continual imaginative investment. Keeping the currency fresh for each new generation without debasing the coinage is the responsibility of every writer who sets out to retell or adapt them.
Geraldine McCaughrean is a model storyteller. The eagerly-awaited successor to her Golden Hoard is The Silver Treasure, and if her next were to be a Bronze Chest, no one would be likely to suggest that she is economising. Every story in the second volume of Myths and Legends of The World is rich in humour, pathos, and excitement, and each is complemented by Bee Willey's illustrations, which not only demonstrate a remarkably close reading of the text but succeed wonderfully in suggesting its geographical or ethnic background.
The language is direct and vivid, matching idiom to content so that, for example, Rip Van Winkle and the hospitable dwarves converse in a Paul Bunyanesque backwoods Yankiness.
One story, in particular, is magnificent. In the Japanese legend of "The Lighthouse on the Lake", a lighthouse keeper, flattered at first by the passionate devotion of a beautiful girl who, night after night, rows out to visit him, begins to interpret her adventurous devotion as immodesty and convinces himself that she must be a dangerous enchantress. Both die in the first of the annual hurricanes which embody their doomed, destructive relationship, and "come as regularly as a lover keeping a tryst with her sweetheart, but their twisting embrace is a deadly and, at heart, a whirling emptiness". This is fine writing, an artistry true to the essence of the legend, and instinctively rather than decoratively poetic.
In Mother and Daughter Tales, part of the attractive Barefoot series, Josephine Evetts Secker - herself a Jungian analyst - rightly keeps the analysis (for the adults who want it) at the back of the book, and lets the stories speak for themselves. She writes well, but whereas Geraldine McCaughrean invests her narrative with an intuitive sense of symbolism (notes aren't necessary to hint at the Freudian implications of the lighthouse and the boat when it "bumped the steps at the foot of the tall building"), she seems almost deliberately to be aiming for a reined-in straightforwardness. At their best, though, the stories convey the continuities of feminine wisdom, their instructiveness and consolations.
The kingdom, peaceable or otherwise, of the birds and beasts is well represented by three books, each of which is different in character. The most exotic, both in content and appearance, is The Orchard Book of Mythical Birds and Beasts. Jane Ray's swirling and sumptuous colour plates,the full-page ones spread like tapestries, are fit for the sherbet table in an Emperor's nursery, and Margaret Mayo has chosen an interesting selection of creatures, mixing the emblematic, the fantastical, and the other-worldly but almost human. Her story of the Mermaid, retold from two Cornish versions, is particularly haunting.
Noura Durkee's The Animals in Paradise is a bestiary of another kind, a colloquium in which, one by one, the animals recall their life on Earth and their involvement with biblical figures. Several are amusingly sententious: the Lion could almost be the headmaster speaking in assembly - where this odd little enterprise might go down well.
Despite the humour - typographical in the case of the Snake - there are a lot of sentimental pieties, not least in the introduction and link commentaries by the Recording Angel, who addresses his "earthly friends" like some extra-terrestrial being who has taken a good look at the Just So Stories. There are also echoes of Ted Hughes's way with fable in the stories themselves - and the stories, perhaps inevitably, suffer by the comparison. Indeed, after "What is the Truth?" one might almost be tempted to ask: "What is the point?" Less ambitious, and back to the retelling, The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales is another miscellany from various lands.Naomi Adler does occasionally lapse into mythspeak ("Before Dreamtime the Earth was dead") and is not in the McCaughrean league, but here is another handsome and distinctive book.
School libraries would be well advised to go Barefoot. The appeal of this series lies in the consistently high quality of its production. The storytelling is never less than adequate (such a quality guarantee really means something in the myth and legend market), and the illustrations are lavish without ever becoming overblown.
In Stories from the Sea, James Riordan casts his net widely, adapting Hans Andersen, translating from a French version of a delightful Vietnamese tale, The Precious Pearl, and tracking down several winners from remote corners, while Juliet Sharman Burke rescues the Zodiac from the banal clutches of Mystic Meg and attaches each star sign to its originating myth.
My own, Libra, is one of the shortest but I won't hold that against her: the scales "still shine in the heavens . . . reminding us that we can use them to weigh up the good and the bad in the world, and to judge ourselves and others fairly and wisely". I was glad to be reminded of this, and that I was therefore perhaps fated to be a reviewer.