Near myths brought from afar

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Neil Philip compares folk tales and ancient legends, newly told and drawn

When we have forgotten how to tell stories, we shall have forgotten how to be human beings. From the beginning of human time, mankind's thoughts, feelings and experiences have found their truest and deepest expression in the world of story.

The stories in Andrew Matthews's How the World Began (Macdonald Pounds 12.99) take us back to that earliest time, the time of creation. And, with the inevitability of myth, they take us forward, too, to the time of destruction: and beyond that, to a new heaven and a new Earth.

Andrew Matthews mixes the classic myths of the Greeks and the Vikings - and the Bible - with little-known stories from other cultures around the world, such as the fine "How the Darkness Came" from the Kono people of Sierra Leone. The book is an excellent introduction to the world's creation myths, told not just with accuracy but with passion and flair. Here, for instance, is Matthews's account of the ageing of Pan Ku, the giant who emerges from the cosmic egg in Chinese mythology, and holds the sky and the Earth apart: "Holding up the sky took all Pan Ku's strength. He grew old - his skin wrinkled and his hair went white. Pan Ku was dying, but his death was the birth of the world.

"Pan Ku's right eye began to burn. It flared up and became the Sun that fills the sky with brightness. His left eye glowed with a silver light and became the Moon that sails the dark sea of the night. The white hairs of his beard flew into the sky and changed into the glimmering stars."

Writing of this calibre, particularly when set against Sheila Moxley's colour-drenched and beautifully conceived illustrations, cannot fail to move and inspire.

Kevin Crossley-Holland's Norse Myths (Macdonald Pounds 8.99) takes us through the key stories of one of the world's great mythologies, that of the Vikings. The book is based on Crossley-Holland's eloquent adult retelling of 1981, The Norse Myths, and shares that book's lucidity and authority. It is not as complete as the same author's earlier quarrying of the same source, Axe-Age, Wolf-Age, but all the key stories of Odin, Loki, Thor, and Balder are here. Gillian McClure's illustrations capture a boisterous humour that more respectful artists can miss in these often down-to-earth, even knockabout, stories.

The Norse myths are a good example of one kind of problem that faces the modern reteller for children. Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century Icelander from whom much of our knowledge of Norse mythology comes, tells us that the Norse goddesses were equal in power and importance to the gods. But they come into the stories only as marginal figures. The female perspective is missing.

So authorartist Kris Waldherr's attempt in The Barefoot Book of Goddesses (Barefoot Pounds 12.99) must be applauded in its aim of offering today's children 26 goddesses to admire and emulate. This aim is, however, undermined by the wishy-washy romanticism of the artwork. These are not goddesses, but misty-eyed maidens who wouldn't say boo to a goose. The text is informative, though readers should be aware of the role the imagination has played in elaborating the roles and attributes of the Welsh Gwenhwyfar and Rhiannon.

Informing children about the great stories of the past is not the same as reliving those stories for them. That is what Priscilla Galloway has done in Atalanta the Fastest Runner in the World (Annick Press, distributed by Ragged Bears, Pounds 6.99) and Aleta and the Queen (Annick Press, distributed by Ragged Bears, Pounds 7.99). These are fine books, somewhat murkily illustrated by Normand Cousineau. Aleta and the Queen is a brilliantly imagined version of the untold side of the Odyssey, the women's side. What happened back on Ithaca? We learn it, with immediacy and intimacy, through the eyes of 11-year-old Aleta, grandaughter of Eurycleia, Odysseus's old nurse.

From myth and epic, the world's store of stories trickles down to the fairy tale, the legend and the anecdote. The same plots and images recur in different cultures in stories that are first and foremost tributes to the transforming power of the imagination. A World of Folk Tales (Scottish Cultural Press Pounds 7.95, edited by Sue Stewart and illustrated by Jila Peacock), prints 28 such stories, collected as part of the minority ethnic Folk Tale Project in Stirling, Scotland. Elizabeth Guest, co-ordinator of the project, contributes an afterword that might serve to inspire similar work elsewhere. The storytellers themselves, from Bangladesh, Japan, Nigeria, the Maldives, Slovenia, and Scotland, too, simply revel in the tales they have to tell.

One of these, "Tanabata", told by Hisae Harrison from Japan, reappears, perfectly properly, as "a Chinese legend" in Cindy Chang's The Seventh Sister (Troll Associates, distributed by Letterbox Library, Pounds 3.50), illustrated by Charles Reasoner. Taste alone will decide whether you prefer Cindy Chang's smooth literary approach or Hisae Harrison's more rough and ready oral style.

Mary Medlicott's The River that Went to the Sky (Kingfisher Pounds 12.99) is subtitled "Twelve Tales by African Storytellers", and that's exactly what it is. The editor has done a marvellous job of commissioning these tales, all of which are good. Some, such as the title story, are superb. Kasiya Makaka Phiri's "The River that Went to the Sky" is a Just So story worthy of Kipling himself, about the origin of drought, rain, and rivers - quite magical. The book is well illustrated by the Nigerian painter Ademola Akintola.

Lastly, we come to William Mayne's The Fairy Tales of London Town Volume One: Upon Paul's Steeple (illustrated by Peter Melnyczuk, Hodder, Pounds 9.99). This extraordinary mixture of folklore and fancy is a compelling tour de force. The contents range from a marvellous account of the grouchy spirit "guardian" of Tower Bridge to a retelling of Dick Whittington ("a paw-about idle jock of a boy") to my own favourite, "Nancy", which relocates that hero of Jamaican storytelling to a block of flats in the Isle of Dogs. This is Mayne at his magnificent best.

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