Of nobbly, nibbly bogles, polks and shape-changers

4th September 1998 at 01:00
North Norfolk is a subtle place. Gently folding hills flatten out to saltmarsh and shingle stretching to the sea. It has an understated beauty, an economy of landscape that lends an overwhelming sense of spaciousness.

But don't be fooled. This country is teeming with nobbly, nibbly bogles, boggarts, polks and shape-changers as shifting as the tides and the bog, creatures of the hundreds of tales as old as time that have come out of the land.

You might think twice about night strolls along the marsh paths out to the sea after reading The Old Stories: Tales from East Anglia and the Fen Country by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Colt Books #163;9.95). Folk tale and belief rush in so that the most empty place is the most full in terms of tradition and story. "It's as if people here couldn't bear so much emptiness," says the children's writer, poet and broadcaster.

Norfolk is rich in folklore and he is alive to its potential. He spent his childhood summers here at his grandparents' home, and in later life has settled in Burnham Market, a handsome village within walking distance of the coast. A sense of place is crucial to his writing and he has steeped himself in the spirit of the area, its landscape, language and its literature. His retellings echo the hopes and fears of generations; the lucidity and thrift of his prose reflects the very place.

One work in progress, a series of poems entitled "Songs of the Moored Man", tells of a creature whose nature is like the coastline - "virile ... a trickster ... shape-changer; he suffers; he endures; and he has a fierce beauty".

As a storyteller, he is all ears. "I love village gossip and listen out for snatches of story, old and new," he says. Storm, his 1985 Carnegie Medal winner, involved a ghostly plot based around a farm near his home.

He laughingly refers to himself as the "crotchety old apostle of the North". Over lunch he breaks into Anglo-Saxon, with its rough, earthy sounds. Crossley-Holland revels in this root of folk language, "a language that is simple and lean", that "finds the quick way home". His retellings are taut and finely honed, as is his classic children's adaptation of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon poem. You don't come across many tales more pared down than in his collection Short! (OUP #163;3.99) - each is often less than a page.

The tradition of the North, he says, has produced a "stupendous quarry" of story. He regrets that publishers' current love-affair with retellings has produced many rehashings of familiar tales, with only a few breaking new ground. In his forthcoming Young Oxford Book of Folk Tales (OUP #163;12.99) he has tried to come up with "a few surprises".

He believes that we especially need to find new tales that reflect an urban society, "to collect assiduously the native urban legend", without being confined by the past. He strives to give his stories meaning for children today, no matter how ancient their root.

But he takes care in doing this. Careful research of the cultural context of tales is crucial, he says, to avoid misinterpretation or "exoticising the mundane".

"You take a folk tale, you say: 'Here is a model, where was it collected?What culture did it come from? What did it say to the original audience? ' Then you say: 'What will speak to people's hopes and sensibilities at the end of the 20th century?'."

His retelling of The Green Children (OUP #163;4.99 pbk) which he adapted for children from The Old Stories as well as translating into a libretto, is a tale of a lost brother and sister from the Underworld, found wandering in East Anglia. They never find a way back and have to be reconciled to their new home.

For Crossley-Holland, this is part of a canon of folktales about outsiders that he believes is "urgently" relevant for today - for refugees,for ethnic minorities, for traveller children, for "that part of each of us that feels like a square peg in a round hole". The Green Children, he says, "is a story which teaches the way we are to behave in a cross-cultural world".

Perhaps his greatest challenge will be his next task - to give contemporary resonance to the story of King Arthur. Crossley-Holland is planning a trilogy which he intends to be a "major rethinking" of the Arthurian legend. The first step towards that is The King Who Was and Will Be, to be published in October (Orion #163;12.99). He describes it as a collection of "moments in the Arthurian world", a stage in his research for the fiction to come.

This collection is a finely-tuned assortment of pleasingly clear, simple explanations of bits of the Arthurian jigsaw with nuggets of source text.

Reading it is like dipping into a box of delights.

It includes this extract from a medieval encyclopedia by "Bartholomew the Englishman", called "Little Boys": "They think of nothing but their own stomachs and are scarcely out of bed before they're clamouring for food. "

Crossley-Holland's consummate skill in weighing his material, choosing the right word, selecting information and writing as much as is needed and no more, will no doubt continue to please adults and children.

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