Reclaiming the marshes

5th September 1997 at 01:00
THE OLD STORIES: FOLK TALES FROM EAST ANGLIA AND THE FEN COUNTRY. Retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland Illustrated by John Lawrence Colt Books Pounds 9. 95

Standing alone in the November gloaming, looking out across the salt marshes and the wide open skies, with the wind whispering secrets, it is easy to recapture a belief in the wraiths, the bogies and the boggarts brought to life by the folk of East Anglian fen and marsh. In this non-whimsical collection of stories, Kevin Crossley-Holland evokes the ancient spirits and captures the atmosphere of time and setting.

The Old Stories consists of 26 tales, which include East Anglian versions of fairy stories such as "Tom Tit Tot" (Rumpelstiltskin) and "Cape of Rushes" (Cinderella). However, most of the tales arise out of local legend, such as "The Black Dog of Bungay", based on an incident that allegedly took place on Sunday, August 4, 1557 in which a demon dog killed two worshippers and severely burned another during the morning service at Holy Trinity Church.

"The Green Children", based on the chronicles of Ralph of Coggeshall, tells the story of two green children, a girl and young boy, found at Woolpit in Suffolk. There are several versions of this tale, including an earlier retelling by Kevin Crossley-Holland from the point of view of the green girl. More recently, a version by Adrian Mitchell, Maudie and the Green Children, tells of the impact of this strange event on a simple village girl.

The stories are well told by Crossley-Holland, a respected storyteller, who elaborates on the skeletal outlines provided by the chroniclers but maintains a directness in the telling. He successfully handles the wide range of mood so that we are moved by "The Suffolk Miracle", a tale of true lovers thwarted in life but reunited in death, and laugh at the exploits of the Cambridge scholars who, in Nasruddin style, outwit a poor tinker. In "The Sea Tongue", Crossley-Holland experiments with a poetic narrative which he describes as, "a kind of sound story for different voices which owes something to the idea that everything in our universe, every stick and stone, has its own voice."

The collection is well presented, with an illuminating extract from East Anglian folklore or records preceding each story. For instance, Alan Savory's true account of the slow drowning of a Stiffkey cockle-gatherer on the Norfolk saltings is a warning that unpredictable tides and mists must be respected. The foolhardy protagonist in "Long Tom and the Dead Hand" fails to recognise this important rule of nature.

John Lawrence's engraved illustrations perfectly complement the tales. Small blocks reproduced throughout recall the style of early printing, and emphasise the traditional element of these stories. Notes list all sources, making this a useful starting point for the student of folklore as well as an excellent resource for storytelling or reading aloud.

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