Amy Jeffs’ Storyland recreates a history of stories, building a culture through a shared mythology of Britain at the edge of the world. 24 stories, all illustrated with linocuts and using various medieval sources to tell these foundational stories of Britain. This is a wonderful treasury of legends, and as the lovely publicists at riverrun sent us a sampler of the first four stories in the book, Anna and I (Fabienne) decided to use our medievalist backgrounds to give you something of a first impression reading of each of the stories.
This is Anna‘s verdict of the sampler: A stylish and evocative collection. The style is flowing and refined, painting in evocative strokes the emergence of Britain. Alongside such excellent retellings of British myth and folklore as The History Press’ Folk Tales series, Jeffs’ collection reinvigorates tales of old for a modern audience. And that’s a lengthy way of saying that I really enjoyed it.
And Fabienne‘s verdict is that she desperately needs to get her hands on a full copy of the book – it is a wonderful treasury of stories, both for readers with a general interest and for those with a particular medievalist focus. It is a beautiful edition, and thought-provoking both through its illustrations and commentary. A real gem.
1 – The Giant’s Dance
These giants came from Africa, before the Biblical flood. They wandered North, carrying stones and eventually built a temple, until they were washed away by the flood.
Fabienne: This story talks of giants carrying stones, wandering, of finding a new home and creating a potential legend for Stonehenge. I love how Jeffs name checks so many medieval writers and their opinions on the topic in her commentary on the story. It also shows how the origins of Britain are diverse down to the very beginnings.
Anna: Storyland reads like a response to Tolkien’s plea for a ‘mythology for England,’ with the exception, of course, of being for more than just England. And there is something powerfully Tolkienesque about the Giants’ journey from the scorching climes of Africa to the mist-bound islands of Britain. This first story in the anthology brings up the very bones of the land, and names them.
The explanatory notes that accompany each tale offer a deeper understanding into how these stories arose and for what purpose they were used throughout history.
2 – The Naming of Albion
Around the time of the flood, the Syrian king was blessed with many daughters. The eldest of these was called Albina. However, his daughters conspired to kill all of their husbands. The youngest told on them, and her sisters were exiled to life at sea. They eventually landed in a new land, and had children with devils, who became the giants of Albion.
Fabienne: And once again, Britain is presented as a country of immigrants. I love how much the founding legends emphasize that. Though not a fan of the monstrous portrayal of women… Even if it is a stock trope that was repeated again and again in medieval literature, sadly.
Anna: As a former student of Medieval literature, I thoroughly enjoyed Jeffs expanding upon ‘the stock … character of the female Saracen’ as a convention in medieval romance and commenting on how the reading of the Syrian Albina and her sisters has changed over time. Although this is a mythology of Britain, Jeff makes sure to situate it on a global stage.
3 – Brutus Founds Britain
The giant Gomagog rules over the island of Britain. The Trojan Brutus is prophesied to build a ‘new Troy’ in Britain by Diana, an analogue to Aeneas for the British. So he travels to the island, fights Gomagog, defeats the giants, founds London and lends his name to Britain.
Fabienne: I love this story – it’s so weird and wonderful. Gerald of Wales has a version of it in his Irish works which he uses to give the British claim over Ireland as well, which is slightly insane, but that is medieval writing for you. I also really like that this version includes Diana – and I agree with Anna, this illustration is simply gorgeous! No wonder they chose this one for the cover of the book as well. Honestly, this story has so much that one could dive into – just like this whole book!
Anna: This one contains my favourite illustration out of the ones I’ve seen so far – the goddess Diana manifesting to Brutus, her figure pushing at the confines of the frame, tendrils of smoke or hair or grasses spilling across the double page spread. She is without her typical attributes of bow, deer, or crescent moon, but that, in my opinion, makes her more powerful, more universal.
Diana, or maybe a sense of the numinous she embodies, presides over the rest of this section, casting even the mightiest of human heroes into perspective as very small actors in a very big world.
4 – Scota, First Queen of Scots
In around 1500 B.C. there was a Greek prince Gaytheles who married an Egyptian princess Scota. Together they travelled to Spain, where they built the city Brigantia. But the nomads were still unhappy, so they kept searching for their happy place and went into the Atlantic, ultimately settling in Ireland with their sons Hyber and Hymer as Gaytheles died.
Fabienne: It’s interesting how this story is so different from Gerald of Wales’ account of the same – he uses it to show how the English should have supremacy over Ireland, whereas this account is more concerned with sovereignty and national identity. It is a great example to show how medieval tales were just as concerned with propaganda and establishing the correct view of the past in order to further political aims as modern media is, which is often overlooked. Goes to show that studying the past really is very relevant to the present.
Anna: This tale, out of the four so far, deals most closely with nationhood and national identity. Weaving it together with a Christian perception of the world, the tale has been used as an argument for Scottish sovereignty. It also makes easy to remember the commonly overlooked fact that the Scots were originally from Ireland.
The minimalistic illustrations that are not bound by a particular time period and do not crowd the page with anachronisms remind us how pertinent some of the issues of the tales.