Tales of Britain

By Jem Roberts

The finest, funniest stories of England, Scotland & Wales, refreshed for the 21st century. By Brother Bernard, as told to Jem Roberts.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Standing On The Shoulders of Giantesses...

... If you'll forgive the gendered term. Still, HAPPY WORLD BOOK DAY and INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY EVERYONE! First of all, THANK YOU so much for sharing your excitements at the arrival of the book at last, perfect timing for such an auspicious day, please do keep them coming!

Today Brother Bernard is off at the Merlin Theatre in Frome entertaining the Year 9s and 10s of Frome School – he was supposed to do it last year too, but the Beast From The East prevented that, so he did this instead. By the way, this is a first for TALES OF BRITAIN, but if you'd like a Tales of Britain show at your school, college, organisation – get in touch and we'll see what can be worked out!

As today's theme aligns itself with International Women's Day, we could point you towards last year's blog, complete with our Disney Princess-trouncing TALES OF BRITAIN PRINCESSES...

But the theme does allow us to hopefully clear up some slight irksomeness, this topic of what's available in the line of British Folktales. The thing is, when interviewed on radio, often you run out fo time to fully express yourself, and we've been left feeling definitely antsy about the claim that Tales of Britain is 'the first British folktale collection in decades'. The backstory to this project is utterly sincere – it came about because we wanted to buy a collection of British folktales for nephews, thinking we'd have our choice of several, and our researches at the time (over a decade ago) turned up very very little, astonishingly so, and that's what triggered this whole massive campaign!

This has changed a little over the ensuing years, and although a 'mea culpa' would be going too far, we'd hate to feel others' entries in this very slim genre of publishing weren't given their full credit. When it comes to British folkLORE studies, we've been hugely gratified to have the backing of Professor Carolyne Larrington, for a start, her book 'The Land of the Green Man' is a must-read for lovers of lore. And we already pointed you towards Dee Dee Chainey's excellent British Lore book in our Folklore Thursday article.

But when it comes to actual stories, above all, of course, we're talking about the true Grand Dame, Mother Goose of British Folktales, KATHARINE BRIGGS. 

Before she died in 1980, Briggs compiled the ultimate, exhaustive collection of traditionally told, raw British folktales, and although we never referred to this collection in creating our book, any of us working and playing in this area have a lot to thank her for. Her collections are now available in achingly beautifully illustrated form, courtesy of Peter Firmin, plus his daughter Hannah Firmin and Clare Melinsky. But the problem is, you will not find this Folio Society collection anywhere for less than £50. This was the only option we could find in print when we looked (although then it was £200), and that's really what inspired us to spend so many years fighting this campaign (and that campaign will continue for years to come).

We thought we'd be choosing from at least half a dozen authoritative British folktale collections, but besides small out-of-print squibs, that tempting but terribly expensive option seemed to be it. 

Since building up this campaign on Unbound, however, other books have started to rustle out of the foliage, and make any grand claims to uniqueness harder to make. In truth, some might see it as an eccentric move to highlight these other books so soon after our own launch, but that's just the kind of lovely storytellers we are. This is now taking us away from the International Woman's Day theme, but the History Press worried us with the release of a book called 'Ballad Tales', but as the name suggests, that was specifically centred on ballads, not stories. Two great authors, the late Robert Nye and the revered Alan Garner, both published their own selected British folktale retellings, but having read both books, they are HIGHLY selective, in Garner's case the choices utterly obscure, and neither writer had any intention of creating a full, representative anthology. Lots of authors do 'THEIR' retellings, as per Gaiman's Norse and Fry's Greek tales, and Garner's voice is a powerful thing, but his collection is a definite personal choice of lore, unlike Tales of Britain in every meaningful way.

However, the most recent shock came from a book called 'Between Worlds' by seasoned folklorist Kevin Crossley-Holland, who has spent his life retelling folktales from all over. We haven't yet read this collection, which stole a march on us by coming out last autumn, when our book was also originally meant to be published. When reminded to look forit in bookshops, in all honesty, that title, 'Between Worlds', keeps slipping our memories, and by calling this collection of 50 stories from Britain AND Ireland (we feel Ireland is too complex to slot into our collection, such a distinct land of lore deserves its own book) 'Between Worlds', it feels like Crossley-Holland has created another personal collection of favourites, just like Garner and Gaiman and co, without our intention of covering the land with tourist guides, rebooting public interest in folktales, having the maximum fun with it all and serving the widest audience inclusively, providing an all-new British folktale treasury for all.

We can't wait to read 'Between Worlds' though, and we know an earlier collection of similar tales was written by the great man, so what we're saying is, if word got back to Mr Crossley-Holland that this upstart Brother Bernard had been claiming Tales of Britain was the ONLY British folktale collection on the shelves, that would frankly break our hearts, and we want to spell out now that no disrespect to any other storytellers would ever be intended… but this is what happens when you spend 15 years working on a project, the landscape shifts as you work away. 

So what it really comes down to is, what defines our book? Four things – the intent to provide the most full collection of tales from this island imaginable (we have 77 without Ireland), the way that each story is tied to the landscape and offers tourist guides (with handy links), the way each tale has been fine-tuned for the 21st century, tastefully clearing away centuries of bigotry and distortion and making them suitable for all audiences today, and above all, HAVING A LAUGH. Folklore seems to be taken so very seriously at every turn, it's seen more as an academic subject than a branch of entertainment, we want to turn all kinds of folk on to these stories, folk who would run a mile at the idea of the usual folkloric fare, we want them to be bedazzled, and have fun, both reading the book and attending our live shows (see you at The Owl & Hitchhiker on the 15th, and/or Widcombe Social Club on the 30th!).

The mysterious Brother Bernard is here because Tales of Britain isn't simply one author's British folktale book, but it's been designed to please as many people as possible, like The Simpsons or a Pixar movie, giving our national treasury hopefully more of a chance to shine than ever before, and who retells them is immaterial. Just enjoy the tales, afresh, with confidence.

Speaking of which, it's time to race to Frome for a World Book Day packed with folktales fresh off the printers! Have a very happy one, and International Women's Day, and enjoy a tale or two!

Back to project synopsis

Comments

Lesley Cookman
 Lesley Cookman says:

I'm loving the book - there are lots of laugh out loud moments which are greatly appreciated. As an erstwhile panto-scribe (and performer and director) it appeals greatly to me, and as a current novelist it's going to be terrific for plot-plundering. Thank you!

posted 8th March 2019

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