Long-time readers here will know that I’m a huge mythology aficionado, so when I say that this book taught me so much that I didn’t already know about the history and myth of Britain, that is no mean feat!
The book started out pretty roughly, for me, as I tried to settle into the somewhat unusual format. Each chapter begins with a quote, then tells a myth from the history of Britain, usually accompanied by a woodcut, followed by commentary from art historian and academic Amy Jeffs as she retraces the steps and locales of the story. The chapters begin with the very earliest known myths regarding the way the rocks of Stonehenge were brought from Africa to Ireland by giants, following Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 assertion linking Merlin to the Bible. For those of us whose exposure to British myth pretty much begins and ends with King Arthur’s Court (with bits regarding Boudicca and Roman legions thrown in for spice,) this is a pretty wild tale. Given too that it mostly takes place in not Britain, its inclusion puzzled me. It would soon enough prove to be an essential building block for everything that comes after.
Storyland continues on from this time between Genesis and The Flood, going through pre-history, the birth of Christianity, and on through the Middle Ages, as warring nobles seek to reinforce the legitimacy of their claims by tying themselves to divine right a/o to civilizations even older than Christ. It is fascinating to see the tides of conquest flood and recede as Britons, Scots, Danes, Angles, Saxons and Normans — and other factions I’m definitely forgetting — battle over the island now known as Great Britain, spinning tales of righteousness and propaganda as they go, tales that survive to this day.
Once I immersed myself in the format and, admittedly, once the somewhat primordial soup of Part One finished washing over me, I felt that the book really kicked into gear. Tho perhaps that’s somewhat unfair, as the final half-chapter of Part One — regarding the naming of the Severn — was when I felt the book started to really feel more relatably human than inscrutably immortal. For all that, the first few chapters of In The Beginning are an absolutely necessary foundation for the rest of the volume, which achieves the lofty goal of its subtitle with aplomb.
Dr Jeffs has done something quite stunning here, pulling from history and myth to create a compelling single narrative from a notoriously chaotic region for stories. Given the competing legends, with spin upon spin of who did and deserves what as factions claiming these stories vie for legitimacy (or sometimes mere fame, as the absurdly muddled tales of Arthur prove,) this is no small task. The final agglomeration of excellently researched tales presented here gives readers a comprehensive, cohesive look into the tangled thicket of British legend and belief.
And moreso than just the stories, I found Dr Jeffs’ thoughtful travelogue compelling in the way it allows the reader to engage, through her wanderings, with the long-lasting impact of the past upon the present. Alongside her evocative woodcuts, that makes this book more than just an amusement. It’s an invaluable tool for understanding the timelessness and influence of legends on our daily lives, particularly for those living in Great Britain, but with implications for readers world-wide as well. I loved this.
Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain by Amy Jeffs was published August 22 2023 by Andrews McMeel Publishing and is available from all good booksellers, including