Review by Neil Mackay
STORYLAND is a thing of beauty. It’s filled with exquisite, minimalist black-and-white artworks of giants and devils, heroes and heroines, kings and creatures. I’d happily wrestle an entire queue of shoppers on Christmas Eve in Waterstones to lay hands on the last copy of Amy Jeffs’s new compendium of British mythology for the literary collector in my life. Anyone who worships the book as a physical artefact will fall in love with this work on first sight.
I’ve been reading, listening to and hunting out stories about British and Irish mythology since I was a little boy. One of the first books I remember was a battered old hardback collection of legends about the British Isles that my grandmother would read to me by the fire on dark autumn nights. It set me up for a lifetime of fascination with mythologies from across the world. Once ancient Celtic and British tales had whetted my appetite, I was off to Greece to meet Zeus, then on to Rome to spend time with Romulus and from there my travels took to me to Egypt with Isis and Osiris, Sumer and the wild adventures of Gilgamesh, then onto the lands of the Norse with Loki at Ragnarok.
I’ve been travelling in space and time through mythology for decades now – discovering the lives and minds of ancient people in the Americas, Africa and the South Seas. So I gleefully paw my way through any new anthology when it appears – looking for something fresh, some tale or insight I’ve yet to discover, all the while hoping that each new book that arrives will inspire others to fall in love with the foundation stories which shape the remarkable tale of human life.
Jeffs is at her best when she’s sifting through the soil of ancient mythology for nuggets of truth, trying to uncover what fact may lie within a myth. It’s a hard job, like uncovering the microscopic grain of grit which formed the pearl inside an oyster. The study of the truths which lie within myths is known as Euhemerism. The best example is the myth of the Cyclops. Ancient Greeks discovered the skulls of mammoths lying buried deep under their fields. When these huge skulls were excavated, they appeared to have one giant eye in the middle of the forehead – it’s where the trunk would’ve been. However, Ancient Greeks, unaware of long dead beasts called mammoths, assumed these were the skulls of a giant with one eye – and up grew stories of the Cyclops. Likewise, the legend of the Gryphon – that strange bird-monster of mythology – began in central Asia where the fossilised nests of dinosaurs were found by ancient peoples, together with eggs and the bones of creatures that seemed like giant, monstrous birds.
Jeffs takes us back to the foundation of Britain when legend tells us that mysterious people from the east settled our islands. First comes Albina, the rebellious daughter of a king from the lands where Syria now sits. Not long after the Flood, she’s cast out by her father and lands in Britain – gifting us the name of “Albion” for the entirety of the British Isles. Later, Brutus, a descendant of Troy searching for a home, arrives on these shores. He gives us the name “Britain”, corrupted from “Brutus”.
We know that the people who first settled these islands did indeed come from somewhere to the east. Ancient DNA tells us that. So, is there some cultural memory echoing within these myths that Jeffs tells? Are these legends a remnant of ancient migration? Do they tell a story about the very mixed blood which runs through our mongrel veins?
The legends of the Scots have eastern echoes too. If you read the text of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, you’ll see references made by the authors to those who founded Scotland coming from “Greater Scythia via the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and living in Spain among the fiercest tribes for many years”. That implies a journey from the Russian steppe via the Med, past Gibraltar to the western shores of Spain. Jeffs tells of Scota, the foreign queen who settled first in Ireland and gave her name to the tribe, the Scotti, who’d one day settle Scotland. In Scota’s myth she travels from the eastern Mediterranean to Spain, then on to Ireland. History shows that the Irish “Scotti” tribe eventually came to dominate Scotland. Scota had a son called Hyber – he gives his name to Hibernia (Ireland) and the Iberian peninsula.
Studies of ancient DNA have linked northern Spain and Portugal to Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall – old Celtic lands. Our myths contain hints of something deep that we’ll never understand – stories about migration from east to west, of a staging post in Spain, of settlement in these islands, thought to be the very end of the world in ancient times. It makes the mind wander. What brought these people all the way here? Might perhaps the survivors of a shattered civilisation – even Troy, which we know today did exist as a city and was destroyed in the Bronze Age – have made their way here more than 3,000 years ago to build a new life? Is that what these myths – layered by millennia of retelling – whisper?
For this strange frisson of partially glimpsed knowledge, Jeffs’s book is worth the cover price alone. And yet, as a work on British mythology this beautiful book is somewhat lacking. Although it’s built chronologically, starting back in prehistory and working forward to the time of the Picts then William the Conqueror, the book is strangely compiled. There’s a looseness about the story selection, a slightness to the tellings.
At times, the tales don’t hang together as a collection. The sense of a unifying mythos is missing as you’d expect with a primer on Greek, Roman or Norse legends. Some stories start and end randomly. There’s also a feyness – almost diaphanous dreaminess – to the writing which seems misplaced. Feyness is for fairy tales – and myths aren’t fairy tales. Myths are rough beasts. Jeffs, who has the elegant hand of an artist as proved by her gorgeous linocut illustrations, should perhaps have been harsher, more direct in her tellings.