#BookReview Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain by Amy Jeffs

StorylandAbout the Book

Soaked in mist and old magic, Storyland is a new illustrated mythology of Britain, set in its wildest landscapes.

It begins between the Creation and Noah’s Flood, follows the footsteps of the earliest generation of giants from an age when the children of Cain and the progeny of fallen angels walked the earth, to the founding of Britain, England, Wales and Scotland, the birth of Christ, the wars between Britons, Saxons and Vikings, and closes with the arrival of the Normans.

These are retellings of medieval tales of legend, landscape and the yearning to belong, inhabited with characters now half-remembered. Told with narrative flair, embellished in stunning artworks and glossed with a rich and erudite commentary.

We visit beautiful, sacred places that include prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge, mountains such as Snowdon and rivers including the story-silted Thames in a vivid collection of tales of a land steeped in myth. It Illuminates a collective memory that still informs the identity and political ambition of these places.

In Storyland, Jeffs reimagines these myths of homeland, exile and migration, kinship, loyalty, betrayal, love and loss in a landscape brimming with wonder.

Format: Paperback (400 pages)              Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 27th September 2022 Genre: Nonfiction

Find Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain on Goodreads

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My Review

Storyland was the June pick for the book club hosted by the Reading branch of Waterstones. Despite the praise it has garnered elsewhere, including being shortlisted as a Waterstones Book of the Year, the response from all book club members was overwhelmingly lukewarm. In fact, I was probably the least lukewarm of us all.

The format of the book, in which the author’s retelling of a myth is followed by details of its historical sources, wasn’t popular. Many would have preferred just the myths with the historical detail in a separate section at the end of the book (or omitted altogether). I was in the minority as I actually liked finding out the sources behind each myth. Having said that, many of the stories rely heavily on a limited number of sources, few of which are contemporary.  The occasional sections describing the author’s visits to sites mentioned in the stories were interesting. Quite a few of the book club members hadn’t realised there was a map on the inside flap of the book’s cover and some of those who had didn’t find it that useful. Personally, I think it did help to situate the stories given the use of ancient and unfamiliar names for some of the areas of Britain.

In the Prologue the author writes, ‘You are entering a work of legend, based on medieval tales of Britain’s foundation and settlement that bear only a passing resemblance to “true” history’. This was part of our difficulty with the book because some of the myths were so unfamiliar to us it was difficult to discern the degree of invention the author had brought to the retelling.  My favourite parts of the book were the first section in which the author details the various myths surrounding the first arrivals from the East (including giants) on the islands we now know as Britain and Ireland. Pretty much everyone liked the stories featuring Merlin, perhaps because we felt on more familiar ground. (Interestingly, the story involving Merlin’s prophecy of the manner of his death turns up in the invented ‘Book of Conach’ featured in James Robertson’s News of the Dead, the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.) Many other stories felt repetitive, just a series of kings with strange names killing other kings with strange names in order to usurp their thrones or seek revenge. In the main, women are valued merely for their beauty, their fertility, their status as the daughters of kings or nobles and are often the victims of trickery.

As I mentioned above, the book has received very positive reviews and we did spend time discussing what it was we were all missing, without coming to any firm conclusion! The consensus was that reading the book had felt like hard work and the author’s obvious passion for her subject hadn’t translated into an enjoyable reading experience. Despite our reservations, everyone agreed the striking linocut illustrations that accompany the text are wonderful and, in fact, would make an attractive book in their own right.

In three words: Detailed, creative, scholarly

Try something similar: The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (book club member recommendation)

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Amy JeffsAbout the Author

Amy Jeffs is an artist and art historian specialising in the Middle Ages. In 2019, she gained a PhD in Art History from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having studied for earlier degrees at the Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Cambridge.

During her PhD Amy co-convened a project researching medieval badges and pilgrim souvenirs at the British Museum. She then worked in the British Library’s department of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts. Storyland is her first book. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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