When my sister Sally and I were children, my father used to come and sit by our bunk with his Welsh harp, and sing-and-say stories to us: stories of heroes and heroines, princes and paupers, fairyfolk, fabulous beasts, a king sleeping inside a hill…
Later, I learned to distinguish between the different layers of traditional tale (myth, legend, folk-tale), and I’ve devoted much of my writing life to studying and retelling them – in particular, the tales of northwest Europe.
In fact, it was my desire to engage full-bloodedly with Norse mythology that led directly to my relinquishing my job as editorial director at the publishing house of Victor Gollancz in 1976. After visiting Iceland, I worked for four years on the glorious, racy, ice-bright myths, and the book that resulted from it (in the UK, The Penguin Book of Norse Myths and in the USA, The Norse Myths published by Pantheon in their Fairy Tale and Folklore Library), has now sold strongly for thirty-five years.
To begin with, I retold single folk-tales as picture-story books (The Green Children, The Callow Pit Coffer, The Pedlar of Swaffham) but later I graduated, if that’s the right word, to collections. These include my British Folk Tales (later reissued as The Magic Lands), Tales from the Old World and The Old Stories: Folk Tales from East Anglia and the Fen Country.
As co-author, I worked with the Welsh poet and children’s writer Gwyn Thomas on three volumes of stories from the Mabinogion; as librettist, I collaborated with the composer Nicola LeFanu on two operas based on traditional tales, The Wildman and The Green Children, both set in the Middle Ages, and both concerned with identity, rejection and acceptance; while as editor, I compiled two anthologies of Northern tales for Faber, The Young Oxford Book of Folk-Tales and Folk-Tales of the British Isles.This anthology aimed to represent the full range of British tales and contained introductions to the tales and their collectors.
One story has haunted me all my life: that of the two green children discovered at Woolpit in Suffolk at the end of the 12th century. I’ve revisited it several times and, in the version published by OUP, told the story from the viewpoint of the green girl. The way in which one retells a tale is of course crucial, and I have subsequently retold several tales as monologues. These are gathered in Outsiders (Orion), and in this book ‘Sea Tongue’ is a kind of sound-story, a fractured narrative spoken by all the different elements in the tale.
During the last two decades, there has been a marked increase in interest in the Viking world, not least because of the National Curriculum, and in October 2017 Walker Books in UK and Candlewick in USA published my completely new version of the Norse myths for children (Norse Myths : Stories of Odin, Thor and Loki) with illustrations by Jeffrey Alan Love. In autumn 2018, Walker will publish a new edition of my British Folk Tales with colour illustrations by Peter Melnyczuk. And they and Candlewick will follow this in 2019 with a new one-volume Arthur containing six legends, fully illustrated by the great Chris Riddell. We are already at work on this book.