Book Reviews

A review of ‘The Assembly of the Severed Head’

Hugh Lupton

Published by Propolis Books 2018


This is the tiniest bit embarrassing. I have been reading stories since I was three and telling them since I was thirty-three. I read the Bible twice when I was thirteen and fourteen and a decent translation of the Koran when I was sixteen. Most of the Grimm’s stories, the Hans Cristian Andersons and the French romances are familiar to me as are nearly all of the Sufi Nasrudin tales and the 1001 Nights. Katherine Briggs’ two heavy volumes of A Dictionary of British Folk Tales have been my bedside reading for years.

Yet our own local Mabinogion, on which Hugh’s Assembly of the Severed Head is based, had passed me by. In the same way that I responded if someone mentioned the Panchatantra I would murmur, “Oh yes, I know of it, of course…..” and gently steer the conversation in another direction. It could have been the problems with the translations or the complexities of the Welsh or Hindi names that deterred me from studying them but there were so many other tales from which to choose that I lazily ignored these classic and venerable tomes. The Mabinogion? I could hardly pronounce it let alone spell it.

Hugh sent me a copy of The Assembly of the Severed Head to review and I read it. From the moment that Dafydd found the first severed head I was spellbound. The discovery of the massacre at the Bardic School and the demands of the invading English King John set the tensions and conflicts for this frame of the ancient Welsh fables. When Cian Brydydd Mawr, the chief Bard, was discovered badly wounded he was nursed back to health although the wound and his age would take him soon. Before the killings at the school he had been telling and passing on ‘the Matters’; The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. With the deaths of his students and his own health failing it is now time to have the old tales written down for the first time.

A Christian scribe is supplied by a local chief; vellum and an audience (including a woman at Cian’s request) are found. So begins the telling and transcribing of the old stories and the voice with which Cian speaks will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed Hugh Lupton telling in action. It is lyrical and poetic, simple and engaging, sweet and romantic, commanding attention by being both visceral and humorous.

Not knowing where or how to start a book review can be due to a number of widely differing factors. The work may not be to your taste or be badly written. It may be that the subject is of no interest to you or written in a style that you find incomprehensible. But the most difficult book to review is the one with which you have fallen in love. Critical faculties fade away and the review takes on the gushing flowery prose of a romantic author of a chic-lit. So what to do? Simple. Just get in my trusty Skoda and footle up the motorways for about two hundred miles on October the thirty-first and I will be able to hear Hugh in action in the town hall in Aylsham. Which I did.

It was there during the after show talk that I realised several important facts about this work and storytelling in general. That one of the favourite techniques of the best stories in the world is ‘framing’ and that by putting one tale inside another the listener or reader is lead gently but inexorably further away from the real world. And not simply one tale encased in another; sometimes there are as many as four or five layers of frames rather like the endless mirrors at Versailles. An early example is, of course, the One Thousand and One Nights in which the character Scheherazade narrates a set of tales (most often fairy tales) to the Sultan Shahriyar over many nights. And many of Scheherazade's tales are also frame stories, such as the Tale of Sindbad the Seaman and Sindbad the Landsman being a collection of adventures related by Sindbad the Seaman to Sindbad the Landsman. The most frames I have ever heard in one story was ‘The Saragossa Manuscript’ from Micheal Dacre.

In The Assembly of the Severed Head we have the story of the massacre of the Bards which contains Cian’s tales which in turn have tales told by some of the characters in his stories. Three frames at least. The frames are sometimes plain, sometimes ornate. The subject matter within the frames is always riveting, spellbinding, poetical. To find out more about Hugh Lupton’s telling methods find a copy of An Introduction to Storytelling History Press 2018 edited by Christine Willison and read the piece by Hugh. As well as some profound words about speech and language there is a bonus of a short tale, The Wonderful Bag, from One Thousand and One Nights that you will be sure to add to your repertoire.

Get your copy copy of The Assembly of the Severed Head soon, the first edition has just sold out.

Tony Cooper October 2018


Between Worlds
by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Illustrated by Frances Castle
Walker Books 2018


£15 - ISBN 9781406381252 - Review by Marion Leeper

‘My intention in retelling folktales…. is to reclothe them in clean bright direct language.’

A storyteller in a bookshop is an endangered soul.  Every moment we have to ask ourselves the question: do I really need another anthology of folk tales?  Between Worlds is one to keep, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s clean bright direct language is the reason it’s a keeper.

The anthology includes many of Crossley-Holland’s greatest hits, from collections such as The Old Stories and Tales of Enchantment, both currently out of print.  The stories, arranged by loose themes, are all British, ‘the stories that have shaped our landscape’: important stories to tell in an age where climate change threatens this very landscape.

It’s the hardest thing in the world to write down a folktale.  Traditional stories, made not by one person but by many, have been tongue-polished over the centuries, to lose all the inessentials.  What’s left is pure story, the product not of a single person but of a whole culture.  Folktales leave out the personal slant and opinions that colour a written piece.  In folktale there is no need for lengthy description: character, motivation, and landscape are locked firmly into the action of the story.  Traditional stories are like those paper flowers that open in water.  They can look dead on the page, and only come to life when retold to an audience.

But Crossley-Holland’s masterly retellings are full of life.  They are retold with an ease that allows him to play with his material, slipping in little jokes, like the name of an Arthurian scholar given to a character in an Arthurian legend.  The stories are simply and easily told – an aesthetic that’s reflected in Frances Castle’s illustrations - and honour the sources, referenced carefully.  He works on the material much as an oral storyteller does: some stories – (the Fairy Ointment) he forges his own version from several different ones.  Some (The Black Bull of Norroway) he changes to give a more coherent storyline. Others he leaves well alone: in his retelling of ‘Dead Moon’, originally collected from a 9-year-old girl, in Mrs. Balfour’s Tales of the Lincolnshire Carrs, Crossley-Holland uses much of the original language, translated from her rich dialect: ‘on she went, stepping as lightly as the summer wind from tuft to tuft between the greedy gurgling water holes.’

He only departs from her version to flesh out some of the characters of the story: a deliberate choice to introduce ‘ordinary believable people’ into the tales, ‘distillations of the people we meet every time we leave the house.’  This is the Marmite aspect of Kevin Crossley-Holland that readers will either love or hate.

But all the same, many contemporary storytellers, professionals or fireside tellers, draw their stories from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s versions.  Many of his golden phrases have slipped into their retellings, and are becoming part of the oral tradition.

These British stories are less well-known than their Disney counterparts: Tom Tit Tot instead of Rumpelstiltskin; Mossycoat for Cinderella.

But they deserve to be a part of our culture: they contain not just the reed beds of the fens, Scottish granite, the mists of Dartmoor.  They also hold the ways of life, the beliefs and values, the struggles of our ancestors.  The stories we tell explain to us who we are and who we might be in the future.

Marion Leeper