Over the last few weeks I’ve been hugely enjoying a beautiful new book called Storyland by Amy Jeffs.

The book is subtitled a new mythology of Britain and is an attempt to reclaim and retell the medieval tales and legend and landscape that for centuries were the stories passed down to explain how Britain was founded and built.

I say beautiful, because as well as the stories, Amy Jeffs has illustrated the text with a wonderful series of linocuts: in an echo of the medieval books of yesterday, this is a hefty, satisfying tome, generously laid out. A digital version would lose something in the translation.

I was lucky to catch up with Amy to discuss a little more about how the book came about. An artist and art historian specialising in the Middle Ages, her time spent in the British Library’s department of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts has clearly been put to good use.

Amy talked about the significance of works such at Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of Kings of Britain.

Written in the twelfth century, this book chronicles two thousand years of British history, and includes everyone from King Lear to King Arthur, and beginning with Brutus, landing in Britain and defeating the giants who lived here to name the island after himself.

Monmouth’s work was a patchwork job, taken from numerous sources, with many of the tales made up in places. It was, however, the dominant telling of our island story for centuries: Arthur, Merlin, Gogmagog the giant and all.

It was only in the 16th century, when there was a shift in emphasis towards the empirical, that the influence of these myths began to wane. What was lost in the process, Amy argues, was a sense of our connection to the landscape: deep myths are forged in our surroundings. By returning to these tales, Amy is attempting to rekindle some of those emotions lost.

Some of the stories in the book are familiar, others were new. There are myths that have clear resonances to today: the story of Albina and her 28 sisters cast out from Syria, drifting across sea in a boat until they found land, which they called Albion.

I was particularly taken with the telling of the origins of Stonehenge: how the child Merlin was summoned to Winchester to help King Aurelius mark the Saxon massacre of the Britons.

Through his magic, he was able to help transport the Giants’ Dance, a stone circle in Ireland that had originally been carried there by giants from Africa. This was the story that medieval travellers to Stonehenge would have known: the real origins in Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills being centuries away from discovery.


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