Review: Dark Tales from the Woods by Daniel Morden
The presiding spirit in this darkly marvellous collection of folk tales is Abram Wood, the so-called king of the gypsies, who came to Wales at the beginning of the eighteenth century, bringing with him not only a family that would tell stories all over the country and down the generations but also, legend has it, the first violin.
From what little we know of him he was quite a character and dandy: he would use half crowns as coat buttons and wear a three-cocked hat; wear silver buckles and spurs on his pumps and sport two gold rings and a gold watch and chain.
The whole family, which grew and grew, had real gifts as storytellers and musicians. It was stroke of luck that a man called John Sampson took sufficient interest in them to write them down, then discovered in an-out-of-print book the contemporary storyteller Daniel Morden happened to chanced upon, before deciding to update Sampson’s antiquated language which wasn’t that accommodating to the reader:
I go whither I go,’ quoth Jack. ‘Do thou remember to come here to these three crossroads in a year and a day; and if thou arrive before me wait for me, and if I arrive before thee I will wait for thee, if I be alive.
Morden, in refashioning and updating the tales didn’t just make the language cleaner and simpler: he also slowed down the telling where events moved at too quick a lick, or inserted material where things were clearly missing in the original, searching out versions of the same stories in, say the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm to insert in the gaps.
The end product of all this literary detective work was well worth it, even though I’m not sure reading them on a bright June morning is the most appropriate time.
They are wintry tales in mood and morals, chill narratives that would benefit perhaps from reading them among the tang of woodsmoke off the fire, in the light of guttering candles and with small banshee wails of wind coming down the drainpipes.
They are beautifully illustrated by Brett Breckon, who inks in scary tree branches and open graves, plucked-out eyeballs and dark turrets topped off with owls.
For not only are they occasionally icy stories but they are also entertaining and atmospheric, having dark cores and often punctuated with unpleasant acts of violence.
In ‘The Squirrel and the Fox’, for instance, one brother asks the other for his eyes as payment for some food. In another tale a giant is duped into cutting open his own belly so that his ‘guts poured out over his trousers.’
But there is plenty of magic too, from shape-shifting transformations such as an old nag turning into a galleon through talking boars to the occasional dragon flapping in to be fought, and, in keeping with the usual components of such tales, there is a damsel in distress:
Its head was as big as a house. Its mouth was as big as a cave. Its every tooth was as sharp as a spear, its every claw as sharp as a sword. The nostrils were like trumpets. The eyes shone like stars.
It swooped down to grab her – but into the yard came a white knight on horseback! The dragon spat a river of fire! The white horse spat a river of water in return and the fire of the dragon was doused. The fiery dragon roared, beat its leathery wings and was gone into the sky.
The character called Jack in many of the stories is the same one who climbs the beanstalk elsewhere, and so the reader expects giants. And there are wishes, too and all the usual appurtenances of such tales.
But Daniel Morden has made of them something entirely new and fresh and arresting. He encourages us to read them aloud and they are certainly fashioned with the sort of clarity that would really allow that, no fancy words like bumps in the road and all told in sentences that are crisp as a frosted dock leaf.
And at the end of each one there’s usually a lovely, simple and effective ending, rounding off the tale like tying the sentences into a bow.
One of them, concluding ‘The Master Thief’ is pretty universal and could end pretty much anything, even this book review.
The lord said nothing. Trembling with fury, he nodded.
The thief bowed, and walked away never to be seen again.
That is all.
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