The Magic Lands is the paperback title of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British Folk Tales. It’s a better title in that the collection covers Irish tales as well as ones from England, Scotland, and Wales.
The Irish stories do tend to stand out in their quirky strangeness and less tidy structure. Tales like ‘The Piper and the Pooka’, ‘The Dark Horseman’, ‘Monday Tuesday’, and ‘The Changeling’ – all of which are proper fairy stories, in which the fairies actually appear, in a setting that seems to be the world in which we live. This in contrast to the kind of stories that in English we call ‘fairy tales’, which only rarely include fairies and are often set in a timeless neverland.
Crossley-Holland includes one Irish fairy tale of that kind – ‘Yellow Lily’ – and some classic examples from Britain, such as ‘The Frog Prince’, ‘Tom Tit Tot’, ‘Mossycoat’, ‘The Black Bull of Norway’, ‘Mossycoat’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, and ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’.
More numerous in British folklore are legends localised in real places. Some good tales of this kind are chosen from Crossley-Holland’s East Anglian home turf, including ‘The Green Children’, ‘The Dauntless Girl’, ‘The Pedlar of Swaffham’, and ‘The Wildman’. Of legends picked from elsewhere, a handful have such sweep and impact as to make them nationally notable: ‘The Lambton Worm’, ‘The Slumber King’, and that celebration of capitalism, ‘Dick Whittington’.
One problem with collections of folktales is that they can be a bit dull on the page, whether because they’ve been put down as transcripts of oral tellings or because they’re written with barebones concision. Crossley-Holland, however, has the good fortune to be a poet. His retellings are invested with a lyrical poise that makes them a delight to read, while remaining simple enough for younger readers. Here’s the first paragraph of the first story in the book, ‘Sea-Woman’: ‘It was an empty, oyster-and-pearl afternoon. The water lipped at the sand and sorted the shingle and lapped round the rock where the girl was sitting.’
A small number of the tales are presented in verse, which helps to vary the texture of the book, but which I found engaged me less. Besides the longer kinds of stories mentioned above, there are short ones, including some that are basically jokes, such as those recounting the deeds of the much-maligned people of Gotham. The Magic Lands concludes with a very simple but profound tale from Ireland, called ‘Butterfly Soul’, which of all the 55 stories in this book is the one I’ve most often retold.
It’s a lovely book. I’d recommend it as the place to start for anyone just beginning to engage with the folktales of the British Isles. And at the back of it you can find all the sources to guide you deeper into the British and Irish legendaria.