Hollow Places

Hollow Places (William Collins 2019) is both the piercing dissection of a folktale and a thrilling rummage through the thickets of the English imagination. Christopher Hadley’s debut work of book-length non-fiction ostensibly concerns the story of how Piers Shonks slew a dragon, how that dragon dwelt in a cavern beneath a yew tree, and how Shonks was buried in the parish church of St Mary at Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire.

In the same way, however, that Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark, Hollow Places isn’t really a book about a dragon-slayer. Rather it is a book about how stories become knit into place-names and landmarks and the identity of communities; in the process it unearths myriad details of lost folk life – of rural work and tithes and festivals and the heroic, often unsung, labour of individual collectors and antiquarians (one of my favourite nuggets of information was that much of the work of recording English field names – before their loss to the hedgerow grubbing scourge of agribusiness and the collective forgetting brought on by urbanisation and consumer capitalism – was pioneered by a man named John Field).

In fluid and satisfying prose, Hadley succeeds in transforming a literally parochial subject into a means of illuminating the tangled roots of story-telling and lost rural life. It is a reminder that to study folklore is to study the way that people construct meaning and a sense of belonging in the world around them: there are few subjects more compelling.

The paperback edition of Hollow Places is out on on 6 August 2020.


Iceland: legends of the north


NOR Nordmennene lander på Island år 872

Oscar Wergeland (1877), The Norsemen landing in Iceland [not an archaeologically accurate depiction, but still rather wonderful]

According to the Old Norse Landnámabók – ‘the book of settlements’ – the first Scandinavian settlers to make their home in Iceland were Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother Hjörleifr. According to the legend, they left Norway in 874 after a violent feud, sailing west towards a land of which they had heard rumour. The story goes that when he first sighted land Ingólfr tossed his ‘high-seat pillars’ into the sea and followed them as they drifted towards the shore. They washed up in what is now known as Faxa Bay, in the south-west of the island, and there the family built their farmstead – the first settlement on Iceland, chosen by the tug of wind and tide. Ingolfr watched the smoke, risen from hot springs, drifting low over the water and named his farm Reykjavík, the smoking bay. Continue reading

The Tale of King Harald is a true story…

But what does it mean for a story to be ‘true’?

The first versions of this tale were written down in in the middle ages in a number of different hand-written texts. The oldest of these was compiled in around 1220 in a manuscript called Morkinskinna, which means ‘mouldy skin’ (the parchment it was written on was made of vellum, made from the stretched and dried skin of a calf). The most famous version, however, was written by an Icelandic chieftain and historian called Snorri Sturluson around 1230. Snorri was a remarkable man. As well as twice being elected to Iceland’s highest official post – Lawspeaker (Lögsögumaður) – he wrote a number of works about traditional Scandinavian poetry and mythology, but also a sprawling compendium of King’s Sagas (tales) called Heimskringla (the circle of the world). Harald’s Saga forms a small part of this great work. Snorri was very careful to present what he thought were true accounts of the lives of the kings of Norway. He made great use of earlier histories – like Morkinskinna – and often used fragments of poems (called skaldic verse) which were written during the lifetime of the Norse kings, and remembered long afterwards.

In the case of King Harald, we have a little more to go on. He was mentioned in histories written in the Byzantine Empire where he was described as a Varangian with a prominent rank in the Imperial army. His invasion of England is also described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So we know he existed, and the broad outlines of his life as presented by Snorri seem more or less accurate. However, poems in praise of kings are rarely even-handed, and some of the details seem improbable and are rather similar to folk-tales told about other kings. Most telling of all is that some of the stories sound very much like the boasting of a man in later life about the glories of his youth, at a time when no one could contradict his version of events. If this is so, we can expect some of these stories to contain a degree of exaggeration.


Audun and the polar bear in the hall of Harald Hard-ruler


The version of Harald’s story that is written in this book [The Tale of King Harald] is fairly true to Snorri’s account of Harald’s life in Heimskringla. In some places I have added details taken from earlier sagas, especially Saint Olaf’s Saga (the tale of Harald’s half-brother who died at the Battle of Stiklestad). The tale of Audun and the polar bear is taken from a short story written about Harald and preserved in Morkinskinna, and a few details have been added from other sources that mention Harald and the period in general. Much of the dialogue is adapted from the saga, but by no means all of it. The biggest changes I have made are to the length of various sections of the narrative. In Heimskringla, Harald’s time with Yaroslav is told on a single page, and much of chapter 2 has therefore been fleshed out with other details of the period taken from other sources. On the other hand, chapters 3 and 4 present a greatly compressed version of Snorri’s story-telling. In particular, the politics of Norway and Denmark during Harald’s reign have been simplified.

I don’t think Harald would have minded these minor changes. For a Viking, the most important ambition was to live long in memory; I am sure he would be pleased to know that his legend continues to be told.

[This post is an extract from The Tale of King Harald: The Last Viking Adventure, which is available from Amazon and The British Museum]

Væsen and the Golden Age of Illustration

I have wanted to share this superb animation for a while. Released in Denmark in 2012, Væsen is a wonderful homage to the Golden Age of illustration and animation, including the early work of the Disney studio – Snow White and Pinnochio in particular. Those films pulled in influences from a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century illustrators. One artist who worked for the studio in those days, the talented and versatile artist Gustaf Tenggren (1896 – 1970), developed a style that drew heavily on the work of artists like John Bauer and Arthur Rackham (he in fact succeeded John Bauer as the illustrator of Bland tomtar och troll, the Swedish fairy-tale annual). It is a tragedy that he would later destroy many of his fabulous early paintings and go on to pioneer a flat and sterile approach that would dominate in children’s illustration for several decades.

Gustaf Tenggren

 [An example of Gustaf Tenggren’s early style]

Væsen was made for the Animation Workshop, a Danish institute dedicated to film animation and related industries. It is all the more remarkable for being the work of a group of third-year undergraduate students (for detail about the making of the film and its creators, click here). The quality of the artwork is fabulous, but what is most arresting is the weird atmosphere and myth-allegorical sub-text of the film paired with influences pulled from a number of golden age illustrators – most notably Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, John Bauer and Ivan Bilibin. This era of illustration, perhaps more than anything else, solidified the visual language of European folklore: dark forests, radiant spirits gathered by dark reflective pools in mossy groves, eyes and hands peeping and creeping from the boles of rime-scoured trees, mushrooms sprouting from every crevice. Sarah Maitland tried in Gossip from the Forest to make a case for the forest as the womb of the fairy tale, suggesting that the origins of fantastical story-telling are bound up – ‘tangled’, as she would put it – with the arboreal experience. It is a seductive idea, and feels instinctively true. But I wonder whether this association has rather more to do with the enduring popularity of Rackham’s ink and watercolour evocations of Grimm’s tales than with any real relationship between trees and the genesis of fairy tale in Britain; a brief survey of Katherine Briggs’ Folk Tales of Britain reveals a surprising scarcity of woodland settings in our own domestic story-telling. It may well be that this imagery of fairy tale, mediated to a large extent through the pervasive influence of Disney in childhood, has become foundational for the western imagination; it is bound up with the powerful emotional conductors of childhood nostalgia and a longing for a natural world that probably never was.

I’ve collected a handful of images that represent a group of the most famous illustrators of the Golden Age. Their influence is most obviously felt in the work of a small number of contemporary illustrators who keep the spirit of the tradition alive – Ian Miller, Alan Lee, Tomislav Tomic, Julek Heller. Tomic’s art in particular, with its clear allusions to Dürer and Brueghel, is a reminder that the genealogy of this sort of illustration is a long one, running back beyond the origin of the printed book to the fantastical marginalia of the medieval calligraphers.

The Battle of Ashdown in Medieval Warfare

A few weeks ago, I had an article titled The Battle of Ashdown: Victory, battlefield, and the language of war published in Medieval Warfare magazine. The theme of the issue is Alfred the Great and the Great Heathen Army and thus coincides neatly with my own area of academic interest. The publication is not scholarly, but contains a good deal of interesting material and is nicely produced with some superb commissioned illustrations.


Medieval Warfare III.5


Alfred the Great at Egbert’s Stone by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena; Medieval Warfare III.5, pp. 30-31

As the publisher discourages the use of footnotes and in text referencing I confined most of my secondary source material to a ‘further reading’ selection at the end of the article. That said, I would like to make it clear (if it isn’t sufficiently so already) that not all of the ideas expressed are original to this article or to me. In particular: the discussion of Latin terms in Asser’s account of the battle is based on Guy Halsall’s excellent deconstruction (Halsall 2003); the relationship of battle-sites to royal estate centres is a point made by Ryan Lavelle (see esp. Lavelle 2010); discussion of Viking battle-magic is central to Neil Price’s The Viking Way (Price 2008); translations of the translations of original sources derive primarily from Swanton’s edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Swanton 2001) and the Keynes and Lapidge edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred and other related texts (Keynes and Lapidge 1983). Full bibliographic details for all of these can be found at the end of this post.

The most original contribution made by me in this article concerns the location of the battle of Ashdown and the symbolic significance of the naming of the battle site and Asser’s description of the topography. At some stage I hope to write this up in more detail for academic publication. In the meantime, however, here is a short extract:

“Asser provided the etymology of Ashdown as ‘hill of the ash’ – a suggestion that has not been widely challenged by modern scholars. A brief consideration of the significance of the ash-tree from an Anglo-Saxon perspective is instantly rewarding: not only does the word æsc act as a general synonym for ‘spear’ (ash is a hard wood with straight and slender branches and hence eminently suited to this purpose), but in compound with other words has a range of other associations with the language of warfare which must have been unmistakeable. Thus: æscfaru (military expedition); æschere (warband, naval force); æscþracu (battle, spear-strength); æscstede (place of battle; literally the ‘ash (spear)-place’) and so on. ‘Ashdown’ (Æscesdune) could, in this context, just as easily have carried the additional sense of ‘battle-hill’. When applied to the wider region, this meaning could reflect the fact that the Berkshire Downs had been a contested frontier between Wessex and Mercia for centuries – they were, in a general sense, ‘the battle downs’…”. (Medieval Warfare V.III, p.20)

In my article I would like to have given more consideration to the suggestion – recently revived in Michael Wood’s BBC documentary series about Alfred and his successors – that the unknown meeting place of ‘Naked-thorn hundred’ [Nachededorn(e)] is a probable correlate for the single thorn tree described by Asser:

“A rather small and solitary thorn-tree [unica spinosa arbor] (which I have seen myself with my own eyes) grew there, around which the opposing armies clashed violently”. [Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 38]

The first reference to a Naked-thorn hundred is in Domesday book (1086), two hundred years later than the battle of Ashdown. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the name isn’t much older than the eleventh century, but it is certainly plausible that it developed as a result of Asser’s narrative rather than providing locational evidence for the place described. It seems to me likely that the name reflects local folkloric traditions that sought to associate the glamour of a royal military triumph with a provincial meeting place. If this is the case, it would share a great deal in common with other landmarks along the ridgeway around which Alfredian mythology has accrued over the centuries following the events of the 870s.

Rather than being a useful piece of topographic detail, I would argue that Asser’s reference to the thorn tree is a fairly blatant use of religious symbolism intended to emphasise the spiritual dimensions of the struggle with the heathen.

S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, ed. and trans., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, Harmondsworth (1983).

G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450–900 (London, 2003).

R. Lavelle, ‘Geographies of Power in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the Royal Estates of Wessex’, in Reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Language, Literature, History, ed. A .D. Jorgensen (Turnhout, 2010).

N. Price, The Viking Way (Oxford 2002).

M. Swanton (ed. and trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London, 1996; rev. edn,, 2001).