A Modern and Mythic Storyteller: An Interview with Kevin Crossley-Holland
One of the best known names in the field of British and Norse myths, Kevin Crossley-Holland is himself something of a legend.
An author, poet, scholar, and translator, Crossley-Holland is known for writing definitive mythic collections including the Penguin Book of Norse Myths along with his translations of Beowulf and other iconic Old English texts, all of which are staples of university curriculums. He is also an award-winning children’s author. The first instalment of his Arthur trilogy, which retells the Arthurian mythic cycle for children, won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award and his Young Adult series The Viking Sagas continues to receive acclaim. His latest book, Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki, dramatically presents the Norse mythic canon for younger reader. You can find a full review of this striking book here:
Kevin Crossley-Holland kindly answered some questions for us about what drew him to mythic stories, and what connects storytelling then and now.
How did you come to writing, and how did your writing become so immersed in myths and folklore?
In the way that so many teenagers do − writing short poems to sort out strong but tangled thoughts and feelings. But the folktales my father told to my sister and me as young children made a deep impression on me, not only for their rapid storylines but for the lasting truths they embody, and when I began to write prose I turned to them (aged 23 or 24) after two failed attempts at writing a longer novel.
What is so attractive about the Norse and Anglo-Saxon stories for you, and for audiences in generally?
I can't speak for others, but I like their ruggedness, their tough-mindedness, even their bleakness. The lives of our forebears were not strewn with roses; they were hard-won, but lit with humour, anchored by fatalism. Their poems and stories embody this. Their emotional and physical landscapes were northwest European, and so are mine.
With your Viking Saga series, you have created an original story, for the relatively new genre of Young Adult literature, but set in the Viking age. Is there something particular this era has to say to modern audiences?
Bracelet of Bones and Scramasax, yes, they're underpinned by tough truths: children grow up fast and must learn self-reliance; loyalty can involve sacrifice; the power of friendship. . . and how, then and now, we're actually so much the same. If you have a look at my Norse Myths, and the aphorisms in front of each to them, you'll see some of the qualities that the Vikings valued.
Are there any other sets of mythic stories or folktales that you’d like to take on?
Not really. It's too late in the day for me. But it's plainly highly desirable that a great spread of material should be retold for children (in versions of lasting quality).
Throughout your career you’ve written in an enormous variety of genres and styles. With such a variety of published work, how do you decide on new projects? Are there certain audiences or literary styles that you are more drawn to?
Well, I certainly like writing for children − and leading workshops and speaking in schools. Writing new poems matters as much to me as eating and drinking. I don't proceed from one project to another by rote, but by instinct, and by financial necessity, and anyhow I usually have several projects on the go at the same time. It may not sound like it, but there's method in this madness, and there are also tides. During the past few years, I'm finding myself more and more attracted to working with composers.
Is there a difference in your approach to storytelling between your more academic translation work, and your books written for a more general audience?
My work as a translator has been limited to the Anglo-Saxon canon − and to a very few poems from French and Norwegian. When I write for children, I most often strip a story down to its bare bones and re-imagine it.
In the ancient traditions that you’re drawing from, much of the storytelling was through poetry. Do you think poetry still plays an important role in modern storytelling?
Yes, I do. What can be extremely effective is to combine prose and verse in one telling, or even in one story. This can give a narrative a greater range of tone and texture. There's a phrase in Anglo-Saxon referring to the way that their storytelling poets worked: Singan ond secgan − to sing and to say. Contemporary storytellers will do well to bear that in mind.