This week I’m recommending a collection of folktales retold by a famous Fantasy author who has rather gone out of fashion – Richard Adams. `The Iron Wolf and other stories’ was first published in Britain in 1980 but elsewhere this book was known by the more apt title `Stories and Fables – The Unbroken Web’.  If you avoid the first edition, old copies in hardback or paperback can be picked up cheaply. Both have black and white illustrations by Jennifer Campbell and stunning colour plates by Yvonne Gilbert. If you try to order `The Unbroken Web’ on Kindle what you will get is an interesting interview in which Richard Adams talked to Dale Andrew White about story-telling.

In the introduction to this book, Adams imagines the collective unconscious as a shining`gossamer-like sphere – the unbroken web’  enveloping our planet. He suggests that this web soaks up human experience and emotion and has been drawn on by story-tellers all over the planet so that traditional tales can by understood and enjoyed by anyone in any place or time. This collection contains eighteen  myths, fables and folktales from a variety of cultures, plus one story about a mouse who goes to the moon which I’m guessing is Adams’ own invention. The settings range from Bora-Bora to Alaska, and from China to the Isle of Man.

Adams notes that folktales may not be the most sophisticated form of literature but they make you eager to know what happens next and are full of surprises and marvels. You will find plenty of  both in `The Unbroken Web’. Let yourself be surprised by what happens when a hero fights a giant eel, a Welsh lord threatens to hang a mouse, a crow goes in search of daylight and God decides to paint all the birds he’s created; or marvel at the `Horse of Dust and Thunder’, a crimson parrot who is full of clever advice, an egg that contains a remarkable gift and a peasant canny enough to outwit a greedy dragon. These were not stories originally meant for children so some of them contain adult themes such as sexual jealousy.  Gods and royalty feature in a few of the tales but the heroes are mainly the underdogs of their society – poor men living on their wits, a blind boy who has no-one but his dog, and `an old tatter-feathered stork’ who turns out to be braver than all the other storks. The eventual triumphs of these underdogs give hope that there can be a happy ending to any life.

Richard Adams is an author I admire for his integrity. He refused to go on writing the same bestseller (`Watership Down’) over and over again. He’s a true English eccentric who stubbornly goes his own way. I don’t always like what he writes but I do always find it interesting. In `The Unbroken Web’ he takes an unusual approach to retelling folktales. The people within the stories may be types rather than individuals but Adams has created a wide range of narrators. Each story in this collection is told by a particular man or woman to a specific audience. These varied `voices’  allow Adams to demonstrate that he can write in a wide range of dialects. Non-British readers may find these tricky to follow but the reward is  charming turns of phrase, such as `cats in the sea’s no more plentiful than bears on a ‘bus’ or `blimey! she never ‘ad such a shock in all ‘er flippin puff’. The `top and tail’ to the story  may just set the scene (whether it’s an English country churchyard or a Russian inn) or amount to a miniature narrative in itself.

Adams’ matching of narrators to tales can be puzzling. I still can’t work out why a story from `The Mabinogion’ (see my blog of November 15th 2012) about an enchanter’s curse is related by a teacher to a group of children who are about to sing for Benjamin Britten. Is Adams comparing this slightly sinister composer with the enchanter in the story? In other cases the framing device adds poignancy to the original story. `The Blind Boy and His Dog’ is told by a mother struggling to earn a living in a foreign land to a son who is unlikely to honour his parents like the boy in the story. In `The Crimson Parrot’ a poor orphan finds wealth, power and a beautiful bride but you know that the young African soldiers who are listening to the story will probably die far from home. Adams wrote that he felt like a jeweller or a clockmaker as he took the stories in `The Unbroken Web’  apart and then fitted them together again. I don’t know whether you will find his story-telling technique captivating or annoying. Try this book and see. Until next week….