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Amy Jeffs on the Myths and Legends Under Our Feet

Posted on 6th September 2021 by Mark Skinner

From Stonehenge to Orkney and the Ness to the Thames, print maker and art historian Amy Jeffs' stunningly produced Storyland is an immersive new mythology of Britain from the Creation to the Norman Conquest. In this exclusive piece, Amy describes some of the locations featured in the book that are teeming with fascinating folklore, highlighting in particular some places that we may not expect to be so suffused in myth.       

Where would you go to find sites of British myth and legend? Would you look down the alleyways of our cities, between the bins and gusts of chip fat? Would you stand on the concrete embankments of our industrial estuaries, where churns the grey sea with the brown inland waters? Probably not. You would, I venture, journey to the wilder, less populous landscapes, looking for places where nature and ancient ruins exude the promise of marvels. Take, for instance, the summit of Dinas Emrys in North Wales. At first sight it is all weathered trees and sheep-cropped turf, but walk a few paces and you come to the edge of a hollow encircled by leaning oaks, milky lichen curling on their trunks. The lush grass of the hollow is poison green and comfortable enough to sleep on, parted on occasion by boulders. At the very bottom of the hollow is an unnaturally circular and dark pool, watched by a single foxglove. Surely this is a place of stories.

According to one 12th-century chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Dinas Emrys, overshadowed by Snowdon, was the home of the red and white dragons. Geoffrey tells us that King Vortigern, a treacherous usurper, had fled to the mountains to escape over-mighty Saxon invaders to whom he had given lands in exchange for help defending his throne from the rightful British claimant – Aurelius Ambrosius. He attempted to build a fortified tower on the summit of the hill but no matter how much his men built each day, every night it tumbled to the ground. When his soothsayers told him the tower would remain standing if it were sprinkled with the blood of a boy with no father, Vortigern sent his soldiers out to find him. They returned with the young Merlin.

Merlin, progeny of a nun and a demon, was more powerful than the soothsayers and soon showed them to be fools. He revealed the cause of the crumbling tower to be the fighting of two dragons in an underground pool. Vortigern’s men dug down and discovered them there. Asked what they signify, Merlin interpreted the dragons, one red one white, as symbols of the British and Saxon races. Just as the white dragon repeatedly attacked and subdued the red dragon, so the British would be afflicted by the Saxons and lose their ancient Kingdom.

Excavations in the mid-1950s revealed the pool to be the result of a man-made cistern, dating to the early Roman period with adaptations made in the early Middle Ages, while the ruined tower was dated to as late as the 12th century. Evidently there was occasional human activity on the summit of the Dinas Emrys, both at the time in which the myth was set and the ages in which it was written down. Perhaps the story informed later decisions to build on the site, as may also have been the case with Tintagel, the rocky, north Cornish island long associated with King Arthur. Both island and hill are natural habitats for myth.

But let us return to the alleyways and concrete embankments. Are these places, redolent with exhaust fumes and fried food, really void of ancient wonders? Of course not. Not in the least.

In the aforementioned history by Geoffrey of Monmouth, London resides over a network of caves in which the second ever king of Britain, Locrin, hid a kidnapped German princess, Estrildis, for seven years. He impregnated her and divorced his wife, Gwendolen. But she was the daughter of a giant killer and her fury upon discovery of her betrayal was more terrible than Locrin could ever have foreseen.

Later we learn that Leicester was founded by King Lear (the protagonist in Shakespeare’s eponymous play) and his subterranean tomb rested beneath the River Soar, dedicated to Janus. 

Grimsby, we are told by a medieval historian called Geffrei Gaimar, was founded by a refugee knight called Grim, banished from Denmark by King Arthur’s armies. Building a house and a boat from his ruined ship, he settled on the banks of the Humber Estuary and began a new life as a fisherman, though his story does not end there.

And Plymouth Hoe, a grassy promontory surrounded by sprawling sea and city, was held to be the site of a legendary wrestling match between a man and the last giant of Albion. It even bore their image in its chalk for hundreds of years.

In writing Storyland: a New Mythology of Britain, I came to learn that stories of Britain’s mythic past were everywhere. I came to learn that they are crucial to understanding the relationships between Britain’s medieval kingdoms. I came to learn that the familiar landscape in which I was raised was stranger than I could have imagined.

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