Monday, November 8, 2021

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings - Dan Jones

This is an odd little book that has stocking filler written all over it  - though as it's small it won't automatically be the easiest thing to find in a bookshop. If you do find it, it's got a real charm and might be just the thing for the medievalist, or budding medievalist in your life. 

Dan Jones took a fairly obscure* late 14th/early 15th-century ghost story and polished it up for retelling to his children. The history of this story is every bit as good as the story itself. It was first written down around 600 years ago by a monk at Byland Abbey, one of a dozen ghost stories he recorded in the spare pages of an older manuscript. The stories are full of local landmarks and colour, and read as if they were contemporary to their scribe - so presumably stories that were circulated and believed in the area at the time. Redacted names strengthen the possible view that real people were being protected.

The manuscript ended up in the royal collection, and then in the British Library where the great writer of ghost stories (and medieval scholar) M. R. James read about them in a catalogue and got in quick to transcribe the Latin. The stories are all short - this is by far the longest, and it sounds like they're all fairly weird by modern standards - but James was right when he thought he was onto something, and Jones picked well when he decided to retell and embellish 'The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings'.

I only realised how much of Dan Jones was in this when I went back and read some of the accompanying material - he's bulked it out a fair bit, but this is how retelling works, and he does include a reference to a recent translation for anybody who wants to look up the original Byland Abbey stories. For anybody with Latin, M.R. James' original transcript along with notes is also included here.

The action takes place in November, the story is a good mix of the comic, weird and outright frightening. It's suitable to tell aloud to a reasonably young audience - children over 9 will probably be able to read things as gruesome elsewhere, and the great thing about telling ghost stories is that you can edit as you feel appropriate. As well as the fun of the story there's plenty to unpick about medieval life too, and that's probably the biggest selling point here.

Want examples of the church charging for services, even haggling over them? Corrupt priests, odd beliefs in revenants, superstitions, a hint at what the inside of a church might have looked like? It's all here. It's also a gateway to M. R. James and Dan Jones's other work too - so there's a lot going on.

*Obscure is a relative term - I hadn't heard of this before but plenty will have. 

No comments:

Post a Comment