Between Worlds: Folktales Of Britain & Ireland by Kevin Crossley-Holland

The Blurb On The Back:

Ancient, rich and strange, these magical and eerie tales from across Britain and Ireland have been passed down from generation to generation.  At once dark and funny, lyrical yet earthy, these stories have shaped our landscape and culture.  This definitive collection, retold by master storyteller and poet Kevin Crossley-Holland, opens a doorway to a lost world and shows the enduring power of language and imagination.  

You can order Between Worlds: Folktales Of Britain & Ireland by Kevin Crossley-Holland from Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

The Carnegie Medal winning author and poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland has put together this lovingly collated collection of British and Irish folktales (evocatively illustrated by Frances Castle) with an excellent section at the end where he explains what the source material is and how he modified it for the book.  All in all, it’s a fascinating window on storytelling from a different age and should appeal to adults and children alike.

The collection is grouped into 6 sections, each containing stories on a similar theme.


THE DARK HORSEMAN follows Irish cattleman, Jemmy Nowlan, who plans to sell his cattle at market but finds himself waylaid by a swarthy horseman who takes him to a faerie lord’s castle.  It seems a bit stereotypically Oirish at times, but was entertaining as Jemmy finds himself increasingly diverted from going to market …

THREE HEADS IN A WELL is a morality tale about the value of being kind and considerate as the King of Colchester marries a cruel woman who, with her dowdy daughter, conspire to drive away the King’s beautiful daughter Eleanor.  This was, for me, a new variation on a traditional fairy tale theme.

THE SMALL-TOOTH DOG sees a dog rescue Mr Markham from muggers and taking Mr Markham’s daughter, Corinna, as his “reward” only to find that Corinna is desperate to go home.  This is one of those tales that is very much of its time, especially the resolution.

BUTTERFLY SOUL is a bit of a weird story about a narrator who leaves their body and I have to say, it’s one of the stories that didn’t really do much for me.

KING OF THE CATS was one of my favourite tales in the collection as a gravedigger witnesses the funeral procession of the King of Cats and is asked to carry a message …

THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER is another morality tale about a rude and cruel baker’s daughter who shows a lack of generosity to the wrong beggar …

THE DEAD MOON was another of my favourites in the collection as the Moon decides to descend to earth to check out what the bogles and other evil creatures got up to in the marshland on the nights when she did not shine and finds herself in a whole heap of trouble.


THE SLUMBER KING is a another morality tale about greed and heeding warnings as Owen meets a mysterious man called Loomis who leads him to a hidden cavern, filled with gold and silver and slumbering warriors.

THE GREEN CHILDREN is a sad and moving affair about outsiders and missing home as two green-skinned children are discovered lost and trapped in a wolf pit and taken to stay with the village lord.

THE LAST OF THE PICTS is another sad story about the last of the Picts – an old man and his son – who are captured by the king of the Scots who wants them to hand over their secret recipe for heather ale.

THE OLDEST OF THEM ALL is another of those stories that didn’t quite work for me as the Eagle of Gwernabwy decides to marry the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd but wants to know how old she is and decides to consult the other animals of the valley.

FAIR GRUAGACH is a strange story about Graugach, the son of the king of Ireland, who loses a card game to the Lady of the Green Gown and finds himself cursed as a result.

THE PEDLAR OF SWAFFHAM is a charming tale about literally following your dreams as pedlar John Chapman dreams of a man who urges him to go to London as good will come of it and which is drawn from the true event of a pedlar paying for the north aisle of Swaffham church in Norfolk in 1462.

THE WILDMAN has similar themes to THE GREEN CHILDREN and is drawn from the supposedly true time that a “merman” was caught by fishermen during the reign of Henry II.

THE LAMBTON WORM tells of the origins of a curse brought onto the Lambton family by the irreligious Chile Lambton who goes fishing instead of to church and unleashes a dreadful worm that terrorises the village.

SHONKS AND THE DRAGON is another tale drawn from a supposedly real story of Sir Piers Shonks, whose defeat of a dragon antagonises the Devil into wanting revenge …

SEA TONGUE is a highly stylised story based on a story told by Norfolk fishermen who claimed to hear bells from beneath the sea. Crossley-Holland turns this into a fractured narrative tale, which I thought was very effective.


THE PIPER AND THE POOKA is about a dim Galway pipe player called Patsy who only knows one song until one evening when he encounters a Pooka while on his way back from a dance and the Pooka takes him to play for a house filled with women …

TOM TIT TOT is a variation on the classic Rumpelstiltskin tale.

MONDAY, TUESDAY is another morality tale about the value of being pleasant and happy with your lot as cheerful and gentle hunchbacked, bow-legged Lusmore has an encounter with the fair folk.

THE CHANGELING is a creepy story about a wet nurse called Janey who’s asked to help Mrs Hawes with her new born baby and discovers that a terrible switch has been made …

THE FARMER AND THE BOGART is about a battle of wits between a farmer and a bad-tempered Bogart who wants more than his due.

THE SHEPHERD’S TALE has a traditional ‘forbidden fruit’ theme but what elevates it is the sadness and bewilderment in the narrator’s voice as he explains of his encounter with the fair folk …

FAIRY OINTMENT is another ‘forbidden fruit’ story but one with a chilling end as an elderly midwife called June is called out by a man to help his wife through her labour.

CHARGER is a very short and, for me, not particularly interesting story due to an abrupt pay-off about a farmer who decides to sell his horse and meets a stranger on the road.

DATHERA DAD is a really weird story that didn’t make much sense to me about a woman baking a pudding and the tramp who calls on her.  I honestly had no idea what this was about and – unusually – Crossley-Holland’s note at the end gave no illumination.

YALLERY BROWN is a really good story about a farm hand called Tom, who learns how awful the goodwill of the Strangers when he frees Yallery Brown from beneath a stone disc.


THE THREE BLOWS is a morality tale about a man called Gwyn who wins a fairy girl for his wife but forgets the condition she laid down for their marriage.

THE FINE FIELD OF FLAX is a young village girl who makes her illegitimate daughter a dress from flax to win the heart of the local laird’s son.  For me, this was a slight story but I enjoyed the lyrical language.

SEA-WOMAN is a story that will be familiar to a lot of people in one form or another as a selkie woman is forced to marry a fisherman after he steals and hides her seal skin.  I particularly enjoyed this because I remember reading similar stories when I was little.

THE BLACK BULL OF NORWAY is, in Crossley-Holland’s view, a corrupted version of two separate stories, but I liked the way he pulls them together and Flora (the young girl at the heart of this story) has spirit and determination.

MOSSYCOAT is an enjoyable take on the Cinderella story.

TAM LIN is a really disturbing, albeit beautifully written poem about a young girl called Janet who takes on the notorious rake Tam Lin.  There’s an allusion to rape that really disturbed me and I absolutely hated the resolution.

YELLOW LILY follows a prince who takes on a giant at cards and foolishly stakes his head on the final game, turning to the giant’s daughter – Yellow Lily – for help to save himself.

THE GREEN MIST is a sad tale about a sick girl at death’s door who makes a foolish promise.


A VILLAGE OF FOOLS is a funny tale of an encounter between bad King John and the people of Gotham who are determined that neither monarch nor retinue shall pass through their village because it would prevent them from charging a toll for using their road.

MARE’S EGGS made me wince given that it relies on the racist stereotype of the dim Irishman, who in this story buys a marrow thinking that it’s a mare’s egg.

THE COW THAT ATE THE PIPER was, more me, more dark than amusing as three men encounter a piper late at night while seeking shelter from the cold and who in turn discover a dead man, whose boots they decide to take.  Comedic shenanigans follow.

POLL was a story that made absolutely no sense to me as a miner encounters a parrot (and that is, pretty much, the sum total of the story).

THE WISE MEN OF GOTHAM is actually 5 mini-tales, all of which are designed to highlight how dim or gullible the people of Gotham are.

MAGPIES IN THE CRABTREE is a very short piece that also made zero sense to me as a bunch of magpies are basically burnt alive in a tree.

THE RIDDLER is a battle of wits between an old woman and a mysterious night, told in rhyme.  I really enjoyed this one as the use of language and the repetition of lines is very effective.


BOO! is actually my favourite story in the collection. It’s very short but very effective as a young woman seeks to make sure that her house is completely locked up and secure after her father goes to London.

SAMUEL’S GHOST is a really sad story about little Sam who is burnt to ash while he sleeps but discovers he can’t rest until he recovers all his missing parts.

SLAM AND THE GHOSTS is a darkly funny tale about Douglas, who decides to scare his older brother Slam into giving up drink by dressing up as a ghost and hiding in a graveyard, ready to jump out at Slam late at night when he’s returning from the pub.

THE DAUNTLESS GIRL was another of my favourites in the book, as a farmer makes a bet with his friends about the fearlessness of his daughter Mary.

BILLY is a weird story about a crippled tailor called Billy who dares to sit and sew in the graveyard on Hallowe’en night.

FEAR AND FLY is a creepy tale about an elderly priest who seeks shelter in a cottage after a terrible mist settles across the moor.

Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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