Why Read about England?
I hope things have changed for the better, but I have to admit that I found myself as a supposedly well educated adult…with degrees in English literature, no less…who found herself with an embarrassing lack of knowledge about English history and folklore. I read a little King Arthur in high school, and I knew about Robin Hood from when my childhood (and Kevin Costner: I’m that old) but not much more.
The English history I knew about mostly consisted of Queen Elizabeth (because I live in Virginia near the Elizabeth River and Elizabeth City) and the kings the “colonies” got into with during the Revolution, and I may have been taught a bit more than kids are today because I happened to be in upper elementary school during the American Bicentennial in 1976.
No matter what your ethnic background, the English stories make exciting reads for kids, and are pretty important to know since British colonial policies have resulted in English culture having such a major impact on cultures around the world.
As I worked on this article, in fact, one of the most surprising ironies that I found is that many of the authors of the best books of English folklore for children were not born on the British isle: they were born in Canada, Australia, and the United States.
Since the English had an established society long before other present-day Anglophone (English speaking) cultures did, they also have a lot of great books written for children that are now in the public domain.
Note: In some cases, I found open links that do not require any logins. If you end up on Amazon.com, check the available options closely to make sure you get good quality digital editions. Some may have missing illustrations, and some may be poorly formatted.
Also note: This article focuses on England. Follow The Lois Level for upcoming articles on other nations in the current United Kingdom (Wales, Northern Island, Scotland) and across the world.
English History Retold for Kids
Alfred J. Church
Alfred J. Church was a professor who wrote a considerable number of books retelling stories from history and classical literature for students. He wrote a lot of them because they were popular and sold well, which is also the reason that they are so enjoyable even today.
Assessing the Validity of Church’s Histories
The teacher/researcher in me is a bit leery about recommending these books because they were published with no references, but then again, Terry Deary has made millions from his Horrible Histories, and those possibly could have been completely made up because he has neither sources/references nor any kind of education in history that I can find at all, and both the educational and media seems to embrace him with open arms. I find his books horrible both because of his attitudes toward intellectual property…the opposite of what we teach in school…and the statements he has made in the media about teachers and schools…so he is deliberately not linked.
At least Alfred J. Church actually had the credentials to support his claims to knowledge of history.
The Purpose of Church’s Histories
The idea behind his books is to introduce children and teenagers to the stories from literature and history with the idea, I’m sure, that they will either read the original texts (or translations of them) OR more scholarly histories OR original documents at a later time.
With access to so much text in the world now, and so much being produced every year, I think it’s still a very good idea to introduce kids to these stories as early as possible. Their time is better spent hearing adventure stories that contribute to their cultural knowledge than getting them hooked on commercially produced junk that is designed to get them to buy stuff. Just saying.
As I mentioned, my personal knowledge of English history is not good and comes mostly from personal reading, but I read the chapter on “The Lost Colonies” (Church’s name for the American Revolution), which I did learn quite thoroughly from an American perspective, and I found Church’s version so balanced and fair that I double checked his bio to confirm that he was in fact English rather than American (He was.).
Church’s English Histories, strangely, are not available in e-book, but I do have links for versions I have found online in addition to paperback editions, below.
Of course, the fact that these books are still being produced in paperback form gives you an idea of how good they are, but texts this old are in the public domain and are therefore legal to share freely.
Despite the appearances of the books, which might make them seem appropriate for older kids, the intended audience is ages 9-11.
Gateway to the Classics has an excellent page on Alfred J. Church with a guide to the many different books that he wrote for children and university-bound teenagers.
Here are direct links to the three volumes with guides to the years covered. Each chapter has a separate link, which makes it possible to share them individually.
Stories from English History, Book 1 (Caesar to Black Prince ~ to 1400 A.D.)
Stories from English History, Book 2 (Richard II to Charles I ~ to 1650 A.D.)
Stories from English History, Book 3 (Cromwell to Victoria ~ to 1900 A.D.)
H.E. Marshall (Henrietta Elizabeth) also wrote a very well known English history for children called Our Island Story in the U.K. and An Island Story in the U.S.
Assessing the Validity of Marshall’s Histories
Although the authenticity of Marshall’s research has been brought into question, and she has been accused of cribbing Shakespeare in this book, it has been brought back into print and distributed in the U.K. If nothing else, it is an enjoyable introduction to English history for those not ready for Church’s.
Using Marshall’s Histories
I would suggest approaching her books as “stories” from or about history, and definitely they should only be used as a starting point. They can also be useful as “approachable” history or good for English language learners, but it’s important to double check Marshall’s version with a more reliable source first.
Another idea is to give them to older students and have them “fact check” them.
The link below, which contains individual links for chapters, also comes with audio files.
Marshall also worked as a teacher and school head, but she earned most of her living from writing. I don’t like her style quite as much as I do some of the other authors featured here, but she does make complex stories accessible and interesting for younger children.
Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall
English Myths and Legends
In addition to his stories about Robin Hood listed below, Howard Pyle also wrote stories about King Arthur, but these are more appropriate for younger teenagers, ages about 11-14. The two best public domain authors of King Arthur stories for younger children were written by Maude Radford Warren (who also wrote under her maiden name, Maude Radford) and Mary MacGregor.
MacGregor was a Canadian who wrote several novels and books for children, including a collective biography called Courageous Women, that she cowrote with L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books. She was a teacher and wrote for educational publications and the Presbyterian Sunday School Board before becoming a full-time author.
Her collection of King Arthur stories is very sparse and is presented in a decontextualized manner without an overarching narrative thread, but they are very easy reading.
Maude Radford Warren
Maude Radford Warren was also a Canadian, but she married an American and seemed to have lived most, if not all, of her adult life in the U.S.
Not only did she write about the military exploits of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, she also actually experienced war herself as the war correspondent for the American periodical The Saturday Evening Post.
King Arthur and His Knights by Maude Radford Warren
Stories of King Arthur’s Knights Told to the Children by Mary MacGregor
Robin Hood has always been one of my favorite folk heroes. I guess I’m just one of those clichéd women who loves a bad boy.
I loved the Disney version that I saw as a kid, and the Kevin Costner version. Robin is a badass, no question about it. And the kids in your life will enjoy the stories too.
Comparing Robin Hood Retellings
I’ve found 2 good classic versions, both in the public domain, one by H.E. Marshall (who also wrote the aforementioned Our Island Nation) and one by Howard Pyle.
Overall, I prefer Pyle’s. You have to get used to the language, in which the narration deliberately evokes a sort of Middle English/medieval charm that goes with the setting of the story. Pyle was known as an artist about as much as he was known as an author…in fact, he was an artist first…and the text includes his charming woodcut illustrations, the style of which perfectly matches the medieval setting as well.
Marshall’s is much shorter and easier for younger children to read. Pyle’s is a good read aloud with children up to about 8 or 9; older children, if they are comfortable with the phonetic spellings (Pile does go medieval), can go it alone.
Bias in Retellings of Robin Hood
I do need to throw in that Marshall feels the need to call the inhabitants of Palestine “the heathen”, which annoys me. In most mentions of the Crusades I’ve found in these books, I’m amused by the different ways “Mohammadan” (Muslim) are spelled, and I’m disappointed with Marshall’s judgmental word choice. Most of her contemporaries obviously were able to be a bit more balanced.
It’s necessary to at least mention the Crusades in the Robin Hood story, but they aren’t integral to the plot, which takes place in England. I certainly didn’t expect a totally unbiased explanation of the Crusades given the context, and I didn’t get it, but calling people who worship the same God as “heathen”, let alone anyone else, is too much.
So if you read Marshall, skip that part or be prepared to explain it.
Direct links, with direct links to individual chapters and stories, appear below. Both texts are illustrated, but there are more and better illustrations in Pyle’s.
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood written and illustrated by Howard Pyle
Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children by H.E. Marshall
Disney Version of Robin Hood
(One of my personal favorites)
Pyle is remembered more for his art than for his writing, but the latter has received some serious attention. He is particularly remembered for his contributions to children’s literature and Americana.
He is also credited, interestingly enough, for conceiving of the way pirates are depicted in art and media. Few if any illustrations of actual pirates survive, so Pyle borrowed from the Gypsy (Romani) culture for his work. The final product is definitely picturesque, but is also noted as being impractical for working sailors, which is what pirates were.
If you read the history, you will find out that sometimes the line between piracy and “legal” merchant seafaring is extremely hazy and largely depended on whom you asked, from a political point of view, but I digress. The point is that I’m guess they probably wore the same thing as any other sailor.
But as a fan of Johnny Depp and Adam Ant, I’m pretty happy Pyle got a little creative. Fun is fun.
Guy of Warwick
H.E. Marshall also wrote a child’s retelling of Guy of Warwick, who is another mythical English hero. His story is tied to the ancient Kingdom of Wessex, a name Thomas Hardy revived to use for the area of southwest England where he set his novels.
As an American, I have never heard of this story before, but he is considered important in the U.K.
A Very Short and Highly Subjective Synopsis of Guy’s Story
There are two parts to the story: in the first, Guy goes off on adventures to prove he is worthy of the woman he loves. After getting this woman, and living with her for a while (as a nobleman), he starts to feel guilty about ignoring God and decides that the ONLY way to fix the situation is to go off to Jerusalem and beg God for forgiveness there, where Jesus died on the cross. Somehow, that takes him about 40 years (more adventures), and even then, when he finally returns home, he lives as a hermit and doesn’t reveal himself to his wife until he is on his deathbed.
So you know, it seems to me that he got bored with domestic life and is your typical “guy” in that he doesn’t want what he has…but I’m just an American so I’m probably too dumb to understand. I’m also not too upset that Guy’s story hasn’t captured the American imagination the way Robin Hood and even King Arthur have.
But if your kids like these stories, this is another good one.
Stories of Guy of Warwick by H.E. Marshall
English Fairy Tales
Pinning down which European country different fairy tales came from can be tricky because folk scholars (and yes, there is such a thing) aren’t always sure themselves. Obviously, the stories easily traveled in the oral tradition from one European country to another.
While I don’t think it’s terribly important to know exactly which tales came from which country and knowing the region is probably enough (European, Middle East, Africa, etc.), also discussing which versions came from which country is kind of fun, and it definitely helps people understand theirs and other cultures more.
Joseph Jacobs has the best collection of purely English tales. You will see some that you probably recognize, such as “The Three Little Pigs” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”, some that are completely new, and some that are variants on other tales. I see three different takes on “Cinderella”, for example: “Katie Crackernuts”, “Molly Whuppie”, and “Cap O’Rushes”.
I’ve studied some folklore, and “Cinderella” is one of the tales with the most variants. Apparently the problems of blended families are eternal.
The first collection below consists only of the English tales. The second collection includes several collections that were originally published individually. In addition to “English Tales,” the second collection includes another collection of English tales, 2 volumes of Celtic tales plus a volume of Indian fairy tales and another of European fairly tales. Below that is a direct link to the tales with individual links to stories and audio files.
If you are wondering, Great Britain (that’s the big island that makes up most of present day U.K. traditionally is supposed to be inhabited by the Celts and the Angles (i.e. Anglo Saxons), with more Celts on Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and some other nearby areas. Apparently, the division is more about language and culture than genetics, as these articles from The New York Times and the BBC explain.
There is information about Joseph Jacobs, the author of these collections, below.
Note: The New York Times has a limit of 3 free article downloads per month.
English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs
Ironically, Jacobs was neither Anglo nor Celtic, or even born in England. He was born in Sydney, Australia, and he was Jewish. Regardless, he was also one of the leading folklorists of his day and deliberately set out to do for England what the Brothers Grimm did for (newly unified) Germany with regard to folk literature. As they still do today, children in Jacobs’ time mostly knew the Germanic Grimms or the versions written by the French Charles Perrault, and Jacobs wanted English children to know English folktales.
Perhaps the fact that he was born a colonist in Australia is one of the reasons that he documented folk literature from all over the British Empire, including stories collected from the Celtic tradition and from India.
As the Grimms knew, one way to unify a seemingly disparate group of people is to teach them about their shared culture. Or about each other’s cultures.
And yes, he contributed to the documentation of Judaica as well.
You Tell Us
What are your favorite stories from English folklore?