The first remarkable thing about Aaron Shepard’s newest book for children, The Mountain of Marvels, isn’t the marvelous sight of a fair lady on a white horse. It isn’t the storytelling skill of the author, although that’s undoubted. It isn’t the exquisite clarity and elegance of the language, or Shepard’s delicate and dexterous grasp of the rich cultural heritage behind the simple stories of wonderful occurrences on a magical mountain.
You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the well.
The well of heritage, that is – the folklore and traditional stories that were shared and told and retold for centuries, even millennia, across the towns and villages of the British Isles. Every country and culture has its own well, or several, deep and fascinating wells. Peer into one, and you’ll see the reflected shadow of your ancestors’ souls. Peer into several, and you’ll get a hint of what makes the human spirit the same around the world – common images and themes, heroes who follow similar paths, monsters that lurk in similar dark corners and make the same frightening sounds.
For devotees of Celtic culture, a funny thing happened on the way to the well, just a few centuries ago.
It got lost.
For centuries, the internationally accepted common source of metaphor and imagery in the European artistic and cultural world began and ended with Greek mythology and its offshoots; from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Tennyson to T. S. Eliot, any notion that an equally vibrant source of artistic power and inspiration might lie in the native mythologies of the non-Mediterranean cultures was guaranteed to be crushed by the Homeric juggernaut. James Joyce himself, the towering giant of Irish literature, chose Homer’s Odyssey as the model for his definitive work – even though the Irish Literary Revival had finally begun to clear the overgrown path to his own country’s well late in the 19th century.
The “Matter of Britain” – the Arthurian saga – tends to be rediscovered by a few important artists or poets every generation or two; but other than this, visits into the heartland of Celtic mythology have been largely restricted to fantasy novelists and neopagan revivalists. Many of these have ventured only far enough to harvest a handful of names with funny spellings. A few have gone farther, but only one author, the American novelist Evangeline Walton, has tackled the entirety of the Mabinogion, the key collection of Welsh tales; and her books, originally written in the 1930s, were finally published in the 1970s and can be difficult to find. And they’re adult novels, unsuited to children, however much we may long to introduce the next generation early to a beautiful and neglected aspect of heritage.
So the first wonder to be seen in The Mountain of Marvels is that it sits on such an uncrowded bookshelf. And the book could hold its own against heavy competition: it’s a clear, simple, beautiful retelling of some of the key stories of Welsh folklore, three episodes from the first and third branches of the Mabinogion. Those familiar with the source material will notice some changes to the story, but will also recognise how masterly a piece of work Shepard has crafted from notoriously challenging material. The changes are careful, thoughtful, effective, and above all respectful.
Make no mistake: this isn’t Disney. Nor is it the Brothers Grimm. Although Celtic mythology in its raw state can match anything found by the Grimms or anyone else who ever hunted for stories in the darker glades of human consciousness, this is a retelling that has been lovingly prepared for children by an author who knows his audience. Knows, respects and trusts them: the stories are neither dumbed down nor prettied up.
The story also refreshing in its unapologetic embrace of the marvellous. Too many retellings from folklore and legend, and too many tales of magic and fantasy, sag under an unspoken modern expectation that amazing events and impossible moments must, at some level, be rationalised. Too often the magical and the fantastic are not merely explained, but explained away; this is another, subtle loss of heritage. The Mountain of Marvels is a marvel indeed, rich with the mysterious and ineffable irrationality of a true folk tale.
Best of all, the language has retained the full richness of the underlying Celtic music without the tale being allowed to sink under the weight of unbridled eloquence – or convoluted archaic embellishment.
This won’t surprise those familiar with Shepard’s other work. He’s an acknowledged master in his field, an award-winning children’s author with over 20 titles to his credit, and a connoisseur of the wells of folk heritage from China and Vietnam to Nigeria to Norway. This is his first visit to the Celtic well, but hopefully not his last. The Mountain of Marvels is the first in a series titled “Ancient Fantasy”, with titles planned from the Finnish Kalevala, the Chinese tales of the Monkey King, and the African hero sagas. Under the name Mark Shepard, he's the author of two outstanding books on the flute; Shepard has also written several books for adults on writing, publishing, self-publishing, coping with the modern market, and economic survival for writers in the shadow of Amazon.
Oh, yes: The Mountain of Marvels is, in fact, self-published by Shepard’s own Skyhook Press. Don’t let that deter you. This is no cheap throw-away from a “vanity press”. The physical quality of the book – printing, binding, paper, typeface – lives up to the quality of the contents. Shepard has items published by Atheneum and Albert Whitman & Co., and his growing line-up of self-published titles are meant to bear up under the demands of young readers, physically as well as emotionally.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the books will last forever, however timeless the stories. Just ask the parents (or grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, etc.) of any child who’s a certifiable Reader: even the most bulletproof book, with the sturdiest binding, can be re-re-read into Velveteen Rabbit shreds by a true Reader. To which I can only say: may this book be so blessed.
Author: Louise Owen