The Fabled Coast by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood

What is a fable? Is it a legend? A story that people really believed? Is it a joke or an anecdote? Or is it just a shaggy dog story that some rogue cooked up to amuse their kids? The Fabled Coast doesn’t say, although it is a journey around the shores of the British Isles seeking out legends and traditions of the sea.

The Fabled Coast

Unfortunately, The Fabled Coast has little in the way of analysis. It’s just a collection of stories and legends grouped by region. Herein lies the main weakness of the book. Instead of having a chapter dedicated to mermaids, we get similar myths recurring again and again in different places, with little variation between them. The book is poorly edited in that information is frequently repeated, sometimes with the same observation appearing in two consecutive fables.

Many of the stories are so similar because fables were often concocted to serve a purpose. Smugglers spread tales of ghosts that haunt lonely caves to keep people away from the places where they stashed their booty. Monsters like the kelpie, a fierce river horse from Scotland, were used to discourage children from playing near dangerous stretches of water.

Many people today complain about the amount of violence on TV and in computer games, but it is clear that even in those far-off times, people had a taste for the grotesque:

In Whimpwell Street, Happisburgh, there used to be a pump [haunted by] … a legless figure that glided along with dreadful speed, its head hanging down its back between the shoulders as if its neck were almost cut through … It was decided to search the well … [and they] caught a heavy sodden sack. This was hauled up, and found to contain a pair of boots, with the legs of their one-time owner still inside. … It seemed clear that there had been a smugglers’ quarrel, and that one of the men had been killed, his legs hacked off to make carrying the body easier, and all the remains thrown into the well.

I also enjoyed the fragments of etymology that cropped up along the way, for example this one for a sea shanty (idiosyncratically spelled chanty by the authors):

Jobs aboard a sailing ship often involved coordinated effort. Rhythmic shouts, helping the men synchronise their hauling on the ropes, developed into work songs called chanties (from French chantez ‘sing’) … Certain chanties were exclusive to particular occasions. ‘O, Hurrah, My Hearties, O!’ was sung while pulling out a whale’s teeth, while ‘Shenandoah’ was for weighing anchor.

Despite these gems, the book at times feels like reading pages and pages of Wikipedia articles. Perhaps it is not supposed to be read cover to cover, as I did, but to be dipped into as a reference guide. It certainly ends without any particular conclusion or summary of what has gone before.

Most annoying of all is that the book was poorly set for the Kindle. Nested text interrupts stories with no warning, showing that little thought has been taken in making the conversion from print to electronic edition. At the prices of ebooks these days (often almost the same as the print edition), this is unforgiveable, particularly as this was published in 2012 by Random House, one of the world’s major publishers.