I received a review copy from the publishers as part of this blog tour in exchange for an honest review. It has not affected my opinions.
Genre: Historical Ghost Story Age Range: Adult Star Rating: 4 stars Series: standalone
One winter, in the dark days of King Richard II, a tailor was riding home on the road from Gilling to Ampleforth. It was dank, wet and gloomy; he couldn’t wait to get home and sit in front of a blazing fire.
Then, out of nowhere, the tailor is knocked off his horse by a raven, who then transforms into a hideous dog, his mouth writhing with its own innards. The dog issues the tailor with a warning: he must go to a priest and ask for absolution and return to the road, or else there will be consequences…
First recorded in the early fifteenth century by an unknown monk, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings was transcribed from the Latin by the great medievalist M.R. James in 1922. Building on that tradition, now bestselling historian Dan Jones retells this medieval ghost story in crisp and creepy prose.
Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.
THE TALE OF THE TAILOR AND THE THREE DEAD KINGS is such a cute little book. Little is quite appropriate here – the whole thing (story, introduction, Latin text, and note on the Abbey it was written at) comes in under 100 pages. It is gorgeously put together, with the first letters of chapters depicted in a style similar to those in illuminated manuscripts – but less ornate and with no gold leaf!
The reason I was eager to read this is because it was written in the period of English history I know best, and I was so excited to read a modern version of the tales they told back then. It’s not a direct translation, and it’s longer than the original, but it does really feel like the author’s done his best to be as true to the original as possible.
You can tell the author knows this time well (you’d be worried if he didn’t, given he’s a historian of Medieval England!) because of the language he’s put into the characters’ mouths. While it’s rendered into modern English so we can read it, it very much has the cadence and feel of translated 1400s documents. There’s the second person singular (thee, rendered into a regional dialect as tha) and the way God is invoked feels very authentic.
It’s a ghost story that’s quite different to today’s, and it relies heavily on beliefs that aren’t prevalent today about the spirits of the dead. It’s about spirits waiting to pass into heaven and the fear of the spiritual, which was so common then. I think it’s quite spooky, and knowing more about the fear of where you’d go when you died really added another layer of meaning for me.
The note at the front really helps to place it into context and some of the stylistic choices Dan Jones made. It explains the history of the tale, and then the note at the back tells you more about the place where it was written. The inclusion of the Latin text at the back is a nice touch, complete with the (in English) notes of the original transcriber, but it would have been more useful if the text was translated as a side by side. I can’t read Latin, so it’s just letters, and it means the notes don’t make much sense as I don’t know what in the text it’s referring to.
This is definitely a book for those with an interest in history that goes beyond the major events. If you’re the sort of person who wants to know about daily life and the culture and mentality of people in the past, reading the sort of story they’d tell is a good way to find that out.