Mary Pope Osborne,
illustrated by Troy Howell,
Favorite Medieval Tales
(Scholastic, 1998)

Mary Pope Osborne retells nine stories from medieval Europe, some with familiar themes and heroes such as Finn MacCoul, Beowulf, King Arthur, Roland, Sir Gawain and Robin Hood. Other tales are perhaps a bit less familiar.

The difficulty in distilling such complex tales lies largely in choosing which material to include and simplifying the language without losing the essence of the story. Osborne succeeds in some cases, but her effort falls flat in varying degrees in others.

"Island of the Lost Children," "The Werewolf" and "Chanticleer and the Fox" stand up well in their retellings, partly because regardless of whether they are part of a larger cycle, the stories stand alone well. Similarly, "Robin Hood and His Merry Men" also works well because the Robin Hood cycle is episodic. "Beowulf" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" are also self-contained enough not to depend on the context of a larger body of story.

"The Sword in the Stone" is the least successful tale in this collection. Space does not allow for more than what amounts to a summary of events, and the story does not engage the reader. To a lesser degree, something seems left out of "Finn MacCoul" and "The Song of Roland." While it is true that a reader new to the legends would not notice a lack, neither would that reader be getting more than a taste of the legend, and perhaps not even an adequate taste at that.

Osborne is an able writer, and overall her retellings are better than most. She includes notes on the stories as well as cultural and historical notes and a brief chronology. A quote from the tale in its original language and a translation begin each chapter, and Osborne includes the source of each quote in the story notes.

Troy Howell's lush, jewel-toned paintings are a highlight and enhance the stories. He also provides detailed notes on the sources of inspiration for his stories. Finally, a bibliography and an index complete the volume.

The real issue here is whether you want to try to provide an early introduction to these great legends to young readers or to guide them through the appropriate paths of folklore toward the full cycles. If you belong to the former school of thought, then you should be well served by Osborne's Favorite Medieval Tales.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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