I’ve mentioned Michael De Larrabeiti before, butOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Provencal Tales (Pavilion 1988) is worth a longer look.

Based on a journey apparently taken in 1959 it is a first person account of an Englishman among the shepherds of Provence, making an annual trip, on foot, with 3000 sheep, from the coast near St Tropez, to the Alpes de Provence, some 9 days inland.

Not only his story, the account is laced with the stories that the shepherds tell, one each night, as they camp, and a couple at the end, where the flock has dispersed over the summer grazing of three mountain pastures. The tale told is contemporary, but the told tales are medieval. The sheep herders have cars that meet them with supplies at various points on the route, but the characters in the tales they tell are Barons and peasants, troubadours and Magicians. Their enemies are magical creatures, wicked relatives and neighbours, and Saracen invaders.

The structure of the collection as a whole reminded me of Boccaccio, with its tales within tales, and tellers of tales being told of. The themes though, are deeper, and often archetypal rather than domestic. Many concern falls from grace and redemption, and with the eventual passing, and returning, of all things, over time. Restless and dissatisfied men, and some women, some rich, some poor, make or squander their fortunes, their wisdoms, and their happinesses. The stories themselves are sometimes of stories, stories which are told of stories within them.

By turns De Larrabeiti made me laugh, and cry, and think myself wise, and suspect myself of having been a fool. The device of the medieval, traditional tellings has meant that the overall telling has not aged as it might have over the quarter century since publication, though contemporary English has.

There are so many levels of belief and disbelief to consider in a collection like this. Did the journey really take place? Did the shepherds really tell these tales? Were the tales they allegedly told really medieval? How much was fiction, how much fact? And behind all that, the question, who cares? For it is a story, and the truths of stories are in their fictions. Pete Morgan’s poem Ring Song, has a couplet: ‘and the story was told to a poet/and the poet passed on the story’.

It’s hard to pick favourites from a collection like this, but The Ruins of Grimaud and Malagan and the Lady of Rascas would be among mine. The former tells of a proud Baron who will not offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to a Saracen Prince. There’s a seam of what these days we would call bigotry that runs through the stories, and prejudice against the ‘other’ is strong in this story. It’s result is to bring ruin, mutilation, death and loss to the protagonists, and to their peoples. The theme is common in the wider collection. The latter story has a more fantastical disaster in mind, for here the proud Baron has a spell cast upon his wife that will make her unattractive to any potential lover while he is away crusading. The spell cannot be lifted until his return, with the magician who wove it. The baron, however, comes home alone, and finds that although his wife is still loved, admired and respected by all her courtiers and by the common people, despite the magical infliction, he is revolted by her. Unhappiness for all follows, until Malagan the magician, who has not died on the battlefield, comes home, to punish the Baron for abandoning him, to atone for his casting of the initial spell, and by inflicting upon the Baron the same curse to allow the situation to restore itself in a strange and unexpected way.

A similar denouement takes place in the tale of The Plane Tree and the Fountain, though the lead up to it here involves the consequences of a Baron failing to carry out his duties to those of whom he is overlord. Overlordship, responsibility, love and jealousy run through the medieval tales, and why would they not? The social arrangements within which they operate may have changed, but the human motives that create and challenge the institutions of state, and those of personal relationships are still with us.

The linking tales, like Boccaccio’s before, are short introductions to the ones that will follow, but they too are character studies, for each shepherd, and one or two others along the road, tell a tale that reveals something about him or her, to contrast with or complement the thumbnail sketch that the author has given us of the teller.

Another magical tale is The Curse of Igamor in which an evil Baron uses the local population’s fear of that eponymous curse to suppress them. A troubadour comes to town, and troubadours, in these tales, are always men (well, nearly always!) who bring truths that are both liberating, and challenging, and are often the triggers for change in both individuals and societies. Here the troubadour tells a tale, of a tale in which the evil baron of the overarching tale becomes the victim of his own curse. But the people do not believe in it sufficiently, and the troubadour is whipped and beaten for his troubles. One brave citizen helps him, and learns that unless tales are believed in they can be if little use, and that it is the troubadour’s job to be beaten, again and again, until they are believed. Which is an appropriate point at which to turn aside and reflect in a week that has seen journalists jailed for the tales they have told.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA