More wonderful illustration from the late 1970s, or 1980 to be precise, found in a bookshop not long ago. The artist is Yvonne Gilbert and this is from Richard Adams’ The Iron Wolf and other stories, a collection of folk tales in which the narrator is never revealed, and most are deeply colloquial, with natural storytelling. This particular tale explains how the robin got his red breast: stained with the blood from Christ’s crown of thorns, while trying to remove the briars with his beak.
In the Middle Ages people used to believe that they [Longinus and Joseph of Arimathea] sailed together to England, and that with them they brought three things: a piece of the cross, the spear with which Longinus had pierced Jesus’s side after he died, and the Holy Grail – the cup which Jesus had blessed at the Last Supper. The legend says that the piece of the cross was planted at Glastonbury in Somerset, and from it sprung up the holy Glastonbury thorn, which was believed to bloom at midnight on Christmas Eve. The Grail was mysteriously received into heaven, but later was revealed to three of King Arthur’s knights – Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival – and what became of the spear I don’t remember to have heard.
But the robin came to England too. Longinus had become so fond of him and his red breast that he made him a little cage and he sailed with them on the ship. And when they reached England they let him go. And ever since then he’s lived near people’s houses and brought them good luck.
From The Iron Wolf and other stories, Richard Adams (Allen Lane)