The book is well researched, but its task is not easy. With its discursive elements related to the folk tale’s domain, the book might have worked better if structured as an anthology of mythic Britain. And for all its heavy historiography, the insatiable desire to cover others’ specialisms makes deciphering the origins of associated references virtually impossible without a corresponding numbering system. It’s as if Hadley expects the reader to be as familiar with the material as he is himself.
Hadley, however, persists, collecting as many versions of the story as he can, for he ... does not neglect such a humble source as the church’s visitors’ book... As Hadley shuttles to and fro between contemporary evidence and the researches and speculations of later centuries, the big events of history roll by in the margins... He pieces together what remains and gradually, like a jumpy piece of early film, time speeds up... Hadley wears his scholarship lightly but at the heart of this antiquarian wild goose chase is an ingenious meditation on what history, in all its complexity and unevenness, really is.
Hadley confidently deploys technical terms for the tools of the marble quarrier and sculptor’s trade, skilfully used in chiselling and sanding, and for the kinds of axe through which the mighty yew was brought down. The past is animated both with imagination and knowledge... The writing, fine though it is in places, cannot always sustain the reader over long accounts of 18th-century antiquaries and their misapprehensions. But the book nevertheless meets the challenge of amplifying the local beyond the merely parochial. It chronicles, thoughtfully and pleasurably, the different kinds of work that the story and the memorialising objects associated with it do, and the vagaries of preservation that allowed it to leave its traces to be read across the palimpsest of an English village.