Ian Serraillier

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The literary career of English writer Ian Serraillier has been long and varied, spanning five decades from the 1940s to the 1980s. His works include poems for adults, adventure novels for young adults, verse narratives for young adults based on classical and medieval sources, plays in verse for broadcast on BBC radio, picture books for younger readers, and a nonfiction introduction to the age of Chaucer for high school and college students. His poems have been broadcast in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere, and his novel The Silver Sword was serialized for BBC television.

Serraillier was born in London on September 24, 1912. He attended a private boarding school in Sussex and then Brighton College, where he became fascinated with classical mythology. He won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied from 1931 to 1935, taking a master's degree in English language and literature. During his studies at Oxford he developed an interest in medieval literature, which provided the sources for several of his most important later writings.

Although Serraillier always aspired to a writing career, during the first half of his adult life he wrote more as avocation than vocation. From 1936 to 1961 he held a series of teaching positions and devoted most of his vacations to writing. His first published poems appeared in a 1942 collection, Three New Poets: Roy McFadden, Alex Comfort, Ian Serraillier. Shortly thereafter two volumes of poetry for younger readers appeared—The Weaver Birds (1944) and Thomas and the Sparrow (1946). In 1946 he published his first adventure novel for young adults—They Raced for Treasure (later abridged and reissued as Treasure Ahead). He followed this quickly with other books of suspense. Most of these early novels now seem rather dated, with one major exception—The Silver Sword. This novel (later reissued as Escape from Warsaw) is loosely based on actual events in the lives of four refugee children from Poland who traveled through Europe during World War II in search of their parents. It is Serraillier's most acclaimed work.

During the 1950s Serraillier began to pursue a more singular theme in his writing—the celebration of heroic human achievement. One narrative poem from this period commemorated Thor Heyerdahl's perilous voyage across the Pacific on the Kon-Tikr, another concerned Sir Edmund Hillary's conquest of Mt. Everest. Also during this period, Serraillier published Beowulf the Warrior, the first and perhaps best of his reworking of medieval literary materials.

His most important works from the 1960s and 1970s are narrative-verse renditions of classical myths and medieval legends. These include the Greek stories of Perseus, Theseus, Jason, Daedalus, and Heracles; The Song of Roland from Old French literature; and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Robin Hood ballads, and Havelok the Dane from Middle English literature. Serraillier retells some of Shakespeare's plays in The Enchanted Island, and his interest in the works of Chaucer led him to produce a major nonfiction book, Chaucer and His World, and to retell selections from Canterbury Tales. More recently he has written primarily for younger readers.

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