Saturday, December 6, 2008

...With Fairy Tales For All

Edmund Dulac - my favorite illustrator

I am, without remorse, a deep believer in, and collector of, fairy tales. In my life I have read hundreds, perhaps thousands; and they never cease to fascinate me, because they all intersect. Russian tales intersect with European tales and even Arab tales; Northern European tales migrate oddly down to Southern Europe. Details travel. There are any number of fairy tale themes that seem to show up in all different places: the stepmother, the witch, the son seeking his fortune, to name some obvious ones - but then there are the less obvious, still ubiquitous ones: the things thrown over one's shoulder to thwart a pursuer; the pursued transforming into something (eg. grain of wheat) which the pursuer then transforms to destroy (eg. hen); the place beyond the sun or the worlds' end or at the back of the ocean.

In any case, I seem to have put far too much money into fairy tale collections in my lifetime, and it occurred to me today that I could, in fact, blog about different collections in the interest of, well, interest - and possibly as an understated list for possible Christmas-like perusal. So, without further ado, here we go - the best as I know it.

First of all, let me plug Andrew Lang's Coloured Fairy Books. There are twelve of them, from green to red to lilac and violet and so on, and they are really classic. Though Lang wrote for a living, these were not written by him but edited - by which really we mean collected from other, often foreign, texts and sources - by him, and translated by several other people, most notably his wife, who had a far greater influence on the style of translation and (proof)editing than she was ever given credit for.

They are beautifully illustrated in period style by H. J. Ford, who is reminiscent of Arthur Rackham or Frederick Richardson. Lang is famous for despising Victorian attempts at fairy-tale writing:

"But the three hundred and sixty-five authors who try to write new fairy tales are very tiresome. They always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms: 'Flowers and fruits, and other winged things.' These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed. Real fairies never preach or talk slang. At the end, the little boy or girl wakes up and finds that he has been dreaming.

"Such are the new fairy stories. May we be preserved from all the sort of them!"

Despite Lang's sentiments on the matter of "new" authors, another favorite tome of mine is Hauff's Fairy Tales, now tragically out of print. These are some of the most wonderful and imaginative stories, told in a wandering style that encompasses, in some cases, an Arabic style of telling, while in others, a Black Forest location. The stories are long and complex and totally entertaining; it's hard to explain why they are so enjoyable, except that they have a lighthearted touch that seems to simply emanate from a joyfulness in the art of storytelling.

Wilhelm Hauff, a German of good family who was apparently largely self-taught from his grandfather's library, started writing these amazing tales from his own imagination when he was 22, and wrote prolifically for three years before his death of fever in 1827. He also wrote several novels, which I have not read or even seen in print (though his Memoirs of Beelzebub strikes me as intriguing).

And on the subject of someone sitting down and writing a fairy tale collection, let me say right now that I have almost never read any fairy tales as entertaining as ex-Python Terry Jones' Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories. They manage to do a wonderful job with all the fairy tale elements, while somehow being terribly modern in their appeal - and have a wonderfully silly twist, as you would expect from their author. Just let me quote The Silly King, about a king who, with age, has become extremely eccentric:

"Nobody, however, liked to mention how silly their king had become. Even when he hung from the spire of the great cathedral, dressed as a parsnip and throwing Turkish dictionaries at the crowd below."

Of course, when the Princess (whom he named Fishy - although everyone calls her Bonito) has a suitor, the Lord Chancellor must find a way to make him acceptable to the suitor's father, who has come to arrange the marriage. A call is put out and numerous doctors provide numerous solutions:

"One eminent doctor had a lotion which he said King Herbert must rub on his head before going to bed, but King Herbert drank it all on the first night, and was very ill. So a second eminent doctor produced a powder to cure the illness caused by the first doctor, but King Herbert put a match to it, whereupon it exploded and blew his eyebrows off. So a third doctor produced a cream to replace missing eyebrows, but King Herbert put it on his teeth and they all turned bright green overnight."

Needless to say, I highly recommend this collection, especially for reading aloud.

Andrew Lang also did an abridged collection of Arabian tales called The Arabian Nights Entertainments, published (with more wonderful Ford illustrations) by Dover, as all the Lang books are. It's beautiful to look at and a great read for all ages. Less good for children, but a fascinating read, is The Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night, translated by J. C. Mardrus and Powys Mathers. This version is a relatively faithful translation of the original, complete with sort-of salacious bits, sexism, racism, and other biases of the original. It's a revealing peek into social politics in another place and time - and good stories, to boot.

If you're wanting the salacious bits pumped up a little, you should be looking for the Thousand Nights and One Night, by Richard Francis Burton, the gadabout adventurer who traveled in disguise to Mecca and was in the first trip by Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the Nile. He worked for the East India Company and, later, the Royal Geographical Society as an explorer. And, apparently, he he liked unexpurgated books (he also did a translation of the Kama Sutra).

I heard about this version of the Arabian Nights first from something (I forget what) written by Diana Wynne Jones. As it happens, she also has edited a volume of (other people's) fantasy stories, called Spellbound; wherein one chapter is taken from a book called Hobberty Dick, written by distinguished folklorist and literary historian Katherine Briggs. Just the one chapter, though, was enough to really turn my head, because the world she describes, in 1652, is one of people living under siege from the fantastic folk populating the world all around them. I never before thought about what it might be like to look out from a position of extreme superstition, where everything must be done according to rules, and in every corner of the world are spirits who may or may not be friendly - or who might turn hostile at any moment for the slightest and most whimsical reasons. So, even though this is not really a collection, I would recommend it as being unusual and interesting.

In more specific arenas, we can refine by country and subject matter.

I have always loved my copy of French Fairy Tales (the one published in 1971 by the Hamlyn Publishing Group). The stories smack deliciously of peasant tales, being all about magic things which provide food and money, or stories of outwitting the Devil - rather than the usual Perault stories like Puss in Boots and Beauty and the Beast. Hamlyn also did an English Fairy Tales, which is similar, containing such lesser known stories as Molly Whipple and The Princess and the Hazelnuts. Both of these are illustrated wonderfully by Ota Janecek. I really cannot say how interesting it is to see stories that have the true flavor of the working people in them; most fairy tales have the quality of having been handed around and polished so much that any sense of the dreams and desires of the people from whom they came have been worn away a little. These, however, reflect a certain hungry gusto which I find refreshing.

Apparently, Hamlyn Publishing Group (as in Paul Hamlyn, who was later awarded the BCE for his publishing efforts and philanthropy) also did a Chinese Fairy Tales and a Persian Fairy Tales, which both sound fascinating. I am much saddened to see that I can't recommend a place to find any of these books except the English Fairy Tales (which you can find on Amazon used), but perhaps you will have better luck.

A small but worthwhile volume is Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales, a compendium of stories about heroines: "Active, witty, brave and resourceful, these fair maidens can fight and hunt as well as any man, defeat giants, answer riddles, outwit the Devil, and rescure friends and relatives from all sorts of dangers and evil spells."

The illustrations by Margo Tomes are delicate and sometimes a little creepy, and if like me you wish there were more kick-ass fairy tale girls in the world, this is a book for you.

Another couple of small volumes are The Devil's Storybook and The Devil's Other Storybook, both by Natalie Babbit, are short, funny stories about the Devil trying to find ways to increase the population of his realm. The Devil in these books is a trickster and a cheat, always getting bored and restless and coming up to our world to see what kind of mischief he can stir up. They are comic and full of earthy gusto (but still suitable for kids):

"ONE DAY when things were dull in Hell, the Devil fished around in his bag of disguises, dressed himself as a fairy godmother, and came up into the World to find someone to bother."

They're simple, but I like them.

Lastly, I am sad to say the Journal of Mythic Arts, the voice of the Endicott Studio, "a nonprofit organization dedicated to literary, visual, and performance arts inspired by myth, folklore, fairy tales, and the oral storytelling tradition," has closed. This journal, and its attendant blog, was a great resource for all things literary and folkloric, and a place to see really worthwhile art as well. It will be mourned, but the archives remain online. You can read about it here (though I notice a picture by one of my own faves, Rima Staines, showcased on the Last Issue page, in the link above).

Other Links:

Artsy Craftsy has a wonderful selection of art prints, ecards and so on with images by Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Aubrey Beardsley, Kay Nielsen, and others. Truly worth looking at...Especially Dulac, of course; but also check out John Bauer, another fabulous illustrator.

Lisa Falzon has an interesting, introspective article here about illustrators John Bauer and Kay Nielsen and their influence on her imagination and her drawing.


Lisa Falzon said...

What a fascinating read.. and so entirely odd that I blogged about fairytale illustrations just last week, and inclused in my post the same Jon Bauer image you included! :)

I ♥ your topics :)


Heather McDougal said...

Thanks for the pointer - nice article. I'm including it in the links section.

Anonymous said...

Like you I have shelf of fairy tales and such. You didn't mention one that made a huge impression on me: Wilhelm Matthiessen's book of Folk Tales. The copy I have was translated by Kathleen Shaw and the illustrations are by Ruth Bartlett - a kind of kicky sixties feel for what are clearly germanic tales.

Liam said...

Nice post. Is there a difference between folk tales and fairy tales? My mother got my wife, who is West African, a book of African folk tales and she recognized some from her childhood. The big character was Spider, something of a trickster.

Heather McDougal said...

I think there is probably a difference, if you're being picky, but they both come from the oral tradition, so I don't see why they shouldn't be counted in the same vein.

Spider! Anansi is his name. He is a great character. Neil Gaiman had a great time playing around with him in American Gods - Mr. Nancy is one of my favorite characters there. And of course, then there is Anansi Boys...

Lady Meerkat said...

Thanks for the pointers, I shall have to seek some of these out. Particularly interested in Terry Jones :)

A treasured book I have owned since I was about 8, is called World Tales, compiled by Idries Shah. It's a collection of folk tales from around the world. You'd probably enjoy it.

C. said...

Great post, I've always loved fairytales and they've been very important for me as illustrator (I wrote my thesis on illustrating folk and fairytales).
The Wynne Jones book seems very interesting. (I really must purchase some of her books one of these days) And thanks for pointing out Ota Janecek.
I wish I could suggest more interesting books, but alas my collection of folk and fairytales is mostly in Dutch.
Though I'm a little surprised you didn't mention The Juniper Tree, the collection of Grimm's fairy tales illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Possibly one of the best collection of Grimm's fairytales there is, theough perhaps already quite well known?

thorn said...

I think you'd quite like the short story book Green Monkey Dreams by Isobelle Carmody. There's a huge range of styles in there but she does regularly like to borrow themes and symbols from fairy tales. Particularly "The Pumpkin Eater", which tells the story of a young princess who was raised in a tower at the end of the world and who hopes to be rescued by a handsome prince... but soon realises that that is not all it's cracked up to be and must find her own destiny.

Holly said...

A copy of Hamlyn's Chinese Fairy Tales is available on

ArtSparker said...

I remain haunted by a book called the Gammage Cup which I read decades ago. I don't know that the illustrations were remarkable, but there was something about the story...

Richard S said...

I have been reading to my (about to be) six year old daughter from Persian Fairy Tales (Hamlyn), which I so enjoyed as a little boy. Full of life, irony and unexpected heroes.