(2015) Michael Newton (ed.), Oxford University Press, £16.99 / US$27.95, hrdbk, xlii + 444pp, ISBN 978-0-199-60195-0
This is a beautifully presented collection of children’s fairy stories by respected Victorian authors, sandwiched between an essay on fairy stories by the editor and some takes on the genre by some of the writers themselves and their contemporaries. The publisher is the Oxford University Press and the purpose (and opening essay) seem largely academic, but the stories themselves are well chosen, well written and thoroughly entertaining.
There are sixteen stories in this volume, often by authors more famed for their adult work such as William Thackeray, Oscar Wilde and Ford Madox Ford. There are also stories by Rudyard Kipling, E. Nesbit, John Ruskin, Kenneth Graham, Andrew Lang. Mary de Morgan, George MacDonald, Robert Southey. Dinah Mulock Craik and Juliana Horatia Ewing, plus, in the prologue, shorter pieces by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.
The book starts with 'Rumplestiltskin' (Grimms) and the 'Princess and the Pea' (Anderson) and these set the tone. Robert Southey’s 'Story of the Three Bears' follows, and this produces the first surprise. Southey didn’t initiate the story but his version, published first in 1837, was the first significant rendering of it, but instead of the familiar Goldilocks (a 20th century addition, apparently) the porridge thief is an old woman, which gets away from the moral issue I have always had with the story (we are supposed to like Godlilocks? But she’s a thief!)
There then follows a succession of stories about kings, princesses, princes, dragons, fairy Godmothers and flying carpets. Not every fairy story has fairies in it, but there’s definitely a pattern here. Most of the stories have some sort of morality tale attached – be good, and good will come to you seems to be the main theme – but these tales are essentially the Disney mother-lode. Not that the stories themselves are too familiar, but the mood and the characters certainly are. So we have St George fighting an erudite and articulate dragon in Kenneth Grahame’s 'The Reluctant Dragon', two wicked brothers turned to stone by a river spirit in John Ruskin’s excellent 'The King of the Golden River or The Black Brothers', Princesses and Princes given gifts and wishes far too literally by fairy godmothers in Laurence Houseman’s 'Story of the Herons' and E. Nesbit’s 'Melisande', royalty redeemed by love in Ford Madox Ford’s 'The Queen Who Flew' and Andrew Lang’s 'Prince Prigio' (another example of a fairy’s gift gone wrong) and lots of whimsy about chasing rainbows (George MacDonald’s The Golden Key) and enchanted love charms (Thackeray’s 'Rose and the Ring' and Ford’s 'Queen Who Flew') all written in a simple, child-accessible style.
The one exception to this is Rudyard Kipling’s 'Dymchuch Flit', which is written in some sort of Estuary patois (or some obscure 19th century version of it) which makes it almost unreadable. This is a story about fairies fleeing England after the Reformation (for some reason Catholicism and fairies seem to be inextricably linked in Kipling’s mind). It’s the one story that moves sharply away from the Princess/morality tale model, which makes it interesting and its impenetrability and more sophisticated vocabulary gives it a level of challenge missing from the other stories.
As well as the princesses and fairies there are some effective and engaging love stories amongst these tales. Mary De Morgan’s 'Wanderings of Arasmon', has a heartbroken musician searching the world for his lost wife only to find she’s been with him all along, turned into a golden harp by and Elvish spell. George MacDonald’s 'The Golden Key', is all about young love, lifelong searches and rainbows.
Plus what is not to like about stories with flying carpets in them (there are two here: Craik’s 'Little Lame Prince and his Travelling Cloak' and Lang’s 'Prince Prigio'). Formulaic? Probably, but these stories were creating the formula, and (mostly) feel fresh and convincing.
All in all, then, a fine collection and surprisingly enjoyable. Each story has a rhythm and a tone which are quite soothing. There’s no suspense of course (though there could arguably be for children who may fall for the monster under the bed stuff) and you expect good to triumph (and you won’t be disappointed), plus the moral messages are usually evident from the opening paragraph. Largely, the big names deliver the least impressive performances (Oscar Wilde’s 'The Selfish Giant' stands out as the most pointless and least entertaining and Thackeray’s 'Rose and the Ring' is stilted, affected and pedestrian), but Ruskin’s 'King of the Golden River', Lang’s 'Prince Prigio' and Houseman’s 'Story of the Herons' are standout gems.
Most of these stories are quite long, which surprised me, and this is not a thin volume (do not be fooled by the word count – these pages are tightly packed). Clearly, judging by the author roster, fairy stories were a big thing in Victorian times. And a good thing too, because now we get to read and enjoy them. Recommended.
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