A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Fairy tales have been under a presumed threat of extinction for at least a couple of centuries. Each successive generation mourns the modern pressures and loss of innocence that they are convinced are robbing their children, and their children’s children, of the simple pleasures of once-upon-a-times and happy-ever-afters. Almost magically, however, the supposedly despised and politically incorrect stories continue to cling stubbornly to life, and the truth is that they’ve never really been in danger at all.
In his excellent preface to Victorian Fairy Tales Michael Newton makes the point that fairy tales are written for two separate audiences: children and, more relevantly, their parents. It is, of course, the parents who are chiefly responsible for the survival of fairy tales. They read them both to and with their children and in doing so, the tales become part of the next generation’s mental luggage, to be remembered fondly and passed forward in turn to their own offspring. In addition, adults also often read the stories for their own enjoyment alone, and in doing so discover depths and nuances that a child’s understanding is not sufficiently developed to grasp. The classic fairy tales work on two levels – as entertaining and educational fantasies for children and as darker, more complex tales for adults.
It was in the 19th Century that writers began crafting their own fairy stories in imitation of the centuries old European tradition of collecting and/or creating folk tales. Their aim was both to entertain and, in many cases, to comment on conditions and conflicts within Victorian society; to warn about the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution and highlight the injustices and inequities that they saw all around them. The results could be very uneven, and at their worst the tales were twee, kitsch and forgettable, but at their best the Victorians produced some of the finest, funniest and grittiest fairy tales ever written.
In Victorian Fairy Tales Michael Newton gathers together the best of the best. There are well-loved classics like Southey’s telling of The Story of Three Bears (the first ever published version of the story that would eventually turn into the story of Goldilocks), Oscar Wilde’s unbearably poignant The Selfish Giant and Rudyard Kipling’s The Dymchurch Flit, interspersed with unexpected offerings from Ford Madox Ford and Thackeray, wonderful contributions from E Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame, and perhaps best of all, beautifully crafted tales written by people whose names were largely unfamiliar to me like Juliana Horatia Ewing, Andrew Lang and Dinah Mulock Craik.
Like all the best fairy tales they can be read for pleasure and nothing else, and indeed some of them are pure whimsy; but often there is a darker current running through the fantasy … cruelty, duplicity, selfishness, callousness, the despoliation of natural resources, the discarding of people with physical handicaps … all are grist to the writers’ mills. Some of the stories are short – no more than a couple of pages – and others are almost novella length, so it pays to check the pagination before you settle down for a ‘quick read’. They are by turns mystical, magical, absurd, enchanting and shrewd.
Several of them are also quite exquisite – none more so than Dinah Mulock Craik’s The Little Lame Prince, which is easily one of the best short stories – of any genre – that I’ve read in a very long time.
It tells the tale of Prince Dolor, a beautiful little boy who is dropped at his christening by the state nursemaid and loses the use of his legs. The story tells how, usurped by his uncle and an outcast from his own kingdom, he grows to adulthood in a tall tower on a lonely plain and eventually becomes a wise, humane and much loved King. It contains all the classic ingredients: an orphaned child, greedy relatives, a down-to-earth fairy godmother and a magic travelling cloak; and wrapped around them is a narrative of – as Michael Newton so perfectly describes it – ‘pathos and still beauty’. It does everything a good fairy story should do: it makes you cry, it makes you smile and it makes you think. More than all of those, however, it also makes you happy, because decency and kindness win and Dolor gets his happy ending. One day, he hands his kingdom over to the cousin he has been raising as his heir, and simply floats away to the Beautiful Mountains to join his adored mother:
“King Dolor was never again beheld or heard of in his own country. But the good he had done there lasted for years and years; he was long missed and deeply mourned – at least so far as anybody could mourn one who has gone on such a happy journey.
Whither he went, or who went with him, it is impossible to say. But I myself believe that his godmother took him, on his travelling-cloak, to the Beautiful Mountains. What he did there, or where he is now, who can tell? I cannot. But one thing I am sure of, that, wherever he is, he is perfectly happy.
And so, when I think of him, am I.”
With reproductions of some of the original black and white illustrations by (among others) Arthur Hughes and Walter Crane, a silken bookmark and a truly glorious cover, Victorian Fairy Tales is a perfect gift volume for both adults and older children. Rather like the stories themselves, the book works beautifully on two levels, both as a collection of fairy tales to be read and enjoyed for their own sake and – with its appendix and copious explanatory notes – as a detailed and fascinating window into the Victorian mind.
Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-19-960195-0. 444pp. (Also available as an ebook and in paperback.)