edited by Andrew Lang
Recommended Age: 6+ (4+ if read to you)
The Red Fairy Book
This was the second book of Lang’s historic collection of fairy tales from around the world. It is evident from the brief preface that Lang considered it an afterthought — not up to the standards of The Blue Fairy Book, but filled with good stories that readers would enjoy, even if they were not as well-known. Well, clearly, being well-known isn’t the only test of a great story. And just as clearly, some stories that were well-known in 1890 and others that weren’t, have changed places by now. It seems that Lang’s vision for his collections changed, for by the end of twelve “fairy books of many colors,” he had brought together an astounding wealth of folklore, along with hundreds of splendid illustrations by H. J. Ford.
This book alone contains nearly a hundred of those illustrations, plus 37 stories which, in spite of Lang’s reservations about how well-known they were, include some of your favorites. And if they aren’t your favorites now, wait until you have read this book!
It has an offensive moment here and there—but anything worthwhile is bound to be controversial! After all, it dates from 1890, when it was not considered wrong to characterize people of color as “ugly as monkeys and as stupid as owls,” or to tell children stories in which such phrases as “dirty slut” could be found. Now that you have been forewarned, if you think these wrinkles will be an insurmountable barrier to your enjoyment of these stories, you might as well stop here and look for a different book. But, if you want to be caught up in a peerless world of romance, magic, horror, tragedy, humor, and adventure, this book is sure to give satisfaction. At least one of the stories in this book may even evoke tears.
I have tried to do something different with each of my reviews of these fairy books. This time, I would like to share with you a quote from each story, to whet your appetite.
The Red Fairy Book begins with the (I think) Belgian story of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," in which a gardener’s boy captures the heart of a princess, the youngest of twelve sisters. But the sisters have made a pact to give a potion to everyone who woos them, turning them into living puppets. This sets up the following excerpt:
He gave his arm to the eldest sister, danced with each in turn, and was so graceful that everyone was delighted with him. At last the time came for him to dance with the little Princess. She found him the best partner in the world, but he did not dare to speak a single word to her.Next comes "The Princess Mayblossom," Madame d’Aulnoy’s tale of a princess who, due to a fairy’s curse, is imprisoned in a tower until her twentieth birthday, and then makes the understandable error of falling in love with the first man she sees...who, unfortunately, is the ambassador sent by a neighboring king to ask for her hand in marriage. The result is one of the most squirm-inducing, hilariously true-to-life fairy tales ever written, depicting a flight of romance that goes down hard:
When he was taking her back to her place she said to him in a mocking voice:
"Here you are at the summit of your wishes: you are being treated like a prince."
"Don’t be afraid," replied the Star Gazer gently. "You shall never be a gardener’s wife."
The little Princess stared at him with a frightened face, and he left her without waiting for an answer.
"Pray, madam, how long do you mean to stay here? I see nothing to eat, and though you may be very charming, the sight of you does not prevent me from famishing."In P. C. Asbjørnsen’s tale of "Soria Moria Castle," a strong youth named Halvor rescues three princesses from three trolls, each troll having a successively larger number of heads for Halvor to cut off. In a “How do you like me now?” moment, Halvor returns home and meets the girls who used to tease him:
"What! Fanfaronade," said the Princess, sitting up and rubbing her eyes, "is it possible that when I am here with you you can want anything else? You ought to be thinking all the time how happy you are."
"Happy!" cried he; "say rather unhappy. I wish with all my heart that you were back in your dark tower again."
"We shall see that he is just the same ragamuffin that he was before," said the girls, tossing their heads.The Russian tradition brings us "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless," in which the hero (Prince Ivan) is in the interesting position of having to rescue his wife from a demon who owes him a life-debt:
At that same moment Halvor entered, and the girls were so astonished that they left their kirtles lying in the chimney corner, and ran away in nothing but their petticoats. When they came in again they were so shamefaced that they hardly dared to look at Halvor, towards whom they had always been so proud and haughty before.
"Why stumblest thou, sorry jade? Scentest thou some ill?"In "The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen," an old thief saves the lives of three doomed princes, merely by telling their captor about his own scrapes with death. What a capital idea! A good enough story can save lives! And here is the Thief of Sloan’s modest way of describing his professional activities:
The steed replied:
"Prince Ivan has come and carried off Marya Morevna."
"Is it possible to catch them?"
"It is possible to sow wheat, to wait till it grows up, to reap it and thresh it, to grind it to flour, to make five pies of it, to eat those pies, and then to start in pursuit—and even then to be in time."
"My way of living, sir," says the Black Thief, "was not good, as I told you before; and being at a certain time fairly run out of cash, and meeting with no enterprise worthy of notice, I was reduced to great straits. At length a rich bishop died in the neighbourhood I was then in, and I heard he was interred with a great deal of jewels and rich robes upon him, all which I intended in a short time to be master of...”"The Master Thief," from Asbjørnsen, appropriately comes next. Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series would appreciate the concept of a thief who views his business as an honest trade, of which a man must prove his mastery, like any other. Here is a teaser from my favorite bit of this story:
"Couldn’t you play off a really good trick on the Priest? for he is sitting there and calling me a fool for having let myself be taken in by such a fellow as you.""Brother and Sister," from Grimm, is the haunting story of a queen, whose brother has been turned into a deer, and who herself has been murdered and replaced by an impostor. Yet her ghost comes back night after night:
"Well, it wouldn’t be very hard to do that," said the Master Thief. So he dressed himself up like a bird, and threw a great white sheet over himself; broke off a goose’s wings, and set them on his back; and in this attire climbed into a great maple tree which stood in the Priest’s garden. So when the Priest returned home in the evening the youth began to cry, "Father Lawrence! Father Lawrence!" for the Priest was called Father Lawrence.
"Who is calling me?" said the Priest.
"I am an angel sent to announce to thee that because of thy piety thou shalt be taken away alive into heaven," said the Master Thief....
When midnight came and everyone in the palace was sound asleep, the nurse who alone watched by the baby’s cradle in the nursery saw the door open gently, and who should come in but the real Queen. She lifted the child from its cradle, laid it on her arm, and nursed it for some time. Then she carefully shook up the pillows of the little bed, laid the baby down and tucked the coverlet in all round him. She did not forget the little Roe either, but went to the corner where it lay, and gently stroked its back. Then she silently left the room, and next morning when the nurse asked the sentries if they had seen anyone go into the castle that night, they all said, "No, we saw no one at all."Princess Rosette decides, early in life, that she will marry no one but the "King of the Peacocks." By chance her brothers, the King and the Prince, find such a person, who puts them in prison until Rosette can be fetched, because he refuses to believe that so beautiful a woman can truly exist. Imagine their horror when a really ugly impostor arrives in her place, while Rosette finds herself afloat in the ocean with nobody by her but a little green dog:
When day broke she and Frisk were equally astonished at finding themselves alone upon the sea, with no boat and no one to help them. The Princess cried and cried until even the fishes were sorry for her."The Enchanted Pig" is the Romanian version of a tale you may have read elsewhere as “Jack My Hedgehog,” “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” or the myth of “Cupid and Psyche.” C. S. Lewis even wrote a novel-length version of it, called Till We Have Faces. In this variant, a princess is at first horrified when she learns that she is fated to marry a pig. But later, having loved and lost her husband (who is really a man under an enchantment), she wears out three pairs of iron shoes searching for him. In the midst of this tale of enduring love comes this interesting exchange:
"But how in the world is it possible for the Sun to be angry? He is so beautiful and so good to mortals.""The Norka," from the Russian, features another Prince Ivan who rescues three princesses from a great monster:
"This is how it happens," replied the Sun’s mother. "In the morning when he stands at the gates of paradise he is happy, and smiles on the whole world, but during the day he gets cross, because he sees all the evil deeds of men, and that is why his heat becomes so scorching; but in the evening he is both sad and angry, for he stands at the gates of death; that is his usual course. From there he comes back here."
And when the Prince came to the blue sea, he looked—there slept the Norka on a stone in the middle of the sea; and when it snored, the water was agitated for seven miles around. The Prince crossed himself, went up to it, and smote it on the head with his sword. The head jumped off, saying the while, "Well, I’m done for now!" and rolled far away into the sea."The Wonderful Birch" grows out of a mother’s grave, and provides assistance to a girl whose stepmother hates her in this Russo-Finnish story. The story turns out to be somewhat of a variant of Cinderella, in which an enchanted tree (not a fairy godmother) gives a lass her chance to dance with the King’s son. But this is only the half of a story that also involves a true bride being replaced by an impostor and turned into a reindeer:
So the widow woman took the child to the wood. She came to the edge of a marsh, and seeing a herd of reindeer there, she began all at once to sing -"Jack and the Beanstalk" needs very little introduction. It is wonderful to imagine what the world of 1890 must have been like, for Lang to consider this one of the less well-known fairy tales! And perhaps the editor here tries a little too hard to justify Jack’s actions as he plunders a giant of a magic hen, a talking harp, and more. What more can I say, except:
"Little Bright-eyes, little Redskin,
Come nurse the child you bore!
That bloodthirsty monster,
That man-eater grim,
Shall nurse him, shall tend him no more.
They may threaten and force as they will,
He turns from her, shrinks from her still..."
"Fe, fa, fi-fo-fum,"The Little Good Mouse" is really a fairy, who comforts a Queen who is being held captive by the conqueror of her kingdom. The story also tells of a turkey-maiden who is really a princess:
I smell the breath of an Englishman.
Let him be alive or let him be dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread."
"Good-day, my pretty one! You have a fine flock of turkeys there.""Graciosa and Percinet" tells of a princess whose father’s ridiculous love of money ensnares him in the designs of a wicked witch, who proves to be a cruel stepmother, and of the fairy prince who remains unwaveringly loyal to Graciosa, though she is afraid to commit her heart to him:
The young turkey-maiden turned her gentle eyes upon the old woman, and answered:
"Yet they wish me to leave them to become a miserable Queen! What is your advice upon the matter?"
"My child," said the Fairy, "a crown is a very pretty thing, but you know neither the price nor the weight of it."
"This is like being buried alive," she said with a shudder. "Oh, Percinet! if you only knew how I am suffering for my want of trust in you! But how could I be sure that you would not be like other men and tire of me from the moment you were sure I loved you?""The Three Princesses of Whiteland" has a great deal in common with “Soria Moria Castle,” in which a heroic young fisherman receives these instructions from a Princess who is buried up to her neck in the earth:
"When thou goest in...two lions will stand by the doorway, but if thou only goest straight between them they will do thee no harm; go straight forward into a small dark chamber; there thou shalt lie down. Then the Troll will come and beat thee, but thou shalt take the flask which is hanging on the wall, and anoint thyself wheresoever he has wounded thee, after which thou shalt be as well as before. Then lay hold of the sword which is hanging by the side of the flask, and smite the Troll dead."The macabre Romanian tale of "The Voice of Death" tells of a country in which, instead of dying as in most other places, the citizens, one by one, answer a call from a voice no one else can hear, and are never seen again.
...One day, while they were all sitting together round the table, his wife suddenly started up, exclaiming in a loud voice:"The Six Sillies" is a giggle-inducing tall story about a suitor who is so astonished at the foolishness of his intended and her parents, that he vows not to marry her until he can find three people more foolish than they. It does not take him long:
"I am coming! I am coming!"
Some way further along the road he came upon a man who had never worn any trousers, and who was trying to put on a pair. So he had fastened them to a tree and was jumping with all his might up in the air so that he should hit the two legs of the trousers as he came down."Kari Woodengown" is another unusual rendition of Cinderella, in which a troll-fighting bull takes the place of the fairy godmother, and the Prince himself scorns the servant girl, not realizing that she is the same woman who (differently dressed) has captured his heart:
"It would be much better if you held them in your hands," said the young man, "and then put your legs one after the other in each hole."
"Dear me to be sure! You are sharper than I am, for that never occurred to me."
When she was going upstairs her wooden gown made such a clatter that the Prince came out and said, "What sort of a creature may you be?""Drakestail" is the silly story of a money-lending duck who avenges himself on a king who refuses to pay his debts. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to carry reinforcements in your gizzard?
"I was to take this water to you," said Kari.
"Do you suppose that I will have any water that you bring?" said the Prince, and emptied it over her.
Then she went away and mounted her horse again; the Prince again followed her, and asked her whence she came.
"Oh! I am from Bathland," said Kari.
"This way, this way," says the porter. "One step further....There, there you are.""The Ratcatcher" is the tale of horror more widely known as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” In this version, the fateful bagpiper saves the German city of Hamel from a plague of rats, but when the town council refuses to pay him, he exacts a gruesome revenge.
"How? what? in the poultry yard?"
Fancy how vexed Drakestail was!
At last, dragging himself with difficulty, came a big rat, white with age, and stopped on the bank."The True History of Little Golden-Hood" is an attempt to “set the record straight” on the famous tale of “Little Red Riding-Hood” (see The Blue Fairy Book).
It was the king of the band.
"Are they all there, friend Blanchet?" asked the bagpiper.
"They are all there," replied friend Blanchet.
"And how many were they?"
"Nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine."
"Then go and join them, old sire, and au revoir."
"Oh! What hairy arms you’ve got, Grandmother!""The Golden Branch," from Madame d’Aulnoy, features a King Grumpy, a Prince Curlicue, and a Princess Cabbage-Stalk. (Look for the illustration in which the king’s throne is decorated with the legend REX FLOREAT GRVMPES.) A prince and princess learn to see beyond the surface of things, and so become worthy of each other’s love.
"All the better to hug you, child."
"Oh! What a big tongue you’ve got, Grandmother!"
"All the better for answering, child."
"Oh! What a mouthful of great white teeth you have, Grandmother!"
"That’s for crunching little children with!" And the Wolf opened his jaws wide...
"Am I to understand that you are not pleased?" he said very sharply."Dapplegrim" is the name of a famous horse that enabled his master to scale a glass mountain, to save a Princess from a Troll, and to accomplish several other tasks in order to win the Princess’s hand in marriage:
"No, sire," replied the Prince. "How could I be pleased to marry an ugly, lame Princess?"
"Certainly it is becoming in you to object to that," said King Grumpy, "since you are ugly enough to frighten anyone yourself."
"That is the very reason," said the Prince, "that I wish to marry someone who is not ugly. I am quite tired enough of seeing myself."
So he went down to Dapplegrim again and told him what the King desired, and Dapplegrim thought that it might easily be done; but first of all he must have new shoes, and ten pounds of iron and twelve pounds of steel must go to the making of them, and two smiths were also necessary, one to hammer and one to hold, and then it would be very easy to make the sun shine into the King’s palace."The Enchanted Canary" is a Belgian tale about a Prince named Désiré, who wants a golden princess for his bride. To free her from the orange peel in which a witch has imprisoned her, he must brave many dangers, not least of which is an ugly gypsy girl named (ahem) Titty:
Just as she was stooping to fill [the pitcher at the well], she saw reflected in the water the lovely image of the Princess."The Twelve Brothers," from Grimm, features a Princess who dares not utter a word for seven years in order to save her brothers from an evil enchantment. Imagine the trouble a vow of silence can get a girl into!
"What a pretty face!" she exclaimed. "Why, it must be mine! How in the world can they call me ugly? I am certainly much too pretty to be their water-carrier!"
So saying, she broke her pitcher and went home.
When they had lived a few years happily together, the King’s mother, who was a wicked old woman, began to slander the young Queen, and said to the King:"Rapunzel," naturally from Grimm, is as well-known as “Jack and the Bean Stalk” these days. You remember the story: the prince hears the girl singing from the top of her tower, where the witch keeps her, and falls in love with the sound of her voice. Everybody join in now:
"She is only a low-born beggar maid that you have married; who knows what mischief she is up to? If she is deaf and can’t speak, she might at least laugh; depend upon it, those who don’t laugh have a bad conscience."
"Rapunuzel, Rapunzel,And then there is "The Nettle Spinner," from Belgium. Sigh. What can I tell you about this story? If it isn’t the only fairy tale that has ever made me cry, it is one of a very few. It is full of spookiness and foreboding, but it is also seriously tragic. Here is the fateful exchange that sets the story in motion:
Let down your golden hair."
"What are you spinning?" he asked in a rough voice."Farmer Weatherbeard" is much like the story of “The Clever Student and the Master of Black Arts” from Pyle’s Wonder Clock.
"My wedding shift, my lord."
"You are going to be married, then?"
"Yes, my lord, by your leave."
For at that time no peasant could marry without the leave of his master.
"I will give you leave on one condition. Do you see those tall nettles that grow on the tombs in the churchyard? Go and gather them, and spin them into two fine shifts. One shall be your bridal shift, and the other shall be my shroud. For you shall be married the day that I am laid in my grave." And the Count turned away with a mocking laugh.
When the time came for the fair the youth turned himself into a light-coloured horse, and bade his father go to the market with him. "If anyone should come who wants to buy me," said he, "you are to tell him that you want a hundred dollars for me; but you must not forget to take off the halter, for if you do I shall never be able to get away from Farmer Weatherbeard, for he is the man who will come and bargain for me.""Mother Holle" is likewise similar to Pyle’s “Mother Hildegard.”
She rose up and wandered through this enchanted place, till she came to a baker’s oven full of bread, and the bread called out to her as she passed:"Minnikin" is about the adventures of a boy who goes out to seek his fortune on the day he is born (!). After extorting magical gifts from three old hags, Minnikin saves a princess from three successive trolls (who have a total of 20 heads), though a cowardly knight tries to steal the glory and the princess’s hand—see “Bearskin” in Pyle.
"Oh! take me out, take me out, or I shall be burnt to a cinder. I am quite done enough."
"Fire!" roared the Troll."Bushy Bride" is similar to “Brother and Sister,” seen earlier in this book. In this one, two stepsisters receive different blessings (or curses, as the case may be) from three ugly heads that rise up out of the river. The one who is given the gift of gold coins falling out of her mouth marries the King, but the one who has ashes coming out of hers tries to pull a bridal-substitution trick.
"Fire yourself!" said Minnikin.
"Can you fight?" screamed the Troll.
"If not, I can learn," said Minnikin.
"I will teach you," yelled the Troll, and struck at him with his iron club so that the earth flew up fifteen yards high into the air.
"Fie!" said Minnikin. "That was not much of a blow. Now I will let you see one of my blows."
"Out on thee, ugly Bushy Bride,"Snowdrop" is none other than the original Grimm version of the fairy tale that, in these post-Disney days, we call "Snow White."
Sleeping so soft by the young King’s side,
On sand and stones my bed I make,
And my brother sleeps with the cold snake,
Unpitied and unwept."
"Mirror, mirror, hanging there,"The Golden Goose" features a classic fairy-tale character type: the youngest of three sons, who is considered dull-witted by those who know him, but who proves more successful than his brothers in seeking his fortune. In this particular tale, Dullhead succeeds by making a grave princess laugh, with the aid of a little grey man and a golden goose.
Who in all the land’s most fair?"
and the mirror replied:
"My Lady Queen, you are fair, ‘tis true,
But Snowdrop is fairer far than you.
Snowdrop, who dwells with the seven little men,
Is as fair as you, as fair again."
Then Dullhead asked once more for his bride, but the King felt vexed at the idea of a stupid fellow whom people called "Dullhead" carrying off his daughter, so he began to make fresh conditions."The Seven Foals," which like “The Golden Goose” is a story that I would swear that I had read somewhere else, features another youngest-of-three who succeeds where his brothers have failed. In this case, he discovers exactly what the King’s seven foals eat and drink.
"Canst thou wield the sword?" asked the Foal."The Marvellous Musician" pits the wits of a wandering fiddler against a wolf, a fox, and a hare.
Cinderlad tried, but could not do it; so he had to take a draught from the pitcher, and then one more, and after that another, and then he was able to wield the sword with perfect ease.
"Good," said the Foal; "and now thou must take the sword away with thee, and with it shalt thou cut off the heads of all seven of us on thy wedding day, and then we shall become princes again as we were before..."
"Now, my friend," he said, "give me your right paw.""The Story of Sigurd," from the Danish Volsunga Saga, is a tragic legend that has been heavily condensed (for a much larger version see Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen cycle of operas).
This he bound to the other branch, and having carefully seen that his knots were all secure, he stepped off the ends of the branches, and they sprang back, leaving the poor Fox suspended in mid-air.
"Just you wait where you are till I return," said the Musician, and he went on his way again.
...When they were brought before the King, he thought the maid looked like a Queen, and the Queen like a maid. So he asked the Queen, "How do you know in the dark of night whether the hours are wearing to the morning?"Gruesome to the last, this version of the Sigurd legend probably suffers from being condensed too much, but there is much else in this book that hits the perfect pacing, neither too slow and detailed, nor too abrupt and dense. Laugh, gasp, shiver, and perhaps even weep as you read this book, but don’t complain to me if you find it too “politically incorrect.” I warned you!
And she said:
"I know because, when I was younger, I used to have to rise and light the fires, and still I waken at the same time."
"A strange Queen to light the fires," thought the King.
Then he asked the Queen, who was dressed like a maid, "How do you know in the dark of night whether the hours are wearing near the dawn?"
"My father gave me a gold ring," said she, "and always, ere the dawning, it grows cold on my finger."
"A rich house where the maids wore gold," said the King. "Truly you are no maid, but a King’s daughter."
The Violet Fairy Book
Like the other fairy books edited by Andrew Lang, The Violet Fairy Book is packed with stories (35 of them) from many countries and most continents, stirring illustrations by H. J. Ford, and a captivating collection of magical creatures, brave princes, lovely princesses, plucky peasants, clever rogues, things delightfully familiar, and things surprising and unique. There are more than a month’s worth of bedtime stories here...if you can hold yourself to one story per night. More likely, you will find it hard to stop at five tales in one sitting. And so...
It opens with “A Tale of the Tontlawald,” in which an abused child finds refuge in a fairyland where everything is good and sweet—but she cannot stay there forever! Then a sly miller and an innocent boy vie with each other to see who is “The Finest Liar in the World.” In “The Story of Three Wonderful Beggars” a rich man tries, in vain, to destroy the peasant’s child who is fated to own everything he has. A Japanese dog named “Schippeitaro” helps deliver a maiden from an evil spirit of the forest. And the Lithuanian fairy tale of “The Three Princes and Their Beasts” has to be a terrific story to outshine the marvelous illustration of a wolf, a fox, a hare, a boar, a bear, and a lion weeping around a prince’s body. And there, sleepyhead, you must leave off for Monday night.
“The Goat’s Ears of the Emperor Trojan” get his barbers into a lot of trouble. “The Nine Pea-Hens and the Golden Apples” entangle a prince in the affairs of a dragon, a witch, several talking animals, and an enchanted empress. “The Lute Player” is the first of several heroic women in this book, in this case a queen who dresses as a man to rescue her husband from an enemy king’s prison. “The Grateful Prince” is a tale full of goblins, sorcerers in the form of animals, and magic objects that help a heroic couple escape from a pursuing wizard. And “The Child Who Came from the Egg” begins as a princess who magically arrives to comfort a childless queen, then is forced to flee from a wicked stepmother and to work her way up from being a servant girl to being a queen. So much for Tuesday!
“Stan Bolovan,” due to an unwise wish, suddenly becomes the father of a hundred children—but this is only the beginning of his adventures, in which he also outwits a dragon! “The Two Frogs” go sightseeing in a silly Japanese tale about the pitfalls of tourism. “The Story of a Gazelle” is the sometimes painful account of a faithful animal who goes to great lengths to make his master’s fortune. “How a Fish Swam in the Air and a Hare in the Water” is a secret known only to an old man who needs to teach a lesson to his gossip of a wife. And “Two in a Sack” come to the aid of an unfortunate man whose wife beats him. And that’s Wednesday!
“The Envious Neighbor” finds nothing but trouble, while he tries to steal the magic that has made the old couple next door so rich. “The Fairy of the Dawn” is only one of many wondrous creatures a prince meets during his long, perilous quest to find a balm for his father’s failing eyes. “The Enchanted Knife” enables a young man to accomplish the mighty tasks he needs to do to win a princess’s hand in marriage. “Jesper who herded the hares” is another commoner whose cleverness and kindness help him to marry a princess. And “The Underground Workers” reveal to a man named Hans where all the wealth in the world comes from. Lights out for Thursday!
“The History of Dwarf Long Nose” begins with a chilling tale of a child being abducted from a crowded market, and what is perhaps more chilling, how he comes back in a form that his own parents do not recognize. “The Nunda, Eater of People” is about the hunting of a maneating cat, and other amazing feats of a mighty African prince. “The Story of Hassebu” is the somewhat sad story of a young healer who unintentionally brings doom to the King of the Snakes. “The Maiden with the Wooden Helmet” wears her headpiece in order to escape the trouble that is bound to happen if people knew how beautiful she is. And “The Monkey and the Jellyfish” become involved when a turtle is sent to find a cure for the sea-queen’s sickness. Alas, so ends Friday!
“The Headless Dwarfs” are enemies of a clever servant whose master, a minister, has trouble finding anyone to ring the midnight bells. “The Young Man Who Would Have His Eyes Opened” learns, to his cost, that ignorance is sometimes bliss. “The Boys with the Golden Stars” are princes who make an astonishing comeback after their stepmother does everything in her power to destroy them. “The Frog” manages to become not only a bride, but the favorite daughter-in-law of an old woman, before being turned into a real wife by three grateful witches (this story could have been called “Laughter Is the Best Medicine”). And “The Princess Who Was Hidden Underground” is finally found, and wooed, by a prince dressed in sheep’s clothing. There goes Saturday!
“The Girl Who Pretended to be a Boy” is one of the gender-bendingest fairy tales ever, in which the impersonation is so successful that the girl actually becomes a boy. “The Story of Halfman” shows us a half-sized fellow who proves to be twice as much a man as his normal-sized brothers. “The Prince Who Wanted to See the World” gets tricked, instead, into being an enemy king’s slave, but a helpful dove gets him out of his difficulties. “Virgilius the Sorcerer” casts his spells all over ancient Rome. And finally, “Mogarzea and His Son” are an adoptive family who work together to foil the wicked elves, so that the father can get his soul back, and that the son can marry a fairy princess.
If you should read all twelve of Andrew Lang’s Many Colored Fairy Books, you may detect a certain amount of “creative repetition” between them. But in a way, this works to their advantage. Like a kaleidoscope of familiar elements, sprinkled with the occasional strange and glorious surprise, these stories feel like old friends the first time you read them. And better yet, you learn that the secret in telling a good fairy story lies not in repeating it word for word, or reading it out of a book, but in knowing the pieces of a great story and putting them together as you like. But if you can’t tell a good fairy tale off the top of your head, even after reading all these books, at least you will have many, many favorites to return to again and again.
The Yellow Fairy Book
In the Preface to the fourth of his Many-Colored Fairy Books, first published in 1894, Andrew Lang notes that the President of the Folk Lore Society, of which Lang was a member, condemned Lang and others who edited similar books. I quote:
Where is the harm? The truth is that the Folk Lore Society—made up of the most clever, learned, and beautiful men and women of the country—is fond of studying the history and geography of Fairy Land. This is contained in very old tales, such as country people tell, and savages....These people are thought to know most about fairyland and its inhabitants. But, in the Yellow Fairy Book, and the rest, are many tales by persons who are neither savages nor rustics, such as Madame D’Aulnoy and Herr Hans Christian Andersen. The Folk Lore Society, or its president, say that their tales are not so true as the rest, and should not be published with the rest. But we say that all stories which are pleasant to read are quite true enough for us; so here they are, with pictures by Mr. Ford, and we do not think that either the pictures or the stories are likely to mislead children.In his popular and enduring dozen fairy books, Lang evidently got the last laugh over his disdainful colleague. For I doubt that anyone has done more to bring fairy tales and world folklore to the eyes and ears of English-speaking children. Hardly anyone remembers the name of the then-President of the Folk Lore Society, but thousands still bless the memory of Andrew Lang, whose fairy books remain available in an attractive facsimile edition from Dover Books, complete with H. J. Ford’s delicious illustrations. This book alone contains over 100 pictures and 48 stories, including some of the best-loved fairy tales in the world. Each one is told with charm and promises to give hungry young imaginations much to chew on.
As to whether fairies and Fairy Land truly exist, that is a question Mr. Lang’s preface leaves wide open. I hope you will read that too. But at least take a look at this list of romantic, scary, silly, and dashing tales, some of which are also daringly witty:
“The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership,” similar to “How Two Went Into Partnership” in Howard Pyle’s Wonder Clock. In neither story does the partnership end happily. Bottom line: “You see that is the way of the world.” “The Six Swans” combines elements from several fairy tales I have read. It features six princes who are forced to flee for their lives when a princess is born, and a silent queen who risks disaster to save her brothers from a terrible curse. “The Dragon of the North” is the Estonian story of a prince who deceives a witch maiden in order to learn the secret of how to destroy a great monster. After all the troubles with which the prince pays for this wrong, the tale asks: “If you had been the prince, would you not rather have stayed with the pretty witch-maiden?”
I would be shocked if you hadn’t heard Andersen’s “Story of the Emperor’s New Clothes,” which points up the foolishness of being ashamed to speak your mind. A king, his courtiers, and the polite citizenry are all put to shame by the honest voice of a child: “But he has nothing on!” “The Golden Crab” features that unhappiest of princes, who is enchanted to wear first a crab’s shell, then an eagle’s feathers, thanks in part to the jealousy of his mother-in-law and the weakness of his Princess wife. “The Iron Stove” is the Grimm tale of a prince imprisoned in an iron stove in the forest, and of a princess who is at first reluctant to set him free, but who later passes through many strange ordeals to be reunited to her husband.
“The Dragon and His Grandmother” is the merry tale of three soldiers who desert from an army and make a bargain with a dragon that involves an unanswerable riddle, a whip that causes money to jump up out of nowhere, and an elderly rescuer. “The Donkey Cabbage” is truly a magical vegetable, but this story also features magical meat (a bird’s heart) and magical clothing (a cloak), each of which has a different fairy power. Using these three gifts a young hunter is able to travel widely, become rich, exact sweet revenge, and find true love.
“The Little Green Frog” proves to be a fairy in disguise, helping two royal lovers find each other, through a series of strange magical adventures. “The Seven-Headed Serpent” is the Greek fairy-tale of a prince and his horse, both born with the aid of magic, who deliver a kingdom from the threat of a monster who devours twelve youths and twelve maidens every year.
“The Grateful Beasts” save a Hungarian youth named Ferko from the malice of his brothers, and they help him to achieve impossible tasks that a king has told him to “do or die.” “The Giants and the Herd Boy” exchange favors in this Austrian story that includes an enchanted loaf of bread, a belt of invisibility, young love, and the rewards of being kind to a giant in distress.
“The Invisible Prince” sets out to rescue the Princess Rosalie from a lovestruck demon who refuses to take “No” for an answer. Among the multitude of unhappy-in-love characters in this complex story are the four sons of the fairy who rules over the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). It also features a gruesome labyrinth of despair, a set of magic mirrors, a golden fountain that answers questions, a magic ring, and other fascinating works of magic. The Polish story of “The Crow” is a tale from the “don’t scream, no matter how frightened you become” school of horror, featuring a prince under a curse, and a princess who undergoes much to set him free.
“How Six Men Travelled Through the Wide World” is a variant of the familiar story, elsehwere called “The Simpleton,” about a man whose traveling companions are gifted in various ways. In this version, the six companions make off with a king’s treasure by dint of having, among them, the world’s strongest man, the best marksman, the hardest blower, the fastest runner, and a man who can bring on a hard frost simply by uncovering his ear. Another version appears later in this very book, under the title of “The Flying Ship.” In “The Wizard King,” an evil magician vies for the hand of a lovely Princess against a Prince in the form of a parrot.
“The Nixy” of this German tale is the spirit of a mill-pond who demands a miller’s newborn son in exchange for helping his business. Later, it eerily depicts the quest of a bereaved wife to get her husband back. “The Glass Mountain” is a Polish tale about a youth who makes a gruelling climb up an impossible peak, in order to set an imprisoned princess free. The story also features a vicious eagle, a dead army that comes to life, and a golden apple-tree.
“Alphege, or the Green Monkey” has to do with a prince whose jealous stepmother gets him out of the way of her ambitions for her own son, by turning the prince into a monkey. “Fairer-than-a-Fairy” suffers because the fairies are offended by her presumptuous (though accurate) name. She is forced to serve a horrid old fairy named Lagree, until she falls in love with Prince Rainbow. Imagine the uses to which this beauty uses her magical nut, pomegranate, and scent bottle!
“The Three Brothers” is a Polish variant of the oft-told tale of the youngest of three brothers who descends into the underworld, rescues a beautiful girl, is betrayed by his brothers, and makes his way back to the mundane world with the aid of strange creatures and a magic sword. The North American Indian story “The Boy and the Wolves, or the Broken Promise” is a sad, cautionary tale about forgetting your promises. An older brother and sister abandon their little brother to be raised by wolves...until at last the child turns into a wolf himself!
The Hungarian story of “The Glass Axe” begins with a prince who, due to a fairy’s curse, must not be allowed to touch foot to the ground. When he does, he falls under the power of an evil fairy who orders him to chop down large numbers of trees with...guess what! “The Dead Wife,” from an Iroquois story, is another eerie and sad story about a man who has a chance to bring back his beloved wife from the dead...and blows it.
“In the Land of Souls,” also from an American Indian tradition, a man follows his young bride to the land of the dead because he can’t bear to live without her. “The White Duck” is what a witch turns the queen into, before taking her form and making the king quite miserable. The part that will leave you wondering is what becomes of the white duck’s brood of ducklings...
“The Witch and Her Servants” is the Russian tale of the Prince Iwanich’s quest to save the fair maiden Militza. He travels far, encountering all kinds of creatures and dangers, to find her. Then he is given the impossible task of minding a witch’s horses, one of which is Militza in disguise, and finally escapes with the aid of the witch’s ill-treated servants. The lesson: a little kindness may be repaid someday! “The Magic Ring” describes what becomes of a foolish lad named Martin, who spends his mother’s last money to save a cat and dog from being destroyed, then saves a serpent princess, obtains a magic ring, and uses it to win a princess and a kingdom—and then, with the aid of his cat and dog, wins them again!
“The Flower Queen’s Daughter” is an Austrian tale. I won’t bother telling you what it’s about. I can’t think of a better way to interest you in it than to describe the illustration of two dragons dancing what looks like a fast-step—and judging by the amount of smoke coming out of their nostrils, they’re really having a good time! “The Flying Ship,” the Russian tale which I mentioned earlier, also has some choice illustrations in it—I especially like the expression on the birdlike head of the flying ship, into which a simpleton gathers his strange but gifted crew.
“The Snow-Daughter and the Fire-Son,” in this Austrian story, are siblings whose magical inclinations make it difficult for them to be together. Nevertheless, they love each other well enough, until the tragic tableau is completed by a well-meaning king whose idea of hospitality brings them all to grief. “The Story of King Frost” is another wicked-stepmother story, contrasting the fate of a wicked daughter and a good stepdaughter on a cold winter’s night. “The Death of the Sun-Hero” is the Austrian story, probably based on Greek mythology, about the dreadful penalties the fairies exact when a mortal claims to be more than he is.
The Russian tale of “The Witch” features a brother and sister whose stepmother sends them to serve an evil witch. But once again, the witch’s servants repay the kindnesses of the children by helping them to escape. “The Hazel-nut Child,” from Austria, is the very reverse of a “tall tale,” with a diminutive hero who surprises everyone and makes his fortune.
“The Story of Big Klaus and Little Klaus” is an irreverently comic tale about a poor but clever farmer who outwits his neighbors. “Prince Ring” is an Icelandic story in which a not-too-valiant prince gets a lot of help from a dog named (ahem) Snati-Snati. There are many things to like about this story, but my favorite aspect is the illustration captioned “Prince Ring & Snati Overthrow the Troll’s Ghost.”
“The Swineherd” is actually a Prince who teaches a sharp lesson to a haughty princess. When she turns her nose up at his princely wooing, he conquers her in the disguise of a swineherd. Her undoing is rather harsh, perhaps. Everyone knows “How to Tell a True Princess,” a folk tale so widespread that other fairy tales are constantly referring to it. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you may have heard of it under the title “The Princess and the Pea.”
“The Blue Mountains” is much the same sort of story as “The Dragon and His Grandmother,” seen earlier in this book. Those of you who wear Green on St. Patrick’s Day will appreciate the fact that, in this story, an Irishman proves superior to a Scot and an Englishman. Everyone else will be captivated by some of the most delightful illustrations in the book, including the one that appears on the front cover.
“The Tinderbox” enables a soldier to get a treasure, marry a princess, and even survive the gallows—all with the help of three dogs with ENORMOUS eyes. “The Witch in the Stone Boat” features in another one of Ford’s most memorable illustrations. In the Icelandic tale, a witch steals the identity of a beautiful queen, who is twice allowed to return from the underworld to comfort her baby.
“Thumbelina,” which another one of Lang’s Fairy Books told under the title of “Princess May-Blossom,” is the Danish tale of an inch-tall girl’s wide-ranging adventures. I like the ending enough to quote it:
‘Farewell, farewell!’ said the little swallow with a heavy heart, and flew away to farther lands, far, far away, right back to Denmark. There he had a little nest above a window, where his wife lived, who can tell fairy-stories. ‘Tweet, tweet!’ he sang to her. And that is the way we learnt the whole story.“The Nightingale” is a droll story, packed with subtle social-class humor, about a Chinese Emperor’s relationship with a songbird. “Hermod and Hadvor,” from Iceland, are lovers separated by a witch’s curse. Before it can be broken, the princess must burn a lion’s skin, and the prince must slay a rat.
For the Danish tale of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” I really would like to put in a plug for Disney’s Fantasia 2000, in which this fairy tale is beautifully animated and set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. The cartoon version has a happier ending than the original story, but both are interesting adventures filled with ironic humor.
“Blockhead-Hans” is a youngest-of-three-sons who succeeds where his older and better educated brothers fail; in this case, by winning the hand and heart of a princess who cannot bear men who will not speak their mind. The humor of the story is as droll as the illustrations. And finally, wrapping up the whole book as well as a series of stories that humorously skewer people’s social pretensions, is “A Story About a Darning-Needle.” In this tale, a broken darning-needle represents anyone whose pride blinds him or her to reality.
What prevents you from getting hold of this delightful book of fairy tales? They are short, pointed, well-told, and full of fun pictures. The book is Yellow. Are you?