Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Andrew Lang, Part 2

The Many-Colored Fairy Books, cont'd.
edited by Andrew Lang
Recommended Age: 6+ (4+ if read to you)

The Green Fairy Book

In his preface “to the friendly reader,” Mr. Lang says that this 1892 book is the third and last of the “Fairy Books of many colours.” Obviously he was wrong about it being the last, as there ended up being twelve of them! If he thought he had exhausted the wellsprings of folklore and nursery tales with this book, in addition to the Blue and Red Fairy Book, he was far from correct!

In other respects, though, Mr. Lang’s preface is quite insightful. He explains, first, that fairy tales are older than writing, and have been passed down orally, from grannies to their grandchildren. He points out that some fairy tales have grown up into great works of literature, such as the adventures in Homer’s Odyssey. “These fairy tales,” says he, “were first made by men who were childlike for their own amusement, so they amuse children still, and also grown-up people who have not forgotten how they once were children.”

Mr. Lang also makes a wonderful case for the usefulness of fairy tales. I think you can extend this to include many other tales of fantasy. For not only do such stories amuse, but they also “teach goodness. You see, in the tales, how the boy who is kind to beasts, and polite, and generous, and brave, always comes best through his trials, and no doubt these tales were meant to make their hearers kind, unselfish, courteous, and courageous. This is the moral of them. But, after all, we think more as we read them of the diversion than of the lesson.”

And then there is Mr. Lang’s defense of the fairy tale against its critics. Actually, this part is so good that I feel a lengthier quote coming on...
There are grown up people who say that the stories are not good for children, because they are not true, because there are no witches, nor talking beasts, and because people are killed in them, especially wicked giants. But probably you who read the tales know very well how much is true and how much is only make-believe, and I never yet heard of a child who killed a very tall man merely because Jack killed the giants, or who was unkind to his stepmother, if he had one, because, in fairy tales, the stepmother is often disagreeable.
...Having shared a few further thoughts, Mr. Lang concludes his remarks and plunges right into a book full of some of the greatest classics in fairy-tale lore, and I doubt that many of them have ever been told better. Besides, the 42 stories in this book are joined by no fewer than 100 gorgeous illustrations by Henry “not the auto manufacturer” Ford. I beg your leave, now, to give a brief overview of what delights this book has in store.

First, one need not read many books of fairy tales to discover that in them, things tend to come in threes. The titles of seven stories in this collection may give you an idea. First there is "The Three Little Pigs," a version of the familiar tale that you may not have heard before, but a convincing candidate for the best version. In this one the sly fox tries to round up three young pigs who live in houses made of mud, cabbage, and bricks. Then there is "The Story of the Three Bears," featuring no pretty Goldilocks, but a naughty old woman, in the story most likely to please the youngest hearers. In "The Three Snake Leaves," a magical cure saves a young husband from the deadly designs of his wife. "The Three Musicians" take turns raiding a castle in which a wicked dwarf holds a beautiful hostage. And "The Three Dogs" come to the aid of their master in slaying a dragon and saving a princess, in a tale similar to “Bearskin” from Pyle’s Wonder Clock. Plus, let’s not overlook the threesomes in "Little One-eye, Little Two-eyes, and Little Three-eyes" (in which an ordinary-looking girl, despised by her mother and her two bizarre-looking sisters, is saved by a wise woman, a magical goat, and a tree that bears golden apples), and "Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle" (in which a prince declares that he will marry only she “who is at once the poorest and the richest”).

Second, romantic pairings are a frequent theme in fairy tales, whether they are told from his point of view or from hers. Seven tales in this collection are named after the romantic leads, though they are by no means the only ones in which the ups and downs of romantic love are explored. "Sylvain and Jocosa" make a toilsome journey to be reunited after a fairy’s punishment separates them; the fairy then relates “The Yellow Bird,” a tale within the tale, with the cautionary moral that blessings can be curses in disguise. In "Prince Narcissus and the Princess Potentilla," based on the French tale of lovers named Romarin and Pimprenella, a villainous enchanter nearly steals the show, as well as the hand of the princess. "Prince Featherhead and the Princess Celandine," whose original French names were Muguet and Zaza, get a hard education from the fairies before they are fit to get married, for he is fickle and she is conceited. In the German tale of "Prince Fickle and Fair Helena," a girl favored by a fairy overcomes her hateful stepmother, then twice wins the heart of a faithless prince. "Prince Vivien and the Princess Placida," known in French as Papillon and Nonchalante, also learn a stern lesson from the fairies before they fall in love with each other, for he is by nature impatient, she lazy and indifferent. "Jorinde and Joringel" overcome a wicked enchantress who turns men into stone and women into birds. And finally, "The Story of the Fisherman and his Wife" is really not a romance at all, but a menacing little morality tale about a husband who spares the life of a magical fish, and the wife whose insatiable ambition forces the husband to ask the fish for more and more. Just try to picture the scene in which the fisherman says, “Wife, are you pope now?” Priceless!

Third, the chief thing in many fairy tales is described as either “golden” or “enchanted.” Take for instance "The Enchanted Watch," a young man discovers that a magic watch can bring him nearly anything he wishes for, but it cannot bring him any more faithful companions than his cat and dog. In "The Enchanted Ring," a good young man learns, partly by the example of his wicked brother, “how dangerous it is to have more power than the rest of the world.” "The Golden Blackbird," which is similar to Pyle’s “The White Bird,” has the youngest of three princes succeeding in the task their father set them, while the older two do nothing but try to grab the glory from him. In "The Enchanted Snake," a serpent raised by a childless couple wins the hand of a fair princess and turns out to be an enchanted prince; but after all, the princess is the hero of the story, for it is she who must save the life and win the hand of her prince. "The Golden Lads" is much the same tale as “The Knights of the Fish” in The Brown Fairy Book. And "The Golden Mermaid," similar to “The Golden Blackbird,” is about another youngest-of-three-princes who risks many things to bring home a golden bird, a golden horse, and a golden mermaid—but his greatest danger lies in the hearts of his brothers.

Fourth, it won’t take you long to notice the importance of birds and other animals in fairy lore. This collection opens with the excellent tale of "The Blue Bird," in which a jealous stepmother, an ugly stepsister, and a wicked fairy do everything in their power to prevent King Charming from falling in love with the Princess Fiordelisa. The humorous Spanish fable of "The Half-Chick" explains how a poultry-shaped weathervane came to be on top of Madrid’s greatest church. "The Story of Caliph Stork" is the delicious story of a ruler of Baghdad and his vizier who not only survive being changed into storks, but also defeat a wicked magician and save a beautiful princess. "The Magic Swan" enables a poor youth to win the heart and the hand of a princess, by making her laugh for the first time in her life. Besides these bird-oriented tales, there is "Puddocky," about a beautiful girl who is changed into a toad (a.k.a. puddock); "Allerleirauh; or, the Many-furred Creature," about a runaway princess who disguises herself as a kitchen drudge in a cloak made of the skins of a thousand different animals; "Jack my Hedgehog," about a man cursed to look like a hedgehog from the waist up, who wins the hand of a princess; "The White Snake," in which his ability to understand the language of beasts enables a young man to marry a princess; and "The War of the Wolf and the Fox," in which an old dog and an old cat prove their worth to a master who had made up his mind to destroy them.

Fifth, a number of the title characters in this collection are known by their trade. "The Story of the Clever Tailor" tells the story of a fiddle-playing tradesman who answers a princess’s riddle, outwits a hungry bear, and becomes a bridegroom. "The Twelve Huntsmen" are actually a princess and her ladies-in-waiting, who disguise themselves as men in order to remind a forgetful young king of his promise. "King Kojata" proves to be only the father of the hero in this Russian story. Prince Milan wins the hand of the beautiful Hiacinthia by achieving three impossible tasks set by her ogre father—provided, of course, with help from Hiacinthia! "The Dirty Shepherdess" is another princess in disguise who wins a prince’s heart, but this one also teaches her King-Lear-like father a lesson in being too judgmental about his daughter’s way of expressing love. "The Biter Bit" refers to three rogues who are outwitted by an old miser named Simon, in a story similar to Pyle’s “Master Jacob.” And "The Little Soldier" is another familiar story about a clever young man who, with the aid of a magical purse, mantle, and plums, avenges himself on an unscrupulous princess who reneged on her promise to him.

What is left? "Fairy Gifts" is that rare magical story (like Ella Enchanted) that describes the undesirable side-effects of some of the most popular fairy gifts. In the magnificent story "Heart of Ice," the minuscule Prince Mannikin overcomes a disadvantage of size and a ridiculous name to win the heart of a heartless princess. In this he is aided by the friendship of a king who, along with all his subjects, has been turned into a spaniel. In "The Snuff-box," like “The Little Soldier,” a young fortune-seeker travels to the ends of the earth to avenge himself on a royal family that has stolen a wish-granting object from him. "The Crystal Coffin" tells of another tailor, who rescues an entire kingdom from an evil enchantment. In "The Riddle," a princess who has sworn to marry anyone who can pose her a riddle that she cannot answer, finds herself cornered by a clever prince. Rosanella is a princess who, with the aid of fairies, teaches a fickle prince to be faithful. And finally, "The Story of Hok Lee and the Dwarfs" is a Chinese story of how a man’s double life—tradesman by day, thief by night—is turned on its ear by a disease that can only be cured if he dances for the fairies of the wood under the full moon.

The Grey Fairy Book

Originally published in 1900, this book is part of Lang’s 12-book series of “Fairy Books of Many Colors.” It contains 35 stories from Lithuania, France, Greece, Libya, Italy, Poland, Serbia, Bohemia, Turkey, and other lands, translated and adapted by several gifted women in Lang’s circle of family and friends. It also boasts 59 exquisite illustrations by Henry Ford (the British one, not the American). Those who have followed the Many-Colored Fairy Book series to this point will appreciate what Lang says about “the method of popular fiction” in his brief preface:
A certain number of incidents are shaken into many varying combinations, like the fragments of coloured glass in the kaleidoscope. Probably the possible combinations, like possible musical combinations, are not unlimited in number...
...but, as Lang concludes, children will continue to delight in all their magical, adventure-filled varieties. The first story, "Donkey Skin," illustrates Mr. Lang’s point, for it is similar in many ways to “The Dirty Shepherdess” from The Green Fairy Book, and is based on the same French tale as Robin McKinley’s novel Deerskin. It tells of a princess who flees from her adopted father, the King, when he declares that he wants to marry her; later, disguised as a filthy servant girl, but armed with three magical dresses, she wins the heart of a handsome prince.

"The Goblin Pony" is an “old wives’ tale” to frighten children, showing why good children should listen to their grandmothers and stay indoors on Halloween. "An Impossible Enchantment" tells the story of a wicked queen who is punished by the fairies, until she has a girl-child; then the punishment passes to her daughter. Isolated in a tower in the middle of the sea, guarded by fierce winds and sharks and other dangers, the Princess Graziella suffers the amorous attentions of a hideous merman, and the anguish of knowing that her curse will not be lifted until the impossible happens—until she is in the arms of the man she loves. "The Story of Dschemil and Dschemila," from the land now known as Libya, is the passionately romantic story of a young man whose heart is broken when his true love is abducted by a man-eating ogre.

"Janni and the Draken" introduces us to one of several creatures I had never heard of before reading this book. I gather that Draken (sing. either “Drakos” or “Draken”) are some kind of goblin. In this story, a young man has the misfortune to have a sister who has fallen in love with one of the Draken. So sis lays a trap for the lad, sending him into increasingly deadly ambushes, where he is saved by his dogs and his own courage. "The Partnership of the Thief and the Liar" is a humorous tale about how two rascals make their fortune. "Fortunatus and his Purse" is a strangely uneventful story about a poor man who gains everything his heart desires, with the help of a magic purse and a magic cap. I suppose this fairy tale is instructive as an answer to the question, “Why doesn’t the hero do the smart thing? Why did he have to let this person get the better of him, or make that mistake, etc.?” Well, here’s your answer. When everything goes hunky-dory, you get a boring story.

"The Goat-faced Girl" is an Italian story illustrating the virtues of humility and gratitude. In this case, a pretty peasant’s daughter gets a shot at being queen, thanks to the patronage of a gigantic, but kindly, reptile. But her thanklessness earns her a terrible trial in which everyone but herself sees her wearing the head of a goat. "What came of picking Flowers" is the Portuguese tale of a lad who delivers his three sisters from terrible curses. One of them loves a husband who must live in the form of a fish half of the time; the second girl’s husband spends half of his time as a bird; and the third is a terrible ogre who holds the key to breaking all the curses that bring misery to the three sisters. "The Story of Bensurdatu" tells how a faithful servant descends into the nether realms to deliver three lost princesses from two giants and a seven-headed serpent. It reminds me somewhat of “The Staff and the Fiddle” from Pyle’s Wonder Clock.

"The Magician’s Horse" is similar to “The Horse Gullfaxi and the Sword Gunnföder” from The Crimson Fairy Book. "The Little Gray Man," likewise, is very much like Pyle’s story of “The Staff and the Fiddle.” And I am honestly telling you that Lang spelled “gray” with an “A” in this story, though in the title of the book he spelled it with an “E.” Go figure! "Herr Lazarus and the Draken" reintroduces the goblin-like characters that threatened Janni earlier in the book. This time, they get robbed blind by a clever rogue. "The Story of the Queen of the Flowery Isles" is about a beautiful princess who, due to the jealousy of a witch queen, finds herself imprisoned in a strange garden under the earth. "Udea and her Seven Brothers" is another strange but delightful Libyan tale, describing the adventures of a girl who goes to live with her seven older brothers. “N”-word advisory: you mast make allowances for the story’s Arabic origin.

"The White Wolf" bears considerable resemblance to “The Blue Bird” in The Green Fairy Book. First a wolf successfully courts a king’s daughter; then, when the wolf believes the girl has abandoned him and prepares to marry another woman, the princess wins his heart a second time. "Mohammed with the Magic Finger" is the Libyan story of a lad who can see two days into the future, and how he makes his uncle’s fortune and his own. "Bobino" tells the story of a son whose father considers him so worthless, that he tries to have him killed; but who escapes and becomes a king. "The Dog and the Sparrow" go into partnership in this German tale, and when the dog is killed by a careless carter, the sparrow exacts a terrible revenge.

"The Story of the Three Sons of Hali" and "The Story of the Fair Circassians" is a connected pair of tales in the middle-eastern style, full of enough magic, romance, and intrigue to set your head spinning. "The Jackal and the Spring" is an animal fable in which the tortoise proves to be a better watchman than either the rabbit or the hare. "The Bear" is another story quite like “Donkey Skin,” in which a princess dances with the handsome prince three times before he asks for his hand—only this time, she is disguised not as a serving wench dressed in animal skins, but as an actual bear! "The Sunchild" introduces another bogey you may never have heard of: a lamia. This appears to be a kind of wicked witch, who tries to capture a little girl who lives with the sun, as she goes to visit her mother.

"The Daughter of Buk Ettemsuch" illustrates the saying, “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” She escapes from a witch who has eaten her six older sisters, only to become the servant of an ogre. I won’t spoil it for you, except to add that it does involve a handsome prince. "Laughing Eye and Weeping Eye, or the Limping Fox" is a Serbian twist on “The Golden Mermaid,” from The Green Fairy Book. In this one, a lame fox helps a foolish lad recover the magic vine that has been stolen from his father. "The Unlooked-for Prince" is a Polish tale similar to “King Kojata” in The Green Fairy Book. "The Simpleton," one of my favorite stories, is a comical Italian tale, similar to the German legend on which the movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was based. In this version, a lad named Moscione, regarded by his father as a half-wit, makes a fortune and wins a princess’s hand, with the aid of five superbly gifted companions. Their names, just for a taster, are Quick-as-Thought, Hare’s-ear, Hit-the-Point, Blow-Blast, and Strong-Back.

"The Street Musicians" are actually a donkey, a cat, a dog, and a cock who have joined up to escape from death when their masters decide they are of no further use. Useless they may be, but they manage to drive a gang of robbers out of their den! "The Twin Brothers" is a tale we have seen before, both as Pyle’s “The Knights of the Fish” and as “The Golden Lads” in The Green Fairy Book. "Cannetella" is an Italian princess who learns the hard way that it is not wise for a princess to make it hard for her father to find her a husband. "The Ogre" forms an unlikely friendship with a foolish youth named Antonio, who gets into the same sort of trouble as “Father Grumbler” in The Brown Fairy Book. The repetition is easily forgiven, because the illustration of the ogre is so funny!

"A Fairy’s Blunder" is another forerunner of G. C. Levine’s Ella Enchanted, in which a fountain that turns old people into children and youngsters into adults, proves to have deadly side effects. Its latest victims are a pair of beautiful young lovers favored by a wiser fairy. But undoing another fairy’s magic isn’t as easy as it sounds! The Bohemian tale of "Long, Broad, and Quickeye" portrays a son who rescues a damsel from an evil magician, with the aid of three more “superbly gifted companions.” Hmm. That’s a useful phrase. And finally, "Prunella" escapes from the deadly malice of a witch, with the help of a flagon of oil, a loaf of bread, a rope, a broom, and the love of the witch’s handsome son. Which is interesting, really, since usually it’s the man in the story who is obliged to do three impossible tasks, and the witch’s (or ogre’s, or magician’s, etc.) daughter who helps him do them.

As you have seen from these brief summaries, a lot of the stories in The Grey Fairy Book turn up in other collections, including the other-colored Fairy Books. But I agree with what Lang said in his preface. If you enjoy fairy tales at all, you won’t mind hearing occasional variations of the same ones. After all, familiarity adds to their enjoyment, and the differences make for an element of the unexpected. Expect this, though: some spanking good stories, full of magic, love, danger, and humor.

The Lilac Fairy Book

In the preface to his 1910 collection of world folklore and fairy stories, Andrew Lang very firmly insists that he did not write any of them. Most of them, he says, were not really “written” but came from traditional storytelling in many cultures. To the extent that someone had to write them down, most of the tales in this book were translated and edited not by Lang himself, but by his wife. Yet together with the illustrations of H. J. Ford, these stories are part of the reason Andrew Lang is remembered as a great transmitter of stories from the magic world.

There are 33 stories in this book, drawn from the firesides of Wales, Ireland, Portugal, France, Africa, India, Finland, and beyond. Here is a bit of each story to whet your appetite:

“The Shifty Lad” is an Irish rogue whose ambition is to be a master thief, though his mother warns him: “Your end will be hanging at the bridge of Dublin.”

“The False Prince and the True” tells of an amazing reversal of fortune, set in motion when a youth gives a spoiled prince a box on the ears. The youth is offered a chance to save his life, but at a staggering price: “’Marry you?’ exclaimed he, ‘but—but—I am not yet twenty, and you—why you must be a hundred at least!’”

“The Jogi’s Punishment” pits the deadly spite of a false holy man against the virtue of a beautiful princess. “’She is not really your daughter, who was stolen away at her birth, but an evil spirit that has takenher form,’ he said solemnly...”

“The Heart of a Monkey” is at stake in a battle of wits between a shark and a monkey, which ends with a “story within a story” about a donkey, a lion, and a hare. This builds up to the monkey’s famous taunt: “So you think I am a washerman’s donkey?”

“The Fairy Nurse” is a spooky Irish tale, told as if in a superstitious whisper (not to mention a Gaelic accent), about what a husband must do to rescue his wife from the “good folk.” “’I see your wife,’ says she, ‘riding on the outside just so as to rub against us. We’ll walk on quietly, as if we suspected nothing, and when we are passing I’ll give you a shove. If you don’t do your duty then, woe be with you!’”

“A Lost Paradise” is a French version of the universal story of how a man and a woman, who have everything their hearts could desire, lose it all because of their burning curiosity about the one thing denied to them. “’Don’t you ever wonder what is in that soup-tureen?’”

From the Finnish fairy tales of Topelius we learn “How Brave Walter Hunted Wolves,” a nostalgic return to childhood in which we are reminded that “It is only cowards who boast; a really brave man never talks of his bravery.”

“The King of the Waterfalls” is another story connected with the Voldemort's "horcrux" magic in Harry Potter. This adventure begins with a sporting young king who takes it into his head to “play a game” (which I understand to mean, “wrestle”) with a local fairy, and ends with a quest to destroy the soul of a wicked giant. “’Have a care,’ answered the queen, ‘for it is not with a smile as on the other days that he will greet you...’”

“A French Puck” is a shape-changing, prank-playing spirit, similar to the title character in Susan Cooper’s The Boggart. This tale contains two of the French Puck’s delightful tricks, after which a mysterious voice can be heard to say: “Oh, dear! What fun I have had, to be sure!”

“The Three Crowns” belong to a princess, whose prince must bring them to her before they can be married—to say nothing of her sisters and his brothers, who have to delay their weddings due to a seven-inch-tall man’s enchantment. “And now I’ll bid you farewell. Continue as good and kind as you always were; love your wife; and that’s all the advice I’ll give you.”

“The Story of a Very Bad Boy” is similar to “The Cunning Shoemaker” of The Pink Fairy Book, in which a clever rogue overthrows the evil plans of three stronger and richer men. “Look! I am sure I felt her body move! And now her nostrils are twitching. Ah! the whistle has not lost its power after all...”

“The Brown Bear of Norway,” actually an Irish story, is about a princess whose husband is condemned to be a bear by day and a man by night. This is only the beginning of their troubles, which leads the young woman to sing, “Four long years I was married to thee; Three sweet babes I bore to thee; Brown Bear of Norway, turn to me.”

“Little Lasse” has an adventure in the “Land of Nod,” in which he sails around the world in a pea-shell boat and learns, like Dorothy Gale, that there’s no place like home. “’Perhaps we should sail back to Polynesia now?’ said the happy dream-boy. ‘No; they are frying pancakes in Europe just now,’ said Little Lasse...”

“Moti” is the outrageous story of a great, strong, clumsy youth who, by one fortunate accident after another, becomes a king’s favorite and a great hero. “’Oh, sire!’ panted the messenger, ‘fly at once, there is no time to lose. Foremost of the enemy rides a mad giant at a furious gallop. He flourishes a tree for a club and is wild with anger...’”

“The Enchanted Deer” is a very strange story in which a fisher’s son trades his horse for a dog, a falcon, and a gun; then saves a princess from an enchantment, but must still go through many travels and perils to marry her. “A sad look came on her face, as she saw it was no use, and at last she gave it up, and lifting his arm, wrote her name across his side...”

“A Fish Story” is the Australian aboriginal story, not only of how the fish gave up hunting on land to live in the sea, but also of why you feel warm after dive into even the coolest of waters. “Ask my father, Guddhu the cod, to light the fire. He is skilled in magic more than most fishes.”

“The Wonderful Tune” is the story of a blind bagpiper named Maurice Connor (that’s pronounced like Morris, if you care to know) who knows a tune that can “set everything dead or alive dancing.” In the eerie and gently sad conclusion of the story, Maurice goes to live under the sea with the Queen of the Fishes. Before taking leave of his mother, Maurice tells her, “For a token of luck, and a sign that I’m alive and well, I’ll send you in, every twelvemonth on this day, a piece of burned wood to Trafraska.”

“The Rich Brother and the Poor Brother” is a touching Portuguese tale about a man who is driven to the point of suicide by his misfortunes...only to find hope in the least expected quarter. It begins with a father’s awful words to his elder son: “’You are no son of mine; I have only one now. Begone, or it will be the worse for you,’ and as he spoke he lifted up his whip.”

“The One-Handed Girl,” like the preceding story, illustrates the twin concepts that “no good deed goes unpunished” and that “no honest suffering goes unrewarded.” This time the victim of fate, ironically, is marked when she asks a blessing instead of property from her dying parents. Her brother, who chooses otherwise, is the one who really persecutes her. “’By the kindness of your heart have you been deceived, O king,’ said he. ‘Your son has married a girl who has lost a hand. Do you know why she has lost it?’”

“The Bones of Djulung” concerns the youngest of seven sisters, whose devotion to a pet fish is rewarded long after the fish’s bones have been buried in the ground. “The maiden who can do such wonders is fitted to be the wife of the greatest chief...”

“The Sea King’s Gift” is a Finnish story about a fisherman and his wife, and how the wife’s constant longing for more and better things leads to a lesson in contentment. What better quote can I offer than, “Every cow likes salt herring.”

“The Raspberry Worm” features two girls who win the favor of the Raspberry King by sparing his life on the one day in a century when he must live in the form of a worm. “Greetings to Otto from me, and tell him when I meet him again I shall do him the honour of eating him up.”

“The Stones of Plouhinec” is a Breton story featuring an evil wizard, a pious farmhand, a pretty farmer’s daughter, and a row of standing stones that go down to the river to drink at midnight on the turn of every century. I especially like this bit: “It was the stone on which Bernèz had carved the cross, and it was now a baptized stone, and had power to save him.”

“The Castle of Kerglas” is yet another story showcasing the surprising cleverness of a “poor idiot.” Peronnik, in spite of his vacant expression and lack of sophistication, manages what many great knights failed to do. You only begin to doubt that he is really such an idiot when he tells the giant that he brings him “the apple of delight and the woman of submission. If you eat the apple you will not desire anything else, and if you take the woman as your servant you will never wish for another.” These statements are quite true...but not the way the giant understand them!

“The Battle of the Birds” is only the beginning of a tale involving a king who has promised his firstborn son to a giant, and the prince who must accomplish several impossible tasks to win the hand of the giant’s daughter.

“The Lady of the Fountain” is a Welsh Arthurian legend featuring Sir Owen and many other knights of the round table. Many men try to fight against the knight who guards the fountain, but who is that masked man anyway? “’I am persuaded,’ said the countess, ‘that this man and no other chased the soul from the body of my lord.’”

“The Four Gifts” are a fairy’s way of repaying a hardworking farm girl for a favor. Strangely (unless you understand the way fairy minds work, I suppose), the girts turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing, is each one—time, money, wisdom, and beauty—take Téphany not closer, but farther from marrying her true love. “’Here they are, all of them,’ she cried; ‘they belong to you. Let me never see them again, but I have learned the lesson that they taught me....’”

“The Groac’h of the Isle of Lok” is the story of a young farm laborer who runs away to seek his fortune, so that he can marry his sweetheart. Thanks to three magical gifts (a bell, a stick, and a knife) his sweetheart is able to rescue him from an evil fairy. “The swallow is less swift than the wind, the wind is less swift than the lightning. But you, my horse, if you love me, must be swifter than them all, for there is a part of my heart that suffers—the best part of my heart that is in danger.”

“The Escape of the Mouse” is a weird Welsh tale about a landlord whose tenants, crops, friend, and wife disappear, and who is driven from place to place by a series of misfortunes. It isn’t until Manawyddan takes it into his head to hang a mouse for stealing, that the true cause of his problems comes out. “’But not yet will I loose the mouse till I know who she is.’ ‘She is my wife,’ answered the bishop.”

“The Believing Husbands” is a variant of a story called “The Six Sillies” in The Red Fairy Book, combined with “The Merry Wives” in The Pink Fairy Book. A man offers a prize to whichever of three women can prove her husband to be the greatest fool. “’You are not my husband!’ ‘Oh, am I not?’ asked he. ‘No, it is not you,’ answered she, so he went away and slept in the wood.”

“The Hoodie-Crow” is yet another prince who is cursed to take the form of a beast half the time, and whose wife must cross a tangle of poisoned thorns to be reunited with him. “Indeed I will wed thee; a pretty creature is the hoodie...”

“The Brownie of the Lake” is a somewhat tragic story about a farmhand who obtains a brownie’s help to win the hand of the farmer’s daughter, only to regret it bitterly afterward. “Ah! my little brownie, if you can do that, there is nothing I won’t give you, except my soul.”

“The Winning of Olwen,” to to be confused with Owen, is another Welsh Arthurian legend, featuring a prince named Kilwch (you figure out how to pronounce that!) and a series of impossible tasks. Unfortunately, like “The Story of Sigurd” in The Red Fairy Book, the Langs condensed this story a bit too much, so that you find yourself wishing it went on into more detail.

But if that is the margin by which this book falls short of perfection, it is a very good book indeed! It is a must-read for fairy-tale lovers and for parents of that special kind of child who requires a bedtime story to send him off to the Land of Nod.

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