Trim Craft on the Ocean of Story in… English Fairy Tales
The Thumpin’ Book
was what we called it, and it looms beside me as I write: three inches thick with 700 straw-coloured pages, but printed on one side of the leaf only. It had floppy orange paper wrappers augmented with extra protection by its youthful owner and we read it at bedtime ‘in and out of weeks and almost over a year’.
It was a proof copy
sent out by the Bodley Head in 1968, in the days when they were a real publishing house, as a precursor of their new edition of Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales and marking the start of what was to become a magnificent series of ‘Source Books of Fairy Tales and Folklore’. (Such things do not seem to happen now.)
The three-hundred and-fifty pages,
with the text finally on both sides of the leaves, made up a complete edition of the two collections that Jacobs had edited: English Fairy Tales in 1890 and More English Fairy Tales in 1894. Altogether they contained fully annotated versions of eighty-seven stories in a new printing that was greatly to be welcomed because, as the blurb had it: it was ‘some years since complete editions, have been available’. And there on the binding was the door and the bell and the key to let you in to the book as its editor instructed. (Some aged readers may object that a dumpy volume published by Frederick Muller was then also much in evidence. That though was only a selection reproduced photographically from the original books and had resulted at one point in a mysterious fat curlicue figure appearing for no good reason at the head of a page. This was a lone Hobyah who had been kicked across the page-opening from the previous story about those destructive creatures which had then been deleted.)
was one of the favourites in our bedtime readings, sad though we were at the gradual dismemberment of faithful Little Dog Turpie who kept upsetting his master with his nightly barking to scare off the Hobyah goblins. (Leila Berg in her retelling feebly has his body-parts unscrewed and later screwed back on again.) The tale goes with great panache, especially with the repetition of the Hobyah war-cry: ‘Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl’ and, as Jacobs records of his source: ‘the cry “Look me” was very impressive’. He had got the tale from the American Folk Lore Journal – evidence of his widespread researches – and his regular, and very helpful, citations of sources says that the original came from Perthshire, which really made it a Scottish fairy tale. But he was pretty blunt in his disregard of the Border as a dividing line for stories common on both sides of it and he reserved native Scottish tales for the two volumes of his Celtic Fairy Tales , which the Bodley Head also put in to their series.
The fashion for tale-hunting,
often through a whole library of sources, had been most famously initiated almost a hundred years before Jacobs when the Brothers Grimm began to publish their annotated collection in 1812* . As study-bound scholars rather than tramping recorders they drew upon evidence from various helpers and many documents, and Jacobs had to adopt much the same method. For although, here and there, collectors had taken down (with predictable Bowdlerizations) something of English oral narrative, no consistent effort had been made to assemble an authoritative account on scientific lines of what our ‘heritage’ might hold. And despite his late arrival on the scene, with traditions dying out fast and with print-culture infecting much of what was found, Jacobs is greatly to be praised for the energy and honesty that he brought to his project. The books are the first proper attempt to survey ‘the world we have lost’.
He was an hospitable editor.
The two collections contain jokes and noodle-stories like those of ‘The Wise Men of Gotham’, rigmaroles like ‘Master of all Masters’ (another favourite), traditional nursery stories, of which his ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, remembered from his Australian childhood, is the best version that we have. There were fewer of the great romantic and fantastical tales (such as pervade the Celtic volumes), for – as Neil Philip has noted in his Penguin Book of English Folktales (1992 – an essential adjunct to Jacobs) – the English tradition is richer in local legends and comedy. Nevertheless there are some big, powerful stories there, whether versions of European tales like ‘The Rose-Tree’ (= the Grimms’ ‘Juniper Tree’), or home-grown, like ‘Yallery Brown’ or ‘The Buried Moon’.
The lightly-worn learning
found in Jacobs’s introductions and notes (an indispensable part of the enterprise) stems from his affection and respect for his subject. He is therefore well aware that he is open to criticism first for his toning down the vernacular where that is authentically present in his sources, and second for modifying passages – related to sex rather than violence – which his generation thought unsuitable for children. He tells you what he has done though and he fully recognises the directness and the conversational nuances that are a vital part of storytelling and only a writer of the calibre of Alan Garner can match or outdo his versions. (It should be said that his explanatory notes, often citing parallel versions of individual tales, are intended for an adult readership and are preceded by the picture of a town-crier announcing that ‘The English Fairy Tales are now closed. Little Boys and Girls must not read any further’.)
to his wish to bring this ‘heritage’ within the compass of children was the collaboration of his friend John D. Batten whose pen-drawings are integral to the books’ success (unfortunately replaced in the Thumpin’ Book by some less-committed headpieces by Margery Gill). Admittedly some of Batten’s knights and maidens suffer from a pre-Raphaelite wishy-washiness but he measures up wonderfully well to the comedy of events and to the need for his drawings to pace the narrative through the pages. Together the two of them fulfil Jacobs’s ambition that the stories might ‘[fill] our children’s heads with bright trains of images’ – but whether those ancient stimuli which worked so well around the peasant fire-block or at children’s bedtime can compete with the bright mechanical images of the screen on the table or the box in the corner only the Wise Woman of the Woods can say.
*Selected Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (see Classics in Short No. 54, BfK No 155, November 2005)
The illustrations by John D Batten are taken from the Everyman’s Library Children’s Classic (978 1 85715 917 2, £10.99 hbk). The edition does not include Joseph Jacobs’s notes.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s books consultant for The Times .