How are folk and fairy tales published today? Can authenticity and the art of the storyteller be preserved? Brian Alderson looks at the issues raised by current publishing practices.
‘Write about fairy stories,’ commanded BfK’s editor – and what could I do but obey? She might have turned me into a tadpole. And the publisher threw in instructions of his own – wishing to know whether the delight of his childhood, a story about a magic wheelbarrow, author and title long forgotten, might perhaps be a fairy story.
It might not, I fancy, but the question at once demands the laying out of definitions, for ‘fairy story’ is a delusive term. It gained currency, usually as ‘fairy tale’, during the eighteenth century, thanks chiefly to the translations of the French ‘contes de fées’. But these were frippery things, which may indeed have been plentifully supplied with fairies but they were fairies of the courtly imagination whose activities were only distantly related to what went on in the ‘fairy tale’ proper.
One of the best descriptions of this last occurs in what happens to be the first known printed version of an English fairy tale: The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed, King Arthur’s Dwarfe. Imprinted at London for Tho: Langley, 1621. This is presented to the public by R J (probably one Richard Johnson) and he numbers his text among ‘ancient Tales … the onely reuiuers of frouzy age at midnight’. These have ‘compassed the Christmas fire-blocke, till the Curfew Bell rings candle out … [and made] long nights seeme short, & heauy toyles easie.’
The phrasing suggests that ‘folk tale’ would be a more appropriate term, or, more graphically, a ‘tale of Mother Goose’, which also derives from the seventeenth century in the first great collection of such tales: the Contes de ma Mère l’Oye which were first published in Paris in 1697, although a heart-stoppingly wonderful manuscript – now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (well away from lower Manhattan) – is dated 1695.
The preparation of these tales for print is pretty certainly the work of Charles Perrault and his choice establishes as well as anything the difference between a folk tale and a conte de fée. There is nothing frippery about ‘Red Riding Hood’ (who is eaten by the wolf – finis), or the two-part ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (with the Queen ordering up her grand-daughter to be cooked for tomorrow’s dinner, with a sauce Robert – the recipe is given), or the ogre in ‘Hop o’ my Thumb’ cutting the throats of his children, or all the other jolly things that go on in ‘Cinderella’, and ‘Puss-in-Boots’, and ‘Bluebeard’, and ‘Diamonds and Toads’. The stories are the foundation-stone of European folk tale and Perrault had the sensibility to set them down as though they were being told round ‘the Christmas fire-block’. Indeed, his frontispiece shows Mother Goose doing just that.
Her absurd, but eternally-sanctioned, little narratives do not merely differ from those invented by Mme D’Aulnoy and her consoeurs (her de-dignification in England under the name of Mother Bunch was a commercial manoeuvre). They also differ from the surrounding popular narrative forms like myths, legends, romances, fables, ballads, and the like, but the distinctions are not always precise. ‘The Lambton Worm’, for instance, abuts a Wearside legend; ‘The Babes in the Wood’, as a prose tale, along with numerous others, is a reduction of an original ballad; the whole comical succession of tales told by Uncle Remus are a mélange of animal-fable, anecdote, and folk tale.
The brothers Grimm
The printed versions of stories like those are obviously much later than Mother Goose and their presence is less influenced by her than by the arrival in Berlin in 1812 of a modest little collection of Kinder-und Hausmärchen got together by Jacob Grimm and his brother Wilhelm. This book, extending eventually to contain some two hundred, fully annotated stories, is the model which (unlike Perrault) inspired explorers around the world to go forth and discover what kind of ‘heritage of story’ might still be preserved for them in the nurseries, the pubs, the spinning-rooms and the encampments where polite culture had no footing. And calling the stories ‘Märchen’ was a good move too – and one that we might all usefully adopt. For its origins and its precise meaning are matter for argument, even to Germans. It lacks the delimitations of ‘fairy story’ and ‘folk tale’ and more generously allows us to think of its narratives as the uninterpretable vestiges of what Kipling once jocularly called Big Medicine and Strong Magic.
As such these fragments are deserving of the most respectful attention from persons who think to turn them to their own advantage. Ancient and anonymous, they are unprotected by any laws of copyright. Dealing in names that are as familiar as clichés, they need no expensive introduction to a hoped-for audience. Questions relating to their provenance, their structure, the diction of their telling, are regarded as of only academic interest so it’s open season all year round for those who hunt them out for profitable children’s books.
Smacking of authenticity?
Given the almost total absence of print media where the serious reviewing of such things can be undertaken, it seems a bit pointless to argue for a critical assessment of folk-tale editions that will take into account how responsibly the producers have behaved towards their sources and how far the result of their labours measures up to alternative treatments of the same tale. Obviously we can’t ask for anything normative, for there are no norms.
Judgement, properly done, is more like wine-tasting; you have to slosh the stuff round your palate, get the scent and the tang of it, to see how far it smacks of authenticity.
And that is a big word. In part it requires that the run of the story carries conviction in the teeth of whatever may seem incredible or inexplicable. Of far more importance however is the requirement that the tale represents the art of the storyteller rather than the literary artist. The strong magic, which is the essence of folk tale, is fundamentally an experience shared between ma Mère l’Oye at her distaff and those who listen to her, whether in cocked-hats or farmers’ smocks or jeans and tee-shirts. When a printed text of her stories is plonked down in front of you, get the words off the pages and roll them round your palate and see how well they fare.
That too though is only a beginning, because their authenticity depends upon one set of circumstances if the stories are part of an English-language tradition, and a different set if, as is often the case, they are translations. In the first instance we have enough evidence, through the perceptive and self-effacing work of scholars from Joseph Jacobs in the nineteenth century to Neil Philip in our own day, to appreciate the right timbre, the right colloquiality, for the English folk tale. (Scottish and Anglo-Irish ones can often be even more illuminating when the local speech patterns are retained.)
But in the case of translated stories, your conscientious purveyor is in the double-bind of having to have some sense of a story’s origins in its homeland and then having to make it sound like a folk tale that has successfully adapted itself as such in its new host-country. That is altogether more problematic, but a single example may help to show not only what is involved but also some of the pitfalls of messing about too freely with the merchandise. See what happens to the opening sentence of the Grimms’ story ‘Der Froschkönig, oder der eiserne Heinrich’ (lit. ‘King of the Frogs, or Iron Henry’, but usually called ‘The Frog Prince’).
The story originates in an oral telling which was summarised by Wilhelm Grimm in a manuscript aide-mémoire with the heading ‘The Princess and the Enchanted Prince. Frog-King’*, and it begins thus:
The king’s youngest daughter went out into the forest and sat herself down beside a cool well.
With the publication of the story in the 1812 collection we get:
Once upon a time there was a princess who went out into the forest and sat herself down beside a cool well.
But Wilhelm Grimm, who was the chief editor of later editions of the Märchen, doesn’t seem to have been happy with that and the ‘standard’ version now found in most editions owes much to him:
In the old days when making wishes was still some use, there lived a king; and this king had three daughters …
[and we then need several lines of text before we get Her Highness out to the well].
Now Wilhelm was a pretty crafty chap, with an experienced ear for folk tales, and much of his fussing with the texts (which rarely involved bowdlerization) exemplifies how the Authenticity of tale-telling need not be lost through editorial intrusion. But take a look at this version of the opening:
On a perfect day a beautiful young princess was playing in her rose garden with a golden ball.
Suddenly we have exchanged the emblematic forest and the cool well for a rose garden and we are offered the sogginess of ‘a perfect day’ and ‘a beautiful young princess’ against the directness of the original and some (unquoted) semi-comic hyperbole on her beauty from Wilhelm’s version.
That painful enfeeblement of Mother Goose’s sly or forceful tones is of particular interest because it comes not from some volume produced for sale at airports or corner-shops, but from a writer of repute in a volume recently short-listed for glory: Berlie Doherty and Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jane Ray in a sumptuous edition from Walker Books. And for fear that you should think me guilty of excoriating a single lapse I had better say that the book seems to me hopelessly misconceived from one end to the other.
What has gone wrong, and predictably so in the light of Ms Doherty’s sentimental preface, is the intrusion of the writerly voice upon the diction of storytelling. ‘Every time the stories are told,’ says Ms Doherty, disregarding much of Tradition, ‘the tellers add a little bit of themselves – a colour here, a jewel there [how do you do that?], a sigh or a secret laugh or a song that wasn’t there before. But they must never, never change what actually happens …’: a philosophy which allows the look of the words on the page to replace the sound of them on the tongue. What storyteller would put up with (more or less at random) a sentence like: ‘They would sit at their open window at the end of the day and breathe in all the perfumes of the flowers, and gaze at the misty colours, and say how lucky they were to live there.’ Wow! ’Taint natural. (And, incidentally, if we ‘must never, never change’ things, how does Ms Doherty explain her wholesale traducing of that most wonderful of all stories, The Snow Queen, in her retelling for Scholastic?)
The Walker Fairy Tales also, involuntarily, attracts attention to the market’s desire for its folk tales to be ever more lushly illustrated. The amenity of artistic interpretation was not made available to the audience for Tom Thumb round the Christmas fire-block and they thus had the good fortune to be able to imagine for themselves our hero falling into the frumity and suchlike. And when illustration did first accompany printed versions it was in the form of woodcuts of such surpassing generality that you could reconstruct your own details on their outlines. Beyond that however, with the coming of ever more sophisticated illustrators and illustrative processes, it became open season for pictorial as well as literary interpretations. These tales of the earth earthy were deemed fit subjects for the Book Beautiful and we get, as BfK’s editor has memorably said, illustrations that look like ‘expensive wrapping paper’.
Old Wilhelm may have been right to say that wishing doesn’t count for much these days, but a desire for less exhibitionism and more attention to Story need not go unfulfilled. The two volumes of the first English Grimm (1823 and 1826) still have much to commend them, and, indeed, were used for the first Puffin Grimm of 1948. Joseph Jacobs’s sequence of fairy-tale books, authoritative texts with J D Batten’s admirable drawings and decorations, are still the best of their kind. And in more recent times the editorial skills of Alan Garner and William Mayne show that great writers know how to serve the needs of tradition. Why such books as the Hamish Hamilton collections on Goblins, Giants and Ghosts – along with that enigmatic anthology The Guizer – are no longer in print will be hard to explain to anyone unfamiliar with today’s be-wizarded book trade.
Within the folk-tale idiom
Good deeds do occur though amid much dross (like Franklin Watts’s denatured ‘Leapfrog’ series, published with benefit of a Professor of English, no less) and amid overweight, overdone treasuries and bedtime books (Hutchinson’s Treasury of Fairy Tales weighs in at 2½ lb).
Kevin Crossley-Holland, for instance, has plundered his own British Folk Tales of 1987 to give us Enchantment (Orion), an aptly-titled selection of triple virtue. First of all he has chosen stories that are mostly out of the common run (even his ‘Frog Prince’ is worked over from a Scottish source). Second of all, everything is eminently tellable. He’s a great intruder on his text (‘King of the Cats’ for instance is a total conversion-job), but like Old Wilhelm he works within the idiom of folk tale and doesn’t fancify the sentences too much. And third of all, he has Emma Chichester Clark to accompany him. With watercolour designs on every page-opening you might expect an artistic takeover, but the pictures fit gracefully, rather like the hand-coloured illustrations of the early nineteenth century, and the Chichester Clark characters, so familiar in their wide-eyed, vaguely androgynous way, are not unrelated to the denizens in the old chapbooks.
And talking of chapbooks we seem to have something very like in Scholastic’s ‘Stories to read or tell for just £1’ (almost the equivalent of what you’d give for a penny merriment two hundred years ago). The series is uniform in design, with the boringly repetitive illustrations for which chapbooks were famous, but it differs from their series first in having texts of variable length (37 pages for The Three Heads in the Well and a quite unnecessary 83 for Puss in Boots) and second in employing posh authors to write ’em.
As I noted of Berlie Doherty’s Snow Queen above, that doesn’t guarantee success, but it does cast a fascinating sidelight on how sophisticated souls cope with fundamental techniques. As you might expect, Alan Garner (Grey Wolf, Prince Jack and the Firebird) and Philip Pullman shine (fascinating to compare the latter’s Mossycoat with Kevin Crossley-Holland’s version) and, as you might expect too, many others fail through being too determined to clothe their ancient, but beggarly, sources with unsuitable embellishments.
They could do worse than take some lessons from Rose Impey who has her own ‘Orchard Fairy Tales’ series – but at £3.99 a time it will hardly find favour with Autolycus even though there is a plethora of rough vernacular pictures by Peter Bailey. The stories (which were first published in The Orchard Book of Fairy Tales illustrated by Ian Beck) are offered two at a time in each 48-page book and the consequent need for brevity ensures that Ms Impey gets a proper momentum into her storytelling. It deserts her, alas, for ‘The Princess and the Pea’ but Andersen, who wrote the thing, would have enjoyed the way she has her prince hunt for his real princess among contenders taken straight from the Kinder-und Hausmärchen. She’ll do alright with a distaff in front of a winter hearth when the TV fails
* Footnote: Limited space prevents citing the original German. I am responsible for the translations.
Between 1975 and 1982 Brian Alderson re-edited five of Andrew Lang’s ‘Colour Fairy Books’ with new illustrations by John Lawrence, Faith Jaques, Antony Maitland, Erik Blegvad and Colin McNaughton. He also translated stories from the Grimm collection: Popular Folk Tales, ill. Michael Foreman (Gollancz, 1978) and fashioned an edition of The Arabian Nights with the same illustrator.
A regularly-used metal-cut doing duty for queens, princeses, etc. in London chapbooks.
Frontispiece for an English edition of Perrault (London: 1737) [from Opie].
More English Fairy Tales.
John D Batten for English Fairy Tales, ed J Jacobs (London: Nutt, 1890).
John D Batten for ‘The Old Witch’ in More English Fairy Tales, ed. J Jacobs (London: D Nutt, 1893).
A reworking, probably engraved on wood by Mary Byfleet, of Cruikshank’s frontispiece for the second volume of German Popular Stories. Here found in a Cundall edition of 1846.
Etching by George Cruikshank for ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ in a reprinted edition of German Popular Stories, intro. John Ruskin (London: Camden Hotten, 1869).
Raymond Briggs illustration for Jack the Giant Killer in The Hamish Hamilton Book of Giants, ed. William Mayne, 1968.
Title page for Tom Thumbe [from Opie].
More chapbook fairies.