Books for Giving
New Folk Tale Collections
Collections of folk and fairy tales, often lumped together by country of origin, have been standard fare in children’s publishing since the nineteenth century, when two great folklorists, Joseph Jacobs and Andrew Lang set a high standard which many subsequent collections have lamentably failed to meet. New collections by Alan Garner and Jamila Gavin have just been published – do they have stories worth listening to? Neil Philip discusses.
The 1960 and 70s saw a determined effort to re-establish a gold standard for the fairy tale. The Bodley Head reprinted classic works by Jacobs and others; Kestrel commissioned Brian Alderson to re-edit and spruce up Andrew Lang’s ‘Colour Fairy Books’; and Julia MacRae at Hamish Hamilton asked the finest writers of the day to contribute to a new series of thematic miscellanies. Garner’s Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins published in 1969 in the wake of The Owl Service, remains one of the finest examples of the genre —linguistically alert, culturally aware, and beautifully structured.
Garner’s new book, Collected Folk Tales is essentially the Book of Goblins redux. It omits various poems by Andrew Salkey, Fleur Adcock and others that interspersed the stories in the original volume, and instead leavens the rebaked loaf with more stories and even some of Alan Garner’s own poems. Some of the new stories — the macabre ‘The Flying Childer’ from Lincolnshire and a companion exercise in psychological horror, ‘Father, Wait for Me’ from Zambia — were excised by the publisher from the Book of Goblins. Others are hard-to-find previously published texts, such as ‘The Breadhorse’, ‘The Island of the Strong Door’, and ‘R.I.P.’
The rest of the book consists of fresh versions of mainly British folktales, rather in the vein established in Alan Garner’s Book of British Fairytales (1984) and A Bag of Moonshine (1986). Garner writes in his introduction that in folktales ‘the real meaning is in the music’, and the music he creates in these new stories is startling and inventive. There are moments of harmony, moments of dissonance, moments of tension and of real dramatic surprise. Most of all, the language is vividly alive: ‘Long, long ago, when the world had just been made, and the blue sky was being put up over it, Shick-Shack lived with a fox in a wilderness place.’ Or, ‘It was in the days when there were ever so many folk as were kings and queens and all sorts.’ You just know you are settling down to a story that will be worth listening to.
Frightening and haunting tales
The best of these new additions — worth the price of the book alone — is ‘Iram, Biram’. This is a version of an English folktale, ‘The Pear-Drum’, which was itself based on a short story, ‘The New Mother’ by Lucy Clifford published in 1882. ‘The Pear-Drum’ was already one of the most frightening and haunting tales in the English language, with its strange gypsy girl with her mysterious pear-drum, who encourages Blue-Eyes and Turkey to be ever more naughty, until their mother abandons them and they are rewarded not with the magical drum but a monstrous new mother with ‘glass eyes and a wooden tail’. Writing of Lucy Clifford’s original story, the historian of children’s literature F J Harvey Darton says, ‘Getting on for fifty years after I met her first, I still cannot rid my mind of that fearful creation.’ He would have an even harder time expunging Garner’s minatory version from his memory.
The rich Indian storytelling tradition
The longest story in The Book of Goblins is a shortened retelling of Ramayana. At that time, the rich Indian storytelling tradition was woefully under-served in British children’s books. That is no longer the case, and two new books by Jamila Gavin show how sensitively and creatively publishers now approach the stories of the sub-continent. Tales from India: Stories of Creation and the Cosmos is a collection of Hindu myths, beautifully illustrated by Amanda Hall, and told in a lively, exciting style that makes them seen new-minted.
Gavin’s second title is School for Princes: Stories from the Panchatantra, illustrated by Bee Willey. This takes the unusual approach of matching five stories from the Panchatantra with five original tales. As a means of opening up the moral universe of the Panchatantra’s animal fables into the world of human actions and responsibilities, this works remarkably well. As with Tales from India, the language is rich and vigorous, and the book itself a handsome production.
Collected Folk Tales retold by Alan Garner (HarperCollins, 978 0 00 744597, £14.99 hbk)
Tales from India: Stories of Creation and the Cosmos retold by Jamila Gavin (Templar, 978 1 84877 202 1, £14.99 hbk)
School for Princes: Stories from the Panchatantra retold by Jamila Gavin (Frances Lincoln, 978 1 84507 990 1, £14.99 hbk)
Neil Philip is a writer and folklorist.