By Helen Parry
Christmas is traditionally a time of magic. Even if you’re no longer quite certain that Father C pops down the chimney with a sackful of toys whittled by elves, the combination of sparkly lights, early nights, frosty carols, nostalgia for lost childhood and erm lashings of booze puts one in the mood to be enchanted. If Hallowe’en is the time for ghost stories, then Christmas calls for the sprinkling of magical dust that fairy tales can offer. Here are some of my favourite books of and about fairy tales. Please add your own in the comments!
Collections of stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Andersen, Charles Perrault and even Oscar Wilde are not hard to find, many of them exquisitely illustrated. But equally enjoyable are the stories written during a blossoming of fairy tales in eighteenth-century aristocratic France, and Marina Warner has garnered Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment from the best of these. I think my favourite is ‘The White Cat’, in which a prince is able only to fulfil the tasks set him by his father thanks to the help of a queenly and resourceful White Cat.
Fairy tales also proved a popular literary form for Victorian writers, including George MacDonald and John Ruskin. In Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers Nina Auerbach and U.C. Knoepflmacher have gathered together eleven stories by writers including Christina Rossetti and E. Nesbit. The editors argue that women were held in a sort of perpetual childhood by nineteenth-century British society and so their stories tend towards the subversive; certainly here you will see Rossetti in quite a different light from that presented by her poetry.
The most famous series of fairy-tale collections is Andrew Lang’s coloured fairy-book series; perhaps less known and harder to find these days are the books by Ruth Manning-Sanders, which bring together stories according to theme (The Book of Dragons, The Book of Charms and Changelings). A Choice of Magic is a sort of greatest hits compilation of these and I read it and reread it as a child. Particular favourite stories are ‘Aniello’, in which the young hero actually manages to make sensible wishes on a magic stone thanks to the advice of his little speckled hen (it always used to frustrate me to read of people who made silly wishes or wasted them when I should have chosen so much more wisely but never had the opportunity) (and how could I not love a heroine who is a hen?); ‘The Goblins at the Bath House’, in which a bath-house attendant must outwit the goblins or marry one of them; and ‘The Enchanted Prince’, who can only be rescued by a clever girl and yet there is something a little sad about his disenchantment too. Robin Jacques’s illustrations are perfect.
Manning-Sanders’ books brought together stories from many different traditions. But readers seeking fairy tales from beyond Europe and Russia have thin pickings, in my experience. Angela Carter’s collections of fairy tales published by Virago give a glimpse of a larger world, while Folk Tales of West Africa by W.H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair includes stories about Anansi and other animal fables. Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales contains stories collected and first published in 1910 by an Englishwoman, Grace James. James was born in Japan and spent her childhood there, where it seems she first heard many of these dreamy and often melancholy fairy tales. Here are mysterious ladies bearing peony lanterns, a magic tea-kettle who dances and performs tricks (how I wish I had one!), serpents, shape-shifting foxes and Mr Rat, who desires an advantageous match for his daughter.
If you’re wanting to read more about the history of fairy tales then Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here) is a great introduction. I also highly recommend Katherine Langrish’s wonderful new book, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, which ranges widely across folk and fairy tales, myths, ballads, superstition, children’s stories, even modernism. Framed as a series of reflections on different aspects of western tales, Langrish’s enthusiasm as well as her rich knowledge shine through on every page.
Sara Maitland is particularly interested not in similarities between fairy tales but in their differences, which she argues are shaped by geography. The ‘secrets, hidden identities, cunning disguises’, dangerous journeys and animal helpers of European tales were created by the large swathes of forest. Each chapter of her book Gossip from the Forest is devoted to a different month of the year, a different fairy tale and a different British woodland which Maitland explores physically and intellectually. If you didn’t know about the Free Miners of the Forest of Dean or how fungi and trees forge partnerships to help each other survive, and how all this may be reflected in Germanic fairy tales, you will find this fascinating reading.
Retelling fairy tales as novels has become enormously popular and a recent version that I particularly love is Cathrynne Valente’s Deathless, which pours the tale of ‘The Death of Koschei the Deathless, or Marya Morevna’ over the history of Stalinist Russia, and watches the two melt together, along with firebirds, a talking horse, Baba Yaga and many strange and magical creatures from Russian stories and from Valente’s boundless imagination. Marya Morevna is sensitive to things that most people can’t see and is chosen by the Tsar of Life, Koschei, to be his wife. He whisks her away from Leningrad to his kingdom where everything is alive: houses are made of skin and shiver when you pass, fountains run with blood, not water, and witches, rusalkas and demons eat cucumber soup and smoke in the cafés. Marya must succeed at Baba Yaga’s tasks or go in her pot, and that is only the beginning of her adventures as Koschei wages a war against his brother, the Tsar of Death, which devastates his land and all of Russia.
Witches Abroad is one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and is a funny and unusual mash-up of fairy-tales. When Magrat Garlick is bequeathed Desiderata Hollow’s wand she also inherits the role of fairy godmother to Ella. She has one mission: to prevent Ella from marrying the prince. Ella doesn’t want to marry the prince and Magrat is aided by two other witches, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax; it’s true that Magrat is a ‘wet hen’ of a witch, her wand only turns things into pumpkins and there is another godmother who is very insistent upon Ella’s ‘happy ending’ with the prince, but how difficult can it be? The three witches have reckoned without the sheer power of Story… As you might expect, this is full of jokes about fairy-tale conventions, but it is also a playful examination of how stories and our expectations of them can shape our lives.
Strictly speaking, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is a not a fairy-tale adaptation but a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from which ‘East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon’ developed, but I am including it anyway because it is unjustly neglected. Like Witches Abroad, it examines how stories take on their own life. Lewis sets his version in a Mediterranean (I think) kingdom in the Ancient World and it is narrated by Princess Orual, Psyche’s older half-sister, who loves her dearly. Orual’s only other joy in life is the education and kindness given them by the Greek slave they call ‘the Fox’, for life in their father’s court is harsh. When famine and plague strike, the priest of the goddess Ungit demands that Psyche be sacrificed: left on the mountainside to be devoured by the Shadowbrute. Lewis’s sensitive exploration of ugly, clever Orual’s relationship with her beautiful and heroic sister, of how love can be complicated by protectiveness, hunger, fear and jealousy, makes this a powerful novel. And like Valente and Pratchett, Lewis is interested in how stories multiply and take on lives of their own.
A Dark Horn Blowing (out of print, but cheaply available) is a haunting, magical novel of loss of self drawing on English and Scottish ballads, especially ‘The Queen of Elfan’s Nourrice’, and Norse mythology. Nora is lured to Elfland by the mournful call of the dark horn in an opening chapter which I still remember vividly years after I first read it as a child, abandoning her own baby to nurse the Queen of Erland’s sickly son, Eelie. Nora loves Eelie and wishes to protect him from his evil father, but exists in a sort of dream, while back at home her grieving husband Eben falls prey to the wiles of Bab Magga. Told in turn by Nora, Eben, Eelie and Owen, Nora’s son, this is a novel that works through image and mood rather than character or plot and I have found it to be unforgettable.
Finally, the perfect fairy tale for this time of year, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and all the knights are feasting in celebration of Christmas when the door flies open and a strange man, enormous and green, rides in on a green horse. His challenge: a knight must strike him a blow with the axe he’s carrying; in return, that knight must go to the Green Chapel and bear a blow from him one year later. Sir Gawain accepts the challenge. This is a very beautiful fourteenth-century poem, but if your Middle English is a little rusty (and whose isn’t?) then you can read it in translation. I am very fond of the Tolkien version, but Simon Armitage’s rendering has been widely praised.
Merry Christmas and happy reading!
Helen Parry’s whole life is a fairy tale and she blogs at a gallimaufry.
Reading List – Many of these titles are available from the Book Depository.
Nina Auerbach and U.C. Knoepflmacher (eds), Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 978-0-22-603204-7, 380pp, paperback
W.H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair, West African Folk Tales (London: George Harrap & Co., 1917); available to read online here [http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/books/africa/barker.html]
Angela Carter, Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (London: Virago, 2005), 978-0-34900821-9, 512pp, illus., hardback
Dahlov Ipcar, A Dark Horn Blowing (London: Armada, 1981), 978-0-00-671896-3, paperback
Grace James, Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Macmillan & Co., 1926), 232pp illus.; repr. Dover Children’s Books, 2014, 978-1-60660073-3, hardback
Katherine Langrish, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales (Carterton, UK: Greystones Press, 2016), 978-1-91-11220-4, 3294pp, paperback
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (London: Geoffrey Bles Ltd., 1956); new ed., HarperCollins/STL, 1978, 978-0-00-625277-1, paperback
Sara Maitland, Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales (London: Granta, 2012), 978-1-84-708429-3, 354pp, hardback
Ruth Manning-Sanders, A Choice of Magic (London: Methuen, 1971), 416-16950-3, 320pp illus., hardback
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad (London: Victor Gollancz, 1991), 0-57-50498-0 4252pp, hardback
J.R.R. Tolkien (trans.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975, 0-04-821035-8, 152pp, hardback; new ed., HarperCollins, 2006, 978-0-26-110259-0, paperback
Cathrynne Valente, Deathless (London: Corsair, 2013), 978-1-47210-868-5, 352pp, paperback
Marina Warner (ed.), Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994), 256pp illus.; repr. Vintage, 2010, 978-0-09-955204-8, ebook and paperback
Marina Warner, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 978-0-19-871865-9, 201pp illus., hardback and e-book