Michael Newton, ed., Victorian Fairy Tales (2015)
“If we wish to understand the Victorians, we should read their dreams,” says editor Michael Newton in his introduction to Victorian Fairy Tales. This impressive new one-volume collection goes a long way toward facilitating that goal. Along with the most important, influential, and frequently anthologized stories of the period, including “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, “The Rose and the Ring” by W.M. Thackeray, “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, and “The Golden Key” by George MacDonald, it collects some lesser-known and wonderful tales by Mary de Morgan, Andrew Lang, Laurence Housman, E. Nesbit and others. With its insightful introduction and excellent notes, it will be useful for students and scholars while remaining inviting and non-intimidating for the casual reader or enthusiast of the genre.
The tone of the tales varies widely, from comic verging on the burlesque (“The Rose and the Ring”) to melancholy verging on the maudlin (“The Wanderings of Arasmon” by Mary de Morgan). As Newton points out, “the fairy tale is the most eclectic of forms,” and this collection showcases its versatility. Some writers augment and expand on the rather spare and laconic style of the traditional fairy tale, giving it a lyrical and poetic flavor. Others take an amusing and lightly humorous tone, playing with the narrative conventions that have come down from the past, and using them as a way to both highlight and mask the very modern concerns that lurk beneath the surface.
|Illustration by Walter Crane|
A good example of the latter mode is “The Queen Who Flew,” an early tale by the great twentieth-century novelist Ford Madox Ford, which was one of the few stories that I hadn’t encountered before. A young queen beset by greedy regents and troublesome revolutionaries leaves her country behind thanks to a magical flower that enables her to fly. As she journeys to various other lands her experiences help to give her maturity and knowledge of what is truly valuable in life. This story could be read by a child, certainly, but there are depths of adult understanding wound into its seemingly casual and episodic narrative.
Many of the stories were profusely illustrated when first published, and though regrettably the pictures could not all be included, the few examples that punctuate the text give a sense of the artistic style of the day. I appreciated the chance to read more about the artists and even about the original bindings in the notes (though pictures would have been even better). A further notable feature of this volume is an appendix that collects four brief but essential essays on “What is a fairy tale?” by John Ruskin, Juliana Horiatia Ewing, George MacDonald, and Laurence Housman. These defend and articulate the power of a form that has often been dismissed as mere fodder for the uneducated. As Ewing says, fairy tales “treat, not of the corner of a nursery or a playground, but of the world at large, and life in perspective; of forces visible and invisible; of Life, Death, and Immortality.” The publishers put this statement on the back cover of the book; it could stand as a motto for lovers of the fairy tale in all its incarnations.
In short, whether you have an abiding love for or passing interest in the Victorian fairy tale, you’ll find what you are seeking in this splendidly produced book.
Publication date: May 1, 2015