Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book”

  1. Thanks for this review, Scott. Fairy tales are not bowdlerized enough to read to any kids I know (!) though I think they’re fascinating tales for adults. I enjoy your posts and appreciate the breadth of your pop culture knowledge. And thanks for the tip to download from Project Gutenberg.

    1. Those children must be very young, then. My breadth of knowledge I credit to my parents, who taught me to read at a very young age, then allowed me a remarkable freedom in what to read, including books I now realize were not at all “suitable.”

  2. I’m totally fascinated by fairy tales and your review is the perfect incentive for me to go poke around in the genre some. Kudos to Mr. Lang for expanding the availability of stories during his lifetime. While my interest is primarily as and adult examining the stories, I’ve never really liked the idea of bowdlerizing. I like what Neil Gaiman has to say about it: “if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”

    1. I understand why it was done, even if I don’t particularly like the idea. Every collector of fairy tales edits to their own agenda, and at least Mr. Lang was upfront about it. (One of the reasons I’m not happy about the missing intro.) An interesting exercise, once the new “Cinderella” movie comes out on DVD, would be to watch that and the 50s animated version with kids and ask them to compare. What do they think the changes do to the story?

  3. Scott, I really enjoyed this review. The color fairies books have been on my “to read someday” list for years, but that someday hasn’t yet come. Perhaps it’s time that it does. Thank you!

    1. I was reminded by her being a guest of honor at this weekend’s Minicon that Jane Yolen has written many fine fairy tale-related books that you might enjoy.

  4. I’d never heard of these fairy tales – I’m very curious now. I didn’t know that about the British! I go back and read fairy tales and fantasies from time to time – I just read a fairy tale by Murakami – never read Japanese fairy tales before. I’m inspirited to read more!!! thanks!

    1. Educators go in cycles on fairy tales–Jane Yolen didn’t get her doctorate because her thesis was on the use of fairy tales in education, which was out of favor at the time. The college now uses her (revised for book publication) thesis as one of its standard educational texts, and she’s since gotten six honorary doctorates for her work in the field.

  5. I love fairytales and still read and watch the cartoons. Having had a tough childhood fairytales used to give me that freedom. I’d lose myself in them and sometimes dread coming back to the real world. I recently read the French story Aurore and Aimee. Tales like these make me feel happy and I get some kind of comfort reading them:) Thank you for the review.

    1. You’re welcome! Aurore and Aimee sounds like an interesting tale from the Wikipedia article…

  6. Thanks for mentioning the fact that those books from B&N happen to leave out some parts from the original. I had always wondered if those really nice covered books that clearly state they are from B&N were any different from buying the other copies. Interesting…

    1. The indicia page does mention that it’s been edited, but I didn’t find out how much until I checked Wikipedia. Other ones in that reprint series may have their text intact.

  7. One of my favorite books, although I admit to liking the originals first. Their incongruity is one of my favorite things about them. I mean, haven’t you ever been walking along, minding your own business, and have a glass mountain appear? Well, maybe not, but it would be fun, don’t you think?

  8. I hadn’t heard of these until your review. I find fairy tales fascinating and will never forget both finding some of the original stories such as Cinderella and Snow White and what those stories actually were. I shared the information with my husband who hasn’t researched it but I’m pretty sure he still doesn’t believe me. Lol

  9. “Original” is a tricky word with fairy tales–at best we have “earliest known version”.

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