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 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.