Tales for everyone

Victorian Fairy Tales - Michael Newton

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I didn’t like most tales in the first half. Each one was a slow read and often didactic.

William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring was a farce and it had all the required archetypes: a couple of usurper kings, a poor misplaced prince, a good princesses, a spoiled princess, a fairy godmother, a nasty crone, plus a couple of magical artefacts. The good characters encounter a slew of problems on their way to happy ending. The bad are duly punished for their wickedness. The author wrote a comedy, and he almost succeeded, although for me, it seemed amusing rather than funny.

Why didn’t I like this tale? Because the heroes don’t bring on their own happiness, don’t overcome obstacles by themselves. The fairy godmother directs their actions and helps them every step of the way, as long as they obey her directives. She also punishes the bad guys, and nobody reaches his own victory without her interference. Not a blueprint I would like my children to follow.

The same moral lesson springs up in several other tales. If you are good, if you endure your trials, a fairy godmother (or a variation thereof) might help you. In one of the saddest tales in the book, The Little Lame Prince and his Traveling Cloak by Dinah Mulock Craik, the hero is a crippled boy. Both his legs are paralyzed from birth. His fairy godmother says it straight: “I can’t fix your problem but I can help you endure it.” So he endures, until his fortunes change for the better, without his efforts, I might add.

I dislike this moral. It implies passivity, which doesn’t sit well with me, or with most readers of today, I’m sure.

Fortunately, the second half of the book had a better appeal. A few tales were outright funny, and in each one, the heroes acted. One of my favorites was Prince Prigio by Andrew Lang. In this story, the hero, Prince Prigio, has a serious flaw: he is too clever. That’s why nobody likes him, even though he doesn’t care. He is too clever for them all. It’s not his fault—it was a fairy’s gift—but a bunch of problems unfolds out of his super-cleverness, and the solving of them makes up this tale.

If you are clever, you will find it best not to let people know it—if you want them to like you.

That sentiment of Andrew Lang still holds true. He must’ve written the story based on his personal experience.

Another favorite of mine was The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame. It was a hoot. I giggled a lot and generally enjoyed this tale more than any other in the compilation. Its humor feels almost modern: a lazy dragon, partial to poetry but unwilling to fight, meets St. George, whose goal in life and legend is to slay dragons. A buffoonery ensues.

Overall, the entire collection is interesting from the historical point of view, even if its merit as reading material in the 21st century is shaky. Like the best stories of ages gone, these tales and the others like them reflected their times and paved the way for modern literature, especially the fantasy genre.

 

The original illustrations included in this book are gorgeous, and the cover, based on Walter Crane’s design, is simple and elegant.