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The Witches’ Secrets

Andrew Lang’s Color Fairy Tale Books: The Blue Fairy Book; The Red Fairy Book; The Green Fairy Book; The Yellow Fairy Book; The Pink Fairy Book; The Grey Fairy Book; The Violet Fairy Book; The Crimson Fairy Book; and The Brown Fairy Book

edited by Andrew Lang
Dover, $1.50 each (paperback) (paper)

The colors are without significance: no blue stories, no red propaganda here, nothing but folktales and quasi-folktales adapted for the children’s book market, and first published by Longman between 1889 (Blue) and 1904 (Brown). There are three more; Orange, Olive, and Lilac (1910), which I presume Dover will also publish in this technically admirable series of photographic reprints of the first editions. Each volume contains thirty to forty stories in about 360 pages, and each has about a hundred plates and illustrations, nearly all by H. J. Ford, in a slightly vulgar but dashing pre-Raphaelite style—altogether very good value.

The jackets say that the stories are “all narrated in the clear, lively prose for which Lang was famous,” but that’s not quite right. The stories are indeed put into decent English, such as Lang could write, but with a few exceptions they were not adapted by Lang, as he makes clear in his Prefaces: He writes in Violet: the editor “is accustomed to being asked, by the ladies, ‘Have you ever written anything else except the Fairy Books?’ He is then obliged to explain that he has not written the Fairy Books, but, save these, has written almost everything else, except hymns, sermons, and dramatic works.” In Blue Lang made the experiment of retelling the story of Perseus (“from Apollodorus, Simonides and Pindar”) as a folktale; this was not a great success, and thereafter he left nearly all the actual writing to others, confining himself to choosing the stories, adding short prefaces, and presumably supervising the style, to very good effect. He was fortunate in having at his disposal a team of learned ladies, headed by his wife. She was the daughter of a school-master called C. T. Alleyne, and the Misses Thyra and Alma Alleyne also took a hand, as did Lang’s cousins the Misses May and Eleanor Sellar, daughters of an Edinburgh professor of classics; other Scottish blue-stockings were coaxed into the team by Lang’s great personal charm. W. A. Craigie, a distinguished philologist, did some of the Scandinavian versions, but toward the end it was left mostly to Mrs. Lang to soldier on in this highly profitable business. Longman had been nervous about launching the first volume, since fairy tales were out of fashion in the Eighties, but he and Lang eventually made a good deal of money out of the series, which remained in print long after Lang’s death in 1912. After the first two books there are no acknowledgments of copyright: as far as I can see the stories were lifted without expense from recent French, German, and other foreign collections, thus keeping down the costs.

Nor did Lang spend very much time on editorial work. The indication of the stories’ sources is perfunctory and careless, and there is no apparent plan in the sequence of the stories. Lang simply could not have afforded the time to put his selections in order: it is perfectly true that he wrote everything except hymns, sermons, and plays, and he was writing flat out during his long career. His bibliography is enormous, whether as minor poet, classical scholar, folklorist, historian, psychical researcher, or literary critic: he published on average three books a year, not including introductions and prefaces and a vast amount of book reviewing. His talent was great, his energy unlimited, yet almost everything he did was faded, facetious, or dilettante. His once greatly admired translation of Homer, which he shared with Leaf and Myers, is still impressive for his skillful use of archaisms but no longer readable: “Sleep, wherefore dost thou consider these things in thy heart? dost thou deem that Zeus of the far-borne voice will succour the Trojans even as he was wroth for the sake of Herakles, his own child? Nay come, and I will give thee one of the younger of the Graces to wed….” Nay come.

EVERYTHING HE DID ended in comparative failure—except his work on folklore and folktale. In this difficult and neglected field Lang was one of the pioneer scholars, and he left a permanent mark. His strength lay neither in collecting the sources, nor in annotating them with parallels (he did not compete with pains-taking Germans like Benfey or Bolte), but in stating a valid theoretical position with force and clarity. He was the founder of the “anthropological” school, who saw in the folktales survivals of primitive beliefs and practices, such as cannibalism and totemism. If this does not seem such a striking position to those who have lived all their lives under the shade of the Golden Bough, it was highly original in 1873, when his essay “Mythology and Fairy Tales” came out in the Fortnightly Review, and even in 1887, the date of his full-length study Myth, Ritual and Religion. Some of his work is too polemical to be read with pleasure, but his polemic had great value at the time, since he cleared away the prestigious but ludicrous theories of Max Müller, who saw the tales as the detritus of ancient Aryan mythology. The summary of Lang’s position in his Introduction to Cox’s study of Cinderella is still acceptable, with a few modifications, today.

I also reached the conclusion that, when similar incidents and plot occurred in a Greek heroic myth (say the Argonautic Legend or the Odyssey) and in popular tales current in Finland, Samoa, Zululand, the tales are not the detritus of the heroic myth, but the epic legend, as of Jason or Odysseus, is an artistic and literary modification of the more ancient tales. The characters of the tale are usually anonymous, and the places are vague and nameless. The characters of the epic are named, they are national heroes; the events are localized; they occur in Greece, Colchis, and so forth. So I concluded that the donnée was ancient and popular, the epic was comparatively recent and artistic. Next I observed that the tales generally contained, while the epics usually discarded, many barbaric incidents, such as cannibalism, magic, talking animals. Further, I perceived that the tales varied in “culture” with the civilisation of the people who told them. Among savages, say Bushmen, or in a higher grade Zulus, the characters were far more frequently animals than in European märchen…. The same peculiarity marks savage religious myths. The gods are beasts or birds. These facts led me to suppose that the tales were very ancient, and had been handed down, with a gradual refining, from ages of savagery to ages of civilisation. But the peasant class which retains the tales has been so conservative and unaltered, that many of the wilder features of the original tale (discarded in early artistic and national epic) linger on in Märchen.

That is not only very well written but still very good sense. Lang had an outstanding theoretical grasp of the material he used in the Fairy Books, as well as an instinctive feeling for the peasant tales, gained from listening to them in his Scottish childhood.

NOT THAT THE EARLY Fairy Books are purist in their range of stories. Blue contains, besides a few genuine Norwegian and British folktales, an assortment of literary tales, some with a very tenuous connection with oral tradition. The Grimm and Perrault versions are rewritings of the tradition in classic prose; but the French eighteenth-century contes from Mme. d’Aulnoy and the Cabinet des fées are rather tedious fantasies on the theme of the fairy godmother, written probably to entertain the spoiled and ignorant children of the nobility. What Blue does contain is almost the whole range of the Christmas “pantomime,” that flower of English popular culture which Americans have found hardest to understand. Little Red Riding-Hood, Dick Whittington, Aladdin (from the Arabian Nights), and others that gave the plots for these innocent transvestite musicals (the Principal Boy is a girl and the male comic a Dame) are all here, probably for commercial reasons; there is even a bowdlerized version of Gulliver. But thereafter the series becomes more strictly folkloric, though Mme. d’Aulnoy, Hans Andersen, and a few contemporary writers keep appearing as late as Pink. From Yellow onward there is a splendid choice of Slavic, Hungarian, Sicilian, and other European peasant stories from reliable collections, and later Lang included Japanese, East Indian, and even anthropological material from North America. His Prefaces show that he was nervous about the comments of his learned colleagues, and this may explain the shift in range, but the more primitive stories were very much to his personal taste, and he succeeded in educating his public into accepting them.

From a purely literary point of view the least literary stories are the best. They have the strongest and most poignant imagery, and the most striking dreamlike fantasy. At their purest the tales, with their intricate formal structure, offer a marvelous verbal ballet, and it is not surprising that many of them have been adapted for dancing, like Stravinsky’s Firebird. (I haven’t found his original here, but there is another fine Russian story about Kaschei the Deathless in Red.) The Firebird, with its luminous blocks of gaiety and sadness, is still the finest imaginative commentary on the folktale. Lang’s more anthropological stories are spoiled by over-adaptation, but the versions of the East European stories admirably keep the spirit of the original, as far as I can judge from other translations.

The Hungarian and Russian stories are the most moving, because they express the gayest despair about a world in which everything goes wrong. Of course, the motifs and tale-types they use are found in all European stories, and in all fairy tales things have to go badly wrong for the youngest son before they finally go right; but in the East European way of telling things appear to be terribly wrong all the time, even the endings seem to promise danger. You could even have predicted the political future from these stories: the Scandinavian ones have the most solid terrors but everything seems to revert to coziness, the trolls turned safely to stone. All folktales express to some degree the hopelessness of the peasantry, for whom the only compensation for back-breaking poverty was to dream of princesses on glass mountains. But a Hungarian story in Crimson presents the philosophical basis most sharply: the important character is a man called Lucky Luck. He’s really the only one that matters, God and His saints rarely put in an appearance, morals don’t count for much (though you should always be kind to animals, they may be able to help you). Ask Lucky Luck just three questions, if you can find him, and all will be well—if not, not.

THE FOLKTALE is still curiously resistant to interpretation. The Freudians have of course fired many shots at it, but they have left it almost as undented as a magic shield. There are obviously a good many male and female symbols scattered throughout the stories, and many of them present dream situations: husbands and wives return from the dead, children overcome the hostility of wicked siblings and so on. But to translate the stories into other stories about castrating fathers and voyages to the womb doesn’t seem to help much toward understanding them; though it has been of great service to the building of psychoanalytical myths. Lang’s own “anthropological” approach is perfectly sound in assuming that the stories contain memories of very primitive society, but he leaves untouched the problems of structure and style. As far as I know modern functional anthropologists have not been able to say much about the social origins or uses of folktale proper, as distinct from sacred myths and legends, which can be analyzed in relationship to the societies in which they are told. Malinowski says that the Trobrianders told Märchen just for entertainment, though they are thought vaguely to be good for the crops.

The academic study of folktales since Lang’s time has become sophisticated, but mainly in one direction. An enormous effort has been made to classify the molecules of folktale, the Tale-types or Aarne-Thompson Märchentypen, and also the atoms or motifs from which these tale-types are built—the basis was laid in Stith Thompson’s monumental Motif Index, which appeared some thirty years ago. The well-established fact that motifs and tales from all over the world do fall into a relatively small number of distinct patterns is challenging but still baffling. No conclusions about the psychic unity of mankind or even about the way that stories have been diffused can yet be drawn. The other main line of enquiry has been Aarne’s “historical-geographical” method: by minute analysis of national and regional variants and of dates scholars have tried to establish the probable time and place at which a given tale-type came into being. The trouble here is that the material to be analyzed has become so vast: for example, the Irish Folklore Commission collected a million pages of folktale in twenty years. (Lang, by the way, with typical Scottish Protestant prejudice, fails to include a single one of the singularly beautiful and archaic Irish tales.) No human being in a lifetime can be expected to analyze even the thousands of recorded versions of Märchentypus 300 (e.g., the Perseus myth in Blue and the Estonian story in Yellow). I suppose that in a few years the computers will do the work of analysis, just as semi-automatic methods are now used for counting stars, leaving the scholars time to draw interesting conclusions and formulate laws of development. But Thompson, who is still the greatest authority, had in The Folktale (1951) little to offer by way of general theory, though his detailed accounts of the grouping of motifs and tales and of their transmission is fascinating. Wesselski, the profoundest scholar of all, after heaping up a magic mountain of highly original and accurate annotation, produced a tiny mouse of theory. There is some ironic satisfaction to be drawn from the current “state of the art.” It may be that these obscure and defeated people, neolithic farmers, ancient Egyptian fellahin, or Balkan peasantry, have taken their revenge on posterity, which has learned the witch’s secrets and become rich. They created an art form which is perfectly beautiful, perfectly useless, and impossibly difficult to discuss; and have set the scholars Psyche’s task (e.g., Crimson, “Tritill, Litill, and the Birds”) of sorting out a billion grains of wheat and millet. But the stories are also Lucky Luck’s gift to humanity: they are immediately comprehensible to children and to anyone else who cares to listen, and within their limits perfectly satisfying. Nor, happily, do they form any necessary part of a liberal education in the arts or sciences. The stories in Lang’s Fairy Books are nothings from a useless past; but as it is written at the end of “King Lindorm” in Pink, “there are some who say that if they are not dead now they are still living to this day.”

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