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 …

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