The Red Book of Lang



Edited by Andrew Lang (1890) ISBN-13: 978-0-486-21673-7 / ISBN-10: 0-486-21673-X

Fairy tales are fashionable again. I’m not saying they were ever unpopular. Children never do quite become suspicious of fairy tales the way adults do from time to time and era to era. Personally, I think we can trace the start the march of the fairy tale fashion of the early twenty-teens to Fables by Bill Willingham. If you haven’t read Fables, it is a comic about fairy tale characters stranded in modern New York. If the theme sounds vaguely familiar that’s because the series was so successful there were all sorts of plans to turn it into a film or television series, but then some bright exec somewhere (evidently) realised that all the characters were public domain. Why not write their own series that is sort of similar but not too similar and therefore, QED: no need to pay any royalties? Thus, fairy tale characters have suddenly suffused our TV screens and fairy tales have returned to the public consciousness again.

The Brothers Grimm have been pillaged more or less to the thin end of their pages now, but one of the other great troves of Fairy Tales, the Lang coloured fairy books, have been left much less fingered and picked-over by modern retellers and reshapers. The Red Fairy Tale book is the first in the series. A copy was owned by J.R.R. Tolkien as a child, and the name The Red Book of Westmarch is probably a bit of a homage to it. Reading The Red Fairy Tale Book is an interesting exercise for anyone who has enjoyed some of that stuff the Professor wrote – there are scatterings and hints of influences all through it – but it is also enjoyable for its own sake, and chiefly, it should be read for its own sake. The stories in the book were edited, but not written, by Andrew Lang, although some appear to be his translations from French stories (Lang wasn’t always super-amazing at crediting sources or authors). All of the stories in The Red Fairy Tale Book, as near as I can tell, fall into the category of what I would call a proper fairy tale, although I am a fairy tale purist so you don’t need to pay any attention to my definition. If you do care: I call it a fairy tale only if it has been drawn from oral tradition. That rules out everything by Hans Christian Anderson, and it rules out Pinnochio, and it rules out the Baum Oz stories. That the lattermost are sometimes referred to as ‘fairy tales’ strikes me as displaying a sort of lazy disregard for the history of stories that baffles the mind. It would be like calling Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn a fairy tale, or the Lord Dunsay stories, or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. They have fairy tale motifs, certainly, and sometimes follow fairy tale rules, but they are stories authored by individuals. A fairy tale has been authored by a hundred or a hundred thousand parents and grandparents sitting beside the fireside with their children, chipped away at, polished, sculpted and refined over generations. Fairy tales are the product of humanity. A book is the product of a human being. There is a vast gulf of difference.

The Red Fairy Book contains a number of stories that are thematic variations on stories you will already know. Sometimes these chimera stories can be oddly disconcerting. A story may seem to start like Cinderella and then turn into Sleeping Beauty only to end like something you’ve never quite encountered before. Some fairy tales are made up of story pieces, like mosaics, and it often turns out the mosaic we know best is just one of the possible ways in which the little pieces of turquoise and gilt leaf and jasper might be arranged. It is not the only and perhaps not even the best arrangement. A walk through one of Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books is especially like a walk through the mosaic-city of Ravenna because Lang had no particular interest in avoiding treading on his own toes. There are a couple stories in the book that are the same broadly speaking ‘story’ retold with different pieces inserted. There are also a few hidden gems. I was startled, when re-reading this book for this review to realise that The Norka is an independently recorded fairy tale version of Beowulf. I’d just never noticed it before. However, I was shortly disabused of feeling extremely clever with myself by the internet, which promptly informed me that other people have already noticed this, and actually fairy tale versions of Beowulf are scattered all over Europe all the way out to Russia. You see what you miss out on if you don’t pay attention to fairy tales? One of the earliest and greatest works recorded in what would one day become the language of Shakespeare is but one version of a whole myriad of related, blood-kin stories. You can’t really appreciate the context of Beowulf until you’ve read The Norka and all the other related tales. So go read some fairy tales. You may be surprised at what you find.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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