Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books

I can usually say how I came across any book I’ve ever read, and roughly when, too. But I can’t for the life of me recall how I stumbled upon–and I’m sure I stumbled upon them–Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, often called the Colour(ed) Fairy Books, and sometimes the Rainbow Fairy Books (which is something of a misnomer because Grey is not a colour of the iridescent spectrum). And I can remember only very roughly when–sometime in the last quinquennium. Which is all rather queer; it almost makes me think some subtle fairy has spirited away my memory, and with the result that it’s as if I’ve never not known the Fairy Books. Whether or not it’s on account of my feeble powers of recollection, I regard Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books as the repository of Märchen (folk and fairy tales) that isn’t an encyclopedia of some sort. To my mind, Lang is the British analog of Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Asbjørnsen and Moe, and Anderson (despite the fact that he reputedly made his stories up), though he is more accurately all of them, and more, combined.

First Editions of the Blue (1889), Red (1890), Green (1892), Yellow (1894), Pink (1897), Grey (1900), Violet (1901), Crimson (1903), Brown (1904), Orange (1906), Olive (1907), and Lilac (1910) Fairy Books.

Which is why the irreverent idea of the Osborne not having these books never entered my mind. And indeed, all the first editions were there, all of them beautifully clothbound with gilt pictorial covers and gilt page edges, and all of them surprisingly heavy owing to the density of paper. On the whole, they reminded me of books by Easton Press, which also happens to have published a leather-bound version of the series.

Gold gilt edges, which my camera just doesn't do justice.

Lang’s collection comprises a prodigious twelve books which constitute less than 10% of his voluminous output (not including his uncollected works, which, it has been reckoned, “would fill more than that number of volumes over again” [1]. It is strikingly multicultural, for lack of a better word, which is “In keeping with his concept of making manifest the universality of the human experience” [2]:…all people, black, white, brown, red, and yellow, are like each other when they tell stories” (vii, Brown Fairy Book). With nearly three hundred stories all told, the series includes retellings of tales French, Scottish, Scandinavian, American Indian, Japanese, African, Hungarian, Indian, Italian, Brazilian, Iberian, Australian, and more than I’d like to list; Lang generally ventured farther afield as he progressed through the series [3]. (I do not mean this literally. He did not, like the Brothers Grimm, go afoot among the peasants to record these stories; the tales he gathered already existed in print.)

While preparing the Blue Fairy Book, he never intended it to be the first of a series of books; certainly he never expected to publish twelve (which you can tell by the erratic mix of colours, which, apart from the aberration of Orange, become progressively more tertiary). The book “was an experiment, and of a kind that must have caused a certain amount of anxiety to Longman, the publisher…For at that time the fairy-tale had almost ceased to be read in British nurseries, and the novel of child life, the stories of Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and L. T. Meade, were the only fare” [4]. Only two years later, public taste was again in favour of fairy tale. The enormous popularity of the first book prompted the Red Fairy Book; and in the Green Fairy Book, Lang writes:

“This is the third, and probably the last, of the Fairy Books…If we have a book for you next year, it shall not be a fairy book.” (ix-xi)

After that, he seems to have given himself over to the clamouring children, as he never again in any preface anticipates the end of his series.

Funnily enough, hardly any of these tales were retold by Lang himself; he was merely the Editor, whose name was also a “draw” because of his reputation as an established literary critic, folklorist, anthropologist, and promising writer for children [5]. And though he styles himself “Editor” in the preface to the first Fairy Book, since The Rule is that prefaces are to be passed over, he was often mistaken for the author. He endeavours to set the facts aright in the preface to the seventh volume, the Violet Fairy Book:

“The Editor takes this opportunity to repeat what he has often said before, that he is not the author of the stories in the Fairy Books; that he did not invent them ‘out of his own head.’ He is accustomed to being asked, by ladies, ‘Have you 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.” (vii)

And again in the following Crimson Fairy Book:

“Each Fairy Book demands a preface from the Editor, and these introductions are inevitably both monotonous and unavailing. A sense of literary honesty compels the Editor to keep repeating that he is the Editor, and not the author of the Fairy Tales, just as a distinguished man of science is only the Editor, not the Author of Nature. The Editor’s business is to hunt for collections of these stories told by peasant or savage grandmothers in many climes…When the tales are found they are adapted to the needs of British children by various hands, the Editor doing little beyond guarding the interests of propriety, and toning down to mild reports the tortures inflicted on wicked stepmothers, and other naughty characters.
“These explanations have frequently been offered already, but, as far as ladies and children are concerned, to no purpose. They still ask the Editor how he can invent so many stories–more than Shakespeare, Dumas, and Charles Dickens could have invented in a century.
“But children remain unaware of the facts [that nobody knows who invented folktales], and so do their dear mothers; whence the Editor infers that they do not read his prefaces, and are not members of the Folk-Lore Society, or students of…Though these explanations are not attended to by the Editor’s customers, he makes them once more, for the relief of his conscience.” (v-vi)

Two books later:

“The children who read fairy books, or have fairy books read to them, do not read prefaces, and the parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who give fairy books to their daughters, nieces, and cousines, leave prefaces unread. For whom, then, are prefaces written? When an author publishes a book ‘out of his own head,’ he writes the preface for his own pleasure…
“These Fairy Books, however, are not written by the Editor, as he has often explained, ‘out of his own head.'” (v, Orange Fairy Book)

This case of mistaken authorship evidently persisted relentlessly seeing as Lang felt the need even after twenty-one years of the series’ circulation to redress the matter in the preface to his final volume, the Lilac Fairy Book, which begins with a complaint about menacing ladies at dinner parties:

“…One nymph [at a dinner party] who, like the rest, could not keep off the horrid topic of my occupation, said ‘You never write anything but fairy books, do you?’ A French gentleman, too, an educationist and expert in portraits of Queen Mary, once sent me a newspaper article in which he had written that I was exclusively devoted to the composition of fairy books, and nothing else. He then came to England, visited me, and found that I knew rather more about portraits of Queen Mary than he did…
“In truth, I never did write any fairy books in my life, except ‘Prince Prigio,’ ‘Prince Ricardo,’ and ‘Tales from a Fairy Court’…
“My part has been that of Adam, according to Mark Twain, in the Garden of Eden. Eve worked, Adam superintended. I also superintend. I find out where the stories are, and advise, and, in short, superintend. I do not write the stories out of my own head. The reputation of having written all the fairy books (an European reputation in nurseries and the United States of America) is ‘the burden of an honour unto which I was not born.’ It weighs upon and is killing me….” (v-vii)

“Eve” is his wife of course, Mrs Lang, who translated and/or adapted most of the tales. A host of other women translators for the more exotic languages contributed, too. Mrs. Lang’s primary concern was “to control the vocabulary and sentence structure so that a child of average reading ability might read the stories. As a result, the words rarely exceed two syllables but the sentences are longer and contain more clauses than is usual in modern writing. Lang himself was concerned only with the complexity of the concept; he had little empathy with a nonreading child” [6]. In other words, they did not patronize their juvenile readers with stories sanitized ad absurdum. Good and justice prevail and gruesomeness is avoided, but a goodly degree of cruelty and tragedy is still permitted: one couple incurs their own deaths [7]; one heroine cuts off her own finger in order to find her prince [8]; another prince jumps off a tower and (though impossibly he survives) suffers blindness by brambles [9]; a villain is punished by being rolled to death in a barrel lined with sharp nails [10].

It has been said that “The irony of Lang’s life and work is that although he wrote for a profession–literary criticism; fiction; poems; books and articles on anthropology, mythology, history, and travel; original stories for children…he is best recognized for the books he did not write”[11]. And yet I could probably count singlehandedly the number of my friends who know of the Fairy Books or Andrew Lang, who was once hailed as “the undisputed king of the nursery shelf” [12].

On that account, I hope to feature each of the Fairy Books in a future post.

All images courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries.

1. p.247, from “Andrew Lang in fairyland” by Roger Lancelyn Green. Egoff, Sheila A, G T. Stubbs, and L F. Ashley. Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980.
2. p.139: Langstaff, Eleanor D. S. Andrew Lang. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
3. p.139, Ibid.
4. p.82: Green, Roger L. Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography with a Short-Title Bibliography of the Works of Andrew Lang. Leicester, Eng: E. Ward, 1946.
5. p.81, Ibid.
6. p.144, Langstaff.
7. p.50 in “The Yellow Dwarf,” Blue Fairy Book. London; New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889.
8. p.114, in “The Enchanted Pig,” Red Fairy Book. London; New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1890.
9. p.284, in “Rapunzel,” Red Fairy Book. London; New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1890.
10. p.273, in “The Goose-Girl,” Blue Fairy Book. London; New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889.
11. p.387: Silvey, Anita. Children’s Books and Their Creators. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
12. Still looking–can’t remember where I read this…



Filed under Mufei Jiang

6 responses to “Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books

  1. Entertaining and extensive coverage of books i did not know and am delighted to find out about, written with wit and scholarship.

  2. Rex Harrison

    Excellent review. Very informative. I was looking for some background on these books since I was thinking of buying some from The Folio Society which has the following titles available in the series: Blue, Crimson, Pink, Green, Red, Yellow, Violet and Brown, all beautifully bound editions. They’re not using the original cover designs, though. Not sure if they plan on re-issuing all twelve editions, Go to to check them out.

    • Thank you! Yes, I’ve seen the Folio Society editions, very pretty, though I generally prefer Easton Press (leather doesn’t soil as easily as cloth), which has also printed all the Fairy Books. I’m told, however, that the quality of leather and paper in these don’t hold up to the old Easton Press standard. Here’s a link if you haven’t already come across them:
      Unfortunately they seem to be sold out. You could try AbeBooks…they tend to get pricey though. Happy book-shopping!

  3. Pingback: Bibliophilia | Decorating for Life

  4. Thanks for finally writing about >Andrew Langs Fairy Books | Once On A Tyme <Liked it!

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