The Blue Fairy Book

The Blue Fairy Book (1891).

The Blue Fairy Book is probably the volume with the most traditional tales, with the singular exception of an adaptation of the first part of Gulliver’s Travels, which is not a fairy tale in any sense–not even a “literary” fairy tale, to wit, a fairy tale “made up from one’s own head.” Roger Greene ponders, “How Lang came to allow this last to be included is inexplicable, for it is quite alien to anything in any of the fairy books, which never again depart from the traditional tales” [1].

Frontispiece and title page.

But of particular interest to me was a tale curiously and deceptively titled “The Terrible Head.” It begins thus:

“ONCE upon a time there was a king whose only child was a girl. Now the King had been very anxious to have a son, or at least a grandson, to come after him, but he was told by a prophet whom he consulted that his own daughter’s son should kill him.”

Sound familiar? I confess I was ashamed at not immediately recognizing the tale. It continues:

“This news terrified him so much that he determined never to let his daughter be married, for he thought it was better to have no grandson at all than to be killed by his grandson. He therefore called his workmen together, and bade them dig a deep round hole in the earth, and then he had a prison of brass built in the hole, and then, when it was finished, he locked up his daughter.”

At this point I cottoned on, though I still felt thoroughly cozened by Mr. Lang. If you still have not identified the tale, this next excerpt should be illuminating:

“So the Princess would sit looking up at the sky, and watching the clouds float across, and wondering whether she should ever get out of her prison. Now one day it seemed to her that the sky opened above her, and a great shower of shining gold fell through the window in the roof, and lay glittering in her room. Not very long after, the Princess had a baby, a little boy, but when the King her father heard of it he was very angry and afraid, for now the child was born that should be his death. ”

What on earth was the Perseus myth doing in a Fairy Book? And why were the characters all nameless? Mr. Lang was being highly unsportsmanlike, to hoodwink his reader so. But how ingenious to disguise them as stock fairytale characters! This tale was another anomaly. For nowhere else in the Fairy Books does Lang allow a Greek myth to be included; he reserves them for a separate, subsequent publication, Tales of Troy and Greece. Anyone acquainted with myths and Märchen would instinctively distinguish the two, and so they should, and so did Lang.

Athena and Hermes loom over Perseus. Yes, the illustrations give the game away.

Lang the folklorist/anthropologist discerned three hierarchal categories of “traditional fictions”: (1) “popular tales of the lower and more backward races” [2]; (2) “märchen, or contes, or household tales of the modern European, Asiatic and Indian peasantry” [3]; and (3) “in epic poetry and legend the heroic and romantic tales of the great civilised races” [4]. These might loosely be called the folktales of non-“Aryan,” to wit, non-Indo-European, races; the fairy and folk tales of the “Aryan” races; and mythology (of the “Aryan” races).

The entire Fairy Book collection comprises, in the main, tales of types 1 and 2, and type 2 predominates in the Blue Fairy Book. Though Lang perceived that in all three classes “the ideas and incidents are analogous, and the very conduct of the plot is sometimes recognisably the same” and that the “moral ideas…are often identical” [5], to his mind there was a greater divide between types 2 and 3 than between 1 and 2:

“THE Märchen, or child’s story, is a form of literature primevally old, but with the infinite capacity of renewing its youth…the most ancient form of romantic fiction. The civilised peoples have elaborated these child-like legends into chief romantic myths, as of the Ship Argo, and the sagas of Heracles and Odysseus. Uncivilised races, Ojibbeways, Eskimo, Samoans, retain the old wives’ fables in a form far less cultivated,–probably far nearer the originals. European peasants keep them in shapes more akin to the savage than to the Greek forms” [6].

We may forgive Mr. Lang, writing over a century ago, for his political-incorrectness. By “savage” he meant more or less stone-wielding, totemist hunter-gatherers [7].

Perseus about to snatch the eyeball from the Graeae.

Evidently myths–the Greek myths at any rate–were not sufficiently “savage” for the Fairy Books, though they did retain “savage” elements. The Perseus saga, however, out of all the Greek sagas, contains the most folktale motifs [8], which Lang surely noticed. These include the hero’s magical conception by a princess; his humble upbringing; the iniquitous king and his good brother; the boastful promise, which the hero fulfills with the aid of supernatural helpers and magical objects; old women whose advice must be sought; monsters “of ferocious ugliness” to be quelled; the quest, and the endless travelling it entails, especially journeying to the edge of the world or far West; success of the hero; punishment of the villain; rescue of a damsel in distress; and finally, marriage to said damsel, a princess–your obligatory fairy tale ending [9]. Perseus is also to be distinguished from other Greek heroes, who are not given magical trinkets.

The presence of such features in the tales of a “civilised” people puzzled Lang, and his puzzling led him to conclude that their “presence in civilisation is a relic surviving from the time when the ancestors of a civilised race were in the state of savagery” [10]. The myth was the apogee of the “traditional romance,” which passed through the states of types 1 and 2, and its “final treatment, the ultimate literary form of the myth” varied with race [11]. He believed that primitive peoples produced similar, near identical stories primarily by virtue of being in the same state of “savage intellectual condition” [12] and that these tales became to an extent individualized as these peoples saw the light of civilization, which, via localization, necessarily increased the individualization of their respective cultures. Therefore, “when we read Homer…we recognise the effect of race upon myth, the effect of the Greek genius at work on rude material” [13], that is, the rude material common to “savages.”

The Hesperides.

One of the effects, or cause of these effects, is the use of celebrated names. Lang observed that in his type 1 tales “The persons are sometimes anonymous, sometimes are named while the name is not celebrated” [14], while in the type 2 tales people and places were anonymous [15]. The myths of type 3 on the other hand were localized and told of “national heroes, such as Perseus, Jason, Oedipus and Olympian gods,” all too historical, albeit quasi-historical, to be deemed mere folk tales [16]. Names, therefore, were “later additions” in the evolution of the traditional tale and “[varied] in various lands” [17]: “We may be pretty sure that the adventures of Jason, Perseus, and Oedipus, were originally told only of ‘Somebody'” [18]. He held this view in vehement opposition to that of Max Müller’s, who speculated that names were original features of myths that became corrupted by a “disease of language,” and the overthrow of whose philological interpretation of myths was Lang’s “greatest feat” in the domain of anthropology [19].

So Lang cleverly “recasts it in the form of an ordinary folk-tale by the suppression of all personal and local names” [20]. Acrisius and Polydectes are “the King,” Danaë “the Princess,” Perseus “the Prince.” Apollo is “a young man like a king’s son,” Athena, periphrastically, “a tall and beautiful woman, whose blue eyes shone like stars,” and both are “taller than mortal men.” The Graeae, more transparently, are “the Three Grey Sisters,” the Hesperides “the Three Fairies of the Garden,” the Gorgons “the Dreadful Women” or “the Terrible Women,” and Medusa, wretch that she is, is referred to only by her “Terrible Head.” Most amusing is Lang’s renaming of the magical items: the Cap of Invisibility, the scimitar/sickle/sword (harpe), and the pair of winged sandals become the “Cap of Darkness,” the “Sword of Sharpness,” and the “Shoes of Swiftness,” all of which make a reprise in “The History of Jack the Giant-killer,” which appears later in the same book.

The Terrible Head, presumably on Athena's Aegis (her sheild).

I have been saying “Lang” because this is one of the few tales in the Fairy Books that the Editor himself retold. Here we glimpse Lang in his capacity as writer and classical scholar. He discloses in the preface that his version is adapted from Apollodorus (Library 2.4 [21]), Simonides (fragment quoted in On Literary Composition by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 543 ff.), and Pindar (Pythian Odes 12 [22]). Lang adds some imaginative descriptions, dialogue and character introspection. He has Danaë sing a ‘lullaby’ to Perseus as they drift across the main, which song is actually a translation of the fragment by Simonides.

Indeed, Lang was an accomplished classicist. He had a “life-long devotion to Homer” and studied classics at St. Andrews, where he did exceptionally well in Greek, and later earned a scholarship to undertake postgraduate studies at Balliol College, Oxford, followed by a fellowship at Merton College, which he held for seven years [23]. (It might interest some of you to know that when Lang came to Balliol, Robert Scott, the S of LSJ, was Master of the college.) Later in life he published three books on the Homeric Question, championing the unity of Homer, though these works, as is the way of scholarship, are now obsolete. His vast corpus includes also much-lauded prose translations of both Homeric epics, although these are probably moribund too, if not already obsolete.

I shall end with a note on costuming. In his depiction of the Hesperides, Lang arrays them in green, white, and red. Whilst one of their names, Erytheia, means “the red one,” the other names of Hesperides do not as far as I can tell denote colours. Nor have I been able to find any evidence that attests to the colour scheme of their raiment. The only representation of the Hesperides I’ve been able to find that accords with Lang’s sartorial taste is Lord Frederic Leighton’s The Garden of the Hesperides. Interestingly, the painting is said to have been done circa 1892, only one year after the publication of the Blue Fairy Book.

The Garden of the Hesperides (c. 1892) by Lord Frederic Leighton.

All book photos courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries.

1. p. 81: Green, Roger L. Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography with a Short-Title Bibliography of the Works of Andrew Lang. Leicester, Eng: E. Ward, 1946.
2. p. 302: Lang, Andrew. Myth, Ritual and Religion, V.2. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1899.
3. p. 303, Ibid.
4. p. 304, Ibid.
5. p. 305, Ibid.
6. p. v-vi, in an Introduction to: Eeden, Frederik . Little Johannes. London: W. Heinemann, 1895. You can view it online here.
7. p. 34: Lang, Andrew. Myth, Ritual and Religion, V.1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1906.
8. p. 558: Morford, Mark P. O, and Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
9. p. 558, Ibid.
10. Lang, Andrew. Custom and Myth. [e-book]. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1884. Available at:
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. p. 303, Myth, Ritual and Religion, V.2.
15. p. 304, Ibid.
16. p. 304, Ibid.
17. Custom and Myth.
18. Ibid.
20. p. 82, Greene.
21. The Greek and English can be found in the Perseus Digital Library.
22. The Greek and English can be found in the Perseus Digital Library. Unfortunately, it does not have anything by Simonides.
23. p. 245-6, 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.
24. The Garden of the Hesperides by Lord Frederic Leighton, taken from

1 Comment

Filed under Mufei Jiang

One response to “The Blue Fairy Book

  1. Annie

    I’ve recently read The Percy Jackson and The Olympians series by Rick Riordan, and while I read this post I recognized many connections the books had with Greek mythology. I enjoyed reading this post!

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