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The Yellow Fairy Book: Some Thoughts

The Yellow Fairy Book (1894).

Every Fairy Book thus fair has included at least a few familiar favourites, and the Yellow Fairy Book, not to be left out of the loop, includes “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “How to Tell a True Princess” (an ironic retelling of “The Princess and the Pea”), “The Nightingale”, “Thumbelina”, “The Steadfast Tin-soldier”, and “The Tinder-box”, a fairy tale by Andersen which I’d actually never heard of but which bears a resemblance to the story of Aladdin. There are lesser-known tales from Mme d’Aulnoy, Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm, and other tales from Iceland, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Germany, France, and England. There are even a few (mostly depressing) stories from the Native Americans.

Frontispiece of "The Swineherd" and Title Page.

For this post, I decided to compile a few observations that I found intriguing, whether hilarious, quirky, or kind of disturbing. They are haphazard and in no particular order.

1. All stepmothers are bad. This is because it is biologically “unnatural” and counter to one’s basic instincts of self-interest to put children who don’t carry one’s own genes before children who do. “This propensity [to dispose of nonbiological children] is connected to a basic human drive to invest love, time, and energy in children that are biologically reproduced to carry on one’s species [i.e. one’s bloodline]” [1]. Perfectly natural, but highly immoral. The popularity of adoption today is a mark of how civilised humans have become. Indeed, “[f]airy tales are all about basic instincts and genetic evolution within a civilizing process” [2].

The childless stepmother turns her stepsons into swans.

Childless stepmothers, too (one hardly ever meets stepfathers, if indeed they exist [and if they do, I don’t think murdering stepkids would be their crime…]), are expected to be evil [3]. They desire to eliminate all competition for male parental investment in order to optimize the chance of perpetuating their own genes [4] (a phenomenon more commonly known as “jealousy”). Alas, stepmotherhood causes even apparently good women to go to the bad [5]–it is unescapable.

2. Princesses do not always live happily ever after. At least, not within certain tales. There is a certain type of fairy tale in which the princess scorns the prince who desires to marry her. Traditionally, the undaunted prince returns in lowly disguise to woo the lady, who is won over and marries him once his royal identity is revealed. In “The Swineherd”, however, the prince spurns the princess in the end, because she “would have nothing to do with a noble Prince; [she] did not understand the rose or the nightingale, but [she] could kiss the Swineherd [alias the selfsame Prince] for the sake of a toy”. The insipid girl has no appreciation for real roses or songbirds, but is willing to pay (i.e. prostitute herself) with kisses, and to a swineherd no less. He actually shuts the door in her face. Proud and inelegant princesses do get punished (though I don’t think she could have had a particle of pride left once that first kiss had been forfeited). But who can say she didn’t find her happy ending beyond this fairy tale?

3. Daughters of evil, oppressive witch mothers are not assumed to be inherently bad and may hope to win the sympathies and love of good men. This is because evil witch mothers treat their daughters abominably. Perhaps the witch beats her daughter to obey her, or has turned her into an African [6], or has had her confined. The evil witch mother, on the other hand, is to expect no sympathy from anyone–least of all her own daughter, who she has abused or transfigured or imprisoned.

The black girl, actually a white girl under enchantment, attacks her mother the witch.

For instance, the Hunter in “The Donkey Cabbage” revenges himself by turning a witch, her daughter, and their maid into donkeys which he entrusts to a farmer, enjoining him to deal the  old one “three beatings and no meal”, the youngest one “no beating and three meals”, and the middle one, the servant, “one beating and three meals”. Shortly afterwards the “old one” dies, and the other two become depressed. The compassionate Hunter restores them to their true forms, whereupon the daughter, ostensibly unmoved by her mother’s death, confesses that she’d only done her mother’s bidding under bodily threat and happily marries the man. In another tale, “The Three Brothers”, a daughter’s freedom is contingent upon her mother the witch’s demise–about which the former seems to have no qualms whatsoever.

The evil witch mother hovers over her daughter as she does her bidding (which is to make the Hunter disgorge a swallow's heart that gives him gold under his pillow every night).

4. The youngest of three brothers is invariably the hero of the fairy tale. If you are the third brother, a happy ending awaits you at the end of your tale–but not before you attend to many trials, which may or may not include getting blinded, your legs broken, and left for dead by your two backstabbing brothers who obviously never liked you very much. They will prove to feel threatened by your superior handsomeness and will want to snuff you out in order to succeed better at court themselves. But do not fret! Justice will be served, for you will set a pack of wolves on them or they will flee in terror from you, seemingly come back from the dead. You will have been healed and your invidious beauty restored, and that will carry you through [7], unless you have also been endowed with intelligence [8], in which case your wits will carry you the day.

Ferko is the third and youngest brother. His two treacherous brothers malign him.

If your brothers do not attempt to kill you, it will be because you are not worth it: you are a dunderhead. Banish the thought of affectionate brothers–there is no such thing, unless you are a sister. For if your brothers are not vicious would-be fratricides, they are arrogant, derisive churls. But their words shan’t hurt you because you are a shade too thick to comprehend. Nevertheless, your ignorance and innocence will win the day. Plus, if you are especially muttonheaded, you will have earned a colourful name for readers to remember you by, such as “Simpleton” [9], or “Blockhead-Hans”[10]. And if you are in actual fact not a dunderhead, but merely misperceived as one, well, you shall all the same proceed more or less as if you were.

Blockhead-Hans with mud, broken clog, crow carcass, and his noble steed. Is it just me or is his cap reminiscent of a dunce cap?

5. Heroes with supernatural assistants should take care that their helpers do not outshine them to the point of looking impotent. In “Prince Ring”, the eponymous prince has a massive, talking dog named Snati-Snati, no doubt magical in some way, who thoroughly outdoes his owner in every feat. When Ring and his rival go out to cut wood, Ring, with the help of his dog, presents a heap “more than twice as big” as his competitor’s. I think it’s clear whence the “more than” came. When Ring and his dog set out to slay two monstrous oxen, the former, at the latter’s counsel, takes on the smaller ox, while the latter falls on the bigger one: “With this Snati leapt at the big one, and was not long in bringing him down. Meanwhile the Prince went against the other with fear and trembling…”

Snati-Snati worrying big ox and Prince Ring being overpowered by little ox.

Later, when they need to top a sheer cliff, Snati climbs its face, pulling Ring up by his tail. His master, it would seem, has a fear of heights: “…he pulled Ring up the lowest shelf of the rock. The Prince began to get giddy, but up went Snati on to the second shelf. Ring was nearly swooning by this time, but Snati made a third effort and reach the topped of the cliff, where the Prince fell down in a faint.” The writers of this tale tried really hard, one can see, to ennoble this character. Finally, in their fight with a troll’s ghost, the roles of master and servant are reversed: “Snati immediately sprang upon him, and Ring assisted in the attack”.

A wonderful illustration of Prince Ring hanging by Snati's tail.

Now, heroes often have magical or animal helpers who aid them in their tasks by completing them in their stead. One might think this looks worse on the hero since he does nothing at all, but I say it is better, on the contrary. Where one does not lift a finger, there is no opportunity for one to look incompetent. But where one does take action, and only manages to take little, well! Not very impressive to the onlooker, is it?

Furthermore, if Snati were a genuine super-dog, I might hold off comparing Ring with him. But, as it turns out, Snati is actually a prince under enchantment, which Ring breaks. And Snati’s real name is Prince Ring as well! Gah!

6. Abducting a princess is the tried and true way of earning her loathing. Sometimes a male, normally a magic user, will fall so hopelessly in love with a princess that he will whisk her away on the spot. Confinement of the girl always follows, and plenty of rejection, for a girl cannot love him who is her captor. All she can do is repulse his advances and wait for her Prince Charming to deliver her. In the case of “The Wizard King,” the Wizard King, a widower, kidnaps a princess and tries to persuade her to marry him. She refuses, is sprung by the King’s son the Prince, whom she quickly weds. It was quite she lucky did, because otherwise she would have become a stepmother! And we all know stepmothers come to no good end.

A captive princess surrounded by her guards.

"I can only look on you as my worst enemy," said the Princess.

7. Exceedingly long facial hair can be surprisingly useful. But beware! If the option is available to you, always choose the lengthy moustache over the lengthy beard. The former may come in handy as leashes for your pet lions; the latter, however, is not useful to you, but your enemy, who will seize you by your ill-advised extent of beard and dash you to your doom, as vividly illustrated below.

One of my favourite illustrations in this book.

All observations were made based solely upon the Yellow Fairy Book. I am aware that material from other fairy/folk tales may and do qualify what I have said, but I do not address them here.

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

1. p. 131: Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. New York: Routledge, 2006.
2. p. 131, Ibid.
3. In “The Six Swans”. In this tale, the stepmother has no children of her own nor does she have a particularly evil bent. Her husband the king, however, “could not look at her without a secret feeling of horror” and conceals the fact of his children by ensconcing them in the woods. I cannot help but think that the king himself triggered he evilness of his second wife in not trusting her with even the knowledge of his children. He keeps sneaking off to visit his kids. The queen becomes jealous and suspicious, and when she finds out about them she turns them into swans. So it seems that no stepmother is safe from harming her stepchildren, and that vying even for the husband’s attention will incur her wrath.
4. p. 134-135, Zipes.
5. Such as the Queen of Hetland the Good from “Hermod and Hadvor”.
6. In “The Glass Axe”.
7. In “The Grateful Beasts”.
8. In “The Three Brothers”.
9. In “The Flying Ship”.
10. In “Blockhead-Hans”.


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The Green Fairy Book: Large Paper Edition

The Green Fairy Book Large Paper Edition (1892).

Not very green, is it? Perhaps a ‘subdued verdigris’ if you felt like being pretentious. Or a ‘pale jade’, which would still be optimistic if not false. No, I think ‘glaucous’ would be the most accurate word to describe the colour of the boards–the spine is irrefutably squalid white. Behold the so-called Large Paper Edition of the Green Fairy Book, published in the same year as the first edition. A large paper edition, as you might guess, is “One of a (usually small) number of copies printed on a larger size of paper than the main bulk of the edition; either for presentation, or for subscribers, or to be sold at a higher price” [1].

In my readings for my previous Fairy Book posts, I’d been alerted to the existence of these special, limited editions of the first few Fairy Books–the first four, to be exact. I was lucky enough to find this one at the Osborne. These editions are “expensive limited editions with larger format” and have “longer introductions by Lang” [2]. The latter feature was one of the reasons why I searched the Osborne catalogue for these editions, but the introduction of large paper Green Fairy Book is unfortunately identical to that of the standard edition.

According to The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, these editions were published with the idea that book collectors (of questionable taste) “would help defray the cost of the general edition. This device was never again thought necessary” [3]. Surely this implies, if it does not bear out, that the standard edition cost more to prepare than the special edition? It all seems very topsy-turvy to me. There seems to be little to justify the price, obviously higher than that of the standard edition, and even less to recommend it to the rational book collector (bibliomaniacs are another case). The edition in itself is disappointing in too many respects.

The Green Fairy Book, first edition (1892).

First there are the boards, which I have already briefly commented on with regard to colour. They are aesthetically humble if not homely. But if they are not handsome, they ought at least to be harmonious with respect to their title and/or contents. It is called the Green Fairy Book, for no obvious reason except that each Fairy Book is designated by the colour of its covers. How funny it is to have a Green Fairy Book that isn’t even green! Indeed, a quick search on AbeBooks reveals that the large paper editions of the Red, Blue, and Yellow Fairy Books were issued in the same uninspiring grey and white paste boards.

Paste boards and untrimmed edges.

Paste boards! That is, paper boards made from layers of paper and wrapped in paper, whereas the standard editions are clothbound, to say nothing of the pretty gilt pictorials (handsome and harmonious). Did the Editor or publisher perhaps think the limited edition unworthy of the dignity of cloth?

Frontispiece and title page in the large paper edition.

I had always considered special or limited editions of books to be unmistakably superior to their standard editions, but this copy seems to be superior only in size and thickness of paper. In ABC for Book Collectors, John Carter says of the large paper copy, “The paper will often be of superior quality; and, in the 18th century particularly, these were generally called fine or royal or imperial paper copies” [4]. Presumably, a large book is better than a small book because there is simply more book, more material. Indeed, for the ancient Egyptians, size mattered, since they weren’t as wasteful as we are. It was ‘the bigger, the better’ when it came to their papyrus, and the largest size was ‘Imperial,’ whereafter ‘Royal’ followed, and so forth. These names are retained in the traditional British inch-based paper size system according to which this large paper copy would be closest to a ‘royal octavo,’ royal denoting the full sheet size (20″x25″), and octavo the folding format (i.e. the full sheet was folded thrice to create 8 leaves, or 16 pages). A royal octavo is 6.25″x10″ or thereabouts.

Frontispiece and title page of the standard edition, with intervening China paper.

Besides that, there isn’t anything royal about the edition. In fact the size is rendered ridiculous because the page size is far too superior to the size of the text. Enlarged page size seems aimless and unjustified if unaccompanied by enlargement of page content, but this lack thereof is sadly characteristic of large paper copies. As Carter eloquently put it, “Extravagantly large paper makes an unsightly book, unless the type is reset to accord with the increased page-size; for the result is all too often a blob of type in an expanse of margin” [5].

Blobs of text in an expanse of margin.

Interestingly, “in the 18th century the classics were often issued in this form” [6]. But as to the origin of this custom, now happily discarded, I’m actually not sure. English printer and engraver Sir Emery Walker conjectured “that the custom ‘may have originated in consequence of a former habit of binders to cut the margins off when rebinding a book'” [7].

Apart from an early claim to rarity, and better paper (though the paper in the normal edition is not absolutely inferior; I found it surprisingly stout), the only other possible virtue of the large paper edition itself is its unopened edges. According to Carter, “This means that the leaves of a book issued entirely untrimmed (and therefore having the folding of its component sections still intact at the top and fore-edges) have not been severed from their neighbours with the paper-knife” [8]. The result is that many edges are actually folds, without cutting which the book cannot be read in its entirety.

Table of contents. I’d have to crawl in there to read it!

I think it would be fun to open unopened pages–I’m told a playing card works best–for the sheer novelty of it, though it would probably get tedious after the first few fairy tales. But evidently the previous owner was not of the spirit to indulge in this activity, because the book is wholly unopened–not a single fold has been sliced. I must admit that having a book so close to its original condition of issue is desirable, but keeping it that way–how unloved and unenjoyed a book! Which just shows that there are some eccentric collectors who “prefer their books not only unread but unreadable” [9]. What, then, is a book for? Thankfully “the majority of book collectors adopt the sensible attitude that a book, even a collector’s item, is designed to be read” [10].

Unopened top edges.

To mitigate my condemnation of this large paper edition, I’ll add that it is not improbable that its dreary covers were only provisional and meant to be bound “to the purchaser’s taste, at his order and expense” [11]. Before the days when publishers, as opposed to buyers and retail booksellers, provided binding for books, that is, between 1450 and 1823 (as far as English books are concerned), books were sold either 1) “at a higher price in some usually simple binding put on by or for the bookseller” or 2) unbound, or, as later, with temporary covers, to be bound elsewhere at an additional cost to the purchaser [12]. Perhaps the vast margins are an indicator of this custom. Personally I find the idea of customized binding quite attractive. But whether or not this was the intention, it seems many owners agreed that the large paper copies in their original boards did not deserve shelf space, and engaged the services of a bindery. A quick search in Abebooks will yield a large paper a Blue Fairy Book halfbound in navy leather and marbled paper; a Green Fairy Book halfbound in green leather, with green decorative endpapers; and a set of all four large paper Fairy Books bound in full morocco leather in their respective colours, with gold gilt, and marbled endpapers.

Leatherbound large paper copies. The first two are the Blue and Red Fairy Books, the 4th and 5th the Green and Yellow.

To pay more money only to pay more money still–clearly only a road taken by the wealthy book collector, or the credulous.

Photo of leatherbound large paper copies courtesy of Peter Harrington.

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

1. p.130: Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. London: Granada, 1980.
2. p.176: Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Oxford [Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1984.
3. p. 176, Ibid.
4. p.130, Carter.
5. p.130, Ibid.
6. p.274: Glaister, Geoffrey A. Encyclopedia of the Book. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001.
7. p.274, Ibid.
8. p.210, Carter.
9. p.208, s.v. uncut, Carter.
10. Chapter 9: Wilson, Robert A. Modern Book Collecting. New York: Knopf, 1980.
11. p.203, Carter.
12. p.202-203, Ibid.

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From The Pentamerone to the Red Fairy Book

First edition of the Red Fairy Book (1890).

The Red Fairy Book contains quite a few lesser-known French, German, Russian, and Romanian tales, in addition to tales by Mme d’Aulnoy and, oddly, an adaptation of the Sigurd legend (evidently Lang thought Norse mythology sufficiently “savage” for the collection). The tale I thought would be fun to look at is a familiar favourite–“Rapunzel”. Lang’s version (not that he translated it) seems to be a close translation of “Rapunzel” from the final edition (1857) of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) by the Brothers Grimm, but the tale is part of a longer literary tradition which ultimately stems from the 17th-century Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones) by Giambattista Basile [1].

Front Cover of The Pentamerone, translated by John Edward Taylor (1848).

Better known as The Pentamerone, after the fashion of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, it is a collection of fifty fairy tales delivered by ten female storytellers in a frame story over the course of five days. The anthology is the literary terminus a quo, that is, the earliest known written versions, of other well-known fairy tales as well, such as “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Hansel and Gretel.” Basile’s “Rapunzel” is called “Petrosinella” (“parsley”). In this story, Petrosinella’s pregnant mother is seized by an apparently fatal craving for–of all things!–parsley, specifically the parsley in her neighbour’s garden, which you’d think might subdue her appetite, since her neighbour is an ogress. (NB: Rapunzel is not of royal birth; dispel any contamination from exposure to any recent Disney productions.) But, not to be put off by this minor detail, she goes into the garden and steals herself some parsley. Eventually she is caught and made to promise the ogress her child when it is born, whom the mother christens Petrosinella, “because she had a pretty birthmark on her breast, the shape of a tuft of parsley” [2]. At age seven, the girl is whisked away by the ogress to the proverbial tower in presumably austere but otherwise undescribed conditions.

The Pentamerone, gilt pictorial spine.

This motif of gravid woman hankering after someone else’s luscious vegetables (an oxymoron, in my opinion) is a recurring motif present in all the Rapunzel stories (at least those that I know) and rooted in popular belief: “In many peasant societies, people believed that it was necessary to fulfill the longing of a pregnant woman; otherwise, something evil like a miscarriage or bad luck might occur. Therefore, it was incumbent on the husband and other friends and relatives to use spells or charms or other means to filfull the cravings” [3].

Frontispiece and title page.

Basile’s text makes it explicit that the prince and Petrosinella have (premarital!) sex. The ogress is enlightened as to their affair by a gossipmonger, but the couple run away (Petrosinella descends by a rope ladder). The remarkably athletic ogress gives chase, is thwarted by three magical gallnuts in Petrosinella’s possession, and she is finally devoured by a wolf. The prince then takes Petrosinella back to his kingdom and marries her.

Petrosinella plate by John Cruikshank (1848).

Some like to trace the Rapunzel tale, a “Maiden-in-the-Tower” type tale (Arne-Thompson type 310), to the story of Saint Barbara from the 3rd century who is said to have been confined in a tower by her jealous father. If you want to go that way, we could go back even farther in time and cite Danaë. I wouldn’t, however, because to me the Rapunzel tale is not just about any maiden in a tower; it is about the girl who got locked up in the tower because her mother traded her in for unlimited salads (if only this were a real craving among people today) and who has insanely long hair.

The tale subsequently crops up in the literary tradition in Mlle de la Force’s Les contes des contes (1698). (Alas, this book is devilishly hard to find, even in translation.) According to Jack Zipes, “It is apparent that Mlle de la Force was acquainted with [Basile’s] tale, and there is a very important retelling of this story embedded in Mme d’Aulnoy’s ‘The White Cat’ (1697)” [4], the plot of which seems to have influenced de la Force’s adaptation, entitled “Persinette” (also a diminutive of “parsley”). One of the chief differences is that the ogress is swapped for a fairy, who actually lavishes Persinette in opulence and gracious living; Persinette has everything she could need or want, except for human society.

What tips the fairy off here is not a third party but Persinette’s swollen state, which she, being totally benighted, doesn’t understand. And, just like a man, the prince decides it’s best to keep it that way, though at least this prince seems to have the modesty to marry her before he gets to know her in the biblical sense:
“Now the prince was happy, and Persinette grew accustomed to loving him. They saw each other every day, and in a short time she became pregnant. Since she had no idea what this condition meant, she was upset. Although the prince knew, he did not want to explain it to her for fear of tormenting her. But the fairy had come to see her, and no sooner did she look at her than she recognized the malady.” [5]

Persinette is forced to tell everything, whereafter the fairy conducts her to a seaside spot “that was very isolated but pleasant enough” [6]. When the prince returns to the tower for Persinette, the vengeful fairy lets him climb up Persinette’s hair, which she has cut off, and then, “invoking her power, she [cases] the prince to throw himself from the top of the tower” [7]. (One wonders why a fairy, with all her power, would bother with the business of clambering up a tower by means of anybody’s hair.) The prince survives this fall (de la Force does concede that “his body should have broken into a thousand pieces” [8]), losing only his sight, and wanders blindly for a few years till by chance he stumbles across his wife and their twins, now toddlers. Her tears magically restore his vision and they share a touching family reunion only to despair later the same day of starving to death because, thanks to the fairy, all the food they touch turns into inedible stones, crystals, snakes, etc. Luckily, the fairy is finally moved, and, “recalling at this moment all the tenderness that she had once felt for the amiable Persinette” [9], relents and ferries the family back to the prince’s kingdom.

De la Force’s version expands on Basile’s (it is almost twice as long), giving justifications or rationales for the characters’ dubious behaviour. For instance, Persinette’s mother does not raid her neighbour’s garden. No, she withholds her wish and simply wastes away beyond recognition (“her husband could barely recognize her with his own eyes” [10]) until her husband makes her confess her consuming desire for parsley. It is the husband who, in the name of love, plunders for parsley. To mitigate the absuridity of her craving, the narrator says,
“At the time of this story, parsley was very rare in this country, and the fairy had it brought from the Indies. Indeed, one could not find any parsley in that country except in her garden…To be sure, the parsley must have been extremely delicious at that time.” [11]

Whereas Petrosinella seems to fall immediately in love with the prince, Persinette is initially baffled by the amorous youth and accepts his marriage proposal “without hardly knowing what she was doing” [12], growing “accustomed to loving him” only afterwards.

A German version of “Persinette,” a virtual translation, by Friedrich Schulz is thought to have been an underlying influence of the Grimms’ version [13]. Schulz’s retelling is called “Rapunzel” (1790). Indeed, “rapunzel” is yet another vegetable delicacy–not parsley, but rampion–which generates some rather humorous results in translation if one is not so familiar with the etymology:
“Now the young woman developed a huge craving to eat some rapunzel…she confessed that she had a strong desire to eat rapunzel salad…The rapunzel tasted so delicious that the next day her craving for it was three times as great as it was before.” [14]

Schulz made other minor changes, too. Unlike his predecessors, Schulz furnishes Rapunzel with a hook around which to fasten her hair when it is to be climbed. He even injects an instance of social commentary:
“…finally [the prince] was so bold as to propose marriage to her, and he wanted to have her right away. She said yes, without knowing why it was happening and without knowing how, and she did not really want to know where. What good behavior!” [15]
I sincerely hope that concluding exclamation was ironic.

Beautiful Rapunzel illustration by H.J. Ford from the Red Fairy Book.

Rapunzel’s pregnancy is only obliquely referred to when she complains “that all her clothes [have] become too tight for her” [16]. This detail is preserved in the first edition of Children’s and Household Tales (1812), which, despite its title, was not originally intended for a children; all evidence of their intercourse, however, was removed as their juvenile audience grew and so the seventh and final edition of the collection does not even hint at Rapunzel’s pregnancy [17]. Accordingly, it is not Rapunzel’s sudden need for maternity wear that betrays her; instead, Rapunzel is made out to be an abject simpleton who gives her secret away with a careless remark: “‘Mother Gothel, how is it that you are much heavier than the prince? When I pull him up, he’s here in a second” [18]. Notwithstanding, the twins are snuck in by the narrator at the end. Mr. Lang, on the other hand, or perhaps whichever woman translator had charge of this tale, excises even the children, and I daresay that it is this version of the story, so utterly bowdlerized, that is most widely-known. The Grimms’ version also turns the antagonist, still a fairy in Schulz, into a sorceress, a witch in the Red Fairy Book, who is considerably less benevolent than her fairy antecedents though not evil.

The Brothers Grimm were aware of and acknowledged their use of Basile’s The Pentamerone, though to what extent they relied on “Petrosinella” in setting down their version of “Rapunzel” is not clear.

There are other stories written in the Rapunzel tradition between Basile and the Brothers Grimm, and of course after them. I have only mentioned those relevant to the literary transmission of the tale from Basile to Lang. Translations of the tales I have quoted can be found in Jack Zipes’ The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm : Texts, Criticism. Other Rapunzel and type 310 tales can be found in Rapunzel and Other Maiden in the Tower Tales From Around the World, edited by Heidi Anne Heiner. (Unfortunately the latter cannot currently be found in the UofT or public library catalogues.)

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

1. p. 474: Zipes, Jack. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm : Texts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
2. p. 475, Ibid.
3. p. 474, Ibid.
4. p. 474, Ibid.
5. p.481-482, Ibid.
6. p. 482, Ibid.
7. p. 482, Ibid.
8. p. 482, Ibid.
9. p. 484, Ibid.
10. p. 479, Ibid.
11. p. 479, Ibid.
12. p. 481, Ibid.
13. p. 474, Ibid.
14. p. 484-5, Ibid.
15. p. 487, Ibid.
16. p. 487, Ibid.
17. A comparison of the first and final versions of the Grimms’ “Rapunzel” can be found online (in English, of course).
18. p. 491, Zipes.


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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

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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…


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Hunting the Hunter

This was supposed to be a post about Aesop’s fables. But scanning the bookshelves in the Osborne Collection study room, my eyes lit upon two fat, stripy tomes of Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. I pulled Volume I off the shelf, slapped it open, and stabbed blindly at an entry, sortes Vergilianae-style. And whose name should I find under my spatulate fingertip but Herne the Hunter’s? He, along with Arawn, Orion, and Actaeon had been haunting (or should I say hunting?) my mind all week, thanks to the awesome genius of Diana Wynne Jones as manifested in her book Dogsbody, which I’d had the pleasure to read only recently (I bow my head in shame). If you have not yet had the chance to relish this book and would like to do so unmolested by spoilers, I suggest you avail yourself of the back button. But if you’re already familiar with the novel, or have a superhuman immunity to spoilers, read on!

Briefly, Dogsbody tells of how Sirius the Dog Star escapes his imprisonment as a white, red-eared dog on Earth. What delighted me and absolutely blew me away about Dogsbody was the slightly slippery character of the “Master.” The Master is the apparent lord of the underworld (or at least, otherworld) in the novel. Every month under the full moon, he emerges into our world and leads his white, red-eared dogs on a wild hunt in which, paradoxically, he is both the hunter and the hunted. Sirius at some point joins this hunt out of necessity, and finds that he and the other hounds are sometimes running beside the Master, sometimes pursuing the Master. At the end of the hunt, his dogs devour him. The Master is then instantly reborn, whereupon he and his hounds retreat to his mysterious, otherworldly abode, which seems to be enclosed in a large mound of earth (yes, space in speculative fiction is a funny thing). He is also often referred to as a “child of Earth.” I hope this all sounds moderately familiar to you.

While his appearance is never fully disclosed, his head is said to be permanently shrouded in darkness and he is described as having “branched horns” on his head, which immediately put me in the mind of Herne the Hunter, whom I first encountered in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. (As a side note, Herne in Cooper’s book bears a striking resemblance to the forest guardian in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke.)

Herne is the resident spectre and keeper of Windsor Forest in Berkshire, England, whose most notable feature is that he has antlers. He often appears (I know not to whom) riding on horseback, accompanied by other wild huntsman and his captured souls in a sort of Wild Hunt [1]. According to the Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols, Herne is a “malevolent spirit” who “roams through the forest, especially in the vicinity of an old tree called Herne’s oak,” [2] though there is no sinister note in either Jones’ or Cooper’s depictions of Herne.

Our earliest reference to Herne is in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor:

MISTRESS PAGE: Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.               (4.4.26-36)

Herne is of most confused origin. The Wikipedia entry for Herne suggests a few theories, which are quite interesting. In his book, The History of the Devil, R. Lowe Thompson suggests a relationship to Herlekin/Hellekin/Herlichin/Hellechin, etc. (whence we get Harlequin [3]), the Wild Huntsman “leader of la maisnie Hellequin, a troop of demons who rode the night air on horses [4]. He also speculates that Herne may be cognate with a truncated form of Cernunnos, the horned god in Celtic polytheism, just as horn is cognate with the Latin cornu (“horn”). At the very least, he’s probably right when he says that “these two forms have been derived from the same palaeolithic ancestor and can, indeed, be regarded as two aspects of one central figure’ [5].

Oddly enough, Herne is not mentioned anywhere in Dogsbody, perhaps because he is the most obvious folkloric/mythical figure to identify. Other references to mythical figures are explicitly made, however [6]:

The Master said uneasily, “Don’t look too closely. The truth [of his form] has no particular shape.”
“I know that,” Kathleen sad, rather impatiently. Her eyes stayed watching the space above the Master’s head for all that. “But you’re not Arawn, are you?” she said.
The boys had seen the Master for the first time. They were both terrified. Robin’s teeth chattered and he said, “But he could be Orion or Actaeon, couldn’t he?”
“Or John Peel,” Basil said, very derisively because he was so scared.

Sirius wondered what the three humans had understood about the Master that he had not. It was clear that the Master knew they had understood it, by the way he changed the subject.

First of all, I love this delightful moment of metafiction. Jones has her characters identify the Master with the very mythical figures which she, the author, has appropriated to create the Master. She comments on her narrative from within the selfsame narrative. It’s comparable to a footnote, a laced-in footnote whispering, “By the by, I used such-and-such figures to create my character.” I love how smoothly Jones flashes her cards; there’s no jarring effect because it is perfectly natural, arguably almost expected, that the children should liken him to the aforementioned mythical figures. For readers who don’t recognize before this juncture that the Master is a synthesis of various mythical beings, or that he is borrowed from mythology, this serves to clue them in; for readers already in the know, it is a moment of acknowledging, as Farah Mendlesohn puts it, the “delicious collusion” between author and reader. I confess I was rather of the former category, since I only recalled Herne, who is left unmentioned, even though citing only Arawn, Orion, and Actaeon did strengthen my suspicion that Herne had been a model for the Master. But “clue in” is an understatement; I was left rather unattractively open-mouthed: 1) I was a tad chagrined I’d totally missed seeing Orion and Actaeon–all the signs were there! 2) Leave it to Diana Wynne Jones to cleverly conflate mythical figures from across cultures. I really don’t think I exaggerate when I call her a genius. But I digress in this eulogy (admiration for Diana Wynne Jones will out!).

Being uninitiated in the world of Welsh mythology and its hellish pronunciation, I had to look up Arawn (ah-ROWN). Arawn is the lord of Annwfn/Annwn (an-OON), the Brythonic Otherworld, which is “located either on the face of the earth, under the earth, or over or under the sea” [7]. This Otherworld was a Celtic Elysium, a paradise, and later Christianized as the land of the dead [8]. Arawn is “a master of animals and the hunt, closely linked with the stag…an enricher of humanity”–interestingly,  “all attributes of Cernunnos” [9]. He is the lucky owner of the magic cauldron coveted by Arthur, in addition to a pack of hounds, “dazzling bright white and with red ears” [10].

This colouring is the hallmark “of the Otherworldly origins, according to a deeply rooted tradition found throughout the British Isles,” a hallmark shared by the hounds of Gwyn ap Nudd (gween ap neethe) [11], Arawn’s successor, who is depicted in medieval poetry as a psychopomp, one who escorts the dead to the underworld [12]. He is associated with a form of the Wild Hunt motif found in “nearly all parts of the world”. The Wild Hunt, clearly what Sirius participates in, is when “ghostly hunters…ride through the sky on stormy evenings…The phantom host, its horses and dogs (ratchet hounds, Gabriel’s hounds, etc.), make a wild noise in the night” [13]. The noise is explained as the honking of migrating geese or other birds [14]. Gwyn ap Nudd’s hounds are the Cŵn Annwn (coon an-OON), “hounds of Annwn,” just one of the many packs of spectral hounds in British folklore. Other such hounds are Gabriel Hounds, Ratchets, Yell/Yeth/Yeff Hounds–the Master’s chief dog is fittingly named Yeff–and what have you. So much for Welsh mythology.

I’m sure you know of Orion, the storied hunter (and intemperate lover) of mythological and astral fame. He cleared Chios of wild beasts, and in some stories hunts with Artemis. The point in the muddled myth of Orion that concerns us is his birth. Hesiod reports that Orion was the son of Poseidon and Euryale, Minos’ daughter (not the Gorgon!). There appears to be another tradition in which he was gegenes, a son of Ge/Gaia, i.e. Earth. Still there is another version, which as far as I can tell is not the same as the previous one, wherein Orion is again (sort of) a child of Ge. Poseidon, Zeus, and Hermes decided one day to kick their heels at the house of Hyrieus, either a king or humble peasant, himself a son of Poseidon (which has funny ramifications) and Alkyone, Atlas’ daughter. Hyrieus entertained the gods, disguised as men, so well that they revealed themselves and promised to grant him anything he asked. He asked for a son (he was childless, naturally)  [15]. Here, I resort to Joseph Fontenrose’s lovely summary  [16]:

The gods then took the hide of the ox that had been slaughtered for their dinner, spread it out, and cast their seed upon it–or, as most sources express it, they urinated on it. They told Hyrieus to bury the hide underground for ten months and then take it up. At the end of the allotted time a boy was born from the buried hide (i.e., from the earth), and Hyrieus named him Urion after the manner of his conception (ouron), later altered to Orion.

Ouron means urine, in case that wasn’t obvious. Charming name, though I’m sure this is just a case of the ancients’ collective penchant for false etymologizing.

In this version, Poseidon and Ge are again in some sense parents of Orion, despite that fact that Ge was not consulted (would this be a form of rape, I wonder?). Poseidon shares his fatherhood with Zeus and Hermes, and if Hyrieus is to be considered Orion’s father, then Poseidon is also his grandfather [17]. Simultaneously, if Poseidon is Orion’s father, then Orion is also Hyrieus’ brother. Clearly the ancients were masters of doublethink.

So the Master can be Orion because they are both children of Earth. Even more fundamentally, the Master is Orion because Sirius is his dog. Curiously, I could not find any mention of Sirius in the summarized myths of Orion I’d read; he appears to be connected with Orion only apropos of the constellation. Zeus is said to have placed Sirius in the sky beside his master. Homer’s Iliad  (mentions Orion the constellation [18] and “Orion’s Dog” as the star [19] (it makes no mention of Orion the hunter); the Odyssey describes Orion the hunter in Hades, but he is sans dog [20]. Most likely, when the Orion constellation was identified with and named for the already well-known mythical figure, the former had affected the latter and the Greeks felt the need to invent and explain the hitherto nonexistent catasterism of the hunter [21]. Likewise, the Dog Star could have been identified as the dog of Orion, and inserted into the catasterism myth. But, disregarding this nicety, of course there was never any doubt that Sirius would join the Master’s Wild Hunt, since he must, perforce, if the Master is Orion.

It might also be worth noting that Orion is dead. That is, if he did indeed once exist, he is now dead. Homer tells in the Odyssey that Odysseus sees Orion in the underworld. So it’s not surprising that the Master as Orion should be found in a sort of underworld (under a mound, or Annwn as later recognized as the world of the dead), notwithstanding that he is at the same time supposed to be in the firmament (Orion the constellation also figures in the novel, in the same way that Sirius the Dog-Star does).

Lastly, Actaeon is another Greek hunter, who was metamorphosed into a stag by Artemis and posthaste devoured by his own dogs. He is uncannily similar to Orion visà-vis their relationship with Artemis. In various sources, Orion was “a companion, even a lover, of the huntress goddess Artemis, and she favored him” and he wanted to marry her [22]; ditto for Actaeon [23]. Orion offended Artemis by attempting to rape her or her nymph, Opis; by merely challenging her to a discus-throwing contest or boasting that he was a better hunter than she; or by becoming the lover of Eos [24]. Indeed, Actaeon offended her also by attempting rape or intruding on her bath; by boasting that he was the better hunter; or by becoming the lover of Semele [25]. Both were duly punished by the aggrieved party and posthumously worshipped in certain Hellenic cities [26].

Basil’s sarcastic remark aside, the kids get it right. The Master is Arawn, Orion, Actaeon, Herne, and who knows what else. I like how Jones is able to thread these figures together by their commonality of huntsmanship, and that she was able to discern that commonality (or maybe I’m just uncommonly dense), because beyond that, they’re quite different. Moreover, Herne, Arawn, Orion, and Actaeon don’t simply get amalgamated; that suggests too blended a whole. Nor does Jones’ incorporation of each figure’s singular traits, probably as clues or cues, create a unique character who is made of pieces. That is, the Master is not made up of a bit of Herne, a dash of Arawn, a pinch of Orion, and a splash of Actaeon; he is not Frankenstein. It is not that the Master is in part all of those four, or that he can be any one of those four and probably more, but that he is wholly each of them and all of them at the same time, layered transparently atop one another.

Next week, I will eschew fat, stripy books.

1. Herne the Hunter.
2. p. 494, Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, V.1, by Maria Leach and Jerome Fried. Published in New York by Funk & Wagnalls in 1949.
3. Harlequin.
4. Harlequin, Ibid.
p. 133, The History of the Devil (1929) by R. Lowe Thompson.
5. p. 133, Ibid.
6. p. 175, Dogsbody (1975) by Diana Wynne Jones.
7. p. 63, Funk and Wagnalls, V.1.
8. Annwn.
9. p. 100, Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses: A Guide to Their Spiritual Power, Healing Energies, and Mystical Joy (2005) by Carl McColman and Kathryn Hinds.
10. The Mabinogi of Pwyll
11. The Mabinogi of Pwyll.
12. p. 100, McColman and Hinds.
13. p. 1177, Funk and Wagnalls.
14. p. 1177, Ibid.
15. p. 7, Orion: The Myth of the Hunter and the Huntress (1981) by Joseph Fontenrose.
16. p. 7, Ibid.
17. 18.568, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles.
18. 22.35, Ibid.
19. 11.656-660, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles.
20. p. 7, Fontenrose.
21. p. 17-18, Ibid.
22. p. 19, Ibid.
23. p. 41, Ibid.
24. p. 19, Ibid.
25. p. 41, Ibid.
26. p. 20, 42, Ibid.


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The 5th Annual Sybille Pantazzi Memorial Lecture: TinTin: A Hero for the 21stC

Last Thursday, I stole out of my evening class at half-past seven to scurry off to this Tintin lecture to be given by Tintinologist Michael Farr, a 20 minute walk away. I know now to steal out earlier next time. I was certainly not prepared, as I descended into the bowels of the library, for the congregation I’d find in the lecture room, spilling out from the seats and onto the walls. Low kiddy benches (or tables?) had to be sent for to accommodate the spillage. I was one such spilth who was lucky enough to get even a patch of a table (or bench?), which Mel graciously yielded to me, since we’d worked out that I’d be blogging about this event (taking notes while standing isn’t fun).

We’d decided this because I used to love Tintin as a child when I lived in Belgium, Hergé’s own country. I used to watch the shows on TV, though I can’t remember any of it now. A quick search online informs me that I must have watched Les Aventures de Tintin by Belvision–an odd feeling it is to have such sources as Wikipedia tell you about your past. I’d hoped that perhaps Michael Farr’s talk might awaken some latent vestiges of Tintinophily in me, but no such luck. That didn’t prevent me, however, from enjoying his lecture. An hour of cramped perching on a corner of bench (or table?) taught me that the Tintin comics had an interesting relationship with real life:

1) That the comics were heavily indebted to real life and research. I was surprised to learn that several of his main characters were each inspired by a real person in his life. Hergé’s inspiration for the eponymous adventurer was his own younger brother, Paul, a soldier, whose colleagues later saw the resemblance and consequently christened him “Major Tintin,” to which Paul responded with a new haircut, which he liked and kept ever afterward. Hergé, ever on the lookout for material it seems, then created a villain, Colonel Sponsz, with the same coif.

1. Tintin, Paul Rémi, and Colonel Sponsz.

Tintin’s furry companion, Milou, or Snowy, as we call him in English, was named after Hergé’s first girlfriend Maggie-Louise, or Malou for short. The detectives Thomson and Thompson were inspired by Hergé’s father and uncle, who affected bowler hats, umbrellas, and large moustaches. I discovered that the duo aren’t really twins, evidently, as the latter’s name is spelt “with a ‘P’ as in psychology.” Nor are Thomson and Thompson their original names. In French, they were initially referred to as X33 and X33bis (or X33b) and later named Dupont et Dupond. In Spanish, they are Hernandez y Fernandez. (And in Latin, Clodius et Claudius.) Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard was the model for Professor Calculus, though the original was so tall that Calculus had to be shrunk to be able to fit into the frame.

2. Professor Calculus and Auguste Piccard.

Chang Chong-Chen, good friend of Tintin’s, was based on a good friend of Hergé’s, Zhang Chongren. They met when Zhang was an art student in Brussels and when Hergé was looking for someone to verify the accuracy of his depictions of China in the next Tintin installment, The Blue Lotus. They were the same age, had the same zodiac sign, and became fast friends. Sadly, they were separated later in life and Hergé, after much searching, was only reunited with Zhang just a few years before his own death.

3. Zhang and Hergé with Tintin and Chang Chong-Chen behind them.

And to mention a minor character, the extremely obnoxious Abdullah was modeled after Faisal II of Iraq.

4. Faisal II at age 5 and Abdullah.

Hergé was also a hoarder of newspaper clippings and pictures, which he kept in an impossibly incomprehensible filing system. Often he used these pictures as templates for his own drawings, sometimes copying almost entire backgrounds.

5. Original photo and frame from The Blue Lotus.

Funnily, he was averse to opera, until he discovered Maria Callas, wherefore the opera singer Bianca Castafiore (whom Haddock despises) was glamourized, often decked in such designers as Chanel and Dior. Hergé clothed her in real couture pieces that came out the same year as the issue in which Bianca appeared.

6. Bianca Castafiore, in a Chanel dress of that year, trundling poor Haddock.

2) That the comics were based on and exceeded real life. One particular building featured in the comics is the Hotel Cornavin in Geneva, depicted with admirable accuracy. Professor Calculus stays here in The Calculus Affair and for a time, there was a cardboard Tintin in the nonfictional hotel advising, “Please do not ask to stay in Room 122. It doesn’t exist.”

7. Real Hotel Cornavin and Hotel Cornavin with Room 122.

In Destination Moon, Tintin and company landed on the moon 19 years before Neil Armstrong, in realistic circumstances, and then came back. Hergé was meticulous in his research, and Tintin’s expedition was executed with the best technology available at the time.

3) That pure inventions in the comics came true! One main character who did not have a real-life counterpart was Captain Haddock. Hergé was stumped for a name for the seafarer, when he asked his wife what she was preparing for dinner, and she replied with “that boring fish they name ‘haddock’ in English.” As far as Hergé knew, he’d made the name up, it wasn’t a real surname. It turned out, however, as these things often do, that there was in fact a Sir Richard Haddock in the 17th century, an admiral to boot, and with a distinguished naval pedigree!

8. Captain Haddock and Sir Richard Haddock.

It was enlightening to see how much Tintin owed to research; the comics had essentially a dialogue with reality. I had been carrying the unaccountable, ignorant notion that while authors did do their research, most of their work was pure invention. I certainly didn’t think anybody stocked newspaper cutouts for future reference, but probably that has now been obsoleted by the internet. And perhaps that Hergé was an artist too accounts for his need for visual models. By the end of that hour, Hergé seemed almost more researcher than comic book creator to me–not unlike an academic!

All this and much more can be found in Michael Farr’s Tintin: The Complete Companion, first published in London by John Murray in 2001.

All images of drawn Tintin characters are of course © Hergé.

1. “clip-art-tintin-369483.jpg.” Image from “Tintin Clip art.” (10 November 2011).

Mortimer, Ben. “paulremi.gif.” Image from “Looking For Tintin In Brussels.” (10 November 2011).

Comic Vine. “1164576-herg___aka_georges_r_mi__cartoon_018___colonel_sponsz_as_esponja_large.” Image from “Colonel Sponsz.” (10 November 2011).

2. Image courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries (3 November 2011).

3. “Zhang_and_Herge_in_1981.jpg.” Image from “Zhang Chongren.” (10 November 2011).

4. “Faisal2_5_edit1.jpg.” Image from “Faisal II of Iraq.” (10 November 2011).

Tintin Wiki. “Abdullah.jpg.” Image from “Abdullah.” (10 November 2011).

5. Photo image courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries (3 November 2011).

Humbert, Frederic. “2480175243_c1e10fd1ae.jpg.” Image from “Colonial Rugby… China, 1929.” (10 November 2011).

6. de Dardel, François. “Castafiore.gif.” Image from “Tintin’s Cars, page two.” (10 November 2011).

7. “geneve8_5.jpg.”Image from “mortimer à l’hotel cornavin.” (10 November 2011).

Karasyuk, Dmitry. “1277b.jpg.” Image from “Tintin in Hotel Cornavin.” (10 November 2011).

8. Joffre. “Haddock.jpg.” Image from “Dad Is Like Captain Haddock.” (10 November 2011).

“Sir_Richard_Haddock.jpg.” Image from “Richard Haddock.” (10 November 2011).

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