Which of us is the fairest one?”
For a long time, the gramophone gives the usual answer to Lady Clink, but there comes a day when the record changes:
“Thou wert the fairest, Lady Clink,
But Blanche is fairer now, I think.”
In a rage, the stepmother sends for the family chauffeur and orders him to take little Blanche shopping and not bring her back. Huh? responds the confused driver, who is named Clutch. Lady Clink spells out her wishes:
“ ‘Do you know how many people are killed on the roads in a week? What’s one more dead body in London?’
“ ‘There’d be an inquest. . . .,’ he was beginning.
“ ‘Driver exonerated from all blame,’ snapped Lady Clink with finality.
“ ‘Very well, my lady,’ said Clutch.
“ ‘Ask her to step out for a moment while . . .’
“ ‘Leave it to me, my lady,’ he said.
“ ‘And by the way,’ said Lady Clink, ‘bring me her heart and her tongue.’ ”
And so pretty little Blanche is taken out in the Daimler to do a little shopping on Oxford Street.
I shouldn’t say any more about how Dunsany develops his version of the familiar plot, but the editor, Maria Tatar — one of our greatest authorities on the fairy tale — isn’t quite so scrupulous. Tatar’s long introduction to “The Fairies Return” is full of spoilers, as she methodically goes through each story, offering a precis of its action while providing brief critical analyses. All this material should have been reserved for an afterword.
When Peter Davies first compiled this anthology, he naturally asked prominent British writers of the day to contribute to it. So A.E. Coppard reimagines “Jack the Giant Killer,” E.M. Delafield modernizes “The Fisherman and His Wife,” and Eric Linklater adds an eighth voyage — upon a cruise ship — to “Sindbad the Sailor.” All the stories are, in fact, wonderfully accomplished, witty, satirical — and they make for perfect light entertainment. But who are these authors?
Most of them are now appreciated only by small coteries. Lady Eleanor Smith, who sets her heartbreaking version of “The Little Mermaid” in Canada and Hollywood, is now remembered chiefly for her weird tales (collected in “Satan’s Circus”). R.J. Yeatman and W.C. Sellar, who narrate “Big Claus and Little Claus” in tough-guy lingo, are famous for a single cult book: “1066 and All That.” E.O. Somerville, who takes on “Little Red Riding-Hood,” co-wrote “Some Experiences of an Irish R.M,” made into a TV series in the 1980s.
Tatar appends short biographical notes about each contributor, but these struck me — and I hate to sound so persnickety — as lackluster and perfunctory. Surely, one function of a book like this is to generate new interest in its half-forgotten authors? Tatar is a professor of German literature at Harvard, which suggests that British commercial fiction between World Wars I and II is hardly her forte. Yet Coppard is a highly original writer of ghost stories, Delafield’s “Diary of a Provincial Lady” remains a minor comic masterpiece, and Lord Dunsany isn’t just an author admired by Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman: He is, in many ways, the pivotal figure in the history of modern fantasy.