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.
Tatar does, however, write with knowledge and sympathy about Peter Davies. As the author/editor of “The Annotated ‘Peter Pan’ ” — perhaps the best such annotated classic of recent years — she reminds us that he is one of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’ five sons and consequently one of the inspirations for J.M. Barrie’s “lost boys” of Neverland. Here she provides a short biographical account of this unhappy man, burdened by having given his first name to that “terrible masterpiece” yet helped financially by Barrie when he founded the publishing house of Peter Davies Limited. Sadly, Davies, never wholly well after his experiences of World War I, committed suicide in 1960 at age 63 by throwing himself in front of a subway train.
Such grim matter isn’t, in itself, alien to the fairy tale. By no means. In Clemence Dane’s “Godfather Death,” a young boy, later a world-famous physician, is able to see Death standing at the bedside of the sick. If he appears at the foot of the bed, the patient will recover; if he goes to the headboard, all is lost. Eventually, the young doctor begins to ask favors of his godfather. . . .
In “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” A.G. Macdonell turns the eponymous robbers into stock manipulators and inside traders, members of a secret group called the Sesame Syndicate. Linklater, in his Sindbad story, emulates something of the Arabian Nights style. Sindbad has been appointed the cruise director of a new pleasure ship. During a stop in port, a young king notices a quartet of equally young beauties on board:
“Their skin was white as silver and soft as silk. Their waists were like branches of sweet myrtle, their mouths were anemones wet with dew, and their behinds like water-melons in their season. . . . They were, to be brief about it, perfection to the eye and extremely benevolent to the other senses, though to the understanding mind they betrayed faults too numerous to be counted. But youth is satisfied by what it can see or feel.”
Like Sindbad’s other voyages, this one brings its share of mishaps and misfortune.
While all the stories in “The Fairies Return” are highly enjoyable, they remain gentle in their satire, relatively unambitious in their art. Only one or two pack the wallop of those in, say, Tanith Lee’s “Red as Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer” (in the title story Snow White is the evil character) or Angela Carter’s famous collection “The Bloody Chamber.” In fact, our leading contemporary editor of modern horror and dark fantasy, Ellen Datlow, has gathered — in anthologies like “The Beastly Bride” and “The Faery Reel” — similarly haunting and far more disturbing examples of “fractured” fairy and folk tales. Still, there remains a place for gentler, lighter entertainment.
This edition of “The Fairies Return” is a handsome stocking-stuffer-size volume, part of a series called “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales,” and, all in all, an ideal bedside book. In most cases, one can enjoy a story or two with mild pleasure, then slowly drift off to sleep. Some of them even begin: “Once upon a time . . .”
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.