ANDREW LANG wrote over a hundred books, poems and prose romances, criticism, anthropology, Scottish history. He made what was for a few generations the standard translations of Homer, and what is still the standard translation of the French romance Aucassin and Nicolete. For almost two decades he wrote frequent columns for London papers, often written about as fast as an editorial board could decide their subject, and good enough that Shaw could say that a day started with a Lang piece was a day well begun. Given this, it is ironic that he is now best known for the color fairy books, which he only edited, and much of the work for which was done by his wife and a team of not-quite anonymous translators, all women.

England become imperial in the late 19th century was so powerful it could, as it intimidated many people, tolerate its outrageous eccentrics Swinburne, Beardsley, and, until near the end, Wild, and accommmodate and even celebrate a vast range of shy, inhibited minor genius: Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Leslie lStephen, Kipling, Edmund Gosse, A. C. Bradley, J. M. Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was not dawn, and it may not have been bliss, but seldom has a nation growing into an empire done better. "In an age of reminiscences," Lang began a reminiscence of his own, "is there room for the confessions of a veteran who remembers a great deal about books and very little about people?" The answer was yes, emphatically. It was a perfect time for such people.

Lang could even say, in reply to young men, "especially in America," who ask for "a course of reading": "People who really care for books read all of them." As simple as that. Interested in words? Make the Oxford English Dictionary. In people? Make the Dictionary of National Biography. In old

In 1888, when Longmans, the English publisher, asked Lang to edit a volume of fairy stories, the market for them was apparently soft. Most of the great collections and translations on which Lang drew had been done more than a generation earlier. Though as a folklorist Lang was pleased with what newly refound tales from New Guinea, Alaska, Samoa, South Afica, and the Sudan revealed about the world-wide primitive origins of fairy stories, his own taste had been formed as a child, and all the early fairy books are mostly restricted to tales from France, the British Isles, the Teutonic, and the Slavic countries. So the Blue Fairy Book when it appeared was anything but pioneering. Lang loved the fancy literary French contes des fees, and though they were and still are anathema to fairy tale purists, they were the staples of his first collection. A little Grimm, some Asbjornsen and Moe, two "Arabian Nights," and even a rendering of Gulliver's voyage to Lilliput. It is hard to think that Lang took very long to make his choices.

Yet the book was immediately popular, and Longmans asked for more. Lang gave him the Red, but then the Blue Poetry Book, the Green, but then the True Story Book, the Yellow, but then the Animal Story Book. Yet only the color fairy books caught on, so much so that when, a few years ago, Brian Alderson began re-editing them, making some cuts (why keep Gulliver?), checking Lang's text against his sources (which he couldn't always find), restoring some cuts and unchanging some Lang changes, there were those who responded as though Lang's books were sacred, like Dickens or Shakespeare. Throughout the years he published these books, Lang had to keep repeating that these were not his tales (though between the Green and the Yellow he did publish My Own Fairy Book, but no one really wanted Lang to be an author of fairy tales). By some alchemy of editorial genius and public taste, Lang's collections became the classics, and everything else he did was sooner or later forgotten. Furthermore, later fairy tale collections, even some very good ones, have failed to last. When I have used the Blue Fairy Book to teach fairy tales, the only students who protest are those who prefer a different Lang book.

The one obvious characteristic of Lang's collecting is its lack of characteristics. Having read all of them, Lang responded to the profusion and variety of fairy tales, and neither in his choice of stories nor in his use of translations did Lang seek to impose a style. Looking at these first four books, one would be hard pressed to know that Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring, the last readable descendant of the contes des fees, was Lang's favorite. Long and intricate tales are placed next to short, little-known German maerchen. The first four tales in the Red are "Soria Moria Castle," a Scandinavian imitation of an "Arabian Night"; "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless," a Russian story of bizarre baroque logic; the famous Grimm "Twelve Dancing Princesses," and an Irish thing that resembles a Paul Bunyan tall tale, "The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen." Then two from Madame D'Aulnoy, and a gem from Romania, "The Enchanted Pig," that weaves motifs one finds in "Bluebeard," "The Frog Prince," "Cupid and Psyche," and "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" with great ease. One tours the world, constantly discovering its samenesses as well as its piquant differences.

Brian Alderson, despite the purist protests, has done a scrupulous job in reworking the first four of Lang's 11 books. His notes on sources are careful and clear, and he has taken far fewer liberties with Lang than Italo Calvino did in compiling his recent collection of Italian tales. Alderson chose four different illustrators to do a smattering of black-and-white drawings; of the four, only Antony Maitland in the Green seems more than passable, but with these large, chunky, handsome books that seems to matter little. At a time when most fairy tales are made into picture books presumably for the very young -- expensive field days for illustrators who abuse their trust more often than not -- it is good to have books that remind us that fairy tales are not just for the very young, and that fairy tales don't need illustration anyway.

What they need is readers who want to read all of them.