A shy, somewhat reserved man, Andrew Lang was an astonishingly productive and pivotal figure in late 19th-century English literature. Having won fellowships and distinction at the University of St. Andrews and at Oxford’s Balliol and Merton colleges, he abandoned academia for life as a freelance journalist and “elegant hack” (a description he rather liked). He soon became a Fleet Street legend: It was said that he could write his articles for the Daily News during the editorial meetings in which they were assigned.
What’s more, he could write winningly on any subject. Consider the wryly witty lecture “How to Fail in Literature” (the text of which you can find online). He starts by reminding us that “it is not enough to attain failure, we should deserve it.” To do so in writing, you must always strive to be “obscure, unnatural, involved, vulgar, slipshod, and metaphorical.” Along with mixing metaphors, don’t neglect “the free use of parentheses, in which a reader gets lost, and of unintelligible allusions, and of references to unread authors.” As for subject matter, “he who would fail cannot begin better than by having nothing to say.”
In “Old Friends: Essays in Epistolary Parody” Lang devises possible encounters between characters from differing works of fiction. For instance, Catherine Morland, the gothic novel devotee of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” relates a visit to the home of Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester: “No sooner had I entered this battlemented mansion than a cold chill struck through me, as with a sense of some brooding terror.” She notes, in particular, the bizarre behavior of the governess, a Miss Eyre, and the sound of unseen but hideous laughter.
As this shows, Lang possessed a distinctly playful imagination. He once planned a complicated jeu d’esprit based on the supposed resemblance between Lord Darnley and Elizabeth I. It was to end with Darnley, in drag, secretly replacing the queen on the throne of England, which explains why Elizabeth never married. With Walter Herries Pollock, Lang concocted “He,” a still funny parody of H. Rider Haggard’s “She.” In it, the main characters travel to Oxford in search of “He-Who-Has-Been-Mummified-Alive.” What’s particularly delicious about this is the fact that “She” itself had been dedicated to Lang.
This is because Lang had read “King Solomon’s Mines” in manuscript and arranged for the publication of Haggard’s first great adventure novel. The two became close friends and together collaborated on “The World’s Desire,” which sets up a triangle made up of Odysseus, Helen of Troy and a seductive Egyptian queen, who turns out to be an earlier incarnation of the near immortal Ayesha of “She.” Who could resist such a romantic premise? As Lang observed, we are always stirred by ancient songs and legends, by the mere thought of a great warrior crying aloud a woman’s name through the din of battle and the clash of swords.
To me, Lang himself is a hero of literature. Besides being the champion of Robert Louis Stevenson and Haggard, he was the first critic to produce a study of Kipling’s work, found a publisher for the young Arthur Conan Doyle’s first major novel “Micah Clarke,” and repeatedly informed the English that Mark Twain was one of the world’s great writers. Drawing on his classical education, he translated, with S.H. Butcher, Homer’s “The Odyssey” and, with Walter Leaf and Ernest Myers, “The Iliad.” Both would be the standard English versions for half a century. Not only did Lang pioneer the study of myth and ritual, he helped establish the Folklore Society and served as president of the Society for Psychical Research. His version of that winsome medieval French love story, “Aucassin and Nicolette,” is the one I read in college. Among his historical works are a life of Joan of Arc and a series of short investigations into some of Europe’s most mysterious figures, including the feral and enigmatic Kaspar Hauser and the seemingly deathless Comte de Saint-Germain.
For today’s readers, Lang’s most immediately appealing publications are probably “The Adventures of Odysseus,” a superb retelling for children of that clever warrior’s exploits, the somber Scottish fairy tale, “The Gold of Fairnilee,” in which young Randal is rescued from the Queen of Fairyland by the devotion of bonny Jean, and “The Disentanglers,” the high-spirited, even campy annals of a service that specializes in breaking up reckless infatuations and forestalling misguided marriages. While I like it a lot, most people will rightly prefer “Prince Prigio,” the first of Lang’s Chronicles of Pantouflia. Because that realm’s current queen is a complete rationalist, she refuses to invite the fairies to the christening of her new baby. The king is distressed. “They are very old friends of our family,” he explains timidly. “Often and often they have been godmothers to us. One, in particular, was most kind and most serviceable to Cinderella I, my own grandmother.”
Naturally, the fairies come anyway and generously lavish baby Prigio with wonderful gifts such as seven-league boots and a cap of invisibility. Sheer nonsense, says the queen, when she pitches everything into a disused garret. An old, legitimately cross fairy then delivers her present: “My child, you shall be too clever.” As a result, Prigio grows up a self-centered know-it-all, much disliked by everyone. But one day he wanders up into that disused garret . . . “Prince Prigio” is a genuine treat and belongs on the same shelf of endlessly rereadable fairy-tale comedy as Thackeray’s “The Rose and the Ring” and Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.