Tales of magic and wonder and good triumphant: Could there be better reading for the afterglow of Christmas? Many of the stories in Michael Newton’s superb “Victorian Fairy Tales” are also deliciously witty, even winkingly postmodern, since their authors frequently parody, pastiche or otherwise write against the received tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault.
Consider the worldly wise opening of “Melisande,” by E. Nesbit. When the queen gives birth to baby Melisande, the king firmly prohibits a public christening:
“I’ve seen too much trouble come of christening parties,” said he. “However carefully you keep your visiting-book, some fairy or other is sure to get left out, and you know what that leads to. Why, even in my own family, the most shocking things have occurred. The Fairy Malevola was not asked to my great-grand-mother’s christening — and you know all about the spindle and the hundred years’ sleep.”
Despite a ceremony restricted to family only, several hundred fairies find out about the baby’s christening, and they are all in a snit over being snubbed. Before she can be stopped, Malevola quickly announces a special wish for Melisande: “The Princess shall be bald.” Fortunately, the king manages to prevent any other misfortunes being bestowed on his child, and years later the baldness spell is broken — but with hilariously outlandish consequences, which I will not reveal.
As one would hope, Newton features famous stories such as Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” and those that should be, such as Ford Madox Ford’s “The Queen Who Flew.” His selections reveal surprisingly little overlap with those in Michael Patrick Hearn’s classic “The Victorian Fairy Tale Book,” so that a devotee of the genre will want both collections. Inevitably, Newton begins with John Ruskin’s 1850 masterpiece, “The King of the Golden River.” This story — about the loss and eventual restoration of fertility to a once lush valley — neatly demonstrates the fairy tale’s one ever-true axiom: Those who are kind to animals, who are sensitive to the natural world, who show sympathy for others even at their own expense, will always be greatly rewarded in the end.
Sometimes, however, that happily-ever-after ending isn’t at all obvious. In George MacDonald’s “The Golden Key,” Mossy and Tangle enter Fairyland as children but soon grow old in their quest to reach a mysterious land of shadows. Along the way, they ask for advice from the Old Man of the Sea, the Old Man of the Earth and the Old Man of the Fire (who looks like a little boy). The story closes just as the newly rejuvenated couple starts to ascend the rising arc of a rainbow. Are they on their way to heaven? MacDonald is generally regarded as the most original, the most metaphysical, and certainly the strangest of all Victorian writers of fairy tales.
Still, I prefer dry wit to mysticism. In “The Rose and the Ring,” William Makepeace Thackeray presents a fairy tale farce, half Christmas pantomime, half screwball comedy, its plot roughly that of “Hamlet” played for laughs. King Valoroso has seized the throne of Paflagonia, ousting his nephew, the very young Prince Giglio. When a similar coup takes place in nearby Crim Tartary, little Princess Rosalba flees into the forest, where she is raised by lions. Years later, the half feral girl — ignorant of her past — becomes the maid to Valoroso’s daughter Angelica, “who, you may be sure was a paragon in the courtier’s eyes, in her parents,’ and in her own.” Inevitably, that lazy, self-satisfied chit finds herself courted by Prince Bulbo, the son of the Crim Tartary usurper.
Unbeknown to bucktoothed Angelica and plump Bulbo, the source of their swooning attractiveness lies not in themselves but in an ordinary-seeming ring and a never-fading rose, each of which grants its possessor an almost irresistible glamour. Eventually, the maid Betsinda, nee Princess Rosalba, ends up with the ring and soon finds herself intensely desirable, much to her dismay:
“ ‘Charming chambermaid!’ says the king (like all the rest of them), ‘never mind the young men! Turn thy eyes on a middle-aged autocrat, who has been considered not ill-looking in his time.’ ”
Betsinda protests that the king already has a queen. Not a problem. The infatuated Valoroso — now speaking in rhyme — points out that a river runs by the castle:
“Say but the word that thou wilt be mine own — your mistress straightaway in a sack is sewn, and thou the sharer of my heart and throne.”
Betsinda/Rosalba luckily escapes from this #MeToo moment, just as Giglio narrowly escapes being executed, but their adventures and vicissitudes have just begun.
“The Rose and the Ring” is a gloriously entertaining story, as is Andrew Lang’s similar “Prince Prigio.” Born into a royal family whose ancestors include Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Prigio is the darling of the fairies, except for one cross old thing who declares, “My child, you shall be too clever!” And he is. Even more delightful is Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon,” in which a fearsome-looking monster turns out to be a gentle, poetry-loving aesthete, more interested in writing sonnets than devouring maidens or combating St. George.
Still, some fairy tales aren’t all fun and games. In Dinah Mulock Craik’s “The Little Lame Prince and his Travelling Cloak,” the royal infant is dropped by an aristocratic attendant and, in consequence, his legs never develop. Eventually, the pitiable child is imprisoned by his usurping uncle in an isolated tower in the middle of a desolate plain. Still, the prince discovers ways to both develop his mind and explore the world. Craik’s tough-love lesson — never overtly stated — is that one must strive to find satisfaction and happiness in life despite even the most dreadful afflictions. Of course, it also helps to have a fairy godmother and a magic traveling cloak.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
Edited by Michael Newton
Oxford. 444 pp. $24.95