Packed away in my attic, waiting for a future Christmas Day when my newborn granddaughter will be a little older, are gorgeous Folio Society editions of Andrew Lang’s “The Red Fairy Book,” Hans Christian Andersen’s “Fairy Tales” and “The Arabian Nights.” For a 6-year-old, does life get any better than curling up in bed and rereading “Cinderella” or “Aladdin” while occasionally pausing to study the pictures? Perhaps only if a beloved grandfather retells, in his own words, “The Three Bears” or “The Fisherman and His Wife” or “Baba Yaga.”
Even though we generally associate fairy tales with childhood, the five books reviewed here — except for Walter de la Mare’s “Told Again” — are mainly intended for grown-ups. After all, these archetypal narratives, along with classical myths and stories from the Bible, deeply shape how we interpret even our adult lives and experiences.
While Marina Warner usually writes huge books you can happily live in for weeks — such as “Stranger Magic,” her study of the Arabian Nights stories — Once Upon a Time (Oxford, $18.95), is a perfect “short history of the fairy tale.” The writing is pungent, the authority unassailable, the pace quick. Warner discusses the realm of Faery, the creation of “secondary worlds” and the nationalist impulse behind the Brothers Grimm’s collections of “Marchen.” She examines how such social realities as arranged marriages and peasant starvation might have given rise to “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hansel and Gretel.” She also takes up the question of whether the similarity among tales from widely separated cultures is due to diffusion or humankind’s collective unconscious. Later chapters consider illustrators and their importance, critique psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment,” and celebrate feminist revisionings of “Bluebeard” and “Little Red Riding Hood” in works like Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”
Warner, in short, knows fairy tales better than Mother Goose herself. And she can turn a phrase: Folklore is “the cartography and anthropology of the imagination.” “Like the splinter from the spindle” — in “The Sleeping Beauty” — these tales “can enter you and remain for a hundred years of dreams.” Scribbled-in children’s books are examples of “their readers’ tough love.”
In her acknowledgments, Warner thanks, among others, Jack Zipes, “the well-named hero of fairy tale studies and mentor to so many readers and scholars.” Zipes’s two latest books — The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Princeton, $35) and Grimm Legacies (Princeton, $35) — focus on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In the former, a translation of the first edition of “Children’s and Household Tales,” Zipes reminds us that the Grimms constantly fiddled with their original collection over the course of its six later editions: They gradually removed crudities and sexual innuendo, added stories and gave the “oral” prose more embellishment and polish.
Take the laconic first sentence of the 1812 version of “The Frog King”: “Once upon a time there was a princess who went out into the forest and sat down at the edge of a cool well.” Compare this opening to that in the final edition of 1857: “In olden times, when wishing still helped, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which had seen many things, was always filled with amazement each time it casts its rays upon her face.” These artful enhancements, largely the work of Wilhelm Grimm, imbue the story with a wistful charm and elegance.
But, as Zipes explains in his introduction, many of the first-edition tales “are more fabulous and baffling than those refined versions in the final edition, for they retain the pungent and naïve flavor of the oral tradition. They are stunning narratives precisely because they are so blunt and unpretentious.” This new translation of “the complete first edition” allows those without German expertise a chance to reexperience familiar stories in all their original Hemingwayesque terseness.
“Grimm Legacies” collects various essays and talks, most of which track the reception of the Brothers Grimm in Britain, America and Germany. While fascinating — English translators quickly turned the Grimms’ scholarly collection into a nursery classic — it is directed more to the specialist than the general reader.
That’s not true of another project directed by Zipes: Princeton’s “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales” series, which reissues collections and anthologies “produced mainly during the first half of the twentieth century.” In his introduction to Walter de la Mare’s Told Again (Princeton, $24.95), Philip Pullman bewails that writer’s current neglect. Author of subtle ghost stories and that magnificently strange novel “Memoirs of a Midget,” de la Mare here recasts 19 famous tales into lovely, Georgian prose. Consider the beginning of “The Dancing Princesses”: “There was a King of old who had twelve daughters. Some of them were fair as swans in spring, some dark as trees on a mountainside, and all were beautiful.” This edition of “Told Again” retains the original A.H. Watson illustrations but, with misplaced economy, prints even the color plates in black and white. Still, a wonderful book.
The other offering in the “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales” series is Naomi Mitchison’s The Fourth Pig (Princeton, $22.95), introduced by Warner. Mitchison, the free-spirited daughter of a wealthy and illustrious family, published nearly 100 books, lived to be 101 and deserves rediscovery. The title work of this 1936 collection is a Kafkaesque fable:
“Sometimes the Wolf is quiet. He is not molesting us. It may be that he is away ravaging in far places which we cannot picture, and do not care about, or it may be that he lies up in his den, sated for the time, with half-slumberous, blood-weighted eyes, the torn flesh hot in his belly provoking miasmic evil which will turn, as he grows cold and hungry again, into some new cunning which may, after all, not be capable of frustration by the meek.”
Hitler? Terrorism? Evil in the widest sense? Probably all of the above. But Mitchison is seldom so dire and sometimes quite the contrary. In “Adventure in the Debateable Land,” a middle-aged woman takes a taxi to the outskirts of Faery, is issued orders by an old frog with a beard and prepares herself to rescue a captive princess with all the requisite gear: “shoes of swiftness, seven league boots . . . cloak of invisibility, cap of dazzle — a kind of temporary gorgon’s head, the permanent ones being so expensive and sometimes leading to such awkward situations — invincible sword, axe of strength . . . magic mirror, drops of Water of Life, other drops of Lethe water for Dragon,” and much more. The result is a mad, surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland proto-post-modern take on the fairy tale and its traditional elements. Fans of “Into the Woods” won’t want to miss it. Enjoy.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.