I remember well my first collection of fairy stories. I remember its illustrations and some of its stories—“Jack and the Bean Stalk,” “Little Tom Thumb,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Cinderella”—just to name a few. I’m fairly sure “Little Red Riding Hood” was there as well. I don’t remember what the collection was called or who edited it. I do know it had been my mother’s and was already somewhat battered about the edges. Later, a copy of Uncle Mac’s Own Story Book was passed on to me from someone who was believed to have outgrown fairy tales (Is that actually possible?), and it was courtesy of Uncle Mac that I met “Thumbelina” and “The Ugly Duckling” for the first time.
When it comes to fairy tales, I expect most of us first made their acquaintance in a collection of some kind. After all, fairy tales in their many versions are probably the most often anthologised short stories, but many of those anthologised stories will have been edited, dare I say “bowdlerised” by their editors to a form considered by their editor to be suitable for children. Anthologies and collections are never neutral. Sometimes what is left out of an anthology speaks more loudly of an editor’s point of view than what is included. A variorum edition of a writer’s collected works reveals more than a standard collection. And in a collection, which version of a work, if there is more than one, does the editor choose and why?
No matter their intended audience, anthologies and collections reveal something of their own time even as they assert what they collect is traditional. I suspect this is even more the case with collections of fairy tales whether they derive from the folklore tradition or from the literary.
My grandparents probably met fairy tales courtesy of Andrew Lang’s various “coloured” Fairy Books. Some will quibble over whether all the stories Lang includes qualify as fairy tales. For example, in the Blue book, Lang includes “The Voyage to Lilliput” from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. More important than definition, however, is that Lang’s versions although still available sound rather contrived and intentionally archaic to modern ears. Take, for example, “Little Red Riding Hood” in The Blue Fairy Book [Longmans 1889] (New York: Dover, 1965) Minnie Wright’s translation for Lang of “Little Red Riding Hood” uses the archaic “thee” in the exchange between the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. By 1921, A. E. Johnson translating for Dodd Mead & Company renders the same exchange in more contemporary usage and has the Wolf address Little Red Riding Hood as “you” (Perrault’s Fairy Tales with thirty-four full-page illustrations by Gustav Doré. New York: Dover, 1969, 28). In 1889, Lang also omits the verse morals that appear at the end of each story in the original Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralitéz (translated in 1912 by S. R. Littlewood for Herbert & Daniel and included in the Dover edition). There is a difference, too, between anthologies of tales collected with the adult audience in mind and those intended for children.
These, then, were the thoughts in the back of my mind when I came upon a new edition of Walter de la Mare’s Told Again: Old Tales Told Again. Originally published in 1927, this collection includes nineteen well-known stories, the most familiar of which are probably “Cinderella and the Glass Slipper,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Snow White,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Rumplestiltskin,” and “Rapunzel.” This latest edition includes an introduction by Philip Pullman.
As Pullman makes clear in his introduction, “de la Mare wasn’t bound by every turn of the originals; these are tales told again” (6), and even if one doesn’t read Pullman’s introduction before embarking on de la Mare’s versions of the stories, one soon realises that de la Mare is doing way more than simply recording someone else’s narrative: he is telling the tale in his own way. Often he is far more detailed. For example, here are three versions of the opening to “Rapunzel.”
There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child. (The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon-Random House 1972, 73)
Once upon a time there was a husband and wife who for quite some time had been wishing in vain for a child. (The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Introd. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam, 1987, 46)
In a cottage near the garden of an old woman who knew magic and was a sorceress there was a small square window under the thatch of the roof, and at this window the woman who lived in the cottage delighted to sit and look out. (Told Again 223)
The first two are translations. de la Mare’s retelling is more lyrical and more personal and introduces a slightly changed story. de la Mare makes no mention of the twins born to Rapunzel and the prince, nor of the prince’s blinding. Similarly, de la Mare’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood” does not consign grandmother and grand-daughter to death but includes the character of the woodman who cuts the wolf open so that Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother can escape. Besides removing some of the horror from the story, de la Mare reveals an understanding of children’s demand for explanations, clarifying how grandmother and grand-daughter are able to survive:
it was a piece of rare good fortune . . . . that this Wolf was such a senseless old glutton that he never really enjoyed a meal, but swallowed everything whole. Else, Red Riding-Hood and her Grannie would certainly not have come out of him alive. (91)
As Pullan says, de la Mare’s versions of the tales “are stories to take slowly, stories for a thoughtful child, or for a parent who makes a habit of taking time to read aloud” (6). They feel a little more crafted as tales than some of the translations of Grimm and Perrault that I have read. de la Mare as an author retelling a story adds something of his own whereas a responsible translator will often make an effort to avoid doing anything other than rendering the original as closely as possible into another language.
Told Again is illustrated primarily with black and white line drawings by A. H.Watson, about whom I was ignorant until now. In common with the writer of the following article http://www.stellabooks.com/article/ah-watson, I was conscious initially of a perceived similarity of style between Watson and E. H. Shepard. The delicacy and accuracy of the lines and the subtlety of expression are more than simply charming. It’s a style, at least to me, that resonates strongly with the aesthetic of the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a style of which I’m personally rather fond. The draughtsmanship is lighthanded but detailed. There is nothing overly assertive about it, but it is assured. These are not sketches tossed off to give an idea of something; the pictures matter as much as the text they support, but they do not overwhelm the text.
This republication is one volume in the series Oddly Modern Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes. While in comparison with Perrault, for example, de la Mare might be defined as “modern,” he also sounds very dated in some respects. His use of the word “blackamore” in his retelling of “Dick Whittington” is very disturbing to contemporary ears.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed finding and reading this book. I suspect long ago I may have met some of de la Mare’s versions of the stories though I don’t recall ever having seen one of the early editions of Told Again. I admit that my pleasure in the book derives to a certain extent from nostalgia for childhood. But as others before me have pointed out, for many of us, it is our first engagement with and subsequent expectations of fairy tales that sets us on our voyages of inquiry into the various labyrinths of literary analysis, and there is always an immense satisfaction in returning, after finding the centre of the maze, to where one began and knowing the journey was worth while.