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Andrew Teverson ed., The Selected Children’s Fictions, Folk Tales and Fairy Tales of Andrew Lang

Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2021, 293 p.
Véronique Alexandre
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The Selected Children’s Fictions, Folk Tales and Fairy Tales of Andrew Lang, ed. Andrew Teverson, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2021, 293 p. ISBN: 9781474430142

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1How fascinating, enchanting and thought-provoking it is to rediscover Andrew Lang’s nineteenth-century writings for children. This selection gives a seductive insight into the craft of a writer whose books no longer line the bookshelves of children and teenagers of today but whose cultural contribution appears to have been essential.

2The book is divided into several sections that add to the logic and thread of Andrew Teverson’s argument. There is a short, analytical and context-rich introduction, followed by notes on the texts, a bibliography for further reading, acknowledgements, the tales themselves (all of them in full), and useful explanatory notes (from 251). The tales appear in chronological order in three different sections:

  1. Scottish Folk Tales (two tales originally published in St Andrews University Magazine in 1863);

  2. Children’s Fictions: The Princess Nobody (1884), The Gold of Fairnilee (1888), Prince Prigio (1889), Prince Ricardo of Pantouflia (1893);

  3. Tradition Retold: The Terrible Head (1889), The Story of Sigurd (1890), The Fleece of Gold (1907).

3In the introduction, Teverson starts with Lang being commissioned in 1883 to write a children’s story to accompany paintings by the late Richard Doyle, a friend of publisher Charles Longman’s. Teverson then sums up Lang’s career, his great bout of children’s writing between 1883 and 1893, his subsequent withdrawal from that field and his renewed inspiration from 1896 to produce his own versions of mythological tales for the young. Teverson writes about Lang’s academic and popular reception. Taking into consideration how the writing of fairy and folk tales has evolved, he concludes that ‘Lang’s own fairy books—not often read these days—[are] valuable for the insights they supply into late Victorian fairy writing, and more valuable still as pioneering experiments with fantasy literature that anticipate modern development in the genre’ (26).

4In 1883, Doyle’s drawings showed tiny, winged, big-eyed fairies busy with butterflies, birds and flowers, engaged in tournaments or kissing across a red mushroom. Aged forty at the time of the commission, Lang was a public man of Letters and a Scottish intellectual, also known in the United States and Britain as a journalist and an academic folklorist; but he was unsure whether he could write directly for children. Still, he took up the challenge and wrote The Princess Nobody, peppering his narrative with the situations found in some of Doyle’s drawings such as ‘the baby Princess riding a Parrot, while one of her Maids of Honour teases an Owl’ (61). Teverson indicates that Lang drew from his knowledge of European authors such as Madame d’Aulnoy, classical stories by Lucius Apuleius and Scottish fairy tales from the oral tradition to build his plot and his characters. Teverson comments: ‘The Princess Nobody exemplifies the fruitful intersection of scholarship and creativity that would become characteristic of all his works for children, both as a writer and an anthologist’ (12).

5Teverson placed two tales in Scotch dialect (a glossary provides ready help) in the selection that make clear the extent of the Scottish legacy in The Princess Nobody. He also included a short early article published by Lang in St Andrews University Magazine, in which he makes two central points:

  1. Parents or nurses give children ‘The Instructive Picture-Book, or Lessons in the geographical distribution of animals’ (46) rather than nursery tales, hoping to inculcate rationality and scientific reasoning to children;

  2. Many supernatural elements like the shoes of swiftness, the cap of darkness, and the sword of sharpness (of which Lang will make full imaginative use later) are known in different traditions but have a common Eastern origin in the central plain or Iran. Similarly, ‘the Laddie in the Scottish story of Nicht, Nought, Nothing’ has an ‘Augean stable to clean’ (26). The article is interesting in that it gives the reader a sense of Lang’s wide scholarship and his strong belief in the educational value of folk tales and myths.

6The tales included in Section 2 show Lang’s talent for pace and ebullient drama. He often starts a new line or a new paragraph to add to the narrative speed:

Then she [the old nurse] stopped, still looking very closely at the grass.
Next she jumped to her feet with a shrill cry, clapping her hands and then she turned, and was actually running along the edge of the marsh, towards Fairnilee (102).

7But other interesting characteristics transpire from the 4 narratives:

  • his affectionate and joyful way of addressing children: ‘They saw a great Snail race, the Snails running so fast, that some of the Fairy Jockeys fell off on the grass’ (63);

  • his reasonable way of instructing them: ‘For, even a clever person can be nice when he likes—above all, when he is not thinking about himself’ (125);

  • his refreshing inclination to make fun of adults (and parents): ‘As for the king, he was only anxious to get back to Falkenstein, and have the whole business settled in a constitutional manner’ (139);

  • his penchant for the farcical and the comical (a wonder no film studio has brought The Pantouflia Chronicles to the screen);

  • his ongoing concern with food (a way to the children’s hearts): ‘Meanwhile, the prince, safe on his hill, was lunching on the loaf of cold tongue he had brought with him’ (130);

  • but also his ability to make the weather, geography, history of Scotland come to life: ‘You cannot think, if you have not tried, what pleasant company a burn is . . . . The burn flows down from lonely places, cutting a way between steep, green banks, tumbling in white waterfalls over rocks . . .’ (80).

8The children’s fictions included in Section 2 are swift, comical, and beautiful, with a pinch of the topical. They are, of course, culturally connotated when it comes to class or gender, but that is all the more interesting as modern readers have learned to detect those flaws. Teverson writes that Prigio was read widely by children of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, among whom were C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, although Tolkien was later (in an article in 1964) to prove highly critical of Lang’s production, accusing him of writing too often for the grown-ups to the detriment of his child audience, especially in The Pantouflia Chronicle (Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo are followed by Tales of the Fairy Court, a prequel to Prince Prigio published in 1907 and not included in this selection). This was probably detrimental, Teverson comments, to Lang’s reputation.

9The tales in Section 3 are ‘earnest adaptations’ (26) of one Scandinavian and two Greek myths. Lang gives full scope to his scholarship and ability to combine the vast quantity of dramatic ingredients he is aware of. Each tale is a whirlwind sequence of events: ‘. . . And the Terrible head was cut from the shoulders of the creature, and the blood leaped out and struck him like a blow. But he thrust the Terrible Head into his wallet, and flew away without looking behind’ (218).

10It would be interesting to see how a contemporary teenage audience would respond to this material. Lang’s mythological retellings influenced Roger Lancelyn Green, whose work in turn influenced the author of the Percy Jackson series, Rick Riordan. Teverson comments: ‘Thus directly or indirectly, the impact of Lang’s innovative adaptations of myths and tales continues to be felt throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first’.

11Andrew Lang’s production for children was extremely prolific, and Teverson does a very useful job in presenting a succinct sample of the Scottish writer’s various styles, along with substantial yet clear explanations regarding his scholarly and personal inspirations in the introduction and notes. The book helps the reader establish more clearly the differences between folklore/fairy tales and fantasy, reflect on the plasticity and appeal of both, and become more aware, if needs be, of the value of our literary heritage.

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Véronique Alexandre, « Andrew Teverson ed., The Selected Children’s Fictions, Folk Tales and Fairy Tales of Andrew Lang »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/11311 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.11311

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Véronique Alexandre

Université de Caen Normandie

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