Sunday, 23 December 2012

Pink Fairy Book

An unexpected and early delight in my festive reading this Christmas has been Andrew Lang's 'Pink Fairy Book' from the late 1880s. It's one of those volumes - and series - that I was naturally aware of, and had even dipped into, but had never immersed myself in. And so i have now, and it's marvellous. Of course, I was wondering at first - why didn't I read this as a kid? And then I imagined being at school in Newton Aycliffe and carrying around 'The Pink Fairy Book.' My life would have been even more of a nightmare than it was. It would have confirmed everybody's liveliest suspicions. Also, at home, a book titled like that and covered in a bright pink dust wrapper would have been yanked out of my hands - in a home where the channel was routinely switched over if a celebrity 'puff' happened onto the screen...

What a cornucopia this single volume is. And the others all waiting in store! Like the colours of jelly beans left to moulder and fade in a deep dresser drawer, or the muted sherberty colours of sugared almonds. I had it in my mind that these were sanitised retelling - very twee and Victorian - full of admonishments and stern lessons. But - not a bit of it. They're beautifully retold - rendered from the Danish, Sicilian, Catalan, Swedish, German or Japanese - a whole worldful of princes and mermaids and reindeer and enchantresses and turtles. Reading one after the next your head starts to spin. Spells and counter-spells, promises and bargains and delivish tricks. It's all here.

A running theme I'm enjoying is that virtue and patience will be rewarded, and that vileness and trickery will - sooner or later - be dealt with sharply. If not by fate, then by a troll or a giant or a vengeful magical princess. So maybe these are quite moral tales, after all - but in a gently reassuring way (i find), rather than a coercive and patronising way.

For myself, I'm happy to be reminded that those who've done bad and spiteful things will be one day rewarded - if there's any justice in this fairy tale world - with the very curses they deserve. I've had some shitty things done to me this year  - but I'm going to forget about all of that now it's Christmas. I'm going to think about new stories of my own and new fairy tales and brand new worlds. And i guess that's the way to overcome adversity, isn't it? Make up somewhere delightfully new - and, this time, don't let the unworthy and untrustworthy in.

Look at this complete set of coloured Fairy Books. Aren't they just ravishing? Like the striated colours of Doctor Who's one-time scarf, I suddenly realise. Perhaps that's what that ludicrous piece of knitware signified all along...

Of course, I've been reading the Pink one in a very handy kindle edition. All the volumes are free online - and this seems like a marvellously rich treasure horde to discover.

Oh! And my other wonderful discovery this Christmas break - so far! - is Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford.' Already the TV version is a great favourite - but I'd never read the novel. I hadn't suspected it would be as zippy and gossipy as it is. I think I expected it to be all heavy and drab with that weighty Victorian descriptive writing and endless pontificating from the author. But it's not a bit like that. It's like sitting down with an old friend - one who tells tales on neighbours and mutual friends - sometimes nipping ahead and telling the end before she tells the middle; sometimes missing bits out and doubling back, and seeing connections and consequences as she goes. It's another trove of lively, very fresh-feeling verbal story-sharing - every bit as vivid as Lang's fairy tales. I just wanted more of it!


  1. What a wonderful post! Have you got the Silver Fairy Book? I couldn't quite tell from the photo (I think my reading glasses need changing...). My mother has had the Silver Fairy Book since she was a child and I periodically hint that I would quite like it when she has gone to the Great Library in the Sky. It's brilliant, and as you say, not at all sanitised. Some of the stories puzzled me very much when I was a child because they were so harsh and gruesome: hard to imagine they were aimed at kids.

  2. thanks, Helen! i don't feel as if i *own* any of them, really - even though i've bought Lang's complete works as a two-pound E-book... I wish i did own this multi-coloured set. I imagine they cost a fortune. Not sure if there's a Silver Book - is it the Grey book you're thinkng of?