Jun 4, 2007

Victorian Fairy Tales edited by Jack Zipes

Before I read this book, I was a little reluctant when it came to Victorian fairy tales. I love the Victorians, but it was in the Victorian era, after all, that fairy tales began to be stripped of all darkness and ambiguity to become the sugary, simplistic stories Disney often showers us with today. Still, I thought that reading this collection would at least have historical interest, and being a great appreciator of Jack Zipes’ anthologies I decided to give it a try.

Well, this collection did have historical interest, and much more besides. There were some stories I simply loved, and even in the ones I didn’t I was completely charmed by the beautiful, elaborate Victorian language.

The table of contents was another reason why I decided to read this: the book includes authors like Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, George MacDonald and Kenneth Grahame, among others whose work I wasn't familiar with. In addition to that, the book is beautifully illustrated by the likes of Richard Doyle, George Cruikshank and Walter Crane.

This collection, like everything Jack Zipes does, is superbly organized. There is a long and very informative introduction where Zipes acknowledges that fairy tales in Victorian times tended to be explicitly moralistic, and were used to indoctrinate children with strict social and moral values. But of course, the overall trends of an era don't really reflect everything that was being done at the time, and the book is also full of counterexamples: tales whose purpose is simply to celebrate imagination and storytelling, tales that present alternative sets of values, and tales where Victorian society is more or less openly criticized.

The stories are presented chronologically, from 1839 to 1902, and because of this the gradual changes in the way stories were told really stand out. I liked the second half of the collection a lot more: the stories are less moralistic, more humorous, and a lot more original. This was the beginning of the Edwardian era, which is after all often referred to as the Golden Age of children's literature. There's also a small introduction before each story with information on the author and their work, which is something Zipes always does and which I find very useful and absolutely love.

Now, about the stories themselves – as expected, there were some that were very obviously preachy: Catherine Sinclair's "Uncle David's Nonsensical Story about Giants and Fairies" shows us what happens to idle children who do not want to learn their lessons; Alfred Crowquill's "The Love of Gold" is about the consequences of greed; George Cruikshank’s story, a retelling of Cinderella, is mostly a piece of unintentional comedy. The story is beautifully written, and for the first three quarters its seem to be a regular retelling of Cinderella. But Cruikshank’s only purpose in retelling fairy tales was to preach against the evils of alcoholism, and wasn't in the least subtle about it. In his Cinderella, we have the Fairy Godmother telling the King not to serve any wine at the Prince’s wedding, because even one drop of the foul liquid is too much. Now, I don’t even drink, but this was so completely radical and over the top that it made me laugh out loud. The mini-introduction to this story offers an interesting piece of trivia: Dickens was so shocked by the extremely moralistic way in which Cruikshank retold fairy tales that their friendship came to an end.

Lewis Carroll’ story, “Bruno’s Revenge”, was one of my very favourites. In the introduction, Jack Zipes says, "His Alice books served to liberate the fairy tale from moralism and encouraged young readers to think for themselves and question the accepted norms of the adult world." This is true, and it shows. This story is an except from the novel “Sylvie & Bruno” (which I absolutely must read), but this version is different from the one that appears in the novel – and, according to Zipes, better.

There were two realistic tales I found very interesting: "Cinderella", by Anne Isabella Ritchie, and "Red Riding-Hood Over Again" by Harriet Louisa Childe-Pemberton. Both contain no magical elements whatsoever. They retell the stories in a realistic and straightforward manner, and the appeal is that they portray the lives of young women in Victorian society in detail. They were both quite delightful to read – even though the second is a cautionary tale about what happens to young women who dare defy the social norms by talking to strangers. I'm sure you can imagine the rest.

Other noteworthy tales were “The Ogre Courting“ by Juliana Horatia Ewing, a very enjoyable Bluebeardhish story, Kipling's "The Potted Princess", which uses Indian folklore motifs, and George MacDonald's "The Day Boy and Night Girl". I found the premise behind this last story wonderful. A witch decides to conduct an experiment: she raises a boy and a girl, and the boy is only every exposed to the daytime, while the girl is only acquainted with the dark. The story is about what happens when they first venture out of the element in which they’ve lived all their lives.

Like I said, the last few stories in this collection were my favourite, and these included “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame, a humorous story about a dragon who refuses to act like one, and “The Last of Dragons”, by Edith Nesbit, another humorous story, this one about a princess who wants to fight dragons herself instead of simply waiting for a prince to rescue her. Hooray for that.


  1. I always enjoy your reviews :) I've had a book of Vicotrian Fairy tales on my wishlist for a long time. It's The Victorian Fairy Tale Book edited by Michael Patrick Hearn. And has many of the same authors as yours. I gave it as a Christmas gift to four people last year, but still haven't bought it for myself. I'll have to treat myself soon. "The Day Boy and The Night Girl" sounds amazing. Very appealing to me as a psyc major ;) I'm going to have to check this one out. Thanks for a great review!

  2. This one sounds interesting! Great review, thanks for another addition to my list ;-)

  3. Wow, this really looks worthwhile. All those famous writers! I think I'll add it to my wishlist.

  4. How interesting! You inspire me to read more folk tales and fairy tales, which I have always loved but haven't read enough of. Actually, you just inspire me to read more, period. I see that you have Borges on your list for the Reading Across Borders challenge. I'll be interested in your response to him, and wonder what you will think of him after reading Garcia Marquez? It's been so long since I read Borges, but I remember that I actually liked Labyrinths better than his Ficciones. Must re-read both of them...but right now I'm enamored with Gabo.

  5. I like fairy tales. Pity we don't see much books about them.

  6. Chris, thank you :) And just yesterday I was looking at that book on amazon and pondering getting it. Like you said, some of the authors are the same - some of the very stories are the same, actually - but there are others that would be new to me and that I'd love to read. Plus, the Zipes book was a library copy, unfortunately I don't own it.

    The MacDonald story appealed to me as an ex-psych major as well. The way he executes it is of course a bit romanticized, but I think he gets across the fear and confusion anyone in that situation would feel very interestingly.

    Quixotic: thank you! And I owe you quite a few additions to my list as well.

    dewey: I hope you like it when you get around to reading it.

    Robin: that is so nice to hear. I love knowing that I manage to share the love and enthusiasm I feel for these books.

    I think I will like Borges. I did like the few of his short stories I have read. The impression I get is that he is colder than Garcia Marquez - that his focus is more on thought, knowledge, philosophy, while Marquez is more emotional. Both things appeal to me, though, even if in different ways. I really look forward to reading your final impression of Love in the Time of Cholera, btw!

    parisian cowboy: Hi! There are actually quite a few books on/of fairy tales out there, more than one would initially realize. I'm not sure if the market has been growing, or if the fact that I've become so interested in them made me notice them more over the past few years. If you'd like to read more in this area, keep an eye out for Jack Zipes (he has both anthologies and scholarly works that are always entertaining and informative), Angela Carter (both her own retellings and the anthologies she edited), Jane Yolen, Terri Windling and Marina Warner.

  7. Oh....this sounds good too! Why are you always tempting me?? LOL

  8. I've honestly never read much in the way of fairy tales, but I think I absolutely must pick this up sometime! Your reviews have a way of doing that!

  9. Interesting review! I'm looking forward to seeing what you thing of the Norwegian Fairytales...

  10. This looks really interesting. I really enjoy Jack Zipes and am starting to own a collection of his works. I was waiting for you to finish this to see what it was like :)

  11. Oh I'm so glad you commented on my blog. I absolutely love fairy tales and haven't read nearly enough so I imagine myself browsing your site for hours and hours.

    I see that you're reading Tam Lim -- have you ever read The Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip? It's a wonderful wonderful book that reminded me a lot of "The Snow Queen" until someone told me that it's actually heavily based on "Tam Lim". So now I'll have to read it too, of course.

  12. Stephanie, that's what book blogs will do to you :P

    debi, thank you! I hope you enjoy your fairy tales reading.

    meli, I like them so far, but progress has been slow, because I've been more in a novel mood than in a folktales mood. But I should finish next week.

    rhinoa, he's great, isn't he? I need to get my hands on his collection of French fairy tales. Have you read that one? It sounds wonderful.

    imani, thank you for dropping by! I haven't, no. But this edition of "Tan Lim" has a wonderful introduction by Terri Windling in which she suggests other modern retellings of the ballad, including that one, so I've added it to my list. Pamela Dean's novel is a very, very free retelling, but I really love it so far. I should finish in the next day or two and post my review this week still.

  13. Sounds like a lovely collection, especially the detailed organization. Thanks for bringing up another book for my list!

  14. A couple of months ago I read the Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, edited by Alison Lurie. It has 40 fairy tales from 1839 to 1989. I loved reading through it and making my favorite tales. I'll add Victorian Fairy Tales to my TBR list.

  15. I had not heard of that one - it sounds like essential reading for any fairy tale lover! Thanks for the recommendation.


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