May is National Share-a-Story Month, with the theme Myths, Magic and Mayhem. The Federation of Children’s Book Groups calls this “a celebration of the power of storytelling and story sharing” and it is aimed at “bringing children and stories together”. In earlier times there wasn’t so much of a distinction between stories aimed at adults and children; our forebears would have gathered in inter-generational groups to enjoy the storytelling which would have been one of the only entertainments. Ancient folk and fairytales still have an uncanny power to hold us spellbound; we may already know who is responsible for the nocturnal completion of the shoemaker’s work, we know what will happen when the prince kisses Snow White, we know that despite her parents’ desperate efforts, Sleeping Beauty will have her encounter with the spindle – but we still feel the suspense and awe of unfolding drama, sense the menace, and applaud the way underdog protagonists magically subvert their way through crises. Folk tales from all over the world explore universal themes of power, betrayal and vengeance, triumph over injustice and rescue from danger. As well as providing entertainment, they served an important function in passing the values and wisdom of a culture from generation to generation. After centuries of oral retelling, some were written down for the first time as societies became more literate, and were published and illustrated in versions that became iconic. In this blog post I will look at some subjects of our Biography Collection who collected and interpreted fairy tales, created their own versions of the old, or originated completely new ones.
In 17th century France, Charles Perrault wrote down stories which had been passed down orally for generations: his were the seminal versions of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, for example. In early 19th century Germany, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did the same – their rich cultural heritage also included Cinderella (a story whose basic pattern appears throughout the world, with the most ancient version occurring in China), and their versions of stories like Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel are very much more violent than sanitised later versions. In 1830s Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen created his own often tragic tales, such as the The Little Mermaid and the Snow Queen.
Some of the leading figures in world literature either turned their hands to writing fairy tales, or introduced some of the themes and narrative patterns of such stories into their work. The great Japanese writer Natsume Sōseki included fairy stories in his large body of work. Rabindranath Tagore – giant of world literature and first non-European recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1919 – used the structure of familiar folk tales in many of his works. Alexander Pushkin wrote a collection of fairy tales in the early 1830s; he felt that the Russian language was ideal for bringing out their magic, and lamented the fact that as a child he had not been read such tales. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar used the rich tradition of the folk tales and folk idioms he had grown up with in his work, and later Zora Neale Hurston (see previous blog posts) collected folklore and traditional tales, many of which had a centuries-old history in Africa.
Another Nobel laureate, Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, rewrote traditional Ashkenazi tales in versions for children, and in many of his stories for adults, figures from folklore such as dybbuks (spirits which possess people) and golems (creatures made of mud which come alive) regularly appear, in the characters’ imaginations if not in “reality”.
Roger Lancelyn Green was an Oxford academic and friend of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis; today he is best remembered for his numerous rewritings of myths and legends for children. His Tellers Of Tales: Children’s Books And Their Authors From 1800 To 1968 is in our Collected Biographies collection, and provided the first overview of the subject. He wrote many biographies, including of Andersen and the Scottish writer Andrew Lang, who collected enormous numbers of folk tales (and lived in Marloes Road, Kensington). Angela Carter created extraordinary versions of fairytales in her collection The Bloody Chamber of 1979, bringing out all of their most sinister and erotic elements; books on her in our collection include Susannah Clapp’s look at the postcards she sent to friends. We also have biographies of psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who analysed the meaning of fairytales from a Freudian perspective.
When making the first ever full-length animated feature film, an idea considered ridiculous by many people at the time, what subject did Walt Disney consider the best choice on which to lavish three years’ labour by nearly 300 artists and their more than 1,000 assistants? An age-old fairy tale, of course – Snow White (a story first published by the brothers Grimm) was released in 1938, and in the 82 years since, Disney versions of fairytale figures have become ubiquitous. We have some beautifully illustrated books about Disney in the oversize part of our collection.
Of course, we don’t have to travel far from our library to reach one of the most famous sites of magical occurrences – Kensington Gardens. J. M. Barrie’s Tinkerbell must be one of the best known of all supernatural beings, and he is well represented in the collection too (including in Lang’s Tellers of Tales). Before Disney presented Tinkerbell as a feisty miniature “glamour girl”, the illustrator Arthur Rackham envisaged her in a much more ethereal Art Nouveau style. Beautiful illustrations fill our books on him; his evocations of Edwardian Kensington are spookily delicate and beautiful (and you can read more about him on the fantastic Library Time Machine blog of our Local Studies Manager Dave Walker)
It’s always fascinating to uncover bits of the stories of famous people we may not have been aware of – like the fact that in 1917 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fell hook, line and sinker for a photographic hoax perpetrated by two young girls using current photographic techniques to photograph fraudulent cardboard “fairies”. As well as being the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was an ardent spiritualist and in that First World War period, many people were desperate to believe in a realm beyond the real world, so torn by violence and loss.
One of my personal favourite pieces of writing is Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince; it was part of a collection of tales for children published in 1888, which all have the resonance and moral arc of fairy tales. We have a huge number of books on Wilde – a Chelsea resident, of course.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our BioEpic on Anchor, Spotify, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.
Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library.