Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 10, 2010

Oh, those Victorians!

The Victorian Fairy Tale Book (1842-1906), ed. Michael Patrick Hearn, Pantheon 379 pp.

In his introduction to this collection of 16 stories and poems, Hearn provides a pithy definition: fairy tale is the imagination looking backward; science fiction the imagination looking forward.

Fairy tale, then, is a form of nostalgia, and these authors provide a luxurious scene when we take that backward look. Hearn has included classics by George MacDonald, J M Barrie, E Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, and Oscar Wilde, Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market”, and John Ruskin’s “The King of the Golden River”.

New to me were two works: One is W B Yeats’ “The Stolen Child”, a brief poem in which fairies lure a boy to their land, “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” The other is Laurence Housman’s “The Rocking-Horse Land”, a precious story (jewel-like, but also perhaps too sweet for most modern tastes) of a boy and his magical rocking horse. Hearn quotes Housman in the introduction:

The true end and object of a fairy-tale is the expression of the joy of living. There begins and ends the morality of the fairy-tale: its value consists in its optimism. So for the true and unpolluted air of fairyland we have to go back to the old and artless tales of a day purer and simpler than our own.

But for pure and simple joy, I’ll take William Makepeace Thackeray’s silly tale, “The Rose and the Ring”, in which a magic rose and ring wreak havoc among the royalty and court of two countries, Paflagonia and Crim Tartary. Unattractive princes and princesses suddenly become irresistible, and détente is threatened when engagements are quickly made and broken. It’s like the roundelay of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, only funnier. And of course there’s a dispossessed prince and a lost princess, and a fairy godmother who gifts newborns with this simple blessing: “The best thing I can send you is a little misfortune“.

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