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Book of the Week: Victorian fairy tales

By SHIRLEY SAAD   |   Dec. 31, 2002 at 8:14 AM
SAN DIEGO, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- There was a time when children used to sit and read, and dream of fairies and princes and princesses. I don't think they do that anymore. Most children spend their free time watching television and playing video games. Harry Potter's success is the exception, not the rule.

Michael Patrick Hearn's "The Victorian Fairy Tale Book" is a collector's item for adults, not for children. The language is archaic; today's children would not understand a great deal of it, and the subject matter, I fear, would not interest them.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the tales myself. They brought back memories of my childhood, but that was in a pre-television era. Not that I was born in Queen Victoria's time, but we resisted having a television set in my family well into the 1970s.

In his introduction, Hearn traces the origin of the fairy tale, and its decline at the onset of Christianity, with a renaissance in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Shakespeare's plays, among others, delighted his audiences with Ariel and Puck and Titania and Oberon.

The Puritans did away with fairies and superstitions, declaring them ungodly. But Charles Perrault, in France, and the brothers Grimm, in Germany, helped bring the tales back into fashion. In England, the Victorian era saw the return of this genre of literature, with the patronage of such luminaries as Charles Dickens and John Ruskin.

Hearn has chosen a variety of tales by some of the most prestigious English and Irish authors designed to "amuse, enchant, satirize and criticize," accompanied by their original illustrations by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Maxfield Parrish.

The first story, "The King of the Golden River," by John Ruskin, is a classic tale of good behavior rewarded, and avarice and cruelty punished. There are numerous examples of this kind in the folklore of every culture, and this one features two nasty, cruel brothers and one generous, kind one. The bad brothers get their just deserts, and the kind one lives happily ever after.

My favorite in this collection is "The Magic Fish-Bone" by Charles Dickens. It is enchanting as well as funny, and moral, of course. But again, I doubt whether children can appreciate the puns, the wordplay, and the allusions to Victorian society.

Princess Alicia, the eldest of 17 children, all between the ages of seven months and seven years (!), has a magic fish-bone she can use only once, so she has to be sure to use it at the right time.

Alicia is beautiful and intelligent and wise beyond her years, and she takes care of the entire household, because her mother is sick, and she manages all kinds of crises while her royal father wonders when she is finally going to use her magic fish-bone. Well, the time comes when she decides it is time and tells her father: "Papa, when we have tried very hard, and tried all ways, we must have done our very very best?" And so it is now the right time to ask for help.

As a reward, the fairy godmother, who gave her the bone in the first place, brings her a handsome prince, and there is a fabulous wedding and they all live happily ever after. Except for the snapping pug-dog next door, who dies choking on the now useless fish-bone!

At one time, when Alicia is tending one of her siblings, she is being watched by "twice seventeen are thirty-four put down four and carry three eyes." I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Princess Alicia and her poor father, who although he was a king was poor and foolish.

In "The Rose and the Ring," by William Makepeace Thackeray, there are allusions to the Crimean War and Russian soldiers that would mean nothing to today's children who don't even know about the Vietnam War.

"Melilot" by Henry Morley is, again, a tale where virtue is rewarded. The little girl is able to go beyond appearances and to be kind and generous to the ugly frogs who turn out to be fairies metamorphosed by a wicked witch. Melilot's reward? Why, a handsome prince, of course.

I would tend to agree with John Locke, who said that fairy tales filled children's heads with nonsense. But childhood is a time for fantasy and fun, as long as one grows up and learns to tell the difference between a fairy tale and reality. The problem with our society is that most women believe in Prince Charming and are badly disappointed when they end up with a frog!

Speaking of never growing up, Peter Pan is, of course, the best known example. In this tale, "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens," poor Peter is stuck on an island in the Gardens and cannot return home. By the time he makes it, he has been replaced by a younger brother, and his mother has put bars on the window so that this one cannot get away. But the bars that protect the new boy also keep Peter out, and his last glimpse of his mother is heart-breaking.

"Peter called, "Mother! mother!" but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. He had to fly back, sobbing, to the Gardens, and he never saw his dear again. What a glorious boy he had meant to be to her! Ah, Peter! we who have made the great mistake, how differently we should all act at the second chance. But Solomon was right -- there is no second chance, not for most of us. When we reach the window it is Lock-out Time. The iron bars are up for life."

I find this very sad and hardly fare for children, but then in Victorian times children were considered little adults, and most stories from those days involve orphans, or children with cruel parents or guardians.

"The Pied Piper of Hamelin" is another sad tale, of children lured away from their parents by a magician and lost forever. Robert Browning's long poem is, again, designed to teach a moral lesson: always keep your word; a promise made must be kept.

Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats are also included in this collection, as is E. Nesbitt of railway children fame.

Hearn who is the author of numerous books including an original fairy tale, "The Porcelain Cat", also teaches the history of children's book illustrations at Columbia University. This anthology is a real treasure for amateurs, or students, of Victorian literature or children's literature. Unfortunately, like many other classics today, it is more likely to end up on the shelves of a university library than in the nursery.

("The Victorian Fairy Tale Book" by Michael Patrick Hearn, Pantheon books, $18.00, 379 pages.)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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