Tolkien as a Child of the Green Fairy Book

By Berman, Ruth | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Tolkien as a Child of the Green Fairy Book


Berman, Ruth, Mythlore


IN HIS ESSAY "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien identified himself as one of Andrew Lang's intended audience (39)--he was born in 1892, in the same year as The Green Fairy Book, the third in Lang's series of 12 "color" anthologies of fairy tales. In part, this reference to Lang was not much more than a courtesy, for the essay originated as the "Andrew Lang Lecture." (It was given at the University of Saint Andrews in March 1939, when he had already begun work on The Lord of the Rings.) Tolkien disliked much in Lang's work, and was by no means a follower of Lang, especially in 1939, when he was trying to write The Lord of the Rings as a story for adults, and so particularly resented the assumption that fairy tales were necessarily children's literature.

But in part the reference was a genuine tribute, not just a courtesy, for although Tolkien might rebel against much of what he found in Lang, he also found much to admire and use. Being one of the Green children was an important part of his growth as a writer. His use of Lang's anthologies in "On Fairy-Stories" was thorough-going, citing not only Lang's Green preface, but also the Blue, Violet, and Lilac prefaces, and discussing in some detail Lang's choice of contents for the Blue and Lilac volumes; he also commented on The Chronicles of Pantouflia, two of Lang's own fairy tales. Lang was thus for Tolkien both an important example to follow--and to defy.

He blamed Lang for not taking his own interest in fairy tales seriously, and for feeling compelled to apologize for it, as something not appropriate for modern adults to like, except as a matter of scholarship, and as something not to be taken seriously, but available to modern writers only as a vehicle for wit and satire (as in the stories of Pantouflia). For Tolkien, the satiric side of Lang's Pantouflia stories--and of the French (1) models Lang drew on--was detrimental. He admired the joyous moment in Prince Prigio when the dead knights come to life, but complained that "the main bulk of the story [...] is in general more frivolous, having the half-mocking smile of the courtly, sophisticated Conte [tale]" ("On Fairy-Stories" [OFS] 69). And it was these Contes that dominated Lang's first color collections and remained a large proportion of their contents throughout the series.

The French fairy tales that Lang chose were, at first, not only a large proportion of the total, but were largely chosen from the literary fairy tales (2) of the eighteenth century, not from "folk" tales. These literary fairy tales did not try to record folktales directly (as the Grimm Brothers tried to do in the early nineteenth century), nor did they take the emotions that could be roused by a "wonder tale" seriously, as the Romantics of the early nineteenth century did (and as their descendants did--such writers as George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde, or Lang himself in some moods--and as Tolkien intended to do). Rather, they took fairy tales as a satiric form, well adapted to social criticism and instruction. This emphasis, although little to Tolkien's taste, was popular in its time, and many of the stories that resulted have remained popular ever since. Translations and re-tellings keep coming out of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault (e.g., "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood" (3)), Mme. D'Aulnoy (e.g., "The White Cat"), Mme. de Beaumont or Mme. de Villeneuve (who both wrote versions of "Beauty and the Beast").

Tolkien--perhaps a little grudgingly--said that it was a just choice "in some ways" (OFS 11) for Lang to have selected so many French fairy tales for The Blue Fairy Book (the first of the color collections). They did not quite make up a majority of the contents, but they had a plurality. Of the 37 stories, 15 were French, including all the French authors and stories mentioned above. There were also six Grimms, four Scandinavian tales, three from the Arabian Nights, and one Arabian story recorded by a modern collector, three English, two Scottish, two with no sources mentioned, and one Greek myth, the story of Perseus, the only story in the book retold by Lang himself. …

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