© 2014 Mariama French, Ryerson University
As a rite of passage in childhood, a decrease in the popularity of the fairy tale genre remains to be seen and thus, its prevalence and importance continues. In 1918, only a month before the official end of World War I, British author Flora Annie Steel asserted her belief in the relevance of the genre with publishing of her book English Fairy Tales which was illustrated by Arthur Rackham. This book in the CLA catalogue, was published in London and New York by Macmillan & Co. and contains 41 fairy tales. Considering the fact that the collection was published just before the end of World War I, this exhibit will examine the genre of fairy tales and discuss the impact that the war had on children, in order to situate the book within the context of the war.
The British Contents
The selection of fairy tales by Steel is diverse as the contents and themes of the tales deal with topics such as etiquette, marriage and the coming of age. In terms of characters, the tales are just as diverse with heroes, heroines and otherworldly figures featuring prominently. The fairy tales present in Steel’s book include “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Mr. Fox”; stories that one could say are still synonymous with the genre even today. What is significant to this collection is the fact that these are not any version of the tales but rather (and specifically) the British version. This is not only reflected in the title of the collection itself but is also asserted from the beginning of its contents with the first tale, “St. George of Merrie England”. The story is about English knight who travels across Egypt, Persia and Morocco performing heroic deeds as one of the Six Champions of Christendom.
The Six Champions includes knights from France, Spain, Italy and Wales; countries that also banded together in the War to fight against Germany (“Allies”). Tales such as “Tom-Tit-Tot” and “Dick Whittington and His Cat” are included in this collection as they are the Suffolk version of Rumpelstiltskin and a tale of English lore respectively. (Simpson 298; Schacker 726) An important source of the book’s contents was that of Joseph Jacobs’ own collection English Fairy Tales and More English Fairy Tales (published in 1890 and 1894 respectively), evidenced by the fact that 39 of the tales in Steel’s book are also found in those of Jacobs’. (Mistele 155) The tales in Jacobs’ books were taken from both written and oral sources. (Mistele 188) What differentiates Steel’s collection from Jacobs’, is the fact that Steel employed the use of editing in order to add small alterations to her versions of the tales (Mistele 219); hence the “Retold by” feature that is displayed on the book’s title page. The fact that the collection, however, was published with the purpose of having British tales only prior to the end of the war, hints at a theme of nationalism within the book.
Production History and Reception
As indicated by numerous advertisements of the time, including one in London’s The Saturday Review, the main appeal for buyers of the collection was the illustrations drawn by Arthur Rackham. In fact, Macmillan & Co. relied so much on the popularity of Rackham that the initial pressing of the book was done in two editions: an Ordinary Edition and an Edition de Luxe which was not only limited to 500 numbered copies but was also signed by Rackham himself (“Advertisement”; Hudson 170). A copy of the limited edition, which initially sold for £2 12s 6d (“Advertisement”), is currently selling for just over $4,000 in Toronto on the website AbeBooks; making it a collector’s item today. The emphasis on Rackham was not only important to the success of sales, but was also a result of the fact that his drawings are featured heavily throughout the book. In total there are 58
illustrations, 16 of which are full colour plates (with tissue guards) and 42 that are in black and white. The colour plates are particularly interesting as they not only bring the tales to life, but also display the depth of Rackham’s imagination as he depicts their fantastical nature. As per a review in The Bookman, the quality of these illustrations meant that the book was perfect for “all art-loving children”. (“ENGLISH FAIRY TALES”) Another review found that the book would make a great Christmas for an “intelligent child” (“OLD FRIENDS”). The overall reception seemed to be positive, with The Bookman review stating that Steel’s book was one of the more “fascinating” and “artistically produced” out of all the fairy tale books published around Christmas. (“ENGLISH FAIRY TALES”)
A Brief History of The Fairy Tale
The fairy tale genre, as we know it today, had its origins in the oral tradition of storytelling. (Ashliman 2) The only way that these stories could survive is if they were entertaining (Ashliman 50), indicating that people would willingly want to pass them on in order to amuse others. Given the fact that the genre found its origins in the oral tradition, its history can be traced back to a time in which history itself was not recorded. (Jones 1) Additionally, the early written records of almost every culture indicate their pre-existence. (Jones 1) This early presence of tales in every culture reflects the fact that there are different variations of a particular tale and the fact that one tale may be more or less popular in one community than another. (Jones 28) Historically, the prime audience of fairy tales (in their oral form) were adults. (Zipes, Fairy Tales 3) It was only due to writers such as Sarah Fielding and Mme. Leprince de Beaumont that the tales started to be published for children around the mid 18th century. (Zipes, Why Fairy 99) Even then, the written form of the tales was looked down upon by German scholars who found them to be of their utmost purity in the oral form. (Blamires 71) For these German scholars, the act publishing of their beloved tales also became a point of contention with the publishing of one of the most famous collections of fairy tales for children by the Brothers Grimm. (Blamires 71)
Fairy tales were told with the purpose of entertaining and educating their audiences. (Zipes, Why Fairy 99) In the 1690s, French writer Charles Perrault and the female writers of the salon wrote their tales with the purpose of not only commenting on the youth of their time, but also to guide them on acceptable social behaviors. (Zipes, Fairy Tales 30) As the tales started to be told to an intended audience of children, their tones shifted to that of the cautionary tale. (Davidson and Chaudhri 6) They were also told to children in environments relative to their society such as the court, classroom and even the nursery. (Zipes, Why Fairy 99) What has made the genre popular back then and even today, is the fact that these tales have a wish fulfillment component; that they show how one can achieve happiness, resolve moral conflict and gain a better life. (Zipes, Why Fairy 152) For children specifically, their benefit is not only entertainment but the fact that fairy tales allow them to better understand who they are (as they relate to the main characters) and to ease their anxieties. (Davidson and Chaudhri 5; Zipes, Fairy Tales 1)
Children, Wartime Nationalism & Propaganda
During the First World War, there was a strong sense of British pride and nationalism which resulted from the propaganda that sought to depict the Germans in a negative manner. (Robb 6) This allowed for the breaking down of social barriers relating to gender and class as the focus for citizens was dedicated less to inner conflict and more to that of their German enemy. (Robb 5) The British saw themselves as being the embodiment of values such as peace and democracy, unlike that of their German foe. (Robb 6) As the propaganda against Germany filtered in through newspapers and film (Robb 6), British society sought to invoke nationalism in its young through toys and literature that were war related. (Robb 160) Stories of patriotism were geared to young boys through periodicals such as The Boy’s Own Paper, which featured stories about military training and pictures of military equipment. (Robb 177)
These periodicals also hoped to instill national pride in their young male readers by having their magazine covers feature boys standing in front of the British flag (Robb 177); boys that their readers could probably relate to and look up to. There were also numerous novel series set during the war that were being published at the time. (Robb 177) These series probably allowed young boys to gain a better understanding of the events of the war and perhaps, served as a source of fantasy for them. British girls were targeted to by periodicals such as Girl Guides’ Gazette which taught them how to “endure the war’s sorrows silently” and to can food and knit socks in order to support their country. (Robb 178) Such content reflected the social codes/expectations of women at the time; especially given their contrast to the content of the boys’ periodicals. As women’s independence gained more traction during the progression of the war, however, book series which featured characters going on adventures targeted specifically to girls, started to appear. (Robb 178)
Outside of literature, children also had a more direct involvement in the war. They were responsible for collecting the leftover fats from cooking in order to aid in the production of scrap metal and explosives for factories which produced war ammunitions. (Robb 174-75) Not only did they use their allowances to buy war bonds, they also had their own gardens which helped with the national production of food. (Robb 175) At school, they also had drills that were military style and had to endure newly established programs such as calisthenics. (Robb 175) The level of British children’s involvement in the war was so vigorous that H.A.L. Fisher, who was the Education Minister at the time, later confessed to the fact that 600,000 children were “‘prematurely’” used for work in the war from 1914 to 1917. (Robb 175)
Steel’s Book In The Context of War
Keeping in mind one of the functions of fairy tales as being that of education, in conjunction with the propaganda through literature that was prominent during the war, it is possible to view Steel’s book as a continuation of the nationalistic theme during the war. With its publishing, the book perhaps acts as a tool for children to be proud of their country through its literary history. On the other hand, given the entertainment value that fairy tales have and the nature of children’s involvement during the war (and even that of the war itself), it is possible to place Steel’s book in the position as that of a tool of escapism for children; one that allows them to escape from the harsh realities they have come to know throughout the war years and into that of the imagination. No matter which view is the most plausible or was intended, there is no denying the fact that Steel’s book was meant to be a celebration of the contribution that England made in the development of the fairy tale genre.
English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel is available to read online (with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations) and download at Project Gutenberg.
“Advertisement.” Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art. 126.3291 (1918):1097. ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
“Advertisement.” The Spectator. Nov 30 1918: 635. ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. Ashliman, D.L. Folk And Fairy Tales: A Handbook. Wesport, C.T. : Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.
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