Native Nostalgia in Cyrus Macmillan’s Canadian Wonder Tales (1974)

©Copyright 2014 Jamie Lee Morin, Ryerson University.

<em> Canadian Wonder Tales </em> cover page
Cover page of Canadian Wonder Tales 1974


In times of happiness and sadness, children always turn to stories of various genres to cope with the situations that they may be going through. 1974’s Canadian Wonder Tales: Being the Two Collections Canadian Wonder Tales and Canadian Fairy Tales Collected from Oral Sources, by Cyrus Macmillan and illustrated by Elizabeth Cleaver, continued the tradition of telling folk and fairy tales that did not necessarily originate in Europe. At the time of Canadian Wonder Tales’ initial publication in 1918, Cyrus Macmillan (1882-1953) went from teaching at McGill University to joining the 7th Canadian Siege Battery and edited it while serving on the front lines of Vimy Ridge in World War I (Macmillan xi). During such a period of traditional heroism, “… a generation [where] potentially brilliant writers, thinkers, and scientists was grievously decimated” along with many other able-bodied, brave people who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country (Emberley 139). Thus, Macmillan was highly fortunate to have survived what must have been four years of turmoil overseas. Post-war, he was an editor and writer, with 24 works in 103 publications in four languages (Worldcat). Elizabeth Cleaver (1939-1985) is an illustrator who specialized in illustrating children’s books and was specifically attracted to fairy tales, myths and legends. She has collaborated with other writers for 38 works in 80 publications in two languages (Worldcat). She experienced her first rise to fame in 1971 for her illustrations in The New Wind has Wings before the publication of the 1974 edition of Canadian Wonder Tales (Jones and Strott 82).

Both Macmillan and Cleaver had a deep intrinsic interest towards Native culture and present Native culture respectfully. However, Macmillan does refer to these Aboriginal stories incorrectly in several instances by calling them “tales.” In Western culture that may be the case, however these are authentic stories in Aboriginal cultures. Despite that slight slip of appropriation on Macmillan’s behalf, both Macmillan and Cleaver demonstrate a cultural exchange between European and Aboriginal cultures with their works combined. The reasoning behind the collecting of these stories was to ensure that these stories did not die, but rather lived in a book for ensuring that these tales “from Canada’s romantic past” were not lost in “Canada’s practical present” (Macmillan 140). What is so interesting about this book is that it has been patiently waiting for perusal in the Children’s Literature Archive at Ryerson University, in Toronto, which are the traditional lands of the New Credit of the Mississaugas (Black, personal communication).

Summary of Canadian Wonder Tales

Illustration for "Glooskap's Country"
Illustration: “Glooskap’s Country”

This anthology of Canadian Wonder Tales (1918) and Canadian Fairy Tales (1922), published by The Bodley Head in London, and subsequently Toronto, are mainly comprised of Native folklore and legends that were given to Macmillan from Aboriginal tribes and settlers. His editing process gave each of these folktales a slightly European romanticist spin, or demonstrates slight assimilation of the tales to incorporate European fairytale motifs such as wands and ogres (Macmillan iv). For the sake of brevity I will only be discussing Aboriginal folk and fairy tales at length, such as Glooskap and the creation of certain traditions and insects. Glooskap’s tales in Macmillan’s anthology outlines a Mi’kmaq creation story (“Glooskap’s Country”), as well as many other tales where he changes the environment surrounding him. There are also other forms of the creation story with Glooskap being uninvolved, such as the creation of black flies and mosquitoes.


Both Canadian Wonder Tales and Canadian Fairy Tales were originally published separately in 1918 and 1922, and then republished as an anthology in 1974. The 1974 anthology of Canadian Wonder Tales contains the original copies from the original editions, with the only changes being the illustrator and publisher. In the previous editions, Canadian Wonder Tales was illustrated by George Sheringham and published by John Gundy. Canadian Fairy Tales was “illustrated by Marcia Lane Foster and published by John Lane The Bodley Head” (Macmillan iv). Both copies, like the 1974 edition, were initially published in London, England. The 1974 edition is the first time that the two books have been combined into an abridged copy. There is only one illustration by Cleaver per story.

Illustration to "Glooskap and the Fairy"
Illustration: “Glooskap and the Fairy”

Cultural Exchange in Production

In the foreword for Canadian Wonder Tales, William Peterson, his London liaison, markets Macmillan’s compilation as an enjoyable Christmas gift for the pleasure of children while still appealing to an adult audience (Macmillan ix-x). It is also interesting to note that both books were originally published and illustrated by non-Canadians, yet held a great following both in Canada and abroad (Edwards and Saltman 37). In the preface, Macmillan himself states the method that he has received the tales that were published in the 1918 edition, and thanks “the nameless Indians and ‘habitants’, the fishermen and sailors, ‘the spinners and the knitters in the sun,’” for sharing their tales with him (Macmillan xi). He also says in both prefaces that the basic skeleton of the story remains but there are slight changes (xi & 140). Macmillan also sensed an elegiac tone to the telling of these tales and worried about the future of what was then perceived as a “dying race” as a form of salvage anthropology (Jones and Strott 38). Of course, it is now known to not be the case, but rather quite the opposite – Aboriginal populations still thrives to this day.

In the case of Elizabeth Cleaver, her illustration style is basic beauty, through pressing image technique. In the 1974 edition she uses black ink on white paper in a way that is essential in style but not essentialist in presentation when it comes to the depiction of Aboriginal figures in the text. The method of illustration that she preferred was that of the collage. “The foundation of her illustrations was monoprints pulled wet from a glass plate to create … textually rich papers. She then transformed the papers through tearing, cutting, layering, and pasting [using many natural sources such as food skins, tree branches, barks and needles]” (Saltman and Edwards 36). Her normally rich-coloured illustration techniques were instead presented with black ink in the 1974 edition of Canadian Wonder Tales. She not only collaborated with this republication, but also collaborated with William Toye and the Oxford University Press Canada between 1969-1979 for introducing Aboriginal stories with texts, especially those that focused on Glooscap (Saltman and Edwards 42). Her usage of raw, organic materials seeks to pay homage to the elements of nature, which is a common practice in Native culture.

Reception, from 1918 to 1974

Illustration from "Rabbit and the Grain Buyers"
Illustration: “Rabbit and the Grain Buyers”

The two books were generally well-received at the time, coinciding with the end of the Great War in 1918. His works had continued popularity, even remaining in the 1940 edition of Books for Boys and Girls: Prepared at Boys and Girls House by the Toronto Public Library, nearly 20 years after the initial publication for Canadian Fairy Tales (1922). In the decade before this specific edition was re-released, there was a rise of interest in Aboriginal literatures. It was specifically marked with multiple changes in children’s literature in the world; specifically in Canada there was a rise in interest in Aboriginal traditions (Toye 120).

In the 1960s, the re-tellers of Aboriginal tales “were a group of non-Natives who in various books, and within a specific Indian group, undertook to give meaning, brevity and coherence to what appeared to be (in the non-native population) a large, unwieldy, fragmented, rough-hewn body of anecdotal material”; however, this did make the essential Indigenous legends be able to be interpreted by a wider audience, especially with the Natives beginning to recall and compile their own tales (Toye 121). Upon being republished as an anthology in late 1974, it received very good reviews and even made it into a “best Canadian books of 1974” review in The Globe and Mail. It was recommended to readers who “liked the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen and want something closer to home they’ll love this Bodley Head reduplication” (Montagnes). It was also popular enough to have selections be read out on the radio, with the tales being read at key times when children would be at home, such as bedtime or in the afternoons (Other 35 – No Title; Other 48 – No Title). This dictates a high popularity because selections from the book seeing as they were being read on the radio.

Native Stories, Children, and War

As mentioned in the introduction, Macmillan edited Canadian Wonder Tales on the front lines of Vimy Ridge. Initially, I was surprised that any soldier would have any time to do something unrelated to the conduct of war; however, I later discovered that it was not at all impossible. Besides war related duties, there extended periods of time with no action while you waiting for the enemy to make their move (Simonyi, personal communication). According to Bercuson’s book called The Fighting Canadians: Our Regimental History from New France to Afghanistan, any Canadian Forces member at war must keep a war diary, or an official record of the goings-on of the unit (159). Soldiers were also eager when it came to time off from fighting and off-scene duties (Granfield 13). This helps to draw the conclusion that Macmillan was indeed editing his compilation of the 1918 edition while serving at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. A final point is that seeing villages become eradicated by a war which was still being fought long after the Christmas of 1914 may have been the final action which made Macmillan start compiling these tales. He saw that Native culture was on the decline at that point and wished to preserve at least some of its folk and fairy tales merely out of a sense of nostalgia for pre-war times (Granfield 4).

Illustration for "The Bad Indian's Ashes"
Illustration: “The Bad Indian’s Ashes”

Despite some of his changes to certain aspects of the Aboriginal folk tales, he still remains highly faithful to the spirit of the presentation of these stories themselves (Egoff and Saltman 190). Folk and fairy tales tend to demonstrate a utopian period of time in which it was always “projected as a better time” (Haase 361). For instance, if we take Glooskap’s many tales that mention in the 1974 anthology, such as “Glooskap’s Country”, “Glooskap and the Fairy”, “The Passing of Glooskap” and “How Glooskap Made the Birds”, they all discuss elements of creation and recreation of the environment surrounding him. In “Glooskap’s Country”, Glooskap sails to Eastern Canada and his canoe becomes Newfoundland and the Acadian region. His twin brother, Wolf, was his enemies who had three allies. By the end of the story, Wolf and his allies are defeated by Glooskap. This cycle is repeated in every other tale with different circumstances, and it always ends with his triumph. This leads me to conclude that many of these tales selected from Macmillan’s total compilation were originally intended for Aboriginal warriors, especially pre-contact.

Haase suggests that beginning the tales with “once upon a time” or other variants such as time stamping the tale to a pre-contact era, creates an indifference to space and therefore gives an ambiguity of time to create an escape from wartime nightmares (363). As well, with such a massive and traumatic loss of life associated with the Great War, there was a great need for distraction though being filled with a significant “Other”, like Aboriginals in Canada, to fill the empty emotional hole left by this traumatic loss in European history (Emberley 108). The collection and publishing of these books not only coincide with wars, but also with the rise of interest in Aboriginal literatures, specifically folk tales. The initial publishing and republishing of the books occur with post World War I for the previous editions, and with the Vietnam War for this edition. Both the release and re-release can be considered a psychological coping strategy for those who were immediately affected by the trauma of war (Haase 366).

For instance, the tale “The Bad Indian’s Ashes” tells the story of a murderous Aboriginal man who had to be killed by his uncle in order to save many more lives; while this story is also the genesis of the black flies, it is also alludes to war, as like this antagonist, war continues to live on and be re-born long after we believe it to be over with. In this case, everyone would want to be like Glooskap or his allies, who demonstrate heroism and receive glory from defeating Wolf and his allies. Rather than demonstrating the destructive power of war, Macmillan demonstrates heroism and glory through his adaptations and selections in these two books. Native nostalgia also returns in waves with these publications; this edition, rather than be culturally insensitive, instead demonstrates a culture exchange between two different cultures, as they both have connections with war (Hearne 523).


Hearne says that “every story … is a memory swap” and Macmillan, as well as Cleaver through her masterful illustrations, ultimately respected Native tradition and left vital pieces of folklore as they stood (525). These stories, passed down through generations, were teachings for Aboriginal children who became warriors. They always evoke a sense of pride in culture for Aboriginals. For non-Aboriginal children, it is a collection of tales that they can relate to and employ as a distraction from the effects of war. Something of similar caliber can also be said for Macmillan’s compilation of tales; much like the Great Chiefs of times past (and present), the printed work engages children to encourage them to be heroic like the soldiers who just came home from War. In essence, while this text uses Aboriginal culture as a means of a distraction from the losses incurred by war to attempt to answer the reason why war happens. The premise of the stories also demonstrates that fighting happens and that you must triumph for the benefit of others.

Further Reading and Download Options

1. Canadian Wonder Tales , with illustrations by George Sheringham (1918)

2. Canadian Fairy Tales with illustrations by Marcia Lane Foster (1922)

Note: If you wish to download a pdf version of these texts, simply doubleclick on the hyperlinked book title and it will bring you to the page, with download options on the left-hand side.

Videos – A Mi’kmaq Creation Story © by Migmawei

“Tan-Wet-Abeg-Sol-Teagw: Where We Come From” Presented by the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Part 1

Part 2

These videos cover the World and Glooskap’s Creation story, which is a small but slightly expanded version of what is present in Cyrus Macmillan’s compilation.

Works Cited

Bercuson, David J. The Fighting Canadians: Our Regimental History from New France to Afghanistan. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.

Black, T. Personal Communication. 20 March 2014.

“Cleaver, Elizabeth 1939-1985.” WorldCat Identities. N. pag., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Edwards, Gail, and Saltman, Judith. Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Print.

Egoff, Sheila A, and Saltman, Judith. The New Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children’s Literature in English. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Emberley, Julia. Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.

Granfield, Linda. Where Poppies Grow: A World War I Companion. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside. 2001. Print.

Haase, Donald. “Children, War, and the Imaginative Space of Fairy Tales.” The John Hopkins University Press. 2000. pp. 360-377. ProQuest. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Hearne, Betsy. “Swapping Tales and Stealing Stories: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Folklore in Children’s Literature.” Library Trends, 47(3). 1999. pp. 509-528. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

“MacMillan, Cyrus 1880-1953.” WorldCat Identities. N. pag, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

MacMillan, Cyrus. Canadian Wonder Tales: Being the Two Collections Canadian Wonder Tales and Canadian Fairy Tales Collected from Oral Sources. London: Bodley Head, 1974. Print. Children’s Literature Archive: Ryerson University.

Montagnes, Anne. “Behold the Ultimate Virtue.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current). 7 Dec. 1974. ProQuest. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

“Other 35 — No Title.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current) 24 Jan. 1975. ProQuest. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

“Other 48 — No Title.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current) 17 Jan. 1975. ProQuest. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

Saltman, Judith, and Gail Edwards. “Elizabeth Cleaver, William Toye, and Oxford University Press: Creating the Canadian Picturebook.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 42(1), 2004. pp. 31-64. Google Scholar. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

Simonyi, S. Personal Communication – Email. 27 March 2014.

Smith, Lillian H. Books for Boys and Girls: prepared at Boys and Girls House. 2nd edition. Toronto: Toronto Public Libraries. 1940. Print.

Strott, Jon C, and Raymond E Jones. Canadian Children’s Books. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Toye, William, ed. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print.