Book Review: The Crimson Fairy Book

The Crimson Fairy Book
Edited by Andrew Lang

My edition:
Paperback, 371 pages
1993, Dover Publications, Inc.
ISBN: 048621799X

3/5 stars

Andrew Lang put together twelve Fairy Books filled with fairy tales from around the world, each named after its own color. Personally, I’ve arranged my collection according to the rainbow and that’s the order I’ll be reading them in (I’m still undecided as to whether I think the red book looks better first, or the crimson. I decided to start with crimson – a picture of the collection, minus the Brown Fairy Book, which I don’t own yet, can be seen here).

As described on the back of the book, “The Crimson Fairy Book contains a fascinating collection of tales from many countries: Hungary, Russia, Rumania, Finland, Iceland, Japan and Sicily are only some of them…All in all, the collection contains 36 stories, all narrated in the clear, lively prose for which Lang was famous.” This book is an unabridged copy of the original 1903 edition and contains a total  of 53 illustrations.

This book contains the following tales:
Lovely Ilonka, Lucky Luck. The Hairy Man, To your Good Health!, The Story of the Seven Simons, The Language of Beasts, The Boy who could keep a Secret, The Prince and the Dragon, Little Wildrose, Tiidu the Piper, Paperarello, The Gifts of the Magician, The Strong Prince, The Treasure Seeker, The Cottager and his Cat, The Prince who would seek Immortality, The Stone-cutter, The Gold-bearded Man, Tritill, Litill, and the Birds, The Three Robes, The Six Hungry Beasts, How the Beggar Boy turned into Count Piro, The Rogue and the Herdsman, Eisenkopf, The Death of Abu Nowas and of his Wife, Motikatika, Niels and the Giants, Shepherd Paul, How the wicked Tanuki was punished, The Crab and the Monkey, The Horse Gullfaxi and the Sword, Gunnfoder, The Story of the Sham Prince, or the Ambitious Tailor, The Colony of Cats, How to find out a True Friend, Clever Maria, The Magic Kettle

I’m not sure if each book has a prevailing theme, but this book seems to focus on events unfolding around members of royalty or people who become royalty, with a few stories about animals thrown into the mix.

What I liked:
The illustrations in this book are wonderful. There are two types – what I consider to be line drawings, and then the shaded, more detailed drawings, which I believe were originally published in color (oh how I wish these editions were in color too!)

20140430_215934

From ‘Little Wildrose’ – p.103

From 'The Hairy Man' - p.22 This one is wonderful but also very creepy.

From ‘The Hairy Man’ – p.22
This one is wonderful but also very creepy.

From 'The Story of the Seven Simons' - p.42 Halftone version of a color picture.

From ‘The Story of the Seven Simons’ – p.42
Halftone version of a color picture.

As an adult, I often find myself wishing that more of the novels I read contained illustrations. You’re never too old to read books with pictures!

There’s one story in particular I’d like to highlight, as I felt it was a good example of a ‘moral story’ and I felt like it was something that children (and adults, I suppose) could learn a lesson from: The Stone-Cutter.

This story is essentially about a stone cutter who isn’t happy with his position in life. He was good at what he did, but one day, upon delivering something to a rich man’s house, the stone cutter desired to be rich too. His wish was granted by a mountain spirit and he enjoyed his new life for some time, but then saw a prince passing by and wished instead to be a prince. This wish was granted too. He then wishes to be the sun when he realized that no matter how he watered his grass, the sun still dried it out, and surely the sun was mightier than a price. After this the man wishes to become a cloud, and then a mountain, as he viewed each to be more powerful than the last. When he is being chipped away at by a stone-cutter, he wishes to be a man once more. In the end, he learned to be satisfied with what he originally had and never heard the voice of the mountain spirit again.

This tale really shows that the grass isn’t always greener, because there’s always going to be a life out there that is different from yours, and your perception of what’s “better” than what you have isn’t always right. This is probably the biggest lesson I took away from this book.

The Colony of Cats made me smile too, because a girl ran away from a bad home situation to serve in a castle full of cats. This is like, the ultimate crazy cat lady dream.

What I didn’t like:
Many of these tales left me stumped – looking for the “moral” or the lesson of the story and wondering why on earth people used to tell such strange tales. Perhaps I was reading too much into these stories (wokka, wokka, wokka!) and my modern mind is used to plot development, character motivation, and generally, an explanation for why things are happening in the first place. While most of the stories entertained me, some left me confused, grossed out, or a little offended.

In the first story, Lovely Ilonka, a prince has wandered off into the world to find his fortune and comes across a house with a little old woman in it. He says good evening to her, to be polite and she respond with “It is lucky for you that you spoke to me or you would have met with a horrible death.” Then she moves to the subject of what the prince is looking for and proceeds to try and help him. No more mention is made of his narrowly-escaped death! To someone who is used to reading novels, this just blew my mind. WHY would he have met with a horrible death for not speaking with her? Why is he not at all bothered that he could have been almost killed? Many stories felt underdeveloped in this way and left me wanting more. I kept getting hung up on details that clearly aren’t important to whoever created these stories.

An example of something I found a little gross can be found in The Language of the Beats – a young shepherd wishes to gain the language of the beasts and the king of the snakes is willing to grant it to him. Here’s the ritual: The boy is told to open his mouth and does so. The king of the snakes spits into his mouth, then tells the boy to spit back into his mouth. This happens three times, then the boy can understand the language of all animals. Ick!

A message that bothered me is also found in The Language of the Beasts – after gaining his powers, the boy is told not to mention them to anyone, or he’ll die instantly. His wife begins questioning him one day after he laughs at something related to his secret power and he is almost ready to tell her of  his power and die, when he overhears a crow talking about how he purposefully torments his many wives, and if they give him any sass he “gives [them] a lesson with his beak.” The boy hears this and grabs a stick and calls his wife to him, saying he’ll tell her what she wants to know, and “then he began to beat her with the stick, saying with each blow: ‘It is that, wife, it is that!’ And in this way he taught her never again to ask why he had laughed.” Probably I’m being too pc, and I know this was written ages ago when it was fully acceptable to beat your wife and kids, but it’s not something I enjoyed reading.

There are also several examples of people coming into riches or power through sheer luck and one such example is the story of How The Beggar Boy turned into Count Piro. The tale starts of by describing a man’s son as a “lazy, stupid boy, who would never do anything he was told.” The boy’s father dies and rather than seek work, the boy decides to lay around the house and live off the magical pears from the tree outside the house. After this a fox comes by and randomly decides to help the boy. In the end, thanks to the cleverness of the fox, the boy ends up with a princess for a wife, his own castle and the title of Count Piro. All the fox asks is that if he dies, Piro will grant him a grand burial. To test Piro’s loyalty the fox pretends to die and Piro orders him tossed into a ditch. The fox springs back to life and accuses Piro of being ungrateful. Piro passes it all off as a joke and is forgiven, but he’s so ungrateful and undeserving of what he was rewarded with that I wish the fox had cursed him or something.

That said, it was interesting to read tales that were unfamiliar to me – having grown up with Disney movies and the usual retellings of popular tales (ie: Rose Red, Little Mermaid, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc). I will definitely continue to read my way through the rainbow of tales Lang has collected.

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