2000-04-22: The Classic Fairy Tales

The Classic Fairy Tales  (1974)

by Iona (1923-) & Peter (1918-1982) Opie

The title page of this very interesting book has an epigram:

It is grown people who make the nursery stories; all children do, is jealously preserve the text.   – Robert Louis Stevenson

The Opies (apparently well-known for work in children’s literature and traditions) have gathered the earliest available English texts of 24 well-known fairy tales. It was somewhat surprising to me how late most of these texts were. The earliest is The History of Tom Thumb in 1621. Others range through the 1700’s and into the 1800’s. Most of these are translations or adaptations from earlier stories published in French (Charles Perrault, Mme d’Aulnoy), German (the Grimm brothers), or Denmark (Hans Christian Andersen). It is not clear how many native English fairy tales might have been current in oral tradition before the printing of these established ‘canonical’ versions.

The Opies provide an introduction to each tale, often with summaries or extracts from variations. The whole work is a nice introduction to the memetics of the transmission of fairy tales as literature. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to trace the equally interesting memetics of transmission of fairy tales as oral literature.

The book is illustrated with copies of various pictures that appeared in various editions of the tales. There is a particularly interesting picture of Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother. This is a single image; one-way-up it is Cinderella, the other-way-up it is the Fairy Godmother.

Before their introduction, there are several quotations on the topic of fairy tales:

The recollection of such reading as had delighted him in his infancy, made him always persist in fancying that it was the only reading which could please an infant … “Babies do not want (said he) to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles, and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds”. –  Mrs. Thrale, Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, 1786

Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with tales and old wives’ fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history!  – Charles Lamb to Samuel Coleridge, 23 October 1802

Independently of the curious circumstances that such tales should be found existing in many different countries and languages, which augurs a greater poverty of human invention than we would have expected, there is also a sort of wild fairy interest in them, which makes me think them fully better adapted to awaken the imagination and soften the heart of childhood than the good-boy stories which have been in later years composed for them.  – Walter Scott to Edgar Taylor, 16 January 1823

Some persons, indeed, consider our once popular nursery fictions calculated to make children idle, and indisposed for the acquirement of knowledge; but, if such be their effects, we would respectfully ask how it happens that the present generation is so superlatively sensible, seeing that it was, in infancy, a greedy devourer of the dainties of Mothers Bunch and Goose?  – Advertisement for Rosewarne’s fairy tale booklets, c. 1850

Let him know his fairy tale accurately, and have perfect joy or awe in the conception of it as if it were real; thus he will always be exercising his power of grasping realities: but a confused, careless, and discrediting tenure of the fiction will lead to as confused and careless reading of fact. Let the circumstances of both be strictly perceived, and long dwelt upon, and let the child’s own mind develop fruit of thought from both. It is of the greatest importance early to secure this habit of contemplation, and therefore it is a grave error, either to multiply unnecessarily, or to illustrate with extravagant richness, the incidents presented to the imagination.  – John Ruskin, introduction to German Popular Stories, 1868

Never, in all my early childhood, did any one address to me the affecting preamble, “Once upon a time!” I was told about missionaries, but never about pirates; I was familiar with humming-birds, but I had never heard of fairies. Jack the Giant Killer, Rumpelstiltskin and Robin Hood were not of my acquaintance, and though I understood about wolves, Little Red Ridinghood was a stranger even by name. So far as my “dedication” was concerned, I can but think that my parents were in error thus to exclude the imaginary from my outlook upon facts. They desired to make me truthful; the tendency was to make me positive and sceptical. Had they wrapped me in the soft folds of supernatural fancy, my mind might have been longer content to follow their traditions in an unquestioning spirit.  – Edmund Gosse, Father and Son, 1907

If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other — the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.  – G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered, 1908

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