As soon as I learned to read as a little girl, I loved fantasy stories – especially ones about animals like the books about Miss Bianca and Doctor Dolittle. And naturally I had books of fairy tales as a kid that my mother read to me with the classic stories like Cinderella and Snow White.
My first book of fairy tales (that was mine alone) was the Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales which was very pretty and rather tame. I loved the pictures and remember that I had a treasured box of jigsaw puzzles of some of the same illustrations.
I didn’t start to read fairy tales to myself until I was around age 10. We had a gold bound book of Andersen’s Fairy Tales with colorful but unpleasant pictures by Arthur Szyk, and the incredibly beautiful Golden Book of Fairy Tales – both of which had dark and disturbing stories in them. These books weren’t the sanitized versions kids know today with happy princesses and lots of love and singing – they were full of violence, sadness and suffering – though the good and virtuous (and beautiful) usually won over the evil in the end.
I remember my 12th birthday very clearly because of the gift my sister gave me that year. We had my birthday dinner in the dining room on the big pull out antique table that had been my paternal grandmother’s; one that we usually only used for company or for Seders. My sister was working at the time at a bookstore in the Village of Bronxville. The gift she gave me came from that store – it was a copy of the Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. The book was a facsimile edition from Dover Publishing full of beautiful Victorian illustrations that were elaborate and romantic and pulled me completely in. I remember the joy of opening that present and finding this wonderful book inside. I eagerly devoured all 390 pages.
I loved the book so much that soon after, I saved up my allowance and asked her to order in a copy of the next book in the series – the Red Fairy Book.
The following January, we left NY and moved to the remote farmhouse in New Brunswick, Canada. I had only the books that our family owned to read (though admittedly it was a very good selection and I went through almost every book eventually), and some wonderful classic horse stories that my cousin kindly lent me to help me get through the adjustment of life in the country that first spring.
I read my Red and Blue Fairy Books repeatedly that year and knew that Dover had the entire 12 books in the series in print. So my 13 year old self wrote to Dover Publishing and asked if I could buy more of their Fairy books, and they sent me their catalog all the way from New York City.
I’d save up my money and when I had enough, I’d go to the post office in town with my mother and get a money order in the right amount and send it off in the mail, and magically a beautiful treasure of a book would arrive a few weeks later. I ended up owning the entire series when I was a teenager – all in all hundreds of fairy and folk tales from all over the world and many many enchanting illustrations.
As I grew older I turned to more grown up books. From Dover I was able to order the facsimile editions of the King Arthur books and the Robin Hood book written and illustrated by Howard Pyle – cementing a passion for all things Arthurian and Medieval. (see my post Going Medieval on this blog)
And I fell in love with the language and romance of The Boy’s King Arthur by Sidney Lanier (based on the 15th century texts of Sir Thomas Malory) and illustrated by NC Wyeth – a tough read but worth it. I especially loved the fights between knights when they smote each other upon their brain pans.
I got so interested in my teens with medieval tales that I read the Mabinogion and and the Joinville and Villehardouin Chronicles of the Crusades. I also read excerpts from my parent’s copy of the Golden Bough.
Around 14, I discovered my mother’s 1941 edition of the Arabian Nights – A Complete and Unabridged Selection translated by Richard F Burton. I already had the magnificent version of the Arabian Nights illustrated by Maxfield Parrish which was more aimed at children (albeit children with advanced reading abilities).
This book however was for adults and was full of the original stories that were erotic and exotic tales of love, lust and violence.
Definitely a new take on the traditional tales I’d been reading up til then… it was eye opening. I thought it especially wonderful that the most beautiful women were described as having navels that you could fit a giant ruby in or an ounce of oil…
I guess all that reading of folk and fairy tales and tales of medieval romance, explains why today I so love the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, and the subsequent TV series Game of Thrones.
It has all the pageantry, romance, violence, horses, magic, princes and princesses and good versus evil as the old stuff I grew up reading. Its the best grown up version of a fairy tale I’ve read, and the best way to escape the hum drum of everyday.
I think that the old tales were told to help children in particular, learn to cope with the very real fears of life and to give guidance on being a good person. Today, the world is still a dark and scary place and as a kid and teenager I found the stories comforting and an escape from the realities of the very real fear of nuclear war, murderers (and worse), and of course the tension of my father’s mental illness. It was reassuring to know that although there were terrifying things out there, there were good people out there too – heroic people who could change the world.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all – even if it is just fantasy.
Personal Opinion Here: I firmly believe that everyone – especially children – need real art in their lives – it stimulates the imagination and gives a richness to life. The kind of illustrations I grew up with are rare these days in books and I think that’s an awful shame. Do your children (and yourself) a favor and buy beautiful and beautifully written books.