In the years prior to the reign of Queen Victoria, fairy tales were dismissed and marginalized in English culture. Sense and sensibility ruled the school. According to Micheal Patrick Hearn, “Utilitarians had no use for fairy tales” (xxi). But with Victoria’s coronation in 1837, fantasy crept back into British nurseries in what is now coined as the “golden age for the literary fairy tale” (xix). Personally, I tend to gravitate towards the more savage wonder tales in the search for source material to seed my own work. Although I realize English fairy tales “were cleansed of the savagery and ethical ambiguity that had characterized many traditional stories,” I decided to tackle The Victorian Fairy Tale Book by Micheal Patrick Hearn in order to expand my knowledge of the fairy tale (xix).
The collection starts out with “The King of the Golden Rivers” by John Ruskin. This fairy tale, which was published in 1851, is an ecological fairy tale that relies on the moral structure of the influence good and evil have on the environment. The second tale, “The Rose and the Ring” was written by William Makepeace Thackeray and drones on for 70 pages. Morality is a game of beauty and wit in this satire filled with the high-jinks of the upper class in “The Rose and the Ring.” By the time I finished the first two collected tales, I began to question my decision to annotate what was beginning to look like a truly tedious chore.
When I saw the next story was by Charles Dickens, I had hopes that were instantly dashed with the opening line: “There was once a King, and he had a Queen, and he was the manliest of his sex, and she was the loveliest of hers” (107). Although I’m aware Victorian fairy tales tended to be overtly moralizing, I was surprised at the overbearing comedic attempts in these opening stories. These pieces appeared unrelated to the more familiar German and Russian fairy tales, which tend to be populated with peasants instead of princesses. Oddly enough, these Victorian tales also feature actual fairies, a trend which also appears to contradict the traditional nature of fairy tales. In addition to the presence of fairies, Hearn attempts to forge a connection through the fantastical in his introduction: “Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted” (xvii). If this was his reasoning behind the type of stories encompassed in the fairy tale canon, I couldn’t help but wonder what wouldn’t be considered a part of Faerie.
In the end, I only recognized a few of the stories in the collection, but even these tales I’d loved as a child seemed saccharine and condescending when revisited as an adult. For instance, in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning all of the children were abducted and the adults who had transgressed were left to pay the price: “And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice,/ If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise” (34). And, in “The Little Lame Prince and His Travelling Cloak” by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, readers learn how it’s better to stay home instead of braving the terrors of travelling. Children are also instructed on the virtues of piety, bravery, patience, humbleness, and justice. In this tale, the prince becomes a king whose entire life is dedicated to his people: “He never gave them a queen. When they implored him to choose one, he replied that his country was his bride, and he desired no other. But perhaps the real reason was that he shrank from any change…” (188). Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t see how afraid of change is a positive personality trait.
Not all was lost though; I did find a couple of stories populated with characters who begged for new lives in a modern age. “Goblin Market,” an epic poem penned by Christina Rossetti, paints a colorful portrait of Faerie and its enchanted fruit. The warning against temptation is hammered home in the lyric stylings, but there is something else hidden there, something resembling defiance. And I love it.
After deciding to save her curious sister from the curse that comes with eating fairy fruit, Lizzie arms herself with a silver penny and “At twilight, halted by the brook: /And for the first time in her life/began to listen and look” (202). The crafty girl tricks the goblin into an orgiastic frenzy as they try to force her to eat their forbidden fruit. “Lizzie uttered not a word;/Would not open lip from lip/Lest they cram a mouthful in; But laughed in heart to feel the drip/Of juice that syrupped all her face,/And lodged in dimples in her chin…” (204). In the end, the juice and pulp revive her sister Laura from her enchanted fugue.
However, I can’t help but wonder how this erotically-charged tale might be twisted if instead of sisters, Lizzie and Laura were lovers: “Did you miss me?/Come and kiss me. Never mind my bruises,/ Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,/ Goblin pulp and goblin dew./ Eat me, drink me, love me;/For your sake I have braved the glen/ And had to do with goblin merchant men” (205). The possibilities are delicious, indeed.
Another of the stories in this collection that called to me was “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde” by Mary de Morgan. Although the Princess Fiorimonde is painted as an evil sorceress, I couldn’t help but root for her when she acquires a magic necklace that will save her from the unwanted fate of being married off to the highest bidder. As soon as a would-be husband closes his fingers over the chain, he is transformed into a bead and fated to remain as such until a time the chain is cut and the bead drops off. Using the weapons of beauty and charm, she ends up with quite a selection of brightly colored beads. Unfortunately, it is a Victorian fairy tale, so she is eventually defeated when she succumbs to vanity and impatience: “[T]he Princess, who in her rage and eagerness, forgot all else and…seized the string of beads to lift it from her neck, but no sooner had she taken it in her hands than they fell with a rattle to the earth and Fiorimonde herself was nowhere to be seen.” Once her wickedness was exposed, the kings and princes who had been gathered on the chain were released, but Fiorimonde was left strung as a bead on the magic chain: “Give her no other punishment than what she has chosen for herself. [L]et this string be hung up where all people can see it and see the one bead, and know the wicked Princess is punished for her sorcery, so it will be a warning to others who would do like her” (227). Personally, I wanted her to win seeing as the ensorcelled kings and princes were decidedly more interesting as beads.
All in all, the stories collected in The Victorian Fairy Tale Book offer a framework with which to view the society and culture at the time. Although, these particular fairy tales were difficult to wade through, they did pose some interesting questions about the place of moral lessons in literature. I suppose all stories contain elements of the cultural mores existing during the time they were conceived. What I find curious is how the moral questioning shifts over time. However, when looked at with a modern mindset and the very real dilemmas faced in contemporary times, the Victorian optimism that such a tepid trait as complacency will solve problems is laughable. In Victorian times, the monsters and witches were cut out from the fairy tale fabric. However, the world we live in today is anything but that. Give me the monsters. Give me the witches. We need them now, more than ever.
Hearn, Michael Patrick, editor. The Victorian Fairy Tale Book. Pantheon Books, 1988.