Iona and Peter Opie’s The Classic Fairy Tales

2739482478_fcb0287af2_zAnd this is the merit of [fairy] tales, that by going beyond possibility they enlarge our daily horizon. For a man not given to speculation might as well walk on four legs as on two. A child who does not feel wonder is but an inlet for apple pie. — from the introduction

The Green Man Review has numerous reviews of fairy tale collections because there are many such collections available. All of them make valid claims on your attention (and pocketbook). Some are the work of a single author who takes the old tales and rewrites them afresh. Some are the work of scholars who follow the tales to their oral roots and painstakingly translate them as accurately as possible. Some are the collaboration of an author and an artist, joining vivid images with the traditional stories to create a unique experience for the reader.

So what does Iona and Peter Opie’s The Classic Fairy Tales have to offer that makes it worth being reprinted numerous times since its first publication in 1974? Chiefly this: collected here are twenty-four of the best-known traditional fairy tales as they were first published in English. The earliest is “The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed, King Arthvrs Dwarfe: Whose Life and aduentures containe many strange and wonderfull accidents, published for the delight of merry Time-spenders,” dated 1621. The text from which “Hansel and Gretel” — the last tale in the collection — is taken was published in 1853.

While the tales are not all printed as exact facsimiles of the originals, the Opies have left the original spellings and language usage in each tale intact. For example, here is a passage from “The History of Tom Thumbe”:

Tom Thumbes renowne and honours, growing to the full height of Fame in this Kingdome, caused people to come from all parts of the Land to visit him: some with one present, some with another, to bestow vpon him. Amongst the rest, his olde Godmother the Queene of Fayries came for to see him, and to witnesse what Fame and good Fortunes had befallen him.”

In the case of “The Story of the Three Bears,” the Opies did reproduce in facsimile the special large, ornate type face that Robert Southey used in 1837 for the voice of the Great, Huge Bear (Father Bear).

Interspersed throughout the tales are illustrations taken from the original texts, and also from other fairy tale collections in the Opies’ extensive collection. They make splendid accents to the stories, since they provide wildly varying images from the visions of artists through the centuries. The illustrations provided for “Snow-drop” (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” as we know it today), for instance, range from a guide drawing for Disney’s film (1938), to a pen-and-ink rendering by R. Anning Bell (1901), to a wood-engraving from Routledge’s Shilling Toy Book Little Snow White, circa 1870.

The Opies provide a several-page introduction to each tale, giving a brief summary of its history and its variations from its first printings to the present day, including the original language it first appeared in, if other than English. These introductions are fascinating reading in and of themselves; it is interesting to find out that the original visitor to the Three Bears cottage was not a girl named Goldilocks, but a little old woman, and in fact the illustrator John D. Batten in the 1890’s reported that he had heard a version from a “Mrs. H,” in which the intruder was a fox named Scrapefoot.

The Classic Fairy Tales is a wonderful resource for scholars and lay lovers of fairy tales alike. I would not say that it is the sort of book one would buy if one were looking for a collection of fairy tales to read to a young child. For one thing, the language and narrative style differs widely from tale to tale, and some of it is archaic. For another thing, the illustrations are chosen to reflect the work of different artists, not to provide a continuous visual theme for each story. The differences in appearance of the characters from one illustration to the next can be jarring. However, the stories themselves are each vivid and powerful (I even find myself affected by the cadence of their language as I write this review), revealing clearly the reason they have endured for centuries as “classics.” Older children and adults will delight in them, and happily spend hours poring over this book.

(Oxford University Press, 1974)

Grey Walker

Grey Walker is a Narrative American (with thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin for coining that term). Although she makes money as a librarian, she makes her life as a reader and writer of stories and reviews of stories. She has a growing interest in the interstitial arts. The album she listens to most often is Morning Walk by Metamora. The book she re-reads most often (and she never owns a book unless she intends to read it more than once) is The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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