Monday, September 22, 2014

ISAK DINESEN ON HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN

I HAVE SAVED THE BEST INTRODUCTION in Michael Di Capua's 1962 series of classic fairy stories for last. Isak Dinesen may now be best remembered for her memoir Out of Africa from the movie starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, but in her lifetime she was known for her Gothic stories. When asked to introduce a collection of her countryman Hans Christian Andersen's stories, rather than write a simple introduction, Dinesen supplied a ghost story, conjuring Andersen's spirit into her childhood room. "I had been told that the Dead were cold, but I have learned from him that there are people who have got such a rich, sweet glow in their hearts that they will always warm up those they touch." Taking Andersen's ghost by the hand, Dinessen follows him as he magics her room and her playthings like the numerous toys brought to life in his stories. Then, pulling him after her, she drags him through his own fictions, excitedly pointing everything out as though he had never seen them before, and he follows with an amused, knowing smile.

"You can make big things small," the young girl says, "and small things big and everything talk, and I am much braver since I have known you than I was before. Just wait till I grow up, and you will see that because I have known you, I am not even afraid of lions."

Eventually, Andersen is able to convince his passionate fan to return to bed, promising to "go and play with children in other countries," but he asks one last parting question, "which of my tales [do] you like best?"

The child Dinesen, or perhaps it is the adult writer Dinesen, says "I like them all! Let's ask the other children."

The stories included in this volume for consideration are "The Tinderbox," "The Nightingale," "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep," "The Little Match Girl," and "Thumbelina." If a child never read any other Andersen collection, this is a near perfect selection of the essentials. As with the rest of the Macmillan series of fairy tales, the illustrations were provided by Sandro Nardini and Ugo Fontana.

At the end of her introduction, Dinesen's biography is given:
The greatest Danish writer since Hans Christian Andersen is certainly Isak Dinesen, who is really Baroness Karen Blixen Finecke. She is most admired for her "tales of blood and doom and honor in the old grand manner," tales that she writes in English rather than her native language. From 1914 until 1931 she lived in Africa, where she managed a coffee plantation for ten years before returning to Rungstedlund, her ancestral home in Denmark. She lives there today.
To read the complete introduction--or short story, I would venture to call it--click on the images below.


For the previous entries in this series, see:

Elizabeth Bowen on John Ruskin
Jean Stafford on the Arabian Nights
John Updike on Oscar Wilde
Randall Jarrell on the Brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechstein



All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, September 8, 2014

WILD THINGS!

IF YOU FOLLOW MY BLOG, you are most likely interested in the esoterica of children's books: forgotten classics, eye-opening stories that make you reconsider cherished authors, behind-the-scenes history of children's literature. Three of the biggest bloggers in the children's book world have just released a book that is full of such tidbits, Wild Things! by Betsy Bird (Fuse #8), Julie Danielson (Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast), and Peter D. Sieruta (Collecting Children's Books). It's like sitting around a table with three very amusing (and very amused) experts expounding on what they love, an informal book for causal reading. As my blog remains embarrassingly quiet, Wild Things! is a good alternative. I thank the good people at Candlewick Press for sending a copy my way.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ELIZABETH BOWEN ON RUSKIN'S KING OF THE GOLDEN RIVER

JOHN RUSKIN IS BEST KNOWN as a highly influential 19th century art and architecture critic most famous for his three-volume treatise The Stones of Venice (1851-53). It seems natural then that his children's book, his only work of fiction, would appear on We Too Were Children. That's what WTWC is about after all, a towering writer not known for his children's work. However, The King of the Golden River was published in 1850, fifty years before WTWC's 20th century requirement, making it ineligible for inclusion. Which is why I'm happy to sneak Ruskin in the back door, as the fifth of the books I've covered in Macmillan's 1962 series of fairy tales with introductions by esteemed authors.

RUSKIN'S TALE IS INTRODUCED by Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen, who went on to win the John Tait Black Memorial Prize for her 1968 novel Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes, was already a literary grande dame when she contributed to the Macmillan series. Her bio reads:
Elizabeth Bowen has published five books of non-ficiton (including a memoir of her Dublin childhood), six collections of short stories and eight novels...In the Birthday Honours List of 1948, Elizabeth Bowen was created a Companion of the British Empire.
Bowen's inclusion in the Order of the British Empire, the first order of chivalry to admit women, is testament to the regard with which her work was held.

Her introduction to Ruskin situates The King of the Golden River in the fairy tale tradition. "You may notice that while no good fairy stories are ever at all the same, many of them have something in common." In Ruskin's case, the fairy tale trope is three brothers, of whom the elder two are reprehensible and the youngest is fair and good.

There's no princess, Bowen admits, but there are fairies of a sort, "an odd-looking, fussy, bossy pair of old men." They are the South-West Wind, Esquire, who destroy the brothers' farm after the elder two show him no courtesy, and The King of the Golden River, who rewards the youngest brother for his generosity.

After addressing the story, Bowen draws attention to the story's setting. "The King of the Golden River (unlike many fairy stories) is not set in a quite imaginary land. This marvelous region of beauties, perils and mysteries is a real one, to be found on the map--Styria, a province of Austria." Bowen explains, "[Ruskin] gloried in natural scenery...He loved to breathe pure air (far from his dim-lit study) and sought it through travel and mountaineering." These life experiences find their way into the story.

Bowen does not go into any of the historical facts surrounding the composition of the story, which was written by Ruskin at age twenty-two for the twelve-year-old Effie Gray. Ruskin later married Gray, but never consummated the marriage, which was annulled six years later. Those details, while fascinating, wouldn't have been appropriate in a children's book, on the off chance any child were to actually ever read the introduction.

Regardless of how he came to write it, Ruskin clearly had fun in the composition. The story is five chapters long, much longer than a typical fairy tale. It does have a bit of moralizing, but Bowen is quick to say, "Don't, however, form the idea that John Ruskin 'preached' when he gave us The King of the Golden River. On the contrary: you are about to discover an exciting, semi-magic adventure story, with some eeriness but also some sturdy comedy."

Ruskin's story is easy to come by having been printed and illustrated many times, but as far as I know, Bowen's introduction has not been in print since the Macmillan edition. I've included the entire thing below. Click on the images to read.



FOR PREVIOUS ENTRIES on the Macmillan series see:

Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Ludwig Bechstein translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Oscar Wilde introduced by John Updike
Tales of the Arabian Nights retold and introduced by Jean Stafford

For more of Sandro Nardini's beautiful art from The King of the Golden River, see my Flickr set. If anyone knows anything about Nardini, please let me know. I've been unable to find anything about him.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, July 7, 2014

JEAN STAFFORD: THE LION AND THE CARPENTER

JEAN STAFFORD WAS THE ONLY CONTRIBUTOR other than Randall Jarrell to write the stories in her volume of fairy tales for Macmillan's 1962 series of oversized picture books, instead of just the introduction. In The Lion and the Carpenter and Other Tales from The Arabian Nights, Stafford's credit reads, "Retold and Introduced by Jean Stafford." Her included bio says:

"Miss Stafford...is the author of three distinguished and much admired novels (Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, and The Catherine Wheel), many short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar and elsewhere, and Eliphi, The Cat With The High I.Q., a book for children about her own cat of the same name."

Stafford went on to win the Pultizer Prize for fiction in 1970 for her Collected Stories, but when she started working on her own versions of stories from the Arabian Nights for Michael di Capua's fairy tale series in 1962, she was seven years past her deadline for a new novel, and her most recent published novel was over a decade old. Writing the fairy tales was a way to avoid her more serious writing.

Which didn't mean that she turned in inferior writing. In the plain language of fairy tales, Stafford retells the stories she selected with good humor and enough excitement for a reader to get lost in the telling. She explains in her introduction the Shahrazad frame narrative--the queen who must keep her husband in a constant state of anticipation by telling one story after another, or be killed in the morning--and that she chose "amazing happenings that are not quite so well known as the strange things that befell Sinbad in his wanderings, or Ali Baba's rapid rise from rags to riches, or the ups and downs of Aladdin's life when he became owner of his magic lamp." The stories are "Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur," "The Sandalwood Merchant and the Sharpers," "The Lion and the Carpenter," and "The Story of Abu-Kir and Abu-Sir."

In "Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur," we learn of the most beautiful prince and the most beautiful princess in the world, who live many countries away from each other, unaware of the others' existence. A pair of genies, arguing over who is more beautiful, the prince or the princess, transports the sleeping princess to the sleeping prince's chamber so they can compare the two side-by-side. First, the prince, and then the princess wakes and sees the other one sleeping, and falls immediately in love. And once separated again by the genies, the two young lovers pine for each other for years, deathly sick with love until the princess's loyal brother manages to find her love and bring him to her.

"The Sandalwood Merchant and the Sharpers" feels like a long joke. The sandalwood merchant goes to a distant city where he has been told that sandalwood is very valuable. Just before entering the city, a shepherdess warns him, "The people of this town are robbers and rogues, and their favorite sport is hoodwinking strangers." Despite the warning, the merchant is soon tricked out of his sandalwood for the promise of two handfuls of whatever he wishes, is accused of stealing a one-eyed man's eye, promises a cobbler whatever he desires for repairing his shoe, and ends up in debt to a gambler unless he drinks all of the water in the sea. Certain that he has caused his own doom, he meets the shepherdess again, who tells him that there is a wise man who all of the con artists consult at night to have that day's cons judged. The merchant finds this man, and hiding behind a rock, he hears the wise man explain to each of the con men how he could get out of their cons: He can request two handfuls of fleas, one of only males and one of only females, and when the man can't deliver, reclaim his sandalwood. He can demand that he and the one-eyed man each pluck out an eye to have them weighed in order to prove the one-eyed man's claim, and if they are equal in weight he will pay, but if not, the one-eyed man must pay him. Not wanting to be left blind, the man must drop the accusation. He can tell the cobbler that he has driven the sultan's enemies out of the country and that the sultan and his family are safe. If the cobbler says he is unsatisfied by this payment, he will be charged with treason. And he can tell the gambler that he will drink the sea, if the man brings it to him in a bottle. When the gambler is unable to, the merchant will be absolved of his debt. The sandalwood merchant enacts all of these solutions, sells his sandalwood at its proper value, and leaves the city rich.

"The Lion and the Carpenter" is a story within a story. A duck, "quaking and quacking as if she had had the scare of her life," explains to a pair of peacocks that she is afraid of "the son of Adam." She tells them of meeting a horse, a camel, and a donkey who were all running away from the son of Adam, because of the horrible things he would do to them. A lion prince reassured the other animals, however, promising to protect them all. But when the man, a carpenter, came, he tricked the lion into a box so that even the lion was defeated. The peacocks reassure the duck that the son of Adam can't reach them on their island, and that she should stay with them in safety. But years later, a group of shipwrecked sailors appear and eat the duck. When the men leave, the peacocks agree that the duck died, because he didn't praise Allah enough.

In "The Story of Abu-Kir and Abu-Sir," we are introduced to the nefarious dyer Abu-Kir and his friend, the noble barber Abu-Sir. For the first half of the story, Abu-Kir takes malicious advantage of Abu-Sir. Then, when Abu-Kir is in a position of wealth and power, instead of helping Abu-Sir, the way the barber had before, he has him beaten and thrown in the street. When Abu-Sir rises to a position of wealth and power himself, Abu-Kir accuses him of a plot to kill the sultan, and the sultan orders the good Abu-Sir's death. However, the truth is revealed, and Abu-Kir is rightfully killed instead.

JEAN STAFFORD's other children's book, Eliphi, The Cat With the High IQ, mentioned above, came out in the same year as The Lion and the Carpenter. Stafford never published for children again

I will get to Eliphi in a future post, and there are two more volumes in the Macmillan series that I hope to touch upon.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.



Monday, June 23, 2014

JOHN UPDIKE ON OSCAR WILDE'S FAIRY STORIES

MANY YEARS AGO, in the early days of We Too Were Children, I invoked Rachel Cohen's superb book A Chance Meeting, which describes the ways in which literary lives are intertwined as one writer meets another, in some cases only once, in others in lasting friendships over many years, and that author meets another and so on, drawing a haphazard line through the history of literature. On We Too Were Children, the authors and illustrators might never have met in person, but one book leads to another, which leads to another, which often leads back to another book I have already covered. For example, Nancy Ekholm Burkert, who I most recently wrote about in relation to Randall Jarrell, I first wrote about over three years ago in relation to John Updike. Jarrell contributed translations of two volumes of fairy tales--Grimm and Bechstein--to a series spearheaded by Michael di Capua at Macmillan in 1962, something I discovered when I set out to write about Jarrell's other children's books. And it wasn't until one of those books was in my hands that I even discovered on the back of the book that it was part of a series, and that one of the other illustrious writers who had contributed to the series, in this case an introduction, was an author I had already covered, John Updike. A "chance meeting" indeed.

John Updike's introduction, entitled "Forward For Young Readers," graces a volume of three fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. Wilde published two collections of fairy tales in his varied career, many of the stories first appearing in magazines: The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888) and House of Pomegranates (1891). As Updike reminds us, "Oscar Wilde wrote in a time when grown men wrote very seriously for young readers." Updike, who in 1962 was about to publish his first children's book, wrote his "Forward For Young Readers" just as seriously. He opens with a discussion of the etymology of the word "Fairy," which he uses to segue into the way in which Christianity drowned out pagan beliefs in Europe, leaving only fairy stories, "the substance [of which] is pagan wood, but the taste and glisten is of Christain salt."


In the modern age, fairy stories become necessary, Updike says, "For if men do not keep on speaking terms with children, they cease to be men, and become merely machines for eating and for earning money. This danger was not so clear until machines entered the world in force and began to make men resemble them."


Updike does manage to introduce the actual stories contained in the volume, "The Young King," "The Devoted Friend," and Wilde's most famous children's story, "The Happy Prince," teasing each one with a cryptic image central to each respective story. Then he warns us that the stories, unlike "so many modern books for children," do not "skip the subject of suffering. On the contrary: suffering is exactly what they are about....But," he goes on, "if you dare read them, you will enter a rich and precious world."

As with all of his writing, Updike brings to his introduction deep intelligence, visceral language, and humor. In some ways, his essay is more enjoyable to read than Wilde's overwrought stories. It is amazing to read in his attached bio that he was only thirty years old when he wrote it. "As the father of Elizabeth, David, Michael, and Miranda," he adds, "he has a special interest in fairy tales and storytelling." His own children's books followed in the subsequent few years.

Updike included "Foreword for Young Readers" in his first collection of nonfiction, Assorted Prose, but as near as I can tell, the essay is currently out of print. I have scanned the entire thing, and posted it below. If you click into each image, it should be easy to read. It's short, and worth it.


In addition to Updike and Jarrell, the Macmillan series of "marvelous tales" included introductions by Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Bowen, and Isak Dinesen, which I plan to write about in upcoming posts.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders