This weekend I’ve been reading to my 8-year-old granddaughter from Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales. My grandfather bought the book when it first came out in 1890 and it was a favourite of my mother’s. She read it to me when I was a child, and I read it to my children. Now it’s the grandchildren’s turn.English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs: note the knocker and other door-furniture!
Jacobs’s book is full of wonderful, mysterious, visceral folktales collected from the times when oral tradition still flourished in the British Isles (I think ‘English’ here actually includes a fair bit of Scottish material too!)
The tales are by turns highly moral and totally amoral – and often spine-chilling too. There’s Childe Roland, whose sister Burd Ellen is snatched away by the Demon King for running around a church widdershins: Roland has to go to the underworld to rescue her and all the other people the Demon King has turned to stone. There’s Molly Whuppie, who with her two sisters takes refuge in a house that turns out to belong to an ogre: she ends up stealing the ogre’s sword, purse, and ring, and tricking the ogre into beating his wife to death whilst she’s tied up in a bag from which Molly Whuppie has herself just escaped.
And best of all there’s the tale of Mr Fox – the dashing suitor with a big castle who turns out to have a room full of the bloody corpses of dead women. His fiancée, Lady Mary, pays a clandestine visit and from her hiding place sees him cutting off the hand of a dead woman to get her diamond ring. The hand falls behind the barrel where Lady Anne is hiding and Mr Fox doesn’t finds it, so next day at the betrothal feast Lady Anne pulls out the hand to prove her story, and her brothers ‘out with their swords and cut Mr Fox to pieces’ – an ending which my granddaughter particularly liked and kept quoting back to me!
There are dozens of other fantastic, dreamlike tales. And these wonderful stories, as you can see, are closer to Angela Carter than to J.K.Rowling. I love them as much now as I did when I was a child myself. They are a passport to an archetypal world of imagination, of magic and dreamlike mythical depths which fascinates and enchants children. Girls are at least as active as boys in tricking the baddies, living on their wits and playing sharp courageous tricks. Many of the tales probably go back in essence to Neolithic times; they touch on the things in us that don’t change.
The physical format of the book is as marvellous as anything. As you can see from the picture above, the cover is designed like a door. Inside there is a message:
“Knock at the Knocker on the Door, Pull the Bell at the side, Then, if you are very quiet, you will hear a teeny tiny voice say through the grating ‘Take down the Key.’ This you will find at the back: you cannot mistake it, for it has J. J. in the wards. Put the Key in the Keyhole, which it fits exactly, unlock the door and walk in.”
The bell, with a string, is pictured on the book’s spine; the key is on the back cover. We have to go through this procedure every time the book is opened: my granddaughter insists.
Jacobs’s book is highly recommended, and new editions are available: I’ll put one of them below in case you’re interested in getting a copy!