Dear readers, welcome, as always.
There is an odd little anecdote in the essay “On Science Fiction” in the posthumous collection of C.S. Lewis’ (1898-1963)
essays and short fiction, Of Other Worlds—
“A lady…had been talking about a dreariness which seemed to be creeping over her life, the drying up in her of the power to feel pleasure, the aridity of her mental landscape. Drawing a bow at a venture, I asked, ‘Have you any taste for fantasies and fairy tales?’ I shall never forget how her muscles tightened, her hands clenched themselves, her eyes started as with horror, and her voice changed, as she hissed out, ‘I loathe them.’ “
Lewis then goes on to suggest that “we here have to do not with a critical opinion but with something like a phobia” and such a violent reaction certainly suggests to me that there is something in the woman’s reaction which goes beyond a simple polite reply, like “They’ve never interested me.”
Lewis himself had a very different reaction to fairy tales, as expressed in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” in the same volume and his view is involved with what I feel is a wonderful way to think about growing up :
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth. They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, [an old term for German white wine] which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. [a kind of lemonade-ish thing—here’s a recipe: https://pennysrecipes.com/3528/fresh-lemon-squash ] I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two. But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists , for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.” (This is a very rich essay and, if you’d like to read it in full, see: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9117 )
For the very beginning of this blog, back in 2014, a goal for it was always that it would not be like so much of the material to be found on the internet: harsh, even negative to the point of gushing hatred. And we all see the effects of that sort of material all too often. Over almost eight years, the blog has offered positive views and praise and, on only a handful of occasions, has it taken a negative turn, in part, I would say, because it has always tried to be based upon something which Lewis said in another essay, “On Science Fiction”, discussing negative reviews of early 20th-century science fiction:
“…many were by people who clearly hated the kind they wrote about. It is very dangerous to write about a kind you hate. Hatred obscures all distinctions. I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look much alike to me: if I wrote about them I should therefore infallibly write drivel.”
I enjoy detective stories myself, having grown up on Sherlock Holmes, but Lewis’ point has been a guide: don’t write about things you don’t enjoy.
Fairy tales, whether of the Western or Eastern varieties (and they often blend) were some of the very first stories which caught my attention as a child, really memorable ones being those from “The Arabian Nights” of Aladdin and Ali Baba, as well as those familiar from the Grimms, Perrault, Mesdames D’Aulnoy and Leprince de Beaumont, and Andersen. In my current project of reading all twelve of Andrew Lang’s fairy books,
I have rediscovered many old friends and some new ones, but then there was “The Master-Maid” in The Blue Fairy Book (1889)
and, in this story, I found something which, for me, could explain that seemingly-disturbed woman’s reaction to such tales—and here bear with me while I make a brief descent into the negative.
The story originally comes from a collection entitled, Norske folkeeventyr (“Norwegian Folktales”), first published in 1841, with subsequent editions through 1852,
(a much later edition—1914—but, at the moment, I’m having trouble finding a first edition)
by Asbjornsen and Moe (Peter Christen Asbjornsen, 1812-1885; Jorgen Engebretsen Moe, 1813-1882), two folktale collectors who became the Grimm brothers of Norway.
But if I’ve loved fairy tales since childhood, what is there about this one which—momentarily, I hasten to add—alienated my affection?
In the words of a modern fairy tale character, however, I would have to say:
The story begins with the youngest son of a king, who sets off to make his fortune in the world. He gains employment with a giant:
1. who sets him tasks, but tells him not to look into any rooms except the one in which he slept
2. of course, he looks into 3 rooms, each with a boiling cauldron, the contents of which cover anything dipped into them with copper, silver, or gold, in succession (never mentioned again)
3. in room number 4 is a beautiful young woman (the title’s “Master-Maid”) with a never-explained knowledge of how to fulfill all of the giant’s obviously impossible tasks:
a. a stable which can’t be cleaned unless you use the other end of the dung fork
b. a fire-breathing horse, who can only be tamed with a certain bridle
c. some sort of troll who has to pay the giant’s tax (the prince needs a special club to knock on the troll’s cave door)
4. the giant then decides to kill the prince and orders the young woman to make him into soup
a. the young woman takes all sorts of household waste and plops that into the pot
b. she draws three drops of the prince’s blood to fall upon a stool
c. then she gathers up:
1. a chest of gold dust
2. a lump of salt
3. a water flask
4. a golden apple
5. two golden chickens
d. and escapes with the prince
6. they somehow obtain a ship—and even the story says, “but where they got the ship
from I have never been able to learn” and sail off, the giant soon in hot pursuit (he’s been delayed because, having napped while the prince soup was cooking, he would wake briefly to ask if it were ready, only to be told–by talking blood drops–that it was still in the process—and when he finally fully awakes, he quickly discovers that the soup was definitely not worth waiting for)
7. arriving at the sea, the giant produces
a. a “river-sucker” to lower the sea so that he can spot the escaping couple, but he is foiled when the young woman uses the lump of salt to swell up to such size that “river-sucker” can’t lower the sea any further and the giant can no longer spot them or approach them—the text is a little foggy here
b. a “hill-borer” to put a hole in the salt barrier so that the “river-sucker” can go back to work, but the young woman then tips out a couple of drops from the water flask (remember that?) and suddenly the sea is so full that the “river-sucker” doesn’t have another chance to slurp before the couple has finally reached dry land
And that’s only the first half of the story. To sum up even farther, the prince abandons the young woman at the seashore, promising to return, but is tricked into forgetting her (a magic apple—one bite and…), she then lives briefly with a crone/troll, escapes three suitors, sees elements in the crone’s hut employed to repair the coach in which the forgetful prince is traveling to his wedding, finally gets to the palace, and uses that golden apple and the gilded chickens (you’d almost forgotten those in all the excitement, hadn’t you?) to bring back the prince’s memory and they live happily ever after (although the person who supplied that apple of memory lapse is torn apart by horses, so probably doesn’t enjoy the ending as much as the others).
C.S. Lewis is once quoted as saying, “You can’t get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” (from a transcript of a lecture given by Lewis’ sometime editor and biographer, Walter Hooper—here’s the whole piece: https://www.historyspage.com/post/cs-lewis-inklings-memories-walter-hooper )
That this seems rather a long story for a fairy tale—pages 120-135 in The Blue Fairy Book—is hardly a drawback. “The Yellow Dwarf”, of which I’ve written in an earlier posting, and which is in the same volume, is even longer (30-51), and I’ve certainly read things infinitely longer and more than once—
And it’s not that some things, like the young woman’s knowledge of the solutions to the giant’s tests, are unexplained—part, I would say, of what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale is that some things will simply be…inexplicable.
Rather, I think it’s that, as with Inigo Montoya’s attempt to explain past events to Westley, there is simply too much: too many boiling cauldrons, too many ready solutions to tricky problems, too many magic objects, too many suitors, all in one story. It’s as if the teller were trying to cram 20 stories into one, which, for me, perhaps paradoxically thins the telling and I find myself wearily trudging from one incident to the next, which is, I think, hardly what Lewis would have wanted his enormous cup of tea for,
and makes me wonder just what books of fairy tales that angry woman had read?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Consider the dangers of an overflowing cup,
And remember that there’s always
The translator of “Master-Maid” was said by Andrew Lang to be “Mrs Alfred Hunt”, a very interesting woman in her own right. The author of “Lang’s Fairy Blog”, who seems to have done a good deal of research on the series, suggests that, although she was proficient in German (consult this page to see why he/she says so: https://langsfairyblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/mrs-alfred-hunt/ ), she probably translated it from a German source. If you’d like to have a look at the German text she may have used, see: http://www.zeno.org/M%C3%A4rchen/M/Norwegen/P.+%5BC.%5D+Asbj%C3%B8rnsen+und+J%C3%B6rgen+Moe%3A+Norwegische+Volksm%C3%A4rchen/Die+Meisterjungfer –this is from volume 2 of Friedrich Bresemann’s Norwegische Volksmaerchen, 1847. The first English translation of Asbjornsen and Moe’s collection was by Sir George Dasent, as Popular Tales from the Norse, in 1858. Comparing the Hunt with Dasent and the German translation, it seems to me that Hunt may first have read the Dasent, but used the German as the basis of her version. Here’s the Dasent, if you’d like to compare: https://archive.org/details/populartalesfrom00daseuoft –this is a later edition, from 1904. For a very early review of Dasent’s work, see this, from The Atlantic for September, 1859: https://cdn.theatlantic.com/media/archives/1859/09/4-23/131866450.pdf (A brief comparison of the opening of the original Norwegian version of the story with Dasent’s translation, by the way, suggests that Dasent was rather a casual translator, aiming less for perfect accuracy than for the general feel of the story.)