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The forests of Andrew Lang April 18, 2009

Posted by Jenny in literature, memoir.
Tags: , , , ,
Hansel and Gretel / illustration by H.J. Ford

Hansel and Gretel / illustration by H.J. Ford

When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was the collection of fairy tales called The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang.  I had a copy of it that had belonged to my mother.  In fact, I still have it, and it is sitting beside me on my desk right now.  The front cover hangs by a few threads,  and pages could be removed by the handful, if one were so inclined.  In this 1930 edition, my mother’s name is written in a scrawl quite different from the tidy handwriting I knew later.  She was seven years old.

The stories don’t waste any time getting down to business.  One entitled “Brother and Sister” begins: “Brother took sister by the hand and said: ‘Look here, we haven’t had one single happy moment since our mother died.  That stepmother of ours beats us and if we dare go near her, she kicks us away.  We never get anything but hard, dry crusts to eat.  Come along and let us go forth into the wide world together.'”

So they set forth (do people “set forth” any more?) over fields and meadows, hedges and ditches, and they come to a large forest, where things start to go wrong.  Turns out their wicked stepmother (in a shocking development)  “was in reality a witch,” and she had cast spells over all of the streams in the forest.  Brother and sister became terribly thirsty, but when they stooped down to drink, they could hear the streams warning them not to partake.  When they came to the third brook (things always come in threes), the stream said, “Who drinks of me will be a roe! who drinks of me will be a roe!”  But the little boy was so thirsty that he drank anyway, and here is what happened:

"Brother and Sister" / illus. by H.J. Ford

"Brother and Sister" / illus. by H.J. Ford

They stay in the woods for a long time, making beds of moss and leaves, and eating roots, nuts, and berries.  Peculiar things happen (no particular surprise there), and somewhere along the way, the sister meets a man with a gold crown on his head, who looks kindly at her, holds out his hand, and says, “Will you come with me to my castle and be my dear wife?”  (I like that—no fuss, no muss, no bother!)

She of course immediately accepts, but she insists that the roe deer must come along too.  To make a long story short, the wicked stepmother appears once again and casts some evil spells, but in the end the king wises up to her tricks and condemns her to death.  “As soon as the old witch was dead, the spell was taken off the little roe and he was restored to his natural shape once more, and so brother and sister lived happily ever after.” (And I guess the king does too, but he isn’t mentioned at the end, which gives the tale a distinctly incestuous spin.)

As a child I spent many hours turning the pages of this and other similar books, living in the world of ghosts and goblins, princes and princesses,  magical horses and giant polar bears.  I’m afraid to say that all of this strange stuff seems to have left its mark on my impressionable young mind.  In particular, the idea of the enchanted forest has always stayed with me.  But you already knew that, if you have been following this blog.



1. DaffodilPlanter - April 18, 2009

Mom and I were talking about the Lang books last week. They don’t print nice editions of them anymore.

What a wonderful visit to the enchanted forest! Just goes to show that not only the stories but the illustrations make lasting impressions.

2. Jenny - April 18, 2009

How interesting that the subject of the Lang books came up with you and your Mom just recently! These old children’s books are so valuable, and I’m very glad I grew up with them. I also treasure “Tales of the Arabian Nights” with beautiful color illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, and some books by George McDonald with titles like “The Princess and Curdie.”

3. DaffodilPlanter - April 18, 2009

ANYTHING will Wyeth illustrations! I wonder how many of these made it to the newish museum of illustrations–in MA I think?

4. Jenny - April 18, 2009

In Newport, Rhode Island, as it turns out. Come to the east coast and visit!

5. kaslkaos - April 25, 2009

A lovely retelling; thanks for freshening up the memories. I only started collecting the fairy books as an adult. Time to brush them off, though.
When I was a child I always and only wanted the ‘real’ fairy tales with ‘real’ illustrations, not that modern stuff.

6. Jenny - April 25, 2009

I think children have an instinct for that kind of thing. Although I’m sympathetic with educational aims of promoting social and environmental consciousness and other such causes, I’m glad the old fairy tales don’t have any overarching “message” or “teaching point.”

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