Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Complete Fairy Tales – George MacDonald

This weekend has been a prime example of why I shouldn’t live on my own. I would say it’s been a master class in procrastination except that procrastination would imply rather more useful activity. How can it be this time on Sunday evening already and why does making a cup of tea feel like an impossibly demanding task? I am never this unproductive when I’m in company, and the worst of it is that I could have spent the weekend reading if I’d only been honest enough to admit I wasn’t going to do anything very useful with my time.

At least I did manage to finish ‘The Complete Fairy Tales’ of George MacDonald. It’s been a long journey – truthfully I feel like I’ve read several books in one which is natural enough; the tales come from several books, some of them are almost novella length, and they span MacDonald’s career with a definite change in mood. MacDonald himself almost came my way as a child. I had an illustrated copy of ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ but I got it too late to have it read to me and possibly it was a bit challenging to read to myself, either way I never did read it and am now not too sure what happened to it which is a shame because I’d read it now with pleasure.

This copy of Fairy Tales is a lovely floppy American paperback that I ordered from amazon a couple of years ago, half read one story from and didn’t pick up again until Helen from A Gallimaufry reminded me of it. I think I bought it because I was going through an enthusiasm for Scottishness but it seems fitting that I read it in the grip of an enthusiasm for the fantastic. MacDonald turns out to be a sort of missing link (only missing from my reading experience) who ties together E T A Hoffman and C S Lewis with David Lindsay and A S Byatt.

The stories themselves start with the (quite literally) light hearted ‘The Light Princess’ all about a young woman who lacks gravity until she can be made to shed a tear for a handy prince. MacDonald has rather a line in Princesses, there is also Little Daylight which is essentially a reworking of ‘The Light Princess’ and both are versions of Sleeping Beauty. Both are genuinely funny as well as having the traditional moral, more original is ‘The Shadows’ about an old man who becomes king of the faires and is carried away by the shadows to see how they live.
Slowly though the stories get darker, fairies are less helpful, more spiteful, and sometimes downright wickedly frightening – so it is in ‘The Carasoyn’ where they steal children and threaten to return them in bits. And then there is ‘The Wise Woman, or The Lost Princess: A Double Story’. This one is definitely novella length and although the humour isn’t lacking and neither is the moral – spare the rod and spoil the child. I would feel easier about it if the two particularly unpleasant children weren’t girls; I think the crimes of temper and self complacency are ones that boys are just as guilty of but the point is that the angry princess is being tamed to be a good daughter and better wife – she will even be able to black her masters boots.

Otherwise like all the best fairy stories you feel like these are rooted in every and any time. MacDonald’s humour hasn’t dated at all and he deserves his place on the bookshelf – I really would have loved to have had these told to me and now would love to tell them.     


  1. Ohhh: you had to mention Hoffman and Byatt, so now I have some MacDonald on my Nook! :) I went with the Princess and the Goblin, since I couldn't figure out which ones were fairy tale collections and that sounded promising. lol

  2. What a great review Hayley! I am really looking forward to rereading this. I think you'd like Phantastes too - it's a novel but really a longer fairy tale. He wrote another novel called Lilith but I don't know anything about it.

    Eva, The Princess and the Goblin is actually a children's story, but it's lovely with a lot of fairy-tale elements and interesting symbolism. I do hope you enjoy it. It's a book I loved as a child though, so am unable to be dispassionate about.

  3. Eva, the fairy tales seem to be collected from lots of other books, I think I'm going to have to get hold of 'The Princess and The Goblin' now as well just to see what I missed all those years ago. In one story MacDonald talks about his witch having a wolf in her head, Byatt uses the same phrase and very much the same imagery in Ragnarok. he's funny too.

    Helen, I need to go and have another look at Lilith. I was surprised by MacDonald, these stories were much more than I expected, and if the Lilith is, or is, related to Adam's first wife I'd love to read his version of her.

  4. I went on a MacDonald binge last year and wrote a bit about him, although nothing comprehensive. "The Light Princess," for example, was wonderful, but I never wrote about it. I mostly stuck with At the Back of the North Wind and Lilith.

    The Lilith in Lilith is Adam's first wife, as you guessed (Adam and Eve are also characters) but the story is otherwise unpredictable and hard to describe. It's a novel-length dream.

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