Friday, April 12, 2013

Found it in the Archives: War and Fairy Tales

The thought of compiling a book of fairy tales from the Allied powers in 1916 as a political statement may seem a bit strange to us in today's increasingly globalized world. However, in a thinly veiled piece of propaganda, English critic Edmond Gosse put together fairy tales from eleven different nations, all allies during World War I.  A limited print edition was bound in full royal blue morocco by J.W. Zaehnsdort and has beautiful gilt titles.  Inside, English illustrator Arthur Rackham provided 12 beautiful color plates.

Gosse introduces the collection of fairy tales by stating that “All we need say more is that it has amused us to bring together forgotten specimens of the folklore of the fighting friends of humanity.” Gosse’s introduction suggests that the book was put together in “amusement,” for "friends" and nothing more. In fact, he touted that the stories were gathered for “amusement,” and the collection was even on a suggested list of children's books for Christmas by librarian Ruth Abbott in 1919. Closer scrutiny reveals a collection that is deadly serious in its intent.  Both “Jack the Giant-Killer” and “The Last Adventure of Ulenspiegel” exemplify how an old fairy tale can subtly take on political significance during historical circumstances, in this case World War I.

The presentation of the stories is distinctively nationalistic, illustrating a pride in nation, a pride that has brought forth “forgotten specimens of folklore.” Dawn Heerspink, in her article, No Man’s Land”: Fairy Tales, Gender, Socialization, Satire, and Trauma During the First and Second World Wars, speaks to fairy tales' intriguing duality and how they were used during wartime for adult-produced propaganda aimed at both children AND adults. Gosse is conscientious of this, and by defining these stories as “forgotten,” his introduction implies that the collection is recovering a part of each nation’s historical tradition. Reminding readers of a forgotten past during a tumultuous present, Gosse also illustrates the coalition of Allied parties by binding up the collection of children's stories from different nations.  

The first tale, “Jack the Giant-Killer,” presents the familiar English story of Jack, a “right valiant Cornish man" and knightly protector who could save citizens from giants intent on devouring them. The tale is set during King Arthur's reign, when medieval crusaders fought against evil.  It does not seem to be a coincidence that England, a major ally during World War I, would be presented by Jack, a hero in war. 

The last story in the collection is a Belgian fairy tale of Ulenspiegel and his wife, Nele, opening with a line that describes them as “always young, strong, and beautiful, since love and the spirit of Flanders never grow old.”  From the very beginning, Ulenspiegel and his wife are positioned to be more than just characters: The reader is told the two are “waiting for the wind of liberty to rise, after so much cruel suffering, and blow upon the land of Belgium.” Although Spain is the story's aggressor, the line could equally apply to Germany in the wartime context of 1916.

Most fairy tales being with "once upon a time." However, they are not always temporally displaced from the present to the mythical past or to an imaginative time not governed by the laws of everyday life. Sometimes, as in the case of the Allied Fairy Book, they are very much about the present and have their own social, cultural, and historical importance. 

This beautiful and historically unique book is part of a series of books from our collection that is being conserved and repaired by the Director of our Book Bindery, Brien Beidler.

Jessica Short
Cataloging Librarian
Charleston Library Society

No comments:

Post a Comment