Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ELIZABETH BOWEN ON RUSKIN'S KING OF THE GOLDEN RIVER

JOHN RUSKIN IS BEST KNOWN as a highly influential 19th century art and architecture critic most famous for his three-volume treatise The Stones of Venice (1851-53). It seems natural then that his children's book, his only work of fiction, would appear on We Too Were Children. That's what WTWC is about after all, a towering writer not known for his children's work. However, The King of the Golden River was published in 1850, fifty years before WTWC's 20th century requirement, making it ineligible for inclusion. Which is why I'm happy to sneak Ruskin in the back door, as the fifth of the books I've covered in Macmillan's 1962 series of fairy tales with introductions by esteemed authors.

RUSKIN'S TALE IS INTRODUCED by Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen, who went on to win the John Tait Black Memorial Prize for her 1968 novel Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes, was already a literary grande dame when she contributed to the Macmillan series. Her bio reads:
Elizabeth Bowen has published five books of non-ficiton (including a memoir of her Dublin childhood), six collections of short stories and eight novels...In the Birthday Honours List of 1948, Elizabeth Bowen was created a Companion of the British Empire.
Bowen's inclusion in the Order of the British Empire, the first order of chivalry to admit women, is testament to the regard with which her work was held.

Her introduction to Ruskin situates The King of the Golden River in the fairy tale tradition. "You may notice that while no good fairy stories are ever at all the same, many of them have something in common." In Ruskin's case, the fairy tale trope is three brothers, of whom the elder two are reprehensible and the youngest is fair and good.

There's no princess, Bowen admits, but there are fairies of a sort, "an odd-looking, fussy, bossy pair of old men." They are the South-West Wind, Esquire, who destroy the brothers' farm after the elder two show him no courtesy, and The King of the Golden River, who rewards the youngest brother for his generosity.

After addressing the story, Bowen draws attention to the story's setting. "The King of the Golden River (unlike many fairy stories) is not set in a quite imaginary land. This marvelous region of beauties, perils and mysteries is a real one, to be found on the map--Styria, a province of Austria." Bowen explains, "[Ruskin] gloried in natural scenery...He loved to breathe pure air (far from his dim-lit study) and sought it through travel and mountaineering." These life experiences find their way into the story.

Bowen does not go into any of the historical facts surrounding the composition of the story, which was written by Ruskin at age twenty-two for the twelve-year-old Effie Gray. Ruskin later married Gray, but never consummated the marriage, which was annulled six years later. Those details, while fascinating, wouldn't have been appropriate in a children's book, on the off chance any child were to actually ever read the introduction.

Regardless of how he came to write it, Ruskin clearly had fun in the composition. The story is five chapters long, much longer than a typical fairy tale. It does have a bit of moralizing, but Bowen is quick to say, "Don't, however, form the idea that John Ruskin 'preached' when he gave us The King of the Golden River. On the contrary: you are about to discover an exciting, semi-magic adventure story, with some eeriness but also some sturdy comedy."

Ruskin's story is easy to come by having been printed and illustrated many times, but as far as I know, Bowen's introduction has not been in print since the Macmillan edition. I've included the entire thing below. Click on the images to read.



FOR PREVIOUS ENTRIES on the Macmillan series see:

Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Ludwig Bechstein translated and introduced by Randall Jarrell
Tales of Oscar Wilde introduced by John Updike
Tales of the Arabian Nights retold and introduced by Jean Stafford

For more of Sandro Nardini's beautiful art from The King of the Golden River, see my Flickr set. If anyone knows anything about Nardini, please let me know. I've been unable to find anything about him.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, July 7, 2014

JEAN STAFFORD: THE LION AND THE CARPENTER

JEAN STAFFORD WAS THE ONLY CONTRIBUTOR other than Randall Jarrell to write the stories in her volume of fairy tales for Macmillan's 1962 series of oversized picture books, instead of just the introduction. In The Lion and the Carpenter and Other Tales from The Arabian Nights, Stafford's credit reads, "Retold and Introduced by Jean Stafford." Her included bio says:

"Miss Stafford...is the author of three distinguished and much admired novels (Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, and The Catherine Wheel), many short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar and elsewhere, and Eliphi, The Cat With The High I.Q., a book for children about her own cat of the same name."

Stafford went on to win the Pultizer Prize for fiction in 1970 for her Collected Stories, but when she started working on her own versions of stories from the Arabian Nights for Michael di Capua's fairy tale series in 1962, she was seven years past her deadline for a new novel, and her most recent published novel was over a decade old. Writing the fairy tales was a way to avoid her more serious writing.

Which didn't mean that she turned in inferior writing. In the plain language of fairy tales, Stafford retells the stories she selected with good humor and enough excitement for a reader to get lost in the telling. She explains in her introduction the Shahrazad frame narrative--the queen who must keep her husband in a constant state of anticipation by telling one story after another, or be killed in the morning--and that she chose "amazing happenings that are not quite so well known as the strange things that befell Sinbad in his wanderings, or Ali Baba's rapid rise from rags to riches, or the ups and downs of Aladdin's life when he became owner of his magic lamp." The stories are "Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur," "The Sandalwood Merchant and the Sharpers," "The Lion and the Carpenter," and "The Story of Abu-Kir and Abu-Sir."

In "Prince Kamar Al-Zaman and Princess Budur," we learn of the most beautiful prince and the most beautiful princess in the world, who live many countries away from each other, unaware of the others' existence. A pair of genies, arguing over who is more beautiful, the prince or the princess, transports the sleeping princess to the sleeping prince's chamber so they can compare the two side-by-side. First, the prince, and then the princess wakes and sees the other one sleeping, and falls immediately in love. And once separated again by the genies, the two young lovers pine for each other for years, deathly sick with love until the princess's loyal brother manages to find her love and bring him to her.

"The Sandalwood Merchant and the Sharpers" feels like a long joke. The sandalwood merchant goes to a distant city where he has been told that sandalwood is very valuable. Just before entering the city, a shepherdess warns him, "The people of this town are robbers and rogues, and their favorite sport is hoodwinking strangers." Despite the warning, the merchant is soon tricked out of his sandalwood for the promise of two handfuls of whatever he wishes, is accused of stealing a one-eyed man's eye, promises a cobbler whatever he desires for repairing his shoe, and ends up in debt to a gambler unless he drinks all of the water in the sea. Certain that he has caused his own doom, he meets the shepherdess again, who tells him that there is a wise man who all of the con artists consult at night to have that day's cons judged. The merchant finds this man, and hiding behind a rock, he hears the wise man explain to each of the con men how he could get out of their cons: He can request two handfuls of fleas, one of only males and one of only females, and when the man can't deliver, reclaim his sandalwood. He can demand that he and the one-eyed man each pluck out an eye to have them weighed in order to prove the one-eyed man's claim, and if they are equal in weight he will pay, but if not, the one-eyed man must pay him. Not wanting to be left blind, the man must drop the accusation. He can tell the cobbler that he has driven the sultan's enemies out of the country and that the sultan and his family are safe. If the cobbler says he is unsatisfied by this payment, he will be charged with treason. And he can tell the gambler that he will drink the sea, if the man brings it to him in a bottle. When the gambler is unable to, the merchant will be absolved of his debt. The sandalwood merchant enacts all of these solutions, sells his sandalwood at its proper value, and leaves the city rich.

"The Lion and the Carpenter" is a story within a story. A duck, "quaking and quacking as if she had had the scare of her life," explains to a pair of peacocks that she is afraid of "the son of Adam." She tells them of meeting a horse, a camel, and a donkey who were all running away from the son of Adam, because of the horrible things he would do to them. A lion prince reassured the other animals, however, promising to protect them all. But when the man, a carpenter, came, he tricked the lion into a box so that even the lion was defeated. The peacocks reassure the duck that the son of Adam can't reach them on their island, and that she should stay with them in safety. But years later, a group of shipwrecked sailors appear and eat the duck. When the men leave, the peacocks agree that the duck died, because he didn't praise Allah enough.

In "The Story of Abu-Kir and Abu-Sir," we are introduced to the nefarious dyer Abu-Kir and his friend, the noble barber Abu-Sir. For the first half of the story, Abu-Kir takes malicious advantage of Abu-Sir. Then, when Abu-Kir is in a position of wealth and power, instead of helping Abu-Sir, the way the barber had before, he has him beaten and thrown in the street. When Abu-Sir rises to a position of wealth and power himself, Abu-Kir accuses him of a plot to kill the sultan, and the sultan orders the good Abu-Sir's death. However, the truth is revealed, and Abu-Kir is rightfully killed instead.

JEAN STAFFORD's other children's book, Eliphi, The Cat With the High IQ, mentioned above, came out in the same year as The Lion and the Carpenter. Stafford never published for children again

I will get to Eliphi in a future post, and there are two more volumes in the Macmillan series that I hope to touch upon.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.



Monday, June 23, 2014

JOHN UPDIKE ON OSCAR WILDE'S FAIRY STORIES

MANY YEARS AGO, in the early days of We Too Were Children, I invoked Rachel Cohen's superb book A Chance Meeting, which describes the ways in which literary lives are intertwined as one writer meets another, in some cases only once, in others in lasting friendships over many years, and that author meets another and so on, drawing a haphazard line through the history of literature. On We Too Were Children, the authors and illustrators might never have met in person, but one book leads to another, which leads to another, which often leads back to another book I have already covered. For example, Nancy Ekholm Burkert, who I most recently wrote about in relation to Randall Jarrell, I first wrote about over three years ago in relation to John Updike. Jarrell contributed translations of two volumes of fairy tales--Grimm and Bechstein--to a series spearheaded by Michael di Capua at Macmillan in 1962, something I discovered when I set out to write about Jarrell's other children's books. And it wasn't until one of those books was in my hands that I even discovered on the back of the book that it was part of a series, and that one of the other illustrious writers who had contributed to the series, in this case an introduction, was an author I had already covered, John Updike. A "chance meeting" indeed.

John Updike's introduction, entitled "Forward For Young Readers," graces a volume of three fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. Wilde published two collections of fairy tales in his varied career, many of the stories first appearing in magazines: The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888) and House of Pomegranates (1891). As Updike reminds us, "Oscar Wilde wrote in a time when grown men wrote very seriously for young readers." Updike, who in 1962 was about to publish his first children's book, wrote his "Forward For Young Readers" just as seriously. He opens with a discussion of the etymology of the word "Fairy," which he uses to segue into the way in which Christianity drowned out pagan beliefs in Europe, leaving only fairy stories, "the substance [of which] is pagan wood, but the taste and glisten is of Christain salt."


In the modern age, fairy stories become necessary, Updike says, "For if men do not keep on speaking terms with children, they cease to be men, and become merely machines for eating and for earning money. This danger was not so clear until machines entered the world in force and began to make men resemble them."


Updike does manage to introduce the actual stories contained in the volume, "The Young King," "The Devoted Friend," and Wilde's most famous children's story, "The Happy Prince," teasing each one with a cryptic image central to each respective story. Then he warns us that the stories, unlike "so many modern books for children," do not "skip the subject of suffering. On the contrary: suffering is exactly what they are about....But," he goes on, "if you dare read them, you will enter a rich and precious world."

As with all of his writing, Updike brings to his introduction deep intelligence, visceral language, and humor. In some ways, his essay is more enjoyable to read than Wilde's overwrought stories. It is amazing to read in his attached bio that he was only thirty years old when he wrote it. "As the father of Elizabeth, David, Michael, and Miranda," he adds, "he has a special interest in fairy tales and storytelling." His own children's books followed in the subsequent few years.

Updike included "Foreword for Young Readers" in his first collection of nonfiction, Assorted Prose, but as near as I can tell, the essay is currently out of print. I have scanned the entire thing, and posted it below. If you click into each image, it should be easy to read. It's short, and worth it.


In addition to Updike and Jarrell, the Macmillan series of "marvelous tales" included introductions by Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Bowen, and Isak Dinesen, which I plan to write about in upcoming posts.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

RANDALL JARRELL: THE GINGERBREAD RABBIT

AFTER RECEIVING RANDALL JARRELL'S TRANSLATIONS for The Brothers Grimm, his editor Michael di Capua suggested that Jarrell try his hand at an original children's story. Intrigued, Jarrell took a notebook to the hammock in his backyard, and with a radio blaring, he composed his own fairy tale, The Gingerbread  Rabbit.

The Gingerbread Rabbit is a variation on the story "The Gingerbread Boy." In Jarrell's version, a young mother makes her daughter a gingerbread rabbit while her daughter is at school. When the mother steps out for a moment, the kitchen implements inform the Gingerbread Rabbit that he is going to be eaten. Frightened by the giant with "dozens of tremendous shining white teeth the size of a grizzly bear's," the Gingerbread Rabbit races out the door with the young mother in pursuit.

In the woods, the Gingerbread Rabbit meets a fox, who tells the rabbit that he is also a rabbit, and invites him into his den with the intention of eating the Gingerbread Rabbit. A real rabbit comes along just in time, and drags the Gingerbread Rabbit away. He brings the Gingerbread Rabbit to his burrow, where he and his wife, who have "always wanted to have a little rabbit of [their] own" adopt the confectionery bunny. The human mother gives up her chase, and decides she will go home and sew her daughter a cloth bunny instead.

AS FANTASTICAL AS THE STORY SOUNDS, and as openly as it wears its folkloric origins, The Gingerbread Rabbit is built from Jarrell's own childhood, from material he had already mined in his poetry. At the age of eleven, Jarrell's parents separated. His mother returned to Nashville, Tennessee with his brother, while Jarrell remained with his grandparents at their farm in Hollywood. There, his grandparents gave him a pet bunny named Reddy. One traumatic day, the young Jarrell witnessed his grandmother slaughter a chicken. As he describes in his poem "The Lost World:"
[Grand]Mama comes out and takes in the clothes
From the clothesline. She looks with righteous love
At all of us, her spare face half a girl's.
She enters a chicken coop, and the hens shove
And flap and squawk, in fear; the whole flock whirls
Into the farthest corner. She chooses one,
Comes out, and wrings its neck. The body hurls
Itself out--lunging, reeling, it begins to run
Away from Something, to fly away from Something
In great flopping circles. Mama stands like a nun
In the center of the awful, anguished ring.
The thudding and scrambling go on, go on--then they fade,
I open my eyes, it's over...Could such a thing
Happen to anything? It could happen to a rabbit, I'm afraid...
Jarrell asked his grandmother if she could ever do such a thing to his pet rabbit, and his grandmother reassured him that she never would. Then, after a year on his own at his grandparents, it was decided that he should rejoin his mother and brother. Jarrell didn't want to go, and begged his grandparents to let him stay with them. His appeal was denied, and once he had gone back east, Reddy was slaughtered and eaten for dinner.

The Gingerbread Rabbit's fear of being eaten is Jarrell's childhood fear for his pet. And his wish to be adopted by a kind older couple, the real rabbits at the end of the book, is Jarrell's desire to stay with his grandparents. But in the picture book, these fears and wishes could be answered in a way they weren't in reality, with a happy ending.

WHEN JARRELL FINISHED the writing for The Gingerbread Rabbit, he turned his attention to the illustrations. His wife Mary wrote, "Jarrell rather assumed that the writer found some illustrations he liked, told the editor about it, and the illustrator would come running." After seeing The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, Jarrell settled on the illustrator Garth Williams without realizing that the illustrator of Charlotte's Web and Little House on the Prairie might not be an easy illustrator to hire. In the end, di Capua was able to convince the esteemed artist to take on The Gingerbread Rabbit.

With Williams in Mexico and Jarrell in North Carolina, all communiques were made through di Capua. In July of 1962, Jarrell sent the following guidelines,
"The rabbit himself ought to be very sincere and naive and ingenuous, so that his whole body and face express what he feels. The big rabbit ought to be handsome, secure and competent-looking; the mother rabbit should be delicate and demure and beautiful. The fox should be very smooth and flashy, like Valnetino playing W. C. Fields. The little girl's mother should be young (28 or so) and beautiful and kind, just the mother a little girl would want; the little girl should be something any little girl can immediately identify with."
Over the next few months, Jarrell finished writing his second children's book The Bat Poet, begun in the same hammock that had yielded The Gingerbread Rabbit. di Capua wanted Maurice Sendak to do the illustrations, and provided Jarrell with examples of Sendak's work. With Sendak's art as a point of comparison, Jarrel began to doubt his original choice of illustrator. In December of 1962, a disheartened Jarrell wrote to di Capua,  "If you could tell Williams how much I liked the pen-and-ink style of The Rescuers, and that I would be enchanted to have The Gingerbread Rabbit somewhat like that, perhaps he'd feel like it."

Whatever reservations Jarrell harbored that winter, when nearly finished illustrations for The Gingerbread Rabbit reached him in March of 1963, he wrote:
"I'm delighted with the drawings: the gingerbread rabbit's very cute and touching. The fox is wonderful, and the old rabbit in the colored sketch makes me want to be adopted by him...I believe Williams is getting quite inspired and will make a charming book."
The New York Times agreed. Of the finished product they said, "Garth Williams has drawn his landscape and personae in the best possible way, without "side" or innuendo, en punto." They said of Jarrell, "As always, [Jarrell's] prose here is straightforward, the tone is right, the learning informs subtly, the sensibility is in control. In short, the tale is in perfect taste."

The book, while now considered the weakest of Jarrell's works for children, resonated with readers as well. It remains in print today, a great accomplishment for a first-time children's book author. Without it, there might not have been the three books to come.

QUOTES FROM JARRELL'S LETTERS come from The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell by Jerome Griswold with an introduction by Mary Jarrell, and from Randall Jarrell's Letters, edited by Mary Jarrell. Additional background information came from Randal Jarrell: A Literary Life by William H. Pritchard.


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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

RANDALL JARRELL: THE RABBIT CATCHER AND OTHER FAIRY TALES OF LUDWIG BECHSTEIN

"EVERYBODY has read some of Grimm's Tales," writes Randall Jarrell in  his introduction to The Rabbit Catcher and Other Fairy Tales of Ludwig Bechstein, "but it is surprising how few people have read German fairy tales translated from other books." Jarrell sets out to remedy that with his second contribution to Macmillan's series of marvelous tales, three stories by Ludwig Bechstein.

Bechstein was a contemporary and ardent admirer of the Grimms. When they refused to allow him to produce an abridgment of their work, he chose to write his own book of fairy tales, which was published in 1845. Jarrell: "In his introduction to his book Bechstein calls the fairy tale 'the restless and homeless, floating bird-of-pardise of innocent tradition.'" Bechstein managed to catch that 'bird-of-paradise.' His volume outsold the Grimms' in Germany until the 1890s.

From the introduction through the translations, Jarrell's Bechstein is far more relaxed than his Grimm. Where the Grimm introduction quoted at length from a German poet and mentioned the H-bomb, the Bechstein introduction includes revealing intimacies: "I never heard anyone called a heavenly man before, but it's already become a family phrase in my family." Throughout the whole book, the reader can sense how much fun Jarrell is having.

The tales are "The Rabbit Catcher," "The Brave Flute-Player," and "The Man and the Wife in the Vinegar Jug." Jarrell says, "The stories, even down to their last bit of style, are as plain and homely as can be." But he means this as a compliment. His love for the stories is apparent. Except he takes especial care to make clear that the "Fisherman and His Wife" variant "The Man and the Wife in the Vinegar Jug," holds nothing to the original.

"THE RABBIT CATCHER" is of the variety of tales where a young suitor is set a series of impossible tasks in order to earn the right to wed the princess. When given the first task--to lead one hundred rabbits out to the fields, let them graze for the day, and bring every single one back--he asks for a day to think it over. As he is fretting over this challenge, a little, old lady gives him a whistle and tells him, "'Take good care of it, it will do a lot for you!'" With the whistle in hand, he agrees to the challenge.

But the king and princess are concerned that the boy might succeed. Each comes to him in the field in disguise asking to buy a rabbit, so that he will not have all one hundred when he returns. First he convinces the princess to kiss him in exchange for a rabbit, and then the king to kiss his donkey. But as each leaves, he uses the magic whistle to recall the bunnies, and at the end of the day he brings all one hundred in.

The whistle helps with the next task--to separate one hundred bushels of peas and a hundred bushels of lentils in the dark--by bringing a swarm of ants who complete the challenge, and the last--to eat a roomful's worth of bread in a night--by bringing "so many mice..that it was almost sinister."

Having completed the challenges, the king tries one last trick to try to cheat the boy out of the princess's hand: he must fill a bag of lies. But when the boy starts to say that he had made the king kiss a donkey, the king cuts him off, says the bag is full, and relinquishes his daughter.

"THE BRAVE FLUTE-PLAYER" tells of a musician who stops for the night at a farm, where he learns that the nearby abandoned castle is home to a treasure that no one can claim, because it is haunted and everyone who has gone in at night has never returned. Unafraid, the musician goes into the castle, and the farmer, left at home, can gauge how the musician is faring, because the sound of his flute drifts down to the farm.

At eleven o'clock, two men carry in a coffin and leave. The musician opens the coffin--the farmer is sure he is dead, because the music has stopped--takes out the little shriveled corpse, sets it by the fire, and soon it comes to life. The wrinkled, little man leads the musician to a room full of gold, and tells him if he can evenly divide the gold in two, half would belong to him and half would go to the poor. The musician divides the piles of coins, but there is one left over. He cuts it in half, making him the first to succeed in one hundred years, and the old man grants him the money. The musician begins to play, and the farmer is overjoyed at the sound.

"THE MAN AND THE WIFE IN THE VINEGAR JUG," as Jarrell said in his introduction, is a variant of "The Fisherman and His Wife." In this, it is a golden bird who grants each of the couple's escalating wishes, and for no apparent reason. And unlike the fisherman who is driven to each new wish by his greedy wife, here both members of the couple seem equally eager to first live in a cottage, then in the city, then as nobles, as king and queen, and at last as God. With that request, "Bang, all their magnificence went down to the devil, and both of them, the man and his wife, were back in the vinegar jug again."

THE RABBIT CATCHER'S BEAUTIFUL ILLUSTRATIONS were done by Ugo Fontana, a legend of children's book illustration in his native Italy. Fontana was selected this year as the first illustrator to be spotlighted in the annual exhibition 'The Lost Treasure' at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair. A 200-page bilingual book was released in conjunction with the festival. If anyone has this book and is trusting enough to lend it to me, I will happily devote a blog post to this amazing illustrator. To see all of his illustrations for The Rabbit Catcher, view my Flickr set here.

For information on Ludwig Bechstein, I consulted The Teller's Tale: Lives of the Classic Fairy Tale Writers edited by Sophie Raynard.

NEXT: Jarrell's Original Children's Books

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