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.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders



1 comment:

  1. I like the concept of the children's story and illustration of theme in 'The Young King', I like
    to see the story of Hindi Panchatantra Stories in international platform which is both mythical colorful
    and also scary.
    will be very entertainment to kids.

    ReplyDelete