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1910 - The Lilac Fairy Book

1910. A year of portents and changes. Halley’s comet makes a scheduled appearance and the New York times predicts that the world will end. Much to everyone’s disappointment life on earth continues. However a giant meteor does burst over Mexico starting a forest fire and the following year a smaller meteorite kills a dog in Egypt. Pygmies are discovered in Dutch New Guinea and the remains of a Neanderthal are uncovered in Jersey.

These are the fuel of the storytellers who spin the tales which shape our world. Tales which will in later centuries end up becoming fables, later legends, and finally myths to be collected and preserved for future generations by folklorists. Already in the early twentieth century these people were collecting and retelling the stories of the past. Andrew and Leonora Blanche Lang were two such folklorists, and in 1910 they published The Lilac Fairy Book, the twelfth and final book in their “Colored" Fairy Books series.


Andrew and Leonora (Nora) Blanche Lang were a Scottish married couple who collaborated on a series of 25 Fairy Books, which collected true and fictional children’s stories from various cultures around the world. The best known of these are the “Colored" fairy books, 12 collections of fairy stories each assigned to a different color.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a poet, novelist, literary critic and contributor to the development of the field of anthropology, who published many articles on folklore, mythology and religion. He collaborated on translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey and also wrote many articles and books on Scottish history, which were characterized by their scholarly attention to detail, literary style, and how they disentangled complicated questions. Andrew Lang was also one of the founders of the field of parapsychology. He wrote several books that contributed to the field, and served as the president of the Society for Psychical Research in 1911. He was critical of the idea that belief in spirits and animism was inherently irrational, and extensively cited nineteenth and twentieth century European spiritualism to challenge that belief.

Leonora Blanche Lang (1851-1933) was an author, editor and translator. She independently wrote and also collaborated with her husband on multiple writing projects. However, she is best known for her work on the Fairy Book series.

Initially, work on the Fairy Books series was divided evenly between Andrew and Leonora. Andrew selected and edited the stories of the first four books, while Leonora and a team of writers translated and adapted the stories into English. However, from the fifth book onwards, Leonora took upon herself almost all the work, leaving Andrew to write the prefaces, in which he frequently gave all the credit to his wife, even though it was his name on most of the covers.

British fairy tale collections were very rare in the late nineteenth century. The critics and educators of the period thought the traditional tales “unreality, brutality and escapism to be harmful for young readers” and believed them to be beneath serious consideration for adults. Andrew wanted to change this perception, and he more than succeeded.

In total, the Langs managed to collect 798 stories and 153 poems from possibly every existing source and literary tradition in the world (except Jewish). The collections were immensely influential. This was the first time that many of the stories were being told in English, and the series had a huge impact on children’s literature. Fairy tales became more popular than stories of real life.

The sea lady lures Maurice the Piper into the sea from "The Wonderful Tune"

The Lilac Fairy Book contains 34 stories from Ireland, Portugal, Wales, and various other Eastern and Western traditions in a wide variety of categories. There were animal fables (which Tolkien later criticized the Langs for including), such as the Swahili tale “The Heart of a Monkey,” in which a monkey befriends a shark, and later tricks him when he discovers that the shark wants his heart heart for the shark’s sultan. Others were children’s stories with morals, such as “How Brave Walter Hunted Wolves,” a story that demonstrated why it’s a bad idea for little boys to boast of their wolf-hunting prowess. There were also adventure stories and love stories, some more successful than others.

Personally, I felt that these stories were hit and miss. You didn’t know which type of story you were going to get until you started reading, and frequently the stories repeated themselves when it came to expressing the same themes and ideas. There were fast paced adventures which I devoured in seconds and funny stories with antics that made me laugh out loud. Others were agony to get through because they were that boring and I had just read something similar, and still others I was left with the feeling that I had no clue what I just read. Overall, I would still recommend the book as roughly 65% of the stories turned out to be well worth the read.

The Omer today is splendor in courage both attributes easily found in these stories. Many of the heroes and heroines of these stories display plenty of courage throughout their quests to either rescue a loved one, help a person in need, or escape the evil villain pursuing them. More often than not they are rewarded with riches beyond their wildest dreams, which they occasionally turn down (depending on the story) because true happiness and splendor aren’t found in gold and silver, but rather in the good deeds one performs for others; therefore making them even more worthy of the treasure they end up receiving anyway - a sentiment I heartily share.

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