Maria Tatar (editor and translator), The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (Norton, 2002)
'She was lovely. Long, perfect legs, deep red hair worn longer than shoulder length, the face of an arrogant angel, and a body so perfect that it seemed unreal, like an adolescent's daydream. Her walk showed training; possibly she was a model or dancer. Her only garment was a cloak of glowing blue velvet. It was fifteen yards long, that cloak. It trailed back from two big gold discs that were stuck somehow to the skin of her shoulders. It trailed back and back, floating at a height of five feet all the way, twisting and turning to trace her path through the trees. She seemed like the illustration to a book of fairy tales, bearing in mind that the original fairy tales were not intended for children.'
-- Larry Niven's 'Cloak of Anarchy'
Maria Nutick in her review of the illustrated Bradbury bio said, 'This is one of those books that I always end up reading in stages. Stage One began when I opened the package, extracted the heavy coffee table tome, laid it on my lap, held the book and stroked it reverently for a few minutes; at this point the babbling began. Stage Two had me flipping through the book quickly, ooh-ing and ah-ing at the colorful pictures. Stage Three involved a cozy blanket, a cup of cocoa, and a good thorough read. And Stage Four; well, Stage Four is going to take place over time.' Oddly enough, her experience with that book was precisely my experience with The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales! In my time, I have read so many fairy tales that I've long since lost count, but these retellings by Tatar are among the best I've encountered.
I assume, that like many Green Man readers, you are familiar with authors like Holly Black, Charles de Lint, Midori Snider, Terri Winding, and Jane Yolen who make use of beloved classic fairy tales. What Tatar has gathered in this stunningly designed volume are twenty-five of our most cherished fairy tales, including 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Beauty and the Beast', 'East of The Moon, West of the Sun', 'Jack and the Beanstalk', 'The Little Mermaid' and Bluebeard'. It is true, as she notes in her introduction, that, 'For many of us childhood books are sacred objects. Often read to pieces, those books took us on voyages of discovery, leading us into secret new worlds that magnify childhood desires and anxieties and address the great existential mysteries.' Do I need to mention that a working understanding of Jungian archetypal psychology might be needed to follow the arguments Tatar makes in her introduction as to why these tales are still relevant? I thought not. So let's skip past her pontificating to look at what's really important -- the tales themselves.
To my mind, there are but two aspects to a really good book. The first is obviously the text, as without a great tale, why should I bother even picking it up? I'm fussy -- I've read as little as five pages of a novel and set it aside as not to be read. Let's assume for a moment that the tales here are superb. (Given who collected and translated them -- Tatar -- that is a reasonable assumption.) The second thing that really makes a great read is the design of any printed work, and the elements that go in to it -- the paper, the fonts used, the layout, even the size of the book itself. (I hate mass paperbacks. Nasty little things.) As I have at least three other Norton volumes like this one (The Annotated Wizard of Oz, The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, and The Annotated Alice), I knew what they were sending before it got here -- a generously sized book suitable for reading alone or with a child in an overstuffed chair at night with the lights turned low and mugs of cocoa at hand. The font is Goudy Old Style, designed by Frederic W. Goudy, an American, just before the Great War. It's a playful but readable font, neither too hard-edged nor too soft. Each page of within the tales themselves has two columns of text, with one generally being just the annotations. Now mind you, one doesn't really need the annotations to enjoy the tales, but the more inquisitive of you will like to know -- to give but one example of the detailed research Tatar did -- that 'Tom Thumb' is more accurately 'Little Thumbling', a literal rendering of 'Petit Pouchet' in French. Yes, 'Tom Thumb' isn't English at all! Tatar does have more than a slight skew towards annotations of a psychological nature -- some of which may be valid, some of which may be just of her previously expressed interest in Jungian archetypal psychology. Interpretation of fairy tales by anyone is a dangerous affair, as we all look at them as a reflection of ourselves.
The illustrations are lovely. I don't believe I'd ever encountered Edmund Dulac's The Dreamer of Dreams (see 'East of The Moon, West of the Sun') and 'Donkeyskin' has an illustration entitled 'Catskin' (Arthur Rackham) and one called 'Thousandfurs' (Kay Neilsen), which are wonderful to encounter again. My only (minor) complaint is that many of the illustrations are a wee bit on the smallish size. But given that this volume's nearly 450 pages long as it is, it's not surprising that they didn't want it to be bigger! And they kept it affordable at a mere thirty-five American dollars.
So what have we here for tales? Besides the ones I've mentioned above, the most interesting aspect of what is here is that the Grimm Brothers, individually or together, account for eleven of the twenty-five tales! I'd guess that Tatar, being the John L. Leob Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, is well-versed in those tales; and it is true that Grimms' Fairy Tales, as they have been called down the years, have become as much a part of the literature of English-speaking children as the Mother Goose rhymes, but it does create a perception of imbalance here. That said, every tale is lovingly told as though it was being told by a storyteller who wants you, and you alone, to be deeply inside the story... Just you, the tale, and nothing else. 'East of The Moon, West of the Sun' was written by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jorgen ('Østenfor sol og vesten for måne, Norske Folkeeventyr'). Here translated by George Webb Dasent and revised by Tatar, it gives all of us a fresh look at this tale of a princess and her alliance with two polar bears. (Did Tolkien remember this tale when writing his Letters from Father Christmas, which have The Great North Polar Bear as one of the characters? I suspect so.) This tale, like most herein, barely runs over a dozen pages. Quick reads for a cold winter's night.
So what do we have so far? Good tales? Yes. Great design? Yes. Interesting artwork? That too. Annotations to enlighten the inquisitive amongst us? Oh, yes. Anything else? Yep. Her introduction's well-worth reading for her Jungian take on fairy tales, a subject that she has covered in-depth elsewhere (see our review of Grimm's Grimmest). She tosses in biographies of authors such as the Brothers Grimm, and of collectors like Australian Joseph Jacobs. Illustrators get their deserved coverage, too, with looks at Edward Burne-Jones, Gustav Doré and Maxfield Parrish, to name but a few. There's an appendix of variants on the tales told at the front of this collection -- odd, but charming. Following that are nearly twenty-five pages of Walter Crane's illustrations -- a sweet treat indeed! But a darker treat, too -- think of them as very dark fantasies and you'll get the tone of them.
If you like fairy tales, get this book now. If you never liked fairy tales, you are a sorry bugger indeed. But you wouldn't still be reading this if you were, so I can wholeheartedly say that you will treasure this book for years and years and years to come.