The Red Fairy Book
Editor Andrew Lang
This was the second book of Langs historic collection of fairy tales
from around the world. It is evident from the brief preface that Lang
considered it an afterthoughtnot up to the standards of the
Blue Fairy Book
, but filled with good stories that readers would enjoy, even if
they were not as well-known. Well, clearly, being well-known isnt the
only test of a great story. And just as clearly, some stories that were
well-known in 1890 and others that werent, have changed places by now.
It seems that Langs vision for his collections changed, for by the end
of twelve fairy books of many colors, he had brought together an
astounding wealth of folklore, along with hundreds of splendid
illustrations by H. J. Ford.
This book alone contains nearly a hundred of those illustrations, plus
37 stories which, in spite of Langs reservations about how well-known
they were, include some of your favorites. And if they arent your
favorites now, wait until you have read this book!
It has an offensive moment here and therebut anything worthwhile is
bound to be controversial! After all, it dates from 1890, when it was
not considered wrong to characterize people of color as ugly as monkeys
and as stupid as owls, or to tell children stories in which such
phrases as dirty slut could be found. Now that you have been
forewarned, if you think these wrinkles will be an insurmountable
barrier to your enjoyment of these stories, you might as well stop here
and look for a different book. But, if you want to be caught up in a
peerless world of romance, magic, horror, tragedy, humor, and adventure,
this book is sure to give satisfaction. At least one of the stories in
this book may even evoke tears.
I have tried to do something different with each of my reviews of these
fairy books. This time, I would like to share with you a quote from each
story, to whet your appetite.
The Red Fairy Book begins with the (I think) Belgian story of "The Twelve
Dancing Princesses," in which a gardeners boy captures the heart of a
princess, the youngest of twelve sisters. But the sisters have made a
pact to give a potion to everyone who woos them, turning them into
living puppets. This sets up the following excerpt:
He gave his arm to the eldest sister, danced with each in turn, and was
so graceful that everyone was delighted with him. At last the time came
for him to dance with the little Princess. She found him the best
partner in the world, but he did not dare to speak a single word to her.
When he was taking her back to her place she said to him in a mocking
"Here you are at the summit of your wishes: you are being treated like a
"Dont be afraid," replied the Star Gazer gently. "You shall never be a
The little Princess stared at him with a frightened face, and he left
her without waiting for an answer.
Next comes "The Princess Mayblossom," Madame dAulnoys tale of a princess
who, due to a fairys curse, is imprisoned in a tower until her
twentieth birthday, and then makes the understandable error of falling
in love with the first man she sees...who, unfortunately, is the
ambassador sent by a neighboring king to ask for her hand in marriage.
The result is one of the most squirm-inducing, hilariously true-to-life
fairy tales ever written, depicting a flight of romance that goes down
"Pray, madam, how long do you mean to stay here? I see nothing to eat,
and though you may be very charming, the sight of you does not prevent
me from famishing."
"What! Fanfaronade," said the Princess, sitting up and rubbing her eyes,
"is it possible that when I am here with you you can want anything else?
You ought to be thinking all the time how happy you are."
"Happy!" cried he; "say rather unhappy. I wish with all my heart that
you were back in your dark tower again."
In P. C. Asbjørnsens tale of "Soria Moria Castle," a strong youth named
Halvor rescues three princesses from three trolls, each troll having a
successively larger number of heads for Halvor to cut off. In a How do
you like me now? moment, Halvor returns home and meets the girls who
used to tease him:
"We shall see that he is just the same ragamuffin that he was before,"
said the girls, tossing their heads.
At that same moment Halvor entered, and the girls were so astonished
that they left their kirtles lying in the chimney corner, and ran away
in nothing but their petticoats. When they came in again they were so
shamefaced that they hardly dared to look at Halvor, towards whom they
had always been so proud and haughty before.
The Russian tradition brings us "The Death of Koshchei the Deathless," in
which the hero (Prince Ivan) is in the interesting position of having to
rescue his wife from a demon who owes him a life-debt:
"Why stumblest thou, sorry jade? Scentest thou some ill?"
The steed replied:
"Prince Ivan has come and carried of Marya Morevna."
"Is it possible to catch them?"
"It is possible to sow wheat, to wait till it grows up, to reap it and
thresh it, to grind it to flour, to make five pies of it, to eat those
pies, and then to start in pursuitand even then to be in time."
In "The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen," an old thief saves the
lives of three doomed princes, merely by telling their captor about his
own scrapes with death. What a capital idea! A good enough story can
save lives! And here is the Thief of Sloans modest way of describing
his professional activities:
"My way of living, sir," says the Black Thief, "was not good, as I told
you before; and being at a certain time fairly run out of cash, and
meeting with no enterprise worthy of notice, I was reduced to great
straits. At length a rich bishop died in the neighbourhood I was then
in, and I heard he was interred with a great deal of jewels and rich
robes upon him, all which I intended in a short time to be master of...
"The Master Thief," from Asbjørnsen, appropriately comes next. Fans of
Terry Pratchetts Discworld
series would appreciate the concept of a
thief who views his business as an honest trade, of which a man must
prove his mastery, like any other. Here is a teaser from my favorite bit
of this story:
"Couldnt you play off a really good trick on the Priest? for he is
sitting there and calling me a fool for having let myself be taken in by
such a fellow as you."
"Well, it wouldnt be very hard to do that," said the Master Thief. So
he dressed himself up like a bird, and threw a great white sheet over
himself; broke off a gooses wings, and set them on his back; and in
this attire climbed into a great maple tree which stood in the Priests
garden. So when the Priest returned home in the evening the youth began
to cry, "Father Lawrence! Father Lawrence!" for the Priest was called
"Who is calling me?" said the Priest.
"I am an angel sent to announce to thee that because of thy piety thou
shalt be taken away alive into heaven," said the Master Thief....
"Brother and Sister," from Grimm, is the haunting story of a queen, whose
brother has been turned into a deer, and who herself has been murdered
and replaced by an impostor. Yet her ghost comes back night after night:
When midnight came and everyone in the palace was sound asleep, the
nurse who alone watched by the babys cradle in the nursery saw the door
open gently, and who should come in but the real Queen. She lifted the
child from its cradle, laid it on her arm, and nursed it for some time.
Then she carefully shook up the pillows of the little bed, laid the
baby down and tucked the coverlet in all round him. She did not forget
the little Roe either, but went to the corner where it lay, and gently
stroked its back. Then she silently left the room, and next morning when
the nurse asked the sentries if they had seen anyone go into the castle
that night, they all said, "No, we saw no one at all."
Princess Rosette decides, early in life, that she will marry no one but
the "King of the Peacocks." By chance her brothers, the King and the
Prince, find such a person, who puts them in prison until Rosette can be
fetched, because he refuses to believe that so beautiful a woman can
truly exist. Imagine their horror when a really ugly impostor arrives in
her place, while Rosette finds herself afloat in the ocean with nobody
by her but a little green dog:
When day broke she and Frisk were equally astonished at finding
themselves alone upon the sea, with no boat and no one to help them. The
Princess cried and cried until even the fishes were sorry for her.
"The Enchanted Pig" is the Romanian version of a tale you may have read
elsewhere as Jack My Hedgehog, East of the Sun and West of the Moon,
or the myth of Cupid and Psyche. C. S. Lewis even wrote a novel-length
version of it, called Till We Have Faces
. In this variant, a princess is
at first horrified when she learns that she is fated to marry a pig. But
later, having loved and lost her husband (who is really a man under an
enchantment), she wears out three pairs of iron shoes searching for him.
In the midst of this tale of enduring love comes this interesting
"But how in the world is it possible for the Sun to be angry? He is so
beautiful and so good to mortals."
"This is how it happens," replied the Suns mother. "In the morning when
he stands at the gates of paradise he is happy, and smiles on the whole
world, but during the day he gets cross, because he sees all the evil
deeds of men, and that is why his heat becomes so scorching; but in the
evening he is both sad and angry, for he stands at the gates of death;
that is his usual course. From there he comes back here."
"The Norka," from the Russian, features another Prince Ivan who rescues
three princesses from a great monster:
And when the Prince came to the blue sea, he lookedthere slept the
Norka on a stone in the middle of the sea; and when it snored, the water
was agitated for seven miles around. The Prince crossed himself, went up
to it, and smote it on the head with his sword. The head jumped off,
saying the while, "Well, Im done for now!" and rolled far away into the
"The Wonderful Birch" grows out of a mothers grave, and provides
assistance to a girl whose stepmother hates her in this Russo-Finnish
story. The story turns out to be somewhat of a variant of Cinderella, in
which an enchanted tree (not a fairy godmother) gives a lass her chance
to dance with the Kings son. But this is only the half of a story that
also involves a true bride being replaced by an impostor and turned into
So the widow woman took the child to the wood. She came to the edge of a
marsh, and seeing a herd of reindeer there, she began all at once to
"Little Bright-eyes, little Redskin,
Come nurse the child you bore!
That bloodthirsty monster,
That man-eater grim,
Shall nurse him, shall tend him no more.
They may threaten and force as they will,
He turns from her, shrinks from her still..."
"Jack and the Beanstalk" needs very little introduction. It is wonderful
to imagine what the world of 1890 must have been like, for Lang to
consider this one of the less well-known fairy tales! And perhaps the
editor here tries a little too hard to justify Jacks actions as he
plunders a giant of a magic hen, a talking harp, and more. What more can
I say, except:
"Fe, fa, fi-fo-fum,
I smell the breath of an Englishman.
Let him be alive or let him be dead,
Ill grind his bones to make my bread."
"The Little Good Mouse" is really a fairy, who comforts a Queen who is
being held captive by the conqueror of her kingdom. The story also tells
of a turkey-maiden who is really a princess:
"Good-day, my pretty one! You have a fine flock of turkeys there."
The young turkey-maiden turned her gentle eyes upon the old woman, and
"Yet they wish me to leave them to become a miserable Queen! What is
your advice upon the matter?"
"My child," said the Fairy, "a crown is a very pretty thing, but you
know neither the price nor the weight of it."
"Graciosa and Percinet" tells of a princess whose fathers ridiculous love
of money ensnares him in the designs of a wicked witch, who proves to be
a cruel stepmother, and of the fairy prince who remains unwaveringly
loyal to Graciosa, though she is afraid to commit her heart to him:
"This is like being buried alive," she said with a shudder. "Oh,
Percinet! if you only knew how I am suffering for my want of trust in
you! But how could I be sure that you would not be like other men and
tire of me from the moment you were sure I loved you?"
"The Three Princesses of Whiteland" has a great deal in common with Soria
Moria Castle, in which a heroic young fisherman receives these
instructions from a Princess who is buried up to her neck in the earth:
"When thou goest in...two lions will stand by the doorway, but if thou
only goest straight between them they will do thee no harm; go straight
forward into a small dark chamber; there thou shalt lie down. Then the
Troll will come and beat thee, but thou shalt take the flask which is
hanging on the wall, and anoint thyself wheresoever he has wounded thee,
after which thou shalt be as well as before. Then lay hold of the sword
which is hanging by the side of the flask, and smite the Troll dead."
The macabre Romanian tale of "The Voice of Death" tells of a country in
which, instead of dying as in most other places, the citizens, one by
one, answer a call from a voice no one else can hear, and are never seen
...One day, while they were all sitting together round the table, his
wife suddenly started up, exclaiming in a loud voice:
"I am coming! I am coming!"
"The Six Sillies" is a giggle-inducing tall story about a suitor who is so
astonished at the foolishness of his intended and her parents, that he
vows not to marry her until he can find three people more foolish than
they. It does not take him long:
Some way further along the road he came upon a man who had never worn
any trousers, and who was trying to put on a pair. So he had fastened
them to a tree and was jumping with all his might up in the air so that
he should hit the two legs of the trousers as he came down.
"It would be much better if you held them in your hands," said the young
man, "and then put your legs one after the other in each hole."
"Dear me to be sure! You are sharper than I am, for that never occurred
"Kari Woodengown" is another unusual rendition of Cinderella, in which a
troll-fighting bull takes the place of the fairy godmother, and the
Prince himself scorns the servant girl, not realizing that she is the
same woman who (differently dressed) has captured his heart:
When she was going upstairs her wooden gown made such a clatter that the
Prince came out and said, "What sort of a creature may you be?"
"I was to take this water to you," said Kari.
"Do you suppose that I will have any water that you bring?" said the
Prince, and emptied it over her.
Then she went away and mounted her horse again; the Prince again
followed her, and asked her whence she came.
"Oh! I am from Bathland," said Kari.
"Drakestail" is the silly story of a money-lending duck who avenges
himself on a king who refuses to pay his debts. Wouldnt it be nice to
be able to carry reinforcements in your gizzard?
"This way, this way," says the porter. "One step further....There, there
"How? what? in the poultry yard?"
Fancy how vexed Drakestail was!
"The Ratcatcher" is the tale of horror more widely known as The Pied
Piper of Hamelin. In this version, the fateful bagpiper saves the
German city of Hamel from a plague of rats, but when the town council
refuses to pay him, he exacts a gruesome revenge.
At last, dragging himself with difficulty, came a big rat, white with
age, and stopped on the bank.
It was the king of the band.
"Are they all there, friend Blanchet?" asked the bagpiper.
"They are all there," replied friend Blanchet.
"And how many were they?"
"Nine hundred and ninety thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine."
"Then go and join them, old sire, and au revoir."
"The True History of Little Golden-Hood" is an attempt to set the record
straight on the famous tale of Little Red Riding-Hood (see
The Blue Fairy Book
"Oh! What hairy arms youve got, Grandmother!"
"All the better to hug you, child."
"Oh! What a big tongue youve got, Grandmother!"
"All the better for answering, child."
"Oh! What a mouthful of great white teeth you have, Grandmother!"
"Thats for crunching little children with!" And the Wolf opened his
"The Golden Branch," from Madame dAulnoy, features a King Grumpy, a
Prince Curlicue, and a Princess Cabbage-Stalk. (Look for the
illustration in which the kings throne is decorated with the legend REX
FLOREAT GRVMPES.) A prince and princess learn to see beyond the surface
of things, and so become worthy of each others love.
"Am I to understand that you are not pleased?" he said very sharply.
"No, sire," replied the Prince. "How could I be pleased to marry an
ugly, lame Princess?"
"Certainly it is becoming in you to object to that," said King Grumpy,
"since you are ugly enough to frighten anyone yourself."
"That is the very reason," said the Prince, "that I wish to marry
someone who is not ugly. I am quite tired enough of seeing myself."
"Dapplegrim" is the name of a famous horse that enabled his master to
scale a glass mountain, to save a Princess from a Troll, and to
accomplish several other tasks in order to win the Princesss hand in
So he went down to Dapplegrim again and told him what the King desired,
and Dapplegrim thought that it might easily be done; but first of all he
must have new shoes, and ten pounds of iron and twelve pounds of steel
must go to the making of them, and two smiths were also necessary, one
to hammer and one to hold, and then it would be very easy to make the
sun shine into the Kings palace.
"The Enchanted Canary" is a Belgian tale about a Prince named Désiré, who
wants a golden princess for his bride. To free her from the orange peel
in which a witch has imprisoned her, he must brave many dangers, not
least of which is an ugly gypsy girl named (ahem) Titty:
Just as she was stooping to fill [the pitcher at the well], she saw
reflected in the water the lovely image of the Princess.
"What a pretty face!" she exclaimed. "Why, it must be mine! How in the
world can they call me ugly? I am certainly much too pretty to be their
So saying, she broke her pitcher and went home.
"The Twelve Brothers," from Grimm, features a Princess who dares not utter
a word for seven years in order to save her brothers from an evil
enchantment. Imagine the trouble a vow of silence can get a girl into!
When they had lived a few years happily together, the Kings mother, who
was a wicked old woman, began to slander the young Queen, and said to
"She is only a low-born beggar maid that you have married; who knows
what mischief she is up to? If she is deaf and cant speak, she might at
least laugh; depend upon it, those who dont laugh have a bad
"Rapunzel," naturally from Grimm, is as well-known as Jack and the Bean
Stalk these days. You remember the story: the prince hears the girl
singing from the top of her tower, where the witch keeps her, and falls
in love with the sound of her voice. Everybody join in now:
Let down your golden hair."
And then there is "The Nettle Spinner," from Belgium. Sigh. What can I
tell you about this story? If it isnt the only fairy tale that has ever
made me cry, it is one of a very few. It is full of spookiness and
foreboding, but it is also seriously tragic. Here is the fateful
exchange that sets the story in motion:
"What are you spinning?" he asked in a rough voice.
"My wedding shift, my lord."
"You are going to be married, then?"
"Yes, my lord, by your leave."
For at that time no peasant could marry without the leave of his master.
"I will give you leave on one condition. Do you see those tall nettles
that grow on the tombs in the churchyard? Go and gather them, and spin
them into two fine shifts. One shall be your bridal shift, and the other
shall be my shroud. For you shall be married the day that I am laid in
my grave." And the Count turned away with a mocking laugh.
"Farmer Weatherbeard" is much like the story of The Clever Student and
the Master of Black Arts from Pyles Wonder Clock
When the time came for the fair the youth turned himself into a
light-coloured horse, and bade his father go to the market with him. "If
anyone should come who wants to buy me," said he, "you are to tell him
that you want a hundred dollars for me; but you must not forget to take
off the halter, for if you do I shall never be able to get away from
Farmer Weatherbeard, for he is the man who will come and bargain for
"Mother Holle" is likewise similar to Pyles Mother Hildegard.
She rose up and wandered through this enchanted place, till she came to
a bakers oven full of bread, and the bread called out to her as she
"Oh! take me out, take me out, or I shall be burnt to a cinder. I am
quite done enough."
"Minnikin" is about the adventures of a boy who goes out to seek his
fortune on the day he is born (!). After extorting magical gifts from
three old hags, Minnikin saves a princess from three successive trolls
(who have a total of 20 heads), though a cowardly knight
tries to steal the glory and the princesss handsee Bearskin in Pyle.
"Fire!" roared the Troll.
"Fire yourself!" said Minnikin.
"Can you fight?" screamed the Troll.
"If not, I can learn," said Minnikin.
"I will teach you," yelled the Troll, and struck at him with his iron
club so that the earth flew up fifteen yards high into the air.
"Fie!" said Minnikin. "That was not much of a blow. Now I will let you
see one of my blows."
"Bushy Bride" is similar to Brother and Sister, seen earlier in this
book. In this one, two stepsisters receive different blessings (or
curses, as the case may be) from three ugly heads that rise up out of
the river. The one who is given the gift of gold coins falling out of
her mouth marries the King, but the one who has ashes coming out of hers
tries to pull a bridal-substitution trick.
"Out on thee, ugly Bushy Bride,
Sleeping so soft by the young Kings side,
On sand and stones my bed I make,
And my brother sleeps with the cold snake,
Unpitied and unwept."
"Snowdrop" is none other than the original Grimm version of the fairy tale
that, in these post-Disney days, we call "Snow White."
"Mirror, mirror, hanging there,
Who in all the lands most fair?"
and the mirror replied:
"My Lady Queen, you are fair, tis true,
But Snowdrop is fairer far than you.
Snowdrop, who dwells with the seven little men,
Is as fair as you, as fair again."
"The Golden Goose" features a classic fairy-tale character type: the
youngest of three sons, who is considered dull-witted by those who know
him, but who proves more successful than his brothers in seeking his
fortune. In this particular tale, Dullhead succeeds by making a grave
princess laugh, with the aid of a little grey man and a golden goose.
Then Dullhead asked once more for his bride, but the King felt vexed at
the idea of a stupid fellow whom people called "Dullhead" carrying off
his daughter, so he began to make fresh conditions.
"The Seven Foals," which like The Golden Goose is a story that I would
swear that I had read somewhere else, features another youngest-of-three
who succeeds where his brothers have failed. In this case, he discovers
exactly what the Kings seven foals eat and drink.
"Canst thou wield the sword?" asked the Foal.
Cinderlad tried, but could not do it; so he had to take a draught from
the pitcher, and then one more, and after that another, and then he was
able to wield the sword with perfect ease.
"Good," said the Foal; "and now thou must take the sword away with thee,
and with it shalt thou cut off the heads of all seven of us on thy
wedding day, and then we shall become princes again as we were
"The Marvellous Musician" pits the wits of a wandering fiddler against a
wolf, a fox, and a hare.
"Now, my friend," he said, "give me your right paw."
This he bound to the other branch, and having carefully seen that his
knots were all secure, he stepped off the ends of the branches, and they
sprang back, leaving the poor Fox suspended in mid-air.
"Just you wait where you are till I return," said the Musician, and he
went on his way again.
"The Story of Sigurd," from the Danish Volsunga Saga, is a tragic legend
that has been heavily condensed (for a much larger version see Richard
Wagners Ring des Nibelungen cycle of operas).
...When they were brought before the King, he thought the maid looked
like a Queen, and the Queen like a maid. So he asked the Queen, "How do
you know in the dark of night whether the hours are wearing to the
And she said:
"I know because, when I was younger, I used to have to rise and light
the fires, and still I waken at the same time."
"A strange Queen to light the fires," thought the King.
Then he asked the Queen, who was dressed like a maid, "How do you know
in the dark of night whether the hours are wearing near the dawn?"
"My father gave me a gold ring," said she, "and always, ere the dawning,
it grows cold on my finger."
"A rich house where the maids wore gold," said the King. "Truly you are
no maid, but a Kings daughter."
Gruesome to the last, this version of the Sigurd legend probably suffers
from being condensed too much, but there is much else in this book that
hits the perfect pacing, neither too slow and detailed, nor too abrupt
and dense. Laugh, gasp, shiver, and perhaps even weep as you read this
book, but dont complain to me if you find it too politically
incorrect. I warned you!
Recommended Age: 6+ (4+ if read to you)
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