Andrew Lang and His Fairy Books: Red, Yellow, Blue, Grey, etc.


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Here is a place for the discussion of a classic series of children's books. Today the best-known volume must be The Red Fairy Book, because this was where Tolkien discovered the story of Sigurd and the dragon, which was so important for his youthful imagination.

Andrew Lang's Fairy Books - Wikipedia

Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader

Tolkien's major monograph, On Fairy-Stories, was given at the University of St. Andrews as an Andrew Lang lecture.

Andrew Lang Lecture - Wikipedia

This thread is also a place to discuss other aspects of the life and work of Andrew Lang (1844-1912). For example, he collaborated more than once with Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon's Mines and She.

Andrew Lang - Wikipedia

I don't know a lot about Lang, but it seemed appropriate to open a space for him here at Chrons.
I'm pretty sure I had some or all of the fairy books read to me when I was extremely young. I can vaguely remember snippets of the stories. My memory was jogged recently when I started doing some research into fairy stories for potential upcoming projects of my own.
Does one of them contain a story where the characters ride a train through fairyland and end up missing their important stop? Thats just a story fragment thats lodged in my brain from when I was tiny, and had books read to me.
I've just finished "The Red Fairy Book". This was the second in Andrew Lang's series of Fairy Books and contains thirty seven stories. First published in 1890, it is available today in the Dover edition with all the original illustrations, all 93 of them together with 4 plates. There are 367 pages in all.

I read this because of the influence it had on the young Tolkien.
So here's the Humphrey Carpenter Tolkien biography:
"But most of all he found delight in the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang, especially the Red Fairy Book, for tucked away in its closing pages was the best story he had ever read. This was the tale of Sigurd who slew the dragon Fafnir: a strange and powerful tale set in the nameless North. Whenever he read it Ronald found it absorbing. 'I desired dragons with a profound desire,' he said long afterwards. 'Of course I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.' "

"The Story of Sigurd" is the last story in the book, but because of my interest in Tolkien, I read it first and then again at the end. To my surprise I thought this one of the weaker stories in the book and I thought this version somewhat bland, but clearly it gripped the young Ronald. In terms of possible material for later use by his unconscious, I note that Sigurd gained the name "Fafnir's Bane" and there is also a prominent and powerful ring, but of course as an adult Tolkien would have read the Volsunga Saga in all its much greater detail.

Here's the illustration of Fafnir in the Red Fairy Book:


In fact, if my memory is correct (not a given) Fafnir is the only dragon in the Red Fairy Book, and certainly the only one to be so vividly depicted, and here he is again in a second illustration:


In fact the illustrations throughout the book are brilliant, wonderfully atmospheric and of their time.

Although I thought the Sigurd story a little anodyne, I really did enjoy the book. Initially I was daunted by the prospect of wading through thirty seven stories, but reading one or two or three a day I soon found my way through them while allowing each story some time to digest. They were much more readable than I expected, and even stories familiar to me such as the Pied Piper, Snow White, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk are narrated in more detail than I have come across before and in significantly different variations that are very interesting to read. Naturally there is a wealth of evil stepmothers, multi headed trolls, heroic young men and mistreated beautiful daughters. Rather to my surprise there is little evident religiosity despite its 1890 publication date, though this may well be implicit.

If you have a yen for Victorian fairy stories, beautifully told and illustrated, then you will enjoy this book.
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I'll get a copy. Thank you for taking time to write this report, Hugh. I mean to read the book through methodically, as you did, perhaps commenting here on some of them. I might reread Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories" in this connection.

Hugh, I don't know how far you want to run down bibliographic rabbit trails (there's almost nothing I like better); but you might be interested in looking for Roger Lancelyn Green's Walck Monograph Andrew Lang (1962). I think I'll read this again. Green was a friend of C. S. Lewis's -- the two men and their wives visited Greece a few years before Lewis's death. Green wrote some "Recollections" of Tolkien for the Tolkien Society's fanzine Amon Hen.
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If you do, I'll enjoy any comments you make.

I can find a 1946 biography of Lang by Green on Amazon/Abe, but not the monograph. I may get round to getting hold of a copy of the biography before long though I'm never sure where my whims will take me. I try not to buy a book until I'm fairly certain I will read it (of course if it looks to be available really cheap from one seller, I can get "buy now" trigger happy).
I try not to buy a book until I'm fairly certain I will read it (of course if it looks to be available really cheap from one seller, I can get "buy now" trigger happy).

Don't I know how that goes.
My copy of the Dover reprint of The Red Fairy Book arrived today, and I mean to say something about a couple of the stories every week, reading the stories in the order they are set out here -- which means saving the one I'm most interested in, thanks to Tolkien, for the last.

I made sure to get a used copy from the days when Dover bound its products with sewn signatures rather than just glue. They went to glue binding in the latter 1970s or thereabouts, I think. I wonder just when it was! A cost-cutting measure, no doubt.

The little preface points out that most of what we read is not the translations or compositions of Andrew Lang.

Here's a delightful piece by Michael Dirda about the old sewn-signatures days of Dover, and the great scholar E. Bleiler:

Let Us Now Praise Dover Books - The American Scholar
The Red Fairy Book's first story is "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," which, I suppose, is a French literary composition rather than a story with folktale roots. It's a story of "fancy" rather than "enchantment," I would say. Tolkien says that, in France, fancy "went to court and put on powder and diamonds" (Flieger and Anderson, eds. On Fairy-stories, Expanded Edition by Tolkien, p. 29).

Tolkien said that most of the stories in the first of Lang's anthologies, the Blue Fairy Book, were "taken from French sources: a just choice in some ways at that time....though not to my taste, now or in childhood" (p. 33).

The fairy-element in the story almost feels artificial rather than integral; the author has the pretty hero Michael spy on the princesses, when they disappear at night, while he is invisible, but he could have been just clever at hiding. The princes have drunk a "philtre" that makes them want to do nothing but dance in the secret place with the princesses, but the philtre seems more a convenience than something genuinely magical, and so on. There's a vitiating feeling of sophistication over the story. Now a fairy-story can be "sophisticated" -- I'm thinking of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- but the author has to have special skill, if so, if he or she is to enchant the reader. At the moment time doesn't permit me to refine this comment much.
I thought this was one of the weaker stories in the collection. Somewhat superficial with no real fairytale "guts". I like your comment re "fancy" rather than "enchantment".
The second Red Fairy Book story is another longish French thing, Mme d'Aulnoy's "Princess Mayblossom." Evidently she thought her audience would be amused by the princess's love interest, Fanfaronade, bickering with Mayblossom after the run off together, and his eating "fifteen pounds" of honey, all that she found when they were hungry. The reader's relief when he falls off a cliff is exceeded only when the story ends at last. Did Lang really think children would like the story? Did some of them?

The story is a version of the familiar story about fairies being invited to a christening, a bad one or witch being present after almost all the others have bestowed their blessings, but one good fairy remaining to compensate for the ill wish of the bad one.

The one redeeming thing about the story, for me personally, is that it fits within a project focusing on reading a lot of writing from the 17th century. This one apparently dates to 1697. Looking in my copy of The Red Fairy Book, I see there is more d'Aulnoy to annoy me ahead.

Happily, I see that the next story is a favorite of mine, the Norwegian tale called "Soria Moria Castle," which I love in the 1960 Viking Press edition of Norwegian Folk Tales.
Much as you describe, the redeeming features for me were (i) the change in Fanfaronade from idealised lover to tedious self-interested bore. (ii) His sudden end.

I wonder whether the seven year old Tolkien made anything of these first two. I doubt it, but at least there are illustrations.

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