Compiler: Peter Davies

Editor: Maria Tatar
Publisher: Princeton University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-15230-1

What, for several generations now, have come to be regarded as the entertaining fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, were, in reality, concerted attempts by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to capture the capricious and often cruel folktales that had been an inherent part of Germanic oral tradition for centuries. The acerbic nature of wit that is intrinsic to these tales makes it of little wonder that such a genre could lend itself to transformation into modernday critique of contemporary society, in the form of what, potentially, could be the harshest and most revealing of all forms of presentday humor, namely satire.

However, in The Fairies Return, Or, New Tales for Old, a compilation of fifteen fairy tales (of which only one, E. Arnot Robertson’s “Dick Whittington”, is excluded from the present volume for copyright reasons) transformed into a vehicle of satire under the guidance of Peter Davies, the adopted son of the playwright J.M. Barrie, such satire is rendered both extremely accessible and palatable through his involvement of fifteen contemporary writers who were noted “expert observers of modern British manners and mores”. The ‘modern’ refers to the 1930’s, which is the decade in which the present work was first produced—not to its detriment, I might add, as the decade in question was a key turning point for the history not only of Britain or Europe, but for the entire world, as it experienced the aftermath of the Great War, and witnessed the burgeoning power of Hitler’s tyrannical grasp on Europe, with its gross violation of human rights and dignity. Needless to say, many of the issues that troubled any sound person’s thinking at the time are very much those that beset our presentday psyche, so the relevance of The Fairies Return is in no way to be doubted.

Faced by the increasing disenchantment with modern mores and the rising rationalism that permeated society at the time, Davies recognized the need for a refurbishing of the old (fairy lore) with the new (a critical approach to society that might revitalize flagging spirits and help to reformulate social systems that had outstayed their time). The result was The Fairies Return, Or, New Tales for Old. As the esteemed folklorist and leading Harvard academic Maria Tatar, who provides a new introduction to the work, states: “Fairy tales have always had the capacity to puncture bourgeois propriety and speak truth to power even as they fuel our fantasies and fears. In this volume too, they are double duty bound”. Tatar provides incisive insights into not only the function and structure of fairy tales in general, but embarks on an exciting and revealing exploration of the significance of each tale, forming a widely drawn corpus comprised of a representative sampling of the aforementioned tales of the Brothers Grimm, The Thousand and One Nights, Charles Perrault’s The Tales of Mother Goose, British fairy tales and the writings of Hans Christian Andersen—an eclectic mix, to be sure. She ends the introduction by considering the personal and professional life of Peter Davies, including an entrancing description of his childhood, of which much was spent in the imaginatively enriched Kensington Gardens and played out at Barrie’s country retreat, Black Lake Cottage.

An inspiring collection that provides much food for thought, The Fairies Return, Or, New Tales for Old is a worthwhile text not only for the history scholar, but also for the wide panoply of individuals who are interested in fairy and folklore. Ideal either for the home library, or for more academic surrounds, this work should arouse a range of widely varying emotions extending from nostalgic pathos to wry humor, as well as give grounds for much serious reflection on the social ethos of the times.

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