The fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm are deceptively simple: little character development, plots full of holes, dubious moral stances. Like the red-as-blood apple offered to Snow White, these primal plots have long tempted contemporary writers to make their own mark. The latest, “The Fairies Return” is a reissue of a 1934 anthology of “British, literary, and for the most part, playfully satiric” fairy tales for adults.
Publisher Peter Davies was the best possible person to commission such a book: The adopted son of “Peter Pan” author J. M. Barrie, Davies was rumored to be the inspiration for the “boy who would not grow up,” much to his later chagrin. But sadly, many of the stories in “The Fairies Return’’ read like historical relics in a time capsule from interwar England. Devices like Irish dialect, narrating to an imagined audience of clamoring children, and anachronistic in-jokes make the stories seem as if they’re working too hard to be funny.
The best of these tales apply satire only to characters who deserve it, rather than to the story as a whole. Lord Dunsany’s “Little Snow-White” creates the perfect evil stepmother, an absurd social climber whose “mirror, mirror on the wall” is actually a gramophone that plays the same song over and over again. In G.B. Stern’s “Sleeping Beauty,” Beauty’s parents are “converted rakes” who take off to the country to raise a pure child, and the needle Beauty is cursed to prick herself with is a syringe from her mom’s secret opium stash.
The narrators of R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar’s “Big Claus and Little Claus” may be willing to oblige their imagined audience’s clamors for more violence, in the modern style: “[W]e still have hopes of fixing up a version of ‘Little Goldilocks’ that has machine-guns in it, for Freda.” But take a tip instead from Robert Speaight’s description of a holy woman in his revisionist “Cinderella”: “You could not attach her to any period, but she rather seemed, as she stood erect in the last sunshine, to belong to the whole of time.”
Novelist Sara Maitland might be more forgiving of the retellings in “The Fairies Return.’’ As she writes in “From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales,’’ since the tales were originally part of an oral history, “you are allowed to retell them at whim and in your own way.” Her own way, however, is much more dynamic than the stilted style of the 1930s writers. A smart, associative natural history interleaved with spirited retellings of the classic tales, “From the Forest’’ sets out to connect the fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers to the ancient woods of Britain.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. More than half of the 210 tales in the Grimms’ 1857 edition mentions forests; another 26 have forest themes or images. And though they wouldn’t want to admit it, German and British cultural cross-fertilization helped spur the mid-19th century Romantic movement the brothers’ work emerged from.
Over the course of one year, Maitland explores a series of 12 forests, from manicured public preserves to virgin Scottish glens. She is looking to substantiate that sense of primal fear that both the stories and the woods evoke. “It is an imaginative rather than a logical connection, and none the worse for that.” She summons a time where forests were not destinations for leisure but essential places for work and life, and home to a certain kind of wonder.
Yes, it’s true that many fairy tales concern children who are lost or abandoned in the woods and have horrible things happen to them. But these are not cautionary tales about forests: “The children demonstrate excellent coping strategies. They are highly competent and are rewarded for this. In as much as these stories have a pedagogical or ethical thrust, it is not, ‘Don’t go into the forest,’ or, ‘Stay at home and be safe.’ It is, ‘Go into the forest, but go cannily.’ . . . Be polite, caring of your environment, and hard working. Above all, keep your wits about you.”
Maitland’s own retellings of fairy tales weave in this forest-centered view in a range of styles, from the rapturous description of Rapunzel’s hair — “It was the colour of beech leaves in autumn; there were reds and golds in it like Slender St. John’s Wort in high summer and deep gilt like Bog Asphodel on the moors.” — to the truly bleak perspective of Little Red Riding Hood’s modern-day hunter — “The wolf would kill. Serve the little bitch right.” They read more as experiments than as tales you’d like to recite again and again. But that is just fine with Maitland, who contends that both the forests and the art of oral storytelling are in danger of dying out, and must be preserved. We should all tell our own.
“We need to give children confidence in their own roots, to remind them — and ourselves — that northern European deciduous woodland likes human beings; it flourishes best in relationship with human beings, and it rewards human beings who go into it and get to know it. This is what the fairy stories tell us and it happens to be true.”
THE FAIRIES RETURN, OR NEW TALES FOR THE OLD
Compiled by Peter Davies
Edited by Maria Tatar
Princeton University, 372 pp., $24.95
FROM THE FOREST:A Search for the Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales
By Sara Maitland
Counterpoint, 354 pp., illustrated. $28