In the introduction to The Fairies Return: Or, New Tales for Old, well-known children’s literature academic Maria Tatar quotes philosopher Ernst Bloch on fairy tales:
“‘Once upon a time’ refers not just to the past but points forward to a ‘more colorful or easier elsewhere,’ the place where courage and cunning can help you change your station in life…”
The Fairies Return is a collection of modern, that is 1930s-era, takes on classic fairy tales collected by Brit Peter Davies, who himself was no stranger to fairy tales. The adopted son of J. M. Barrie, Davies is believed to be the inspiration for Peter Pan. Davies, founder of the publishing house, Peter Davies Ltd., may have grown tired of his association with “the boy who never grew up,” as he is reported as referring to Peter Pan as “that terrible masterpiece,” but it is clear from this volume that he was very interested in collecting and sharing tales of enchantment.
[Right: Peter Llewelyn Davies]
Tatar, apart from analyzing the entries in the collection, includes a comprehensive biography of Davies. There is also a nice section at the back of the book with author biographies. Eight women and seven men are the authors of these updated versions of familiar tales. Only E. Arnot Robertson’s “Dick Whittington” could not be included in this edition due to copyright reasons. The fourteen tales include:
“Jack the Giant Killer,” by A. E. Coppard: Worse than any Blitz, giants Demos, Kudos, and Osmos invade London, eating its inhabitants and only leaving their discarded clothing to tell the gruesome tale. A young Cornish fisherman named Jack with an eye for the Boss’s daughter and a knowledge of prawns and fishing with bait has a plan to save the city.
“Godfather Death,” By Clemence Dane (Winifred Ashton): Two generations of Devon doctors, a father and son, form a curious relationship with the Grim Reaper in this powerful tale.
“The Fisherman and his Wife,” by E. M. Delafield (Edmee Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture Dashwood): In an updated version of the classic tale of greed, an increasingly annoyed and magical flounder grants wishes to a diffident man and his unsatisfied and unappreciative wife.
“Little Snow White,” by Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany): Lady Clink, jealous of the beauty of her stepdaughter Blanche, schemes to get rid of her. You know how it ends. A gramophone cleverly replaces the magic mirror, as Lady Clink continually sings her question, “Oh gramo, gramo, gramophone, which of us is the fairest one?”
“Aladdin,” by Anna Gordon Keown: In an amusing version set in Scotland the genie is a helpful demon with a long tail, and his master, Mr. Aladdin, an embarrassed undertaker. The demon disguises himself as a bishop to gain the trust of the locals. As much as Mr. Aladdin may be doubtful of his new friend, the genie does help the shy man get what he wants out of life.
“Sinbad the Sailor,” by Eric Linklater: In Baghdad, two men with the same name, Sinbad the Porter and Sinbad the Sailor, trade tales of their adventures. The sailor’s eighth and greatest adventure takes him sailing to a strange isle where people play a game with little white balls on fields of green, and a widow named Dalila mercilessly pursues him. What if Sinbad was just an old bore telling (and re-telling and re-telling) outlandish and unbelievable stories, over and over again?
“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” by A. G. Macdonnell: In a fun crime spin on the classic fairy tale, two brothers, Cassim and Alastair, more commonly known as Ally, get some inside financial information that helps to make them rich, but sets a gang of thieves on their tail.
“Puss in Boots,” by Helen Simpson: The updated version still features a loyal and enterprising cat who is determined to help his dullard of a master advance in the world. His solution? Go into politics, of course.
“The Little Mermaid,” by Lady Eleanor Smith: As tragic as the original Andersen story. Beautiful and talented young swimmer Mary pines for an American movie star and gives up everything just to be near him.
“Little Red Riding-Hood,” by E. Oe Somerville: In a very Irish take on the tale, Moira is pursued by local boy Curley Brech Wolfe, who may or may not be a friend to her grandmother.
“Cinderella,” by Robert Speaight: An elderly Cinderella tells a very different version of her story, a cautionary tale of love, to a traveler.
“O, If I Could but Shiver!,” by Christina Stead: Nothing seems to be able to scare Lludd, until he meets the beautiful Esther. Love truly does conquer all.
“The Sleeping Beauty,” by G. B. Stern: When two high-living sybarites, Roy and Queenie, have a little girl named Beauty, they decide to retire to the country and give up their wicked ways. But country life doesn’t quite suit them and Beauty becomes bored with her parents and her life in this flapper-era update full of wild parties and curses that do come true.
“Big Claus and Little Claus,” by R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar: In an amusing and increasingly violent tale, Big and Little compete until one can be proclaimed the winner.
Originally published in 1934, the stories reflect the anxieties of life in post-World War I Britain. Many of the tales have a decidedly adult spin, with sex, romance, drugs, and crime making an appearance, but most retain the humor and earthiness of their original inspirations. The Fairies Return is both an entertaining read and a fascinating look at an era’s adult take on the timeless tales that children are still being reared on today.