Once Upon a Time in Leeds Central Library

  • by Rhian Isaac, Collections Manager, Leeds Central Library

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  – Neil Gaiman

During Library Fest in February we delivered an array of fairy tale related events from children’s theatre performances to film screenings. Abbey House Museum is also currently displaying a Fairy Tale and Fantasy exhibition which you can visit until December 2017. The popularity of these events with people of all ages show that there is an enduring fascination with magic and fairy tales.

At Central Library we are lucky to have wonderful examples of fairy tale literature from all over the world in our collections and this post will tell you a little bit more about some of these items.

We have all heard of fairy tales, but what actually are they? They are often thought of as a type of folk tale, and were popular stories that would have been passed down by word of mouth. Fairy tales have recurring recognisable characters and motifs, such as evil stepmothers, princesses and giants and they must have some magical element or invoke a sense of wonder.   It is also a prerequisite for fairy tales to have a happy ending and the novelist Italo Calvino called them ‘consolatory fables’. Many of them offer hope from poverty, cruelty and oppression. An obvious example is the servant Cinderella winning over her prince whilst her cruel stepsisters are punished for how badly they treat her. As Marina Warner says in her book Once Upon a Time, ‘Fairy tales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue’.

Hans Christian Andersen

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, part of the Henry Collection

One of the most famous fairy tale writers, Hans Christian Andersen, could have been a character in one of his own stories. Born the son of a poor cobbler and a washerwoman, he eventually worked his way up the social ladder and ingratiated himself with the nobility. He was always ashamed about his impoverished background and once he had become successful he rarely mixed with the lower classes.  His personal experience is reflected in his tales that often explore the limits of social mobility in a closed and unjust system. His tales express sympathy for the underdog and people who have been deprived chances because of their humble origins. As part of the Henry Collection of Sweepiana we have a number of beautiful editions of the tales, some of which are currently on display in Room 700.

The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm were two young German librarians whose collection of folk and fairy tales became the most famous of its kind in the Western world. They strove to collect authentic folk tales from across Germany and the first edition printed in 1812 comprised of 86 stories. By the final edition in 1857 the tales had grown to 210 and had evolved from their oral folk origins to something that suited the tastes of a more literary public. Despite their ambition to keep the tales true to their origins it was in fact Wilhelm Grimm’s interventions that make the tales what they are today.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham

One of my favourite images is this one of Little Red Riding Hood, by Arthur Rackham in one of our Grimm’s Fairy Tale books. Anthropologists have studied over thirty five versions of Little Red Riding Hood and found variations of it all over the world. Whilst European versions tell of a little girl tricked by a wolf masquerading as her grandmother, in the Chinese version it is a tiger. In Iran the main character is changed to a boy. It was previously thought that that the tale originated in C17th France but it has been found that the variants share a common ancestor dating back over 2600 years. The tale may have been used to pass on tips for survival and spread across trading routes.

The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby

This classic story was written in 1862 by the Reverend Charles Kingsley in response to the horrors of child labour in Victorian England and the publication of the controversial Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859. Kingsley and Darwin were close friends and Darwin cited the support of Kingsley in his second edition as he felt that this would help lessen the accusations from the Church that he was trying to attack Christian beliefs. You can read more about how Kingsley incorporated the origins debate into The Water-Babies in this article by Rosalind White.

The Water-Babies, Limited Edition, Illustrated by Warwick Goble

The Water Babies fell out of favour with the public due to its prejudices against sections of society, including Jewish and Irish people. However, it was an important force in the campaign against child labour and a year after its publication parliament began a process that would ultimately lead to the 1864 Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act, which saved many children from a life of dangerous work.

The Water Babies, like the Hans Christian Andersen books, make up part of our Henry Collection and we have over twenty different editions, some of which are currently on display in Central Library as part of our Sweepiana exhibition. We have also loaned some to Abbey House for their exhibition so there are plenty of opportunities to see these wonderful books.

Japanese Fairy Tale Series

These tiny volumes are a little treasure trove of unusual tales that were produced by Tekejiro Hasegawa in the mid 1880’s. The books are printed onto crepe paper which gives them a distinctive look and feel. This use of crepe paper was incredibly popular with Western readers who thought it was exotic and liked the unique texture. Included in the series are the traditional Japanese Tales, The Little Peachling, the Tongue Cut Sparrow, and my favourite The Battle Between the Crab and the Monkey.

As C. S. Lewis said ‘Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again’ and where better to reacquaint yourselves with your old favourites than at the library. All these books and many more are available on request. Enjoy!

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