The Fairies Return or, New Tales for Old, by Peter Davies

Review published on October 2, 2012.Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

Originally published in 1934, The Fairies Return or, New Tales for Old was the first volume of modernist fairytales printed in Great Britain. Peter Llewelyn Davies, the adoptive son of famous author J.M. Barrie, was its original compiler. The stories in the collection have been ‘retold for modern times and mature sensibilities’, and all of them serve to ‘expose social anxieties, political corruption, predatory economic behaviour, and destructive appetites’.

This beautifully produced reissue, published by Princeton University Press and part of the ‘Oddly Modern Fairy Tales’ series, features an illustration on its front cover which dates back to 1939. It is an extremely well laid out volume, and its introduction and author biographies make lovely additions to the book.

The introduction to the volume has been written by Maria Tatar, chair of the program in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University. Her introduction is both informative and rather extensive, and spans Britain’s growing interest in fairytales, which she considers to be ‘an indigenous body of lore’. Indeed, says Tatar, Davies’ book focuses upon ‘the promise of what “satire” originally meant… a mixture of different things blended to suit discerning tastes’.

The stories featured are written by a wide variety of different authors, all of whom were prominent in the 1930s. These range from the recognisable E.M. Delafield, Eric Linklater and Christina Stead, to those who deserve more modern day recognition for their work. Davies commissioned each of the stories himself from writers he both knew and trusted, creating what Tatar deems to be a ‘rich mosaic of stories’. Each author has taken a traditional text from sources such as Perrault’s fairytales or those of the Brothers Grimm, and has based their own upon it.

The tales themselves, fourteen in all, are diverse and take a vast range of different tales as their foundations. They have marvellous twists and turns throughout. The bare bones of the original stories are recognisable, but the authors have certainly been inventive with their retellings. Clemence Dane’s story, based on ‘Godfather Death’ by the Brothers Grimm, has been set in ‘the smallest and oldest of Devon villages’ during the influenza epidemic; Aladdin, a ‘brisk, rosy little man’ is an undertaker in a ‘dour Scottish township’; and a version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ is set in a French-speaking province of Canada. A.E. Coppard’s rather inventive descriptions of giants, ‘all intent on saving the country’ in ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, with ‘their faces resembling Big Ben’, work wonderfully: ‘whenever one of them took a pinch of snuff and sneezed, the metropolis for a moment was in a shower of rain’.

Some of the stories are certainly stronger than others, but the social history included in each tale is a wonderful touch throughout. This is a collection of tales which certainly deserved a reprint, and will delight lovers of fairytales, nostalgia, British history and short stories alike.


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