Fairy tales are the backbone of children’s literature. They’re never really in fashion, they’re never really out of it; they’re just always there and everybody knows them. But we’ve become so used to fairy tales being served up with a sugar coating, it was refreshing to rediscover these old copies of the snappily titled ‘A book of…’ by Ruth Manning-Sanders and be reminded that fairy tales are not just the preserve of pantomime favourites, Disney stereotypes, or stories from the more famous Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.
Published by Piccolo (an imprint of Pan), the books are a series of fairy and folk tale anthologies collected and re-told by Ruth Manning-Sanders. There were twenty-three books in total – essential information for the child series collector - and each one centred on a magical theme drawn from stories across the world. They spoke of Romanian princes, Danish giants and Egyptian sorcerers in an enchanted world that felt risky and glamorous, and steeped in the fascination of other cultures.
I like a good looking book and the atmospheric 3D cover images by Brian Froud (who went on to work with Jim Henson of Muppets fame and the film Labyrinth), were a strong part of their appeal and the inside illustrations by the wonderful Robin Jacques have a delicate energy that still ranks among some of the best in contemporary children’s illustration.
Some familiar tales are re-told in their original form (the Cornish version of Jack the Giant Killer, the Arabian version of Aladdin) and some tales are less well known (Chien Nang from China, Conall Yellowclaw from Ireland), but Ruth Manning-Sander’s retelling gives them a consistent and clear voice. None of the stories shrink away from the gruesome detail, heart-rending sadness or dark humour that marks a truly universal fairy tale, but at the heart of each one is a story of good and clever humans overcoming adversity by using their wits - and the bad humans get what they deserve.
Ruth Manning Sanders sums it up in her introduction to ‘A Book of Wizards’ …
‘And this, of course, is as it should be: because, as every fairy tale assures us, there is that in evil which brings about its own ruin; and in the fairy-tale world, at any rate, wickedness never pays.’
It’s a simple, but reassuring message that’s still relevant today. The books may be old now, and the provenance is even older, but fairy stories change with the times. Modern tastes are inclined towards emotionally complex main characters with their own inner journeys to make alongside the external action. Fairy tales are moving back to embracing the dark side of humanity along with the good (Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper & The Spindle, Stephen Sondheim’s film Into The Woods…), and when we’re looking for more diversity in what we read, maybe it’s time to look again at the fairy tale genre and dust off those Ruth Manning Sanders’ anthologies? What do you think?
by Helen Clark Jones
To find out more about Ruth Manning-Sanders, Brian & Wendy Froud and Robin Jacques, follow the links: