Friday 8 May 2015

Fairy Tales, Darkness & Diversity: ‘A Book of…’ by Ruth Manning-Sanders

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:


  1. These sound familiar. I am fairly sure that most schools had at least some of them in their libraries at some stage. Those covers were by BRIAN FROUD? Wow! A gorgeous artist. Who would have thought it? But then, before he became famous, a certain "Johnny Williams" composed music for Lost In Space. :-)

  2. I love the works of Ruth Manning-Sanders. She's my favorite author, actually, and I have become a little bit obsessive about researching her life and works. ... I'd love to do a proper biography of her someday, too. What a life she had. She traveled with England's circus caravans, she was a poet and novelist who was a contemporary of and worked with Virginia Woolf. ... And while she wove piskies and fairies and other fairy-tale creatures and allusions in and out of her poetry and novels all of her life, she amazingly did not publish her first true anthology of folk & fairy tales -- Peter and the Piskies -- until she was 72 YEARS OLD! That opened the spigot and for the final three decades of her life (she wrote until she was 102), she published about four dozen fairy-tale books. ... I have all of her "A Book Of..." titles (plus most of the others), and you are absolutely correct about what a wonderful writer she is. These aren't Disney tales. Her retellings of the core tales from so many different cultures have a wonderful "voice" to them. In fact, while I'm not sure if she was specifically writing tales to be read aloud, her works are even better when spoken. They have been re-collected in numerous storyteller and "tales to read aloud" type volumes. ... And as you also mentioned, she's not trying to bring anything new or cute to the tale. She tried to do them justice in the retelling, not sanitizing anything for a modern or younger audience. ... Here are a couple of quotes from her from the foreword of "A Choice of Magic"...

    "The fact is that the story is ages and ages old, and no one can now tell where it originated, or by what wandering folk it was carried about the world. But we do know that it was being told, in some form or other, long before any book was written; before, indeed, anyone could read or write. And this is true of all these old stories that we now call fairy tales."

    "But, alas, the stories are brought to a close. There can be no new fairy tales. They are records of the time when the world was very young; and never, in these latter days, can they, or anything like them, be told again. Should you try to invent a new fairy tale you will not succeed: the tale rings false, the magic is spurious. For the true world of magic is ringed with high, high walls that cannot be broken down. There is but one little door in the high walls which surround the world -- the little door of 'once upon a time and never again'.
    "And so it must suffice that we can enter through that little door into the fairy world and take our choice of all its magic."

    I wish her books would be republished/reissued so they can be available to an even wider audience. I have tried contacting some of her past publishers to see if that could be a possibility, but haven't gotten very far. I'm sure the rights are quite complicated.

    If you are interested in learning more about Manning-Sanders, I've written 30+ posts about her on my blog, Papergreat, with more to come this summer. Here's the link:

    All the best, and if you ever want to discuss more about Ruth Manning-Sanders, look me up any time.

    Chris Otto
    York, Pennsylvania, USA