The best nineteenth-century British and Irish fairy stories – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Say ‘fairy tales’ to most people and several names will usually spring to mind: Charles Perrault (who gave us Cinderella, among others, in his Tales of Mother Goose), the Brothers Grimm (Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin – though the latter is now thought to be some 4,000 years old), and Hans Christian Andersen (the Snow Queen, the Ugly Duckling). But Victorian Britain gave the world its fair share of classic fairy tales too – but these are often eclipsed by those that originated in mainland Europe. The following classic Victorian fairy tales are taken from the wonderful Oxford World’s Classics anthology, Victorian Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics), edited by Michael Newton.
Robert Southey, ‘The Story of the Three Bears’. Southey is remembered more for his poetry now, or rather for being Poet Laureate from 1813 until 1843 (titles of few of his poems spring readily to readers’ lips). But he was also an important figure in the history of fairy tales, and was the first to put the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears into print. Except that ‘Goldilocks’ doesn’t appear – instead, the female trespasser into the ursine property is an old woman rather than a blonde-haired girl.
John Ruskin, ‘The King of the Golden River’. Ruskin was a talented artist and influential art critic during the Victorian era, who wrote this classic fairy tale for Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray, who was twelve years old at the time. (Ruskin later married Gray, disastrously.) Published in 1851, it became an instant hit. Viewed as an allegory about the destruction of the natural world wrought by industrialisation, ‘The King of the Golden River’ is set in Styria in Austria, a land that has been ruined by the ‘Black Brothers’ who have mistreated Southwest Wind.
William Makepeace Thackeray, ‘The Rose and the Ring’. Thackeray, the author of the vast Victorian novel Vanity Fair (1847), also wrote this short fantasy novel for children, which was published at Christmas 1854. We say ‘fantasy novel for children’, but in many ways ‘The Rose and the Ring’ is a satire on Victorian attitudes to beauty, especially among the upper classes. In the story, the rose and ring are both magical objects which make the bearer irresistibly attractive to everyone around them.
George MacDonald, ‘The Golden Key’. MacDonald might be described as ‘the Victorian C. S. Lewis’, and indeed MacDonald’s numerous children’s fantasy novels – which included Phantastes and The Princess and the Goblin – would have an influence on Lewis. (MacDonald also wrote probably the shortest ever Victorian poem.) This classic Victorian fairy tale, ‘The Golden Key’ (1867), is about two teenagers, Mossy and Tangle, who undertake a quest into the heart of Fairyland to find the lock that will fit the golden key.
Dinah Mulock Craik, ‘The Little Lame Prince and his Travelling Cloak’. The Staffordshire-born novelist Dinah Craik is best-remembered for her Victorian realist novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), which has been described as a sort of realist fairy tale: Halifax begins life (and the novel) as an orphan but rises through society to become a wealth gentleman. But Craik also wrote bona fide fairy tales, such as ‘The Little Lame Prince and his Travelling Cloak’ (1875), which centres on a prince who is exiled to a tower lying in a wasteland after he loses the use of his legs. A fairy godmother makes him the gift of a magical travelling cloak, through which he can see the world without leaving his tower.
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Selfish Giant’. First appearing in Wilde’s 1888 collection of fairy stories for children, The Happy Prince and Other Tales – one of Wilde’s first real successes as a writer – ‘The Selfish Giant’ is about a giant who owns a beautiful garden but forbids the local children from playing in it. The ensuing tale takes in the themes of selfishness, redemption, and regret, with more than a dash of Christian symbolism.
Andrew Lang, ‘Prince Prigio’. Andrew Lang was one of the great writers and compilers of fairy tales in the late Victorian era, and ‘Prince Prigio’ (1889) is his finest tale. It focuses on the titular prince, whom a fairy decrees will grow up to be too clever for his own good.
Kenneth Grahame, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. Grahame, who worked for the Bank of England, is best-remembered as the author of the classic novel The Wind in the Willows (1908), but this 1898 story is well worth reading too: it’s a wonderful fairy tale about a boy who meets a well-read dragon living in, of all places, rural Oxfordshire. But when the townsfolk discover a dragon living amongst them, they send for St George to rid them of this supposedly fearsome foe. In 1941, it was turned into a Disney film.
E. Nesbit, ‘Melisande’. E. Nesbit is another writer, like Kenneth Grahame, who is better-known as the author of children’s novels – in Nesbit’s case, for classics such as The Railway Children and Five Children and It (although she wrote many more children’s books that remain popular). But this short story from 1901, about a princess who longs to grow golden hair, is included in the Oxford World’s Classics anthology and is a beautiful short tale: light, humorous, and decidedly modern.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘Dymchurch Flit’. Kipling was a versatile writer for both children and adults: his classic short story ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is an unsettling modern take on the ghost story, while The Jungle Book and the Just So Stories remain firm favourites with many readers. His Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) is a sort of medley of English myths and historical events, told through the lens of faery, and ‘Dymchurch Flit’ is one of the fairy tales that feature in the book, set around the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII.
If this short introduction to ten of the best Victorian fairy tales has whetted your appetite, we strongly recommend Victorian Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics). It comes with an informative introduction which discusses the enduring appeal of fairy tales and the contribution made to the form by Victorian writers.
Continue to explore the world of Victorian writing with the Victorian bestseller that gave its name to a hat, the forgotten history book written by Dickens, and the Victorian female writer who anticipated modernism.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.