The Fairies Return: Or, New Tales for Old
by Peter Davies, edited with an introduction by Maria Tatar
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2012
368 pp. Trade, $24.95
Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
The Fairies Return was first published in 1934, in England. This first ever collection of modernist fairy tales was edited by Peter Davies (1897-1960), rumored as the inspiration for the character Peter Pan created by his adoptive father, author J. M. Barrie. The 14 tales collected by Davies reimagined classic fairy tales, retelling them for modern times and mature sensibilities. They spoke to social anxieties, political corruption, predatory economic behavior, and destructive appetites in England following World War I while simultaneously expressing hope for a better world.
The success of the original edition was based, arguably, on its use of satire. At first thought, the combination of fairy tales and satire might seem unusual, but on closer reading, one realizes that in both fairy tales and satire something vital is missing, that social circumstances have made life brutish, short, and nasty. Both fairy tales and satire, however, may point the way toward a better world where wrongs are righted and injuries repaired. Both together promise that reason and wit will lead to steady improvements.
As a result, The Fairies Return, with its use of satire, modernized the collected traditional fairy tales, gave them a sometimes missing critical edge, forced them to remove themselves from the “once upon a time” and inhabit the “here and now” with its focus on specificity and topical issues, a time where villains and monsters haunt the real lives of ordinary adults rather than the imaginations of children.
The characters face contemporary challenges while living in the magic of their fairy tale worlds. For example, Jack, of “Jack the Giant Killer,” becomes a trickster who must deliver England from the tyranny of three ogres after a failed government inquiry. Written in 1934, only two years after Hitler began violating the Treaty of Versailles, and just a year before German occupation of the Rhineland, the demilitarized zone between France and Germany, this tale can surely be read as author A. E. Coppard’s look to future trouble to be caused by repeated war with Germany.
“Godfather Death” by Clemence Dane is a reminder of the losses suffered by England during World War I and the fact that once started, conflict assures those nations involved of even more deaths.
A. G. Macdonell’s rendition of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” is a tale of financial mergers and margins in, then, contemporary London. The financial intrigue, corporate treachery, and greed show how easily fairy tales, with their focus on primal fears and desires, can be tailored to modern socioeconomic conditions.
Eleanor Smith modernizes Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” by having a young Canadian girl with amazing swimming abilities lured by Hollywood and its many temptations, instead of the promise of human legs to replace a mermaid tail. The illusion, artifice, and counterfeit fantasies of Hollywood are the opposite of that to which the young girl had been drawn, and she, like Anderson’s little mermaid return to nature where human and marine life merge.
And, in Robert Speaight’s revision, Cinderella, in her “happy ever after,” is a spinster and holy woman, a woman who seems to have run from the beautiful mysteries of the physical world to the brutal mysteries of the metaphysical world.
Together, the tales collected in The Fairies Return deliver what the subtitle promises: “new tales for old.” Each reveals a loss in faith of the happily ever after concept. Each reveals the ability of fairy tales to move beyond the frame of utopian fantasies so to expose social realities. Each provides proof that fairy tales are not necessary focused solely on childhood’s imaginations, but on the insecurities and anxieties of contemporary adults as well. The 14 tales in this reissue are every bit as compelling today as when first introduced in 1934 and provide a thoughtful treat for any reader whose sense of wonder with them is diminished by the passage of adult years.