once below a time – (English Fairy Tales)

…we all grow up with lots of stories, in one way or another, and we have many stories in common if we grow up in somewhat similar cultures – Snow-White, Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of the round table, Cinderella, Jack and the bean stalk, stories of knights and dragons, princesses and witches, and so on and so forth.

i think we’re never too old for fairy tales. so this post is about a book of fairy tales. or rather, a glimpse of what waits between the aged covers of this book, in the hope that you might go back to some of those old stories.

the cover has a little wear but the inside is in great shape.

i thought about giving this book to a friend who has a young daughter, but find it hard to part with this lovely copy of “English Fairy Tales”, edited by ernest & grace rhys, illustrated by herbert cole. mine is a 1949 reprint of the 1913 original edition, published by dent in london. what makes the book so dear to me must be the colourful illustrations by herbert cole, an english illustrator who was active from around 1890 to about 1920.

frontispiece: “the fairy horn”

cole worked mainly in ink and in watercolours, with his works in books of poetry and literature as well as in children’s books. he also produced a chalk portrait of suffragette sylvia pankhurst. in any case, his book illustrations are simply beautiful. here’s another one:

“the imp tree”

as you may have guessed from the illustrations themselves, cole was influenced by the pre-raphaelites, and i have to say i am rather fond of their work as well.

as you can see, his ink illustrations are no less impressive. i love the sharp lines, the fierce look of this dragon (or worm, if you will).

among several usual suspects, this collection also contains a few stories that were new to me. the contents page reads as follow:

Jack the Giant-Killer
The History of Tom Thumb
The Imp Tree
The Three Bears
Tom Tit Tot
The Lambton Worm
The Fairy Horn
The Pixy Flower
Tom Hickathrift
The Black Bull of Norroway
The Green Knight
Robin Goodfellow
The Princess of Colchester
Lazy Jack
The Giant of Saint Michael’s
Jack and the Bean-Stalk
Dick Whittington and His Cat

now be honest – how many of those have you read or been told? how many of those could you tell a child right now, if asked for a story? and even if you think you are quite familiar with the story, you may find that the rhyses have found – or created – a different version of it than the one you were told. they edited, according to their own introduction to the book, to restore the plain and simple folk lore flavor of the stories, to take out unnecessary additions or alterations.
quoth the editor:

[…] a fairy tale, like a cat, has nine lives; it can pass into many queer shapes, and yet not die. You may cut off its head, or drown it in sentiment or sea-water, or tie a moral to its tail; but it will still survive, and be found sitting safe by the fire some winter night.

(page 5, introduction)

“the princess of colchester”

of course there cannot be a real fairy story book without a princess! here, the pre-raphaelite influence is pretty much impossible to miss. compare the fair maiden to this one:

edmund blair leighton: “the accolade” (1901)

i rest my case.
now, i hope i have whetted your appetite for fairy tale books!

if you would like to read the stories in this book, there is a way you can do this right now:
the whole text, with illustrations, of the 1913 (first) edition is available as pdf and in other forms online, right here: http://www.archive.org/details/englishfairytale00rhys



About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. Hey Annette,Interesting post. I love fairytales and find their origins quite fascinating. I would also recommend you check out this website on English nursery rhymes: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/mother-goose-origins.htm. I stumbled on it a few years ago when doing some research. It's amazing how many of them are actually based on real history or folklore. I definitely see what you mean about the Pre-Raphaelite influences in the illustrations of your book. Leighton did a whole series of Arthurian paintings and I find them quite beautiful!Cheers,Sarah

  2. sarah, thanks for the interesting link! i've bookmarked it, despite its pop-under ad. 🙂

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