In Fairy Land


Dr Rebecca do Rozario, School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, Faculty of Arts.

Writing  at the start of 2013, the last year has seen a great deal of fairy tale activity. On the small screen, the evil queen and Rumplestiltskin are wreaking havoc across Maine while a descendent of the Grimms is hunting monsters in Oregon; and on the big screen, Hollywood stars are lining up to play evil queens, witch and giant slayers, huntsmen and princesses. Fairy tales are as popular as ever and tellers continue to find new avenues for expression.

The recent screen profile of the fairy tale makes this exhibition so timely.

For a long while, fairy tales have been strongly associated with an oral tradition. A remarkable number of crones and peasant spinners were depicted as the storytellers. Yet the print tradition of the fairy tale is just as inventive. Giovanni Francesco Straparola published his The Facetious Nights (or Pleasant Nights) in the mid sixteenth century. His collection includes tales of clever female cats and royal pigs. Giambattista Basile followed in the seventeenth century with The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, but his tales weren't for children. His hags told ribald tales of lusty kings, witty seamstresses, and young girls who murder their devilish stepmothers before dropping their overshoes for the king to find.

Fairy tales became the talk of the salons in Paris under Louis XIV. While the well-known Charles Perrault wrote his mother goose tales of virtuous young girls and resourceful young men, his female peers cut a lively swathe through the salons, writing tales about sword-wielding princesses, fantastical gowns covered in diamonds and other precious stones, wicked kings and powerful fairies, some, like Henriette Julie de Murat's Obligeantine, flying about in chariots made from a giant's skull and painted glossy black. Their tales continued to be circulated in such collections as Le cabinet des fées, ou, Collection choisie des contes des fées, et autres contes merveilleux, in flimsy chapbooks and pantomime scripts.  Even as the Grimms collected tales of princesses who throw frogs into walls and lost children who eat witches' houses, and as Hans Christian Andersen wrote about lovesick tin soldiers and mermaids, fairy tales became the stuff of childhood. While this meant that much of the bawdy, disreputable material disappeared along with the extravagances of language and courtly manners, fairy tale gained a crew of remarkable illustrators.

After the early black and white engravings and woodcuts, artists like Arthur Rackham, Richard Doyle and Walter Crane provided stunning portraits of beasts, princesses, witches and fairy godmothers. Their illustrations became more influential than the well-known words of the tales: courtly beasts in cravats, fairies aloft upon butterfly wings, wolves in pince-nez and bonnets. The tradition of illustration was led by fairy tale, even as tales from all over the world began to be discovered and committed to print. Andrew Lang's extensive collection of coloured fairy books, from red to  blue, from pink to green, and many more besides, brought together tales from all over the British Empire and beyond, while folklorists actively sought to capture oral traditions in lasting print.

This inspired the work of such collectors as K. Langloh Parker who listened to tales from a local Indigenous tribe, recording them in Australian legendary tales. But Australia's fairy tale tradition is driven by its artists, who like Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Pixie O'Harris, filled the bush landscape with fairies in diaphanous gowns and anthropomorphised marsupials. These images remain part of Australia's own, unique fairy tale heritage.

This exhibition was a wonderful opportunity to see the fairy tale marvels that lie within the Monash Rare Books Collection and is a tribute to the efforts of its caretakers.

The exhibition could be seen from 6 March - 7 June 2013 at the Rare Books Exhibition space, Level 1, ISB wing, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Clayton campus, Monash University.