- Told Again by Walter de la Mare, and: The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison
For many readers of fairy tales, especially in the United States, the names Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are among the most familiar. The Oddly Modern Fairy Tale series, edited by Jack Zipes, hopes to change that. Two books in the series are Told Again, a reprint of British author Walter de la Mare’s 1927 collection of classic fairy tale retellings, and The Fourth Pig, a reprint of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison’s 1936 collection of original and retold fairy tales.
While these reissues are faithful to the originals—Told Again even includes the original illustrations by A. H. Watson—they are made new by the edifying introductions. Told Again begins with a brief introduction by Philip Pullman. Pullman explains that for him and other British children of the mid-twentieth century, Walter de la Mare’s stories were well-known and well-loved both [End Page 360] at home and school—as well as esteemed by renowned writers like W. H. Auden. After providing a short biography of de la Mare, Pullman contends that, whether it was de la Mare’s intention or not, Told Again “belongs pretty clearly to that class of books intended for children” (3). However, like all worthwhile literature, they are pleasing to a multi-aged audience, for, as Pullman notes, de la Mare manages a “firm and careful prose” (3) and, although slow-moving, “psychologically convincing” writing (5).
Told Again contains nineteen stories, ranging from the more familiar fairy tales like “Cinderella and the Glass Slipper,” “Little Red Riding-Hood,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” to the lesser-known stories like “The Three Sillies” and “Molly Whuppie.” Even though Told Again can be grouped together with fairy tales for young readers, the stories themselves are not in any way diluted, censored, or moralizing. Each story has a remarkable read-aloud quality, and, although de la Mare’s writing is expansive and occasionally redundant, it is not wordy or tongue-tying. Finally, as Pullman notes, it is important to remember that “these are tales told again, not straight translations”—and this is precisely what makes de la Mare’s stories worth reading (6). Little Red Riding-Hood is not simply a girl going to take treats to her grandmother; she is vain, selfish, and promiscuous—a character that the reader has trouble pitying, Likewise, de la Mare’s rich descriptions, like that of Bluebeard whose “beard seemed to bristle like the fur of a cat at sight of a dog” (149) will compel the reader to return to de la Mare’s writings again and again.
Significantly longer than Pullman’s introduction, Marina Warner’s opening to The Fourth Pig begins with an intimate, comprehensive look at the life and works of Naomi Mitchison. Just as de la Mare’s stories impacted Pullman, Mitchison’s work greatly affected Warner, who relished the “wild girls” of Mitchison’s stories: “strong-limbed and tousled, who break rules, act vigorously, and reject mincing and simpering” (4). Warner recognizes a deep division in both Mitchison herself and in her writing: a split between self and community, elite and common, science and fantasy, religion and paganism, civil and savage, and tradition and modernity—just to name a few. In her well-informed and insightful introduction, Warner traces this conflict throughout stories of Mitchison’s life, careful analyses of her writings, and an examination of her influence—which was unfortunately subdued due to the time in which she was writing.
An homage to Mitchison’s struggle with division and classification perhaps, The Fourth Pig is a blend of genres, styles, and forms that includes retellings of popular fairy tales, like “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Littler Mermaiden,” and creations of her own, like the story “Grand-daughter” and the ballad “Mairi MacLean and the Fairy Man.” Whereas de la Mare’s writing is languid and reminiscent of classic fairy...